Friday, 2 September 2011

Review: The Cardturner - Louis Sachar

Extent: 352 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pub Date: 1st June 2010

When Alton's ageing, blind uncle asks him to attend bridge games with him, he agrees. After all, it's better than a crappy summer job in the local shopping mall, and Alton's mother thinks it might secure their way to a good inheritance sometime in the future. But, like all apparently casual choices in any of Louis Sachar's wonderful books, this choice soon turns out to be a lot more complex than Alton could ever have imagined. As his relationship with his uncle develops, and he meets the very attractive Toni, deeply buried secrets are uncovered and a romance that spans decades is finally brought to a conclusion. Alton's mother is in for a surprise!

I once went to a bridge evening at a family friend’s house without knowing the first thing about the game and spent the majority of the evening putting down any random card and hoping that I’d somehow get lucky with that strategy. Needless to say my partner and I came last. If only I had read this book before that evening. Not only would I completely understand how the game works but I would also understand that bridge is not a boring old game played by little old ladies, it is an epic trial of wit and strategy that inspires a great passion and obsession in its players. It’s definitely one of those games that gets judged very harshly by those who don’t know how to play it but in The Cardturner, Louis Sachar has taken this humble card game and given it the struggling-team-tentatively-enter-competition-then-go-on-to-win-the-nationals treatment with a wonderfully original twist that makes the game thoroughly relevant to a young adult (and adult!) audience.

The story is told through the eyes of 17 year old Alton who is at that point in his life where he doesn’t commit fully to anything in particular. It is told as if Alton is telling the reader a story off the cuff which I think makes Alton even more vivid in your mind and makes him easy to like. There’s a wonderful contrast between Alton and his money-centric parents who, throughout Alton’s life, have been using him and his younger sister to suck up to rich Uncle Lester to ensure their place in his will without actually being good relations. The relationship, particularly between Alton’s mother and Uncle Lester, is entirely material but as Alton gets to know his uncle it really feels like he genuinely cares. There’s a real sense of growth in their relationship and although Uncle Lester continually tries to outsmart his nephew you can actually see that he cares enough to give Alton some valuable life lessons which he in turn pays attention to. This is what I really like about Louis Sachar’s characters, they are so subtle and life-like, there are no sudden changes in attitude – one minute they hate each other the next they are best friends – he really concentrates on the way people gradually come to a mutual understanding.

Of course, this story is not just about bridge, there is a gripping intrigue that runs through the book of family secrets. As they are unlocked, Alton gradually sees through his parents’ prejudices and finds the true nature of his uncle and understands why he is the way he is. There are also echoes of the Karate Kid about this story with Alton eager to learn but his uncle refusing to teach him, all the while teaching him indirectly – except wax on wax off has been replaced by turning cards.

The Cardturner is a truly heart-warming story about what it really means to be family and about triumph in the face of adversity. You’ll be missing out if you are put off by the fact that the story revolves around bridge because it is anything but boring. I mean, this is Louis Sachar we’re talking about here, that man could make the phone book gripping!

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