Thursday, 30 December 2010

Io Sono L'Amore (I am Love)

I’m trying to improve my Italian, so spending some time here watching TV programmes and films. This 2010 film features Tilda Swinton, an actress I really admire, and has won a lot of awards.

At the beginning of the film a beautiful Russian woman, collected when very, very young by the Italian heir to a textile fortune, has just spent 30 years as a trophy wife in fashionable Milan. Tilda Swinton plays Emma, the inscrutable, perfect wife whose life lacks love and passion. Her 3 children are grown up and she claims she can no longer remember her Russian name and has no identity outside her marriage. Then Emma meets a young chef, a friend of her son and her whole existence as wife and mother is thrown into jeopardy.

It’s a good study of the Italian family and a woman’s place in it. Lavish family meals form the narrative spine of the film - celebrations of birthdays, engagements, business deals, illicit lunches, funerals. It’s all beautifully filmed, gloriously stylish, but rather slow.

If the film has a message beyond food and sex it’s that the old Italian family is in decline - the Recchi’s business is being overtaken by competitors from Asia and their women are no longer under patriarchal control. Emma is having an affair with a chef and her daughter has become a lesbian.

I was left feeling rather dissatisfied at the end though, feeling that the narrative should have had deeper layers. But perhaps that’s unfair - it was very enjoyable and films are all about entertainment. It’s filmed by an Italian director with music by John Adam and definitely deserves its ‘best foreign film’ award.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

T.C. Boyle: The Tortilla Curtain

People have been telling me I should read this book ever since it was published. A friend of mine even teaches it to her creative writing students. I think I must have an inbuilt aversion to hyped books because it’s been sitting on my shelf and I’ve been avoiding eye contact for over a year. Now, I wish I’d read it earlier.
It begins with a quote from The Grapes of Wrath - that other iconic novel about American society. ‘They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.’   These days it seems to be illegal immigrants who are de-humanised by a society that doesn't want to see them or address their problems.   Boyle’s writing, like Steinbeck's,  is tight, so perfectly crafted it never gets in the way of the story - which is explosive. The whole novel is an indictment of contemporary American life - obsessed with material possessions, paranoid, fearful, guilt-ridden and increasingly angry.
Delaney, one of the main characters, is an eco-journalist who wants (in public) to preserve the wilderness, but he has second thoughts when it encroaches on his own private patch of earth. His wife Kyra is a realtor with her eye permanently on closing the next deal. Their lives change dramatically when Delaney knocks down and badly injures an illegal Mexican immigrant, Càndido - the same day a wild coyote skims their fence and goes off with the family’s pet dog.
Càndido is living rough in the canyon with his seventeen year old pregnant wife Amèrica. They have been tempted by the American Dream and have found only a nightmare existence of hunger, discrimination and violence. Càndido is badly injured by the accident, but they can’t afford a doctor, dare not go to a hospital and he’s unable to work to earn money for his young wife.
Delaney is shocked by the accident and, to assuage the guilt he initially feels, gives the man $20 and then convinces himself that Càndido had jumped out in front of him deliberately in order to get money. It’s the beginning of a long sequence of deceptions that ends with the realisation that no gates, walls, or fences, however high can keep out The Wild, or the hordes of hungry people from across the border.
The ending is magnificent. I read it three times in order to grasp its full significance, which is all in the sub-text, pitching you forwards to a future that still holds hope. This is one of the important novels of the 20th century, with a very serious message. But is anyone listening?

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Allan Russell: Veiled in Shadows

I’ve been following the progress of Veiled in Shadows through all its stages via the Australian author’s blog ‘Publish or Perish’, so it’s very satisfying to finally be in possession of a copy of the novel. Allan Russell chose in the end to design his own cover and have the book printed by Lightning Source, distributed through The Book Depository and
Allan Russell is a very interesting person - he has Bachelors Degrees in Anthropology and Education, but has also studied Archaeology and History.  He lives near Melbourne Australia with his family and is a social worker, currently working for a charity supporting the homeless. He is also a wonderful wildlife photographer - as his blog testifies - and now a published author.

I see a lot of ‘self-published’ books, as the judge of a small regional literary award, and my heart often sinks in anticipation, because so many of them are so poorly edited and badly produced, however good the content. Veiled in Shadows is very different - a lot of thought has gone into it and the result is a quality product.

The novel itself was also a surprise - though it shouldn’t have been. I think there is still an inbuilt prejudice against ‘self-publication’ and an expectation that the quality will be of a lower standard than mainstream publishing. Not a bit of that with this one.

World War II fiction is not my first choice, so that was another reason to be wary. I opened Veiled in Shadows when it arrived, just for a glance over a mug of coffee; half an hour later I was still reading and my coffee had gone cold. Al is a born story-teller and I was quickly wrapt up in the characters and their lives - I’ve been compulsively reading it ever since. The ending didn’t disappoint either.

Briefly, Ebi Gausel is an ambitious young SS officer who, in 1938, meets the half English Princess Victoria Katharina von Brunnenstadt and they fall deeply in love. When war breaks out, their engagement is broken off - Ebi believes because of a misunderstanding over another woman - and Victoria is taken to England by her father. There she meets a young RAF officer, Peter Robinson, and grows to love him too. At the beginning of the war, Victoria is recruited by the English secret services and played back into Germany, involved from then on in a dangerous double game at the risk of her own life. To tell you more than that would spoil the plot. One of the other female characters, Jena, is a Polish jew who survives a massacre and is subsequently recruited by Victoria as both friend and agent. Jena was one of the characters I most cared about - feisty and vulnerable and utterly real. Even Ebi, the ‘bad guy’, has his human side, as all the Nazis did, though his deeds are graphically depicted.

Veiled in Shadows isn’t literary fiction, but it’s a very good read, and more than that it’s a book that has a moral and emotional core. The characters and their lives will be with me for a long time. Allan Russell is a very good writer. I know he’s working on his second book and I will be reading that one too!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Lyndall Gordon: Lives Like Loaded Guns

The title of this book should win an award - biographies don’t usually sound so intriguing. It comes from one of Emily Dickinson’s most famous poems ‘my life had stood a loaded gun’, and in this biography the poems themselves are the weapons wielded by the protagonists after Dickinson’s death.
But to call Lyndall Gordon’s book a biography is rather misleading - there is little conventional biographical detail in it. The book is subtitled ‘Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds’ and it tells the story of how an adulterous relationship divided the family while Emily was alive and then after her death how a series of intestacies resulted in a family split along the same fault lines arguing over who owned the poet’s manuscripts and reputation.

Austin Dickinson
The elder Dickinsons were Amherst’s ‘First Family’ - deeply religious parents of unimpeachable virtue who preached (and practised) a life of abstinence, deprivation and duty. Unfortunately their three children were eccentric, gifted, pleasure loving, sensual beings. Austin, photographed as a young man, smouldering from the sepia emulsion, resembles Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights; Emily stares out of her portrait like a gazelle with an unusual combination of innocence and intellectual assurance. Her youngest sister Lavinia, a girl with beseeching eyes and sensual lips, was kept close by her parents, rather like Rapunzel, and eventually jilted by the only prince who came to the door - a man she loved passionately.

Emily Dickinson
Austin married a young woman - a friend of Emily’s - who was afraid of sex. He promised Susan a ‘mariage blanc’ if that was the only way to win her. They did manage to have three children, but Susan rarely allowed him physical contact. Needless to say, when a stylish temptress appeared on the scene Austin was a fruit ripe for plucking.
Mabel Loomis Todd was the young, dissatisfied wife of an astronomy lecturer. Her husband was a philanderer and Mabel seems to have decided that what was sauce for the gander might also be good for the goose. The Todds had little money and Austin was wealthy, with much local influence. There were benefits all round. The affair was conducted on the day bed in the secluded dining room of the parental mansion still inhabited by Emily and Lavinia after the death of their parents. Austin paid the bills, so it was hardly surprising that the sisters felt unable to refuse him. Lavinia at first seemed to like Mabel. Emily stayed upstairs, and sent her terse, coded messages in verse. Susan and her children next door felt utterly betrayed. Yet Mabel seemed to be astonished when Austin’s wife refused to entertain her.
Mabel Todd
The affair went on for 15 years, occasionally as a threesome with Mabel’s husband. Amherst had no idea that it’s leading citizen and pillar of society had such an interesting private life.

After Emily’s death, Mabel, backed by Austin, offered to transcribe and edit Emily’s poems and Lavinia agreed.  Susan, across the garden, also wanted to edit them, but had no experience. The poems in her possession remained unpublished. Mabel, better placed, spent years editing and finding publishers for the first collections of Dickinson poems in print. She kept some of the originals and claimed later that they were rightfully hers as recompense for her work. Austin gave her a plot of land which actually belonged to Lavinia and which became the source of even more law suits.
After Austin’s death the gloves really came off and the three women became involved in legal battles over ownership of land and poetry. Mabel lost, mainly because her adultery with Austin could not be revealed in court and without it she had no visible reason for such a close relationship with the family that might give rise to such monetary rewards. Lies were told on both sides and the whole truth is still not known, though Lyndall Gordon makes a lawyer’s case for her own premise.
One of the most interesting revelations in the book is that Emily Dickinson probably had epilepsy, like her nephew and her cousin, and that seems to have been the main reason for her seclusion and repudiation of marriage. Epilepsy was shameful - something to be hidden. King George V of England had a son (the lost prince) with epilepsy and he was kept out of the public gaze, unnamed and unmentioned. Lyndall Gordon makes a very good case for Dickinson’s affliction.

This book is going to make Dickinson scholars rethink a lot of received theories. I would have liked to have more of Emily Dickinson’s life in the book - the poetry, the feud, the family and particularly the Scarlet Woman Mabel Todd, are centre stage and Emily just a ghostly presence in white in the upstairs room - a voice off-stage. But what a voice!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Michelle Lovric: The Book of Human Skin

It’s 1784. A book bound in the skin of a martyr arrives in Valparaiso. In Peru a young Catholic fanatic, Sor Loreta, is starving herself in a convent. And in Venice the wife of a rich merchant has just given birth to a son, Minguillo Fasan, born with the Devil’s mark upon him. He will grow into a sadistic rapist and murderer who will kill one of his sisters and maim the other to protect his inheritance. The novelist skilfully weaves all their stories together, pulling in a famous eighteenth century Italian woman painter, an aristocratic cigar-smoking nun and a romantic scotsman, before the breathtaking, nerve-wracking finale I missed breakfast to read.

The story is told in a variety of different voices - including a servant and a young doctor, but the most disturbing are those of Sor Loreta and Minguillo Fasan. The latter warns at the beginning of the narrative: ‘This is going to be a little uncomfortable’. And it is - but never unbearable. The thread of black humour, that Michelle Lovric uses as counterpoint, keeps the darkness in check.

According to the doctor, speaking metaphorically, ‘the book of human skin is a large volume with many pages of villainy writ upon it’ and in this novel the various tortures we inflict on fellow human beings in the form of religious or medical practice are graphically spelled out. But there is also a great deal of  comedy, particularly in the servant’s story. Gianni is barely literate and his prose is hilarious. It took me a little while to get used to his style and his idiosyncratic use of language, but once I did, I loved it.

The most attractive character is Marcella Fasan, Minguillo’s younger sister, who is clever enough and resilient enough to elude her psychopathic brother and finally achieve happiness.  'Supratutto' as they say in Italy, this is a love story.

I don’t usually read historical fiction - Wolf Hall is still glowering at me from the shelf - but I was attracted by Joanne Harris’s endorsement ‘Fabulous - funny, horrific, subversive - in short a wholly addictive read.’  She isn't exaggerating.  The novel is highly original, linguistically inventive and springing from a no-holds-barred imagination. If you’re looking for something different - this is it!

Most of all I loved the way the novelist addressed the reader directly, involving them in the narrative - this is a story that is being told to YOU and the reader is invited to become an accomplice. At the end of the book the narrator, Minguillo Fasan, poses a challenge - ‘Tell me that you did not love what I wrote. ....... did I not take you as promised, on a long walk in the dark, and did you not choose me as your guide by reading on? Is not the act of reading a congress as intimate as any carried on between lovers; with only these two parties the Reader and the Writer, behind the closed doors of the binding, alone and raptly conjoined? .... And so, Dear Reader, my crimes became yours.’

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Two very different Cuban novels

Our GG in Havana: Pedro Juan Gutierrez

I found this slim novel on a second hand book stall and was intrigued by the title, so I looked up the author. Pedro Juan Gutierrez is one of the few contemporary Cuban authors to be published in England, by Faber and Faber, so he has a good international profile and writes, as you’d expect, very well indeed. This novel is a fiction about fiction - the GG of the title being Graham Greene whose work I’ve always loved. ‘Our Man in Havana’ was one of my favourite novels. The book explores the background to the story and puts forward a playful (if rather grisly) theory about how GG might have come by the plot.

I never had the chance to experience Havana in all its pre-Castro decadence, but the sex clubs (and transvestite prostitutes) and mafia controlled casinos are graphically described by Gutierrez. The novel gives an insight into what was happening before Castro took over, the conflict between communists, fascists and the mafia for control of Cuba under the corrupt Battista regime. The plot is an intriguing conceit (though I wasn’t convinced by it!) and quite enjoyable to read. Pedro Juan Gutierrez seems to be an interesting author though, and I might now go and read his ‘Dirty Havana’ trilogy.

Now for a very different novel, independently published, and written by someone with an outsider’s view of Cuba. Havana Harvest is a fast-paced thriller, rather in the manner of Dan Brown, set in a more modern Havana.

It’s 1989. The CIA are running a drug operation between Colombia, Cuba and Miami, with the object of discrediting the Castro regime. Members of Castro’s government think that they themselves are running the operation as part of their strategy to undermine the moral reputation of the USA. A whistle blower, loyal to revolutionary principles, threatens to jeopardise the operation for both sides. Enter Robert Lonsdale, CIA agent, licensed to kill, who finds himself being used by his political masters for their own purposes. Based on a real episode in Cuban history, it’s sometimes hard to know when the facts end and the fictions begin.
Robert Landori is good on the Cuban setting and he paces the action very well. He’s very good on the corrupt money laundering aspects of shady government operations. He also seems to share a good deal of history with his fictional hero - both were born in Hungary and both have a background in international finance and the invisible services.
The book is published by the Greenleaf Book Group/Emerald Book Company in America. This serves ‘Independent Authors’, both publishing, publicising and distributing their work. Their online CV is impressive and certainly one of the best of the so-called ‘self-publishing’ outfits. They certainly work at the marketing aspect and they claim to also exercise a filtering policy on the mss that they accept. ‘Independent’ publishing seems to be the way to go these days for a lot of authors. Certainly Robert Landori’s book is in the same league as many commercially produced thrillers that I’ve read - some of them very much hyped. I wish him good luck.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Nuala O'Faolain: Are You Somebody?

Nuala O’Faolain’s novel, 'My Dream of You' has been one of my favourite books since I read it. I remember being very sad when I heard that she had died, because there would be no more books. So it was with great delight that I spotted her autobiography ‘Are you Somebody’ at the Wellington second hand book fair. It didn’t disappoint. It was as honest, painful and lyrically written as the novel. No matter that it tells a story familiar from much Irish literature - the alcoholic mother, the inadequate father, the nine children, poverty, religion - what Nuala does in this book is much more than that. In telling her own story, she tells the story of Ireland itself - a particular period of its history. When she comments in the epilogue, ‘Today my father would simply have been jailed for his cruelty to his children’, she has already provided the answer; ‘There was an Ireland, a whole society, that in those times allowed such things’.

Nuala’s struggle to become a writer, and the tussle with her own biology, were the two threads of narrative I empathised with most, since I spent my own young life wrestling those particular monsters and I didn’t find feminism very helpful. Nuala managed, by accident rather than design, to avoid marriage and have a career in broadcasting and journalism. But she always felt inadequate. She had been brought up, as I was, to perceive marriage and children as the apex of any woman’s aspirations. ‘An old Ireland was ending in the 1960s. There were new possibilities. But what arrangement you came to with what kind of man was still the most important question by far for a woman.’ Nuala’s mother wrote to her as she studied at university: ‘I don’t really care if you get a degree or not..... I’d far rather see you with a husband and a few kids.’ And marriage then, meant the end of any kind of ambition. There were few role models for the married career woman.
‘It was to be another twenty years, at least, before a wife might be perceived as herself as well as an appendage of her husband’s. To be a wife and hope to have a career taken with the seriousness of your husband’s career, was hardly possible......’

The woman who was a friend of Philip Larkin, P.J. Kavanagh, David Lodge, was the lover of art critic Clement Greenberg - among many others - and who lived for 15 years with civil rights activist Nell McCafferty, remains at the end of the book alone and still vulnerable, still looking for love as the solution to the problem of Life, the Universe and Everything. Perhaps if you are not loved as a child, no one (not even yourself) can love you enough. Nuala quotes Adrienne Rich’s poem

You sleep in a room with bluegreen curtains
posters            a pile of animals on the bed
A woman and a man who love you
and each other       slip the door ajar
you are almost asleep      they crouch in turn
to stroke your hair      you never wake

This happens every night for years
This never happened .....

Nuala writes - ‘what the poem does it to offer unhappy children somewhere to belong. It puts us, who happen to be Irish and women, into a wider context. And there, we belong. There, we find we are speaking a mother-tongue’.

What the book did was to make me incandescent with anger at a culture, a religion, that allowed the widespread abuse of children - not just in the church, but in the home. Nuala writes continually about wives being told by priests to go home and obey their husbands - wives whose husbands beat them, who impregnated them year after year after year until they were overwhelmed with children they couldn’t love or even care for properly. Nuala’s 9 year old brother ran away from home and lived in an alleyway for three days and no one even noticed. And I was angry at a catholic church that prepared girls for life in the second half of the twentieth century by telling them that in whatever situation they might find themselves, they ‘should think what the Virgin Mary would have done and do the same’. The irony of their advice about following the most famous unmarried mother of all, doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.
Nuala O’Faolain died of cancer in 2008.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Mary McCallum: The Blue

This blog has been rather neglected lately, as travelling has left me very little time for reading and reflection. But I'm moving at a more leisurely pace now and finding the space to read and think. It's always interesting to go to a new country and find new authors you wouldn't have read at home. New Zealand is particularly rich in good writers whose books don't make it across the ocean. Mary McCallum is one of them.
The novel is set in 1938, as political events on the other side of the world begin to escalate towards a European war. Lilian is a wife in a very enclosed whaling/subsistence farming community in the sounds of the South Island near Picton. Here, everyone knows everything about everyone else and there is no escaping the consequences of your actions. Her husband, Ed, is a casualty of the first world war, having escaped physical injury, but  he's one of those who has brought the horror of war home with him. Lilian’s children have their own problems too, coming to terms with their parents' marriage, as well as finding their own way in the world, deciding whether to leave their small community, or stay.
The novel is uncompromising where the facts of commercial whaling are concerned and offers no moral stance. The whale chase and the kill are graphically described. The thrill men feel when they pit themselves against a gigantic adversary is almost unbearably vivid and the women’s ambiguities are symbolised by the preserved whale foetus hidden in a storeroom. Getting enough whale oil to sell makes the difference between being able to feed and clothe your children, or having to leave the sounds to avoid starvation. The ethics of it all are luxuries these people can’t afford.
It was a strange experience reading this book in one of northern New Zealand’s former whaling stations, surrounded by the raw material of history and the landscape that shaped the story. The Blue is Mary’s first novel, published by Penguin New Zealand in 2007. As a first novel, it’s very impressive. It begins rather uncertainly, but the writing quickly gathers strength and the story becomes mesmerising. I was particularly impressed by the way the author handled a complicated backstory. The details of never-to-be-talked about past events are the key to the whole novel and they are gradually revealed in exactly the right places until the final, shocking, denouement. It is very well done.

Above all, the prose is beautiful, with paragraphs that could only be written by a poet. It’s a very good read.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Living to Tell the Tale: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

There hasn’t been much time for reading in my crowded travel itinerary. I’ve been reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ autobiography, ‘Living to Tell the Tale’, a page at a time before the book slips from my exhausted hands and falls on my face. It’s a dense read, but worth persevering with because it’s a fascinating account of how he became a writer, wrestling with poverty and complicated Columbian politics.

Marquez is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and the way the book is written certainly helps to support the legend.   He’s very frank about the subjective nature of autobiography: "Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it."  He is the narrator and creator of  his own life-story, which is as dense and complex as any of his novels.

The book is crowded with unfamiliar names and a huge extended fammily whose relationships I didn’t completely grasp. I understood the way of living better when I went to Cuba where a whole family will live in a house with a communal eating, sitting, living area in the middle and a kitchen and courtyard at the back. Lots of rooms open off the communal living area and each section of the family has its own room - grandparents, in-laws, uncles, aunts, children. Marquez describes it beautifully and much of the book is about finding the space to write. The autobiography is a fantastic background for the fiction, which by his own admission, was firmly rooted in his own family history.

I also finished the Steig Larsson trilogy and really enjoyed it, though I know that some people have found it hard going. But I love thrillers with complicated plots and I felt the central characters were well developed and credible. If Larsson hadn’t died so suddenly I’d have been queueing up for the next instalment, which I think would have involved Salander’s search for her sister - a plot development signalled up in the last chapters. I want to know where her sister is and what happened to her. And I’m not putting money on Blomqvist’s new relationship either! I bet there’s someone out there already working on the sequel.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

William Fiennes: The Music Room

William Fiennes has somehow escaped me until now - maybe because autobiography isn’t one of my favourite genres, except when it’s a person I’m really interested in. But I saw the Snow Geese reviewed on another book blog (Dovegreyreader, who raved about it) and then found the Music Room in a remaindered book shop for £2.99.
I read it quickly - it’s refreshingly short - and with more pleasure than almost anything else I’ve read in a long time. The prose is beautiful and the way he takes readers into the world of the child is perfectly done. I can’t believe it’s only his second book.
William Fiennes was brought up in a moated castle (Broughton in Oxfordshire) though it’s never named in the book. Apparently he wanted every reader to imagine their own perfect castle as they read (interview here). But although his childhood was more privileged than most, he was lonely, being about 10 years younger than his nearest siblings. The castle became his playground, the film set for his imagination.
The family’s outwardly idyllic existence was overshadowed by tragedy. An older brother, Thomas, had been killed aged 3 in a freak accident before William was born. His eldest brother, Richard, suffered severe epilepsy that left him brain-damaged and sometimes violent. One of the most poignant moments in the book is the one where William comes round the corner of a secluded part of the garden -
“I saw Dad standing next to the house, his right arm stretched out, palm pressed flat against a buttress, his head dropped. He didn’t move.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
He said he was asking the house for some of its strength.”

The book also explores the murky history of epilepsy and the effect that it has had on families and communities over the centuries, being associated either with witchcraft or divine revelation. I couldn’t help thinking about the ‘lost prince’, George V’s son John, who was hidden away from the public gaze until he died at the age of 13. William Fiennes’ brother survives into adult-hood, but the effect on the family is profound.  One reviewer called the book 'jaw-droppingly beautiful'  and it is.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Henning Mankell: Italian Shoes

I love Henning Mankell’s Wallander books - well plotted and written - so I thought I’d try one of his mainstream novels, the newly published ‘Italian Shoes’. In the beginning I was gripped by it. Mankell gets right inside the psychology of an aging recluse who has lived alone on a remote Swedish island for twelve years with only a dog and cat for company and the occasional appearance of a hypochondriac postman called Jansson. The descriptions of the frozen landscape made me (almost) want to move to Scandinavia.
One morning, the solitary recluse wakes up to see an elderly woman standing on the ice beside the landing stage, propped up by her zimmer frame, and realises that his past has tracked him down. Hannah, who is dying prematurely of cancer, has come to find him and, in a variety of devious ways, bring him to account. After this point the book begins to fall apart.
I didn’t find the central section of the book credible and the writing was thinner than the first. The book picks up towards the end, but I always felt that my credibility was being stretched too far. What kept me reading was the character - an utterly believable, deeply flawed individual who is made to behave in ways that are alien to him. His redemption didn’t ring true, as if the author had striven for ways to bend character and plot towards the happy resolution he wanted the book to have.
The Italian shoes of the title? These have a mythic, almost fairy tale significance in the story. Deep in the forest dwells an elderly Italian shoe-maker who only makes shoes for international celebrities. A pair of red stilletto heels tap, in a rebellious fashion, through the plot, and a special pair of shoes is ordered for the hero of the novel, to be delivered at a symbolic moment.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Three Crime Fiction Authors

Kathy Reichs: 206 Bones, Steig Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Shamini Flint: Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Mystery

With all the travelling I’ve been doing lately by train and plane, there’s been plenty of time for the kind of light reading I enjoy. I love any kind of puzzle, but the plot convolutions of crime fiction are my all time favourites.
I was attracted to Kathy Reichs when she began to publish because I was fascinated by the unpleasant details of forensic science. Who, in their right mind, would fancy picking someone’s toe nails out of the bathroom carpet, analysing maggots, or trawling the suspect’s sewage system for traces of blood? The feisty Tempe Brennan, apparently. But as the books have gone on being written, they have become more and more the same. Although the names may change the plot always follows the same pattern. I read 206 Bones because I wanted to find out who did it (although I had guessed before the half way mark), but the book itself bored me and I probably won’t bother to pick up any more.

Steig Larsson’s trilogy has had a lot of press coverage and much hype, so I picked up the first book with some reservations. They didn’t last beyond the first two pages. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is as good as and probably better than its reputation. I was enthralled by the characterisation, the complexity of the plot and the originality of the story. Above all it is the depth of psychology that puts this book in the Premier League of crime fiction authors. I can’t wait to read the rest now!

I’m always on the look-out for new crime fiction authors and, having recently been to Singapore and about to return, I picked up one of the Inspector Singh novels as the result of an Amazon ‘like-for-like’ recommendation. But they didn’t get my tastes quite right. Shamini Flint writes very well, with good characters and an original and beautiful setting, but I found the book a bit cosy. If you like Alexander McCall Smith’s detective fiction then you’ll probably like this.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Amy Sackville: The Still Point

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time - sheer pleasure from beginning to end. The Still Point is a really exceptional first novel and deserved its Orange Prize long-listing.
I’m not a great fan of the omniscient narrator, but in this book it works. We hover over the books’ characters like god in a helicopter eavesdropping on first one and then another across space and time - from an old house ‘freighted with memories’ in England, to the frozen deserts of the arctic. The author uses the narrative device to pull us in. ‘You can draw a little nearer, if you’re very quiet. Put your face close to his, close enough to feel the gentle rumble and stink of his breath; feel the damp warmth of hers on your own cheek. They fall asleep, as many couples do, first twined and then detached; as we rejoin them they have long since undergone this last conscious act, this delicate separation on the very brink of dreaming.’
Four young people; two marriages - one torn apart by arctic ice before it has properly begun, one in danger of foundering on the sunken reefs of past events. For Emily and Edward the other woman is the North Pole; for Julia and Simon it is the house, with its stuffed polar bear in the attic, the boxes of journals and diaries that Julia spends her days and nights among, the specimens of flora and fauna pinned, cased and hung on the wall. Simon has begun to feel that he is one of them. But in the space of a single day, everything is going to change.
I hope Amy Sackville’s publishers, Portobello, are holding on to her very tightly because I think she’s going to be sensational.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Mahmoud Darwish: Unfortunately, it was Paradise

It’s been a significant week for political dates. This weekend was the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and the subject of much celebration. But not in the middle east, which was subsequently carved up by the victorious allied forces and land apportioned in ways that have led to most of the conflicts of our recent history - most fundamental of all the partitioning of Palestine without any safeguards for the Palestinian people, twenty per cent of whom are Christian.
May 6th wasn’t just the election, it was the last night of the Palestine Festival of Literature - an amazing event that celebrates the poetry and prose of the middle east, as well as including a number of British and American authors. The line up included Ahdaf Soueif (brilliant short stories as well as the Map of Love), Henning Mankell, Michael Palin, Carmen Callil, Deborah Moggach and Claire Messud.
Palestine has, over the years, produced some brilliant writers and poets including Kalil Gibran. Right at the top would have to be Mahmoud Darwish who died in 2008 and was regarded as the poet laureate and international voice of the Palestinian people - ‘a poet sharing the fate of his people, living in a town under siege, while providing them with a language for their anguish and dreams’. But he always declined to be involved with any form of extremism, deploring the excesses of Hamas. Mahmoud was born in Galilee in either 1941 or 42. Six years later the Israeli army occupied the area, bulldozing over four hundred Palestinian villages with their tanks. Mahmoud’s family were among those who fled over the border into Lebanon to escape the massacres that followed. When they returned, a year later, they discovered that because they had not been there to be ‘counted’ among the survivors, they were illegal immigrants into their own country and became what were described as ‘internal refugees’.
Mahmoud Darwish began writing poetry while still at school, though he was banned from reciting it. Eventually, like so many, he left for a life of permanent exile, stateless and therefore without a passport.
‘All the birds followed
My hand to the barriers of a distant airport.
All the wheatfields
All the prisons
All the white graves
All the borders
All the waving handkerchiefs
All the dark eyes
All the eyes were with me
But they crossed them out of the passport.
Deprived of a name, of an identity,
In a land I tended with both hands?’

But his poetry also celebrates the way that art can transcend oppression - the founding principle of the Palestine Festival of Literature. Mahmoud Darwish is always optimistic, always looking forward.
‘I have witnessed the massacre
I am a victim of a map
I am the son of plain words
I have seen pebbles flying
I have seen dew drops as bombs
When they shut the gates of my heart on me
Built barricades and imposed a curfew
My heart turned into an alley
My ribs into stones
And carnations grew
And carnations grew.

Darwish grew up reading the poetry of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amicai, and there is always an acknowledgement of the shared cultural and historical heritage of the Israeli and the Arab. They all came originally from Mesopotamia, and all acknowledge Abraham as their ancestor. The old testament is an account of shared history. In Darwish’s words:
‘We travel in the chariots of the Psalms, sleep in the tents of the prophets, and are born again in the language of nomads’
And he can ask, in the voice of the murdered Abel (a story which is also told in the Koran), ‘Brother... My brother! What did I do to make you destroy me?’

His latest collection is ‘Unfortunately it was Paradise’ published by the University of California Press. It’s a joint translation by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche and I don’t like it as much as the earlier translations by Abdullah al-Udhari. These new translations are less lyrical, less true to the spirit of the arabic originals. There are infelicities, such as ‘This is my language, this sound is the twinge of my blood.’ But the message always comes through.

In his journal of a visit to Ramallah ‘A River Dies of Thirst’ he writes: "Hope is not the opposite of despair, it is a talent." And in this poetry, written after he had experienced the first of the series of heart attacks that would eventually kill him, there is a fervent affirmation of the existence of hope.
‘What does life say to Mahmoud Darwish?
You lived, fell in love, learned, and all those you will finally love are dead?
In this hymn we lay a dream, we raise a victory sign, we hold a key to the last door,
to lock ourselves in a dream. But we will survive because life is life.’

On the PalFest website there are a number of author’s blogs written by the visiting writers. Most were shocked by what they found and the way that they were treated as they tried to get into Palestine under the auspices of the British Council.
Carmen Callil writes:
Everywhere there are checkpoints and Israeli soldiers, many of them young women, young girls really, all of them draped in weapons, smoking in our faces as they grudgingly allow our bus of writers to proceed from A to B. ....Everywhere we see Jewish Settlements crowding out the old Palestinian towns. There are new settlements and the beginnings of hundreds more. Curfews, roads blocked, areas where only Israelis can go. Towns and villages closed off and hacked to pieces by road blocks, checkpoints and walls. Labels, tickets, permissions, queries, intermittent water, constant harassment and constant questioning’.
Follow the link here for more and for a wonderful, moving video of the final event of the festival, where writers gave short readings.

I’m a great fan of a singer called Reem Kelani - British, but the child of Palestinian refugees. She is also a musicologist who has travelled the world collecting the traditional songs of the Palestinian diaspora. She performs often with Israeli musician Gilad Atzmon and his Orient House ensemble and she often sings settings of the poems of Mahmoud Darwish. There is quite a lot of her music on YouTube, but this is just an introduction.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo: Paula Huntley

It’s an irresistible title, and it’s a much better book than I expected. Paula Huntley went to Kosovo with her husband when he was posted there after the Croatian war, as part of the rebuilding process. She lived among the Albanians of Prishtina, teaching English as a foreign language, and it exposed Paula to the harrowing life stories of her young students. Some of them had been in concentration camps, or hidden in bombed out buildings in order to survive the Serbian death squads, others had watched relatives executed or raped, most had eventually become refugees in neighbouring countries before returning to what was left of their homes. They are all desperate to learn English in order to better their lives and help to support their families.
Among the squalor and the dereliction, the violent reprisals and the black-marketeering, Paula begins to run a book club, obtaining material from America, and their first book is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. At first she wonders if the book is too culturally alien to be understood, but the students identify with the old man’s struggle against adversity and the book club becomes a great success. Paula kept a journal of her daily life to send back to friends and family, and the journal eventually became the book.
It’s interesting to watch Paula’s perspective changing with her experiences. The view of the world that she had learned in America becomes radically different. Soon she can write about
‘...the ignorance of Americans. We are, by the world’s standards, wealthy, and we have virtually unlimited access to news and books and magazines. We can travel, we can learn. But we are an island, cut off from the rest of the world not so much by geography as by complacency, by a lack of curiosity, by arrogance, perhaps. We are worldly, but we know little of the world.’
I’ve been reading quite a lot of Balkan history recently, because I’m thinking of using it for a narrative I’m working on. The story of what happened in the old territories of Yugoslavia is so appalling, it can hardly be credited in modern Europe, or that we allowed it to happen - not once, but again and again. It’s no coincidence that both the first and the second world wars were triggered by events in the Balkans. Its history is one of reprisal and counter-reprisal, conquest, colonisation and division. The nineteen forties was a particularly terrible period, yet, despite what was learned in Europe in 1945, our governments stood back and watched genocide, and we allowed them to. That is going to be a big blot on twentieth century history.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Dan Brown: The Lost Symbol

It’s become very fashionable to knock Dan Brown’s novels - more from envy of his success than anything else I suspect. How can such mediocre trash sell so many copies? authors ask, wishing they’d been lucky enough to tap into this unsuspected lode in the geological strata of reader interest. DB’s blend of historical fact and fiction, flavoured by scientific mumbo jumbo, has caught the mood of the moment.
I read the Da Vinci Code, (which kept me up all night) and I’ve just read The Lost Symbol. Whatever you may think of the prose, or of the sheer commerciality of instinct behind it, you can’t deny that this man knows his craft as a writer and there are a lot of other authors out there who could learn a lot from it. He knows how to make a reader turn the page. There are a lot of ‘literary’ writers out there who can compose a beautiful phrase and make you weep over a paragraph, but you don’t necessarily stay up all night to finish the book. Dan Brown is a master of the Narrative Hook.
He also makes you believe - or at least suspend your disbelief - for the length of the novel, because his background research embeds his fiction in a matrix of fact and scientific detail. In this case, it’s the masonic movement, just sufficiently secretive enough to be intriguing and mysterious to the rest of us, and the new para-psychological sciences. The heroine is engaged in using new technology to measure the weight of (and therefore prove the existence of) the human soul. I’m quite happy to believe that people are doing things like this.

DB’s action and pace are very similar to the James Bond novels, with similarly unbelievable sequences where the hero is drowned, shot, endures 24 hours of sleep deprivation, but still manages to fend off twelve armed and dangerously fit SAS trained security guards single-handed. No one is who they are supposed to be and it all works out in the end. These books are stylish, amazingly well crafted and I can forgive the cliches and the odd heavy handed line for a bit of compulsive light reading.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Angel's Game

The Angel's Game is a Faustian tale of the temptations created by poverty and childhood deprivation. In pre-war Spain, torn apart by the collision of conflicting political beliefs, a young boy is abandoned by his mother and brought up by a violent, alcoholic father who is murdered in front of his son’s eyes. It's no surprise that the author - Carlos Ruiz Zafon - is a great lover of the novels of Dickens and the other nineteenth century Gothic blockbusters. What is really good about the Angel's Game is the way that Zafon plays with the conventions.
The hero, David Martin, survives the degradations of adolescence by writing ‘penny dreadfuls’ which become compulsive reading for the inhabitants of Barcelona. He falls deeply in love with a young woman but their romance is frustrated - in the traditions of the genre - by a series of apparently insurmountable obstacles.
Though David never makes a great deal from the books he writes, he earns enough to rent a big house saturated in Gothic atmosphere and haunted by a mysterious smell emanating from a locked room. Myself, I would have had the door down straight away out of sheer curiosity, but the devices of narrative suspense prevent the giving way to natural human instincts until a convenient moment in the plot.
One of the delights of this book is the appearance of the devil in the guise of a publisher. Hell is a publishing contract with no opt out clause. The whole novel could be seen as a satire on the publishing industry and the authors who fuel it. One wonders if it is the novelist speaking when the hero remarks cynically, ‘Emotional truth is not a moral quality, it’s a technique.’
My favourite ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ makes a cameo appearance in this novel, but it is never quite as magical as The Shadow of the Wind. The happy ending requires a suspension of belief and the machinations of Magic Realism. This isn’t as good as its predecessor, but if you love a Gothic novel of suspense, beautifully written, this is a Great Read.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Martin Stannard: Muriel Spark, The Biography

After reading Martin Stannard’s biography, published last year, I’ve come to the conclusion that Muriel Spark was barking mad - an obsessive egocentric who let nothing and no one get in the way of her artistic ambitions. Her lovers, her friends, her mother in hospital with a broken leg, her dying father, her abandoned son - all came second to her art. Publishers and agents were ruthlessly sacrificed if they didn’t come up to expectations. Her last book hadn’t sold out its advance? Then they hadn’t tried hard enough to sell it! How much for the serial rights? Rubbish! I’m Muriel Spark and you’re lucky to have me. She refused to do author publicity events (except under special circumstances) opted out of television interviews at the last moment and reached for the lawyers if anyone dared to criticise her in print.
At the beginning of her career, she held down part-time jobs to pay the rent while writing late at night. She popped ‘uppers’ to keep herself going until she began to hallucinate. She heard voices in the cupboards, detected secret codes in every piece of text she read, and thought that T S Eliot was stalking her in the guise of a window cleaner. From then on, Muriel shivered on the edge of breakdown every time she came under stress. Neurotic and needy she leant heavily on those around her and wore out friendships quite quickly. A wounded, very-much-former, friend told the biographer that she used and discarded people ‘like a box of Kleenex’.
Born into a secular Jewish family, Muriel eventually converted to Catholicism, gave up sex and contemplated becoming a nun. She wrote part of her first novel in a religious retreat. Three more novels followed quickly - she wrote faster than her publishers could keep up. Dissatisfied with the reception of her work in Britain, she lived for a while in New York and then rented a grand apartment in Rome which had belonged to Cardinal Orsini. For the last thirty years of her life she lived in Tuscany with the painter Penelope Jardine - who was prepared to dedicate her life to looking after Muriel. She felt at home in Italy. The Italians saw her as ‘Kafka in a skirt’, though Muriel preferred to think of herself as ‘Lucretzia Borgia in trousers’.
Her (very-much-former) lover, the poet Howard Sergeant, told her that she was ‘arrogant and conceited .... in no sense have you ever showed any loyalty. Indeed your one concern has always been your own self and everything and everyone else had to take second place. Your sole conception of love is selfish.’ (Stannard, 2009,p.102) This is a comment her son, Robin, would no doubt have endorsed had he been allowed to. Robin’s opinion isn’t in evidence anywhere in the biography and I presume that either the author wasn’t allowed to talk to him or that Robin declined to co-operate.
When Muriel Spark’s teenage marriage came to a sticky end in Africa, during the second world war, she parked him - aged 4 - in a boarding school or with foster parents while she returned to England. After the war Robin, now 7, was shipped back and Muriel deposited him, like the cuckoo’s chick, at her parents’ flat in Edinburgh. She sent cheques, but visited rarely. Small wonder that he grew up hostile towards his mother, who described him as a ‘lousy’ painter and ‘one big bore’ who had ‘never done anything for me’ in public. He was eventually disinherited for producing proof that Muriel’s family was more Jewish than she cared to admit.
I found the biography suffered from the limitations of most ‘authorised’ lives. There is a sense that the biographer has fallen under their subject’s spell, become one of their acolytes. Too much is taken at face value; too few questions are asked. We are never told why Muriel had to leave her job at the Poetry Society, though her feelings at being ‘forced out’ occupy several pages. No details are ever given of the publishers’ advances that Muriel deemed too small, and though the biographer states that newspaper estimates of the money that she left in her will (to Jardine, not her son) were wildly inflated, the actual sum is not given, even though it is a matter of public record.
The reason is probably the amount of control exercised by Muriel Spark herself and afterwards, by her estate. Apparently, when she invited Martin Stannard to write her life, she ordered him to ‘treat me as though I were dead’. But when he began producing copy, she argued over it, line by line, because she didn’t think he had treated her fairly enough. The book was first agreed in 1992, but didn’t appear until 2009 after Muriel’s actual death.
I found the ‘high’ style a bit off-putting too - a problem with much literary biography; a mass of accumulated detail cluttering the prose; themes that over-ride chronology, so that characters appear and are dismissed before they have properly been introduced into the narrative - they are sacked or storm off towards the horizon pages before the scenes actually take place.
But Martin Stannard’s analysis of the fiction is excellent (I must re-read some of those novels) and his struggle to complete the project under terrible circumstances has to be applauded. Given the constraints, and the litigious personality of his subject, the achievement is amazing. My fascination with the awfulness of Muriel Spark kept me reading right to the end.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Rose Tremain: Trespass

This is Rose Tremain’s first novel since the Orange Prize winning ‘Road Home’ which I thought was one of her least successful books. So I began reading ‘Trespass’ on the plane to Italy with some reservations - afraid to feel that sense of let-down after all the anticipation of a favourite author.
But this time I wasn’t disappointed. Rose Tremain’s prose is as glorious as ever. ‘Trespass’ is set in London and France. Veronica Verey and her companion Kitty have moved to the Cévennes region of France, ‘incomers’ into a rural French community which views even Parisians as outsiders and has very mixed feelings towards an influx of colonising Brits.
Veronica’s brother Anthony (the Anthony Verey) is an antique dealer in Chelsea, badly affected by the economic downturn and wondering whether he, too, might be happier in France. His search for the ideal property brings him into contact with Aramon, an alcoholic farmer and his elderly sister Audrun, when Aramon puts the family home, Mas Lunel, on the market.
The collision between the two cultures re-animates uncomfortable memories and old rivalries which result in a tragedy which is not a tragedy, but revenge and resolution. Rose Tremain’s skill in unfolding this is so great that it’s only now, sitting down to write about it, that I can see the parallel she was setting up - the two sets of siblings, brother and sister, whose lives have been blighted by the actions of their parents, setting in motion a narrative arc of cause and effect that takes 60 years to complete.
The characters are wonderful - the stoical, resourceful Audrun, the spectacularly awful Anthony, the inadequate, insecure Kitty.
Rose Tremain’s writing is so good that I feel quite sad that so little attention was given to her collection of short stories - The Darkness of Wallis Simpson - when it came out. The title story is wonderful, and her tale of hope and loyalty in a newly liberated Germany - ‘The Beauty of the Dawn Shift’ - should be a modern classic. This is someone who can WRITE.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Andrea Levy: The Long Song

Andrea Levy's new novel, the Long Song, has just been listed for the Orange Prize for fiction and it's a compulsive read.

July is born a slave - the daughter of a sugar-cane worker and a brutal overseer. She is intelligent and resourceful and in 19th century Jamaica the Plantation owner’s sister takes her to train as a personal maid, teaching her to read and write. But soon the island is caught up in the violence and confusion that accompanied the end of slavery. The long desired Abolition brings - not prosperity and peace - but starvation and chaos.
July’s first child - her ‘pickney’ - a son Thomas, is fathered by a ‘free nigger’ who is accused of a murder he didn’t commit. July leaves her baby on the doorstep of a Baptist missionary she knows will give her child a better life than the one she is living. Her second child, fathered by a white man she had hoped to marry, is stolen from her and taken to England. It is the son, Thomas, reunited with his mother, who encourages her to write her own memoir.
July tells her story with humour and compassion. She is a wonderful character and I would happily have spent a much longer time in her company. The song wasn’t long enough. The best books are the ones you don’t want to end. This is a 5 star read.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Roopa Farooki: The Way Things Look to Me

The Way Things Look to Me is a redemptive modern fairy tale - where the Good get their just desserts and even Horribly Horrid Humans are redeemed by Love. Sounds really trite when reduced to that, but the book is much, much more profound.
There are 3 voices in the novel, Asif, the eldest brother of an orphaned family, 23, an accountant by day and a carer by night for his 19 year old, autistic sister, Yasmin, whose obsessions rule his life. Lila, his younger sibling, doesn’t live at home any more. She is an art school drop-out, who has a succession of crap jobs and sexually exploitative relationships. Where Asif is sadly resigned to his restricted life, Lila is angry and bitter that her childhood has been stolen from her by the limitations of her sister’s condition. She has often, truthfully, wished Yasmin dead so that they could all be free to lead normal lives. The guilt she suffers because of it, is destroying her.
The third voice is that of Yasmin, whose life revolves around repetitions, and the endless white noise of the compulsively remembered details of every day, every moment of her life. The way that Farooki gets inside the landscape of Yasmin’s mind, voicing her thoughts, is remarkable.
As the book opens, all their lives are about to change, as a documentary TV unit begins to make a film of Yasmin’s life.
One of the best things about the novel is its structure - the voices repeat in a musical sequence, and Farooki takes the reader expertly backwards and forwards in time, aiming everything towards a conclusion that is moving and utterly satisfying without a tinge of sentimentality.

Friday, 19 March 2010

S.J. Parris: Heresy

As a lover of detective fiction I’m always ready to read something new. Heresy ticked a lot of boxes. I’d just encountered the sixteenth century Italian Giordano Bruno in another context - the world of Florence and the Medici. He was once of the most advanced minds of his time - proposing the heretical theory that not only did the earth and other planets circulate round the sun, instead of vice versa, but that there were other planetary systems out there and other universes. Like a lot of early Einsteins he was burnt at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition while still a young man.
In S.J. Parris’s book, he is in England at the court of Queen Elizabeth - one of the known facts of his life - a friend of Sir Philip Sydney and on the payroll of Walsingham, to spy out Catholic recusants. He is also following the trail of a Forbidden Book, originally looted from a library in Alexandria and now being black-marketed around Europe. On a trip to the University of Oxford to debate his theories of the universe with more conventional minds (and look for the book) he becomes involved in solving the brutal murder of the sub-rector of Lincoln College.
This is not Umberto Eco, but it is a good read. It began a little slowly for me - 100 pages of lead-in - and some of the metaphysical conversations could have been edited down, but once the bodies began to turn up, murdered in gruesome and unlikely ways, the pace picked up and I found myself gripped by it.
I didn’t mind the real Giordano Bruno being translated into a fictional detective as much as I expected. S.J. Parris handles the mingling of fact and fiction beautifully. The historical period is rendered well too, without the intrusion of gratuitous detail.
S.J. Parris is better known as Stephanie Merritt, the deputy literary editor of the Observer, and already has two novels to her credit, Gaveston and Real. I think she has a winner on her hands here - the Elizabethan period is a very fertile source for novels of intrigue, betrayal and assassination. Giordano Bruno would be astounded by the direction that his afterlife has taken, but he makes a very interesting hero, as this interview with the author demonstrates.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Isa and May: Margaret Forster

It seems appropriate that while waiting for the birth of my granddaughter Isabela, I should have been reading a book about grandmothers.
Isamay is a young woman in her twenties, trying to make sense of the conflicting role models provided by the grandmothers she is named for - the upper class, matriarchal Isabel (known as Isa), and the working class, rather bolshy May. Isamay has high achieving parents and is struggling to find a direction for her own life. Her current project is an MA dissertation on the importance of grandmothers in society. Each chapter in the novel includes a synopsis of one particularly high-profile woman’s attitude to their grandchildren, Queen Victoria, Sarah Bernhardt , Margaret Mead etc.
The novel starts slowly with a lot of ‘telling’ and back-story in the early chapters, though the pace picks up later when Isamay begins to act on curious pieces of information she unearths about her own family history. She discovers that her grandmothers have secrets and their lives are not as respectable as family stories have led Isamay to believe.

Margaret Forster is a very accomplished novelist and biographer with more than 30 published titles (most of them still in print), since Georgy Girl caught the public’s imagination in 1965. Her ability to portray interesting elderly women was apparent in her fourth novel, The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff, whose central character is a grandmother very similar to May. Since the mid nineteen nineties, Margaret Forster has produced her very best work, including the two family memoirs Hidden Lives and Precious Lives, and a distinguished biography of Daphne du Maurier. Her most recent novel ‘Over’ was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction.
Unfortunately Isa and May is not one of Margaret’s best novels. When I finally put it down, I actually wished that she had written it as non-fiction - the research into the role of grandmothers in society was intriguing, but didn’t blend particularly well with the fictional context. I would have loved to have read Margaret’s analysis of her own personal experience, both of being a grandchild and being a grandmother. I think it would have made a much more powerful book. But the novel is still an enjoyable read.

Margaret Forster is an interesting author from the point of view of other authors. She refuses to do the literature festival circuit, rarely gives interviews and shuns the celebrity author slot. In fact she does none of the things publishers insist we should be doing in order to sell books. She is also in the age bracket where publishers often suggest voluntary euthanasia. Yet her books sell better and better. Word of mouth and readers' recommendations are obviously the best publicity an author can have.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Browsing the Bookshelves

The great thing about staying in other people’s houses is being able to browse through their bookcases. Staying with friends who work for publishers is even better because their shelves are stuffed with books not yet available to the public, as well as those must-reads you never got round to buying when they first came out. So my bedtime reading list has been very mixed. I’ve read two Niall Williams books that came well recommended, but found them rather too romantic for my taste - Four Letters of Love and As it is in Heaven. Less gritty than Frank McCourt, less literary than John Banville, but the Irish love of words is there as well as the sentiment. If you want tears and laughter, a really indulgent evening with chocolate and a glass of wine, a hot water bottle and an early night, Niall Williams is your man.
Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favourite American authors so I fell on her latest novel Lacuna eagerly, only to be disappointed. It’s her first book for several years and is the story of a young boy brought up in Mexico and America by his mercurial mother and a series of step-fathers. As a young man Harrison W. Shepherd - otherwise known as Solito - lives in the household of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera during the period when Leon Trotsky and his wife were staying there. This is the most interesting part of the book. He grows up to become a writer, then falls foul of the McCarthy inquisition. I won’t reveal the ending, only say that I found it very unsatisfactory and a bit of a fudge. But it was the structure of the novel that really failed me - the story is told in a variety of voices and styles - letters, diaries, third person report, newspaper clippings as well as traditional narrative - and the fragmentary style frustrated me. I simply couldn’t get involved. I was also aware that Kingsolver was writing a parable about American politics which, towards the end of the book, almost became a diatribe. Maybe she is so famous now that editors feel unable to suggest cuts - this book needed a really good editor.
I’ve also been having a binge of junk reading. My agent is also the agent for Michael White, so I tried one of his thrillers - The Medici Secret. As its title suggests, its in a similar vein to Dan Brown, but isn’t so well plotted and I found the central hypothesis totally unbelievable. I won’t be reading any more.
Now, back to the bookpile for more bedtime reading!

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Tinker Tailor Spy

John le Carre - A Perfect Spy

I missed this novel when it was published in 1986, feeling rather sated with the whole spy genre; after the fall of the Berlin Wall it seemed somehow irrelevant. Then I watched the first part of the television adaptation and didn’t enjoy it so never got round to the book at all. But it has recently been re-issued in paperback and I regret the lapse. Carre is an amazing writer, if (like John Fowles) rather wordy and slow-paced for contemporary taste.

A Perfect Spy is the story of a boy born to an aristocratic mother and a con-man father in the spectactular style of Bernard Madoff. When his mother has a nervous breakdown and sectioned, the child is brought up in the context of his father’s criminal associates, assorted mistresses and the cheaper end of the public school system. Carre builds the character of the young spy carefully and credibly. After reading the book I really can understand why people might betray their countries.
Stimulated by the novel, I have also re-watched the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy BBC adaptation. The cast list is a roll-call of British acting - Alec Guinness, Ian Richardson, Bernard Hepton, Hywel Bennett and Ian Bannen. It was adapted by the great Arthur Hopcraft, most famous for writing about football. Jonathon Powell, who commissioned the script, believed Tinker Tailor to be Hopcraft’s best work. "Everybody says how complicated a book it is, but also it is very simple; a man tracking down one of four people. One of the things Arthur was so marvellous at was in giving you a crystal clear line through things, honing it down to diamond-like clarity. Arthur became a king of that kind of work. The only other one in his class was Dennis Potter."

Hopcraft went on to write adaptations of Bleak House and Hard Times and won a Bafta, but apparently became disillusioned about the state of contemporary TV - what he called "being alternately patronised and bullied by girls called Fiona flourishing clipboards."
Another reason for Tinker Tailor’s quality is that it was directed by one of Britain’s finest film directors, John Irvin (still making films). It took me a while to settle into the slow, meditative style, but I found myself so gripped I watched all the episodes one after the other into the early hours of the morning. Financial constraints and ignorance (or contempt for) the intelligence of the viewing public mean that no one these days would allow such an profound exploration of a novel’s characters and themes, and I think that is a great loss to television.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Reading Alan Bennett

I’m just reading Alan Bennett’s account of his relationship with his parents, ‘A Life Like Other People’s’, published in 2009. His style is unique; Radio 4, perfectly pitched, and the very essence of ‘northernness’ is in the vocabulary, the flattened vowels in the rhythm of the prose. His voice establishes an affectionate intimacy with the reader. For a homesick northerner it’s as if you’re listening to a favourite uncle, reading you a bedtime story.
I can hear the echo of my grandparents’ voices, Harry and Lizzie, born in the Irish ghettos of Carlisle and brought up with the language of their adopted country. I can still hear my grandfather say to his wife, (who is once again ‘in a bit of a state’), ‘Now then, mother....’, his tone one you would adopt for an over-excited dog, his impatience and exasperation cloaked in resignation. My grandmother wears, like Alan Bennett’s mother, a duster coat, or perhaps a little two piece from C & A. She aspired to Binns, but could rarely afford the prices. She wore glasses with a little diamante exclamation mark at the corners, and always put on a hat even if she was going across the street for a loaf of bread.
Reading Alan Bennett, I’m pitched back into my grandparents' council house on a newly built estate, a sneering teenager poking ridicule at the crocheted crinoline dolls that covered the toilet rolls. On the sideboard were strange crocheted fruit bowls which you had to soak in sugar water and then dry over a basket until they were stiff. She crocheted hats too - which were then stretched over a specially bought ‘shape’, which I think she had ‘sent off for’ as a special offer from Woman and Home magazine. She was obsessively houseproud. Mrs Bennett’s litany of buckets and cloths and mops - each with a separate purpose - was repeated in my grandmother’s house. When she bought a new sofa the plastic cover was only taken off for family ‘dos’ or when the vicar came to call. Her particular enemy was the damp - you could die, she told me, from a chill caught in an unaired bed. She once burnt my grandfather’s Sunday jacket while airing it in front of the gas fire before he put it on.
But unlike Alan Bennett’s home, theirs was a cold, loveless house. If my grandfather ever ventured to show her affection she would shrink away and say ‘Don’t be silly, Harry!’ She told my mother once, while I played on the floor, wide-eyed and all ears, that she ‘couldn’t be doing with It. I put a stop to it after our May was born.’ Sad.

Sad too, Alan Bennett’s tale of repression in post-war Leeds; family secrets that concerned - not aberrant sexuality - but mental illness and its consequences. His account of his mother’s slow slide into depression and then dementia is gentle and humorous as well as tragic.
You can get tired of his style - though this book is too short to cloy. It’s a beautifully told memoir that also gives a frank account of the autobiographical sources for his many plays, sketches and books. Like ‘Talking Heads’ it’s a monologue that reveals as much about the narrator as it does about the subject of the story.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Wallander: One Step Behind

One Step Behind, by Henning Mankell

Detective fiction is one of my favourite forms of relaxation. I love puzzles of any kind and I want to be kept guessing right to the end. I also love being taken into a new and fascinating world by the writer. I’ve read Donna Leon’s Venetian detective stories (love Venice, quite fancy Brunetti, but they’re not always well written) and I’ve read Anne Zouroudi’s Greek mysteries (brilliant on all counts), so when I caught a couple of episodes of Wallander on TV I was keen to try the books.
The hero, Kurt Wallander, is a detective with an Interior Life in the best traditions of Morse and Adam Dalgleish. Wallander isn’t just a cypher to unravel the plot for the reader. He’s overweight, drinks too much, his romantic life is a desert littered with wreckage, and he has a close, though turbulent relationship with his grown-up daughter. But he is passionate about his work.
In the novel, One Step Behind, he is tracking, and being tracked by, a psychopath, whose strange mind-set baffles police profilers, detectives and the general public. Being able to get inside the mind of a psychopath and make it believable is quite an achievement for a novelist - Patricia Highsmith did it brilliantly, and so do Ruth Rendell and Ian Rankin. Henning Mankell gives a chilling portrait of a mild-mannered loner, living in a sound-proof room, leading a bizarre double life.
The writing’s good too. Sweden in the cool, almost perpetual, daylight of midsummer comes off the page so vividly you can feel the sand blowing in your face. I will be reading more Wallander mysteries and it’s also convinced me I need to read a few other Scandinavian authors too. Everyone’s talking about Steig Larsson, so he’s next on the list. Oh, and there’s a French author (female) called Fred Vargas I’m told I should try. That list should keep me relaxed for quite some time.
On the TV series - apparently Kenneth Branagh is going to be playing Wallander next, but I don’t think he’ll be as authentic as the current Swedish actor.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Eavan Boland: Women Writing Outside History

Living and writing in twenty first century Europe, it’s easy to take much for granted where the politics of women and poetry are concerned; to forget that there was a time when the two words existed across a gulf of gender prejudice and cultural assumptions. There are also, in Britain, other problems to be surmounted. As Deryn Rees-Jones writes in ‘Consorting with Angels’, ‘the legacy of British Imperialism, and the divisions and difficulties set up within notions of Britishness in relation to both Black and Asian as well as Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh identities’ extends far beyond the gender question, and adds another level of complexity.

Reading Eavan Boland’s account of what it was like to become a woman poet in post-war Ireland, confronting all these issues, is fascinating. She clearly felt a lack of permission to write, as a woman, about ‘the feminine’, her body, her experience, her politics. ‘I know now that I began writing in a country where the word woman and the word poet were almost magnetically opposed. One word was used to invoke collective nurture, the other to sketch out self-reflective individualism. I became used to the flawed space between them. In a certain sense, I found my poetic voice by shouting across that distance.’ She reminds us that there was a time when female experience was considered either an unsuitable subject for a poem, or one of only minor significance - male experience was ‘universal’; female experience ‘domestic’. Boland’s volume of autobiographical essays, ‘Object Lessons’ records her struggle to make her life and her womanhood the central subject-matter of the poem. ‘I wanted there to be no contradiction between the way I made an assonance to fit a line and the way I lifted up a child at night.’

I find a lot of resonances in Eavan Boland’s poetry. I am third generation Irish - part of the Irish diaspora in England, brought up in a welter of story-telling and music, still influenced by it, still aware of the traditions, but with a strong sense of displacement. So, I find her elegiac poems of people and places fill me with a kind of cultural longing, for a history of belonging, that I can never have.

I found the first collection in a second-hand shop - The Journey, published in 1987 - containing titles such as ‘The Oral Tradition’, ‘The Emigrant Irish’, ‘The Woman takes her Revenge on the Moon’. It didn’t disappoint. ‘Oral Tradition’, with its account of two women overheard telling the story of a woman who gave birth in the fields, reminded me of my childhood and the whispered conversations of adults, telling the stories of ancestors who had done forbidden things, passing the stories on like heirlooms, forming an unbroken memory line that went back two hundred years.

‘The oral song
avid as superstition,
layered like an amber in
the wreck of language
and the remnants of a nation.

... singing innuendoes, hints,
outlines underneath
the surface, a sense
suddenly of truth,
its resonance.’
I went on to buy ‘Outside History’, published by Carcanet in 1990. It contains the long poem-sequence ‘Object Lessons’, from which her prose volume borrows the title. In it she writes about writing, in ‘The Rooms of Other Women Poets’.

I wonder about you: whether the blue abrasions
of daylight, falling as dusk across your page,

make you reach for the lamp. I sometimes think
I see that gesture in the way you use language.

And whether you think, as I do, that wild flowers
dried and fired on the ironstone rim of

the saucer underneath your cup, are a sign of
a savage, old calligraphy: you will not have it.’

I was fascinated by the story of ‘The Shadow Doll’, which was created by dressmakers to show a bride what her wedding dress would look like, and was kept under a dome of glass.

‘Now, in summary and neatly sewn -
a porcelain bride in an airless glamour -
the shadow doll survives its occasion.

Under glass, under wraps, it stays
even now, after all, discreet about
visits, fevers, quickenings and lusts ...’

Other poems, such as ‘The Latin Lesson’ are directly autobiographical. Forced to learn Latin for university entrance, Boland hated it. From her tutor’s room, struggling with the complexities of the ablative absolute, ‘I could watch friends walking to and from class, carrying tennis rackets and hockey sticks, laughing and talking, free of the burdens and worries of a dead grammar. I envied them.’ But then one day, she suddenly began to understand ‘how the systems of a language which could make such constructs ... Stood against the disorders of love and history..... the precision and force of these constructs began to seem both moving and healing.’ She had realised the power of grammar to reveal minute shades of meaning or organise complex arguments - ‘I had never known words as power.’
Another sequence gives the collection its title, ‘Outside History’, and these poems are about female experience - particularly Irish female experience - unrecorded by history. The images sometimes seem a little cliched but the poet’s personal connection with the subject matter lifts them out of it - the elderly Achill Woman struggling up the hill with buckets of water for a young girl on holiday in the Gael-tacht, a woman sewing by candlelight with a child beside her, the white, unlucky wash of hawthorn in the hedgerows, frosty stars ‘these iron inklings of an Irish January’ that symbolise history’s own distancing from the suffering they witness.

But my favourite Boland poem comes from her 1994 collection ‘In a Time of Violence’, which was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize . I like it because it describes perfectly that brief pause that seems to come at dusk, when you stand in the half-dark, hearing children calling, the first bats beginning to flit across the sky and all time seems to be suspended and the ordinary seems invested with significance.

A neighbourhood.
At dusk.

Things are getting ready
to happen
out of sight.

Stars and moths.
And rinds slanting around fruit.

But not yet.

One tree is black.
One window is yellow as butter.

A woman leans down to catch a child
who has run into her arms
this moment.

Stars rise.
Moths flutter.

Apples sweeten in the dark.
In her prose essays, Boland describes what was for her an epiphanic moment. It’s a summer evening in a Dublin suburb. ‘I am talking to a woman in the last light. I have just finished cutting the grass at the front, and we are outside, between her house and mine .... She lives across the road from me. Her children are teenagers. Mine are still infants, asleep behind the drawn curtains in the rooms upstairs. As we talk, I feel the shadow of some other meaning across our conversation, which is otherwise entirely about surface things. That it is high summer in my life, not in hers. That hers is the life mine will become, while mine is the life she has lost. And then the conversation ends. I turn to go in.’
But once inside, sitting at her table in the upstairs room, she finds herself unable to write about her experience. ‘It is in the foreground of the poem that the difficulties exist. That the poem falters. Where the women stand and talk - deep within that image is, I know, another image. The deeper image is that shadow, the aging woman, the argument that the body of one woman is a prophecy of the body of the other. Here, at the very point where I am looking for what Calvino calls "that natural rhythm, as of the sea, of the wind, that festive light impulse," the exact opposite happens. I cannot make her real. I cannot make myself real.’ The book, Object Lessons, is really Boland’s attempt to answer the question ‘why’ as well as her search for a solution and an account of the distance she has travelled between that moment and the present time.
Though declaring herself neither a ‘separatist nor a post-feminist’, she ends the book by stating that ‘the personal witness of a woman poet is still a necessary part of the evolving criteria by which women and their poetry must be evaluated. Nor do I wish to imply that I solved my dilemma. The dilemma persists; the crosscurrents continue.’
I find this very sad, and wonder how true it is that women’s poetry is still undervalued and marginalised because its subject matter is seen as ‘minor’ rather than universal. I have spent half my life chronicling the struggles of woman writers to be published and recognised, from the 17th century Duchess of Newcastle (A Glorious Fame), through Dorothy Wordworth and Sara Coleridge (A Passionate Sisterhood), to Christina Rossetti (Learning not to be First) and Catherine Cookson. Are women writers still unequal? Am I misguided to think that is all in the past? In 2010 I’m not aware of any glass ceilings as a writer. But perhaps I owe that sense of freedom to women like Eavan Boland and my other literary ancestors.

Eavan Boland, ‘Object Lessons: the life of the woman and the poet in our time’, Carcanet, 2006
New and Collected Poems, Carcanet, 2006
The Journey, Carcanet, 1987
Outside History, Carcanet, 1990
In a Time of Violence, Carcanet, 1994
Deryn Rees-Jones, ‘Consorting with Angels’ (essays on Modern Women Poets) Bloodaxe, 2005.