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

Friday, February 22, 2008

#19: Notes from an Exhibition -- Patrick Gale

"Was she happy?"
"She was bipolar so happiness didn't come into it. She was often high, often wildly elated, which could make her fun to be around but I don't think she was ever steadily content."


I can see this being a book that stays in the back of my mind, and occasionally a scene or a character re-presents itself as I notice something else.

It's plain from the first page that the novel's protagonist, Rachel Kelly, is dead: the 'exhibition notes' that preface each chapter come from a posthumous retrospective of her career as a brilliant but driven artist. The first chapter, told from Rachel's point of view, is a scene from late in her life, from inside her bipolar disorder. Other chapters are told from the viewpoints of her gentle husband Anthony, whose Quaker faith gives him the fortitude to endure Rachel's swings from mania to despair, and from the viewpoints of each of their four children: Garfield, Hedley, Morwenna and Petroc. Each member of the family has been broken in different ways by Rachel's illness. Each of them holds secrets about Rachel and about the family.

If Notes from an Exhibition had only been about the gradual revelations, it would be a captivating read. It's also about the creative process and about depression, and about the way the two intersect. Some of Rachel's finest work is produced while she's pregnant and off medication: after each child is born she pays the price mentally. Her family learn to accept 'the maddening truth that art was the one thing that stilled and focussed her impossibly restless personality; art won through where her family failed'.

Rachel's illness is diagnosed as wholly chemical: Had she suffered from conventional depression, there was no doubt she would sooner or later have taken a talking cure and been encouraged by a therapist to dig over her life before coming to England. As it was ... her only therapy was chemical-based, which always worked in the end. I've started to wonder if the diagnosis was accurate, because the glimpses of Rachel's life as a teenager in Toronto indicate some pretty grim family stuff. Rachel, though, has built a wall of secrets to shore up her life. Only after the end of the novel are some of those secrets likely to be disclosed to those most intimately affected by them.

The artworks described in the notes at the beginning of each chapter are riddled with clues about relationships, secrets, connections: so, for that matter, is the whole novel. Something (for instance Rachel's collection of beach stones) is mentioned in passing by one character, but only attains significance when another character sheds light on it. (Which stone did Rachel hurl through the window?) There are events that are described only by their absence, by the empty shape of them, by the marks they leave on others. There are events that are never explained, and words that are not spoken. (What did Rachel say to Morwenna?) Yet there's no sense of Gale baiting or puzzling or confusing the reader. The gaps in the novel are the kind of gaps that happen in reality: the things too familiar to dwell upon, the things too hurtful to remember.

I'm not sure I like Gale's prose style: it's either deceptively simple or just simple. There is something simultaneously rough and bland about it. The voices of the characters are less distinct than, say, the voices in Ali Smith's The Accidental. But I find that his metaphors and especially his eye for landscape have crept into my head while I wasn't looking.

I want to visit the exhibition.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

#18: The Lady Tree -- Christie Dickason

He had gone to the dark boundary, gazed across and, to his surprise, returned. He felt that he should have died. His survival distorted the smooth unrolling of time, as if he were a bulge of undigested frog in the belly of a snake. He felt both raw and precious, an unset gem, a gift to himself.

The Lady Tree, set in rural England and in Amsterdam in 1636, is the story of John Nightingale, known as John Graffham, and the phenomenon of tulip frenzy.

John, oprhaned at 7, murdered a man at 14 and has spent the last eleven years in hiding at his uncle's country estate -- Hawkridge House, in the tranquil Hampshire countryside. He loves the house and especially its gardens and fields, and has applied his knowledge of and passion for botany to the estate.

Then everything changes: his cousin Harry, accompanied by his new wife and a passel of business associates, descends upon Hawkridge and threatens the life that John has built for himself. Money's tight, a commercial venture in the East Indies looks set to fail, and John's knowledge of botany might give the consortium the edge in the fevered new market of tulip speculation. Travelling to Amsterdam, John encounters the trader Coymans, Coymans' beautiful and adventurous sister Marika, an artist known only as Saski, and a population -- from the widow who rents John a room, to apprentices and artisans who stake the tools of their trades -- desperate to speculate on tulips.

I've owned this book since the paperback edition was published (1999) but never got around to reading it until now. Some of the reviews made it sound like another period romance, a Philippa Gregory clone (though I read and adored Earthly Joys, Gregory's first novel about the Tradescant family), a 17th-century thriller. Dickason's writing hooked me from the first page, with its sensual detail, its dreamlike density, the unexpected metaphors and the sheer wealth of historical detail. John is a fascinating character with a dangerous streak: Zeal, Harry's wife, is prickly and uncertain but matures -- blossoms -- into a delightful character (faintly reminiscent of a young Philippa Somerville): Harry means well, truly he does, but is overwhelmed by his own ambition. Even minor characters have depth and motivation. The villain of the piece (who's hero, or at least protagonist, of the sequel) seemed a little shallow at times, but then we're seeing him through John's eyes, and John does not care for him at all.

There's a sense of being solidly immersed in landscape -- whether a beech hanger in Hampshire or a muddy field in Holland -- that balances the wider picture of a world in which England's a minor power impoverished by war and Holland a major trading empire. A sense of there being a world beyond John's personal knowledge but not beyond his reach.

I'm very much looking forward to Quicksilver, the sequel.

Monday, February 11, 2008

#17: The Court of the Air -- Stephen Hunt

Jackals, the setting of The Court of the Air, is at first glance a kind of steampunk Britain, where people play four-sticks (cricket), have a nice cup of cafeel, and rebel against the establishment in the name of Carlism. There are Uplanders with tartan kilts and sack-pipes; there are workhouses and a Royal Navy, albeit an air-borne one; and there are quite a few in-jokes, often rather nasty, such as the statement that 'no monarch shall ever raise his arms against his people again'.

But this is not our world. There are twenty planets in the solar system; the earth is subject to 'floatquakes' in which regions of land are sent spiralling off into the atmosphere, reminding me irresistably of early Yes album covers; there is something rather puzzling about the location of harbours; and there seem to be only seventy visible stars.

Also, in this world it is quite acceptable to use a single adjective, throughout, to describe somebody. I stopped counting instances of 'the disreputable Stave' when I ran out of fingers ...

But on with the book.

Molly is an orphan with a knack for mechanicals. Oliver is an orphan, victim of an airship crash that left him amnesiac and 'registered' as a potential feybreed, liable to express super-powers and / or start murdering the innocent. The fate of the world -- menaced by old deities with a taste for blood and a desire for stasis -- may well depend on these two, the sword and the shield, but they won't get far without help from their friends.

It's a compulsive page-turner, with new conundrums, characters and plot threads coming thick and fast. I'm not sure that all of those threads are pulled together at the end. When Oliver says, near the end, "my head is so full, sometimes it's difficult to think," I found myself entirely in sympathy. There are some marvellous notions in this book, some clever twists, some truly likeable characters. But it feels as though too much has been packed in. Genre staple after genre staple turns up. There are things like Cybermen, six-legged vertebrates, sky-pirates, swashbuckling airship captains, genteel lady archaeologists, computer hackers (a clever and witty steampunk variant, featuring the language Simple, which is clearly nothing at all like Basic), hexed torcs to control the Special Guard, red-lit subterranean cities, "lizard mammals" (nooooo), Elder Gods ...

I did wonder if The Court of the Air, with all its swashbuckling and intrigue, was originally intended for a young adult audience. There's plenty of violence, mutilation and torture, but it's often off-stage and seldom described in any detail. There's very little swearing and no sex.

I wanted to like this book more. I expected, from the reviews, to like it more. But I did feel there was far too much plot in there, not always fully resolved. Hunt's prose could do with another edit. There are too many repetitions and cliches: too many phrases ("as cold and as cool as the irrigation waters", "shattered down the door") that could easily be improved: too many scenes that feel rushed.

That said, I'm fascinated by the world Hunt creates, and impressed by his powers of imagination. I'll keep an eye out for his next one.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

#16: Where Three Roads Meet -- Salley Vickers

It is clear to me now that he had forged his identity from the sound of his name: oida, to know, quite ignoring the obvious meaning oidi, which is to say swollen. An alpha for an iota makes for more than a jot of change. There's a world of difference between swollen and knowing, unless you intend to imply a swollen head, which was partly, I fear, the problem.

Another in the Canongate Myths series, Where Three Roads Meet examines the Oedipus myth by retelling it. The teller of the tale is Tiresias, the blind seer. He is recounting events as he recalls them to Doctor Sigmund Freud, dying slowly and agonisingly of cancer in Hampstead on the eve of the Second World War.

Tiresias, to whom Freud can speak -- in Greek, it seems to him -- without moving his mouth, is clearly visible to the man he has visited. He is an old, blind man, walking with a stick, lame: his identity isn't initially stated, but Freud seems to know him, and does not question his presence or the long strange journey he must have made from ancient Greece to Hampstead Heath.

I heard the author talk about this novel back in December, and was obscurely disappointed to find that Tiresias explains away one major aspect of his own story (that he lived seven years as a woman, possibly after striking a pair of fornicating serpents) rather glibly. Freud would surely have had a field day with that! But this is not Tiresias's story: it's a different angle on the story of Oedipus, 'the one person you could safely say didn't have the complex you dreamed up for him'. Tiresias suggests the involvement of Dionysus (Oedipus conceived after Jocasta made Laius drunk; news imparted by a drunken dinner guest ...) and concludes that Oedipus's flaw was not letting well enough alone.

There is some glorious writing in this short novel, in particular when Tiresias recalls the land of his youth:
Nothing on earth is more real to me than Delphi. In all weathers, in all lights, in all minds it is a place of peculiar power, of natural grace. Of astonishing brilliance and darkness. A fearsome yet remediate place, of measureless quiet and fathomless awe. Delphi's impress never leaves me: the deep-shadowed dells, the steep gorges which refract far-shooting Apollo's light and the ravines where his ravens nest and cry and a body might fall and perish and the bones never be found: the fierce springs which run ice-cold under the earth and emerge as fountains: the pale mornings, misty as narcissus under snow, for the snow can lie heavy on the heights well into spring. The remorseless summer noons, when the sun carves shadows stern as stone and marble and the only balm is the smell of wild thyme perfusing the still air; the indigo twilight, hymned by the high-voiced bats ...

I'm not a reader or speaker of Greek, ancient or modern, but some of Vickers' prose -- especially in that passage -- remind me of the rhythm, the images, the stacked adjectives of Homer-in-translation.

Vickers writes of Oedipus, and of Jocasta, sensitively and humanely: these are not just mythic emblems but real people, even when seen through centuries of hindsight by blind Tiresias. And her Freud, too, is a sympathetic character. An introduction provides the biographical context in clear and succinct prose, while the tale itself consists solely of the conversation between the two men. Vickers' interpretation, that Oedipus's fatal flaw was 'the need to know what he needed not to know' -- a flaw encoded in a misreading of his own name, as in the passage I quote at the beginning of this review -- seems convincing, emotionally as well as logically. A thoughtful and thought-provoking book.

#15: Frangipani -- CĂ©lestine Hitiura Vaite

... people always say rain is good for the plants, and that is true, but rain ... is music to a woman's ears and warms the soul. When it splatters on the tin roof it makes you feel a bit melancholic, and takes you back to some happy days, or to those black years you've had but survived because you're a woman and surviving is not a foreign word to women from anywhere in the world. Watching rain is magic. It calms the anxious spirit and the tormented soul. It gives women hope. It reminds us how strong we are.

Frangipani, though it focuses on Matarena Mahi -- champion professional cleaner, excellent listener and typically Tahitian mother -- may be the story of her daughter Leilani. Perhaps it's the set of encyclopaedias that Matarena bought for her clever and inquisitive daughter when she found herself unable to answer the little girl's questions. Perhaps it's the lack of a strong father-figure (Leilani's father Pito is emotionally absent even when he's around) or Leilani's own cleverness. But the times are a-changing and Matarena's 'Welcome into Womanhood' talk, however much she updates it from the usual old-fashioned superstitions and folktales ("Only buy two-sided tablecloths, that way you'll have two tablecloths for the price of one. Don't eat in front of people if you can't share. Don't get married before you have at least one child with your man.") is not going to be enough for her daughter.

I'm not a mother, but this novel took me right into the loving, sometimes quarrelsome closeness of a healthy mother/daughter relationship. I felt Matarena's frustration at her daughter's independence, her fears on hearing of her daughter's first boyfriend, her pride in Leilani's academic achievements.

Frangipani also immerses the reader in Tahitian life: a culture and language spiced with French and pidgin, a life of genteel poverty with plenty of pride, a society where the neighbours are all 'relatives' and everyone knows everybody else's business. Vaite's insider knowledge (she was born and grew up in a fibreglass shack in Tahiti) makes for a rich and idiosyncratic style that's easy to read -- and easy to imagine being read aloud. With the best will in the world, an outsider writing about this society would glamorise or sensationalise some aspects: Vaite is clearly writing about a life she knows intimately, and her tone is affectionate and matter-of-fact.

On first reading, I kept wondering when the story was going to start: I seemed to be reading anecdote after anecdote, isolated incidents without any clear direction. Only on reaching the end and looking back did I realise how subtly the story of Leilani (and the parallel growth and achievement of her mother, inspired by her daughter just as Leilani's been supported and encouraged by Matarena) had been conveyed.

I'm not sure this is a book I'd have chosen independently: it was recommended by a friend. Vaite's voice is distinctive and the flow of her prose is warm and amiable, making this ideal holiday reading.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

#14: Outerbridge Reach -- Robert Stone

It was difficult to isolate and address hallucinations, which were part and parcel of sailing alone. It was hard sometimes to distinguish them from the genuine insights which only the sea provided. Sometimes you had to take the bitter with the sweet.

Based on the true story of Donald Crowhurst, this novel explores the thoughts, dreams and rage of a middle-aged man who sets out to sail alone around the world and chooses not to complete his voyage.

Owen Browne is happily married, with a job he enjoys -- salesman at Altan Marine, purveyors of yachts to the wealthy. A market crash is the first sign that Browne's halcyon existence may not be as secure as he imagines. When Matty Hylan, owner of Altan Marine's parent company, goes missing, Browne volunteers to take his place in a solo circumnavigation race -- even though he's only sailed alone once in his life, a five-day passage in which he experienced hallucinations and loneliness.

His wife Anne is outwardly serene, though it's clear that she's facing her own midlife crisis with rather more aplomb than her husband. Their daughter Maggie has the other kind of life crisis, teenage rebellion: she'll hardly speak to her father before he sails.

And then he's alone at sea on the Nona, leading the race, while back in Long Island his wife collaborates with documentary filmmaker Strickland on a film that will immortalise Owen Browne. Strickland, it transpires, is something of a cynic: the movers and the shakers are all fakes. He films what he sees but doesn't believe in it. Perhaps that's the real contrast to Browne, who sees what is not real and gradually begins to trust his own perceptions.

Outerbridge Reach is a subtle novel: even the title, which refers to a hulk-strewn stretch of foreshore in New York Harbour that is Anne's dowry, took a long time to click with me. (It's not, or not just, that it's 'a place of loneliness, violence and terrible labour', as Browne thinks to himself when he sails past before the race. It's Anne's dowry and the death of hope.) Stone never really explains Browne's mental state, but he shows it in a hundred careful word-choices: Browne 'declines' rather than 'refuses', throughout; the language used to describe him is frequently couched in negatives, 'he was not one of the Ten Thousand', 'the individual he had spent his whole life earnestly not becoming'.

Stone writes of sailing, of the machinery and the technology available to any modern yachtsman, without blinding the reader with detail. The storm-scenes are frighteningly vivid, and Browne's isolation, chatting in Morse code across thousands of miles on the Southern Ocean, is shown unsentimentally but with aching precision. Stone's style is clear and measured, and he takes us slowly and calmly off the edge of the map.

This was the third of the novels I read on holiday that unexpectedly quoted lyrics from 'The House of the Rising Sun'.

#13: Blood and Iron -- Elizabeth Bear

You can apparently be a whole goddamned bushel of fairy tales. It's required. We're all fairy tales together.

Blood and Iron riffs on ballad and faerie tale, and especially on Tam Lin and the tithe to Hell: what effect did Tam Lin's escape have on policy in the Faerie Court? has anyone ever come back from Hell? what benefit accrues from that tithe?

Elaine Andraste is part-Fae, part mortal, and Seeker of the Daoine Sidhe, a kind of talent scout for changelings and those with faerie blood. It's a dirty job and a thankless one, but she is bound to obey, and her son's held hostage in case she should balk.

Blood and Iron is, on one level, the story of Elaine's quest for the Merlin -- not a name but a title, pertaining to a powerful magician -- who turns out, this time round, to be Dr Carel Bierce, musician and professor of geology and female to boot. Legend being cyclic, or at least doomed to repeat itself, the reappearance of the Merlin heralds the appearance of a new Dragon Prince: a mythic warrior-king who appears once every five hundred years to lead his people to freedom. Past incumbents include Arthur, Harold Godwinson (King of England to 1066) and Vlad Dracul.

This would all be trying enough without the opposition: the centuries-old Prometheus Club, mortals whose agenda is to promote Reason, Technology and cold Iron at the expense of the Fae, who have been fading ever since the world began to be ringed with iron railways, steamships and the cult of the material. The Prometheans are planning a raid on Faerie to retrieve all the children stolen through the ages: they seek the Merlin's power as eagerly as do the Fae.

There is considerably more to the tale than this: the Matter of Britain, the Dragon Herself, a speaking willowtree (neither as jovial nor as predatory as one might expect), a tribe of Scottish werewolves, and Morgan le Fay, who kicks ass. There are, in particular, some very interesting developments subsequent to what I want to call The Tam Lin Affair: for instance, the Queen of Fairy (the Medb) does now steal away the hearts of her young mortal lovers. Because although the old stories keep coming around, they can be changed.

I don't think I like Elaine very much: but I feel her pain, and I am utterly fascinated by her knife-edge relationship with Uisgebaugh, the kelpie she's bound, who goes by the name of Whiskey, can be human or equine in form and is pretty much obliged to plot the downfall of his captor. Elaine, luckily, can hold her own (and the trick she plays is mirrored in narrative in a way that made me simultaneously punch the air and wonder whether it shouldn't have been the other way around).

I've been struggling with this review: I don't know whether it's because of the plot, the characters, the backstory or the tone of the novel. It may simply be that there are a great many things I want to point to and say "Shiny!" I've a nagging feeling that I've been beguiled by the words and the speakers, and missed something vital in the plot. But I don't mind reading again: for the Medb's court, thornily terrible and beguilingly (and liberally) erotic; for Murchaud, Duke of Hell, whose back story I'd very much like to read; for the fast, noirish prose and the rich twistiness of plot; for Aine (a.k.a. the Cat Anna), Queen of the Leannan Sidhe; for the stories that change and the ones that entrap.

This was the second of three books I read on holiday that unexpectedly quoted 'The House of the Rising Sun'.

#12: The River King -- Alice Hoffman

Haddan, Mass., is a small town split by an old schism: Town versus Gown, with the townsfolk suspicious of staff and students at the prestigious Haddan School.

A dozen years after the Haddan School was built, a public high school was erected in the neighboring town of Hamilton, which meant a five-mile trek to classes on days when the snow was knee-deep and the weather so cold even the badgers kept to their dens. Each time a Haddan boy walked through a storm to the public school his animosity toward the Haddan School grew, a small bump on the skin of ill will ready to rupture at the slightest contact. In this way a hard bitterness was forged, and the spiteful sentiment increased every year, until there might as well have been a fence dividing those who came from the school and the residents of the village. Before long, anyone who dared to cross that line was judged to be either a martyr or a fool.

The novel focuses on three newcomers to Haddan. Carlin Leander, 14 and poor as dirt, has been awarded a swim scholarship. Her classmate Gus (Augustus) Pierce is a recidivist truant and bad boy, possibly also a Goth. Betsy Chase, fiancee of the would-be Head of Classics at the school, has been hired to teach photography. The fourth protagonist, Abel Grey, has lived in Haddan all his life. He's a policeman, as were his father and his grandfather before him. He has a lot to live up to.

The River King is an autumnal novel, with almost all of the action taking place over the course of the first term of the school year. On the day after Hallowe'en, a body is found in the river. By spring, the mystery of that murder has been resolved. Because this is so much more than a murder mystery I don't feel I've given much away here.) There are plenty of ghosts, mostly figurative: Abel's brother who committed suicide, Betsy's parents who were struck by lightning, Annie Hopkins, wife of a former head of the school, whose death when heavily pregnant may have been at her own hand or another's; the body in the river; the friend left behind, the one who couldn't stop wondering what it might be like to see light filtered deep under water, to breathe in water lilies and stones rather than air.

This is a novel full of roses (usually white, occasionally dyed red); of silver fish, in and out of their element -- the river floods, and Carlin sees fish spiralling beside her as she exercises -- and the three stars of Orion's belt; of images repeated and varied like motifs and themes in a symphony. There are secrets that come to light only slowly, and old injustices that are not made right but rather balanced out. The River King is set in the grey areas of morality. Perhaps two wrongs do make a right, or as close to right as is practical. Perhaps injustice doesn't deserve justice.

Haddan is firmly rooted in contemporary small-town America, and Hoffman sketches the characters' relationships with a fine pen, just enough detail to make each person unique, credible, human. There are sub-plots about love, about loneliness, about escape. There are events and observations that seem supernatural (or is this magic realism?) yet without sensationalism. Hoffman's dense prose has a timeless quality, a kind of fairytale lyricism and echoing weight that I'm coming to associate with her prose. This 2001 novel has me keen to read more of her work.