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

Monday, March 27, 2006

#28: The Value of X -- Poppy Z Brite

I enjoyed Liquor very much, and when I found out that Brite had written the backstory, the tale of how Rickey and G-Man got together in the first place, I decided to indulge. Am glad I did.

This is a difficult novel to classify. It's a love story where both the protagonists are male, but it doesn't have much, if anything, to do with the gay scene. I don't think either Rickey or G-Man (who's still 'Gary' for most of the novel) define themselves as gay: they just happen to love one another. They're different enough for there to be some tension: Rickey's unswerving confidence and energy against Gary's peaceful nature and his Catholic upbringing. Rickey wishes there was a map of how to fall in love with your best friend and not mess it up. Gary wishes the two of them could get a house together, just a one-bedroom place ...

The Value of X isn't the kind of romance (heterosexual or homosexual) which ends with the happy couple getting together. This is a novel about staying together, and about the obstacles in their way. There are all the usual problems of a teenage romance (except the risk of pregnancy): lack of privacy, inexperience, predatory older men, parental disapproval. Gary's parents aren't at all keen on the relationship -- his mother wonders aloud whether she can love a gay son -- and, with the help of Rickey's mother and his estranged father, try to break them up.

There are other problems, too, unique to same-sex couples: queer-bashing frat boys, public disapproval (they're both working-class lads), the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality. Brite doesn't moralise, or glamorise. There's a prosaic credibility to her account of how Rickey and Gary deal with everything that's thrown at them, and meanwhile manage to kick-start careers at the cheap and greasy end of the restaurant business.

I've been thinking about how this compares to some of the better slash fiction I've read online. Would The Value of X interest me as much if it featured a heterosexual couple? (Probably not, but part of that's overkill: there's a lot, an overwhelming amount, of het romance on the shelves.) Is this just slash featuring original characters? (It's much less focussed on sex than a lot of slash is: the sex isn't even mentioned except when it's germane to the plot.) Would there be a market for it if Brite hadn't already established these characters, and their relationship, in Liquor? (Now that I don't know ...)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

#27: Black Projects, White Knights -- Kage Baker

An anthology of short stories that happen in and around Kage Baker's Company series. I'd read quite a few of these before -- they've appeared in Asimov's, and are available as e-books from Fictionwise -- but it's good to have them collected, though there is at least one omission.

It's difficult to assess this kind of anthology as a whole. Some of the stories work well alone, but others wouldn't make much sense to someone who wasn't already familiar with the setting and characters from the novels. There are several stories about the childhood and youth of Alec Checkerfield (including one that appears as part of The Life of the World to Come, see earlier review), and don't seem to add much to the character, though they're entertaining glimpses of his history. There's an entertaining tale about Lewis commissioning a secret screenplay from Robert Louis Stevenson (I do wish Baker would write more about the Company operatives' work in Hollywood: film history and cinema is such a strong element in the Company novels), and a glimpse of Enforcer mentality as a prehistoric brat climbs up to a remote cave to see if God still lives there. These stories kept me cheerfully entertained all through a rainy Sunday afternoon, and I know I'll want to read some of them again: but I suspect I'd have enjoyed them more if I'd read them singly.

#26: Finding Helen -- Colin Greenland

"The first mainstream novel from a master of the fantastic" claimed the back of this book. I suppose it might seem mainstream to someone who's not familiar with the fantasy genre; but I suspect that a reader who didn't recognise the fantastical elements would be left confused by this novel.

The tale is a simple one, on the face of it. Chris, the narrator, hears a song on the radio one morning, and it takes him back to his youth; to the years when he shared a house with the singer, Helen Leonard, a Seventies singer-songwriter with a small but enthusiastic following. Chris is married now, to sensible Grace, and he's left all that behind: but he gets in the car and begins to drive without any real idea of where he's going, or what he'll find when he gets there. Whatever became of Helen Leonard? What became of Peter, who drove her car (Chris couldn't drive back then) and seemed as much her servant as her companion?

Gradually, as he drives north, Chris remembers his time with Helen. It seems that they were never lovers; that he found her annoying and frustrating, but infinitely charismatic; that she was not like the other girls. He remembers her sitting in a stone circle (the Nine Maidens in Derbyshire) making up stories about children dancing and being turned to stones; making up stories so vivid that Chris can almost see the children in their cut-down clothes, their dirt, their bare feet.

He meets a man in a pub who gives him a gun. The man, Arthur, is someone he remembers from the old days, from a party that he and Helen attended: but Arthur is an old man now, horribly aged ...

Helen's nature is never really explained, but a reader familiar with fantasy or folklore will start to put together the pieces of the puzzle -- dispensed like teases at regular intervals -- fairly quickly. Chris is more of an enigma: I'm inclined to believe that his years with Helen shaped him more than he realises. I don't know what to make of Grace. I think Grace is the person who picked up the pieces.

Sometimes the novel feels too ordinary, too obsessed by the thoughts and assumptions of everyday life, though these are filtered through Chris's perceptions in a way that gradually exposes the extent of his damage. There are scenes, sentences, that are achingly precise: very little emotional shorthand in this novel. A very British fantasy, and a well-observed story.

Friday, March 24, 2006

#25: The Life of the World to Come -- Kage Baker

Once I'd read The Graveyard Game -- a novel that revolves around Mendoza without her ever appearing -- I had to read this, the latest (so far) in the Company series. It opens with Mendoza: but then there's Drake sailing up the coast of California, and a cabal of researchers at Oxford University (swilling prune-juice in lieu of outlawed sherry) and Alec Checkerfield, Seventh Earl of Finsbury -- a millionaire playboy with an agenda, an imaginary friend who takes the shape of the pirate Henry Morgan, and a very good brain.

The Graveyard Game was dark, full of paranoia and ancient secrets and cynical world-weariness: The Life of the World to Come is, on the whole, a cheerful romp. The world in which Alec grows to adulthood, and finds ways to live the life of adventure that he seems, atavistically, to be programmed to live, is a world in which political correctness has been taken to farcical extremes. Alec doesn't fit, but luckily he's clever enough to cover his tracks: and his AI, the Captain -- once a Pembroke PlayFriend, before it took on Alec's brain and lost -- is the perfect companion for a young man who seems to have been born in the wrong time.

The Oxford University cabal are affectionately mocked. They're geeks. One of them is a huge Doctor Who fan and can name all 315 Doctors. One is determined to take Tolkien and Lewis as his inspiration. And one is a very dangerous man indeed, because it seems that he's behind the programme that created the Company's Enforcers. He has another project on the burner now ...

This is the story of how Alec finds out who he is, and where he came from; the story of one of the Company's most appalling acts; the secret connection between Mendoza's two lost loves; and the tale of what befell the Mars colony. And it ends on one of the most infuriating cliffhangers I've encountered.

Please, Ms. Baker, may I have some more?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

#24: Liquor -- Poppy Z Brite

I was quite a fan of Brite's earlier incarnation as a Gothic horror writer -- Lost Souls, Drawing Blood et cetera -- though I confess that Exquisite Corpse was rather too Grand Guignol for me, with its cannibal recipes and gruesomely precise insight into the mind of a serial killer. But someone told me that Liquor (and the sequels, currently on order from Amazon) are quite different, and that I'd like them.

Right on both counts: oh, there's still that loving attention to detail, but now it's turned to recipes of the more mundane sort (if there's anything mundane about Camembert ice-cream served in a moulded chocolate death-mask of Napoleon). The plot of Liquor, now I come to think of it, isn't that exciting. Two young New Orleans chefs, Rickey and G-man, decide they've had enough of working for other people; decide to open their own restaurant, in which every recipe will be based on alcohol -- it wouldn't work anywhere else but in New Orleans it's the perfect draw -- and get backing from a famous chef who's got some useful business contacts; there are some trust issues, and some set-backs; there's a happy ending.

All well and good. But Poppy Brite has a knack for the telling detail, and she can write, and she blends and serves her characters up very nicely. Rickey and G-man are a couple (this is only made very gradually clear: it's not that sort of book) but more to the point they're friends, just different enough to work well together without blandness. The focus is very much on them and their cooking, and the slow process of opening a restaurant. Brite's worked in kitchens, and her husband's a chef: this hands-on experience shows in the details, but doesn't overwhelm the story. The supporting cast -- whiny neighbours, Rickey's cocaine-fuelled ex-boss, respected bar-owner Anthony Bonvillano (who may or may not be based on Anthony Bourdain) -- are all eccentric and inconsistent enough to have been drawn from life: they impart a richness to the novel that makes it a joy to read.

It felt like a crime to read this while eating Tesco's ready meals, it really did. Must make an effort when Prime turns up, and do some proper cooking ...

Monday, March 20, 2006

#23: The Graveyard Game -- Kage Baker

I've been a fan of Kage Baker's Company series since I read In The Garden of Iden in the late 90s: for some reason, though, I'd let this volume languish on the shelf for months. It drew me back into that milieu instantly. The basic scenario -- time-travelling cyborgs, made immortal by the Company (a.k.a. Doctor Zeus, a.k.a. the Kronos Foundation, a.k.a. many other names), labouring to preserve artworks, animals, plants, cultural treasures that might otherwise be lost -- is intriguing enough. As the series progresses, the dark underside of immortality is brought to light, and the justifiable paranoia of the Company's agents is assuming a very definite shape.

By The Graveyard Game, Botanist Mendoza is incommunicado somewhere, having crossed Doctor Zeus and been punished for her crimes. The novel focusses on her mentor Joseph (who, before he was immortal, watched his father make cave-paintings in what would one day be Basque country) and on Literature Specialist Lewis, who hasn't ever quite recovered from an encounter with a race of beings who seem to be working against the Company. Their quest to find Mendoza, and to discover what happens in 2355 -- the year of the Silence, after which there are no more communications from their masters in the future -- becomes more fraught and dangerous, and they uncover more questions than answers.

This is the darkest of the novels so far, I think: Joseph's world-weary cynicism and Lewis's emotional fragility sit badly with their work for the Company. There is more and more evidence to suggest that the Enforcers -- an early batch of immortals, not exactly human, created to 'save' humanity from an especially warlike prehistoric faction -- are not as extinct as the Company would like its operatives to believe. And the more they find out about Mendoza's 'crime', the more suspicious they are of her mortal lover Nicholas, burnt at the stake in 1555. The future's dark, and getting darker.

Baker's humour is crow-black and wry. In amid descriptions of some truly nasty warfare (it takes a lot to damage an immortal) and the follies of their mortal masters, there's the tale of Audrey Knollys and her grotesquely sentimental trilogy The Commonwealth of Innocents -- a tale of peaceful animals ganging up on predators, a work of 'literature' held to have tipped the balance in favour of the Mandated Vegan Laws. (Lewis, it turns out, got to the author's home before her executors: the world was spared another volume.) Lewis and Joseph are treated to an impromptu tour of locations mentioned in the novel: but Joseph recognises one hill as another sort of landmark, the site of the Ninth Legion's last battle ...

Baker is good at humour, and pacing, and intricate plot-lines. The Company books, in particular, remind me of Julian May's Saga of the Exiles -- not because of the time-travel element, but because of the confidence with which both writers handle a large cast and an epic tale.

And once I'd read this, I had to get up to date ...

Sunday, March 19, 2006

#22: The Jupiter Myth -- Lindsay Davies

I used to be a great fan of Lindsay Davies' Falco novels: read and reread The Silver Pigs until it fell apart, bought the next five or six as soon as they appeared, et cetera. Then, some time around Last Act at Palmyra, I fell out of love. Later novels in the series felt formulaic, and the characters themselves seemed to have settled into ruts. I stopped buying them some years ago.

Perhaps it was that the settings didn't really interest me. The Jupiter Myth is set in London -- in a London that I recognise from Doctor Keen's Patent Roman Walks -- and Falco's constant complaints about the weather became comfortably familiar, rather than hackneyed. The crime itself seemed more interesting to me than the endless tales of corruption that I recall from earlier books in the series. I was surprised to find that I recognised most of the original cast: that for multiple rereadings!

Off to dig out a batch of unread, or underappreciated, Davis novels. I think there are quite a few gaps in my collection ...

#21: Air -- Geoff Ryman

Air is a work of art, a novel I'd happily recommend (take note, Mr Itzkoff) to a friend who didn't care for 'sci fi'. Though it's very definitely aware of the genre, it doesn't rely on an understanding of genre tropes to convey its meaning. It is wholly self-contained, and there is a whole world within it.

It's the near future, twenty years or so from now. Chung Mae is a middle-aged woman living in a small village somewhere in central Asia. She's the most forward-looking, the most worldly-wise, person in the village: she's the fashion expert whose gentle guidance and understanding is valued by her neighbours.

Then comes Air, a new technology that promises to connect everyone in the world to the Internet (or, rather, what the Internet has become) without the need for computers or wires or phone-lines. The trial of Air goes disastrously wrong -- it's been pushed through too quickly, a competition between two formats, Gates and UN -- and people die. Mae ends up with the ghost of one of them living in her mind.

After the trial, Air is withdrawn for further tests. There's a kind of net access via the TV, and Mae learns to use this to drag herself and her village into the future before it's too late. She is helped by her friends and hindered by those who don't believe in what she's doing, or why: as business grows, and change accelerates, she is hindered by those same friends, and helped by those who were against her. Her dead neighbour's in her head, her husband's in the city and there is something strange and dangerous in her belly.

And through it all, Mae's common sense and quick wits preserve her, and are not lost. She cannot read or write, but this is a post-literate world. There's a real sense of her exhiliration as she comes to understand the human world that's been going on out there; but the simplicity of her outlook does not imply a lack of complexity in her life.

There's a great deal more to be said about this novel but I don't seem able to formulate actual opinions about it. I think it's a very fine book, very well-written, very True. I am full of admiration for the way that Ryman twines together the human relationships, the almost soap-opera of Mae's personal life, with the huge important questions about information and humanity and progress. Full of admiration, empty of opinions. I shall wave a little banner instead.

snow fell, like fainting in reverse

Thursday, March 16, 2006

#20: Cold Water Burning -- John Straley

John Straley's novels used to turn up regularly, in ones and twos, in the remainder shops of Greenwich. They're crime novels, set in Sitka, Alaska: his protagonist, PI Cecil Younger, has a philosophical bent, and a refreshingly egoless approach to his work. He shares a house with Todd, his adult ward, who is autistic: he knows everyone in town. And each novel's set against the backdrop of Alaskan wilderness, with Inuit clan feuds and tourist cruise-ships, whales 'the size of tractor trailers', garbage cans rolled and rattled by the gale, ravens delivering omens and premonitions, and the everyday business of seizing a living in an inhospitable, but beautiful, environment.

At sea in a small boat, in a storm: "I could feel the shadow of each wave ease up my back as I sank into the smothering trough."

Cold Water Burning is his most recent book, published in 2001: I hope there's another on the way. It's the story of an old murder case (a family killed and their boat burnt to the waterline) that Cecil finds himself investigating after one of the survivors is involved in another murder. (I'm simplifying to the point of idiocy.) There's a storm. There's a death, and then another. There's a mad artist, and Cecil's relationship with the officer who failed to find the original killer -- an officer who happens to have been his dead father's oldest friend.

In a story, you expect that every single person will be part of the plot, but how does that happen? If your life is a story, a story you revise over and over again in your head, how do you choose the themes? How do you choose the people?

And Cecil quoting someone else: "Some haystacks have no needles."

#19: Music for Glass Orchestra -- Grace Andreacchi

Drawn in by the blurb, which mentions Baroque music and Paris 1989, I bought this novel in a remainder shop long, long ago. I recall several attempts at reading it, but I was always put off by a certain pretentiousness, a narrative voice that reminds me of teenage poetry: precocious, full of undigested aesthetics, determinedly highbrow.

It's not actually that bad a book. It is pretentious -- the title rather gives that away -- but there's a core of strongly-felt, genuine emotion at the heart of the tale.

It's the story of an American narrator (I can't recall her name, and I only read this on Sunday: perhaps her name's never given?) who's living in Paris, obsessing over her lover, an Alsatian violinist named Stephane ("you should hear what he does to Bach's Partita in D minor") whose wife abuses him verbally and physically. Her husband visits her, and takes her out for dinner, and doesn't seem especially bothered that she's living apart from him and seeing someone else. She's in love with a church tower.

The tale feels like a series of disconnected scenes: walking in the snow, shoving through the crowds gathered for the bicentennial celebrations, listening to buskers in the Metro, sitting on the terrace of a lakeside cafe on a cold autumn day. There's little (if any) distinction between dream and reality. The novel is peppered with recurring themes, lietmotifs: glass, everywhere, often stained with blood; white cats fishing for goldfish; carnivorous birds; Count Dracula; the three boys from Die Zauberflote; voracious rats everywhere; Dorothy and Oz and Kansas; Stradivarius violins. Lots of Baroque music, and I do love the way she writes about it. And Paris! Food-poisoning in the Place Clichy, "that most rank and lovely circus of urban squalor"; stained glass in the Basilica St-Denis (which I hadn't realised was where Peter Abelard had ended up).

There's something a little off-key, a little overripe about this novel. Perhaps it's that it's written by an American who's striving for a European aesthetic, a lush Old World feel. Or, to give the author credit, perhaps that's what her narrator's in love with -- gilded, rotting, ancient, Baroque.

Just then an auto alarm went off in the street, harping insanely on the diminished fifth: DEE dum DEE dum DEE dum! The car horns gave out a chorus of syncopated G sharps. Underneath, the church bells were tolling a Mass for the Dead. In the middle voice a pneumatic drill began a canon at the fourth.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

#18: The Giant, O'Brien -- Hilary Mantel

It's funny how one's reading organises itself into unexpected patterns. A while back, I was enthusing over The Italian Boy, about grave-robbing and body-snatching in 19th-century London. And a while before that, I was impressed by Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black. Mantel's The Giant, O'Brien is set in the late 18th century, and deals, amongst other things (the Irish oral tradition; the circuses and freakshows of Enlightenment London; anti-Irish prejudice; symptoms of syphilis; the going rate for medical experimentation upon paupers; child prostitution) with the Giant, and with a medical gent who wants his bones.

This was a slow read for me, in the way that tourists walk slowly down certain streets: I kept pausing to admire sentences. "In the day the city's noise swamps it, but in the watches of the night you may hear the crack as my bones break free of their moorings, and the slap of the tide beaches against my liver."

Mantel has taken the true story of the 'Irish Giant', Charles Byrne, who came to London in 1782 to exhibit himself as a curiosity, and died there a year later, and woven other stories, literally and figuratively, around it. (The historical Byrne -- the surname is an anglicised form of O'Brien -- "may," says Mantel, "have been mentally retarded.") Her Giant is a gentleman, a bard in the Irish tradition, always ready to cheer his friends with a tale drawn from the inexhaustable wealth within his head; a wealth half-inherited from the poets at Mahoney's, half-invented. He goes to London to seek his fortune, for there's none to be found in Ireland. With him go Jankin, Pybus and Claffey, his friends; in charge of the party is Joe Vance, who becomes the Giant's agent, and finds them all lodgings, a maid-servant, a printer of hand-bills.

London's thronged with curiosities: a pig that can count, a Tartar horseman (his father's from Dublin), fire-eaters, black men, painted men. London's full of the poor: the pauper who charges eightpence for anatomist John Hunter to take a sample of his syphilitic chancre, the young girl who, when asked her name, says, "Bitch. We are all Bitch, to the English." To this seething rackety mix come the four Irishmen -- Pybus frightened of stairs, which he's never seen before -- and soon enough they find places for themselves.

The Giant tells his tales, and the tales (a grotesque version of Snow White, a multitude of variations on the tale of an honest man, an honest woman, duped by the Fair Folk) pale before reality. At first, the gentry had paid half a crown to see him, to hear him spin new stories about himself, but gradually trade dies off.

John Hunter broods in his dissecting-room, sending out resurrection men with the same instructions I've read about in The Italian Boy: hooks and crowbars, wooden shovels, don't steal their clothes. "Avoid those with noxious, offensive tumours, for they sting the students' fingers ... Be advised that for the corpses of young children I pay by the inch. For the first foot, one shilling. Thereafter, ninepence an inch."

It's a melancholy tale, of loneliness (Hunter as much as the Giant), of the loss of innocence, of the ugly underbelly of the scientific, clear-sighted, realistic Enlightenment.

"Your memory fails?"

"Everything fails, sir: reason, and harvests, and the human heart."

#18: Never Let Me Go -- Kazuo Ishiguro

It's always interesting to read mainstream fiction that deals with genre themes. Never Let Me Go is on the shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize. "The year's most extraordinary novel," according to the Sunday Times.

I tried very hard not to read reviews of it before reading the book itself, and I would strongly suggest that you do the same, dear reader. At least part of its impact depends on the gradual revelation of that genre theme.

If you haven't read the book, please note that this review contains spoilers.

Are you sitting comfortably? &ly;g>

Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate world: "England, late 1990s", it says on the frontispiece (would a genre novel feel that necessary?) but this is an England where the post-war boom, the brave new world, channelled its scientific endeavours into different areas. This is a novel about cloning: no, a novel about clones. It might be a novel about what it is to be human: it might be a novel about a love triangle. It might be a novel about oppression, or fate, or free will.

Kathy is a carer. She's looking back at her school years, spent at Hailsham -- a country boarding school, it seems, where the students were encouraged to be artistic and to express themselves. Gradually, Kathy's narrative focusses on two of her classmates, Tommy and Ruth. It's a wonderfully discursive narrative, with the rhythms and digressions of true reminiscence: oh, such-and-such a thing happened, but then to understand that you need to know about the thing that happened before, and when I last saw Tommy he said he thought that ...

There's a deceptive simplicity to the prose, as though it's the actual narrative of someone who isn't used to writing, to the lyrical uses of words. The school scenes are claustrophobically full of the melodrama of school life: cliques and outsiders, rumours about the teachers, students seeing things they shouldn't see and then drawing erroneous conclusions from them.

The revelations are gradual and subtle. The children, the students, have a purpose in life. Some of the teachers are repulsed by them, the way people are repulsed by spiders. (At one point I wrote in my notebook, "They're not human.") The students are not like normal people in the outside world, and there's a wistful sense of any exposure to normal life being a special treat. They don't have parents. They are, apparently, sterile. Their art is important, because it might show their souls.

Very little actually happens: in one sense, it's a tale about the rumour of a happy ending that proves to be false. The more I think about this novel -- and especially the ending -- the more I wonder if, after all, Kathy doesn't have a soul: if she is drawn to Ruth, and especially to Tommy, because they are more human than she is.

I'll be thinking about this book for a while, I can tell: trying to put my finger on why it works, and on why it feels so different to any of the genre novels I can think of that deal with the theme of cloning.

#17: Call Me Elizabeth -- Dawn Annandale

Call Me Elizabeth is the story of a woman who, burdened with debt (and with a number of emotional issues) decides to resort to prostitution to preserve her comfortable family life and pay school fees for her six children. Problems dealt with -- the financial ones, at least -- she calls a halt to her 'suspender years', making sure she has enough money in the bank to tide her over for a few months until she's worked out what to do next. (As far as I can tell from her website, she's now making a career out of speaking and writing about her experiences.)

As titillating soft porn goes, this isn't even on the starting line: there is barely a mention of what 'Elizabeth' actually does. Most of the book consists of anecdotes about her driver (happy to take her to the all-night Tesco's between jobs) and her pimp ("you do know you have to fuck them, darling?"), and glimpses of domestic life, interspersed with passages in which she rationalises her choices. Despite the description on the back cover of 'a bright, witty and highly-educated woman', 'Elizabeth' doesn't come across as particularly intelligent. She seems overwhelmingly normal: reads John Grisham, works as a legal secretary, flirts with a fellow-commuter. She buys her underwear in Marks and Spencer. She makes mistakes.

It never seems to occur to her that people might be suspicious of her lifestyle. At one point her former mother-in-law sets a private detective onto her; the new man in her life, to whom she's consistently lied about her employment, finds out where all the money comes from; someone checks up on her via her National Insurance number. And yet she leaves notebooks and bank statements lying around in her kitchen.

She is lucky: amongst her first few clients are a doctor (who opens her eyes to the health risks she faces) and a security consultant (who gives her some tips about protection and self-defence). Despite being badly in debt, she has funds available to buy new shoes, new underwear, cab rides from the West End to the leafy suburbs of Kent. (It says on the back cover that her children are 'going without the bare essentials', but this only seems to be true if you count shop-bought fairy cakes, and a puppy.) There's a certain lack of humour to her account, but perhaps that's to be expected. And there is never any hint that she enjoys her work.

Everyone's luck runs out sometimes. Some bad things happen to 'Elizabeth'. Whether it's her background, her determination or some inner resilience, she copes with them very well. Too well, perhaps: I can't help wondering if some of those bad nights come back to haunt her now. But it's only when she falls asleep at the wheel, driving home at 6am one morning, that she finally decides to stop immediately.

It's an indictment of the building societies and banks with which she held accounts that things were allowed to get so very bad: there's no mention of their contacting her to discuss matters, and she doesn't seek help from any of the agencies that exist to help those in debt.

The book isn't especially lyrical or well-written but it's a compelling read. I'm not sure I'd like 'Elizabeth' in real life, but there's something admirable in her determination, whether or not you believe that prostitution is morally and ethically wrong under any circumstance.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

#16: Jack Maggs -- Peter Carey

I was in love with this novel by the time I'd read the first chapter: I very nearly got up early this morning to finish it, because I was so eager to find out how Carey would tie up all the threads. It's a post-colonial take on Dickens' Great Expectations. If I'd known that, I would never have bought it. I don't much care for Dickens, though now I find myself strangely inclined to (re?)read Great Expectations, which I don't think I ever finished when forced to tackle it at school.

Other people have discussed the intertextuality at considerable length: there's a good essay here

The novel is set in London in 1837. Jack Maggs is a convict, secretly returned from Australia to find his son, Mr Henry Phipps. Phipps is away from home, and so Maggs gains employment (one can't really say he seeks it) at the house next door, in the employ of Mr Buckle, former vendor of fried fish who has come into a Great Good Fortune. Mr Buckle has guests to dinner, that first night, and one of them is the celebrated author Tobias Oates. Jack Maggs is overcome by an old affliction; Oates hypnotises him; and one by one Jack's secrets are brought out of his mind and into the open, gradually revealing a past that is both murkier (in the sense of lack of clarity) and cleaner (in the sense of sin and morality) than one might expect.

A confession: I seem to have developed an interest in criminals named Jack, and this one is no exception. Jack Maggs is an utterly compelling character. He's competent, clear-minded and mature: he may be the most honest person in the book. He is no stranger to violence, but doesn't rely on it. There's a darkness to him, but he is surprisingly kind to others. He is literate, and intelligent, and has learnt to live with his past, and with his affliction -- a tic doloreuse that 'slapped his face like a clawed cat', that under Oates' mesmerism and Magnetism assumes the form of a blond soldier.

Tobias Oates is clearly based on Charles Dickens, just as his career was beginning to take off. Jack Maggs is a lighter view, a reinterpretation, of Magwitch from Great Expectations: Phipps is a nastier version of Pip. Carey's description of the gradual transformation of Jack, in Oates' eyes, from chance encounter to Character, is one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel. Looking at the charred corpse of a dead child, Oates has an epiphany about the fate of his Character. All his investigations of the Criminal Mind -- for which he turns to Jack, a very susceptible hypnotic subject, though it's hard to find anyone entirely innocent in the whole of the novel -- are made with a view to their eventual use in his great novel. It's clear that the novel will be written: equally clear, as events progress, that Oates's interest in an unbiased depiction of the Criminal Mind is being warped by his increasing intimacy with Jack Maggs.

At the end of the novel Jack Maggs, it's clear that Oates is no longer privy to news of actual events: his novel, The Death of Maggs, is not published until after the death of its original inspiration, and is markedly different. And there's much in Maggs' tale that eludes Oates, or that he dramatises beyond recognition. Carey recounts a key incident in Maggs' history by including a chapter of Oates's opus, but none of the characters except Maggs himself, and possibly -- eventually -- Mercy the maid, are in a position to fit this chapter into the tale that Maggs has been constructing in his letters to Henry Phipps.

For a character who's often referred to as 'the convict', and seen by those around him as a dangerous criminal, Jack's a surprisingly mild and good-natured individual. Around him are played out a portfolio of 19th-century hypocrisies: adultery, homosexuality, fraud, murder, suicide, pregnancy out of wedlock, abortion, child prostitution ... Jack's early life (found by mudlarks under London Bridge, reared by a red-headed abortionist named Mary Britten, sent down chimneys at the age of five) has a sort of innocent charm to it beside the middle-class deceptions of Buckle, Phipps and Oates. He's been punished for his crimes -- in the harsh school of the penal colony in Sydney -- and seems a reformed character. Though he is certainly guilty of crimes during the course of the novel, his motivation is not straightforward, and the provocation extreme and intimate. Jack Maggs is the victim, now: his treasures, his secrets, are stolen away.

It's a novel about children, and especially lost children. Easy enough to work that, too, into the post-colonial angle: Jack Maggs, fostered by Ma Britten (as transparent a personification as you could wish) returning to his homeland, only to find it a city of dreadful night (though, to be fair, there are daffodils in window-boxes, and blossom on the pear-tree, too). It's time for Jack to become a lost child himself, to step away from the mother who made him a criminal and condemned him to suffer in Australia. It's time to forget the baby in the ditch, the son who won't see him, the pregnancy that threatens a marriage.

I hadn't read any of Peter Carey's novels before, but the dry humour, the gentle mockery, the eye for detail (Oates keeps Jonathan Wild's death-mask in his study; Jack takes four heaped spoons of sugar in his tea; Buckle is most insulted by Jack's remark that no burglar would expect good silver in a house with Trafalgar Doulton on the table), the vivid, and often resonant, turn of phrase (a 'mob of foreign sailors made ... a dense and rum-sour knot') -- all incline me to read more of his work.

You can read the first two chapters online. Probably better than my typing up excerpt after excerpt ...

Though Dickens and his characters have all been disguised -- and in many cases reinterpreted -- surely this is a kind of literary fan-fiction, an attempt to rewrite, reshape, another author's creation.

My copy, Faber and Faber, has Julia Margaret Cameron's Iago on the cover: Amazon don't seem to stock it, but it's a new edition. Bad glue, though: had fallen apart after being read in front of the fire!

#15: Outcast -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Somehow I missed this until now, despite having been a Sutcliff fan for thirty years or more (I remember avidly rereading The Lantern Bearers at primary school) and actually owning a copy of the book for some time. I suspect our local libraries didn't have a copy; or perhaps I was put off, as with Warrior Scarlet, because of the non-Roman setting. Though it is a Roman novel, even if Beric is more Tribe than Rome.

I don't think it's one of Sutcliff's stronger books. The plot is a catalogue of catastrophes: shipwreck, bad harvests, casting-out, press-gang, slavery, frying-pan to fire, highway robbery, the galleys, Romney Marsh. There isn't much room for happiness in Beric's life, though even at the nadir of his tale he's capable of loving another, and avenging his friend in a grand, dramatic and ultimately doomed fashion. Only luck, and the tides in the Channel, preserve him and carry him to somewhere that he can find a place for himself, a home, a sense of belonging. (A recurring theme in Sutcliff's novels, but it feels slightly artificial here, as though it's hammered home with one blow too many.)

There are a couple of loose ends, and a couple of plot threads that could have done with some expansion. At least one, the mutual regard between Beric and his employer's daughter, may be a case of Sutcliff writing for an older audience she trusts to read between the lines. We're told much more about the strength of the bond than is ever actually shown.

But I did like the book very much. Every time I read a new Sutcliff novel (a rare pleasure, these days, but there are actually quite a few I've missed) I am struck by the quality of her descriptive writing; every time I reread a Sutcliff novel, I'm struck by descriptive passages so familiar that I realise I've been emulating her style!

He watched the water swinging in, greening as it shallowed, laced and curdled and frilled with foam, with a clap and a delicate curl-back onto itself as it met the flat surface of a rock, creaming up in shades of white; then draining out again with a shrill hush over the shingle.