Category Archives: Book Genres

Now We Shall be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller [book review]

Now we shall be freeNow We Shall be Entirely Free is an atmospheric adventure tale, set at the height of the Napoleonic wars, that won me over right from the opening page.

It begins with an unconscious man travelling by coach through a rain-drenched English countryside. He is Captain John Lacroix, son of a wealthy Somerset family, who has returned home from a disastrous campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Spain. He’d set off for the war full of optimism and splendidly equipped with new (and expensive) leather boots, a pelisse with fur-lined collar and numerous shirts, waistcoats and neckties.

He returns in borrowed and patched clothes, his feet bound with strips of cloth and his hearing damaged. He is a broken man.

Like the clothes he had arrived in, the pack was not his own. … this one had the look of something raked out of the fire. Scorched, filthy. Black with tar or grease, the world’s filth.

He’s nursed from the brink of death by his housekeeper. But he is clearly a man changed physically and mentally by his experience of war.  It’s not until much later in the novel that we discover the cause of his breakdown: an atrocity committed in a quiet mountain village while the British army was in retreat.

When a fellow officer turns up at the house with instructions for John to return to his return, he flees to Scotland. What he doesn’t know is that some time earlier in Spain a military committee held to inquire into the atrocity decided that someone must be held responsible. They determine Lacroix is that someone. So they despatch a British officer called Calley to find and kill him. .

Lacroix’s escape and Calley’s pursuit sets up the dramatic focus of the novel. Will the regiment catch up with Lacroix before Calley? How long can Lacroix survive on his own wits (the signs are not good because almost as soon as he sets foot in Scotland he is robbed and beaten). The suspense is maintained throughout by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with that of Calley and his companion Medina, a Spanish officer.

Miller excels at creating atmosphere and characters. Calley is the most interesting. He’s a man entirely devoid of principles. A man on a mission to kill. He thinks nothing of torturing and beating up the people he believes have information that will help him track down his quarry. He tells one of his victims:

You want to know who I am? I’ll tell you who I am. I am the war. Yes? And today the war has come to you. It has come right into your house and struck you down.

But in one moment of candour he tells how he learned from an early age how to take care of himself. Working as a piecer in a cotton mill as a child, he would crawl underneath the machines to clean them. One slip and he’d lose his fingers or have his arm ripped off.

While Now We Shall be Entirely Free is certainly an adventure story, there is an element of romance. When Lacroix hides out in the Scottish Hebrides he encounters the Fender siblings, a small community of free thinkers.  Lacroix is enthralled by one of the sisters, Emily, accompanying her to Glasgow for a highly risky operation she hopes will restore her failing sight.  Miller fortunately spares us some of the more gruesome details of the procedure.

The budding romance, which is quite touching in its gentleness and innocence provides a lovely counter to the darkness of the war and the theme of culpability.  Early on in the novel a shadowy officer involved in the military query observes that “No ancient and honourable institution is without its ancient and honourable crimes.”   Lacroix himself is pushed by the Fenders, who do not believe in violence, to question his motives for becoming a soldier. He has to admit he had thought more about the uniform than the fact he would be expected to kill.

If he can evade Calley, will his love for Emily enable Lacroix to put aside his memories of the war? The ending of the novel is deliciously ambivalent. I’m not going to spoil other readers’ enjoyment by revealing the details.

Why I read this book

I loved an earlier novel by Andrew Miller – Pure – which is set in Paris and thought it was superb. So I was more than happy to get a copy of his newest novel from Netgalley in return for an honest review

 

My challenge with poetry

poet-tree

Can you recite a poem without any notes or prompts?

When was the last time you learned a poem by heart?

For me the answers are:

  • No. I know the starts of many poems and snatches of many others but if I were ever called upon to deliver one in public, I’d be a complete failure
  • I suspect many people will say that they haven’t learned a poem since they were in school (and I don’t mean college; I mean the kind of school you attended before you were 18). My last experience is rather more recent than that but is still a good 10 years back. I was taking an Open University module which included poetry and needed to go into the exam confident I could quote from a good range of poems. So I pushed myself to learn large sections of about six poems.

I’ve since forgotten most of what I learned then.

Poetry, it has to be said, does not figure much in my life. I have some collections at home but can’t remember the last time I took one off the shelf let alone opened the book.

But then alone came National Poetry Day in the UK which resulted in a number of articles and broadcasts about poetry.

One was a feature article about a man called Gary Dexter who walks up to complete strangers in the street or the pub, asks them to name their favourite poem, and then offers to recite it in exchange for a small fee.

He started off with a repertoire of 30 poems (which took him a month to learn) but has now doubled this. He finds that the same requests crop up over and over again. Top of the list is Rudyard Kipling’s If, followed by This be the Verse by Philip Larkin and Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen.

Then there was a broadcast on Radio 4 One in which Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, disclosed she runs through poems to help her sleep. Pretty impressive since she learned these poems at school and she is now 71 years old. She’s backing  a call for the public to learn poetry by heart to stave off “senior moments”. Judi Dench is also on board (astoundingly she can recite the whole of Twelfth Night and Midsummer Night’s Dream without notes!).

So I got to thinking that learning some poems by heart could be a) a good way to help keep my brain working and thus mitigate the potential of dementia and b) a means to encourage me to read more poetry.

I’m not setting myself a target for how many I try to learn or over what period. That would be one way to guarantee I lose interest.

But I’m going to attempt one a month. I don’t just want to learn the poem so I can recite it back; I’d like to be able to discuss its potential meaning and where it fits into the canon of that poet’s work.

But where to begin?

I could just start with the “nation’s favourite poems”, a list of the 30 most requested pieces as documented by Gary Dexter. There are some predictable choices in there – Daffodils by William Wordsworth and Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas.

But I think I’d rather start with poems of which I already know some lines. It’s a wayof easing into the practice.

October is therefore the month that I tackle William Wordsworth. Not Daffodils or any of his Lucy poems but the sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802. 

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

I chose this because it relates to one of my favourite parts of London and unusually for Wordsworth, who was not a great lover of the city, this sonnet shows that he finds beauty in a man-made scene. The rhyme scheme also helps with recalling the lines (yes I wanted an easy option to get me started…)

 

 

 

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale [book review]

The Wicked BoyIn the summer of 1895, readers of British newspapers were both shocked and gripped by the case of two boys accused of killing their mother in her London home.

The decomposing body of Emily Coombes had lain in bed for ten days while her sons, aged 12 and 13 had a jolly time. They played cards, went to cricket matches and to the seaside and ate their favourites foods. They fobbed off relatives’ inquiries about their mother with a variety of reasons for her absence. Only when neighbours noticed a sickening smell coming from the terraced house was the crime revealed. One local newspaper described the murder as ‘the most horrible, the most awful and revolting crime that we have ever been called upon to record.”

The true-life story of Robert Coombes and his younger brother Nathaniel (known as Nattie) is revealed in Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy. 

This book is a forensic examination of the events before and after the day in July when Robert stabbed his mother with a knife he had bought specifically for that purpose.  Robert admitted immediately that he had killed his mother, explaining that it was because Nattie had been beaten for stealing food and he thought he would be next. Nattie was let off the murder charge so he could testify against his brother,

When Robert appeared for trial at the Old Bailey, the key question for the jurors was whether he was mad or just bad.

Contemporary opinion was that criminals and lunatics had certain physical characteristics that distinguished them from normal people. Robert’s demeanour contradicted that theory however. While his brother sobbed and shook with fear, Robert was cool and calm, a picture of a young gentleman dressed smartly and neatly in a boater and blazer.

Some of the Coombes’ neighbours testified that he was a clever and musically talented child, well-spoken and well-dressed. His teachers described him as obedient and unusually bright.

If he wasn’t mad or bad had he killed his mother in the interests of self preservation? Was it true, as both children claimed, that Mrs Coombes was prone to sudden outbreaks of violence against her children, particularly when her husband was away at sea?

Summerscale posits another idea: that Robert was influenced by the Penny Dreadfuls —sensational comics which chronicled the adventures of pirates and highwaymen — a collection of which were found in his bedroom.

In the end the jury brought in a verdict of guilty but insane and he was sent to  the Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital for an indefinite period.

At this point in the narrative other authors may have brought the book to an end with a short summary of what happened to Robert subsequent to his conviction. But Summerscale is nothing if not a completist and also a meticulous researcher. The Wicked Boy  is packed with social, historical and political details but Summerscale never allows the factual content to detract from the story itself.

She visited Broadmoor, discovering the lad was a model prisoner who learned to sew and to to grow veg and became a skilled chess player. By chance she found a picture of his gravestone in Australia and discovered he had emigrated after 17 years incarceration, had won a medal while serving in World War 1 and was a well respected leader of a military band. The very model of an upright citizen about whose previous troubles no-one in Australia was aware.

If the details about Robert’s childhood are interesting, it was the sections about his time at Broadmoor and then his military service that fascinated me the most.  I had imagined Broadmoor at the end of the 19th century to operate an austere regime but it was actually rather enlightened. Robert was allowed access to books, could walk in flower gardens and encouraged to take part in activities like chess and billiards. He was taught to play the violin and the cornet to almost a professional standard.

australian stretcher bearers

Australian stretcher bearers on the Western Front, World War 1

At the start of World War 1 when the Australian government pledged its full support for the allied cause, Robert enlisted for the army. He was despatched to Egypt for training and then to Gallipoli where he served with great distinction, being mentioned for his bravery under sustained attacks. He also led the troops to and from the trenches in France, playing stirring tunes on his cornet.

robert coombes headstoneIn due course he returned to Australia, living in a quiet shack in a remote valley where he grew and sold vegetables. When one of his neighbours was arrested for a vicious assault on his son, Robert stepped in and became the boy’s ward. Kate Summerscale tracked the boy — now a man in his nineties — to his home in Australia and learned how Robert had been a force for good in his life.  That man, Harry Mulville, gave thanks to his de facto father by arranging a headstone for Robert.

By the end of The Wicked Boy it was impossible not to feel that whatever wrong Robert had committed in his early life, his rescue of another unhappy child, had in the end been his redemption.

Footnotes

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale was published by Bloomsbury in 2016. It was shortlisted in the non fiction category of  the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2017. It went on to win the 2017 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.  There’s an interesting interview with The Telegraph newspaper in which Summerscale explains what drew her to the story of  the Coombes family.

 

 

 

 

Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor [Book Review]

bleeding heart square

Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding Heart Square has the feel of a Dickens or a Wilkie Collins’ novel. We’re on familiar ground with its plot of a dark and convoluted murder mystery and its setting of a grubby corner of London. The cast of larger than life characters equally wouldn’t feel out of place in Woman in White or Our Mutual Friend.

Taylor may hark to the past but he gives his murder mystery a modern twist by overlaying  a twentieth-century political dimension.

The year is 1934. The British fascism movement is in its infancy but making its presence felt. Anyone who voices dissent to their views gets beaten up  by the blackshirted followers of their leader, Oswald Mosely.

Violence on the streets is paralleled by bullying, oppressive behaviour in the home.

Lydia Langstone, a young, privileged society wife, decides she will no longer endure the abusive behaviour of her feeble-minded husband who looks “… like a sinister Boy Scout, his emotional and intellectual development doomed to remain for ever somewhere between 13 and 14 years old”.

Marcus Langstone is trying to wheedle his way into Oswald Mosely’s inner circle. Convinced that Mosely will soon become the country’s leader, he sees himself as his right hand man with a key role in government.  No-one will get in his way, especially not his aristocratic wife whom he despises. But Lydia is more than his match. She walks out of her comfortable marital home in Mayfair. leaving behind most of her clothes and jewels, and seeks refuge in the decaying cul-de-sac of Bleeding Heart Square. It was once  the site of a medieval palace, but now reeks of cabbage and drains.

Her father is no help; he’s a drunkard and a sponger who steers rather too close to the edge of legality. But Lydia has no-where else to go. She just has to learn to cook and clean, to economise and find some way of earning a living.   In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she finds a kindred spirit.

Unwittingly Lydia has stepped into a mystery that begins to take hold of her. Why is a plain-clothes policeman keeping a close eye on the square? What happened to Miss Penhow, the middle-aged, wealthy spinster who owns the house? She supposedly vanished to America four years earlier after signing over all her property to  one Joseph Serridge. Someone has now started to send packages of maggot-infested meat to Serridge.  Is there a connection to the legend that the Devil once danced in Bleeding Heart Square and left a murdered woman behind him?

The answers come and the pieces of the puzzle slowly fall into place as we follow Miss Penhow’s story, told as extracts from an old notebook. In parallel we track Lydia’s own attempts to find the truth, despite the risk this presents to her own safety.

It’s a complex plot handled well with plenty of red herrings to keep up the suspense.  My one criticism of Bleeding Heart Square is that it does take a while to reach the resolution. But that gives us even more time to enjoy the rich period atmosphere as the novel moves from corner house cafe, to solicitors’ offices, quiet villages and the crypt of a nearby church.  Taylor skilfully handles the novel’s biggest set piece: a meeting organised by the British Union Fascists that descends into a violent anti-Semitic riot.

At its heart (sorry for the pun) Bleeding Heart Square is a delightful old-fashioned yarn of murder committed for the sake of money. In many ways this is a throw back to the Golden Age of crime and mystery fiction. But Taylor gives the familiar device a fresh edge by surrounding it with political and social themes.

Chief of course is the birth of Fascism but Taylor’s novel also examines the position of women in 1930s Britain.  Women had fought the right to vote sixteen years earlier but true independence was still a long way into the future.  Women like Miss Penhow were prey to the unscrupulous while many others found themselves in exactly the same predicament as Lydia:  trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage. As Taylor shows, her options are limited. She has no skills to use to make her financially independent and no experience of domestic chores. Though divorce was possible, it was a step undertaken with grave risks to the woman’s reputation. Thus almost everyone  in Bleeding Heart Square urges her to return to the abusive Marcus.

The Britain of Bleeding Heart Square is however a Britain on the cusp of events that will radically change the nature of the country. While there are points in the novel where the consequences of the First World War are mentioned the omens of a greater conflict to come loom even larger.

Footnotes

About the Author: Andrew Taylor was born in East Anglia, England and studied at  Cambridge before getting an MA in library sciences from University College London. His first novel, Caroline Miniscule was published in 1982 and is a modern-day treasure hunt featuring a history student. He is probably best known for his 2003 novel The American Boy which won the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award.

The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa [book review]

German GirlBerlin in 1939 is a city of fear. Wealth, status and intelligence count for nothing in the face of hostility and antipathy towards people of the Jewish faith. For many families the only option is to flee the country. But who will take them? Other countries are not falling over themselves to provide a refuge.

For the Rosenthal family, salvation beckons when they gain coveted visas enabling them to enter Cuba, from where they will head to the United States.  Leaving their classy apartment and precious heirlooms behind to be snaffled by the Nazi regime, they board the SS St. Louis, a luxurious transatlantic liner, and head for asylum. But before they can dock, the Cuban government changes its mind, leaving the 900 passengers in limbo.

After a tense period 12 -year-old Hannah Rosenthal and her mother are allowed entry but her professor father is barred because he has a different type of visa. The ship’s captain has little choice but to return to Europe with almost a full complement of passengers. Professor Rosenthal and Hannah’s best friend Leo sail away from Cuba, fearing imprisonment or death.

Reading this as a piece of fiction is an emotionally-engaging experience. But it’s made more so by the knowledge that The German Girl is based on a little-known episode that, until the early part of this century, was not even publicly acknowledged. The author Armando Lucas Correa, who is editor-in-chief of People en Español, has clearly based his debut novel on extensive research. The back of the book comes with an extensive historical note about the whole episode and what happened to the passengers after they left Cuba. But what touched me was to find a page bearing the signatures of all the passengers on the ship and numerous photographs showing them on board the ship.

Correa has chosen to tell his story through the eyes of two teenage girls. Hannah Rosenthal is a thoughtful but determined girl, fiercely loyal to her friend Leo and devoted to her father. Her relationship with her mother is more distant. Hannah constantly comments on how her mother acts as if she is on a stage, choosing her outfits carefully and deliberately waiting to be the last to board the ship so that all eyes will be upon her. She begins her story in dramatic fashion:   “I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.”

It’s a reflection of her desperation and unhappiness at having to love her home in Berlin even though she is frightened by the red and black flags draped along every street. Leo is her salvation, a street-wise kid who always seems to know what is going on and who extracts Hannah’s promise that she will never forget him.

Alternating with Hannah’s story is that of Anna Rosen, a 12-year-old girl in present-day New York. Anna’s father died in the attack on the World Trade Centre before Anna was born. Her mother has retreated into herself and the girl is left to suffer alone. One day she receives a package from great-aunt Hannah in Cuba who had acted as a surrogate mother to Anna’s late father. The package contains photographs taken on board a ship. In search of anything that will help her connect with her father, Anna and her mother travel to  Cuba to meet Hannah and hear her story. What she reveals is that even in Cuba they were never allowed to forget they were ‘outsiders’.

The dual time narrative unfortunately didn’t work for me. I can see why Correa chose that approach, drawing parallels between the loss that both girls experience and the way they have to grow up quickly to look after their mothers. But Anna’s narrative had little of the drama and pathos that I found with Hannah’s story and the connections were often forced. In fact I don’t think the book would have suffered at all if Anna had been eliminated.

The German Girl was at times a frustrating experience because of that dual-narrator issue but it did get me thinking about the way, even today, refugees are treated.

Searching for Schindler by Thomas Keneally

Searching for SchindlerBut for serendipity, the world may never have heard the remarkable true-life story of Oskar Schindler, the man who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people during World War 2.

It would never have become a novel that went on to win the Booker Prize for Thomas Keneally in 1982.

It would never have become an Oscar-winning film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1993.

The fates however determined that one evening in 1980, the Australian author Thomas Keneally would walk into the leather goods shop in Beverley Hills in search of a replacement briefcase. Discovering that his customer was an author, the elderly, very talkative and inquisitive Polish proprietor pitched him a story he said the world needed to hear.

In Searching for Oskar, Keneally looks back at the unusual genesis for his award-winning novel and his many subsequent meetings with Leopold Poldek. Poldek owed his life and that of his wife to Schindler. In gratitude he wanted the world to know how Schindler had risked his own life to protect many Jews from concentration camps and certain death.

In essence this is a memoir of how Schindler’s Ark came to be written, the battle with the publishers over their preferred title for the American edition (it came out as Schindler’s List in America only), Keneally’s struggle to write the screen play (Spielberg eventually gave the job to someone else) and the long gap before the film version got into production.

For much of the early section of the book he traces the steps he and Leopold took together to track down some of those survivors and capture their stories. There were times when this threatened to become a dull list of names and places but fortunately Poldek is such a remarkable individual that whenever he is present, the book comes alive. Keneally is more than once mortified by the behaviour of his travelling companion but is also charmed by him. On one trip to Warsaw (still part of a Soviet state) Keneally is terrified that Poldek’s insistence he change his currency on the black market will land him behind bars. Another time he waits in acute embarrassment when Poldek remonstrates with a hotel clerk that had the temerity to charge them for photocopying (the bill seemed to be less than $5).

The Independent newspaper in the UK was less than flattering about Searching for Oskar, implying that it was written because Keneally wanted to cash in on the success of Schindler’s Ark. The reviewer calls it ‘tedious’, ‘banal’, ‘cliched’ and ‘clumsy’, a book in fact that should never have been published.

I think that’s too harsh a critique. Searching for Oskar does have its faults – for example, Keneally dwells far too much on some famine relief trips he made to Ethiopia while waiting for Speilberg to begin filming, These sections felt as if he was just padding out of the book. But I did find some other insights interesting – like the issue of whether in writing Schindler’s Ark he was producing a work of fiction or a biography – and some of the insights into Schindler’s character that were not captured in the novel or film. I finished reading Keneally’s memoir with a huge admiration for the determination shown by Poldek in ensuring the story came to public attention and Schindler got the credit he deserved.

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I don’t know what possessed me to request The Ocean at the End of the Lane as a gift one Christmas many years ago since I seldom enjoy tales involving the supernatural. Nor do I often read what has been labelled ‘cross over fiction’  – books that can be read and enjoyed by adults and children alike.

I did enjoy reading it far more than I expected and would have given it a wholehearted endorsement but for one thing….

Gaiman relates his story through the eyes of an unnamed man who has returned to his hometown for a funeral and recalls events that began forty years earlier.

As a child he is a solitary figure with no friends (no-one turns up for his seventh birthday party), a fearful boy who sleeps with his bedroom door open and the hallway light on. His world is transformed the day his parents’ lodger kills himself in the family car, an event which enables a supernatural being to gain access to our world.

That day  is also significant for another reason. It is the boy’s first meeting with a young girl called Lettie Hempstock who lives in a house at the end of a lane with her mother and grandmother. The boy is captivated by them, especially when Lettie tells him that the pond behind her house, an expanse of “dark water spotted with duckweed and lily pads” is  really an ocean. But he isn’t too sure what to make of Old Mrs Hempstock. Could she really make the moon full every night and how could she have been alive long enough to have witnessed the Big Bang?

The trio of women turn out to have special powers that are needed when dangerous, malevolent forces begin to attack the boy and get into his house in the form of a nanny. The narrator is the only one in his family to suspect Ursula Monkton is not what she seems. She worms her way into the home, ingratiating herself with his sister and seducing his father, a situation which leads to a complete breakdown in the relationship between the boy and his father.

In one of the most memorable scenes, the boy’s father who had hitherto been a kindly man, turns violent, dumping the terrified child in a freezing bath and holding him under the water.  Worse is to come when the Hempstocks do battle with the dark forces, threatening them with annihilation if they do not return to their own world. The boy is saved but one of the women is sacrificed in the process.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a coming of age novel that deals with the loss of innocence and the disconnection between childhood and adulthood.  Gaiman reminds us of the vulnerability many children experience during childhood, times when terrors seemed to lurk around every corner and could only be assuaged by the comforting arms of parents and adults. But what if the very people you turn to for succour cannot be relied upon? Gaiman’s narrator comes to realise that adults are not always what they seem: “People kept pulling their faces off to reveal new faces beneath,” he observes at one point.

He reaches another epiphany of understanding when he enters Lettie’s “ocean” and is “reborn” into a life where he knows and understands everything.

I saw the world I had walked since my birth, and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.

I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.

Despite my normal scepticism I had been fully engaged by this story right up to this point. But then Gaiman destroys it in just a few sentences. As the boy is in the ocean he accepts what seems impossible – that candles can burn in water. Ok so far but what are we then to make of this:

I knew the peculiar crinkling of space on space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time befoer the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang, which would be, I knew now, nothing of the kind.

Or of this:

I understood it just as I understood Dark Matter, the material of the universe that makes up everything that must be there but we cannot find.

It’s one thing to accept that when an imaginative seven year old who loves books, describes his adventures we believe they are extraordinary.  But are we really meant to believe that the boy who thinks in terms of icing on birthday cakes is the same child as the one who fully comprehends  quantum physics and the nature of the universe?

This was however just one quibble and I’ll forgive Gaiman for this indiscretion because the rest of The Ocean at the End of the Lane was beautifully constructed and a joy to read. I’m not surprised it was voted Book of the Year in the 2013 British National Book Awards.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Do No HarmPeople who tend to be squeamish or prefer not to know about the internal workings of the human body, wouldn’t enjoy reading Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. It’s also probably best to avoid this book if you have a friend or relative who has been diagnosed with a neurological condition or is about to have surgery.

Marsh is a neurological surgeon with more than 30 years experience. In Do No Harm he offers insight into the joy and despair of a career dedicated to one of the most complex systems in the body. This is a candid account of how it feels to drill into someone’s skull, navigate through a myriad of nerves that control memory, reason, speech and imagination and suck out abnormal growths. If successful he can save someone’s life or extend their projected life span. But often he is millimetres away from catastrophe. One false move and the result could be death or paralysis.

Marsh frankly admits that in his career he has made mistakes. A few years ago, he prepared a lecture called “All My Worst Mistakes.” For months, he lay awake in the mornings, remembering the patients he had failed. “The more I thought about the past,” he recalls , “the more mistakes rose to the surface, like poisonous methane stirred up from a stagnant pond.”

On a visit to a nursing home for people with extensive brain damage he sees the result of some of those mistakes in the motionless forms of patients in their beds “To my dismay I recognised at least five of the names.” One of them is a schoolteacher in his fifties whose life he ‘wrecked’ (Marsh’s word) during a fifteen hour operation to remove a large tumour. In the final stages he tore part of the artery that keeps the brainstem, and thus the rest of the brain alive. The patient remained in a coma for the rest of his life. The experience haunted Marsh for years.

Yet without mistakes, he says, there would be no progress. And without the willingness of doctors to take risks, many of the greatest advances in his field would never have happened.

It’s one of the painful truths about neurosurgery that you only get good at doing the really difficult cases if you get lots of practice but act means making lots of mistakes at first and leaving a trail of injured patients behind you. I suspect that you’ve got to be a bit of a psychopath to carry on…

Henry MarshDoes that mean surgery is always the best course? This is a question discussed regularly in the daily case conferences Marsh holds with the junior doctors and radiographers who form his hospital team. Is it kinder to let someone die gradually than to undertake invasive surgery from which they may never recover or if they do, face life changing side effects? The team reach a clinical, unemotional conclusion but its down to Marsh to face the patient and explain the decision. It’s an encounter that requires a delicate balance of compassion and detachment.

Marsh suffers anxiety before such meetings, trying to resist the temptation to be overly optimistic about the likely outcome of any procedure. Often before surgery he is oppressed by “almost a feeling of doom’ and panic which only dissipates at the last moment when he sits in his operating chair and takes up his scalpel.

… full of surgical self-confidence, I press it precisely through the patients scalp. As the blood rises from the wound the thrill of the chase takes over and I feel in control of what is happening.

Marsh never set out to become a neurosurgeon. After completing his medical degree he caught a glimpse through a porthole of a patient “anaesthetized, her head completely shaven, sitting bolt upright on a special operating table.” The surgeon stood behind her, with a light fixed to his head, patting her bare scalp with dark brown iodine antiseptic. The image stayed in his mind, and struck him as “a scene from a horror film.”

But his second visit to a neurological theatre fascinated him. Unlike all the other operations he had witnessed which involved the handling of ‘warm and slippery body parts’, this was done with an operating microscope through a small opening in the side of the head using only a few microscopic instruments.

The brain continues to fascinate Marsh. He is awed by what he sees through his surgical microscope, which “leans out over the patient’s head like an inquisitive, thoughtful crane ” as the infra-red cameras in his GPS system shows he position of his instruments. The internal cerebral veins are like “the great arches of a cathedral roof” and beyond the Great Vein of Galen can be seen “dark blue and glittering in the light of the microscope.”

In Do No Harm he does a grand job of sharing that wonder with his readers and also the drama of the operating theatre. You don’t need extensive biological or medical knowledge to appreciate the level of difficulty involved in these procedures though a schematic showing what bits of the brain lie where would have been a useful addition to the book.

Every chapter is headed with the name of a type of tumour (who knew there were so many?) in which Marsh talks about some of the cases that involved those conditions. In between he shares his many battles with the bureaucracies and inefficiencies he encounters in the British National Health Service (NHS).

Surgeons kept waiting because of a decree that doctors can’t begin a new operation while another is in the final stages in an adjoining theatre. Or theatre staff forced to kick their heels because their next patient wasn’t allowed to change into their hospital gown while there were members of another gender in the same waiting room. The working hours of junior doctors changed without any consultation with the surgical leads. Computer systems that won’t co-operate when a bed is needed quickly. The causes of Marsh’s frustration range far and wide.

In one episode, which would be farcical in any other sector, he describes having to leave his clinic to repeatedly go up two flights of stairs to get a password so he can discuss an X-Ray result with his patient. “Try Mr Johnston’s,” he’s told. “That usually works. He hates computers. The password is ‘Fuck Off 45’.” It marks the forty-five months since the introduction of a highly-expensive computer system.

Back in his office, Marsh tries every possible combination of upper and lower case letters, adding spaces, taking them out, all without success. He runs up the two flights again. One staff member realises there’s been a miscalculation. The system has been in place two months longer than they recalled. So it turns out the password is now “Fuck Off 47.” All of this while the poor patient waits to hear if Marsh can save his life by operating to remove the cause of his elliptic fits.

His railings stem from a deep concern for his patients and a desire to want to do right by them (he even washes and dries the hair of his female patients before they leave the theatre). He tries not to let his feelings show but his mask slips regularly. Leaving the hospital one evening having told one man that an operation was not possible, he rails against the traffic as if it were the drivers’ fault

“ … that this good and noble man should die and leave his wife a widow and his young children fatherless. I shouted and cried and stupidly hit the steering wheel with my fists. And I felt shame, not at my failure to save his life — his treatment had been as good as it could be — but at my loss of professional detachment and what felt like the vulgarity of my distress compared to his composure and his family’s suffering, to which I could only bear impotent witness.

This is a book that I never expected to enjoy but it proved far more readable than I expected. I’m glad however that I didn’t read it before my friend had her own surgery to remove a brain tumour (from which she thankfully recovered). I appreciated there were risks involved, but never realised just how narrow the margin of error would be. Sometimes ignorance is a blessing.

Footnotes

About the Book: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 2014.  It was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award, the Wellcome Book Prize and the Guardian First Book Prize. Marsh wrote a follow up in 2017. Admissions  was written as he prepared for his retirement.

About the Author: Henry Marsh worked as consultant neurosurgeon in London for about thirty years. In addition he travelled regularly to the Ukraine, donating his time to treat patients in extremely difficult situations and in the face of political opposition. H retired from full time work in the NHS in 2015 but continued to work in private practice until 2017.

Why I read this book: This was a book club choice. I probably wouldn’t have read the book otherwise. But I am so glad I did.

A shot of crime

I’m slowly making my way through a backlog of crime fiction novels that have occupied my bookshelves for a few months. It’s not a genre I read that regularly because although I enjoy them at the time, they are the books I never remember after I finish them.

I’m going to forsake new purchases but I still have a few on the shelves for those times when crime novels fit the need perfectly (like when I have a heavy cold and the brain can’t deal with anything deep and meaningful). It’s unlikely I will ever find myself with unable to satisfy a sudden desire for crime – my local library is wall to wall with these kinds of novels.

Here are two of my most recent reads.

Sussex Downs MurderSussex Downs Murder by John Bude (British Library Crime Classics) 

This is the second of Bude’s novels to feature the modest but highly effective Superintendent Meredith.  The tightly-plotted tale begins with the disappearance of a Sussex farmer and the discovery of his abandoned car. Initially it appears he might have been kidnapped but when human bones are found in the Sussex Downs, police quickly realise they have a murderer on the loose.

Superintendent Meredith is called to investigate and painstakingly unravels the mystery of the bones. His is a very civilised form of detection, relying on systematic evaluation of evidence and oodles of double checking of facts. In between chasing down details about a cloaked man seen striding the downs on the night of the farmer’s disappearance, a fake telegram and a butterfly catcher who wears sunglasses at night, the Super is able to pop home for a sustaining lunch with his wife.

John Bude has a good eye for locational details and an ability to plot meticulously.  In keeping with the spirit of the Golden Age of Fiction, we get the very helpful explanation at the end of the book of how the crime was committed. Without this I admit I was struggling to keep all the different clues straight in my head.

This probably isn’t the kind of crime novel for people who love the gritty Nordic Noir style, but it’s still highly enjoyable. I warn you though, it does require focused concentration to follow the trail of clues.

The Beautiful DeadThe Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer

This is a dark and intense psychological novel that does a brilliant job of getting inside the head of a serial killer. Eve Singer is an ambitious young TV crime reporter who is accustomed to getting close to the scenes of murder so she can be first with the news. But she has never before been the target of a killer.

She needs death in order to keep her job. The killer needs her to broadcast to the world how beautiful death can be. What Eve realises too late is that his obsession for public exhibitions of death will involve her own.

Usually I find the portraits of journalists in novels are highly unrealistic but Bauer, has a former reporter, writes convincingly about the world of television news and the pressure to get the story, no matter what. Eve is caught between the demands of her bully news editor and the  obsessive killer, forcing her to make uncomfortable moral decisions.

I don’t understand why Bauer hasn’t had the attention enjoyed by other thriller writers. Every book I’ve read by her has been first class, well written and well plotted with fleshed out characters and taut storylines. The Beautiful Dead is no exception.

A Death in the Night by Guy Fraser-Sampson #bookreview

death-in-the-night

A Death in the Night is the fourth book in the Hampstead Murders series which focus on the activities of the detectives based at Hampstead Heath police station in London. They are police procedurals that seek to pay homage to the spirit of the Golden Age of detective writing, particularly the principle that everything the reader needs to know to solve the crime themselves, is contained within the text.

The crime with which the detective team have to wrestle in A Death in the Night is the murder of Professor Fuller, mistress of a prominent barrister, who is found dead in her room at The Athena, an exclusive women’s club in Mayfair. By coincidence Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis, together with psychologist Peter Collins, were all attending a vintage-themed dinner dance in the club at the time the woman is believed to have met her killer. 

There are a multitude of suspects but very few clues. Added to the problem is that initially the initial identification of the body is incorrect. By the time the real identity is confirmed, the hotel room has been cleaned and vital evidence lost. To get at the truth the team, under the direction of their Golden Boy boss, Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, have to meticulously dissect every statement from staff and guests as well as her lothario husband. Was Professor Angela Bowen killed by her lover or by his wife or perhaps by another of his mistresses? For a time the team are not sure if she was even the intended victim. Nor are they clear on how the murderer managed to obtain a spare key to the room unnoticed by all the people milling around the reception area. By the time they find the answers, reputations have been damaged irrevocably.

As with the other novel in the series I’ve read, Miss Christie Regrets (book 2 in the series),  A Death in the Night is strong on procedure and on the setting. The atmosphere of the Mayfair club is captured particularly well. Amid the private equity firms and luxurious hotels frequented by Russian billionaires and “exotic creatures  wearing handmade suits, bright waistcoats and permanent suntans” it is a reminder of Mayfair’s more dignified past.

Tucked into an unassuming corner position in Audley Square, its membership continues to be drawn from exactly the same sort of intelligent, well educated woman as it was back in its earliest days when Dorothy L Sayers used to write her books in its library and take tea and anchovy toast afterwards in one of its famously comfortable armchairs.

Designed to be a comfortable bolt hole for professional women who find themselves in the city,  The Athena offers discretion for those who want a place to discreetly entertain male friends and companionship for those who dislike eating alone at restaurants. 

As much as I admired the nod towards the Golden Age (Peter Collins is a devotee of Dorothy L Sayers and loves to drop her name into conversation) I felt the novel would have benefited from a lighter touch on the procedural aspects. The team meets every day to review progress which means there is a fair amount of repetition of key facts (presumably these reminders were give readers a good chance of spotting the clues). More problematic for me however was an early chapter where the Metropolitan Police Commissioner chairs a meeting to review a report recommending a reorganisation of the force’s detective resources. The intent was presumably to show that Superintendent Collison, the report’s author, is gaining respect among his superiors, but to me it was an overlong and unnecessarily detailed interlude that didn’t strongly connect with the narrative.

Don’t let this comment put you off the novel however. If you enjoy well constructed crime fiction and are happy with a measured pace, then this will certainly be a series to consider.

Footnotes

The Book: A Death in the Night was published in November 2017 by Urbane Publications UK. My review of Miss Christie Regrets is here.

The Author: Guy Fraser-Sampson has a list of writing credits to his name including works on finance, investment and economic history. He is best known as the author of  three novels in the Mapp and Lucia series created by E.F.Benson.

Why I read this book: I received a review copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

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