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

Friday, August 05, 2011

2011/36: Restless -- William Boyd

Sally Gilmartin was as solid as this gatepost, I thought, realising at the same time how little we actually, really know of our parents' biographies, how vague and undefined they are, like saints' lives almost -- all legend and anecdote -- unless we take the trouble to dig deeper. (p. 33)

Oxford, 1976: Ruth Gilmartin is a single mother with a five-year-old son, studying for a PhD and supporting herself by teaching English to foreign students. Her mother, Sally, seems unusually nervous, almost paranoid. She gives Ruth some papers to read -- The Story of Eva Delectorskaya -- and confesses that it's actually her own story.

Restless switches between the story of Eva (born in Russia, not Bristol; a British spy, not a secretary, during the war) and Ruth's matter-of-fact, somewhat indignant reaction to her mother's revelations. Ruth, it has to be said, is not an especially interesting character in herself: however, Sally (or rather Eva) is tired of waiting to be found out, weary of being afraid, and determined to call to account the person who trapped and betrayed her half a century earlier. She can't accomplish this alone, and she already believes that someone's trying to assassinate her. She needs Ruth's help: and Ruth, her perspectives altered by her mother's autobiography, realises that she is willing to help.

Ruth, as I said, didn't much interest me: her relationship with her mother, a prickly loving intimacy, was fascinating. And Eva's wartime experiences -- her glamorous lover, her work in inventing and disseminating misinformation, her abnegation of her moral code in the cause of a greater good -- were rivetting.

I stumbled occasionally on Boyd's grammar and sentence construction. Eva enters a cafe: "three other elderly couples" (p.84) are already there. Is Eva elderly, or a couple? No. Or someone's briefing her: "Mason told her a few bland facts, except for the information that Hopkins had had half his stomach removed" (p.161). So he didn't tell her that? I was also a little surprised to find 'a computer with a screen like a television' (p.190) in an Oxford academic's office in 1976, and to find punks already endemic in Oxford. And the subplots about the Germans and the Iranians, despite showing how Ruth's ideas were changing, didn't realy come together.

A very readable book, though, and the wartime passages had the feel of a classic movie.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

2011/35: Desdaemona -- Ben Macallan

This was the backlash of loneliness. The mortal version had at least a certain terminus: you could only be lonely for a lifetime. In an immortal body, it could last forever. A boy could be stranded like this, in the prow of something strong and unstoppable, eternally alone, eternally aware ...
He could be pathetic and self-pitying, and aware of that too, and equally unable to change it. (p. 266)
The first urban fantasy from 'Ben Macallan', possibly better-known as Chaz Brenchley. Jordan looks like a 17-year-old homeless boy, but he's been seventeen for a very long time. He treads a fine line between the supernatural heritage he's rejected, and the human world in which he's able to do some good: helping people who are lost, showing them their way home. He's acquired the reputation of being able to find anything. That's why Desi -- Desdaemona -- seeks him out: she wants him to find her sister Fay, who had an affair with an immortal and ended it very badly.

Jordan isn't entirely enthusiastic about working for Desi. For one thing, the line between 'boss' and 'girlfriend' is somewhat blurry. For another, Desi isn't exactly human any more, and she's attracted some enemies who have never been human. Fortunately, the two find an ally in Jordan's estranged brother Asher. Did I say 'fortunately'? No, wait ...

Desdaemona features some truly creative (and distractingly unpleasant) opponents, mostly drawn from English folklore -- the Green Man, a Henley undine, the nastiest Nine Men's Morris ever -- as well as a stunning drag-queen Sybil and the more mundane malevolence of vampires, werewolves et cetera. For a first-person narrative, it also manages to keep Jordan's secrets hidden away for a remarkably long time: we know something is strange about him, but we don't know what.

Macallan doesn't deal in black and white. (Jordan occasionally does, but it's clear when he's doing so). The major villains, the ones who aren't mere henchmen or ... morris-men, are faceted, interesting, likeable. Jordan is far from heroic: he's spent his teens (his very elastic teens) running away, and he's neither physically strong nor supernaturally powerful. His charm is in his vulnerability, his ability to mock himself, and his steadfastness of purpose.

Disclaimer: I am a friend of the author, and afraid of his cats. Nevertheless, I shall whine about the ending. (It is not weak or bad: it is merely incredibly frustrating.) Thankfully, a sequel is in the works.