Monday, 29 July 2013

The Sea Inside: Philip Hoare

The Sea Inside

Philip Hoare

Published by Fourth Estate

We are 50% water - ‘we all contain the sea inside us’ - and evolution shows that life on earth originally crawled out of the sea.  But there is a theory that human beings may have emerged out of the ocean more recently than other life-forms. We still have vestigial webbed feet and fingers, almost the same ratio of fat to body mass as a dolphin, a natural instinct to hold our breath under water, and other adaptations that suggest a close connection with the mammals who live in the watery elements.  Was our ancestor a ‘watery ape’?

Our relationship with the sea fascinates Philip Hoare, who swims in it every day, often before dawn, and in every type of weather.  ‘The Sea Inside’ is a series of meditations on its mythologies, its biological and chemical complexity, its influence on our climate, and the importance of the oceanic eco-systems to our own survival. ‘The sea defines us,’ he writes, ‘connects us, separates us.  Most of us experience only its edges, our available wilderness on a crowded island’. 

Philip Hoare lives in these edgelands, on the fringes of the city of Southampton. ‘I didn’t choose to;  it chose me.  I might have found a more picturesque place, wild and romantic or urban and exciting; the kind of places people pass through here to reach.  A port city relies on its relationship to elsewhere.  Perhaps that’s why I like it so well, since it does not impose any identity on me’.  Living there, he is more aware than most of the dangerous foundations we have built our civilisation on. When he cycles to the shore every morning, he passes a forest of industrial installations; ‘tapering spires for a new place of worship; circular tanks as giant igloos... silos like newly-landed space ships ...  There’s no human scale to this petropolis ... it is brutal, practical, inevitable.’ 

In the book the author travels the world to swim with whales, explore remote shores, and record the sad history of human depredation.  We are not being kind to the ocean, but we need to change our ways, because our own salvation is carried in its deepest currents. 

A beautifully written book, as you'd expect from the author of Leviathon, who also lectures in creative non-fiction.  It's not quite in the same league as his last, but a moving, thoughtful read.

The Sea Inside
by Philip Hoare

PS - I was horrified to find that I had to pay much, much more for the Kindle edition than the paperback - it is extortion on the part of the publisher!

Friday, 19 July 2013

Country Girl: Edna O'Brien

Country Girl

by Edna O'Brien


Published by Faber and Faber

I was lucky enough to be sitting near to Edna O'Brien in the Green Room at a recent literature festival and she was holding the whole room spellbound with an anecdote about Philip Roth. She's a natural raconteur - the gift of the Irish, some would say.

I've always loved her writing - her first book The Country Girls (Country Girls Trilogy 1) was part of my growing up. But I haven't read anything of hers for some years. So this autobiography intrigued me. I found the first part of it gripping and saddening - the cruelty and emotional manipulation of young people in the name of religion makes me very angry. Her mother was a martyr and her father was an alcoholic. Between them and the nuns she grew up insecure and ill-equipped for life in the real world.

An early, disastrous marriage to a control freak who was also an author almost destroyed her. When she wrote her first novel and it was a runaway success, her marriage ended. 'You can write, and I will never forgive you,' he told her after he had read her book. She had to fight a three year court battle to get her children back.

But after the intensity of these first chapters, the narrative slips away into reminiscence. Memories go backwards and forwards in time and the reader is left looking for connections. There are some wonderful anecdotes - seductions by film stars, Princess Margaret dropping in for parties, a close friendship with Jackie Onassis - but it lacks a structure. I loved the writing - she is as lyrical as ever and I can hear her voice as I read the prose.

A flawed book, but she's always worth listening to.  One of the twentieth century's iconic writers.

Country Girl
Edna O'Brien

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna

The Hired Man

by Aminatta Forna

Bloomsbury Publishing

Contemporary Fiction

‘September 2007
At the time of writing I am forty-six years old.  My name is Duro Kolak. Laura came to Gost in the last week of July....’

I didn’t read Aminatta Forna’s first, Orange Prize-listed, novel, The Memory of Love, but may now go back and read it on the strength of The Hired Man’s quality.

This novel is set in post-civil war Croatia.  An abandoned house has been sold to a woman from England who arrives with her children for the summer and employs Duro as a handyman to do the repairs.   Her appearance, and the restoration of the house awaken memories, not only in Duro, but among the villagers too.  Unwelcome memories of a time when people as well as animals were hunted.  It’s told purely from Duro’s point of view, as he watches and remembers, and becomes a pivotal person in the lives of the family, who are oblivious to the ripples they’re creating in the scarred community around them.  Only the young daughter senses that things are not as idyllic as they seem and that the glorious scenery they inhabit has a dark history.

This is a beautiful, moving book, very well written.  I wanted a slightly different ending, but I think the book has the ending that is right for it. Nothing can be resolved.  Memories have to be lived with.  Broken love affairs can rarely be mended.  We can’t always have what we want.
Published by Bloomsbury

Thursday, 11 July 2013

I am Half Sick of Shadows (Flavia de Luce) by Alan Bradley

I am Half Sick of Shadows

(Flavia de Luce #4)

by Alan Bradley

Published by Random House

Mystery/Crime Fiction

I do like a bit of light-hearted stuff among all the serious books I read! This is the first novel that I've read of the Flavia de Luce series, and I'm absolutely hooked. It's set in rural England in the 1950s. Flavia, aged 11, amateur sleuth, precocious amateur chemist and expert on poisons, is a wonderful character. She lives with her father, two unsympathetic sisters, a house-keeper and her father's batman 'Dogger', in a large house, which is falling apart due to the fact that its owner, Flavia's mother Harriet, has disappeared in Tibet without leaving a will.

It's a totally dysfunctional family, and a totally off-the-wall plot. Desperate for money to keep the old pile, and the family, from complete ruin, Colonel de Luce has rented the house out to a film crew just before Christmas. Mayhem, madness and a huge quantity of snow descend overnight, locking everyone indoors just in time for a grisly murder. And Flavia, being Flavia, is first on the scene.

This is a YA book for adults and I'm definitely going to seek out the others - including the new one just out, called Speaking from Among the Bones. It reminds me of the Ladies No 1 Detective Agency - the same sense of humour and gentle escapism. 

Alan Bradley, like Alexander McCall Smith, is not a young author - born in 1938 - and didn't begin the Flavia de Luce stories until 2006, when he wrote the beginning of a story for the Crime Dagger Debut prize and found that he'd won!  It only goes to show.......
PS I found this book on Pinterest, browsing book covers and authors - proof that it is a good place for authors to be!

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Mr Darwin's Gardener, by Kristina Carlson

Mr Darwin's Gardener

by Kristina Carlson

Published by Peirene Press

I loved Asko Sahlberg's The Brothers, translated by mother and daughter team Fleur and Emily Jeremiah, so I picked up this book, by another Finnish author Kristina Carlson, translated by the same team, with some anticipation.  I wasn't disappointed.

It is impossible to describe this book - a novel, yes, but not in any conventional sense.  Poetry in prose?  Certainly that.  There's a concentration on language, observation, a polyphony of voices.  Kristina Carlson is also a poet, so it's no surprise to find her prose so rich and allusive.

Thomas Davies has lost his wife;  he has two children with congenital defects and is an aetheist;  he is Mr Darwin's gardener.  The villagers watch him, as they watch each other.  We move in and out of their heads, listening to their thoughts and opinions and most intimate concerns.

The doctor drinks and his wife cries.  Stuart Wilkes invents impractical domestic objects.  Jennifer Kenny brews herbal remedies;  her niece dreams of the novel she will probably never write.  Rosemary Rowe fears her violent husband.  Thomas Davies ponders the meaning of life and finds consolation in the garden;  'the most beautiful thing about plants is their silence'.

A stranger arrives in the village, but then he is recognised as someone whose identity stirs the men into violent action; 'revenge brings great satisfaction'.  But the body disappears, causing consternation and fear.

It is difficult for any writer to take the reader back past the two great watersheds in human psychology - Darwin and Freud.  How do you get inside the minds of people who believed that the world was created, complete with all the animals, in 7 days, and were not troubled by theories of self-consciousness?  Kristina Carlson,  writing very simply, about the day to day concerns of the people, their hopes and private tragedies, takes us back to a Kent village in the 1870s, very successfully.

Kristina is a highly regarded author in Finland.  I was lucky enough to hear her talk at one of the Peirene Press supper clubs, where she said that this novel is the one she had wanted to write since she was sixteen.  It's beautifully translated.  I noticed a lot of 2 star and 1 star reviews on Goodreads because people have found it difficult. If you try to read it as a conventional novel then, yes, it will not meet your expectations.  It's post-modern, experimental - a fluid, multi-layered, multi-voiced narrative that flows like music. You have to forget everything and immerse yourself in  the language and the voices.

For me it is like water in the desert to find a novel that hasn't come out of the Creative Writing Factory, a novel that is about language and image, that carries ideas and stirs the imagination. We live in the characters' minds, translated through time. I read it twice and will read it again.  It's the kind of book you can just dip into, like a collection of poetry. 

Mr Darwin's Gardener