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

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

#73: The Atrocities of the Pirates -- Aaron Smith

The first-person account of a young sailor's run-in with pirates in 1822. Smith was captured by a pirae ship, captained by a man known only as Antonio, and forcibly recruited as navigator. He was brutalised and tortured (though in other ways allowed a surprising degree of freedom) and eventually, though enlisting the help of a young noblewoman, escaped by his own cunning. His ordeal wasn't over, though: back in London he was tried for piracy and acquitted, and later rearrested. This book is an expansion of his defense, with an afterword by his descendent Robert Redmond.

Reading the afterword, there's apparently some doubt as to how innocent he truly was, and whether he was at all complicit in the 'atrocities' of which the pirate crew were undoubtedly guilty. Several witnesses claimed to have seen Smith giving orders and being obeyed, or acting as a free individual: naturally, his side of the story was rather different, and involved 'fear of my life' and duress. Redmond makes it clear that the family regarded Smith's experiences, and his trial, as a grave embarrassment. There's surprisingly little sympathy for his situation.

#72: The Accidental -- Ali Smith

This novel appeals to me on all sorts of levels. There's the structure: three parts (Beginning, Middle, End), each with four sections that begin and end mid-sentence (beginning with 'beginning' or 'middle' or 'end'), narrated by each of the four members of the Smart family. There is Magnus, aged 17, waiting to be found out after a joke email goes horribly wrong; Astrid, aged 12, addicted to watching life through the viewfinder of her camcorder; Eve, their mother, who makes her living writing imaginary biographies of real people (what would've happened if they hadn't died when they did), but is currently blocked; and Eve's second husband Michael, a university lecturer who is also waiting for his sins to find him out.

The Smart family are on holiday in Norfolk. It's summer 2003. And into their claustophobic web of family comes Amber -- Alhambra -- a young woman whose impact on the family is greater than her marginal, framing, irrelevant narrative would suggest.

It's 2003, the year the war got going: the year that Love Actually was showing in the cinemas; the year that Damilola was murdered. These events are all out of focus, all alluded to rather than foregrounded -- but all there. (Magnus's account of the plot of Love Actually is hilarious.) There's a very strong period sense to this novel. I wonder what it'll be like to read in ten years' time? To reread in ten years' time? Will it age well? Will it make any sense? Will the story, as opposed to the setting, age?

One mark of a good book is that it leaves you thinking; noticing new connections weeks after reading the last page and closing the novel. I'm still thinking about The Accidental, a month after finishing it.

It's a novel about cause and effect, and its absence: when causality breaks down, when mathematical certainties and logical proofs fail. When Chekhov's gun ("if there's a gun on stage in scene one, it must be used by the end of the play") isn't there for a reason. Or when the reasons aren't what they seem.

It's about responsibility and facing up to the consequences of one's actions. Each of the Smarts has to do that, in a different way.

Amber enters into a close, intimate (not necessarily sexual) relationship with each Smart. She tells each of them a different story. At one point it seems that she's finally told the truth: then, questioned, it turns out that she can't remember which story she's told. (Or is that another story that she's telling, to mess with their heads?) Everyone makes up a different story about Amber, too: Eve assumes that she's one of Michael's students, Magnus that she's a quasi-spiritual saviour. But Amber, when it comes to it, is a child of the silver screen:

But my father was Alfie, my mother was Isadora. I was unnaturally psychic in my teens, I made a boy fall off his bike and I burned down a whole school. My mother was crazy; she was in love with God. There I was at the altar about to marry someone else when my boyfriend hammered on the church glass at the back and we eloped together on a bus. My mother was furious. She'd slept with him too. The devil got me pregnant and a satanic sect made me go through with it. Then I fell in with a couple of outlaws and did me some talking to the sun...I used butter in Paris. I had a farm in Africa. I took off my clothes in the window of an apartment building and distracted the two police inspectors from watching for the madman on the roof who was trying to shoot the priest. I fell for an Italian. It was his moves on the dancefloor that did it. I knew what love meant. It meant never having to say you're sorry. It meant the man who drove the taxi would kill the presidential candidate, or the pimp...I had my legs bitten off by the shark. I stabbed the kidnapper, but so did everybody else, it wasn't just me, on the Orient Express.

What hooked me more than anything was the clarity of each voice. Magnus is a very credible, borderline-dysfunctional teenager: Astrid's sullen contempt and prickliness, and her devotion to her Art, rings a bell with my adolescent self. Eve's constant subterfuge and quiet desperation rings more of a bell now. And Michael's voice -- half-drunk and finding beauty and wonder in the blurring of the world, wholly intoxicated and penning sonnets in his Middle section -- feels so familiar that I'm sure I know him.

There are some aspects of the story that I'm still puzzling over. The Smarts' cleaner, Katrina (the butt of their middle-class jokes) seems to know Amber better than any of the rest of them do. Does that mean she knew her before? Or simply that, unhindered by the woven veil of her own stories about Amber, she's more receptive to the truth?

And who the hell is this Amber person anyway? Con artist or Zen guide? Thief or saviour? After all, she's the one the story's about, and yet I still know less about her than about any of the people she touches between Beginning and End.

Very highly recommended, even if some of the observations are too truthful not to sting.

#71: The Last Witchfinder -- James Morrow

This book was recommended to me by several friends: they knew I'd a fondness for the period in which it's set (17th-18th century); the heroine is a strong and intelligent woman; the narrator is a book; and though this is a very different novel to Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (for one thing, it's about a fifth of the weight), its themes and setting -- even its dramatis personae -- are similar enough to invite comparisons.

The title is a little misleading; this isn't really the tale of Dunstan Stearne (son and heir of Walter Stearne, the Witchfinder General for Mercia and East Anglia) as much as it's the tale of his sister, Jennet, and her adventures in the New World. Step back: it's the tale of the witch craze. Another step back: it's the tale of the Enlightenment. Step back again, and it's the timeless tale of reason versus superstition, Principia Mathematica versus Malleus Maleficarum, open-mindedness versus ignorance.

The best answer to a malicious idea is a bon mot, not a bonfire ... The proper way to defeat the agents of darkness is not to burn down their houses, but ... to let in the sunlight.

Considering that The Last Witchfinder is narrated by Newton's Principia Mathematica, we see surprisingly little of Newton. The focus is on Jennet, who has inherited not her father's compulsively medieval mindset, but her aunt's Enlightened open-mindedness and devotion to the scientific method. Her aunt Isobel, burnt as a witch, has also bequeathed to her A Woman’s Garden of Pleasure -- a book that bestows upon Jennet sexual enlightenment and liberation to match her intellectual emancipation. And Aunt Isobel's last request, quite understandably under the circumstances, is that Jennet should devote her life to discovering a scientific refutation of witchcraft.

This is a quest that takes her to the New World, to life amongst the Indians (I was very happy to see Morrow citing John Demos' The Unredeemed Captive as a primary source: it's one of the books that persuades me that history can be at least as compelling as a novel) and to a series of romantic affairs. Jennet reminds me somewhat of Stephenson's Eliza: all right-minded men who meet her fall in love with her, although she has a somewhat cavalier touch with family members. Even Newton's Principia Mathematica is in love with Jennet (a relationship that is consummated ingeniously, if not altogether ... logically).

For the Principia Mathematica is very much a character in this novel -- a character, and the author. The precise metaphysics by which a book goes about writing another book need not concern us here, handwaves Morrow. Or possibly the Principia: it's a personable narrator, satirical and scathing, principled and high-minded, at once inhuman and profoundly aware of what it is to be human:

While e=mc2 ultimately gives you 177,000 dead Japanese civilians, F=ma lets you skate across a frozen lake on a winter's night, the wind caressing your face as you glide towards the hot-chocolate stand on the far shore.

Perhaps the weakest aspect of The Last Witchfinder, for me, was the physical conflict, the Battle of the Books, between Principia Mathematica and Malleus Maleficarum -- a battle that takes place, not on any ethereal plane, but in vacant lots and warehouses where armies of bibliophagic insects devour pritned copies of the Hammer of Witches. It's almost trivial, against the literally life-or-death ideological conflicts of Jennet's age.

Set against that, though, is the way this novel is about science (though it's 'about' ever so many other things: parents and children, nature versus nurture, the impotence of physical violence against superstition). Newtonian physics are mapped to the four elements of the ancient world: Attraction, acceleration, radiation, resistance: earth, air, fire and water. And in the end, it is no unseen agent but the world itself that delivers the deus ex machina. This is a book that counters creationism, superstition, credulousness: a book that argues, in its own terms, that "God got it right first time."

Rationalism disconnected from decency, deliberation and doubt -- a triad that, were I human, I would call humanism -- leads not to Utopia but to the guillotine.

Friday, July 14, 2006

#70: Slammerkin -- Emma Donoghue

'Slammerkin' denotes 'a loose gown or a loose woman'. The story of Mary Saunders, an eighteeenth-century girl with a reckless spirit and all-too-modern Attitude, illustrates both.

Peripheral to Mary's tale, but compelling in their own lesser stories, are the people she meets: Abi, the Angolan slave; Caesar, the free black pimp with a knife; Doll, the London whore; Mrs Ash the wet-nurse; Daffy the man-servant; Thomas Jones, and his wife Jane, tailors of Monmouth. Each individual illustrates a different aspect of choice, and of commerce; all are traders, or goods, or customers -- are any combination of these roles -- in the human commodities market.

Mary's problem might well be that she doesn't know her own worth: she sells herself low, at least to start with. There's a sense of her careering headlong: having once fallen, there's no way back, there's no mending it. And it's not that she doesn't attempt to save herself, not once but several times, in a series of reversals that lead inexorably to her final fate. Falling pregnant after a single encounter, she's cast out by her mother; set upon, she's rescued by Doll; sickening, she's taken in by the Magdalenes, and taught to stitch.

"Mary owned nothing with a colour in it, and consequently was troubled by cravings."

The theme of colour -- often red -- and its converse, pristine whiteness, recurs throughout the novel. Mary doesn't just crave colour, but it's colour -- redness -- that's her undoing, from the red ribbon which occasions her fall to the crimsoned gown that's proof of her guilt.

"London was the page on which she'd been written from the start: she didn't know who she was if she wasn't there."

Leaving London, determined to make a new start -- a reversal of the usual 'off to London to seek her fortune' trope -- Mary finds herself in the suffocating environment of Monmouth, then a small town. She finds employment with Jane Jones, a friend of her mother's: is gainfully employed as a 'prentice dressmaker, helping to embroider a white velvet slammerkin for the wife of a member of the local gentry. But her past's like an addiction, a stain: she can't leave it behind. Only right at the end of the novel does she seem to know what she wants.

Reading this so soon after The Crimson Petal and the White was interesting, not least for the contrast between Mary and Sugar. There's much less period detail in Slammerkin, but it's still evocative of the dirt and noise and mundanity of urban and rural life in the late 18th century. Donoghue's style is deceptively plain: a nice turn of phrase, especially in dialogue, but no purple flights of fancy. Mary (based on a real person) is a fascinating character, though not always likeable: her strength of purpose reminds me of Becky Sharp, but there's an underlying brutality too.

Monday, July 10, 2006

#69: Moonfleet -- John Mead Falkner

Dorset, 1758: 15-year-old John Trenchard, raised by his pious aunt, falls in with smugglers and goes from bad to worse, from Dorset to Carisbrooke (Isle of Wight) and on to the Hague and slavery.

There are shipwrecks, smuggling, cheating Jews (Moonfleet was published in 1898, and is very much a novel of its time), plenty of local colour and period detail, and a full set of adventuresome ingredients, from the ghost of a Civil War colonel to a cryptic message hidden in a tomb. Every detail, from the going-price for a contraband matchlock to the colloquial name for strong spirit, rings true: the sheer noise of a shipwreck on a shingle beach is memorably evoked. The novel is occasionally heavy-handed in its Message: friendship is a priceless treasure and should not be betrayed; love triumphs over all; virtue wins in the end, and repentance means salvation. Elziver, one of the protagonists, is a little too good to be true: and John could do with a bit more guilt. But, overall, a pacy adventure story and a light, entertaining, melodramatic read.

This book (I have a Puffin edition from the early 1970s) is 'recommended for children of 9 and above, especially boys'. It's good sturdy competent prose, full of adventure, slightly sub-Stevenson but a well-plotted read, even if the pacing would be rather slow for today's readers.

#68: Double Whammy -- Carl Hiaasen

A double whammy is not, in this instance, the thing that the Conservatives accuse Labour of dishing out: it's a kind of fishing lure, used for catching big-mouth bass. Bass fishing is a massive growth industry in the USA, apparently, and big-name fishermen will stop at nothing to win competitions and the sponsorship deals that go with 'em.

The stage is set for another eco-thriller set in Florida, another appealing and eccentric cast of characters, another outing for Andy Garcia. Hiaasen's writing is as light-hearted, witty and clever as ever: he reminds me of Chandler without the noir, though there's plenty of (Heart of) Darkness here. His women are sassy and independent, his men are clever (even when villainous), and his eco-terrorists are never two-dimensional.

This one has a pet bass and fingerprints that set off all sorts of alarms.

Very enjoyable read, though I wouldn't want to read another Hiaasen for a while: there's a sameness of style and theme to his novels (though perhaps I haven't read enough of them, in chronological order of writing, to see the evolutionary process). But when something works this well, why fix it?

#67: Rainbow Bridge -- Gwyneth Jones

I read Rainbow Bridge while laid low with a viral infection, and found that I couldn't think very clearly about it at the time. I put off writing this review, and hindsight hasn't improved my perception very much: but I'll now be reviewing the novel for Vector, so will reread before I write a 'proper' objective review ... which leaves me free to ramble, and to mention minor plot-point spoilers, here.

DO NOT READ ON IF YOU HAVEN'T READ BAND OF GYPSYS.

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are you sitting comfortably?
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then we'll begin.


Following the invasion at the end of Band of Gypsys, England is settling into subjugation. Thirty thousand people were executed: the Triumvirate -- Ax, Sage and Fiorinda, who've narrowly escaped becoming puppets / corpses / weapons -- are living rough in the Ashdown Forest.

Rainbow Bridge is the story of how they reach an accommodation of sorts with the invaders, whose objective is not to destroy England. "This country has been identified as a human treasure, first class." Even that statement's code, and only by untangling the formal politeness and the elaborate deceptions of the generals and their aides can the deposed rock royalty discover who's really in control.

And it's never that simple. This isn't a two-sided battle, good versus evil. All sides are capable of morally dubious behaviour; all's fair in love and war. Ax, Sage and Fiorinda have as much to fear from their own partisans as from the massive armies of the East. And in the end, as it turns out, what's most important of all is loyalty and love: it's only when something dear to the Triumvirate is threatened -- in a horribly elemental, dark, and yet sfnal way -- that their true potential becomes clear to the new owners of England. That potential cannot be allowed to realise itself. All that can be allowed is to nurture the seed of the Good State.

This is a world where magic is increasingly part of everyday life. Fiorinda, seeing a vision, is resigned to it now:
Things like that would happen more often, to everyone. The aberrant observations had been validated, and their power would grow. Maybe we can erase the superweapon, but the genie's not going to go back in the bottle. She had sweated blood and fought with all her power against the rise of the magic world -- how irrational can you get? She learned acceptance, and made her peace.

There's a wonderful forlorn post-bellum sense throughout, though in some senses the 'war' is still in progress. England endures, in carol-filled woodland churches; in the Shield Ring collective in Cumbria, and their 'appalling economic miracle'; in Ax and Sage's vision of themselves as the Lantern Bearers, keeping the light lit. (The Rosemary Sutcliff echoes are no coincidence: her novel The Lantern Bearers is another rework of the Arthurian myth.)

This is, I believe, the last in the arc that began with Bold as Love -- though there are plenty of loose ends left hanging, like promises or hope. It would be unrealistic to expect a happy ending, but the ending rings true without melodrama.