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  1. It really is not possible to discuss this book and what makes it so fascinating with spoilers, so I'm just warning everyone that I haven't spoilered some important information. Also, thanks for Clavain for suggesting this book. SPOILERS FOLLOW. DON'T READ IF YOU DON'T WANT THE SPOILERS. The book is narrated by Rosemary Cooke, who is about 40 when she is writing the book. She starts when she is a 22-year-old student (in 1996), then goes backwards for awhile and, at the very end, forward in time. It's not as confusing as it sounds. The central issue of her life was the disappearance of her sister Fern 17 years before and then her brother's abrupt departure 6 years later and his flight from the FBI. Very early on, you suspect that there's something a bit "off" about Fern and the story vaguely reminded me of a review I had read. 26% of the way in (can you tell I read it on my tablet?), you learn that Fern was actually a chimpanzee and that she had been part of an experiment in seeing whether chimps could be raised as children in families. Assuming that the book is based on what really happened (and I think it is), there was quite a little cottage industry in these experiments and they didn't always end well. Chimps are, after all, wild animals and much, much stronger than human beings. For reasons that are not clear at all until the end (and maybe even then have been sanitized), she was transferred to a primate study in another state and Rosemary and her brother are fed some pablum that she's gone to live on a farm. When her brother finds out what really happened to his beloved baby sister, he becomes an animal rights' activist and after a long time, finally tells Rosemary what really happened. The book is fascinating. Rosemary has been raised by experimental psychologists and she spends a lot of time exploring and discussing issues that she's sort of grown up hearing about. She expounds in very interesting and natural-sounding ways about the unreliability of memory, the role of character versus circumstances in human actions, the differences between humans and animals, the fact that humans have become comfortable with animal experimentation because it is hidden from them, and how humans are particularly disturbed by appearances and behaviors that are almost, but not quite, human. Rosemary herself is one of those people who isn't quite right because her twin for the first years of her life was a chimpanzee--so she gets in her friend's personal space and her facial expressions aren't quite right, particularly when she is school-aged. And yet that's the most fascinating part of the book--she understands chimpanzee behavior better than anyone and she talks about it casually. For example, she explains that the big-toothed smiles of the chimps that were sent into space aren't smiles at all--they mean the chimps were terrified. She knew it as soon as she saw it and was shocked that others did not (the correct chimp friendly face has a smile with the lip over the top teeth--we've been practicing that at home ever since I told the family at great length about this book). I do want to say something about Rosemary herself. I just loved her. The way she talks makes her seem like a real person and her observations are usually very apt and often either very humorous or very touching. For humorous: She goes to college at UC-Davis, where it's very hot and says, " 'At least it's a dry heat,' they keep telling me, though once the thermometer tops a hundred I think that's just crazy talk." I agree and I bet Kerry does, too. There's too many touching places for me to just show one. Highly recommend. One of my top reads so far, but the one I'm reading now is going to give it a run for its money.
  2. I had expected to be writing a gushing review exhorting people to read a great novel from one of Scotland’s liveliest writers. I have loved almost everything Ali Smith has written. Alas, How To Be Both has not hit the mark. Basically, it is two novellas, stitched together. In one of them, we find a 15th century Italian girl, dressed as a boy in order to pass herself off as a painter, working on frescoes for the local Duke. This girl, who adopts the name of Francescho, spends time exploring her sexuality in brothels, consorting with a pickpocket, and demanding more money. Oh, and she is dead. Possibly. From time to time, we are reminded that Francescho is in purgatorio, but mostly we find ourselves reading a straight autobiographical narrative, chopped up into little pieces and scattered into a random order. The narrative is written in a preudo-mediaeval voice interspersed with modern colloquialisms such as “Just saying”. Sentences themselves are fragmented and drift off into the ether. It is very confusing. Then, abruptly, the story finishes and we find modern teenager, George (really Georgia), remembering a holiday to Italy with her mother shortly before the mother died. They saw the frescos that Francescho had painted and wondered about the life of this painter. Cutting between present day grief, greatly exacerbated by the heavy handed school counsellor, and happier past memories, it feels choppy. There is a story of growth and loss; there is a sexual ambiguity; an awakening of an adult from the chrysalis of childhood. The gimmick is that you can read either story first. The Kindle edition prints the entire text twice – first 15th Century-Current, then Current-15th Century. You can read whichever version you wish. Not that I imagine it would be a very different experience since the stories seem only very loosely connected. Perhaps we are supposed to wonder whether the 15th Century narrative was just made up by George. Certainly it never felt quite authentic as a mediaeval narrative. And although the George narrative felt more real, it didn’t seem to go anywhere. Normally Ali Smith’s writing is clear and unambiguous, drawing beauty from human life rather than from arty language. However, this seems to have been abandoned for How To Be Both where much is opaque. It is especially difficult to tell what is happening at any given point in the Francescho narrative as it seems to be so half formed and to wriggle about so much. I’m not quite sure what Ali Smith was trying to do here. Her short fiction is excellent and her novels are playful and innovative. Perhaps this is trying to be both but it isn’t succeeding. ***00
  3. Dorrigo Evans is a war hero. Not only did he survive the Burma Railway, he inspired his fellow POWs as they battled for survival on The Line. He is an old man, doing the speaker circuit. Everyone he meets is happy to see him; everyone he meets is awed. Dorrigo is the personification of the Australian establishment. But rewind to his days of youth; his training to be a doctor; his enlistment in the Army and training outside Adelaide; his life and his loves. Dorrigo started out as a mere mortal; a regular guy with his virtues balanced out by his failings. He has a touch of self-depracating arrogance, but what good doctor doesn't? He seems to have no great ambition and is not driven to enlist through any obvious sense of duty or patriotism. Indeed, based on his early encounters with both friendly and enemy soldiers, he seems to reserve his most withering comments for the British. Then, the moment makes the man. As he and hundreds of fellow Australians are captured by the Japanese, he finds himself in a slave labour camp, hewing at rock with a hammer and chisel to make way for a supply railway from Siam to Burma. This is the major part of the novel. Richard Flanagan exposes us to the full horror of the conditions and their treatment at the hands of the Japanese officers and Korean guards. It's graphic. But the real interest comes from seeing the human side of the assorted prisoners and their guards. The narrative point of view switches around to give each of the characters a chance to come alive. In a film, the Aussie Diggers would all be strong jawed heroes. But here we see an assortment ranging from the naively energetic; through to the selfishly lazy; a guy learning Mein Kampf by heart; various shades of racism; bullies; jokers; friends. It's a real mixed bag and some of these heroes are not nice people at all. By the same token, it would have been easy to portray the Japanese as mindless sadists. Sure, they were brutal, but we are given an insight into the values and thought processes that went behind the brutality. Major Nakamura is portrayed almost as a victim himself, forced to deliver the completion of the railway to absurd deadlines with insufficient resources. Whilst he attaches no value to the lives of prisoners, he is concerned only with completion of The Line and duty to his superiors and the Emperor. He has contempt for prisoners of war - it would have been nobler to die in battle - he does not hate them. His crime is one of indifference. His vicious guard, the Goanna, has even less emotional investment in the project and only lives for his pay slip. The novel follows the post-war lives of some of the characters too - well, those who survive. We see the transition of ordinary people into heroes or villains according to the fortune of their side in the war. We find them largely indifferent to their destiny. Yet Richard Flanagan does not portray their fate as luck. Dorrigo, the hero, has a further chance to prove his mettle which he seizes instinctively. He really is a hero, albeit one who spends most of his time being rather ordinary and rather alone. Perhaps it is the medical training, perhaps it is his complicated life, but Dorrigo bears more than a passing resemblance to Yuri Zhivago. The themes in the novel are epic; the story is complex but always coherent. But also, the narrative can be light, humorous but it can also be heartbreakingly sad. The scenes are depicted perfectly; the imagery is so right it is like looking at a photograph. The novel may lack some of the tricks and ingenuity of other modern novels and, in a way, it feels a little old fashioned. But it achieves what it sets out to do with perfection. It's a longish novel, but it holds the attention; the reader almost daren't look away. The next time I buy an ANZAC badge or Legacy torch I will be thinking of Dorrigo and his real life counterparts. *****
  4. What is a Bone Clock? A bone clock is a person, maturing and ageing. Starting as a weak and helpless baby, becoming strong, getting wise, getting frail, dying. And because you can tell a person's stage of life just by looking, they are a bone clock. Simples. In The Bone Clocks, just as in Ghostwritten, we find a series of separate stories with a thread of connection, But whilst Ghostwritten jumps across space, The Bone Clocks jumps over time - although there are a fair few different locations too. There is a common thread - far more so than in Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas, but there is still the feel of different narrators, different voices and different situations. The novel is broadly linear, although each section does have some element of backstory. It is not actually tricksy. But there are some jaw dropping moments. The first of these, in a house in Iwade, is so jarring that the reader could be forgiven for losing faith in the novel. But stick with it and things do proceed on an evenish keel. Only one of the sections i really weird and even that, if you can sift through the weirdness, has human relationships at its core. It is also necessary for setting up the last section, set in the 2040s. Some of the novel is very funny. There's a lovely section about an ageing novelist doing the tour of world literary festivals. He's such an outrageous bludger that one can't help but smile - if only he had put half as much energy into his writing as he puts into revenge... The section set in the Alps is also great as a ghastly set of wealthy and aristocratic students go skiing. It's the last section, though, that steals the show. On the face of it, it is difficult and disappointing. There are messages - at one point spelled out in terms that are too obvious. But they do leave many ideas burning slowly regarding progress, immortality, loss, hope, nostalgia, colonialism, security and morality. It needs the long build up of the many other sections to pack the punch of the denouement. David Mitchell is, above all else, a storyteller. The Bone Clocks works on both the surface level and at a deeper level. But he is also a master of different styles and the sheer variety in this novel is mind-blowing, straddling genres but pulling it into a single, coherent whole. There are lots of playful references to previous works and other books (was the reference to The Narrow Road to the Deep North coincidental?) and there are references to popular culture and neuroses. The future world sections are not meant to be predictions, but rather reflections of today's fears. The Bone Clocks is a daring work and some people will dislike the most daring elements. For me, it worked and is at least as strong as Cloud Atlas - and may be David Mitchell's strongest yet. *****
  5. Richard Powers can clearly write. In Orfeo, we find a semi-retired avant garde composer, Peter Els, filling his empty days setting up a home laboratory and cultivating bacteria. He has only his dog, Fidelio, for company. Fidelio dies and Els’s life starts to unravel. Most specifically, the Federal Government starts to take an interest in the bacteria. Els doesn’t trust the Government to accept the innocence of his experiments in these days of heightened sensitivity. So Els does what every rational 70 year old would do: he sets off on a literal journey across the country and a metaphorical journey through his past. And what a dull past it is. Els had a brief romance at university; he had a wife and a daughter; and he had a friend. His friend liked his wife. His wife liked someone else. Els composed music. On his own. Like I say, Powers can write and for a while, he created quite an intriguing storyline with the bacteria. He seems to have a delicate touch with words, managing to get the tone just right and allowing the reader to fill in a whole picture on the back of one perfect phrase. But then comes the music. I do not know the music being described and I do not want to know it. I do not need dozens of pages telling me what Shostakovich sounds like, but at least Shostakovich music exists; at least I could get in touch with the real thing if I wanted to. But dozens of pages describing fictional music? Describing music is a pretty pointless activity anyway. To this reader, it just looked like endless lists of adjectives; endless lists of composers; endless lists of instruments; endless lists of technical jargon. It was clearly supposed to counterpoint or emphasize situations in the here and now. On the rare occasions (towards the end) where the parallel or contrast was there to be observed, it felt obvious, clunky, heavy handed. Whenever the story had managed to recapture the attention, we drifted off into more music. Truly it was soporific. Buried in the swathes of drivel, there are interesting (though perhaps obvious) points about government surveillance, personal freedom, paranoia, stymied dreams. At the end, though, these feel just like ingredients sprinkled in according to a recipe. The same too with Els, who manages to veer between perspicacity and gaucheness; pragmatism and naivity with abandon. Orfeo lacks humanity; it lacks credibility. Where some novels try to do something that doesn’t work or doesn’t appeal, it is difficult to see what Richard Powers was actually trying to do here. At my most charitable, I can only imagine it was a self-indulgent exercise in seeing whether he could create music from words. His answer is that he can’t. I resent pretty much every minute I wasted reading this novel. *0000
  6. The Lives of Others is long. Way too long. This sprawling Indian family saga charts the rise of the Ghosh family, Calcutta industrialists, as they accumulate wealth in the paper and publishing industry and then proceed to lose it as their country disintegrates and their investments fail to pay off. Against this backdrop, the sons and daughters of the family squabble. The backdrop is good. There is a wonderful insight into the politics of change; the sleaze; the corruption; the instability. We see the contrast between the young Turks of the Communist Party ranged against the old order of the caste system and acceptance of your place in society. The traditions of accumulation of wealth; patronage; marriage and funerals are set out in magnificent detail. There are some great set pieces. The police interrogation, for example, is very well done. But at other times, the injection of long lists of Indian words can grate a bit. The real problem, though, is that the cast is too large and too hard to tell apart. There is a family diagram at the front of the book and it is actually smaller than the reader might expect. This is in part due to the use of various names and forms of address for each character. But also, too many of the characters seem to be placeholders with no real spirit of their own. They do deeds, but there’s no consistency or predictability about most of them. One or two – Madan the servant and Chhaya the ugly sister – do stand out and seem to have underlying motives. But for the most part, it feels more akin to a 19th century Irish Novel of Manners than a 2014 Booker Prize contender. Many of the chapters have a chapterette between them that follows one of the characters (I won’t say which one in case it’s a spoiler) as he roams the countryside sowing the seeds of insurrection. For the most part, this is dull. Sure, it provides a vehicle to see how the other half lives, but it feels like a laboured device weighed down by a revolving cast of revolutionaries and long tracts of Maoist political philosophy. It wears its research heavily. This is awkward because, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that it is the central theme. It does pick up towards the end, but much of it feels padded. Whilst the novel is ostensibly set in 1967-1970 (helpfully signposted at the start of some chapters) there is a tendency to slip back into the past. Hence, one is never quite sure what age some of the characters are at any given moment. Is Somnath a little boy or a grown man? Is Purba a middle aged woman or a child bride? It can get mighty confusing, especially when the lengthy tome has started to outlive its welcome and the reader’s interest in sorting it all out has waned. I am sure The Lives Of Others will have its fans. For this reader, though, it was a bit too familiar. It bore more than a passing resemblance to Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, but twice as long and half as good. ***00
  7. Dr Paul C O'Rourke DDS is a New York dentist. He's brash, he's arrogant and he's got a view on pretty much everything. He has a failed relationship with his practice manager Connie and an unhealthy obsession with the Boston Red Sox. In this comic novel, O'Rourke initially comes across as a 50 something dinosaur, taking pride in his technophobia, eschewing the internet and popular culture. As the narrative goes on, however, it seems that O'Rourke is more likely to be in his 30s and not quite as ruddy ruddy as he makes out. Nevertheless, it is a surprise to him when he finds his dental practice has developed a website that focuses as much on some obscure religious tracts as on the dentistry. What follows is a bizarre and comic take of finding out who is posting the material and why. This all provides a great backdrop for analysing O'Rourke's own hollow, lonely existence and his failed relationships. Despite his atheism, O'Rourke seems to have flirted with Judaism in an effort to get closer to Connie and her family. Hence, he has a conflicted reaction to the religious content of his hacked website: on the one hand he is appalled, whilst on the other hand he is intrigued. There's quite a lot of philosophy, a lot of metaphysics, most of it spurious but interspersed with dental anecdotes and meetings with one of America's richest men. The dental anecdotes are hilarious and I especially loved the one about the disgruntled customer and the cave dwellers. It's difficult to categorise Decent Hour. It's not so much about the story as about the voice. Whether you get on with it depends totally on whether or not you get on with O'Rourke's narration. In this sense, it's a bit like James Kelman. Fortunately I loved the voice, even though O'Rourke is a supercilious, snivelling wretch who would not be fit to polish my shoes, let alone polish my teeth. ****0
  8. The Blazing World is presented as a series of documents charting the life of Harriet (Harry) Burden, a lesser known New York artist. These documents, drawing heavily on a series of notebooks kept by Burden herself, have supposedly been collated by an art historian. The broad thrust of the piece is that Burden felt herself marginalised as a woman and therefore chose three men, each to present one of her installations as their own work. These three collections garnered favourable reviews. As so often happens in these assorted document type novels (Michael Arditti’s Unity comes to mind), the initial pretext soon wears thin. The documents, interviews, letters and diaries all go into a level of personal detail and cod-philosophy when, in real life, they would focus far more on facts and public events. As also tends to happen in such works, the narrative voice is not sufficiently different from source to source. It all feels like it was drafted by a single pen, working towards a single goal. Harry’s notebooks, in particular, seem to be filled with a linear narrative, despite being dispersed over multiple volumes kept simultaneously, and offer verbiose personal justification for everything. The writing is supposed to be over the top, pretentious. It’s a satire of modern art and one presumes the frequent digressions into philosophy (Kirkegaard seems to be a favourite) are presumably supposed to look hyperbolic when used to justify art installations that would otherwise not look out of place in a Blue Peter dollhouse. The characters are similarly supposed to be grotesque: a stupid young boy called Anton Tish who seems to have escaped from Warhol’s Factory; a gay black dandy who had adopted the name of Phineas Q Eldridge; and a genuine artist called Rune who is busy trying to forget his austere Norwegian heritage. Then we have Bruno, Harry’s partner and wannabe poet; we have dippy hippy chicks; bisexual art dealers; art journos; wealthy collectors… Despite their tendency to speak with the same voice, this motley assortment of characters feels real and diverse enough to sustain the piece. This, harnessed with some tragi-comic storylines and some great set pieces, breathe life into what keeps threatening to be (but never becomes) a snore-a-thon. This is not a life-changing novel and the plot is thin. The academic framing device comes to nothing – there are no conclusions and no thesis. But it is brimming with ideas and many of them are presented in a colourful, accessible fashion. Sometimes the ideas seem to trip over one another and the reader does have to wade through a lot of Tish to get to them, but overall it is worth it. ****0
  9. On the surface, History Of The Rain is beautifully crafted. Ruth Swain, probably twenty-something and a university graduate, lies in bed in the attic of her family's County Clare home, quietly dying. Probably. Perhaps to fill the boredom, she decides to tell her family history. Armed with a few facts, she invents and hypotesizes; creates dialogue, meetings, motives... She has access to her father's library of books, numbering over 3,000, which she references painstakingly throughout the story; and she has an obsession with the Salmon of Knowledge. Ruth has a lively, playful voice and engages in direct conversation with the reader. Just as some Irish writers - William Trevor and John B Keane come to mind - provide a straight narration of a village of idiots, here we find Ruthie taking ordinary, modern people and trying to cast them in the humorous stereotypes of yesterday's novels. Indeed, the title "History of the Rain" might even have been chosen as a kind of opposite to John McGahern's "That They May Face The Rising Sun". Ruth christens characters based on their traits or over-used phrases, but there's no sense that these nicknames have a generalisability beyond the narrative. They may be portrayed as imbecilic from time to time, but only to suit Ruth's higher narrative purpose. Sadly, the higher narrative purpose lacks direction. We hop, skip and jump all over time and space, but there is precious little storyline. We are led to expect some kind of cataclysmic tragedy - and how we are made to wait for it - that when it comes it is an anti-climax. Individual passages can be funny, apposite, meaningful. But taken together they are pretty forgettable. The family relationships can get quite blurry, which is an achievement for a family that is essentially nuclear. The constant references to Irish mythology and the Irish financial crisis never seem to lead anywhere. They simply lend an air of both the erudite and the contemporary without ever seeming to have a point. Actually, towards the very end, we do see why Ruth might have such a fixation with salmon and rain, but it feels forced. Plotless novels can work - and Niall Williams even puts this thought into Ruth's pen near the end. But they have to rely on depth of characterisation; personal development; lyricism; power of language. Something. Anything. What that "anything" might be is just not sufficiently clear in History Of The Rain. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt; perhaps a reader who had never come across the Irish village novel might see something of value in here. To this reader, though, it felt like a battle of attrition to keep the pages turning. **000
  10. The Dog takes the form of an interior monologue on the part of our narrator, a successful corporate secretary type in Dubai. Like all interior monologues (think James Kelman, for example), one’s enjoyment of it will depend on whether or not you “get” the narrator. In this case, the narrator is not a nice man. A New York attorney of Swiss heritage, he has found himself running the sizeable fortune of the Batros family – an elderly Beiruti businessman and his two shady sons. Our narrator, who goes to some lengths to conceal his name (which is probably Xavier), takes a fairly hands-off approach to the work, batting away bothersome e-mails and simply signing documents provided by the Batros brothers, apparently without even bothering to read them. This allows our narrator to spend his time more usefully engaged in diving, running, wa*king and looking out of his impressive apartment window. He has a flunkey, Ali, to take care of any actual work that might pop up; when it doesn’t, Ali is a useful substitute for a real friend. Our narrator affects nonchalance and modesty. He feigns compassion. Yet, when push comes to shove, everything is somebody else’s problem. He gazes intently at the inequalities in Dubai, shrugs his shoulders and sighs. Perhaps he gives a few dollars to a couple of NGOs to help alleviate the plight of the poor, but these donations are almost certainly less generous and more expedient than he makes out. For real charity, he believes his payment of Russian call girls represents a fair trickle down of wealth. Our narrator has a past. He, like so many expats in Dubai, is escaping from a failed relationship which, despite his rationalisation, does not make him look good. But the present to which he has escaped is portrayed as shallow and worthless. There are material comforts, but there is envy of those who seem to have so much more. Despite being American, our narrator is still hired help. When he is obliged to offer an internship to Sandro Batros’s obese son, it becomes clear who calls the shots. The narrative style is self-consciously legalistic. Long words are used, sometimes misused, when shorter ones would have done. There are brackets within brackets within brackets. The story wanders and rambles from one thread to another – which is useful in obscuring the fact that not much actually happens. There are loose ends all over the place; there are matters of intrigue that would not have had a second glance had our narrator and his colleagues not all been quite so bored. There are word-plays, hypothetical e-mails, barbed sarcasm. Most of all, there is self-promotion. Our narrator strives to assure us of his decency, intellect, good taste whilst bragging constantly of his close connections to serious players. It looks grotesque and Joseph O’Neill wants it to look grotesque. Dubai itself is depicted in great detail – obviously through the jaundiced view of a man who is no longer in love with it, but nevertheless in a convincing way. The fragility of the model: palaces in the desert, artificial lagoons, multi-million dollar jobs, sports cars – all could be taken away at the click of someone’s fingers. Joseph O’Neill clearly presents the differentiated levels of privilege on offer, depending on your passport or ethnicity. This is compared and contrasted with the relatively recency of a modest history. There is a sense that, for expats, ambitions based on wealth and status only have meaning back home; in a foreign country the rules are different; status has no reference point and everything becomes ephemeral – living for the moment. Sometimes it is said that the greatest gift is to see ourselves as others see us. Joseph O’Neill used the concept of the Anglo-Dutch outsider to give a quirky, offbeat view of New York in Netherland. Here, he uses the New Yorker to give an offbeat view of Dubai. Alas, Dubai is perhaps not quite substantial enough to warrant such a dissection; the quirkiness of Netherland and its plans for a cricket league are just not quite recreated in The Dog. It’s still a good novel, but it’s not Netherland. ****0
  11. The Wake bills itself as being a novel unlike any other you will read. This, I suspect, is true. Set in 1066 at the time of the Norman Conquest, we meet Buccmaster of Holland. Buccmaster narrates his story is a strange hybrid of Modern and Saxon English. The spelling is heavily stylized and Paul Kingsnorth has gone to some lengths to make it fit with a consistent set of rules – albeit rules based on his own logic. The language is mostly supposed to be words of Saxon or Germanic origin although Kingsnorth tells readers that he has made some compromises. The text can be hard to read at first but after a few pages, the reader gets accustomed to the spelling, absence of punctuation or capital letters, and weird sentence structure. It kind of builds into a rhythm that is hypnotic. But be in no doubt – and Kingsnorth would not have it any other way – the resulting style was chosen more for look and feel than for adherence to authenticity. What is authentic, however, is the feeling of loss, of chaos and destruction following the Norman invasion. The people become real, living breathing beings rather than crudely embroidered stickmen in the famous tapestry. Unlike the history books that tell of a tired and depleted army marching south after defeating Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, we find tales told by Saxon soldiers of how they could and should have beaten William. We see tales of strategic errors and bad luck. We have a sense of a pre-conquest society that was mature and political. Whilst The Wake, just like English history books, begins in 1066, we see a significant pre-history. We have men who fondly remember the reign of Canute; who are in touch still with the earth-gods that predated Christianity; who wait for dead kings to awaken beneath the high barrows in which they were buried with their battle ships. These are people who appear to have a freedom that was to vanish in subsequent centuries. We get to know Buccmaster pretty well. He is a boastful man who has three oxgangs; he is a socman who never gave geld to a theyn. His high station exempts him from manual work, permitting him instead to stand offering advice to others on how they should do their work. Buccmaster has a penchant for idiom that is somewhat, er…, Anglo Saxon. He is a colourful man for whom the phrase “all mouth and no trousers” could have been invented. The story is twofold. There is the story of resistance to the Normans. History tells us how that will end. There is also the story of Buccmaster himself – who he is and how he came to be where he stood in 1066. Both are compelling but slow moving. The joy, though, is in the recreation of an ancient time; an ancient habitat and ancient values. It’s a bit like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – the text shows the pointlessness in trying to view other times and other cultures through a lens of modern values. Buccmaster’s attitudes to women, to peasants, to priests and to those who disagree with him are initially shocking, then comical and ultimately tragic. The language, which is always going to be the main talking point, is a mixed blessing. It is a mighty feat and there is something comical about Buccmaster’s brazenness being filtered through this pseudo-Saxon-speak. However, after a hundred or so pages, one feels one has rather got the point and the endless repetition, backtracking and lack of plot direction gets wearing. Moreover, the style makes it difficult for any character other than Buccmaster to have any depth. The only real emotion seems to be in Buccmaster’s own head, leaving others as no more than their deeds. One is reminded for much of the novel of Lady Gregory’s Kiltartanese tellings of the ancient Ulster legends, with academic rigour replacing characterisation. But as well as an un-Gregory-like use of humour, Paul Kingsnorth does have a final trick up his sleeve. The ending is not quite what the reader had been led to expect, and that does repay the effort of sticking with the text. The Wake has been longlisted for The Booker Prize. It may not win, but it is one of the most interesting books to have been listed in recent years. ****0
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