I think I might not need explain why I chose this particular audiobook. Given my first name, anything that carries the name “Iris” has an almost irrational appeal for me.
Thus, when Audiobook Sync had Irises as part of their free download list last year, I could hardly resist. By the way, I should probably add that I love the idea behind Sync and that even though not all of their titles appeal to me, it is a great way to discover new-to-me authors or books that I might never have heard of otherwise. Irises and Francisco X. Stork are a great example of that.
In Irises, the reader follows two sisters, Kate and Mary, while they struggle to face the challenges of their newly changed life. Raised by their loving but strict parents, everything changes when their mother becomes comatose after a car accident, and their father, who used to be the minister of the local church, dies of a heart attack. Kate and Mary both have their own dreams and talents. Kate is bound for Stanford and Med School, while Mary is a talented painter of mostly flowers. But faced with the grief and new responsibilities and difficulties upon the loss of their father and the effort to take the best care of their mother, both Kate and Mary need to reevaluate their own dreams and their responsibilities and love for each other.
Honestly? I almost did not continue listening to this book after the first disc. Their father being a Christian minister, and Kate and Mary often reflecting on their belief, the restrictions they experienced in it, the joy it could bring them.. Not to mention the overtly dramatic and somewhat.. surreal? opening scene.. It should have been a story that appealed to me but instead I found myself hesitating: was this going to be the same old story of loss and acceptance? Was this going to be too Christian without raising questions for me to feel comfortable with?
I admit, and I knew, this is (apart from the opening scene which really was not all that good) my own personal background speaking: being raised in an atheist family, it somehow became ingrained to turn away from any media that might veer towards evangelisation. Not that I think this book does so. Upon reflection, I don’t think those feelings do the book any justice. Instead, I feel the book offers (what I expect to be) a realistic portrayal of the different meanings faith can have in human life, without making it only about faith, and not only about the positive sides of it either, but instead integrating it in a story that is about much more and perhaps more urgent issues for the characters.
I decided to give the book another try when Amy mentioned it in her post about the best books she read in 2012. And I am happy I gave it another try. For while the book may not have been a perfect read for me, and I think it is flawed, it does pack a lot of complicated issues and overflows with compassion and feeling at certain points.
As I mentioned, Irises raises a lot of big questions, which I can hardly discuss here without spoiling the key moments of the book. It deals with ideas about life and death, about the value of art, about family and individuality, about priorities and different concepts of selfishness. It certainly packs a lot. Things I had not expected to find in there. A lot of reflection and understanding for the bigger and smaller issues girls aged 14-18 face, but mostly those that all of us might have to deal with, whatever age we are. This might be what I appreciated most in the book: its room for introspection, for the motivation of these two girls, for showing how what from the outside might easily be labeled one thing can be motivated by a lot of conflicting emotions for the individual in question. The beauty of it is that the raising of these issues never felt artificial, but they were instead incorporated into the story of these two individual girls and their daily life.
The book is told through alternating viewpoints. In one chapter you follow Mary, in another Kate. As such, you become acquainted with their own thoughts, motivations, and feelings. And while I might feel exasperated at the choices of Kate in one chapter, the following might contextualize it and make it more understandable. The drawback of this was that sometimes the storyline felt a little too slow for me, and I saw some of the key points coming from a long way off. I wonder if this was the audio? I do not know if it was the story itself or listening to it that made me feel just one step removed from the characters at most times. Even so, by the last third of the book, I was (and this came as a surprise to me) deeply involved in what was happening, and hardly dared listen to it on my morning and evening walk for fear I might have to hide a few stray tears on my face each time.
In the end, I am happy I gave Irises another try. It was not perfect, and I think the book might work better on paper than on audio, but mostly in the latter half of the book I came to appreciate it a lot for what it dares to discuss and for the sensitivity and compassion with which this is done.
I have read that Francisco X. Stork’s other novels might be better, so I am quite curious to give them a try. By a stroke of luck, I came across his Marcelo in the Real World the other day..