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

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

2010/69: The Mislaid Magician -- Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

I can find no observations on the effect of running a steam locomotive in the vicinity of a ley line. The stationary steam engines used in mines have, to date, not been located near enough to ley lines for any difficulties to become apparent. I found, however, any number of papers regarding the tapping of ley energies. Most of them warn of inadvisable methods of attempting it, or deal with the catastrophic results of applying such techniques. (p.73)

The subtitle of this, the third in the sequence that began with Sorcery and Cecelia, is Being the Private Correspondence Between Two Prominent Families Regarding a Scandal Touching the Highest Levels of Government and the Security of the Realm. There is, indeed, a great deal of political discussion and speculation in the letters of Kate, Cecelia, James and Thomas: there is also a lot of family gossip and commentary. The younger generation are variously afflicted with colds, kidnapping and a excess of curiosity regarding their parents’ magical enterprises; Cecelia’s feckless sister Georgy turns up at Kate’s house, having apparently fled her husband.

The Mislaid Magician is set in 1828, eleven years after Sorcery and Cecelia. The main plot concerns the disappearance of Herr Scheller, a Prussian railway surveyor-magician, while assessing the route of the Stockton-Darlington railway. James, still a favourite of Wellington (who is now Prime Minister), is sent north to investigate, in company with Cecelia: Thomas and Kate find themselves embroiled in a different aspect of the intrigue. There are ley lines, stone circles (though actually, no, these are not found ‘all over England’), steam engines, echoes of fairytale villains, knitted cryptography, and a kidnapped heiress who refuses to speak. (I should have spotted who this was, but hadn’t realised she used her middle name in later life.)

I loved Sorcery and Cecelia, and though the later books haven’t had quite the same impact I very much enjoy the combination of frothy frivolity, well-thought-out magical practices, and alternate history. There’s a nice set-up for further books at the end of The Mislaid Magician, and I look forward to them.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

2010/68: London Bridges -- Jane Stevenson

She stopped and gestured at the pub they were passing, very ordinary-looking apart from its bright blue paintwork, with a flat, tiled frontage. “Look at this notice beside the door. It says it’s been here since 1462. Shakespeare probably drank here. See what I mean? Even the bars turn out to be historic.”
“I never noticed that. But why shouldn’t it still be here?” objected Dil. “Getting thirsty’s one of those things that just goes on happening. ‘S not really worth noticing. If we come back at opening time, we won’t find a bunch of Elizabethan actors quaffing sack, it’d be the guys from the wholesalers tipping down lager.”(p. 206)

London Bridges is a thriller set in contemporary London, though the plot ranges from seventeenth-century Greece to the wilds of Somerset. Jeanene is an Australian graduate student, studying classical Greek: while working in a Mayfair pharmacy she encounters Dr Sebastian Raphael, an ebullient academic specialising in the history and culture of Byzantium. Sebastian, it turns out, is off to Mount Athos in Greece, to visit the abbot of St Michael’s, in search of the sole surviving copy of the Alexiad, a sixth-century Greek poem which might make Sebastian’s name in the cut-throat world of the Institute. He traces the manuscript to London, to the church of St Michael which was destroyed in the Blitz: and then to the sole surviving representative of a small Greek merchant bank, Mr Eugenides, who lives a reclusive life in the heart of the City and is only too glad to help Sebastian.

Mr Eugenides has another new friend, a young lawyer named Edward Lupset, for whom the term ‘Yuppie Scum’ might have been invented. Edward, with the help of an unscrupulous Greek solicitor, has discovered a legal loophole concerning the bombed church, and confidently expects to make his fortune from it. Unfortunately Edward has neither respect for nor knowledge of history (morality also seems to be a closed, burnt and buried book to him) and his cunning plan goes awry.

There’s a sub-plot concerning a community garden built on the bombsite, and an interesting cast of supporting characters (including Hattie, who is introduced in a prefatory passage quoted from Margery Allingham’s The China Governess, and who is involved with a charity that derives its funds ‘from the chantry charities of the old London bridges’ (p. 86): this seems the only connection with the novel’s title, unless you take into account the frequent shuttlings between the City and Southwark). Because of a structural idiosyncrasy -- the book opens with a chapter that, chronologically, occurs about half-way through -- there’s less mystery for the reader, and more frustration as the characters thrash about in their ignorance. But London Bridges is atmospheric, very firmly rooted in modern London despite Jeanene’s constant awe at seeing Literature 101 all around her, and nicely paced. The final denouement didn’t fit with the feel of the rest of the novel (geographically or emotionally) but it did echo the occasional echoes of farce and slapstick.

I had to look up Godscall Palaeologue, the subject of a portrait that Sebastian admires, and was relieved to find that she only actually exists in Jane Stevenson’s novels: now I want to read the trilogy that culminates in The Empress of the Last Days, because I’m pretty sure it’ll have the same blend of humour, characterisation and genuine love for history that I found in London Bridges.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

2010/67: Memoirs of a Muse -- Lara Vapnyar

A muse ... doesn’t simply entertain. She inspires, she influences the great man’s work. ... He, the great man, would be sitting frozen in front of a blank sheet of paper, empty canvas, silent piano, and I would walk in. Five feet five, flat-chested and skinny, but with a great fire in my eyes, or a strange remarkable gait or carriage, or speaking in an especially melodic voice, and he -- the writer, artist or composer -- would snap his fingers and say, “Yes!” and hit his piano, slab of marble or creaky typewriter, and create with great fire in his eyes an enormous, magnificent work. And then generations of people would admire that work and see the fire that would still burn behind it centuries later. And it would be I who had lit that fire! (p. 48-9)

Tatiana Rumer (Tanya) is a young historian from the collapsing Soviet Union, who emigrates to New York with the sole ambition of becoming the muse who’ll inspire some as-yet-unknown artist to magnificent works. She dreams of Dostoevsky, and is inspired by his passionate relationship with his mistress Polina (Appolinaria Suslova): who’d want to be Anna Grigorievna, Dostoevsky’s wife whose diaries barely mention the great novels her husband wrote while married to her?

In New York she works hard on finding a struggling artist, and settles on Mark, a middle-aged writer whose novel After the Beginning is stalled due to writer’s block. Gradually, Tanya -- who learns to read English from the romance novels supplied by a canny neighbour -- realises that from Mark’s point of view, she is not Polina but Anna: she does not inspire him. (Gradually, too, she begins to recognise that his work is banal in the extreme.) Mark and I were very much alike, if you thought about it. Two people with immense aspirations and limited abilities, except for our one great gift -- the belief that we were what we wanted to be ... (p. 201)

Memoirs of a Muse is often very funny, and Tanya’s growth from pretentious adolescent to thoughtful, cosmopolitan (and inspirational) adult is interesting. I can’t say I found her a likeable protagonist, though, and the final pages felt as though she’d given up -- although the end of the novel could also be read as another, more adult and realistic, form of success. She seems dismissive of the artist she has inspired, because that person is as different from her daydreams as is possible.

Memoirs of a Muse makes a window on modern Russian life, and on the experience of Russian immigrants in New York -- an experience shared by the author. There’s an interview here that gave me much more perspective on the novel, and made me revisit some of my impressions. There’s also more detail on the relationship between Polina and Dostoevsky, which Tanya tries so hard to emulate but which perhaps is less practical in modern America than in 19th-century Europe.

2010/66: A Map of Glass -- Jane Urquhart

People like me are supposed to have next to no attention span. But in fact, in my case, quite the opposite is true: my attention span is limitless; it's just a matter of where my focus settles: a buried hotel, a butter press, the salt shaker, the County atlas, the genealogy and then, and then him, him, him. (p. 134)

Jerome, a young artist, discovers the body of a dead man in the ice of Lake Ontario, where he's spending time in solitary artistic retreat. Fast-forward a year: Sylvia, a middle-aged doctor's wife, is venturing alone to the city -- despite her nameless 'condition', which has enforced a sheltered life -- to seek out Jerome and speak of the dead man, Andrew, who was her lover.

At first Jerome isn't enthusiastic about talking to this 'old woman': his girlfriend Mira smoothes the way. Soon enough he's drawn into Sylvia's story and her innate strangeness. Sylvia tells of watching Andrew gradually forget her even when they were in the same room; she speaks of his fascination with historical geography -- "the mistakes of his ancestors had made this a kind of dynastic necessity" (p. 77) -- and the energy he poured into unravelling the stories of those ancestors. His journals, which Sylvia has kept (this is important) and lends to Jerome and Mira, describe the lives of Branwell and Annabelle, brother and sister, who grew up on that lake-island in the late nineteenth century. Branwell became a prosperous hotelier; Annabelle remained unmarried, painting scenes of destruction wholly disconnected with the quiet vistas of the lake. Around them, the economy changed from wood to shipping to barley; the land changed, and broke; the sand rose and swamped the hotel.

The characters in A Map of Glass are flawed, startling, doing their best. Sylvia's 'condition' is never named, though her husband discusses it with Jerome. Andrew's illness is only named at the end of the novel: until then it's eerie, limitless, strange and estranging. Jerome hauls his own past (and especially his relationships with his parents) out for inspection. And back in the heyday of the shipping business, Annabelle roots herself in the land, holds on, carves herself a quiet life. (She is not a romantic, as is evidenced by her remarks on Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot: “She should have stuck to her loom, or better still, she should have gone outdoors into the fresh air and got some exercise.” (p. 232))

Sylvia -- "Haven’t I always been a missing person?" -- is at the heart of the novel. She sees how the past is layered -- buried -- beneath the present, both literally (decades of wallpaper covering a beautiful and painstakingly-executed mural) and figuratively. Though she has seldom ventured beyond the confines of the County where she lives, she knows her territory intimately, and moves through a landscape that has a temporal dimension.

Each aspect of the County ... had been named, filled, emptied, ploughed and planted long ago; all harvests belonged to the dead who insisted on their entitlement. "I cut the trees, built the mills, sawed the boards, made the roads, fenced the fields, raised the barns," they had told her in the dark of her childhood bedroom. (p. 147)

A Map of Glass -- the title has several resonances, including the textured maps that Sylvia makes for her blind friend Julia, and the tale of a melted glass floor, and Robert Smithson's artwork Map of Broken Glass -- is, I suppose, a love story: but the love story is as much between Andrew and landscape, between Jerome and art, between Sylvia and her intimate focus on the world, as it is between Sylvia and Andrew.

Another wintry novel, and a quietly thought-provoking one. I'll look out for more by this author.

2010/65: The Slynx -- Tatyana Tolstaya

I only wanted books -- nothing more -- only books, only words, it was never anything but words -- give them to me, I don’t have any! ... What do you mean there’s nothing? Then how can you talk and cry, what words are you frightened with, which ones do you call out in your sleep? Don’t nighttime cries roam inside you, a thudding twilight murmur, a fresh morning shriek? There they are, words -- don’t you recognise them? They’re writhing inside you, trying to get out! From wood, stone, roots, growing in strength, a dull mooing and whining in the gut is trying to get out; a piece of tongue curls, the torn nostrils swell in torment. That’s how the bewitched, beaten, and twisted snuffle with a mangy wail, their boiled white eyes locked up in closets, their vein torn out, backbone clawed; that’s how your pushkin writhed ...(p. 268)

The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstaya’s post-apocalypse novel, is as notable for the translation (I don’t read Russian, but I recognise lyricism and wordplay) as for the original text. It’s a very Russian novel, packed with allusions to Russian literature -- especially Pushkin -- and resonating with images from Russian folk tales (a princess in a tower on an island, braiding her gold and silver hair) and with an air of good-humoured endurance under oppression.

The Slynx is set in the town that was once Moscow, two centuries after the Blast which shattered civilisation and drove the survivors back into primitive ways. Those who were alive at the time of the Blast do not age: they are prone to sitting around decrying modern life and saying things like “What concrete benefit did you derive from your strength? Did you accomplish anything socially beneficial to the community?” (p. 7) The rest of the Golubchiks (comrades) -- many afflicted with Consequences, such as horns / tails / cox-combs / extra eyes -- are more concerned with the grim realities of subsistence. The economy is based largely on mice, which make a tasty soup and can be skinned for furs, though it does take rather a lot to make a winter coat. There are also succulent, though poisonous, rabbits roosting in the treetops. And worms can be stewed.

Benedikt, the protagonist of The Slynx, is a young clerk who makes a living copying out the works of Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. It quickly becomes apparent to the reader, though not to Benedikt, that Fyodor Kuzmich is passing off great literature as his own creation, a deception made possible by his edict forbidding the Golubchiks from owning pre-Blast literature. This edict is enforced by the Saniturions, who seize any forbidden works. Benedikt, who is besotted by books, marries into a family of Saniturions and discovers what happens to all the confiscated books. All is bliss until he finds he’s read everything there is to read.

The eponymous Slynx is (according to the old folk) a forest monster that attacks wanderers, snaps their spines and picks out the big vein: “all the reason runs right out of you ... you don’t even know where you’re headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon” (p. 3). The Slynx never really appears in this novel; at least not in the form that Benedikt expects.

The Slynx is marvellously inventive, satirical, full of black humour and allusion. The prose -- which reminded me in places of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker -- kept me hooked, but the story became less compelling in the latter third of the novel, and the resolution didn’t support the weight of what had gone before. Beautiful, bookish, and funny, but ultimately not wholly satisfying.

Monday, August 16, 2010

2010/64: The Girl with Glass Feet -- Ali Shaw

”Maybe you noticed something different. When you returned to St Hauda’s Land. A taste on the air. A mannerism the birds have. A peculiar snowfall, making almost mathematical patterns. A white animal that’s not an albino... for the most part, people are either born here and are used to these things, or they move away. There aren’t many people who come here.” (p. 108)
Midas Crook lives on the remote northern archipelago of St Hauda’s Land, perfectly accustomed to the almost incestuous tangle of island life, and the strangeness all around him. His father committed suicide in a grandiose Viking-style burning boat; his mother lives, lamed and maimed by a luminous jellyfish, in the tantalisingly-named hamlet of Martyr’s Leap. Somewhere in the woods is an animal of pure white (except the blue patch on the back of its neck): every living being that sees this unnamed beast becomes bleached, colourless, white as snow. (This is a very wintry novel.) When Midas makes the acquaintance of Ida Maclaird -- who first visited the islands the previous summer, as a tourist -- and discovers that she is slowly, feet-first, turning to glass, it surprises him but does not shake his world view.

This is a beautiful book -- beautifully written, and a beautiful physical object. (the hardcover has mirror-bright page edges). Shaw’s prose sings; the island’s stark monochromatic landscapes made me shiver on a hot summer’s day; there’s a sense of interconnectedness, of hidden meaning, from the glass body in the bog to the possible use of the local jellyfish as a cure for vitrification. (I loathe jellyfish, am quite phobic about them: but the jellyfish in this novel are marvellous, lovely, alive.)

Unfortunately too much of that meaning remains hidden. I found myself hoping for revelation if not resolution: instead, I came away with a sense of having forgotten the salient details of a beautiful but disturbing dream. The key to this novel is transformation, but by the last page only Midas really seems likely to metamorphose into something better -- and that’s by no means certain. Other characters seem trapped, literally or figuratively: frozen, drowned, imprisoned.

St Hauda’s Land reminds me of Margaret Elphinstone’s islands: Hy Brasil, Ellan Vannin. The strangeness, the little mysteries presented as mundane, remind me more of Patricia McKillip. I’ll look forward to more of Shaw’s fiction.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

2010/63: Wide Sargasso Sea -- Jean Rhys

I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it. (p. 112)

Wide Sargasso Sea is a transformative work: it tells the story of the first Mrs Rochester from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre -- the 'madwoman in the attic' -- from a feminist post-colonial angle.

The first part of the novel describes the childhood of Antoinette Cosway, a young Creole heiress whose life is changed (and not for the better) by the abolition of slavery in Jamaica. The family's home is burnt down, Antoinette's brother Pierre dies and their mother descends into madness, leaving Antoinette lost and alone. Then she marries an Englishman (Mr Rochester, though he's never named) who is recovering from fever.

The middle section of the novel is from Rochester's point of view: he is entranced by Antoinette's beauty, but disturbed by the rumours that reach him. Bad blood on both sides? A coloured lover? Witchcraft? Rochester tries to make Antoinette into a suitable wife: he calls her Bertha, because 'Antoinette' was her mother's name and her mother was mad; he attempts to quash her enjoyment of sex; he takes her away from everything she knows, to England.

The final section of the novel overlaps the narrative of Jane Eyre: Antoinette / Bertha, descending into madness, dreaming of fire.

Wide Sargasso Sea is beautifully written, and I admire it: I don't think I like it, simply because the relationship it describes is so dysfunctional, painful, doomed. It's a marvellous portrayal of mental instability -- both Antoinette's and Rochester's. (His narrative is increasingly fragmentary, and increasingly irrational.) Rhys certainly adds depth and dimension to Bronte's original story: in Wide Sargasso Sea, marriage is not a metric of female success, and 'madness' is not a simple case of bad blood.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

2010/62: Wicked Widow -- Amanda Quick

"An interesting bargain, is it not? A pact of honesty between a woman said to have murdered her husband in cold blood and a gentleman who conceals the truth about himself from the world."
"I am satisfied with it." (p. 86)

Madeline Deveridge is the eponymous Widow, and now she is apparently being haunted by the ghost of the husband she's alleged to have murdered. She applies to Artemas Hunt, brilliant recluse and owner of the Dream Pavilions (London's favourite pleasure emporium), for help -- well, actually, she blackmails him, because no gentleman would wish it to be known that his wealth comes from trade.

Hunt is engaged in a labyrinthine vengeance against the men who killed his lover: at first he has little interest in Madeline's woes, but soon enough he begins to respect her sharp wits and general competence. Besides, she has further blackmail material: her father's journals, which record a great deal of information about the members of the Vanzagarian Society, including Hunt himself.

Madeline, blithely oblivious to the thousand-pound bet that no man can survive a night with her, is busy with a translation of an ancient book that's come into her possession. It can't be the notorious Book of Secrets that's lately gone missing: but perhaps it is equally valuable, to somebody.

This is Regency Lite -- set in London, but a London with none of the usual familiarities. Indeed, it's possible that this is also Fantasy Lite: much of the plot revolves around the mysterious Vanzagarian Society (ladies not admitted) based on the esoteric philosophy of an ancient sect. It's an easy, frivolous read, with some unexpected twists and a satisfactory romance.

Yes, I did read it solely because the author's surname began with 'Q': but I don't regret discovering Ms Quick's writing.

2010/61: Losing Larry -- Elizabeth Pewsey

Meanwhile, Jennifer Brown has been arrested for taking drugs at a rock and roll club and is in the Tower waiting for the police to do her over. Ronald Brown, the son, has been beaten again, I'm not sure what for, but the class suspect an older boy has been corrupting him into the English vice, as they call it. Mrs Brown is still concerned about conditions at the local factory ... It's such a farrago of nonsense, what they make up, but having invented it, they're quite ready to believe it's how life in England actually is. (p. 75)

London, 1959: Larry Dunne is an idealistic Communist with a massive chip on his shoulder. He writes bad poetry, works in a bookshop, hangs out in Joe's Cafe (with a big poster of Stalin on the wall) and wonders what his upper-class girlfriend Pamela is up to when she's not with him. The publication of a friend's book catalyses his envy and resentment, and he decides to take up a teaching post in Budapest.

Hungary in the Cold War is not at all what Larry expects. Instead of joyful socialism, he finds paranoia, corruption and deprivation. His students are entertaining enough (especially Angelika, a ballerina who Larry can't quite bring himself to mention in his letters home) and they have great fun imagining the private lives of the Brown family who feature so heavily in their set texts.

Then a woman is murdered in a neighbouring apartment, and Larry finds himself suspected of the crime. "Everybody is under suspicion," Major Nagy informs him. Larry promptly, though not deliberately, disappears: and the second part of the novel concerns the attempts, in England and in Hungary, to track him down and find the murderer. The plot, as they say, thickens: Major Nagy is keen to discover the true identity of the operative calling himself 'Mr Brown'; in London, Pamela meets Larry's friend Imre and finds herself in trouble with the police; the Foreign Office sits up and takes notice of a Swedish businessman who befriended Larry at the Hungarian border. Nobody is quite what they seem -- or quite what they seemed to Larry, at any rate.

I'm very fond of Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy series: Losing Larry didn't engage me as much, because I didn't connect with any of the characters, but the writing is still witty and Pewsey has a nice eye for detail -- and a good sense of the ridiculous -- especially in the Budapest scenes.

Monday, August 02, 2010

2010/60: The Icarus Girl -- Helen Oyeyemi

"Two hungry people should never make friends. If they do, they eat each other up. It is the same with one person who is hungry and another who is full: they cannot be real, real friends because the hungry one will eat the full one. You understand?"
"Yes, grandfather." She was scared, now, because she knew he wasn't talking about food-hungry...
"Only two people who are full up can be friends. They don't want anything from each other except friendship." (p. 226)

Jess is eight years old, and lives in Cranbrook: her mother (Sarah) is Nigerian, her father (Daniel) English. She's a little bit strange, given to sitting in the linen cupboard for hours, and crossing out the bits she doesn't like in books.

On a visit to Nigeria, Jess meets her maternal family. She also meets a strange girl named Titiola -- TillyTilly for short. TillyTilly seems to live in the abandoned servants' quarters at Jess's grandfather's compound. She is the first real friend that Jess has made. And, marvellously, she shows up in Bromley not long after Jess and her family return to England.

TillyTilly is the best friend ever: time is elastic when she's around, and she can make the two of them invisible so as to spy on the classroom bully. (Jess doesn't really fit in at school: they say she's 'attention-seeking' but really they think she's weird. And Jess doesn't like to be seen, doesn't like attention at all. She is very firm about this.)

Bad things start to happen: Sarah's computer is smashed, Jess finds herself saying things she doesn't mean, TillyTilly is keen to get people who upset Jess. Jess is sent to a psychologist, and makes friends with his daughter Siobhan, a.k.a. Shivs. TillyTilly doesn't approve. She hints darkly that she and Jess are connected; that Jess, whose twin died when they were born, is more like her than like this cheerful white girl.

And Shivs experiences TillyTilly for herself: This was not another girl. This was not the kind of imaginary friend that you'd mistakenly sit on. She was a cycle of glacial ice. (p. 257)

The Icarus Girl is Helen Oyeyemi's first novel, written when she was still at school. It doesn't work quite as well as White is for Witching but several of the same themes are evident: twins, race, mother/daughter relationships. I was fascinated by the way that Jess's seldom-acknowledged Yoruba heritage was catalysed by her inner rage. I'd have liked more exploration of TillyTilly's true nature (though the rationale for this omission is good). And the novel ends very suddenly, with resolution implicit rather than explicit. That said, I enjoyed The Icarus Girl: it's genuinely chilling in places, and an excellent examination of growing up mixed-race in the suburbs.

2010/59: Sherlock in Love -- Sena Jeter Naslund

Holmes was dead: to begin with. And had been dead for well onto two years. And who was I without Holmes? He had been my dearest friend. He had served as that fixed point around which my life as a storyteller revolved. (p. 3)

The story begins in 1922, when an elderly Watson (widowed again, living in the Baker Street apartment, lonely and beginning to lose his grip on his memories) decides to write the definitive biography of Sherlock Holmes. A notice placed in the Times garners unexpected responses: a note warning him to 'beware the ghost of Sherlock Holmes', the silhouette of Holmes in a window, the removal of significant pages from Holmes' notebooks, and the appearance of two women -- a mysterious figure in red, and a ragged old woman with a dog.

Wiggins shows up, too: he's now a consultant psychiatrist at St Giles, and is on the trail of an escaped patient. This turns out to be the ragged woman, who calls herself Nannerl and whose first words to Watson ("You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive?") are enough to make him 'faint dead away'.

From his own notebooks ('the dreadful experiment of writing in the present tense'), Holmes' private diaries and the unpublished manuscript of 'The Adventure of the Mad King', Watson pieces together the story of Holmes and the dead violinist Victor Sigerson -- not forgetting Sigerson's twin sister Violet, a woman who Holmes held in the highest regard.

The different sections of the novel -- Watson as an old man, Watson writing for himself, and Watson writing for an audience -- have markedly different tones: in particular, the framing narrative of 1922 is a poignant and credible version of canon Watson, albeit one who's a little too comfortable in his assertion that he and Holmes had 'very few secrets from each other'. The doomed romance between Holmes and Violet is sober, restrained, constrained and thus credible: Holmes is perfectly in character, the man who never speaks of the softer emotions.

Naslund is fond of name-dropping: Holmes and Watson encounter "Sir Leslie Stephens and his daughters, Stella, Vanessa and a chubby girl of four named Virginia" (p.113), the latter of whom will marry Leonard Woolf; Holmes returns from Europe claiming to have met one interesting person, "A boy of seven named Albert ... Little Einstein has the most determined and objective mind ..." (p. 134). There are some niggling Americanisms ("we walk on down Regent till our German stops beyond Piccadilly Circus"); and I'm not convinced that trains to Edinburgh have ever run from Charing Cross. But overall, the novel complements the tone and style of canon, and the measured pace fits the unfolding mystery very well.

2010/58: Cycler -- Lauren McLaughlin

"I don't see people as male or female. I just see people ... Don't you think the world has expended enough energy keeping men and women separate, trying to convince us we're from Mars or Venus? For what? We're from Earth. Why does it have to matter so much?"
I have no answer, only a deep, almost physical aversion to the idea. (p. 116)

Jill McTeague is a perfectly normal seventeen-year-old American high school student, except for her unusual pre-menstrual syndrome: instead of the usual cramps and snarls, she turns into a boy (Jack) for four days before her period. Jack's developing an independent existence, possibly as a result of Plan B -- a series of meditations and visualisations (and possibly hormone treatments) developed by Jill's parents to affirm that Jill is "all girl".

Jill keeps her condition secret, even from her best friend Ramie. Jack doesn't get a say in the matter: he's confined to his room (Jill's room) for the brief interludes of his existence. But instead of suppressing the memories of his alternate self as Jill does, Jack's keen to get a glimpse of real life. He sees Jill's memories of Ramie. He sees Jill's crush on Tommy Knutson (who, rumour has it, is bisexual) and her plans for prom night. He's sick of being a dirty secret, locked away with a stack of porn DVDs and some peanut butter sandwiches. And he's got a crush on someone, too.

Cycler is immense fun: humorous, fast-paced and surprisingly deep when it comes to gender politics, sexuality and honesty. The two characters have distinctive voices and attitudes: the supporting cast, from Jill/Jack's ineffectual father to fashion-obsessed Ramie, are sketched in sharp detail.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

2010/57: Spiderweb -- Penelope Lively

When Stella contemplated her own progress through time and space, she saw lines -- black lines that zig-zagged this way and that, netting the map of England, netting the globe ... and sometimes these lines crossed one another. The intersections must surely be points of significance -- these places to which she had been twice, three times, many times, but as different incarnations of herself, different Stellas ignorant of the significance of this site ... Stella thought of those spiderwebs that form an airy complex density of minutely connected strands. Her space-time progress was something like that, the whole thing shimmering with these portentous nodes at which the future lay hidden. You walk blindly past the self that is to come, and cannot see her. (p. 19)

Stella Brentwood has lived in Greece, Egypt, Orkney, Turkey: as an anthropologist specialising in kinship networks and lineage patterns, her work has taken her to many different countries, though she's never felt part of the cultures she's observed. Her mission has always been to understand, not to belong. Now, retired, she's bought a cottage in Dorset, and is determined to put down roots. She speaks to the local history society; she acquires a dog.

Down the lane are her neighbours, the Hiscoxes: confused grandmother, silent dour father, two lawless and sullen teenage boys, and Karen Hiscox, who manages and manipulates her way through life. "Their mother could cope all right. She coped everyone else into the ground. She coped them out of her way." (p. 160) The boys are, effectively, rootless and without history: they don't even know where they were born, or where they lived before they came to Dorset. They provide a unified viewpoint that's very different to that of Stella (who they term 'the old woman'), even when they're narrating the same events.

The novel builds slowly, a series of vignettes and memories. Stella, for the most part, reexamines her past: she has no regrets, but she looks back wistfully on times of happiness. Despite her inclinations, her life is not a 'self-contained capsule'. Her dead friend's husband, with whom she's never really connected, pops round from time to time. Judith, a lesbian archaeologist, uses Stella's house as a refuge from domestic strife. Meanwhile the Hiscox boys expend their energy in surviving their mother's verbal attacks, mercurial temper and mutable truths. Sometimes, for light relief, they set fire to litter bins.

Stella, the eternal voyeur, doesn't find it easy to root herself in the oddly claustrophobic rural life she observes. When the Hiscox boys' chaos -- and her friends' lonelinesses -- intrude into her new life, she's cornered. A choice must be made.

I liked Spiderweb for its keen-eyed, unsentimental portrayal of a woman growing old alone without regrets: I recognised in it some aspects, and a specific incident, from my own experience, which I found at once unsettling and redemptive. (It wasn't unique: it wasn't us.) It's a beautifully-written novel, and the sense of growing menace counterbalances the brightness of Stella's memories, and sits well with the green gloom of muddy lanes.