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Nordic mystery: The Silence of the Sea by Yrsa Sigurdardottiron

silence of the seaI don’t read a lot of crime fiction but now and again it feels the perfect kind of book and that nothing else will fit the need just as completely. After the rather draining experience of reading A Little Life followed by the, if not as desperately miserable, still sombre Did You Ever Have a Family, I was in urgent need of a less challenging read.

Fortunately Yrsa Sigurðardóttir was readily to hand. She’s an Icelandic writer of children’s fiction and crime-novels including a bestselling series featuring the lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. I’ve never read anything by her previously but saw her latest novel The Silence of the Sea recommended in one of the Sunday newspapers last year.

This is a locked-ship kind of mystery. It begins when a luxury yacht arrives in Reyjkavik harbour minus its three-man crew and its passengers. There are no immediately evident signs of foul play. There are no bodies either. Lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is recruited by an elderly couple whose son, wife and twin granddaughters were the passengers on the yacht as it sailed from Portugal.  Of course they want to know what happened to their loved ones but they also need Thóra’s help to get custody of the small grand-daughter that had been left in their care.

Thóra, like many in Reykjavik is intrigued. What happened to everyone on board that craft? Before long she’s in pursuit of the truth. The discovery of blood stains and a few bodies spice up the action. Interspersed with her investigations are chapters that take place on board the yacht, gradually building up our knowledge of what went wrong.  Without revealing the secret I’ll just drop one hint – the plot reminded me of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.  

Sigurdardottir does a fine job of ratcheting up the suspense and keeping you guessing without making the storyline seem ridiculously preposterous. Ignore the promotional blob on the cover hailing Sigurdardottir as “Iceland’s answer to Steig Larrson” – The Silence of the Sea is nothing like The Girl Who …… Not only does that comparison mislead readers it does a disservice to Sigurdardottir and her accomplishment in this novel which is to write a darn good yarn without resort to lots of whistles and bells. It’s not rich in terms of character development but its not devoid of that either.  Gudmundsdóttir is an interesting character, more detective than lawyer whose personal family concerns are revealed in just enough detail to make us warm to her as an individual. The only real gap for me was that I didn’t truly get a sense of Reykjavik or of anything uniquely Iceland. Maybe that criticism is a bit unfair given that so much of the action takes place at sea – exactly where the passengers don’t know since they’ve lost all radio contact and the navigation system isn’t working. It’s just a dimension that I enjoyed when reading Henning Mankell’s Wallander series or, come to that, Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels. It maybe I’ll find that missing element if I read some of Sigurdardottir’s earlier novels in the Gudmundsdóttir series (scratch the ‘if’ – I know I’ll be reconnecting with her next time I’m in need of a touch of crime.)

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma [2015 Booker shortlist]

The FishermenIn the small town of Akure in Nigeria, an ambitious father dreams of the illustrious futures awaiting his sons. Ikenna the eldest at 15, is destined to be a pilot, Boja a lawyer, Obembe the family’s medical doctor and nine-year-old Ben, a professor. Even David, barely three years old, had his future mapped out as an engineer. Only the youngest child has an unchartered future but as a girl, to her father she didn’t count.

Mr Agwu’s plans  crumble when his employer transfers him to a bank in the north of the country. Freed from their father’s strict control, they take to fishing in the river surrounding Akure despite its dark history as a place of floating corpses and mutilated bodies. It’s here they encounter Abulu, a deranged, malodorous creature.

He reeked of sweat accumulated inside the dense growth of hair around his pubic regions and armpits. He smelt of rotten food and unhealed wounds and pus, of bodily fluids and wastes. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear…… But these were not all: he smelt of immaterial things. He smelt of the broken lives of others, and of the stillness in their souls.

Abulu predicts Ikenna will be killed by one of his fishermen brothers, a prophecy which dogs the boys’ lives and from which tragedy ensues.

This is a coming-of-age tale of brotherly love and the disintegration of a family, of how a good and noble man is punished for his pride and a loving mother is unhinged. It’s a tale of the fight between the choices we make and the choices we’re believed we’re forced to take.

In parallel we have the story of Nigeria itself.  Chigozie Obioma has called The Fishermen a wake-up call to his home country, a  “dwindling nation” which he portrays as a country whose promise, like that of Agwu’s sons, is never fulfilled. Brother turns on brother and independence descends into civil war. The hope that rides on the popular politician MKO Abiola is destroyed when election results are rigged and he ends up in military detention. As Ben, the story’s narrator, reflects many years after the event:

Hope is a tadpole.

The thing you caught and brought home with you in a can but which despite being kept in the right water, soon died.

I know little about Nigeria’s history but I didn’t need it in order to enjoy this novel enormously.  Chigozie Obioma blends traditional techniques of novel writing with African story-telling traditions, sprinkles his text liberally with songs and snatches of conversation in Igbo and Yoruba and references to Igbo culture and superstitions. The above average quota of symbols and metaphors give it a distinctively writerly feel. Every chapter opens with a metaphor which draws a parallel between a family member and an animal or creature: father is an eagle; Ikenna a sparrow, mother a falconer etc. Its a technique that could easily be tediously over-elaborated – a case of form over substance – but the point is not to simply decorate the story but to draw out a dimension of that individual’s character, showing their true nature and the forces that drive their actions.

That doesn’t mean this is a novel without flaws. Obioma does tend to get totally carried away with his verbal cleverness sometimes, opting for the highly descriptive when a more simple form of words would suffice. Adjectives proliferate, some more successfully inventive than others.  A description of dusk as a “crepuscular awning” I can buy, less so body odour as a “corporeal convoy” and I’m still struggling to make sense of “the egg-white days of our lives”.

But The Fishermen is still a wonderfully vivid and heart breaking tale. I have a feeling even if Obioma doesn’t win the Booker Prize with this debut novel, that we’ll be hearing a lot more of him in the future.

End Notes

The Fishermen by  Chigozie Obioma is published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press. Born and raised in Nigeria, Obioma now lives in Michigan, USA.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg [2015 Booker longlist]

did you ever have a familyThink about a shocking news event and consider how much any of us know about what really happened. The story, whether it’s the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, the tsunami that hit Southern Asia in 2004 or the death of Princess Diana, doesn’t come to us completely; neatly packaged into a start-to-finish narrative. The story only really emerges in fragments through the voices of the participants. Each of them has a reaction, a perspective to share, a fact to divulge. Together they get woven into something approaching the total picture.

The idea that a story is the sum of desperate, diverse voices is the premise for Bill Clegg’s 2015 Man Booker award long-listed novel Did You Ever Have a Family.  In it he takes a tragic event, one that has a domestic rather than world dimension, and looks at the aftermath from the perspective of the sole survivor, those connected to her or connected to the victims.

Did You Ever Have a Family begins on the night before the wedding of  June Reid’s only daughter Lolly. By the early hours, the prospective bride and her fiance William are dead, victims of a gas explosion that ripped the house apart. Also dead is June’s ex husband Adam and her boyfriend Luke. Only June survives.

The meaner voices among June’s Connecticut neighbourhood are quick to attribute the tragedy to her wilful behaviour (what do you expect when a white woman shacks up with a black man who’d done time for drugs?). But even they recognise there are some questions that do not have easy answers: “How do you recover from that? How would you even begin? asks one of the gossips. June’s answer is to flee immediately the funerals are over, driving the breadth of the country and eventually taking refuge in a motel room on the edge of the ocean.

It’s left to a chorus of voices to fill in the details and  to reveal little by little what happened on that terrible night. Some of them are principal players like Luke’s mother Lydia and the troubled adolescent Silas who harbours feelings of guilt about his part in the tragedy. Others such as Dale, William’s father, are directly affected but many of the voices come from bystanders like the wedding florist and caterer. They’re decent, hard working individuals in the main. As they reflect on the events of that terrible night, they come to understand more deeply the complexities and joys of their own lives and relationships.

Clegg takes a risk by narrating his story in such a fragmentary fashion. It works, up to a point (we needed more variety in the voices to be truly effective). He manages the structure and pace extremely well,  slotting in small disclosures about the character’s relationships to keep his readers engaged.  He’s good too at showing the tensions between the locals in June’s community and the New Yorkers who buy up all the properties as weekend homes. The “little, old bitter, spinster” florist Edith, articulates the ambivalent attitudes of the locals about these “pampered and demanding” city dwellers. They take the best houses, views, food and flowers from the town and “never dirty their hands with any of the things the rest of us have to, nor shoulder the actual weight of anything.” But she also acknowledges: “We can’t bear them and yet we are borne by them.”

However for me the novel ultimately didn’t live up to its initial promise. The freshness of Clegg’s approach disappeared towards the final section and we ended up with the rather safe message about redemption and the value of family. Maybe Clegg’s own journey back from his battle with addiction explain why he wanted to end with a positive note about the potential for hope. As true as that was in his case, in this novel it felt too obvious a solution.

End Notes

Did You Ever Have a Family, published by Gallery/Scout Press is Bill Clegg’s debut novel. Clegg is a literary agent in New York.He’s written memoirs and articles for publications including the New York TimesEsquire, The Guardian and Harper’s Bazaar.

You can listen to Bill Clegg talk about his novel in a video on the Simon and Schuster’s web site  For alternative views to mine, take a look at :

The Guardian review

The Daily Telegraph review

New York Times review

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara [2015 Booker prize shortlist]

A Little LifeWith themes of child sex abuse and self harm, of emotional and physical damage, A Little Life can, in the truest sense, be considered a dreadful novel. Every time I opened it I was filled with a deep sense of foreboding as the story unfolded of a boy unable to lay to rest the nightmare of a childhood during which he was systematically abused by the very people who were meant to care for and protect him. And yet I wanted to read on… and on …. and on.

The first few pages give little hint of the darkness to come. Four university friends Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude have made their way to New York to pursue their ambitions. Malcolm, son of a wealthy family, is intent on becoming an architect; Willem has his eyes on a career on the stage but in the meantime works as a waiter; JB dabbles in experimental art through really wants to be a representational painter and Jude works as a public defense lawyer. Success comes relatively quickly:  film star status for the kind, handsome Willem, MOMA exhibitions for bad-boy JB; international design projects for Malcolm and partnership in a leading law practice for Jude St Francis.

Slowly we discover there is a shadow over Jude’s life. The most reticent of the quartet, we get hints of a secret in his life about which he has never spoken. They may explain why  he has problems walking and negotiating staircases; why he always keeps his body hidden and why he never talks about his school days or his parents.

Eventually he reveals to Willem, the member of the quartet to whom he is closest, that he regularly cuts himself.   Further revelations are drip fed through the course of the novel’s 700 pages. We learn the specifics of the abuse Jude suffered in his early years and of the torments he now suffers as a result. Unflinching in tackling a subject in a way that makes us squirm, Yanigahara nevertheless edges away from gratuitous wallowing in detail.

This then is a portrait of an emotionally and physically damaged man and of the friends who try to stand between him and the demons that haunt him. They love him, shield him and — when needed (which happens frequently) — rush to his aid. They invite him to their homes, to parties celebrating their awards; to intimate family gatherings:  Jude is loved by all of them. Especially Harold, his former law professor who adopts him as a replacement for a dead son. And especially Willem; flat mate, confidante and would-be lover. But none of them cannot eradicate Jude’s past because  that would require Jude to disclose what he cannot reveal for fear the life he has constructed would collapse.  At one point in his life a social worker advised him:

 You have to talk about these things while they’re fresh. Or you’ll never talk about them. It’s going to get harder and harder the longer you wait, and it’s going to fester inside you, and you’re always going to think you’re to blame.

But such is the intensity of Jude’s feeling of shame that talking about his past is one thing he can never do.  He’s too afraid his friends will despise him and abandon him when all he wants is to be loved

… to feel someone else’s hands on him, although the thought of that too terrifies him. Sometimes he looks at his arms and is filled with a self-hatred so fiery that he can barely breathe: Much of what his body has become has been beyond his control, but his arms have been all his doing, and he can only blame himself.

His physical debilitation and his mental despair are at times unendurable yet he is not without a capacity to hope …

… maybe, he thinks, maybe it isn’t too late. Maybe he can pretend one more time, and this last bout of pretending will change things for him, will make him into the person he might have been. He is fifty-one; he is old. But maybe he still has time. Maybe he can still be repaired.

A Little Life is thus a profoundly moving book but one that is not without it’s flaws. It’s overly long and verbose in places for one thing; it contains some truly inelegant sentences and smilies and odd switches of tense from one paragraph to another. The characters all seem impossibly good and kind: how many doctors do you know who can be instantly available at any time of day or night? how many artists manage to get MOMA status though their whole body of work consists of paintings of the same three people?  They also live in a bit of a time warp – years flash by with such little (if any) reference to world events, to wars, elections, terrorist attacks, fashion changes that we can’t tell for sure in which period this novel is set.

Despite that A Little Life is still exceptional; the kind of novel that you still want to keep reading even though you’re aware it still has room for improvement. Will it win the Man Booker Prize for 2015? It depends whether the judges also look past those flaws and agree with the critic in  The New Yorker who described A Little Life as ‘brilliantly subversive” or whether they feel ultimately (as did The New York Times) that it’s over-long and contrived.

EndNotes

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara is published by Pan Macmillan/Picador. I received a copy in return for an honest review. If you’re interested in learning more about this book take a look at the interview with Hanya Yanigahara for  The Millions.

Blogger reviews of A Little Life that are worth checking out:

Shiny New Books

Roof Beam Reader

The Readers Room

Savidge Reads

Dolcebellezza

Postscript

The Man Booker judged announced today that A Little Life has been shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. One step closer to the ultimate prize. We’ll find out October 13 if it gets the title.

2 disappointments and 1 soaring success

sundaysalonI’ve now read two of the 2015 Booker longlist titles; neither of which I think will be declared the winner.  Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations was a far better novel than Anne Enright’s The Green Road in the sense it actually had a message but both were rather straight-forward stories. No real experimentation with form such as we’ve seen from recent winners like Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton. Maybe the judges are not looking for that especially but I would expect them hone in on a novel that has a unique quality, one that stands out from the crowd in one respect or another. Neither O’Hagan or Enright did that for me. Maybe my next Booker longlist contender A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara will be more remarkable. It’s the early favourite for this year’s award but the judges have not always followed the popular vote so I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in the betting odds.

thesnowkimonoFortunately the disappointing experience with those two titles is overshadowed by the book I’m currently reading: The Snow Kimono by the Australian author Mark Henshaw. It’s his first novel in 25 years and was apparently  rejected 32 times before Text Publishing stepped forward. It was a smart move since Henshaw’s novel went on to win the Premier’s award.

From the first page I was enthralled.  The novel begins in Paris in 1989 when a retired police inspector receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter.  Two days later a stranger knocks on his apartment door. Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan, begins his story of his best friend, a brilliant but arrogant writer and the lives of three Japanese women. That summary doesn’t however do any justice to this wonderfully mesmerising tale that unfolds like a puzzle. What a shame the judges didn’t longlist this novel.

The Green Road by Anne Enright [2015 Man Booker Longlist]

The Green RoadBy the end of the first chapter of Anne Enright’s story of strife within an the Madigan family, I had the sense it wasn’t the Green Road I was following, but an all too familiar path. Some of the tropes of Irish fiction had already made their appearance:

Child destined for the convent (or in this case the priesthood). The romance of the land. Churchgoing. Conflict between branches of the same family (they ‘don’t get on with each other’ for reasons that may or may not be revealed); Small community setting with old fashioned shops. More churchgoing.

I steeled myself for more. But then thought maybe I was being unfair. It’s not possible to write a serious novel set in west coast Eire and not mention the church is it? And while the Celtic Tiger did transform the Irish economy for a few years, in 1980 which is when the novel begins, much of Southern Ireland  was (actually still is) comprised of small, very tightly knit villages and towns that look pretty much as they did in the 1950s.

And then, with Chapter 2, Anne Enright sprung a surprise. Her narrative leapt 11 years, out of conservative Irish town where birth control is not easily obtained, and into the free-wheeling world of New York with its gay sub culture.  This was the first, and by the far the most rivetting, of four sections each devoted to the five living members of the Madigan clan: the demanding, infuriating matriarch, Rosaleen, and her children, Dan, Emmet, Constance and Hanna.

Dan Madigan never got ordained (for reasons which are never explained in the novel) but has morphed into Irish Dan. He cuts a handsome figure as he manoeuvres deftly, though cruelly, through the charged atmosphere of the Aids epidemic.  Forward another six years and we catch up with his sister Constance, driving along the green road to a secret hospital appointment, hoping her mammogram will prove all-clear. She’s the only child to remain in her home town, growing fat and resentful when her mother dismisses her gestures of kindness. Youngest son Emmet has put the greatest distance possible between him and Ireland, drifting through Africa on a mission to help starving children in Africa but struggling to reconcile this with his personal relationships. And then there is Hanna, the lively 12 year old child from Chapter 1 whose life disintegrates as her ambitions of an acting career collapses and she takes refuge in booze.

These sections, which take us up to 2005, are in essence a series of loosely connected short stories, each having a distinctly different atmosphere and voice. The parts dealing with Dan in New York are the most powerful, superbly conjuring up the way different groups responded to Aids; some distancing themselves immediately they saw anyone on the subway with tell-tale purple bruises; others reaching out to those they knew were dying. But the victims themselves had different needs, as the narrator explains:

We did not want to be loved when we got sick, because that would be unbearable, and love was all we looked for, in our last days.

Enright brings the family back together with a device which has parallels with King Lear’s division of his kingdom (and we all know how that went). Rosalyn summons the children for Christmas, telling them it will be the last in their family home since she intends selling and moving in with Constance (much to her daughter’s surprise and alarm). The declaration has the family members embark on mega supermarket shopping expeditions (Constance), a long flight (Dan) or a lot minute attempt at packing by throwing stuff into bags (Emmet) before settling around the dinner table, each in the same place they had occupied as children. Though they have changed, one thing remains the same; Rosalyn’s ability to cause an upset. Tears arrive well before bedtime. Enright brings the reunion to a climax with an action which forces the children to reconsider their attitudes towards their mother.  By the end they are a little wiser, but it didn’t feel they were substantially different people or that their lives had altered in any material way.

Were my fears about this book realised? To some extent yes. The  family scenes in Ireland were never as interesting as those where each child, battered by life and directionless, is allowed to tell their own story. And I do wish Enright hadn’t tried to bring the novel to resolution by the unnecessary device of making one character disappear. But I did enjoy her characterisation of Rosaleen, a woman much given to bewailing her fate, succumbing to imaginary illnesses and seeing the world ranged against her. Enright  enables us to laugh at this woman who takes zero interest in world affairs but loves  good local gossip. “Marriages, deaths, accidents: she lived for a head-on collision, a bad bend in the road.” She’s manipulative and waspish but she loves her children. She just doesn’t know how to show it.

A reasonably good read in short but nothing remarkable. I had  very similar feeling by the end that Rosaleen expresses about her life:

Rosaleen was tired of waiting. She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer.

The Green Road wouldn’t make it to the Booker shortlist if I were one of the judges.

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