Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale by Gerard Reve [review]

the-eveningsThe Evenings by Gerard Reve focuses on something we’ve all experienced – wasted days.  They’re the ones where you get up buzzing with plans to make the most of the day.  But you can’t get going until you’ve had breakfast and at least one cup of tea/coffee, and a thorough read of the newspaper. Maybe even an attempt at the crossword. Meanwhile your mobile phone keeps pinging to let you know  emails or text messages are awaiting your attention. Better deal with those first you think, they might be urgent. What’s happening on Facebook you wonder? An hour later having exhausted the stock of cute cat photos and pithy sayings, you migrate to Twitter and post a few of your own witticisms. Time to shower and get ready to face the world. Except everything you pull out of the wardrobe just looks naff. By the time you’ve sorted something that will pass muster it’s almost lunchtime; not really worth starting anything now. And so the pattern is established that will mean by bedtime, not a single thing from your list will have been completed. And you wonder what happened to all that time…..

For Frits van Egters, the central character in Gerard Reve’s debut novel The Evenings, most of his days disappear into this kind of nothingness. In the final days of 1946 he wakes one Sunday morning determined that this day will be different; that this “will be a day well spent.   This will be no wasted and profitless Sunday.” But what happens? Nothing much. He drifts through the day, one minute listening to the radio and the next taking books from his shelves and flicking through them without reading a word. In between he looks out of the window, idly observing the passers by and ducks waddling on the canal, and makes a minute examination of his mouth in the mirror. By then it is afternoon and “all is lost, everything is ruined. But the evening can still make up for a great deal.” Except his visit that evening to a friend also turns out to be a waste of time. And so one day turns into the next and the next. His life in fact is an endless cycle of monotonous days.

The Evenings follows Frits as he wanders aimlessly through the house he shares with his parents and out into the streets of Amsterdam. By day he is at work – what he does exactly we never really discover except that it too involves repetition: “I take cards out of a file,” he responds to a friend’s question. “Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again.” It’s the evenings that hang heaviest on his mind. How to get through them without descending into a black hole of despair? For the 10 consecutive evenings upon which the book is based, we observe the stultifying mundanity of his life.

evenings-dreamingFrits is ever conscious of time and how to make best use of it. During visits to ‘friends’ and even when he is at home with his parents, he is forever looking at his watch, calculating how long before he can move on without seeming impolite. How to avoid long pauses in conversation is his constant dilemma. One strategy he adopts is peppering his conversation with disturbing jokes and anecdotes about death. Another is to ask questions. The questions he asks at home are ones to which he already knows the answer because he’s heard his father’s stories many times over. He likes to think the questions he asks of his friends are philosophically deep and meaningful though it doesn’t matter if they are not because for Frits “Even if a question is entirely pointless it is better than no question at all.“. His questions often baffle people or are inappropriate to the occasion. A night out with Frits is not one to relish. He’s hard work. “Do you people believe that it is right for one to live in moderation?”, he throws at his companions on a night out at a dance hall. They barely have time to respond before he casts another question into the ring: “Are you not of the opinion that eating meat, if not a sin, should in any case be denounced as being unhealthy? ”  

He’s also very direct, not hesitating to point out signs of their ill health or their advancing age.

Oh but you are becoming quite bald,” he tells one man. Listen Joop, without meaning to be nasty your scalp is really almost bare. It will not be long before you can count your hairs on the fingers of one hand… Do you count the hairs in your comb each morning? If you did you would see that there are more of them each day. Slowly but surely. I would be horrified to know that I was going bald. I would lose all desire to live. But please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t mean to discourage you.

With such low levels of interpersonal skills it’s not surprising Frits doesn’t have many friends. His sole true companion is a stuffed rabbit.

Most of this humdrum life takes place in a small quarter of Amsterdam. It’s here that Frits shares an apartment with his half-deaf father and his well-meaning mother. He disdains their eating and hygiene habits (his father comes in for particular contempt for his tendency to walk around the flat half-dressed and slurp his food) and scorns the tedious predictability of their conversation. But he also demonstrates some grudging affection towards them. On New Year’s Eve his mother is distraught to find she was duped into buying not wine for a celebratory drink, but apple-berry juice. To salvage the occasion, Frits dutifully drinks his quota, making encouraging noises about how much nicer it is than wine.

If this sounds dreadful let me assure you that The Evenings is – at times – highly comic. It’s impossible to read Gerard Reve’s portrayal of the battles between father and son for control of the radio or Frits’ paranoia about is body, without laughing out loud. Impossible too not to find some vestiges of sympathy for this hapless, down-trodden specimen of a man. My one difficulty was that a novel about the mediocrity and tediousness of a life did, after a time become rather tedious. The joke wore itself out for me in the middle of the novel. Fortunately I pressed on to the masterful finale where Frits, having failed to find anything remarkable to do to celebrate the new year, invokes a prayer for divine mercy on behalf of his parents, seeking understanding for all their faults. And then contemplates his own situation:

I am alive. I breathe and I move, so I live. Is that clear? What ordeals are yet to come, I am alive.

It sounds as if he is reconciled to his life but what kind of a life is that exactly. Reve doesn’t give us an answer but leaves us to wonder.

I haven’t read enough Dutch literature to know whether The Evenings deserves the accolade given by the Society of Dutch Literature of “the best Dutch novel of all time.” It’s different and memorable but I expect a stand-out novel to maintain quality throughout whereas this one sags in the middle.

Footnotes

The Book: The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale by Gerard Reve was published in Amsterdam as De Avonden in 1946. It’s taken more than 60 years for the novel to become available in English via Pushkin Press. Translation from the Dutch is by Sam Garrett.

The Author:  According to Wikipedia, Gerard Reve is considered one of the “Great Three” of Dutch post-war literature. He declared that the primary message in his work was salvation from the material world but his work is also notable for its themes of religion, love and  his intense hatred of communism. He died in 2006.

Why I read this book:  I’ve seen The Evenings described as a masterpiece of Dutch literature and since this is a part of the world whose literary output is largely unknown to me, I was delighted to see it available via NetGalley in 2016. Pushkin Press Fortnight orchestrated by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog galvanised me into reading it. 

Other Reviews: For a different perspective on The Evenings, here are links to some other reviews.

Want to explore Dutch literature further?

There is a good article on Dutch literature in translation over at Expatica.com where the managing director of the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch literature provides a guide to authors to watch.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey #Bookerprize

oscar-and-lucinda

It begins in Devon with Christmas pudding plucked from a child’s mouth by his beloved though sternly Evengelical father. It ends with a glass church floating on a barge along a river in the Australian outback. What lies between is a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits: a gangly, nervous clergyman called Oscar Hopkins (nicknamed ‘Odd Bod’)  and a frustrated, unconventional heiress called Lucinda Leplastrier.

Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey’s Booker prize winning novel from 1988, is a love story in which these two unlikely partners-in-life stumble their way to a relationship. Chance brings them together: a toss of a coin convinces Oscar that God is calling him to be a missionary in New South Wales. On board the ship taking him away from from England he goes to Lucinda’s state-room to hear her confession and discovers their shared passion for gambling. In Lucinda’s cabin the two experience a kind of euphoria, playing poker together for penny stakes. Chance also threatens to drive them apart: to prove his love, Oscar wagers he can transport a glass church built in Lucinda’s glass manufacturing factory through unchartered terrain and erected  on her behalf in a remote bush settlement. It’s a foolish proposition – though breathlessly stunning in appearance,  a ‘crystal-pure bat-winged structure’, its cast-iron framework and glass sheets weigh more than thirty hundredweight. Readers who by this stage of the book is well aware of Oscar’s ineptitude at most things, wouldn’t trust him with such a mission. But Lucinda is a girl in love so she stakes her fortune on his success. The results are unexpected – having set readers on a breadcrumb trail with an unnamed narrator who declares he is the great-grandson of Oscar, Peter Carey springs a surprise about this lineage in the book’s denouement.

Oscar and Lucinda is an episodic novel related in 111 short chapters that chart Oscar’s and Lucinda’s lives with many digressions that introduce a host of minor, odd yet credible, characters. Peter Carey delineates their physical characteristics and their personalities so magnificently that they linger long in the imagination. Oscar himself is a magnificently-drawn character. Scarecrow thin with a triangular face, frizzy red hair “which grew outwards, horizontal like a windblown tree in an Italianate painting…” and a nervous habit which made him unable to ever sit still. He also has a morbid fear of the sea:

It smelt of death to him.  When he thought about this ‘death’, it was not as a single thing you could label with a single word.  It was not a discreet entity.  It fractured and flew apart, it swarmed like fish, splintered like glass.

This fear provides one of the most telling scenes in the novel where, all other attempts to get him up the gangway having failed, his friends and father have to resort to a cage used to load the animals on board for the voyage to Australia . Oscar is clearly a man trapped by his own nature, a theme repeated towards the end of the novel where he is towed up river inside the church.

The man inside the church waved his hands, gestures which appeared … to be mysterious, even magical, but which, inside the crystal furnace of the church, had the simple function of repelling the large and frightening insects which had become imprisoned there.

They flew against the glass in panic. They had the wrong intelligence to grasp the nature of glass. They based against ‘nothing’ as if they were created only to demonstrate to Oscar Hopkins the limitations of his own understanding, his ignorance of God, and that the walls of hell itself might be made of something like this, unimaginable, contradictory, impossible.

Even more vivid for me was the portrait of Mrs Stratton, the indomitable wife of an Anglican vicar, she loves nothing more than a good theological argument. Introduce a question on the merits of the Nicine Creed versus the Athanasian Creed or the nature of divine grace and she’s off ….

She sought the high ground, then abandoned it. She plunged into ditches and trotted proudly across bright green valleys. She set up her question, then knocked it down – she argued that her own question was incorrect. She set alight to it and watched it burn.

Oscar and Lucinda is a novel where the plot and characters get a bit fantastic at times but one where I couldn’t help but get swept along, eagerly wanting to know what happens next. It’s a novel which could frustrate the hell out of people who prefer novels that go from A to B in a direct line and don’t want too many themes and ideas. But for readers who love oddities and  playfulness yet also appreciate a narrative of sensibilities, I hope this will be as much of a joy for them to read as it was for me. This has now gone down as one of my favourites among all the Booker prize winners.

Footnotes

The Book: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey was published by Faber and Faber in 1988. My paperback edition is from 1997.

The Author:  Peter Carey was born in Australia. He worked in advertising for many years while trying to build a career as a novelist. He is one of the few people to win the Man Booker Prize twice – with Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang. There is a fascinating interview with him in the Paris Review in which he talks about the frustrations of trying to get his first fiction efforts published and his writing process.

Why I read this book:  This was one of the 12 Booker prize winning titles remaining to be read in my Booker Prize project. I moved it to the top of my list on the recommendations of our experts on authors from ANZ: Whispering Gums and ANZlovers .

 

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome [review]

 

swallows_amazonsSwallows and Amazons was the first title in Arthur Ransome’s classic series of 12 novels written between 1929 and 1934. It introduces the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the Swallows), the camp they create on Wild Cat island and their adventures with the two intrepid Blackett sisters (the Amazons). Ransome, who was a journalist with the Manchester Guardian, was inspired to write the book after a summer spent giving sailing lessons to the children of some friends. His novel relates the outdoor adventures and play of the two sets of children who are spending the summer holidays in the Lake District. Initially ‘enemies’ the Swallows and the Amazons enjoy a few skirmishes until they agree to band together against a common foe – the Blacketts’ uncle James whom they call “Captain Flint” who angers them by thinking them responsible for the theft of his precious trunk. But of course, since this is a book intended for child readers, all must come right in the end. Mistakes are set right, apologies given, the children become firm friends with Captain Flint and all resolve to meet again the following summer.

I never read Swallows and Amazons as a child – in fact I never heard the title mentioned even among any of my friends. But it was a set text on my children’s literature course so in I plunged. I admit that, despite the fact it was voted in a 2003 BBC poll as one of the nation’s favourite reads,  I didn’t warm to this book initially. It contained far too much about the mechanics of sailing in which I have little interest. But once I’d got over that barrier I began to appreciate this tale of a bunch of children who get to go off on adventures without too much interference from adults.

It’s a novel in the long tradition of ‘island stories’ but instead of travelling to far off places and encountering pirates as the kids do in Treasure Island for example, the children here base their adventures on a small island in  one of the Lake District’s lakes (some local experts claim it’s Lake Windermere, others that it’s Coniston Water.) Influenced by their reading of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island the Walker children and the Blackett girls let their imaginations roam free.  Adults are transformed into ‘natives’, the map of the lake is re-drawn with their own names assigned to its inlets and bays,  the fish they catch become ‘sharks’ and the pebbles for which they dive are ‘pearls’. They eat some odd sounding meals – it took me a while to work out that the ingredient they call pemmican is something like SPAM – but they are not so far away from civilisation that they miss out on cakes and other treats from their mother and the nearby farm.

The more I read of their invented world, the more I recalled some of the adventures I had with my large group of cousins during our own school holidays, leaving the house just after breakfast and sometimes not returning until it was time for tea. In between we roamed the hillsides building dens to ward off imaginary invaders sustained with some wild berries we managed to forage. For the children of Swallows and Amazons their adventures provide a form of education. They learn practical skills like how to handle the dinghy or how to cook on a camp fire but they also learn a lesson in life – the importance of not taking things at face value and of valuing other people’s property. It has a clear didactic element but it’s handled fairly lightly (certainly in comparison to Little Women!).

On the whole, though I wouldn’t want to read any more in the series, this was a fun read and I found I could easily skip the details about sailing. I loved the way it sparked memories of my own childhood – I wonder whether kids today still make up their own imaginary worlds or has this become a victim of the easy availability of virtual reality and gaming?

Footnotes

The Book: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome was published in 1930. So popular has it proved over the year that multiple TV and film adaptations have been issued, including one by Harbour Pictures and BBC Films in 2016. (it attracted criticism because out of some odd idea of sensitivity, one character’s name was changed from Titty to Tilly).

 

The Author: Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds but spent large parts of his childhood in the Lake District, using that detailed knowledge to inform his novels. Ransome had already written 20 novels but it wasn’t until third of the Swallows and Amazons series was published did he achieve commercial and critical success.  After the success of his first Swallows and Amazons novel he gave up his journalist career and devoted himselfto to writing adventure stories for children.  The  Arthur Ransome Trust set up to honour his work, continues to operate today, providing children with some of the same experiences as the children in his novels.

Why I read this book: Quite simply I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been a set text for my children’s literature course.

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra [review]

swallows-of-kabul-montageThe Swallows of Kabul is not a novel which makes for comfortable reading. How can it be otherwise when it opens with the public execution of a woman in which one of the characters, a man who has hitherto shown no propensity for anything other than goodness, finds himself picking up a stone and joining in? This kind of heightened emotion is much in evidence in the rest of this novel, often born out of the despair of people who try to exist (live would be too strong a word) in a world controlled by the Taliban.

Yasmina Khadra takes us deep into the heart of the city of Kabul “a city in an advanced stage of decomposition” and into the lives of two couples. Moshen, the son of wealthy grocers, and his beautiful wife Zunaira have found their freedom and their hopes shattered. He can no longer aspire to become a diplomat while she, once a magistrate and a champion for women’s rights,  stays at home unwilling to comply with the requirement she is veiled whenever in public.

Explaining her resistance to the burqa, Zunaira tells her husband:

Of all the burdens that have put on us, that is the most degrading. The Shirt of Nessus wouldn’t do as much damage to my dignity as that wretched getup. It cancels my face and takes away my identity and turns me into an object. … If I put that damned veil on I’m neither a human being nor an animal, I’m just an affront, a disgrace, a blemish that has to be hidden. That’s too hard to deal with. Especially for someone who was a lawyer, who worked for women’s rights. Don’t ask me to give up my name, my features, the color of my eyes, and the shape of my lips so I can walk through squalor and desolation.

One day, her husband makes a special appeal that she put aside her reservations so they can go out together and rekindle their evening walks from the old days. These were the days he recalls when “the windows of the larger stores didn’t have much to offer, but no one came up to you and struck you in the face with a whip”. Swayed by his love she does put on her burqa and goes out into the streets – but the result is disastrous.

Elsewhere in the city the ex-mujahedin Atiq Shaukat at least has a job though his soul is being nibbled away by his work guarding those who are condemned to death. Life is no better at home: his wife Musarrat suffers from an illness it seems no doctor can identify let alone cure and they live in a hovel. From separate sides of the city, the lives of these four intersect.

I think my appreciation of The Swallows of Kabul was much higher at the start than by the end.  Khadra vividly evokes a country reeling from war. Afghanistan’s countryside,” declares the narrator, “is nothing but battlefields, expanses of sand, and cemeteries.  Ruination is everywhere. Former soldiers who fought during the Soviet occupation huddle outside the Mosque, retelling stories of their former campaigns and heroism that cost them some of their limbs.  The city’s elderly people have become beggars gathering like ravenous dogs outside homes where charitable citizens leave a few grains of rice for the destitute. Taliban thugs roam the streets with whips.  The penalty for truth is death. Death has become a form of entertainment.

Khadra tries to penetrate under the skin of this beseiged city and into the souls of its women who once  “pirouetted in their perfumes like gusts of warm air” but are now reduced to walking in their husband’s shadows. And to some extent it works. Despite the atmosphere of  unremitting gloom and despondency I did feel that I was getting a glimpse of how obsession with an ideology can destroy lives.  But this didn’t overcome my reservations about the final stages of the novel which see Atiq fall so desperately, hopelessly in love that he puts his life at risk. Without revealing the exact nature of his actions which would spoil the novel for other readers, all I can say is that Khadra asks us to believe that the man is so besotted he loses all reason. This is a man who, admittedly had come to hate his job, but I couldn’t buy into the idea that he would make his passion so evident that he would risk questions from the Taliban. Nor could I buy into the idea that his hitherto non-descript and silent wife would summon enough courage to give him a way out by putting herself forward as a sacrificial lamb.

I wanted to like The Swallows of Kabul more than I did. I see there are some rather mixed reviews of it elsewhere with The Guardian and Kim at Reading Matters having a higher opinion than I did while Lisa at ANZLitLovers blog admitted she really disliked the book. Click on the links to see their thoughts.

Footnotes

The Book: The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra was published in 2004 by William Heinemann. My edition is in paperback from Vintage Books 2005. Translation from the French is by John Cullen.

The Author: Yasmina Khadra is the pen-name of an Algerian army officer who adopted a feminine name to avoid censorship by the army. The Swallows of Kabul is his third novel. You can hear him read an extract from the novel on the BBC World Service World Book Club site

Why I read this book: I bought this when I embarked on my world literature project  where I intended to read novels by authors from 50 different countries in the world. This was selected to represent Algeria. 

Dominion by C.J.Sansom [review]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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

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

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

 

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon [review]

angels-gameShadowy benefactors, corrupt policemen, ghostly figures, tortured love: the elements that made Shadow of the Wind such a commercial success for Carlos Ruiz Zafon, make their return appearance in his prequel The Angel’s Game.

Zafon takes us once more on an adventure through the twisting streets of early-20th-century Barcelona where the fading grandeur of bourgeoisie homes mingle with Gaudí’s strange and surreal constructions and a maze of dark passages created in Roman and medieval times. The city’s back alleys, parks and cemeteries provide the perfect setting for a story of mystery, death and devilment. It’s the city’s darker side that the narrator David Martin has to navigate in order to save his life, win back the love of his life and solve the mystery of the abandoned tower in which he lives.

David is an unhappy soul. Robbed of his mother at an early age, he is raised by his illiterate, brutish drunkard father. The boy’s only joy is reading, particularly his favourite novel, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. David gets his own chance of betterment when he begins writing a weekly newspaper serial. His stories, written in ‘penny dreadful’ style, feature a glamorous murderess who kills with a kiss made deadly by her poison-impregnated.  Though readers love them, David is less than enthused. Nor does his mood improve when he gets a contract with some dubious publishers which requires him to produce a monthly pseudonymous series of books entitled “City of the Damned,” a pace of writing which brings him to the brink of exhaustion and a medical diagnosis of an incurable brain tumour.

The answer to his prayers may lie in an approach from Andreas Corelli, a suave and civilised man who describes himself as a publisher from Paris. He offers David a lucrative deal – 1000,000 French francs to write a sacred text that will create a new religion and a legion of believers.  As attractive as the money is, the stronger enticement for David is Corelli’s promise that in return for writing the book he will live. But who is Corelli? And what was his connection with Diego Marlasca a former lawyer who once owned David’s house but who died in mysterious circumstances. Is it simply a coincidence that Diego was also occupied in writing a book and his initials are also those of David’s?  The more David encounters Corelli, the more suspicious he becomes and the more convinced that he has made a pact with something evil. But then the sense of selling one’s soul goes is part and parcel of the writer’s life according to David.

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that if he succeeds in no letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal … and what he coverts most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.

What we get with The Angel’s Game is a spirited, fast moving adventure story full of the conventions of pulp fiction and the Gothic mystery.  It’s absurd in parts (David evades police, survives gun shots and almost near death from being thrown out of a funicular) but then it wouldn’t be an adventure story without those absurdities.  The narrative is also of patchy quality in places – cliched conversations between David and his lost love and tedious conversations between David and Corelli about the nature of belief and religion slow the pace down. The denouement also felt rushed with many elements and sub plots not completely resolved.

But for all that I enjoyed re-visiting the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – the secret labyrinth of texts by authors doomed never to be remembered. I loved the way Zufon made Barcelona seem almost a character in the novel, using very cinematic techniques. And I laughed at the tongue in cheek way he portrays the life of a writer.

“Normal people bring children into the world, we novelists brings books,’  says David at one point and then goes on to bemoan the consequences of that birth:

We are condemned to put our whole lives into them, even though they hardly ever thank us for it. We are condemned to die in their pages and sometimes even to let our books be the ones who, in the end, will take our lives.

I’m not aware of that many authors who have died because they’ve written a book but it would certainly make for an interesting ’cause of death’ in an inquest report.

Footnotes

The Book:  The Angel’s Game is part of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series which began with Shadow of the Wind.  The Angel’s Game was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2009. Translation from the Spanish is by Lucia Graves. 

The Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon was best known in Spain as the author of young adult novels until Shadow of the Wind (his first adult novel). His newest novel The Labyrinth of the Spirits will be published in 2018. 

Why I read this: I bought this from a charity shop having enjoyed Shadow of the Wind in 2012  (see my review here). But I never got around to reading it until this month when I started digging into the shelves of my personal library in pursuit of one of my 2017 goals. 

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones [review]

off_to_philadelphiaIt’s unlikely the name of Joseph Parry will mean much to anyone who is not from Wales. But if you’ve ever experienced a performance by a Welsh male voice choir you’ll certainly have heard his music.  Although he died more than 100 years ago,  versions of his composition ‘Myfanwy’ have been recorded in recent years by Cerys Matthews and the opera singer Bryn Terfel. Parry’s music is also said to have influenced Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the national anthem of South Africa.

Not bad for a man born into poverty who left school at the age of nine to work in the local coal mines and iron works. From those humble beginnings he rose to become the first person from Wales to achieve a Doctorate in Music from Cambridge University and become the first Welshman to compose an opera – Blodwen, was the first opera in the Welsh language.

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning by Jack Jones is a fictionalised biography of Joseph Parry from his early beginnings in the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. In the 1840s when Joseph was a young boy, this was the largest industrial town anywhere in the world according to Jack Jones. The discovery of large iron ore deposits encouraged wealthy investors to build iron works employing thousands of people but industrialisation brought overcrowding, poor sanitation, water shortages and disease.

Some of you who had visited the place during one of our dry summers will remember the stink of the place … and no doubt wondered how we could go on living there, You get used to anything can’t you? It was the cholera we were most afraid of for that did not give us any chance to get used to it. It cut us down and few of us were lucky to get up again.

This was the life the Parry family escaped in 1854 when they emigrated to Pennsylvania (hence the book title), settling in the town of Danville which had a large Welsh community. Though Joseph had regularly sung in chapel choirs back home, he had no formal musical training until the age of 17. From then he began making rapid progress, travelling throughout the United States to give concerts, winning awards back home in Wales at the National Eisteddfod and gaining funding to enable him to study full time in Cambridge.

The portrait Jack Jones conveys in Off to Philadelphia in the Morning  is of a man with huge resources of creative energy, always buzzing with ideas for new compositions and projects, but whose work was often not received with the level of acclaim he anticipated. Late in his life he came to question his decision to return to his native land, thinking that if he had stayed in America he would have been better appreciated. Frustrated by the lukewarm response in Wales to some of his later composition, his wife agitated for a move from South Wales to London where she believed his talents would be better recognised.

joseph-parry-memorial-jpg

Joseph Parry’s memorial in Penarth, Wales

But their finances were so precarious they couldn’t gather enough money to set up home in the capital. Nevertheless Parry drove himself on despite failing health, the premature death of two sons and lack of money.  But in death his contribution to the musical life of Wales was recognised with a huge funeral attended by at 7,000 people from all parts of the UK and a memorial close to his final home.

Off to Philadelphia in the Morning is an odd book. Jack Jones never claimed it was anything other than a work of fiction yet it contains a significant amount of factual information from the size of the population of Merthyr Tydfil to the fortunes of the landowners who exploit it and the chapels that try to provide hope for the inhabitants. If it’s not pure fiction neither is it a straight biography. It has an unnamed narrator who is clearly a working man from Merthyr Tydfil and one who knew Joseph Parry well enough to be invited to his concerts and his home. This narrator wants to be seen as a historian not just of Parry’s life but of the changes that happen to the town of Merthyr Tydfil as it goes from prosperity to decline. We get frequent digressions to relate the lives of a number of other inhabitants – some of which are interesting but which do tend to make this an over-long book and take attention away from the main subject of Joseph Parry himself. Consequently I found myself skimming quite a number of pages….

 

But there is one question that remains unanswered in Jack Jones’ book – who was Myfanwy? There is a girl by that name who is a childhood friend of Parry in the book, a girl who looks after her blind, drunkard father until one of the iron magnets spots her musical talent and pays for her to be taken care of and given lessons. In the book she becomes a world famous opera singer who meets up with Parry when they are both well established in their field. Legend has it that Parry wrote ‘Myfanwy’ in her honour (there is no mention of this in the book) though in reality he wrote only the music for the ballad and the lyrics came from another source. So now I’m left wondering how much of this book can be relied upon as an accurate account of his life and how much is myth?

Footnotes

The Book: Off to Philadelphia in the Morning was published in 1947. My copy, which I picked up from Bookbarn International dates from 1978. A TV series based on the book was broadcast by the BBC in 1978.

The Author: Jack Jones was – like Joseph Parry – born in Merthyr Tydfil. He went to work in the coal mines at the age of 12. During the depression years of the 1920s he became involved in politics and became a trade union leader. He began writing newspaper articles as  a freelancer before progressing to novels.

Why I read this: the name of Joseph Parry is one that I’ve heard ever since I was a child but although I’ve seen his birthplace in Merthyr Tydfil and I live close to his last home, I knew nothing about him.

If you want to hear Parry’s music have a listen to this rendition of Myfanwy by the Morriston Orpheus Choir from Swansea.

Narcopolis – see Mumbai through a haze of cannabis

narcopolisNarcopolis by the Indian author Jeet Thayil is a tale of obsession told through the blue haze of opium smoke and the white lines of and heroin powder. It’s a strange, often confusing, yet compulsive debut novel that largely revolves around the owner and clients of an opium house on Shuklaji Street in Bombay.

As the book opens we’re introduced to the owner Rashid and his assistant Dimple who it transpires has been a eunuch since early childhood. She’s an expert in the art of preparing the pipes for clients, an expertise acquired through a friendship with Mr. Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and ended up in Bombay.

As the years pass Rashid’s business thrives as its reputation grows, and not just among the local population. Western travellers make a bee line for the shabby joint once word gets around about the quality of the opium on offer and the meticulous care with which Dimple prepares her pipes. Thayil makes life in this joint all very cosy sounding. To enter through the door in a narrow street is to be insulated from shoddy brothels and beggars, and “roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags.” The gentleman’s club atmosphere changes however when heroin arrives, grabbing both Rashid and Dimple in its savage claws. They begin the rapid descent into a life governed by the ever increasing need for stronger doses – their descent mirroring the disintegration of the city into riots and aggression.

Narcopolis is a dazzling novel, as seductive as the drugs that permeate every page and told in a way that destabilises the reading experience. So many times as I read this novel I was unsure whether the events described were ones the characters experienced for real or were the hallucinatory results of their close acquaintance with opium and heroin. For much of the book this narrator is high on drugs so it’s probably not surprising that the text is full of long rambling multi-clause passages like the single sentence running over seven pages with which Narcopolis opens.

It’s a world Thayil knows intimately having spent two decades of his life as an opium addict. He treats his people with sympathy and understanding :

An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.
Reading Narcopolis is an intense experience that is best approached by following the advice Dimple gives her clients when they first bend their lips to her opium pipe “pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop …”

Footnotes

The book: Narcopolis was published by Faber & Faber Ltd in 2012.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.

The author: Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry. Narcopolis is his debut novel. It apparently took him 5 years to complete.In this You Tube video you can hear him talking about the novel and how he navigated the tricky subject of writing about drugs without glamourising them.

Why I read this: The Chutes and Ladders challenge run by The Readers Room required me to read something associated with India. This happened to be number 113 on my shelf of unread books having bought it at very low cost in 2013.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

risingasiacollageAlthough How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia sounds like the title of a self-help book, it’s actually a work of fiction. It does however take its structure from the kind of book that is bought and opened with great anticipation and expectation only to invariably disappoint. Self-help books are a triumph of hope over reality but we still can’t seem to get enough of them because every year sees a new clutch of titles. Mohsin Hamid’s novel ridicules such books and – by implication – the people who read them and try to follow their advice.

Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. And it’s true of personal improvement books too…. None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one.

The 12 chapters of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia are positioned as guidance for a poor, nameless, boy who wants to rise above his impoverished circumstances. Each chapter contains a lesson: Move to the City; Get an Education; Don’t Fall in Love; Avoid Idealists; Learn from a Master; Work for Yourself; Be Prepared to Use Violence; Befriend a Bureaucrat; Patronise the Artists of War; Dance with Debt; Focus on the Fundamentals; and Have an Exit Strategy. It follows him from a child who is “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth” to a metro city which is “enormous, home to more people than half the countries in the world, to whom every few weeks is added a population equivalent to that of a small, sandy-beached, tropical island republic”. There he spots an opening selling bottled water. To get from a lowly job as a water delivery boy to the proprietor of his own distilling plant takes many years of effort, intuition and cunning plus some questionable practices – this is a business based initially on selling food with false eat-by dates and then selling boiled municipal water as ‘mineral water’ Over time in order to grow into our entreprenneur has to resort to bribery and extortion. All the time his heart remains set on something else: the ‘pretty girl’ from his neighbourhood whose star rises along with his. Their paths cross and recross but always she seems one step ahead of him.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is told in an audacious second person narrative style. Hamid says at the end of the novel that he adopted this approach because he wanted to push the boundaries of the reader-writer relationship. He sees the process of writing as a collaborative effort so for him the novel “is a self help book that is a second-person life-story that is an invitation to create. Together.” 

I know some readers felt Hamid didn’t quite pull off the second person narrative voice and I don’t see how it fulfilled his objective of being a collaborative endeavour but I still loved the boldness and freshness of the style.  There is a feeling of real energy about the novel, partly coming from the pace of the story – large chunks of time pass in just a few pages. Sometimes I wished Hamid had slowed down a bit to give more depth to his hero’s struggle up the greasy pole of business. It’s only in the latter chapters do we get a slower feel, when the boy is now an old man alone in the world and appreciating that he can find happiness only by relinquishing the advice of the self-help book. In essence the book’s message puts a different spin on the title – to become filthy rich as a human being means giving up on material ambitions. 

Because the location is not specified (though it’s a fair bet the events take place in Hamid’s home country of Pakistan) and none of the characters have names, only generic descriptors (“the politician”; “the pretty girl”); the implication is that this is a tale which could be about anyone. The desire for wealth doesn’t apply just to Asia;  aspiration is a fundamental part of human nature. There  are thus – or could be – people just like them in many parts of the world going through similar experiences. The ‘you’ to whom this book’s guidance is directed could equally be ‘me’ is what Hamid seems to be suggesting. But this isn’t a book of mere polemic. Yes is does paint a portrait of the perils of a love of wealth but it’s also a warm and charming love story.

Footnotes

The Book: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid was published in 2013 by Penguin.

The Author: Mohsin Hamid was born in Lahore, Pakistan though has since lived also in California, New York and London. His first novel, Moth Smoke  was a riches-to-rags story about a Pakistani financier, who descends through the circles of Lahore society becomes addicted to heroin. His second novel  The Reluctant Fundamentalist (my review is here), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and looked at the changing relationship between the new Pakistan and the west.

Why I read this book: Quite simply because I enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist 

 

Miss Christie Regrets: Reviving the Golden Age of crime

The revival of interest in crime classics from the Golden Age of (the 1920s and 30s) continues unabated it seems.  The British Library decision to publish hitherto neglected titles from that era was a smart move, coming just as book pundits began to detect a desire by readers to move away from dark modern thrillers. Whether the interest in the Classic Crime series (now 20 titles and growing) was really a reaction to the complexity of modern life and a yearning for the ‘simpler’ life of the past, is debatable. It may be that the interest in the Golden Age will be short lived but for now, it’s definitely on the rise.

misschristieMiss Christie Regrets by Guy Fraser-Sampson harks back to that era but also brings it up to date with a whodunnit trail involving espionage and a threat to national security. It doesn’t slavishly follow the conventions of the Golden Era detective story (no locked room mystery here for example or English country house setting) but it acknowledges its heritage with multiple references to the leading practitioners of the genre like Marjorie Allingham and of course Agatha Christie.

This is the second title in a series set in the Hampstead area of London and the police station serving that suburb. It features some of the same characters of the earlier novel Death in Profile; in particular Detective Superintendent Simon Collinson, the psychologist Peter Collins and Detective Sergeants Bob Metcalfe and Karen Willis. It begins with the discovery of a body at an art gallery/museum, with our old friend the blunt instrument soon identified as the murder weapon. There are a few obvious suspects including the caretakers of the building though the security system was so lax anyone could have walked in from the street and done the evil deed.  The police team are already struggling to make much progress when a second murder victim is discovered in the basement of an iconic apartment block which boasted illustrious tenants including Miss Agatha Christie herself. Collinson is convinced the two cases are connected even though they happened some 60 years apart. He’s also convinced Miss Christie somehow holds the key to the mystery. He’s not able to make much progress however until Special Branch begin to reveal some of their secrets. I won’t give the game away much further other than to say the trail uncovers connections that the intelligence service have sat on for decades. 

It’s a plot that’s not fiendishly difficult but has enough complexity to keep me guessing until the final stages. Miss Christie Regrets has a satisfying quota of dead bodies though they happen off stage as it were and are not described in any gory detail and plenty of red herrings. Ultimately it’s a straight forward police procedural murder mystery in which the detectives reach a solution not through sudden ‘light bulb’ moments but by meticulous attention to detail and protocol. Good old fashioned detective work I suppose one could call this.

CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=384681

The Isokon building: Creative commons licence: CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=384681

My enjoyment would have been even greater if there had been less of the police procedural element and more depth to the setting. I enjoyed learning about the history of the Isokon building which was intended as an experiment in communal living and designed in the style of the Bauhaus movement. But given that the series is named Hampstead Murders I would have expected more of a sense we were in this particular part of London. There are some occasional references to pubs or buildings like Burgh House where the first murder victim is found:

Burgh House sits rather smugly in New End Square, as if well aware of the fact that it is both one of the largest and also one of the finest houses in Hampstead. 

These glimpses were tantalising. I’d hope that as this series progresses  and the characters are given more depth that more emphasis is also given to portraying the unique character of Hampstead. I would have welcomed more of that element and less of the daily recaps of the investigation. Police work does involve a higher degree of routine work than TV dramas suggest but I don’t necessarily need to see that mapped out in such detail as in this novel. It made the book feel longer than it needed to be.

Overall however this was a highly readable novel and one I can see having a strong appeal to people who enjoy being challenged by the mystery of death but don’t need all the gruesome details.

Footnotes

The Book: Miss Christie Regrets is published January 2016 by Urbane Publications UK

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 (which I hope this is).

 

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