No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, October 09, 2014

2014/35: Silt -- Robert Macfarlane

I subdued the alarm my brain was raising at the idea of walking out to sea fully clothed, as only suicides do.

Silt, sold as a 'Penguin Special' for under a pound, is a single chapter from Macfarlane's The Old Ways, illustrated with photographs taken on the Broomway by David Quentin. I bought this on a whim whilst sitting on a beach about three miles from where the Broomway (an ancient track that leads across estuarial mudflats from Wakering to Foulness Island) begins: I read it while savouring the light and space of that corner of coast. Unlike many of the Broomway's victims over the years -- it can only be traversed when low tide and daylight align -- I grew up knowing that the tide comes in over those sands faster than a man can run, and that the weird light and silence can disorient even an experienced mud-walker.

Quentin is also a lawyer and in his afterword, he discusses the legal quagmires that surround ancient pathways such as the Broomway. "Just as Rob is fascinated by the historic and topographic characteristics of ways in the real world and in the world of the human soul, I am fascinated by the jurisprudential characteristics of ways as they subsist only in the legal overlay; the characteristics of your ongoing status as non-trespasser as you pass and repass lawfully over what would otherwise be private land." I hadn't known that there is no public right-of-way on the foreshore (the bit between high tide and low tide) … except where there is a public highway, such as the Broomway. Over the years, there have been various attempts to modify this law: does a 'public highway' have to lead somewhere, or can it be (as the Broomway effectively is, public access to Foulness Island being restricted by the Ministry of Defence) a dead end?

A quick, evocative read: now I must dig out and read The Old Ways in full.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

2014/34: Numb -- Sean Ferrell

She said, “I never want to see you again.” She said it without any edge or tone. It was the most perfect thing anyone had ever said to me. I remained surrounded by strangers who couldn’t get enough of me, and intimate friends who couldn’t stand the sight of me.

The nameless, amnesiac protagonist of this novel is nicknamed 'Numb' because he doesn't feel pain. This, and the happenstance of his encounter with Mr Tilly's Circus one scorching day in Texas, provides him with a new career: a circus performer who pounds nails through his own flesh, becomes a human dartboard, and wrestles with an elderly lion.

It's the lion (weary and sick) that makes him leave: he runs away from the circus, heading for New York City in search of his past. He's accompanied by Mal, a fellow circus artiste: but Mal quickly becomes peripheral to Numb's new life, and jealous of the success –- a beautiful girlfriend, a swift ascent to celebrity on the media carousel, intriguing leads that might reveal his past life –- and ends up pushing his own limits further than is wise.

There's a point at which Numb wonders whether his knowing Mal is bad for his girlfriend Hiko. I'd go one step further and say that knowing Numb is bad for everyone. He's immune to pain, but he's also apparently immune to human emotion. Oh, he gradually realises that he needs pain, needs to be able to feel, that being numb is no kind of life at all: but that's too late for most of the people who've become close to him.

There were some interesting ideas in this novel, but on the whole I can't say I enjoyed it, or that I liked any of the characters.

2014/33: The Secret Place -- Tana French

...they barely know he’s there. They feel someone, the green fizz and force of him, the same way they feel hot patches of it pulsing all across the Field; but if you closed their eyes and asked them who it was, none of them would be able to name Chris. He has six months, three weeks and a day left to live.

It's a year since Chris Harper's body was discovered in the grounds of St Kilda's, an elite girls' school. He was sixteen when he was killed: a pupil at Colm's, the neighbouring boys' school: well-liked, popular, good-looking, average. His murderer has never been identified.

Holly Mackey, daughter of Detective Frank Mackey (who's featured in previous Tana French novels), pays a visit to her father's colleague Stephen Moran, with new evidence. St Kilda's has a 'Secret Place', a board where girls can pin anonymous confessions and thoughts. Last night, someone put up a photo of Chris Harper with 'I know who killed him' pasted across it.

Moran is desperate to get into the Murder Squad, so ingratiates himself with Antoinette Conway, the prickly and unpartnered detective in charge of the case. Both from working-class backgrounds, the two are oddly vulnerable to, easily wrongfooted by the privilege and elitism they encounter at St Kilda's. Over the course of a single day, though, they untangle a very knotted web of deceit and motivation to reveal who wielded the murder weapon.

Alternating with their investigations are chapters covering the last months of Chris Harper's life, though -- as in the excerpt quoted above -- he's not a protagonist. Holly and her three close friends (Selena, Julia and Becca) navigate the peaks and troughs of teenage life in the claustrophobic, mercurial atmosphere of the school. Their nemeses, Joanne Heffernan, and her three cronies, discover that Holly's group like to sneak out at night and visit a cypress grove in the grounds. (Another 'secret place': and of course there's the girls' own bodies, suddenly becoming attractive to the opposite sex.) Blackmail, viciousness and rumour proliferate. It doesn't help that Holly & co have sworn off relationships after Julia is targetted by a boy she turned down. In the eyes of their classmates, they have committed the cardinal sin of not being Normal. From there to accusations of murder and witchcraft is a small step for a teenage drama queen.

Tana French captures the loving friendship -- and its converse, the spiteful animosity -- of teenage girls. Their sense of outrage as they discover the 'mix of roaring rage and a shame that stains every cell, this crawling understanding that now their bodies belong to other people’s eyes and hands, not to them'; the feeling that, as a young woman, you should be scared of and worried about every aspect of your life; the ecstatic intimacy of a shared secret – all sharply and crisply conveyed. God, I'm glad my teenage years are far and firmly in my past.

So, 'who wielded the murder weapon'? Because this is a Tana French novel, I've phrased that very deliberately. As in French's previous novels, there are strange things happening -- most of them unknown to Moran and Conway, and only revealed in the alternating chapters that focus on Holly and her friends -- and, again as in previous novels, much is left unexplained. If you read The Secret Place as a straightforward murder mystery, I suspect it'll be a beautifully-written disappointment*. If, like me, your mind pricks up when someone mentions the hyacinths left on Chris Harper's body (and if, like me, you suspect that naming your daughter 'Selena' is asking for trouble) then you'll find this a fascinating and chilling account of the mythic colliding with mundane life.

*a quick glance at reviews on Amazon confirms this. Though some people didn't like the prose either.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

2014/32: The Islands of Chaldea – Diana Wynne Jones with Ursula Jones

The Lady Loma seemed to cast a shadow across the beasts as they came near her, and that shadow showed another shadow inside each donkey, a shadow bent and skinny, with only two legs. I was pretty sure those donkeys had once been men and women. And I was very frightened indeed. I just hoped my aunt would be a bit more polite when she saw the shadows too. But Aunt Beck didn’t seem to notice.

Diana's last novel features many of the themes familiar from her earlier work: young women with self-esteem issues, ancient secrets, apparently mundane companions who aren't what they seem, animals with attitude, and a lot of humour.

Aileen, like all the women of her family – the Wise Women of Skarr, who marry off their male children outside the family -- went to the Place when she turned twelve. Unlike her relatives, she didn't have a vision: her only surviving female relative, Aunt Beck, will just have to carry on being the Wise Woman. Aileen's mother is dead and her father is lost. He may be on one of the other Islands -- Bernica, or Gallis, or Logra – though Logra has been unreachable for the last decade due to murky sorcery. This means, too, that the magical Guardian of the East has become separated from the other Guardians, which does not bode well for anybody.

Aileen ends up accompanying her aunt, and a motley collection of followers, on a mission to rescue the kidnapped High Prince from Logra. It quickly becomes apparent that their pre-mission briefing was somewhat incomplete: why else would the money-bag be full of stones, the ship's captain over-keen to maroon them on a deserted island, and the evil stepmother's attempt to poison Aileen's cousin, young Ivar …

Aileen's true powers, and the fate of her father (not to mention the natures of several of her travelling companions) are revealed gradually, and the ending of the novel is satisfying unless you are rooting for the other side.

I couldn't spot the joins where Ursula Jones, Diana's sister, had picked up her unfinished draft: I did wonder if the climax was a little more abrupt that DWJ would have written it, but then I remembered plenty of counter-examples. The Islands of Chaldea isn't in my top five DWJ novels*, but there is stiff competition and it's by no means the least appealing of her works.

*If you're interested: Eight Days of Luke, Dogsbody, Hexwood, Howl's Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

2014/31: Rose Under Fire - Elizabeth Wein

I WILL TELL THE WORLD. I say that so fiercely. I say it with such conviction, such determined anger. But I couldn't even tell Mother, could I? A few pages ago I vowed I wouldn't tell Mother. How can I possibly tell the world?

I enjoyed Code Name Verity immensely, despite the grimness of Julie's story: on visiting an airshow this summer and seeing Spitfires and a Lancaster, I was reminded that I had an e-copy of Elizabeth Wein's second novel about women in WW2.

It is considerably more harrowing than Code Name Verity, being set largely in a concentration camp (I'm not sure I would have started reading if I'd known / remembered this!): but it is also unexpectedly hopeful, with themes of redemption and atonement and compassionate humanity to counter the bleak cruelty of the camp. Again, the main characters are all young women: Rose, an American pilot; Ró?a, a camp inmate; and Anna, a guard at the camp. The story's told from Rose's point of view, and is punctuated by poetry, very much in the style of Edna St Vincent Millay (whose works are also quoted). It takes her from the wedding of her friend Maddie (who featured in Code Name Verity) to the Nuremberg Trials. But really, it begins with the funeral of Celia, another ATA pilot who died trying to take down a V-1 flying bomb with her wingtip.

The memory of that lingers in Rose's mind: she attempts to emulate it (and succeeds), which leads to her own downfall. And later, in a German factory, she finds herself unable to work on the assembly line, making fuses for those bombs.

The scenes in the Ravensbruck camp are appalling: they are based on survivors' accounts. In her afterword, Elizabeth Wein writes 'My book is fiction, but it is based on the real memories of other people. In the end, like Rose, I am doing what I can to carry out the last instruction of the true witnesses - those who went to their death crying out: Tell the world.' In such a situation even the smallest acts of humanity, whether from the guards or other prisoners, are treasured. And despite the horrors of the regime, love and selflessness are not wholly absent. Hence Rose's survival.

The descriptions of flying are as evocative and magical as in Code Name Verity, and I was fascinated by the glimpses of everyday life during wartime: London buses without their windows ('they take the glass out on purpose - people would rather sit in the wind than risk windows exploding in their faces'), small boys hunting for souvenirs at crash sites, buzzing the Eiffel Tower on VE Day. And the darker side of war, too: Wein does not gloss over brutality. It's apparently intended for young adults, but I'd hesitate to recommend it to a younger teen. The moral landscape is far from monochrome: Anna, in particular, is certainly not a caricature. And perhaps it would have been easier to end on Rose's departure from Ravensbruck: but there is so much more after that.

Made me cry, beautifully written, brought home just how grim the prison camps were. (My previous mental pictures were drawn largely from war films such as The Great Escape.) Rose Under Fire also made me want to research the internment camps in France in WW2: my grandmother and father were interned in one, and I don't even know which.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

2014/30: Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

The country for miles, under the blanket of the dark which brought no peace, was in its annual tortured ferment of spring growth; worm jarred with worm and seed with seed. Frond leapt on root and hare on hare. Beetle and finch-fly were not spared. The trout-sperm in the muddy hollow under Nettle Flitch Weir were agitated, and well they might be. The long screams of the hunting owls tore across the night, scarlet lines on black. In the pauses, every ten minutes, they mated. It seemed chaotic, but it was more methodically arranged than you might think. [p.45]

Reread, because it is lovely and witty and dry. Flora, orphaned and impecunious, throws herself on the mercy of her Starkadder relatives, who farm at Cold Comfort (somewhere in the South Downs) and incarnate a great many stereotypes of rural life. "'...highly-sexed young men living on farms are always called Seth or Reuben, and it would be such a nuisance. And my cousin's name, remember, is Judith. That in itself is most ominous. Her husband is almost certain to be called Amos; and if he is, it will be a typical farm, and you know what they are like.' Mrs Smiling said sombrely: 'I hope there will be a bathroom. ' "[p. 22]

Flora is a practical young woman with no time for the dreary romantic meanderings of young Elfine, or the mollocking ("What does mollocking mean?? No, you need not tell me. I can guess.") Seth, or the tragic Miss Judith laying out her cards in the attic. Not given to metaphor or melodrama, Flora bursts upon the Starkadders and - apparently immune to the bestial forces of nature, and the emotional excesses of the Romantics - transforms their lives. The mundanity of their secret hopes and dreams revealed, Seth and Elfine leave the cloying confines of their ancestral home, and Aunt Ada emerges from the attic at last ?

Cold Comfort Farm, written in 1932, is set in The Future: there are video phones (though public callboxes are not fitted with a 'television dial'); Flora's suitor, Claud, is a veteran of the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of '46; postal deliveries arrive by air. In other ways, though, it's very much a novel of the interwar period. There's a general sense of placid contentment. Seth's secret vice is Hollywood movies, which he sneaks out to the village to see at the cinema. Elfine, without Flora's intervention, will likely 'keep a tea-room in Brighton and go all arty-and-crafty about the feet and waist'. Despite the mod cons of London life (and I have a special love of Mrs Smiling's brassiere collection, 'the largest and finest in the world') technology doesn't really impinge on the Starkadders. They still, after all, wash the dishes with twigs. Rural life, as portrayed in Cold Comfort Farm, is carnal and covert and full of dark looks. There is a great deal of mollocking.

Gibbons' prose is often hilarious, but she has the gift of insightful metaphor: the novel's full of vivid images, for instance 'the wet fields fanged abruptly with flints'. She takes (and gives) pleasure in luxuriant sentences: 'the remaining railway companies had fallen into a settled melancholy; an idle and repining despair invaded their literature, and its influence was noticeable even in their time-tables.'

One day I must read her other novels.

Monday, September 29, 2014

2014/28: The Grass King's Concubine – Kari Sperring

She had come to the steppe in search of her past and of her shining place, of the line and deeds that had begotten her wealth, her status and of the dream she had clung to. She had expected to find records, memories, old tales. Instead… The past, the myths she dreamed of, had been looking for her, too. [p. 271]

Aged six, Aude Pèlerin des Puiz catches a glimpse of a shining world during an earthquake. The vision haunts her as she grows to adulthood, counterbalancing the humdrum privilege of her quotidian life. Aude is, if you like, one of the 1%: her family is wealthy, and she lives in her uncle's Silver City house for years before she begins to take an interest in the Brass City working class whose labour provides her luxuries.

Falling in with Jehan Favre, a Brass City soldier with revolutionary tendencies, Aude flees the city (and imminent marriage to a scrawny, sallow young nobleman) in search of her family's history. Somewhere out on the steppes is the secret to their success. And perhaps she can also find the shining world she glimpsed as a child, which the writings of the scholar Marcellan have told her is the domain of the Grass King: WorldBelow.

But the Grass King has his own agenda: his concubine, Tsai, who controlled the waters, is fading. The Grass King and his Cadre – inhuman warriors, each with his or her own affinity – seek restitution. Aude is abducted and taken to the Grass King's court in the Rice Palace.

Fortunately, Jehan has attracted the attention of two individuals who wish to free Marcellan himself from the Grass King's court. Yelena and Julana are not witches: they are (delightfully) ferret-women, quick and cunning and prone to bite, and they are willing to act as Jehan's guides in exchange for his help. Marcellan's writings, it turns out, have been more widely read than he could have hoped. Between Aude's ancestors' land-grabbing and river-damming in WorldAbove, and Marcellan's introduction of human technology and rationality into WorldBelow, everything is imbalanced, withering in unnatural drought.

That summary omits a great deal: The Grass King's Concubine is a many-layered book told from three viewpoints (Aude, Jehan, the ferret women) and constructed from (at least) two distinct timelines. It's a complex and slow-paced novel, tremendously atmospheric: from the clamorous mills of the Brass City (reminiscent of revolutionary France) to the sewers of the distinctly Oriental Rice Palace, every scene is rich with sensory detail.

As in Living with Ghosts, water plays a vital role in this novel: but here it's the lack of it, drought rather than flood, that drives the narrative. There are folk-tale resonances and echoes of mythology, entwined with the introduction of technology – I was especially fascinated by Liyan's clepsydra, or water-clock – into the dreaming peace of WorldBelow, and with the religious observances of WorldAbove.

The characters have distinctive voices, and their motives and actions, as in the mundane world, lead to unforeseen outcomes. Good intentions are no excuse: the sins of the ancestors shall be visited on their descendants. And yet, amends can be made. On one level the novel's ending feels incomplete: on other, deeper levels, closure is achieved. The Grass King's Concubine is not a quick or an easy read, but I found it thought-provoking and beautifully written.

Monday, July 07, 2014

2014/27: Wake -- Elizabeth Knox

And whose thought was that anyway—about the trigger being an open quote? Dan might occasionally use air quotes, but he wasn’t very confident about how to use quote marks on paper. It wasn’t his thought. It was malicious and perverted and savage and clever, and had come as a soundless whisper from the centre of his skull as if there was something inside him, something that wasn’t him, stirring like a hatchling in an egg. [loc.2613]
One weekday morning, almost all of the inhabitants of Kahukura are plunged into madness. Silently, they commit nonsensical atrocities upon themselves and one another. Then they go still. Then they die. And then the survivors, dazed, find that they are locked in with the bodies of the dead: there is an impermeable barrier around the town.

Knox knows her precedents, as we're reminded by teenager Oscar, who has recently 'watched a whole season of Lost; played Oblivion, and Bioshock, and Mass Effect—' [loc.1328]. There is a rag-tag group of survivors -- though, really, their 'survival' is more a case of being immune to the phenomenon -- including a star athlete, an American lawyer, a capable but overwhelmed policewoman, an intellectually-disabled (or mentally ill?) care worker, a fisherman. There is a Mystery: the 'No-Go', the invisible bubble that separates them from the rest of the world. Isolation and confusion, the grim work of burial, the need to share resources, the interpersonal frictions: all standard. Wake might initially seem to be another take on the zombie trope, but once the initial mania has passed it's more science-fictional than that. (One character is described as being 'like Superman, or the Doctor; one of those judicious, sequestered aliens of fiction' [loc.3787]).

It's a very New Zealand novel. Disclaimer: I am not a New Zealander. But I've visited Mapua, which in the novel is near Kahukura and which has the same ambience; and I've talked at length with New Zealand friends about their culture and society. Wake features a kakapo preserve with predator-proof fencing (the No-Go bulges slightly, so that the preserve is wholly within the quarantined area). Maori words, untranslated, are scattered through the novel: one of the characters is Maori. And Kahukura's cats are all being fed by the survivors. These are not just shades of local colour: they are all germane to the plot.

Knox's writing is compelling. Her images are clear, precise and surprising ('it seemed to him that he’d spent his life with his back to the sun and his face to a wall, writing on its white surface, working in his own shadow' [loc.4526]; 'his blood unfolded like a concertinaed red banner down the weatherboard wall' [loc.122]; 'a deep flutter, like a wind-baffled bonfire' [loc.70]). And the gradual unfolding of the novel -- the secrets that everyone's kept close, the mysteries that have divorced them from the rest of the world -- is masterful. Best? worst? most tragic? of all is the revelation of the trap that has been laid. That's the aspect I couldn't stop thinking about: and I have decided not to write about it here.

Wake is a novel about what you hold onto when you have lost almost everything; about what you give up, when you have already given up hope.

We are creatures who learn, and something we learn is to fear for what we love. After the worst has happened our fears are retrospective. We keep trying to warn ourselves. Our now useless fears come and fly around our heads. They circle us, crying. The island they might have landed on, to roost, has vanished beneath the waves. What are our fears? They’re the only birds left in the air. The birds of drowned nests. [loc.905]