Category Archives: Book Reviews
Many authors can go through their entire career without a single award or literary prize to their name which makes the recent success of Welsh author Alys Conran even more extraordinary. At the 2017 Literature Wales Book of the Year Awards earlier this month she swept the board with three prizes for her debut novel Pigeon. It’s a remarkable achievement considering she was in competition with Cynan Jones, an author of international standing, whose critically acclaimed fifth novel Cove was also shortlisted.
Pigeon was selected unanimously for the overall Book of the Year title because it lingered in their minds long after the judges had finished reading it said judging panel chairman Tyler Keevil. As a coming of age story littered with domestic violence, broken homes and mental illness it certainly has an emotional pull. Conran takes us on a journey through the memories of two children, Iola Williams and her closest (indeed her only) friend Pigeon, who live in a Welsh town surrounded by slate quarries. In the opening scene the pair chase an ice cream van and then debate at length their choice of flavour. It lulls us into thinking this is a tale filled with idyllic days of innocent fun but it doesn’t take long to find this is a novel that debunks all those myths about childhood.
Both children live in broken homes. Iola’s dad has disappeared, her mother and her beloved Nain (grandmother) are dead, leaving the girl in the care of her hippy elder sister. Pigeon, a sallow-faced skinny boy with shoulders as ‘delicate as egg shells’ lives in the garden shed of the crooked house he shared with his seamstress mother until he was ousted from his bedroom when stepfather Adrian and his daughter moved in. Pigeon is regularly beaten by this man (Pigeon refers to him only as as Him or H) and has to watch his mother lose all her spirit and independence through Adrian’s bullying.
To channel his energy and anger he plays truant from school, disrupts Sunday School meetings and makes up adventures and stories about bad people. Iola doesn’t fully believe in Pigeon’s fantasy world but she still goes along with his five-stage plan to prove Gwyn, the ice cream seller, is up to no good and may even be a murderer. The plan goes disastrously wrong; the first of two calamities that results in a forced separation of the friends and threatens to sever their relationship. As they emerge from childhood into early adulthood they have a chance to start afresh but only if one of them can lay to rest their feelings of guilt from the past.
The path to redemption for Pigeon comes through his encounters with Elfyn, a father figure under whose guiding hand Pigeon learns to build dry stone walls and rediscover a willingness to speak his native language. Throughout his life Pigeon has been fascinated by words, collecting them and savouring their novelty ‘with their strange textures: clay, metal, soap textures, and the strange tastes of the words as he says them into the cold air.’ Sent to a young offenders institution in England he has no choice but to learn English though this means he has to suppress part of his self.
But slowly Pigeon learnt that English was a weapon, and could be a shield. You needed it in pristine condition, and you needed the tricks of it, so you could defend yourself. Your own language was a part of your body, like a shoulder or a thigh, and when you were hurt there was no defence. When the kids argued in Welsh at home on the hill it was a bare knuckled fight. But English. With English what you had to do was build armour, and stand there behind your shield to shoot people down. Pigeon buried his own language deep.
Words and language are significant in more than one sense with Pigeon. This is the first novel to be simultaneously published in both English and Welsh. The text also blends both languages: the children’s Welsh dialogue is often rendered directly, without translation. Though this could be daunting for some readers, particularly when confronted by words that appear to have no vowels, it doesn’t spoil the experience of reading the novel because as this example shows, the context makes the meaning understandable.
‘Sut mae?’ says Gwyn shakily.
The sniffing quietens.
‘Be ydach chi’n ei wneud yma?’ His Welsh even more formal than usual. Asking the question, there’s a sinking feeling that he doesn’t want to know why they’re here after all.
Although Pigeon is the eponymous hero he doesn’t get to tell his own story. The narrative voice belongs principally to Iola , an intelligent and observant girl who relates their escapades and her own sense of loneliness with unflinching honesty. What we learn about Pigeon comes from Iola or a third person narrator, an approach that perfectly reflects the parallel Conran draws between this boy and the bird whose name he shares. Pigeons – as anyone who has read Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island will know – are generally considered unintelligent and dull but Conran has her narrator remind us, they’re also capable of heroic feats, carrying messages long distance in times of war. As the boy Pigeon grows into manhood he too finds the courage to take control of his life.
Pigeon is a memorable novel with characters that tug at the heartstrings. It has a few flaws – the backstory of Gwyn’s Italian mother Mrs Gelataio (you can join me in groaning over that name) and her determination to find her son a wife for example – jarred with its over reliance on the comedy of her Anglo-Italian lingo and Conran overdid the theme of story-telling. But it’s still a very strong first novel and I’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on what she does next.
She does have another novel in the pipeline but she was keeping the details close to her chest when I caught up with her after the awards ceremony. All she would say is that it’s about a friendship and is set in a British seaside resort. “Not in Wales,” she emphasises. But after a few seconds, adds: “ That could change.” No date is set yet for to completion and she won’t be drawn on that so we just have to hope it doesn’t take as long as the seven years of gestation with Pigeon. She doesn’t write with a plan in mind, preferring to let the work grow organically. Pigeon grew from a single image of children chasing the ice cream van.
“Working on the novel was a long journey but it taught me a lot about how to be an author,.” she reflected. She new she wanted it to be a hybrid book, not a pure coming -of-age tale, and one that was very much a book from Wales that blended English and Welsh languages. It was her publisher’s idea however to produce simultaneous translated versions. As a fluent Welsh speaker Alys Conran could have done the translation herself but chose not to do. “I couldn’t have done a translation so effectively it would have even writing another book and I really didn’t want to write a second Pigeon.”
Invariably the question arises about the lack of prominence of writers from Wales on the world stage. “Look at the other writers in the shortlist for these awards, Cynan Jones and Jo Mazelis do have an international following” counters Alys. She does accept that there are challenges in getting the same level of attention for fiction from Wales as that enjoyed by Ireland and Scotland. “I’ve heard people make negative comments about books set in Wales, that they don’t have enough scope. But that seems very unfair – Steinbeck and Faulkner set their work firmly in one location yet we don’t hear comments about lack of scope so why should this apply to Wales?”
While her Welsh identity is important to Alys Conran, equally critical is that she doesn’t view it as a constraint. “Identity shouldn’t be a straight jacket and authors shouldn’t view it as if it stops them writing about broader issues. I prefer to see it as a privileged point of view through which we can look at the world.”
About the book: Pigeon is published by Ceredigion-based publishers, Parthian.
About the author: Alys Conran was born in North Wales, studied literature at Edinburgh and then completed an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester. She is currently a lecturer in. Relative writing at the University of Wales in Bangor. Her fiction, poetry, and translations have been placed in several competitions, including The Bristol Short Story Prize and The Manchester Fiction Prize. At the 2017 Literature Wales Awards she topped the public vote for the Wales Arts Review People’s Choice Award and then went on to pick up the Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award and the overall Book of the Year award for her debut novel Pigeon.
Carol Lovekin definitely can’t be accused of taking an easy path for her second novel Snow Sisters. It’s a cross-over between Gothic tale and family drama that juggles three narrative viewpoints and three separate timelines. The result could easily have been a mess but instead it’s a multi-layered narrative about the enduring nature of the past and the resilience of sisterly love.
Snow Sisters takes place at Gull House, an imposing Victorian-style house in Wales complete with a fairy-tale tower and hiding places. Storms and winds from the nearby sea-shore batter its stone walls and screeching gulls circle overhead but its inhabitants are protected behind iron gates, shrubs and a garden wall of gnarled branches of wisteria hanging in ropes. It’s a house “redolent with the murmurs of people from other lives.” This was once the home of the Pryce family. Now it lies empty, abandoned when its last occupants; the sisters Meredith and Verity and their artist mother Allegra; were forced to move to London. Twenty years later Allegra makes a return visit to the house; a trip that rekindles memories of the past and the time when Meredith found a dusty sewing box in a disused attic. It proves to be a Pandora’s box, for in opening the box, Meredith unlocks the ghost of Angharad, a girl on the cusp of womanhood who has a horrific secret she must reveal before she can be at rest. The teenage girls, but most particularly Meredith, become the conduit for Angharad to tell her story but as it unfolds this voice from the past threatens to destroy the bond between the sisters.
The ghost aspect of Snow Sisters didn’t interest me greatly — I thought it leaned a little too much to the obvious — but the depiction of the fraught relationships between the two girls and their mother was impressive. Allegra is a splendidly drawn character; a tempestuous woman who drifts about in beads and floating frocks leaving her daughters to feed, clothe and generally fend for themselves. She comes across as a monstrous figure at times; one minute lavishing attention on her daughters , the next being cruel and dismissive. Meredith, the youngest, is her favourite; the daughter who can do no wrong but from whom in return she seeks adoration. Towards Verity she is hostile, particularly when the girl challenges her smoking and drinking habits and her affair with a much younger man. Allegra’s desire for happiness is what eventually drives the trio from the house despite her daughters’ objections. Yet Allegra is a mass of contradictions; narcissistic certainly but also vulnerable and pitiable in her constant pursuit of love.
With such a distant mother it is no surprise that the girls turn to each other for support. They squabble as all sisters do but there is a bond between them so strong that Verity believes “I know the shape of her heart. She’s under my skin, threaded into my heartbeat, her shadow is stitched to my edges.” United against Allegra, they are also of one mind in their love for their home Gull House and the garden planted with varieties of blue flowers by their beloved grandmother.
The depiction of Gull House is one of the triumphs of Snow Sisters. It, more than the ghostly manifestations, gives the novel its atmosphere and its sense of the past breaking through. This is a house Meredith believes has a heart. Though overgrown and a little forlorn by the time Verity makes her return trip, its allure is evident:
The elegant door, its blue-salt-worn to grey, still takes my breath away.
It’s a thing of beauty, this door, and even with the paint peeling, the shape of it remains insanely lovely. It sits in the stone facade of the house like a picture… At the top, set into the ornately curved frame, is a small window adorned with stained glass flowers. The curve continues out to the side and in it more small sections of glinting glass like jewels.
Every time I came across a description of the house and its gardens I wanted to immediately jump in my car and drive there, hoping against hope there would be a For Sale sign in its grounds and Angharad’s ghost will have been given notice to quit.
About the book: Snow Sisters is the second novel by Carol Lovekin. It was published by Honno in September 2017. In October it was chosen by the Welsh Books Council as their Book of the Month. I received a copy from the publishers in return for an honest review.
About the author: Carol Lovekin was born in Warwickshire, England but has lived in Wales since 1979. The legends and landscape of wales inform her writing as she explains in this post about Snow Sisters for Book Trail. Her first novel, Ghostbird, was released in 2016 . You can follow Carol’s blog here.
Why I read this book: I first heard of Carol Lovekin about a year ago when I went to a pop up bookshop in Cardiff in search of books by Wales-based authors and met some of the wonderful team at Honno. I do have a copy of Ghostbird which I meant to read this summer but somehow went off track. I thought I would make up for that omission by reading her latest novel.
It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best where we start with one book and link to six other books to form a chain. My rule is to link only to books that I’ve read, even if it was decades ago.
This month, once again, we are starting with a book that I’ve never read and, I will admit, not even heard of until now: Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. The blurb description says:
Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, this coolly mesmerizing novel is a raw, powerful portrait of a lost generation who have experienced sex, drugs, and disaffection at too early an age, in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money– a place devoid of feeling or hope.
Apparently Less than Zero was published as his debut novel in 1985 when he was just 21 years old, and rapidly gained attention for its portrayal of a hedonistic lifestyle. It became a cult novel.
The drug culture also figures large in another novel that came out in 1966 and was also set partially in Los Angeles. My first link is to Valley of the Dolls by the American writer Jacqueline Susann. Its more low brow than Ellis’ novel; Time magazine called it the “Dirty Book of the Month” ; but it became the biggest selling novel of its year. It relates the troubled lives of three young women who become fast friends in the turbulent post-war worlds of Broadway and Hollywood and grow increasingly dependent on “dolls” (amphetamines and barbiturates). They help take the edge off their anxieties for a time but the women become increasingly dependent. Over the course of 20 years, each woman strives to achieve her dreams only to find herself back in the valley of the dolls. I’m embarrassed now to think that I ever read this book but it was ‘required’ reading for teenagers who craved excitement even if it was only vicariously.
Dolls of a different kind provide the theme for my second link. In A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, the playwright uses the idea of a doll to symbolise the predicament of married women in Denmark in the late nineteenth century. The doll in this play is Nora Helmer, a mother of three who seemingly lives an ideal existence as the wife of a bank manager. But she feels trapped and frustrated b y the lack of opportunities for self-fulfillment in a male dominated world. The ending of the play Nora Helmer – wife of Torvald, mother of three, is living out the ideal of the 19th-century wife aroused a great sensation and outrage when the play was first performed.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin similarly provoked a strong reaction when it was first published in 1899 because it featured a woman who sets herself at odds with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century American South. Set in New Orleans and on the Louisiana Gulf coast it shows Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother, who, just like Nora in Ibsen’s play, develops unorthodox views on femininity and motherhood with the prevailing social attitudes of the turn-of-the-century American South. Critics found the behaviour of Edna Pontelier so‘ sickening’ and ‘selfish’ that one reviewer said it ‘should be labelled poison’ but over the century, Chopin’s novella has come to be viewed as a landmark work of early feminism and thus a feature of many university literature modules.
Oppression and freedom from patriarchal control provide my fourth link in the form of The Colour Purple by Alice Walker. This is an epistolary novel, set mainly in rural Georgia, that reflects on lives of African-American women in the southern United States in the 1930s, addressing numerous issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture. The protagonist is Celie is a poor, uneducated, 14-year-old girl who writes letters to God because her father, Alphonso, beats her harshly and rapes her continuously. The novel won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction yet has been the frequent target of censors. It appears on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2000–2009 because of it sometimes explicit content.
Four my fifth link I’m staying in the US with another book that has been frequently challenged and banned in some school districts because of its unflinching depiction of childhood rape and racism. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is the first part of a seven-volume series that shows how she rose from a poor and troubled childhood to become a world renowned author and poet, overcoming racism and hostility through strength of character and a love of literature.
Racism and strength of character take me to another coming of age novel for my sixth and final link. Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred Taylor is set in southern Mississippi during the years of the Great Depression. Its narrator is nine-year-old Cassie Logan, a strong-willed girl with a fiery temper whose family fights to hold onto the land that rightfully belongs to them. Once again this is a novel whose content has generated concerns – it was one of the most frequently challenged books of 2002 on the basis that it contained offensive language and portrayed racism.
And with that we are at the end of the chain having stayed mainly in USA but with a little side trip to Norway. One of the things I enjoy about the Six Degrees meme is that it takes you into unexpected places. If you’re wondering about connections other bloggers made, check out the links at Kate’s blog.
Agatha Christie can always be relied upon to keep me reading long after I should have switched off the bedside light. Even when she’s not at her best (which she sadly isn’t in By the Pricking of My Thumbs), her novels contain so many complexities, clues and red herrings that I’m compelled to read on and on and on just to find out who did what and how. I long ago gave up trying to piece together the clues myself however, preferring to leave the hard graft to the sleuths, whether that is the flamboyant professional Hercule Poirot or the quietly razor-sharp amateur, Miss Jane Marple.
It was years before I realised via a BBC series that Christie had created two other sleuths; Tommy Beresford and his wife Tuppence. By the Pricking of My Thumbs is the fourth novel to feature this pair though the first I’ve read. Unlike her other sleuths, Christie advanced the ages of this page with each novel according to real time, so in By the Pricking of My Thumbs we find them as grandparents rather than the bright young adventurers introduced in the first book published in the 1920s. Advancing age has not however dimmed their interest in adventures or their ability to smell when something isn’t quite right.
Their suspicions are aroused after a visit to Tommy’s Aunt Ada at Sunny Ridge Nursing Home. Tuppence is perturbed by another resident, a Mrs. Lancaster, who, in the midst of a conversation suddenly asks: “Was it your poor child?”and goes on to talk about “something behind the fireplace”. Three weeks later Aunt Ada dies and leaves Tommy a painting given to her by Mrs.Lancaster. Tuppence wants to return the painting to its rightful owner but learns Mrs Lancaster has been removed from Sunny Ridge and all attempts to contact have come to nothing. Tuppence is sure the house featured in the painting is one she has seen before. If she can only find that house she might be able to find Mrs Lancaster, she reasons. With Tommy off at a conference, she has time on her hands to go in search of the house, and the missing woman. It’s a quest that leads her to a village where multiple children were murdered some 20 years earlier and a house considered haunted by some locals.
The solution is a complex one, involving a doctored painting, diamond smugglers, secret rooms and a woman who Tuppence thinks could pass for a friendly witch. One of the first critics of the novel, Robert Barnard, wasn’t impressed with the way the novel progressed, commenting that it started well but declined rapidly into “a welter of half-realised plots.” I didn’t notice any half-finished plots myself though I did feel the ending was rather rushed. The middle section moved along at a satisfying pace however. This features Tuppence primarily, following her as she uses logic and determination to pinpoint the house in the painting and interview a few of its neighbours before going missing.
I’m glad I encountered Tommy and Tuppence in their advancing years rather than as the “bright young things” of the 1920s as they were portrayed in Partners in Crime and The Secret Adversary. Their age gives them a more reflective edge which Christie plays up in the early chapters when they discuss whether to visit Aunt Ada.
It is regrettably true that in these days there is in nearly every family, the problem of what might be called an “Aunt Ada.” … Arrangements have to be made. Suitable establishments for looking after the elderly have to be inspected and full questions asked about them. … The days are past when [they] lived on happily in the homes where they had lived for many years previously, looked after by devoted if sometimes somewhat tyrannical old servants.
Not that the Beresfords have any illusions about all elderly people being sweet natured and docile. Tuppence takes the stance that some in their eighties are perfect devils and she will feel sorry only for those elderly people who are genuinely nice. When the book begins neither she nor Tommy actually think of themselves as old or realise that other people automatically considered them deadly dull solely on account of their age. But by the time the book reaches its climax, Tuppence, threatened by a killer, comes face to face with her own reality: that she is old and her body is not that of the young girl who put her life in danger while operating on the fringes of the intelligence service.
Miss Marple will always remain my favourite Agatha Christie sleuth but I’d be happy to meet up again with the Beresfords in the next, and final novel Postern of Fate when apparently they are in their seventies and have retired to a rambling old house in a quiet English village.
About this book: By the Pricking of My Thumbs was first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in November 1968. The title of the book comes from one of the witches’ speeches in Act 4, of Macbeth.
Why I read this book: I found this in a list of books published in 1968 when I was searching for something to read as part of the #1968club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings. I needed a change of pace after reading Vernon God Little.
Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a child? Apparently I did for a few months when I was about four years old. My friend sat next to me at meals, came out with us in the family car on trips to relatives and the seaside and shared playtimes with my toys. What she never did was ask me difficult questions about physics or tell me my dad’s car was ugly and inefficient. Nor did she help me create astonishing paintings or give me the instant ability to swim. But then my imaginary friend never came from a distant planet unlike Chocky, an invisible presence that disrupts the Gove family in John Wyndham’s novel.
David and Mary Gore are not unduly concerned initially when their 12-year-old son Matthew, begins having conversations with himself. They think it’s just a phase and will blow itself out eventually — after all that’s what happened with his younger sister Polly who once had an imaginary friend named Piff.
But soon they come to realise, Matthew’s new friendship is anything but ordinary. Instead of enjoying his conversations with his invisible pal, they seem to make him visibly distressed. Then his teachers report he is asking questions in class that are way beyond his knowledge level. And then Matthew becomes fixated on topics like the number of days in a week, the physics of vehicles and numbering systems.
He eventually comes clean to his dad; someone called Chocky is living inside his head and keeps asking him questions. Why, Chocky demands to know, are there twenty-four hours in a day? Why are there two sexes? Why can’t Matthew solve his math homework using a logical system like binary code? In the opinion of a psychologist brought in to examine Matthew, Chocky is not a figment of the boy’s imagination but another consciousness who has found a way to communicate with Matthew. It’s a concept David accepts more than his wife Mary can, particularly when she discovers some strange paintings of string-like figures hidden in Matthew’s bedroom. Things take a turn for the worse when the boy saves his sister from drowning during a family day out, a tremendous feat given that he hadn’t been able to manage even as much as a paddle earlier that day. The explanation Matthews gives for his prowess is so mysterious it brings him to the attention of the media and the government. Then he disappears for a week.
Chocky reveals to Matthew’s dad that she/he is as an alien consciousness sent on a mission to locate planets that can be colonised or nurtured to a higher level of intelligence and humanity. But in helping Matthew to be a hero she broke a rule of her mission never to intervene or seek to change what happens on another planet. By doing so, she has alerted the government of Earth to her planet’s existence, presenting a potential threat to its future stability. So she must depart. Her planet’s work on earth will continue, but will be conducted more covertly in future.
A hint here, a hint there, an idea for one man, a moment of inspiration for another, more and more little pieces, innocuous in themselves until one day they will suddenly come together . The puzzle will be solved —the secret out, and unsuppressible.
Wyndham’s novels were famously dismissed by Brian Aldiss, as “cosy catastrophes”. Jaw-dropping catastrophic events are in fact noticeably absent from Chocky; the world does not come to an end nor do whole cities collapse as a result of this visitation from another planet. But it is doing Wyndham a disservice to label as ‘cosy’ a novel that is stuffed to the brim with ideas, from child-rearing and learning to artistic inspiration and the difficulties of communication.
Wyndham suggests that, should there be another form of life on another planet, our ability to connect with them will necessarily be limited. Chocky cannot fully transfer all her knowledge and thus nudge the planet to a more enlighted existence because Matthew’s vocabulary and his experience is limited. It is, as Chocky explains to Matthew’s father, like:
… trying to teach a steam-engineer with no knowledge of electricity, how to build a radio transmitter — without names for any of the parts or words for their functions. Difficult, but with time, patience and intelligence, not impossible.
What was the knowledge that Chocky wants to share? She calls it cosmic power — a infinite source of energy that once developed can help earth reduce its dependency on non sustainable fuel sources. Long before the concept of global warming became mainstream, in Chocky Wyndham is dealing with the issue of man’s impact on the environment and its danger if allowed to continue unabated.
[Your fuels] are your capital. When they are spent you will be back where you were before you found them. This is not progress, it is profligacy. … It is true you have an elementary form of atomic power which you will no doubt improve. But that is almost your only investment for your future. Most of your power is being used to build machines to consume power faster and faster, while your sources of power remain finite. There can only be one end to that.
The ending, which contains an impassioned plea for better human stewardship of the earth, is one of the surprises of this book. Another is that it turns on its head the idea that an alien encounter will necessarily be threatening and scary. The month Matthew spends in Chocky’s presence is a strange experience, but ultimately it has a positive and hopeful experience because it introduces Matthew to new ways of thinking and seeing that enable him to mature and gain confidence.
On one level therefore Chocky is a charming tale about friendship and the rites of passage through childhood but look more closely and it’s evident that this is a book which asks some profound questions about our future.
About this Book: Chocky was first published as a novella in the March 1963 issue of the American science fiction magazine Amazing Stories and later developed into a novel published in 1968. It was the last novel by John Wyndham published one year before his death.
About the author: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (clearly his parents couldn’t make up their minds about a name for their son) was the son of a barrister. After trying a number of careers, including farming, law, commercial art and advertising, he started writing short stories in 1925. After serving in the Civil Service and the Army during the war, he went back to writing. Adopting the name John Wyndham, he started writing a form of science fiction that he called ‘logical fantasy’. His best known works include The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), the latter filmed twice as Village of the Damned.
The day after I started reading Vernon God Little a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at a music festival in Las Vegas, causing multiple fatalities and injuries. It made reading this book about a (fictional) mass killing at a school inMartirio, Texas, especially thought-provoking because it opened up questions about the way in which society respond to such events.
In the aftermath of Las Vegas, the initial desire was to understand ‘What happened?” and “How could this have happened?” This was quickly replaced by questions of responsibility. ‘Who is to blame?” and “How could they have let this happen?” asked people around the world. This need to identify the person or people responsible and bring them swiftly to account for their failings, is a response that has become all too common in a world which has in recent years experienced a multitude of calamities.
The ‘blame culture’ is very evident in Vernon God Little. Jesus Navarro, a college student, shot and killed 16 students at his school before turning the gun on himself. His 15-year-old friend Vernon becomes the town’s scapegoat and is almost immediately charged as an accessory to the crime. As the book begins, Vernon has been taken into custody and is being questioned by police officers who are under pressure from an angry and grieving community to identify the guilty party. Vernon steadfastly maintains his innocence but his behaviour over the course of the following few months, simply acts as further evidence to the police and the news media that he is guilty. He flees to Mexico but is captured and put on trial as Texas’ most notorious serial killer. As a death row prisoner his fate will be decided in a Big Brother-style programme.
This is a story told from Vernon’s point of view. You’d think, given the subject matter, that this would be a fairly somber tale but actually it contains a surprising amount of humour. I don’t mean humour of the belly-aching, laugh out loud kind, but the type that has you wincing — if you’ve ever watched eposides of the BBC sit com The Office (the original British version that is) you’ll have an idea of what I mean. The behaviour of the central character is ludicrously funny but we also cringe at some of his antics. We laugh with Vernon and at him but often feel guilty about the latter because he’s in essence a nice kid whose been given a rough deal. His father disappeared some years previously and his mother is, well let’s be kind and say she’s not really there. Instead of protecting her son and doing her damnest to get him the best legal help possible, she goes all dewy-eyed about a video repairman who masquerades as a news reporter. “Lally” Ledesma is clearly a sleaze who befriends Vernon only to further his own career but Vernon’s mother doesn’t see the damage this guy is doing to her son. Vernon isn’t well served by the girl he fancies — she leads him on then shops him in order to further her own aspirations to be a media personality — or by his mother’s friends. They’re more concerned with junk television and, perhaps aptly in a town nicknamed ‘the barbecue-sauce capital of Texas’, stuffing their faces with ribs and fried chicken. Vernon’s mother and her chums fret endlessly about whether he is getting enough to eat. Her closest friend Palmyra is a wonderful larger-than-life character who bellows at police officers when she finds they’re not feeding him enough:
So the door flies open. Pam wobbles in, bolt upright like she has books on her head. It’s on account of her center of gravity.
‘Vernie, you eatin rebs? What did you eat today?’
‘O Lord, we better go by the Barn’
Doesn’t matter what you tell her, she’s going by Bar-B-Chew Barn believe me.
Pam just molds into the car. Her soul’s already knotted over the choice of side-orders you can tell.
No-one in this novel really comes across in a positive light however; they’re either fat, stupid or conniving. In fact, Vernon God Little is rather scathing about American society in general, portraying it as full of slobbish incompetent law enforcers and gun-obsessed gullible citizens. Everything in this world can be turned into a form of entertainment — even the death penalty. One of the most chilling plot developments comes when Ledesma sells an idea to a television network for a Big Brother style series where viewers get to decide the fate of prisoners on death row. Prisoners are given coaching on how to act when the cameras are installed in their cells.
Internet viewers will be able to choose which cells to watch, and change camera angles and all. On regular TV there’ll be edited highlights of the day’s action. Then the general public will vote by phone or internet. They’ll vote for who should die next. The cuter we act, the more we entertain, the longer we might live.
I wish I could believe such an idea will never materialise outside the world of fiction. But then who could have imagined a program about a bunch of misfits who live together in a custom-built home under constant surveillance??
No wonder that at the end, Vernon wonders: “What kind of a life was that? A bunch of movies, and people talking about movies, and shows about people talking about movies.”
So what did I make of this book? It was certainly an odd book. Frequently loopy, barmy and just plain whacky, it was a tale told with gusto and zest. But the initial novelty of this style wore off half way through and, as much as I was interested in its ideas, I just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible.
About the book: Vernon God Little was the debut novel by DBC Pierre. Published in 2003 it won the Booker Prize the same year in the face of competition from Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut and Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.
About the author: D.B.C. Pierre (the pen name of Peter Warren Finlay) has a ‘colourful’ history, admitting to being a drug-taking, hard-drinking, law-breaking tearaway in his past. His misspent youth gave him his nickname of Dirty But Clean (hence the DBC…). Part American, part Australian he now lives in Ireland.
Why I read this book: It was one of the remaining books to read in my Booker Prize project. Just six more to go..
The Human Factor is a novel about a very ordinary, almost nondescript, man who makes his living in the shady world of espionage. It’s not your typical spy novel however. Clandestine meetings, secret messages and code names are not much in evidence; nor is the plot of the usual fiendishly complex kind and there’s a distinct absence of high octave action scenes. What we get instead is a more thoughtful novel about loyalty and betrayal.
In his 1980 autobiography Ways of Escape, Graham Greene said his intent was to show to people who were more used to reading about the antics of James Bond, that there was an unromantic side to the world of intelligence .
I wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pensions, the background much like that of any other profession — whether the bank clerk or the business director — an undangerous routine, and within each character the more important private life.
And so he makes his central character a 62-year-old man who shuffles each day between his detached house in the market town of Berkhamstead and his small office in London. Maurice Castle is an officer in the Eastern and Southern Africa section of MI6 which might sound exciting but actually comes across as rather dull. It essentially involves reading and responding to the daily ‘bag’ of reports sent by various British overseas outposts. Castle is a man who likes his routine: a few inconsequential pleasantries with his assistant Davis; lunch at the same pub at the same time each day, a heavyweight novel to read on his commute home; a glass or two of J&B whisky each evening.
Castle’s suburban life is not however as pedestrian as it seems. His wife Sarah is a black South African woman he met during his tour of duty in that country. Their son is not his though they keep up a pretence to the contrary. Castle drinks because he has a secret life as a double agent who passes on information to the Russians. It was the price he paid in return for help from a Marxist to get Sarah smuggled out of South Africa when their relationship fell foul of the South Afrian authorities. By the way, I’m not spoiling the novel by revealing this since it’s heavily signalled within the first few chapters.
Castle’s hopes of a quiet and uneventful life in the few remaining years before retirement are disrupted when suspicions begin of a leak in MI6. The head of security makes discreet inquiries; the signs point at Davis who is quickly despatched with the aid of mouldy nuts (they cause liver failure apparently). Castle of course knows the ‘evidence’ against Davis is spurious. The finger of suspicion is certain to turn in his own direction eventually but he may have time for one final act of betrayal; telling his Russian handlers about Project Remus, an alliance with America and Germany to deal with black unrest in South Africa. If he burns that bridge, there is no course open to him but to escape from England. But where will that leave Sarah and Sam?
Questions of loyalty, morality and conscience form the heart of The Human Factor. Castle became a traitor not as a result of deeply held political convictions but out of a sense of gratitude to a former colleague, the communist who smuggled Sarah out of South Africa. Now he is forced to re-examine his motives and his loyalties. The death of Davis makes him suspicious about the morality of the institution for which he works. Project Remus makes him question whether the security service is more of a danger than the people it is supposedly fighting.
Greene is a master when it comes to portraying people confronting a moral dilemma but the character of Castle is not one of his finest. He comes across as a naive figure who thinks if his Russian controllers manage to get him out of England, that the British authorities will let his wife join him in Moscow. And yet he tells Sarah “As long as we are alive we’ll come together again. Somehow. Somewhere.” Hm, sounds like wishful thinking to me…
Castle is a sad figure but too distant a figure to fully engage our sympathy. Although we can appreciate his anxiety that the life he has enjoyed with his family is about to end, there wasn’t the depth of psychological analysis I’ve enjoyed in Greene’s earlier novels like Heart of the Matter and End of the Affair. There was one habit of Castle that did make me warm towards him a little: he reads the classics and is a frequent visitor to a delightful sounding bookshop in Soho where, during the course of the novel, he buys novels by Samuel Richardson, Anthony Trollope and Tolstoy.
It was an unusual respectable bookshop for this area of Soho, quite unlike the bookshop which faced it across the street and bore the simple sign ‘Books’ in scarlet letters. The window below the scarlet sign displayed girlie magazines which nobody was ever seen to buy — they were like a signal in an easy code long broken; they indicated the nature of private wares and interests inside. But the shop of Halliday & Son confronted the scarlet ‘Books’ with a window full of Penguins and Everyman and second-hand copies of World’s Classics.
Sadly as the novel progresses, I learned that he is not actually reading these books; just using them for codes to arrange information drops and meetings with his handler.
More interesting than Castle as a character is Colonel Daintry, an MI6 security officer faced with the task of tracking down the source of the leak. Greene shows us a painfully lonely man who is so out of touch with normal life that he’s never heard of Maltesers and doesn’t realise they wouldn’t be the appropriate gift to take for a weekend country house party. Daintry is separated from his wife, is barely in contact with his daughter, few interests outside of work and no social life. When his daughter announces her forthcoming marriage, Daintry is so devoid of friends that he resorts to inviting Castle to accompany him. Daintry is fundamentally an honest man who despite all his years in the service, still doesn’t understand how to play the system. One exchange with his senior officer, the new commander of the service, reveals the extent of his isolation:
I wish I were a chess player. Do you play chess, Daintry?’
‘No, bridge is my game.’
‘The Russians don’t play bridge, or so I understand.’
‘Is that important?’
‘We are playing games, Daintry, games, all of us. It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it. We have to keep flexible, but it’s important, naturally, to play the same game.’
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Daintry said, ‘I don’t understand what you are talking about.’
Davis’ death horrifies him. He knows the man was killed because it would avoid further embarrasment for a service already discomforted by Philby and co. He knows too that there was but flimsy and circumstantial evidence the man was a traitor. The incident brings him to resign his post despite knowing it means “he would exchange one loneliness for another.” In some ways Daintry reminded me of the butler Stephens in The Remains of the Day, a man who has learned to button up his emotions for so long that he cannot admit them even to himself.
The British intelligence service isn’t shown in a very good light in this novel. They’re frankly rather inept at discovering the traitor in their midst. With only two suspects they pick the wrong man because he drinks more than he should, takes reports out of the office to read over lunch and supposedly has a clandestine meeting at the zoo (it’s with his secretary rather than a handler). The service commander takes a very relaxed view of the affair, leaving the details to his underlings so he can continue to enjoy the quiet of his country estate. It stretches our credulity but then Greene wrote this novel with the benefit of his own years of service within MI6 so there is clearly a basis of truth.
The Human Factor isn’t one of Greene’s finest works but it’s well worth reading nevertheless.
About the book: The Human Factor is one of Graham Greene’s later novels, first published in 1978 when the author was 74 years old.
Why I read this book: I’ve read most of the novels considered to be his best output (the so-called Catholic novels like Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory and, my favourite The Heart of the Matter). I like Greene’s writing style so thought I’d make my way through his lesser known work. The Human Factor is one of the books on my Classics Club list.
Of all the books long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker prize, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor was the one I most wanted to read. Having done so I’m at a loss to understand why the Booker judges failed to select this for the shortlist. Not for the first time it seems the judges’ idea of what makes an outstanding novel is a mile apart from my own thinking.
Reservoir 13 is quite simply an extraordinary novel. It gives an innovative twist to the device of a missing girl; has a meticulously plotted structure and a mesmeric poetic style of writing.
The springboard is the disappearance of 13 year old Rebecca Shaw from the holiday cottage in England’s Peak District where she is spending New Year’s Eve with her parents. Initially it seems the novel is treading a familiar path; one which traces the ensuing search, the grief of the girl’s family and the shock of the community before the revelation of what happened to Rebecca. So we get police helicopters buzzing overhead, villagers turning out to sweep the frozen moors and divers trawling through the reservoirs. It’s all in vain. Rebecca Shaw is nowhere to be found. Not that day or in the following weeks, months and even years. McGregor keeps alive the possibility that she may be found however; tantalising us with the discovery of a navy-blue body-warmer identical to the one Rebecca wore the night she disappeared; several mentions of disused lead mines and characters who have secrets they would prefer lay undiscovered.
McGregor’s stroke of ingenuity is to make us think this is all adding up to be a murder mystery/crime kind of novel, while all the time writing an entirely different of book. What Reservoir 13 is about is essentially the ebb and flow of life in a rural community showing how, despite a human tragedy, life does go on. Cows are milked, crops planted and harvested, tea rooms opened, kilns fired. Babies are born; children grow up and experiment with drugs and sex; people fall in and out of love; some fall sick; others die. Some villagers leave, others return. In the immediate aftermath of Rebecca’s disappearance, the villagers scale back on some of their time-honoured traditions and festivities as a mark of respect for her family. But as the years pass and still she is not found, they make a return appearance on the calendar: the charity dance in spring, well dressing in mid summer; the cricket match against the neigbouring village; harvest festival; the winter pantomime and fireworks at New Year
McGregor follows the daily lives of a large set of villagers, watching them deal with small and not-so-small sorrows and disappointments over the course of 13 years. Child pornography; depression; marital discord; examination failures and successes; all human life is recorded in this novel. There’s Irene who puts on a brave face even when her special needs son becomes violent; Jackson the farmer, who rules his sons’ lives from his sick bed and Jones the school caretaker whose protective attitude towards his boilerhouse is suspicious. None of these villagers dominate the novel; there is in fact no central character. Often all we get is a fleeting glimpse of their lives, a single sentence or a short conversation alone signalling their attitudes, their vulnerabilities and how their lives are changing. It’s a style that calls for careful reading — blink and you can easily miss some essential detail.
The cycle of human life is echoed in the rhythms of the natural world — the flowering of trees and wild plants, mating and hibernation of wildlife and weather conditions marking the changing of the seasons.
The swallows returned in numbers, and could be seen flying in and out of the open doors at the lambing shed at the Jacksons’ and the cowsheds over at Thompson’s, and the outbuildings up at the Hunter’s land. … There was rain and the river was high and the hawthorn by the lower meadows came out foaming white. The cow parsley was thick along the footpaths and the shade deepened under the trees.
Through meticulous layering of details and repetition Reservoir 13 marks the turning of the years. Every chapter, each of which takes us one year on, begins in the same way: a sentence noting the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Yet with a few small changes McGregor shows how life is changing for this community.
Chapter 2, which marks the first anniversary of Rebecca’s disappearance begins
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry to the few who’d come out to watch.
By year 4, the villagers are in more of a celebration mood:
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the television in the pub and dancing in the street outside.
Almost a decade later however, after New Year’s Eve is marked by arson attacks at a caravan and the allotments, the villagers are more cautious about their celebrations:
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but no one in the village even lifted their heads to look.
McGregor’s prose is rhythmic and measured, seeming simple on the surface yet with such precision and detail that you feel immersed in the life of this community and drawn towards its inhabitants. It’s the kind of writing that can easily sweep you along. I forced myself to slow down, reading just one chapter a night so I could savour it more fully.
Even while absorbed in their own lives, the village can never completely forget what happened on that one night so many years ago. Periodically McGregor reminds us of the girl’s disappearance, even in the final chapter some 13 years after her disappearance we are told:
The missing girl had not yet been forgotten. The girl’s name was Rebecca or Becky or Beks. She had been looked for everywhere. … It was no good.
This is in short a wonderful novel. The best I have read this year.
About the book: Reservoir 13 was published in 2017 by 4th Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins. My version is in hardback and was borrowed from my local library.
About the author: Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. He is the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits the Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. He was born in Bermuda in 1976, grew up in Norfolk, and now lives in Nottingham, England.
Today is National Poetry Day in the UK in honour of which I thought I’d share two poems by one of my favourite poets: William Blake. One of the aspects of his work I love is his ability to use poetry to shine a light on the injustices he saw around him, of which there were many.
The Chimney Sweeper
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;
And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.
Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.
And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.
Blake is of course highlighting the appalling practice of child labour that was so prevalent in the late 18th and 19th centuries where, as young as four or give, boys were set to clean chimneys which they could more easily negotiate because of their small size. This poem always suggests to me a court case where the child sweeper is giving evidence in the witness box and calling on the jury to do their duty by him and his fellow sweeps.
Another, equally dark poem is London where Blake points an accusing finger at every aspect of British society for the pain and suffering he sees about him as he walks the streets. There isn’t a lot of hope in this poem – rapid urbanisation means children are no longer free to enjoy childhood and people’s physical freedom is restricted by charters. Where Blake was taking a risk, bearing in mind this was written as the French Revolution was in full swing, was in the image of the walls of the palace streaming with blood. A warning perhaps to the British monarchy that they too could face the same fate as their counterparts across the Channel?
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse
Until I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, I knew only three things about its protagonist Ned Kelly:
- He was an outlaw in Australia
- He was hanged for his crimes
- In his final shootout he wore a helmet made from iron with slits for his eyes
Carey’s novel takes us way beyond those headline facts and into the mind of the man whose first encounter with the law happened when he was just thirteen years old and he was charged with the assault and robbery of a Chinese pig and fowl trader. By the time Ned Kelly was 25 he had progressed to cattle thieving, bank robberies and murder. How this child of a dirt-poor Irish immigrant family became one of the most wanted men in Australia and the stuff of legends is the premise of True History of the Kelly Gang.
Based partly on historical documents including the Jerilderie Letter written by Kelly to a fellow outlaw, the novel begins with a 12-year-old boy forced to grow up quickly when his father dies. As head of the family, Ned is fiercely protective of his mother and siblings, putting his heart and soul into building fences around their farm in Victoria and clearing the land to protect crops and livestock. Manoeuvred by his mother to become an apprentice to the infamous bushranger Harry Power, Ned is drawn increasingly into a life of crime. He fights with his mother’s suitors and the police, and when he shoots a treacherous police officer in self-defense, Ned is forced to flee into the wild bush country. With his younger brother and two friends he commits audacious crimes, all the while gaining widespread support from poor oppressed farmers and remaining one step ahead of the forces of law and order.
True History of the Kelly Gang is an imaginative reconstruction of Ned Kelly’s life story in his own words. Dedicated to the baby daughter he has never seen, Kelly wants to set the record straight. He promises her at the beginning that his history “will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false” and the word ‘True’ in the title further seeks to persuade us that this is an definitive and authoritative account of his life and of the injustices suffered by the Irish in Australia.
He repeatedly represents himself as a person who was pushed into the life of an outlaw by forces beyond his control. “What choice did I have?” he asks, when he kills the constable who heads the local police station. At other times he reflects on how he has been betrayed by the dishonesty of others. He operates to a code of ethics that will not let him see his brother imprisoned for an act that he Ned committed, and that drives him to rob banks to raise money for the release of his mother from what he considers an unlawful imprisonment. All of this is in strong contrast to the lack of princples he witness among the police, judges and fellow settlers.
All of this is rendered in a style that is striking. Carey’s narrative has a directness and immediacy of tone that makes it hard to resist Kelly’s portrait of himself as a man who had the stuffing knocked out of him as a child. Coming out of a stint of hard labour in prison he reflects:
I were 17 yr old when I came out of prison 6ft 2in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as the hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beecworth Goal. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that goal boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tallow pot.
The raggedness of this style of writing with its lack of punctuation and free flow from one thought to another took me a little time to get used to but once any initial reservations were overcome, I got swept along. Kelly may have lacked a formal education but he knows how to tell a story and to describe the environment in which he lives and hides. Here are a few examples I picked out:
“Many is the night I have sat by the roaring river the rain never ending them logs so green bubbling and spitting blazing in a rage no rain can staunch.”
“The clouds was light but queerly yellow on their edges as they moved across the ageless constellations.”
“Curtains of bark hung from the trunks like shredded skin”
These moments together with flashes of humour and reflections on the Irish experience were welcome contrasts to the torrent of detail about cattle thieving, double crossing, run-ins with the law and shoot-outs. Ned Kelly seems to have perfect recall of every stage of his life and every conversation and to want to tell us about every single detail. I got a bit tired of this three quarters of the way through. Though I did enjoy it, less would certainly have more with this book.
About this book: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey was first published in 2000 by the University of Queensland Press. It won the Booker Prize in 2001. My copy is a paperback published by Mackays of Chatham.
About the author: Born in Australia in 1943, Peter Carey is the author of six previous novels and a collection of stories. He won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda; his other honors include the Commonwealth Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. He became only the second author to win the Booker Prize twice.
Why I read this book: it’s one of the few remaining books on my Booker Prize project. I included it in my 20booksofsummer project for 2017.