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

Saturday, January 22, 2011

2011/04: The Deadly Space Between -- Patricia Duncker

... the parameters of my world had become fluid and unstable. I had always been solitary, self-contained and independent. But I had been held in place by Isobel. We were like mercury in the porch thermometer; one rose and fell in balance with the other. (p. 150)

Toby Hawke is eighteen, friendless, completely alienated from teachers and classmates: he's been raised by his unmarried mother Isobel -- Iso for short -- who's only fifteen years older than him. (They're often mistaken for siblings.) Iso's estranged from her parents, but remains close to her formidable Aunt Luce and Luce's partner Liberty. Toby, mature in some respects but barely post-adolescent in others, has no father and no father-figure: his relationship with his mother is close, intimate, and when she introduces a new suitor -- the mysterious German scientist Roehm -- Toby's world view ... well, I'm fairly sure that amid the many snow- and ice-related metaphors and similes that colour this novel, there's one about shaking a snowglobe. That's what happens to Toby's world, not least because Roehm almost seems to be courting him -- perhaps as a way to Iso's heart. Toby finds Roehm fascinating, and the feeling seems mutual.

But Roehm remains mysterious. How does he know the layout of their kitchen without ever having been there before? How did he manage to buy perfect Christmas presents for people he'd never met? (How, for that matter, did he get Toby's password-protected files off his old computer and onto the new laptop that was Roehm's gift to Toby?) Why has Toby never seen him in daylight? (The answer to this last is not what you might be thinking.)

Toby's new laptop holds the key: there's a URL he doesn't recognise in his Favourites folder, and when he visits the site he discovers, or experiences, something that precipitates a crisis. After this point, the novel gains momentum like an avalanche, plunging headlong to a surreal denouement.

The Deadly Space Between is dense with allusion and motifs that, with each beat (each metaphor, reference, image) reinforce the claustrophobic and chilling ambience. There are references to Freud and Hamlet, to Weber's supernatural opera Die Freischutz, to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, to Prospero Alpini and a work he never wrote. (It's not, as some reviewers seem to believe, an attempt to rework or reimagine any of the above.) Duncker's pacing is enviable: all the necessary information is there, but Toby doesn't recognise it and so nor do we.

There are some unsettling scenes in this novel. They are intentionally unsettling: I'm quite appalled at the readers who seem to think they're meant to be sexy or racy.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

2011/03: Transition -- Iain Banks

How dare they do this to me? I had never been violent! Never! Had I? Of course, obviously, yes, ha, I had been extremely violent in my earlier life as a famously inventive ultra-assassin, but that was a long time and far far away and in another set of bodies entirely. (p.309)

I've got halfway through this novel several times, so finishing it felt like an accomplishment. I honestly don't know what made me stall: it's fun, pacy and often thought-provoking. It is also, despite the lack of author's middle initial -- at least in the UK edition -- very definitely science fiction.

There are multiple narrative voices, although not as many as you might think. Patient 8262 is an inmate in what seems to be a mental asylum: he isn't fluent in the local language, and spends much of his time reflecting on his past. The Philosopher reflects on his past as a torturer (first amateur, then professional). Madame d'Ortolan is the de facto head of The Concern (a.k.a. L'Expedience) whose purpose, according to the party line, is 'to make the many worlds better'. Mrs Mulverhill is a renegade Concern operative who's uncovered what she believes to be a massive conspiracy that will change everything. Adrian Cubbish is a London wideboy, a City fixer who got out of the coke trade and into hedge funds while the getting was good. And the Transitionary, effectively the protagonist of the novel, is an OCD ninja body-swapping multiverse-surfing assassin and occasional 'imp of the benign', intervening in the lives of the unAware (those who are ignorant of the multiple realities) for good or, usually, ill.

Not all the characters are likeable. In fact, they're all unlikeable to a greater or lesser extent. The Transitionary is not the only character with a misogynist mindset. It's not always clear who (if anyone) holds the moral high ground. Conversely, it's pretty obvious that the opening sentence could be spoken by any of the narrative voices:
Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator, though of course if you believe everything you're told you deserve whatever you get. (p. 1)

At its heart Transition is a story about whether the means justify the end. There's a discussion of whether torture can ever be morally right. (When it saves lives? When it unlocks a mental barrier in the subject? When the victim is unaware?) There's a parallel thread concerning how power corrupts, especially when there's no consequence for misuse. (Dictatorships, limited companies, withholding knowledge for the greater good).

I'm not wholly convinced by the ending, which has a deus ex machina feel to it. There are a couple of other points in the novel where I felt a key piece of information had been deliberately withheld (that restriction on the minds a Transitionary can enter, for instance): and there are plot elements that seemed to be left unresolved (the attack in the asylum; Mrs M's eyes). And the whole conspiracy seems ... not exactly inconsequential, but rickety. Transition, though, is a sprawling novel with multiple threads and a non-linear structure, so it's not impossible that a rereading would knit the story together more firmly in my mind.

Reading this, I was reminded of two classic short stories: Connie Willis's 'And Come From Miles Around' and Robert Silverberg's 'Passengers'. The former seems a template for the film that a character's trying to pitch; the latter could be an examination of the sleazy underside of the Transitionary's uber-cool world-walking.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

2011/02: Died on a Rainy Sunday -- Joan Aiken

The evenings were too short to abolish the McGregors' atmosphere in the house; even when she rolled into bed, dog-tired, she still felt it all about her. It was as if they were gradually taking over psychic occupation, and had left their elemental presences behind them to keep guard, watching and despising. (p.43)
Jane Drummond has just moved with her husband Graham and her two small children (Caroline, four; Donald, less than a year old) to a heavily-mortgaged house in the quiet Kent village of Culveden. Graham has a cavalier attitude to bills, and Jane's increasingly panicked by the final demands. Then, out of the blue, a former employer offers her some work. This will fix their financial problems, but what about the children?

Graham, who's been networking in the village, recommends Tim McGregor (for the gardening) and his wife Myfanwy. Jane finds herself increasingly uneasy about the pair: she suspects Mrs McGregor of cruelty, and wishes Mr McGregor would mend the fence between the garden and the weir. And Graham is behaving more suspiciously than ever ...

I'm fond of Aiken's psychological crime novels, and though Died on a Rainy Sunday is short and somewhat predictable, it has admirable atmosphere: the claustrophobic feel of an English village during a rainy summer is horribly familiar. Jane takes the children for a bus ride on a Sunday because that's the only entertainment. The village post office -- yes, this is a dated novel, published and firmly rooted in the early Seventies -- is a hotbed of gossip. Jane is sensible and independent enough to consider divorce; she's a bit of a snob, though frankly the McGregors would bring out the elitist in anyone; she's also very vulnerable, and knows it.

A quick, entertaining read: Aiken's not a showy writer but she displays a great deal of insight into human nature.

Monday, January 03, 2011

2011/01: Offshore -- Penelope Fitzgerald

The barge-dwellers, creatures of neither firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible aspirations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway. (p.10)
Offshore examines, askance, the lives of a ragtag assortment of people living on barges and houseboats in the shadow of Battersea Power Station. It's 1961 and, on land, Swinging London is just kicking off. Tilda and Martha (six and twelve years of age) mudlark for de Morgan tiles to fuel their Elvis habit. Their mother, Nenna, waits for her husband to see sense and abandon his Stoke Newington bedsit to join them on the Grace.

When Nenna can't sleep, she sits up with Maurice (whose income derives from picking up men in the local pub, and possibly from selling on some of the stolen goods left on his boat by the nefarious Henry) and they put the world to rights. Richard, the closest to a leader that the boat-owners have, is ex-Navy and determined to keep things shipshape: Although he tried hard to do so, Richard could never see how anyone could live without things in working order (p.18). His wife Laura is not content with life on the rolling Thames. Once-successful marine artist Willis would just like to patch over the leaks long enough to sell his boat and live ashore with his sister.

But Nenna and her precocious daughters are the focal point of the novel. How does Nenna make ends meet? What will become of Tilda and Martha if the nuns don't stop praying for them? (The nuns' prayers are presently a bone of contention.) Will Edward return to his family? What, exactly, is the nature of his arrangement with his housemates in Stoke Newington? (I think this is alluded to, subtly and quietly, in the final scene.)

Offshore is a very funny, and quietly profound, novel -- novella, perhaps; it's under 50,000 words -- and though the ending feels abrupt, it settles after reading into a strange equilibrium. The boatowners are not precisely Bohemian, but they've turned their backs, one way or another, on shore life. Even Nenna's cat, Stripey -- who can only prey on rats below a certain size: the larger ones chase her -- is a quintessential ship's cat: in every way appropriate to the Reach. She habitually moved in a kind of nautical crawl, with her stomach close to the deck, as though close-furled and ready for dirty weather (p.29). Everyone's adrift, everyone's reaching for a lifeline, and a storm is coming.

My parents met in a similar community, at a similar time, just upriver at Strand-on-the-Green. It's strange how much of the novel seemed familiar to me from their anecdotes.