Category Archives: Scotland

Dominion by C.J.Sansom [review]

dominion-collageC.J Sansom took a gamble with his political thriller Dominion in which he imagines a world where, having failed to defeat the Nazi regime, Great Britain becomes one of Germany’s subject territories.  The idea wasn’t entirely new – Len Deighton based his 1978 novel SS-GB (shortly to become a BBC drama series) on a similar premise so Sansom needed to come up with an additional sparkle.

He did so with a further gamble – using some historical figures as members of the new puppet regime and thus effectively positioning people like Lord Beaverbrook, Marie Stopes and Oswald Mosely as collaborators. Although he was never at risk of defamation claims needless to say his approach proved controversial when the novel was published in 2012 and readers saw how Stopes had been portrayed as a contributor to the Ministry of Health’s programme for eugenic sterilisation and the newspaper tycoon Beaverbrook as a meglomaniac  Prime Minister.

Sansom sets his adventure in 1952 when Britain has been subjected to Nazi rule  for 12 years. Some aspects of life have changed – Lyon’s Corner Houses have been rebranded for example to remove vestiges of their Jewish origins,  an enormous picture of Hitler hangs in the lobby of the National Portrait Gallery and critics of the regime such as W.H. Auden and E.M. Forster, have been silenced. Though Britain is not an occupied country, the Gestapo and the SS are evident, working closely with Special Branch and the new Auxiliary Police to rout out members of the growing Resistance movement led by Winston Churchill. Sansom doesn’t tiptoe around the fact that there is a considerable level of anti-Semitism in the country though the moderates are distressed when British Jews are rounded up in preparation it is believed for deportation to German camps.

It’s a very credible scenario due largely to Sansom’s credentials as a trained historian – he meticulously documents his extensive research at the back of the novel with his bibliography  detailing all the books which have influenced the final novel.  The result is as believable as the world of the Tudor monarchy he created for his Shardlake series of historical crime fiction.

But Dominion isn’t purely an alternative history novel;  it’s a thriller based on that old chestnut of a man with a secret who is on the run from various factions who either want him silenced or want the secret for themselves. The man on the run in Dominion is an unlikely hero figure – an unassuming geologist by the name of Frank Muncaster who is incarcerated in a mental asylum near Birmingham after learning a secret that the Germans and Americans dearly want because it will give them the edge in the race for a nuclear weapon. The Resistance deploys their extensive network of resources to spring him from the asylum, and get him to the east coast for a rendezvous with an American submarine. One of Frank’s university friends, David Fitzgerald, a civil servant acting as a spy for the Resistance, is despatched in a race against time. Will he save Frank before the Gestapo’s ace man-hunter Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hothform reaches him?

Much of this novel is a pretty typical thriller of co-incidences, chases, narrow escapes and unlikely plot devices. I lost track of the number of times characters declared it was unsafe to share information except on a need to know basis yet seemed very lax with details about their own identities when it suited the plot.  I could tolerate most of these as par for the course with this genre but I was more concerned by the clunky characters and uninspiring dialogue. David Fitzgerald and Gunter Hothform are two of the few fully-formed characters (the women are less fully realised than the men) but they are surrounded by characters who seem to exist primarily for the purposes of exposition or to enable Shardlake to show a point of view. Fair enough to want to illustrate how the British population was divided in their attitudes but much of the resulting narrative reads like a summary of a pamphlet. Discussions about the Jewish situation are natural given the setting and topic of the novel but Sansom also introduces a key theme of nationalism and the merits of giving independence to members of the British Empire like India. Sansom’s own view becomes evident when at one point he has a character declare:

Whenever a party tells you national identity matters more than anything else in politics, that nationalism can sort out all the other problems, then watch out, because you’re on a road that can end with fascism.

That Sansom is using Dominion to make a political point becomes ever more evident and is reinforced by his historical note at the end of the novel. In it he expresses deep concern about the growth of nationalist parties like UKIP and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). The SNP is, in his view, a threat to all of Britain with their tendency to shift political ground in favour of whatever policies will bring independence regardless of the consequences. He was writing of course on the eve of the 2016 Scottish Referendum but makes no secret of his own views on how the Scottish population should vote.

If this book can persuade even one person of the dangers of nationalist politics in Scotland as in the rest of Europe, and vote ‘no’ in the referendum … it will have made the whole labour worthwhile.

One wonders what he makes of President Trump. Somehow I can’t seem them becoming best chums……

Footnotes

The Book: Dominion by C. J Sansom was published by Mantle in 2012. My edition is a paperback from 2013. 

The Author:  Christopher John Sansom hails from Scotland. He read history at Birmingham university and, after a PhD thesis on the British Labour party’s policy towards South Africa between the wars, left academia for a career in the law. His first novel – Dissolution which introduced the hunchback detective Shardlake – was published in 2003.

Why I read this book:  I’ve read and enjoyed four of the Shardlake novels and knew this was an author who could be relied upon to bring the past to life.  I was curious whether he could be as effective when portraying the twentieth century as he has been with the sixteenth. 

My reviews of Sovereign, Dissolution, Dark Fire and Lamentation  can be viewed by clicking the links. 

 

Good reads from Scotland

viewfromhere

We’re back in the land of the Celts for the choice of our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world. Our featured country is Scotland where our guide is Joanne who blogs at PortobelloBookBlog.

Let’s meet Joanne

portobello-readingHi, I’m Joanne and I live in Portobello, Edinburgh right by the sea. A lot of people probably don’t realise that Edinburgh has a seaside as it is probably better known for tourist attractions such as Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace and the Royal Yacht Brittania. I’ve always lived in Edinburgh though was born and brought up in Leith, now famous thanks to The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith or infamous thanks to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. I’ve lived in Portobello for 18 years now and it is very much home. So a natural choice when I came to pick a blog name was Portobello Book Blog. I mainly read and review contemporary fiction, crime, thrillers and romance novels. I run regular features where authors can answer a set of spotlight questions or write a guest post about their work. I also feature other book bloggers every Friday in my Blogger in the Spotlight feature. You can follow me on my blog or via my Twitter account @portybelle and my Facebook page.

Q. Do you enjoy novels set in your own country or do you feel authors don’t always do a good job of representing it in their fiction?

I do enjoy books set in Scotland. It’s always fun to read about a place you know really well and spot any changes that authors make. In general I think authors represent Scotland well. There are some books which are rather dark and depict a side of Scotland I might not like (reference Mr Welsh above!) but that’s not to say they’re not realistic. I think what authors sometimes don’t do very well is incorporating a Scottish character in a book set elsewhere. Quite often I find they can be quite stereotypical having red hair and saying ‘och’ a lot! And really, we don’t tend to wear kilts these days except at weddings, graduations or other special events.

Q. Who are your favourite Scottish authors?

Oh this is a difficult question. What makes an author Scottish – is it being born here, living here or writing books set here? I do enjoy Ian Rankin’s books, Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie series are immensely entertaining and I think James Robertson is brilliant. Liz Lochhead was at our local book festival in October and she was superb, though I confess I don’t tend to read much poetry. Doug Johnstone is a local author who I think is terrific. I’ve enjoyed all his books, they are fast paced tense thrillers and he puts his characters is some awful situations!

Q. Are there any  Scottish authors who are not quite as well-known but you think are up and coming or deserve more attention?

This is also a difficult question as I have been lucky enough to have been asked by lots of local authors to read their work. So they are well known to me but perhaps not to a wider audience. This year I really enjoyed A Fine House in Trinity by Lesley Kelly, a crime novel which was longlisted for the William McIlvanney prize (previously called the Scottish Crime Book of the Year). Helen MacKinven is an author writer whose novels Talk of the Toun and Buy Buy Baby are full of dark humour and are both excellent. She uses dialect quite a bit which gives her characters a really authentic voice. I might have included Graeme Macrae Burnet had you asked me this a few weeks ago but since His Bloody Project was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, I think it’s fair to say he has a much higher profile these days. Other debut novelists I’ve read and enjoyed this year are Lesley Anderson, Jackie Baldwin, Stella Hervey Birrell, Shelley Day, Mary Paulson-Ellis

Q. Scotland seems to have made a mark when it comes to crime fiction with some really big hitters like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid. Any reasons you can think why the country is so successful in terms of crime genre – what does it say about the Scottish mentality maybe or is it something to do with the infamously long nights and rain?? 

Scotland has a bit of a reputation for ill health and hard crime and I think a lot of that comes from poverty. As in so many areas, coal mining, the steel industry, the shipbuilding industry and the fishing industry have either vanished completely or employ dramatically fewer people. Low income and unemployment can lead to desperation and that’s when crime happens. I suspect that the dark nights and often dire weather also lead to a bit depression. I’ve heard it said that Scots are hardened to cope with the climate and our often shocking sporting results, though Andy Murray is doing his bit to restore national pride! All these things combine to create a dark mentality which, in my friend’s words, ‘enjoys a good murder’! But to balance that, Scotland is a country with stunningly beautiful countryside, picturesque lochs, magnificent mountains and islands and many authors make good use of this physical beauty in their work creating a more positive picture.

Q.We know about Nordic noir – is there such a thing as Scottish noir?

Tartan noir! As you mentioned above, Scotland seems to be producing a lot of very successful crime writers. I would say that Tartan Noir draws on Scotland’s traditions and history. There is often an element of good versus evil and the idea that there is a constant battle within each of us (like Jekyll and Hyde). Quite often the main characters are flawed and not always likeable. Then again, sometimes it’s the criminal who is drawn in a sympathetic way. That’s the Scottish contradiction for you! The general mood can often be bleak and this can be mirrored by the weather or dark nights. Bloody Scotland is an annual crime festival celebrating crime writers from Scotland and beyond, which is growing bigger and more successful every year. Not everyone likes the label ‘tartan noir’ though is it does somewhat reinforce the shortbread tin image of Scotland.

Q. Looking beyond crime, who are some of the classic Scottish authors? Many will know of Walter Scott but who else comes to mind?

Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Burns, Jessie Kesson, Neil Gunn, James Hogg are all writers I would consider classic Scottish authors. More recently I would include Nigel Tranter, Alasdair Gray, Muriel Spark, William McIlvanney, Norman MacCaig Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan and Robin Jenkins.

Q. Which authors were required reading on the Scottish schools’ syllabus – people considered required reading? 

My two daughters are in 4th and 6th year at High School just now and will both be taking exams in English at the end of the year. Firstly, I have to say that I don’t think that pupils now have to read as much as I did when I was at school! I remember reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns although there was a lot of Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy too. I’ve just had a look at the current list for National 5 and Higher level exams and they include James Robertson, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anne Donovan, Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, Janice Galloway, Robert Burns and John Byrne. So a lot of what I studied some years ago is still there along with more modern Scottish authors. There are definitely more women writers on the list now which is good to see.

Hope Joanne’s guest post has given you a taste for Scottish authors. If you’re tempted to explore further you have until Sunday to hot foot it north for BookWeek Scotland which ends on Sunday, Nov 27.  Or if that doesn’t work out for you just take a look at the Scottish Book Trust website. 

Top ten Tuesday: book club recommendations

The Broke and Brookish this week is looking for suggestions for book club reading.

This wouldn’t be an easy one for me since our book club has rather wide ranging tastes – each person chooses a book so it reflects their taste rather than necessarily what the club as a whole likes. We went down the path of chick lit for a while turned me off but I’ve been introduced to some new authors in other month so it’s almost balanced out. For me a good book club read is one that has plenty of issues and dimensions that can lead to a good discussion – I want more than someone saying “I picked this because I thought it would be fun” and that’s all they can say about the book (believe me it has happened). The book choice doesn’t have to be particularly weighty but something to at least get your teeth into.

If I had my wishlist it would include:

book-club-recommendations

I’ve gone for a mixture of styles, subjects and country of origin of the author (too many book clubs seem to focus only on Western literature).

  1. The Many by Wyl Menmuir reviewed here. A Booker long listed title from 2016 that I thought superb. It keeps you guessing about what the main message is.
  2. Another Booker 2016 candidate – and one I would dearly have loved to see win – is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which traces the effect of Communist rule on three musicians. It’s an epic that stretches across centuries and countries. Not always easy to grasp it had tremendous emotional power. Reviewed here 
  3. The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Set in Japan, a wonderful elliptical story in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles.It’s a metaphor for how our lives are constructed by fragments. Reviewed here 
  4. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. Set in a remote Irish village it examines what happens when a dictator on the run from atrocities he committed in his country attracts the attention of a lonely housewife. This book will have you thinking about actions and consequences and forgiveness.  Reviewed here 
  5. From Korea comes a book that was a knock out bestseller and not just in Korea. Please Look After Mom  by Shin Kyung-sook looks at the mother-child relationship which is thrown into question when an elderly mother goes missing in an underground station while on her way to visit her children. As they search for her they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.Reviewed here 
  6. Possession by A. S Byatt was my choice when I joined the book club. I wasn’t sure I had make the right choice until the meeting but surprisingly we had a great discussion about the different forms possession can take -whether for artifacts f the past or for another individual. Reviewed here
  7. Holiday by Stanley Middleton.Who is he I can hear you asking. Not surprised really.Despite having written more than 40 novels he has more or less disappeared from our radar. A pity. This is a short novel from 1974 in which a middle aged man facing a crisis is his marriage takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday. Reflections of those times  days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories. Good for discussions around nostalgia and relationships. Reviewed here 
  8. L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. It’s not the first book in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series of 20 titles but this doesn’t matter too much. Read it for its superb rendition of life on the breadline in nineteenth century Paris. You can, if your book club is of an academic mind, get into all kinds of discussion about Zola’s theory of naturalism and inherited conditions. Reviewed here
  9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chances are that your club has already read Half a Yellow Sun which is an earlier novel by Adichie. Americanah gives a view of life for a girl who leaves Nigeria – one of the people who achieves the dream – only to find its not what she expected. Can she make a new life or do the ties that bind back to the homeland prove stronger? It’s a novel about choices you make to fit in with a new way of life and how experience changes you. It might sound rather sombre but there are some outstandingly funny scenes in a hairdressing salon. Reviewed here
  10. Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: We hope this never happens to anyone. But it does. What if you were one of the passengers in a ferry or cruise liner that is sinking. You’ve got yourself into a lifeboat and are now waiting for rescue. But days go by, water and food supplies dwindle. Who gets to live in those circumstances?  Who deserves to die?  And who has the right to make those decisions?  Those questions lie at the heart of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. This isn’t the best written novel I read in 2013 but it was one that stimulated a lot of discussion in our book club meeting. Reviewed here 

Those are just some of the books I’d suggest. What would your recommendations be?

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan [2015 Man Booker Longlist]

The IlluminationsThe secrets we keep from each other but often even from ourselves: caught in their protective web of deception the cast of characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations are people who find varying levels of enlightenment.

Octogenarian Anne Quirk is one of the deceivers. In a sheltered home in Scotland, she is succumbing to dementia, deemed unsafe to cook for herself or let anywhere near an electric oven. Under the watchful eye of her kindly neighbour Maureen, Anne’s internal conflict with the past comes to life through disconnected fragments of memories and stacks of photographs. They reveal she was a ground breaking photographer in her younger days whose work “captured a world beyond the obvious.” It’s not until her beloved grandson returns from his tour of duty in Afghanistan and takes her back to a Blackpool guesthouse, that the secrets of Anne’s life are illuminated. Only then does it seem that she can be at peace.

As his grandmother tries to remember the long-ago past, Luke is trying to put his own past behind him. He’s returned to Scotland, a disillusioned young man whose army career is over as a result of a catastrophic episode when he was part of a convoy in Helmand province. Through some fast-paced chapters set in Afghanistation it becomes clear that the episode represented an epiphany for Luke; the moment he acknowledged to himself that he had joined the army purely to find the kind of man he hoped his father, who died serving his country, had been. For years he’d buried this knowledge beneath a cloak of camaraderie with the men under his command, smoking marijuana and listening to heavy metal while they patrolled the desert for booby traps. But the increasingly erratic behaviour of his commanding officer strips him of his illusions.

Not all the characters in O’Hagan’s novel encounter anything comparable to the illuminating moments that Luke and Anne experience. Maureen for example is clearly a woman who’s concocted a deceit about her relationship with her children. She regularly boasts about her children and and how much success they’ve made of their lives (blithely ignoring the fact that one of them is an alcoholic). She regularly complains that they are always too busy to visit her — yet when they do, she clearly can’t stand them and cannot wait for them to leave.

The slow paced contemplative sections of the novel contrast with the sections on the front line which blaze with action and vivid dialogue. O’Hagan seems very comfortable handling both the very male world of the army with its obscenity laden, swaggering dialogue and the domestic rituals of the women in the home. He effortlessly moves from the small and often humorous observation:  “It was a constant battle in Maureen’s head, the wonder of central heating versus the benefit of fresh air…” to bigger issues of the ethics of foreign military intervention or the fractured parent/child relationship. He also deals sensitively, though not sentimentally, with Anne’s dementia describing it not as the shutting down of a life but the re-awakening of an old one. Anne’s estranged daughter Alice tells her doctor she wishes she could spend half an hour with her mother as a young woman. “She hasn’t gone,” he whispered. “Quite the opposite. She’s coming back. And maybe you could prepare to meet her half-way. Between the person she is now Andy the person she used to be.

This ability to flex between the macro and the microcosm could be one of the reasons the judges of the Man Booker Prize chose it for the 2015 longlist. Will it make it to the final accolade or will this be third time unlucky for O’Hagan? My sense is it’s not the winner. The sections dealing with Anne are well observed but not remarkable so the strength of the novel really rests on the Afghanistan chapters. Without those for me this would have been an Ok novel but with them it’s one that’s well worth reading.

End Notes

The Illuminations is published by Faber.

Andrew O’Hagan is a Scottish novelist, non-fiction author and an editor of Esquire and the London Review of Books. He currently works as a a creative writing fellow at King’s College London.

Reading overload

breatheI blame the people who run our public library service. They’ve made it too darn easy to reserve books on line. Don’t they know there are members like me who just can’t stop themselves acquiring books? It’s really not my fault that I am faced with a glut of books and only a few weeks in which to read them because we go on holiday in three weeks and I don’t want to lug hard cover books around with me in Germany.  It surely couldn’t have been me that went into the reservation system the day the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced on Wednesday and clicked on three titles that were already available. Just as it wasn’t me a few weeks ago who did something similar on the night the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize was announced.

Sometime you can wait months for a reserved book to become available (I often forget I’ve even requested some of the books) but yesterday I dropped into the local branch to say farewell to one of the librarians. When she handed me three books that had just arrived, she burst into giggles at the horrified look on my face. I left, trying to work out how I was going to get through them and concluding one of them would probably have to be returned unopened. Just as I was getting into the car she came running up to me; she’d found another one that I’d reserved.

So now I have on my bedside table three Booker prize candidates:

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
The Green Road by Anne Enright
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

And a fourth is a novel that I requested about two months ago The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw.

All of these are calling out to me but I had to make a start somewhere. Since O’Hagan was on the top that became the one I started yesterday. It’s such a well written novel about two characters; one an elderly lady who is trying to remember her life when she was a photographer of note and her grandson who is trying to forget his time as a soldier in Afghanistan. O’Hagan is as insightful when he is portraying life in a care home and the onset of dementia as when he is portraying life on the front line in Helmand province and the mental disintegration of a career solider. It’s one of those novels that you just have to keep reading, reading, reading. If you want go get a taste of this novel there is an extract in The Daily Telegraph from one of the Afghanistan sections.

Man Booker Prize longlist 2015

I admit defeat. I am clearly not skilled in the art of book prize predictions. When the Man Booker prize judges announced their 2015 longlist today I found that none of the titles that came up in my crystal ball yesterday made the cut. Not one. I had floated briefly with nominating one of the titles that did get chosen: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Not that I’ve read it yet (I’m planning to take it with me on holiday in a few weeks) but it has been getting a lot of exposure recently and sounded like the kind of novel the judges would choose.

My reactions to the list are rather mixed.

On the plus side I was relieved that Kazuo Ishiguro and Kate Atkinson were not listed but disappointed that Colm Tóibín didnt get get selected.

On the plus side I’m delighted that the list contains so many authors that are new to me. But the diversity seems to have dissipated. Last year there were no long listed titles from the Commonwealth countries but five from USA. This year we have five USA authors again but only one each from Jamaica, New Zealand and India.

  • Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape) by Bill Clegg, a literary agent from USA. This is his debut novel
  • The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) by Anne Enright. The Dublin-born author is a previous Booker Prize winner with The Gathering in 2007
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications) by Marlon James, born in Kingston, Jamaica
  • The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing) by Laila Lalami, born in Morocco and now living in USA. This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize
  • Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) by Tom McCarthy, a Londoner
  • The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press) by Chigozie Obioma, Nigerian born now living in North America. This is his first novel
  • The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan, the Scottish born author is a previous Booker shortlisted author with Our Fathers, in 1999
  • Lila (Virago) by Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2005 for Gilead
  • Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus) by Anuradha Roy, born in Calcutta, India
  • The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota, born in Derbyshire, UK.
  • The Chimes (Sceptre) by Anna Smaill, a New Zealander. This is her debut novel
  • A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) by Anne Tyler, American born, previously nominated for a Pulitzer prize
  • A Little Life (Picador) by Hanya Yanagihara, the second novel by this American author

Im not sure I’ll get to read many of these before the shortlist is announced on October 13.  My interest is leading towards The Year of the Runaways, The Illuminations and The Fishermen. 

For other views on the list take a look at:

PJE’s Booker Blog

Clare at Word by Word

 

 

Snapshot: November 2014

Day 1 of November 2014 and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.

Reading

The ObservationsI started reading The Observations by Jane Harris today, a copy of which has lingered on my TBR for more than a year. It’s a very readable historical mystery novel set in a remote manor house in Scotland. Such a contrast to the book I just finished reading, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie which opens on the day a bomb falls onto Nagasaki.  Hiroko Tanaka, a young factory worker survives the attack but will forever bear the scars on her back resembling birds in flight. We follow her subsequent history in India on the brink of partition to Pakistan and ultimately New York in the aftermath of the September 11 attack. It’s a well crafted novel about allegiance and estrangement, betrayal and atonement. I’d not heard of the author but liked the idea of the plot when I saw the book at a library sale.

Listening

Also purchased in the sale was an audio version of Rebecca’s Tale,  a 2001 novel by Sally Beauman which is a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I have mixed feelings about the trend now to write prequels and sequels to successful novels by authors long since dead. Often it seems to me they are trying to cash in on a past success instead of coming up with their own ideas. But this novel was approved by the Daphne du Maurier estate so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a bit slow so far.

Watching

Since I am writing this while returning to the UK from China, my viewing options are limited to the options provided on the in-flight entertainment system. These have become so much better in recent years – remember the days when you had to crane your neck to see the tiny screen suspended from the ceiling and everyone had to watch the same film? Now most of the main carriers provide seat back systems with many options. Sadly, by the time I eliminated all the science fiction choices and the films which involve people chasing each other in cars or with machine guns, the options were rather limited. I ended up watching The Fault in Our Stars based on the novel of the same name by John Green ( a book I have not read).

I was prepared for this to be a weepy, given its subject matter of two teenagers who are fighting cancer. I’m not sure whether it is the effect of being at altitude but I find I get much more emotional when I’m watching a film during a flight. Luckily the lights were dimmed so no-one saw the resultant blotchy face.

It had some stellar performances from the actors playing the teenagers, particularly Shailene Diann Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster. I also enjoyed the cameo performance by Willem Dafoe as the jaundiced author Peter van Houten. The weakest performance of all was by Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother. She played this role exactly as she played the botanist in Jurassic Park, which is to say, badly.

How to be both by Ali Smith

Howtobe bothIn How to be both, Ali Smith provides a masterclass in how to play with the form of the novel and stuff it with layers of meaning and yet still make it highly readable.

Most of the advance publicity for this novel focused on the fact that there would be two versions of the book on sale. The reader wouldn’t know until they started reading which version they had purchased since both had identical covers.  Some readers would open it to find the spirit of the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa awakening to discover a teenager scrutinising one of his frescos. Others would begin with the story of that teenager, a 21st century Londoner known as George, who is subsumed by grief over her mother’s death.

Two stories, both labelled part one, that can be read in any order. I imagine many people would decide this book was not for them based on that description, maybe thinking Smith had really written just two short stories rather than a full novel. Or worse still,  querying whether this approach was simply a marketing gimmick.  Neither reaction would be doing justice to this book. It isn’t a book of two distinct and separate halves. Still less is this a gimmick. Instead what we have is a finely constructed  dual narrative in which each story dovetails with and reflects the other and where the very duality of structure is fundamental to a key theme in the novel — how the meaning of images and words change when looked at from different perspectives.

Many of the scenes, particularly in the George part of the book, pose questions about ways of seeing. The questions come from George’s mum, a freethinking and subversive woman who challenges her two children to consider art and history in new ways. At one point George recalls a visit with her mother and young brother to the Palazzo die Diamanti in Ferrara, near Bologna.  Although entranced by del Cossa’s frescos, George is less than enamoured with her mother’s detailed explanation of how art restorers sometimes discover under drawings that are significantly different than the finished work.

Which came first? her mother says. … The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?

The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.

But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?

Which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?

Francesco del Cossa becomes the thread that connects George to her dead mother, helping her to come out of her cloud of grief, to interpret life in a new way.   Finding del Cossa’s painting Saint Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery  her first reaction is that’s it’s nothing special,  that it’s looks just like any other religious painting, featuring a severe faced monk who seems to be admonishing anyone who has the audacity to stop and look at the painting.

But then you notice that he’s not looking at you. He’s looking past and above you, or into the far distance, like there’s something happening beyond you and he can see what it is. …

And what is it that has attracted the attention of the monk? Could it be the spectre of the artist himself who watches George (mistaking her for a boy).  The two are inexplicably connected:

…it is as if a rope attached to the boy is attached to me and has circled me and cannot be unknotted and where the boy goes I must go whether I want it or don,t

This is just one of the playful, puzzling aspects of the book. It’s a book that probably should be read one and a half times if you want to truly understand how cleverly it has been constructed I read the medieaval part first and having got to the end of part two, immediately returned to part one looking for the patterns and connections. If I’d read George’s story first, would my experience have been any different? Something I’ll never know  but I have a feeling that whichever way you read it — whichever part you encounter first, you’ll be dazzled.

 

End note

How to be both is published by Hamish Hamilton. It was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. And if this doesn’t win I will be astounded.

 

 

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