Category Archives: Scottish authors
I wouldn’t like to be drawn against Graeme Macrae Burnet in any game that requires participants to keep a straight face while lying through one’s teeth. He’d be far too good for me to spot if he was telling porkies. Not that I know the man personally you understand – I’m basing my depiction of his character entirely on the subterfuge he concocts in his novel His Bloody Project.
This is a book that is written to make you think it’s a true story. It’s subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” for one thing and contains a preface declaring that these documents relate to a murder trial that the author uncovered while researching his family history. The documents ‘found’ in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness include a manuscript in “handwriting… admirably clear with only the most occasional crossings-out and false starts” about a triple murder. Burnet keeps up the fiction that this is a ‘true’ story through the rest of the book, presenting it in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial. And so we get witness statements, a written account by Roderick Macrae, the 17-year-old crofter accused of the murders, an extract from a (fictional) investigation by the (real) pioneering criminologist James Bruce Thomson and local newspaper accounts of the trial.
But this is neither a story about one of his ancestors nor a fictionalised account of a real incident. However, according to a newspaper interview with Burnet there is some grain of truth in His Bloody Project. In the novel, for example two of Roderick Macrae’s uncles die in a shipwreck – a similar accident befell two of Burnet’s own family around the same time as the novel is set and close to the location of the fictional tragedy. There actually was a triple murder committed some forty years earlier by a crofter just like Roderick Macrae but both these incidents only came to light after Burnet had finished the first draft of his novel.
This is one ingeniously plotted novel. We know from the early part of the book that Roderick is in prison accused of beating to death the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie who had waged a war of intimation against his father. There is no question that Roderick is the culprit – he was seen with blood on his hands and he confessed to his actions. In his testimony he says “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering from father from the tribulations he had lately suffered.” What we don’t know at the start of the book is who the other two victims are nor why he might have killed them. His former teacher describes him as an exceptionally intelligent boy who could have gone on to greater things but for his father’s insistence that he works on the land. Neighbours however describe him as a bit of an idiot, a lad who was always “wrong in the head.” Did he intend to kill or did he suffer a temporary loss of sanity, a form of moral insanity so that he is not responsible in law for his actions? The prison doctor and a criminologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, leading to some blackly funny dialogue about whether all murderers share common physical characteristics.
The book’s pretence at veracity is one of the pleasures of reading His Bloody Project. Along with that we have the presence of not just one, but several unreliable narrators to keep us wondering where truth lies. Add to the mix the fact Macrae brings into focus the hardships of life for poor crofting families in the Highlands of Scotland who have to scratch a living from impoverished soil, and you have a highly enjoyable reading experience. A minor niggle for me was the lucidity of Macrae’s testimony – he makes an apology at the outset for “the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style’ and then proceeds to turn in some fluid and perfectly grammatical prose. Even the schoolteacher’s assessment of the boy’s superior intellect didn’t convince me that a boy from such a poor background with little formal education beyond a village school could write so coherently. Overall it didn’t markedly spoil my enjoyment of what was in essence a well conceived and well executed novel that I highly recommend.
The Book: His Bloody Project was published in 2015 by the small independent publisher Saraband. It went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Though it was considered an outsider because it fell into the genre of crime fiction (which isn’t a genre the Booker judges tend to select), it beat off strong competition to get onto the shortlist.
The Author: Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, Graeme Macrae Burnet worked for several years as an English teacher in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto and London, before returning to Glasgow and working for eight years for various independent television companies. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (Contraband, 2014), received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust. His Bloody Project is his second novel. His third is currently in progress.
Why I read this book: The day the Booker longlist was published I noticed this book was available an an e-version at a ridiculously low price so I bought it intending to read it before the shortlist announcement. I started it but got the impression it would be one of those books that has crucial information at the beginning so you need to keep turning back – which I find impossible to do on an e-reader. I requested a hard copy instead from the library but it arrived when I was out of the country and then I didn’t have time to read it so back it went unopened. But clearly the fates were determined I would read this because in February my sister turns up to visit me in hospital with a paperback copy, declaring “you really should read this.” Who could argue with that? So third time lucky for Mr Burnet…
The discovery of skeletal remains under a public car park in Leicester a couple of years ago re-awakened interest in King Richard III, the man forever lodged in the public imagination as a murderous hunchback with withered arm. Archaeological and forensic evidence of the skeleton revealed a spinal deformity but established unquestionably that both the withered arm and the hunchback were myths. What about that other accusation that Richard was a murderer? Did he actually have his two young nephews, the real heirs to the throne, killed in the Tower of London in order to clear the way for his own ascent to the throne? Or is that an invention of Tudor-era historians keen to separate the new dynasty from the past?
Richard’s role and culpability has long been a subject of fascination but most of the debate took place in the narrow confines of historical academia. In 1951 however, the question became popularised with the publication of The Daughter of Time by the Scottish novelist Josephine Tey.
It’s rather an odd book; a mash-up of historical novel and detective story; in which a modern-day detective ‘investigates’ the crimes of which Richard has stood accused for centuries. All the investigation takes place from the confines of a hospital bed where Inspector Alan Grant (the central figure in Tey’s crime fiction series) lies flat on his back having broken his leg by falling through a trap door. He’s desperately bored. He knows every crack on the ceiling and has zero interest in the pile of books brought by well-meaning visitors. He perks up when his actress friend brings him a collection of portraits attached to historical controversies. After years in the police force Grant thinks he can tell a villain from an innocent just by their face so when his eye falls on a portrait of Richard III, his curiosity is aroused. What he sees is not the face of a murderer but a man “used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist.” The more Grant reads about Richard, the more convinced he becomes that there is a mystery waiting to be uncovered. He quizzes hospital staff about their knowledge of the Princes in the Tower and reads whatever he can get his hands on – fortunately for him, one of his nurses has kept her old school history book.
All good detectives in fiction need a side kick to do the running around on their behalf, digging out the info from which the great brain will make his deductions. In The Daughter of Time the side kick role is allocated to Brent Carradine, a young American researcher at the British Museum. Together the pair read chronicles from Richard’s time and the Tudor era; delve into assessments by more contemporary historians and track down original documents. Grant dismisses the assessments of chroniclers like Thomas More (whose History of Richard III is the primary source for the conventional story of the murders) as “back-stair gossip and servants’ spying.” More after all was just five years old when Richard seized the throne so couldn’t possibly have written his account based on personal knowledge.
Nor does Grant have much faith in latter-day historians. “They see history like a peep show, with two-dimensional figures against a distant background” he tells his actress friend. Instead Grant relies on his ability to judge a man’s character by the cut of his jib and to spot the gaps in evidentiary documents – skills honed from his years at Scotland Yard. On the eve of Grant’s departure for home, he summarises the case for Richard’s defence and the case for seeing a wholly different culprit – his successor on the English throne, King Henry VII.
This is a novel that was immediately popular upon its publication. It took a subject seen by many as ‘dry’ and made it into a quest for justice and the truth. It caused many readers to burrow in their attics for their dusty school history books and re-acquaint themselves with the fifteenth-century equivalent of Who’s Who. A radio program based on the book followed in 1952 and then a spate of novels, plays, and biographies sympathetic to Richard throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
If Tey’s intent was to rehabilitate the reputation of a man best known as the villain of Shakespearian drama, she certainly succeeds in creating doubt about the veracity of that portrayal. But as a work of literature it has its faults. By necessity a lot of background information needs to be provided and explained so we get large chunks of narrative along these lines:
Do you know about Morton?
He was a lawyer turned churchman, and the greatest pluralist on record. He chose the Lancastrian side and stayed with it until it was made clear that Edward IV was home and dried. Then he made his peace with the York side and Edward made him Bishop of Ely. And vicar of God knows how many parishes besides. but after Richard’s accession he backed first the Woodvilles and then Henry Tudor and ended up with a cardinal’s hat….
Then we get multiple conversations between Grant and Carradine which go along the lines of
I’ll tell you something even odder. You know we thought that XYZ……… Well, it turns out that …….
Yes you may well look startled.
Are you sure?
Not exactly riveting dialogue is it? I know a certain amount of exposition is required for the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the period or the key figures but Tey goes over-board on this. I didn’t feel I needed to have everything spelled out and it deadened what would otherwise be some fascinating insights into the machinations of the times. The shame is that it marred an otherwise fascinating book. My knowledge of the period isn’t deep enough to judge for myself whether it’s Henry we should consider to be the instigator of what happened more than 500 years ago. But Tey does make a persuasive case for re-evaluating Richard’s reputation. She’s also re-awakened my interest in the period – tonight I’ll be watching the BBC version of the Shakespeare’s play (the final episode in the Hollow Crown series). Then tomorrow I plan to head for the library hoping they might have a history of Richard’s reign.
The Book: The Daughter of Time was published in 1951, the year before the death of its author. In 1990 it was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association.
The Author: Jospehine Tey was one of the pen-names of Elizabeth MacKintosh, a teacher from Inverness, Scotland. She started publishing novels in 1929 under the name Gordon Daviot, using that pseudonym also for some historical plays. A Daughter of Time was her final novel. She left her copyrights to the National Trust.
Why I read this: I tried reading another of Tey’s novels – Brat Farrar – but found it rather dull so gave up. I found a copy of The Daughter of Time in a second hand shop at very low cost and since I’m a sucker for the Wars of the Roses period in history, my curiousity was awakened. The 1951 Club, the latest in a series of events hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, gave me the impetus to take it out of the bookcase.
C.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……
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.
We’re back in the land of the Celts for the choice of our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world. Our featured country is Scotland where our guide is Joanne who blogs at PortobelloBookBlog.
Let’s meet Joanne
Hi, I’m Joanne and I live in Portobello, Edinburgh right by the sea. A lot of people probably don’t realise that Edinburgh has a seaside as it is probably better known for tourist attractions such as Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace and the Royal Yacht Brittania. I’ve always lived in Edinburgh though was born and brought up in Leith, now famous thanks to The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith or infamous thanks to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. I’ve lived in Portobello for 18 years now and it is very much home. So a natural choice when I came to pick a blog name was Portobello Book Blog. I mainly read and review contemporary fiction, crime, thrillers and romance novels. I run regular features where authors can answer a set of spotlight questions or write a guest post about their work. I also feature other book bloggers every Friday in my Blogger in the Spotlight feature. You can follow me on my blog or via my Twitter account @portybelle and my Facebook page.
Q. Do you enjoy novels set in your own country or do you feel authors don’t always do a good job of representing it in their fiction?
I do enjoy books set in Scotland. It’s always fun to read about a place you know really well and spot any changes that authors make. In general I think authors represent Scotland well. There are some books which are rather dark and depict a side of Scotland I might not like (reference Mr Welsh above!) but that’s not to say they’re not realistic. I think what authors sometimes don’t do very well is incorporating a Scottish character in a book set elsewhere. Quite often I find they can be quite stereotypical having red hair and saying ‘och’ a lot! And really, we don’t tend to wear kilts these days except at weddings, graduations or other special events.
Q. Who are your favourite Scottish authors?
Oh this is a difficult question. What makes an author Scottish – is it being born here, living here or writing books set here? I do enjoy Ian Rankin’s books, Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie series are immensely entertaining and I think James Robertson is brilliant. Liz Lochhead was at our local book festival in October and she was superb, though I confess I don’t tend to read much poetry. Doug Johnstone is a local author who I think is terrific. I’ve enjoyed all his books, they are fast paced tense thrillers and he puts his characters is some awful situations!
Q. Are there any Scottish authors who are not quite as well-known but you think are up and coming or deserve more attention?
This is also a difficult question as I have been lucky enough to have been asked by lots of local authors to read their work. So they are well known to me but perhaps not to a wider audience. This year I really enjoyed A Fine House in Trinity by Lesley Kelly, a crime novel which was longlisted for the William McIlvanney prize (previously called the Scottish Crime Book of the Year). Helen MacKinven is an author writer whose novels Talk of the Toun and Buy Buy Baby are full of dark humour and are both excellent. She uses dialect quite a bit which gives her characters a really authentic voice. I might have included Graeme Macrae Burnet had you asked me this a few weeks ago but since His Bloody Project was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, I think it’s fair to say he has a much higher profile these days. Other debut novelists I’ve read and enjoyed this year are Lesley Anderson, Jackie Baldwin, Stella Hervey Birrell, Shelley Day, Mary Paulson-Ellis
Q. Scotland seems to have made a mark when it comes to crime fiction with some really big hitters like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid. Any reasons you can think why the country is so successful in terms of crime genre – what does it say about the Scottish mentality maybe or is it something to do with the infamously long nights and rain??
Scotland has a bit of a reputation for ill health and hard crime and I think a lot of that comes from poverty. As in so many areas, coal mining, the steel industry, the shipbuilding industry and the fishing industry have either vanished completely or employ dramatically fewer people. Low income and unemployment can lead to desperation and that’s when crime happens. I suspect that the dark nights and often dire weather also lead to a bit depression. I’ve heard it said that Scots are hardened to cope with the climate and our often shocking sporting results, though Andy Murray is doing his bit to restore national pride! All these things combine to create a dark mentality which, in my friend’s words, ‘enjoys a good murder’! But to balance that, Scotland is a country with stunningly beautiful countryside, picturesque lochs, magnificent mountains and islands and many authors make good use of this physical beauty in their work creating a more positive picture.
Q.We know about Nordic noir – is there such a thing as Scottish noir?
Tartan noir! As you mentioned above, Scotland seems to be producing a lot of very successful crime writers. I would say that Tartan Noir draws on Scotland’s traditions and history. There is often an element of good versus evil and the idea that there is a constant battle within each of us (like Jekyll and Hyde). Quite often the main characters are flawed and not always likeable. Then again, sometimes it’s the criminal who is drawn in a sympathetic way. That’s the Scottish contradiction for you! The general mood can often be bleak and this can be mirrored by the weather or dark nights. Bloody Scotland is an annual crime festival celebrating crime writers from Scotland and beyond, which is growing bigger and more successful every year. Not everyone likes the label ‘tartan noir’ though is it does somewhat reinforce the shortbread tin image of Scotland.
Q. Looking beyond crime, who are some of the classic Scottish authors? Many will know of Walter Scott but who else comes to mind?
Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Burns, Jessie Kesson, Neil Gunn, James Hogg are all writers I would consider classic Scottish authors. More recently I would include Nigel Tranter, Alasdair Gray, Muriel Spark, William McIlvanney, Norman MacCaig Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan and Robin Jenkins.
Q. Which authors were required reading on the Scottish schools’ syllabus – people considered required reading?
My two daughters are in 4th and 6th year at High School just now and will both be taking exams in English at the end of the year. Firstly, I have to say that I don’t think that pupils now have to read as much as I did when I was at school! I remember reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns although there was a lot of Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy too. I’ve just had a look at the current list for National 5 and Higher level exams and they include James Robertson, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anne Donovan, Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, Janice Galloway, Robert Burns and John Byrne. So a lot of what I studied some years ago is still there along with more modern Scottish authors. There are definitely more women writers on the list now which is good to see.
Hope Joanne’s guest post has given you a taste for Scottish authors. If you’re tempted to explore further you have until Sunday to hot foot it north for BookWeek Scotland which ends on Sunday, Nov 27. Or if that doesn’t work out for you just take a look at the Scottish Book Trust website.
The Broke and Brookish this week is looking for suggestions for book club reading.
This wouldn’t be an easy one for me since our book club has rather wide ranging tastes – each person chooses a book so it reflects their taste rather than necessarily what the club as a whole likes. We went down the path of chick lit for a while turned me off but I’ve been introduced to some new authors in other month so it’s almost balanced out. For me a good book club read is one that has plenty of issues and dimensions that can lead to a good discussion – I want more than someone saying “I picked this because I thought it would be fun” and that’s all they can say about the book (believe me it has happened). The book choice doesn’t have to be particularly weighty but something to at least get your teeth into.
If I had my wishlist it would include:
I’ve gone for a mixture of styles, subjects and country of origin of the author (too many book clubs seem to focus only on Western literature).
- The Many by Wyl Menmuir reviewed here. A Booker long listed title from 2016 that I thought superb. It keeps you guessing about what the main message is.
- Another Booker 2016 candidate – and one I would dearly have loved to see win – is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which traces the effect of Communist rule on three musicians. It’s an epic that stretches across centuries and countries. Not always easy to grasp it had tremendous emotional power. Reviewed here
- The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Set in Japan, a wonderful elliptical story in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles.It’s a metaphor for how our lives are constructed by fragments. Reviewed here
- The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. Set in a remote Irish village it examines what happens when a dictator on the run from atrocities he committed in his country attracts the attention of a lonely housewife. This book will have you thinking about actions and consequences and forgiveness. Reviewed here
- From Korea comes a book that was a knock out bestseller and not just in Korea. Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook looks at the mother-child relationship which is thrown into question when an elderly mother goes missing in an underground station while on her way to visit her children. As they search for her they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.Reviewed here
- Possession by A. S Byatt was my choice when I joined the book club. I wasn’t sure I had make the right choice until the meeting but surprisingly we had a great discussion about the different forms possession can take -whether for artifacts f the past or for another individual. Reviewed here
- Holiday by Stanley Middleton.Who is he I can hear you asking. Not surprised really.Despite having written more than 40 novels he has more or less disappeared from our radar. A pity. This is a short novel from 1974 in which a middle aged man facing a crisis is his marriage takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday. Reflections of those times days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories. Good for discussions around nostalgia and relationships. Reviewed here
- L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. It’s not the first book in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series of 20 titles but this doesn’t matter too much. Read it for its superb rendition of life on the breadline in nineteenth century Paris. You can, if your book club is of an academic mind, get into all kinds of discussion about Zola’s theory of naturalism and inherited conditions. Reviewed here
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chances are that your club has already read Half a Yellow Sun which is an earlier novel by Adichie. Americanah gives a view of life for a girl who leaves Nigeria – one of the people who achieves the dream – only to find its not what she expected. Can she make a new life or do the ties that bind back to the homeland prove stronger? It’s a novel about choices you make to fit in with a new way of life and how experience changes you. It might sound rather sombre but there are some outstandingly funny scenes in a hairdressing salon. Reviewed here
- Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: We hope this never happens to anyone. But it does. What if you were one of the passengers in a ferry or cruise liner that is sinking. You’ve got yourself into a lifeboat and are now waiting for rescue. But days go by, water and food supplies dwindle. Who gets to live in those circumstances? Who deserves to die? And who has the right to make those decisions? Those questions lie at the heart of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. This isn’t the best written novel I read in 2013 but it was one that stimulated a lot of discussion in our book club meeting. Reviewed here
Those are just some of the books I’d suggest. What would your recommendations be?
The secrets we keep from each other but often even from ourselves: caught in their protective web of deception the cast of characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations are people who find varying levels of enlightenment.
Octogenarian Anne Quirk is one of the deceivers. In a sheltered home in Scotland, she is succumbing to dementia, deemed unsafe to cook for herself or let anywhere near an electric oven. Under the watchful eye of her kindly neighbour Maureen, Anne’s internal conflict with the past comes to life through disconnected fragments of memories and stacks of photographs. They reveal she was a ground breaking photographer in her younger days whose work “captured a world beyond the obvious.” It’s not until her beloved grandson returns from his tour of duty in Afghanistan and takes her back to a Blackpool guesthouse, that the secrets of Anne’s life are illuminated. Only then does it seem that she can be at peace.
As his grandmother tries to remember the long-ago past, Luke is trying to put his own past behind him. He’s returned to Scotland, a disillusioned young man whose army career is over as a result of a catastrophic episode when he was part of a convoy in Helmand province. Through some fast-paced chapters set in Afghanistation it becomes clear that the episode represented an epiphany for Luke; the moment he acknowledged to himself that he had joined the army purely to find the kind of man he hoped his father, who died serving his country, had been. For years he’d buried this knowledge beneath a cloak of camaraderie with the men under his command, smoking marijuana and listening to heavy metal while they patrolled the desert for booby traps. But the increasingly erratic behaviour of his commanding officer strips him of his illusions.
Not all the characters in O’Hagan’s novel encounter anything comparable to the illuminating moments that Luke and Anne experience. Maureen for example is clearly a woman who’s concocted a deceit about her relationship with her children. She regularly boasts about her children and and how much success they’ve made of their lives (blithely ignoring the fact that one of them is an alcoholic). She regularly complains that they are always too busy to visit her — yet when they do, she clearly can’t stand them and cannot wait for them to leave.
The slow paced contemplative sections of the novel contrast with the sections on the front line which blaze with action and vivid dialogue. O’Hagan seems very comfortable handling both the very male world of the army with its obscenity laden, swaggering dialogue and the domestic rituals of the women in the home. He effortlessly moves from the small and often humorous observation: “It was a constant battle in Maureen’s head, the wonder of central heating versus the benefit of fresh air…” to bigger issues of the ethics of foreign military intervention or the fractured parent/child relationship. He also deals sensitively, though not sentimentally, with Anne’s dementia describing it not as the shutting down of a life but the re-awakening of an old one. Anne’s estranged daughter Alice tells her doctor she wishes she could spend half an hour with her mother as a young woman. “She hasn’t gone,” he whispered. “Quite the opposite. She’s coming back. And maybe you could prepare to meet her half-way. Between the person she is now Andy the person she used to be.
This ability to flex between the macro and the microcosm could be one of the reasons the judges of the Man Booker Prize chose it for the 2015 longlist. Will it make it to the final accolade or will this be third time unlucky for O’Hagan? My sense is it’s not the winner. The sections dealing with Anne are well observed but not remarkable so the strength of the novel really rests on the Afghanistan chapters. Without those for me this would have been an Ok novel but with them it’s one that’s well worth reading.
The Illuminations is published by Faber.
Andrew O’Hagan is a Scottish novelist, non-fiction author and an editor of Esquire and the London Review of Books. He currently works as a a creative writing fellow at King’s College London.
I blame the people who run our public library service. They’ve made it too darn easy to reserve books on line. Don’t they know there are members like me who just can’t stop themselves acquiring books? It’s really not my fault that I am faced with a glut of books and only a few weeks in which to read them because we go on holiday in three weeks and I don’t want to lug hard cover books around with me in Germany. It surely couldn’t have been me that went into the reservation system the day the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced on Wednesday and clicked on three titles that were already available. Just as it wasn’t me a few weeks ago who did something similar on the night the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize was announced.
Sometime you can wait months for a reserved book to become available (I often forget I’ve even requested some of the books) but yesterday I dropped into the local branch to say farewell to one of the librarians. When she handed me three books that had just arrived, she burst into giggles at the horrified look on my face. I left, trying to work out how I was going to get through them and concluding one of them would probably have to be returned unopened. Just as I was getting into the car she came running up to me; she’d found another one that I’d reserved.
So now I have on my bedside table three Booker prize candidates:
The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
The Green Road by Anne Enright
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
And a fourth is a novel that I requested about two months ago The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw.
All of these are calling out to me but I had to make a start somewhere. Since O’Hagan was on the top that became the one I started yesterday. It’s such a well written novel about two characters; one an elderly lady who is trying to remember her life when she was a photographer of note and her grandson who is trying to forget his time as a soldier in Afghanistan. O’Hagan is as insightful when he is portraying life in a care home and the onset of dementia as when he is portraying life on the front line in Helmand province and the mental disintegration of a career solider. It’s one of those novels that you just have to keep reading, reading, reading. If you want go get a taste of this novel there is an extract in The Daily Telegraph from one of the Afghanistan sections.
I admit defeat. I am clearly not skilled in the art of book prize predictions. When the Man Booker prize judges announced their 2015 longlist today I found that none of the titles that came up in my crystal ball yesterday made the cut. Not one. I had floated briefly with nominating one of the titles that did get chosen: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Not that I’ve read it yet (I’m planning to take it with me on holiday in a few weeks) but it has been getting a lot of exposure recently and sounded like the kind of novel the judges would choose.
My reactions to the list are rather mixed.
On the plus side I was relieved that Kazuo Ishiguro and Kate Atkinson were not listed but disappointed that Colm Tóibín didnt get get selected.
On the plus side I’m delighted that the list contains so many authors that are new to me. But the diversity seems to have dissipated. Last year there were no long listed titles from the Commonwealth countries but five from USA. This year we have five USA authors again but only one each from Jamaica, New Zealand and India.
- Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape) by Bill Clegg, a literary agent from USA. This is his debut novel
- The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) by Anne Enright. The Dublin-born author is a previous Booker Prize winner with The Gathering in 2007
- A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications) by Marlon James, born in Kingston, Jamaica
- The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing) by Laila Lalami, born in Morocco and now living in USA. This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize
- Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) by Tom McCarthy, a Londoner
- The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press) by Chigozie Obioma, Nigerian born now living in North America. This is his first novel
- The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan, the Scottish born author is a previous Booker shortlisted author with Our Fathers, in 1999
- Lila (Virago) by Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2005 for Gilead
- Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus) by Anuradha Roy, born in Calcutta, India
- The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota, born in Derbyshire, UK.
- The Chimes (Sceptre) by Anna Smaill, a New Zealander. This is her debut novel
- A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) by Anne Tyler, American born, previously nominated for a Pulitzer prize
- A Little Life (Picador) by Hanya Yanagihara, the second novel by this American author
Im not sure I’ll get to read many of these before the shortlist is announced on October 13. My interest is leading towards The Year of the Runaways, The Illuminations and The Fishermen.
For other views on the list take a look at:
Tags: 2015 Man Booker Prize, Andrew O'Hagan, Anna Smaill, Anne Enright, Anne Tyler, Anuradha Roy, Bill Clegg, Chigozie Obioma, Hanya Yanagihara, Laila Lalami, Marilynne Robinson, Marlon James, Sunjeev Sahota, Tom McCarthy
Day 1 of November 2014 and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.
I started reading The Observations by Jane Harris today, a copy of which has lingered on my TBR for more than a year. It’s a very readable historical mystery novel set in a remote manor house in Scotland. Such a contrast to the book I just finished reading, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie which opens on the day a bomb falls onto Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanaka, a young factory worker survives the attack but will forever bear the scars on her back resembling birds in flight. We follow her subsequent history in India on the brink of partition to Pakistan and ultimately New York in the aftermath of the September 11 attack. It’s a well crafted novel about allegiance and estrangement, betrayal and atonement. I’d not heard of the author but liked the idea of the plot when I saw the book at a library sale.
Also purchased in the sale was an audio version of Rebecca’s Tale, a 2001 novel by Sally Beauman which is a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I have mixed feelings about the trend now to write prequels and sequels to successful novels by authors long since dead. Often it seems to me they are trying to cash in on a past success instead of coming up with their own ideas. But this novel was approved by the Daphne du Maurier estate so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a bit slow so far.
Since I am writing this while returning to the UK from China, my viewing options are limited to the options provided on the in-flight entertainment system. These have become so much better in recent years – remember the days when you had to crane your neck to see the tiny screen suspended from the ceiling and everyone had to watch the same film? Now most of the main carriers provide seat back systems with many options. Sadly, by the time I eliminated all the science fiction choices and the films which involve people chasing each other in cars or with machine guns, the options were rather limited. I ended up watching The Fault in Our Stars based on the novel of the same name by John Green ( a book I have not read).
I was prepared for this to be a weepy, given its subject matter of two teenagers who are fighting cancer. I’m not sure whether it is the effect of being at altitude but I find I get much more emotional when I’m watching a film during a flight. Luckily the lights were dimmed so no-one saw the resultant blotchy face.
It had some stellar performances from the actors playing the teenagers, particularly Shailene Diann Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster. I also enjoyed the cameo performance by Willem Dafoe as the jaundiced author Peter van Houten. The weakest performance of all was by Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother. She played this role exactly as she played the botanist in Jurassic Park, which is to say, badly.
Most of the advance publicity for this novel focused on the fact that there would be two versions of the book on sale. The reader wouldn’t know until they started reading which version they had purchased since both had identical covers. Some readers would open it to find the spirit of the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa awakening to discover a teenager scrutinising one of his frescos. Others would begin with the story of that teenager, a 21st century Londoner known as George, who is subsumed by grief over her mother’s death.
Two stories, both labelled part one, that can be read in any order. I imagine many people would decide this book was not for them based on that description, maybe thinking Smith had really written just two short stories rather than a full novel. Or worse still, querying whether this approach was simply a marketing gimmick. Neither reaction would be doing justice to this book. It isn’t a book of two distinct and separate halves. Still less is this a gimmick. Instead what we have is a finely constructed dual narrative in which each story dovetails with and reflects the other and where the very duality of structure is fundamental to a key theme in the novel — how the meaning of images and words change when looked at from different perspectives.
Many of the scenes, particularly in the George part of the book, pose questions about ways of seeing. The questions come from George’s mum, a freethinking and subversive woman who challenges her two children to consider art and history in new ways. At one point George recalls a visit with her mother and young brother to the Palazzo die Diamanti in Ferrara, near Bologna. Although entranced by del Cossa’s frescos, George is less than enamoured with her mother’s detailed explanation of how art restorers sometimes discover under drawings that are significantly different than the finished work.
Which came first? her mother says. … The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?
The picture below came first, George says. Because it was done first.
But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?
Which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?
Francesco del Cossa becomes the thread that connects George to her dead mother, helping her to come out of her cloud of grief, to interpret life in a new way. Finding del Cossa’s painting Saint Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery her first reaction is that’s it’s nothing special, that it’s looks just like any other religious painting, featuring a severe faced monk who seems to be admonishing anyone who has the audacity to stop and look at the painting.
But then you notice that he’s not looking at you. He’s looking past and above you, or into the far distance, like there’s something happening beyond you and he can see what it is. …
And what is it that has attracted the attention of the monk? Could it be the spectre of the artist himself who watches George (mistaking her for a boy). The two are inexplicably connected:
…it is as if a rope attached to the boy is attached to me and has circled me and cannot be unknotted and where the boy goes I must go whether I want it or don,t
This is just one of the playful, puzzling aspects of the book. It’s a book that probably should be read one and a half times if you want to truly understand how cleverly it has been constructed I read the medieaval part first and having got to the end of part two, immediately returned to part one looking for the patterns and connections. If I’d read George’s story first, would my experience have been any different? Something I’ll never know but I have a feeling that whichever way you read it — whichever part you encounter first, you’ll be dazzled.
How to be both is published by Hamish Hamilton. It was short listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. And if this doesn’t win I will be astounded.