I loved The Glorious Heresies and picked up this follow up with the highest hopes. I wish I hadn't.
Because, the high points for The Glorious Heresies had been the blend of farce and crime; the balance between good people; inept people and bad people; the multiple viewpoints; the contrast between the Celtic Tiger and the organised crime. But these are all missing in The Blood Miracles. It is just a straight story of drug deals. The characters are the same - well some of them reappear, but then they only seem to come in two dimensions. For example, Ryan Cusack had been on the verge of choosing between an honest life and the easy money of crime. He was a gifted pianist with a possible future. But now he has chosen the path of darkness and his life is spent rustling up deals and trying to second guess who might be double crossing him. He bounces constantly between girls' beds and hoods' offices. Back and forth he goes - girl, office, girl, office with the occasional foray into a nightclub. It is boring.
The boredom is not even relieved by cameo characters, because this is what everyone else is doing. The reader is supposed to care what happens to Ryan, and to care whether he ends up working for PJ or Dan - two identikit villains. And Ryan's dad Tony had been comically hopeless in the first novel, but now he is just deadweight for both Ryan and the plot.
There is no sense of place, no sense of fun. Really very little to keep the reader turning the repetitive pages. All The Blood Miracles does is to cheapen the memory of The Glorious Heresies by flattening the original characters and dumbing down the original intrigue.
I hope, for the next outing, Lisa McInerney finds a new story to tell with new people and, perhaps, new places.
De Botton, Alaine. Essays in Love
In her introduction to de Botton’s book (Picador Classics) Sheila Heti begins, ‘Essays in Love has been classified as a novel, but it’s a very strange novel.’ It is, she says, ‘a guide through the landscape of contemporary romance.’ In the book de Botton makes a habit of reflecting on a previous paragraph telling the story of (presumably his) love affair with Chloe, a woman whom he meets by chance sitting next to him on a Paris-London flight. Thus the novel-memoir seems at times to be a mere jumping of point to a profound analysis of the trite business of falling in love - and of course inevitably the disillusion inherent in that commonplace but unique event.
I must confess that I am often puzzled by the memoir genre - how much is ‘true’ and how much falsified for the sake of art? In books about love affairs, which this absolutely is, how constant is the point of view? How can the reader believe in the ‘facts’ as retailed by the narrator? Well, de Botton (who wrote this book in his early twenties) does a masterly job of analysing the ebb and flow of desire, beginning with rapture over finding that the lovers have so much in common that some supernatural agency must have pre-determined their meeting. ‘I love chocolate, don’t you?’ asked Chloe. ‘I can’t understand people who don’t like chocolate.’ Well, the narrator, the ‘I’ in the story, de Botton or a version of him, hates chocolate: ‘I had been more or less allergic to chocolate all my life.’ So of course in the ‘story’ the narrator has to lie, or else run the risk of losing the ‘angel’ as Chloe is soon to become. This is the key to the novel, focusing on a mundane preference and lying about one’s true feelings. It’s what we all would do in the circumstances. It’s both true to life, and perfect for art. Now, whether the ‘real’ de Botton likes or hates chocolate is a moot point, one which the reader should not, according to convention at least, ask.
What I liked about the story (I almost said ‘loved’ but then recalled de Botton’s complex of analyses of the word) and about the philosophical commentary that accompanies it is its lucidity, its honesty about feeling and beliefs, those transient markers we cling to - and eventually are obliged to release from our grasp. But the book is not all Freudian or Marxian analysis (Marx is the term confusingly used in the book to refer to Marx the comedian) but a moving and totally convincing ‘love story,’ telling it like it is, a rare thing in fiction.
McCourt, Frank. Teacher Man
Frank McCourt’s memoir on his teaching experience is divided into three Parts, the first and longest dealing with his experience of surviving eight years at McKee Vocational and Technical School, Staten Island. In Part Two he moves to New York Community College and in Part Three, after two years studying in Dublin for an aborted PhD at Trinity College, he returns to America to become a Creative Writing teacher at Stuyvesant High School. For most of the book Frank is in the classroom, facing non-academic pupils who yearn to be free of discipline and routine. He learns their tricks and indeed, much to the detriment of his reputation as a teacher, encourages their bid for freedom. If they want stories about his life of poverty in Ireland he’ll tell them, if they want outside activities, such as movie-going, he’ll take them and even pay for them from his meagre earnings. Frank is a very earnest and honest man, not afraid to admit ignorance, not afraid of losing dignity and devoted to the thankless task of what he believes in, something honorifically known as teaching.
In between trudging through mountains of illiterate scripts, Frank manages to tell the reader that he got married, had two children and got divorced; but the focus of the book is on that strange routine and for the most part useless activity of ‘teaching,’ in other words occupying and entertaining the disinterested and cheeky adolescents before him. He is the Pied Piper leading his charges to another world - a world of something called ‘culture,’ where words on the page are substituted for popcorn and candy. It’s a heroic journey, but one founded on the belief and enthusiasm of one man - Frank McCourt. Although frequently reminded of the importance of sticking to the syllabus, Frank goes his own way. Like the maverick schoolmaster AS Neill, Frank believes in Hearts not Heads in the School. The reader empathises with him and with his stand against snobs such as the academic Dahlberg, who asks Frank what he’s reading. Frank replies O’Casey, whose natural writing about growing up in Dublin even matched the work of the ancient masters. ‘If you admire so-called natural writing you can always scrutinize the walls of a public lavatory,’ was Dahlberg’s riposte. ‘My face was hot and I blurted, “O’Casey fought his way out of the slums of Dublin. He was half blind. He’s a … a … champion of the worker …. He’s as good as you anytime. The whole world knows Sean O’Casey. Who ever heard of you?” [speech marks added] To which Dahlberg invites him to leave the party.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is not brief. Nor, strictly speaking, does the death toll end up at seven.
Set in Jamaica (mostly – there are a couple of offshoots to Miami and New York), spanning the time frame 1976-1991, and featuring multiple stream of consciousness narrators, this is a complex novel. It interweaves drug gangs and politics; it blurs the lines between life and death (at least one of the narrators is a ghost); and the timelines are far from sequential.
To further add to the confusion, many of the characters narrate in a bombor’asscloth patois peppered with expletives, short on verbs and generally not focused on illuminating the reader. At first there’s a temptation to try to keep on top of events, but it is a fool’s errand and it’s best to just acquiesce, read it through and let the words wash over you. Some of it will make sense and some of it won’t. Perhaps the reader is meant to be viewing the world through a ganja haze – maybe through a cocaine hight or a heroin hit. This all adds to the atmosphere, but it does make for a mightily long and sometimes repetitive story.
The story, such as it is, focuses on an attempt to assassinate Bob Marley (known as The Singer) when he made a tentative foray into Jamaican politics in 1976. The rationale behind the hit is never fully clear; the circumstances emerge only slowly; and the aftermath pans out over 15 years. This suggests a political thriller, and there is some early involvement of CIA characters, but really it is more about gangs and sleaze. Politics in Jamaica is shown as just an extension of gang turf wars with political office being either the laurels for achievement on the international stage; or the spoils obtained by being the biggest baddie in town. There is little attempt to govern and attempts to get Jamaica to swing to the West (USA) or the East (Cuba) are going to fail in a great sea of inertia borne of drugs and violence.
One of the particularly striking features of Brief History is the fixation on bottoms. I am sure Marlon James has been faithful to Jamaican dialogue (or monologue), but it does seem to have bottoms and nether regions everywhere. For a country in which homosexuality is supposed to be the ultimate taboo, people seem to spend a lot of time talking about it. This is just one of the features of the book that outstays its welcome.
And goodness me, how it does keep on going, yet without ever actually getting anywhere. I don’t want to give away the plot, but it ends with a bit of a whimper after seeming to keep going on life support for most of its passing. Sure, it builds the sense of place and there is some intrigue towards the end, but at huge cost in terms of time and attention span. Perhaps it is that the characters are too similar, or that the use of patois renders them all a bit two dimensional. There doesn’t seem to be much life beyond the pages of the book. Characters have little history and don’t quite seem to have real lives. They are too much a sum of their actions on the page.
Overall, Brief History is a brave novel that has some real strengths. It will, I am sure, leave a lasting impression. It does evoke a sense of place: Jamaica, its ghettoes, its garbage lands, the use of music as an escape, the drugs, the feeling of being trapped in paradise. But the novel fishes too much in the same pond as Ryan Gattis’s All Involved (gang warfare during riots in Los Angeles) and, I’m afraid, Ryan Gattis does it better.
An elderly couple become foster carers in their mid-sixties. The Times Higher Education of June 2015 wrote in its column What Are You Reading? ('A look over the shoulders of our scholar reviewers') : "This is an unusual, amusing, sometimes heart-rending memoir. Learmont offers a compendium of family breakdowns and other social problems, narrated in a style that ranges from Catch-22 to Bertie Wooster. The Learmonts are now enjoying 'a second retirement' in Andorra, and after reading this book, you feel they deserve it."
A non-fiction book with two intrepid oldies.