Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

The root of all evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

our-mutual-friendOld Mr Harmon has been a tyrannical father to his children, so that the odd terms of his will are in keeping with his character. He has left the bulk of his fortune to his one surviving son, John, on condition that he marries a girl his father has chosen for him – a girl he has never met. Bella Wilfer is a mercenary young lady, quite willing to go along with this scheme. But when John drowns on his way home from foreign parts, Bella finds herself in the unsatisfactory position of having to go into mourning for a man she didn’t know, without the benefit of receiving any of the wealth she was expecting. The money passes to the Boffins, who decide it is their duty to do something to help Bella.

Jesse Hexam is the man who dragged the body identified as John Harmon from the Thames. This is how he makes his living, rowing up and down the river looking for corpses, often taking his daughter Lizzie along to row for him. But during the identification of this corpse, Lizzie catches the eye of a young and rather unscrupulous lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn. Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie will affect many people around them, leading to jealousy, resentment and dark deeds. But, as always with Dickens, there are possibilities for redemption too…

It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither. Gaslights flared in the shops with a haggard and unblest air, as knowing themselves to be night-creatures that had no business abroad under the sun; while the sun itself, when it was for a few moments dimly indicated through circling eddies of fog, showed as if it had gone out, and were collapsing flat and cold.

Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses
Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses

Much though I love Dickens, considering him the greatest writer of all time, I’ve never been blind to his faults. It’s always been a balancing act for me – the anger beneath the social satire, the wonderfully created and unforgettably caricatured minor characters, the brilliantly atmospheric descriptive writing; all offset against the parade of nauseatingly saccharin heroines, the occasional descent into an archness I try hard not to call twee, and the fact that sometimes the plots don’t quite gel – a result of them being serialised, I assume, and Dickens not really having decided on an ending when he published the beginning.

In this book, the seesaw falls slightly more to the side of the weaknesses than the strengths. I believe this was the last complete book he wrote, and he was involved in a serious accident in the middle of writing, when he was on a train that became derailed, leaving many people injured. He was unhurt physically but apparently the experience left him shocked. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps age was simply tiring him, but for me, this books lacks some of what makes his great books great.

The Boffins
The Boffins

The major theme of the book is money – how possession of it corrupts, and how lack of it causes great suffering. He satirises the class of society that hangs around the rich, especially the nouveau riche. Mr and Mrs Veneering seem to have come from nowhere, but their lavish hospitality wins them a whole host of new “oldest friends”. The Lammles show the pitfalls of marrying for money, each believing the other is wealthy till after the wedding, when they discover that they have each married a mirror image of themselves – another person on the make. Having inherited the Harmon wealth, kind old “Noddy” Boffin finds himself the target of conmen and would-be thieves, and begins to admire and emulate some of the great misers he finds in books. And, through old Betty Higden’s story, Dickens shows the iniquities of the Poor Laws of the time, and how many people would rather starve than end up living on the state’s merciless mercy.

That night she took refuge from the Samaritan in his latest accredited form, under a farmer’s rick; and if – worth thinking of, perhaps, my fellow-Christians – the Samaritan had in the lonely night “passed by on the other side,” she would have most devoutly thanked High Heaven for her escape from him.

All good, and all typically Dickensian, but it seemed to me that the old anger wasn’t there; especially with the Poor Law stuff, I felt his tone was resigned, almost defeated. The characters are well-drawn to serve his purpose of showing the shallowness and greed of this portion of society, but on the whole they’re not caricatured enough to make them unforgettable, in the way that, say, Sairey Gamp is, or Uriah Heep. In fact, I can’t think of a character from this book whose name has really become part of the general public consciousness, as, for example, Fagin has, or Mr Micawber, or Scrooge.

The plot takes an age to get going and I found myself wondering exactly where the focus was – again not a thing I usually find with Dickens. There are always multiple sub-plots and meandering detours, but generally it’s clear where the plot is heading. I found Bella’s story too light to hang a whole book around, while Lizzie’s story, much more darkly satisfying, keeps disappearing for large parts of the book. But the real problem with the plot is the end, so here goes with a major spoiler….

Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of "the Parish"
Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of “the Parish”

* * * * * * * MAJOR SPOILER ALERT * * * * * * *

The idea that Mr and Mrs Boffin together with Mr Rokesmith keep up a charade for literally years to teach Bella a lesson is simply too unbelievable even for this reader who happily swallows most of Dickens’ amazing coincidences and contrivances without blinking. The thing is, Noddy’s descent into miserliness is one of the more interesting parts of the book, so that when it turns out to have been an act, it takes away much of the book’s substance. Furthermore, I feel I have to point out that the eventual division of the money represents a major fraud on the Crown, to whom it in fact belongs!

It feels to me as if Dickens had intended the miser storyline to be “true”, and then, having written himself into a corner, had to hastily contrive this twist to get himself back out – the major peril of publishing in instalments.

* * * * * * * END OF MAJOR SPOILER * * * * * * *

Bella and Lizzie are both good heroines, though. Lizzie in particular shows herself to be strong and self-reliant, and the scenes where she resists her own inclinations in the matter of love, or where she sees her brother’s selfishness clearly but still loves him, make her one of his most likeable. Bella’s redemption from mercenary little madam to loving little wife and mother has its nauseating moments, but on the whole she’s rounded and believable, and her alteration is given a proper foundation. Jenny Wren is also intriguing, and perhaps the most traditionally Dickensian caricature in the book – although Dickens clearly liked her, so that the caricature is kind with none of his occasional cruelty. But what on earth was Dickens playing at with all this daughters treating their fathers as children stuff? It was silly enough when it was only Jenny who kept referring to her father as her ‘bad child’ but when Bella started doing it with her father too… well, I’m still wondering what was going on in Dickens’ mind! Though perhaps I don’t really want to know.

Jenny Wren and Mr Riah
Jenny Wren and Mr Riah

I was delighted with the positive way Dickens portrayed Mr Riah, his one Jewish character. Not only is Mr Riah shown as kind and generous, but Dickens takes the opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism and the unfairness of how minorities are often judged by the behaviour of the worst of them. This is Dickens at his best, when he tackles an injustice head on, and I felt it went a long way towards making up for Fagin – a great Dickensian character but not exactly flattering in its portrayal of Jewishness.

“I reflected – clearly reflected for the first time, that in bending my neck to the yoke I was willing to wear, I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people. For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough – among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say ‘All Jews are alike.’”

Nobody does dark and wicked deeds quite like Dickens, and happily there’s plenty of evil to make us shiver. The filthy and polluted Thames runs through the heart of the book, appearing again and again as the place where the foulest acts take place, and Dickens uses it to great effect as he builds up an atmosphere of tension and horror. I’ve included enough spoilers, so I’ll just say that these river scenes are up there with the best of Dickens’ writing.

The white face of the winter day came sluggishly on, veiled in a frosty mist; and the shadowy ships in the river slowly changed to black substances; and the sun, blood-red on the eastern marshes behind dark masts and yards, seemed filled with the ruins of a forest it had set on fire.

Dark deeds by the river...
Dark deeds by the river…

To sum up, then, there are too many weaknesses in this for it to count as one of Dickens’ absolute best, but then he sets the bar so high. Even as one of his second-tier novels, it’s still a greater book than the vast majority out there, and its strengths still justify a five-star rating. When you’re the greatest writer the world has ever known, you can get away with an occasional clunky plot device or two…

Book 5 of 90Book 5 of 90

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Titian’s Boatman by Victoria Blake

The art of living…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

titians-boatmanIt is 1576, and Titian is living in plague-ridden Venice – an old man, refusing to flee from the city he loves. As he waits for death to find him, he thinks back to his young days, when his career was just beginning, recalling the time when he painted the portrait that became known as The Man with the Blue Sleeve. By the time his one surviving son, Pomponio, reaches Venice, Titian is dead; and, in the disorder of the time, his studio has been ransacked and many of his paintings stolen. As the plague eventually recedes from the city, we meet Tullia, one of the city’s courtesans, returning to find that she too has had her home looted. With her wealth gone, she realises she will have to start again, sending out signals to the rich men of Venice that she is available for their pleasure – at a price. In this city where the main mode of travel is by water, Sebastiano the boatman is an observer of the great people of the city, knowing their weaknesses and sometimes their secrets, their lives often touching on his.

In London in 2011, actor Terry Jardine is currently in rehearsal of A Winter’s Tale. Terry recently lost his beloved mother, and that, together with a break-up of a long-term relationship, has brought him to a kind of crisis in his life. When he breaks down during rehearsals, his director, Ludovico, comforts him, and so begins a love story between these two men. Meantime in New York, we meet Aurora, a Cuban-born maid working for Mr and Mrs Pereira, a couple who are being surreptitiously investigated by the police.

These four characters – Terry, Aurora, Sebastiano and Tullia – are all loosely linked through Titian and his art. The book jumps back and forwards between them, which could easily have made it feel disjointed. But the quality of the writing, together with some excellent characterisation, makes each section compelling, so that, rather than feeling irritated by the jumps, I found I was looking forward in each case to finding out a little more of the story of whichever character came to the fore. There is no over-arching plot as such, but the links to Titian’s paintings give the book a structure that stops it from feeling too fragmentary.

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Blake has clearly done her research for the Venetian strands, and creates a marvellously authentic-feeling picture of the 16th century society of the city. As we learn more about Sebastiano, we see how his family was severely affected when his father became briefly caught up in the schemes of Titian’s son, Pomponio, and how different the rules of justice were for rich and poor. But in the Venice section, it’s Tullia’s story that stood out for me – the precarious life of the courtesan dependant entirely on youth and beauty, and the need to achieve wealth before these begin to fade. There is a recurring theme throughout the strands of children separated from their mothers, and in Tullia’s case this is both fascinating and moving, as we learn of younger or less pretty daughters of the wealthy farmed off to convents to avoid the need for families to find dowries to enable them to marry.

In the contemporary section, Aurora is fascinated by a Titian owned by her employers, of the death of Saint Sebastian. Blake writes with a lovely light touch, so its only gradually that we discover why this painting means so much to her, and how it is connected to her own childhood when her parents sent her to the US to escape from Castro’s Cuba.

Terry’s connection to Titian begins in the National Gallery as he is admiring The Man with the Blue Sleeve, when it suddenly seems to him that the painting is talking to him, prophesying his death. The growing love between Terry and Ludovico is beautifully done, giving the book its emotional heart. We see the importance of the theatre to Terry – he can’t imagine himself as anything other than an actor, and can’t imagine life continuing if he were ever to become unable to act. Ludovico was also separated from his mother as a baby and never knew her identity, but now she wishes to meet him and he doesn’t know how to feel about that. The two men give each other the emotional support each needs to get through these difficult moments in their lives.

I’ve been deliberately vague about each strand, because the joy of the book is in the slow revelations through which the characters are gradually built-up, layer on layer, so that we see what has made them who they are. In the end, all the strands come together, but as with the whole book it’s done gently – there’s no big dramatic denouement or stunning twist, just a somewhat understated unfolding of the connections through Titian’s art that link these people about whom we’ve come to care.

Victoria Blake
Victoria Blake

I know Victoria Blake somewhat through our blogs, but as always I’ve tried not to let that colour my review. In truth, I loved this book. The slowish start when all the various strands are introduced meant that it took a little while to grab me, but the quality of the prose carried me until the gradual deepening of the characterisation caused me to become completely absorbed by the stories of these people. Of course, it’s about art and the effect it can have in many different ways, but mostly it’s about people, told with a depth of understanding and sympathy for human frailties, and the various kinds of love that give us the strength to withstand life’s blows. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.

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Animal Farm by George Orwell

“Fake news” and “alternative facts”…

🙂 🙂 🙂

animal-farm-2Inspired by a dream had by Old Major, the white boar, the animals of Manor Farm rebel against their human master and throw him off the land. They agree to work the farm for their own mutual benefit, sharing the work and the produce fairly, each according to his ability and need. Being the most intelligent animals, the pigs take over the planning, both of how to maximise the farm’s yield and of how to protect themselves from outside hostility. But, as we all know, power corrupts…

Of course, this fable is an allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. First published in 1945, Orwell apparently wrote it as a warning to the nations of the Allies, who had been united with the USSR in fighting Nazi Germany and who therefore had been motivated to overlook some of the horrors going on under Stalin. He also felt there were many in the West who were happy to fool themselves that the USSR was a successful experiment in socialism, so he wanted to draw attention to the fact that the regime had become totalitarian, with a hierarchical power structure that Orwell saw as not altogether dissimilar to the power structures in the capitalist Western democracies, with an entrenched ruling class putting its own interests first. (All of this is paraphrased from Orwell’s own introduction to the Ukranian edition of the book, which is reproduced as an appendix in my Penguin Modern Classics edition.)

animal-farm-poster

I first read this as a school text, when I was about thirteen, I think. I remembered it as having rather blown me away at the time, but truthfully because of the Boxer storyline rather than the politics. At that time – the early ’70s – here in the UK, public opinion had largely caught up with Orwell’s interpretation of the regime, and the USSR was seen by the majority as evil and scary, with it and the US facing off against each other over Europe’s head, each building bigger and bigger weapons. (There was a fairly significant minority view, too, that the USSR was indeed successfully socialist and a good thing, and that anyway, whether it was or wasn’t, pacifism and unilateral disarmament were the way to go.) So the message of the book wasn’t really shocking or new as it may have been to those first readers back just after WW2.

animal-farm-boxer

Now, another 40 years on, older, possibly more knowledgeable and certainly more critical, I found I had some issues with Orwell’s portrayal.

The reason Orwell gives for the pigs becoming the leaders is their intelligence. The other animals are fundamentally stupid. Is that, then, Orwell’s view of the leadership and people of the USSR? Are the leaders all brainy while the proles are basically thick? It’s not simply that the other animals are uneducated – in the first flush of enthusiasm after the rebellion, all are given the opportunity to learn to read, but only the pigs and the donkey succeed. Poor old Boxer the horse, the backbone of the revolution, hardworking and utterly loyal, never manages to get past ABCD in learning the alphabet. I fear it smacks of a kind of utterly misplaced intellectual elitism to me, a suggestion that those who become totalitarian dictators do it through superior intelligence. Later, the pigs resort to intimidation, misinformation and propaganda, but not till after the intelligence/stupidity divide has allowed them to take a stranglehold on power. But there’s another aspect to it too, which sat uneasily with me. In this fable, all intelligent animals become corrupt despots, while stupidity seems to equal loyalty and a sense of fairplay and sacrifice.

Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter...???
Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter…???

My second problem is with the idea that the pigs become more humanlike as they become more corrupt. Assuming Farmer Jones represents Czarist Russia, then OK – I can go along with that for the sake of the fable. But if you factor in the other humans on neighbouring farms, with whom the pigs sometimes form alliances and at other times fight, then presumably these other farms represent the countries neighbouring the USSR. So, if the humans in the allegory represent corrupt leadership, the message seems to be that all leaders of all forms of government are corrupt and abuse their proletariat just as much as the USSR does. Even if for the sake of argument one accepts this as true (which I struggle to do even hypothetically), I can’t help but feel it means Orwell undoes his own argument about the unique corruption of power in the USSR. If democratic governments are just as bad as totalitarian ones, then… what’s the point he’s trying to make? Orwell says in his introduction that he didn’t mean for the pigs and humans to appear to fully reconcile at the end, and indeed they don’t, but they have become so similar that it’s hard to say which ones are the more morally or politically acceptable.

animal-farm-all-animals-equal

The book foreshadows the idea of “double-think”, later developed much more effectively and credibly in 1984, as the founding principles of the regime change over time while Squealer, the regime’s spokespig, blatantly denies the truth of the past, and disseminates the new “truth” through regime propaganda. (But at least Orwell doesn’t have the pigs go completely over the credibility line by claiming, for example, that Snowball the pig can’t be the leader because he was born on a foreign farm, or perhaps that Napoleon the pig would have won the popular vote if only five million illegal pigs hadn’t voted for his opponent… 😉 )

In summary, I really preferred the book when I was twelve, when the simplified allegory and emotional appeal of Boxer’s story worked better for me. My adult self found it a bit too simplistic and reliant on the reader not making any serious critical analysis of the underlying messages, when it all begins to lack coherence. An interesting and cautionary re-read though, especially in this troubled time of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

rrr-challenge-logo-final

Book 1 in the RRR Challenge

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Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

The Gentleman’s Game…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

“India: A country said to have two real religions – cinema and cricket.”

selection-day-2Two brothers are being groomed by their father to become the greatest cricketers in India. Radha, the elder, with his film-star looks and love of the game, is the better of the two, and it’s accepted that he will be the star. But as they grow up, Radha’s skill diminishes, just a little, but enough for him to be eclipsed by the younger Manju, whose attitude to the game is more ambivalent. Their mother having disappeared when they were little (run away? dead? The boys aren’t sure), the brothers have been brought up by their tyrannical father Mohan, who is determined they will succeed in the sport as a way to raise the family out of the slums. So when the chance of sponsorship comes along, Mohan grabs it, even though it’s at best an unethical deal which sells his sons into a kind of bondage and, at worst, borders on the illegal.

This is a story of sibling rivalry, tied in with a wider picture of corruption in society shown through the corruption in cricket. The game, once the preserve of all that was considered gentlemanly, has become all about money. The days of languorous five-day test matches has morphed into not only one-day cricket, but the hideousness of the ultra-short 20-20, which Adiga describes in his humorous glossary of cricketing terms at the end of the book as “in the eyes of some older fans, almost as bad as baseball.” It’s not necessary, I think, to know about cricket to enjoy the book – Adiga doesn’t fall into the trap of lengthy descriptions of games, tactics or technicalities, and the sport could as easily be any other. But cricket has a particular resonance, because of its origin as a game of the British Empire, a period whose influence is still vital in understanding much of Indian society.

In the next few minutes, Anand Mehta came up with the following observations about cricket: that it was a fraud, and at the most fundamental level. Only ten countries play this game, and only five of them play it well. If we had any self-respect, we’d finally grow up as a people and play football. No: let’s not expose ourselves to real competition, much safer to be in a “world cup” against St. Kitts and Bangladesh. Self-obsession without self-belief: the very definition of the Indian middle class, which is why it loves this fraud sport.

Poised to offer the world more deep thoughts about the gentleman’s game, Mehta heard:

Shot! Bloody good shot!…

Confronted by the sound and smell of an instant of real cricket, Mehta felt all his mighty observations turn to ashes.

As Manju hits adolescence, he becomes fascinated by another young player, Javed. Javed is gay and Manju’s attraction to him suggests that he is too. But Manju is of a lower class than Javed and has a father who’s not likely to be the most supportive, so it would take considerably more courage for him to admit his feelings than Javed. But his relationship with Javed isn’t purely about physical attraction – Manju finds himself influenced by the older, more confident boy in other ways. Javed, another talented cricketer, sees the corruption in the sport and wants Manju to give it up. So poor Manju has a jealous brother who feels he deserves to be the best, a friend pulling him away from cricket, and his father and his coach putting pressure on him to practice every moment he can. It’s not altogether surprising that he’s confused before he gets to Selection Day, the day on which the big teams pick which young players they will sign.

Sachin Tendulkar, India's finest batman and constantly held up to the boys as an example of what they could be. He's also much loved by advertising executives...
Sachin Tendulkar, India’s finest batman and constantly held up to the boys as an example of what they could be. He’s also much loved by advertising executives…

I love Adiga’s depiction of Mumbai or Bombay (names which he uses interchangeably). He shows the poverty, corruption and class divisions quite clearly but, unlike some of the (usually ex-pat) Indian writers who love to wallow exclusively in the misery, Adiga, who lives in Mumbai, also shows the other side – the vibrancy, the struggle for social mobility, the advances of recent years. His characters, even when they’re being put through the emotional wringer, manage to have some fun along the way, and the whole atmosphere he portrays lacks the irredeemable hopelessness of so much Indian literature. There’s also a good deal of humour, often very perceptive and coming at unexpected moments, startling me into laughter. This book tackles some tough subjects, but on the whole Adiga simply lays the arguments out and leaves the reader to come to her own conclusions – there’s no whiff of the polemical in his writing.

“People thought I had a future as a writer, Manju. I wanted to write a great novel about Mumbai,” the principal said, playing with her glasses. “But then…then I began, and I could not write it. The only thing I could write about, in fact, was that I couldn’t write about the city.

“The sun, which I can’t describe like Homer, rises over Mumbai, which I can’t describe like Salman Rushdie, creating new moral dilemmas for all of us, which I won’t be able to describe like Amitav Ghosh.”

Aravind Adiga
Aravind Adiga

There is, however, some great characterisation, and he writes about them empathetically so that it’s hard not to see why even the less savoury characters have turned out as they have. One of the things I loved was seeing how the perception of Mohan, the boys’ father, changed as they grew up. This man who loomed over them in childhood shrinks as they grow – both physically and in terms of his influence. It’s the mark of the quality of Adiga’s writing that this happens so gradually there’s no jarring moment, but towards the end I realised I had come to feel about him quite differently than I had in the beginning.

For me, this was a slow-burn book. It took at least a third of the book before I was convinced that this tale of cricketing brothers was going to hold my interest. But as it progressed, I began to appreciate the subtlety with which Adiga was showing various aspects of contemporary Indian life, and as always I found his writing pure pleasure to read. And by the time I reached the end, I found he had again created some characters who had become real to me, in the way Masterji did in his excellent Last Man in Tower. This book confirms Adiga’s place as one of my favourite authors, and gets my wholehearted recommendation.

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

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GAN Quest: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The workings of the human heart…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

gileadWhen John Ames learns he doesn’t have much longer to live, he takes up his pen to write to his young son, to tell him some of the things he would have liked to tell him in person as he grew up. Ames is old, in his 70s, and his son is the product of a late second marriage, an unexpected second blooming of love for a man who had spent most of his life alone following the death in childbirth of his first wife and their daughter. As Ames writes, it is 1956, so his personal recollections take him back to the end of the previous century, but his knowledge of his family history allows him to go back a few decades further, to the Civil War and the struggle for the abolition of slavery.

The small town of Gilead in Iowa was founded by abolitionists, its main reason for existence in those early days to help the cause, and to assist in providing safe passage for escaped slaves heading towards the free states. Ames is the third generation of pastors in his family. His grandfather was a passionate abolitionist, willing to fight the fight with guns as much as with prayer, who ‘preached his people into war’. Ames’ father, on the other hand, was a Christian pacifist, horrified in his own time at the celebration of war during WW1, at the kind of patriotic fervour that drove the young men to go off to kill or die. As Ames gradually reveals the history of these two men, it is clear that he has been influenced by both; that their divisions perhaps have led him to be more introspective and questioning of his beliefs.

I am also inclined to overuse the word ‘old’, which actually has less to do with age, as it seems to me, than it does with familiarity. It sets a thing apart as something regarded with a modest, habitual affection. Sometimes it suggests haplessness or vulnerability. I say ‘old Boughton’, I say ‘this shabby old town’, and I mean that they are very near my heart.

And it’s Ames’ beliefs that are at the heart of the book. This is a man whose faith is thoughtful and profound, based on his lifelong study of the scriptures. He’s a bit touchy when people assume he became a pastor simply because his father and grandfather were – he’s keen to point out that his vocation is personal, founded on his relationship with God and nothing else. But he has made an effort to understand what brings people to atheism, too, partly because his brother gave up his religion as a young man, and partly because Ames sees the rise of atheism in the society around him. Much of his letter to his son is an explanation of his own faith, and an encouragement to him not to be swayed by the doubts and disbelief of others.

I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light – pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little as a late snow would do. It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap. So familiar.

I must say I was rather put off reading this book by some reviews and comments from a few people who suggested that it’s full of Biblical references and theology that would make it hard to understand for someone without a solid grounding in the Bible. As a lifelong atheist, brought up that way, there can be few people out there with less knowledge of the Bible or of the intricacies of the beliefs of all the different Christian churches than I, so for the benefit of others I’d like to say that’s total nonsense. At every step of the way, Robinson makes crystal clear the basis of whatever aspect of faith she is discussing. The possible exception is the idea of whether predestination exists, though even there, it’s quite straightforward to understand Ames’ position on the subject – which is primarily that he doesn’t know the answer, and gets fed up with atheists using the question as some kind of weapon. Perhaps there are nuances that I missed that would be picked up by people better versed in the Bible, but certainly I had no feeling of ‘missing’ anything. It seemed to me that Ames’ unshakeable faith is based as much on his love of the world and of humanity, as on obscure theological points.

I might seem to be comparing something great and holy with a minor and ordinary thing, that is, love of God with mortal love. But I just don’t see them as separate things at all. If we can be divinely fed with a morsel and divinely blessed with a touch, then the terrible pleasure we find in a particular face can certainly instruct us in the nature of the very grandest love. I devoutly believe this to be true. I remember in those days loving God for the existence of love and being grateful to God for the existence of gratitude, right down in the depths of my misery.

In the second half of the book, a young man returns to the town, the son of Ames’ oldest friend, the Presbyterian minister Boughton. This young man is called John Ames Boughton, a well-intentioned gesture from the elder Boughton which Ames has always rather resented. In fact, he resents everything to do with this young man, who has proved to be a disappointment throughout his life. Ames’ feelings about him are mixed with his sorrow for his lost daughter and for his brother’s atheism, and Ames himself is rather confused about why he feels so antagonistic towards the younger man. Now Ames is dying, and young Boughton seems to be forming a bond with his much younger wife, Lila, and his son. The latter part of the book is a very moving account of Ames wrestling with his own feelings and trying to come to a better understanding of the young man.

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson

There is very little plot in this book, which is normally a real no-no for me. But somehow I found Ames’ story totally absorbing and full of emotional truth – a quiet account of an ordinary man who loves his family, striving to be good in his heart, struggling to see God’s will, accepting the mystery at the heart of faith. It reminded me of the way Colm Tóibín writes – rather plain and understated, but full of beauty and empathy for human frailties. But for all the emotionalism, there’s humour in there, too – wonderfully crafted set-pieces that in their own way shed more light on all the idiosyncrasies of human nature. Yes, it’s about faith, and about racial inequality to some degree, but fundamentally it’s about humanity and the search for a redemption that can come only through a deeper understanding of the workings of the human heart. A lovely book.

Well, I can imagine him beyond the world, looking back at me with an amazement of realisation – “This is why we have lived this life!” There are a thousand, thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

* * * * * * *

great-american-novel-quest-2

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, it shows the importance of the Protestant faith in the history and making of the US, and casts a gentle light on the on-going racial divides at the time in which it’s set.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagI’m not sure about this one – certainly the race theme has been addressed frequently. But the dealing with it through an examination of faith, and the style of telling it in the form of a long letter to the future felt innovative to me, so I’m saying – achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes, and I hope the quotes I have chosen give an idea of the soft beauty of the writing.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagThere’s a big part of me that would like to say yes to this, because it seems to this outsider that faith and race are the two defining aspects of what makes the US what it is. But the small town setting narrows the focus a little too much, so reluctantly I have to say – not achieved. I’m open to persuasion though…

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…

A Great American Novel.

* * * * * * *

 

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Brutal and humane…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

slaughterhouse-fiveThe narrator, having survived WW2, intends to write a book about the bombing of Dresden, but can’t seem to think of anything to say. He visits an army buddy to share memories in a bid to get himself started, but his buddy’s wife is angry, thinking he will write yet another book glorifying war. He promises he won’t – and then he begins to tell the fable of Billy Pilgrim.

Billy Pilgrim is gifted, or cursed, with the ability to time-travel backwards and forwards through his life. He was given this gift by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who abducted him and put him on display in a zoo on their planet. They also taught him that, in a life where time-travel is real, no-one can truly be said to die, since they will still be alive in their own past and can be visited there. We first meet Billy years after the war has finished, when he has become a successful optometrist. But as we travel back with him through his past, we learn about his war experiences. Like the narrator, he was a survivor of Dresden and we gradually learn of the horrors he witnessed there.

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Written during the height of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut uses his own experiences of an earlier war to produce a powerful protest novel, one that concentrates on the effects of war at the human, individual level. I’ve always thought this book was a sci-fi novel, and indeed that is how it tends to be classified, but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Billy’s time-travel experiences and his meeting with the aliens arise clearly from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder – they are his way of coping with the death and destruction he has witnessed.

The main story is of Billy’s time as a POW in Germany, when he was sent to work in Dresden just before the fire-bombing which destroyed that city and killed many thousands of civilians in the space of a few nights. There is a terrible anger in it, but it’s hidden beneath a kind of laconic manner of telling – a déjà vu, que sera, sera, feeling, summed up by the constant refrain of ‘So it goes’ every time a death is mentioned – as if the narrator is saying that anger is pointless in face of the inevitability of war. Frequently a sentence or paragraph is devastating in its perceptiveness and the cruelty of its clarity. Vonnegut never dwells mawkishly on the horrors, simply tells them and moves on. But, like the anger, sympathy and empathy are both bubbling beneath the surface, making this a profoundly emotional read despite its brevity and understatement. It manages the difficult balancing act of being simultaneously brutal and deeply humane, both bleak and blackly funny.

Vonnegut uses the time-travelling aspects brilliantly to show how Billy’s mind sets up defences to deal with the memories it can’t handle. It also allows him to create some wonderfully powerful imagery, such as when Billy finds himself watching war movies that are running in reverse.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation… But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut also touches on Christianity, on questions of free will and predestination, and gives a pretty excoriating picture of an America obsessed with wealth and celebrity, leaving the vast majority of people who never achieve those things feeling like failures. He seems to be suggesting that religion won’t truly touch these people unless we look differently at how we perceive the idea of Christ, as ordinary rather than exceptional. While intriguing, I wasn’t at all clear where he really intended to go with this argument, and was ultimately unconvinced that it was much more than a clever conceit. But it’s a minor part of the book, so didn’t detract from the greater anti-war message.

Overall, I thought this was pretty stunning. The understated style of the writing, the use of the time-travelling to let us see the effects of war at a very human level and to allow Vonnegut to do some philosophising on what humanity means, the imagery, and even the black humour, all add power to this brief novel, so that it achieves a depth that many much longer novels never reach. One that fully deserves its status as a classic.

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GAN Quest: Moby-Dick: or, The White Whale by Herman Melville

Call me baffled…

😐 😐

moby dickOur narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status. I should declare a pre-existing grudge against Melville – it was primarily being forced to pretend that his Billy Budd was in some way worth reading that led to my final breach with the Eng-Lit department at Uni. But surely a book that is touted as a Great American Novel contender couldn’t be as bad as that one, could it? Hmm! Well, after the last few books I’ve read or abandoned in the GAN Quest, I have realised that perhaps America and I have very different definitions of greatness…

My first complaint is that Melville clearly couldn’t decide whether he was trying to write a novel or an encyclopedia of whales. I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction, and that any time an author feels the need to use it, then he should step back and wonder if he’s on the right track. Pages of descriptions of all the different types of whales might be interesting if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing, but a novel isn’t the place for it.

Secondly, what’s with the cod-Shakespearian? The thing is, it makes perfect sense for Shakespeare’s characters to have spoken in poetic Elizabethan English, for obvious reasons – i.e., Shakespeare was an English Elizabethan poet. Ahab, on the other hand, was a 19th century whaling captain from Nantucket. One would therefore have expected him to speak like a 19th century Nantuckian. I’m guessing poor old Melville mistakenly thought that if he managed to sound like Shakespeare, people might be fooled into thinking that he was as good a writer as Shakespeare. Ah, well, the best laid plans…

moby-dick

Thirdly, and I grant you Melville is by no means the only writer guilty of this one, if you’re going to use a first-person narrative then you can’t suddenly tell the reader all kinds of things the narrator couldn’t possibly know – like what other people are thinking! Or verbatim reports of conversations when the narrator wasn’t present. Not if you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, at least.

There are bits that are good, when Melville stops trying to be stylistically clever and just tells a plain yarn: for instance, the story of the mutiny aboard another ship, or when Stubbs tricks the crew of the Rosebud into giving him the whale containing ambergris.

I also enjoyed some of his digressions (though there were far too many of them) – like when he philosophises at length on how the colour white is perceived as scary, ranging from polar bears to ghosts. This is well written, and although the argument is stretched and shaky, Melville shows that he knows it with some humorous asides. And the section where he shows each crew member’s different reaction to the gold coin is, I admit, brilliantly done, with him showing how each brings his own nature, his optimism or pessimism, his cultural beliefs and superstitions to his reading of the symbols on the coin. (Though again – first person narrative issue here, obviously.)

moby_dick_final_chase

The major problem, though, is the almost total lack of narrative drive. The book is nearly a quarter done before we even meet Ahab, the whole of that first section consisting of description after description, first of places, then of people. I was bored out of my head before the story even began. Then, having finally begun, it constantly stops again for vast swathes of time while Ishmael/Melville gives us all kinds of irrelevant information in what must be one of the earliest examples of info-dump: for example, when he gives us pages upon pages of him rubbishing all previous artists, writers and naturalists who have drawn or written about whales. The eponymous whale doesn’t appear until the book is 93% done.

But even aside from the main narrative, his style manages to suck the drama out of any bit of story he tells. We hear about a whale hunt that goes wrong, and it’s brilliantly told right up to the point where the crew are left in their damaged boat, with no oars, lighting their one small lamp against the huge darkness of the ocean… and then he stops and jumps to the biggest anticlimax of all time with a quick mention of a boringly straightforward rescue several hours later. And finally, the great showdown with Moby-Dick arrives – great stuff (if you ignore Starbuck and Ahab repeating themselves in endless asides), some fabulously horrific imagery and then… the end. Abrupt seems to be the appropriate word. However, on the upside, at least it is the end…

Herman Melville
Herman Melville

So, to conclude, well written in parts, badly written in others. Lacks narrative drive – by my reckoning the actual story part probably only takes up about 10% of the whole book. The mock Shakespearian language and pastiching of his style is a strange and, in my opinion, unsuccessful stylistic choice. I understand the book was first rejected by publishers and then failed to sell for decades after it finally was published, both of which sound about right to me. The bit that baffles me is why later generations have declared it “great”. My verdict – shows potential in places but requires a severe edit to rid it of all the extraneous nonsense and to improve the narrative flow.

* * * * * * *

great-american-novel-quest-2

So, is it a Great American Novel?

No.

* * * * * * *

Book 3 of 90
Book 3 of 90

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Passing by Nella Larsen

Colour me white…

😀 😀 😀 😀

passingWhen Irene accidentally meets her childhood friend Clare in a tea-house in Chicago, she’s not altogether surprised to discover that Clare is ‘passing’ as white. Clare had always wanted the good things in life and, when she disappeared from home as a teenager, her friends suspected she’d found a way to make use of her beauty. Now Clare is married to a rich white man, John Bellew, with whom she has a child. But John hates ‘niggers’ and Clare knows her marriage would be over if he ever found out about her mixed heritage. Irene rather despises Clare for, as she sees it, a kind of betrayal of her race, but nevertheless can’t resist the appeal of her charm. And so, their friendship is resumed – dangerous to Clare’s marriage, but as it turns out, dangerous to Irene too…

Despite the title and basic premise of the book, this is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. Irene is respected in her society in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor and they have a relatively wealthy life. But we soon learn that Brian is discontented – he hates living in a country where he is treated as inferior because of his race. Irene on the other hand loves her life and wants nothing more than she has. Clare is the catalyst who brings this division into sharp focus, forcing Irene to question what’s important to her and to wonder if her marriage is as solid as she had always thought.

I appreciated that the book doesn’t focus exclusively on the race issues. Sometimes books become so polemical it feels as if the people are tokens rather than rounded characters in their own right – I’m thinking of Americanah, for example. In this one, none of the characters is defined entirely by race – the questions that absorb them most have little overtly to do with colour. In a way, that makes the incidents of racism feel all the more brutal and shocking when they do happen. Written in 1921 long before the civil rights movement really got underway, we see how white people felt it was totally acceptable to publicly and casually express views that many of us would now find repugnant (pre-Trump – sadly, it now appears to be the new normal again), and how black people, even wealthy ones, had no real recourse other than to accept it and try not to let it define their entire lives. Brian and Irene’s ongoing difference about how to bring up their sons encapsulates a debate that I’m sure must have been going on endlessly in the black community of the time – Irene wanting to shield them for as long as possible from the knowledge of how racist their society is, while Brian feels they should be taught early what to expect and taught to resent it.

Nella Larsen
Nella Larsen

The deeper question than simply colour is perhaps about the sense of belonging. Despite having wealth and a husband who loves her, Clare the risk-taker longs for the people and places of her childhood and is willing to gamble recklessly with everything she has for the fleeting pleasure of spending time back in that society. Irene on the other hand sees that same society as a place of security and contentment, and her sole desire is not to have her life disrupted. Both the women can tolerate the racism of their world so long as it doesn’t directly impinge on them. Brian, however, resents racism as a political thing, not just personal – a thing that makes him hate his nation and rather despise his peers for their acceptance of it. In him, we see the anger and discontent that would eventually lead to the rise of the civil rights movement.

The characterisation of Irene is the book’s major strength. It is from her perspective that the book is told, although in the third person. She operates within the conventions of her time, deferring outwardly to her husband, playing the little wife who’s always endearingly late for things and just a bit scatterbrained. But inwardly she has a core of steel – she has achieved exactly the life she wants and will defend it in any way she can. If that means she has to manipulate her husband to give up his dreams in favour of hers, so be it – she has the intelligence and fierce drive to do it, and the self-awareness to know that that’s exactly what she’s doing. But her slightly repelled fascination for her old friend allows Clare to sneak through her defences, and suddenly Irene finds she’s losing control of the situation – something she’s not used to and that frightens her.

I regret to admit that I think the ending is almost laughably silly, which is a major pity since I was loving it up to that point. I wonder if Larsen maybe just couldn’t think how to get her characters out of the situation she had so carefully and brilliantly crafted for them. Personally (and you don’t often hear me say this) I wished the book was a few chapters longer with a more complex and psychologically satisfying dénouement. But despite that disappointment, I still think this is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time, and would highly recommend it.

I was tempted towards the book by this excellent review from TJ at My Book Strings – only took me two years to get around to reading it!

Book 2 of 90
Book 2 of 90

This is the book chosen for me by the Classics Club’s #14 spin.

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Himself by Jess Kidd

Original and intriguing…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

himselfThere’s an unusual heatwave going on when Mahony arrives in Mulderigg, a “benign little speck of a place, uncoiled and sprawling, stretched out in the sun. Pretending to be harmless”. But then everything about Mulderigg is unusual, not least the fact that dead people are wandering all through it. Ghosts, but very human ghosts, looking and acting much as they did when they were alive. Mahony has been in Mulderigg before, when he was a baby, though he has no memory of it. Now he’s back to look for his mother, Orla, and to find out why he ended up in an orphanage in Dublin. But most of the people of Mulderigg don’t seem to want to talk about Orla, and those who do have nothing good to say about her. The story they give is that she left the village and must have abandoned Mahony – but Mahony won’t accept this, and nor does Mrs Cauley, an old woman who used to be an actress and now fancies herself as something of a Miss Marple. This unlikely duo set out to discover the truth, with the dubious assistance of the dead…

The book starts with a strangely off-kilter prologue in which we see a brutal murder carried out, but told in language that reads more as if what we are witnessing is a scene of beauty. And this sets the tone for the whole thing really – the writing is wonderfully crafted and full of beauty, while the story is ugly and the vast majority of the characters are pretty repugnant. It’s executed superbly for the most part, with a good deal of humour, some of it of the black variety. The setting is somewhere in rural Ireland – I’m not sure that we’re ever really told where – and the time is split between a “present” of 1976 and a past in the late ’40s and early ’50s. But the time is pretty irrelevant – this village doesn’t feel as if it exists in normal space and time. It has a Brigadoonish quality to it and, although there are references to the outside world, it seems almost cut off and entirely self-sufficient.

The plot, such as it is, is very stretched out and becomes increasingly far-fetched as it goes along. After I’d reached the end, I was left with a whole slew of unanswered questions and a general feeling that the author had got so carried away with the creation of her setting and quirky bunch of characters that she’d lost interest somewhere along the line in the actual story. There’s no doubt Kidd brings this odd, mystical village to life, though I couldn’t help feeling that sometimes it slipped from being Irish into Oirishness – I found myself thinking I wouldn’t be at all surprised to meet a leprechaun with a shillelagh at any corner, though I hasten to add that she stopped short of that. Personally, I could also have lived without the constant rather childish swearing and vulgarity – to have one fart joke is unfortunate, but to have several smacks of carelessness, or a need for dietetic advice. (FF’s Third Law)

Jess Kidd
Jess Kidd

I enjoyed the early part of the book a lot but gradually found that the style began to grate on me – somehow it feels overworked, every word polished and placed too carefully, giving the language itself precedence over the storytelling. The whimsical idea of the dead characters gains too much prominence in the end, so that every piece of dialogue or action is interspersed with endless descriptions of one or other of the ghosts doing something supposedly amusing in the background. And the extreme brutality of parts of the book feels like too great a contrast to the almost lyrical style in which they are told. This is clearly a deliberate stylistic choice, but one that I felt Kidd took too far, passing the point of acceptable shock to become distasteful.

Having said all that, I think this début shows more originality than anything I’ve read this year and the quality of the prose is extraordinary. It suffers a little, I feel, from a hangover from “creative writing” classes, but I’m certain Kidd has the talent to find a better balance between style and substance as her writing matures, and will learn the art of what to leave out. Despite my relatively low rating of 3½ stars, I would still recommend this one as an intriguing introduction to an author of whom I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more in the years ahead, and one whom I’ll be keenly watching.

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

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The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee

The naked emperor…

😦 😦

the schooldays of jesusAfter fleeing from Novilla at the end of the last book, Simón, Davíd and Inés arrive in Estrella. While there, Simón will agonise endlessly over how to get a decent education for Davíd, Inés will get a job in a dress shop, and Davíd will become even more obnoxious than he was in The Childhood of Jesus. The pseudo-religious symbolism will be replaced by a load of pseudo-mumbo-jumbo about numbers. And the hollowness of book 1 will turn into a vacuous vacuum in this one.

When I slated The Childhood of Jesus for being essentially empty of all meaning, many Coetzee fans told me not to give up on him – they assured me that really he was a wonderful, intelligent writer with plenty to say. So I gave him a second chance. I find it hard to believe, but this book is actually even more meaningless and shallow than the previous one. If ever there were a case of the emperor’s new clothes, this is it – Mr Coetzee is running naked through the streets, hoping people will still think he’s dressed in robes of gold and purple. Ironic really, since if this book does have a point, it is that the people of this strange country in which our tedious trio have washed up seem willing to worship Davíd despite him being an obnoxious and rather unintelligent spoiled little brat, who frankly should have been sent to bed with no supper at the end of chapter 1, book 1, and not allowed out till he apologised for existing.

Since this is a sequel, the following paragraphs will contain some spoilers for the first book.

emperor-no-clothesAt the end of The Childhood, it was left with Davíd and his surrogate parents fleeing Novilla because the authorities there wanted to put Davíd in some kind of institution, considering his behaviour disruptive. The suggestion, subtly given in the title, was that Davíd was some kind of Messiah, perhaps even actually Jesus, and as he fled he began to pick up followers who recognised his frequently touted but never shown exceptionality. This second book promptly drops all that, and drops other “important” symbolism from book 1 too, such as Inés, the virgin mother in The Childhood, now apparently being a sexually experienced woman (without having had sex in the interim I might add – miraculous!).

Simón, devoted to Davíd and convinced of his exceptionalism in book 1, is now finding that the child is simply difficult – something I feel the rest of us had worked out long before. Davíd shows no affection for these adults who have cared for him and promptly demands to become a boarder at his new school, where they are teaching the children how to call down numbers from the stars via dance. (That sentence alone should surely be enough of a warning to avoid the book at all costs.) Davíd instead gives his love to a weird caretaker, whose main attraction seems to be that he shows the schoolboys lewd pictures of women. But things all go horribly wrong and we have some jejune philosophising on justice and rehabilitation. After avoiding the overt but silly religious symbolism of the first book throughout nearly all of this one, Coetzee then reverts to what must surely be mockery by having Davíd offering redemption if only people would believe in him.

JM Coetzee
JM Coetzee

It is readable because Coetzee is a good storyteller. He manages to create a constant impression that he’s just about to say something meaningful, which keeps the reader turning the pages in hope. But sadly he has nothing meaningful to say, so he fills the space with a lot of pseudo-philosophical absurdity, occasionally humorous but always with a kind of supercilious sneer hidden not very thoroughly between the lines. When discussing book 1 with a fellow reviewer, I joked that Coetzee was probably having a good laugh at all the thousands of people vainly trying to find a coherent meaning in the novel – the joke’s on me for being daft enough to read book 2! Ugh! Needless to say, it was longlisted for the 2016 Booker… an institution always willing to see gorgeous robes where none exist, so long as the emperor has a well-known name.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Dirt Road by James Kelman

Road trip to the basement…

😦

dirt roadA young boy and his father, grieving for the recent loss of the boy’s mother and the longer ago loss of his sister, go on a trip to visit relatives in America. While there, Murdo meets up with a family of musicians, who invite him to play his accordion (annoyingly spelled accordeon throughout in my advance reading copy, whether intentionally or accidentally I know not) at a gig in a couple of weeks time. Murdo assumes his father won’t want him to go. In fact, his father wants nothing more than to sit around the relatives’ house and read, while Murdo lies on his bed in the basement, bored out of his head, listening to one of the two CDs he has. At the point where I finally threw in the towel (33%) they had only left the house once, and that was to go to the mall for a couple of hours.

The writing is undoubtedly excellent. Although written in the third person, the reader is entirely inside Murdo’s head, listening to his thoughts. It’s not stream of consciousness in the sense of long complicated sentences. Quite the reverse in fact – the sentences tend to be short and plain. But we do see Murdo’s thoughts drift and circle. On a technical level, it’s beautifully sustained and the voice and emotions ring true. My only criticism of the style is that, for some obscure reason, Kelman, having decided not to “do” Scottish dialect, still substitutes the word “ye” for “you” all the way through. This drove me mad. Either do a Scottish accent or don’t!

James Kelman
James Kelman

But the real issue is that there is no discernible plot or story. I realise that’s all the rage these days in some quarters of the lit-fic world and that many readers enjoy lengthy studies of emotions we have surely all felt, but it bores me rigid. The book is purely character study and stylish prose, and that’s not enough to make a novel. The blurb describes it as a road trip, but to be a road trip surely involves going out of the house occasionally. While the journey to America is moderately interesting, once they reach their destination it becomes entirely static. There is no sense of place, other than that I could describe Murdo’s basement and the shopping mall in detail. But happily for you, I won’t.

The only questions are, will Murdo go to the gig or not and will he and his father learn to communicate with each other? After what felt like hours of nothing happening, I found I couldn’t care less, and certainly not enough to stay with him in his basement for another couple of hundred pages, listening to him go round in endless circles about what it’s like to be a bored, isolated and grieving teenager. So I abandoned it and feel much better now, ye know. Perhaps it becomes more interesting later – perhaps there even is the promised road trip. But I’m afraid I’d had enough. This trend for books which do nothing but wallow in descriptions of fictional grief is not for me. The quality of the prose makes my 1-star harsh, but if I find a book so tedious that I can’t face reading on, then it seems ridiculous to rate it any higher.

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

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Conclave by Robert Harris

The Pope is dead, long live the Pope…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

conclaveCardinal Lomeli fears the worst when he gets an urgent summons to the bedside of the elderly Pope. By the time he gets there, the Pope has died. Even as the various cardinals kneel by his bedside to pray, one thought is in all of their minds – a new Pope will have to be chosen, and soon. Some are ambitious and would welcome the challenge, some even have informal teams in place to canvas for them, others fear the enormity of the role and include in their prayers a plea to God that He will not choose them. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Lomeli will have the task of running the Conclave – the meeting of all the cardinal electors to whom will fall the task of selecting the new Pope.

This is an absolutely fascinating and absorbing look at the process of how a new Pope is chosen. In the first few pages, we are introduced to so many people that I feared I’d never get a handle on who they all were, but quite quickly Harris develops the main players well enough for them to start to emerge as individuals, and, as the book goes on, we, like the cardinals, spend so much time sequestered in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Conclave that we become aware of their weakness and strengths. The Conclave works as a series of ballots, and by about the second ballot, I found I was totally engrossed in picking the man I thought would make the best Pope just as much as the characters in the book were.

Of course, this is a novel, not a factual book, so Harris makes sure there are plenty of scandals and secrets to come out, each one subtly changing the balance of power amongst the cardinals. But I found it refreshing that he chose not to try to denigrate the process by making it look like an entirely political battle for control of this enormously powerful organisation, nor by going for the easy target of the recent child abuse scandals. While many of the characters are flawed and ambitious, they are on the whole shown as true Christians, struggling through prayer and conscience to decide what’s best for their Church and their religion. We see the desire of the majority of these men to open their hearts to God, believing that He will guide them in their decision. I don’t know, of course, whether it’s really like that in a Conclave, but I rather hope it is.

On Lomeli went. Bellini… Benitez… Brandão D’Cruz… Brotkus… Cárdenas… Contreras… Courtemarche… He knew them all so much better now, their foibles and their weaknesses. A line of Kant’s came into his mind: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made…” The Church was built of crooked timber – how could it not be? But by the grace of God it fitted together. It had endured two thousand years; if necessary it would last another two weeks without a Pope. He felt suffused by a deep and mysterious love for his colleagues and their frailties.

Crucifixion of St Peter by Michelangelo in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast...
Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of St Peter in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast…

Harris shows the divisions in the Church between the traditionalists and the modernisers, suggesting almost that the Church could be facing schism if the new Pope fails to find a way to bridge the gulf. The Italian cardinals still think of it as their Church and hope for a return to an Italian papacy; the African cardinals feel liberalisation has gone too far, particularly over questions like homosexuality, and have a keen desire to see the first black Pope; the Americans and Europeans would like to see that liberalisation taken still further, with even some dangerous talk of women being given more prominent positions in the higher echelons of the Curia. And the plot also touches on the question of the religious fundamentalism sweeping the world, bringing war and terror in its wake, and how the various factions feel the Church should respond to that.

Amidst all this, Cardinal Lomeli must deal with the secrets that come to light, battling with his conscience as to how much he should allow himself to interfere with the process. Sequestered from the world for the duration, still scraps of information make their way in that could influence the minds of the electors. Should he tell, or should he remain silent? Will his interference look like a shabby attempt to sway the vote in his own preferred direction? Lomeli is a wonderful character, fully developed and entirely believable, a man who finds more strength than he ever thought he had, and who spends much of his time searching his own heart in a bid to ensure that he is truly open to God’s will.

I read this book over two days and any time I had to stop, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. You may be wondering then why it hasn’t got the full five stars from me. And annoyingly, I can’t tell you because it would take the review deep into spoiler territory. So all I can say is that the book crossed the credibility line twice for me – once forgivably in terms of taking some fictional licence, but the other leaving me feeling that the amazingly authentic impression given by the bulk of the book had been somewhat spoiled. So I’m afraid it only gets four and a half stars in the end, despite having been one of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading this year. But I still highly recommend it, especially since your credibility line may well be drawn in a different place from mine. And I hope you’ll all read it very quickly because, if I don’t have someone to discuss it with soon, I may well spontaneously combust!

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

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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A story of Kabul…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the kite runner2Two young boys grow up side by side in Kabul in the 1970s. Though in some ways they are best friends, they are not equal. The narrator, Amir, is the son of a rich man, whom he calls Baba, and Hassan is the son of Baba’s servant, Ali. Both boys are motherless: Amir’s mother died in childbirth, while Hassan’s mother ran away not long after he was born, leaving her husband to bring Hassan up alone. Amir is being educated, Hassan is illiterate and likely to remain that way. Hassan acts as Amir’s servant as well as his friend. But, more importantly in an Afghanistan divided along lines of class and religion, Amir is a Pashtun Sunni, part of the ruling class, while Hassan is a Hazara Shi’a – a group reviled and mocked. One day, during a kite-fighting competition, something will happen that will drive these friends apart, in a foreshadowing of the wars that will soon break the country apart. Many years later, as Amir returns to Kabul from his new home in America, his mission to put right some of the things left unresolved from his childhood mirrors the question of whether this broken country can ever find resolutions to its bitter divisions.

The first half of the book, which tells of the boys’ childhood and the event that changed their lives, is beautifully written, full of emotional truth. It is written in the first person from Amir’s point of view and he is a harsh judge of his younger self. He shows himself as weak and cowardly, traitorous even, while Hassan is all that is good and loyal and brave. Amir feels his father blames him for his mother’s death, and is jealous that Baba often seems to show as much fondness for Hassan as for himself.

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

While Hassan is a little too good to be true, it feels as if this is deliberate – that Amir’s guilt over his own actions has led him into idealising his childhood friend. And the reverse of that is that Amir’s depiction of himself also has to be seen as being affected by the same guilt, so that while sometimes it’s hard to like him, it’s still easy to empathise – to remember that he was a child and to look at how both boys had the prejudices of their society instilled into them from birth. We also see how Amir is affected by the struggle to gain his father’s affection despite feeling that he could never be the kind of boy his father wants his son to be.

For me, the second half of the book didn’t completely match up to the excellent standards of the first. Amir and his father flee the wars and end up in America. There is a lengthy section about their experiences there, and perhaps I’m just a little tired of the “immigrant experience” storyline now; it seems to have been done too often over the last couple of decades, and I didn’t feel this one added much to either that subject or this story. It feels like something of a hiatus, and a little contrived – a device almost, to allow Amir to return later to Kabul, looking at it through fresh, adult eyes. And when he does go back to Kabul, to show the horrors of life under the Taliban, it begins to verge on the polemical.

     In his rearview mirror, I saw something flash in his eyes. “You want to know?” he sneered. “Let me imagine, Agha sahib. You probably lived in a big two- or three-story house with a nice backyard that your gardener filled with flowers and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had servants, probably Hazaras. Your parents hired workers to decorate the house for the fancy mehmanis they threw, so their friends would come over to drink and boast about their travels to Europe or America. And I would bet my first son’s eyes that this is the first time you’ve ever worn a pakol.” He grinned at me, revealing a mouthful of prematurely rotting teeth. “Am I close?”
     “Why are you saying these things?” I said.
     “Because you wanted to know,” he spat. He pointed to an old man dressed in ragged clothes trudging down a dirt path, a large burlap pack filled with scrub grass tied to his back. “That’s the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That’s the Afghanistan I know. You? You’ve always been a tourist here, you just didn’t know it.”

Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini

This is a minor criticism though of what is, overall, a great book. I was thinking as I read the second half that it may well have affected me differently thirteen years ago when it was first published – I would have known far less about Afghanistan and almost nothing about the Taliban, and I suspect I would have found the book more shocking and gut-wrenching as a result. Now, if anything, the picture he paints seems a little muted – how easily we become conditioned to horror. Now the first half seems beautifully novelistic, but the second half feels almost journalistic, and the ending didn’t convince me nearly as much as the story of Amir and Hassan as children. I’m glad to have read it, though, and highly recommend it. I suspect it’s a book that will find its full impact again if and when we ever reach a point where this never-ending conflict is past and fading into history.

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The Girls by Emma Cline

The Age of Aquarius…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the girlsEvie is 14 the summer she meets the girls from the ranch – the summer of ’69. Childhood friendships fracturing as adolescence takes its toll and her parents each forming new relationships after their divorce, Evie feels alone and suddenly worthless, unwanted, almost invisible. When she sees the girls in the park, she is fascinated by everything about them; their air of wildness, defiance of social conventions, even their look of tattered grubbiness has a glamour in her eyes. So when one of the girls, Suzanne, seems to single her out for attention, Evie’s fascination quickly turns to infatuation, and a desire to prove herself mature enough to belong to this little group. Before long, she’s spending most of her time at the ranch, where she meets the group’s charismatic leader, Russell, and finds herself willingly sucked into a world that passes beyond hippy commune to cult. And by the end of the summer something so shocking will happen, it will shadow her life for ever.

The story is told by Evie from the present looking back. Right from the prologue we know that some of the girls will take part in a horrific multiple murder, but we don’t know the details and we don’t know how involved Evie will be until the end. In fact, though, the actual event is secondary – the book is about the psychology of cults, about how vulnerable people can find themselves being led to behave in ways that seem incomprehensible to onlookers, giving them an aura of almost demonic evil. As has been well trumpeted by the hype surrounding the book, it is loosely based on the Manson murders.

This is undoubtedly one of the books of the year for me. Cline’s writing style takes a little getting used to – while excellent, she perhaps strives a little too hard to be “literary”, especially at the beginning. But either her writing settles down after that or I got used to it – whichever, I soon found myself completely absorbed in Evie’s story. The characterisation is superb, of all the characters, but especially of Evie herself, both as a girl on the cusp of womanhood in the ’60s, and as an adult in late middle-age in the present. And the depiction of the cult is entirely credible, set well within this period of generational shift and huge social upheaval.

The Manson "family"
The Manson “family”

Evie is at that age when she knows all about the adult world but isn’t part of it. She understands that the girls from the ranch are in some kind of sexual thrall to Russell, but Cline shows Evie as still being at that stage when girls are more interested in their relationships with other girls, when even boyfriends and sex are more about peer pressure and being in with the crowd than about real attraction, sexual or otherwise. She is a lonely, vulnerable child-woman, wanting to know what it’s all about, wanting to be one of the girls, wanting to do whatever it takes to be permitted to stay around Suzanne. Even when she is inevitably drawn into the sex aspects of the cult, for her agreeing to participate is more to do with her crush on Suzanne than any particular admiration for Russell. Intriguingly and, to me at least, convincingly, Cline emphasises that it’s the girls who set the bait to attract other girls into the cult. The cult leaders aren’t let off the hook – they are clearly shown as abusers, but Cline shows the subtlety with which they indoctrinate these vulnerable, often damaged girls – and indeed boys – to become willing victims at first, and later willing participants in the victimisation of others.

Although it’s only touched on lightly, Cline shows the impact the Vietnam war was having on young people at this time, with a growing division between the ‘patriotic’, rather conservative pro-war faction and the more hippy anti-war culture, with both sides always aware that young men drafted to the war might die or come back horrifically maimed. And, again subtly, she shows the ‘generation gap’ that in some ways grew out of this, with young people losing respect for authority of all kinds, including their parents, and parents in turn baffled by their children’s rejection of their values. This aspect of the book reminded me of Roth’s American Pastoral, though seen this time through the eyes of the child rather than the parent; and of the musical Hair and its divided reception – the serious points it made about the anti-Vietnam movement, the hippy counter-culture and the growing disconnect between the generations somewhat lost on an older generation that became fixated in shock over its on-stage nudity.

Age of Aquarius-790-xxx

In the present day, Evie is equally convincing as a damaged survivor of the cult. She is staying temporarily in the house of a friend, whose teenage son turns up unexpectedly with his girlfriend, Sasha. When Sasha learns that Evie was part of this infamous cult, her curiosity forces Evie to look back to those days and re-assess her own involvement. She sees some of her own vulnerability in Sasha, and also her own refusal to accept advice or guidance. We see Evie haunted still by the massacre, questioning her own level of culpability, her own willingness to step knowingly over moral boundaries in a bid to belong.

Emma Cline
Emma Cline

Overall, I found this a thoughtful and convincing look at how cults attract, especially in times of social unrest. It’s also a well-told and interesting story, though I feel the link to the Manson murders might actually work against it by raising expectations that it will be more sensationalist than it actually is. The massacre is foreshadowed throughout and the rather understated telling of it doesn’t lessen its impact, but the emphasis of the book is more on the psychological journey of the cult members to that point. An excellent book, all the more so considering it’s Cline’s début – an author I’ll be watching keenly in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Book 12
Book 12

Enigma by Robert Harris

Masterful storytelling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

enigma 2It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

What a joy, after a series of less than stellar reads, to find myself in the safe hands of a master storyteller once again! This is a masterclass in how to write a book. The writing is so good it hooks instantly. Harris recreates wartime Britain with what feels like total authenticity; and specifically the world of these men, recruited for their brilliant minds, their maths and puzzle solving skills, on whose youthful shoulders it sometimes feels the whole weight of the war rests. Throughout the book, Harris feeds out his extensive research into Bletchley and codebreaking at the right moments and in the right quantities, as a natural part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. He carefully creates his characters to feel real and then ensures their actions remain true to that characterisation. And oh, bliss! The book has an actual plot – a proper story, that remains credible throughout and holds the reader’s attention right to the end! The pleasure of reading this well-crafted, expertly-paced story highlighted to me what a rarity that has become in contemporary fiction.

The book starts in Cambridge University, where Jericho has been sent to recuperate. The whole feeling of the ancient university in wartime is beautifully created, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The old staircases and shabby rooms, the ancient traditions; the dullness of an institution empty of so many of the young men and women who would normally have been there, but who are instead part of the war effort; the gossiping staff with too much time on their hands, speculating about the arrival of this young man and then his sudden departure; the difficult position of young men not in uniform, but whose work is too secret to be revealed.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park

On arriving back at Bletchley, Jericho finds that two convoys have left the US and are crossing the Atlantic. The Americans want assurances that the codes will be broken quickly enough to allow for these convoys to be protected, but Jericho sees no hope of that. Instead, he believes that by monitoring the signals of the U-boats that will be aiming towards the convoys, he might gather enough information to break the codes. Harris shows very clearly the ethical dilemmas the young codebreakers must face – they find themselves almost hoping for the convoys to be attacked so that they can get the information they need. Harris also raises the point that it was often necessary not to act on the information gathered from Enigma so that the Germans wouldn’t realise the codes had been broken and change them. Thus many Allied lives were sacrificed in the hopes of saving many more by eventually winning the war. He doesn’t labour these points in a heavy-handed way, but he uses them to show the almost unbearable levels of stress the codebreakers worked under, coupled with the necessary secrecy of the work which left them somewhat detached from the rest of society, in a little bubble of constant tension.

No wonder then that suspicion was never absent, the fear of spying a real and present threat. So when Jericho discovers something that forces him to question Claire’s loyalty, he is torn. His head knows he should make the authorities aware of what he’s found, but his heart wants to find her and give her an opportunity to explain. And soon he finds himself teamed up with Claire’s old house-mate, Hester, backtracking through Claire’s actions in an attempt to find explanations.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

The plot gives Harris the opportunity to gradually lead the reader through how the whole set-up worked, from the soldiers and sailors risking their lives to get hold of code books, to the listening stations on the South Coast where the women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) intercepted the coded German signals*, and on to the huts in Bletchley, each responsible for an aspect of the war; Eastern Front, naval manoeuvres, etc. Harris shows how women were restricted to being glorified clerks, regardless of their skills or aptitude, while only men were given the more glamorous job of the actual code-breaking. But his few female characters are excellently drawn, strong and credible within the limitations the system forced upon them. The stuff about the codebreaking is complex, sometimes too complex for me, but the story doesn’t get bogged down in it. As with all of the best spy thrillers, there is a growing sense of moral ambiguity throughout, where even the motives of the baddies are equivocal.

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this one gets my highest recommendation. And now to watch the film…

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*including my mother.

Book 11
Book 11

Zero K by Don DeLillo

When the time comes…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

zero kAs the book begins, the narrator, Jeff Lockhart, is travelling to an isolated region of the world, somewhere in or near Kazakhstan, where there is a secret facility, largely financed by his billionaire father, Ross. The facility specialises in cryogenics, freezing people at the point of death so that, at some time in the future when medical science has found the way to cure their ills, they can be brought back to life. Ross has asked Jeff to come now to say goodbye to his step-mother Artis, who is about to undergo the procedure. But, as Jeff is to discover, the facility offers more than a simple medical treatment – it has a whole staff of scientists, philosophers and others working on what this second life, which they call the Convergence, will be like.

This is a strange book that takes one of the clichés of science fiction and turns it into something that is either incomprehensible or profoundly thought-provoking, depending on how willing the reader is to play along. For a good proportion of the beginning of the book, my cynical sneer was getting a great workout. The writing is excellent, with moments of brilliance, but the dialogue is entirely unnatural – these people speak in constant profundities. However, behind the cliché, a distinctly unsettling atmosphere of unease soon begins to seep out of the pages, as Jeff wanders alone through the silence of the facility, down long corridors full of doors with nothing to indicate what is behind them. At the end of some of the corridors are viewscreens, showing increasingly horrific images of disaster, destruction and death. And soon my cynicism turned into a fascinated absorption in the imagery and in trying to work out the meanings behind it.

“What was it beyond a concentrated exercise in bewilderment?”

The thing is, I reckon there are a few things the book is definitely ‘about’, but many others that individual readers will create for themselves in the spaces DeLillo leaves deliberately unfilled. It is primarily a reflection on the importance of death in shaping the way we live our lives. Is death not essential if we are to define life? Would we still race to achieve if we were eternal? Is it the aloneness of dying that makes us fear it? And, if so, is there something almost comforting in the thought of dying with hundreds or thousands of others in some catastrophic event?

“They sit in lotus position or run through the streets. A burning man running through the streets. If I saw such a thing, firsthand, I would run with him. And if he ran screaming, I would scream with him. And when he collapsed, I would collapse.”

It’s an exploration of identity – is there a distinct, immutable ‘I’ within us or are we purely a construct of our experiences and those things we adopt or have pushed on us – our names, our nationalities, being born into wealth or poverty, even our bodies? If all these things are taken away from us, what is left? If we find our way to immortality through becoming some kind of cyberhumans, will that fundamentally change the ‘I’ that we were as fully human mortals? If we are alone, unheard and unseen by any other, do we exist at all, or do we need the reflection of ourselves that comes back to us from other people to really be?

All questions that have been asked before, of course, but DeLillo gives them fresh urgency by tying them in with some of our most worrying contemporary concerns. The images on the screens are sometimes of environmental disasters, sometimes of terror, and sometimes of war at its most brutal. The time is now or the very near future, but somehow the world in the book seems to have shifted a few degrees closer to catastrophe. He hints at religious fundamentalism, at the evils of globalisation with its huge disparities between rich and poor, at the wilful continuance of environmental destruction. We see child soldiers, and we see them die.

“Here you are, collected, convened. Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for? A way to claim the myth for yourselves. Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth.”

There is also a mystical element to the new life being designed at the facility. It seems almost as if they are trying to find a way to create a new religion – an atheistic religion, with its own rituals and code; their attempt to produce physical immortality some kind of compensation for their lack of belief in a spiritual afterlife. But there are chilling aspects to this – will their attempts to reprogram the people with a new language and ethical code before they are reborn leave anything of the original ‘I’? Or will they in fact be forming a kind of extreme totalitarianism where cyberhumans are literally ‘made’ to obey?

Instead I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile idea? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells them, in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.

DeLillo raises all these questions, and more, subtly, so that they arise out of Jeff’s attempts to make sense of what he’s seeing, rather than the reader feeling bludgeoned. Jeff is fascinated by trying to define the meanings of words and as the book goes on the words he focuses on become progressively harder to define, like the ideas behind them. The facility is also home to some weird and unsettling art with lifelike mannequins appearing in increasingly disturbing tableaux. The idea of a new language being created reminded me of the real case of Turkey changing its alphabet from Arabic to Latin just after WW1, with the result that later generations have apparently largely lost touch with writings from before then, and therefore with their literary history; and I wondered if in the new world of the Convergence, all that would be left of art would be these chilling visual images.

Don DeLillo Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Don DeLillo
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

I’m guessing you realise by now that I found this book fascinating and deeply thought-provoking, though in truth I found it frustratingly obscure too. Surprisingly for such a nebulous read, it has an ending that I found both beautiful and satisfying, not providing answers exactly but perhaps suggesting that in the end the answers exist within us. I suspect this is a book that will be hated by some and loved by others, and indeed early reviews seem to be all over the place. From a shaky beginning, I grew to love it, for the writing, the imagery and the intelligence of it, and am greatly looking forward to reading some of DeLillo’s earlier books.

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

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Book 9
Book 9

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

Home is…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the visitorAnastasia King left her father’s home when she was 16 to live with her mother in Paris. Now, when she is 22, both her parents are dead and she has returned to Dublin expecting to live in her old home with her paternal grandmother. But old Mrs King is quite content to live alone with her memories of her beloved son and has never forgiven her daughter-in-law for bringing shame on the family by leaving him. And she’s no more willing to forgive Anastasia for choosing her mother over her father.

This novella is an early unpublished work of Maeve Brennan’s, discovered after her death in a University archive. The editor tells us that he has done some minor tidying up of the text, but that it is substantially as she wrote it. This begs the question why she never sought to, or perhaps failed to, have it published in her lifetime. It is a wonderful study of loneliness, self-absorption and selfishness, of thwarted love, both romantic and familial, and of a longing for that nebulous thing we call ‘home’.

She kissed her grandmother hastily, avoiding her eyes. The grandmother did not move from the door of the sitting room. She stood in the doorway, having just got up from the fireside and her reading, and contemplated Anastasia and Anastasia’s luggage crowding the hall. She was still the same, with her delicate and ruminative and ladylike face, and her hands clasped formally in front of her. Anastasia thought, she is waiting for me to make some mistake.

The writing is excellent – the story mournful and entirely absorbing. There’s a claustrophobic feel to it, with these two brilliantly created characters inhabiting the same space but never sharing it. Mrs King is cold and selfish even in her love for her son, perhaps having been the cause of the flight of his wife. She sees Anastasia as her mother’s daughter and shows no grandmotherly love for her, and no sympathy for her recent bereavement.

Where it would have been easy, and perhaps facile, for Brennan to show Anastasia solely as a victim of Mrs King’s cruelty, in fact she does something much more subtle and effective. As the story unfolds, we begin to see that this coldness and emotional detachment may be a family trait, that perhaps the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. While Mrs King makes no effort to ease Anastasia’s return to Dublin, Anastasia equally shows no concern over how her return may disrupt the settled patterns of this elderly lady’s life. Each selfish action is reflected back from the opposite angle, often reversing the reader’s initial perceptions. When Mrs King refuses to allow Anastasia to have her mother’s body brought home and buried with her father, is it Mrs King who is being selfish in refusing a reasonable request, or is it Anastasia failing to understand the shame her mother brought on her father when she ran away? Why, anyway, would Anastasia assume her mother would want to be buried with the man she left? Both characters see the world through narrow viewpoints, their own wishes always at the forefront.

As the story continues, both characters commit some acts that are chilling in their level of selfishness, made more so by the quiet, almost matter-of-fact way in which Brennan relates them. There is a third character, Miss Kilbride, an old friend of Mrs King’s, who serves as a contrast and catalyst. Having been dominated by her invalid mother, another selfish monster, Miss Kilbride still lives in her mother’s house, psychologically unable to think of it as her own and leaving everything as it was while her mother was alive. Unlike the two main characters, Miss Kilbride knows what it means to love someone unselfishly, making her the most sympathetic and likeable character in the book, whose story injects some much needed emotional warmth. The request she makes of Anastasia provides the climax of the story – a disturbing, shocking climax that forces the reader to reassess all that has gone before.

She walked out along the shallow path. At the gate she turned to look up at Miss Kilbride’s window. It was blind and closed, like a person sleeping. Like Miss Kilbride, lying on her back in difficult slumber. And later, waking to dream of a doubtful deathly union with her long-lost hero, with whom she had once struggled in valiant, well-dressed immodesty on a small settee, for love’s sake.

Maeve Brennan
Maeve Brennan

I was quite blown away by this novella. The amount of insight and depth of characterisation that Brennan packs into such a small space is amazing, and I became so engrossed in it that I read it in one sitting. Along the way, it made me gasp more than once, and I admit to a little sob too at one point. All three of these women became real to me in a way that many characters in much longer books have failed to do, and I doubt I’ll forget their story. I shall promptly be seeking out more of Brennan’s work – if she thought this one wasn’t good enough for publication, then I can’t wait to read the stuff she thought was good. Highly recommended!

I won this in Cathy at 746 Books’ Reading Ireland 2016 giveaway. Thank you again, Cathy – great stuff!

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Book 6
Book 6

Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

The hipster scene…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

three martini lunchIt’s 1958, and Greenwich Village in New York is the centre of the hipster scene, populated by aspiring poets and writers – some, dilettante rich boys, others more serious in pursuit of their dreams. Here we meet the three characters who take turns to narrate their own stories. Eden is a young woman just arrived from Indiana, determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing. Rich boy Cliff’s father has cut off his allowance, determined to force his son to earn his pleasures. But Cliff thinks he can write and is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big, a break he feels his father could easily give him. Miles is black – a Negro, in the terminology of the time. About to graduate from Columbia, he’s working part-time as a messenger-boy for one of the publishing houses. Miles also aspires to write, but unlike Cliff he has real talent and the industriousness to work quietly towards his goal. When their lives intersect, casually at first but gradually more intricately, a chain of events is started that will change the course of their lives.

Rindell has the gift of creating truthful characters with individual voices, and of putting them into settings that feel totally authentic. The book is ambitious, looking at several different aspects of how life in this outwardly bohemian corner of society reeked of the same kinds of prejudice that were prevalent in the wider world. Her scene-setting is superb – she brings the Village to life in all its seedy vibrancy, a place where dreams arise out of drugs and booze and usually sink under them in the end, but where just occasionally a true talent can emerge. She is brilliant at capturing the speech patterns and slang of the time, never falling into the trap of over-using them.

In my review of her previous book, The Other Typist, I remarked that the book was seriously over-long for its content. I felt this may have been because she was trying to give a fullness and depth to her setting, but said that, in my opinion, she had achieved this perhaps more quickly than she realised, leaving all the rest feeling like repetitious filler. I fear I have to make the same criticism of this one, but with less generosity – here it feels self-indulgent, as if she has fallen in love with her characters and her depiction of the Village, and wants to spend more time with them than is necessary. As a result, after a great start, the first half of the book tends to drag with very little forward momentum and no clear narrative drive. For too long, I had no glimmer of where we were heading.

Looking back on it now, I see that New York in the ’50s made for a unique scene. If you lived in Manhattan during that time you experienced the uniqueness in the colors and flavors of the city that were more defined and more distinct from one another than they were in other cities or other times. If you ask me, I think it was the war that had made things this way. All the energy of the war effort was now poured into the manufacture of neon signs, shiny chrome bumpers, bright plastic things, and that meant all of a sudden there was a violent shade of Formica to match every desire. All of it was for sale and people had lots of dough to spend and to top it off the atom bomb was constantly hovering in the back of all our minds, its bright white flash and the shadow of its mushroom cloud casting a kind of imaginary yet urgent light over everything that surrounded us.

However, from about the halfway point, the various strands begin to come together and the story she tells is more than worth waiting for. This is a hero-less book – each of the characters is flawed, each selfish in pursuit of his or her aims, each weak at points. But they are created so carefully that it’s easy to see why they are as they are and hard not to empathise with each of them, though perhaps not equally. While the voices of all three characters are excellent, Cliff’s is truly outstanding. He narrates his sections in a conversational tone, picking up the rather jazzy language and inflections of youth culture of the time and sustaining it wonderfully throughout. He is perhaps the most complex of the three, selfish and narcissistic, often seeming unaware of his flaws, then just occasionally using a kind of self-deprecating humour that leaves the reader wondering if he understands himself better than he pretends. Rindell handles this with great skill, so that there’s an ambiguity on occasion as to whether he believes his own self-justifications, and it’s unclear whether he knows how much he is revealing to the reader between the lines.

Suzanne Rindell
Suzanne Rindell

While Cliff’s problems are mostly brought on by his own weakness of character, blaming everything on the father he thinks doesn’t do enough for him, both Eden and Miles have to contend with issues forced on them by the society they live in. Eden has to overcome both sexism and anti-semitism in the workplace, while Miles has the double complication of being both black and gay, at a time when homosexuality was still considered a crime. Rindell manages the delicate task of handling all of these liberal concerns without the book ever feeling preachy – she keeps all of the characters living in their own time and doesn’t project modern sensibilities onto them. She leaves that up to the reader and it works much better as a result. And all of these issues feed into a fascinating and credible plot, rather than being the sole focus of the book.

While I struggled a bit with the first half of the book, I raced through the second half. Rindell is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and skilled new writers I’ve come across in recent years, coming up with original stories and great characters, and writing them with an easy assurance many a more experienced author must watch with envy. The Other Typist was a crossover between crime and literary fiction, but this one falls much more clearly into the latter category, which I feel suits her style better and is where her future should lie. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing how she develops.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.

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Book 4
Book 4

GAN Quest: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Polemics too thinly disguised as fiction…

😦

americanahAfter living for some years as an immigrant in America, Ifemelu has decided to return to her native Nigeria. As she sits in the hairdressers having her hair braided, she reminisces over her adolescence in Nigeria and her life as a student then an adult in America. Her experiences have led her to start a blog discussing the reality of life as a non-American black person in the US, and her blog posts are sprinkled throughout the book. She makes the point that, until she became an immigrant, she had never considered herself as black, and she draws clear distinctions between those in the black community who have grown up as Americans and those who are foreign to the culture, making the further point that in terms of social strata the two groups are treated differently by the white elite.

In fact, she makes a lot of points. And many of them are interesting and insightful, if repetitive and hardly original. There is a tendency, which seems to be happening more and more, for literary authors to use the novel form to make polemical statements. Some do it well, so that the book can be read on two levels – enjoyment of the story and appreciation of the message. Others forget to put in the story. Many of these books are highly successful and well regarded, as this one is, so I’m perfectly willing to accept that my objection to being preached at is subjective, due partly, I suspect, to the fact that I read a lot of factual political books and so am looking for something rather different when I come to fiction.

I think back over the literary books I consider great and find that most of them were making political points or observing their societies with a revealing and critical eye. But they also tell a story, have great characterisation, fabulous prose and some kind of tension that keeps me turning the pages. Will Becky Sharp beat or be beaten by the society at which she is thumbing her pert nose? Why is Beloved haunting her mother? Will Miss Flite ever be able to set her birds free?

Here’s the story of Americanah. Back when she was a teenager, Ifemelu fell in love with a boy. They separated when she went to America. He is now married and has a child. Ifemelu intends to contact him when she gets back to Nigeria to try to revive the old embers. Do you care if she succeeds? I don’t. In fact, I’d be rather disappointed if she does. It’s a plot that wouldn’t even hold together a quick YA romance, much less a 400-page novel with literary pretensions. Therefore I abandoned it a third of the way through.

All the rest (of the part that I read) is observation mixed with chip-on-the-shoulder polemics. Part of my problem with this book, and with so many others about the ‘immigrant experience’, is that I don’t think Ifemelu’s life is actually bad enough to justify her eternal whining. She is one of the privileged in this world of ours – not poor in Nigeria, given a scholarship to study in America, welcomed in by that country, educated, professionally employed, well-fed, still at liberty to return to her own country any time she wishes. The ‘racism’ that she meets with seems mainly to take the form of her feeling pressured to have her hair straightened in order to get work. I sympathise, but it’s hardly slavery, and frankly when she finally lets her hair revert to its natural state, no-one sacks her or pokes fun at her or calls her names. Please don’t think that I’m for one moment minimising the impact of racism or even cultural pressure, but most of Ifemelu’s experiences could so easily have been seen as a cause for celebration rather than resentment. Sometimes discrimination is in the eye of the beholder, and Adichie’s eye seems determined to find a racial nuance in every aspect of her character’s interactions with the world.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The prose is fine, occasionally beautiful, but mainly workmanlike (no doubt she would complain about the sexism inherent in that word). Not exceptional enough to carry me through, though. I realise I’m swimming against the tide on this one – in fact on this whole trend of thinly disguised polemics. I abandoned Annie Proulx’s Barkskins for almost exactly similar reasons. But reviews are personal things, and personally I am bored by these books, so can’t recommend them. My 1-star rating reflects the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to read several hundred more pages of the same and it always seems to me ridiculous to give a book a higher rating if it couldn’t entice me to finish it. But it would probably have earned 3 or even 4 stars in reality, had I struggled through to the end.

(I read this as part of the Great American Novel Quest, but it will be obvious that it doesn’t rate as great for me.)

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Book 3
Book 3

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Cold War espionage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

exposureWhen fading Communist spy Giles Holloway falls drunkenly down his stairs and breaks his leg, he must somehow get the Top Secret file he has “borrowed” back to the Admiralty before anyone notices it’s missing. So he turns to his old friend and colleague Simon Callington for help. But Giles is under observation and someone sees Simon collecting the file. And so Simon is sucked into a situation that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

It’s almost impossible to write a short blurb for this one that doesn’t make it sound as if it’s a spy thriller, and in many ways it is. But mostly what it is is a set of brilliant character studies showing the impact of this event on the lives of all those involved. It’s also a highly intelligent twist on The Railway Children – a book the author herself references in the text, so the connections are clearly intentional – where we see the story from the adults’ side. And it’s an entirely credible portrayal of a fictionalised version of the Cambridge spy ring and its association with homosexuality, at that period of the 1950s and early ’60s still a crime, and enough to destroy a man’s career and even life, if exposed.

The writing is excellent, quickly building up a tense atmosphere of secrecy and suspicion. The book is written in third person, allowing the reader to get inside the head of each of the major characters in turn. Dunmore’s skill allows her to use tense effectively – the book is mostly written in the present tense, but slips in and out of past tense seamlessly when appropriate, so that the reader always knows where s/he is in the timeline. The “past” is there only to provide the reader with an understanding of why the characters act as they do in the present – the real story is of the weeks and months following Giles’ accident.

Cold War spy fiction is usually an almost entirely male preserve (with the exception of the occasional sexy femme fatale) and the Cambridge spy ring has been examined many times in fiction and fact, so to a degree Simon’s and Giles’ stories are familiar territory, though rarely in my experience told with such exceptional depth and credibility of character. But what really makes this book stand out from the crowd is the inclusion of Simon’s wife and family.

The real Cambridge spy ring…

Lily is intelligent and loving, never once doubting her husband’s innocence and fiercely protective of her children. But her childhood was filled with experiences that give her particular cause to fear and distrust the shady world of intelligence and security – a past she now fears may come back to damage Simon and the children. Dunmore brilliantly shows how Lily’s early experiences are both her weakness and her strength when she must start making decisions for her family.

Peter is the eldest son but still only a boy on the cusp of his teen years when the story begins. With his sister, at first his head is full of adventure stories, such as the aforementioned Railway Children, where somehow the children will find a clue that will save their father, or be able to survive on their own if, as they fear, both their parents are arrested. Dunmore again gives a superb portrayal of Peter suddenly being forced to grow up before his time and take on some of the responsibilities of the man of the family. Lily finds herself reluctantly leaning on her son’s strength, but simultaneously regretting that he is now losing his childhood too early, as she herself had done.

The family is at the heart of the book, but the spy story is excellent too. Giles is a low-level spy, once a golden boy but now his constant drinking making him something of a liability. We see the coldness at the heart of the spy ring – the readiness of each level of the organisation to sacrifice the people lower down in order to protect themselves. But Dunmore also takes us back to the time when Simon and Giles met, so that we can see how their relationship developed and understand why Simon still retains feelings of loyalty to this rather sad and broken older man who has dragged him into a situation that is destroying him and the people he most loves.

Helen Dunmore
Helen Dunmore

To understand the Cambridge spy ring, it’s necessary to understand the society of the time, so different to today’s. Dunmore’s depiction feels perfect – at no point did I have that jarring sensation of tripping over an anachronism. The physical stuff – furniture, cigarettes, food etc – is used skilfully to put us into this time period, without ever being overdone. But even more, she reproduces the social and emotional aspects of the time with great authenticity, especially with regard to the two aspects most closely associated with the Cambridge spies – the old boys’ network of class and social background, and society’s attitudes to homosexuality. Her characters’ reactions are always true to the period – no 21st century political correctness creeping in at inappropriate moments. I think the best compliment I can pay her is to say that the book reads as if it could have been written contemporaneously.

And so, when the end plays out with all the drama and suspense of any good spy thriller, it nonetheless all has a feeling of inevitability and truthfulness – none of her carefully developed characters could have acted in ways other than they do. A wonderful book, one of the best of the year for me, and I shall certainly be reading more of Dunmore’s books soon.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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20 books 2016

This is Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer.