This is a collection of linked short stories set in modern Hong Kong which, the blurb tells us, “collectively capture various versions of the expat life that share the feeling of being between two worlds, that experience of being neither here nor there and trying to find a way to fill that space.” The way the characters mostly fill the space is by having empty, meaningless sex, usually with strangers.
The stories are well written, but terribly repetitive, filled with too much swearing, drink, drugs and the aforesaid empty sex. The overall impression is of a sordid, seedy place, where people go to make money and seem to lose their souls in the process. I suspect that’s the point, and therefore in that sense the author succeeds in her aim. But I certainly didn’t find them an entertaining bunch to spend time with nor, if I’m truthful, did I really buy the whole idea that expat life is quite this vacuous and pointless, except perhaps for people who have no internal resources to fall back on. I also felt that the picture of Hong Kong was extremely narrowly drawn, never letting us see beyond the restricted vision and lack of cultural curiosity of the characters. These expats could have been anywhere.
I don’t want to be too harsh. Many people have a higher tolerance level than me for reading about whiny, foul-mouthed, addicted, entitled, poor little rich kids having sex, and for them I’m sure these stories will seem less tedious.
NB I won this book in a giveaway from the lovely Anne at ivereadthis.com – sorry, Anne! I tried to love it… 😉
A former surgeon now acts as a general doctor in a small run-down clinic serving a population of rural villagers. His supplies are late when they come at all, his overseer is bullying and corrupt, and his only assistants are a young unqualified woman whom he has taught to act as his pharmacist, and her husband, who does all the handyman tasks around the clinic. Frustrated with the way his life has turned out, the surgeon is in a near perpetual state of disappointment and ill-temper. Then, one night after a long day when he has been giving all the local children their polio vaccinations, he is approached by three very strange patients, each with terrible wounds. They are a husband, wife and young son who were attacked in the street, robbed, stabbed and left to die. Which indeed they did. Now they have been given the chance to return from the afterlife, but before they come alive at dawn the next day, they must have their wounds treated or they will die again…
No, this isn’t some kind of zombie horror story. It’s a beautifully written fable which, while it can be read on one level simply as a unique and interesting story, has layer upon layer of depth, dealing with the big questions of life, death, faith, and the place of medicine in all of these.
None of the characters have names, being known rather as their occupation – the surgeon, the pharmacist, etc. The first hurdle is for the living characters to come to terms with the shock of meeting the dead ones, and to decide whether they should help them. How do they know whether the power that has offered them the chance to live again is on the side of good? The whole question of the unknowableness of God’s plan and of the place of faith in determining how to act underlies every decision the characters are forced to make. The pharmacist is devout, the surgeon is not, but they each have to answer the same questions to find their way through the moral maze that confronts them, and in the end, their humanity is all they have to guide them.
Paralkar is himself a doctor and scientist, so the descriptions of the surgical procedures the surgeon must tackle come over as completely authentic. Although they can be a shade gruesome at times, especially for the squeamish (like me), they’re not done to shock or horrify. Rather, they show the skills we take for granted in our surgeons – the near miracles we expect them to perform, and our readiness to criticise and blame if they fail. The underlying suggestion seems to be that we’re near to a point of refusing to accept death as inevitable, and what does that do to questions of faith?
All this mulling over profound questions came after I’d finished the book, though. While I was reading, I was too engrossed in wanting to know the outcome to pause for thought. There’s a very human story here too, and excellently told. Will the surgeon be able to save them all? If not, who will live and who die? What about the woman’s unborn child – is it included in the promise of new life? If they live, what will the future hold for them and for the surgeon? How will the surgeon explain their existence to the villagers – or explain their corpses if he fails to fix their wounds? How will the experience change him, whatever the outcome?
The ending beautifully answers all the questions that should be answered and leaves open all the ones that shouldn’t. Paralkar has achieved the perfect balance of giving a satisfying and thought-provoking story without telling the reader what to think, and as a result this is one that each reader will make unique to herself. One of the most original novels I’ve read in years, I’ll be mulling over it for a long time and suspect it’s one that would give even more on a second read. It gets my highest recommendation.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail.
Two strangers in Paris for very different reasons meet, and through them the reader is taken to two important parts of France’s past – the Nazi occupation of France and France’s own colonial occupation of Algeria. Hannah is a post-doctoral student, in Paris to research a chapter for a book on women’s experiences during the Nazi occupation. Tariq is a 19-year-old from Morocco, who has left his comfortable home to try to find out more about his mother, a Frenchwoman who died when he was an infant.
I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I knew very little about either of the parts of history Faulks discusses, and found them interesting and well written, with a feeling of having been well researched. On the other hand, the whole framing device of Hannah and Tariq and their experiences is completely unconvincing – so much so that I had to jump over an almost insurmountable credibility barrier before the book had got properly underway.
I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first, then. Hannah has just arrived in Paris, on her own, when she comes across a homeless girl in the street, a complete stranger, who appears to be ill. So she takes her back to her flat, looks after her, leaves her there while she goes out to work and doesn’t mind when the girl moves a friend in – Tariq. Well, that’s all lovely, and nobody robs her or trashes the place and Tariq becomes the perfect lodger. But. Seriously? It simply would never happen, unless Hannah was nuts and we’re not led to believe that she is. Nor did I feel that a young man in Paris for the first adventure of his life would want to spend his time living with a thirty-something landlady.
The other thing that jarred was Faulks attempt to bring a kind of ghostly vibe into the story, as each becomes consumed by the history they are researching. I could have accepted it if there were only one of them – one could have put it down to overwork, stress, over-active imagination, etc. But both beginning to see and hear people and events from the past? Partly my problem with this was that it reminded me a little of how Hari Kunzru brought the past into the present supernaturally in White Tears, and that comparison worked to Faulks’ disadvantage, since Kunzru did it so much more effectively.
But once Faulks begins to let us hear the stories of the women during the Occupation, his storytelling rests on much firmer grounds. He does this by having Hannah listen to tapes made as a kind of living history project, when the women were elderly and looking back at their experiences. I found these stories compelling and often moving, and they carried me through my problems with the framing story. He is making the point that this is a period which France prefers not to examine too closely and tends to somewhat distort by suggesting that most people were either actively or passively resisting the Germans. Faulks suggests that in fact most people were willing to go along with whoever looked like they’d be the winner – their over-riding desire was to not have the same massive loss of life as in WW1 and they didn’t think much more deeply than that. It was only after the tide of war turned against Germany that women were vilified for associating with the German soldiers – Faulks suggests that before that it was commonplace and most people weren’t overly concerned about it.
The other side of the historical aspect – France’s troubled relationship with Algeria – isn’t done quite so well, with an awful lot of info-dumping. However, since I didn’t know a lot of the info I still found it interesting reading. Faulks is obviously comparing the two episodes as opposite sides of occupation, but I felt that was a little simplistic. More interesting was the comparison of how both events are downplayed in France – a hidden past that, Faulks seems to be suggesting, must come fully into the light before France can reconcile itself with its own history and properly understand its present.
I rather wish that, instead of having the present day framing and the double history, Faulks had simply taken us back to the days of the Occupation and told a straightforward story of the women caught up in events. Somehow, the art of plain storytelling seems to be considered old-fashioned at the moment, and books become unnecessarily complex as a result, laying themselves open, as this one does, to having parts that work and parts that don’t. My advice to all authors is – find an interesting story, tell it, then stop. Within that simple framework, all things are possible, from Frankenstein to The Lord of the Rings, from Pride and Prejudice to The Great Gatsby, from The War of the Worlds to War and Peace.
Overall, the good outweighed the less good for me with this one, but I feel it could have been excellent had it been more simply told. Nevertheless, recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.
When a PI tracks Tommaso down in London to give him the news that he has been left a large legacy, Tommaso tells him he doesn’t want it and pleads that his whereabouts should not be revealed. To make the PI understand why his anonymity is so important to him, Tommaso agrees to tell him the story of why he left Italy – the story of his last summer in Puglia. That was the summer, long ago when Tommaso was young, that he met and fell in love with Anna. The book tells the story of their love, and we know from the beginning that it ended with some kind of tragedy that led Tommaso to cut all ties with home and take on a new identity in London. But it’s only after we follow Tommaso through the events of the summer that we find out what happened…
On the face of it, this is a straightforward account of a love affair, but the quality of the writing, the great pacing and, most of all, the superb sense of place make it so much more than that. It’s also an intense character study of Tommaso whom we come to know perhaps better than he knows himself. And it’s wonderfully evocative of the culture of Puglia, in the heel of Italy, in the 1980s – still strictly conservative in outlook, still largely in thrall to Catholicism, and with strong family expectations that children will follow the paths determined for them by their parents.
The story is slow to unfold, with many digressions into Tommaso’s memories of his childhood. But these are interesting in themselves for what they tell us about the way of life in this quiet, tradition-bound area and all serve to add depth to our understanding of his character. He is not entirely likeable, but the telling of his story so many years later seems to allow him to reassess the events and his reaction to them, so that he appears to grow in self-awareness as the book progresses. The falling in love aspect is done beautifully, with that intensity which only happens with early first love, and although some of the later events might have seemed extreme had they been placed in a contemporary setting, Vescina’s careful re-creation of this moment in the culture, so recent and yet so rooted in the traditions of the past, make them entirely credible.
There were a couple of weaknesses for me, although minor. The framing device of Tommaso telling his story to the PI led to some occasional clunkiness in the use of second person as Tommaso occasionally breaks off from his narrative to talk to his interlocutor, whose questions and remarks are relayed to the reader only second-hand through Tommaso’s responses. However this only happens for a couple of paragraphs at the beginning of an occasional chapter, so it doesn’t break the flow too much. There is a section after the events of the summer and before the final dénouement where we learn of Tommaso’s life between then and now, and, while the quality of the writing still makes this very readable, I felt it was too long and added very little to the story, merely delaying the ending.
However, neither of these significantly impacted my enjoyment of the book. The story and characters kept me fully absorbed as I read this book over one long, lazy day and Vescina’s wonderful descriptive writing transported me to Puglia – a place I have never visited in real life but now feel I can visualise as if from actual memories. I was attracted to the book partly because Puglia is one of the places on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, and I couldn’t have picked a better one. From the narrow, winding streets in the medieval Old Town of Ostuni to the groves of fig and olive trees, from the quality of the sunlight to the smell of the local tomatoes, from the colours of the buildings to the ingredients of the traditional meals – everything is given a lush richness that engages all the senses. Vescina also has a great sense of the history of the region – her own birthplace – and has the skill to dole out her knowledge sparingly as an integral part of the story.
The trail snaked through the vegetation, skirting tufts of ammofila – ‘sand lover’, or, more prosaically, marram grass – and shrubs. Now and then, the track ushered us into small clearings where we struggled to make out its continuation. L’albero magico – our magic tree, as we later called it – materialised before us. It was a squat oak – not of the kind familiar in Britain, but a distant cousin rooted in arid earth – whose branches arched downwards, forming a dark-green canopy over a bed of fine sand. It called to mind an apparition out of one of those fairy tales in which nature shields hero and heroine from the villains in pursuit, throwing obstacles – from brambles to boulders – in their way, while offering sanctuary and sustenance to the fugitives.
As you’ll have gathered, I loved this book, becoming totally immersed in both story and place, and was reluctant to leave Puglia when it ended. It’s Vescina’s début, but is written with a sure-footedness and level of assurance that many a more experienced writer might envy. I’m looking forward with great anticipation to reading more from this gifted storyteller in the future.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Eyewear Publishing.
A man, who shares the name and life of the author, tells the story of umpteen real assassinations in Colombia and America. I abandoned it at page 270 – just after the halfway mark – so maybe a fascinating plot emerges after that. One thing’s for sure, it didn’t emerge before it!
It starts off quite well, telling the story of how the narrator got sucked into a little group of conspiracy theorists who believed that there was more to the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitan, a leading left-wing Colombian political figure, than the authorities had allowed to be revealed. At this point I thought I was going to love it, and I raced through the first 150 or so pages, during which the book compares Gaitan’s assassination and associated conspiracy theories to those surrounding the assassination of JFK, and discusses how both events adversely affected the nations in which they happened; in the case of Colombia, leading to years of violence. Then suddenly the book moves back in time to tell, in detail, of the assassination (and associated conspiracy theories) of Rafael Uribe Uribe, another leading left-wing political figure, in 1914, with a bit of comparison to the assassination carried out by Gavrilo Princip that provided the trigger for WW1. Okay, I could go along with that, though it was beginning to feel very much like a history of Colombia told backwards.
Then suddenly the book moves back in time again to tell, in detail, of the attempted assassination of some other guy whose name escapes me but was doubtless another leading left-wing political figure, at some date which I couldn’t care less about. By now I had reached about page 250 – a week that took me. The following three days saw me advance by twenty pages, so I had to conclude that the book had well and truly lost my interest, and I abandoned it.
My theory of fiction writing is – find a story, tell it, then stop. All the other meanings one wants to explore should be incorporated into that basic format. If there is no story, or as in this case, if the author loses track of the story for hundreds of pages while he recounts in immense detail lots of history backwards, then it’s not a novel. If one wants to write a history of assassinations and their impact, do that. If one wants to write an essay on why conspiracy theories arise and how they affect the political life of a country, do that. If one wants to write a novel, stick to the story. Great writers can include all three, but only the first two are optional.
Some reviewers have compared the writing to Javier Marías. Some see this as a good thing, others not so much. I fall into the latter camp. I’ve only read one book by Marías and I agree the rambling circuitous over-wordy style is similar. However, Marías’ writing, while it rather drove me up the wall, at least contains some beautiful prose and some truly thought-provoking ideas and images. The writing in this one is plain to the point of being monotone, with fifty words for every ten that are required; and for the most part is a straight recounting of (I assume true) facts, including photos and extracts from documents. I tried to assume that perhaps it was my ignorance of Colombian history that was causing me to lose all interest, but frankly if a British writer started by telling a story about Thatcher, then backtracked to Churchill, then Disraeli, I’d have found it equally tedious, interesting though I find each of those people individually. Given that there were another 240 pages to go, I was concerned we might end up back at Cain and Abel and the associated conspiracy theories that no doubt grew up around that…
The book probably deserves more, but since it failed to maintain my interest enough to keep me turning pages, one star it is.
NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.
Having retreated to a remote country hospital following the messy break-up of his marriage, Doctor Frank Eloff is in a reasonably contented rut. The hospital is in a town that was briefly the capital of a newly set-up homeland in South Africa. But politics move on, and the homeland ceased to exist when apartheid ended, so that now the town is sparsely occupied and the hospital has very few patients and only a tiny staff. But one day a new doctor shows up – young Laurence Waters, who has chosen to do his year’s compulsory post-qualifying service in this remote spot. Idealistic and somewhat naive, Laurence wants to do good, and his presence becomes a catalyst for change. This is a story of disillusionment – of a man and of a country.
In both style and subject matter, the book reminded me very much of Graham Greene. Galgut has that same spare precision with words, that ability to conjure a pervading air of menace and decay, that empathetic insight into the fallibilities of human nature. His main character and narrator, Frank, also has all the attributes of a Greene protagonist – somewhat passive, without the strength of character to be either fully good or fully bad, an observer forced to become an unwilling participant. His marriage ended years ago, but he is treading water, unwilling to finalise the divorce – symbolic of the end of apartheid not yet having produced the hoped-for change. The lives of all the hospital staff are in limbo, each waiting for a change that seems increasingly unlikely – the head of the hospital waiting for promotion back to the city, Frank waiting to fill her shoes when – if – she goes, a married couple from Cuba, one wishing to return, the other wishing to stay, and their marriage slowly disintegrating under the strain.
Along comes Laurence, fresh and full of hope, forcing the others to recognise the lethargy they’ve sunk into. The question seems to be – will Laurence change them or will they destroy his idealistic optimism? The answer never seems in doubt.
There was much I loved about this – the writing, the characterisation of Frank, the creation of an air of uneasy melancholy and later of menace and fear. I was totally involved for well over half of the book. And then, and I can’t quite put my finger on the reason, it fell away and rather lost me towards the end. I felt the plot wasn’t developed well enough – it all seemed contrived to deliver an ending. (Yes, I know all plots are contrived to deliver endings, but the good ones don’t feel as if they are.) The drama all takes place off the page, which does stop it reading like a thriller, which it isn’t, but also somehow stops it from delivering an emotional impact. When the major event finally occurred, I found I didn’t much care. And that made me realise that, although Frank is fully and excellently realised, the other characters hadn’t come to life for me, not even Laurence. In a sense, I think that’s part of the point – Frank is detached from emotional involvement, and therefore so are we. But even when he is finally jarred out of his apathy, his efforts at playing a more active part are half-hearted and soon over. Again, I think this is meant to be symbolic of the failure of the hopes of the new South Africa, but whatever, it left me shrugging a bit.
I also developed the impression, rightly or wrongly, that this feeling of utter depression about the state of post-apartheid South Africa was terribly white. Galgut doesn’t romanticise the past in any way – quite the reverse – but he also gives no feeling for the immense hope that surely existed among black South Africans, finally free from the yoke of subjugation. Even when things didn’t improve as dramatically as people hoped, I found the idea of apathetic acceptance unrealistic. I’d have expected continued hope, anger, possibly despair – not apathy. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps in the rural areas things went on much as they always had.
I certainly enjoyed Galgut’s writing and found the book thought-provoking if not entirely convincing. I’ll be looking forward to reading more of his work and, despite my reservations, I do recommend this one – although it tailed off for me at the end, I found it an absorbing and worthwhile read up to that point.
A young man goes to meet an old friend who is returning to visit the neighbourhood where she grew up and he still lives. Aisha’s visit prompts Michael to think back to his childhood and teen years in the 1980s, when he and his older brother Francis were being brought up by their mother, an immigrant to Canada from Trinidad whose husband had deserted her when the boys were young. She is strict with the boys, with the usual immigrant dream that they will make successful lives in this society that is new to her. But she has to struggle hard to make ends meet, working several jobs, often having to leave the boys alone and usually exhausted when she finally gets home. So the boys, good at heart, have too many opportunities to drift into the ‘wrong’ crowd. When they are caught up in an incident of street violence, it begins a chain of events that will ultimately lead to tragedy.
This is a short book with no unnecessary padding, and its brevity makes it all the more powerful. It’s a story of how the immigrant dream can go wrong, but it’s not overtly hammering polemics at the reader nor too heavily making a ‘point’. I found it eye-opening, though, because I’d never really thought of Canada as having the kind of immigrant neighbourhoods described so vividly in the book.
Some of our neighbours have memories of the events that began with the shootings that hot summer. But new people are always arriving in the Park. And they often come under challenging circumstances, from the Caribbean, from South Asia and Africa and the Middle East, from places like Jaffna and Mogadishu. For these newer neighbours, there is always a story connected to Mother and me, a story made all the more frightening through each inventive retelling among neighbours. It is a story, effectively vague, of a young man deeply “troubled” and of a younger brother carrying “history,” and of a mother showing now the creep of “madness.”
Chariandy brings the neighbourhood of Scarborough to life, showing it as a place where a constant influx of immigrants from different countries around the world first settle when they arrive in Canada, seeing their life there as a stage on the road to either them or their children one day making it in their new world and moving on to more desirable areas. The city of which the neighbourhood is a suburb is, I think, Toronto, but really it could be any big city, in almost any Western country. There is poverty here, both financial and of expectations, and there’s the violence and insecurity that usually goes with that; and the exploitation of these incomers as a ready supply of cheap and disposable labour by unscrupulous employers. But Chariandy also shows the kindness that can exist among people when they all face the same problems and share the same dreams.
I found the portrait of the neighbourhood utterly believable, drawn without the exaggerated over-dramatisation that often infests books about the failure of the immigrant dream, making them feel like an unnuanced and often unfair condemnation of the host nation. Although this book centres on a tragedy, Chariandy also allows the reader to see hope – to believe that for some, the dream is indeed possible to attain; and this has a double effect – it stops the book from presenting a picture of unrelenting despair, and it makes the events even more tragic because they don’t feel as if they were inevitable.
There’s also a short section of the boys and their mother visiting Trinidad – her home, but a new country to them, full of relatives they’ve never met and a lifestyle that is as foreign to them as Canada is to their mother. Again beautifully done, Chariandy shows the freshness of the immigrant dream through the eyes of the Trinidadian relatives, who assume that the mother’s life in Canada is one of comfort and ease in comparison to their own, while the reader has seen the reality of constant days of struggle, hard, poorly-paid work and exhaustion.
We brushed our teeth at a pipe outdoors that offered only cold water. And trying to pee one last time before bed, I stepped on something hard but moving, an insect, prehistoric big it seemed to me, that clicked angrily and flapped away. Francis and I lay down on our mat, but when the lights were turned off, we couldn’t sleep. Wild creatures called in the dark, and the air was filled with the hum of insects, louder than any traffic we heard at home. The living room window framed a full moon that shone like a cool white sun, and billions of stars, a universe we had never even imagined.
An excellent novel, insightful, beautifully written, and with some wonderfully believable characterisation. And happily, unlike too much Canadian literature, available in the UK! Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.
William Boyd is one of my long-time favourite authors. Although I’ve always found him a bit hit or miss, when he’s on form he’s one of the best. As a novelist he tends to write long books, full of layers and depth and detail, and with wonderful characterisation. But I’ve never come across any short stories by him before, so was intrigued to see how his style would work in that form.
The stories in this collection are largely unconnected, though many of them have a common theme of artists who have experienced some form of failure in their professional or personal lives. To some degree, they’re mainly character studies, though each has a plot. They vary in length from quite short up to novella length and, for me, the longer they were, the better they were, so I guess that answers my question about his style suiting the format. There’s a lot of humour in them, some of it mildly black, and truthfully, not much depth. I found them enjoyable enough to read but rather disappointingly light – although I’m sure my disappointment is mainly a result of my expectations of him based on his novels.
However, the characterisation is great. Even in the shorter ones, he creates fully formed individuals, with enough background for each to explain why they are as they are. He also shows a lot of originality in both subject matter and structure – everything from a UN soldier in the Congo to an out-of-work actor carrying a mysterious substance on a trip to Scotland, and from a love story told backwards to a series of unsent letters. Here’s a flavour of some that I enjoyed most…
The Road Not Taken – the story of a love affair that begins with how it ends. It then jumps back through time, giving snapshots of the relationship at various points, and ends on the day the lovers met. The ending felt a little too much like a neat ‘twist’, perhaps, but otherwise I found this one very well told and quite moving.
Humiliation – One to frighten all of us reviewers, professional or amateur! A novelist’s career has foundered after a prominent reviewer trashed his second book. Having run off to France to lick his wounds, the novelist is at first horrified to find the reviewer is staying in the same place. But then he begins to see the possibility of taking a little revenge… Lots of humour in this one, and a feeling that Boyd might be taking a tongue-in-cheek pop at some reviewers who’ve been less than enthusiastic about some of his books…
The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth – the title story is novella length and tells of a young woman who is determined to do something creative in her life, but she’s not sure what. We follow her as she tries but fails to write a book, to act, to become a professional photographer, and so on. Again I didn’t feel there was much depth to it, and it just faded away at the end with no real resolution. But again humorous, and great characterisation – Boyd is one of the few male authors who I think creates really convincing women.
The Vanishing Game – an out-of-work actor is offered £1000 to take a jar of holy water to a church on the west coast of Scotland. But he quickly discovers he’s being followed, and begins to wonder what’s really in the jar. By far my favourite story, this is an old-fashioned adventure in the style of The 39 Steps – indeed, there are similarities as the hero takes to the wilds of Scotland in a bid to throw off his pursuers.
So in conclusion, for me, the collection doesn’t have the depth that makes his novels stand out from the crowd, but there’s still plenty to enjoy overall. A lighter read than I expected, very well written, of course, with the emphasis on humour for the most part and with some excellent characterisation, so despite my slight disappointment, I’d still recommend it for those times when one just wants to be entertained.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK.
As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war, though this strand has less weight than the other two.
While each strand is told linearly in time, the book cuts between them so that the reader is following them all simultaneously. Hope’s marriage to John is happy at first. She is contentedly working as an ecologist mapping ancient hedgerows, while John is immersed in the study of chaos theory – a subject Hope can’t even pretend to understand but she does understand John’s passion for it. Gradually though, as John repeatedly fails to achieve his own goal to make a unique contribution to the subject, his mental health begins to show the strain. Jumping from one mathematical discipline to another, alternating between heavy drinking and total abstention, John’s behaviour becomes progressively more erratic and their marriage comes under ever greater strain.
The reader knows from the second strand, at Grosso Arvore, that the marriage ended, but doesn’t know how or what was the final straw until towards the end of the book. But we see Hope, still young, now researching chimp behaviour in Africa. Her task is to observe a small group of chimps who have broken away from the main group. Eugene Mallabar is about to publish what will be his magnum opus – the last word on chimpanzees – and his reputation is what brings in the grants and donations that make the research possible. But Hope begins to see behaviour in her chimp group that doesn’t tie in with Mallabar’s research. At first, she tells him about this but he dismisses her – he doesn’t want his research threatened. So she begins to conduct her own research and is increasingly disturbed by what she discovers.
Hope sees Usman whenever she goes to the nearby town for supplies for the project. But on one trip, she and a colleague are taken captive by a group of rebels. Although this is a fairly small part of the overall story, it’s one of the most powerful – Boyd gives a compelling picture of the chaos of this kind of indeterminate warfare which is so commonplace on the African continent.
This is a book that could easily be read on two levels. The ideas in it about scientific ambition and evolution may not be particularly original, but they are very well presented, and Boyd even manages to make the maths discussions comprehensible and interesting, with something to say about the wider world. But put all the ideas and themes to one side, and the book becomes a simple but compelling story of Hope’s life. She is an exceptionally well drawn character, a strong, intelligent, independent woman, self-reliant sometimes to the point of coldness, but I found it easy to empathise with her nonetheless.
While I found the stories of Hope’s marriage and her later relationship with Usman absorbing and emotionally credible, what made the book stand out for me was the story of the chimp research in Grosso Arvore. For those particularly sensitive to animal stories, I will say that Boyd pulls no punches – he shows us nature in all its gore, sometimes graphically. But this is all animal to animal interaction – there is no suggestion of human cruelty towards the chimps – and I therefore found it quite bearable, like watching a wildlife documentary. Hope is professional in her approach so that the chimps are never anthropomorphised, but clear parallels are drawn between the behaviour of the chimps and the war going on in the human world. And because the chimps are such close relatives to humans, they gradually develop personalities of their own that we care about as much as if they were human. The other aspect of the chimp story is Mallabar’s reaction to the threat to his life’s work, and I found this equally well executed and believable.
For me, this is Boyd at his best. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? I listened to it on audio, perfectly narrated by Harriet Walter. I found it took me ages to get through (mainly because I tend to listen while cooking and eating, and frankly a lot of the chimp stuff just wasn’t suited to that activity!) but I remained totally absorbed in each strand, never having that irritating feeling of wishing he would hurry up and get back to the other storyline. It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully. Highly recommended.
A rich, privileged teenage boy moans, whines and whinges for roughly forty-eight hours.
I had high hopes of this one. Either it would stun me by being wonderful and achieving that rare feat for a mid-twentieth century book of actually deserving its status as a classic, and I’d have the joy of writing a glowing review; or it would be as dire as I anticipated and I’d have the even greater fun of mocking it mercilessly.
Sadly, it’s neither. It’s merely a lengthy character sketch of a depressed teenager. Fine, but not scintillating fun, as anyone who has had to spend much time in the company of depressed (or even undepressed) teenage boys will know.*
It’s very well done. The character of Holden Caulfield feels believable and Salinger maintains his (annoying) voice without a blip throughout. It made me laugh – well, sorta smile, at least – several times and even made a tear spring to my eye… once. But mostly it bored me.
I could, I suppose, chunter on about how it says something about the time of writing – like, for example, that it foreshadowed the beginning of the post-WW2 cultural upheavals, or that it was the era when authors began to mistake the parroting of verbally-challenged swearing for literary merit, or something. But that would be kinda phony, goddam** it, because really I don’t think it says anything terribly deep about anything much. Or else I was just too bored to notice.
Well, that’s a little unfair, maybe. I think it does say something about how rotten it is to be a teenage boy, especially when forced to deal with one of life’s tragedies. But I think it’s a bit sad (and perhaps typical of the then American obsession with psychoanalysis) that what seemed to me like Holden’s perfectly normal feelings and mini-rebellion were implied to be some form of mental illness. If so, then I guess we have to assume that being a teenager is a form of lunacy… hmm!
Our unnamed narrator (I shall call her Elsie, just because I can) has returned from boarding school for the summer and is excited about getting together with her closest friend, Harriet. The girls have been in trouble in the past, and this is the reason Elsie’s parents sent her away to school. It’s quickly apparent they intend to get into just as much trouble in the future – constantly seeking new experiences they can record in their diary, each experience must top the one before. They are at that age, thirteen or fourteen, when their fantasies run to men and sex. And with Harriet’s encouragement, Elsie has developed a fascination with an unhappily married middle-aged man whom they call ‘the Tsar’. She sets out to tempt him and he is open to being tempted, but we know from the beginning that things aren’t going to end well…
Please God (I could feel the Tsar’s hand on my shoulder) please God, send Harriet. Then I turned to face the tiger. So dingy he was with his sallow skin and thin hair brushed carefully back. For all his elegance, and graceful walk, the delicate way he moved his head, indefinably he lacked youth. Later I was to remember the stillness in the woods, the evening in an avenue of light between the tree trunks, and the Tsar with his hand on my shoulder. I did not know I loved him then, because as Harriet wrote later in the diary, we had a long way to go before we reached the point of love.
This is an intriguing look at the secret lives of adolescent girls, set in the ’50s, at a time when many parents still demanded obedience rather than offering guidance. Both sets of parents care about their daughters in their own ways but clearly have no idea how to handle them, so that Harriet and Elsie are left to navigate their own way through their burgeoning sexuality. The thing that makes the book so disturbing is that their thoughts and behaviour will be recognisable to any woman, since we all went through that difficult stage when our physical selves were maturing far more rapidly than our emotional selves. It’s also a reminder of how female friendships at that age can become obsessively close, to a point where they can take precedence over all other relationships, even family, and can develop their own secret codes of communication and behaviour. In the end, Harriet and Elsie go much further along the path of acting out their fantasies than most of us did (I hope!), but their first steps feel like ones any one of us might have taken, perhaps with similar consequences.
The book was famously inspired by the case in New Zealand where two teenage girls murdered the mother of one of them, but the story isn’t a slavish copy of that, so knowing the original case is not a spoiler for the book. It was also apparently Bainbridge’s first novel, though it was rejected at the time, and was only published much later once she had become an established name.
I haven’t read any of her later books, so can’t compare the quality of the writing, but I felt this one was a little patchy. Some of the writing is wonderful, but for such a short novel I still found the pacing rather slow, finding myself wishing it would hurry up and get to where it was going. Perhaps this was because I had more or less gathered the major points of the plot from the many, many reviews I’ve read of it, or perhaps it was because the end was so blatantly foreshadowed at the beginning – I’m not sure.
I had tried to explain to my mother that it was awful to go so early; that one looked so silly when the field was full of small children. I could not explain that when it was dark a new dignity would transform the fair into an oasis of excitement, so that it became a place of mystery and delight; peopled with soldiers from the camp and orange-faced girls wearing head scarves, who in strange regimented lines would sway back and forth across the field, facing each other defiantly, exchanging no words, bright-eyed under the needle stars. I could not explain how all at once the lines would meet and mingle performing a complicated rite of selection; orange girls and soldier boys pairing off slowly to drift to the far end of the field and struggle under the hedges filled with blackberries.
The characterisation of both girls is somewhat vague, but I felt that fitted well with the first-person narration. Elsie’s obsession with Harriet and desire to impress her is portrayed excellently, but Harriet herself remains something of an enigma because we only have Elsie’s account to go on. Elsie also hints that she, Elsie, is the submissive one in the relationship, but sometimes the reader is made to wonder if this is a true representation of their friendship, or some kind of deflection so that Elsie should be seen as the more innocent of the two.
Times change and attitudes change with them. It may be harder for a modern reader, having lived through all the horror stories about paedophiles and grooming, to feel as sympathetic towards the Tsar as I suspect a reader was expected to feel when the book was published in the ’70s. It’s also less politically correct (though no less true) to see young teenage girls as potential temptresses, using their sexuality as a game, only half innocently, testing their new-found power over men. All of that rang true for me, though, however much we like to gloss over the sometimes dark complexities of teenage sexuality these days.
So while I wasn’t quite as blown away by this as I’d hoped, I think it’s a fine example of a story that becomes very dark while still retaining a chilling level of credibility. Recommended, and it will certainly encourage me to seek out more of Bainbridge’s work.
Eleven-year-old Max is dictating a story to a Dictaphone his mother gave him, inspired by a visiting author who told his class that writers are people who ‘notice things’. The story he is telling is of his life, and of the summer in which the book is set. Max lives with his single mother and has never known his father. As a result, he and his mother have been very close, but now she’s found a new boyfriend and suddenly has less time for Max. To make things worse, the boyfriend clearly sees Max as a nuisance. Max is feeling rather unhappy and lonely.
Opposite lives Minnie and her older sister Clara, two elderly spinsters still occupying the big house their parents lived in, back before they sold all their land to allow a housing estate to be built – the housing estate Max lives in. Now they’re poor and struggling to keep the house in good repair. Minnie is also rather lonely. Her window faces Max’s and they often notice each other, and when she sees him begin to dictate his story, it occurs to her that maybe she should write her story too, in an attempt to finally come to terms with some dark episodes in her past. As the summer progresses, these two people strike up an unlikely friendship…
This is not a book I would have chosen to read, but I was sent two unsolicited copies of it by the publisher, so felt I ought to at least give it a try. So I’m as surprised as anyone to discover it’s been one of the books of the summer so far for me. It’s very well written and the characterisation is great. The journal format of both sections means it slips in and out of present and past tense, but always appropriately to the story being told at the time. Young Max’s voice doesn’t always ring quite true for an eleven-year-old, but his observations of his mother and his own feelings about the changes that are happening around him feel completely authentic for a rather reserved and quiet boy of that age. Minnie is also excellent and through her we get taken back to the past – ’60s, I think – at a time when the rigid class system in Britain was beginning to break down.
Max’s story is quite light – although he’s going through a difficult patch, Langdale doesn’t over-egg the pudding by forcing him to go through major traumas or by making his mother and her boyfriend actively cruel to him. They’re just a bit neglectful of his feelings and maybe a bit dismissive of his needs, but there’s never any doubt that his mother loves him. She’s a beautician who works in a room of their house, and a lot of Max’s observations about her and her clients are very funny. Minnie becomes a kind of surrogate aunt to him, offering him tea and sympathy when he needs it.
Minnie’s story on the other hand gets very dark indeed at points. In fact, there is one jarring note for me with the book, and I can’t go into detail without spoilers – but there is one particularly upsetting scene which I feel is more detailed than necessary and is too grim for the general tone of the book. It’s crucial to the story, so it’s not its inclusion that bothered me – rather that it is written too graphically. Otherwise, though, Minnie’s part of the book gives it depth and an adult voice, and the two stories together provide an excellent balance of light and shade.
Made me laugh, made me cry, and left me smiling – what more could you ask for really? Definitely a surprise hit and one I’m happy to recommend to anyone who likes a well written, character driven story.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.
Middle-aged successful American lawyer, Bill Ten Boom, is having a bit of a subdued mid-life crisis. He has ended his marriage, not over another woman but simply because he felt there was no real love or passion in it. And he has given up his partnership in a big legal firm – a role he primarily took on to satisfy the aspirations of his ex-wife. So when he’s offered the job of prosecuting a case at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, he decides it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. The case involves the rumoured brutal killing of four hundred Roma in Bosnia in 2004. It happened near an American base, so the case is further complicated by the fact that the US, under George W Bush, pulled out of the ICC. First, Boom (as he is known) must establish that the atrocity did in fact happen, and if so, must then try to find out who should be held responsible.
Scott Turow is one of those writers whose books transcend easy genre definition. On the surface this is a legal crime novel with all the aspects of an investigation, suspects, clues, trial procedures, and so on. But it is also a careful, revealing look at the way the Roma have been dealt with throughout history, in Bosnia and elsewhere – a group at least as victimised as the Jews over the centuries but somehow still left under the radar of popular concern. Turow avoids the easy route of making the Roma seem too much like helpless victims though – he shows how their determination not to assimilate into the societies within which they live puts them in the position of always being seen as outsiders, who are often involved in criminal activity of one kind or another. He also discusses their cultural attitudes towards girls and women, which to our western eyes display all the sexism we have fought so hard to overcome. But Turow doesn’t do any of this as an information dump. It’s woven into the story as Boom himself learns about the Roma during his investigation, and as he becomes attracted to a woman of Roma heritage who is acting as a support to one of the witnesses.
We are also given a look at how the ICC operates: slow to the point of glacial on occasion, bound up in all kinds of procedures and restrictions, but grinding on in its efforts to bring justice for some of the most atrocious crimes in the world. Turow shows how the process can seem cold and unemotional, almost clinical in its approach, but how even this great legal bureaucracy can be shocked by some of the evidence that comes before it.
….“…I knew there was no point. I could claw at the rock the rest of my life and get no closer. I knew the truth.” ….“And what truth was that, sir?” ….“They were dead. My woman. My children. All the People. They were dead. Buried alive. All four hundred of them.” ….Although virtually everyone in the courtroom – the judges, the rows of prosecutors, the court personnel, the spectators behind the glass, and the few reporters with them – although almost all of us knew what the answer to that question was going to be, there was nonetheless a terrible drama to hearing the facts spoken aloud. Silence enshrouded the room as if a warning finger had been raised, and all of us, every person, seemed to sink into ourselves, into the crater of fear and loneliness where the face of evil inevitably casts us. ….So here you are, I thought suddenly, as the moment lingered. Now you are here.
The story also touches on the other big American war of the early years of this century – some of the errors and miscalculations that turned “victory” in Iraq into the quagmire of factionalism that is still going on today, with consequences for us all. But while Turow is perhaps grinding a political axe of his own to some degree, he also shows the dedication and sacrifice of so many US soldiers at all levels, and the basic integrity of much of the legal and even political classes. And if all that isn’t enough, there’s another minor strand about Boom’s European roots and the seemingly never-ending after-effects of earlier atrocities under Nazi Germany.
Turow’s writing is as good as always – he’s a slow, undramatic storyteller, so that he relies on the strength of the story and the depth of his characterisation, and he achieves both in this one. If I have made it sound like a political history, then that’s my error, not his. Running through all this is an excellent plot – almost a whodunit – that kept me guessing till very late on in the book. He is skilled enough to get that tricky balance when discussing the various atrocities of bringing the horror home to the reader without trading in gratuitous or voyeuristic detail. And as well as Boom, he creates a supporting cast of equally well drawn and credible secondary characters. More political than most of his books, I’m not sure I’d recommend this one as an entry point for new readers (Presumed Innocent, since you ask), but existing fans, I’m certain, will find everything they’ve enjoyed about his previous books plus the added interest of him ranging beyond his usual territory of the US courtroom. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grand Central Publishing.
It’s summer festival season, and a crowd of thousands has descended on a farmer’s field for an open-air rock concert celebrating the solstice. There are all the usual food vendors offering varying degrees of quality and hygiene so it’s not too surprising when there’s an outbreak of what appears to be food poisoning. But although sufferers seem to recover within twenty-four hours, days or weeks later they begin to have relapses, developing skin lesions and eventually dying. And in the meantime, they’ve dispersed all over Britain and the world, spreading the infection…
The story is told by Zoe Meadows (Gina McKee), a journalist who happened to be on the spot at the concert when the first outbreak occurred. Though not infected herself, she sniffs a story and sets out to investigate how the infection began. Soon she begins to suspect a factory farm which uses particularly inhumane methods of housing its animals may be the source. Meantime, scientists are working round the clock to find a cure. Zoe makes contact with one of them, Aasmah, who explains that existing antibiotics aren’t strong enough to fight this disease. It has mutated to a point of being resistant to everything scientists have to throw at it.
Isn’t it odd how something that should work sometimes simply doesn’t? This has a great cast who all turn in top class performances, many of them with lovely, authentic Geordie accents (though not broad enough to be hard to understand). It’s written by Val McDermid which means that the script flows and sounds natural – the dialogue never feels stilted. The production values are great – listening through headphones made me feel I was in the middle of it as the sound shifted around me, the incidental music is suitably ominous and threatening, and the sound effects – dogs barking, street noises, etc. – are so convincing I several times found myself checking they were coming from the disc and not the real world. The science is totally credible and so is the eventual outcome – horrific but believable.
And therein lies the problem. Perhaps there’s somebody out there who’s not aware that overuse of antibiotics has led to a situation where some bacteria have mutated to the point where they’ve developed resistance, leading to a cycle of ever stronger drugs, more mutations, and round and round we go, with no certainty that humanity will be the eventual winner. Maybe some people don’t know that they should stop pestering their doctors for antibiotics every time they have a sniffle. Maybe there are some doctors who are still too wimpy to say no to such patients. But, a little like this paragraph, this drama feels more like a public health warning than anything else. A well written and well performed public health warning, but still…
When it said at the end that it was “developed through the Wellcome Trust Experimental Stories scheme”, my suspicions were further aroused, since the Wellcome Trust is a scientific research charity. I donned my deerstalker, lit my pipe and turned to Google. And indeed – this is a series in which they encourage writers to dramatise matters of scientific concern in an attempt to inform and engage the public. Very worthy, but unfortunately that’s what it sounds like in the end. Because the basic plan is to show us how, if we don’t start behaving, we will all die. Die! Die, I tell you! True, but hardly entertaining.
An extract from the BBC’s webpage on the drama says:
Programme consultant Christopher Dowson, who is Professor of Microbiology at the University of Warwick and Trustee for the charity Antibiotic Research UK says: “This fantastic production presents in an emotionally engaging manner some of the important issues that have given rise to our current predicament – ever rising resistance and fewer effective antibiotics. My hope is that listeners will go on to ask ‘what can I do to be part of the solution?’.”
OK, fine, Professor Dowson, but just two points. Firstly, it started emotionally engaging but rapidly descended into being simply downright depressing. And secondly, it would have been great if it had suggested answers to the question “what can I do to be part of the solution?” rather than implying that there is no solution and no hope and that we’re all going to die. Die! Die, I tell you! And if that’s not bad enough, apparently we’re all going to come out in purple spots first!
Maybe I’m being unfair. I did work in health care for many years, so maybe the antibiotics issue isn’t as widely known amongst the general public as I think. But even so, I suspect what most people will say at the end is “Well, that was depressing!” and head for the cake tin rather than becoming activists. Perhaps when it appeared on the radio it was accompanied by discussion programmes that may have answered the “what can I do?” question but as a standalone on disc it preaches without advising, offering despair unleavened by hope. A missed opportunity and, frankly, a bit of a waste of a great writer and an excellent cast.
NB This CD set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. It’s a three disc set with a running time of 2 hours 30 minutes. It’s also available on Audible.
When Seth and Carter meet at college, they discover a shared appreciation for music – not as musicians, but as listeners and producers. Seth has the technical skills and Carter’s family is rich, so they’re able to set up their own studio. Loving the distinctive sound of vinyl, Carter eventually works his way back in time till he has become a knowledgeable collector of old 78s, especially blues. Seth too had gone on a musical trip back in time, during a period in his teens after his mother died, when he isolated himself from the world in his room and escaped into the world of early records. But Seth had reached a point where he believed he could hear ghosts behind the music…
This is another of these books that is quite hard to review because it only slowly reveals where it’s heading, and the journey is probably better the less you know going in. It’s also very distinctly a book of two halves, and other reviews I’ve read suggest that people who love the first half are disappointed with the second, and vice versa. I’m lucky in that I vastly preferred the second half, so that my final opinion of the book was much higher than it had been at the halfway point. I’ll try to give you an idea of it without spoilers, so forgive me if this review is rather vague.
….Every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration. I once heard a field recording of a woman singing, sitting on a porch. You could hear her foot tapping, keeping time. You could hear the creak of her rocking chair, the crickets in the trees. You could tell it was evening because of the crickets. I felt I was slipping, that if I wasn’t careful I’d lose my grip on the present and find myself back there, seventy or eighty years in the past. The rough board floor, the overhang of the roof, her voice travelling through the moist heavy air to the diaphragm of the microphone, its sound converted into electrical energy, frozen, then the whole process reversed, electricity moving a speaker cone, sound spilling into my ears and connecting me to that long-ago time and place. I could feel it flow, that voice, inhabiting the cavities of my body, displacing the present like water filling a cistern.
The first half is taken up with the boys, later young men, meeting and becoming friends and then business partners. Seth is the narrator and he tells about how he records street sounds while he’s wandering about, often finding when he listens back to them that he can hear things he wasn’t aware of at the time. At first, this is normal stuff – the kind of sounds we all tune out as we pass through noisy places. But one day he discovers that he has recorded a man singing an old blues song – he remembers the man singing a line or two but not the whole song. This is the beginning of a train of ever stranger things that happen until eventually the narrative becomes fractured and disjointed, as the book moves further from reality into a kind of weird, hallucinatory stage in the second half.
The first half contains a lot of music jargon, production techniques, comparisons of analogue and digital, and so on; and I frankly found it dragged. But once it began talking about early blues musicians, I found my interest reviving a little, especially since it sent me off to youtube to listen to many of the recordings Kunzru mentions. Even so, for too long I found I didn’t really have a feel for where the book was heading.
I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because the second half not only gives the book its ultimate meaning, but as Seth’s life, or perhaps mind, or perhaps both, spiral out of control, I loved what Kunzru does with the writing. It becomes almost like reading a vivid dream – short sentences giving us a glimpse of a thing or snatching at a sound, then moving wildly away to the next thing. Often just a few words create a picture in the mind. It becomes disorientating and strangely disturbing after a bit, and I found it totally compelling. The narrative shifts around in space and time, in reality and illusion (delusion?), and the story gradually gets darker and more violent. It’s only towards the end that the destination becomes clear, and only then that I was able to truly appreciate how each stage, each strand, had added to the depth beneath the surface words – not unlike listening to the analogue rather than the digital.
….Day after day. Always on the move. My boot heels quite worn away. Wolfmouth only left me alone when I came home at night. Even then he followed me through the hallways, tap dancing up the stairs. He followed me, he follows me. Step scuff smack step, step scuff smack step. Echoing in the stairwell at the end of another long day. ….– The kooks, there are more of them all the time. ….– That’s right, Mrs. Waxman. ….Carrying my groceries past her door. The stink of her cats. ….I hole up, lock the door, fix the chain. Step scuff smack step, shuffling in the hallway. Then, at last, silence. I am not sure if he goes away.
And, in the end, it’s about race, and cultural appropriation, and race guilt. About how music, specifically recordings, can let us visit the past. How acquisition can become more important than art – ownership and control above appreciation. There are references to blackface and minstrelsy, and white tourism of black history. The last chapter becomes a little polemical for my taste, but until that point I felt the messages were handled with both surface subtlety and underlying power, and a great deal of originality. And it has stayed in my mind in the couple of weeks since I finished it, growing in stature the more it settles, so that, despite the fact that it took me a while to get into it, I now feel that the long first half was necessary to create the foundation for the weirdly wonderful second half. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK.
This is a collection of seven short stories written between 1989 and 1995 under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea. The author’s identity remains secret, since he still lives in the country – his pseudonym means “firefly”. He is, or perhaps was, part of the official writers’ association, writing articles approved by the regime, but in his own time he began secretly to write these stories, showing a different version of daily life under this extreme form of totalitarianism. When his niece decided to defect to the West, he asked her to take the stories with her, but she wisely said she would instead send for them once she reached safety. She later enlisted the help of a human rights worker to have them smuggled out of the country.
The stories are strongly polemical, as would be expected under the circumstances, and highly critical of the dehumanisation under the regime, where every aspect of people’s lives and even thoughts are dictated and controlled through fear, and truth is manipulated in true Orwellian fashion.
The quality of the stories is distinctly variable, with some of them being too polemical to make for good fiction. They are often worthy but obvious, occasionally over-wrought, and not always very well-written. However, some of them, especially the middle ones, reach a higher level, full of power and emotion. But the interest of this collection is not so much the literary side of it, but the glimpse it gives us of what it’s like to live under this regime which seems, if anything, to be getting even more extreme with each passing year.
Here’s a flavour of a couple of the ones that most impressed me:
Life of a Swift Steed – this tells the story of a man who believed in the revolution in its early days, and to celebrate the beginnings of this new world, planted an elm tree, around which he gradually created a fable that he passed on to the children in his area. As the tree grew to maturity, he believed, so would the socialist state. Everyone would eat meat and white rice, and wear silk. He clung to the fable even when reality turned out to be vastly different. But now he’s old and poor, the weather is freezing and there is no fuel. And the state wants to chop down the tree to make way for power lines. This one is very well written, and makes its point through emotion rather than overt polemics – I found it a moving read, reminding us that these regimes arise out of hopes and dreams, making their subsequent distortion into totalitarianism even more tragic.
So Near, Yet So Far – a man has received news that his mother is dying, but the state will not give him the travel permit he needs to visit her for one last time. Having spent his life obeying every dictate of the regime – doing his military service, then being told where he should live, what he should work at, etc. – he is finally provoked into breaking the rules, and tries to make the journey illicitly. As the rather trite title suggests, he gets heartbreakingly close to his mother’s village when he is caught. The punishment is harsh, but it’s the guilt and shame that cause him most pain. The feeling of utter helplessness of the individual caught up in an uncaring and faceless system is very well done, and again makes this story a deeply emotional and powerful one.
So there’s plenty here to make the book worth reading for its content as well as its origins. Like many collections, I found reading the stories one after the other meant that they gradually began to acquire a sameness which made the later ones lose power. Had I not been reading for review, I would have left longer gaps between reading each one, to avoid this effect. But they provide a unique insight into this regime from a personal level – so often we are only aware of the high level politics, and it’s easy to forget how each decision we make in dealing with dictators, in terms of sanctions or military action, impacts profoundly on those much further down the social order. An interesting little collection, the importance of which transcends the stories themselves.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.
It is 1576, and Titian is living in plague-ridden Venice – an old man, refusing to flee from the city he loves. As he waits for death to find him, he thinks back to his young days, when his career was just beginning, recalling the time when he painted the portrait that became known as The Man with the Blue Sleeve. By the time his one surviving son, Pomponio, reaches Venice, Titian is dead; and, in the disorder of the time, his studio has been ransacked and many of his paintings stolen. As the plague eventually recedes from the city, we meet Tullia, one of the city’s courtesans, returning to find that she too has had her home looted. With her wealth gone, she realises she will have to start again, sending out signals to the rich men of Venice that she is available for their pleasure – at a price. In this city where the main mode of travel is by water, Sebastiano the boatman is an observer of the great people of the city, knowing their weaknesses and sometimes their secrets, their lives often touching on his.
In London in 2011, actor Terry Jardine is currently in rehearsal of A Winter’s Tale. Terry recently lost his beloved mother, and that, together with a break-up of a long-term relationship, has brought him to a kind of crisis in his life. When he breaks down during rehearsals, his director, Ludovico, comforts him, and so begins a love story between these two men. Meantime in New York, we meet Aurora, a Cuban-born maid working for Mr and Mrs Pereira, a couple who are being surreptitiously investigated by the police.
These four characters – Terry, Aurora, Sebastiano and Tullia – are all loosely linked through Titian and his art. The book jumps back and forwards between them, which could easily have made it feel disjointed. But the quality of the writing, together with some excellent characterisation, makes each section compelling, so that, rather than feeling irritated by the jumps, I found I was looking forward in each case to finding out a little more of the story of whichever character came to the fore. There is no over-arching plot as such, but the links to Titian’s paintings give the book a structure that stops it from feeling too fragmentary.
Blake has clearly done her research for the Venetian strands, and creates a marvellously authentic-feeling picture of the 16th century society of the city. As we learn more about Sebastiano, we see how his family was severely affected when his father became briefly caught up in the schemes of Titian’s son, Pomponio, and how different the rules of justice were for rich and poor. But in the Venice section, it’s Tullia’s story that stood out for me – the precarious life of the courtesan dependant entirely on youth and beauty, and the need to achieve wealth before these begin to fade. There is a recurring theme throughout the strands of children separated from their mothers, and in Tullia’s case this is both fascinating and moving, as we learn of younger or less pretty daughters of the wealthy farmed off to convents to avoid the need for families to find dowries to enable them to marry.
In the contemporary section, Aurora is fascinated by a Titian owned by her employers, of the death of Saint Sebastian. Blake writes with a lovely light touch, so its only gradually that we discover why this painting means so much to her, and how it is connected to her own childhood when her parents sent her to the US to escape from Castro’s Cuba.
Terry’s connection to Titian begins in the National Gallery as he is admiring The Man with the Blue Sleeve, when it suddenly seems to him that the painting is talking to him, prophesying his death. The growing love between Terry and Ludovico is beautifully done, giving the book its emotional heart. We see the importance of the theatre to Terry – he can’t imagine himself as anything other than an actor, and can’t imagine life continuing if he were ever to become unable to act. Ludovico was also separated from his mother as a baby and never knew her identity, but now she wishes to meet him and he doesn’t know how to feel about that. The two men give each other the emotional support each needs to get through these difficult moments in their lives.
I’ve been deliberately vague about each strand, because the joy of the book is in the slow revelations through which the characters are gradually built-up, layer on layer, so that we see what has made them who they are. In the end, all the strands come together, but as with the whole book it’s done gently – there’s no big dramatic denouement or stunning twist, just a somewhat understated unfolding of the connections through Titian’s art that link these people about whom we’ve come to care.
I know Victoria Blake somewhat through our blogs, but as always I’ve tried not to let that colour my review. In truth, I loved this book. The slowish start when all the various strands are introduced meant that it took a little while to grab me, but the quality of the prose carried me until the gradual deepening of the characterisation caused me to become completely absorbed by the stories of these people. Of course, it’s about art and the effect it can have in many different ways, but mostly it’s about people, told with a depth of understanding and sympathy for human frailties, and the various kinds of love that give us the strength to withstand life’s blows. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.
This is a collection of loosely linked short stories based in the Suffolk sandlings, an area the author clearly knows and loves well. Although each story stands by itself, locations reappear frequently, and occasionally characters at the centre of one story are referred to peripherally in another, which gives the collection a feeling of wholeness – the individual pieces gradually fitting together to create a complete picture of the landscape and community of this place. Many of the stories include the wildlife of the region, either actually or symbolically – foxes, deer, owls, et al.
There is a tone of nostalgia running through the collection. Although most of the stories are set in the present day, they are often looking back at events in the past, and there is a general theme of connections across the generations. This allows Thornton to look at how the region has changed, with the collapse of many of its traditional ways of life, such as fishing; and also to look forward with a kind of fear to an uncertain future, as sea rises due to climate change threaten this low-lying coastal land.
The writing is excellent, especially when she is writing about the natural world…
As he stood he closed his eyes and let his mind trace out the melody as it rose and fell. He knew no other bird which could combine within a single phrase that round, full-throated tone like a thrush or blackbird before soaring up as impossibly high as the trilling of a skylark. But his favourite of all was a low, bubbling warble, a note so pure and liquid clear you felt refreshed to hear it, as if you had actually drunk the spring water the sound resembled, welling fresh from the rock.
Several of the stories have an air of ghostliness about them, usually mild and not the main focus, though there is one that I feel counts as a ‘proper’ ghost story, and beautifully creepy it is too! (It may well appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post.) Lots of them also read almost like folk tales, or rely on superstition for their impact. But there’s also humour in the collection, which prevents the nostalgia from becoming overly melancholic.
These are stories with an ending, rather than the more fragmentary style so often employed in contemporary short story writing. Normally I prefer stories with endings, but to be honest sometimes the endings here feel a little contrived, almost amounting to the dreaded “twist” on occasion. But this is my one criticism of a collection which I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed and recommend, from an author I am now keen to investigate further. As with any collection, I enjoyed some of the stories more than others – here are a few of the ones that stood out for me…
The White Doe – the first story in the collection, this tells of a woman grieving the death of her mother. The doe of the title refers both to an old folk tale and to an actual white doe, that Fran spots in the woods near her home. As the story unfolds, we learn that Fran has a personal history that in a strange way mirrors the folk tale. I found this story excellently written and frankly rather disturbing, and it set the tone of gentle unease that runs through much of the collection.
The Interregnum – this is a delicious and wickedly funny tale of village life. The local parish priest is on maternity leave, so the parish brings in a ‘temp’ to cover – an unordained but highly qualified woman, Ivy. We see the story develop through the eyes of Dorothy, the elderly secretary of the parish council. Ivy, the stand-in, keeps telling the parishioners of the pagan rituals that pre-dated and were often absorbed into Christianity. Although some of her ideas seem a bit strange, the parishioners are a kind lot who go along with her ideas, until they gradually find themselves performing rites that feel, somehow, vaguely pagan. The ending of this one is also a twist, but in this case it works perfectly and left me laughing. Well-told, and a nice indicator of how Thornton can write in a variety of styles.
The Watcher of Souls is a beautiful story about Rebecca, an elderly lady in remission from cancer. During her regular walks in the woods, she becomes fascinated by a barn owl that roosts in an old, split oak tree. One day, she finds an old tin buried within the hollow of the tree, and within it are some old love letters…. The ending was one of those that felt a little too contrived for my taste, but otherwise this is a sad little story made lovely by the subtlety of the writing.
Mackerel – the final story in the collection and one that in many ways sums up the themes of the book. An old woman is cooking mackerel for her favourite granddaughter, and as she does, she reminisces about the differences between her own life when she was young and her granddaughter’s life – both with entirely different aspirations and expectations, but both finding life fulfilling in their own ways. The story also talks of fishing, back when it was a way of life rather than an industry, and when mackerel was still plentiful before it was overfished almost into local extinction. A very nostalgic tale, this one, almost elegiac, as of a lifestyle lost forever. And a fine one to end on.
NB This book was kindly provided for review by the author.
“India: A country said to have two real religions – cinema and cricket.”
Two brothers are being groomed by their father to become the greatest cricketers in India. Radha, the elder, with his film-star looks and love of the game, is the better of the two, and it’s accepted that he will be the star. But as they grow up, Radha’s skill diminishes, just a little, but enough for him to be eclipsed by the younger Manju, whose attitude to the game is more ambivalent. Their mother having disappeared when they were little (run away? dead? The boys aren’t sure), the brothers have been brought up by their tyrannical father Mohan, who is determined they will succeed in the sport as a way to raise the family out of the slums. So when the chance of sponsorship comes along, Mohan grabs it, even though it’s at best an unethical deal which sells his sons into a kind of bondage and, at worst, borders on the illegal.
This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. The game, once the preserve of all that was considered gentlemanly, has become all about money. The days of languorous five-day test matches has morphed into not only one-day cricket, but the hideousness of the ultra-short 20-20, which Adiga describes in his humorous glossary of cricketing terms at the end of the book as “in the eyes of some older fans, almost as bad as baseball.” It’s not necessary, I think, to know about cricket to enjoy the book – Adiga doesn’t fall into the trap of lengthy descriptions of games, tactics or technicalities, and the sport could as easily be any other. But cricket has a particular resonance, because of its origin as a game of the British Empire, a period whose influence is still vital in understanding much of Indian society.
In the next few minutes, Anand Mehta came up with the following observations about cricket: that it was a fraud, and at the most fundamental level. Only ten countries play this game, and only five of them play it well. If we had any self-respect, we’d finally grow up as a people and play football. No: let’s not expose ourselves to real competition, much safer to be in a “world cup” against St. Kitts and Bangladesh. Self-obsession without self-belief: the very definition of the Indian middle class, which is why it loves this fraud sport.
Poised to offer the world more deep thoughts about the gentleman’s game, Mehta heard:
Shot! Bloody good shot!…
Confronted by the sound and smell of an instant of real cricket, Mehta felt all his mighty observations turn to ashes.
As Manju hits adolescence, he becomes fascinated by another young player, Javed. Javed is gay and Manju’s attraction to him suggests that he is too. But Manju is of a lower class than Javed and has a father who’s not likely to be the most supportive, so it would take considerably more courage for him to admit his feelings than Javed. But his relationship with Javed isn’t purely about physical attraction – Manju finds himself influenced by the older, more confident boy in other ways. Javed, another talented cricketer, sees the corruption in the sport and wants Manju to give it up. So poor Manju has a jealous brother who feels he deserves to be the best, a friend pulling him away from cricket, and his father and his coach putting pressure on him to practice every moment he can. It’s not altogether surprising that he’s confused before he gets to Selection Day, the day on which the big teams pick which young players they will sign.
I love Adiga’s depiction of Mumbai or Bombay (names which he uses interchangeably). He shows the poverty, corruption and class divisions quite clearly but, unlike some of the (usually ex-pat) Indian writers who love to wallow exclusively in the misery, Adiga, who lives in Mumbai, also shows the other side – the vibrancy, the struggle for social mobility, the advances of recent years. His characters, even when they’re being put through the emotional wringer, manage to have some fun along the way, and the whole atmosphere he portrays lacks the irredeemable hopelessness of so much Indian literature. There’s also a good deal of humour, often very perceptive and coming at unexpected moments, startling me into laughter. This book tackles some tough subjects, but on the whole Adiga simply lays the arguments out and leaves the reader to come to her own conclusions – there’s no whiff of the polemical in his writing.
“People thought I had a future as a writer, Manju. I wanted to write a great novel about Mumbai,” the principal said, playing with her glasses. “But then…then I began, and I could not write it. The only thing I could write about, in fact, was that I couldn’t write about the city.
“The sun, which I can’t describe like Homer, rises over Mumbai, which I can’t describe like Salman Rushdie, creating new moral dilemmas for all of us, which I won’t be able to describe like Amitav Ghosh.”
There is, however, some great characterisation, and he writes about them empathetically so that it’s hard not to see why even the less savoury characters have turned out as they have. One of the things I loved was seeing how the perception of Mohan, the boys’ father, changed as they grew up. This man who loomed over them in childhood shrinks as they grow – both physically and in terms of his influence. It’s the mark of the quality of Adiga’s writing that this happens so gradually there’s no jarring moment, but towards the end I realised I had come to feel about him quite differently than I had in the beginning.
For me, this was a slow-burn book. It took at least a third of the book before I was convinced that this tale of cricketing brothers was going to hold my interest. But as it progressed, I began to appreciate the subtlety with which Adiga was showing various aspects of contemporary Indian life, and as always I found his writing pure pleasure to read. And by the time I reached the end, I found he had again created some characters who had become real to me, in the way Masterji did in his excellent Last Man in Tower. This book confirms Adiga’s place as one of my favourite authors, and gets my wholehearted recommendation.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.
When Irene accidentally meets her childhood friend Clare in a tea-house in Chicago, she’s not altogether surprised to discover that Clare is ‘passing’ as white. Clare had always wanted the good things in life and, when she disappeared from home as a teenager, her friends suspected she’d found a way to make use of her beauty. Now Clare is married to a rich white man, John Bellew, with whom she has a child. But John hates ‘niggers’ and Clare knows her marriage would be over if he ever found out about her mixed heritage. Irene rather despises Clare for, as she sees it, a kind of betrayal of her race, but nevertheless can’t resist the appeal of her charm. And so, their friendship is resumed – dangerous to Clare’s marriage, but as it turns out, dangerous to Irene too…
Despite the title and basic premise of the book, this is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. Irene is respected in her society in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor and they have a relatively wealthy life. But we soon learn that Brian is discontented – he hates living in a country where he is treated as inferior because of his race. Irene on the other hand loves her life and wants nothing more than she has. Clare is the catalyst who brings this division into sharp focus, forcing Irene to question what’s important to her and to wonder if her marriage is as solid as she had always thought.
I appreciated that the book doesn’t focus exclusively on the race issues. Sometimes books become so polemical it feels as if the people are tokens rather than rounded characters in their own right – I’m thinking of Americanah, for example. In this one, none of the characters is defined entirely by race – the questions that absorb them most have little overtly to do with colour. In a way, that makes the incidents of racism feel all the more brutal and shocking when they do happen. Written in 1921 long before the civil rights movement really got underway, we see how white people felt it was totally acceptable to publicly and casually express views that many of us would now find repugnant (pre-Trump – sadly, it now appears to be the new normal again), and how black people, even wealthy ones, had no real recourse other than to accept it and try not to let it define their entire lives. Brian and Irene’s ongoing difference about how to bring up their sons encapsulates a debate that I’m sure must have been going on endlessly in the black community of the time – Irene wanting to shield them for as long as possible from the knowledge of how racist their society is, while Brian feels they should be taught early what to expect and taught to resent it.
The deeper question than simply colour is perhaps about the sense of belonging. Despite having wealth and a husband who loves her, Clare the risk-taker longs for the people and places of her childhood and is willing to gamble recklessly with everything she has for the fleeting pleasure of spending time back in that society. Irene on the other hand sees that same society as a place of security and contentment, and her sole desire is not to have her life disrupted. Both the women can tolerate the racism of their world so long as it doesn’t directly impinge on them. Brian, however, resents racism as a political thing, not just personal – a thing that makes him hate his nation and rather despise his peers for their acceptance of it. In him, we see the anger and discontent that would eventually lead to the rise of the civil rights movement.
The characterisation of Irene is the book’s major strength. It is from her perspective that the book is told, although in the third person. She operates within the conventions of her time, deferring outwardly to her husband, playing the little wife who’s always endearingly late for things and just a bit scatterbrained. But inwardly she has a core of steel – she has achieved exactly the life she wants and will defend it in any way she can. If that means she has to manipulate her husband to give up his dreams in favour of hers, so be it – she has the intelligence and fierce drive to do it, and the self-awareness to know that that’s exactly what she’s doing. But her slightly repelled fascination for her old friend allows Clare to sneak through her defences, and suddenly Irene finds she’s losing control of the situation – something she’s not used to and that frightens her.
I regret to admit that I think the ending is almost laughably silly, which is a major pity since I was loving it up to that point. I wonder if Larsen maybe just couldn’t think how to get her characters out of the situation she had so carefully and brilliantly crafted for them. Personally (and you don’t often hear me say this) I wished the book was a few chapters longer with a more complex and psychologically satisfying dénouement. But despite that disappointment, I still think this is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time, and would highly recommend it.