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

Monday, January 30, 2006

#9: Wolf Brother -- Michelle Paver

I needed a quick, light read, and this was surprisingly impressive. It's aimed at a teenaged audience, and is the first of a sequence, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness: this might be what put me off, the notion of yet another fantasy quest-series.

But Wolf Brother's setting -- the post-glacial forests of Northern Europe, thousands of years before the present -- is out of the ordinary, and Paver creates characters (human and otherwise) who are recognisably different from ourselves in their attitudes and beliefs, but essentially similar in their emotions and motivations.

The book opens with the death of Torak's father, leaving Torak (who's twelve) alone to fend for himself. He befriends, or is befriended by, an orphaned wolf cub: I'm particularly impressed at Paver's handling of this relationship, which doesn't anthropomorphise Wolf beyond what's necessary and credible for the story, and yet verbalises certain aspects of lupine existence. (Wolves have no way of thinking about the future, asserts Paver, which fits what we know about dogs.)

Torak finds himself on, yes, a quest for some magical items, a quest to destroy a demon in animal form. Some of the magic described is fairly obviously based on natural phenomena surrounded by ritual: other aspects, such as the 'glow' of the magical items, makes less sense. And I found myself less convinced towards the end of the book, where Torak learnt of the Ancient Darkness, the source of the evil: perhaps this is simply because I think of animism and ritual as more sheerly primitive than myths of humans with dark powers and evil agendas.

Like Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear and its sequels, a fair amount of the prose is devoted to the mechanics of survival, and to descriptions of the glorious, perilous natural setting. (Paver did her research in Finland, but the Forest could be anywhere in the temperate zone.)

I'll be looking out for the next book in the series (projected as 6 volumes), expecting another well-paced, well-plotted novel with clear, unobtrusive prose.

#8: Flying to Nowhere -- John Fuller

This is a very short novel, only just over a hundred pages: its story is told more by allusion and gradual layering than by the narration of events. I'm still unsure whether it is understated or willfully obscure.

Vane, an agent of the Church, arrives on a remote Welsh island with his servant Geoffrey and his horse Saviour. He's been sent by the Bishop to investigate the mysterious disappearance of many pilgrims who have visited the island's sacred well. The Abbot is not exactly helpful: the island community is oddly imbalanced, consisting mostly of young novices with few (if any) older monks, all supported by a group of young women overseen by Mrs Ffedderbompau. (This is the sort of name that, having read far too much humorous fiction, I keep expecting to contain some joke in its pronunciation.)

Vane's investigations lead him to the oddly empty burial ground at the centre of the island, and to the holy well itself, beneath the abbey. Meanwhile, the abbot is wandering the unknown passageways of his own house, investigating life and death, and musing on the possibility of resurrection: meanwhile, Geoffrey is falling in love with one of the maids; meanwhile, Mrs F is dying, and Saviour is transformed. And by the end of the book it seems that some irreversible, miraculous, grotesque change is underway, though it's not entirely clear what has triggered it.

The language is beautiful and dense -- Fuller's primarily a poet, though this novel won the Whitbread Prize in 1983. There are some gruesomely precise images, and a sharp, visceral vividness to each incident, each scene. It's not clear when all this is happening: it could be any time between 1106 (there's a reference to something published that year) and the present day, though I'd guess at some time between 1400 and 1750.

The Abbot ... feared the process of animation induced by the miraculous spring, feared the active weight and muscle of the words and bindings of his once-still books. It must be the curing of the leather that rendered it capable of returning to its former shapes. ... He stood with his hand on the knotted bark of the library door in despair as it thudded against his palm with the weight of the huddled herds inside.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

#7: Visible Worlds -- Marilyn Bowering

Bought this years ago in one of the Greenwich remainder shops: how I miss all those mysterious, cheap paperbacks!

Visible Worlds has two narrative threads. One (first person, present tense) is Albrecht's story. Albrecht, his twin brother Gerhard live in a small town in rural Canada, the children of German immigrants. Their father is a slaughterhouse worker who, in his spare time, promotes the science of Personal Magnetism. Their mother is staunchly supportive of Bella Bone, abandoned wife of Cree Indian Bill Bone, who trains animals for the circus; icily dismissive of the spiritualist practice of 'Madame Pince-Jones' (a.k.a. Mrs Fergusson) who lives next door. Albrecht and Gerhard spend their time hanging out with Bella's son Nate; eyeing up the Fergusson girls; wishing they were old enough to learn to fly.

The other narrator (third person, past tense) is Fika, a young woman who is skiing across the ice-cap from Russia to Canada in the spring of 1960. Fika is short for Elektrifikatsiya -- a name from the labour camp where she's spent several years -- but her real name is something quite different. Her two comrades have died, and she skis on alone, hallucinating, dreaming, remembering the stories and the family histories told to her by her friend in the labour camp, a blind man named Gerhard.

Aha! you're probably thinking. The two strands connect. Well, yes, and no. Bowering plays tricks, and I'm only noticing some of them now as I skim through, thinking about the novel.

There are elements that link the two narratives: meteor iron (Fika wears a chunk of it around her neck; Bill Bone recounts the story of a talismanic meteorite that, once removed from Cree land, plunged the nation into misfortune; Nate and Albrecht chase -- and catch -- a falling star the night Nate's sister dies), people who walk with limps, lost children, the past coming back to haunt those who think they've escaped. There are people who share the same name (so that you think you're knitting the strands of narrative together, and then find that you've been fooled), and people who change names. And the end of the book is actually the first chapter.

Bowering has another technique which can be admirable or infuriating: skimming over the actual events and writing of their consequence, of the reactions of those not directly involved. Because of the limited involvement of the two major viewpoint characters (she does introduce a third voice, very briefly, near the end: he even gets a different typeface) so much is never really known, explained, understood. Personal Magnetism, for example:

My father says that there are invisible wires, magnetic pathways, fibers of force. He used to come into our room during thunderstorms and, standing in the darkness between flashes of lightning bolts, squeeze on a broomstick to increase the nervous flow to his muscles, neutralizing imbalances by placing ice between his feet and grounding the static.

It's never clear whether it does anyone any good: but there are other esoteric elements -- mostly concerning Nate -- in the book, and Albrecht seems to accept those as blithely as he accepts the Canadian weather and the colours of the ice beneath him as he flies to Alaska.

No one here gets out scot-free: they're all flawed, and eccentric, and difficult in their own arbitrary ways. But they're fascinating, and Bowering has the knack of encapsulating extreme emotional states: Friedl, for example, in stark despair:

To want what isn't yours? What's so bad about that? The architect planned and the builder wrought, and what choice did she have when it came to her heart? She didn't invent herself, did she? It isn't her fault. She has done her best, but she is still in the deserted banquet hall alone. She hates her life. She does not want to be a good wife or mother any longer. Shame runs like molten lead right through her, burning out her insides, exposing the empty core, the nothingness from which nothing can grow.

I'll be looking out for more by this author: writing this review, I find myself as fascinated by her technique, her structure, as by the tale she tells or the language she uses to tell it.

Just checking the author's availability on Amazon: practically everything's out of print, and it's mostly poetry. Some poets can't do novels: those who can are wonderful to read.

Monday, January 23, 2006

#6: The Italian Boy -- Sarah Wise

"In 1831, detection was a phenomenon as new and experimental as railway travel, gallstone-removal, the omnibus, phrenology, Catholics in Parliament or the concept of votes for all." (p. 67)

This is the best kind of history book: one that starts with a single incident (here, an inquest in the upstairs room of a Covent Garden pub -- the Unicorn -- in November 1831) and fleshes it out, devoting whole chapters to context and back-story, before revealing how things turned out.

The inquest concerned the death of an 'Italian boy' -- an adolescent whom no one was able to identify with any certainty, but who was generally agreed to be one of the young Italian immigrants who roamed London, begging and exhibiting pet animals. The Italian Boy had been delivered to the dissecting room at King's College by a gang of body-snatchers -- a trade that was still not entirely illegal -- but suspicions had been roused by the evident freshness of the corpse, which seemed never to have been buried. Three men were arrested and charged with the boy's murder.

The Italian Boy is their story, and the story of the Italian Boy: and by extension the story of what it was like to be extremely poor in pre-Victorian London. There are chapters on grave-robbing, on the state of medical science, on housing, on the meat trade, on the second-hand clothes trade, on Newgate ... And throughout, the attempts of Police Superintendent Joseph Thomas to investigate the crime: a method without precedent, a police procedural ten years before Edgar Allan Poe kick-started the detective genre with The Murders in the Rue Morgue. "In the 1830s," writes Wise, "guilt was still established by eyewitness accounts, being caught in the act, having a bad reputation, or simply looking and sounding like a criminal."

This isn't a period of history that I know much about, and I suspect that some of the context would be hackneyed and commonplace to those more familiar with 19th century London. It was well-pitched for the casual reader, though I did find annoying Wise's insistence on identifying the exact location of some demolished building (not just the site of the murders, but pubs and offices and shops): "Dorset Street was a short road running east-west just north of Rockingham Street. Today the Rockingham Estate covers the site ... the workhouse building, dating from 1778, remains as the outpatients' department of the Middlesex Hospital ... Slaughter's stood on the south-west corner of the junction of St Martin's Lane and Cranbourn St -- today a coffee / sandwich chain [Pret a Manger] has the site."

The geographical nitpicking is one thing: it would be much less annoying if more effort had been made to reproduce the maps and illustrations legibly. I assume they were clear in the original hardcover edition, but they're blurry and unreadable in this paperback, printed on cheaper paper: and many of the maps are uncaptioned. And while I'm criticising the book, as opposed to its contents: it's all very well to mark up a chunk of text, derived from various newspaper reports, by font / style according to its source -- but, dear editor, do make sure that each edition of the book contains those fonts.

Back to the, well, Meat of the book. In some respects the popular response to the lurid reports of poor boys and old ladies murdered for their bodies is quite recognisable: the house where the murders were allegedly committed, in Bethnal Green, was more or less torn apart by souvenir hunters (despite the police charging an admission price of 5/- to keep numbers down), and there were sheaves of sentimental ballads:

I vowed that you should have my hand
But Fate gave no denial
You'll find it there at Doctor Bell's
In spirits and a phial.

Strangely, I didn't feel that much sympathy for the victims: lured with promises of strong drink and a place to sleep, dosed up with laudanum, drowned in the well and sold off for research. It seems a very pragmatic sort of murder: not personal, but purposeful.

Wise brings the murderers -- sardonic, clever John Bishop, brash Thomas Williams, gullible James May -- to life: their fate is as good as a novel. And after all, from Bishop's confession (though Wise casts some doubts on its credibility) it seems that they didn't murder the Italian Boy. Though they were far from innocent.

Bishop and Williams were given to the anatomists after death: to the anatomists, and to the phrenologists. (By some astonishing coincidence, the bumps on their skulls confirmed everything that the newspapers had published about them.) Less than six months later, Warburton's Anatomy Bill was passed in the Commons, and two months later in the House of Lords: it made available to anatomists the unclaimed corpses of workhouse dead, and thus reduced the market for illicitly-traded corpses.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

#5: Casanova -- Andrew Miller

This novel was published in 1998, but might easily be taken, at first, for a novelisation of the recent TV series. Though the opening scene -- an old man, reflecting on past sins to a young woman in a draughty Bohemian castle -- is familiar, that's simply because both works draw on the same source: Casanova's sensational autobiography.

The TV series focussed on Casanova as a young man, but Miller is more interested in his stay in London. Casanova is 38 years old in 1763, approaching middle age by the standards of the time. He's come to London to reinvent himself, to escape the long arm of the Venetian Republic, to engage in a little gentlemanly spying for Louis XV. But in London he meets his match: the young, beautiful and chaste Marie Charpillon.

Chaste as far as Casanova's concerned, that is: rumour has it that she's been the mistress of more than one man. Chased by Casanova, too, in what's at first an idle flirtation but swiftly becomes a contest of wills. Casanova is forced to examine his life and himself; he undergoes a transformation more dramatic than any alias or assumed role; he becomes, by the end of the novel (and certainly by that dimly-lit framing narrative in Dux), a wiser man.

The writing is clever, playful, often downright amusing: Miller has a knack for the unexpected, the sly and thought-provoking word. Yew trees shading a country churchyard are a gang, and thus menacing: drizzle lengthens into rain; Casanova's infamous lovemaking is a riot in a girl's limbs.

'The rain had given way to a sun of chewed brass, and London, smoky Atlantis, had risen into the morning, the dome of St Paul's draped in scarves of aqueous northern light. Over the hats and the dust, through the webs of rope, he observed ... the commotion of the town, its semaphore of ladies' silks and golden sword hilts, of windows in austere buildings batting back the sunlight from rooms where who knew what agreeable, what peppery intrigues were hatching.

Yet there's much more to this novel than fine writing. There's a depth (an abyss almost) of despair, a recognition of encroaching age, a real sense of the everyday life of an ordinary man beneath an extraordinary plumage of reputation. Casanova drinks with Doctor Johnson, discusses words and women, watches in the half-light as Johnson, thinking himself unobserved, tries Casanova's coat, and smirks at his reflection. Those lapidary moments constitute a more universal, human story than the trite pursuit of virtue and the rake's eventual, unlooked-for redemption.

Oddly, when I first tackled this novel (which I bought when it came out, and left to languish on the shelf) I didn't get along with it at all: the language did nothing for me, and in fact I remember finding the first part of it a dull read. And that wasn't so very long ago: a couple of years at most, and possibly less. Not sure what that proves, except that sometimes even the finest music (to mix a metaphor) falls on deaf ears.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

#4: The Body Artist -- Don DeLillo

'A ghost story for the 21st century,' according to the blurb. I'm not sure it's a ghost story at all: there doesn't seem to be enough information to decide whether the mysterious stranger who appears in Lauren's house after her husband's suicide is a ghost, or an alien, or a figment of her imagination. The novel starts with Lauren discovering a strange hair in the kitchen. But this was not the novel (or novella: a scant 124 pages) that I expected, given that incident.

This book made me feel stupid: I finished it, and read the reviews, and wondered what I'd been missing. Yes, the prose is well-written, and spare, and understated. The story itself is a triumph of understatement: it raises many more questions than it answers. And I'm beginning to think that the characters are understated too.

DeLillo has an irritating trick, in this book, of writing grittily realistic dialogue, with all the pauses and abandoned phrases:

"What did you mean earlier yesterday when you said, when you seemed to say what? I don't recall the words exactly. It was yesterday. The day before today. You said I'd still be here, I think, when the lease. Do you remember this? When I'm supposed to leave. You said I do not."

"I said this what I said."

The novel does hinge on the exact wording, the exact sound, of a particular phrase, so this is an appropriate technique, but that doesn't stop it being irritating. It feels like a young writer's trick: a case of 'hey, this is how people really talk!'.

The Body Artist is partly about the process of creating a work of art. Lauren is a performance artist who works without any prop except her own body: her skill is in (re)creating the physical bodies of characters based on people she's seen or imagined. Some of her experiences (encountering the strange visitor; watching a webcam feed of an empty Finnish road) make it into her next performance: some don't. And now that I come to think of it, some of the things she imagines make it into her real life. And some don't.

There's an eerieness to The Body Artist that has nothing to do with ghosts. Though Lauren's house is right out on the coast, the sea seems miles away, except at the very end of the book. The house itself feels utterly empty, save for blown lightbulbs and winter light: there is furniture when there needs to be (the visitor sits on the edge of a bed; Lauren knocks her head against a lightshade) but it's never mentioned otherwise. Lauren exists in a void, except when she goes to the city to perform. It's as though she's a ghost herself. (I've just spent some minutes considering whether that could be the case.) It's not entirely clear when her mystery visitor is there, and when he's not.

A few scribbled notes: it's a novel about time, and about being outside time. About what past and future mean. About looking backward, and how pathetic that can be.

I think the reason I'm feeling so negative and argumentative about this book is that I still don't really get it: I do know there's something I've missed, but whether it is sheer quality of writing or whether there's a twist that passed me by is another matter.

#3: The Blooding of Jack Absolute -- C. C. Humphreys

Prequel to Jack Absolute, a novel as near fanfiction as dammit: the protagonist is Sheridan's Captain Absolute from The Rivals, and in Jack Absolute Humphreys cleverly merged fiction and history by having Sheridan fictionalise a real person from dramatic purpose -- hence putting a spoke in Absolute's promising career as a spy. All good fun.

This prequel begins with Jack's early life in Cornwall, the (apparently) bastard offshoot brought up alongside the rightful heir, whom he heartily detests (but to whom he is, of course, superior in every respect). The second part of the book deals with Jack's schooldays, a mad rush of cricket, tardiness, misbehaviour and boyish amours -- not to mention French lessons and poetic endeavours -- that climaxes in an illegal duel at Vauxhall. And the final third of the book recounts Jack's adventures in North America, fighting alongside General Wolfe at the taking of Quebec, and living rough in the Canadian winter.

This should have been more of a page-turner than it was. The research is all sound, and Humphreys handles a large cast with confidence and convincing characterisation. But there's an edge, a sharpness, missing -- not from the deeds themselves but from how they're recounted. Or perhaps it's that Jack lacks the range of emotional response to the events that befall him: oh, he's sad or happy, triumphant or furious, and always honourable and courageous, but he doesn't seem to have a very active inner life.

Having said that, this was an enjoyable read, and there were enough details to bring many of the scenes vividly to life. And Jack's an oddly likeable character, with a sense of humour even while dishing out justice.

#2: The Ice Queen -- Alice Hoffman

This novel steals from many fairy-tales, though it isn't a retelling of any specific story. The 'ice queen' is the narrator; orphaned early, she grows up believing that she caused her mother's death by wishing. For a while it does seem that her wishes are coming true -- and they're not cheerful, feelgood wishes, but the kind of wish that wrecks lives. And meanwhile, she's built a wall of ice between her and everyone dear to her: her brother, her lover, her dying grandmother.

Grandmother dies: ice-girl heads for Florida, and yes, she melts in the heat: or rather, suffers a freak accident, the effects of which change her for good. She's forced to see things differently; finds herself taking a gradual -- then obsessive -- interest in others; and yet she's still reading the world as though it's a fairytale. And it's very definitely a Grimm version, rather than a happy-ending Andersen. (Actually, I'd beg to differ here: I'd say that Andersen's tales are grim and nasty in quite a different, and rather less wholesome way.)

And yet, past all the stories of girls who wear red, lovers who won't let you see them at night, years of a life traded for new beginnings, girls on the outside looking in, the new tale of a girl frozen in ice, aphorisms and morals and riddles -- "have it once and you can have it again," "be careful what you wish for" -- there is a happy ending: the ice melts, the girl resumes her journey, she moves on, she leaves the past behind.

This is a gorgeously written book, full of subtle observation and the kind of image, act, thought that resonates with fragmentary memories of fairytales. It's not necessarily an easy book: I suspect it would repay multiple rereadings, revealing an elegance of structure and symmetry that I only suspect after one reading. If there's a moral, it's that not everything fits into the stories you construct for yourself; and yet everything, everyone, has a story.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

#1: Birdsong -- Sebastian Faulks

I don't think I've ever read a novel that so claustrophobically evoked the horror of trench warfare. None of the suffering, the extensive description of life in the trenches, the sordid animal deaths of young men is at all gratuitous. It's powerful stuff. But I think what makes it powerful is the contrast with life outside the trenches, and especially with the natural world. There's a scene where Stephen Wraysford, on leave in springtime Norfolk, experiences an overwhelming epiphany at the immanence, unlikeliness, interconnectedness of the natural world around him; quite at odds with the uncaring sound of birdsong that's heard throughout, even in the battlefields. Even underground, where terrified canaries become no more than feathered gas sensors. Right at the heart of the terrible experiment, this war, this thing that Stephen has to go on watching because he can't imagine how it might turn out, is a sense of affirmation: of love of life.

It's not a perfect novel, structurally or stylistically. The writing, when Faulks is between scenes, is occasionally sloppy and almost mechanical; rarely, it's heavy-handedly sentimental. And though I can see why the modern thread of the narrative -- Elizabeth's story -- is included, its denouement feels false. I didn't much care for Elizabeth: she felt like a cipher, and I wonder if the author was attempting, through some of her choices, to portray her as much less balanced than she seemed to me.

Birdsong is a stunning -- though? because? imagined -- evocation of the camaraderie, and the petty feuds and daily drama, of life in the trenches. Everything else, every other relationship that Stephen (or his subordinate, tunneller Jack Firebrace) experiences, pales into insignificance beside the literal life-and-death matter of the men's friendships and differences.

Jack Firebrace is a fascinating character: a former worker on the Central Line, brought to France to tunnel under the front lines, he has more faith, more love, more certainty than Stephen. In the end, though, it isn't enough. Again (as with Elizabeth) I had an indefinable sense that the author felt somehow superior to Jack. It isn't that he doesn't love his characters. He certainly doesn't sneer at them or make fun of their concerns, the way that some authors do. And yet there's something lacking, something not quite right: and I'm not sure that Stephen is treated much differently, though it's his inner life, more than anyone else's, that's the core of the novel.