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

Monday, July 07, 2014

2014/27: Wake -- Elizabeth Knox

And whose thought was that anyway—about the trigger being an open quote? Dan might occasionally use air quotes, but he wasn’t very confident about how to use quote marks on paper. It wasn’t his thought. It was malicious and perverted and savage and clever, and had come as a soundless whisper from the centre of his skull as if there was something inside him, something that wasn’t him, stirring like a hatchling in an egg. [loc.2613]
One weekday morning, almost all of the inhabitants of Kahukura are plunged into madness. Silently, they commit nonsensical atrocities upon themselves and one another. Then they go still. Then they die. And then the survivors, dazed, find that they are locked in with the bodies of the dead: there is an impermeable barrier around the town.

Knox knows her precedents, as we're reminded by teenager Oscar, who has recently 'watched a whole season of Lost; played Oblivion, and Bioshock, and Mass Effect—' [loc.1328]. There is a rag-tag group of survivors -- though, really, their 'survival' is more a case of being immune to the phenomenon -- including a star athlete, an American lawyer, a capable but overwhelmed policewoman, an intellectually-disabled (or mentally ill?) care worker, a fisherman. There is a Mystery: the 'No-Go', the invisible bubble that separates them from the rest of the world. Isolation and confusion, the grim work of burial, the need to share resources, the interpersonal frictions: all standard. Wake might initially seem to be another take on the zombie trope, but once the initial mania has passed it's more science-fictional than that. (One character is described as being 'like Superman, or the Doctor; one of those judicious, sequestered aliens of fiction' [loc.3787]).

It's a very New Zealand novel. Disclaimer: I am not a New Zealander. But I've visited Mapua, which in the novel is near Kahukura and which has the same ambience; and I've talked at length with New Zealand friends about their culture and society. Wake features a kakapo preserve with predator-proof fencing (the No-Go bulges slightly, so that the preserve is wholly within the quarantined area). Maori words, untranslated, are scattered through the novel: one of the characters is Maori. And Kahukura's cats are all being fed by the survivors. These are not just shades of local colour: they are all germane to the plot.

Knox's writing is compelling. Her images are clear, precise and surprising ('it seemed to him that he’d spent his life with his back to the sun and his face to a wall, writing on its white surface, working in his own shadow' [loc.4526]; 'his blood unfolded like a concertinaed red banner down the weatherboard wall' [loc.122]; 'a deep flutter, like a wind-baffled bonfire' [loc.70]). And the gradual unfolding of the novel -- the secrets that everyone's kept close, the mysteries that have divorced them from the rest of the world -- is masterful. Best? worst? most tragic? of all is the revelation of the trap that has been laid. That's the aspect I couldn't stop thinking about: and I have decided not to write about it here.

Wake is a novel about what you hold onto when you have lost almost everything; about what you give up, when you have already given up hope.

We are creatures who learn, and something we learn is to fear for what we love. After the worst has happened our fears are retrospective. We keep trying to warn ourselves. Our now useless fears come and fly around our heads. They circle us, crying. The island they might have landed on, to roost, has vanished beneath the waves. What are our fears? They’re the only birds left in the air. The birds of drowned nests. [loc.905]

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

2014/29: The Calling -- Alison Bruce

‘I have this book too, and most of these in fact, and that picture, and at least half of your videos…’
‘And so does [my boyfriend].’
‘But I had them first. And I’ve watched him with you, and with your replacement, and now with the latest one. And he’s taken us all to the same places and tried to make us the same.’ [loc.2280]
Another novel in the DC Gary Goodhew series, which I started reading because of its Cambridge setting. Alison Bruce is a competent writer who constructs twisty plots with red herrings aplenty. The Calling is less Cambridge-oriented than some of the others, but there were plenty of familiar landmarks (the Flying Pig, Parker's Piece).

Kaye Whiting is found dead, drowned, bound and gagged. Tests show that she was alive for a couple of days after being abandoned at the lakeside. Goodhew's certain that there have been other similar cases of young women left where they might or might not be found in time. As usual, he interprets his orders in a way that lets him get on with what he thinks is relevant: and, as usual, he's right.

The mindset of the murderer is intriguing, nasty and all too credible: the supporting characters are distinct, with their own motivations and interpretations. A compelling, if not exactly cheerful, read.

2014/26: A Monster Calls -- Patrick Ness

Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both. [loc. 1727]
Conor O'Malley, whose mother has cancer, whose father has emigrated to America with his new family and no place for Conor, whose best friend told everyone at school about Conor's mum being ill, which isolated him ... Conor is visited, at seven minutes past midnight, by a monster. It's not the nightmare-spawned monster he was expecting, though: it's something like a yew tree, something like an old god, and it wants to tell Conor three stories and have him tell one, truthful, story in return.

It's too early for grief, so Conor is fuelled by rage. He hates his grandmother; hates his dad's new family; hates his schoolmates, who -- in an acutely painful episode -- taunt him that they don't (won't) see him. The monster teaches him some important lessons about loss, and faith, and love: and in the end Conor does come up with the truth.

Patrick Ness wrote this, but it was Siobhan Dowd's idea -- perhaps inspired by her own cancer, which killed her in 2007. Apparently the illustrations are dark and grim: reading the Kindle deprived me of, or spared me from, those. (C'mon, Amazon: book illustrations aren't difficult.) The book itself is pretty harrowing: it took me back to the winter I was 10, when my mother was in hospital and nobody would tell me what was really going on. I'm not sure I would have benefitted from reading A Monster Calls at that age, though it's assigned reading in Year 7 in some schools. I think it would just have made me angrier.

I'm not sure I recognised how angry I'd been, that winter, until I read A Monster Calls.

Ness's style is plain and unsentimental, but never dull. The monster's voice is clear and poetic: Conor's is colloquial, credibly a teenage boy's. And, admirably, there is no happy ending, except for the calm that comes with acceptance.

2014/20-25: The Mountjoy books -- Elizabeth Aston

There’s an England that lurks in the imagination as much as in reality; an England of villages nestling among green hills, each with its inn, a church, a splendid manor house, Georgian houses and tiny thatched cottages, grouped around a village green.
The England of Agatha Christie and Miss Marple. The England of P G Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle, with imposters lurking within its imposing walls, of Downton Abbey with its family tensions and Gosford Park, full of scheming servants.
Trollope’s England, too, with sly or eccentric clerics, dangerous bishops and gentry families leading tranquil lives on the surface, but seething with disharmony and emotional turmoil within.
And also the England of Evelyn Waugh, of Nancy Mitford and Patrick O’Brian, a land that readers love to visit, an enchanting, deceiving landscape, rich with intrigue and scandal and a life so different from ours.
Imperfect, intriguing, full of ghosts and eccentrics and family values that startle modern minds – this is the England I’ve created for the Mountjoy novels. [from the author's website]

I had a sudden urge to reread these, and Kindle books make it easy to indulge such urges. True, the books are published under the name 'Elizabeth Aston' rather than 'Elizabeth Pewsey'; there are some conversion errors ('nave' instead of naïve, 'corning' instead of coming); and Amazon have unaccountably retitled Divine Comedy as The World, the Flesh and the Bishop (which, come to think of it, is slightly spoilery). But I do still love the slightly supernatural, often ironic portrayal of the English gentry. "Fresh from a hot bath she looked young, squeaky-clean and, thought Seton, very attractive. His feelings towards her were perhaps not a lot stronger than those he felt for a favourite dog; but then he liked dogs very much indeed." [Children of Chance, loc. 1924] And it's hard not to feel sympathy for those involved with the Mountjoy family -- with "their total lack of interest in the rest of the human race, and their unconcern for what other people thought about them" [Unholy Harmonies, loc. 900] -- as well as a masochistic fascination with the Mountjoys themselves.

Last time I reread these novels I was wondering when they were set -- and was misled by a description on Amazon of Children of Chance, which referred to the long hot summer of 1976. I think that's wrong. In Unaccustomed Spirits Cleo heads off to Hungary, which is experiencing political unrest (Hungarian uprising, 1959?), via the Air Terminal in Cromwell Rd (which closed in 1973). On the other hand, she's been sharing a house with two ghosts (one Elizabethan, one from the Civil War) whose favourite TV programme is Star Trek (first broadcast 1966). I have to conclude that the historical period in which the Mountjoy novels are set is simply The Past.