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Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé [Review]

Naples - gate of hellFrom the earliest Greek and Roman civilisations, people have believed in the idea that hell is an underworld accessible to mortals via special gates on the surface of Earth. It was through these gates that Orpheus travelled to rescue his wife Eurydice and Dante descended through nine concentric circles of suffering in The Inferno.

In Laurent Gaudé’s novella Hell’s Gate, hell is a state of mind as well as a place. It’s the mental torment experienced by Matteo, a Neapolitan taxi driver whose young son is the innocent victim of a gangland shooting. Matteo blames himself. If only he hadn’t harried his child to walk faster when he took him to school that morning. If only he’d listened to the boy’s cries to slow down. If only he’d stopped for a second to tie up his son’s shoe lace. Those seconds would have put his boy Pippo out of danger.

Matteo and his wife Giuliana are consumed by despair at the loss of their son.  Matteo’s reacts by driving aimlessly through the darkened city every night, not picking up any passengers, just driving. His wife’s response is to demand revenge to bring ‘some small, fragile solace like a little breath of air on my wounds.” But though Matteo tracks down Cullaccio, the gangland leader responsible for the boy’s death, he cannot bring himself to kill the man. Giuliana leaves their marital home cursing her husband for his weakness and cursing all fathers for failing to protect their sons.

Just when Matteo feels his life has lost all meaning, he encounters the strange Professor Provolone and his revelations that there is a way Matteo can be re-united with his son. It requires him to accept there is an underworld the living can enter and from which they can return.   It’s through the Professor’s explanations of the  “bridges, intersections, grey areas” connecting the two worlds, that Matteo achieves a degree of peace.

For the first time in a long while Matteo felt happy.  He looked at his strange companions: a disgraced professor, a transvestite, a mad priest and the easy-going owner of a café.  He wanted to share a meal with these men, to listen to what they had to say, to stay with them in the dim light of the little room, far from the world and its grief.

Determined to recover his son he descends into the sulphurous underworld through a gate in the port of Naples. His companion and guide is the unstable priest Mazerotti.

They were on foot, going at the halting rhythm of pilgrims lost in a strange land. They were a tight little group of men feeling their way in the night, like blind men holding each other by the arm or the shoulder so as to not get lost. Or like madmen in a boat gliding silently through the water, wide eyed at a world they did not understand.

rodin's hell

Rodin’s view of hell – detail from his Doors of Hell sculpture

The rescue requires priest and father to negotiate multiple obstacles all of which are graphically described.  It’s a vision of hell that will be familiar from its many depictions in art, one full of writhing shadowy figures streaming through a diseased landscape. Gaudé’s vision comes complete with giant doors sculpted with “hundreds of faces disfigured by suffering and horror … their toothless mouths forever laughing, dribbling, shrieking with rage and pain”;  the Spiral of the Dead, a River of Tears where the dead souls are tossed and beaten as they see their lives pass by and Bleeding Bushes adorned with the scraps of flesh from the souls left in the land of the living.

That the boy is rescued isn’t a surprise because of the structure of the novel. Hell’s Gate actually opens with an adult Pippo hell bent on the revenge his father was unable to execute. It’s 20 years after Matteo’s journey into the underworld.  Pippo is now a barista with the uncanny ability to concoct exactly the right blend for each character depending on their mood. Tonight will be his last at the cafe however because he is about to murder his murderer Cullaccio. He approaches his task without fear:

I’ve already been to hell – what could possibly be scarier than that? All I have to ward off are my own nightmares. At night, the blood-curling cries and groans of pain come flooding back. I smell the nauseating stench of sulphur. The forest of souls surrounds me. …. Other people might call them nightmares but they’re wrong. I know what I see is real – I’ve been there.

The book thereafter is organised in chapters that alternate between Pippo’s narrative in 2002 and his father’s in 1980. Taken together they offer an exploration of revenge, guilt and a search for salvation.  Regardless of whether you believe in hell, the novel Hell’s Gate is an intense and compelling read that seamlessly weaves fantasy with reality.

Endnotes

The Book: Hell’s Gate by Lauren Gaudé  was published by Gallic Books in April 2017. Translation from the French is by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken. The original French version was published in 2008 as La porte des Enfers. 

The Author: Laurent Gaudé was born in Paris in 1972. He is a winner of the Prix Goncourt for two of his novels. La porte des Enfers is his fourth novel. He has also written several plays. 

Why I read this book: My copy was provided by the publishers Gallic Books via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Other Reviews: 

ANZlitlover’s review 

RavenCrimeReads review  

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I wouldn’t like to be drawn against Graeme Macrae Burnet in any game that requires participants to keep a straight face while lying through one’s teeth. He’d be far too good for me to spot if he was telling porkies.  Not that I know the man personally you understand – I’m basing my depiction of his character entirely on the subterfuge he concocts in his novel His Bloody Project. 

This is a book that is written to make you think it’s a true story. It’s subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” for one thing and contains a preface declaring that these  documents relate to a murder trial that the author uncovered while researching his family history.  The  documents ‘found’ in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness include a manuscript in “handwriting… admirably clear with only the most occasional crossings-out and false starts” about a triple murder.  Burnet keeps up the fiction that this is a ‘true’ story through the rest of the book, presenting it in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial. And so we get witness statements, a written account by Roderick Macrae, the 17-year-old crofter  accused of the murders, an extract from a (fictional) investigation by the (real) pioneering criminologist James Bruce Thomson and local newspaper accounts of the trial.

But this is neither a story about one of his ancestors nor a fictionalised account of a real incident. However, according to a newspaper interview with Burnet there is some grain of truth in His Bloody Project. In the novel, for example two of Roderick Macrae’s uncles die in a shipwreck – a similar accident befell two of Burnet’s own family around the same time as the novel is set and close to the location of the fictional tragedy. There actually was a triple murder committed some forty years earlier by a crofter just like Roderick Macrae but both these incidents only came to light after Burnet had finished the first draft of his novel.

This is one ingeniously plotted novel. We know from the early part of the book that Roderick is in prison accused of beating to death the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie who had waged a war of intimation against his father. There is no question that Roderick is the culprit – he was seen with blood on his hands and he confessed to his actions. In his testimony he says “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering from father from the tribulations he had lately suffered.” What we don’t know at the start of the book is who the other two victims are nor why he might have killed them. His former teacher describes him as an exceptionally intelligent boy who could have gone on to greater things but for his father’s insistence that he works on the land. Neighbours however describe him as a bit of an idiot, a lad who was always “wrong in the head.” Did he intend to kill or did he suffer a temporary loss of sanity, a form of moral insanity so that he is not responsible in law for his actions?  The prison doctor and a criminologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, leading to some blackly funny dialogue about whether all murderers share common physical characteristics.

The book’s pretence at veracity is one of the pleasures of reading His Bloody Project. Along with that we have the presence of not just one, but several unreliable narrators to keep us wondering where truth lies. Add to the mix the fact Macrae brings into focus the hardships of life for poor crofting families in the Highlands of Scotland who have to scratch a living from impoverished soil, and you have a highly enjoyable reading experience. A minor niggle for me was the lucidity of Macrae’s testimony – he makes an apology at the outset for “the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style’ and then proceeds to turn in some fluid and perfectly grammatical prose. Even the schoolteacher’s assessment of the boy’s superior intellect didn’t convince me that a boy from such a poor background with little formal education beyond a village school could write so coherently.  Overall it didn’t markedly spoil my enjoyment of what was in essence a well conceived and well executed novel that I highly recommend.

Footnotes

The Book: His Bloody Project was published in 2015 by the small independent publisher Saraband. It went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.  Though it was considered an outsider because it fell into the genre of crime fiction (which isn’t a genre the Booker judges tend to select), it beat off strong competition to get onto the shortlist.

The Author: Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, Graeme Macrae Burnet worked for several years as an English teacher in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto and London, before returning to Glasgow and working for eight years for various independent television companies. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (Contraband, 2014), received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust. His Bloody Project is his second novel. His third is currently in progress.

Why I read this book: The day the Booker longlist was published I noticed this book was available an an e-version at a ridiculously low price so I bought it intending to read it before the shortlist announcement. I started it but got the impression it would be one of those books that has crucial information at the beginning so you need to keep turning back – which I find impossible to do on an e-reader. I requested a hard copy instead from the library but it arrived when I was out of the country and then I didn’t have time to read it so back it went unopened. But clearly the fates were determined I would read this because in February my sister turns up to visit me in hospital with a paperback copy, declaring “you really should read this.” Who could argue with that? So third time lucky for Mr Burnet…

 

 

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The discovery of skeletal remains under a public car park in Leicester a couple of years ago re-awakened interest in King Richard III, the man forever lodged in the public imagination as a murderous hunchback with withered arm.   Archaeological and forensic evidence of the skeleton revealed a spinal deformity but established unquestionably that both the withered arm and the hunchback were myths. What about that other accusation that Richard was a murderer? Did he actually have his two young nephews, the real heirs to the throne, killed in the Tower of London in order to clear the way for his own ascent to the throne?  Or is that an invention of Tudor-era historians keen to separate the new dynasty from the past?

Richard’s role and culpability has long been a subject of fascination but most of the debate took place in the narrow confines of historical academia. In 1951 however, the question became popularised with the publication of The Daughter of Time by the Scottish novelist Josephine Tey.

It’s rather an odd book; a mash-up of historical novel and detective story; in which a modern-day detective ‘investigates’ the crimes of which Richard has stood accused for centuries. All the investigation takes place from the confines of a hospital bed where Inspector Alan Grant (the central figure in Tey’s crime fiction series) lies flat on his back having broken his leg by falling through a trap door. He’s desperately bored. He knows every crack on the ceiling and has zero interest in the pile of books brought by well-meaning visitors. He perks up when his actress friend brings him a collection of portraits attached to historical controversies. After years in the police force Grant thinks he can tell a villain from an innocent just by their face so when his eye falls on a portrait of Richard III,  his curiosity is aroused. What he sees is not the face of a murderer but a man “used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist.” The more Grant reads about Richard, the more convinced he becomes that there is a mystery waiting to be uncovered. He quizzes hospital staff about their knowledge of the Princes in the Tower and reads whatever he can get his hands on – fortunately for him, one of his nurses has kept her old school history book.

All good detectives in fiction need a side kick to do the running around on their behalf, digging out the info from which the great brain will make his deductions. In The Daughter of Time the side kick role is allocated to Brent Carradine, a young American researcher at the British Museum. Together the pair read chronicles from Richard’s time and the Tudor era; delve into assessments by more contemporary historians and track down original documents. Grant dismisses the assessments of chroniclers like Thomas More (whose History of Richard III is the primary source for the conventional story of the murders) as “back-stair gossip and servants’ spying.” More after all was just five years old when Richard seized the throne so couldn’t possibly have written his account based on personal knowledge.

Nor does Grant have much faith in latter-day historians. “They see history like a peep show, with two-dimensional figures against a distant background” he tells his actress friend. Instead Grant relies on his ability to judge a man’s character by the cut of his jib and to spot the gaps in evidentiary documents – skills honed from his years at Scotland Yard. On the eve of Grant’s departure for home, he summarises the case for Richard’s defence and the case for seeing a wholly different culprit – his successor on the English throne, King Henry VII.

This is a novel that was immediately popular upon its publication. It took a subject seen by many as ‘dry’ and made it into a quest for justice and the truth.  It caused many readers to burrow in their attics for their dusty school history books and re-acquaint themselves with the fifteenth-century equivalent of Who’s Who. A radio program based on the book followed in 1952 and then a spate of  novels, plays, and biographies sympathetic to Richard throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

If Tey’s intent was to rehabilitate the reputation of a man best known as the villain of Shakespearian drama, she certainly succeeds in creating doubt about the veracity of that portrayal. But as a work of literature it has its faults. By necessity a lot of background information needs to be provided and explained so we get large chunks of narrative along these lines:

Do you know about Morton?

No

He was a lawyer turned churchman, and the greatest pluralist on record. He chose the Lancastrian side and stayed with it until it was made clear that Edward IV was home and dried. Then he made his peace with the York side and Edward made him Bishop of Ely. And vicar of God knows how many parishes besides. but after Richard’s accession he backed first the Woodvilles and then Henry Tudor and ended up with a cardinal’s hat….

Then we get multiple conversations between Grant and Carradine which go along the lines of

I’ll tell you something even odder. You know we thought that XYZ……… Well, it turns out that …….

What!

Yes you may well look startled.

Are you sure?

Quite sure.

Not exactly riveting dialogue is it?  I know a certain amount of exposition is required for the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the period or the key figures but Tey goes over-board on this. I didn’t feel I needed to have everything spelled out and it deadened what would otherwise be some fascinating insights into the machinations of the times. The shame is that it marred an otherwise fascinating book. My knowledge of the period isn’t deep enough to judge for myself whether it’s Henry we should consider to be the instigator of what happened more than 500 years ago. But Tey does make a persuasive case for re-evaluating Richard’s reputation. She’s also re-awakened my interest in the period – tonight I’ll be watching the BBC version of the Shakespeare’s play (the final episode in the Hollow Crown series). Then tomorrow I plan to head for the library hoping they might have a history of Richard’s reign.

Footnotes

The Book: The Daughter of Time was published in 1951, the year before the death of its author. In 1990 it was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association.

The Author: Jospehine Tey was one of the pen-names of Elizabeth MacKintosh, a teacher from Inverness, Scotland. She started publishing novels in 1929 under the name Gordon Daviot, using that pseudonym also for some historical plays. A Daughter of Time was her final novel.  She left her copyrights to the National Trust.

Why I read this: I tried reading another of Tey’s novels – Brat Farrar  – but found it rather dull so gave up. I found a copy of The Daughter of Time in a second hand shop at very low cost and since I’m a sucker for the Wars of the Roses period in history, my curiousity was awakened.  The 1951 Club, the latest in a series of events hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, gave me the impetus to take it out of the bookcase.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

glorious-heresies2The Glorious Heresies is a bold, brash debut novel that won Lisa McInerney numerous accolades including the Bailey’s Prize and the Desmond Elliot prize in 2016.

McInerney’s edgy style will not be to everyone’s liking and her portrayal of Cork’s seedy underworld is unlikely to do much for the city’s tourist trade. Forget any images of pastoral landscape and Guiness-fuelled booze ups to the sound of a few jolly fiddlers. The world of The Glorious Heresies is a crowded vista of brothels and grim housing estates of schoolboy drug dealers and malicious thugs.

Tony Cusack’s terrace was only one of dozens flung out in a lattice of reluctant socialism. There was always some brat lighting bonfires on the green, or a lout with a belly out to next Friday being drunkenly ejected from home (with a measure of screaming fishwife fucked in for good luck), or squad cars or teenage squeals or gibbering dogs.

The novel begins with an accidental murder in a block of flats used as a temporary residence for Maureen Phelan, the mother of one of the city’s leading gangland bosses. When she hits an intruder over the head with a Holy Stone, Maureen sets in motion a chain of events that entangle her son and three other members of the city’s underclass.

To describe the plot further would be to do an injustice to McInderney’s novel because the power of The Glorious Heresies really stems from the brilliantly delineated misfits that make up her cast.  The guy drafted in to dispose of the body is Tony, a drunken wastrel and father of six, whose alcoholism and obsession with his unhinged next-door neighbour threatens to ruin him and his family.  Georgie, the murdered man’s girlfriend, is a wildchild who has run away from her village home because “if she didn’t get up and march out, she’d grow roots down through the thin carpet, down through the foundations, down into the soil, the dirt, the rock and trap herself there until her brain turned to jelly.”  Her new life in Cork is one of drugs and prostitution.

Feeding her habit is Tony’s fifeteen year old son, Ryan. He’s desperate not to turn out like his father who is rather too free with his fists when he’s in his cups. He’s an intelligent boy though disruptive in school, one who hides his talent for playing the piano and puts on a show of bravado. But deep down he mourns the mother who died four years earlier and whose presence is still felt in the family home:

It was a three-bedroom terrace so cavernous without his mother he could barely stand it. It echoed shit he didnt want to think about in chasms that shouldnt have been there.

As the novel opens, Ryan is on the fringe of manhood, about to leave behind his “pile of mangled, skinny limbs” and emerge with “squared shulders and jaws, and strong arms.” His metamorphosis is achieved with the aid of Karine D’Arcy, “”whip-smart and as beautiful as morning”, the most desirable girl in his school. She was now in his bedroom, helping him lose his virginity.  Their relationship is the only stability Ryan can count on as his life goes into spin: a predatory next door neighbour seduces him; his father is implicated in the disposal of the corpse and Ryan’s drug dealing gets him sent down for nine months in a young offenders’ institution.

Though Ryan is the central character, it’s the gangster’s mother Maureen, a woman “crazier than a dustbin fox”, I warmed to the most. After 40 years of exile in London she’s returned to Cork to discover the illegitimate son she had to give up for adoption, has become a much-feared thug, drug baron and sex-industry entrepreneur.  She’s determined to atone for the death, despite her son’s protestations that she’s already caused enough trouble. But when she goes to church to confess her crime, her encounter with a priest stirs up memories of the way the Catholic Church treated unmarried mothers like herself.  She ends up accusing the priest of hypocrisy:

The most natural thing in the world is giving birth; you built your whole religion around it. And yet you poured pitch on girls like me and sold us into slavery and took our humanity from us.”scarred by the treatment yet still vividly scarred by having spent her years in fear of the Holy Trinity: “the priests, the nuns and the neighbours”.

The switching narrative viewpoints take us deep into the minds and hearts of these people and make us cry and despair alongside them, and, at times, laugh.  For though their prospects are bleak and the city is in a post economic-boom tailspin, the sheer muddle of their lives produces some dark humour.

It’s an exuberant debut, unflinching in exposing the dark underbelly of  a city  “spread out in soft mounds and hollows, like a duvet dropped into a well” and biting in its denouncement of the Catholic church as well as a missionary cult that seems to think the answer to the city’s drug problem is to hand out pamphlet. This is a novel that asks serious questions about salvation, guilt and the effects of the past on the present.

Footnotes 

The Book: The Glorious Heresies was published by John Murray in 2015.  It won The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016 and the Desmond Elliot Prize for 2016. It was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prie 2016. I read the e-version.

The Author: Lisa McInerney is from Galway and is the author of an award-winning blog ‘Arse End of Ireland’ (no longer active or available). The Irish Times has called her ‘arguably the most talented writer at work in Ireland today’. Her latest novel The Blood Miracles is published in April 2017 – it features Ryan Cusak (from The Glorious Heresies).

Why I read this book: Although I often ignore books that attract huge levels of attentionl this one appealed to me. I read it for ReadingIreland2017 hosted by 746books and  The Fluff is Raging.

 

 

The View from Here: Recommended Romanian authors

viewfromhere

We’re off to Romania for our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world.  Our guide is Georgina who blogs at Readers’ High Tea.

Let’s meet Georgina

Hello! My name is Georgiana and I live in Bucharest, Romania. My academic background is a blend of computer science and business studies, and at the moment I work as a management consultant. As hobbies, I enjoy travelling to places I’ve never been before and doing sports (snowboarding and squash). I’ve been interested in books since childhood, and recently this interest has materialized in a blog –  Readers’ High Tea. I created it as a cosy place where readers share thoughts about the books they read, find what book to read next, and also read about other bookish stuff like discovering nice bookstores around the world.

I am currently experimenting a lot with my reading, so I do not have particular authors I like and read a lot. Carlos Ruiz Zafón is the exception here, as his gothic style made me fall in love with his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. I read both classics and modern authors, mostly foreign ones. The most recent book I’ve read and enjoyed (a lot!) is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Tell us about the traditions of literature in your country. Are there any particular styles or characteristics for literature from your region? Any themes or issues that you see reflected frequently?

The most common themes reflected in the Romanian literature are rural life (inspiration from nature, folklore, the daily lives of peasants), social and political conditions, and the effects of the war on people’s lives (including the struggles of intellectuals during the war). Modern writers also tackle subjects as spirituality, religion, and self discovery.

What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of Romanian literature? 

Romanian literature is studied in-depth during high school years, ranging from from poetry to drama and novels. When it comes to the ones considered classics, I would mention Moromeţii (The Moromete Family) by Marin Preda and Ion by Liviu Rebreanu – two novels that portrait the ordinary peasants’ life. Another one is Enigma Otiliei (Otilia’s Enigma) by George Călinescu, a novel that presents the life of people in Bucharest at the beginning of the 20th century. Maitreyi (Bengal Nights) by Mircea Eliade, one of my favourite books I’ve studies in school, depicts the writer’s love story with the Indian girl Maitreyi Devi.

Regarding poetry, Mihai Eminescu is for sure considered one of the greatest Romanian poets. Tudor Arghezi, Nichita Stanescu (he was inventing words called unwords), and Lucian Blaga are also classics studied at school.

What books and authors are very popular right now in Romania? 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins are very popular at the moment. Also the recent Harry Potter related books (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) are quite trendy. In general, young adult books are popular, and also many self-development books (some examples: time management – Musai List by Octavian Pantis, life style – The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo)

What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from Romania ? 

Unfortunately many Romanian authors are not translated in English. From the authors that are translated, I recommend Bengal Nights by Mircea Eliade, he was a Romanian historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago. Nostalgia and Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu are also worth checking out, as Cartarescu he is an awarded contemporary writer. Another recommendation is Book of Mirrors by Eugen Chirovici, which is said to be global publishing phenomenon.

Views from Around the World

There are 16 other countries featured in the View From series with guest bloggers from Japan, France, Canada and South Africa for example. Do take a look via the View From page.

 

Interested in doing a View From guest post?

If you’d like to represent your country of birth or the place you live or the literature of a country you feel passionate about, do please get in touch.  Either send a direct message via Twitter to @BookerTalk or via the contact me form below

Tomorrow by Graham Swift [review]

tomorrowSome protagonists are designed to be annoying.  Some simply are that way.  No matter how annoying, frustrating or distasteful they can still be fascinating and memorable for readers.

If only that were the case in Graham Swift’s Tomorrow. Sadly his central character Paula Hook is decidedly irritating but – it has to be said – too self-centered and pre-occupied to also be interesting. She’s the mother of sixteen-year-old twins Nick and Kate (or as she likes to call them her “pair of shrimps” or “angels”. It’s 1995 and she lies awake one night thinking of what will occur the following day when she and her husband Mike plan reveal a BIG SECRET to the children that “will change all our lives.”.  It’s Mike who will do the talking because that’s his role. But tonight, as the rain falls and her husband snores, Paula mentally addresses the twins herself.  She wants to supply the missing pieces in the jigsaw of their lives.

“I picture a bomb going off and this house falling to bits. I picture everything remaining oddly, precariously, ominously the same. An unexploded bomb. It still might go off — next week, the week after, any time.”

And so she rewinds to the time when she and Mike met as students at Sussex; fell in love and got married. Success followed – for her as director of an art gallery and for him as editor of a popular science publishing business. All that marred their blissful existence were some family bereavements and the disappearance of their cat Otis.  For more than 100 pages we’re drip fed information and just as we think Paula is at last going to reveal all, she stops, rewinds and starts off on another train of thought.

Now this would be ok if what she has to say is insightful or fresh. But it’s not. It’s repetitive, with each anecdote or revelation seeming to be an excuse for yet another of Paula’s indulgences in word play. One of her favourites is based on their family surname; another is about her husband’s doctoral interest in the breeding habits of snails. She’s a judge’s daughter and her mind is occupied by how her kids will ‘judge’ their father the following day. So of course when she describes the first meeting between future father-in-law and Mike, he feels he is being weighed up by ‘a judge of men, a judge of wine’ though Paula says, Mike’s “real moment of judgment was to come much later in life’ (in other words, tomorrow).

“Listen to your father, he’s got something important to say,” she says. “And then he’ll be nobody, he’ll be what you make of him. If you want, you can even tell him to leave.”

The trouble is that what Paula says to her children often stretches credulity.   Paula is so keen to demonstrate how she has the perfect marriage that she delves into details few children care to know about in relation to their parents. Over and over again we get told what an active sex life she and Mike have, and how it was even more perfect when Otis the cat joined them in bed (eh??). What kind of mother tells a story including the phrase “as I straddled your father” or reveals in great detail the one night stand she had with the vet?  What kind of mother tells her kids that if it comes to a choice, she will choose Mike not them? For whose benefit is this being disclosed I wonder?  It feels like a contrivance to put a bit of spark into an otherwise lucklustre tale.

Tomorrow is constructed to keep the reader in the dark for as long as humanly possible. Which would be ok if a) the secret was a jaw-droppingly big one and b) i wasn’t foreshadowed so much that it became simple to guess.  As a result the novel flopped into a stream-of-consciousness monologue by a woman utterly self-absorbed that she failed to get me to empathise with her in any measurable way.

Footnotes

The Book: Tomorrow by Graham Swift was published in 2007 by Picador. I listened to an audioversion from my local library.

The Author: Graham Swift is from London, UK. Tomorrow is his eighth published book. He won the Man Booker Prize in 2006 with Last Orders. 

Why I listened to this book: I loved Last Orders (reviewed here) so was keen to explore more of Swift’s work but they had nothing in print in the library at the time. I thought the interior monologue nature of Tomorrow would work well in audio format. Maybe it just made Paula Hook even more irritating however since I couldn’t get away from her voice

 

 

3 thought-provoking novels not just for kids

cross-over readingOne of the biggest trends in publishing in recent years has been the emergence of ‘cross-over fiction” – novels written for teen readers which can also be enjoyed by adults. J.K Rowling set the trend with her Harry Potter series and it’s continued with the Stephanie Myers’ Twilight series, Hunger Games, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night; The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; The Book Thief etc etc  Here are three ‘cross-over” novels I’ve read in the last year which all can be enjoyed  by young readers but which contain plenty of material to get adults thinking…

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

First of all a confession. I hated this book the first time I read it. If it hadn’t been required reading for my children’s literature course I would never have even considered reading this. It’s in the fantasy genre which is never my cup of tea. We not only get  anthropomorphic animals – in the shape of armoured bears with human-level intelligence – but Pullman introduces some weird fictional beings called “dæmons” that are the companions of humans and accompany them everywhere. Both these elements were guaranteed to get me squirming with discomfort.  I struggled through the book and was relieved to get to the end.

But such is the nature of reading for academic purposes that reading a set text once is not enough. So I gritted my teeth and entered once more the parallel universe in which Northern Lights is set. And you know what; after a while I actually began to appreciate that what Pullman has created a book that can be enjoyed in two vastly different ways.

One one level this is a pure adventure story of good versus evil. Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl, sets off on a quest in search of her friend Roger who’s gone missing. There are plenty of narrow escapes and thrilling moments to keep younger readers entertained – this is a world that crawls with danger in the form of gobblers who snatch children and academics who use poison.  Lyra makes her way through this world with the aid of a golden compass which acts like a lie detector and one of those armoured polar bears.

For readers who want more thought-provoking content, Pullman introduces a mysterious celestial phenomena called ‘Dust.”  This, Lyra discovers, has spawned parallel universes,  is connected to death and misery, and is believed to be the physical basis of  original sin. Dust accumulates only around adults, not around children who are more ‘innocent’ and unconscious beings.  Her adopted uncle Lord Asriel believes ‘Dust” is a force for evil and wants Lyra’s help to destroy it.  This is a novel that explores big themes: the conflict between the powers of science and religion; innocence versus knowledge; the soul versus the human body. Apparently Pullman’s intention was for  Northern Lights to be  “A rewriting of Milton’s Paradise Lost,” for young adults, hence the ideas of Dust and daemons are meant to be read allegorically. I have a feeling this is a book that could easily be re-read several times for that reason. I’m glad I gave it a second chance.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

This is another powerful novel which asks big questions, this time about racism and poverty. It’s set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression and  has a wonderful narrator in the form of nine-year-old Cassie Logan. She’s  a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper, whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. It’s through her that we experience attitudes towards the black population of the state and see the catastrophic effects when some local people take the law into their own hands.  For young readers the content around school and friendship would likely be of interest but for older readers there is a lot of darker material with lynch mobs and arson.  I thought the first few chapters were bogged down by too much exposition and the narrative voice didn’t always feel like that of a young girl. But the remainder of the novel was a compelling story about dignity in the face of injustice.

Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve

I had no idea when I started reading this book that it fell into the category of ‘steampunk’. Frankly I had no idea what that term even meant. Good old Wikipedia came to my rescue by explaining that steampunk is a  “subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. ”  Glad we got that cleared up. It does describe Mortal Engines pretty well since this is an alternative history kind of novel which imagines a post-apocalyptic world of Traction Cities –  giant mobile machines that roam a land torn apart by earthquakes and volcanoes. London, the primary traction city, has to hunt down and dismantle other cities and towns to ‘feed’ itself. This is a fast-paced action novel with two teenagers as the heroes who uncover a sinister plot by the city’s Lord Mayor and get into plenty of scrapes and near misses as they try to block his plans.  My problem with science fiction/fantasy novels is usually that the imaginary world doesn’t feel realistic enough or that the narrative is stuffed full of technical info that I don’t find interesting let alone understandable. But Reeve’s imaginary world is so superbly conceived I had a whale of a time reading this book. Like Northern Lights, it can be read as an adventure story but it also has some powerful ideas about nuclear warfare, the value of learning from history.  In our current volatile world, it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to envisage these traction cities like countries always on the prowl for other nations to swallow.

 

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym [review]

Quartet-in-autumn

Barbara Pym and the novel that revitalised her career

Quartet in Autumn was only my second experience of Barbara Pym’s work and now I can see why she has such a devoted group of followers. What I enjoyed about Some Tame Gazelles (her debut novel) was her ability to portray the peculiarities of ordinary life in an English village of the 1950s. She uses the same approach in Quartet in Autumn but this time the focus is on the minor irritations and peculiarities of  office life in 1970s London.

Edwin, Norman, Letty and Marcia work in the same office, engaged in the kind of unskilled, menial clerical activities that don’t add up to very much at all. Now in their sixties they are on the verge of compulsory retirement. It should be the autumn of their lives, a time filled with colour and mellow fruitfulness, but that is not the case for this quartet of rather lonely people.

Letty and Norman live alone in rented bedsits; Edwin in the home he once shared with his wife; Marcia in her parents’ old house. They chat in work but mainly keep their private lives, private, and there’s no suggestion they should ever get together outside of the office. They don’t even lunch together. Letty goes to the library while Edwin prefers to visit a church. Since his wife died he’s rather thrown himself into church affairs, assiduously reading the Church Times,  ticking off a list of church buildings to visit and joining in with many church celebrations, especially those involving free sherry and food. Norman, a rather spry figure,  occupies his time planning trips with his detestable brother-in-law that he never takes.

And then there is Marcia, the character Pym imbues with the greatest quota of pathos. The highlight of her life was the time she needed major surgery, an event about which she regularly reminisces. That’s when she’s not talking about the wonderful surgeon who performed her mastectomy and about whom she maintains particularly warm thoughts. One of her happiest moments comes when she takes the bus to his home, hoping to spy him if only in the distance. Marcia is a birdlike figure, an obsessive who hoards empty milk bottles and plastic bags in a shed in her over-grown garden. In her house stand row upon row of tins of food yet Marcia is slowly starving.

The foursome try to keep in touch post retirement but it’s not a successful experiment. Her funeral brings three of the quartet back together again, an awkward event which sees them take tentative steps towards a relationship that is more than simple acquaintanceship.

At times Pym’s tone is mildly satiric as she takes us through the mundane lives of these four and their individual frustrations and preoccupations. But she’s never cruel, recognising that these are people who despite their melancholy lives are doing their best to soldier on. Letty captures the spirit perfectly when she reflects after one lunchtime reunion:

”She must never give the slightest hint of loneliness or boredom, the sense of time hanging heavy.”

As boring as their lives are, and as full of regret and disappointment, Pym illustrates that their attempts to establish contact with one another is what gives purpose and meaning to their lives.

Footnotes 

The Book:  Barbara Pym wrote Quartet in Autumn over a three year period between 1973 and 1976. Several publishers rejected it on the basis that times had moved on and the reading public wanted more sensational topics than she offered. This changed when in 1977  the Times Literary Supplement published a list, compiled by notable literary figures, of the most underrated writers of the century. Pym was the only writer to be listed twice, poet Philip Larkin and the critic Lord David Cecil were both fans of her work  Within a month, Macmillan  accepted Quartet in Autumn. It went on to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Author:  Barbara Pym’s first novel Some Tame Gazelle was published in 1950, followed by Excellent Women (considered her finest work) two years later. She enjoyed success as an author for the next 11 years while continuing to work for the International African Institute. Her novels fell out of favour in the 1960s, being considered ‘old fashioned.’  Quartet in Autumn was the beginning of the revival of her reputation.

If you’re interested in learning more about Barbara Pym there’s a good review of her work in The Guardian, written by Alexander McCall Smith, or visit the website of the Barbara Pym Society.

Why I read this book: It was recommended by a number of bloggers after I published my review of Some Tame Gazelle. 

Ancient Light by John Banville

In Ancient Light, John Banville returns to themes explored in his earlier Booker prize winning novel The Sea: the remembered past and its ability to shape our destinies.

Alexander Cleave, a stage actor,  looks back to one year during his schoolboy days when he had an affair with his best friend’s mother, a woman 20 years his senior.  After their first encounter in the laundry room of her house, the pair graduate to sexual trysts on the back seat of her car and then to a mouldy mattress in a run down cottage. So infatuated is Alexander with Mrs Gray that he spies on her when she takes family trips to the cinema or the seaside, jealous of any time she spends away from him.  He wants to possess her fully.  Years later when the mature Alexander reflects on these times he recalls them as moments of  bliss punctuated by tantrums and petulant behaviour as he sought to bend her to his will.

I should confess that sulking was my chief weapon against her, nasty little tyke that I was and I employed it with the skill and niceness of judgement that only a boy as heartless as I would have been capable of. She would resist me for as long as she was able, as I fumed in silence with my arms calmed across my chest and my chin jammed on my collar-bone and my lower lip stuck out for a good inch, but always it was she who gave in, in the end. 

Trying to make sense of his younger self, the mature Alexander doesn’t seek to excuse his petulant behaviour. He accepts also that his memory of certain facts is hazy – he constantly jumbles up the times and the seasons when certain events took place for example.  He’s not even certain that his recollection of the first time he saw Mrs Gray is accurate. He remembers seeing a woman freewheel towards him down the hill from the church. As she nears him, the wind catches her skirt and exposes her bare skin all the way to the waist, a sight that of course causes a frisson of excitement for the teenage boy. Alexander recalls how he felt at the time and remembers in detail what the cyclist wore but he cannot conjure up her facial features. 

Is he lying to himself or simply being selective about what he will remember? Memory is, after all, he explains, an artificial construct.

Images from the far past crowd into my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions,” he declares as the novel begins. “The items of flotsam that I choose to salvage from the general wreckage – and what is a life but a gradual shipwreck – may take on an aspect of inevitability when I put them on display in their glass showcases, but they are random; representative, perhaps, perhaps compellingly so, but random nevertheless.

That relationship is not the only aspect of his life causing Alexander to ruminate about the past. He is grieving for the death of his daughter Catherine (Cass) some years earlier. Though we learn she had suffered a form of mental illness, her suicide off the Italian coast still perplexes him. Why was she in Italy? Who was the father of her unborn child? Who is the person called Svidrigailov that was with his daughter when she died? An opportunity to answer those questions arrives when Alexander is given a film role in a biopic about Axel Vander, a famous, now dead, academic who led a double life. Alexander begins to suspect there is a connection between Axel Vander and Cass. He gets his chance to uncover the truth when Dawn Deveonport, the female lead in the film, suffers a mental breakdown. Alexander, who has become a bit of a father figure for her,  spirits her away from the media frenzy and the anguish of the film’s producers. Guess where they go? – yep, to Italy to a spot a short distance across the water from where his daughter’s body was found.

johnbanville

John Banville in conversation at Hay Literary Festival 2013

If you’re thinking this sounds a bit of a convoluted plot relying heavily on coincidences, then you’re not far off the mark. But I forgave Banville for this because Ancient Light is written so beautifully, almost poetically  with its use of rhythm, imagery and allusion.  He delights in descriptions about the landscape and the weather: rain “sizzles through the leaves”; the sky  “was the colour of wetted jute” while a late-autumn afternoon is marked by “scrapings of cloud like bits of crinkled gold leaf.”

Banville sketches characters deftly even when he gives them little more than walk on parts. Dawn Devonport  begins as a Marilyn Monroe type figure, a much feted starlet who captivates by making each person feel they’ve been singled out for her special attention. Alexander however sees beneath the veneer to a vulnerable young girl unable to cope with the recent death of her father, a girl in fact much like his own beloved daughter. More notable is Billie Stryker, ostensibly the film’s researcher, whose “sad and sweetly” demeanour lulls Alexander into revelations about his life. “There must be more to her than meets the eye” he concludes after their first meeting.

In fact the same thing could be said for many of the characters in a novel which is in essence about the way people lie to others and themselves about who they are. Nothing is as it seems at first glance. One of the recurring ideas of the novel is the effect of light on perception – Alexander for example recollects one day how he saw Mrs Gray reflected in two mirrors simultaneously, the resulting image turned into fragments of the whole. In another scene he lies on his bed and through a tiny crack in the curtains sees an upside -down projection of the secret. What enables him to ‘see’ himself, to understand his actions and make sense of the fragments and distortions, is an ancient light that comes from distant galleries, taking billions of miles to reach earth.  But the same light also provides a form of consolation by the end of the novel, seeming to “shake  within itself even as it strengthened, … as if some radiant being were advancing.”

Footnotes

The Book: Ancient Light by John Banville was published in 2012 by Viking. It’s a sequel to Eclipse and Shroud which all feature Alexander Cleave. I haven’t read either of the two earlier novels but didnt feel I was at a disadvantage as a result – Ancient Light to me was easily able to stand on its own merit.

The Author: John Banville comes from Wexford in Ireland. In addition to more than 10 novels written under the name of John Banville, he also writes a crime fiction series in the persona of Benjamin Black. At the Hay Festival in 2013 he explained that he adopts completely different writing practices for each persona. As John Banville he writes long hand with fountain pen and agonises over each word (the process is a long and protracted one he revealed). As Benjamin Black he uses a typewriter.

Why I read this book: I loved reading The Sea (see my review here) and enjoyed the talk Banville gave at the Hay Festival. Signed copies of Ancient Light were available at the festival and I couldn’t resist buying. Reading Ireland 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging was the prompt I needed to get it out of the bookcase.

A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore

A Time for Silence - Thorne MooreThe last few decades have seen such a boom of interest in genealogy that, according to ABC News, it’s now the second most popular hobby in the United States. I suspect the majority of new enthusiasts start out in the hope they’ll discover they’re descended from nobility or ‘someone famous’ or failing that, that their research will uncover some scandal in the past. But if there’s one lesson we can take from A Time for Silence by Thorne Moore it’s that some aspects of the past are best left untouched; leaving the dead “to their silent sleep.”

This is a novel which begins with a young woman who stumbles upon  the farmhouse once inhabited by her grandparents. It’s in ruins; the roof has fallen in and cobwebs ‘thick as rope with dust’ lie amongst the rotten woodwork but Sarah is drawn inexorably to the property. On impulse she buys the farmhouse at Cwmderwen, imagining how it can be transformed into a weekend retreat for her and her soon-to-be husband. She knows little about her Nan (Gwen), and her husband John Owen yet seeing the farmhouse deep in the countryside of Pembrokeshire, Wales awakens her interest. How did John die? Why and how did the family lose their ownership of this land? Why didn’t her mother ever talk about her childhood there? Sarah’s attempts to find the answers are frustrated by the silences of her family members, the authorities and the handful of people still living near Cwmderwen who knew her grandparents.  She begins to suspect her family were the victims of an outrageous act that it’s now her duty to avenge. What she discovers however is darker than she could ever imagine.

Sarah’s  pursuit  of the past provides the narrative framework for A Time for Silence. For the answers to her question we have to look to a different narrator – Sarah’s grandmother Gwen. We first meet her on the day of her marriage in 1933 as she leaves behind her beloved father and sister and makes her way by cart to her new home. It’s a solid building shadowed by trees, more gloomy than she imagined, and with no luxuries or signs of comfort. But she believes she can fix that easily with fresh curtains, embroidered fire screen, bright china on the heavy old dresser, a piano even with which she could accompany her husband who was renowned for his fine voice. As the novel progresses we witness how these dreams are destroyed at the hands of a proud, puritanical husband. Gwen is resilient and learns how to accommodate his demands but she and her children, live in fear that one wrong word will bring his wrath down on their heads.

It’s Gwen’s story that resonated most with me. I found Sarah, the modern day woman, a bit irritating. She’s a woman going through a crisis, still mourning the loss of her close friend in an accident for which Sarah feels responsible. She’s given up her ambitions to be a singer and is now beset with a future mother in law who wants to control every aspect of her upcoming wedding. With so much stress we can forgive some of her strange behaviours (like buying a derelict cottage on a whim) but some of her reactions struck me as bordering on the drama queen. Contrast her with Gwen who so dreads asking for money to clothe her children she makes do by unravelling old sweaters and knitting them into mittens and socks. She’s an isolated figure, her sister not being welcome in the cottage and any visitor from the nearby estate farm treated with suspicion by her husband. In Gwen, Thorne Moore has created a figure who reaches out across the decades and grabs our sympathy with her quiet determination to take whatever is thrown at her for the sake of her children. Her character transforms the novel.

Footnotes

The Book: A Time For Silence is the debut novel by Thorne Moore. It was published in 2012 by Honno Press, an independent publishers that specialises in work by women writers.

The Author: Thorne Moore is originally from the Luton area, near London. She has a long connection with Wales dating from her time as a history student at the University of Wales in Abertystwyth. She now lives in a Victorian farmhouse in Pembrokeshire in west Wales where she divides her time between writing and her craft business. Thorne will be featured in the ‘Put a Book on the Map’ series at Cleopatra’s book blog in April 2017.

Why I read this book: I’m trying to read more work by authors from my home country of Wales. I therefore couldnt resist when three independent Welsh publishers had a pop up bookshop in Cardiff in December 2016. A Time for Silence was one of the titles recommended by the team from Honno. Since it was such a good recommendation I’ve now gone on to buy Thorne’s second novel Motherlove. Check out the Authors from Wales page on this blog for more information on literature from Wales.

 

 

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