The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

History through heresy…

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It’s 1468, and young priest Christopher Fairfax is hurrying to reach the village of Addicott St George before curfew. He has been sent by his bishop to officiate at the funeral of the village’s priest, Father Lacy, who has died in a fall from the local landmark known as the Devil’s Chair. But once installed at the rectory, Christopher discovers that Father Lacy had been a collector of antiquities, some of them prohibited by the Church, and he soon has reason to wonder if there may be something more sinister behind the old priest’s death…

But… that isn’t really what the book’s about. And I can’t tell you properly what it is about, since that would spoil it! Makes writing a review kinda tricky. Suffice it to say, there’s a layer of depth that takes this beyond being a standard historical fiction novel. There are elements of apocalypse and dystopia, though I wouldn’t label the book as falling strictly into those categories either. It has as much to say about the present as the past, although we never visit the present. Are you intrigued? You should be!

Christopher has spent his young life in the Church, sent there as a boy to train in the priesthood. This is his first real venture into the world beyond the limits of the cathedral town he calls home, and he soon finds that the world outside has temptations, not simply of the body but of the mind. Heresy, he finds, is a slippery slope – somehow the forbidden exerts a pull on his mind, and the more he discovers, the more he begins to question all that he has been taught. Are the strict rules the Church forces on the population designed to save their souls, or simply to give the Church a stranglehold on power? At the same time, he is beginning to question his personal vocation – his faith is not in question, but as he becomes open to new thoughts and feelings, he wonders if he is able to go on preaching a religion he is beginning to question.

And he’s not alone in his questioning. Others have dabbled in what the Church calls heresy, although the punishments are brutal. Some tread a fine line, trying to disguise their research into the forbidden areas of the past as anti-heretical warnings. Church and state are inextricably linked, and those who fall out of favour with one must suffer the penalties imposed by the other.

As always, Robert Harris has the ability to create settings which have the feel of total authenticity. Here, there’s an added layer of subtlety as we discover that it’s all not quite as straightforward as it first appears, and he handles the ambiguity wonderfully. If there’s a flaw in his more recent books, it’s that his plotting takes second place to his portrayal of a place or time or event. In Conclave, it’s all about the inner workings of the Vatican and how popes are elected, and the actual plot is the only weak point; in Munich, the plot exists merely as a vehicle to allow us to be a fly on the wall at the Munich Conference of 1938. In this one, the plot revolves around Father Lacy’s death and Christopher’s growing interest in the beliefs of the heretics, but again it’s simply a device for Harris to show us this society from different angles – to let us see how and why it has developed as it has. For some people, I know this is a real weakness, and usually it would be for me too. But I find Harris’ scene-setting and the subjects he chooses so fascinating that I never feel the lack of a strong plot. Sometimes, as in Munich or An Officer and a Spy, he casts so much insight into a point in history that it’s enough for me. Other times, as in this one or, say, Fatherland, he uses a slightly off-kilter look at history to make us see it with fresh eyes – not so much as it was, but rather as how only very slight alterations may have made it work out differently – and I find those wonderfully thought-provoking.

Robert Harris

I also find his writing so smooth and effortless-seeming that the actual act of reading is pure pleasure. I find him a very visual writer – he doesn’t go off into extravagantly poetic descriptions, but nevertheless I always end up feeling that I know the places and societies he’s shown me as well as if I’d visited them. And even when he’s making a “point”, he never beats us over the head with it – he respects his readers to think it through for themselves.

As you’ll have gathered, I loved this one – another rung on the ladder that is rapidly helping him climb to the very top of my favourite author heap. I do hope my vague review has intrigued you enough to tempt you to read this one…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hutchinson.

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The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

End of Empire…

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It’s 1942 and tensions are running high in India. Britain, with its usual high-handedness, has decided that Indian troops will join the war effort without consulting the Indian leaders. Gandhi is demanding that the British quit India, even though that will probably mean that the Japanese move in. When the British arrest the leaders of the Independence movement, for a few short days the peace of Mayapore is broken as rioters take to the streets. And in that time one British woman will see her idealistic dreams destroyed while another will be brutally raped. Eighteen years later, an unnamed researcher will come to Mayapore to try to discover the truth of what happened in those days.

Scott starts by telling us:

This is the story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened. There are the action, the people, and the place; all of which are interrelated but in their totality incommunicable in isolation from the moral continuum of human affairs.

But in fact it’s the story of two rapes – the rape perpetrated on Daphne Manners, a white girl who made the fatal mistake of falling in love with an Indian man, and the rape perpetrated by the British Empire on the culture, society and people of India. Written at the height of the breast-beating anti-Colonial guilt experienced in Britain following the gradual letting go of their empire, Scott shows no mercy in his dissection of the evils committed, not so much by individual Brits, though there’s some of that, but by the imposition of one dominant culture over another.

The book is told in a series of sections, each concentrating on one character, and gradually building to create an in-depth picture of fictional Mayapore, which functions as a manageable microcosm for India as a whole. It takes a long time to get to Daphne’s story, deliberately, as Scott circles round, showing life in Mayapore from many different angles and over a period of years both before and after the event, creating a feeling of eventual inevitability about her rape as a thing that rises out of that ‘moral continuum of human affairs’, and feeds back into it.

Scott uses many different styles to tell his story. Some parts are first person “spoken” accounts told to the researcher, some are third person narratives, some take the form of letters between characters, or official reports, and some come from Daphne’s journal. In the third person sections, where it’s written, presumably, in the author’s own style, the language is frequently complex, rather spare and understated at the moments of greatest emotion, but often with lush beauty in the descriptive passages, creating a wonderful sense of this town and the surrounding country. In the other sections, Scott creates individual voices for each of the narrators, suited to the form they’re using, and he sustains these superbly so that one gets a real feel for the personalities behind even the driest and most factual reports.

Some of the sections are intensely human stories, like that of Edwina Crane, a woman who has devoted her empty and lonely life to the Church of England mission schools that teach the Indian children how to be good little English-speaking Christians. Her admiration for Gandhi has finally been destroyed by his recent actions and she has found that the Indian women she had looked to for a meagre form of social life are no longer so keen to be patronised by white women. Or the story of Hari Kumar, an Indian boy brought up in England and suddenly transported back to the country of his birth, where he is an outsider to both cultures – unable to speak the Indian languages and lacking knowledge of their way of life, but as a ‘native’ he is not allowed to be a part of the British community either, despite his impeccable English manners and education.

Other sections are told to the researcher and although their purpose is to shed light on Daphne’s story, the characters reveal as much about themselves along the way: Lady Lili Chatterjee, high caste and with a British title via her deceased husband, she is respected by the British but still subjected to constant, often unthinking, discrimination; or Mr Srinivasan, a lawyer who was involved in the Independence movement, and who shows us the Indian perspective on the political questions. The reports from the military and civil authorities are formal in style, but are accompanied by letters to the researcher, where the characters are able to look back on and reassess events with the perspective of time passed.

And in the last section we learn Daphne’s own story in her own words – not just the story of her rape, but of her life, of the choices she made and of her reasons for making them.

Paul Scott

Scott creates a vivid and believable picture of the society, culture and politics that led to this moment in time, but he never forgets to put people at the heart of it. While some sections are focused very much on the political situation and, as a result, might be rather dry for readers who are less interested in that aspect, these are broken up by the often intensely intimate stories of the characters, many of whom become unforgettable. Since I’m fascinated by the British Empire, and India especially, I found the political stuff just as engrossing as the personal. Superbly written, intelligent at the political level and deeply moving at the personal – a wonderful novel.

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Book 20 of 20

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Abandon hope…

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Following in the tradition of generations of his family, Kino fishes for pearls on the Gulf coast, earning just enough to provide for his wife, Juana, and their baby son, Coyotito. One day, Kino finds a huge and lustrous pearl, so valuable that it will change his life for ever. He dreams of new clothes for Juana, a rifle for himself and, most importantly, Coyotito will be able to go to school and learn the secrets that will enable him to help bring his small community out of their hard existence into the modern world. But when word spreads of his find, human greed will work its evil, dragging Kino into a nightmare…

OK, Steinbeck writes beautiful prose, I grant you. But oh my, he’s depressing! He’s the kind of guy that would look at a birthday cake and see it as a symbol of encroaching mortality. The only good people in Steinbeck’s world are the poor and ignorant. Give them wealth or knowledge and they are instantly corrupted by the evils of discontent and greed. I’m not sure what exactly his political philosophy was. It’s always suggested that he leaned, at least, towards communism, but (I speak of the philosophy, not the actuality, here) communism is exactly about trying to lift the poor out of poverty and ignorance. In this bleak little story, I’m guessing he’s maybe trying to say capitalism is A Bad Thing, but it comes over more as if we should all just stay wallowing in our ancestral dirt since any attempt to rise out of it will inevitably lead to tragedy. As I say, depressing – the kind of antithesis of the American Dream.

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In length, it falls somewhere between short story and novella, but the limited number of characters means there’s plenty of time for us to grow to care about what happens to the little family, while the simplicity of the fable-like story allows Steinbeck room to play to his major strength, of describing nature and man’s place in it in with great beauty and emotional resonance. In a very short space, he creates a clear picture of the lives of the villagers, largely unchanged for centuries, but with the modern capitalist world encroaching ever nearer. We see the bottled up resentment of these peasants, victims of wave after wave of invaders, each out to exploit. We see the outward deference that forms a thin veneer over their feelings of helplessness and bitterness. And we see how easily one event can break that veneer, releasing all the pent-up hostility of the oppressed for their oppressors.

I don’t exactly know why Steinbeck always annoys me so much. I always say it’s because he’s emotionally manipulative and I realise the vagueness of that, because of course all fiction writers hope to manipulate their readers’ emotions to some degree. I think it’s that he treats his characters so cruelly to create that emotional wrench. If they have a flash of joy, you know they’ll quickly learn to bitterly regret it. If they have momentary hope in their heart, they will soon be forced back to their natural despair. If they feel love, then you can be about 99% certain the object of that love will die, horribly. Dead dog syndrome taken to extremes, and somehow it all leaves me feeling angry and a bit soiled.

John Steinbeck

Despite that, I admire his prose, and I find it fascinating that such an anti-capitalist should be so revered in America, a country that, when it judges a man’s worth, is more likely to be considering his bank balance than the content of his character. A country where “socialist” is seen as the vilest insult you can hurl at someone, and yet Steinbeck is taught in schools. Why, I wonder? And I wonder too how much Steinbeck’s utterly joyless depiction of the apparent pointlessness of attempting to seek a better life for oneself and one’s family plays subconsciously into the American distaste for socialism. Just once, I’d like to see one of his characters succeed in improving their lot – not to become a fancy billionaire President with three wives and a porn-star mistress, perhaps; we can’t all achieve the American Dream – but to have a child grow up healthy and happy and educated and able to lead a productive, moral life. Is that too much to ask? Apparently, in Steinbeck’s grim view of the human condition, it is.

A great writer I wish I could love more, but I fear our view of the world is too different for that to ever happen. I shall continue to drink from my half-full glass while Steinbeck and his poor characters die agonisingly of thirst. East of Eden next. Must make sure I get in extra chocolate supplies…

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Book 18 of 20

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

Birth pangs…

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As Rebekka Vaark lies sick, possibly dying, of smallpox, her young slave, Florens, sets out to find and bring back the man the mistress thinks will be able to cure her. As Florens makes her difficult and dangerous journey through the still wild Virginia of 1690, where humans and beasts present different though equal threats, we will learn of the people who make up the household – how they came to be there, how they live, the relationships between them. And we will get a picture of the birth of America, built with the blood and toil of those who came voluntarily and those who were brought against their will.

I’m having a bit of a rollercoaster ride with Toni Morrison. Having been stunned by the power of Beloved, I was then a little disappointed by the heavy-handed symbolism of Song of Solomon, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from this one. Having now read it, I suspect it may have layers of depth that would require further readings to fully catch, but even on this one reading I found it a wonderfully insightful and nuanced picture of the early settlers in the New World, and a beautifully told story of the human spirit battling against hardship.

Jacob Vaark has inherited a piece of land and sets out to farm it, sending back to England for a woman willing to become his wife. Rebekka tells her story of sailing across the ocean to marry a man she has never met. She is lucky – he is kind and they grow to love one another. We see the overcrowded filth and poverty of the London she has left behind and her growing delight at the space, pure air, clean water of her new home. Jacob is kind in other ways, gradually collecting waifs and strays to work on the farm. Florens came to them as a child, traded as payment of a debt owed to Jacob. Lina, a Native American, survived the smallpox brought by the settlers which wiped out almost all of her village. Rootless, she too finds a home in the Vaark household. And Sorrow, turned out by her employers for the sin of being impure, is taken in by Jacob. But Jacob’s kindness is enabled by his investments in slave plantations in Barbados – the nature of America’s foundation is in the background but never forgotten.

….Just then the little girl stepped from behind the mother. On he feet was a pair of way-too-big woman’s shoes. Perhaps it was that feeling of license, a newly recovered recklessness along with the sight of those little legs rising like two bramble stocks from the bashed and broken shoes, that made him laugh. A loud, chest-heaving laugh at the comedy, the hopeless irritation, of the visit. His laughter had not subsided when the woman cradling the small boy on her hip came forward. Her voice was barely above a whisper but there was no mistaking its urgency.
….“Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter.”

One of the things I appreciated about this is that Morrison doesn’t limit it to the story of African slaves. She shows that, while race is clearly already a dividing line, there are other factors – wealth and poverty, gender, competing religions – that define the hierarchies within this still-forming society. We hear about the indentured servants, often white, who are bought and sold much like the Africans; the women who are, if they are lucky, traded as wives; the Native Americans, their population already being ravaged by new illnesses even before they are driven from their lands. She also shows with a good deal of subtlety how kindness is easier in good times; that friendship between people wielding unequal power is fragile, perhaps too fragile to survive when times get tough. She shows how easy it is for good people to convince themselves that they have rights of ownership and control over the lives of others, and easier still to slide unthinkingly into abuse of power. In fact, in microcosm, she shows that the problems of today’s America arise from the circumstances of its conception and birth.

Toni Morrison
Photo: Reuters

But these characters are not merely symbols of their race or place in society. In what is a very short book, each has time to develop into a fully rounded human being, complete with vulnerabilities and flaws, not always likeable but fully empathetic. Some tell us their own stories; others we are told about in third person. Florens has a dialect and uses a kind of stream of consciousness narrative, making her sections the hardest to read but also the deepest – she is the heart of the story. We learn about the men – Jacob himself and the two indentured servants who work on the farm – but the book is centred on the women, as individuals and on their relationships with each other. Motherhood is a major theme, and a difficult one at a time when infant death was a common occurrence. There are stories of the sacrifices mothers make for their children, the jealousies of those women who are childless for others who have healthy babies, the prejudices against mothers who bear children out of wedlock, even when this is as a result of rape, and the fulfilment that some women only find through motherhood.

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This doesn’t have the emotional impact of Beloved, but it’s a beautifully rendered picture of womankind in all her complexities, and of inequality, be that of race or wealth or gender or power, and how it distorts the human spirit. But Morrison offers the possibility for redemption. The stories of these women are hard, often bleak, and Morrison doesn’t provide facile, happy endings; but there is a sense that the love mothers have for their children gives hope for a better future. One day, perhaps.

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Book 16 of 20

Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard

A tale of Zululand…

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This is the tale of Umslopogaas, unacknowledged son of Chaka, a great Zulu king. Chaka’s rule was that he should have no living sons to challenge him on their coming to manhood, so when any of his many wives gave birth, the baby was put to death. But Umslopogaas’ mother begged her brother Mopo to save her­ child, and Mopo therefore adopted the boy and brought him up as his own son, alongside his daughter, the beautiful Nada. As Umslopogaas nears manhood, he falls out of favour and is forced to flee, subsequently forming an alliance with Galazi the Wolf and becoming a chieftain in his own right. But he never forgets his love for his sister and dreams that one day they will be together again…

This can be a difficult read for a modern reader, given its portrayal of the brutal savagery of the Zulus. But if you can look past that, it’s well worth reading. It’s written entirely from the perspective of Mopo, Umslopogaas’ uncle, and white men play no active part in it at all, although there is mention of the increasing threat they represent to the Zulus. Chaka’s reign was a time of extreme cruelty and brutality – it is said, for example, that following his mother’s death he had 7000 of his followers killed for not showing enough grief. So Haggard’s portrayal has a firm foundation in history and apparently also in the legend and folklore of the Zulu people. What I found so surprising about it is that Haggard offers the story to his British readers non-judgementally – he presents this society as it is (in his mind, at least – I have no way to gauge its accuracy) and the characters judge each other by their own standards, not by ours. I imagine this must have been a unique experience for contemporary readers back in 1892, when it was first published, used as they would have been to seeing Africa and Africans via patronising colonial eyes. I must say, it’s still pretty unique now, in that Haggard has managed to create an entirely believable picture without projecting white people or their attitudes or values onto a story about Africa.

Chaka was a real person and many of the events in the book are real also. Umpslopogaas, Galazi and Nada are fictional, but Mopo is also based on a real man who was close to the centre of power in Chaka’s kingdom. In the book, Mopo is a witchdoctor, and there are some supernatural elements that we would now call superstition or even fakery, but which are accepted internally in the story as true. There is every kind of violence and brutality you could name – mass killings, infanticide, gory battles, ravening wolf packs and so on. Women, of course, are property and Haggard shows clearly their complete subjugation within society, but again without overt judgement. Nonetheless, a few women play an active role in the story, both for good and evil, and Haggard shows how they may have had no hard power but they could exercise some influence over their men, though in a limited way. This is a country where men die young, in battle or killed by their leader to prevent them becoming a threat, and where – as a result, I assume – polygamy is the norm. Again, no British judgement here – despite the central love story, Haggard never suggests that Umslopogaas will or should have only one wife. But he does show how tensions could arise amongst the women, as older wives found themselves pushed aside in favour of younger favourites.

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The story itself is told by a very old Mopo looking back, and he often foreshadows the future for the characters, so that the reader knows from early on that many of the characters came to a tragic end. As a tragic love story, in truth, it didn’t do much for me – Nada isn’t in it enough for me to have grown to care deeply about her, and Umslopogaas is too honest a portrayal for me to have found him truly heroic. I was actually fonder of Galazi the Wolf, who seems less personally ambitious and with a core of loyalty that’s in short supply in this society. Haggard has him loving Umslopogaas like a brother, but my twenty-first century eyes couldn’t help seeing his love as more intimate than that, and I’d love to know if that was Haggard’s intention. A Google search confirms I’m by no means the only person to have read it that way. Certainly, and this is a feature of Victorian British culture which I could easily believe would be part of African culture too, the relationships between the men is considered to be much more important than any relationship between man and woman, except perhaps the relationship of mothers and sons.

H Rider Haggard

Lastly, I must mention the quality of the writing. Narrated by Mopo, Haggard maintains his voice throughout superbly, never allowing “white” attitudes or expressions to slip in. The violence and unvarnished brutality might put some readers off, but I found it a fascinating and ultimately credible depiction of the Zulus of Chaka’s time. This society is very different from our own modern Western one, but it has its own internal structure, rules and traditions, and the characters behave honourably or dishonourably within their own moral standards, not ours. If you can put aside your post-colonial prejudices, then there is much here to admire and enjoy – one of our more difficult classics in our current condition of hyper-sensitivity over questions of race, perhaps, but a true classic nevertheless.

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Book 10 of 20

Sanditon by Jane Austen

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside…

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Sanditon is a fictional little village on the south coast of England, and local landowner Mr Thomas Parker dreams of turning it into a health resort like its bigger neighbours, Brighton and Eastbourne. The current fad among the fashionable is for sea-air and sea-bathing, both promised to cure any number of ills. Mr Parker and his wife invite the young daughter of a friend to visit, Charlotte Heywood, and it’s through her sensible eyes that the reader sees the inhabitants of Sanditon, with all their foibles, kindnesses and hypocrisies.

This is known as Austen’s unfinished novel but it would be more accurate to describe it as barely started. We get a mere 70 pages – just enough to introduce us to some of the many characters and to begin to see the various plot strands on which Austen’s health never permitted her to follow through. It’s a pity, because it looks as if it would have been fun, and rather different from her finished novels. There’s a more cynical tone about it – the same bright wit but with a harsher, less forgiving edge. It’s not nearly as polished as her usual writing but that’s hardly surprising since in reality this couldn’t have been much more than a first draft.

It begins with the meeting between Mr Parker and Charlotte’s father, and we quickly see that Sanditon is an obsession of Mr Parker’s – he is determined to improve it, whether it wants to be improved or not, by building bathing machines and upgrading houses to be suitable for the fashionable people he hopes to attract. He has a partner in his enterprise – Lady Denham, the great lady of the neighbourhood, having inherited wealth from one husband, a title from another and a pack of relatives from both. Mr Parker’s extended family includes two sisters and a younger brother, all suffering from debilitating ailments according to themselves, or from hypochondria, as the more cynical might see it. There is another brother, Sidney, who, it appears, would likely be the sensible one and possibly a love interest for Charlotte, but I fear we catch only a glimpse of his handsome features before the fragment ends. We also know that new visitors to the town are expected, including a “half-mulatto” heiress from the West Indies, but again we are left tantalised but with our curiosity unsatisfied.

Sea bathing at Brighton

There’s a lot of humour in the portrayal of the Parker siblings, rather less subtle than Austen’s usual. There’s no knowing, of course, how the book would have developed, but I felt that it would probably have had a lot of filler added later – this felt very rapid for Austen as if she were getting down the main elements of the characters and setting up the plot, possibly with the intention of then re-working it to add in more of her delightful social observation. But perhaps she was trying a new style intentionally. The introduction by Kathryn Sutherland in my Oxford World Classic’s edition (which is about a third as long as the entire fragment of story) puts it in its historical context, in an England looking to the future now that the long Napoleonic Wars are finally over. Perhaps Austen was reflecting the new modernity and process of rapid change that tends to follow a long war.

Obviously it can’t be wholly satisfying as merely the start of a story, but I enjoyed reading it nevertheless, and had fun deciding for myself who would marry whom and be happy and who would be taught the folly of their ways and so on. I can see the appeal for people who like to have a go at finishing it, although I’m not sure there’s enough there to give a real indication of where Austen would have taken us. I’m delighted to hear that Andrew Davies is adapting it for television next year. He’s clearly going to have to come up with a plot since this fragment won’t be enough to make a TV series out of. I remember Alan Bleasdale adding in a lengthy backstory for Oliver Twist when he adapted that book many years ago, and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t convinced it felt like Dickens. I’m intrigued to see if Andrew Davies will manage to make this one feel like Austen. He is, of course, the man behind my beloved 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, so he certainly has the credentials. Meantime, I’m desperately avoiding all advance publicity.

Fear not, my Darcy – Sidney will never steal my heart from you…

If you haven’t already, you have plenty of time to read this before the adaptation comes out and invent your own story before Davies tells us his. Personally, I shall be very annoyed if he doesn’t allow Charlotte and Sidney a chance at romance… (if you know, please don’t tell me!)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

Inevitable comparisons…

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When an uprising on the small island of Bougainville, part of Papua New Guinea, leads to the school in Matilda’s village being left with no teacher, the one white man in the village, Mr Watts, takes on the role. Unqualified, he decides to inspire the children’s imaginations by reading them a chapter of Great Expectations each day. He also invites the mothers of the village to come to class and impart nuggets of local wisdom. But the uprising is coming ever nearer and soon violence will sweep into the village, changing life for some of the characters irrevocably…

This book was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2007. Astonishing. I can only assume this was for the worthiness of the message rather than any literary merit. The message is simple: literature provides a means to interpret life and to escape from reality. Oh, and war is hell.

I’ve said this before but clearly Mr Jones wasn’t paying attention. If, when you start to write your novel, you decide to constantly remind your readers of one of the greatest writers of all time, you’d better be sure your own writing will bear up to the inevitable comparisons. Jones not only reminds us of Great Expectations, he spends much of his book recounting large swathes of that one in grossly simplified terms. Even although Great Expectations is one of my least favourite Dickens’ novels, I spent most of my time wishing I was reading it rather than this. Where Dickens is marvellously imaginative, Jones is not. Where Dickens uses language with a lush extravagance, Jones does not. Where Dickens creates characters who, although exaggerated, contain an essential truth, Jones does not.

Not content with reminding us of Dickens, Mister Pip has many of the elements of the Dead Poets Society running through it too – the teacher who opens his pupils’ minds to a new way of thinking through unconventional teaching methods. I always found that film mawkish, and Mr Watts comes over as no more credible than the Robin Williams’ character. Heart Of Darkness pops up too in a rather odd way – since the book is written from the perspective of Matilda, one of the native islanders, it struck me as clumsily colonial that the most important, most influential character should be the one white man.

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I’m really not a believer in the ‘write what you know’ school of thought. I believe all authors should be allowed to imagine themselves into different genders, races, cultures, ages, etc., if they choose. I prefer to say you should ‘know what you write’; that is, do your research, get beneath the skin of your characters, make them speak and think and act as they would rather than as you would. So in principle I have no problem with a middle-aged white man writing in the voice of a teenage black girl from an entirely different culture to his own. However, I never for one moment felt that the voice of Matilda rang true. In Great Expectations, Dickens writes as Pip, but tells us about his childhood in retrospect using an adult voice. Jones can’t seem to make up his mind – sometimes Matilda’s voice is clearly that of an educated adult looking back, but sometimes he tries to create a teenage voice for her and fails badly by allowing her to be aware of things her life experience would not have revealed to her at that time.

There were so many things that annoyed me about this. Matilda mentions her blackness about a million times, leaving me to wonder if black people living in almost exclusively black communities with little or no contact with the outside world really talk about their black arms, black skin, black feet, all the time. As a white child growing up in an exclusively white community, I certainly have no recollection of ever thinking of myself as white. Every time Matilda reminded me that she was black, it had the odd effect of reminding me that the author was white – he seemed more fascinated by Matilda’s skin colour than I could believe she ever would have been. I remember reading somewhere Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saying that she never thought of herself as black until she went to live in America.

Lloyd Jones

Then there’s the stuff Jones doesn’t explain, and the bits we’re presumably supposed to accept without thinking through how unrealistic they are. Matilda acts as interpreter at points between Mr Watts and various Papuans. How did this teenage girl who has never left her village and who has had a basic education at the local school acquire this ability? Why her, rather than any of the other kids who grew up alongside her? She finds it hard to explain the meaning of ‘black shoe polish’ to the villagers but oddly has no difficulty with the concept of ‘the coats of parking attendants’.

Pah! Enough! The story itself is fine – a straightforward account of the devastating effects of living through a brutal war. It therefore has some graphically violent scenes which some readers may find disturbing although, given the context, I didn’t feel they were inappropriate or overdone. (If anything, I felt he copped out in the end, choosing to avoid the worst brutality at the expense of realism.) But overall, I found little to admire in this one and find it hard to recommend.

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Middlemarch by George Eliot

Unhappily ever after…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Set just before the Reform Act of 1832, Eliot uses the better off residents of the provincial town of Middlemarch to muse on the state of society at a point of change. It is basically a series of character studies, showing how the social interactions of life lead, in most people, to a permanent state of change: sometimes growth, sometimes diminution. There is no overarching plot to speak of, though several of the characters have their own stories which appear and disappear as the book roves over subjects as diverse as the building of the railroads, the state of medicine, the position of women in society, the conduct of politics.

By the time I got to page 150, I was beginning to think that dying of boredom would be a blessed release. The constant repetition and the impersonal telling of every detail rather than allowing the characters to reveal themselves through their own actions and interactions made it feel like sheer drudgery to get through. Gritting my teeth and struggling on, I found it slowly improved so that eventually I became reasonably immersed in the various lives that were slowly, oh, so slowly, being lived out on the pages. But having made it all the way to the final page, despite admiring the ambition and some of the execution, I will not be joining the legions of people who think this is the greatest novel in the English language.

There is no doubt about the depth of the characterisation nor the profound insight Eliot gives into the fallibilities and foibles of human nature. Clearly not a fan of the happy-ever-after of so many novels of the period, Eliot instead shows marriage as the beginning of the story for many of her characters and then follows them as they have to readjust their expectations when experience crashes brutally down on their hopes and dreams. It’s all very realistic, of course; hence, very depressing. I’ve always assumed that Darcy and Lizzie probably found that neither was quite as perfect as they seemed to each other on that day when they declared their mutual love, but I was always happy that Austen didn’t make me witness the inevitable disillusion. There’s such a thing as too much realism.

It’s hard to know who the major character is supposed to be. For the first section it appears it will be Dorothea, an idealistic young woman who wishes to find a way to be useful in a society that expects women of her class to be merely decorative. But then quite suddenly, just as one has become invested in her story, she disappears for hundreds of pages and idealistic young Dr Lydgate becomes the focus. The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by David Russell, tells me that in fact the book started as two separate stories which Eliot later decided to merge, and I was quite glad to know that since it explained why the structure felt so out of synch until about halfway through. Both Dorothea and Lydgate find they have married people who don’t live up to their high ideals and so spend much of their time being miserable. (In an Austen novel, they’d have married each other and lived happily ever after. What’s so wrong with that?)

George Eliot

I enjoyed the portrayal of the society of the town considerably more. While Eliot deals mostly with her own class, she occasionally gives glimpses of the common people, showing how their way of life was being changed by the increasing industrialisation of the time. She doesn’t delve in depth into this nor into the major political changes that were happening, presumably assuming that her contemporary audience would be well aware of these aspects. But she does show that the landowning classes were conscious of the increasing mood of resentment among the lower orders, with the fear of social unrest rumbling in the background. Like Dickens, she gives an indication of how the classes may live apart but are inextricably connected and, also like him, she suggests clearly that those who have ignore those who have not at their own peril.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I’d hoped. I suspect it’s simply a matter of outlook on life – I’m a glass-half-full kind of person and I got the distinct impression that Eliot’s glass was at least half empty. I missed Dickens’ anger and exuberance, and Austen’s wit. This felt flatter – more like reportage than storytelling. However, I did admire the subtlety of the characterisation and the intelligence of her observations of society. A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time.

Book 45 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

Generosity of spirit…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tequila Leila’s body is dead, but her brain has not yet shut completely down. As her consciousness slowly fades, she finds herself drifting through memories of her life – the childhood that made her the woman she would become, her family, her loves, her friends. And along the way, we are given a picture of the underbelly of Istanbul, of those on the margins finding ways to live in a society that rejects them.

Despite the fact that the main character has just been murdered and is now lying dead in a rubbish bin hoping that someone will discover her body, this is a wonderfully uplifting, life-affirming story. Time ticks down minute by minute for Leila, each marked by an episode from her life, often triggered by a memory of an aroma or a taste, such as the lemons the women used to make the wax for their legs, or the cardamom coffee that Leila loved. And as we follow Leila through her memories, we learn about the people who have had the greatest impact on her life. Her father, hoping always for a son. Her mother, a second wife married as little more than a child to provide that son that the first wife has failed to give. Her uncle, a man who will disrupt her childhood and change her possible futures irrevocably. And most of all her friends – five people she meets along the way who become bound together closer than any family, through ties of love and mutual support in a world that has made them outsiders.

Nalan now remembered an evening in a restaurant in Asmalimescit where they often dined, the three of them. Stuffed vine leaves and fried mussels (D/Ali had ordered them for everyone, though mostly for Leila), pistachio baklava and quince with clotted cream (Leila had ordered them for everyone, though mostly for D/Ali), a bottle of raqi (Nalan had ordered it for everyone, though mostly for herself).

Elif Shafak

It’s always difficult when reviewing this kind of fictional biography to avoid saying too much, since most of the joy comes from the slow revelations that bring us to where we know the story ends – with Leila’s murder. I loved this one so much I’m going to err on the side of caution and say nothing about Leila’s life, or the lives of her friends, other than that the book is not so much about how they are beaten down by the unfairness of their lives, but rather about how their mutual friendship helps them transcend their circumstances. The prose is wonderful, the many stories feel utterly true and real, and they are beautifully brought together to create an intensely moving picture of a life that might pass unremarked and unmourned by society, but showing how remarkable such a life can be in its intimate details and how mourning is a tribute gained by a loving, generous soul regardless of status.

But as well as the people, Shafak creates a wonderful picture of the darker parts of Istanbul, where those whom society rejects hustle to live – “fallen” women, transgender people, people with physical disabilities, political dissidents, those who simply feel they don’t quite fit the life that has been allocated to them, by their families, by their religion, by the state, by fate. It’s an often exotic picture (to my Western eyes, at least), with wonderfully sensuous descriptions of food, aromas, sounds, colours.

Slowly, dawn was breaking. Streaks of colour – peach bellinis, orange martinis, strawberry margaritas, frozen negronis – streamed above the horizon, east to west. Within a matter of seconds, calls to prayer from the surrounding mosques reverberated around her, none of them synchronized. Far in the distance, the Bosphorus, waking from its turquoise sleep, yawned with force.

And there’s a sense of danger always hovering, with its corollary of exhilaration. Without any polemics, Shafak lets us see how this society works – still repressive to our Western eyes, but with a tension between those of a conservative cast looking East and those who look with envious longing towards the liberalism and comparative wealth of nearby Europe. I felt it gave me a much deeper understanding of this country which is often the subject of debate as to whether we should welcome it into the family of European nations or reject it as too “Arabic” – our opinions swayed backwards and forwards as each new leader changes the direction Turkey faces. A country that itself is in some senses as liminal and marginalised as the characters Shafak creates for us.

A wonderful book that moved me to tears and laughter, that angered me and comforted me and, most of all, that made me love these characters with all their quirks and flaws and generosity of spirit. One of the books of the year for me and, obviously, highly recommended.

When men asked – and they often did – why she insisted on spelling ‘Leyla’ as ‘Leila’, and whether by doing so she was trying to make herself seem Western or exotic, she would laugh and say that one day she went to the bazaar and traded the ‘y’ of ‘yesterday’ with the ‘i’ of ‘infinity’, and that was that.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Viking at Penguin UK.

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Book 4 of 20

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago

Light entertainment…

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King Dom João III of Portugal wishes to give a present to the Hapsburg Archduke Maximilian, and decides that Solomon, an elephant who has been living in Lisbon for the last two years after being brought from the Portuguese colonies in India, would be the ideal gift. It’s the mid-sixteenth century, so the only method of transport for Solomon is his own four feet. This is the story of his journey, along with his keeper Subhro and a troop of Portuguese soldiers, as they make their way through Spain and Italy, finally crossing the Alps to reach their destination, Vienna.

This is one of these books that is full of delightful prose and a pleasure to read, but ultimately is so light that its effect dissipates almost instantly. Saramago uses Solomon’s journey to digress on all kinds of things, all in a tone of gentle mockery. The power of kings, the superstition of the common people, the religious changes that were taking place at the time, the untold stories beneath the bare facts in the historical records, the writer’s right to create rather than to simply record – all these are raised but in such a way as to leave them feeling like airy wisps of passing thought, not to be taken too seriously.

We hereby recognise that the somewhat disdainful, ironic tone that has slipped into these pages whenever we have had cause to speak of austria and its people was not only aggressive, but patently unfair. Not that this was our intention, but you know how it is with writing, one word often brings along another in its train simply because they sound good together, even if this means sacrificing respect for levity and ethics for aesthetics, if such solemn concepts are not out of place in a discourse such as this, and often to no one’s advantage either. It is in this and other ways, almost without our realising it, that we make so many enemies in life.

So, not taking it too seriously then, it has to be seen as a whimsical fable and, as such, it works reasonably well. There are amusing episodes, like when Solomon is trained to perform a “miracle” at the behest of the local churchmen. There are mildly moving scenes, such as when Solomon says farewell to the soldiers who have accompanied him on the Portuguese leg of his journey. There are pointed (and sometimes rather snide) moments of social commentary: for example, when Archduke Maximilian promptly changes Solomon’s name to Suleiman as more appropriate to his new home.

But the story is too flimsy to bear even the light weight of Saramago’s musings, however entertainingly presented. Perhaps the fact that nothing much happens is part of the point, but for this reader it made for a rather wasted journey. I also found tedious, as I always do, the author’s attempt to jazz the thing up by the use of stylistic quirks – in this case, endless paragraphs, lack of capital letters for names and no quotation marks. However, he does it well, so for people who like that kind of thing, then this is the kind of thing they’ll like.

Knowing as one does the preeminent virtues of bodily cleanliness, it was no surprise to find that in the place where one elephant had been there now stood another. The dirt that had covered him before, and through which one could barely see his skin, had vanished beneath the combined actions of water and broom, and solomon revealed himself now in all his splendour. A somewhat relative splendour, it must be said. The skin of an asian elephant like solomon is thick, a greyish coffee colour and sprinkled with freckles and hairs, a permanent disappointment to the elephant, despite the advice he was always giving himself about accepting his fate and being contented with what he had and giving thanks to vishnu. He surrendered himself to being washed as if he were expecting a miracle, a baptism, but the result was there for all to see, hairs and freckles.

Overall then, I was amused but only fleetingly engaged either emotionally or intellectually. I understand this was one of Saramago’s last books and certainly the quality of the prose would tempt me to read some of his earlier works, in the hope that they may have more depth and fewer stylistic quirks.

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Twenty years later…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Jean Louise Finch is returning from New York to her childhood home in the small town of Maycomb in Alabama, to pay a visit to her family. She is met from the train by Henry – Hank – her childhood friend, then sweetheart. He’s hoping that this time she’ll finally agree to marry him and settle down back in Maycomb. Jean Louise isn’t sure what she wants – she loves Hank and feels a great sense of homecoming as the train pulls through her own country, but she’s also grown to love her life in New York. Seeing her hometown and the people she’s known all her life through the fresh eyes of different experiences makes her re-assess all the certainties that are the foundation of what she believes about herself…

I tried to listen to this when it first came out, but was hampered by my feeling that Lee may have been unfairly manipulated at the end of her life to allow it to be published. I also struggled with Reese Witherspoon’s Southern accent. Which proves that one’s subconscious has more impact than one sometimes thinks – this time around, some years on and now keen to read the book, I found Witherspoon’s narration a first-rate performance, bringing the character of Jean Louise as a young woman and of her younger self as the child Scout completely to life. And suddenly my difficulties with the accent disappeared!

There were two factors that changed my reluctance to read the book into eagerness. Firstly, when the book came out early reviews expressed shock at the portrayal of Atticus as a racist. I had never felt quite as hero-worshipping of Atticus as many people, but this did seem like an odd departure from the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. Since then, however, I have re-read Mockingbird for the first time in many years, and I realised I didn’t feel it really does have the strong anti-racist message it is held to have. Instead, I thought that Atticus was a man defending the rule of law – the fact that in this case he was also defending a black man seemed somewhat incidental. The message was not so much that black people were equal than that all people, however unequal within society, were entitled under the Constitution to equal treatment within the justice system. It’s a subtle difference, but important.

The second factor was my recent read of the excellent Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), in which she tells the tale of the true crime about which Lee tried and failed to write a book. In her book, Cep goes into some depth on Lee’s writing career, and the difficulties she had in writing another book after the wild success of Mockingbird. Although Cep doesn’t express an opinion on Go Set a Watchman as a literary work, she explains that it was in fact the book Lee wanted to write, and that it was her editor and publisher who persuaded her to write instead about the child Scout and the Maycomb of twenty years earlier. Given the success of Mockingbird, it can clearly be argued that was good advice. However, I found I really wanted to know what it was that Lee had wanted to say.

Gosh, that was a long preamble! In short, now that I was in the right frame of mind for it, I discovered this is a very good book in its own right, and not so far from the characters portrayed in Mockingbird after all.

On set with “Atticus” – Harper Lee and Gregory Peck

The time is just after the Supreme Court decision that led to desegregation of schools in the South, when the NAACP were fighting for equality for blacks and the whites were resisting. Jean Louise is shocked to discover that her father, Atticus, and lover, Hank, are part of that white resistance. As a child, watching her father defend black people and his unfailing courtesy to all people of whatever colour, young Scout unthinkingly assumed he believed in equality. Now with her experience in the North, Jean Louise feels seriously out of step with the attitudes and beliefs of her family and friends, and she finds herself becoming unmoored, feeling that she can no longer admire and love the people who have been the rock on which her life has been built. It’s partly a coming-of-age story, as Jean Louise begins to learn the difference between the ease of loving a golden hero and the difficulty of continuing to love when the gilt peels off, showing the tarnished imperfection beneath.

But it also gives a brutal insight into the attitudes of many white Southerners at this turning point in history. Jean Louise herself is hardly what we would think of today as an enlightened champion of civil rights, and Atticus, though he explains himself eloquently, holds attitudes which are pretty shocking. That’s what literature is all about though – what a refreshing change from the facile liberal virtue-signalling of contemporary literature about race, gender, etc. These characters are true and believable – they are of their time and made from their own history. Lee doesn’t demand that we like them or agree with them (though one suspects she herself agreed with Jean Louise), but she lays out their arguments so that at least we understand them, and she shows them as fundamentally good and well-meaning people, so that it’s impossible to write them off casually as “racist”, “white supremacist”, “Nazi”, and all the other terms we bandy around today whenever anyone says anything we don’t like. Lee shows the resonating impact of the Civil War, still only a couple of generations ago for the older people; the ongoing resentment of the South to being told how to live their lives by those in the distant corridors of federal power; the fear of the white people of the destruction of their way of life. Agree or not, understanding these things is a first essential if we are ever to really move past them.

As a literary work, the book isn’t perfect. There’s a little too much polemical stuff disguised as dialogue, and sometimes Jean Louise’s reactions seem overly dramatic. It’s told in the third person but sometimes drifts into Jean Louise’s thoughts which are then given in first person. This works fine on the page but not quite so well on audio, when it’s difficult to distinguish between when she’s thinking and when she’s speaking. And Lee assumes that her audience will know things like what the Supreme Court decision was about and what the Tenth Amendment says. Google is a boon!

But there’s real excellence here too – the parts where Jean Louise reminisces about her childhood are wonderful, with all the warmth and humour of Mockingbird. Maycomb again becomes a character in its own right, though a more modern and somewhat faster, more anxious place than it used to be. The characterisation shows all the same insight and brilliance – despite their often shocking views, I grew to care about them all.

Harper Lee

I must admit I got progressively angrier at the editors who chose to drive the young début novelist in a different direction rather than helping her to polish this into the literary perfection it deserves. I can’t help wondering, if Lee had been given more encouragement to write about the things she thought important rather than those that her publisher thought (rightly) would sell, would she have had so much difficulty producing other books? Would she have become a major voice helping us to understand the troubled psyche of the South? We’ll never know, but if I could go back in time, I’d whisper to her – have faith in yourself, Nelle, and write what you think the world needs to read…

Despite its flaws, then, highly recommended. Leave your hero-worship of Atticus behind and accept him as an imperfect man from a different era – I bet you’ll still find something in him to admire…

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The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

Broadening the mind…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Matthew Bramble, hypochondriac and charitable Welsh gentleman with a choleric temper and a humorously jaundiced view of life, takes his family on a journey round Britain seeking benefit to his health. As each member of the party writes letters to their friends we see the country and its regional customs through their eyes, meeting with some interesting and often eccentric characters, and being witness to some hilarious (and some not so hilarious) episodes along the way. Told entirely through letters, the introduction by Lewis M Knapp informs me it is “often regarded as the most successful epistolary novel in English”.

Matthew takes a grumpy view of life, especially in the beginning when his health is worrying him. A bachelor, he feels a little hard done by to have acquired a family – his maiden sister, Tabitha, who is desperate to throw off her spinster state, and two wards, Jery and Lydia, children of another sister now deceased. Despite his frequent grumbles about them all, though, he loves them and is mostly kind to them. The family are accompanied on their travels, of course, by servants. The maid, Win Jenkins, provides much of the comic relief – her letters full of misspellings and malapropisms, often ‘accidentally’ apt. Through her, we see the family from another angle, not always complimentary. Along the way, they pick up another servant, the eponymous Humphry Clinker, although it baffles me a bit why the book was given his name since I wouldn’t consider him one of the major characters.

Men dancing in a coffee house
All illustrations by Thomas Rowlandson courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts via Wikimedia Commons

Part picaresque, part travelogue, there’s not much in the way of a plot, although there’s a love story concerning Lydia that runs throughout and pulls the thing together to a degree. However, really it’s not setting out to tell a story – it’s an observation, often satirical, of life in England and Scotland in the second half of the eighteenth century.

This was a bit of a rollercoaster for me. I started off loving it, then it dipped badly to the point where I considered giving up, and then picked up again to a most enjoyable second half. As so often, especially with books from long ago, this is more to do with the reader than the book. It starts in the spa towns of England some years before our beloved Bath of Austen’s day, but still eminently recognisable. Then it moves to London where Smollett satirises the politics, politicians and literati of the day, most of whom I didn’t recognise even after checking who they were in the notes at the back, and I found this section intensely dull. However, the family then heads north, up through England and into Scotland where Smollett (a Scot, of course) discourses on habits, customs and the effects of the still relatively recent Union of Scotland and England. Naturally, I found this fascinating and fun since it’s a subject I am interested in and know reasonably well. I suspect other modern readers would find different parts entertaining and dull according to their own interests and knowledge.

Clinker preaching in Clerkenwell Prison

Some of the humour is quite crude, often dealing with bodily functions, about which Matthew the hypochondriac especially seems somewhat obsessed. Times were different too, of course, and some of what was apparently humorous back then seems rather cruel today. The women fall into two categories: young, desperately seeking romance, and foolish; or old, desperately seeking husbands, and foolish. I fear our Mr Smollett would today be called a misogynist, though I expect back then he was simply reflecting the prevalent world view.

However, there’s far more ‘good’ humour than bad. The three main correspondents are Matthew, Jery and Lydia, and they each see the world through the prism of their own age, experience and gender. Smollett is brilliant at creating individual voices for each, and maintaining them without a hitch. To Matthew, Bath is a dreadful place, full of riff-raff and the nouveau riche, and he is deeply concerned about the unsanitary conditions prevailing in the famous spas where people drink the waters for their health.

For my part, I detest it [Bath] so much, that I should not have been able to stay so long in the place, if I had not discovered some old friends, whose conversation alleviates my disgust. Going to the coffee-house one forenoon, I could not help contemplating the company, with equal surprise and compassion. We consisted of thirteen individuals: seven lamed by the gout, rheumatism, or palsy; three maimed by accident; and the rest either deaf or blind. One hobbled, another hopped, a third dragged his legs after him like a wounded snake, a fourth straddled betwixt a pair of long crutches, like the mummy of a felon hanging in chains; a fifth was bent into a horizontal position, like a mounted telescope, shoved in by a couple of chairmen; and a sixth was the bust of a man, set upright in a wheel machine, which the waiter moved from place to place.

To Jery, it’s a place where he socialises with his peers and talks horses. To Lydia, it’s an enchanted place of romance, with dancing and handsome young men galore. This three-way look at places continues throughout the journey and, as well as providing humour, gives a rounded picture of the attractions and downsides of the various places they stop at, while continuing to let us get to know each of the characters better. Tabby and Win write less often, and mostly about domestic matters for strictly humorous purposes, and if I recall correctly, Humphry doesn’t write at all, so everything we learn about him, we learn at second hand.

Tobias Smollett c. 1770
Artist unknown

Like most Scottish authors following the Union, Smollett was writing primarily for an English audience and, as Scott sometimes does at a later period, he uses the Scottish section to try to explain Scottish culture to them, musing on customs, accents, the legal system, the differences between Lowland and Highland culture, and so on. He introduces another Scottish character later in the book, whose discussions with Matthew enable Smollett to show both sides of the Union – the pros and cons – and this is remarkably interesting given our current national obsession with the same vexed questions three centuries on. He touches briefly on the already-developing cultural dominance of England and English in language and literature, a thing Matthew seems to see as positive, leaving me wondering if Smollett did too. The book itself is written almost entirely in standard English of the time, so should present no major problems for a patient modern reader.

Humphry Clinker smashing a dish at dinner

I’ve hummed and hawed over my rating for this one. I was highly entertained by bits and bored to tears by other bits. But because I’m reading it as a Scottish classic and enjoyed the Scottish parts so much, in the end I’ve decided to dismiss the London section and the bawdier parts from my mind and give it the full five stars. And a definite recommendation, if for no other reason than to enjoy Win’s mangled language and observations of her “betters”…

DEAR MARY,

Sunders Macully, the Scotchman, who pushes directly for Vails, has promised to give it you into your own hand, and therefore I would not miss the opportunity to let you know as I am still in the land of the living: and yet I have been on the brink of the other world since I sent you my last letter. — We went by sea to another kingdom called Fife, and coming back, had like to have gone to pot in a storm. — What between the frite and sickness, I thought I should have brought my heart up; even Mr Clinker was not his own man for eight and forty hours after we got ashore. It was well for some folks that we scaped drownding; for mistress was very frexious, and seemed but indifferently prepared for a change; but, thank God, she was soon put in a better frame by the private exaltations of the reverend Mr Macrocodile.

Book 44 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Kiln by William McIlvanney

A man and a nation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When we first meet him, Tam Docherty, the first person narrator, is on his way from his home in Grenoble back to Graithnock, the Ayrshire town where he was born and bred. As he travels, he is visited by memories of his childhood and adolescence, his later life and marriage, but mostly of the summer of 1955 when, between leaving school and going to University, he worked in the local brickworks for a few months, and learned a little about life, girls and himself.

Tam is the grandson of the first Tam who was the central character in Docherty, McIlvanney’s earlier book set before and after WW1. In that book, the first Tam was determined that his son, Conn, would not follow him down the mines – that Conn would get an education and raise himself out of the hard-scrabble hand-to-mouth existence of his forebears. Older Tam’s dreams took a little longer to be realised, and it’s with young Tam, Conn’s son, that we see the first generation of the family go to university and move out of the working class, economically at least.

In large part a coming-of-age story, the present of the book, published in 1996, also shows us Tam in middle-age, contrasting the hopes and dreams of his seventeen-year-old self with the reality of how his life has turned out. Tam’s early story, I would guess, is heavily autobiographical – he is a working-class lad from a fictionalised version of McIlvanney’s birth town of Kilmarnock, with an education and aspirations to be a writer. The later years, I suspect, diverge more from actual events in McIlvanney’s life, but read very much as though we are reading his personal reflections, and perhaps glimpsing his own feelings of disappointment that life hadn’t turned out quite as glitteringly as he’d once dared to hope.

However, Tam’s story reflects the lives of so many Scots of his generation that it also tells the story of the nation in the latter half of the twentieth century. Growing up in the ‘50s in a country that had emerged from the second devastating war of the century determined that this time we really would make a better world, Tam had opportunities no previous generation of working class children had, not the least of which was free university education. For many families like Tam’s, this would be the first time when social mobility was a real possibility, with graduates able to lift themselves out of the pits and shipyards and factories into teaching, medicine, law. But McIlvanney shows the disconnect this caused for many between their working class roots and their middle class ambitions. As Tam, the wee lad from Graithnock, becomes Tom, Master of Arts, a teacher and writer, he sits uneasily between the two classes, neither fully one nor the other, and perhaps he never truly believes that he deserves the life he’s now living. As a result, he seems unable to avoid wrecking everything he achieves. And his feelings of personal failure mirror those of the nation, as those dreams of the ‘50s fade into the industrial devastation of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Scotland too left disillusioned and angry.

The book is a wonderful mix of humour, nostalgia and pathos. Young Tam, with whom we spend by far the most time, is on the cusp of adulthood and in the midst of a desperate and very funny quest to lose his virginity. Although the period is a couple of decades earlier than my own teen years, I found the attitudes and social manners entirely recognisable, and described with real warmth and affection. It’s a man’s world, for sure, but the women are strong and opinionated, and give as good as they get. It’s Tam’s mother who is the driving force for him to go to University – his father, like so many men of that time, is struggling with the idea that his son won’t follow in his footsteps. Again, McIlvanney uses them to show the two opposing forces faced by the youth of that era – the push to leap into the adventure of the unknown, the pull to stay in the safety of the familiar.

William McIlvanney

I found middle-aged Tom just as believable, though less entertaining. His disappointment leads him to be argumentative and confrontational, to the point of driving away those closest to him. However, his journey home reminds him of who he once was and what his hopes were, and gives him time and space to reflect on who he now is and, to a degree, on what Scotland now is. I wondered how the tone might have changed had McIlvanney written the book ten or twenty years later, when his personal stature had grown to the point where almost every Scottish writer points to him as an influence, and when Scotland had achieved its own Parliament and revived its sense of national identity. But that would have been a different book, and not necessarily a better one. Another excellent novel from the pen of the Scottish master – an insightful and enjoyable look at a man and, through his story, at a nation. Highly recommended.

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The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

St Valentine’s Day villainy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Catherine Glover, generally known as the Fair Maid of her hometown of Perth, is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay*, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. On St Valentine’s Day, these men will both try to win Catherine, one honourably, one dishonourably, setting in motion a chain of events that will involve the citizens of Perth in the high politics and treacheries of the nobility, and the wild feuds of the Highland clans which inhabit the land to the north of the Fair City.

I first read this book as a young teenager back in the Dark Ages and remembered nothing about it except that I loved it. Since then I’ve read a fair amount of Scott, with varying levels of appreciation. Most recently, I read and was rather disappointed by what is probably his most famous work, Waverley, and wondered if I had simply fallen out of love with Scott’s style over the years. Not so! This book, in my opinion, is vastly superior to Waverley, having all of its strengths and none of its weaknesses. It’s a top rank historical novel that deserves to be more widely read, and is undoubtedly the book I would recommend to people coming to Scott for the first time. It’s written almost entirely in standard English (none of the annoying Latin, French and Gaelic which pepper Waverley) so is easily accessible to the modern reader. And it’s as powerful in its way as A Tale of Two Cities, with a deep understanding of the history and politics of the time but also, more importantly, of the workings of the human heart and mind.

Catherine seeks advice from her spiritual adviser

The period is the tail end of the 14th century, when Scotland was in name one nation under one monarch, but where the Highlands clans operated as separate fiefdoms and were a constant threat to the peace of the nation from the north. At the southern border, Scotland and England were in a perpetual state of enmity – sometimes warring, sometimes skirmishing, but never truly at peace. It’s a period about which I know very little, but didn’t need to – Scott gives all the information that the reader needs to understand the plot without bogging the book down in unnecessary historical detail. He actually shortens the timeline, compressing various events that happened at different times to bring them together into his story, but he manages to do this without seriously distorting the underlying significance of them. In Scott’s story, events that in real time took place over a decade or so happen in a period of weeks, starting on St Valentine’s Day and ending on Palm Sunday.

“True — true,” said the monarch, reseating himself; “more violence — more battle. Oh, Scotland! Scotland! if the best blood of thy bravest children could enrich thy barren soil, what land on earth would excel thee in fertility! When is it that a white hair is seen on the beard of a Scottishman, unless he be some wretch like thy sovereign, protected from murder by impotence, to witness the scenes of slaughter to which he cannot put a period? Let them come in, delay them not. They are in haste to kill, and, grudge each other each fresh breath of their Creator’s blessed air. The demon of strife and slaughter hath possessed the whole land!”

Scott tells the story in the third person, taking the reader in turn to the various participants, so that sometimes we are in the presence of the weak King Robert and his nobles, all scheming and jostling for power; sometimes we are with Rothsay and his disreputable followers, taking their pleasure at the expense of the decent burghers of Perth; and mostly we’re with those burghers – Henry, Catherine, her father Simon Glover and various other townspeople, as they try to live honest Christian lives in a time when security was scarce and men had to be willing to fight for their own safety and to protect the women they loved. Later, we spend time with the Highland clans, seeing how they lived (perhaps – Scott has a reputation for creating the modern image of the clans from his imagination, but it rings true enough for this reader).

The monk and the glee maiden

There are lots of great characters in the novel. Henry is a famed fighter, trying to tame his warring nature for the sake of peace-loving Catherine. Through her, we get a glimpse at the state of the Church, with the first hints of the Reformation to come and with the fear of being accused of heresy ever present. Simon is a good and decent man, and a loving father. Conachar, the young Highland boy who is his apprentice, allows us to see the attitudes of the townspeople to their wild Highland neighbours. The Royals are excellent – poor Robert III, who means well but is ineffective as either King or father, his scheming and disloyal brother Albany and the feuding Earls of March and Douglas, each given extraordinary power due to the weakness of the King. Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.

“There is no room for pardon where offence must not be taken,” answered the mediciner. “An insect must thank a giant that he does not tread on him. Yet, noble knight, insects have their power of harming as well as physicians. What would it have cost me, save a moment’s trouble, so to have drugged that balm, as should have made your arm rot to the shoulder joint, and your life blood curdle in your veins to a corrupted jelly? What is there that prevented me to use means yet more subtle, and to taint your room with essences, before which the light of life twinkles more and more dimly, till it expires, like a torch amidst the foul vapours of some subterranean dungeon? You little estimate my power, if you know not that these and yet deeper modes of destruction stand at command of my art. But a physician slays not the patient by whose generosity he lives, and far less will he the breath of whose nostrils is the hope of revenge destroy the vowed ally who is to favour his pursuit of it.”

But it’s the plot that makes the novel. It moves along at a good pace, never losing track of the various strands – Henry and Catherine, the Royal power plays, Rothsay and his scurrilous followers. And it all leads up to one of the most harrowingly dramatic climaxes I’ve read, as the Highland feud is brought to a bloody and horrific halt. I don’t want to say too much about the Highland strand since it develops late in the book and so takes us into spoiler territory, but it’s a brilliant depiction of a blood feud, of the savagery of hand-to-hand battle, of sacrifice and the loyalty of kinship, of the honour given to the physically brave and the shame heaped on the coward. It moved me to tears for more than one reason. And even more horrifyingly, this part of it is based on actual events.

Book 42 of 90

A great book, and a true classic. If you only ever read one Scott novel, make it this one. It gets my highest recommendation!

*Some modern publications show this as Rothesay, the modern spelling of the town from which the title derives. However, my copy gives the old spelling throughout, so I’ve stuck with that, despite my spell-checker’s frantic attempts to change it!

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Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Symbolic, but of what? 

🙂 🙂 🙂

Macon Dead III has grown up in Michigan, the son of a harsh, property-owning landlord and the local black doctor’s daughter. In the course of the book, he will travel to the South, to Virginia, where he will learn more about the history of his family, his metaphorical roots, and to some degree, find his own identity and the meaning of his life.

Sometimes it depends when we read a story how much we connect to it, and unfortunately I read this at a time when I probably wasn’t giving it the attention it requires. I’m not therefore going to try to write an in-depth review – these are simply my feelings about the book, which I found disappointing.

The prose is very good, of course, sometimes excellent, though never, in my view, with the poetry and power of some of the prose in Beloved. The story takes forever to kick off, well into the second half before I felt I had any clear idea of what the book was attempting to be about. The last third or so was considerably more interesting and enjoyable than the rest of the book which dragged along at a snail’s pace replacing narrative drive with heavy-handed and yet still obscure symbolism.

Most of the characters have Biblical names and I assume that’s supposed to have some significance. I freely admit that, as a lifelong atheist, my knowledge of Bible stories is sketchy, but I couldn’t tie what little I knew about the Biblical originals to the characters at all. Maybe this was a failing on my part, but I can usually cope with religious symbolism well enough. Here I found the names and my attempt to see their relevance a distraction. The symbolism regarding flight and African folklore worked rather better for me.

The other thing that bothered me may well again say more about me than the book; namely, that the lives of the people in this black community seem full of self-created ugliness and near bestiality. Everything is about sex or bodily functions – no-one seems to even try to lift themselves above the animal passions, intellectually or morally. Is urinating on other people normal in black American communities? I wouldn’t have though so, but it seems to be in this one. Maybe that’s symbolic too, but of what? Necrophilia, incest, women suckling their sons in a highly sexualised way, women wanting to kill or die for the loss of lovers, men beating women and each other – I longed for at least a couple of characters to connect on a rational rather than a physical level. To a degree in the early part of the book, Macon and his childhood friend Guitar achieve this, but their friendship gradually distorts into a strange and unconvincing kind of violent hatred.

Toni Morrison

I wondered if perhaps Morrison was trying to show how the history of slavery and subjugation had brutalised black culture, with perhaps even a call to arms for black people to support and lift each other rather than submitting to the characterisation and caricaturing allocated to them by the dominant white culture. But I felt maybe I was inventing that to give me some reason not to simply be a bit revolted by it all. I reckon if a white author had portrayed black people like this there would have been outrage, and in my view, rightly so. So I gave myself permission to be a little outraged anyway, since I’ve never fully bought into the idea that being part of a culture confers a greater right to abuse and demean it (which is why you’ll never see an Irvine Welsh book on my blog). I found myself asking: if African-American culture is really as universally debased and degraded as this portrayal suggests, how did Toni Morrison manage to rise from it?

And what on earth is the significance of Pilate having no navel?? (This is not a rhetorical question – if you know or have a theory, I’m interested…)

Nope, I feel I either didn’t understand this at all, or else there’s nothing much to understand beneath the over-heavy symbolism and the basic story of the resonating, brutalising impact of slavery and racism; although the eloquent prose made it readable and even enjoyable in parts. Apologies to all who love it. Maybe I’ll read it again sometime when I’m in a more receptive frame of mind. Or maybe not.

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Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Shades of the prison-house…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Arthur Clennam returns from abroad following the death of his father, he is convinced that his father had done something in his past of which he was ashamed and wished his wife to make amends. However, Mrs Clennam is a cold, hard woman who had been long estranged from her husband, and she refuses to discuss the matter with Arthur. While in his mother’s house, Arthur meets the young woman he will come to call Little Dorrit, a seamstress in whom his mother shows a strange interest, and convinces himself that somehow she is part of this mysterious family history. 800-and-odd pages later, all will be revealed!

It’s always difficult summarising a Dickens novel, partly because they’re so filled with subplots that are often at least as important as the main one, and partly because the plot is often simply a vehicle for whatever aspect of society Dickens wishes to discuss. In this one, he has several targets: the iniquity of debtors’ prisons, the nepotism within the ruling classes and the resulting paralysis of Government, and the dangers of speculation on the stock market. Along the way, he produces his usual dazzling array of characterisation and mix of drama, humour and occasional horror.

Little Dorrit and Maggy

Some aspects of this one worked better for me than others. I found his satirisation of the Circumlocution Office – the government department that specialises in How Not to Get Things Done – a little heavy-handed and repetitive, and to be honest, I wasn’t wholly convinced by it. This was at a time when Britain was the powerhouse of the world, so I’m guessing the industrial giants and imperial magnates of the time must have been able to Get Things Done despite government bureaucracy. The nepotism aspects and class-ridden society rang much truer, especially the idea that relatively useless people get powerful jobs merely by being the sons of powerful men. (Not much changes, except that today the same could be said about daughters…)

The shabbiness of these attendants upon shabbiness, the poverty of these insolvent waiters upon insolvency, was a sight to see. Such threadbare coats and trousers, such fusty gowns and shawls, such squashed hats and bonnets, such boots and shoes, such umbrellas and walking-sticks, never were seen in Rag Fair. All of them wore the cast-off clothes of other men and women, were made up of patches and pieces of other people’s individuality, and had no sartorial existence of their own proper. Their walk was the walk of a race apart. They had a peculiar way of doggedly slinking round the corner, as if they were eternally going to the pawnbroker’s. When they coughed, they coughed like people accustomed to be forgotten on doorsteps and in draughty passages, waiting for answers to letters in faded ink, which gave the recipients of those manuscripts great mental disturbance and no satisfaction.

The Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in which Dickens’ own father spent some time, is brilliantly portrayed, showing the ludicrousness of a system that imprisons people and refuses to release them until they can pay their debts, while also refusing to allow them to work to earn money. Mr Dorrit, the father of Little Dorrit and known also as the Father of the Marshalsea as its longest resident, is one of Dickens’ more unforgettable characters. A weak and pompous man, it’s easy to despise him, but Dickens lets us see beneath his carefully nurtured public persona to the deeply ashamed and vulnerable man beneath.

Mr Dorrit entertains guests in the Marshalsea

As is often the case with Dickens, the two major characters are among my least favourite. Arthur is another weak man and rather bland, though morally righteous, naturally. Little Dorrit is perfect, hence perfectly nauseating – too good, too trembling, too quiet, too accepting, too forgiving, too much slipping and flitting about (just walk, woman, for goodness sake!), and too, too tiny. Too Dickensian, in fact!

Fortunately the supporting cast is far more interesting. There’s Rigaud, the Frenchman who murdered his wife and is now mysteriously up to no good. John Baptist Cavalletto, the Italian, gives Dickens the opportunity to be scathingly and humorously perceptive about the way Brits react to immigrants within their communities.

It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts. In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country. They never thought of inquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from divers parts of the world, if the principle were generally recognised; they considered it particularly and peculiarly British. In the third place, they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did.

We have foppish younger sons and their scheming mothers, girls on the hunt for rich husbands, girls who are trapped into marriages by fortune-hunting seducers, and girls who resent their position in life to a degree that makes them turn on those who mean to be kind. Mrs Clennam is cold and vengeful, in the mould of a Miss Havisham, though not perhaps so memorable. But her servants are wonderful creations – the cruel Flintwinch and his downtrodden, bullied wife, who is so badly treated she finds it hard to know what is real and what is a dream.

Book 41 of 90

My favourite character of all, though, is Flora Finching. She was Arthur’s first love, but their parents prevented them from marrying. Now Flora is a widow and is no longer quite the beautiful young girl of whom Arthur once dreamed. But she flirts with him dreadfully, calling up all the silly, romantic things they said and did as young lovers and behaving as if she’s still a young girl, and she’s very, very funny. It could so easily have been a cruel portrayal, especially since she was inspired by Dickens re-meeting his own youthful first love in middle life to discover she had become old, fat and dull, and determined to flirt with him as if they were still lovers. But Flora’s character is actually done with a real degree of warmth – more warmth than Dickens showed to the original, I fear. Dickens hints that Flora is well aware of her own silliness, that it’s an act, and he shows her to be kind and loyal to those she loves, or has once loved. Personally, if I had to choose between them, I’d rather spend my life with frivolous Flora than with droopy Little Dorrit! She speaks in a kind of stream of consciousness that is chock full of good-natured if unintentional humour…

“Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!” tittered Flora; “but of course you never did why should you, pray don’t answer, I don’t know where I’m running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it only the men, and when they pull their hair so very tight off their foreheads don’t they hurt themselves, and why do they stick little bells all over their bridges and temples and hats and things or don’t they really do it?” Flora gave him another of her old glances. Instantly she went on again, as if he had spoken in reply for some time.

“Then it’s all true and they really do! good gracious Arthur!—pray excuse me—old habit—Mr Clennam far more proper—what a country to live in for so long a time, and with so many lanterns and umbrellas too how very dark and wet the climate ought to be and no doubt actually is, and the sums of money that must be made by those two trades where everybody carries them and hangs them everywhere, the little shoes too and the feet screwed back in infancy is quite surprising, what a traveller you are!”

Frivolous Flora and her elderly aunt-in-law

The actual plot is a bit convoluted and the explanation is all done in a rush at the end, so that I had to read it twice before I fully got it, and even then it all seemed unlikely even by Dickens’ standards. But all the other stuff more than makes up for this weakness and, while this won’t challenge Bleak House for the top spot, it’s undoubtedly one of his greats.

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Night Theatre by Vikram Paralkar

Matters of life and death…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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?

Vikram Paralkar

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.

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The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash

The Comeback Kids…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1979, and Anton Winter has returned to his parents’ home in New york after a spell with the Peace Corps in Gabon which came to an abrupt end when Anton nearly died of malaria. As he recovers, he draws closer to his father, Buddy, who is also recovering, from a nervous breakdown which caused him to have an on-air meltdown, bringing his hugely successful career as a talk-show host to a halt. Now Buddy wants to revive his career and he wants Anton beside him, working behind the scenes just as he used to do. Anton is beginning to wonder, though, if this how he wants to spend his life, as a kind of adjunct of his father’s. This is the story of both men’s journeys towards resuming their interrupted lives. And it’s also the story of Anton’s friendship with a neighbour of theirs in the famous Dakota apartment building in New York – John Lennon – another man on the point of making a comeback…

I had two distinct disadvantages while reading this novel. Firstly, I was never a serious Beatles or John Lennon fan, so many of the references flew over my head, and I was never in a position to say whether the depiction of John’s personality was authentic. Secondly, the book is filled with references to American culture of the era. Some of these are globally famous – movies, major actors, Presidents and major political events – but some are more specific to the US, such as TV shows, chat-show hosts, New York clubs and so on. Neither of these seriously impaired my ability to understand the story nor my enjoyment, but I feel I’d have got more of that pleasurable frisson of recognition that comes from being drawn back to a specific point in time if I’d been more steeped in the prevailing culture.

It’s very well written and the characterisation of both Anton and Buddy is excellent. Buddy is one of those sparkling, gifted people who dominate their company wherever they go – the type of person people want as a guest to entertain them. Anton loves his father dearly, but is beginning to feel that he wants something more than to be his father’s beloved son and chief assistant. Following his breakdown, though, Buddy is vulnerable and Anton feels a rather onerous duty, as well as a good-natured desire, to help his father back onto his pedestal. Anton’s growing friendship with John Lennon provides him with an escape from the somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere of living and working with his family, and at the same time gives him an insight into the kind of excitement of being friends with the famous which he has seen from the other side, with people wanting to be seen to be with Buddy. It’s an interesting examination of the impact of fame on those around the famous.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono outside the Dakota

The New York Anton has always known is the glittering, glamorous bit where everyone, it seems, is a celebrity of some kind, and where everyone knows everyone else. But of course there’s another New York, and even Anton, with his cushioned life, is becoming aware of the growing poverty and drugs problems that are leading to an atmosphere of violence and danger. It’s also a time of comebacks – apart from Buddy and John Lennon, Teddy Kennedy is running for the Presidential nomination, trying to recover from the scandal of Chappaquiddick, while Muhammad Ali is about to make his final comeback in a bout against Larry Holmes. Anton, watching these events, is wondering if comebacks are ever really possible, or even if they’re desirable. Is holding onto past glories a way of losing out on future possibilities? Again, even this non-American reader knows that New York too hit rock bottom and had to make a spectacular comeback of its own.

Tom Barbash

The other strand that runs lightly through the book is the question of why people become obsessed with celebrities. Lennon fans stand outside the Dakota in all weathers, hoping for a glimpse of their hero. For some, this is just a way of showing healthy appreciation, but Barbash shows the more fanatical side of it, such as the girl who is convinced that John is going to leave Yoko and marry her instead. We don’t meet the man who killed Lennon, but knowing that he’s out there adds a chilling edge to the fan worship that Anton has always accepted as part of celebrity life.

There’s a little too much referencing and name-dropping for my taste. While some of the anecdotes about various celebrities are amusing and/or interesting, I felt that fewer of them would have led to a tighter book overall. However, that’s a small criticism of a book that I found both entertaining and thought-provoking.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

The mystery of the missing finger…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. Meantime, Ji Lin is working as a dance-hall hostess, and when one of her customers becomes overly amorous he drops something – a preserved and blackened finger in a vial. And suddenly strange things begin to happen around Ji Lin – unexplained deaths and vivid dreams that seem to impinge on her waking life…

This isn’t my usual type of book at all, so I’m struggling a bit as to how to categorise it. While there is on one level a relatively straightforward crime and mystery element to it, it’s shrouded in the folklore of the Chinese inhabitants of colonial Malaya (now Malaysia), especially as regards the mythology surrounding death rituals and the legend of the weretiger. It’s not exactly fantasy, nor would I describe it as that horrible oxymoron, magical realism. It’s more like straight historical fiction where the reader is asked to accept the beliefs and what we would call superstitions of the prevailing culture as being real.

Normally, my too delicately attuned credibility meter would have been beeping hysterically and pointing to overload, but it’s done so well that I had no problem with buying into the folklore aspects. Partly, this is because the quality of the writing carries it; partly, because Choo explains clearly the cultural basis for the more fanciful elements as she goes along; and partly, because there’s a great story in here that works, to a large degree, with or without the mystical element. The folklore stuff adds an element of mild horror that gives an air of eerieness and fatalism to the overall story.

It’s told from two perspectives – Ji Lin as a first-person narrative and Ren’s story told to us in the third person. In the beginning the finger is the only apparent link, but gradually the two storylines will cross and merge. Ren is only eleven and is a total believer in the superstitions involved in the story, so that for him returning the finger to Dr McPherson’s grave is a matter of more than life or death. Ji Lin is older, educated and more modern in her outlook (perhaps a little anachronistically so at times, in fact), but even she is so steeped in her culture that she’s open to the prevailing beliefs.

I liked them both very much as characters and thought Choo used their different ages and backgrounds very effectively to show this colonial society from more than one angle. I also really enjoyed seeing a colonial society from the perspective of the “colonised”, as it were – so much British literature reflects the perspective of the colonisers, and shows the indigenous culture as foreign and strange. Here, the Chinese Malay culture is the normal one, with the colonial Brits as the oddities who dismiss as ignorant superstition whatever they don’t understand. Happily, Choo handles the colonial aspect without over-emphasising it. There’s a current tendency to portray all colonies as seething hotbeds of resentment with the indigenous people just waiting for an opportunity to overthrow their cruel imperial masters, but I felt Choo’s portrayal of two communities living separately but in one space, rubbing along reasonably well together but not fully understanding each other, was considerably more credible.

Both strands of the story, the real and the mystical, are quite dark, but the overall tone is lightened by Ji Lin’s voice. She might rail against the secondary place of women in her society and her lack of opportunities, but she’s also strong and independent, and determined to make her own decisions about her life. She adds some humour to the story and also some romance, though in line with the rest of the book her romance has darker shades to it too.

Yangsze Choo

I feel I’ve been especially vague and obscure about the plot of the book, even by my usual standards. But that’s because I enjoyed seeing the story develop for myself with no preconceptions, so I’m trying not to take that pleasure away from anyone else by telling too much. I enjoyed every word of this – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness, and I’ll be looking out for more from this talented author. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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Love is Blind by William Boyd

Adolescent obsession…

😐 😐

Brodie Moncur works for an Edinburgh piano manufacturer, Channon, at the turn of the 19th century. He started out as a piano tuner but now helps out with the general running of the saleroom, so when the new Paris branch is struggling the owner asks him to go over and see what he can do. Brodie has long been at odds with his father, a bullying hellfire preacher, and has no real ties in Scotland, so happily agrees. Once there, he falls in love with Lika Blum, the girlfriend of an Irish pianist. Then he stays in love with her for the rest of the book, has sex with her quite a lot, and fantasises about having sex with her most of the rest of the time. He has sex with her in Paris, the South of France, Scotland and St Petersburg. And maybe other places – I forget.

Oh dear! I remember jokingly making a note to myself in a previous review that I must stop reading books written by major male authors once they reach the age of 60, since hormonally they appear to revert to a kind of adolescent obsession with sex. William Boyd is 66 now, and let’s face it, he was reasonably obsessed even in his prime. It’s not that the sex is graphic, nor even particularly erotic. It’s just that it’s not nearly as interesting as a subject to this reader as it appears to be to the writer. Sex as a literary side-dish, fine, but it makes for an unsatisfying main course.

There’s so much potential in the story too, but very little of it is realised. None of the locations come to life, and the bits I’d have liked to know more about – his relationship with his father and family, for example, or what life was like in St Petersburg around the time of the Revolution – seem to be introduced and then sidelined and forgotten about. Brodie’s passion for Lika doesn’t burn up the pages, probably because she hasn’t got much personality – his desire for her is purely physical, although he calls it love. The stuff about the piano tuning is actually the best bit of the book, although even here one can tell Boyd has researched it to the nth degree and is determined to name every part.

William Boyd

There is a plot of sorts, around musical plagiarism and the rivalry of Brodie and the Irish pianist for the body love of the fair Lika. But when I tell you that, as it reached its climax, the three words I wrote in my notes are “ludicrous”, “laughable” and “dire”, you’ll be able to tell I wasn’t wholly impressed by it.

I am a long-time fan of William Boyd and when he’s on form he’s one of the all-time best storytellers out there. Unfortunately, sometimes his form seems to desert him, and for me this is one of those times. If you’re new to Boyd, don’t be put off him by this review. Read Brazzaville Beach instead – there’s sex in it too, but there’s also a good story…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Viking.

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