Thursday, 31 December 2009

Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

Sarah Waters is one of the finest contemporary novelists - whatever she writes is a pleasure to read. Her plots are intricately thought out and her characters utterly believable. The Little Stranger is not as detailed or enthralling as Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet, but still a compelling read. Hundreds Hall is the haunted grange of all our imaginations. It is the decaying relic of a dying way of life - symbolic of the fate of the landed gentry after two world wars and the rise of socialism.
Dr Faraday, the narrator, is a working class boy, raised to a higher social level by scholarships and education, but not entirely comfortable in the social no-man’s land between classes. His mother had been a nursemaid at Hundreds Hall before she married, so when he is called to attend a member of the household, he never expects to become on intimate terms with the aristocratic Ayres family.
His life becomes increasingly entwined with the neurotic, widowed Mrs Ayres and her two children - Roderick, heroically injured in the war, and Caroline - a young woman aging towards spinsterhood, trapped in her role as family lynch-pin. Sarah Waters has the ability to carry you into the minds and emotional centres of her characters. Faraday’s social ineptitude is beautifully done and his ingrained attitudes - so typical of the period - are toe-curlingly believable.
At the centre of the novel is a tale of gothic horror and psychological drama, which may or may not have a Freudian solution. It calls into question our whole attitude to mental health issues and the definition of insanity. The novel is haunted, not just by the paranormal manifestations of Hundreds Hall, but by all those eighteenth and nineteenth century gothic novels - Castle Rackrent, Northanger Abbey, The Woman in White, The Turn of the Screw and many others. But this is a post-modernist novel too and it turns in on itself unexpectedly, using the gothic conventions in new ways and playing on our twenty first century knowledge of psychology.
Sarah Waters is never tempted by the sentimental options. She charts the social revolution of the years immediately post-war - the birth of the NHS, the fall of the landed gentry, the rise of the middle class - and gives the story exactly the right ending. Dr Faraday’s fascination with the aristocracy echoes our own - the same fascination that funds the National Trust and keep the stately home industry going.

Faraday continues to visit the deserted hall in its progress towards ruin, hoping ‘that I will see what Caroline saw, and recognise it, as she did. If Hundreds Hall is haunted, however, its ghost doesn’t show itself to me. For I’ll turn, and am disappointed - realising that what I am looking at is only a cracked window-pane, and that the face gazing distortedly from it, baffled and longing, is my own.’

Monday, 14 December 2009

The Poetry of George Szirtes: Pt 2

The Burning of the Books and other poems
Bloodaxe, Sept. 2009

One of the sequences in this collection is called The Penig Film. Penig was a concentration camp in Hungary during World War II and George Szirtes’ mother was imprisoned there as a very young woman. On his blog, George has a photograph of her standing with one of the soldiers who liberated the camp. Although she married someone else, she named her son after this man. A fragment of film from the Penig Camp was discovered recently.

In the poem, George describes watching the film, ‘a small thing, wound down to a few/inches, running across your life on the screen’. He wonders if any of the faces on the celluloid belong to his mother.

‘And so in Penig, in the unexpected sighting
of a moment that she, who is at the centre
of this poem yet not there, lost in its low lighting,’

The poem is a dialogue with Clio, muse of history, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Goddess of Memory) here portrayed as something of a cool media babe.
..................................You are not her lover
after all, merely a figure she meets while staging
one of her periodic out-takes in an ordinary place
on cheap location.’
Like a hardened journalist, Clio ‘does not/believe in getting involved.’ The poet, the protagonist, is left to write his own script.

‘Go on working in the dark, in the long night
of the empty cinema, I’ll leave you to it now.
I must catch my beauty sleep. I have an early flight.’

The poem reminds us that History can so easily become

that which propriety requires, the tidy sum
of tidy greynesses in an official film, shot
by army officers on an afternoon, glum

as the century’s mood, emerging from your cot
of earth, mud, lime and bone, to rise, or be carried
to a hospital from the place Clio forgot......'

The most powerful section of the poem is the last section ‘Excuse’ where Clio considers how history can be edited like a movie to fit any particular point of view. ‘Everything’s allowed.’
.........................................We can
say what we like about the past. We can raid

its archives, find films and texts, select a span
of it, cut and re-cut, splice, add soundtrack;
we can resurrect the voice of woman and man,

slur it, dub it, subtitle, caption it, run it back
so it sounds like prophesy, use it as prologue
or epilogue, render its subtle grey as black
or white,’
The past is always ‘delayed present’. ‘The past is no excuse’.

Part of the power of the poem is in its tightly controlled structure. Like a number of the poems in this collection, it’s written in terza rima. George Szirtes - ‘Poetry without shape is not poetry’ - is a master technician, choosing to write in some of the more challenging forms, finding a framework for chaos. Meaning and structure represent ‘the triumph of civilized values over barbarity. I think here of the barbarity that overtook my parents’ generation, that is never as far from us as we believe or hope.’ Language can be used ‘to exercise a degree of control over our otherwise inexpressible, inarticulate, inchoate lives.’

Writing, at best,’ George writes on his blog, ‘is a wrought set of dimensions within which it is possible to live. The young poet moves from self to language, makes a self inside language. That language provides its dimensions, the dimensions within which a written self can live. And through those dimensions it begins to explore the world, which is out there and not the self alone, but the wind and the cold and the cry of animals and the whistling of the planets and the voices of others.’

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Book Art and Maurice Gee: Going West

I was given two novels by Maurice Gee by my New Zealand publisher and was ashamed to confess that I hadn't ever read any of his work. I read 'Plumb' first and was knocked out by it. 'Blindsight' didn't impress me as much, but it is a brilliant thriller with a twist I didn't see coming. Now I'm going to read more of his work. Thanks to Sarah Salway for pointing me in the direction of this little film.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Poetry of George Szirtes: No. 1

I’ve been a follower of George Szirtes’ blog for quite a while. I like his politics, his sense of humour, his take on history, but most of all his poetry, which has affinities with the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, whose collection, ‘A Part of Speech’, I’ve been re-reading alongside George Szirtes new collection ‘The Burning of the Books and other poems’.
These poems satisfy a thirst, not just for images or words that fit exactly in the mouth or in the mind, but for ideas - flexing the muscles of the intellect. This is poetry that is ‘more than autobiography’ or observation; poetry as dialogue, part of an ongoing debate between the writer and himself, the reader and the cosmos.

Beginning to read a book is rather like embarking on a voyage - with all the anticipation and anxiety of travel, and the expectation of an altered perspective when you arrive at your destination. In a poem called ‘Seeking North’ [from a sequence called ‘Northern Air - a Hungarian Nova Zembla’] the first stanza records the excitement of setting out on such a journey.
‘To set out with no compass but your nose
for the land of certainty and cool judgement
past moral latitudes, on the back of the wind,
with a plentiful supply of warm clothes
and every spiritual accoutrement
is the dream of the voyager whose mind

seeks resolutions.’

There are few resolutions in George Szirtes’ poetry, but many questions, and many journeys of exploration. Even the validity of language as a medium of communication is challenged in a number of poems. The narrator of ‘The Translators’ makes this observation:

‘Look hard into the eyes
of language and you see nothing. Only rhyme

and punctuation.’

George Szirtes is himself a translator of both prose and poetry from Hungarian to English. He knows the treacheries of language well. Part 2 of the title sequence ‘The Burning of the Books’, a poem called ‘In tall angular letters’, begins:

‘Where books are gathered there gathers also the dust
That sieves through the pores of the skin and the head,
The absolute dust of the language that falls apart
In your hands, that settles in your palm
Like a promise. Ideas are dust. Words dust.’

At first glance it seems a bleak viewpoint for a poet, but George explains more fully in an article in ‘Poetry' magazine entitled ‘Formal Wear’. ‘I cannot help feeling that the gap between signifier and signified is potentially enormous, and that the whole structure of grammar and syntax is a kind of illusion that hides this unpleasant fact from us.’

‘.....................Meaning vanishes
into night, into the vacant parishes
of the imagination, into a non-presence
that is positively terrifying.’
[The Translators]

That is the challenge that every writer has to face - wrestling with the inadequacies of language to express what we mean. As George said in his 2005 T.S. Eliot lecture,‘We realise the terrible truth about words: their arbitrariness, their hopelessness, their hollowness and lack of substance. Language, it seems, is no more than a thin layer of convention stretched over dark inchoate matter of which we know nothing except fear and desire’. But George regards poetry as ‘a healing act’ that can ‘bridge the gap between language and what happens.’

For me, as a reader, the poetry is in that space between signifier and signifed. The darkness where the magic and the mystery lie, where memory and imagination are called into play - not just the poet’s, but the reader’s own. The ‘reading’ of the poem is in that space - beyond language.

George Szirtes attributes his own preoccupation with this linguistic chasm to the way that he was abruptly ‘transplanted’ as a child. He was born in Hungary at a particularly troubled point in its history. The Hungarian uprising - a move for independence from Soviet control - was brutally suppressed by the Russians in 1956. George’s parents were among those who chose to leave before the Russian army arrived - abandoning all their possessions and walking across the border to Austria with their young children and two suitcases. They had originally intended to go to Australia, but got as far as England, where they settled. Once in England, George’s parents decided that only English should be spoken at home in order to ensure their complete assimilation.

What this meant, George touches on in his T.S. Eliot lecture. He learned the English words for ‘tea’ and ‘bread’, but they were not the same tea and bread that he had previously known. The lesson for the child was that the meaning of the word ‘bread’, is different in every culture, and it is ‘not just that you will get different kinds of bread in Germany and France but that these breads come with a complex baggage of history, culture and association’. From then on, Hungarian was a lost language, only re-discovered as an adult, along with the cultural identity it represented. Since then, George admits in an interview with a Romanian journalist, he ‘cannot write the songs of the tribe. I feel excluded from it.’ If he has a cultural identity it is wider than any single nationality. ‘I am, I think, above all, a European.’
George went to art college in Leeds and trained as a painter - a discipline that has influenced not only his approach to structure in poetry (more of this in the next post) but the way in which he observes and communicates the visual world. In a poem called ‘Lead White’, he inhabits the voice of Van Gogh:

‘Once I loved the poetry of words
but now it is the poetry of the intractable
that moves me: the hovering of birds
above a field, the windmill’s terrible
sails droning in the gale, the taste of white lead,
the narrowness of a room with its single bed,
the quarrel with a close friend,
the fury of the provincial alley
late at night, the mind’s dead end.’

But in those narrow, closed spaces, there is an epiphany where language blazes ‘with the fury of the sun’ towards the miraculous revelation - what Seamus Heaney called "that moment when the bird sings very close/To the music of what happens".

‘........................Mind grows chambers like
the heart and, all clumsiness
forgotten, learns to lilt, dance and strike
light into the world, to bless
the places where god sits: the emptiness.’

[to be continued]
Prose quotations from ‘Formal Wear: Notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza & Pattern’, George Szirtes,
From ‘Poetry’ magazine, Volume 187, Number 5, February 2006
Copyright © The Poetry Foundation
And George Szirtes' TS Eliot Lecture 2005, courtesty of the Poetry Library
Book cover by Clarissa Upchurch
Author photograph - Caroline Forbes

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Anne Zouroudi: The Messenger of Athens

Oh, what joy to find a new crime writer! I love all kinds of puzzles and crime fiction is one of my addictions, but I also like them well-written. So many of them are plot driven - with clever twists and turns, lots of surprises and relentless narrative hooks, but with little thought for depth of characterisation or realistic motivation. Exceptions to this include P.D. James, Patricia Highsmith, Kate Atkinson, and Bernard Self - and I love all their books.
So it’s fantastic to discover another in Anne Zouroudi. I saw her books advertised by posters on the London Underground - (an expensive form of promotion but it obviously works). I was intrigued by the titles - I’m fascinated by everything Greek (the influence of an old-fashioned classics based education I suspect) - so I decided to give her books a try, beginning with the very first - The Messenger of Athens, published in 2007.
The book is well-structured - the investigation of the crime is parallelled by the back-story told in multiple points of view by the characters, including the victim - complicated and difficult for an author to bring off - but it does give the reader a complete understanding of the motives and the tragic conspiracy of circumstances that lead to the death.
Hermes Diaktoros, the investigator, is a fat man in an expensive suit and white tennis shoes, who speaks Greek with an impeccably pure accent and never gives away why he’s been sent to the island of Thiminos, or who has sent him. He arrives on the ferry and walks unannounced into the police station. ‘He stood at the centre of the room and placed his holdall carefully at his feet, as if it might contain something fragile. The three policemen watched , silent and unwelcoming as if he had intruded at a crucial moment on some private conversation.’ ‘I have been sent from Athens,’ he announces enigmatically, ‘to help you in your investigations into the death of Irini Asimakopoulos.’ His assistance is not required and the corruption of the local police force is clear from the beginning. Irini’s file is closed and no one wants it opened again. But no one is going to prevent Hermes from fulfilling his mission.
Anne Zouroudi gives us a vivid picture of a small Greek Island with an inward facing group of inhabitants who have inter-married incestuously generation after generation, passing on the old systems of honour, codes of relationship, that once ensured survival in a brutal world dominated by the four elements - fire, air, water and earth. One of the younger characters - Theo - meditates on the frustrations of life on the island and the sense of inevitability, of an inescapable fate.
To know the place of his grave from early childhood has an effect on a man. To place flowers on the ground where he himself will one day lie makes him fatalistic, pessimistic. Ambition and ideas for life atrophy - after all, what is the point? Life’s point, on this island, was always clearly visible, up there on the hillside. Eyes raised from chores or play took in the high, white cemetery walls, where for every one of them the family tomb was waiting for their corpse. All knew exactly where life was leading them; all the eating, drinking, fornicating, worrying, working, wishing it were different, wishing there were more, were only steps on that narrow road. They were all travelling together, towards the cemetery gates.’
In this enclosed community, someone from another part of Greece is a stranger, not to be trusted. Gossip becomes truth, moral cowardice can mean someone’s death. The victim, Irini, dies because she does not belong and refuses to conform to the rigid ‘norms’ of the society around her, which has a vast contempt for the modern world, only a ferry ride away. Irini’s life, her hunger for a different fate, is so real, you can hear the sea from her window, and smell the coffee she boils on the stove for her husband.
Hermes Diaktoros, the messenger, unravels the lines of motivation with super-natural intuition, drawing a distinction between who actually killed Irini and who is morally responsible.
This is an enjoyable and satisfying read and I’ve already ordered her other books - the Taint of Midas and the Doctor of Thessaly. And I gather there’s a new one due out in hardback next year which will definitely have to go on my birthday list!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

On Not Enjoying Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood

This was appropriate reading for the plane journey back from Cambodia - although I hadn’t planned it like that. The book was just one of the ‘must reads’ I’d taken along with me to fill the TV free evenings, along with a selection of light entertainment I’d picked up in the airport bookshop. I’d released most of them into the wild during my time in Cambodia and Margaret Atwood’s latest, much hyped novel, was the only one left in the bag. But on the way back to civilisation, after experiencing what it was like to live in a more primitive society, existing much as our tribal ancestors must have done, I felt in the mood for a dystopian excursion into a technology-free future. I’ve got a feeling that we’re all, in the end, going to have to leave the Garden of Eden after turning it into a waste land, so perhaps we should start considering our options now?
The novel opens in the aftermath of the ‘waterless flood’ - a plague virus that has wiped out most of humankind, leaving only a few isolated individuals and genetically engineered animals - some of them with human genes. There are blue people, who have had aggression and jealousy removed from their psychology, purple mohair sheep, completely unfitted for life in the wild, and pigs bred for human transplant tissue. The Gardeners - a harmless, rather barmy religious cult - in their strange clothes could well have emerged from the grounds of Hogwarts.

The Year of the Flood is not a sequel, more a companion piece to Oryx and Crake, which I read when it came out. It disappointed me, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. Now I feel the same about The Year of the Flood and because Margaret Atwood is one of the world’s major novelists, I need to discover why and give her novel some serious thought.
I never felt settled in the narrative - never knew whether I was supposed to laugh or cry, and it didn’t engage any of my emotional centres enough for either. It never appalled me, gripped me, or made me catch my breath with pleasure as previous Atwood novels have done, (Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye etc). I read it, enjoyed it, and then put it down, still feeling uneasy.
This is in part because I never knew whether the novel was supposed to be an exercise in black humour or a socio-economic parable. It could have been both, but never felt unified enough. Much of my unease is to do with the credibility factor - Margaret Atwood didn’t make me believe in any of it. The multiple narrators meant that I didn’t engage with one character for long enough to care about them. One or two stood out for me - the feisty, gritty Amanda for instance - but the other women seemed rather interchangeable. Adam One was a good depiction of a well-meaning but ineffectual man, but few of the other men came alive for me at all. The thugs, who should have been terrifying, didn’t have any real menace. All the violence happens off-stage, as if the author is saying, ‘It’s ok guys, don’t worry, I’m not going to frighten the children.’ This is definitely PG not a genuine 18 certificate.
The only time the book became real for me, was when one of the female characters contemplated shooting her friend in order to survive. This lack of real horror still bothers me. I felt I needed the author to dig deeper, go darker, in order to offset the strange humour of the rest.
I loved the pompous sermons given by Adam One to the Gardeners, but the Gardeners’ hymns bored me rigid. One or two might have been ok to illustrate the blandness and ineffectuality of the Gardeners’ beliefs in the face of annihilation, but it was possible to skip the rest, without losing anything of the narrative. They weren’t even good poetry - and Atwood is a good poet. Apparently they’ve been set to music, so maybe I’m alone in wishing they’d been left out.
The names were a problem for me too. Names are important in a novel - they help you to believe. But here they never seemed to take themselves seriously. They were spoof names, rather than something a society, however dysfunctional, might develop. Scales and Tails wasn’t bad for the brothel, but somehow none of the others had roots. I didn’t believe in the luxury health spa called Anooyoo, couldn’t quite get my jaws round illicit food at Secret Burgers any more than I could relate to the Pleebrats. The CorpSeCorp - the elite of this future society - seemed only a rather macabre joke, like the eco-toilets called Violet-Biolets.

So there I have to leave it and admit failure. This isn’t the Handmaid’s Tale, and I prefer Cormac McCarthy’s future catastrophe to Margaret Atwood’s - mainly because he makes me believe it could happen and that if it did, it would be just like that.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Cambodian Books

When I'm travelling, I like to browse the local bookshops to see what's on offer. Books are not big in Cambodia. There are one or two second hand european bookshops in Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap offering books that tourists left behind as well as guide books obtained in the same way. They also sell locally printed books - some of these are Cambodian and some are clones of books copyrighted elsewhere. The covers look the same, but inside they are badly printed on cheap paper and you know that the authors aren't getting a penny from these sales. The Cambodian books have titles such as 'They killed my Father First' - this is a country that markets genocide as a tourist attraction.

The best book to make sense of Cambodia's traumatic history is by William Shawcross. 'Sideshow' is the story of how Kissinger and Nixon destroyed Cambodia and lied about their actions. Cambodia was a neutral country during the Vietnam war having only recently made a delicate peace with Thailand and Vietnam. It had its own troubles with insurgents which it naively thought the United States would help it to control. The Cambodian leader Lon Nol had no idea of the real agenda. Neither did Nixon and Kissinger's colleagues at the White House and the Pentagon. Their duplicity and the subsequent cover-up led eventually to Watergate. Kissinger - whose actions re-define the word Machievellian - was clever enough to off-load blame onto Nixon. Kissinger survived; Nixon didn't, and neither did Cambodia or several million innocent Cambodians massacred in the carve-up. In the light of more recent history - George Bush and Iraq - 'Sidehow' is a chilling account of the abuse of power.

'Stay Alive My Son' by Pin Yathay, is available from every street seller in every tourist location, though I doubt that the author makes much money from the poorly produced copies. The book is beautifully written by a high-ranking Cambodian engineer who first welcomed the Khmer Rouge as liberators and then suffered the consequences. His first hand account of the expulsion from Phnom Penh and the way his family were forced to march out into the countryside alongside hundreds of thousands of others, is utterly compelling to read. The villages, growing rice for subsistence, couldn't support the huge numbers imposed on them by the Khmer Rouge and starvation became widespread. Pin Yathay escaped to Thailand, walking through the rainforest, but 17 members of his family died, including his children. They became his reason to survive. 'Only through my survival would their lives have continued meaning ..... And there was another reason to survive - I wanted to tell the world what had happened, to testify to the Cambodian holocaust, to tell how the Khmer Rouge had programmed the death of several million men, women and children, how a beautiful, rich country had been demolished, plunged into poverty and torture.'Cambodia's ancient history and archaeology should have generated a mass of books, but there are surprisingly few, apart from the guide books, and they are all expensive - prices start around $50. I started reading with the first diarists who visited the Cambodian court. A chinese emissary called Zhou Daguan was sent to Angkor by Kubla Khan in the 13th century and his account of what he found, 'The Customs of Cambodia', is the best guide to how the civilisation functioned and what the buildings looked like in their original state. By the 16th century the cities and temples were in ruins and Cambodia was being fought over by its neighbours and the big colonial powers. A Spanish Dominican Friar, Gabriel Quiroga de San Antonio, (A Brief and Truthful Relation of Events in the Kingdom of Cambodia) reported on its potential for conquest in 1598 to Philip III of Spain. Despite the kingdom's reported wealth, it's people, he noted, were 'miserable and deserving of pity'.

There were several travellers tales published in the 17th and 18th centuries, recording the glories of Angkor Wat, but no one seems to have taken much notice until Henri Mouhot went there in 1859, recording his observations in journals and drawings - published posthumously by his wife. On the country itself he wrote 'The present state of Cambodia is deplorable, and its future menacing.' When he was taken to see the ruins of Angkor Wat he could not believe that he was in the same kingdom, but 'transported as if by enchantment' and presumed the temple had been built by a lost civilisation. 'What became of this powerful race, so civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?' The temple itself he thought 'a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo .... is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.' Mouhot died in Laos, where he wrote 'insects are in great number and variety, musquitoes and ox-flies in myriads. I suffer dreadfully from them, and am covered with swellings and blisters from their bites'. His last diary entries were written in a shaking hand. '19th Oct. Attacked by fever'. '29th Oct. Have pity on me, oh my God ......'

Mouhot's book 'Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos and Annam', began a craze for the 'lost temples'. The French sent a research team out in 1866 to survey the sites, followed by archaeologists, keen to excavate. A Scottish photographer John Thomson also travelled there, publishing the richly illustrated and almost unobtainable 'Straits of Malacca' , and a young American recorded his impressions in 1872 - Frank Vincent's 'Land of the White Elephant'. Cambodia was by now a French protectorate, so most of those who wrote the records were French.
In 1916 Henri Marchal, the 'father of Angkor' became the curator of the temples after his predecessor was murdered by bandits. Marchal loved Cambodia and describes its landscape with passion: It has an 'unrivalled charm...... either in the morning hours, when the sun begins to pierce the forest, or at twilight when shadows spread mystery over the palm-trees and the water gathers the last rays of the sun'. He spent almost the whole of his life there, dying in Siem Reap in 1970. But it was Maurice Glaize who wrote the famous guidebook 'Les Monuments Du Groupe D'Angkor' first published in 1943 and subsequently updated. It's available on the internet in English translation at

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Poetry Challenge: Owen Sheers, Skirrid Hill

When I committed myself to reading one collection of poetry a month, I promised to read some new poets and not just old favourites. Owen Sheers was born in 1974 in Fiji, but brought up in Wales at Abergavenny where his family have roots.

The cover of his collection Skirrid Hill promises 'one of the most exciting new talents around' - a quote from Carol Ann Duffy and 'A gorgeously elegiac volume' - The Guardian - as well as other examples of suspicious hyperbole. Are any other readers put off by 'over-quoting' on the cover?

Owen Sheers, like the Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley, is writing out of a particular cultural identity, rooted in a particular landscape. This seems more and more common these days - once to be a 'regional writer' was a term of abuse and poets and authors were encouraged to be 'universal'. But now, as the world of writing gets more crowded we seem to be trying harder to seek ways of making ourselves different - separating ourselves - from all the others. I suppose a strong cultural identity is one way of marking us out. For a Welsh poet, this must be fraught with pitfalls. Just as Jacob Polley has to write in the shadow of William Wordsworth, Owen Sheers has to write looking over his shoulder at the two big T's - Dylan Thomas and RS Thomas.

Both Owen and Jacob were involved in the recent series of programmes on poetry made by the BBC (and well worth watching). Jacob's poem 'Honey' was used as a trailer and Owen was the presenter of the Poets and Landscape programmes. I liked his approach enough to want to read his work.

Both Owen and Jacob have published novels recently and I wonder if there's a feeling that you can't be a real writer unless you've had a work of fiction in print? Is it not enough to be a poet? (Very tempting to put a 'just' in there, so I suppose that's the answer.) I read Jacob Polley's Talk of the Town (see earlier review), but I haven't yet read Owen Sheers' novel Resistance - just watched the interview on YouTube.

Skirrid Hill, published by Seren Books, has been around since 2005 when it won the Society of Authors Somerset Maugham Award. It is now on the schools' poetry syllabus, quite a coup for such a young poet. The poems express Owen's sense of place - in a poem Inheritance (after R.S. Thomas) he acknowledges not only his poetic ancestors but his genetic legacy:

From my father a stammer
like a stick in the spokes of my speech.
A tired blink,

.....From my mother
a sensitivity to the pain in the pleasure.
The eye's blue ore,

I'm always intrigued by the criteria poets use to put together a collection - is it a snapshot of what they're writing at the time? Or is it thematic? Some of Owen Sheers poems have no obvious linkages. There are war poems, perhaps sparked off by research for his novel, - mentions of Robert Capa, Manetz Ridge - that sit alongside memories of blackberrying on the way home from school, an account of his mother's death, an Indian marriage, the breakup of a relationship.

There are poems that remember childhood - a gentle rural childhood, on the bare bones of the Welsh hillside, where he helped his grandfather with the sheep, detailing the things we do to animals to turn them into a food crop without sentimentality or accusation. It brought back memories for me of helping my own father with the sheep.

It made me feel like a man
when I helped my grandfather
castrate the early lambs -

picking the hard orange O-rings
from the plastic bag
and stretching them across the made-to-purpose tool,

This is the landscape that RS Thomas portrayed with such exactness and no compromise. Owen Sheers inclines more towards the romantic. He uses images brilliantly - an obsolete steelworks lies 'A deserted mothership/becalmed on the valley's floor.' A flooding river is 'bleeding through the camp like ink from a broken cartridge', Swans on a winter lake float like 'icebergs of white feather'.

But there are also surprising poems, including a sensitive account of breast cancer.

She hears the words he uses
and is quietly surprised by how language can do this:

how a certain order can carry so much chaos,
and how that word, with its hard C of cruelty

and soft c of uncertainty,
seems so fitted to the task.

I understood the references in the cover quotes to elegy - things past and passing haunt the poems. Two lovers look back at the ground under the trees where they have lain and see:

a double shadow of green pressed grass, weight imprinted.
A sarcophagus, shallow among the long stems
and complete without them.

Through all the poems the image of Skirrid Hill recurs, a feature in the physical landscape of Owen Sheers' home country, which also refers back to a tiny quote on the title page. 'Skirrid: from the Welsh Ysgyrid, a derivation of Ysgariad meaning divorce or separation.' - So, now I know the theme that links them all.

It's very strange reading such euro-centred poetry in an environment so un-european it can scarcely be imagined. Context really does alter our readings of things. If I was homesick, (and I'm not yet) then this book would be a solace, talking to me about the hills and green places I count as home. The elegiac mood also resonates here in Asia where you do get a sense of things lost and terrible events just beginning to heal over. But the Asian setting - which is so extreme - also made the poetry seem just a little insipid.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Woman Who Drew Buildings by Wendy Robertson

Readers often have the idea that authors decide their own covers. Not so - it's usually the publisher and we get little say in it. Covers are so important in attracting the right kind of reader and I did wonder who Hodder had in mind for this one. It's a very contemporary novel, with a back story in the nineteen eighties, but the cover seems to suggest a forties, maybe even a thirties atmosphere which doesn't honestly represent the character of the book.

I was intrigued by the title of Wendy Robertson's new novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings - and even more by the story of how she came to write the book (which she posted on her blog) about an elderly woman who gave Wendy- "a box of materials about her travels and experience in Poland in the 1980s.

"Mary knew I was interested in the idiosyncrasies of letters, notebooks, images and ephemera that I used to inspire my novels. I was, she said, to use them as I wished. We had long talks about her experiences and the dilemma of using them as inspiration, for what I knew would be - in fact -pure fiction. It has taken me some years to develop my imaginative take on on all this material and all these ideas in order to allow the novel to emerge of its own volition. It became more fluid - easier - when my purely imagined characters got to grips with the material of their true to life inspiration.

The Woman Who Drew Buildings is ...... about a mother and her grown up son - Marie and Adam Matheve - who are estranged; about the romance of buildings; about the world here and now, and the world in the 1980s when Poland was under the unravelling Soviet domination; it’s about out-of-body experiences; it’s about the rejuvenating circles of redemption that can come out of crisis. And it’s about the long-kept secrets and the different kinds of love that glue our lives together."

I found it refreshing that the book was not about the terrible events of the second world war in Poland, but about more recent events in that troubled country's history - the impact of Russian oppression and the rise of the Solidarity Movement. I remember cheering Lech Walesa on whenever he appeared on the television news, his huge drooping moustache making him look like someone's grandfather - the kind of bloke you might meet down the pub, rather than an astute political operator who was going to influence the future of a whole area of europe.

The novel features a group of very different people - Marie Matheve, a detached, self-contained woman with a gift for drawing and a passion for historical buildings. Adam, her bewildered, angry, rather too self-sufficient son. Sharina, Marie's feisty teenage-single-mum neighbour, and the Polish family Marie met on her visit to Poland in the nineteen eighties.

Adam suffers from never having been told who his father was, and also from his mother's lack of ability to bond with him. When the novel opens he hasn't seen his mother for 2 years and on the day of what was to be their reunion, he finds her unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. Like John Banville's Infinities, the heroine lies in a coma, hovering in no-man's land, while those around her try to piece her story together and make sense of their relationships. In her flat, Adam finds a box of diaries and drawings and he begins a journey that will lead him towards his own identity.

The book is beautifully structured to create suspense, while delivering just the right amount of back-story. Wendy keeps the reader guessing until the final 'reveal' at the end. The character of Sharina was wonderful! But I would have liked more information on Marie herself - we're given only a glimpse of her own austere upbringing and I would have liked more so that I could have understood better why she found it so difficult to love and be loved.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read. I like the way Wendy sets her books so subtly in the North East - not in some gritty, Catherine Cookson territory peopled by alcoholics and violent abusers - but a softer, contemporary community where neighbours still look out for each other and kindness hasn't been completely forgotten. Wendy doesn't avoid the realities of modern society - what she gives is a balanced view. I like the way her work as a creative writing tutor in prisons informs her understanding of her characters and the fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) glimpses of 'life inside'. Wendy's books are - to quote Pat Barker - 'A blend of accessibility and total sincerity'.

'The Woman Who Drew Buildings' was published by Hodder Headline in September 2009. As part of the Durham Book Festival, Wendy will be on a panel discussing the benefits of original writing for women in prison, on October 27, at the Gala Theatre, Durham.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Murder in Venice: Acqua Alta by Donna Leon

Crime fiction is one of my addictions, so when you add in Italy, archaeology and opera, this book ticks quite a lot of my boxes. Donna Leon follows the conventional crime fiction path - her hero Guido Brunetti is a kind of Italian Morse, though his family life is happier (he does have one!) She develops his character with each successive book, and we learn a lot about the chaos and subterfuge of Italian police procedure. There are several police forces in Italy - the Polizia and the Carabiniere are constant rivals with overlapping territories; then there are the money police - the Guardia di Finanza; then the local police called the Polizia Municipale. Quite a minefield.

In Acqua Alta (high water), Venice is flooding with winter rain and high tides. The archaeologist lover of a famous opera singer is beaten almost to death, and the head of the Venice Department of Antiquities is murdered. A digital trail of bank accounts, telephone numbers and hotel bills links the suspects together. Tension is kept high by constant danger from the rising flood water and the shadowy presence of what the Italians call 'the problem of the Mezzogiorno' - the country's troubled south. 'They seemed to be moving north, coming up from Sicily and Calabria, immigrants in their own land.' And they bring with them a level of violence to add to the casual corruption that keeps Italy ticking over.

Donna Leon illustrates this well in the novel. The archaeologist is American and doesn't understand the way Italy works 'in nero' ie on the black side of the economy. Brunetti skirts past bureacratic restrictions with the ease and charm of a true Venetian, quoting ironic asides on the Italian attitudes to law and order. 'The Germans, it was rumoured, saw the law as something to be obeyed, unlike the Italians, who saw it as something first to be fathomed and then evaded.'

You have to know how the system works in Italy - even nurses in the hospital have to be given tips to change the sheets on the bed, and back handers are regularly given to advance a patient up the queue for treatment.

Leon shows graphically the almost farcical results of this corruption - a hospital built without drains, lying empty and vandalised. 'The opening cermony had been held, there had been speeches and the press had come, but the building had never been used....... it had been planned like this from the very moment of inception, planned so that the builder would get not only the original contract to construct the new pavilion but the work, later , to destroy much of what had been built in order to install the forgotten drains.'

This is the Italy of Berlusconi, where 'Colpo Grosso' - a kind of D-list celebrity strip show with lots of silicone - was the highest rated TV show.

Donna Leon is a Professor of English, married to an Italian and living in Venice. Her books are intelligent and well written and I can recommend them as a Good Read.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

John Banville: The Infinities

I opened this book with great anticipation; I love John Banville's writing - the way he uses words, shapes sentences. But initially I was disappointed, because I realised straight away that I had read the first chapter of the book already. This first section was published in 2007 as a short story in the Faber Book of Irish Short Stories. I loved it as a story - so much that I rushed out to buy The Sea and anything else of Banville's that was in stock. So you can see that I have really looked forward to publication of The Infinities. After my first reaction, I swallowed my disappointment - after all what is to stop an author expanding a really good story into a novel? - and read on to discover how he was going to develop his ideas further.

The story centres on the Godley family - a dysfunctional Irish family - alcoholic wife - self-harming daughter - emotionally inadequate son - beautiful, though rather detached daughter-in-law - who have all assembled at the family home - a rambling, ramshackle mansion somewhere in Ireland - to wait for the death of Adam Godley, who has sunk into coma following a massive stroke. Adam is a world famous mathematician, who can deal with numbers but not relationships. He is celebrated for puncturing the pretentious 'Theory of Everything' as well as exposing the 'relativity hoax'. Chaos Theory had already discovered that it wasn't the perfect equations that were important, but the imperfect - the ones that mathematicians left alone because they couldn't be worked out - the numbers that scuttled off into the dark mysteries of Infinity. Adam's achievement was to place The Infinities at the centre of the universe, where they make perfect sense, causing the kind of revolution not seen since Einstein.

The action takes place during a single day in summer. Adam, deeply unconscious, can hear everything and reflect on his life and relationships. For the family, he is already dead and his presence, in the Sky Room at the top of the house, haunts the novel.

The narration is in the omniscient mode, but in this case the narrator really is god - the son of Zeus, who also features in the story - all the Immortals inhabiting a parallel universe. This initially bothered me and I had to struggle to bridge the credibility gap - I was fine when the author was inside the minds of his characters, but when the gods began to comment, Banville lost me. But then I began to realise that the novel really needed these Immortals. I can't remember which author it was who wrote 'Never discuss ideas except in terms of character and temperament', but this is one of the uses John Banville makes of the deities. They are a device to discuss and comment on human behaviour, difference and the nature of reality. They also ponder on the benefits and drawbacks of immortality, which is, it seems, sometimes too much of a good thing. But no-one wants to die. Not Adam Godley, or John Banville, who thinks that life is like a wonderful party he doesn't want to leave.

Consciousness of our own mortality is the thing that is supposed to separate us from the animal kingdom. The dog Rex, observes the way in which this knowledge affects human beings.
'There is a thing the matter with them, though, with all of them. It is a great puzzle to [Rex], this mysterious knowledge, unease, foreboding, whatever it is that afflicts them, and try though he may he has never managed to solve it. They are afraid of something, something that is always there though they pretend it is not. It is the same for all of them, the same huge terrible thing, except for the very young, though even in their eyes, too, he sometimes fancies he detects a momentary widening, a sudden horrified dawning. He discerns this secret and awful awareness underneath everything they do.'

What is our place in the universe? At times the novel seems to suggest that we are the playthings of the gods who are capricious and fond of jokes. The Immortals have an additional function in that they do add humour (Pan is unforgettable) to what otherwise could have been a rather bleak situation. And they are also necessary to make the ending (no spoilers here!) work.

I still find it hard to look at the book as a whole - I can still see the first section as a story - densely written, beautifully shaped. The rest of the book is thinner, inevitably stretched. I can't quite see it as the blurb promises 'A gloriously earthy romp and a delicately poised, infinitely wise look at the terrible and wonderful plight of being human', but the writing is everything you would expect from such a brilliant author.

John Banville talking about mortality on You Tube.

Novels and Novelists - Katherine Mansfield on writing

Riddle: - Wanted a New World

‘I am neither a short story, nor a sketch, nor an impression, nor a tale. I am written in prose. I am a great deal shorter than a novel; I may be only one page long, but, on the other hand, there is no reason why I should not be thirty. I have a special quality - a something, a something which is immediately, perfectly recognisable. It belongs to me; it is of my essence. In fact I am often given away in the first sentence. I seem almost to stand or fall by it. It is to me what the first phrase of the song is to the singer. Those who know me feel; “Yes, that is it.” And they are from that moment prepared for what is to follow.’
June 25 1920

Remarks on keeping notebooks. ‘It would be almost amusing to remember how short a time has passed since Samuel Butler advised the budding author to keep a notebook.’ Nowadays young writers rest ‘their laurels’ on them. ‘They shall be regarded as of the first importance, read with a deadly seriousness and acclaimed as a kind of new Art - the art of not taking pains’.
June 13th 1919
(Ironic considering that her notebooks contain much of her best writing and are nowadays what she is most famous for.)

‘Very often, after reading a modern novel, the question suggests itself; why was it written? ..... We cannot help wondering, when the book is finished and laid by, as to the nature of that mysterious compulsion. It is terrifying to think of the number of novels that are written and announced and published and to be had of all libraries, and reviewed and bought and borrowed and read, and left in hotel lounges and omnibuses and railway carriages and deck chairs. . . . .’
4th April 1919

KM laments the endless supply of novels all the same like freshly baked buns made from the same ingredients to be endlessly consumed, leaving the consumer empty:

‘We are quickly tired. Repetition - the charm of knowing what is coming, of beating the tune and being ready with the smiles and the laugh at just the right moment, no longer has the power to soothe and distract us. It wakes in us a demon of restlessness, a fever to break out of the circle of the tune, however brilliant the tune may be.
Jan 30th 1920

In ‘A Novel without a Crisis’ KM sets out what she is looking for in the plot of a novel.
‘... having decided on the novel form, one cannot lightly throw one’s story over the mill without replacing it with another story which is, in its way, obedient to the rules of that discarded one. There must be the same setting out upon a voyage of discovery (but through unknown seas instead of charted waters), the same difficulties and dangers must be encountered, and there must be an ever-increasing sense of the greatness of the adventure and an ever more passioante desire to possess and explore the mysterious country. There must be given the crisis when the great final attempt is made which succeeds - or does not succeed.’. Without this ‘central point of significance’, ‘the form of the novel, as we see it, is lost. Without it, how are we to appreciate the importance of one ‘spiritual event’ rather than another? What is to prevent each being unrelated if the gradual unfolding in growing, gaining light is not to be followed by one blazing moment?’
May 30 1919

Novels and Novelists - a collection of reviews by Katherine Mansfield which appeared in the Athenaeum between April 1919 and December 1920 edited after her death by John Middleton Murry.
More information on Katherine Mansfield's life and work.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Sharon Olds: the Poetry Challenge

I chose Sharon Olds for my first poet in the Poetry Challenge just because the volume of her 'Selected Poems' was on my bedside table. I was first introduced to Sharon Olds' poetry by a friend. Then I heard her read last year at the Wordsworth Trust and I liked the way she opened the reading with two poems by someone else she wanted to share. Few poets do this because it means there's less time for their own work. She was quiet - tall, grey haired, self-effacing, dressed rather drably. But when she began to read, it was the words that took centre stage. Her poems, unlike herself, are bold and assertive. Also unlike her public persona, they are all about herself - the 'I' word is at the centre of every poem. This is her territory.

There's a lot more humour than I expected, like the wry ending of 'My Father Snoring',

'.........He lay like a felled
beast all night and sounded his thick

buried stoppered call, like a cry for

help. And no one ever came:
there were none of his kind around there anywhere.'

But what first got Sharon Olds noticed, was her capacity for 'Writing the Body' and writing about forbidden things. Not necessarily forbidden in terms of censorship, but things that poets didn't write about and women didn't talk publicly (or often privately) about. Menstruation, rape, miscarriage, contraception and sex. It takes courage to write about the things we all think about or speculate about, but prefer not to admit. There's a poem where she imagines her parents' wedding night, another where she catches a glimpse of her father's penis. Then there is the surprise and pathos of 'The Connoiseuse of Slugs'. I found a wonderful reading of it (by a man) on You Tube.

These are passionate intimate poems - with such nakedness the reader becomes a voyeur - party to Olds' most private moments, which are often sexual. One of the best erotic descriptions of love making in either prose or poetry is in 'You Kindly'. In 'Adolescence' she writes about the first fumbling horrors of contraception, with the wit of hindsight. The graphic images in 'Miscarriage' are balanced by the delicate observation:

'A month later/our son was conceived, and I never went back/to mourn the one who came as far as the /sill with its information: that we could/botch something, you and I.'

But 'The Language of the Brag' was the poem I kept going back to, with its long, Whitmanesque lines, following the conventions of the 'heroic brag', but using it to put a woman's achievement in giving birth to another human being, up there, equal to all the other heroic achievements of men.

'I have wanted courage, I have thought about fire
and the crossing of waterfalls, I have dragged around

my belly big with cowardice and safety,

stool charcoal from the iron pills,

huge breasts leaking colostrum,

legs swelling, hands swelling,

face swelling and reddening, hair

falling out, inner sex

stabbed again and again with pain like a knife.

I have lain down.

I have lain down and sweated and shaken

and passed blood and shit and water and

slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have

passed the new person out

and they have lifted the new person free of the act

and wiped the new person free of that

language of blood like praise all over the body.'

If I have a criticism of this selection, it is because there are too many poems on the death of her father. By the sheer weight of numbers they tip the balance in one direction. Her troubled relationship with her father - both before and after her parents' divorce - has obviously been of great importance in her life, but I could have done with fewer poems. In 'Beyond Harm' the last lines point up the difficulty of their relationship. As Olds' father lay dying, just before he sank into coma, he told her that he loved her, a statement she had never felt able to rely on and couldn't even then.

'......Right up to the last
moment, I could make some mistake, offend him, and with
one of his old mouths of disgust he could re-

skew my life. I did not think of it,

I was helping to take care of him,

wiping his face and watching him.

But then, a while after he died,

I suddenly thought, with amazement, he will always

love me now, and I laughed - he was dead, dead!'

Olds' poetry reminds me of Anne Sexton - but these poems are forensic rather than neurotic. She examines the interior landscape of her own body with the rigour of a scientist, adding the sense of wonder you'd expect from an explorer who has just landed on the shores of an undiscovered country. She dissects flesh and bone like an anatomist, analyses emotions like wiring diagrams, showing you just how, exactly, it all works.

And the poems are structured with the same precision - the rhythms carrying you unobtrusively, relentlessly through the poem, with the stresses falling in all the important places, making you look at words you might otherwise have glanced over, revealing meanings you'd never have guessed at.

But I did wonder how her partners or her children felt about being written about so graphically - you can't write truthfully about your own life without also exposing others. Do you have the right to make their lives public too?

I sometimes found the subject matter unsettling, but the writing is wonderful - two or three of the poems (the Language of the Brag for instance) were worth the whole book.

'I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.'

Sharon Olds talking about her poetry.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Leviathan - or the Whale

I found a review of this book on someone else's bookblog and realised that it was a book I really wanted to read, so I bought it to take on holiday with me. Then, by a complete coincidence, when I arrived in Italy and went out for a drink in my favourite Piazza, I found that they were hosting a sculpture exhibition that was all about whales. The exhibition was completely in tune with the book, since it focussed on man's exploitation of the animal.

Three fibreglass minke whales hung from a gibbet and a gigantic blue whale swam across the marble paving, pulled on a rope behind a small girl. The message was very clear.

Philip Hoare's book, Leviathan, won the BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction this year and absolutely deserves the award. It is profound, beautifully written, exhaustively researched, and manages to achieve the impossible - to be both readable and as complex as its subject. Philip tells the story of mankind's relationship with the whale - from the mythical and mystical animal of ancient stories, to the commercial object of modern times. Herman Melville's Moby Dick is the central thread of his narrative, but round it is woven everything we know or have heard about the Whale. The book is a very personal journey for Philip Hoare, who has been obessed by whales since he was a child, perhaps, he writes, the result of almost being born under water - his mother having gone into labour on a submarine.

His descriptions of the wholesale slaughter of whales in the twentieth century is stomach churning (more whales were killed in 1951 alone than in the entire preceding hundred and fifty), but his account of swimming with whales off the islands of the Azores moved me to tears. Why do whales evoke such a response in so many of us? Is it just their massive size? The mystery of their hidden lives in the vast depths of the world's oceans? The empathy of one intelligent mammal for another?(the human race hasn't been renowned for too much of that). Or is it something much more primeval? Something in the whale's song that echoes far back in our own evolution? Whales are old, much older than our own species.

Philip Hoare points up the paradoxes - the Hubble telescope looking back at the origins of the universe on machinery lubricated by spermaceti oil; space probes programmed to play whale song far out into the cosmic night; the fact that a quarter of a million whales are still killed every year, some of them supposedly for food - though the whales they catch have flesh too polluted to eat. Many whale species now have breeding pools too small to regenerate. We have managed, in two hundred years, to wipe out something that evolution spent a billion creating.

This book is a celebration of one of the greatest species ever to live on earth, and a savage critique of the way humanbeings treat those who share the planet with us.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Recommended Reading

I'm always interested in other people's holiday reading. One of my co-habitees at Peralta is reading himself into the heart of American history, engrossed in Derek Robinson's novel Kentucky Blues - set in the town of Rock Springs, and spanning a time scale from the 1820s to the present day, through the Civil War and the birth of the Klu Klux Klan. It’s told tersely, with black humour and its inhabitants are described as ‘the authentic ancestors of Jerry Springer’s guests’. I liked the spare style, as in this desription of the onset of winter. ‘In December the skies turned to blue, frost struck, and mud turned to brown.’

He's also brought Isabella Bird's 'In the Rocky Mountains' urged on him by a girl friend. Isabella Bird, born in the 1830s, was the daughter of a clergyman who went abroad for her health and became an intrepid, emancipated traveller, going to Persia, Australia, Hawai, Japan, Kurdistan, Tibet, Korea and China, at a time when women didn't go anywhere much and certainly not on their own.

He also has another book, which really fascinated me, and which I've made a note to get hold of as soon as I get home. It’s a collection of the photography of Edward Curtis, who spent his life recording , in photographs and text, the final days of the native American Indians - images of their faces, and their daily lives accompanied by a unique record of their stories and traditions. Initially JP Morgan paid for his work, but after a bitter divorce from his wife Clara, Curtis lost the rights to his own negatives and had a lot of financial problems. He almost killed himself dedicating 30 years of his life to this project. But without him we simply would have no record of these people who were so casually displaced. By the time an exhausted Curtis died, most of the native Americans were dead too, the rest corralled into 'reserves'.

Monday, 24 August 2009

An Equal Stillness

This is another first novel - Francesca Kay was the winner of the Orange Prize for new writers in 2009. At first glance the structure could be a bit of a cliche. An Equal Stillness opens with the funeral of a famous artist, attended by family members. Someone suggests that the narrator should write her biography and, after initially demurring, the anonymous narrator is persuaded to do so. 'Write the life, they urged me, even at her graveside; no one but you should do it. Who better? You with your command of words, and besides, you were the closest.' Apart from the first and last pages, the life story of Jennet Mallow is told in third person, impersonal mode as if it were a real biography. This device enables the novelist to take an overview of the life, compressing long periods of time into short sections of narrative and it also allows for authorial reflection. The identity of the author/narrator isn't disclosed until the end.

I read the book in one sitting - which says a lot for its readability - and was engrossed by the story of Jennet Mallow, a gifted painter, born at the end of the first world war, who has to struggle for recognition despite unhelpful parents, an early accidental pregnancy, an alcoholic husband and a daughter damaged at birth. Jennet Mallow discovers that, in order to succeed as an artist, you have to be selfish and that runs counter to everything that is drummed into women from birth and then reinforced by cultural stereotypes. Women are the carers, the enablers, the ones who make sacrifices. But, somehow, like many other painters and writers, Jennet manages to juggle home and artistic career, though there are casualties among her children and her lovers.

The biography is somehow less critical than it could be - difficult questions are avoided. This is a romantic viewpoint and - again - the impersonal biographical device allows it. I kept wishing for something more profound which could only have come from writing the novel from Jennet Mallow's own perspective. There is some beautiful prose in this book - sections of pure poetry. It is all very beautiful, balanced, elegant, crafted perfectly to arrive at the final lines - 'Life and death. For that one moment, time suspended, the length of a single held breath, like the spaces between brush strokes, like the sea and land in balance at slack water, in an equal stillness, life and death.' Shame on me to crave a few waves, an altogether stormier sea. This is definitely an author to watch out for.

Night Train to Lisbon

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
There are lots of different reasons why a book fails to delight. Four principal ones are:
a) It's the wrong book for the reader
b) The reader fails to understand something fundamental to the book
c) The writer fails to communicate something fundamental
d) The reader's expectations aren't in tune with what the writer is delivering.
I haven't decided which category this novel should be in yet.

I bought the novel because Waterstones had a 'three for two' offer and, having gone in to buy two novels in a hurry, this seemed an intriguing third. I had enjoyed Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind (which has a similar plot thread) and Sansom's Winter in Madrid, so I suppose I was on an Iberian trail. I love mysteries and I love books about books, so it seemed ideal, but, when I finally got round to opening Night Train to Lisbon, I found the central plot strand tenuous and too like other books I've read recently - Shadow of the Wind obviously, but also Homecoming by Bernard Schlink (author of The Reader) which has the same central theme - a lost book that leads the main character to some strange discoveries about his family origins. Homecoming is much tighter and more absorbing (and more profound) than this. Then there's The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova - a gothic novel with a strong narrative drive, that retells the story of Vlad the Impaler from a new perspective. Finally there's The New Life by Orhan Pamuk, which I found very difficult to read and eventually abandoned. But they all celebrate the book as a magic artefact that will whisk the reader away on an enchanted (and sometimes perilous) journey.

In fact Night Train to Lisbon's whole plot could be summed up by the first line of the Orhan Pamuk - "I read a book one day and my whole life was changed." Jolted out of his routine by a Portuguese woman who appears to be about to commit suicide, Gregorius - a scholar of ancient languages - abandons his students, and goes into a bookshop to buy a book in Portuguese. He finds a privately published volume by Amadeu de Prado, which engrosses him so utterly he takes a train to Lisbon where he begins to track down the writer and the characters in the memoir.

Pascal Mercier is a professor of philosophy and there are long sections, purporting to be written by de Prado, which discuss the nature of fear, the reliability of memory, our relationships and the very meaning of existence. I enjoyed reading it, though I got rather bored with the philosophical sections after a while and disappointed when the search didn't really arrive anywhere. It all seemed rather pointless - true the classics professor learned things about himself as he unravelled the story of Amadeu de Prado, but that alone was not rewarding enough for a reader who has ploughed through more than three hundred pages in a state of hopefulness. I was left without satisfactory information about some of the key individuals in de Prado's story - the hero/narrator fails to engage properly with the other characters, remaining an observer and recorder, and what seem to be crucial plot strands are never tied up and remain dangling and there are too many coincidences. At the end the reader is left at the door of the clinic where Gregorius is about to undergo some tests, without a single hint as to whether the results are going to alter the fabric of his life in any way. Nothing was resolved and there was 'no closure' as they would say across the Pond.

But, even though I found the ending flawed, the book interested me and it is certainly a serious 'novel of ideas' as the jacket promises - and there is some good writing, a rare enough treat these days. I don't feel guilty about giving away the plot or the ending, because neither are vital to a reading of this novel - it's all about process and the accumulation of knowledge, about the choices we make when deciding how to live our lives. It's not about fate or circumstance, the novelist seems to be saying - it's down to us.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Poetry Challenge

I've taken up the poetry challenge - I have to read a collection of poetry by a different poet every month for twelve months and review it on my blog. I already read loads of poetry anyway, but I want to take part publicly because anything that encourages people to read more poetry is a good thing. You're not allowed to include anthologies - each collection has to be by an individual poet - and there has to be variety as well as cultural diversity. You have to include male and female, national and international, public post award holders (poets laureate etc) as well as lesser known names. The idea is to move out of your 'comfort zone'. So I'm starting with Sharon Olds' Selected Poems, because that's the book that's on my bedside table at the moment, and I'm looking forward to finding new poets I wouldn't otherwise have read. This is going to be fun!

For full details read 18th August entry on
Image: Joel Harrison, ‘grace 2’ (2005) Auckland University, NZ

Saturday, 22 August 2009

The Memory Keeper's Daughter

The author Kim Edwards was, according to the website, 'born on May 4, 1958, in Killeen, Texas. When she was only two months old, her parents moved the family back to upstate New York, where Edwards grew up. Although she was interested in writing since she was a little girl, it was in her college years that the wheels were set in motion for her writing career. After transferring from Auburn Community College (now Cayuga Community College) to Colgate University in 1979, she signed up for a fiction workshop. Here, Edwards wrote her first story, ‘‘Cords,’’ which eventually became ‘‘The Way It Felt to Be Falling.’’...' She teaches creative writing, and has published a volume of short stories, but The Memory Keeper's Daughter is her first novel.

The story was given to her - a 'found' plot - by the pastor of her local church and she felt it was so extraordinary that she had to write about it. Kim Edwards talks about it in an interview you can read here.

I was attracted by the title when I saw it in a bookshop in New Zealand and put it on my wish list last year. This month, I was given it as a birthday present by my daughter and it kept me company in bed with the dreaded SF Virus. I'm an omnivore where books are concerned and like to alternate meaty books with a bit of light froth and cover the whole spectrum from non-fiction through lit fiction, crime and romance with the odd bit of sc-fi and horror. Where does this book fit? If you like Jodi Picoult, you'll like this. If you enjoyed Message in a Bottle, or The Notebook, you'll like this. The author's development of the central plot theme - a betrayal that rots a marriage at the root from the very beginning - is well executed. She describes an act done to protect someone, which in the end damages both the protector and the protected.

There's no mystery - we're told at the beginning that when twins are born, one of them has downs syndrome and the father - a doctor - decides that the baby should be taken away to be brought up by someone else. He tells his wife that the baby has died. The trouble is, the author didn't make me believe it, even though this is a 'true' story. I didn't know enough about the doctor's 'back story' at the beginning, to find his act credible. He just didn't seem capable of such ruthless cruelty. But from then on the motivations are perfectly worked out. The book is very well written and the journey the parents make towards their lost daughter is beautifully told. The 'Memory Keeper'? It's a camera and photography is central to the plot. And, yes, it does have a happy ending.

Friday, 14 August 2009

How to Paint a Dead Man

The links between Literature and Landscape have always fascinated me. Living in such a beautiful part of the world, known internationally for it's authors - Wordsworth, Arthur Ransome, John Ruskin, Hugh Walpole, Norman Nicholson, to name only a few - I'm always interested to see how my compatriots transmute their backdrop into words on a printed page. Melvyn Bragg mines his Cumbrian heritage regularly and almost obsessively, Margaret Forster subtly and more in memoir than fiction. The two youngest writers - poet Jacob Polley and novelist Sarah Hall are both happy to admit that their writing has grown naturally out of the landscape they were brought up in.

I'm currently reading Sarah Hall's latest novel. It's difficult for one writer to criticise another - we know, better than anyone else, just how difficult it is to DO. But I have to be honest about how her work makes me feel. She is - I think - one of the uk's most gifted young novelists and I'm always curious to read her next book. She has very original ideas, brilliant titles and she's an expert at plot construction. But so far her work has failed to move me in some fundamental way. When I read Haweswater I often wondered whether she was trying too hard to be 'literary'? There is a great deal of detail in her books - so much that I often wish she wrote more sparingly - but I've also been aware of a detachment, a distance, a lack of passion, or perhaps just the failure to communicate that passion to me (or my failure to detect it?).

How to Paint a Dead Man is much, much better than its predecessors. The temptation to overwrite is still there - I wanted more space for the reader - but there is real passion in her portrayal of the bereaved Susan and more profound insights into the complexities that arise from being human; how bad we are at the relationships we need - how we elevate reason over instinct, and value the activities of the brain over those of the flesh.

Sarah Hall uses her plotting skills to interweave four stories with only the most tenuous of links. A dying painter in Italy, a blind flower girl, Susan's father Peter - who paints the wild northern landscape he lives in - and Susan, a brilliant young photographer who has just lost her twin brother and her own sense of identity. I was attracted by the fact that the book's settings reflect aspects of my own life - the time divided between Cumbria and Italy - and, since I live with a visual artist, the daily argument between creativity and bodily realities. This book goes deeper and takes more risks than her previous books and I suspect that it will be a turning point in her career. It has kept me reading, despite having a head full of the swine flu virus. That has to be a good recommendation and I wish her luck in the Man Booker lottery. More please!