Bram Stoker’s Dracula – yes, the book – is worth your time

I actually wasn’t expecting to like this all that much. I just thought well, I like horror, and if it’s hung around this long surely it’s good.

I felt like I should have read it already and I also felt a vague curiosity to see what bits I know of the tale are the ‘original bits’ by Bram Stoker and what has been bolted on in various incarnations.

I can’t even remember seeing a proper retelling of anything purporting to be based upon the book. My strongest memory of any Dracula incarnation is the Leslie Nielsen

Bram Stoker's Dracula

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

spoof, with a shudderingly gross Renley eating his flies and Dracula bumbling about a young lady’s bedroom, intoning “nowwwww I am innnnnn de closet”. The Ministry and I also recently watched John Malkovich’s Shadow of the Vampire about the making of Nosferatu, which I had high hopes for but regret to say we both found a crashing bore, uncultured swine that we are.

This book too I found deathly boring for about the first five pages (being of my generation I never have much patience for even the most rudimentary opening descriptive passages) then quite unsuspectingly I fell into it as if into a dark well. I was hopelessly captivated. I finished it in less than a week, quick by the standards of these days when, alas, more things than reading make demands upon me. I recognised more parts than I thought I would – not just the aforementioned Renley with his flies, but also a ship crash, and the poor woman whose bedroom Leslie Nielsen bumbles about in and the bad end she meets – but at the same time there was a huge amount that was completely new to me – all the coolest stuff basically. Even the story of Renley is a rich and mysterious story on its own, and full of pathos.

I’ll tell you why this book was so cool, though – it’s mostly in epistolary (letters) format, alternating letters and journal entries between and of main characters Jonathan Harker and fiancé Mina, her best friend Lucy and her betrothed Arthur Holmwood, Holmwood’s friends Selway and Morris, and finally the doctor and vampire expert Van Helsing, a character so truly lovely he makes the book’s most horrid scenes less grim and more beautiful. There are also newspaper articles on the various creepy events around town as Dracula infiltrates London.

Suffice to say that to represent the tale as just heaving bosoms and fly-eating is reductionist. And it’s this first-person changing perspective, as this edition’s foreword writer Elizabeth Kostova (author of Dracula-inspired The Historian) that really makes it so shivery. You have to watch the writers all put the frightening facts together at their own pace, and there’s plenty of head-clutching while you wait for them to all get together and figure things out before it is too late. By the end, the suspense is positively unbearable. It actually kept me up until past 9pm two nights in a row (I know!) It’s gothic, sexy, scary and graphic. Female readers must grit teeth through the horrifying sexism reflecting the time most accurately, but despite this all the characters are well-drawn. Their tale, and their worry over a friend whose soul hangs in the balance, brought me to the verge of tears several times.

I know when I have had a great read when I immediately seek out all associated movies. I haven’t the heart to go back to Leslie Nielsen now the full blood-and-guts version is ringing in my ears, so to speak, but I have had the Ministry dig out the Winona Ryder/Keanu Reeves version, and though I can barely even say those names in concert without smirking, IMDB has given it a good rating – so we’ll see. Gin martinis and Dracula for dinner tonight then, though perhaps red wine would be more appropriate.

 

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Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2006)

  Cover                                                                     

I’d never heard of Biafra. It was a country that existed for only 3 years (from 1967) and inhabited mostly by the Igbo people. They led a secession from Nigeria, declaring themselves an independent country and causing the Nigerian Civil War, or Nigerian-Biafran war, a war that resulted in them suffering terribly.

Though I don’t know enough on the subject to be critical on the subject of authenticity, as a historical novel, this has all the best features of the genre. It transports you. It moves you. It soaks you in the sights, smells and sounds of another place and time.

Its main impact on me was that it gave such a vivid evocation of this tiny country, a miniscule part of Nigeria, which was able to bring such emotion to people – not only those who fought and died for its existence, but also to the author and to me, reading a fictionalised account written 40 years later through the eyes of a modern Nigerian woman born seven years after the country’s lifespan was over.

What an amazing thing, I thought, this tiny country that only existed three years, motivating people to give their lives to its cause. I’m amazed by people who feel this committment to seeing that the horrors of history don’t go silently into that good night. Perhaps they feel a sense of responsibility towards their fellow human beings, or to history itself, or to the memory of those who died.

In this sense, Adichie has done her job and made me imagine a country that in my 20th-century Gen-Y ignorance I had never even heard of. She has made me mourn for it, made me think and look up information and try to understand what it was all about.

Is this enough for a work of fiction? Does it do anything that a very well-written non-fiction book could not? Perhaps not, unless you argue that I might never have read the book at all if it were non-fiction, which is a valid point. Adichie has reached a larger audience, and broken into the chick-lit genre with its love of weepy stories with colourful covers.

However, as a work of fiction Half of a Yellow Sun falls short of being as riveting and devastating as it could be. The comparison that leaps to mind is Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things. Though a good writer and artistic at times, Adichie fails to pull you in as inexorably as Roy does.

Maybe it is unfair or ignorant to compare the two, but to my mind they aimed for similar ends. To highlight history through experience, show the human face of tragedy; expose our beauty and our cruelty; use beautiful language to describe ugly things; to sear them on the mind of the reader and force them to feel for another people, to care for a history not their own.

That’s the point of a “historical” novel. To make history come alive, to make you think about the facts, how they have been and can be interpreted. Half of a Yellow Sun does this, certainly, but ” literary masterpiece and a classic” as one reviewer enthused, is an overstatement. It ultimately fails to transcend the ‘historical novel’ genre to the point where you could give it to anyone and tell them that it will change their life if they give it a chance. I will lend Roy to anyone who will take it. I will not be pushing Adichie, though I would recommend it without hesitation to someone already interested.

It has moments of greatness but not magnificence. It’s well written, very much so, but fails to be a genre-buster – my favourite kind of read, a genre novel that becomes so much more than the type of book it is and therefore can be given to anyone regardless of whether they enjoy that type of novel or not.

“Historical fiction” has always been a problematic idea to me. I’m often uncomfortable with “genre” fiction which seems to voluntarily exclude itself from “literature” when it seems to me to be an unnecessary sacrifice. Margaret Atwood, for example, never makes this sacrifuce but still remains exciting and accessible. Books like hers, that use yet transcend their genres, are my favourites.

After all, if you are writing to move people, why only write a novel that will move only a select group? It seems to me that pigeonholing your work reduces its audience. This is partly the fault of hackneyed cover design and marketing. But is it possible to make everyone interested in Biafra with the sheer power of brilliant writing?

I think so.

Perhaps I feel there is something pretentious or profiteering about historical and war novels as a genre, especially ones that deal with war. As though they are an attempt to mine history for its scary stories that we think are educational but are really just sophisticated forms of schadenfreude  that titillate us in the comfort of squashy armchairs, and feed obsession with how much better/more exciting/more meaningful everything used to be.

But I don’t suggest Adichie sets out to give vicarious thrills to middle-aged women. She seems to want people to remember, nothing more, and must use shocking detail to achieve the end and justify the telling of the story. It’s the motivation of publishers and readers that is murkier. Adichie has, however, made us remember. On her website, she says that she grew up in the shadow of Biafra and that the novel is her “re-imagining of something I did not experience but whose legacy I carry”.

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I will remember this story because small details and not so small events brought it home to me, the kwashiorkor, the woman reusing her filthy tub of water, Olanna finding the bodies of her family, Kainene’s disappearance.

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These details are what prompted me to research and care about Biafra and the war I had never heard of. Is this why the excitement and horror you derive from hearing these horrible stories is (in some cases, if done well enough) worth it?

The thing I liked about Half of a Yellow Sun is a much more abstract notion lurking behind the premise of “show-tell-understand-remember-appreciate”. It’s the idea of solidifying a place that no longer exists, of showing Shadow Lines, as Amitav Ghosh called them. Memory and anecdotes crystallise and exert their influence. Every reader makes the idea of Biafra stronger and more enduring by incorporating it into their living minds, and thus make it continue to exist.

Surely a country that has been fought for in living memory and is being written about by a descendant is still a country by virtue of this remembrance. It’s part of humanity’s mental landscape. As much as it exists in the past and in memory it exists as a future country too, a having a power of potential like kinetic energy, a power perhaps even stronger because of this limbo status, its place in mythology and literature.

And how strong is a love that causes someone to write about something that is dead and gone? Who loves the loser? What’s the point? Why must people remember? Is it a good thing to remember something that was only a tragic waste of lives that achieved nothing, as those would say who oppose the veneration and idealisation of Gallipoli? Or is it our duty to remember innocent people who had no choice and who died?

Any book that makes you ask so many questions is probably worth a read, and if you have plenty of time and some generosity of spirit, I think you’ll get into it.

If you’re after a horrors-of-war story to move you while you sit on the couch, with the extra punch that comes from knowing it all actually happened, I recommend it for that too, although with a twinge of conscience for the turning of human life and death into entertainment.

But I guess that’s what entertainment’s all about.