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

Thursday, July 28, 2011

2011/34: Cooking with Fernet Branca -- James Hamilton-Paterson

I looked forward to being neither a wage slave nor a tycoon. But that was before British culture slumped to an infantile consensus obsessed with cash and fashion. New Labour and wall-to-wall football have left only exile, the stoic's way out. If one is not allowed to be serious one might as well emigrate. Even mockery is an art form requiring discipline and sacrifice. (p.56)
The first Gerald Samper novel (preceding Amazing Disgrace, a recent read): here, Samper is somewhat less likeable, probably because his narrative ("a cetain refinement of manner and mind", p.8) alternates with that his neighbour Marta (she describes Gerald as "petty and snobbish with a kind of dandyish disdain", p.31), thus leavening our hero's amour propre with a healthy larding of realism.

The plot ...

The plot. There is one. It concerns Gerald and Marta's mutual suspicion -- he doesn't believe that she is East European nobility, composing the soundtrack for a famous Italian director's latest film; she doesn't believe that he ghost-writes celebrity biographies for a living -- and the comedy of errors that ensues when Marta's younger sister attempts to elope, Gerald's latest subject (a bald boy-band singer with a degree in Counter-cultural Studies) sees a UFO, and Gerald realises that he has unwittingly provided inspiration for Marta's score.

This summary does not convey the novel's charm, though it does grossly simplify the events therein. I like Gerald, even if he is vain, misanthropic, excessively right-leaning and chronically insecure. (I like Gerald even though his recipe for Alien Pie involves smoked kitty: "any cook knows that a subtle and delicate meat like cat will not easily blend with the stolid, Calvinist flavour of root crops", p.165) I like Marta's wickedly dry humour and the way that she never resists the temptation to tease Gerald. And Gerald's frightful puns and wordplay are very cheering.

Do not read this book if you are on a diet. Gerald is a true gourmet, and manages to make even garlic ice-cream (with Fernet Branca) sound appetising. Also, I really want to know if the thing about mussels, soy sauce and chocolate is true. possibly not enough to try it for myself though.

2011/33: Sword at Sunset -- Rosemary Sutcliff

... we rode into a ghost town, the roofs long since fallen in and the walls crumbling away, the tall armies of nettles where the merchants had spread their wares and the Auxiliaries had taken their pleasure in off-duty hours, where the married quarters had been, and children and dogs had tumbled in the sunshine under the very feet of the marching cohorts, and the drink shops had spilled beery song into the night, and the smiths and sandalmakers, the horse-dealers and the harlots, had plied their trades; and all that moved was a blue hare among the fallen gravestones of forgotten men, and above us a hoodie crow perching on the rotting carcass of what had once been one of the great catapults of the Wall ... (p. 147)

When I was in primary school The Lantern Bearers was my favourite book: I read it again and again, far more than either The Eagle of the Ninth or The Silver Branch. I didn't realise for many years that the story continued: that Sword at Sunset, as well as being an account of a Romano-British King Arthur, actually begins mere days after the end of The Lantern Bearers.

Thirty-five years after falling in love with The Lantern Bearers, I finally read Sword at Sunset.

I don't like it.

I don't mean that it's a bad book (it's not) or that I was sad because my favourite characters died (I was, but that wouldn't make me dislike a book). Nor do I think my problem with the novel is simply the change of tone -- though, unlike the other books in the sequence, this is very distinctly not a book for children. (Incest, rape, murder, prostitution, treachery, adultery, homosexuality, torture: none of it sensationalised, but all perfectly clear, without obfuscation or allusion.)

I think my problem is with the narrative voice, that of Ambrosius' adoptive son Artos. While the previous books were in third person, which lends itself to description and world-building, Sword at Sunset is first-person -- almost claustrophobically so. It's not the most promising of voices:
It is all without life in my mind as a badly tempered blade ... so far as might be, I stopped feeling, in those years, and the things that enter only by the head, no man remembers as he does the things that enter by the heart. (p.450)

Artos' focus, and his suppression of emotion, produces a narrative where deaths (human and animal) are mentioned in passing; where battle-strategy is set out in grim and bloody detail, but joy is mostly absent; where, because it's a familiar myth and because it's framed as the retrospective of a dying man, we already know there are no happy endings.

There is still a great deal of beautiful prose, and Sutcliff still draws our attention to the telling detail: a flower crushed and thrown into the fire, the streaked malachite on a whore's eyelids, two boys tending one another's briar scratches. This is the Matter of Britain stripped down to its core. Artos, the warleader who is born between the Roman world and the British, and never quite belongs to either; Medraut, the son conceived in treachery, who will be his doom; Guenhumara, the wife who falls in love with her husband's best friend (Bedwyr rather than the medieval Lancelot-come-lately). No magic, no Merlin, no Ancient MysteriesTM except for the secrets of the 'little dark people'. There are echoes of the earlier books: Trimontium, 'the place of three hills'; the emerald ring carved with a dolphin; the seven stars of Orion; the image of the lights going out, one by one.

It's a beautiful novel in many respects, but a very cold one.

Friday, July 22, 2011

2011/32: The Likeness -- Tana French

... if you've seen a dead body, you know how they change the air: that huge silence, the absence strong as a black hole, time stopped and molecules frozen around the still thing that's learned the final secret, the one he can never tell. Most dead people are the only thing in the room. Murder victims are different; they don't come alone. The silence rises up to a deafening shout and the air is streaked and hand-printed, the body smokes with the brand of that other person grabbing you just as hard: the killer. (p. 20)

Lexie Madison never really existed. Now she's dead.

Detective Cassie Maddox, still fresh from her brush with a psychopath and the loss of her best friend (see Into the Woods) is the only person who can unravel Lexie's murder, because she (and her boss Frank Mackey) created Lexie Madison, years ago, as Cassie's undercover persona. The dead girl is the spitting image of Cassie, who's presented with an undercover operative's dream: be the victim of the crime, slide into that vacated life and discover who might have wanted Lexie Madison dead.

Lexie lived with four fellow PhD students in Whitethorn House, the huge old mansion inherited by Daniel, the leader of the group. They're an odd bunch: outsiders, possibly trying to recreate the family experience that all, in one way or another, have missed out on. Theirs is a life without boundaries, strangely old-fashioned in some ways (no computers in the house; no TV; evenings spent sewing, playing the piano, telling stories). Cassie thinks of them at first as being 'like spies from another planet who had got their research wrong and wound up reading Edith Wharton and watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie' (p.97). She's quickly drawn into the strange self-contained world of the group, and though she's wired for sound and reports nightly to Frank Mackey, her loyalties -- and other aspects of her selfhood -- shift dramatically over the course of the story.

There are many mysteries for Cassie to resolve: who was the young woman who assumed Cassie's cast-off identity? Who stabbed her? Why? What is Daniel's agenda? Why can't she pick up any sexual 'vibes' between the four housemates? And can she keep up the pretence of being someone she isn't, someone with likes and dislikes and indifferences?

And we have a very clear sense of Lexie herself, although she's dead, although she never really existed. Cassie feels sometimes that she's being watched. She believes, on a fundamental level that has nothing to do with objective truth, that Lexie wants her fate to be told.

I found The Likeness utterly compelling -- stayed up past 2am reading, something I rarely do any more -- and the interplay between the four (or five) friends both credible and claustrophobic. There are strong similarities (or perhaps parallels) with Donna Tarrt's The Secret History: the small, elite group in self-imposed isolation from the real world, the hints of something preternatural (perhaps it's only the narrator's suggestibility?) in the background, the crime that must be covered up. But French's novel is very much a novel about Ireland: about the economy and the housing market, about pregnancy and abortion, about feuds that last for generations, about everyday superstition.

There's a strong theme of sacrifice throughout the book. Daniel quotes a Spanish proverb: "Take what you want and pay the price, says God". He and Cassie both learn the hard way that the price of what you want is not always something you can afford.

I did have a few minor problems with the plot, not least when Cassie was unable to unravel Lexie's 'secret code' of 'LHR, CDG, AMS'. And, especially towards the end, a couple of the characters (previously complex and three-dimensional) folded down, in crisis, into stereotypes: the prissy homosexual, the unrequited lover. But: crisis. It's forgiveable.

Many reviewers had a problem with the end of In the Woods: The Likeness redresses the balance, and then some. The novel could have ended fifty pages sooner and the crime(s) would have been resolved -- "the happiest ending we were ever going to get" (p.534) -- but Cassie herself has unfinished business, loose ends, and those too are brought into the light.

The final paragraph of The Likeness is a moving and powerful passage, the perfect conclusion for a novel of such stark beauty and unashamedly poetic prose. It made me cry.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

2011/31: In The Woods -- Tana French

Most people have no reason to know how memory can turn rogue and feral, becoming a force of its own and one to be reckoned with.
Losing a chunk of your memory is a tricky thing, a deep-sea quake triggering shifts and upheavals too far from the epicentre to be easily predictable. From that day on, any nagging little half-remembered thing shimmers with a bright aura of hypnotic, terrifying potential: this could be trivia, or it could be the Big One that blows your life and your mind wide open. (p. 212)
Ireland, August 1984: two children go missing in a wood. Their friend Adam Ryan is found hours later, catatonic, his shoes filled with blood. He remembers nothing of what happened to him and his friends.

Twenty years later Adam is still haunted by survivor's guilt and the feeling that, in all the ways that matter, he never left the wood. Adam goes by the name Rob now; he's a Murder detective in Dublin. A little girl has been murdered in that same fateful wood, her body laid out on an ancient altar-stone. Rob Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox, investigating the case together, encounter a tangle of corruption and deceit. Pagans, property developers, the family of the dead girl and the neighbours who remember that other disappearance -- all have something to add to the patchwork. Ryan's greatest challenge, though, is the tantalising flicker of his own suppressed memories.

In the Woods deals with two cases; the murder of Katy Devlin and the unsolved disappearance of Peter Savage and Jamie Rowan. Neither case is neatly wrapped up, much to the dismay of several reviewers on Amazon. Yet the clues are there, and Rob Ryan is the first to admit that he's not a trustworthy narrator. "What I am telling you, before you begin this story, is two things -- I crave truth, and I lie." (p.4) In the Woods, if read with an open mind and a willingness to think outside the genre, contains solutions to both cases -- one of the characters even voices that solution (or at least what I think is the solution!)

It's also a novel that deals with friendship on several different levels: the friendship between young men (witnessed but not comprehended by Adam and his friends); the wordless synergy between Rob and Cassie; the lost friends for whom Rob Ryan still mourns.

I liked In the Woods immensely (enough to immediately read the other novel I own by the same author: watch this space for a review of The Likeness). French's writing is beautiful, passionate and evocative, and she's skilful enough to create a first-person narrative that privileges the reader: we know, we understand, more of the story than Ryan does. I'm glad French didn't feel the need to spell out what had happened: I'm glad she left Ryan lost.

2011/30: The Thirteenth Tale -- Diane Setterfield

"Do you know why my books are so successful? ... It is because they have a beginning, a middle and an end. In the right order. ... I shall have to tell you the end of my story before I tell you the beginning."
"The end of your story? How can that be, if it happened before you started writing?"
"Quite simply because my story -- my own personal story -- ended before my writing began. Storytelling has only ever been a way of filling in the time since everything finished." (p. 54)

The Thirteenth Tale is structured as the account of Margaret Lea, bibliophile and biographer, who has been summoned to a remote house in Yorkshire to learn the truth about reclusive author Vita Winter. Miss Winter, gnawed by the 'wolf' of cancer, is notorious for never giving the same answer twice when asked about her past. 'Mere scraps from the bottom of my ragbag,' she says. But now (whenever 'now' might be: the setting's indeterminate, mid-20th century* maybe?) it's time to tell the truth.

Margaret is not without her own story, though she's never told it to anyone: she was born joined to her twin, who died when they were separated. Margaret sometimes feels like a ghost -- for example, on seeing her own reflection in a window at night -- and thus fits perfectly with the Gothic aesthetic of The Thirteenth Tale, which draws heavily on Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Woman in Whiteand The Turn of the Screw.

It's a story about twins: two sisters, sharp abrasive Adeline and soft passive Emmeline, co-dependent and functionally feral. They have their own language, and their own morality. Then comes governess Hester Barrow, who with the help of the local doctor is determined to socialise the girls.

It's also a story about violent passion: the twins' uncle Charlie's passion for his own sister Isabelle, Emmeline's fierce adoration of her twin, Adeline's increasingly destructive impulses, and the madness that seems to haunt the family.

And it's a story about pronouns: Margaret keeps hoping for 'I', 'me', when listening to Miss Winter's accounts of the past, and gradually Margaret -- and the reader -- become aware that Miss Winter ('the disappearing point at the heart of the narrative', p. 114) was an integral part of the events she's recounting. Later, much is made of the twins' language, and their tendency to use first-person plural ("we saw a rabbit") even when speaking of events experienced by only one of them. Gradually, even Margaret begins to tell her own story, from her point of view: for much of the novel, though, she's a shadowy presence, narrating but never letting us inside herself.

The level at which I most enjoyed this book, though, is that of the bibliophile. Margaret the reader and Vita the writer are very different, but their joy in the written word, in great literature and its creators, resonates with me on a visceral level. Like Margaret, 'when I was a child books were everything' (p. 37). Like Vita, I nurture the compost-heap of my imagination: I plant ideas there and let them grow.

The Thirteenth Tale -- the title refers to an anthology by Vita Winter which only contains twelve stories -- is an immensely readable novel, very atmospheric, well-paced and replete with mirrors, diversions, red herrings etc. Despite its epic scale and Gothic sensibility, I'm not wholly convinced that it has depth: there's something two-dimensional about the larger-than-life figures who strut and fret and roar through its pages.

But then, that's what books do ...

*On when the novel's set, including comments by the author

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

2011/29: A Week in December -- Sebastian Faulks

...Veals believed it was important for him to be aware of other people, natives and visitors alike, however partial and bizarre their take on life. Since his own reality derived from numbers on a computer terminal, he thought it wise to keep an eye on flesh and blood; there might still be something he could profitably learn from them. (p. 39)

Set in London in December 2007, A Week in December reminds me of a contemporary Dervish House: the interconnectness of apparently disparate characters, the richly-drawn urban setting, the sense of impending calamity. Faulks deals with questions of identity, of self-image, of real life and online / virtual life. The major characters share particular random experiences: they pass one another in the streets, they encounter each other's avatars online, they're obsessed with the same soft-porn model, they're forced to leap out of the way of a cyclist (the same one each time?) with no lights.

There are seven major viewpoint characters: John Veals, a hedge fund manager; Veals' son Finbar, who spends his days getting high and surfing the web; Jenni, a Circle Line tube driver; R. Tranter, an embittered literary critic (or possibly Faulks getting his own back on the broadsheets); Hassan, newly involved in radical Islam; Polish footballer Spike Borowski; and barrister Gabriel Northwood.

I wish Faulks had limited himself to these viewpoints: we get occasional passages from other points of view, such as Hassan's father Farooq 'Knocker' Al-Rashid, a businessman about to be awarded an OBE, or Veals' wife Sophie, the only person who has ever made Veals laugh. On the other hand, these subsidiary characters, drifting in and out of the edges of the major narratives, cast light on the protagonists.

Faulks plays games with names: Parallax is pretty much Second Life, YourPlace ('this parody of a human world' (p.47)) is Facebook, the Pizza Palace Book of the Year prize bears considerable resemblance to the Costa Book Awards. One can't help but suspect that some of the characters, too, have real-world counterparts: but if A Week in December is a roman a clef, it's one that works on multiple levels, no decoder ring needed.

Every character finds meaning somewhere, whether it's Jenni's online avatar in Parallax, Gabriel's visits to his brother in hospital, Tranter's retreat into 19th-century literature. The things we choose to do, the kinds of meaning we search for, are what matters.

It feels to me as though part, at least, of the point of the novel is the importance of passion, of subjectivity. There are two characters (well, at least two) who could be interpreted as villains: one is hot-headed and somewhat misguided, one is cold and emotionless. Faulks doesn't hammer home the comparison, but by the end of the novel it's clear where his sympathies lie, and where he's led the reader.

This novel has very mixed reviews, tending towards the negative from fans of Faulks' previous work. I liked it rather more -- or enjoyed it more -- than, for instance, Birdsong: perhaps it's the familiarity of the contemporary UK setting, the in-jokes of platform art on Underground stations, Tranter's anonymously vitriolic online reviews, Finbar's fantasy football team ... A Week in December is blackly comic, minutely observed and utterly engaging.

Monday, July 04, 2011

2011/28: Amazing Disgrace -- James Hamilton-Paterson

Many miles away on the far side of an immense gulf of air the Mediterranean is visibly frittering its time away, lying glazed and inert in its bed at two o'clock in the afternoon like a teenager who has been out clubbing all night.(p.4)
The louche and misanthropic Gerald Samper, iconoclastic gourmet cook and ghost-writer to illiterate stars of sport and stage, is living in dread of his imminent fortieth birthday. It's time he moved up in the world, and Samper has high hopes of collaborating on the biography of conductor Max Christ, who just happens to be the brother-in-law of a rather charming oceanographer of Samper's acquaintance.

Meanwhile, he's stewing gently in his vine-shrouded Tuscan eyrie, sipping Prosecco and wondering whether he'll ever complete his biography of plucky amputee yachtswoman Millie Cleat. Wondering, too, whatever can have happened to his exotic and aggravating neighbour Marta, who's apparently vanished off the face of the earth. And wondering if his sixty-day supply of ProWang's PowRTabs (bought on the Internet, of course) might possibly be doing more harm than good.

I feared Tom Sharpe territory, but Gerald Samper is a delight: endlessly inventive in the kitchen ('Death Roe', a 'sable meal for a discoloured mood' that marries cod roe, black rice, squid ink and nutmeg); creatively vindictive (Millie Cleat is forcibly united with her spiritual side as a result of screwing up an oceanographic experiment off the Canaries); utterly unreliable as a narrator, but with sufficient charm to make up for any lapses in, well, the actualité. Also, absolutely hilarious -- in that very English way that's seasoned with embarrassment and a soupçon of disgust. Am now keen to read Hamilton-Paterson's other novels.

2011/27: The Hotel Under the Sand -- Kage Baker

One day a storm came and swept away everything that Emma had, and everything that Emma knew. When it had done all that, it swept away Emma too.

It might have been a storm with black winds, with thunder and lightning and rising waves. It might have been a storm with terrible anger and policemen coming to the door, and strangers, hospitals, courtrooms, and nightmares. It might have been a storm with soldiers, and fire, and hiding in cellars listening to shooting overhead. There are different kinds of storms. (p.11)

The Hotel Under the Sand is the late Kage Baker's first (and as far as I know only) novel for children / young adults. It's less morally murky than most of her other fiction, and it has a single clear plot-line, but it's undeniably Kage Baker; sidelong humour, stereotypical characters drawn anew, a strong female protagonist.

Emma, sole survivor of a storm that destroyed everything she held dear, is washed up on a desolate beach, a 'golden wilderness of sand dunes'. She survives her first night only with the help of Winston, a bellboy -- or rather the ghost of a bellboy -- at the Grand Wenlocke Hotel. The hotel itself was buried beneath the dunes after a catastrophic equinoctial storm. Now another storm is uncovering the hotel, which was designed to provide the perfect seaside holiday. As Winston points out, the perfect holiday is one that's as long as you want it to be: Mr Wenlocke's ingenious solution was the Temporal Delay Field, which stretches time within the hotel (except in the wine cellar: it's vital that the port ages properly).

Emma somehow ends up running the hotel, though not single-handedly: there's Mrs Beet, the cook, and her dog Shorty; Winston the bellboy; Captain Doubloon, who comes ashore in search of hidden treasure and is determined to solve the clues hidden within the hotel; and Masterman Wenlocke, the last of his line, a small boy with something of an attitude problem.

And then the guests begin to arrive ... Mr and Mrs E. Freet; an assortment of beautiful people with odd names (Orion, Arcturus, Cassiopeia); the rambunctious 'D. Eleutherios and party'.

This is a simple, upbeat tale of bravery and fortitude, finding friends and getting through the bad times. It's not sugar-coated: Emma has lost everything, and there are no easy answers. But there is a happy ending, in which evil is vanquished and good hearts rewarded.