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

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

#69: Natural Flights of the Human Mind -- Clare Morrall

Pete Straker lives, hermit-like and apparently impoverished, in a lighthouse on the north coast of Devon. He is haunted by the ghosts of those whose death he caused.

Imogen Doody (known as Doody), a school caretaker with an interesting and painful past, has just inherited a run-down cottage in the nearby village. She is not practically-minded: but Straker is ...

I have surprisingly little to say about this novel. I did find it very readable, and the pacing was masterful. Straker and Doody are not especially likeable characters, but they're sympathetically written and there's never a sense that the author has dismissed them in the way that others have. There are some glorious passages describing the coast -- ribbons of kelp, grey light, the sun coming up over the sea. And the patchwork of memory, rumour and dreams (I suspect the reader ends up knowing more about what really happened, what Pete Straker made happen, than anyone in the novel) is carefully and compassionately constructed.

A thought-provoking novel about grief, mourning, guilt and redemption, about overwriting and crossing out the past, about escape and reinvention; also, incidentally, about the creative process (is Morrall mocking Doody or herself when she pokes quiet fun at the half-finished novels in exercise books?). It's a good read, and I don't think it's the book to blame for my lack of response to it.

#68: Brethren: Raised by Wolves, vol. 1 -- W. A. Hoffman

First instalment of the 'Raised by Wolves' series, Brethren is a gay pirate romance: and like many romances it focuses on the emotional aspects of the plot to the detriment of the rest.

The novel's set in the 1660s. The Viscount of Marsdale ('duellist and libertine' it says here), down on his luck in Florence, returns to the family seat in England and is promptly packed off to Jamaica to set up a sugar plantation. Once in Port Royal, he finds the buccaneers -- the Brethren of the Coast -- far more congenial (and profitable) company than the other planters (and much more accepting of his preference for male lovers). Marsdale, now going by the name of Will, meets Gaston, a handsome Frenchman with a mysterious past, and ends up pledging matelotage to him. The two sail on the North Wind and pillage and plunder and rifle and loot. And so on.

I was hoping to like this novel rather more than I did. It's probably unfair to read a swashbuckling romance with a beady eye for historical detail -- and a great deal of the detail is accurate and well-researched, even if the novel occasionally makes heavy weather of that research -- but my sense of period took a serious knock when someone rode to Brighton in 1667, and another when they went to the docks there. (It's a fair assumption that a South Coast town would have docks, but in this case wrong: Brighton, as can be seen from old maps, simply didn't exist in 1667, though there may have already been an unfashionable and unremarkable fishing village named Brighthelmstone.)

The novel could do with a serious edit, not only for things like repetition and poor word choice (one expiates, not expurgates, one's guilt) but to even out the balance of plot and background, and to make the dialogue pacier and less reliant on attempts to transcribe dialogue and verbal tics.

Given all that, I do want to find out what happens, and how various plot threads are resolved. (Will Will ever return to England and his title? Will Gaston's morbid habits be 'cured'? Will the plantation prosper? Will the wicked cousin get his just desserts? Will there ever be hot sex?) However, the Raised by Wolves series is self-published, and the cost of the paperback is almost double what I'd expect to pay for a good-quality hardcover novel. Unless I find the other books second-hand, I suspect I'll never know how things work out.

#67: Melusine -- Sarah Monette

[I'm having a huge problem writing this review, because every time I pick up the book to check a name or remind myself of a plot point, I find myself reading another chapter or two. And The Mirador, third in the sequence, is imminent, if Amazon's delivery estimate is to be believed ...]

Mélusine (a place, not a person, despite my initial assumption that it'd feature a serpent-woman) has two first-person narrators: Felix Harrowgate, a court sorcerer, and Mildmay the Fox, a cat burglar and assassin. Both are intriguing characters, but where the novel really takes off, for me, is when the two meet.

That encounter isn't as straightforward and predictable as it might be in a typical quest fantasy with its carefully randomised selection of characters from Central Casting; but Mélusine is not, in any way that matters, a typical fantasy. Both Felix (whose persona of aristocratic magician is deliberately shattered in the first few pages) and Mildmay (who might conform more closely to the 'lovable thief' archetype if his voice wasn't so distinctive, and his doubts less internalised) have unpleasant secrets in their pasts. That they are secrets until Monette chooses to reveal them -- without there being any sense of gaping voids in plot or characterisation -- is assurance enough that we're in safe hands.

Felix is used as a weapon and sent mad by it: Mildmay, meanwhile, falls in with a shopgirl with aspirations named Ginevra, and ends up crossing some people it'd be best not to cross. Both Felix and Mildmay end up leaving Mélusine for their health: Felix disturbingly, vividly, credibly insane and prone to seeing animal-headed monsters; Mildmay in the company of a crippled sorcerer and his unsociable henchman Bernard. Also, there's the slight matter of the fire consuming the city ...

Given the title of the novel, it's surprising that so much of the action happens after the characters have, effectively, exiled themselves from the city. Mélusine is a richly-detailed metropolis, saved from sprawling by immense walls, where cathedrals soar above dark and nasty alleyways; where multiple gods, saints and darker entities are worshipped or placated; where two calendars are used; where ghosts and ghouls are physical dangers after dark, or in the wrong place; where there are more 'wrong places' than one might expect. This is not our world, but the names of streets and suburbs have familiar echoes: Rue St. Bonamy, Plaza del'Archimago, Catacombes des Arcanes. The history that Felix and Mildmay know (which Monette surely knows in extravagant detail, though it's referenced only in passing) mentions Troians, Kekropians, Merrows. And, incidentally, there are alligators (as well as nastier things) in the swamps.

All of which inclines me to view this as a very American fantasy, with a melting-pot of cultures and history and a certain flexibility about social class (Felix goes slumming; Mildmay, while not a habitue of the Mirador, is perfectly capable of scrubbing up nice and being bored in middle-class bars.)

There are flaws. At points (especially, but not exclusively, before Felix and Mildmay meet) the plot seems somewhat episodic: a trial is overcome, and along comes another trial. Later, some of these events do join up and assume greater significance. Not all of them, though, so the effect is occasionally of a series of swashbuckling episodes adrift on a dark and roiling sea of myth, metaphor and magic.

And that episodic feel leads me nicely to another kind of flaw, which is that it wasn't at all clear that Mélusine was first in a series -- a series, in fact, in which the second novel (The Virtu) leads on more or less directly from its antecedent. Having come late to Mélusine , I picked up an edition with the first chapter of The Virtu as endmatter: it would have been extremely frustrating if the novel had just stopped without indication of more.

This review might be rather longer if The Mirador (third in the series) had not just arrived. Which should give you an indication of just how hooked I am.

#66: The Shining Company -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Set around 600AD -- long enough after the departure of the Romans for their presence to be a folk-memory, yet with Roman ruins still inhabited and Artos the Bear (Sutcliff's portrayal of the historical King Arthur, in The Lantern Bearers) still a hero -- The Shining Company recounts the tale of three hundred warriors who make a last valiant stand against the Saxons.

The story is a retelling of 'The Gododdin', the first surviving North British poem, written (or at least created) by the bard Aneirin. Sutcliff tells the tale from the point of view of Prosper, the second son of a minor chieftain, whose quiet life alters course on the day that Prince Gorthyn arrives to hunt a magical white hart that roams the Welsh hills.

A couple of years later, when he's grown to manhood, Prosper, along with his bondsman (and friend) Conn, answers Gorthyn's summons to train as a warrior (not one of the three hundred, but a shield-bearer and backup) in King Mynyddog's army. Conn, meanwhile, finds himself drawn to the smithy: as a bondsman he can't train to be a smith, because smiths are free men and such training would grant him his freedom: but Prosper counts friendship more important than slavery, and Conn learns his trade with Prosper's blessing.

What I love about this novel is what I've always loved about Sutcliff's writing -- the detail, the sense of real people living, feeling, acting in famiiar ways, in a recognisable setting and a distinctly remote time. There are familiar moments: the sour taste of beer to one accustomed to wine, the smell of green wood burning, the thickening of the evening light. And there's the wider world in which these characters move: Prosper studying Latin and being aware of the Greek classics, in particular the tale of the three hundred Spartans; his fascination with the 'archangel dagger' that he's shown by a trader, who tells him that it was the cherished possession of an Emperor's bodyguard, and speaks to him of Byzantium. And because the framing narrative -- present in only the lightest of allusions -- is of an old man looking back on his life, that wider world has more significance to the reader than to the young Prosper.

The Shining Company is far from the best of Sutcliff's novels: I think it may have been her last. But it brings the period to life, and peoples it with characters more real and credibly flawed than most.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

#65: Orphan of Creation -- Roger McBride Allen

I read this novel soon after it was published (1988) and remembered one aspect of it very well, and other aspects not at all. Title and author eluded me for years, until some random googling turned up a reference that led me, in turn, to a discussion of the book. And that's ironic, because one of the things that really struck me is how dated the setting feels. I don't mean that there's anything wrong with it: the blurb mentions 'the day after tomorrow', and it's pretty clearly set in the mid-to-late Eighties. It seems odd, though, to read of scientists who don't have access to their own computers; of research done entirely in libraries, of people being out of touch because away from their telephones ...

The story is deceptively simple. Dr Barbara Marchando, an American paleoanthropologist, stumbles upon an intriguing rumour whilst visiting the family home. Her ancestor, Zebulon Jones, was born a slave but ended up owning the estate and having slaves of his own -- but it sounds to Barbara as though the 'slaves' purchased by Jones might've been gorillas. Maxing out her credit card and enlisting her young cousin Livingstone, she begins to excavate the area where she suspects the bodies might have been interred ... and finds something that nobody could have expected. "Doctor Marchando discovered a burial site, approximately one hundred and thirty seven years old, in which no less than five extremely well-preserved and complete specimens of the genus Australopithecus were found."

Cue scientific uproar, with some thoughtful (and still timely) vignettes concerning Creationists, cryptozoologists and the whole issue of slavery. The australopithecines were slaves, but was that somehow better than humans being slaves? And what is a human being, anyway?

The answer that Barbara finds to that question is what stayed with me. Revisiting it many years later, I still think it's what makes this book something out of the ordinary. I'm less sympathetic to Barbara, though, and I have more sympathy for the unwilling accomplices to her plan -- who don't really get a say in the matter, and whose futures are left as an exercise for the reader.

Another thing about this book: I did find the writing pretty clunky in places, and there were passages I would have edited down (Barbara's early experiences with hamster-burial). But science fiction is the literature of ideas -- and in this case, though the literature wasn't as literary as I've come to expect, the ideas were enough to keep me reading and draw me in.

#64: Fludd -- Hilary Mantel

From the doorsteps the women stared at passers-by, and laughed. They knew a joke, when it was pointed out to them, but for the most part their entertainment lay in the discernment of physical peculiarities in those around them ... They did not think it was cruel to mock the afflicted, they thought it was perfectly natural; they were sentimental but pitiless, very scathing and unforgiving about any abberation, deviation, eccentricity or piece of originality. There was a spirit abroad in the village that discriminated so thoroughly against pretension that it also discriminated against ambition, even against literacy. (p.14)
Fludd is set in a fictitious village in the north of England, in the 1950s. Hilary Mantel's portrait of village life, blackly comic and quietly mocking, would have hooked me even if the novel had had no plot at all. And it does have plot: I'm still thinking it through.

The novel opens with a description of Sebastiano del Piombo's 'The Raising of Lazarus' (left), which doesn't seem especially relevant. Then the story itself begins, with the Bishop's visit to Father Angwin, bidding him to remove the saints' statues from the church. (I fear that the priest's household, with the eternally curious housekeeper Agnes Dempsey, reminded me irresistably of Father Ted. But not in a bad way.) Father Angwin is prone to muttering insults under his breath, but gets away with it: still, the saints have to be removed, and he enlists the help of the villagers to bury them in the churchyard.

Then a visitor arrives: Fludd, a curate whom Father Angwin takes to be the bishop's man. Nevertheless he warms to his visitor, confessing his crisis of faith -- and his belief that McEvoy, the tobacconist in Netherhoughton (the hamlet up the road, where the people have some very odd habits), is the Devil incarnate.
'How did you know him?'
'It was his smile ... his horrible jauntiness ... the little tune he whistled.'
'Anything else?'
'Perhaps the smell of sulphur. It stank out the afternoon.'
'Sulphur,' said Fludd, 'mey be taken as definitive.

Quietly and smoothly, without any fuss, things begin to change. (There's a whisper in the back of Agnes' mind, 'and only he could have put it there. I have come to transform you. Transformation is my business.') Even when we're granted Fludd's point of view, we know little more about him or his mission. There are, it must be said, several oddities about Fludd. Father Angwin's whisky bottle never empties when he's drinking with the curate; Fludd, refusing to read Sister Philomena's hand, nevertheless knows a great deal about palmistry; visiting Netherhoughton, he instantly recognises 'the lively signs of alchemy: the black hens scratching in the small back-plots, and the nine-runged ladder, the scala philosophorum, leaning casually against a wall'; and some of the changes he effects don't seem at all Christian.

The book ends with a description of another painting, Borgognone's 'Virgin and Child' (right): Mantel draws our attention to the 'near-smirk on her dimpled mouth'. And I think that near-smirk stands for the most significant of Fludd's changes; but I am still thinking through the implications and consequences of his time in the village, and his departure. And of the final appearance of McEvoy, the tobacconist ...

I enjoyed this ever so much, though it's really quite a bleak novel: hope and love and rescue, all right, but so little can be saved.

#63: Spanish Steps -- Tim Moore

In which Tim Moore, author of Do Not Pass Go, does the Camino de Santiago -- a pilgrimage from St Jean Pied-de-Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) west to Santiago de Compostela -- in the company of Shinto, a donkey. Neither is driven by any religious fervour. Moore seems to be having a very mild and wholesome mid-life crisis (hitting forty, wife and three children, a while since the last bestseller) and Shinto is the beast of burden, acquired when Moore decides that lugging his own luggage is a mug's game.

The fine art of the pilgrimage having declined somewhat since its medieval heyday (explored in well-researched, pertinent and entertaining asides that never overwhelm the basic narrative), you might think that Moore was basically in for a solitary trip. Far from it. He meets pilgrims from all over the world, with varying degrees of faith, dedication and stamina -- not to mention eccentricity. "One thing was certain. Doing this walk never made anyone less weird."

Moore has an excellent ear for accents (for instance, the woman who's wandering around aimlessly after having encountered a fellow traveller with a huge joy, which she has smocked) and is not afraid to reinforce national stereotypes. But he's also ready to mock himself, and to own up to the unsentimental feelings inspired by Shinto, who has a horror of crossing wooden bridges and an apparent determination to make life as difficult as possible. But as the journey progresses (more than 500 miles; more or less a million steps) Moore becomes fonder of Shinto, and their final parting is remarkably, understatedly, affecting.

Which all sounds serious, and it's a book that made me laugh out loud.

And did the pilgrimage have any effect?
I had learnt to be more patient and less fastidious, to cope when many of the basic decencies of modern life were absent, to relish them when they weren't. I had made sense of a complex world by appreciating the humble solidarities of the past; learnt the true value of water; acquired a Dark Ages lexicon of livestock feed and disease. I had learnt to accept, even befriend people I'd previously have dismissed with a cheap and ugly laugh: brittle-spirited mystics, policewomen, Austrians.

Friday, October 12, 2007

#62: The Ninth Life of Louis Drax -- Liz Jensen

I'm not most kids. I'm Louis Drax. Stuff happens to me that shouldn't happen, like going on a picnic where you drown. Just ask my maman ...
Louis Drax is French, accident-prone, fond of reading, very intelligent, and in therapy for some behavourial problems. On his ninth birthday, his parents take him on a picnic. By nightfall, his father is missing, his mother is hysterical and Louis himself has been pronounced dead.

Which makes his narration of half of this novel slightly spooky.

Louis (unaccountably still alive, or alive again, though it's impossible to rouse him from his coma) starts off with a potted history of his short but fraight life. Falling in front of the metro, cot death, salmonella and tetanus and botulism, a dynasty of hamsters all named Mohammed ... There's a hint that not all Mohammeds have died a natural death: "you can drop something heavy on him, like volume three of the encyclopédie medicale or Harry Potter et l'Ordre du Phénix. Just as long as you don't make a mess". As his mother Nathalie says, "If you were a cat, Louis, you'd have used up eight of your lives by now. One for each year. We can't go on like this."

She's probably crying. Boys shouldn't make their mamans cry, repeats Louis.

Hence Fat Perez, the psychiatrist, who has his hands full with Louis, who is an exceptionally convincing eight-year-old boy, with a voracious enthusiasm for weird facts, spit, blood, rude names for people and complete contempt for stupid adults. Fat Perez doesn't seem to make much progress, but then Louis is a difficult child.

Cue the second narrator, Dr Dannachet, who takes over Louis' case at his clinic in Provence. A married man, he nevertheless finds himself attracted to Natalie, Louis' mother, and when it seems as though Louis' father -- still apparently on the run -- is a threat to Natalie, Dr Dannachet promises to protect her.

Only gradually (and extremely unwillingly) does he begin to question her account of events at the picnic.

Louis is in the dark, but he's not alone. The ghoulish figure of Gustave -- whose head is wrapped in bloody bandages -- addresses him as 'Young Sir' and shows more interest and understanding of Louis and his predicament than anyone else ... well, anyone outside Louis's head. And Gustave, in the end, makes the difference to Louis.

Some parts of the novel (Dannachet's home life, Perez' reaction to Louis' 'accident', Natalie's past) seem almost too lightly sketched, but there's enough solid meat there to support the story. It's a story of many layers: an attempted-murder mystery; a child's interpretation of overheard, half-understood accusations; a doctor's willingness to take a chance that could ruin him professionally; a ghoulish tale of life inside Louis' head. And it's a difficult novel to write about because unpicking even one of those layers would reveal too much about the rest. I did feel, though, that it was a more tightly-plotted, less rambling novel than the more recent My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time.

"If you make a choice, and it's wrong," says Nathalie, "you have to live with it. Everyone has to live with the consequences."

Apparently the film rights have already been snapped up, and it's to be directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient I wonder if it'll get a UK release?

#61: To All Appearances a Lady -- Marilyn Bowering

Bowering's first novel, To All Appearances a Lady, is set on the west coast of Canada in 1957 -- though many of the key events occur in the late 19th century, recounted to protagonist Robert Lam by the ghost of Lam Fan, his recently-deceased Chinese stepmother.
I think about what Lam Fan has said about how we came here -- by following the whaling ships. As if their well-worn routes from the open sea through the islands were like a path through the woods: trodden down and flattened, worn to bedrock ... Have both sea and land a record to keep? Do ship lanes and whale migrations and the blood trails left by the sea ravages of men -- just like roadways and railways -- tie strings of traffic round Mother Earth herself? ... It makes a sort of sense, I suppose, at least to a ghost. Who need not concern herself with what is now and what is past. It is all one line she treads.

Lam (half-Chinese, he goes by the name 'Lamb' to ease his way as a pilot in the close-knit and occasionally xenophobic maritime community) is a complex character. The novel is the story of his last voyage in the Rose: a trip up the coast to where the whales are, a trip which becomes a voyage of self-discovery, fuelled by Lam Fan's slow revelations about his parents, and his step-parents. Fan's ghost, a tiny frail Chinese lady deprived of her habitual opium (not to mention her life) and spiky and restless as a result, tells a richly-detailed story: should Lam doubt her tale, the briefcase of family documents which he discovered after her death is more concrete evidence.

Robert Lam's mother, India Thackery, was an idealistic reformer who emigrated from Hong Kong after her father's death, accompanied only by Lam Fan -- the abandoned daughter of the baker who, in 1857, tried to poison the white community with arsenic. Arriving in Vancouver Island, the two women found a community bubbling with unrest and conflict: a melting-pot of cultures and races where India's good works were drops in the ocean. She persevered, and found employment as a bookkeeper ... in an opium factory. (I hadn't realised that opium, or at least its production, was legal in Canada until 1908. The economy of the Chinese community seems dependent upon it, as employment and solace.)

Whilst doing good deeds, India became acquainted with a drifter, Robert Louis Haack, who carried as talisman a letter from the author Robert Louis Stevenson, whom he'd met in California before coming north. Falling in love with India, Haack developed ambitions to better himself: but his schemes went awry and he ended up imprisoned, unable to rescue India when the opium factory was robbed and she was abducted. Considering how many toes India'd stepped on, and how little protection she had, the thieves were pretty merciful: they marooned her on an island off the coast -- D'Arcy Island, home to a community of Chinese lepers.

And there she stayed 'til Haack, released from gaol, came for her, married her, and abandoned her after a single day.

The title is taken from a report into India's death: she drowned, and Robert Lam has never been quite sure of the circumstances. Fan, used to keeping her secrets close, reveals them only slowly: reveals the truth about Lam's parents, and her own involvement in their lives, last of all. But by then there are other proofs to convince Lam of what really happened on D'Arcy Island at the turn of the century. Proofs that, despite his unwillingness to accept them (unlike the ghost of Fan, whose company he welcomes but never questions), are inescapable.

It seems that everyone in this novel is displaced. Lam never quite fits with British Columbia, never marrying or, apparently, feeling much for anyone save his stepparents (perhaps because of the secret shame that he keeps close); Lam Fan, addicted to opium til the day of her death, trying to keep the memory of her guilt at bay; the lepers on the island, cast out from a world that is already far from their war-torn, famine-stricken home; India Thackery, alone in the world and abandoned by the man she loved.

To All Appearances a Lady opened up a period of history, and of migration, about which I knew almost nothing. Few of the characters were likeable (India, perhaps; Lam Fan, until near the end; Ng Chung, the most personable of the lepers on D'Arcy Island) but they felt real. And Lam, alone (but for a ghost) in the fog-bound inlets and deserted islands of the coast, is the product, the end, of all the stories, quietly bleak, embracing his fate.

Beautifully written and well-researched, not a cheerful book but a compelling story.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

#60: A Woman Unknown: Voices from a Spanish Life -- Lucia Graves story is partly the story of Spain; .. all these ends and changes in Spanish life reflected ends and changes that also occurred in me.
Lucia Graves (daughter of the poet Robert Graves) writes of life between cultures -- Spanish, Catalan and English -- and the life of women in twentieth-century Spain: the village midwife in Majorca, her marriage declared unlawful after the Spanish Civil War; Lucia's own education in a convent in Palma, chanting Fascist slogans and being gently pressured to convert to Catholicism; the village girls watching silently as their fiances flirted with the first wave of English and Scandinavian tourists ...

I read this whilst on holiday in Barcelona, and it did give me new insight into the oppression of the Franco years (suspicion of the authorities, endless bureaucracy, everything -- in Lucia's memories, at least -- grey) and into some hitherto unfamiliar aspects of Spanish, and especially Catalan, life, past and present: the Sephardic Jews, the folklore of the land, women in Catalan history ... But I found myself more fascinated by glimpses of Robert Graves the family man. I read Graves' poetry avidly in my teens and twenties, but I don't think I even realised that he was still alive (he died in 1985) much less that he'd raised a family, that he used to comfort his little daughter by picking the nightmares from her scalp and flushing them down the toilet, that he'd run on stage after the annual ballet show with bouquets for everyone, that he was simply Senor Graves in the Majorcan village where the family made their home.

From the sound of it, Lucia didn't at first know just how famous her father was in the English-speaking world. At school in Geneva, her English teacher made her feel inadequate for her failure to write English as fluently as her father. Later, she was an undergraduate at Oxford when he was Professor of Poetry there; by which time, she says, she'd 'largely overcome the feelings of inadequacy'. But it wasn't until I, Claudius was shown on Spanish television that Graves' adopted homeland began to take an interest in him. By that time he was already too ill to deal with this late fame, and Lucia became her father's representative on lecture tours and in interviews.

This is not only a book about being the daughter of a famous man. Lucia Graves' account of herself as a woman divided between cultures, caught in the gap between languages, is honest and direct. "To say that the man was dead was simply not the same as saying he was mort, even if both words have the same meaning. ...'dead' was like a dull pain, like the quiet end of a smile ... mort was the sudden tolling of bells, deep mourning, a gloom beyond words." Like Persephone (her father's metaphor) she learns to love both her lives, English and Spanish.

#59: The Nautical Chart -- Arturo Perez-Reverte

... real freedom, the only possible freedom, the true peace of God, began five miles from the nearest coast.
Took this with me to read in Barcelona, since that's where the novel starts: with Manuel Coy, a sailor stranded on shore after running a ship onto uncharted rocks, attending a maritime auction. At the auction he notices a beautiful woman (Tanger Soto) bidding -- against fierce and apparently hostile competition from a menacing pony-tailed man and a malicious dwarf -- for a 17th-century nautical atlas. She wins, but Coy has to intervene in a potentially nasty situation outside. Buys her a drink, or two. Falls in love. Sells his one valuable and treasured possession, his sextant, to buy a train ticket to Madrid, where he tracks down Tanger at work in the Museo Maritime and finds out why she really wants the chart -- to help her find the wreck of the Dei Gloria, a Jesuit ship sunk by pirates off the coast of Spain in 1767.

Unsurprisingly there is treasure aboard.

And Coy, not only a sailor but an experienced diver who knows that part of the coast well, is just the man to help Tanger with her quest. The fact that he's given to solving problems with violence, and has what one might term poor impulse control, probably doesn't hurt.

The Nautical Chart is peppered with references to nautical classics: Coy thinks of himself as being in the Conrad phase of his life ("all heroes authorised to move through that terrain were weary heroes, more or less lucid, aware of the danger of dreaming when at the helm"), having previously lived a Stevenson period and a Melville period. I warmed to him as soon as he showed evidence of being an O'Brian fan. Plenty of nautical metaphors, too, and an interesting backstory for the Dei Gloria's last fateful voyage -- just before the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain ...

I wasn't entirely satisfied with this book: the action seemed to be propelled artificially, with Coy threatening to walk away every time the action slowed, and Tanger drip-feeding some more information. And the ending seemed flat and abrupt, though I do wonder if it's meant to illustrate just how blinkered Coy can be and has been, just how unwilling to face the facts. Just how blinded by love (for Tanger, and more convincingly for the sea) he has been.

Apparently the plot echoes The Maltese Falcon, but it's a long long time since I saw the film ... so that's a layer of significance (and possibly an extra dimension of emotional depth, of twisting and transforming the characters and themes) that I missed.

Occasionally I found myself noticing the translation, as though the translator was struggling to put into English a phrase that flowed in the original Spanish. And when the actual narrator, the first-person voice who claims to be telling this story, finally made an appearance (".. the story of the lost ship, and of Coy, the sailor banished from the sea, and of Tanger, the woman who returned him to it, seduced me from the start ...") I found him irritating and sly.

Packed with action and with plot -- and some excellent nautical detail, like the storm at sea, and going overboard, and the perils of night-sailing in busy waters -- but curiously empty.

#58: The Electric Michelangelo -- Sarah Hall

Like Water for Elephants (with which it shares at least one real-life scene), this novel focusses on the American circus/carnival milieu in the Thirties. But The Electric Michelangelo is darker and grittier.

The novel opens with Cy (Cyril) Parks' boyhood in Morecambe. His father died days before he was born: his mother, Reeda, pursues two complementary trades -- running a boarding-house for tuberculosis patients during the summer, and providing illegal abortions in the off-season -- to make ends meet. Cy grows up familiar with blood and suffering (there's a surprisingly beautiful scene where he tries to read his fortune in the swirls of blood in a patient's basin) and accustomed to showmanship, the lifeblood of the resort.

His artistic ability is spotted by Eliot Riley, an alcoholic tattoo artist with a reputation as one of the best who takes Cy on as apprentice. It's not an easy ride. Eliot is a slave to the bottle, prone to black moods and violent behaviour. But he has a lot to teach, and Cy is eager to learn.

Reeda and Riley dead, Cy turns his back on Morecambe: he emigrates to America, and sets up a booth in the heart of the circus -- Coney Island, a carnival underworld populated with immigrants and the displaced, with misfits and freaks and outcasts. Cy -- now The Electric Michelangelo -- fits right in. Confident in his art (and it's clear, both from the technical detail of his work and from the way he's driven by, transformed by, a channel for it) he finds others who share, or at least comprehend, his vocation. Something of a loner by nature (we get the feeling that he doesn't give his heart lightly, and both Reeda and Riley have left him walking-wounded) he finds friends and colleagues.

And then there's Grace.
There was something unholy about her from the beginning, that guile, the heretical bile that lifted in her mouth when she spoke, the gall in the gut of her words, the retch of her dark hair, the very peccancy of her sex, that thousand-fanged stare, and she might have been his, once, but for herself, but for her cloven-kolo self in the centre of her being.

Grace is probably not her name, but it's the name she's chosen. (Significantly, she always refers to Cy by his tradename). She's a European woman of indeterminate origin, a bareback rider (her horse sometimes shares her Brooklyn apartment, in the same block as Cy) who comes to Cy with one clear and specific request: she wants to be made into the Lady of Eyes, to be tattooed with the image of an eye (green, edged in black) repeated over and over on every inch of her skin.

Cy obliges, and almost incidentally falls in love. It's not as though there haven't been women before, plenty of 'em, aroused by endorphins and acutely aware of their newly-tattooed bodies. Grace is different. They aren't lovers in the physical sense, but there is far more sense of Cy's engagement with her than with anyone since Riley's death. And although he doesn't make love to her in any of the usual ways, perhaps the physical act of transforming her body, the intimate engagement of pain, is another form of eroticism.

Grace, complete, is a work of art. And art can be destroyed. Riley's death follows vengeful violence: Grace survives the attack on her, but it transforms her as much as or more than Cy's art -- and against her will. Her return to Cy is the pivot-point of the novel, the moment at which everything that's made him the man he is (Reena, Riley, the consumptives, the tattooing) comes together in a single night. The events of that night occur offstage: we have only Cy's memories, later, to show us what happened. It's enough.

As coda, the novel shows us Cy's return to Morecambe, years later. He's served in the war, and walks with a limp: he is alone: he's coming back to Riley's empty house. Yet it's not an ending, and not a decline: 'his heart was densely occupied and his soul was lying fallow', and if beneath it all he's waiting, still he's out in the changing world.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The White Tyger -- Paul Park

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in November 2007.

This is the third in Park's Roumanian quartet, following A Princess of Roumania (2005) and The Tourmaline (2006). (The final volume, The Hidden World, is due next year.) Though penultimate volumes can sometimes seem slower and less eventful than other parts of a quartet -- marking time, building suspense -- The White Tyger provides a new perspective on previous events, and considerably more information about the world in which it's set. A great deal happens in this volume of the story, though it's inconclusive. There are reversals, mistakes, the gradual subversion and destruction of several well-laid and long-term plans. All it takes is a little greed, the wrong person in the right place, the hidden world trickling into the real.

The White Tyger moves the focus away from Miranda Popescu, who's been transplanted from our own Massachusetts to become a fairytale princess, a symbol of freedom and hope, in a Roumania quite different from the one we know. Miranda -- seen by her family's loyal followers as the embodiment of the White Tyger, a legendary symbol of Roumanian freedom -- is a shadowy puppet in this novel, and when she does appear it's seldom in a sympathetic role. There's more warmth in the widowed Baroness Nicola Ceacescu, calm within her web of plots: the Baroness is as happy to use magic -- simulacra, 'the old country magic of whores', and a degree of foreknowledge that may be prescience or predetermination -- as poison or intrigue. Sasha Prochenko (the bold and dashing lieutenant whom we encountered first as a girl, and then as a dog) is now a tripartite creature, capable of being male or female or something quite inhuman: and the ways in which Prochenko's three selves manifest, merge and interact with new protagonists, is fascinating.

Park fleshes out his world in this volume of the quartet. In A Princess of Roumania our own reality was written off as an elaborate deception to hide Miranda: now it's reinterpreted as a failed experiment. "Models for evolution, heliocentric ... fairy stories. A world where dreams mean nothing. Where the dead are dead. Where stars are only balls of flaming gas and planets are dead rocks, and we are only responsible to our own selves."

Miranda, the archetypal self-involved teenager, says lamely "And I thought it was all for me."

Roumania, even while occupied by the Germans, is the cultural, or magical, or actual centre of a world in which a god has been imprisoned in a tower for the last three centuries: where Cleopatra has taken her place amongst the deities on Olympos (and a world in which this deification is perceived as history rather than mythology): where Shakespeare's known as 'that English refugee' and Newton -- who 'died of syphilis and mercury in Potsdam, a drunken broken man' -- is more famous for his alchemy, and a few unpleasantly effective devices, than anything else. After all, in this world, Copernicus was wrong.

The story gathers pace like a runaway train -- yet there's also a curious, calming distance between the reader and the characters, a sense that we are watching their stories unfold rather than inhabiting those stories. In a way that could be said for the characters, too: that they're not inhabiting their own stories. For a world constrained by fate and gods, there are a great many individuals creating and recreating themselves, choosing the myths by which they live and die. Nicola Ceacescu, whose unfinished opera The White Tyger -- with herself in the leading role -- shows a steely determination to revise her own history and that of all Roumania, strives to find the myth that fits what she has done, and what she's become. Will she be Cleopatra with her asp? Or will she assume the attributes of that other princess of Roumania, the infanticidal Medea?

It remains to be seen whether or not Park can pull all the threads of his narrative together, explain every allusion and reinterpretation, in the final volume of the quartet. But having come this far, my hopes are high.