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

Thursday, January 31, 2008

#11: Debatable Space -- Philip Palmer

I had the most joyful time imaginable. And yet, for all this, despite experiencing statistically more moments of pleasure than any other person so far in the history of humanity, there were times when I became bored.
I was tempted by the skull-and-bones motif on the title page: pirates, arrr! And Debatable Space is a pirate novel, with revenge, bloodshed, hostage-taking and wealth beyond your wildest dreams.

Set centuries in the future, Debatable Space features an interstellar empire administered (ruthlessly, by the Cheo) from Earth; Doppelganger Robots, operated by earthbound workers but physically present on colony worlds; an Alien Menace, the Bugs, more or less quarantined in Debatable Space; Lena, a tough heroine masquerading as the daughter of the Cheo, who has a self-programmed but occasionally sarcastic AI embedded in her brain; Flanagan, a grizzled space pirate with a Cunning Plan; Flanagan's crew of ne'er-do-wells and reprobates; and Flanagan's secret weapon, which is not only Frightful but Funny.

This was an enormously fun read: the setting, and Flanagan's party, reminded me strongly of Delany's Babel-17, and there's one scene which might actually have been inspired by the cover of the Sphere edition of that book: space in daylight!

Palmer is certainly aware of his genre. Debatable Space is a loving tribute to SF, name-dropping Aldiss, Asimov and Pournelle, dedicating planets to Kornbluth and Pohl, writing space opera with a joie de vivre that's seldom found in British SF. I thoroughly approve of the afterword in which he discusses the physics of some of his flights of fancy -- and if the soundtrack isn't quite as fab as Justina Robson's Natural History, it's still engaging.

Perhaps because of the sweeping scale -- this is space opera at its grandest -- and the sheer sense of fun, I found myself nitpicking. You can't hiss a sentence with no sibilants, dammit. If you're going to transcribe the verbal idiosyncrasies of each character, be consistent. And if you're writing about a future more than, say, fifty years from now, be careful which character thinks in terms of CD-Roms and deflating crisp packets ...

Lena is not entirely likeable, but she's fascinating, though her ongoing psychological problems are a gloomy prognosis for the future of therapy. I'll forgive her a great deal, though, for her habit of quoting Gerard Manly Hopkins at moments of exceptional joy. She's surely met her match in Flanagan, who manipulates, flatters and charms his way into her affections and out the other side.

There's something hollow, something not quite developed, at the core of the novel. I didn't really engage with any of the characters; writing this review just over a week after reading the book, I can't remember much about the ending. But I do remember enjoying the book very much: it's a good read, and shows great promise.

This was the first of three novels I read on holiday to feature 'House of the Rising Sun'.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

#10: Anything Goes -- John Barrowman

I'm not a great one for celebrity autobiographies but Barrowman has such tremendous (indeed, OTT) charisma on screen that I was curious to see if it would translate to print. The answer is no, not really: this is an entertaining read, but too fragmentary and random to have much impact. The problem with a biography written at the height (or start of the height?) of a career is that the story's incomplete: we see the rise from stage-struck brat to successful actor but not the way the actor copes with fame or the eventual decline.

That said, Anything Goes is very funny at times, and Barrowman (who dictated the source material via iPod for his sister to make into Book: given what she let through, I wonder what she vetoed!) is not afraid to mock himself or to show his vulnerable side. And there's a real sense of honesty and integrity, of wanting to be a positive role model for the young, of wanting to give something back to society. Barrowman obviously takes real pleasure in his success, and in knowing and working with famous names -- it's not just name-dropping. He's far too enthusiastic to be wholly cool, and I admire and approve of that.

#9: The Stolen Village -- Des Ekin

The individual tales of these stolen villagers may be unknown, but that does not mean that their story is unknowable. I could still tell what happened to them without resorting to fiction.

In June 1631 two warships full of Barbary pirates, led by the notorious Morat Rais, sacked the village of Baltimore in Western Ireland. They slew some villagers, captured the rest and carried them off to a life of slavery in Algiers. Only two of the prisoners ever returned to Ireland. 'The Sack of Baltimore', in the somewhat incendiary back-cover blurb, 'was the most devastating invasion ever mounted by Islamist forces on Ireland or England.'

The Stolen Village is a very readable work: Ekin's research is brought to life with almost novelistic pacing, and while he's at pains to stress that much of the content is speculation -- typical experiences for white captives in 17th-century Algiers, rather than the specific experiences of the captives from Baltimore -- the tale he tells is credible and rich in detail, and not nearly as grim as one might expect. Though it's grim enough: seventeeth-century Algiers, a woman like Joane Broadbrook could be sold for the price today of a ten-year-old hatchback car. (p. 184)

The life of a slave is usually portrayed, in fiction and otherwise, as nasty, brutish and short -- at least unless that slave chose to convert to Islam. For the Baltimore captives, and especially the women and children, things might have been rather more pleasant. Ekin treads carefully in his discussion of the positive aspects of slavery, but points out that even a lowly-born individual, converted to Islam, could rise through the (military or civil) ranks on merit alone -- a degree of social mobility unavailable to the average European peasant at the time. The women, meanwhile, might be treated with some respect despite their role as commodity in the harem economy: a typical female captive who'd spent her previous life squelching through boggy fields or labouring at the stinking fish palace might have considered her new situation in sunny Algiers and concluded that life was at the very least not intolerable. (p.234)

There are a few minor flaws and idiosyncrasies -- it's Gray's Inn, not Gray's Inns; capitalising 'of', in the Sack Of Baltimore, is entirely unnecessary; the word 'jihad' is anachronistic; Ekin seems puzzled by contemporary accounts that mention 'elephants' teeth' as items of value, but surely this refers to tusks? And I'm not sure if his 'Ida McDonell, daughter of the British Consul' is 'Ida M`Donnell, daughter of Admiral Ulric, consul-general of Denmark, and wife of the British consul': but I am taken with the anecdote of her 1816 escape dressed as a midshipman.

I think that's one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much: the rich mix of detail, contemporary and otherwise, about life in Algiers. Here's Miguel de Cervantes, pre-Don Quixote, repeatedly betrayed in the act of escape; here's Aaron Hill, in 1709, sensationalising harem life with the revelation that 'any phallic-shaped vegetables must be finely chopped before entering the bedrooms' (p.221); here are Morat Rais' sons, emigrated to America under the surname van Salee. Apparently Humphrey Bogart is descended from Morat Rais: 'it seems fitting that he was always most at home in the movie role of a sea captain operating on the fringes of the law.' (p. 314)

If there's a flaw in this book, it's that Ekin revels too much in the richness of life in Algiers c.1630, and not enough in what might be called the framing narrative: the what and why and how of Morat's raid on this particular small Irish village. There is a credible and rather chilling explanation of why Baltimore was targetted, and perhaps why it took so long to attempt to redeem the prisoners: but it feels tacked on, and I think it deserves more attention.

Highly recommended, though: history that tells a story and is full of facts I just had to Google, all of which seem to be true.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

#8: Incantation -- Alice Hoffman

This novel, set in Spain in 1500, is the story of Estrella deMadrigal, also known as Raven, also known as Esther.

There's a lot of story in those names. Estrella is the only daughter of Abra, a respectable widow who uses plants to make dyes and herbal remedies. Abra's other child, Luis, is studying to be a priest. Estrella and Abra live with Abra's parents Jose and Carmen.

'Raven' is Estrella's childhood nickname, bestowed for her dark prettiness. Her friend and next-door-neighbour, Catalina, is nicknamed Crow. Estrella thinks they look like sisters, but Catalina is jealous of Estrella's beauty -- especially now that Catalina's cousin Andres is taking an interest in Estrella instead of Catalina herself. When Catalina tries to keep a string of pearls -- a precious gift from Estrella's grandmother -- that Estrella has lent her as a token of friendship, it's Andres who intervenes. Perhaps it's that intervention that starts the landslide.

And 'Esther' is Estrella's secret name, her name within the family, just as her grandmother Carmen's real name is Sarah. It's also the name of Queen Esther, who was forced to pretend to be what she was not to save her people.

Estrella says, early in the book, that her family are Christians. But the details accumulate slowly and deceptively: the candles lit on Friday nights, the secret names, her grandfather's teaching that always takes place at night ... Gradually we realise what the townspeople (and specifically the neighbours) already suspect: that Estrella's family are Marranos, Jews who judaise (not a word I'd encountered before) despite having converted.

And, for a half-share of the Marrano's estate, friend will betray friend to the court -- that is, the Inquisition.

This is a novel about fear, hatred and religious intolerance. About the horrors (graphically and vividly portrayed) that have been perpetrated in the name of religion, and about surviving them.
The monster from deep inside the earth was crawling along the Plaza. The monster had been formed from burning books and smoke and hate, but it had grown so big and strong, it could reach up and ring the bell in the chapel of the old Duke's house. The bell kept ringing and ringing, and the people kept screaming, and there was no way to stop it.

Abra teaches her daughter that it's impossible to argue with evil, or to disprove the ridiculous. Jose, her grandfather, tells her that running away will solve nothing: but Estrella comes to believe that 'a Jew can never be attached to a place. The rules always change, and we always lose.' By fleeing the town, she lives to tell her tale: to carry on and be strong, rather than 'defying whatever days were granted to me, throwing them away as though I were a helpmate to those who wanted to destroy us'.

Estrella's grandfather has also begun to teach her the secrets of the Kabbalah, the ten gates of the garden of wisdom. He expresses them as 'Crown, Wisdom, Intelligence, Love, Judgement, Compassion, Endurance, Majesty, Foundation of the World, Kingdom'. But Estrella -- who dreams of gates to that garden, gates made of bones, of love, of feathers -- names them differently: 'Ashes, Bones, Grass, Heart, Stone, Love, Sorrow, Blood, Earth, Sky'. The structure of Incantation reflects that Kabbalah, though not heavy-handedly: I need to reread again to pick up the nuance of each chapter.

A harrowing read but also full of beautiful images: the shades of blue in Abra's dyes, the hawk in the olive tree, the feel of cool pearls against the skin.

Monday, January 28, 2008

#7: The Howling Miller -- Arto Paasilinna

Someone should go and tell him to stop howling, a man his age. A human being can't just start baying like a bloody wolf.

Nature is good: society is bad. Apparently this is a common theme in Finnish literature, and Paasilinna's novel of madness and despair in post-war Finland illustrates it in black and white.

Gunnar Huttunen arrives in a small village and sets about restoring the delapidated mill to working order. The villagers are initially happy to have a new miller, even though this one seems rather strange: the children love his animal imitations, but the adults are less keen on his habit of howling all night. Huttunen's behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric, so he's encouraged to visit the local doctor, who diagnoses depression and despatches him to the local asylum.

Huttunen is not happy about this. He escapes, hoping to return to his mill: but society is against him, and he takes to the woods whilst the villagers (in particular the doctor, and the chief of police) hunt him. Huttunen does have friends: the local postman (whose illicit still Huttunen helps move) passes letters between the 'escaped lunatic' and his girlfriend, a pretty young horticultural advisor named Sanelma Käyrämö who is disinclined to have mad children, but likes Huttunen well enough apart from that.

It's quite likely that Huttunen really is certifiably insane: he has an argument with a statue of Christ in the village church (a prime candidate for arson) and he shows a casual disregard for others. True, his own account of his past includes not only the war but the loss of his previous mill, and his wife, to fire: there's a deep unsettled grief beneath the anger and the oddness.

I wanted to like this book rather more than I did. There's something oddly pedestrian about the writing, though it has the colloquial flow that I associate with Scandinavian prose in translation. Perhaps it's too casual and colloquial, and that's why it seems stilted. It probably doesn't help that the text has been translated twice, to French and then to English: but there is clumsiness that could easily be mended:
Holding forth on this or that, he'd gesticulate wildly, cracking his knuckles, waving his arms or craning his neck as he held forth on this or that. (my emphasis)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

#6: Sarah Canary -- Karen Joy Fowler

I've bounced off Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary several times over the last 15 years. I'm not sure why. I do remember it being the subject of heated debate when I first discovered fandom in the early 1990s. I didn't recall any of the detail of that debate when I sat down to read -- only that some people saw this novel as SF, and others didn't.

They're right.

Sarah Canary, an apparently mute and apparently well-dressed white woman, is discovered by a gang of Chinese loggers in a Washington Territory forest. It's 1873 -- a year for which Fowler provides excellent context in the collages of facts that precede each chapter -- amd the west coast of America is still pretty Wild, though there are no gold rushes, cowboys or covered wagons.

Instead there are outsiders. Chin, the Chinese man who first finds Sarah Canary, and subsequently buys his freedom from the local sheriff by executing an Indian; BJ, a young, intelligent and paranoid patient who escapes from the asylum where Sarah Canary (so dubbed because the noises she makes sound like song) is briefly incarcerated; Adelaide Dixon, suffragist and lecturer on female sexuality; Harold, a Civil War veteran who survived the prison at Andersonville, and now believes himself immortal.

And Sarah Canary herself, who is a tabula rasa onto which everyone projects what they want to see. Chin thinks first that she's a goddess, and then that she's amazingly ugly. (This seems to be mentioned in many reviews as an objective statement, but I think it has more to do with Chin's notions of beauty -- he comments elsewhere on her huge, because not bound, feet -- than with Sarah herself). BJ probably sees Sarah more clearly than most (he remarks on an unusual quality of her dress), but his narrative is in other respects the least reliable, for instance when he mistakes a seal for a person. Adelaide, meeting Sarah Canary, believes she's found a fugitive murderess. Harold sees the opportunity for a quick buck: the Alaskan Wild Woman. Here he is, exhibiting; here's Adelaide, across town, lecturing.

"Women are enigmas to you. She ..."
"... was raised by a she-wolf in a damp, flea-infested ..."
"... bed where one partner is taking pleasure at the expense of the other, shameless as ..."
"... a child who has suckled at the teat of the beast ..."
"... and yet,of course, I need explain the effect of unconsummated intercourse to no woman who is ..."
"... old enough to eat the raw meat for which she still retains ..."
"... an unnatural appetite, you men would have her believe, knowing nothing about her, and denying her a common humanity ..."

There's a strong feminist thread here, from the initial diagnoses of the doctor whose watch Sarah Canary swallows to Adelaide's fierce determination to be heard. Women aren't heard -- certainly aren't heeded -- in this novel. Men don't listen. (The sympathetic male characters in Sarah Canary are all outsiders: I can't offhand remember any positive sane white man -- hmm, maybe Burke the naturalist? Not to say that the rest are monsters, most of the time: they are terribly provoked, poor dears, by Females and Foreigners and other white men getting the better of 'em.)

This frontier is wild, nasty and brutal. A woman travelling alone had better have a gun to hand. A Chinese man is vulnerable and scorned. BJ remembers a fellow inmate being beaten to death at the asylum. Harold remembers his best friend, shot down crossing the line.

There's a great deal I wanted to understand about this novel even before I went back and looked at why it's often classed as SF. Does immortality happen? Does metamorphosis? Was that another chrysalis on the bed? What about the seals? And Chin's thoughts on a bird with one wing?

Fowler's writing is subtle, careful: repays close attention (it's easy to miss those hints): can be read as SF, or not-SF. I do wonder if anti-SF readers, encountering the author's remarks -- as for instance in this interview, 2004, spoilers -- might feel cheated.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

#5: Fortress of Ice -- C J Cherryh

... the boy with the hollow at his heart, the book that was not burned, the burst tomb, and the sister vanished from his tower ...

It's long enough since I read the previous book in this series (Fortress of Dragons) -- and long enough in the internal chronology of the books, since this takes place some 16 years after the previous novel, and focusses on different characters -- that I am oblivious to any continuity issues, unresolved plot threads et cetera. The previous four books told the story of Tristen, brought into being by the wizard Mauryl and only slowly coming to know his nature and his origins, and to understand the world around him. Fortress of Ice focusses on the friendship between the two sons of Tristen's friend Cefwyn, now the Marhanen King. Cefwyn's elder son Elfwyn (who prefers to be known as Otter) is the bastard son that Cefwyn got on Tarien Aswydd, a scheming sorceress who's spent the last 16 years imprisoned in a tower. Otter and his legitimate half-brother, Aewyn, are friends as well as brothers: as Fortress of Ice opens, Otter has passed his first month living in the capital, Guelemara, and seems to be untainted by his nasty heritage.

But the Quinalt (repressive religious order) are not at all keen on Otter -- he sneezes at church incense, and nearly provokes a holy war -- and things only get worse when, beset by apparently-prophetic dreams of disaster, Otter resorts to witchcraft. He's already sent Paisi (his foster-brother, who suffered the same dreams) back to the cottage where they grew up, to see if Paisi's Gran (a witch in her own right) is safe. And because Otter's a teenaged boy, all this has been done in hasty secret, and he's worked himself into a state about punishment, banishment and what Aewyn will think.

This is mostly Otter's -- Elfwyn's -- story: about coming to terms with his heritage, about whether to be Mouse or Owl, about whether he has any talent or gift of his own and whether he's right to trust the dreams that haunt him. Two things he has to learn: vision and patience. And he has to learn to distinguish simple bad luck, human error, misfortune from the workings of magic in the world: for in this world, magic manifests itself in coincidences, in the invisible, in haunts and broken Wards and secrets hidden from all but their targets. "Sometimes things couldn't be helped falling into place, and even people who didn't ordinarily have a smidge of wizardry might just go along with things."

It's a very chilly novel, the action taking place in the dead of a snowy, stormy winter: snowy woods, howling storms, savagely sharp icicles. Almost every room is plagued by draughts. What sunlight there is, is brief and sharp and bright.

There is overmuch repetition, and some poor proofing: I wanted to take a blue pencil to some pages. This is a fairly slow novel: people think things through in a leisurely way that can be infuriating. In some ways it feels like the first in a new series, with an open ending that invites more plot: in other ways it's firmly rooted in what's gone before, to the detriment of the story for those who haven't read or don't recall how Tristen went from humble beginnings to the shadowy fame he enjoys here.

But I do enjoy Cherryh's dense, distinctive prose style, and the grimness of her settings (muck and mire, bad terrain, hands and clothes filthy with horsehair, sleeping in one's clothes as a matter of course). And I'm intrigued to see how this next generation will play out the unresolved conflicts of their parents.

#4: The Middle Kingdom -- Andrea Barrett

Time you spend in the past and the future is time you spend alone. But between them is a middle kingdom, both feet planted here. (280)

I like Andrea Barrett's fiction for its thoughtful and insightful blend of scientific and emotional issues. This isn't my favourite of her novels -- I don't get much sense of Grace's intellectual engagement with anything -- but I like the way Barrett explores big issues with subtlety and respect.

The story opens in China, just before the Tiananmen Square massacre: Grace is being urged by her friend Dr Yu Xaiomin to return to America and safety -- for Grace's son's sake if not for her own.

The rest of The Middle Kingdom consists of flashbacks that tell how Grace came to, and stayed in, China. Formerly the wife of hotshot lake ecologist Walter Hoffmeier, Grace suffered identity crisis and eating disorders, fell in love or lust with inappropriate people, and turned her back on science as a result of the emotional (and physical) distance between herself and her husband. Not until she meets Dr Yu, whose succint remarks jolt Grace out of her insulated complacency, does she start to take responsibility, to live her own life.

Part of the joy of the novel is the developing relationship between the two women, which starts when Dr Yu undertakes to help Grace with her Mandarin:
"yú with a rising tone means fish, and yŭ with a falling-rising tone means rain ... say after me."
I did, amazed at her singing language. ... Fish, rain, the effects of rain on fish, a fishy rain, a rain of fish -- in my mouth there had been no difference. I was slowly beginning to get the idea and as I did I began to understand the men behind us, as if static had suddenly cleared from my ears.

This is not a novel about eating disorders, psychological problems, et cetera, but without ever foregrounding Grace's eating problems, The Middle Kingdom lays them out before us. Grace eats 'to fill up what seems empty': she's reduced to animal passions. Graceless. There are multiple reasons for her fraught relationship with food, body, weight. On one level it's insulation against the world. On another, perhaps she's trying to recreate her beloved grandmother, whose diabetic obesity confined her to a wheelchair. Food is solace when Walter turns away.

At one point Grace steals a metaphor from her husband's work: "I'd learned to leave my other lives behind me like larval skins." But she hasn't. They're all still there, buried.

The Middle Kingdom also deals with memory. Dr Yu's husband used the classic technique of a memory palace during the Cultural Revolution; it was how he held onto what mattered while his education and culture was stripped away from him. Grace isn't that impressed: "as if a mind could stand to remember all it ever learned, as if the art of forgetting weren't just as important as the art of memory ... I was a master of forgetting." But she's forced to remember, not least by a fever that makes old memories bright as new, stimulating those specific physical parts of the brain that 'replay' events in the past. So Grace confronts her dead childhood friend Zillah, and realises that she's had a life of privilege compared to others: that when she and Zillah contracted 'scarlatina' (= scarlet fever?) the reason that Grace lived and Zillah died had less to do with luck than with circumstance.

Each chapter is headed by adapted prose from 'A Dialogue in the Hospitals' -- a paperback book containing lines in both English and Chinese, that the English-speaking Grace has to use in order to explain to the Chinese doctor that she has pneumonia. By pointing to the appropriate phrases, she makes herself understood. The phrases that Grace indicates are straightforward ones, but the chapter headings are more surreal:
PATIENT: I suddenly got a pain in the chest ...
DOCTOR: Have you grown angry with someone?
PATIENT: Oh yes! I had a quarrel with my husband...
DOCTOR: Are you still angry?
PATIENT: Yes, he is a stubborn fellow.
DOCTOR: In Chinese traditional medicine we say that ... anger attacks the liver and joy hurts the heart. I'll give you a prescription for your liver, and in the meantime please be happy all the time.

Grace's sheer joy in her growing understanding of China and the Chinese is fascinating: there's a sense of her finding a place as much as of self-discovery. A gentle and affectionate novel.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

#3: Arthur and George -- Julian Barnes

"Suggested we try using bloodhounds."
"Bloodhounds? You're sure he didn't say native trackers?"
"No, sir, bloodhounds. The odd thing was, listening to his voice -- it was an educated voice, a lawyer's voice -- I found myself thinking at one point, if you shut your eyes you'd think him an Englishman."(90)

This is the story of two very different Victorian / Edwardian gentlemen, whose lives affected one another in unexpected ways. By the time I got around to reading the book, I had forgotten the original reviews so was able to relish Barnes' pacing and the gradual way in which he revealed the identities of 'Arthur' (Conan Doyle) and 'George' (Edalji, a second-generation Anglo-Indian).

George, the son of an Indian vicar and his Scottish wife, encounters a level of everyday racism that he accepts stoically: he defines himself as English, and is keen to be the very model of a provincial solicitor: he proudly publishes Railway Law for the "Man in the Train". Arthur, meanwhile, is becoming known for his stories and novels about the great detective Sherlock Holmes; nursing a sick wife; and engaged in a platonic, apparently hopeless affair with Jean Leckie. When George is convicted and imprisoned for a gruesome series of cattle-mutilations, and for sending poison pen letters -- he's innocent of both, but is sentenced to seven years' penal servitude, of which he serves three -- Arthur takes an interest in his case, and publicises the miscarriage of justice.

George is stoic: stolid. He bears his imprisonment with dignity. Though he's a character whose misfortunates attract sympathy, he is not a character I warmed to. Arthur, on the other hand, is a passionate man, bringing his passion to bear on his writing, on cricket (he bowled W. G. Grace), on Jean, on spiritualism. His sheer enthusiasm for life is infectious. It's easy to believe that, if anyone could come back after death, it'd be Arthur Conan Doyle. And it's also perfectly credible that his heart will lead his head: that his statement to George, "No, I do not think you are innocent. No, I do not believe you are innocent. I know you are innocent" bespeaks a certain innocence. Arthur sets out to solve the case as Sherlock Holmes would have solved it, and leaps to a conclusion for which there's no real evidence. "It was all, George decided, the fault of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur had been too influenced by his own creation."

It's not just in George's case that Arthur lets imagination overcome him. Visiting Captain Anson, the Chief Constable, Arthur eyes his house approvingly: "What story did it all tell? one of money, breeding, taste, history, power. The family's name had been made in the eighteenth century, by Anson the circumnavigator, who had also laid down its first fortune." Within a page, we learn that Anson merely leased the house.

Barnes does some interesting things structurally. The novel is in four parts, each consisting of narrative sections headed 'Arthur' or 'George'. (Oddly, there are a couple of other narrative voices that appear and disappear very quickly: I can't help thinking that the novel would be stronger without them, because they don't say much that couldn't be conveyed by other means.) This narrative technique seems quite ordinary to me, but perhaps not to the author, who is quoted on the RandomHouse website as saying: "I did wonder how long I could sustain interest in a divided narrative. So I started with short sections to get both men to the action. Then, I titled a section 'Arthur and George' to say 'Look, this meeting happens. Keep reading. I know where I'm going.'" The chapter Barnes mentions features neither of the men -- but could be said to be the point at which their connection begins.

There are other stylistic oddities. George's chapters are in the present tense, until he's arrested. Arthur's are in the past tense, until he meets Jean. Once the two men meet, there are apparently random changes of tense. There's a general sense of restraint, of dignity, that fits the period well but doesn't let the reader engage as closely with the characters as he or she might wish.

There's a recurring theme of racism, from police harassment of teenaged George when poison-pen letters are sent to his father, to comments such as Anson's "a mixing of the blood produces a ... tendency to revert to barbarism". But George defines himself as English and believes that it's English nature, and nothing to do with himself as an individual, that has hastened his descent into obscurity: "the name of Dreyfus had increased in fame, and was known around the globe, while that of Edalji was scarcely known in Wolverhampton." It's clear, though, that Barnes believes there was more than a hint of racial discrimination involved -- even if Arthur argues against Anson's racism, even if George is blind to it.

The RandomHouse site, with a Flash memory game and some interesting remarks from the author, can be found here: Arthur and George.

Friday, January 04, 2008

#2: The Importance of Music to Girls -- Lavinia Greenlaw

Essex, though flat, is not straightforward ... single fields as broad as the view ... you see your destination long before you reach it. The back lanes through those fields are all hairpin bends and humpback bridges. Hedgerows tower and trees throw out awkward branches. Roads twist round copses, paths are eroded or overgrown, and fields either brim with crops or erupt under the plow. I felt so perpetually thwarted that if I came across open ground i would run for the sake of it. I never got anywhere even then.

A memoir of the author's teenage years in a sleepy Essex village in the late Seventies. From ballet classes in Hampstead ("ballet teaches you that each step or gesture is the outcome of another, a lesson I had already absorbed from Greek myth -- the tumble of lover into foe, child into mother, girl into tree, god into swan") to piano lessons and the Moonlight Sonata (sheet music notes that emphasise the cumulative effect of the triplets: "in other words this moonlight was also a concrete mixer, which made sense when I thought about the lunar effects on the tides and the tides' effects on a stony beach") to Essex itself (see above), Lavinia Greenlaw's life was full of music and thinking about music. Spotting the same phrase in Chopin and in Donna Summer, country dancing, school reports ... oh yes I remember it well. Though there are significant differences (a three-year age gap makes a lot of difference in your teens, and Ms Greenlaw's teen rebellion had a different soundtrack to mine) there's a great deal that's familiar.

It's likely to be familiar, more or less, to anyone (especially any female) who grew up obsessed by music. Girls only? I'm not so sure. A lot of the experiences here (first encounter with the police, first gigs, ambience of local record shop, standing in the kitchen at parties talking about music because you couldn't take over the stereo) are unisex. But there's a distinct sense of being different to the other girls. Greenlaw asks plenty of questions about why music wasn't that important to the girls she knew, but doesn't present easy answers.

Sophie and Julia each had a few records but they didn't get upset or excited about bands. I was thrilled by discovery, crushed by disappointment and mortified by any misplaced enthusiasm I had shown. I declared my allegiance, took a position and always had a view, not noticing that girls were bemused and boys found me boring. Was a girl not supposed to feel so strongly, let alone want so much to possess and know something for her own sake?

Greenlaw writes of the rise of punk, and of going to see the Damned in a field in Suffolk (they never showed): of getting her hair cut by the local hairdresser, who was thrilled because it was her first punk cut: of getting the ultimate geek accolade, an insult that's really a compliment. Some kid on the street yells "Punk!". "I was thrilled ... 'Punk' had nothing to do with being a girl. It neutralised, rejected and released me."

This book does what it says on the tin: it focusses on Greenlaw's love of, reaction to, self-definition through music. Sometimes we're surprised to be reminded that she has siblings, parents. ("My father left six months after I did. There was much I had refused to notice or had been told but would not hear.") In a lot of ways hers is a privileged upbringing: there are hints, towards the end of the book, that she'll have to deal with the tension between bourgeous comfort and sharp-edged rebellion at some stage. But the way she feels about music doesn't come from the ballet lessons or the sheet music or remembering when 'All the Young Dudes' was in the charts: it comes from inside.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

#1: The Custom of the Sea -- Neil Hanson

Some [survivors of shipwreck] will be driven to the extreme of self-destruction: suicide. Others will adopt the other extreme of self-preservation: the practise of cannibalism.

The Mignonette, an elderly vessel converted from fishing-boat to yacht, set sail from Southampton for Sydney in May 1884. Two months later, she was struck by a freak wave and sank, leaving four survivors in a tiny dinghy. When, after 24 days in an open boat with no food or water, the men were rescued, there were only three: the cabin boy, Richard Parker, had been killed and eaten. (This is the Richard Parker who lends his name to the tiger in Life of Pi.)

This book is about Parker's death, and about Tom Dudley, the Mignonette's captain, who slew him; about the 'custom of the sea' which meant that such acts of cannibalism had, historically, inspired sympathy rather than revulsion; and about the changes wrought in British law as a result of Richard Parker's fate.

Hanson's book contains a plethora of background information: the life and work of Samuel Plimsoll, the sailor's champion; the frightful conditions prevalent on board merchant ships in the nineteenth century; and, more relevantly, an account of other cases of shipwreck and cannibalism. Following the wreck of the Mary in 1845, "Heavy seas washed seventeen women overboard -- or so the survivors said. Not one man was lost at the same time. They were stranded for eight days before being rescued by settlers, who described them as suspiciously well-fed." Hanson concludes that "It is clear that many deaths from 'natural causes' (in shipwrecks) were actually murder and that many -- the majority of -- instances of lots being drawn were rigged or fabricated afterwards to conceal the murder of a disliked or disposable member of the company."

The problem with Parker's death, as far as the law was concerned, was that lots hadn't been drawn. Tom Dudley had repeatedly suggested that they drew lots to see who'd be killed to preserve the lives of the others: Stephens and Brooks had refused. Parker had already doomed himself -- or so the men agreed -- by drinking seawater: he was dying before the fatal blow was struck. Even Richard Parker's brother forgave Dudley. But Dudley and Stephens -- not Brooks who, though he had drunk Parker's blood and eaten his flesh, refused to accept any responsibility for the boy's death -- were tried for murder, and sentenced to sentenced to death, which was later commuted to six months' imprisonment by Queen Victoria.

Even before the men had been sentenced, Brooks was earning a living as 'The Cannibal of the High Seas'. He appeared all over the West Country and the south coast in a sideshow: "unshaven and dressed in suitably distressed rags, he posed in front of a crudely painted backdrop of the Mignonette's dinghy adrift on the ocean. For the further edification of the paying customers, he devoured scraps of raw meat in a gruesome simulacrum of the ordeal he had endured. In addition to the wages and his keep, he was allowed half the proceeds from the souvenir postcards of himself that he sold." (p. 336-7) Hanson points out that cannibalism (like tattooing) was an uncomfortable reminder to Victorian society that good British sailors were just as capable of primitive behaviour as the most ignorant savages. The converse of this is the revolted fascination which kept Brooks in funds for several months.

Tom Dudley was embittered by the treatment he'd received from British society. He never felt that he had done anything wrong -- a view with which Hanson clearly sympathises. It's clear, though, that all three men -- Dudley emigrating to Australia, where he died of bubonic plague; Stephens who turned to drink and died a pauper; Brooks who went to his grave asserting that he hadn't killed Parker -- were broken by their experiences.

Some of the prose attributed to Dudley seems to have been refined by a more educated writer: "Men will do what they always have done in order to survive, for no instinct is stronger than that. But never again will men return to these shores and freely confess what they have done ..." Dudley's voice is clearer and more poignant in the letter, his 'rambling impassioned plea' post-sentence: I can assure you I shall never forget the sight of my two unfortunate companions over that gastly meal. We all was like mad wolfs, who should get the most. For men, fathers of children, to commit such a deed we could not have our right reason, and it cannot be expected that we had ... what mortal tongue can tell our sufferings but our own?