It’s Bloody. Raw. Violent. Bleak.
The North Water by Ian McGuire long listed for the Man Booker 2016, is a gripping novel that oozes darkness on every page. Exactly what’s needed from a thriller. Add to that a fantastic sense of 1840’s andy a sublime rendition of the Arctic landscape and you have the best historical thriller I’ve read for years by a long way.
Is The North Water a Booker winner though? Is it even a shortlist candidate? I’m thinking a definite no to the first question and only a maybe to the second. Why? Because as exceptionally well written as this novel is, it’s not a very literary piece of prose and doesn’t push the boundaries of its genre in a way I expect a Booker winner to do. Within its own genre it’s a magnificent accomplishment. Maybe thats what the judges are looking for – excellence and readability in one hit. But when I stack it up against previous winners I don’t see it in contention.
But….. those comments shouldn’t be taken as a reason to push this book to one side. For if you love plot driven novels, especially ones which are as meticulously constructed as this one and as persuasively authentic in terms of period detail, this is definitely a book to add to the wishlist.
Be warned, some the language may be considered ‘ripe’ but recognise this is a book with a seafaring cast of characters used to hardship and calling a spade a spade. There are also some passages that are not for the squeamish since McGuire pulls no punches about the brutal and bloody business of whaling in the 1840s nor of the harshness of character such work engenders. But this isn’t gratuitous blood and guts stuff, this is a novel realistic about a business in which only the most nimble, selfish and ruthless whalers will survive.
The most ruthless of them is Henry Drax. He’s a harpooner on the whaling ship The Volunteer which is about to set off from England on a six month voyage to Greenland. Within the first few pages we get the measure of this character. He’s killed a man who crossed him in a bar, and beaten unconscious and raped a young black street urchin without hesitation or consciousness. Death to Drax is a pleasure a matter of pride when executed to perfection.
Drax goes swiftly through the motions; one action following the next, passionless and precise, machine like, but not mechanical. He grasps onto the world like a dog biting into a bone – nothing is obscure to him, nothing is separate from his fierce and surly appetites. What the nigger boy used to be has now disappeared. He is gone completely and something else, something wholly different, has appeared instead.
The opening scene is a portent of the ills that will befall The Volunteer once the voyage is underway. Further omens follow: the captain is the only survivor of a previous whale boat disaster (the only crew member among 18 to survive) which makes his new crew rather jittery and they are not even aware of a secret discussion he olds with the boat’s owner. Then there is a new surgeon Patrick Sumner, nursing a wound from his days with the army in India. He claims he wants a period of calm (a whaling mission seems a bit of odd way to get recuperation) before claiming an inherited piece of land in Ireland. But he has rather too much of an affection for laudanam and his own dark role in a tragedy which caused his dismissal from the regiment under a cloud.
Sumner is the only character who really evolves and develops through the novel. The other characters exist mainly to propel the book forward and to set up some tension so we are not clear who are the good guys and who is not to be trusted. Sumner finds he is no match for wilds of Alaska and its animal inhabitants. There time on the ice fields sees them hunt bears and slaughter seals and whales but ultimately their natural skills and inner resources prove inadequate when faced with the unrelenting, indifferent force of nature. Only Sumner learns to adapt but even then the change is his persona is not permanent.
All of this is a story told in a language that is far from subtle but superbly evocative. McGuire has a talent for creating descriptions that are visceral, sensory and direct.
Many of the memorable images relate to the crew’s battle with the animals that inhabit the ice field but they also relate to the landscape itself.
Here are a few examples:
A sea captain shoots a crew member , splattering “an aureole of purplish brain matter” on the wall.
When the sailors kill a polar bear:
… a great purple gout of blood comes steaming to the surface and spreads like India ink across her ragged white coat. The air is filled with a foetid blast of butchery and excrement.
Later in the book when Sumner pursues a cub bear for miles across the ice field he is spooked by a cry behind him:
… a sudden uprising bellow, a vast symphonic how, pained, primeval, yet human nonetheless; a cry beyond words and language it seems to him, choral, chronic, like the conjoined voices of the damned.
Returning one evening to a missionary’s lonely hut, Sumner sees the borealis
… unwinding across the night sky in peristaltic bands of green and purple, like the loosely coiled innards of a far-fetched mythic beast.
Within a few pages Sumner will get rather close to the innards of the missionary when he has to operate on an abscessed stomach releasing a cataract of “foul and flocculent pus”. Yuk…
This is a novel best not read when you’ve just eaten or are about to eat ….
But don’t let that put you off. You can always do the equivalent of my tactic faced with a gory bit on TV or in a film and hide behind a cushion…
Author: The North Water by Ian McGuire
Published: 2016 by Simon and Schuster
Length: 326 pages
My copy: borrowed from the library so I could at least read some of the Man Booker 2016 long listed titles
Other reviewers thoughts: Not all bloggers have rated this book as highly as I did. For other persectives take a look at alternative reviews see The Readers’ Room via this link and Bellezza’s thoughts here
I don’t normally join in with Top Ten Tuesday but this week’s topic happened to coincide with one of my periodic reviews of my TBR. So I give you my list of 10 Books That Have Been On My Shelf (Or TBR) From Before I Started Blogging and Still Have Not Got Around to Reading.
In no particular order:
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Yes I’m ashamed to admit I have yet to read this classic in its entirety – just read bits and pieces as needed for essays. Oops.
- Armdale by Wilkie Collins. Exactly when this book came into my house I am not sure. It was at least 17 years ago since it was in the boxes when when we moved into our current house that long ago. Indeed it is a rather old looking paperback though not so old that the pages are yellow. I might even have read it but if I did then it left no impression on me. It is however not the oldest book on my shelves.
- Can Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope. I read the first two in the Barchester Chronicles (The Warden and Barchester Towers) and loved them. The plan was to read the whole series and then move onto the Palliser series of which Can You Forgive Her is the first title but I never got beyond Barchester Towers. My copy of Can You Forgive Her is dated 1996 so you can see how long ago I dreamed up that plan. I will get around to it sometime soon….possibly
- Even then the Trollope is not the oldest on the shelf. That dubious honour goes to The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. My copy was printed in 1986 – yep it’s been with me for 30 years and has never been opened since there isn’t any sign of a crease on the spine. I started reading an e version of this about two years ago but lost interest.
- George Eliot – The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes. I love Eliot’s work and bought this rather fat book as a way of getting to know Eliot the person. It’s been on the shelf now for longer than 5 years and I haven’t even opened it.
- A Parisian Affair and other stories by Guy du Maupassant: I made this a special request one Christmas having heard that Maupassant was a master of the short story format. I must have been in one of my “I need to read more short stories’ periods; none of which have proved successful.
- Virginia Woolf An Inner Life by Julia Briggs: There is a definite pattern emerging here with many of the books that are stuck at the back of the shelves falling into the category of literary biographies. Maybe I thought that I would seem very learned and intelligent by reading these…..
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. About 10 years ago some work colleagues recommended this breakthrough work on climate change and chemical pollution. I wasn’t looking forward to it, expecting it would be rather ‘worthy’ and stuffed full of facts which would make it less readable. But the introductory pages were a revelation because Carson was clearly someone who understood rhythm and meter and imagery. It was a very poetic form of prose that I loved. But clearly not enough to read any further because there the book sits on the shelf unread all these years later.
- The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe. This 1794 novel is satirised in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I’d never read it but thought it would be interesting to see exactly some of the form and conventions of the Gothic novel that she was ridiculing. It’s a fat novel where not a lot seems to happen for a very long time other than the heroine goes wandering around some mountainous region of France. I kept waiting for the ‘horror’ element to kick in. My copy still has my bookmark showing that I read about half of it. Will I ever go back to read the remaining section? Hm, not entirely sure about that.
- Pamela by Samuel Richardson. This one belongs to an era when I was trying to fill in some gaps from my reading of the early British novel. Pamela, published in 1740, was the best-seller of its time. The reading public obviously had more patience and tolerance than I did because I’ve not got much further than page 50. As with Radcliffe, will I feel its good for my soul to read this or that life it too short to spend on books I am not enjoying?
Forget about class divisions or gender boundaries, generation gaps or religious beliefs; in my view of the world what really separates us is whether we are numbers people or words people. I’m firmly in the latter camp. Give me a piece of text to analyse, interpret and possibly improve and I am in my element. Confront me with a bunch of numbers whether in table or graph or columns and my brain shrivels.
It was always so. At school I was the one in class who handed a question along the lines of “if a bath fills at x number of gallons per minute and empties at x gallons per minute, how long before the bath will be full?, would answer “a damm sight quicker if you left the plug in the hole.”
I do admire people who can see a set of numbers and instantly detect patterns and connections. I can get there after a fashion – you have to if you don’t want to look entirely stupid in a business meeting – but it takes a lot of blood and sweat.
What the hell you might then think am I doing reading a book about a maths professor? And one that also contains numbers and real maths problems with concepts like prime numbers and logarithms? The first time they appeared in Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor I actually got out my pencil and tried to work out the problem (I would have loved to have been able to do it in my head just like the young boy whose mother gets to clean house for the maths guru but no such luck). So struck was I with another little puzzle about prime numbers and the fact I could even understand it, that I challenged my 17-year-old nephew who is a maths whizz kid to solve it. He didn’t. I didn’t push my luck though with the next batch of questions which looked much harder. I know my limits. Instead I just enjoyed the words which flowed around the numbers and just accepted that there are people in the world who might get even more out of this book if they understood both the numbers and the words.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is set in modern day Japan and features a Professor who was a brilliant mathematician until he was injured in a road accident. Now confined to a dingy two-room apartment his brain can retain only 80 minutes worth of memory. His suit jacket is covered with reminder notes he scribbles to himself to make up for his incomplete memory. He can still solve maths problems and in fact spends much of his day tackling competitions in specialist journals. But ask him to remember the name of his cleaner or even who this woman is who turns up at his door, and he is lost.
It’s as if he has a single, 80-minute videotape inside his head and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories.
Over the years he’s gone through a lot of housekeepers. They find him too strange to stick around particularly when seemingly innocuous questions like “what is your birthday’ or ‘what is your shoe size?’ are transformed into lessons about number theory. The narrator of this novella is housekeeper number 10 (we never learn her name). At first she too finds him strange but comes to respect him and to like him through witnessing his passion for maths and his kindness towards her son, a boy he nicknames Root because the shape of his head reminds him of the mathematical square root symbol. Slowly the three form a connection as the Professor instills his knowledge and his enthusiasm for number patterns with mother and child. Inevitably we learn that this knowledge provides the foundation for the boy’s future career.
He’s a brilliant tutor – the kind I wish I’d had in my school days. Explaining prime numbers he draws an analogy with a hunt through inhospitable countryside
When you get to much bigger numbers – a million or 10 million – you’re venturing into a wasteland where the primes are terribly far apart […] that’s right, a desert. No matter how far you go, you don’t find any. Just sand as far as the eye can see. The sun shines down mercilessly, your throat is parched, your eyes glaze over. Then you think you see one, a prime number at last, and you go running toward it – only to find that it’s just a mirage, nothing but hot wind. Still, you refuse to give up, staggering on step by step, determined to continue the search … until you see it at last, the oasis of another prime number, a place of rest and cool, clear water …
Just as steadily the book began to take a hold on me too with its skilful mixture of understated atmosphere and its attention to the minutea of life. There are plenty of feel-good moments when mother and son scour the city for a momento of the Professor’s beloved baseball player so they can mark the old man’s birthday. Occasionally the narrative stretches the boundaries of plausibility – at one point the housekeeper gets to grips with Fermat’s Last Theorem with the aid of a few pages in a library book.
Is this knowledge an illusion? The novella certainly has a dreamlike, almost mythical quality to it with its idea of a wise old man leading a younger mind to enlightenment. Even so most of us can appreciate that when knowledge is acquired, when we discover that what had so far seemed complex and unattainable, is now revealed. Perhaps for us, as for the housekeeper “the world suddenly changed” at that moment. I’ve not given up hope that one day I’ll understand logarithms et al but I rather suspect it will take me a lot longer than the few hours it took the housekeeper.
Author: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Published: original title Hakase no Aishita Suushiki 2003 by Shinchosa Co Ltd
Translated: from Japanese by Stephen Snyder for Vintage Books 2010
Length: 180 pages
My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until Women in Translation Month 2016
I’m beginning to wonder if I have an issue with multi-generational family sagas. They do tend to go on for far longer than the story can sustain – and my patience endure. Or perhaps Tree of Life by Maryse Condé had been on my ‘to read’ shelf for well past its ‘best before’ date and the initial impetus for buying it had long disappeared. Either way, this was my first read for Women in Translation month 2016, and I was disappointed.
Tree of Life is a very personal story of multiple generations of one family from poverty in Guadeloupe to a comfortable existence with the trappings of a middle class life. It’s told by one of the descendants Coco although it is not until the end does she understand why she is telling this story. She is ‘the child of our tomorrows’ a family acquaintance tells her, the keeper of the flame of memory not just of her family but of her country’s history.
Coco begins by relating the history of her great grandfather Albert Louis, a man of determination who resolves to be slave to no man and to forge a new life for himself.
..on that day, Albert Louis, … looked at the handful of coins he had just received from the over-seer, raised his eyes to Heaven as if asking courage of the sun, and thundered:
It’s over. This is the last time I come here to get my pay like a dog.
And with that dramatic flourish he prepares to leave his native island and head to to America where he’d heard there was money to be made building the Panama Canal. After years of hardship and a few personal setbacks he rises above the level of a drudge and in doing so lays the foundation of a dynasty whose members travel far and wide from Guadeloupe. The lives, loves and tribulations of his descendants become the focus of the rest of the book tracing their rise to wealth from around 1904 to the 1980s as they move variously between cane plantations in Guadeloupe, poor settlements in Harlem and Haiti and the excitement of the streets of Paris. They try their hand at commerce, experience the joy and heartache of love and dally with politics.
This sweeping narrative is appealing in part. Arthur Louis is very much the patriarch who rules his life and those of his children with passion and stubbornness. There is more than a tinge of moral ambiguity to this figure. He gets swept along by the teachings of the Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey, placing huge faith in Garvey’s statement “I shall teach the Black Man to see beauty in himself.” Yet back home in Guadeloupe the native workers he employs to run his import-export warehouse and business fare little better than Albert Louis did in his plantation days and he squeezes everything he can from the impoverished black families who rent his shoddy tenement houses.
Equally well drawn is the troubled relationship of Coco and her mother Thecla. The latter sees herself as rather a free spirt, which seems to involve having a love affair and then ditching the resulting mixed race daughter in France, never to see or make contact with her for 10 years.Then when she’s shacked up with some other guy she drags the poor child first to Guadeloupe and then to Jamaica, exposing her to bulling and ridicule as not racially pure. If I had a mother like that I’d be hell bent on putting as much distance as possible between me and her.
Woven through the life stories of the generations is the emergence of black consciousness and the struggle for equality. Individuals within each generation develop their own approaches to the issue with varying degrees of success but despite the growth of mixed marriages, there is still a feeling of animosity between white and black populations. It’s left to Coco’s mother to make the most impassioned statement about discrimination that can ranges from verbal and physical attacks to prohibiting children playing together and forming friendships across colour. Yet what Thecla also sees is how racial attitudes may to always be stated – they just exist.
Thecla explains to her daughter that her origins as the child of a white family, make it hard to relate to her daughter because all she sees is the whiteness of her father and
… his mother … on her high horse, asking me who my family was and sniffing in disgust at the salt-cod smell of our name. For no one ever said a word about my colour which fundamentally was the real problem. They never talk about colour even if its right there before their eyes: It’s not done. It’s dirtier, color is, than the green diarrohea of amoebic dysentery or the sulphurous yellow piss of incontinence! When I see you, yes, I can’t help it, it’s all that I see. … Filthy stupidity, stubborn arrogance, pettiness ….. Alas thats how it is and neither you nor I can do a thing about it.
Tree of Life is a meandering novel that starts well but then seems to get bogged down in detail when Arthur Louis returns to Guadeloupe and the next generation grow up. The detail is clearly important to Coco and to Condé herself but I don’t see them as interesting to us just as my family’s history is precious to me but I know few other people care what my great great grandfather did. So for all the references to the troubled history of Guadeloupe and its people, ultimately this felt like a very long story about a set of individuals who once inhabited the planet.
Author: Tree of Life by Marys Condé
Published: as La Vie Scélérate in 1987 by Editions Seghers
Translated: from French by Victotia Retter and published in English by Ballantine Books/Random House in 1992.
Length: 368 pages
My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until Women in Translation Month 2016
Moscow Christmas Eve 1985. The naked body of a young boy is found at the foot of the Kremlin. There are no clues as to how he met his death. No bullet holes, no stab wounds, no broken limbs, no bruises. But his skin is unnaturally white. Someone, it seems, drained his body of blood before dumping him in the snow.
One week later and Alex Marston, the headstrong teenage step-daughter of the British Ambassador, goes missing from the official residence. Has she been abducted? What’s the connection between her and the body found at the Kremlin? Her mother is distraught. For her step-father it’s an inconvenience because if she’s not found quickly he’ll be obliged to involve the Soviet police and diplomatic service.
Though he has little regard for Major Tom Cook, the newest member of the Embassy team, the Ambassador’s options are limited. Cook, a chaplain turned army intelligence officer who it appears was hurriedly sent to Moscow to avoid spilling secrets to a government inquiry about uncover operations in Northern Ireland, is drafted in to find the girl. It’s an assignment that drags him deep into the heart of a faction of the Soviet establishment that is determined to protect itself at all costs. Cook has to call on all his resources in the face of opposition from KGB, the Politburo and some of the highest level of government ministers, none of whom want the secrets of the past to come to light. He has few people on his side other than the owner of a seedy bar, a former soldier who returned from Afghanistan with a prosthetic made from the leaf spring of a car. This unlikely pair have to act fast as the body count rises.
An avalanche of thrilling set pieces propels the plot forward to a perfect show down ending. Grimwood is new to thriller writing (he’s a well established author of science fiction) but his handling of tension and complex plot lines is sure-footed. If that was all this novel offered I’d have rated the novel as a good one to read on a beach/sun l0unger
with eyes only half open. But this is a novel which brings Moscow and the Soviet system in the era before Glasnost vividly to life. This is a country divided between those who want to protect the centralised command and control model of the past and the newer political leaders like Gorbachev who see the future as one of reform and openness.
Into this maelstrom steps Cook, a hero who is as divided as the country in which he now has to operate. He’s a man very much at home with a very large flask of vodka. Alcohol is the only way he can deal with his demons; the despair over the death of his daughter and his failure as a father. His quest for Alex becomes a personal quest for salvation:
…. how could he explain he’d pinned his entire hope of redemption on finding Alex? He needed redemption as much as she needed saving. If she was still alive to be saved. if there was enough of him to be redeemed. He wouldn’t allow himself to leave the Soviet Union until that was done. He couldnt…
Tom knew how absurd that was, how arrogant, how messianic.
He didn’t care.
Like most of the characters Grimwood presents in Moskva, Cook is larger than life. But there’s enough of his back story, and enough of his ruminations on his failure as a father, a husband and soldier to feel that we want to be on his side; empathising when he suffers set backs, groaning when he seeks out yet another shot of vodka and cheering him on when he gets his breaks. Without him Moskva wouldn’t be half as good a novel. It would still be a good yarn but with him, Grimwood has delivered a stunningly readable, atmospheric, gripping novel.
The Daily Telegraph picked it as one of the best crime fiction novels of 2016. I won’t argue with that…..
Footnotes for Moskva by Jack Grimwood
- Published in hardback format: May 2016
- Paperback due out November 2016
- Publisher: Penguin
- Print Length: 480 pages
- Language: English
- Author webpage: http://www.jackgrimwood.com/index.html