Posted by: Natalie | February 21, 2011

The Cardturner by Louis Sachar

Disclaimer: I apologise for not being as insightful as Louis Sachar by having a Whale image available. There may be moments in this post in which I lose you.

“A novel about a King, a Queen and a Joker.”

I have had a lovely time reading this book – a bizarre description I know, lovely doesn’t really get to the crux of the matter does it? I may as well have just said, ‘A nice read.’ I have recurring nightmares about the word nice; On teaching placement I used this nondescript word almost accidentally, only to be confronted with 36 perfectly aligned 10 year olds chanting, “Nice is not a words, it’s a biscuit!” I have attempted to avoid it since. But my gut reaction to The Cardturner is a nice, lovely one but sadly not much more.

I commend Louis Sachar for doing something rather different. In this time of teenage fiction which depends on otherworldly or ethereal fantasy, that is slightly obsessed with black embossed covers with garish shocks of red splurged across the front, here comes a books which returns to being human, in a seemingly dull way. The book is about Bridge (yes, the card game) a clear passion of Sachar’s but you can just imagine the stress this will have caused to his publisher – who in the 12+ bracket is going to read a book about a card game played mostly by people at the other end of the age spectrum? My answer? Every teenager should read this book – I am convinced it will open their mind into another world, one which is tangible for a change.

The book follows seventeen year old Alton, a typical teenage boy wondering what to do with his next life step, mourning the loss of his first love to his best friend, embarrassed by his parents (with damn good reason – the mother is disgusting!), a little uncomfortable in his own skin and without a real role model on which to base his existence. Alton is floating.

With the sudden eye brightening expectation of an uncle’s will being honoured, the vile maternal sends Alton to spend time with ‘his favourite uncle Lester’, a man he has not seen since he was six. Alton is to be Lester’s Cardturner, a necessity these days for his Bridge Games. Uncle Lester is not well, he is a bitter, brittle old man who seems to talk in riddles if not in one word grunts. But boy can he play bridge.

With any good heart warming tale, you learn about the past and understand how tragedy and intrigue can cause enough pain as to change perspective on the whole world. This is what we discover about Lester. Alton begins to piece together a foggy past of lost love and powerful men that seemed to cripple his ‘favourite Uncle’ for decades. Through it he puts his own life into context and begins to resolve his own demons, along with quietly learning the rules to Lester’s only remaining passion.

The book has a LOT of bridge explanation and talk of hands and boards, but do not ever let this put you off. These were honestly some of my favourite sections in the book. As a helpful tip, Sachar has been quite clever; he explains at the beginning how he turned off Mobby Dick due to the pages of dull and pointless technical descriptions of whaling, so to help those just interested in Alton’s story, an image of a whale appears over sections you could handily skip. I did not skip, I found them fascinating. I wouldn’t suggest I could play bridge fluently now, the bidding confuses the hell out of me, but on the whole I can follow the game – and it makes me want to learn more! Task one accomplished Mr Sachar -you made someone not drawing their pension want to know more about Bridge!

To begin with, I was a little baffled. I do not have a natural aptitude for card games, I just can’t remember rules and tactics, although I skunked Steve in Cribbage for the first time ever the other night – happy days! However, before I realised, I was actually following the vast majority of jargon, I was looking at bridge diagrams (in the book, not ones I’d made myself!) and trying to suss just how to take enough tricks to set the contract. I couldn’t solve the problems but how rare is it you come across a book which actually makes you stop at a page and puzzle over some mathematical issue? And enjoy it?! I didn’t have to stop and stare, the answers followed suit, but I wanted to work it out for myself before Alton gave the game away.

I am still utterly baffled, I wasn’t supposed to enjoy these sections as much as I did! It was the story I was sold on, which didn’t disappoint but, as I said, was simply nice and lovely. The Cardturner is a fascinating book with a little tantalising philosophical thinking thrown in for good measure. It certainly is one to get you thinking, particularly with an appendix of bridge jargon attached at the end, and it makes me want to learn more. But as for the actual plot, I was touched but not blown away – perhaps Sachar could have come up with a symbol so I could skip these parts in future.

The lessons learned in the book magically become our own lessons on reading it – give it a go, you never know how surprising life can be.


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