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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

2011/26: The Rapture -- Liz Jensen

What has happened to us? How is it that we, the inventors of devices that fly across oceans, hurtle to other planets, burrow underground, and kill from a distance; we, the atom-splitters, the antibiotic-discoverers, the computer-modellers, the artificial-heart-implanters, the creators of GM crops and ski-slopes in Dubai, have failed to see five minutes beyond our own lifetimes? (p. 302)

Summer, heatwaves, storms and the Faith Wave: The Rapture is set in near-future Britain, a couple of years after the 2012 Olympics, in a south-coast town that reminds me more than a little of Folkestone.

Psychotherapist Gabrielle Fox is broken, physically and emotionally, after a car crash that claimed her lover's life. She applies for -- and, against the advice of former colleagues, gets -- a job at Oxsmith, an institute for teenage psychiatric patients. Gabrielle, who specialises in art therapy, finds herself working with Bethany Krall, a sixteen-year-old girl who murdered her mother with a Philips screwdriver.

Bethany, daughter of a charismatic Christian preacher, claims that she can predict natural disasters. She's scornful of Gabrielle's attempts to convince her that it's sheer randomness. As prediction after prediction is fulfilled, Gabrielle gradually begins to take Bethany's visions more seriously: scribbled sketches of a falling statue; an image of a crane-operator's cab, complete with porn on the wall; a warning about the Tribulation, 'something we've never seen before'.

Gabrielle's new relationship with physicist Frazer Melville (who, irritatingly, is referred to by his full name or his occupation throughout) gives her some insight into possible mechanisms behind Bethany's gift, or curse. Van Gogh's skies, especially those painted while he was suffering from epilepsy, apparently depict accurate models of turbulence: Frazer Melville suggests that the electro-shock therapy Bethany's undergoing is producing a similar effect in her brain. In which case, it should be possible to elicit more predictions, to discover the nature of the catastrophe that Bethany believes will destroy the human race ...

The Rapture -- which I read in a single day, May 21st (Rapture Day as predicted by Harold Camping) -- feels like a novel of two halves. The first half explores Bethany's illness and her visions, and has a sense of gathering force: the second, though, is much more concerned with Gabrielle's paranoia and self-doubt, and the romance between her and Frazer Melville.

Not a happy ending: there are no happy endings here. But if you squint, Bethany and Gabrielle both get what they want, and what they need.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2011/25: Hallucinating Foucault -- Patricia Duncker

"Are you asking me if I am a lonely man? Or are you asking me to tell you some more about my writing?"
I realised that the two, which I had always held in my mind distinct and apart, were now no longer separate. Paul Michel and the hidden drama lived in his texts were utterly and terribly fused. And this process was not of his making, but mine. He was the end of my quest, my goal, my grail. He had himself become the book. Now I was asking the book to yield up all its secrets. (p. 112)

A short, somewhat disquieting novel about love in many guises: especially, and pivotally, the bond between an author and the person for whom they write.

The narrator is twenty-two, a Cambridge post-grad consumed by his thesis on once-famous French writer Paul Michel, when he falls in love with 'the Germanist'. (Many of the characters in this novel remain nameless: the Germanist refers to her father as 'the Bank of England', though his male partner, a doctor, does merit a full name.) The Germanist turns out to know more than a little about Michel, former enfant terrible of French literature who shared an intimate reader/writer bond -- as well as a very public homosexuality, and the 'outsider' mentality which our narrator thinks intrinsic to that sexual nature -- with Michel Foucault. Paul Michel, we learn, was a schizophrenic who was subject to fits of violence, and is now incarcerated in a mental hospital outside Paris.

Prompted by the Germanist, the narrator seeks out his subject, and wins his trust; wins, too, the trust of the staff at Sainte-Anne, who permit him to take Michel out for the day, and eventually to take him away for the summer, to the Midi.

In the blazing heat of the South of France, Michel seems quite restored: he wins over his would-be biographer, tantalisingly revealing a series of insights into the nature of art, writing for, writing against. Both Michel and the narrator are driven by forms of madness: but what tips the balance is Michel's account of meeting a child on a beach, and the narrator's realisation that he's really nothing more than a go-between.

The novel (written in 1996, set in 1993) feels remarkably dated -- not a criticism, but perhaps a sign of verisimilitude, of how well it evokes the time in which it's set. The Bank of England (the Germanist's father, not the institution) is clearly wealthy and tech-savvy, as evidenced by his car-phone; there's no such thing as the Internet or Google; the Germanist bought her Cambridge flat for £27K.

I don't think I like anyone in this novel, with the possible exception of the Bank of England and his partner. But it's a fascinating, chilling, emotionally overwhelming read, and left me with a lingering sense of hidden complexities, unsuspected connections, and untrustworthy accounts. Hallucinating Foucault begins with, to put it kindly, a misperception: I suspect the rest of the novel teems with them.

Monday, June 20, 2011

2011/24: Case Histories -- Kate Atkinson

Even the police had brought a clairvoyant in, but they hadn't briefed him properly and he had thought they were looking for a body when, of course, they already had one. The clairvoyant said the girl's body was 'in a garden, within walking distance of a river', which pretty much narrowed it down to half of Cambridge ... How many girls were out there, unturned by the plough, unseen by the passerby? If only you could lock girls away, in towers, in dungeons, in convents, in their bedrooms, anywhere that would keep them safe. (p. 141)

Case Histories starts by setting out the details of three murders: Olivia, a little girl who goes missing from a tent in the family garden, Cambridge 1970; Laura, a young woman murdered at random whilst working in her father's office, Cambridge 1994; and Michelle, a woman in a remote farmhouse suffering post-natal depression, who finds herself watching her baby daughter screaming as her husband lies dead. Typically for a Kate Atkinson novel, these three crimes are linked by a complex cobweb of circumstance, coincidence and hidden connections. The man who brings them all together? Private Investigator Jackson Brodie, divorced, ex-military, ex-police.

Atkinson brings Cambridge to life, and she's refreshingly rude about tourists, foreign-language students and local eccentricities. ('Madness was endemic in Cambridge', p. 110) There's a punt expedition to the Orchard Tea Rooms, during which Julia expounds at length about Rupert Brooke and nude bathing. There are nudists on the riverbank (reading Principia Mathematica) and adulterers in the bland estates of Cherry Hinton.

The novel is full of lost girls -- not all of them dead, but all of them uprooted, cut off from their pasts. Julia and Amelia, sisters of lost Olivia, are both stuck, psychologically, at the ages they were when Olivia vanished from the garden. (Their elder sister Sylvia ran away to a convent.) Michelle's daughter keeps running away, and stops coming back. Theo, Laura's father, defines his whole life by the fact that his daughter -- one of his daughters -- was murdered. When he succumbs to a life-threatening asthma attack on Christ's Pieces, it's a homeless girl who helps him. (The woman of whom she demands an inhaler is Amelia. That's coincidence.)

Jackson agonises about his own daughter, who is about to be taken away from him. He'd seen too many crimes to be complacent about her safety. And he knows what it's like to be left behind when someone's murdered. Jackson's life, like Julia's and Amelia's, like Theo's, falls into 'before' and 'after'.

Jackson does have some other problems, which he deals with by pretty much ignoring them: they're mostly alluded to after the fact, rather than described as they happen. Suffice to say, taking pity on bigotted old widows in search of their lost kitties isn't the sinecure it might appear.

At first I wasn't sure how Michelle's story fitted with the two other threads, both of which are set in Cambridge and both of which concern the grief and guilt of survivors. Gradually it became clear that Michelle's story is intimately entwined, albeit at one remove, with Theo's and Jackson's and Amelia's.

Not only are all the cases resolved (albeit not in the 'book him, Danno' mode) but there are some surprising happy endings. I was especially happy that Amelia, spinsterish and miserable, found joy on the banks of the Cam.

NB: I haven't been watching the TV adaptation, but I'm inclined to agree with that the story makes much less sense, sheerly for meteorological reasons, transposed to Edinburgh.

2011/23: When Will There Be Good News? -- Kate Atkinson

Jackson Brodie had cared about missing girls, he wanted them all found. Louise didn't want them to get lost in the first place. There were a lot of ways of getting lost, not all of them involved being missing. Not all of them involved hiding, sometimes women got lost right there in plain sight. Alison Needler, making accommodations, disappearing inside her own marriage, a little more every day. Jackson's sister stepping off a bus and stepping out of her life one evening in the rain. (p.170-1)

Thirty years before the start of the novel, Joanna Mason was six years old. A stranger murdered her mother and brother as they walked back from the bus stop: her mother's last words were "Run, Joanna, run!" She ran: she survived.

Now the murderer is due to be released from prison -- the event that precipitates everything that happens in When Will There Be Good News?.

Jackson Brodie is travelling north when his journey's interrupted in the most catastrophic of ways. As he wavers in and out of consciousness, his fragmented memories patch over the events subsequent to Case Histories. Jackson's life has changed drastically: yet, as in Atkinson's other novels, everything is connected and one of his earliest triumphs, his earliest 'lost girls', is about to re-enter his life.

There's a plethora of mistaken identities: there are kind lies (it's easier for one character to describe her mother without mentioning that she's not actually alive), and deceptions more cold-blooded and considered. Atkinson's characters are richly individual (and that includes their narrative voices: Louise Monroe's run-on sentences in the quotation that heads this review reveal a personality quite different to hard-boiled orphan Reggie or Jackson Brodie's protective armour.

There's also a great deal about parents and parenthood: Joanna Mason lost her mother in the most appallingly abrupt way, and that experience has altered her own attitudes to motherhood. Reggie lost her mother in a ludicrously random accident: she never lets her mother-figures realise what they are. Possibly doesn't realise it herself.

I'm not 100% sure I made sense of the logistics of the final twist, but all the better: it'll keep me thinking. Not that there's a dearth of thought-provoking material -- connections, observations, coincidences that aren't wholly random -- in any Kate Atkinson novel: that's what makes her one of my favourite contemporary crime writers.