Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Review of 'The Human Stain' by Philip Roth

Review of 'The Human Stain' by Philip Roth

This book has been glaring at me from my book shelf (or random pile of books, depending on which student house I was living in) since, well, since 2013. My bad. Anyway, this is another one that I've struck off of the seemingly never ending list of 'books I should have read as an undergraduate but didn't'.

I'm a complete sucker for judging books by their cover, and the dull black one with the spine of a torn book on its front just had me turned off from the very start. I know, I know, it's basically a crime to ignore a book because the cover looks boring but I still do it. 

As I'm moving house in just under a month (I am nowhere near ready for this, but let's pretend I've got everything organised), I'm even more keen to whizz through as many of my unread course books as I can so that I can put them up on my depop - @steph_hartley if you're curious - and lighten the massive load that we've got to take to our new home.

So, all in all I basically forced myself to pick up The Human Stain, but by page 20 I was utterly hooked. I mean staying up until 2am and reading by torchlight so that I don't wake my partner up hooked. It has been months since I read a book that I was so prejudiced against and ended up loving it so much. 

The Human Stain is all about a man called Coleman Silk, a Jewish Classics professor who gets suspended because of alleged racism to a student. Although we at first believe the accusation to be ludicrous, eventually we learn that Coleman may actually have racist tendencies, even though he is not intentionally portraying them at this point.

From almost the very offset of the novel we learn one thing: within four months of the novel's timeline, Coleman Silk will be dead. We learn that after the sudden death of his wife, Coleman, a man in his seventies, has taken up with a 34 year old woman. Protecting themselves from any scandal (not only is she young, but an illiterate janitor too), the pair keep their love-making a secret from the world. But Coleman has a bigger secret, and it's one that takes us right back to his childhood to unfold.

You see, Coleman Silk isn't white. At least not fully. But his heritage is disguised by his skin. He looks white, and after realising how hard it was to be deemed anything other than white, he commenced a lifetime of pretense.

The most interesting aspect of this book however, is not this story of race, love, sex and tragedy, but the storytelling itself. For we are reading a book within a book. Of sorts. The writer of the book is not Philip Roth, but a man who plays a part in the story. Nathan Zuckerman becomes incredibly interested in Coleman's story, and decides to write about his life. Only when we reach the end of the novel do we realise that it is part 'fact' and part fabrication on Zuckerman's part. Some of the aspects of the novel are true, and he knows it, but many of the details, and the parts written from the perspective of other characters are from this character's imagination. This is possibly the most complex and well-written meta-narrative I have ever come across for this reason, and I would definitely recommend giving it a go!

Have you read it? What did you think?

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