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

Monday, April 30, 2007

#11: Coldwater -- Marnie McConnochie

Charlotte, Emily and Anne live in an isolated house with their father. (Their brother Branwell died young, at the old house -- Haworth.) The sisters are virtual prisoners, but their imagination knows no bounds: they invent a fantastical land called Gondal, and dream of fine clothes and passionate romance. Charlotte is convinced that the only way to take control of her own life is as a successful novelist: Anne writes to make sense of the people around her: Emily yearns for a love stronger than death.

This is not Yorkshire: these are not the Brontes. McConnochie's reimagining of their lives and works is set on Coldwater, a penal colony off the coast of Australia. The girls' father, Captain Wolf, is the Governor of the island, from which no prisoner has ever escaped. His ambition is to create the perfect prison: the arrival of a new prisoner, an Irishman convicted of rebelling against the English, seems the ideal opportunity to put some of his ideas concerning rewards and punishment into practice.

The novel's multiple voices -- sensible but domineering Charlotte, Gothic Anne, passionate Emily -- are distinctive and engaging. There are also passages from Captain Wolf's journal, and occasional interjections from other characters: one might argue that the novel could stand, could work, without these (and Wolf's voice in particular feels as though it's hammering home his changing mental state, which we already observe in the girls' reactions to him) but the inclusion of other -- mostly masculine -- voices does provide a counterweight to the claustrophobic closeness (or self-involvement) of the sisters. Their intimacy, and their eccentricities, add to the Gothic atmosphere: the attunement between Anne and Emily is so strong that "When Emily was ill it felt dark, jagged, roiling, like a scream, with a texture to it, thick, like matted fur." And later Charlotte, discovering Emily sleepwalking, has "the feeling that I was in the presence of something malign, something other".

Each of the sisters is writing a novel, though not quite the novels we might expect. Emily's, for example, is a romance: the story of a prison governor run wild, and the young officer who comes to investigate, and the governor's beautiful daughter. Anne ... "Your central character is interesting," says Charlotte to Anne, in one of the passages of modern critical dialogue that don't quite mesh with the tone of the narrative. "A headstrong young lady will always drive a story forward. But I would be wary of making her too headstrong -- it is potentially alienating for the reader." And later, "if you want to succeed as a novelist, you have to think about the reading public, you have to show a proper adherence to literary tradition."

Charlotte takes her writing most seriously, and thus is most vulnerable to her father's devastating criticisms: "the work that you have pursued over these many years, while charming in its own facile way, is of no more interest to the general public than the children's tales it closely resembles." But, rallying, she realises that she is her father's daughter.

"He had built a world for himself on Coldwater. It was his Gondal, only it was real ... its population were his characters, and he controlled their actions through a multitude of different means ... suddenly he was forced to realise that we were not part of his story any more; we were trying to write our own."

The sisters' writing becomes a metaphor for their lives. It feels like a premonition of tragedy when Anne watches Emily throw her writing, page by page, to the wind: "as if she hoped ... to open all the doors, to release the helpless prisoners of passion confined within the pages and all the captives on the island, to crack open the authority of the author and eject everyone from the narrative, characters and prisoners and daughters and troopers all, to begin their own journeys and engineer their own endings."

And, after all, events rewrite themselves. At the end of the novel Charlotte is told how matters resolved and reputations were restored: and even though she knows differently, she nods and smiles and lets the happy lie prevail.

I'm not that familiar with the Bronte sisters' novels, so I suspect there are a lot of references, allusions, reworkings that passed me by. I did recognise elements of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and I'd be surprised if there were not many more. The writing, whilst occasionally exasperatingly modern ('like' instead of 'as if'; modern critical jargon such as 'alienated'), is mostly a pleasure to read. (Charlotte notices details: "a smudge of green on his cheekbone where he must have fallen; the tiny black dots of stubble on his jaw, etched sharply against the pallor of his skin; the change of colour and texture between his weatherbeaten face and neck, and the exposed skin of his chest; blood; hair; a nipple, that odd, tender brown button.") Several threads of plot -- the psychological, the 'model prison', a romance, a mysterious Diver -- maintain suspense and interest. Recommended.

Friday, April 20, 2007

#10: The Pirate Hunter -- Jennifer Ashley

Recommended somewhere, and I do have a thing about pirates ... I found a cheap copy, and was pleasantly surprised!

Bodice-ripping romance, Regency setting, quite steamy, cover shows heroine (Diana) in a historically improbable shade of pink. But this is actually great fun and competently written, and has considerably more (and better-constructed) plot than most novels of this kind.

The eponymous Pirate Hunter is one James Ardmore. He is shipwrecked, and washes up on the beach of a Secret Island somewhere off the Scillies, where he is found by the lovely-but-badly-married Diana and her deaf daughter. James Ardmore is (naturally) a man with a Mission: to rid the world of Black Jack Mallory, a Fearsome Pirate. How he achieves this, despite considerable distraction in the gently curved but feisty person of Diana, is actually plotty enough to have kept me turning the pages: I think I read this in two sittings (the break was to go swimming).

Sometimes my mind needs a little frivolity and this fitted the bill perfectly!

#9: The White Tyger -- Paul Park

Read for (overdue) Vector review -- so this'll be the more subjective version, and I may also post the actual review after publication.

This is the third in Park's 'Roumania' series (following A Princess of Roumania and The Tourmaline). For some reason I'd expected this to be a trilogy, rather than a quartet, so I was increasingly distressed by the lack of resolution! Mea culpa, though. This one's entirely my own doing.

The White Tyger moves the focus away from Miranda Popescu, to other characters (notably Sasha Prochenko, Nicola Ceacescu the Baroness, and the Baroness's former friend and henchman, Luckacz. Nicola Ceacescu, in her web of plots, is as happy to use magic (simulacra, 'the old country magic of whores', and a degree of foreknowledge -- as displayed in her opera, The White Tyger -- that may be prescience or predetermination) as poison or politics. Sasha Prochenko, the bold lieutenant who we first encountered 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 those layers manifest is fascinating.

There's also much more sense of the wider world in which Miranda -- transplanted from our own Massachussetts -- has found herself. In earlier volumes 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."

Roumania 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 where it seems likely that this is not mere myth): 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 (which is True and Accurate) than anything else.

But it's not entirely removed from our own reality. Several characters suffer radiation poisoning (though one is also bitten by an imp named Mintbean, one of Newton's demons). The myths that Nicola Ceacescu assumes and discards, in a quest for self-definition, are myths that are familiar to us. And Medea was a princess of Roumania ...

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 authorial voice seems to creep in a little more than before, as though the reader might need reassurance:
"Mademoiselle, we will meet again in happier times!"
Miranda didn't think so, though it turned out to be true.


I'm looking forward to the fourth and final book in the sequence. I want to see the gods.

#8: Hav -- Jan Morris

I own a Penguin 60 that collects a few of the chapters from the first part of this novel, Letters from Hav. I recall being struck by the anecdotal, richly referential voice: though Hav is an invented place, Morris weaves it into the tapestry of European culture with visits from Tolstoy, rumours about Hitler, references to Hemingway's cats.

Rereading those first Letters as part of the original Letters from Hav, which in turn now forms part of Hav (2006), I'm struck by the lack of events. As standalone 'letters', snapshots and observations, they are perhaps more effective than as chapters of a novel -- a form which is popularly expected to have a beginning, a middle and an end. These letters do describe things that happen to the narrator (a fictional 'Jan Morris') but they all seem trivial, unconnected, inconsequential. Only gradually did I begin to realise that the events of Hav happen elsewhere, out of sight: in the margins, between the chapters and most of all between Letters from Hav and the second half of the novel.

Hav seems to me to be a mature writer's novel: there's no sensationalism, no sex or violence, simply small events magnified by precise and evocative language, and a distinctive voice. I did find myself craving explanation and expansion, though: those fleeting teasing references to Cathars, the black jets that herald intervention (but by whom?), and the constant low-level paranoia that seems the only sensible reaction to the attitudes encountered by the narrator.

I enjoyed Hav, but I've several criticisms. The Letters, in particular, have no sense of a recipient. They are not letters to anyone, and there is seldom much sense of who they're from, either. There's very little personal detail, very little (if anything) that comes from outside Hav. The world outside may as well have imploded.

Hav has an afterword -- and though it did help me make sense of the book, and its two halves (one steeped in history, one in a post-historical post-9/11 world), I don't feel that a novel should require an afterword. Is that lack in me, for not making that comparison more consciously? for not drawing that conclusion without being told?

Finally, pettily but vexingly: poor proof-reading. Souvenir hops? "We walked as we strolled"? 'Fauna' when discussing indigenous vegetation? Each of these errors jarred, and Hav is an illusion that benefits from immersion.

This novel's on the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and I confess my confusion. Is an invented setting sufficient to qualify a book as SF? Is it the post-historical perspective, of which there's plenty around? And, given that part of the book was published nearly 20 years ago, is the ACCA nomination based entirely on the new section?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

#7: He Went with Dampier -- Philip Rush

One in a series (other titles include He Went with Drake, He Went with Magellan) in which the voyages of famous explorers are told from the point of view of fictional young male companions. In He Went with Dampier, the hero is Oliver Plunkett, a wrongfully condemned convict in the colony of Virginia, who escapes servitude with the help of William Dampier. As a result of this intervention, Dampier departs Virginia and rejoins a privateer company. From there on in, the novel follows Dampier's New Voyage Around the World pretty accurately: the buccaneering is suitably swashbuckling (though no more successful than in the original), and Dampier's observations of the world around him are interspersed with episodes of action-adventure for the (YA, male) target audience.

Some of Dampier's exploits are toned down for that target audience. The ship that was captured and renamed the Batchelor's Delight was, historically, a slave ship carrying young women. (Dampier doesn't go into much detail about this one, understandably.) In the novel, the ship's name is explained thus: "they could be pretty sure of one thing, and that was that they would get no lady friends to sail on her!"

There's also an element of racism that I'm not at all sure is authentic: for instance, it's the black sailors who suggest cannibalism when supplies are running low on the Pacific crossing.

Dampier, here, is not an especially likeable character. He doesn't quite come to life. But then, few of the others (with the notable exception of Basil Ringrose, the very model of a merry buccaneer) are brought to life either. The focus stays very much on Oliver and his observations of the people around him.

I was also happy to discover that the novel skims over the period of Dampier's life that I find most fascinating: happy, because I'd hate to find that what I'm writing's already been written.

On the whole, an enjoyable read -- but one thing really jarred, every time it was mentioned. If a ship is crossing the Pacific Ocean from America to the East Indies, it is NOT GOING EAST. If it goes EAST it will hit MEXICO.

#6: Witchwater Country -- Garry Kilworth

I've owned this book for a long time, having picked it up because it's set in the area where I grew up. Kilworth's fictional Tenbridge must be somewhere pretty close to the house on the marshes where I spent the first two decades of my life. (I did spend some time trying to work out exactly where it was: close enough to the River Roach, and the mills, for kids to swim there; more than an hour's cart-ride from Rochford Market; not Canewdon, or Paglesham, because they're both named. But Tenbridge doesn't occupy a distinct physical location, of course: it's the fictional essence of village life in that part of Essex.)

It's set in the early 1950s. The story's narrator, Raymond 'Titch' Swan, is ten years old, and spends the summer hanging around with his mates, getting into mischief, making up fantastic tales about the world he lives in. Are there water-witches at the bottom of every pond? Is the old lady in the cottage one of the witches? For there are witches, everyone knows it: chiefly in Canewdon, where Titch's Aunt Elinor lives ...

The fantasies Titch and his friends weave are scary, but much realer and more exciting (and, paradoxically, ultimately safer) than the mysteries of adult life that surround them and begin to impinge. Though this is a tale told by a child, the story is as much about the grown-ups (observed uncomprehendingly) as about the gradual transition from fantasy to reality. And Titch digs his heels in as he's dragged (metaphorically) into the real world.

Though the voice of the narration is occasionally clumsy (sometimes too plodding to be the child's voice it's striving for, sometimes authentically bogged down in detail, demonstrating how different a child's point of view can be), Titch's sheer ignorance of the events around him is conveyed very clearly. He's terrified of witches, but then there's Aunt Elinor whose pagan beliefs upset Nan. His grandfather's artificial leg gathers a hundred stories about it, but Titch never stops to wonder at the sleeping arrangements in the cottage.

And there are some truly nasty scenes. The discovery of 'Amy Johnson'; the sheer distress that the badger's furry corpse caused me; the grim reality of the Flood of '53, which is described more vividly and less romantically than any other fictional version I've read.

Enjoyed this much more than I expected, and found it astonishingly evocative of a landscape I know very well, although it'd changed quite a bit over the twenty-odd years between the novel's events and my early memories. It's also an interesting exploration of the conflict between fantasy and reality, the contrast between childhood terrors and the mundane horror of human interaction.

#5: Green Angel -- Alice Hoffman

This is a modern fairytale, a post-apocalyptic story that, while clearly in a modern setting, partakes of the flavour and imagery of legend. Green is the conscientious adolescent who stays behind when the rest of her family (mother, father and little sister) go to the city. The city burns, the family dies, Green is left to survive alone.

She ... survives. She befriends wild things; tattoos herself, laboriously and repeatedly, with twisted ink briar-roses; cautiously re-presents herself to her neighbours as a tough, independent, and most of all solitary young woman. She's scornful of the simple rebellions of other teenagers, but finds solace in helping those in need. And she learns from those she helps: "The hawk needs to hunt, the sparrows need to fly ..."

It's never explicitly stated what the human needs, what Green herself needs: but it's in there all right. The human needs society, emotion, interaction.

The 9/11 allegory is not forced, but gradual. The cause of the city's destruction -- terrorism -- isn't immediately stated, though I think it's clear that it's not a natural disaster. But is it overt war, or not?

"... the enemy amongst us," someone tells Green, "their people, their children, died too." And Green, already within her fragile protective shell of fear and isolation, is suspicious of the newcomer who will not show his face. (Which tells us a lot about the 'enemy': that it's a visible difference, a racial difference.) It's a relief to her (and to the reader) to discover that the stranger is marked, not by Difference but by similarity; burnt and scarred, another victim.

There isn't a happy ending here, not a traditional one anyway, but there's a sense of closure, of coming through an ordeal and emerging from the thorns. Green will always be marked -- briar-roses -- by her losses and by the way she's coped with them, but by the end of the book she's ready to move on.

Green Angel is a deceptively simply novel, and not a long one. It's as much about isolation, not fitting, coping strategies as it's 'about' the aftermath of 9/11. Thought-provoking and written with clarity and compassion.