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  1. A Little Life is a novel that fails on so many levels. By far its biggest failing is that it is so big. By my estimate, this is a novel that is somewhere between four and five times as long as the content justifies. It is, at heart, a very simple story of a man who was abused as a child, becomes successful as an adult, but is still haunted by the physical and psychological scars of childhood. Yet this very basic premise is played out over 726 huge, densely typeset pages. How is it done? Repetition. Indeed. We have the same events played out over and over again. Conversations happen over and over again, never getting anywhere. The character list is paraded endlessly – even though more than half of the characters have no actual speaking part and serve merely as decoration. The next – and related – failing is that nothing actually happens. There is no development or progression. The characters at the start of the novel are still the same people at the end of the novel. They think the same things, do the same things, eat the same things. The only thing that seems to change is that their bank balances start to swell, because they are all so talented. Seriously, the generation’s greatest lawyer, greatest film star and greatest artist all lived together at university in the same house. With Malcolm, the wealthy but under-performing flatmate whose only purpose seems to be to provide the seed capital that allowed the others to become so self-actualised. On a related theme to the characters staying the same, so too does the world. In the beginning, as Jude, our hero, is a small child, the world is accessible through computers. So much so that when he was running away with Brother Luke (a cheeky monk), Brother Luke always took his computer with him when he left Jude on his own in a motel room. Not that Jude would have known what to do with the computer anyway, having been denied any form of contact with modern technology at that point in his life. The point, though, is that this places Jude’s childhood firmly in a post 2000 world. By the end of the novel, some 40-50 years later (i.e. firmly in the future) the world looks just the same. Jude stores his important computer files on disks that he leaves in different buildings for safe keeping; he prints out important e-mails and worries that his mobile phone doesn’t have enough memory to store all the texts he gets. People still go into their offices to work long hours, sat at their computers, looking out over the city. They fly anywhere and everywhere for important client meetings, and spend their spare time eating in the same cafes and restaurants that they discovered half a century earlier. Some of the story lines are simply not credible. The idea that a man as broken as Jude could get into a top college, make friends with the idle rich, get genius marks in multiple subjects, and get headhunted by the top law firm whilst working as a state attorney is difficult to believe. That he could do so, and succeed in this cut-throat corporate environment whilst taking such extensive and unscheduled leave for his health issues is just not feasible. The idea that [spoiler alert], Brother Luke could drift from state to state, immediately finding literally thousands of men who were willing to buy sex with an eleven year old is, again, not feasible. And for Brother Luke to have such remarkable teaching gifts that he is able to prepare Luke for college, even though Jude will spend subsequent years in a children’s home and drifting homeless… The most incredible facet to the novel, though, is that Jude is able to attract and retain the friendship of so many internationally successful people despite being an unreliable, unforthcoming, self-pitying, attention-seeking whinger. I mean, really, [another spoiler alert], is the world’s most famous actor who has never been with a man before really going to turn gay for him? Is that film star really going to be at Jude’s beck and call, leaving film sets to travel around the world to help Jude up the stairs or help him recover from the latest episode of self-harm? Most of the characterisation is absent. The supporting cast (at least those who say and do things) are cardboard cut outs. Only Jude is allowed an independent character, and it is not convincing. He is intentionally ambiguous, a foundling baby of unknown birth date, unknown mixed race parentage, with no name and nobody to remember his unhappy childhood. For all this intentional ambiguity, the biggest one is probably unintentional – his gender. Jude’s name (especially when abbreviated to Judy) is likely to be mistaken for female. His sexuality is ambiguous too. However, he is definitely supposed to be male. Yet his internal monologue, his whole style and demeanour is feminine. His relationships do not sound gay, they sound straight with Jude in the female role. I am sure this is not meant and it detracts greatly from his credibility. The reader thinks that it must be Hanya Yanagihara’s voice, not Jude’s. There are moments when the novel brings some interest. In particular, the drip feeding of Jude’s back story is well handled and some of the writing about physical harm is compelling. That is, it is compelling the first time. But with each subsequent telling, the power diminishes. Once the entire back story is out in the open, there is not much left to tell, despite two hundred pages remaining. For a brief, oh so brief, while at the beginning, there is enough in the book to cheat the reader into expecting something great. That greatness never happens; the promise is left unfulfilled. This is a harsh review, but I feel that a writer who feels able to stake such a large claim on my time really needs to have something pretty special to justify that claim. This isn’t even close. *0000
  2. The Illuminations feels like two short novellas that have been interleaved, presumably in an effort to add bulk. On the one hand, we have Anne, an elderly mother who is succumbing slowly to dementia. Her family knows that she had lived in the United States and England before settling down in Ayrshire, but as her recent memories fade, she exposes the hints of old secrets. And on the other hand, there’s the story of Luke, a soldier stationed in Afghanistan, witnessing brutality and betrayal – then failing to adjust to life back home. Luke is Anne’s grandson. Of the two stories, Anne’s is more intriguing, but perhaps promises more than it delivers. The denouement in Blackpool (hence The Illuminations) feels contrived and when the secrets are revealed, the biggest mystery is why they were ever secret to start with. Luke’s story is pretty standard Afghan fare that is doing the rounds at the moment; others have done it in more depth and, perhaps, with more credibility. The characters in Luke’s story seem a bit cartoonish; the events a bit too much like a reheating of news headlines. It may be readable (actually, it zips along), but it doesn’t seem to add much to the canon. The real sticking point, though, is that the two stories never cohere into a whole; but neither do they offer any real counterpoint to one another. They are just two separate stories, with a familial relationship built in as a framing device to justify their inclusion within the same covers. The end result is a short, readable novel but one which won’t offer much insight into the human condition; won’t wow anyone with its beauty; won’t impress anyone with its skill; and won’t provoke strong feeling towards its characters. Graham Greene divided his novels into “serious literature” and lighter “entertainments”. Were Andrew O’Hagan to do the same, I suspect The Illuminations would be in the entertainments category. ***00
  3. I’ve never really got on with Tom McCarthy. His works are apparently heavily referential – i.e. he lifts and borrows ideas and images from elsewhere and bundles them all together. People who recognise these references say he is a genius; but I don’t get the references myself and even if I did, I’m not sure how this would equate to genius. But I did identify with the basic concept at the heart of Satin Island – satirising the notion that we perceive our lives to be so significant that every last detail must be examined in depth and preserved for posterity. Thus, we meet U, an anthropologist who has been employed by a consultancy firm to add intellectual rigour to state of the nation reports they are commissioned to write for big business and governments. He works on issues as titanic as mapping the patterns of creases on jeans, somehow trying to equate this to studying the evolution of drinking bowls over thousands of years in pre-contact indigenous peoples. He marvels at aerial footage of traffic jams in Lagos, has a personal fascination with the history of death by parachute, and more than a passing interest in anything connected with oil slicks. In this work, much of which is just following personal interests and whims, facts are drawn on blank walls and connecting lines drawn. The resulting pattern is deemed to be significant simply because it has been drawn. Thus, these inconsequential pieces of trivia are deemed fit for inclusion in bigger, ill-defined commissions. All dressed up in a mixture of academic and corporate technical jargon that, at best, has little meaning and, at worst (as with Schrodinger’s Cat) is applied completely incorrectly. We see ourselves and our social media obsessions reflected in the everyman U and his colleagues. We realise just how narcissistic we are to imagine anyone in the future will be interested in spending their time understanding the minutiae of our everyday lives, and it makes us question the amount of our own time we dedicate to curating these archives of self-indulgence. McCarthy also shows us how arrogant we seem as we sit observing and judging the actions and lives of those around us, feeling somehow aloof. If the act of being observed can change behaviour, the act of observing is to place oneself in a position of god-like omnipresence. There are questions raised about the value of progress at all. Sure, we see U and his colleagues jetting off around the world, attending conferences, delivering presentations. There is the supposed potential to have all human knowledge available at one’s fingertips on the internet. There are instant communications. Diseases come within our control and language barriers can be overcome at the press of a button. But all these gifts are deployed without direction: we still die, we still miscommunicate, and we use the data and knowledge to create pretty patterns and cat memes. It’s all – even the travel – about filling time. The oil slicks are a metaphor for this wonderful progress, untamed and out of control despite multiple confident interventions. As a novel. Satin Island bears more than a passing resemblance to Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog – which also featured a disaffected corporate type known only by a single letter (X), writing wry and catty observations in a business document format. But whereas The Dog had an underpinning story, Satin Island is a bit looser. There are a couple of more conventional storylines – there’s friend Petr’s health issues and the girlfriend’s shady past – but they only ever feel like illustrations of the wider thesis – that we have a misguided belief that humankind is on the cusp of achieving perfection. And as a satire on a quest for the universal answer to an undefined problem, it is reminiscent of Patrick Keiller’s film: Robinson In Space – which turned into a series of journeys punctuated by lunch in supermarket cafes and motorway service stations, with every conversation treated with a gravity it seldom warranted. Satin Island is a short work that feels like a single joke that is worked and worked until it squeaks. Fortunately, it is a good joke that is brought to an end just before it grows stale. This is not a work of characterisation, it’s not a work of lyrical beauty, and it’s certainly not a story that zips along. But it is a clever, logical and elegant interplay of ideas that do all interrelate and join up, before ultimately petering out into vapour. ****0
  4. A Brief History of Seven Killings is not brief. Nor, strictly speaking, does the death toll end up at seven. Set in Jamaica (mostly – there are a couple of offshoots to Miami and New York), spanning the time frame 1976-1991, and featuring multiple stream of consciousness narrators, this is a complex novel. It interweaves drug gangs and politics; it blurs the lines between life and death (at least one of the narrators is a ghost); and the timelines are far from sequential. To further add to the confusion, many of the characters narrate in a bombor’asscloth patois peppered with expletives, short on verbs and generally not focused on illuminating the reader. At first there’s a temptation to try to keep on top of events, but it is a fool’s errand and it’s best to just acquiesce, read it through and let the words wash over you. Some of it will make sense and some of it won’t. Perhaps the reader is meant to be viewing the world through a ganja haze – maybe through a cocaine hight or a heroin hit. This all adds to the atmosphere, but it does make for a mightily long and sometimes repetitive story. The story, such as it is, focuses on an attempt to assassinate Bob Marley (known as The Singer) when he made a tentative foray into Jamaican politics in 1976. The rationale behind the hit is never fully clear; the circumstances emerge only slowly; and the aftermath pans out over 15 years. This suggests a political thriller, and there is some early involvement of CIA characters, but really it is more about gangs and sleaze. Politics in Jamaica is shown as just an extension of gang turf wars with political office being either the laurels for achievement on the international stage; or the spoils obtained by being the biggest baddie in town. There is little attempt to govern and attempts to get Jamaica to swing to the West (USA) or the East (Cuba) are going to fail in a great sea of inertia borne of drugs and violence. One of the particularly striking features of Brief History is the fixation on bottoms. I am sure Marlon James has been faithful to Jamaican dialogue (or monologue), but it does seem to have bottoms and nether regions everywhere. For a country in which homosexuality is supposed to be the ultimate taboo, people seem to spend a lot of time talking about it. This is just one of the features of the book that outstays its welcome. And goodness me, how it does keep on going, yet without ever actually getting anywhere. I don’t want to give away the plot, but it ends with a bit of a whimper after seeming to keep going on life support for most of its passing. Sure, it builds the sense of place and there is some intrigue towards the end, but at huge cost in terms of time and attention span. Perhaps it is that the characters are too similar, or that the use of patois renders them all a bit two dimensional. There doesn’t seem to be much life beyond the pages of the book. Characters have little history and don’t quite seem to have real lives. They are too much a sum of their actions on the page. Overall, Brief History is a brave novel that has some real strengths. It will, I am sure, leave a lasting impression. It does evoke a sense of place: Jamaica, its ghettoes, its garbage lands, the use of music as an escape, the drugs, the feeling of being trapped in paradise. But the novel fishes too much in the same pond as Ryan Gattis’s All Involved (gang warfare during riots in Los Angeles) and, I’m afraid, Ryan Gattis does it better. ***00
  5. This book has been getting rave reviews and I usually enjoy Anne Tyler's books, so I thought I'd read it. I raced through it, so it kept my attention. I found though, that while I liked it a lot, I didn't love it. I'm not sure why. My mother says that she doesn't always get along with Anne Tyler's books and maybe it's that. Or maybe it's that I don't really love novels that are all about relationships. In any event, this is a novel about a family and the relationships among the various family members. The focus is on the family of Red Whitshank, his wife Abby, and their 4 adult children: Amanda, Jeannie, Denny, and Stem. Denny is the ghost of the family, who appears and disappears as he wishes. This enrages his siblings and upsets his mother, but one thing I noticed is that he's there when he's really needed. I was never sure how he knew, but he seemed to know and appear. But he resents his younger brother Stem something fierce and their relationship is never really good. At one point, it devolves into a fist fight! The Whitshanks love to tell family stories and yet we often find in the course of the book that there is a lot more to the story than we first realize or the actual facts bear only a nodding relationship to the story. And of course, there are secrets. So I think if I were coming up with an over-arching theme, it would be that we never really know everything about another person and often what we think we know is not right. These interpretations say as much about the hearer as they do about the actual protagonists in the story. So, recommend if you like Tyler or books about relationships and families. Which is damning it with faint praise. I liked it more than it sounds like I did.
  6. Did You Ever Have A Family is clever. It’s not a compliment. Opening with the aftermath of a house fire, we meet June, driving aimlessly away from the house where her family have just died. Her daughter Lolly, who was in the house, was due to marry the next day. Will, the groom-to be, is also amongst the dead. The novel continues, mostly in a linear timeline, with several characters taking turns to narrate the story from their viewpoints. Sometimes they use first person, sometimes third person. They each have clearly distinct roles in the family and community, and pains have been taken to give them distinguishing characteristics. Unfortunately they each appear quite fleetingly and inter-relate with one another in such various ways that the reader is tempted to map them all out. It’s just too much to hold in the reader’s head. I mean, it’s all so web-like that it isn’t even terribly clear how many people died in the fire and who, exactly, they all were. To add to the confusion, despite the clear delineation between the characters on paper, in voice they all seem identical. Male and female, bride’s side and groom’s side, rich and poor. We have close family, we have wedding caterers, we have the manager of a motel, we have a cleaner, we have a homeless boy… But they all think the same thoughts, they all say the same things in the same way. There is an overwhelming sense that, in spite of the elaborate structure, we are only ever hearing Bill Clegg. The reader is further confused by some very unclear geography. The novel seems to move backwards and forwards between Connecticut and Seattle and somewhere in between – but the reader is never quite sure. Are we talking about one motel or two? In one location or two? It all feels needlessly complicated for what should be a really simple premise. Bill Clegg also tries to take us through the textbook stages of grief – the denial, the anger, the guilt, the sorrow – but the emotions never come across. Perhaps with a less need to construct the novel’s architecture there would have been more time to create real characters but I’m not persuaded there was really enough in the story or that the characters were sufficiently interesting to have sustained the novel without the tricks. I can see why this novel has won praise, but I think the concept has been done better (most notably in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying). This feels cold and clinical when it should have been an emotion-charged rollercoaster. ***00
  7. The Fishermen was a swan: A swan that was an ugly duckling for the first half, then blooming into a beautiful bird in the second half. The novel follows a pretty tight formula, opening with an animal or bird related metaphor that often feels like a stretch, followed by a story that is told in a strangely jerky way – a fact or event is dropped into the conversation, followed by a long explanation of how this fact or event came to pass. The novel is supposedly narrated by Ben, a young Nigerian man relating events from his childhood. The timelines become clearer at the end, but it is obvious that Ben is not narrating with the voice of a ten year old. The story is that Ben and his four brothers (and baby sister) live in a regional town in Nigeria; their father is a bank manager who is posted to a town some nine hours’ drive away, leaving the boys in the charge of their mother. Mother is too busy to keep a close watch, so the boys wag off school and go fishing by the river instead. There they meet the local madman, who prophesies bad things… Whilst this is a plot driven novel – at least, it is once the story actually starts to take off at the half way mark – it is also one of the strange blend of modern life, Western values and traditional superstition that one finds in West Africa. Hence, we find Nigerian boys brought up in a middle class family, playing computer games, going off to the hotel to watch football games on big screen TV, avoiding their western education – but also living in fear of ghosts, magic and fate, and wishing they could become fishermen. As young boys, perhaps it is natural that they see no contradiction in these concepts. But their father seems to accept them too. This is not necessarily saying that this is solely a plotty novel or that it should be. It is a novel that does offer an insight into childhood and does offer an insight into life in relatively recent history in Nigeria. For the most part, it avoids easy clichés and predictable stereotypes. The characters demonstrate rational behaviour (except the madman, naturally) and seem credible. Having said that, the mother is under-developed as a character, and with the exception of the oldest brother, Ikenna, the boys are hard to tell apart. The novel also avoids being preachy or wholesome; there is no moral at the end of the story and no cutesy folk wisdom. It’s perhaps rather obvious to compare The Fishermen to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, particularly given Obioma’s heavy references to Achebe’s masterpiece seeming to invite the comparison. Sure, The Fishermen does show an overlay of a different value system on recognisable events. But unlike Things Fall Apart, the “purity” of the Igbo culture has long been diluted into a westernised culture, leaving the boys out of step with society as they address their problems by asking “what would Okonkwo do?” My problem with the novel is one of pacing. There is a big thing that happens at the 50% mark, just like the “How To Write A Novel” textbook suggests. But, this big thing is not the natural half-way point; if anything, it is the catalyst from which the story follows. Thus, we have extensive backstory and meandering, seemingly just to fill pages until things can get interesting. There is repetition, waffle and padding. There are riots and political visits that add to the colour, but don’t add much to the story. It feels slow and whilst the writing is often good enough to dissuade the reader from putting the book down, it is not enough to persuade the reader to pick the book back up once it has been set down. The reward for sticking it out, though, is a pacey and exciting second half in which some (but not all) of the background gives the context. Overall, it’s a novel that is good to have read, even if it didn’t always feel good during the reading. ***00
  8. Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is very topical, dealing with the lives of illegal and semi-legal migrants to the UK. But topicality does not guarantee that a novel is any good. In this novel, Sahota introduces us to a number of Indian migrants who have ended up in Sheffield and London. Principally, we follow Randeep, Avtar and Tochi as they embark on a new life. Avtar is on a student visa but has no intention of studying; Tochi arrived hidden in a lorry, and Randeep has hit the jackpot with a marriage of convenience to Narinder, a British woman of Indian heritage. They struggle to find slave-labour work, they and their families are laden with debt, and generally life is a whole lot harder than they imagined. On the positive side, Sahota gives a humanity to these hidden migrants. They are individuals rather than part of some generic swarm. We see their back stories in India; we see the impact of the caste system and how far it restricts social mobility – preventing movement upwards but also burdening high caste Indians with expectations they cannot always fulfil. We see the fine line between ambition to work, and the temptation (and even need) to lie, steal and cheat. We see the confusion that can arise from misunderstanding a strange culture and fear of exposing oneself by trying to resolve those misunderstandings. But on a heavy negative side, we find a novel that is clumsily structured and whose execution does not match its ambition. Having established the cast in the opening pages, we find ourselves spending a good half of the novel back in India telling four separate back stories (those of our three heroes and Narinder). These are way too long, don’t have proper links to the main novel or to one another, and just sit like undigestable lumps. They break all sense of narrative drive and confuse as much as they illuminate. It makes the novel feel like a real slog, and when you get to 60% on your Kindle and you’re still dealing with the background, you wonder whether there is even going to be a foreground at all. It might have been preferable for the back stories to have been shorter and, perhaps, dripfed into the main narrative. A further problem is that: the characters are insufficiently distinctive. They take it in turns to be the bad guy, the voice of reason, the desperate, and the pious. They don’t behave consistently from one scene to the next; they don’t seem to have much logic behind the decisions they take. There are also a slew of supporting characters, most of whom seem to be nothing more than their actions. If the story requires someone to be daring, a side character will pop up to be daring. If the story requires someone to know something, up will pop a character to know it. For a novel that tries to show migrants as individuals, it is a bit disappointing that they all seem so interchangeable. If the men are indistinguishable, Narinder is simply not believable. She has an over-bearing father; an over-protective brother, yet she seems to traipse off to India at will, hanging around with whomever she pleases and engaging in a series of relationships in plain sight – yet her family never notices. The explanation for her offering herself as a bride of convenience is not plausible and her method of going about it seems to fly in the face of her supposed motivation. She zips between strength and victimhood; independence and beholdenness with dizzying speed. A further irritation – and this is a common failing of Indian themed books (Amitav Ghosh comes to mind) – is the constant dropping of Indian words into the text. Not once or twice, but several times a paragraph. Perhaps this is intended to remind us that the characters may not be speaking in English, but it does render much of the descriptive narrative pointless. This might be compared with The Fishermen (also Booker shortlisted in 2015) where the few Nigerian words deemed necessary are translated or explained. By the end, a sort of story has started to emerge. Even then, it is pretty loose, proceeds at glacial pace despite frenetic travel between various English cities. Multiple strands seem to fly off (in slow motion) but never land. This all leads up to an epilogue which, in too many pages, tells us that they all lived happily ever after – whilst not addressing the cliff-hangers at the end of the story proper. It’s deeply unsatisfying. As in his previous novel: Ours Are The Streets, Sunjeev Sahota has taken an important and interesting subject matter but not quite made it work. This could have been insightful and moving. Instead it feels clunky and sterile. ***00
  9. Sleeping On Jupiter is extremely neutral. Yes, really. Some of the writing is good, the characters are clear cut, but overall it is very, very meh. Part of the shortcoming is that the novel features three stories all set in the coastal town of Jarmuli. One is the story of Nomi, an Indian refugee returning on a filming mission to the scene of some atrocities she experienced in childhood. The second is the story of Gouri, Latika and Vidya, three older women on holiday and trying to cope with Gouri’s dementia. The third is the story of some of the beach boys who sell tea and guided tours to the visitors. The three stories all touch on one another, but the linkages manage to be both insufficiently substantial and overly coincidental to make for a single story. Sometimes three stories can nevertheless rub along, perhaps through creating the location as the star of the story, but this never quite happens. Instead, the reader tries to fill in gaps and spot linkages whilst not appreciating the stories that actually are on the page. Some commentators have said that Anuradha Roy has created a good sense of place. I tend not to agree. Although some of the individual details are right – the interior of the Indian Railways carriage; the tea cart on the beach, overall Jarmuli doesn’t feel right. It feels too small, too empty. There are no characters other than those named in the text – no background crowds or incidental people. There seems to be no employment, no industry, no hinterland. Just a temple, a couple of hotels, and a very unspecific place where children were detained many years ago. The ages also don’t seem to tie up. Nomi is supposed to be a young woman – almost of backpacker age – yet she treats the land she left at the age of 12 as though it was some vague memory from early childhood. She is supposed to be the contemporary of one of the beach boys, yet the elderly women are supposed to be just one generation above the beach boys. It doesn’t quite add up. Sleeping On Jupiter is not a terribly demanding read. It does have some scenes of brutality and unhappiness, but they do not dominate the story. Mostly it is a novel about a beach holiday, suitable for reading on a beach holiday. And like that beach holiday, it slips away quite quickly without leaving much lasting impression. That such an ordinary novel is long-listed for the 2015 Booker Prize, and that it sits somewhere in the middle of my 2015 Booker reads, really speaks volumes for the poor selection made by this year’s Booker judges. ***00
  10. Lila. Where to begin? Lila is a little puzzle box of a novel that seems to break every rule in the book. The opening lines are obscure; the sentences don’t quite seem to hang together and it’s not quite clear what’s going on. In fact, it is a bizarre stream of consciousness style where we can drift from observations of what is happening now, through to flashbacks, flash forwards, wholesale digressions and editorial comment. All with idiosyncratic grammar. But unlike traditional stream of consciousness that forms an interior monologue, the stream of consciousness in Lila is predominantly in third person. This takes some getting used to: what appears to be fact may be opinion or feeling – and those opinions and feelings may be fleeting or contradictory. Yet for all the opacity, once the novel has been completed and sections are revisited, they are as lucid as a spring morning. The mystery has been replaced with pure poetry. There is a real joy from coming back, dipping in and out of random sections of the text. The story itself is just what it says – the life story of a woman called Lila, taken from a verandah as a small child and brought up in a squatter commune. It’s the story of how she survives when the commune is broken up, and how she ends up with a modest but secure level of comfort married to a preacher in small town 1950s America – somewhere called Gilead in Iowa. Lila’s past is violent and sordid; partly a product of her circumstances and partly her pig-headed pride and refusal to fill the victim role. Lila’s is a straightforward story, set in times we almost remember, located in places we almost know. There is no great cliff-hanger or moment of great shock. The story is one of poverty, privation and very modest hope. Yet each element of the story – and there are three main life phases – is powerful. The depiction of both place and emotion is enough to ensure that shock builds gradually without needing to depend on some moment of great reveal. That doesn’t mean that the story is linear. Far from it. One of the masterful techniques at play is the careful withholding of information until just the right moment. It is done in a way that the reader doesn’t really notice the absence of information until the absence has been remedied – but it is used to allow intrigue to build. Especially at the beginning, for example, Lila and the Rev. John Ames’s intentions towards one another are quite ambiguous. This resolves itself throughout the novel in quite a satisfying fashion even if Lila herself never quite reconciles her own feelings. The characters are so complex; so many shades of light and dark, that even without surprises, the novel surprises the reader. They wrestle with their own internal conflicts – in particular, Lila wrestles with whether to trust the Rev. Ames, and if so, how much she should trust him. She is afraid of appalling him and causing him to reject her, but she is also, it seems, afraid of being accepted for who she actually is. The Rev. Ames is conflicted between loyalty to his previous family who have dies, and the future represented by Lila. Marilynne Robinson is probably religious, and yes, her characters do discuss religion and redemption. But it is done in context, and offers insight rather than coming across as proselytising to the reader. It is interesting to see the contrast between Lila’s wish to read the Bible in black and white terms, and the Rev. Ames’s earnest commitment to give thoughtful and honest answers, even where they might seem at odds with perceived religious thinking. I believe the Rev. Ames has featured in previous Marilynne Robinson novels; if so, Robinson’s previous readers may be less surprised to find such open-mindedness in a small-town church, but coming at Lila with a fresh perspective, Ames confounds expectations. The novel is a window on lives that are not like our own; on ambitions that are so much more modest than our own. By the end of the novel, the reader feels an intimate knowledge of Lila and her world. More than that, the reader feels in intimate understanding of John Ames. *****
  11. The Moor’s Account is the story of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, a Moor who found himself sailing with Spanish conquistadors in their hunt for gold and riches in the new lands of La Florida. As an outsider, as a slave, Mustafa offers an unusual perspective. Historical fiction can breathe life into dry facts; it can add the humanity into history. Often, historical fiction told in the first person will have a distinctive voice and confront readers with values and opinions that jar with modern perceptions. The scenery can often be as engrossing as the story. So what went wrong with The Moor’s Account? The nominations for prestigious prizes should have heralded a novel at the very peak of the form. Yet we have a novel that is dull, repetitive, told in a leaden voice and devoid of any characterisation. At first there is, at least, alternation between chapters set on the voyage and chapters set in Mustafa’s early life. But the early life soon catches up with the start of the voyage and the device is abandoned. What then follows is a parade of near-identical chapters where the explorers encounter an “Indian” tribe, try to trade, relations sour, people die, and the explorers flee to the next tribe. There is no distinguishing between the tribes, just as there is almost no distinguishing between the explorers. They never come to life. Indeed, many of them just pop up from the jungle on one page in order to die on the next page. On more than a couple of pages, explorers presumed to have died then reappear purely in order to die again. It is tedious. And it’s not just the reappearing characters. There’s a tendency for some vital skill to have gone unnoticed until it is mentioned just two pages before the skill needs to be used. Or objects that just happen to have been left lying around for the exact moment when they will be useful. Or erstwhile companions who are suddenly remembered a few pages before they might be used in some analogy. Plus, there are whole phrases that get repeated, and repeated again. Mustafa himself, or Esteban or Estabanico as his Spanish masters christen him, is a two dimensional man who seldom seems to add to the action, but is inexplicably present whenever anyone has anything of consequence to say or do. He is a largely unsympathetic character who has a propensity to whinge, not least about the injustice of having had to sell himself into slavery to allow his family to pay a tribute to the Portuguese invaders of Barbary. This, despite having previously traded in slaves himself. Mustafa keeps reminding readers that he is a servant of God, and there is never a suggestion that he shares the venal greed of his Masters, or would himself have partaken of human flesh, or would have caused offence to the Indians. No, he is a man of perfection with an amazing facility for language that sees him happily recounting stories to Indian chiefs within weeks of pitching up in their villages. Mustafa’s language is wooden. There is some attempt to give him a distinctive voice, but it tends to be only the occasional interjection of “dear reader” or suchlike. Mostly the style is that of a newspaper journalist simply reporting facts. There is little room for interpretation or ambiguity. It is all. A did this, B did that. A said this and B said that. I watched but did and said nothing. Truly, dear reader, it saps the will to live. I am guessing that Laila Lalami wanted us to compare Mustafa’s fate with the many people today who are trafficked to America today to work in indentured conditions. We are supposed to understand their conflict between dreaming of their own emancipation whilst still harbouring the feelings of greed that led them to form unwise bargains with their masters. But, to be honest, you have to work so hard to extract such thin messages that it isn’t worth the effort. And maybe by the end, the reader will have started to question whether Mustafa isn’t putting his own gloss on events just as he criticises the Castillians for so doing. But so what? It doesn’t make this monotonous parade of episodes and events any more interesting. It doesn’t help them cohere into a story. If, dear reader, you pick up this novel and get something from the experience, you are a better servant of God than I. *0000
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