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

Monday, October 18, 2010

2010/78: Started Early, Took My Dog -- Kate Atkinson

Schrödinger, whoever he was, and his cat, and anyone else that felt like it, had all climbed inside Pandora's box and were dining on a can of worms. Jackson felt the beginnings of a headache, another one, on top of the one he already had. (p.144)

Another twisty, witty, knotted plot from Kate Atkinson (whose work I've read and enjoyed before). I don't want to dive into details of the plot, not least because it would ... well, it'd take a novel to explain and explore, and Atkinson has already written it.

Jackson Brodie, familiar from Atkinson's other novels, is on the trail of the biological parents of Hope McMaster. (Her name is probably not coincidence: Jackson and Julia discuss Pandora's box more than once, and as another character points out, a coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen (p. 293). That's a useful mantra to keep in mind whilst reading Started Early, Took My Dog. The novel is strewn with apparent coincidences, minor intersections, that make or break lives: a lost USB stick, a birthmark shaped like Africa, a half-finished sentence.

Jackson, on impulse, acquires a dog: ex-DI Tracy Waterhouse acquires, in comparable circumstances, a child. One is slightly more trouble than the other. One attracts the attention of Tilly, a once-successful actress who's falling prey to senility. One attracts the attention of Brian Jackson, who's investigating a client's background and could do with some more context. And everything seems to come back to the murder of a prostitute in 1975, and the discovery three weeks later of her corpse and her filthy, starving child.

For a novel about murder, abuse, senility, abduction and deception, this is a remarkably cheerful read. Atkinson has a lovely wry sense of humour (not least in Jackson's blithe acceptance of his flaws) and while there's plenty of desperation herein, there's also a strong sense of hope -- not only for the children (and dogs) who are rescued, but for those who aren't, for those individuals who 'live their lives against all the odds.'

There are a few loose ends, which may or may not be picked up in future novels (who was Kitty Winfield's famous ex?), and some connections that are never made explicit (who killed the woman whose corpse Tracy finds?) but resolution's achieved, happy endings abound, and hope is fulfilled.

2010/77: The Knife of Never Letting Go -- Patrick Ness

There ain't nothing but Noise in this world, nothing but the constant thoughts of men and things coming at you and at you and at you, ever since the spacks released the Noise germ during the war, the germ that killed half the men and every single woman, my ma not excepted, the germ that drove the rest of the men mad, the germ that spelled the end for all Spackle once men's madness picked up a gun.(p.13)
Todd, who's twelve years old, is the youngest boy in Prentisstown, a solitary colony on a distant planet ('New World'). His mother was the last woman in Prentisstown: all the women are dead from a sickness that's made the men (and animals, native and exotic) able to hear one another's thoughts.

They call this Noise. It never, ever stops.

Todd can't wait for his thirteenth birthday, when he'll officially become a man. Ben and Cillian, who've raised him, won't tell him what happens on his birthday, only that it's a surprise. Meanwhile Todd mooches around with his dog, Manchee, who's the closest he has to a friend despite rather limited interests ("Need a poo, Todd ... Squirrel! Squirrel! Squirrel!")

Then Todd encounters a patch of silence in the marsh, and his life changes with alarming rapidity. He ends up questioning everything he's grown up believing, everything he's been told, everything that seems obvious. He begins to learn what he's capable of, and what he's missing. (How do you lie if everyone can hear your thoughts? How do you understand someone whose thoughts you can't hear?) He finds out how hard it can be to do the right thing. He grows up fast.

It's hard to discuss the plot of this book in any depth without spoilers. (Though I couldn't help but wonder if Patrick Ness had read Harlan Ellison's A Dog and His Boy at an impressionable age.) Easier to talk about the language -- reminiscent of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, an effective mash of colloquial speech, repurposed vocabulary and oddly poetic imagery, sky as blue as fresh meat (p. 111) -- and the world-building; the ecology of an alien planet, the rough pioneer mentality, the insidious lies that uphold what was intended as a utopia. Easier to praise the pacing (breakneck but never out of control), or the gradual backstory, or the elements that are left implicit.

Warning: The Knife of Never Letting Go ends on a hell of a cliffhanger. And it's not a cheerful book. Nevertheless, I have the rest of the trilogy and will be reading it just as soon as I've cleared my palate with something frivolous.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

2010/76: The Children's Book -- A S Byatt

The woods, the Downs, the lawn, the hearth, the stables were a real reality, kept in being by continuous inventive willpower. In weak moments [Olive] thought of her garden as the fairytale palace the prince or princess must not leave on pain of bleak disaster ... She could not, and did not, imagine any of the inhabitants of this walled garden wanting to leave it or change it, though her stories knew better. And she had to ignore a great deal, in order to persist in her calm, and listen steadily to the quick scratch of the nib. (p. 301)

It's taken me over a year to finish reading The Children's Book -- not because it's a bad book or because I didn't like it, but because I wanted to give it the degree of concentration, absorption, focus that I felt it deserved. It's a very dense book: social and economic history, arts and crafts, the Fabian Society, anarchist attacks, women's education and suffrage, the rise of literature written specifically for children, the English public school system, folk and fairy tales ... The late nineteenth century isn't a period I know well: I learnt a lot from this novel.
The children mingled with the adults, and spoke and were spoken to. Children in these families, at the end of the nineteenth century, were different from children before or after. They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed ... the children in this world had their own separate, largely independent, lives ... they roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees ... with no other company than that of other children. (p. 29)
That makes it sound worthy, erudite, educational: and it's far more than that, it's joyful and celebratory, dark and treacherous. It is a book about storytelling, about the ways in which parents betray children, about the dark underside of Victorian society (fallen women, child abuse, adultery) and how these may be escaped or survived. There are a lot of lies and deceptions amid the play-acting, writing, creativity and benevolence. And there's a very strong sense of the ephemeral nature of this 'golden age' of childhood, of the idyllic lives of a generation of middle-class children who become adults in the first decade of the twentieth century, and face the ultimate betrayal of war.

Byatt manages a huge cast of characters, both original and historical, with exquisite balance and telling detail. There are the almost-obligatory cameos -- Oscar Wilde old and broken at the Exposition Universelle in 1900, Marie Stopes in fancy dress as a Valkyrie, 'Jane Harrison and her lovely student, Hope Mirrlees', Rupert Brooke. But the characters at the heart of the novel are all Byatt's own: children's author Olive Wellwood and her spinster sister Violet, teenaged Philip Warren who's fled the potteries in search of Art, Olive's daughter Dorothy who wants to become a doctor, Herbert Methley who is keen on 'the sex problem'. Most captivating and poignant of all is Olive's son Tom, whose story encompasses the major themes of the novel: story-telling, treachery, the natural world, social privilege and its inverse, purposelessness. Tom alone is reason enough to read the novel. But he is not the only reason.

There is so much in this novel that I'd like to discuss: each of the ten or so major characters deserves examination in their own right, bitter Violet and somnambulist Pomona, heroic Geraint and 'Maid Marion', Julian and his changing views on sex and love, Dorothy discovering herself, Gabriel whose dreams are too timid for his psychoanalyst parents ... Byatt's prose is often very beautiful -- which balances the more didactic passages -- and her sense of place and time is tremendously evocative. I felt I'd lived a lifetime, reading The Children's Book, and I suspect it's a novel I'll return to again and again.

Byatt says, in an interview for the Guardian:
"I started with the idea that writing children's books isn't good for the writers' own children. There are some dreadful stories. Christopher Robin at least lived. Kenneth Grahame's son put himself across a railway line and waited for the train. Then there's JM Barrie. One of the boys that Barrie adopted almost certainly drowned himself. This struck me as something that needed investigating. And the second thing was, I was interested in the structure of E Nesbit's family - how they all seemed to be Fabians and fairy-story writers."

Wikipedia page, listing the characters and linking to a couple of reviews

Friday, October 15, 2010

2010/75: Blue and Gold -- K J Parker

I'd finally given her what she wanted, the elixir of eternal youth, effected by the removal of her internal fire (the catalyst of change) through the agency of death. She'd have been so pleased, if only she'd been there to see it. Still, you can't have everything ... (p. 70)
Saloninus, philosopher and alchemist and the 'greatest living authority on ethical theory', is on the run. His wife is dead (having imbibed one of Saloninus' experimental concoctions) and his brother-in-law Phocas, the Prince Regent, is keen to keep Saloninus around, to harness that alchemical genius for his own ends. If Saloninus can transmute base metal to gold, Phocas might finally forgive him for the death of his own wife, executed for adultery...

Blue and Gold, set in the same world as The Folding Knife -- I'm unsure whether it's contemporaneous: there doesn't seem to be obvious crossover -- is a novella about another individual who's amoral, dishonest and too clever for his own good. Saloninus is unexpectedly charming, and always several steps ahead of his own narrative (which is, he warns us, thoroughly unreliable). Parker teases us with scraps of alchemical theory, allusions to Saloninus's philosophical works (Ethical Dilemmas, On Form and Substance) and discussions of the real challenges on the table: explosives, the gold standard, the impossibility of the colour blue.

Short, erudite and witty: great fun.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

2010/74: The Folding Knife -- K J Parker

"I think that if someone tried to rob you in the street, you'd pick his pocket, sell him a better knife and probably offer him a job as a tax collector."
Basso raised an eyebrow. "I choose to take that as a compliment." (p. 353)

Bassianus Arcadius Severus -- Basso to his friends, of whom he has few -- is notorious for his luck: not that it's all good, but that it all works, eventually, in his favour. Not necessarily in the favour of friends, family, country: but Basso seems a born survivor.

Basso's life story -- arranged marriage, a job in a bank, children, adultery, murder, political rise, legal reform and eventual retreat -- plays out in a world that's reminiscent of Ancient Rome. (If my classical history was better, I could probably name some of Parker's inspirations.) The Vesani Republic mirrors Roman culture and society. The Mavortine Confederacy (nineteen tribes, some nomadic, very loosely linked by an expired alliance) has been thoroughly subjugated. The Eastern Empire was once a substantial threat: now it's nearly a millennium past its prime. It's time to do a little empire-building ...

Though The Folding Knife is marketed as a fantasy novel, there isn't any magic in it; no fantastical beasts, no gods, no spells. It could be argued that Basso's luck is preternatural: it could even be argued that the eponymous knife -- which Basso inherits from his mother, who acquires it on the day of his birth from a woman who tries to rob her -- bestows some arcane protection, or glamour, or fortune upon the bearer. (The first scene of the novel is Basso's loss of the knife. The rest of the novel explains why this matters.)

Parker's writing captivates me, as usual. It's intelligent, sardonic and vivid, awash with detail and alive with dialogue. (Though, yes, there's still an over-reliance on personal pronouns, the elision of a few key facts, and some apparently out-of-character behaviour that only makes sense if the reader adopts an almost paranoid perspective.) A lot of plot is packed into this single-volume story, some of it so tightly compressed that it's easy to miss. The tagline on the cover is 'Even great men make mistakes': it's inevitable that the reader will be watching out for the single terminal mistake that's implied by the blurb. I'm not sure if it's the mistake about his sister, or an oversight regarding a military man, that's more terminal: I'm not sure if the latter is a mistake at all. Basso, after all, frequently claims to be stupid but is generally considered to be very clever indeed: if he didn't spot the inconsistency that I spotted, maybe it's not there. Or maybe it's easily explicable. But, as Basso repeatedly reminds us, 'there's always another reason'.

Parker has a knack for portraying credible, dysfunctional relationships: Basso, though essentially a solitary man, is revealed by his relationship with his estranged sister, the tragically-misnamed Tranquillina (a.k.a. Placidia, in at least one early reference); his nephew Bassano, who's almost too good to be true; Aelius, a career soldier born in the Mavortine Confederacy and all too happy to make war against it; Antigonus, the slave who teaches Basso the basics of economics.

I'm not wholly satisfied by the finale: it seems hasty. But I suspect that all the necessary material, all the clues, are there -- have been there from the first chapter -- and that, for once, it's Basso who hasn't seen it coming.