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  1. The current lockdown was an ideal opportunity for me to read this very long novel. I had read the first two of the trilogy (Wolf Hall etc) and I knew how good the writing was. Even when you know the inevitable ending you are so engaged with Thomas Cromwell's multifaceted life. His occasional reminiscences of his young life in Putney and the bad treatment by his thug of a father are sometimes more vivid than the complexities of religion and politics in that era but that is inevitable. It is not a soap opera that Hilary Mantel has written.
  2. My Name Is Lucy Barton is a fragmentary novel, comprising short vignettes as Lucy Barton looks back on her life. They are presented in a jumbled up order and time signposting is minimal. From this, the reader is supposed to get to know Lucy Barton. The concept of the extended character study is not new. In my experience, the appeal of such novels depends largely on whether the reader gets "into" the character. It is not necessary to like the character or identify with them, but it requires some degree of emotional investment. Lucy Barton didn't do it for me. In fact, such was the fragmented nature of the text that I'm not sure I ever really believed in Lucy Barton at all. She seemed unremarkable - poor white trash childhood, did well at school, married into the middle class, wrote some novels, got sick, got reunited with her mother, got old... What was missing was some kind of narrative impetus to take us from one step to the next. Instead, we are just presented with a parade of events (some of which are in fact pontifications rather than actual events) in which Lucy Barton courts sympathy for her apparent stoicism in the face of adversity. Of course, if she were really stoic, she would not go on about the misery. Maybe that's the point, but it is rather a thin point. As befits a skeletal character and a skeletal structure, this is a short novel. But for all its brevity, it feels like a slog to read. It just meanders and after the two thirds point, it becomes clear to the reader that it really isn't going anywhere. One half wonders whether the jumbled up time sequence is a device that has been deployed to create an illusion of complexity and literary worth in a work that would otherwise not have been good enough to publish. It's what Alasdair Gray did with two mediocre novels that he combined to create Lanark. And it's not as though Lucy Barton is cleverly withholding and drip-feeding vital information to control the reader's understanding of the character. The quality of the writing has been praised. At the sentence level, it may be good but it is not particularly memorable. There was some success in depicting a poor childhood being ostracised by other kids for being smelly. But for a novel of vignettes, it should be leaving a series of strong visual impressions; it fails to do so. Instead, there's just a vague memory of a pretentious writer writing about a pretentious writer being advised to write about herself. Not for me, thanks. **000
  3. Agnes Day has been brought by her mother Bea to join in a social experiment - living with a self-sustaining community in the last true wilderness. Bea's partner Glen had designed the program, and as the infant Agnes's health deteriorated in the city, joining up to the program looked like a ray of hope. The New Wilderness is an exercise in world building. The wilderness, its mountains and forests, its deserts and rivers, the coyotes and bears and deer and rabbits... The world feels real, visceral. The passage of time, the passing of the seasons is done so well. However, it's not a happy world. The program is overseen by Rangers - who enforce rules and impose fines. They require the participants to trek for months from one part of the wilderness to another, ostensibly to collect mail and fill in forms at the various Ranger posts. The participants have a Manual they must follow, with updates handed out at each check-in. The participants cannot settle, cannot build permanent structures, cannot farm, cannot leave any trace of their presence. It's like trying to turn the clock back on evolution, and not allowing any re-evolving. As a study it is scientifically flawed; it is really not much more than some Reality TV concept but without the cameras. It's hilarious until yet another one of the participants/contestants meets a tragic end. The plot is as much a vehicle for addressing themes - team dynamics, mother/daughter relationships, ethical dilemmas, religion, loyalty, immigration, prostitution - as it is about narrative resolution. There are nods to Lord of the Flies, Zimbardo, the Hunger Games, Exodus. I even almost saw parallels to The Beach. It's very rich; not necessarily very original but it does an excellent job in bringing the ideas together. No resolutions, though. Just the ideas. If there's an area that could have been stronger it would be the characterisation. Too often, the characters were filling roles/positions rather than having their own complex and conflicting values. Agnes was a bit everyman; Glen was too perfect; Carl was too evil; Bea was too selfish; everyone else felt like extras. Some nuances did come through right at the end, but it seemed to be more in the form of explaining past actions rather than revealing true characterisation. Overall, though, this was a novel brimming with ideas, with a great sense of place, and a good dose of sinister foreboding. I loved it. We follow Agnes as she ages from a young child to an almost-adult. *****
  4. Antara is a middle class Indian woman. Her husband, Dilip, is an American Indian (no, not one of those) who was sent by his company to Pune despite hardly speaking a word of Hindi and breaking his rotis with two hands. What had been a very happy, westernised relationship is now transformed by the arrival of Antara's senile mother and the imminent arrival of a baby. Antara is less than thrilled by her change in circumstances as she explains to readers in sassy, sarcastic tones. Antara loathes her mother, but she is honour bound to support her. The mother - Tara to her daughter's Un-tara - seems to have made curious decisions in the past. Antara was sent to a strict school run by nuns. Tara separated from her wealthy husband and became a beggar outside the Club - that haven of the middle classes. Tara joined the Ashram and wore white, despite not being in mourning. Antara resents this, and resents the intrusion Tara is making on her now comfortable life as a conceptual artist. The real strength of the novel is Antara's voice. She is self-entitled, whining, rude, ungrateful and hilarious. She may well have cause for complaint, but her petulance in putting that view across gives the reader a strange sense of schadenfreude. The legitimacy of her complaints is further undermined as the reader gradually discovers the appalling way she has behaved as an adult. There are vignette like chapters - almost like Slumdog Millionaire - with each one offering a different facet of life in India, spanning the social classes. There are real, compassionate characters in the novel. But always, there is Antara's voice. Burnt Sugar is not a long novel and it is tempting to start all over again to extract every drop of brilliance from this novel that starts so sweetly and becomes so bitter. *****
  5. Real Life is a fabulously well crafted capture of a moment in the life of Wallace, a black, gay postgrad working in a biochemistry department of a Midwestern university (presumably Madison-Wisconsin). Wallace hails from Alabama - not desperately poor, but very much an outsider whose sexuality did not sit well with his race in the deep south. He hopes that he might fit in Madison, working in a program that has never taken a black student before. The opening chapter, a party on the lakeside pier, threatens to become The Great Gatsby as Wallace sits in admiration of the sophisticated white students, comfortable in their sexuality and their high status in an equal society. Subsequent chapters, though, reveal that Wallace has a much more ambivalent relationship with this world of privilege. He loves the bodies, make no mistake, but he looks for - and correctly perceives - little slights and signs that he is not completely accepted in this world. Even his friends and closest associates seem to feel that he should be grateful for what he has; that when judged by the yardstick of "his people", he is doing well to have the opportunity of a doctorate and a good job. And those who are less close seem to be more overt in their discrimination, inevitably siding with others as disputes are resolved. This is not a racism founded on verbal abuse and violence, but on small assumptions and prejudices that affect small, transactional matters that add up to a larger whole. Interestingly, though, Wallace seems to encounter no difficulty in Madison for his homosexuality. How enlightened everyone is. In contrast, though, Wallace's white lover Miller goes to great lengths to assert his own lack of homosexuality - even as he lies in bed with Wallace. There are scenes of violence, hidden tensions, infidelity. Secrets are betrayed, feuds fought, possibilities explored. There are ambiguities of bereavement when estranged parents die. This is a novel about young people trying to work out where they fit into the world, running up against the boundaries to see whether they push back. Much of their behaviour is bad, reprehensible. But the world that Brandon Taylor evokes feels real and nuanced. For the most part the tensions remain as undercurrents. It is also commendable that, for a novel with so many issues, they are used sparingly in support of exploring Wallace's "real life" experiences. He is not a black activist. He is not a sexual warrior. He works diligently and engages with different circles of friends and acquaintances. One of the most memorable scenes finds Wallace engaging with Dana, a highly regarded but inept colleague. And in keeping with the low key, there's no riotous crescendo or dramatic moment of enlightenment. The strength of Real Life is the humanity, warmth and credibility of the world that is created. In particular, Miller is a comical character: a big doofus with a terrible sense of timing - like a labrador puppy that has not quite grown into a large body. The encounters, the rivalries and jealousies feel real and are described with a forensic precision. Every word, every expression feels right. This is an accomplished work. ****0
  6. Tambudzai is an underachiever. Sent to a private school in Rhodesia, studying at the University of Zimbabwe, she land up in Harare unemployed, no plan, drifting between hostels and rooming houses. She seems not to have any great sense of urgency in finding either a job or a more stable form of housing. She quite her job as a copy writer in a fit of pique, and lands up as a school teacher for which she has no qualification. And then she has a breakdown and her life falls into chaos. Is this a metaphor for Zimbabwe - once the breadbasket of Southern Africa with an educated population and a strong economy, claiming independence, cruising along for a bit until the descent into chaos? And then placing itself like a zoo exhibit be re-colonised by European tourists. The timeline of the novel is not quite clear. There is one anchor point in 1999, but the story seems to play out across years - perhaps decades - and ends in the time of the farm seizures. Independence figures prominently as a milestone in many of the characters' lives but the changes seem to be more gradual. Replacing the former white establishment, we see the gradual rise of a black establishment similarly borne on patronage and good fortune. Tambudzai seems determined to be on the wrong end of the changes, seeing her former classmates and colleagues becoming successful through playing a system that she refuses to fit into. There is a Cook's tour of Harare life with burgeoning small businesses, earnest workers, the occasional protestor and a functioning healthcare system. There's violence too, and a clearly demarcated social hierarchy, but where a European reader might expect deprivation there seems to be quite a substantial middle class. Even life in the hostels seems quite orderly with kitchen rotas and groups heading out on shopping expeditions. There are trips to the country where, again, the poverty seems to be more of an idea than a reality; villagers happy to perform like natives in return for the tourist dollar and some supporting infrastructure. There is a real and vibrant sense of place; a sense of direction - even if Tambudzai is going in the opposite direction to everyone else. And much as Tambudzai might seem to be perverse, she is asking a legitimate question - why would an independent Zimbabwe just seek to replicate the inequalities of the colonial system in the pursuit of a European lifestyle? The drifting nature of Tambudzai's life is compartmentalised into three distinct sections, but it really is more of a general flow. At times, this can feel as though there's an insufficient narrative drive to hold this together, but I think the common themes of squandered opportunity and claimed victimhood keep this together. This Mournable Body does have one particularly striking (or irritating?) feature in its second person narration. I have never loved this as a technique. It usually feels forced and self-conscious. Tsitsi Dangarembga gets it as right as anyone, but this reader would prefer to have seen a more conventional first or third person perspective. Nevertheless, the novel did feel compelling, and the flashes of humour gave it a human tough that offsets any intellectual trickiness of technique. This Mournable Body is an impressive novel with a complex protagonist - its has been long listed for the Booker Prize - but I'm just not sure how much this will leave a deep impression. ****0
  7. 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
  8. How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a technically accomplished novel but I found it somewhat clinical and cold. Set in the Californian goldrush, the novel follows the fortunes of a Chinese migrant family. Initially, the two young girls. Lucy and Sam, are trying to find a suitable place to bury their father Ba. Ba seems to have been a cruel father led by drink and aggression. Other sections follow, one offering Ba's explanation of what he was trying to achieve; there's Ma's story of first meeting Ba, and there is Lucy in a goldrush town some years after burying Ba. Each section is packaged into chunks with symbolic names - the significant of which was lost on me - and there was a recurring theme of a tiger. The writing is good, but there is simply no empathy. Sure, there are some universal themes - the migrant experience, racism, possible trans-sexuality, loyalty, honour - but I'm not sure I ever believed the characters were real. It felt like fine clothes hung on tailor's dummies. There is magical realism too with Ba supposedly writing to the girls from beyond the grave. Perhaps I was distracted by the disintegration of the world around me (Covid-19 lockdown) which made this a really long slog of a book, but I suspect that even in normal times this would have been quite a hard book to pick up. ***00
  9. 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. *****
  10. Home Fire is that rare beast: a novel with really important points to make while also being a cracking read. Through the eyes of five characters, we get a dissection of what it means to be British-Asian in the current world. Initially, we meet Isma, resuming a career in academia in the US after bringing up her orphaned younger siblings in London. Picking up her former life does not start well as she is detained by security at Heathrow Airport and misses her flight. Then we meet Eamonn, the son of the British Home Secretary Karamat Lone. His father, as a Muslim politician, is keen to distance himself from extremism by introducing ever-more draconian laws to contain the “threat”. Eamonn is a spoilt rich kid who finds contact with other British Pakistanis way more confronting than mixing with the white, public school elite. Then, the high point for me, we travel with Parvaiz, Isma’s younger brother, to Raqqa to join the Caliphate. This is a portrait of hope, naivity and a desperation to belong to a family, shattered to smithereens when reality bites. But thanks to modern anti-terror laws, there is no way back from such a decision. In very few words, Shamsie created a living, breathing world and a highly conflicted character who goes on a major journey of self-discovery.Then back to Britain with Parvaiz’s twin sister Aneeka, and the final two chapters in the company of the Home Secretary himself, Karamat Lone. Lone is a monster, a self-serving egotist who has no understanding of - and even less care about – the impact of his policies on those affected by them. Even when they touch his own family, he is willing to sacrifice their rights for his own political career. And what is the point of that career – the power – if he only uses it to try to perpetuate it?Home Fire is, apparently, a modern day Antigone. But I think that does the novel a disservice. This is not a recasting of an ancient Greek play; it is not derivative. It is a searing critique of the conflicts of identity; of personal interest and family loyalty within a community that is being vilified on a daily basis. How far can it be right to punish an easily identifiable group for the transgressions of some of its members; how far should those who do transgress be dealt with through the existing judicial system or how far can it be right to expel them from the system altogether.This novel spans half the globe, offers five very different stories, and poses difficult questions. There is not a wrong word in this tight narrative, spanning ultra-realism through to the absolutely surreal. By the end, the story is in a slow motion, dream-like sequence. And the ending is absolutely not expected. Home Fire is a really fantastic novel but, if it has one Achilles Heel, it could be its fixation in the present moment. The novel relies on the current public mood, the current legal (and illegal) situation, the current conflict in Syria. Move on five years – perhaps less – and what seems to immediate now may seem very fleeting and out of date. I hope the future is not as bleak as Home Fire would have us believe. *****
  11. This book was selected by the Oprah book club, which was enough to make me refuse to read it since many of her books feel very chick-lit to me. But a friend heard it was about time travel (it isn't) and was dying to read it. Also the author was coming to a speaker series that I often attend and so I broke down and read it. And then I heard him read from it and talk about it last night. I was wrong to have rejected it and lucky to have heard him speak. I don't know what those of you outside of the U.S. know about U.S. history, so at the risk of telling you something you know, the Underground Railroad was a system of safe houses that allowed slaves to flee their bondage. They were hidden, provided for, and guided to freedom, but it was a very dangerous undertaking for everyone involved. This book starts out as a description of slave life on a Georgia plantation. Although being a slave is one terrible level of misery, the farther south you went, the worse it generally was. So I think it is generally accepted that slavery in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi was particularly terrible. After a terrible incident, the main character, Cora, decides to flee with a friend of hers, Cesar, who had been sold from a plantation in Virginia, where he was taught to read, to Georgia. And when they flee, Cora finds that the Underground Railroad is exactly that...a railroad. They take various trains and when they come up out of the ground, they are in alternative versions of South Carolina and North Carolina during slave times. What happens to Cora and what she (and the reader) finds out is very interesting, but also thought-provoking. For example (but not the only example), very late in the book, the reader finds out something that Cora doesn't know and will never know, which makes it clear that the lifelong anger she holds against her mother is ill-placed. The speaker came last night and he was funny and thoughtful. He also dealt well with the 2 instances of rambling series of observations masquerading as questions from the audience. He also seemed very genuine. One person asked him how he felt when white people wrote about the experience of slavery (he's African American) and he said, 'if they can do it, great. My main character in this book was female, so I don't think it's impossible to write from such a different point of view. You have to use your imagination." I really enjoyed his talk and will probably look up some more of his books. Highly recommend.
  12. 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
  13. review of 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster Auster's latest novel starts with chapter 1.0 being the one constant in the story of the four Ferguson's that each part of the novel starting with the arrival of Ferguson's grandfather to New York and the boat over. We have the same genetic make up of the one character but in four different scenario for each. So in one, Archie is a star sports athlete, another he had been poorly as a child while a third. Each unique in their own way and each creating a different character though with some similiarities. In the first Ferguson for each of the chapters, this seems more to try to refresh people on the history of the period chosen. Some characters reoccur in the four novels for example Amy. Some things overlap, it seemed to me that in each the young Ferguson has a penchant for double acts with people whether through the films of Laurel & Hardy or the part he plays at a summer camp where him and a friend pretend to be Steinbeck's Lennie & George. A bit of this reads like a best of collection of Paul Auster's novels, there is one Ferguson that translates French poetry, another that uses films as a source to help them through a difficult time, . But this isn't a bad thing. I think if you like Auster's other novels, you probably will like this one. While I found the size of it daunting to begin with, I think that these familiar surroundings did help and I did give myself a brief recap prior to starting each chapter of which Ferguson this is. Overall, it really works and Auster knits and sews a splendid story together on the four Fergusons. I found it to be superb. A very engaging read. I did think early on maybe it would be good if the chapters ran consecutively for each of the ferguson's rather than each of the fergusons' chapter ones following each other. * * * * *
  14. 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
  15. 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
  16. 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
  17. 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. *****
  18. 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
  19. 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. *****
  20. 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
  21. 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
  22. Elmet is an interesting novel that would probably have slipped by unnoticed had it not been long listed for the Booker Prize. Set in a seemingly isolated spot of South Yorkshire, once part of the Celtic kingdom of Elmet, we find John Smythe, a bare-knuckle boxer living with his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy, in a self built house in a copse in an ancient forest. John appears to live with little support from the wider world; he forages, hunts and traps, and farms his food. When he works, he is paid in kind. His life is almost mediaeval. But in this story, narrated by Daniel, modern details creep in. There is the East Coast Main Line that passes nearby; there are cars; a casino; shopping trips to Doncaster. John - or Daddy as Daniel calls him - seems to be a link between the modern land and its history. Famed for his fists throughout Britain and Ireland, John seems to have links to the Irish travelling community although he is clear that he is not a traveller. Quite the opposite, he has found his spot in the woods and wants to stay in it. The story unfolds piece by piece. We find the family in former times living in a regular house, owned by Granny Morley, on an estate at the edge of a seaside town. We find Daniel and Cathy already being ostracised by their peers in that town. And then we find that the land around their wood is owned and farmed by unscrupulous farmers; many of whom also own the houses and charge rack rents. Elmet challenges modern values of property, employment and trade. Why shouldn't people like John - and perhaps some of the former coal miners of the area - be able to live according to their own rules? Why should they have to accept the lot that they were born into, paying the price for their ancestors' poor decisions and missed opportunities? And what about if it wasn't ancestors who took the poor decisions but those who find themselves in poverty today? While Elmet doesn't exactly present easy answers, it does tend to be unsympathetic towards landowners. The main timeline is then interwoven with flash-forward narration as an adult Daniel looks for his missing sister. This successfully adds a bit of intrigue. So Elmet is an ideas book. Where it doesn't quite succeed is the narrative voice. Daniel switches effortlessly from being monosyllabic and repetitive, an uneducated man trying to convey complex and sensitive emotions with a limited vocabulary - to being some kind of minor poet waxing lyrical at all around him. At one point, he even tells us of all the beautiful things - the stars and the creatures of the night - that he was unable to notice in his haste. Coupled with this, some of the narrative seems to be deliberately opaque - what did happen to Daniel and Cathy's mother? - some of the dialogue is clearly expository - and some people's motives didn't really make much sense. I guess in a stylised novel things didn't really have to add up perfectly, but I think it made the whole feel somewhat inconsistent. I am glad to have read Elmet, and the positives far outweigh the negatives, but it does feel like it didn't quite land. ***00
  23. Wow. I mean, seriously, Wow! His Bloody Project masquerades as a plot driven historical crime novel, but is in fact a character driven exploration of a 19th century Scottish crofting community were a small number of people are forced to live in close proximity despite not liking one another. You know, right from the outset, that this is going to be a bit special when there are a series of contradictory statements from the Culduie residents about the murder of Lachlan Broad Mackenzie and the prime suspect, Roddy Macrae. Every statement was written in a distinctive voice, but all steeped in the lilting West Highland diction of native Gaelic speakers. The novel then broadens into three main sections: a narrative account leading up to the murder, written by Roderick Macrae from his cell in Inverness gaol; a chapter from a book on the criminal mind by an arrogant academic from Edinburgh; and a journalistic account of the trial. Each of the three sections is distinctive and, although they cover some common ground, they each serve quite different purposes. They drip with authenticity - referencing real cases and real people - to the point that the reader wonders whether this is a fictionalisation of a true crime (it isn't). Culduie is a real place, though, which in 1869 comprised 9 crofting cottages. It is stuck in the tracks beyond Applecross which, itself, is cut off from the rest of Scotland by a 19 mile winding pass. The residents were trapped both by geography and by their tenancy to their crofts. They were effectively property of the Laird, who dealt with them only through the Factor who, in turn, dealt directly only with the constable appointed by the villagers. The community had no privacy and personal grievances were to be avoided at all costs as you couldn't hide from those you disliked. So, in this context, we see that there are problems between the Macraes and the Mackenzies. The grievances are real and as each family contains strong personalities, this is a problem for the whole community. It is known from the outset that Roddy killed Lachlan Broad, so the question for the reader is (a) how this situation came about and (b ) whether the bad guys were the Macraes or the Mackenzies. Depending how the narratives are read, either conclusion can be drawn. But to draw the conclusions is simplistic. The issue really is that of people being trapped by poverty. Roddy, with whom the reader is invited to sympathise, is at best a klutz (to coin a neologism). And in a subsistence farming community, there is really no place for a klutz. But the reader is also challenged to consider whether Lachlan Broad, portrayed by Roddy as a self-serving bully, is in fact a bad man or perhaps something of a visionary. It's complex and never quote resolved. There is also a considerable, and evenly handed, consideration of the nature of social class. To what extent is the laird a leech who profits from his crofters' misery and to what extent is he actually the social security safety net, holding the community together by subsidy. When we meet him, briefly, he is a grotesque and his factor is despised. Yet when the factor gives an account of himself at the trial, he comes across as plausible. Then, there are the inbetweeners. In particular, we meet Archibald Ross, an assistant to the laird's ghillie who fancies himself as part of the aristocratic retinue. This is a well paced novel that avoids shocking twists but still keeps the reader guessing for most of the journey. The characters are rich and the evocation of the place and period are spot on. If there is one criticism, it is that there is a particular part in the trial sequence at which everything pretty much crystallises, but the author then carries on for some pages afterwards. This may add verisimilitude as a Victorian novel, but where Victorian novels have multiple storylines to tie up, this feels like lingering on the same single line. It weakens the impact of what had been very taut up to that point. But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent text. Long listed for the Booker, this deserves to go further. But perhaps the subject matter is too similar to The Luminaries to let it win. *****
  24. I loved Reservoir 13 but I'm really not sure why. Do you know those letters that friends used to send at Christmas with all their news? The kind of hypnotic/soporific way all the news blends into one storyline, the banal and the significant presented with equal weight? Because that's pretty much what Reservoir 13 is, times thirteen. Rebecca Shaw, a teenage girl, goes missing. Each chapter of the novel reports another year since her disappearance, depicting the life of the village and its surrounds. There are couplings, fights, feuds. There are foxes and fieldfares. There is a rhythm to the year's cycle, broken by the human action in the village and on the moors and around the 13 reservoirs that surround the village. Despite the passage of time, it is timeless. And as every year passes, the memory of Rebecca Shaw and her disappearance dim. But every couple of years, some trace of her turns up, often unnoticed. Children grow up. Marriages are made and broken. One of the villagers is naughty and goes to prison, then returns. There is nothing of any great consequence to the world, although the little pieces of nothing are enormous for those involved, for a while. People are born and people die. The novel is a masterpiece of holding multiple threads together, drip feeding them over time as matters progress and then letting them fade when they are done. Some of the lines run for years; some are over and done quickly. The characters feel real, the place feels real, the reader feels almost like God watching over it all. It really is spellbinding, even though it is so inconsequential. This is the bit that I cannot fathom: the writing is pedestrian and journalistic (almost Robinson in Space-like); the suspense is minimal; the plot is thin. So how and why did this get so much under my skin? I don't think this is the best book of 2017, but it must be quite close up there. It is unusual without being demonstrative. It's not quite like anything I have read before. *****
  25. 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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