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.
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.
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.
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.
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.