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Found 12 results

  1. If you are fascinated by the bed-hopping habits of students then this is the book you have been waiting for! Connell and Marianne are from Carricklea, a fictional town in Sligo (not the fashionable end of Ireland). Marianne lives in the big house with her mother. At school, she is ostracised for being weird – perhaps because she is rich, perhaps because her father is dead. Perhaps because she is clever. Connell is from the regular side of town. His father is also gone; his mother Lorraine works for Marianne’s mother as a cleaner. Connell is also clever, but he seems to have kept this hidden from his friends. Connell is popular and able to get dates with pretty much anyone he wants – even the most popular girl in school. Connell and Marianne have a clandestine relationship that Connell tries to deny is actually a relationship, and Marianne seems to be grateful for any company she can get, regardless of the terms. Each chapter moves the clock forward by a few weeks or a few months and the pair disappear off to Dublin to go to university. Dublin’s a different place altogether and Marianne’s wealth and intelligence bring ready acceptance into the beautiful people. Connell, meanwhile, is the poor bogtrotter who struggles to find his niche. Then, like a Russian novel, these two friends drift in and out of one another’s lives and in and out of one another’s beds. In between their brief periods of togetherness, we tick off heaps of social issues that are of great importance to undergraduates: academic pressure; prizes and scholarships; abusive older boyfriends; parties; finding the next drink… I suppose the theme of the novel is about social class and power imbalances. How in youth, fitting in is about reaching downwards whereas in adulthood it is about aspirations and reaching upwards. It’s like Bill Gates used to say: be nice to nerds because one day you’ll work for them. And associated with class, you have the urban/rural divide with the Dublin Jackeens ruling the roost, only admitting those from the big houses into their midst. But at the same time, there is a hollowness to this belonging. The sacrifices you have to make to your integrity as you adapt to fit in will ultimately lead to hollow feelings. This is a novel that could happily have been written twenty, thirty years ago. Things don’t change. But people do – and a novel that might have seemed wonderful and insightful in my own youth now looks trivial. Student relationships were only ever interesting if you were in them. You always remember your first love, but then life happens. And life is more interesting. ***00
  2. Milkman is a stream of consciousness story narrated by an unnamed young woman living in an unnamed part of Belfast (probably the Ardoyne), some time in the late 1970s. By way of context, the intensity of the killings in the early 1970s – especially the civilian deaths – had subsided; there had been population movement and people had retreated into small, “safe” pockets exclusively populated by people of the same political tradition (which was also generally correlated to people’s national identity and religion). Both unionists and nationalists still thought they could win the war through armed conflict, and the political voice of Sinn Féin had not yet come to the fore. The Hunger Strikes were still a couple of years into the future and most people could remember a time before the British Army was deployed to assist the civil power… So the novel is almost a love story set in this quite specific time period. Our narrator lives in a Catholic enclave of North Belfast. She reads 19th century novels while walking, which marks her out as a bit odd. Her maybe-boyfriend is a car mechanic from another unspecified Catholic district of Belfast. She is from a large family, four-ish brothers and three sisters and Ma. Da is dead. Our narrator talks to herself extensively in a colloquial Belfast voice that hinges on repetition and over-explanation. It is a sarcastic voice, cynical about the sectarian conflict and the motives of those who engaged in it. She narrates in euphemisms: the Sorrows, Renouncers of the State, Defenders of the State, the country across the water, the country across the border. People are second sister, the real milkman, chef, the tablets girl, Somebody McSomebody. Similarly places are not names and although most are recognisable – the reservoirs and the parks is Cavehill Road; the ten minute area is Carlisle Circus; the usual place is Milltown cemetery – the euphemisms allow liberties to be taken with the geography. The resulting text is very dense, often circular (at the very least non-linear) and pretty intense. It is like Eimear McBride crossed with James Kelman. The story is one of personal love and personal tragedy set within a dysfunctional society. Our narrator wants to be with maybe-boyfriend, but is admired by Milkman (a senior ranking paramilitary) and Somebody McSomebody (a wannabe paramilitary – was this a time before spides?). In a world where normal law and order does not operate, where law is made by the paramilitaries and is mutable, where whispers and innuendoes constitute evidence, this is a dangerous space. Our narrator knows the perils and even the most mundane activities – jogging by the reservoirs, buying chips, learning French, winning a scrap Blower Bentley supercharger – can be fraught with danger. Her quirky narration and eccentric world view manage to create deliciously black comedy from these dangers. Milkman is a timely novel. This period of the late 1970s has been largely airbrushed out of both world and Northern Irish history. Nowadays the Republican movement has been rehabilitated. They are seen to champion human rights and to lead the equality agenda. Its history is seen to be the ballot box in one hand and the armalite in the other. Their community justice is seen to have been a viable – almost legitimate – alternative to the RUC and the state agencies. It is often almost assumed that those who lost their lives (apart from in the early 1970s) had been “involved”. But what we see is a violent society with kangaroo courts based on self-interest and hypocrisy, arbitrary expulsions, witch hunts, suspicion. Paramilitaries tyrannise their own communities but the communities seem to lap it up. Each fresh atrocity is just casually dropped into conversation. More than anything, our narrator, her family and friends needed stability and predictability. What they got was the law of the jungle. And we know from history that they had 15 more years of this ahead of them before the first signs of the re-emergence of normality. Of course all this is viewed from a nationalist vantage point but we can safely assume that the situation was mirrored in the loyalist community across the road. And Milkman is also relevant to current developments as we start to see the emergence of an anti-political movement based on extreme and ill-planned actions. Brexit as a response to immigration and crime. Walls and travel bans and flip-flopping between nations and leaders being best friends and beyond the pale. If Milkman has a failing, it is that the meandering narration can frustrate the reader. There are few natural pauses, there can be a feeling that we have already covered this ground, ideas and phrases repeat. But they do add up to a work that is strong enough to carry the frustration. Milkman is a mature work that does say something new (or at least say it in a new way) in a field that has been ploughed often before. *****
  3. I came to Snap as a bit of a fan of crime novels. They are escapist, often wildly improbable, but often quite good fun and when done well, offer some insight into quirky characters. Snap, despite the gushing comments on the cover, is a decent read but it is nothing terribly remarkable. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Marie Wilks murder, Eileen Bright breaks down on the hard shoulder of a west-country motorway, leaves her young children in the car, and heads off to find an emergency telephone. An hour later, the kids set off in search of her and find the phone cord dangling. There’s a bit of back and forth from 1998 – the year of the disappearance – and 2001 when Inspector Marvel, formerly a murder detective from London, rocks up in a provincial police station and is tasked with investigating a spate of burglaries. Many coincidences later, Marvel finds himself on the hunt for Eileen Bright’s murderer. On the plus side, there is a good mystery scene set up quite early on – we have the police investigations; Jack Bright, aged 14, trying to support himself and two younger sisters in a house full of mice and newspapers; and Catherine While, a pregnant woman who disturbs a burglar… The various strands of story interweave and one or two of the characters (well, Jack) shows some sign of developing complexity. But on the minus side, the writing is a bit wooden, and the balance tips too much towards tell and away from show. Most characters are not given the space to develop any complexity; they are like characters in a Carry On film with their individual tic or prominent trait, but with nothing behind it. Apart from the murder three years before, nobody has any backstory. The mystery is resolved at about the halfway point and the second half of the book is about collecting the evidence. There’s not much suspense. The whole thing relies on some police making very stupid calls, on coincidences of the highest order and a killer who operates with no apparent motivation. And just like so many killers in crime novels, this one uses a murder weapon that is unique and easily traceable – and the case is ultimately solved using information that was available to the police at the time of the murder. None of which goes to make this a bad novel. It zips along. It is good fun. This reader, at least, was pleased to go along with the journey even when things got a bit preposterous. But billing it as something exceptional; putting it forward for literary prizes; dissecting its plot is unfair to both the author and the reader. It simply can’t live up to the hype, and was never intended to. ***00
  4. Warlight is a story of espionage and intrigue, set in London in two distinct time spaces: the 1940s and 1959. In the 1940s narrative, Nathaniel, his sister Rachel and their parents have survived the war. Surviving the peace will not be so easy. First Nathaniel’s father leaves to work in Asia, and then his mother disappears. He and Rachel are brought up in the family home by a revolving cast of strange men who seem to drift around the edges of the criminal underworld. There are shady dealings with greyhounds and furtive nocturnal sailings up and down the Thames in a mussel barge. Nathaniel is at the transition from boy to man; he works in kitchens, sows wild oats and charms the various oddballs who hang around with his guardians. Until, one evening, this strange world collapses in on itself. Moving to the 1959 section, Nathaniel is older and works for one of the government security agencies. This gives him an opportunity to investigate some of the mysterious events of the 1940s. In particular, we discover what happened to Nathaniel’s mother and her relationship with the curiously named Marsh Felon, the son of a thatcher who had worked on her roof many years previously. For the first half, the reader is happy to go along with it all to see where it leads. Then, early in the second half, something goes awry. The point of view moves away from Nathaniel and somehow everything seems less immediate, less convincing. Nathaniel’s mother behaves inexplicably. Even when the explanation is attempted, it is inexplicable. As each character is explained in turn, the fundamental driving direction weakens more and more. It comes as no great surprise to the reader to discover that they everyone is a spook, but it is never clear how or why any of them became involved in espionage in the first place – or what they did while working as spies. The evocation of an atmosphere is well done if somewhat clichéd. I mean, was the whole of the 1940s foggy? Were the streets really full of spivs that would embarrass Private Walker from Dad’s Army? Did spies really behave quite so – er – mysteriously? The good outweighs the bad in Warlight. The first half and more is really compelling. The frustration is that the switch from intriguing to boring is quite sudden and quite irreversible. By the very end, with a greyhound nuzzling Nathaniel’s hand, there is an overwhelming sense that section after section has been added to get the wordcount up, but without any sense of whether it was actually adding to the story – which in a story-led novel is a problem. Three and a half stars rounded down. ***00
  5. The literary fiction caravan comes to Neasden. Previously known only for the ashen-faced Ron Knee, Sid and Doris Bonkers and Private Eye (see p. 94); we find ourselves in a council estate following multiple points of view within a diverse community. At first it looks as though it is going to be all about youth with Yusuf, Ardan and Selvon - but we also find other voices: Nelson, a Windrush generation man and Caroline, a refugee from the Troubles in the north of Ireland. The difficulty I had was in separating the different characters. The youths, in particular, were interchangeable. One was a rapper - although I tended to forget this between references to rapping; one was apparently sporty; a couple of them were the sons of the former imam. But I couldn't tell you which was which. And they didn't seem to do much more than play football and eat at the chicken shop. One of them had an interest in a girl, I think. Nelson (who spoke in patois) and Caroline (who spoke in pretty convincing Belfast vernacular) were easier to pick, but their stories seemed somehow removed in both time and place. There seemed to be a lot of action off camera. There had been the murder of a British soldier; there were areas cordoned off by police tape, there were crowds in the distance. But it was never quite clear what was going on or whether time was linear. Caroline's story, most of which took place in and around Belfast, was quite opaque and I had to keep flicking back and forth to see whether I had missed something - invariably I hadn't. There were some elements of the plot, such as it was, that really didn't ring true. I didn't believe the Belfast story and couldn't see what Caroline had done that would have led to her forced exile; I didn't believe in the way Claude - a radical West Indian - would have treated Nelson; and I didn't believe that someone could be radicalised just after a single conversation with a scary new imam. I certainly didn't believe in the fire. Or the epilogue, which I thought was twee to the point of undermining the supposed force of the rest of the novel. I guess the point the novel was trying to make was that every generation had its rebels and radicals; that they age and their crusades fade away; and therefore the current Islamophobia is probably a passing phenomenon that will be supplanted by something else in due course. And that's a viewpoint to which I would subscribe. I just didn't think this rather jumbled novel quite succeeded in providing new insight on the subject. **000
  6. Occasionally there is an American novel that features neither their president nor a prison. This is not one of those novels. Romy Hall is a stripper sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for murdering one of her clients. Most of the novel offers her perspective on life in the Californian prison system. This is done with competence, although there is nothing earth-shatteringly new. There are cinder blocks, chains and bunk beds. The women do mechanical jobs, they hang around the yard, they eat slop and get on each others' nerves. They communicate with neighbours by shouting down toilets or through inconveniently set grilles in locked doors. There's the obligatory film crew, death row, butches, fems, visits, phone restrictions... Then, occasionally, Romy shows us her past life as a stripper and a mother to Jackson. It isn't clear whether she is supposed to be a sympathetic character but she comes across as spoilt, resentful and manipulative. And there are sections that focus on Gordon Hauser, a prison educator who is naive beyond words - the only question is which woman will be his downfall and how many people will get hurt alone the way. Oh, and there are some sadistic diary excerpts [supposedly] written by Ted Kaczynski. This shifting in perspective is occasional enough to be disconcerting - it is still Romy's book. The characters are not complex. Conan is a butch - probably intersex - always referred to by masculine pronouns. Norse is a white aryan bigot. Buttons is the same, but hispanic. Laura Lipp is a delusional over-sharer. Doc is a male former cop who is in the wrong novel. But mercifully, Romy is not some sweet innocent doing time to protect some greater good. So in this sense, the lack of complexity is probably fairly authentic. But also authentic is the lack of excitement. Prison is apparently quite boring, which does make one wonder why so many books and films choose prisons for their setting. It is a routine and formulaic life which makes for some less than riveting narrative. It's not bad; any given section seems well written and engaging, but it just doesn't add up to anything that really hangs together. It's not clear what point Rachel Kushner was trying to make. The Mars Room is a bit generic. As prison novels go, it is quite competent. It's not doing anyone any harm. But neither will it change your life. ***00
  7. I think it's fair to say that when Richard Powers gets an idea, he runs with it. The Overstory is a novel about trees. Every other sentence mentions a tree. The main characters each have a signature tree. And most of them converge to protect trees. The structure of the book itself is designed to resemble a tree - each character has a backstory that is a root; the stories converge in the longest section - the trunk; the characters diverge again into the crown; and then in the smallest section they produce the seeds of a future world. And my goodness the book is long and involved. Most of the eight roots stories (featuring nine characters since two of them share a root - figuratively and literally) are novellas in their own right. We have a retired war veteran; a student; an academic who works out that trees communicate; a computer games designer; an intellectual copyright lawyer; a conceptual artist; a young Chinese American; and a psychologist. It should be a job of work to remember who they all are, but they are so well delineated and re-introduced that it is seldom a problem. Occasionally a couple of the characters blur but for the most part, they are quite distinct. And most of them play some role in defending America's ancient forest from the logging corporations. They take on the might of business, government, law enforcement agencies and a sceptical wider public. They call into question the wisdom of using non-renewable natural resources; on the one hand it seems churlish not to use the bounties that nature provides; but on the other hand what happens when they are gone? For all the examples through history that Richard Powers calls into play, the one he doesn't reference is Easter Island - the people who cut down all their trees to lever up giant statues, offering no future source of wood to build boats. It's all well and good to assume that something else will turn up, but what if it doesn't? Where some of the stories intersect, a couple of them don't. The computer games designer and the lawyer seem to have parallel narratives that are engaging, but somehow tangential to the overall novel. And those tangential links come right at the end. It is odd, but it does offer some relief from what would otherwise be some pretty intense eco-warrior battle stories. The stories are deeply hooking. The strength of the worlds that are created; the complexity of the characters is quite wonderful. There is an overall editorial narrative, but for the most part the eco-message is done through the characters and the story. Many books fall into the trap of telling, not showing. The Overstory shows. For me, the full power of the novel came through by the end of the Trunk section. The pressure built and built; we reached a glorious and terrible crescendo. After that, the timelines started to stretch and it felt as though the pressure had been let off. That doesn't mean the story didn't continue to develop - it did - but some of the passion that had driven the characters in their eco-crusade had gone. At first this felt like a disappointment, an anti-climax. But a few days after finishing the novel, it feels like a real strength. It shows the ageing and the decay which, as the book illustrates with trees, is what nourishes other species and future generations. I came to The Overstory with no great love of Richard Powers (I struggled through Orfeo); and no great sympathy for tree-huggers. I surprised myself by loving the novel; being persuaded by the message; and getting ever so emotionally attached to some of the characters. The Booker Prize has its critics, but if it can get me to read novels of this quality - against my natural instincts - then it is a wonderful thing. *****
  8. The Long Take is a book that is, for much of its length, written in verse. But is it poetry? And is it a novel? Set in the 1940s and 1950s, we follow Walker a Canadian who has served with the British Army in WW2, as he demobilises in New York and tries to create a role for himself in civil society. He is an acute observer of the world around him. He sees squalor. He witnesses fights, crime, sleaze. He is drawn into journalism but has a fascination with cinema - so it is a logical step for him to relocate to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles he finds is a macroscopic version of his own circumstances, trying to reinvent itself in a changing world. The small-town wild west is being shucked off for organised big business and organised gang warfare. All the time, though, it is haunted by its past. The verse format relies heavily on Robin Roberston finding just the perfect word or phrase to conjure up complex imagery. The writing is very concise and the depth that Robertson creates with so few words is breathtaking. And where it would be too easy for verse to sound stilted, to become inaccessible, The Long Take is actually a pretty easy read that flows naturally. For much of the book, the reader doesn't even really notice the verse form, it just looks like prose that has been arbitrarily chopped into lines. Closer inspection, though, does reveal a consistent meter. My hesitation, though, is in accepting The Long Take as a novel. Robertson creates a vivid world, but then doesn't really do much with it. There are issues - the plight of returned servicemen unable to reintegrate into society; race crimes; police corruption. However, there is no real plot and precious little character development. Walker is just as his name suggests - a man who walks around in order to observe. In this sense, I couldn't help thinking of the Flaneur in the Booker Longlisted Communion Town - although The Long Take provides observations of a far more real and credible place than Communion Town. So rather than being a conventional narrative, The Long Take is really a series of images, places, smells and emotions. It's almost a graphic novel put into words. It does what it sets out to do with perfection, but this reader, at least, was frustrated that Walker didn't seem to have any clear destination to his perambulations. ****0
  9. Everything Under is a transposition of an ancient Greek legend into modern-day England. I did not know which legend when I read the novel which allowed a slow dawning to take place. Other reviewers have named the legend and I cannot help feeling that knowing where things are heading would make the reading both simpler and less satisfying, Therefore, I will skirt around much of the plot. Having said that knowing the direction of travel would make the reading simpler, it must be said that without this knowledge, the reading is far from straightforward. There are 8 main sections, each broken into subsections headed "The River", "The Hunt", "The Cottage", etc. These are in fact parallel narratives that continue through the novel. They are opaque in terms of who is narrating and when they take place. This is further complicated by some characters having more than one name and more than one role; and the general absence of names through much of the work. Timelines seem to clarify and then blur again. It is not easy to see how the narratives inter-relate and for the first quarter (at least) of the text, there is a fog of confusion. There are river boats, a senile woman, a lexicographer, a cast of people who live on the canals and in the woods... With time, little chinks of light are let into the narrative. Piece by piece, things start to fall into place. By three quarters, most pieces are in place and by the end, it is mostly transparent. It is as if the fog has lifted and some of the things that happened in the fog don't look too well in the clear light of day. Everything Under is actually a really dark and menacing work. That doesn't make it unlovely, though The description of the houseboat community is brilliant. I took this to be set in Oxford - where our lexicographer works - but perhaps that is adding two and two and getting five. The descriptions of unconventional childhoods, of fluid gender identity, of ambiguous sexuality are all fabulous. There are abandonments - walking away from children, walking away from families. There is the kindness of strangers mixed in with the threat of monsters - the canal thief and the Bonak. Everything Under feels perfectly balanced. The gradual reveal makes the book progressively easier to read and makes the reader feel smart as the penny drops, time after time, just before a significant detail is revealed. There is delicacy, there is complexity. I loved Everything Under. My only reservation is that the parallels to the Greek legend slightly diminish the experience and make something bizarre and quirky feel a bit contrived. As some novels grow in power after they have been put down, this one feels a little as though it is losing its edge. But that's just me; I am sure others will feel differently. It's still a bit of a masterpiece. *****
  10. The Water Cure is set on an island in a post-apocalyptic near future. Three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky live in a health spa hotel with their mother and King, their stepfather. Their guests are all damaged women, seeking cures from the sun and radiation and other horrors of the mainland. The radiation has not reached the island, offering the family a refuge from the horrors of the real world. And one day King dies. And three men arrive from the mainland. And mother disappears. This feels like a transposition of a 19th Century Irish manners novel into another era. The sisters might as well have been living in the big house, an Anglo-Irish family refusing to fraternise with the servants and sheltering from the growing rebellion outside the gates. The girls are expected to engage in all sorts of treatments and cures - the rituals and manners of the aristocracy - to protect them from the coarseness of the men in the fields. Then, in the season of their debut, they are expected to transform from children into wives. And just like the manners novels, we find ourselves thrown into a maelstrom of sibling rivalry; we find the blend of excitement and terror at being cut loose into adulthood; we find power games between young women and red blooded men. For the first section, before the men arrive, the narration switches often between Lia and Grace - with some sections narrated in third person - and it is intriguing. This, to be fair, is the time when it still seemed we were in a dystopian future and the novel was to be about the world that had been created rather than a character study supposed to reflect a universal and severe family. Then, when the men show up, the pace changes and the line between fantasy/dream and reality blurs. The narrative focus shifts only occasionally and the pace slows to a crawl - ironically since the characters seem to do a lot of running around for its own sake. There is a really repetitive feel; it is stated over and over again that the sisters must not touch the men for fear of contamination, yet still they are driven to touch. By the end of this section, it is no longer terribly clear what is happening at all; there are violent thoughts and violent acts but it feels pretty directionless. The ending is the pretty much inevitable conclusion that everything has been slowly working up to. I am sure some people will like this book. Read at a simplistic level, it could be taken as a battle of the sexes. The isolation of the women could be seen as a uber-feminist kind of utopia - except that the women don't seem happy with it and still live under the shadow of King. And I am sure some readers will be able to find a climate change angle to fit with their world view. Maybe I wilfully read this to fit in with my fascination with Irish politics. So maybe it is a bit of a universal truth template just waiting for readers to overlay their own personal agenda. The trouble is, as a template it is probably a bit of an imperfect, forced fit. And in its own rights, it is all a bit confusing and unevenly paced. **000
  11. When we first meet George Washington Black, he is a field slave at the Faith Plantation, Barbados. The Plantation is taken over by Erasmus Wilde, a cruel and vindictive master who treats his animals with more respect than his slaves. Thus begins a well-told but fairly routine slavery+cruelty story. Then Washington’s fortunes change when Erasmus’s brother Christopher comes to stay. He is an idealist and inventor; he needs an assistant to help him build a giant balloon in which he hoped to cross the Atlantic. He is invited to live with Christopher, to call him Titch, to eat fine food and speak his mind. Wash struggles to accept these freedoms, perhaps mindful that they only exist as long as Titch is prepared to let them exist. Then a paradigm shift and we are with Titch and Wash aboard a trading ship plying its way to Virginia. The captain and medic seem somewhat nonplussed to have given refuge to an obvious runaway slave. We have a historic maritime novella, reminiscent of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea or Ian Maguire’s The North Water. It is well done and there is a sense of menace and tension. Then we have a stay in Arctic Canada looking at marine life. Then on to Nova Scotia where Wash finds romance but lives in fear of recapture. Then to London, trying to engage with Titch’s aristocratic family. Then to Amsterdam. Then to Morocco. [BEWARE - POTENTIAL SPOILERS] This is a plot driven novel with vivid detail. Esi Edugyan evokes four different worlds in vivid colours. But, the story never quite convinces. The characters don’t have a great deal of depth despite having plenty of action. Even Wash, the narrator, really just feels like an everyman. The main characters all do things for no obvious reason. Why does Cousin Philip shoot himself? Why does he visit Erasmus at all when he has such an unhappy history with the man? Why does Mr Wilde pretend to be dead? Why did Titch walk away from Wash? Why did John Willard keep trying to track Wash when there was no longer a bounty to be had? Why would Erasmus place such a large bounty on a slave in the first place when he thought them no more and no less than livestock? The shifting across different worlds also produced what felt like several different stories with several different atmospheres – almost like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with only the slenderest of threads to hold them together. And given the issues of character motivation, each subsequent section became slightly diminished. The final section, England (although much of it was in Morocco) felt confusing and didn’t really provide the resolutions it set out to achieve. This doesn’t make Washington Black a bad book. Much of it is compelling, visceral. It is never less than readable and the progression from Barbados to the sea to Canada to England to Morocco is innovative for a 19th Century historical novel. There is something steampunk about the ballooning; the slave section is as good a slave narrative as any; the journey at sea is rollicking. There is an air of menace and tension through much of the novel - although this starts to dissipate in Nova Scotia and is gone by London. There is a sense of how a black person might have fitted in to various different communities. There are questions about the nature of freedom, particularly when bound by societal expectations, station of birth, and the threat that freedom might be taken away. But there is an abiding sense that this has fizzled after a really stunning first half. How does that all stack up? Being generous, perhaps four stars. ****0
  12. From a Low and Quiet Sea is a difficult book to categorise. Is it a novel? Is it stories? Does it matter? In this case, I think it does. Most novels have a clear narrative arc. There is a beginning where we are introduced to characters and situations, then there is a quest where someone is looking for something, and then there's the end - usually when that something has been found (a happy novel) or irredeemably lost (a tragic novel). There will be a major plot development at exactly half way through, and mini-changes at one and two thirds of the way through. It makes for a satisfying, if somewhat predictable pace. Sometimes great novels depart from the formula in spectacular style. But attempting this is a gamble; it can make a novel feel tricksy and badly paced. Despite some brilliant writing at the sentence level, I fear that Low and Quiet Sea is a bit of a busted flush. Basically, we have three stand-alone stories. Farouk is a man fleeing an unnamed war-torn country by boat in the Mediterranean. Probably Syria, but possibly Libya. This is written in a highly stylised manner, conveying an exotic culture and working as a proxy for a different values system to the anticipated reader. It feels quite like Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, but dealing with the journey as much as the before and after. Lampy is a man who might be quite bright, but his ambition exceeds his prospects and right now he is driving a bus for an aged care facility in the West of Ireland. He lives at home with his mother and (possibly senile) grandfather and spends his time trying to find the woman of his dreams. John is a wealthy accountant who speaks in religious tones but who seems to have had a pretty earthly life. In each of the stories, the focus is on the character with details unfolding slowly to create a ruler picture. Each is written in a quite distinctive voice with perfect tone and a poet's attention to detail. Truly these are gems. And they represent about 80% of the book. Then, there's a final section that follows three women - the breaks between these three sub-narratives is intentionally un-signposted. From these narratives, we see how the three male characters fit together (and they don't fit together terribly much, if the truth be told) and we see enough external perspective to make us reassess (although not completely revise) our estimation of the three male characters. This section is terribly hard to follow; the reader has to have pretty close recall of the earlier sections and hold a lot of oblique references together to really create a map of how everyone fits into the somewhat scant story. The conclusion, at least for this reader, is that this is a work of technical brilliance and innovation, but one where the pace and balance feel all wrong. Yes it is enjoyable, but it's not that satisfying. So how do you score a book that has probably achieved the author's objectives completely, but where the author's ambition does not quite coincide with the product the reader desires? If ever there were a case for three and a half stars, this is it. ***1/2
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