Anthony Horowitz – Moriarty

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Initial delight soured : unbelievable gore sequence, and too much manipulation

MoriartyFor around three quarters of Horowitz’s second `Sherlock Holmes’ I was most enjoyably surrendered to this splendid `Holmesian in style but without the great man or his biographer’ book, as Horowitz pairs a self-created Holmes disciple, Inspector Athelney Jones, from Scotland Yard, with a `Pinkerton’s man’, Frederick Chase, and the two, meeting at the Reichenbach Falls, join forces in an investigation to track down a new American master criminal, Clarence Devereux.

The Reichenbach Falls are where Holmes allegedly fell to his death, along with his arch-enemy, Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime. As the legion of fans of Conan Doyle’s stories know, Doyle killed off his too successful consulting detective, but later was forced to bring him back.

Horowitz starts by pleasurably playing with the reader’s sensibilities, as Chase, the American, picks holes in what happened at Reichenbach, throwing doubt on the actions of both Holmes and Watson. Something, he concludes, is not quite right. Jones, a detective who appears, bumblingly, in one of Holmes’ investigations, had lionised and hero-worshipped the great detective, and has studied ferociously to develop his own abilities, and now models himself on his dead hero. Chase, a more plodding, less flamboyant character, is willing to assume the mantle of Jones’ trusty Watson, as the two begin an investigation into the revelation that the mysterious American criminal Devereux was involved in joining forces with Moriarty to set up a global network of evil doing. And Chase as narrator, like Watson, tells a tale well.

Horowitz is brilliant at setting time, place, and cast of believable characters. Though there is certainly more graphic depiction of violence than personally I can take in fiction, as there is a taint of the gratuitous: violence as entertainment, I went happily along for the ride, appreciating Horowitz’ sly humour as he lobs Sherlockian history, characters and references into his thoroughly absorbing crime novel, steeped in the darkness of the Victorian underworld, and the valiant efforts of those who seek to fight the darkness

And then…………….about three quarters of the way through there is an absolute ratchet up of violence, and in a manner which is both horrible, gratuitous, and highly overdone. Reminding me of nothing so much as bad movies where the slamming and the pounding and the multiplicity of firepower and the like are of ridiculous proportions, unrealistic and in the end clumsy, lacking trust in the audience. Credibility as well as finesse is lost. At this point, my five star rating had fallen away.

And then the author becomes very audacious indeed. Far too much so, I believed; the cardinal crime of over-manipulation of character to force plot, shattering credibility, cheap tricks.

Except.

There is a relentless and detailed exposition of what has happened, and the reader is argued and browbeaten  into some sort of surrender. But, at least for me, the undoubted authorial cleverness has come at the cost of belief and involvement with the characters. I was left with the feeling that as the `trick’ and the whole thing, is, after all, only a fiction, in the end, it doesn’t much matter. WHAT doesn’t much matter can’t be revealed, for fear of spoilers.

This book is clearly dividing readers. I’m one of the ones who was hugely impressed by The House of Silk, and its authenticity to the style, and far less so with this.  Of course, in dispensing with Holmes and Watson, there is no need to retain the restraint, the humour, the charm of the original, but because Horowitz so firmly kept our awareness of all of that alive in the early part of the book, the fall away from that restraint, humour and charm left me only able to grudgingly say `yes, the author himself has been marvellously clever’  but I had no feeling of delight in the cleverness.

3 ½ stars. Probably having just finished the book, the overwhelming feeling is of let down, making it `okay’ only, maybe waiting before posting will give me more of a sense of my earlier appreciation, enough to, just, lift the book to a like.

And in the end, that is what happened, but in some ways its more for the fact that what for me are serious flaws provoked me into reflection about the whole ‘trick’ and unreality of fiction.

We know that a novel is a work of imagination, or at least is a subjective interpretation, and that the skilful author, like the skilful actor, is making us believe in their reality. And we WANT to be delighted by the author’s skill. It’s like a stage magician, we know we are being manipulated, and enter willingly into the manipulation. And some authors take great pains to keep us reminded, in a novel’s version of Brechtian alienation, that ‘this is not real’, it is a fiction.

Perhaps crime writing is closest to what the magician does – either the clues are there but our attention was diverted elsewhere, and eventually we might have the trick explained – that is what Sherlock Holmes does, or we as readers may also be working out the solution as we go along. And we might be delighted to have had our attention diverted, or we might just feel conned. I think there might be some sort of nebulous sense of what is fair play, whether in a novel or in a stage act. I’m stumblingly coming to the conclusion that there is an investment readers make with well crafted characters in a book, and that that investment, and the characters, need judicious handling by a writer.

I was, in the end, reminded of something Hitchcock, that master of suspense, said, that ‘shock’ in films is the easy thing, it is suspense which takes more craft. Horowitz delivered a stupendous shock. But what it left me with, was disappointment. A kind of grudging acknowledgement of his cleverness, rather than a delight in his sleight of hand. It’s fairly impossible to explain in quite what way I feel cheated without spoiling anyone else’s journey.

I’m guardedly recommending, more because I’m interested in discovering what other Anthony Horowitzreaders felt and thought. This would be a great book for a book-club, as I think it could provoke very very useful not to mention highly animated discussion!

And as a good example of how much this book is dividing fans of Conan Doyle, and indeed fans of Horowitz’s hommage to Conan Doyle series, look no further than my good bloggy friend FictionFan’s review. It was, after all, she who delightedly alerted me to the earlier The House Of Silk and also when this one hove onto the horizon

I really wish that Horowitz had kept the faith with at least one of the strengths which he pointed out was true of Conan Doyle’s writing, in his afterword to House Of Silk, where he observed that in the Sherlock Holmes stories the body counts, and also the graphic descriptions of violence, are spare. Of course, as the central characters in this story are neither Holmes nor Watson, and Horowitz has moved away into something slightly different, one could argue that more violence, and more corpses, don’t really matter. But, personally, the ‘less is more’ restraint of earlier writers has a lot to recommend it, and I wish there was less visiting the bargain basement of gore and indulging in what seems like a BOGOF offer on lovingly described bleeding corpses!

Moriarty Amazon UK
Moriarty Amazon USA

Jane Smiley – Some Luck

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A hundred years in the Mid-West, stirred through a family saga, and blending in the wide, wide world

Some LuckJane Smiley’s ‘Some Luck’ is Volume 1 of a trilogy, examining a tumultuous 100 years from just after the end of the Great War to 2020. Smiley does this by taking an ordinary family from Iowa, from mixed European settler stock, and following them forward through the generations, as children grow and become parents, and those children grow, in a world which is endlessly, rapidly in change.

Like Smiley’s Pulitzer prizewinning A Thousand Acres, this first volume of the trilogy shows the author as a writer with a deep connection to rural place and landscape, and to the powerful hold than ‘land’ can exert. She effortlessly shows how a story can be both deeply and uniquely personal, familial, and how the personal is always shot through with the ripples, tugs, and in-roads which the wider world and its history makes in the lives of each unique individual, as we all come from place, and live through time.

The structure of this first (and I assume the subsequent two) of the trilogy, takes each chapter looking at a year in the life of the family, exploring what is happening to them, in their relationships with each other, and their relationship with that world of which they are part. ‘Some Luck’ runs from 1920-1953

The central family is that of Walter Langdon, 25 in 1920, from Irish, Scottish, English settler heritage, a young farmer who had spent time in the Great War. His young wife Rosanna, from a German settler heritage has recently given birth to their first child, Frank.

Southern Iowa Drift Plain, Wiki Commons

Southern Iowa Drift Plain, Wiki Commons

The first few chapters present, stunningly, an inside into the mind of a small child, and the laying out of how personality is already clearly expressed. The relationships between parents, children, grandparents, the physical, rooted life in connection with the land, a sense of tradition, stability, and life unfolding in repeating spirals with change beginning to happen, faster and faster as the years roll by, is done with absolute assurance.

Things that he picked up, no matter how small, were removed from his grasp before he could give them the most cursory inspection, not to mention get them to his mouth. It seemed that he could never get anything to his mouth that he actually wanted to get there. Whatever he grabbed was immediately removed and a cracker was substituted, but he had explored all the features of crackers, and there was nothing more about them that he cared to find out

Smiley is in many ways a deceptively easy read. She tells a great story, and it’s clear this is and will be a marvellously absorbing narrative, an expose of social history, changing cultural landscapes, but she does this so apparently without effort, that there is never the sense of a character being manipulated to prove a point or to make something happen.

The influx of the wider world into the Langdon world, showing the effects of the depression of the 20’s, the move to war, the engagement of the second generation in that war, the rise of the Cold War, changing fashions in child care, the aspirations of modernity, a society where stability is giving way to rapid change, conservative capitalism versus consumerism, socialism, life post-Hiroshima and the shadow of the bomb, all this complexity is most beautifully revealed. Her book is as much educative social history as novel, without the history ever feeling like a information overload.

It was when I finished Some Luck, and sat down to think about what Smiley had done, and the manner of her doing it, that I realised how brilliantly the novel had been crafted. She is not a writer who stuns with her showy brilliance, but one who, when you stop and look at the piece, has crafted beautifully, properly, harmoniously. There is integrity to her work. And I can’t wait for volume 2, which will cover the 50’s to the 80’s, and where, I suspect, the sense of timelessness which still clung to the early part of Some Luck, will be wrenched asunder

as long as the words were not said…..(she) didn’t have to react, didn’t have to feel that thing that she was going to feel, that thing that was like an empty house with the windows smashed and the paint peeling and the pillars of the porch broken and the porch roof itself collapsing, which was something she had never seen, but became something she would never forget

Recommended, most highly recommended.Jane Smiley

I received this as a digital review copy from the publishers

Some Luck Amazon UK
Some Luck Amazon USA

Gett : The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

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Sombre Film With A Rather Old Fashioned Feel : but then, so are Rabbinical Divorce Laws

GettViviane Amsalem, an Israeli woman, wants a divorce, as she and her husband are not compatible. She has lived apart from her husband for 3 years. Unfortunately for Viviane, this is Israel, and the `Get’ or divorce ruling, can only happen if the husband agrees to the divorce. And Viviane’s husband does not want to release her

Shot entirely in soulless official hearings rooms and waiting areas, this is a claustrophobic film, with a trio of powerful performances from, particularly from Ronit Elkabetz, as Viviane Amsalem, Simon Abkarian as her stone-faced brooding, implacable husband Elisha, and Menashe Noy as Carmel, Viviane’s fiery, impassioned lawyer. Sasson Gabai is equally excitable and prickly as Elisha’s advocate, brother, and upholder of traditional rabbinical values.

The divided couple, both deeply suffering, one wanting her freedom, the other savagely unable to let her go `she is my destiny’, despite the fact that both leak hard suffering through their association in every glance, givw wonderfully internalised performances, electric with seething, restrained bitterness. The advocates roar and gesticulate, with fiery expression.

The film misses its final star, for me, because a few of the `star turn’ witness performances are a little too much bravura character comedy `we need some laughs here’. And though we certainly do, at times that dialogue and some of those performances are a little too obviously `play this for laughs’ and verging on caricature. Performances for the stage rather than film. Oppressive though the film and its subject matter is, a lighter touch on the `breathing space’ moments would have better kept the integrity of what the film is about.

Though the dreadful rigidity and wrongness of the system is clear, what is well done is that the husband is not played as a pantomime villain by Abkarian – he performs the role without commenting on it. It is a truthful, restrained performance which means that Elisha makes sense to himself.

Elkabetz is a multi talented woman, as she co-directed and co-wrote, as well as starred in this.

Her powerful pressure-cooker performance eventually and agonisingly explodes as the film reaches a dreadful climax and the final images had me out of my chair with shock and disbelief. Skilfully done.

trailer-gett-the-trial-of-viviane-amsalem

This film is Israel’s entry as `Best Foreign Language Film for the 2015 Oscars.

In filmic terms, it has no whistles and bells, no fast cutting, soundtrack et al, and has nailed its submission to issue and performances.

Costumes are almost unremittingly black and white (!) throughout, pre-and-post credits and titles against a heavy red background. Sudden appearances of colour in clothing are shocking, as if we have forgotten light, shade and nuance could exist at all.

I received this as a review DVD from the Amazon Vine programme UK. The film does not yet appear under the above name on Amazon USA. Maybe it will be retitled.

Gett: The Trial Of Viviane Amsalem Amazon UK

Cecilia Ekbäck – Wolf Winter

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A so nearly excellent read, but fell badly at a far too ambitious and implausible ‘wrap’

Wolf WinterFor most of this roughly 400 page first novel by Cecilia Ekbäck, I was absorbed and immersed, and able to suspend my disbelief over some inconsistencies or improbabilities. However, within the final 50 pages, the author attempted a far too complicated trail of red herrings and multiple conspiracies, which rather weakened the undoubted strength of the book – the ability to capture a historical period, within an isolated sombre geography – Swedish Lapland in 1717, and a conglomeration of rather diverse, scattered communities, travellers and residents.

Without revealing spoilers, a small family, with clearly some not quite revealed `history’ and cupboards which might contain the odd skeleton, leave their coastal community of Ostrobothnia in Finland, to come to the mountainous, forested settlement of Blackasen Mountain. Mother Maija, an `earthwoman’ – midwife, father Paavo, previously a fisherman, and their two daughters, 14 year old Frederika and 6 year old Dorotea come to settle a homestead originally owned by Paavo’s uncle, who appeared to leave the homestead in rather mysterious circumstances.

Mystery in fact is everywhere. Maija, her own grandmother and Frederika have second sight, and can commune, willingly or unwillingly with elemental forces and the dead. Paavo is prey to extreme terrors and has become landlocked, unable to engage in his watery trade.

Blackasen Mountain itself has some curious, unsettling dark past, involving people who have gone missing. The landscape (beautifully described) is harsh, secretive, unforgiving and almost alive.

The two daughters discover a slaughtered body. The scattered community are tight-lipped about what might have happened, and are inclined to try and convince themselves and each other that this is the work of a bear, or of wolves.

Meanwhile, on a wider stage, Sweden has been in conflict with Russia, the Swedish King may not be altogether the most popular and secure of monarchs, a Calvinist Church is trying to maintain and control hierarchies within society, and older, animist, shamanist beliefs are still more potent beliefs for some, than Christianity. There are also conflicts between the settled Swedish homesteaders and the nomadic community of Lapps.

The small community, with its isolated homesteads, its nomadic winter Laplander visitors, is both closed in on itself and mutually suspicious of itself.

A small cast of characters, and the probability that it is someone within the community, rather than bear or wolf who is the murderer.

Canis_lupus_standing_in_snow

Wikimedia Commons, Canis lupus standing in snow

Almost everyone appears to have secrets; and, because of this, almost everyone might have motive.

History, crime, thriller, and the ratchet turned up into horror with the highly plausible (given the culture of the time and place) supernatural elements, and some stunning writing which brings home the harshness and difficulty of survival, and the terrifying, brooding beauty of the land itself, kept me engaged as Maija and Frederika, driven by the strength and fierceness of their own natures, are drawn into the need to understand and investigate. Mother and daughter also have their own conflicts with each other, and with the acceptance, or otherwise of the ‘gifts’ they have.

Character, relationships, narrative, setting, descriptive writing are all engaging. If only the author had known when to stop, and when a conspiracy and a whole raft of red herrings are just a bunch of fish too far.

This did, just, get the 4 star rating which means it made this blog, as in the end, on reflection the absorption of the reading experience for most of the book pulls this up into `recommended’ despite the crashing, thumping overdone complexities of the final solutions.

However……… Ekbäck is for sure a writer to watch

And for those who care about such things……please be aware that though wolves may figure in the story, as creatures who inhabit the cold Northern forests, and though I mentioned there are supernatural elements, please be assured nothing so crass as that oh-so-predictable and formulaic appearance of a werewolf mars the pages of this book! Werewolves are thankfully conspicuous only by their absence!

I received this as an early ARC from the Amazon Vine UK programme. It is due for publication in February 2015

Pre-publication comparisons have been to Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Stef cecilia-ekbackPenney’s The Tenderness Of Wolves, both stunning first novels. I didn’t find the comparisons unwarranted, for most of my read, even though in the end this author had had a rather clumsy tumble, where Kent and Penney were sure-footed all through

Wolf Winter Amazon UK
Wolf Winter Amazon USA

Ruth Rendell – The Girl Next Door

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Ruth Rendell but not quite as we know and expect her to be

The Girl Next DoorRuth Rendell has a long and distinguished career as a crime novelist, both of a series involving an ongoing inspector (Wexford) and as a crime writer of standalone books, without any ongoing investigator, And then there is her writing using another name, Barbara Vine. The Vine books (which I generally prefer) are rather darker and rather more devoted to complex subterranean psychology. It could be said they are really psychological thrillers.

Curiously, Rendell’s latest `Barbara Vine’ did not quite `bite’ with me the way she usually does.

This latest Rendell is also not quite as usual Rendell. For those expecting a crime, and an investigation to unmask the perpetrator it will come as a bit of a surprise to find the crime, and the perpetrator, and indeed the motive, are all explained in the blurb.

In the 40s, a man murders his wife and her lover, does a bit of dismemberment and buries their hands in a biscuit tin. (he saw them holding hands, when he came home unexpectedly, which alerted him to what was going on). Local children, including his son, play in the tunnels in semi-rural Loughton (as it was then) The tunnels will serve as a hiding place for the hands

Jumping forward more than 60 years the community of children have gone their separate ways, though some have kept in contact. Their lives begin to connect again when building development work uncovers the hands and the tin, and a half-hearted cold cases enquiry begins. Half-hearted as it is pretty obvious that whoever did the deed, and on whom, is most likely to be dead. The children who played in the tunnels are either themselves dead or in their seventies and more.

What the `crime hook’ does to is to reunite a group of very different elderly people, and `the hands’ are what connects their lives together again, whether they directly affected some of the major players at the time (for example the murderer’s son) or later, as the various at-the-time mysteries begin to be remembered and picked over.

What the book is really about is the passage of time, and, particularly, a look at the loves, lives and losses of a group of elderly people.

There are some things which are clearly `devices’ and don’t quite work – for example, the very burial of those hands, and the comparative ease with which the murderer got away with his murders, but I did get interested in the lives of the elderly group.

The exploration of the long uncoupling of marriages, and the enduring potency of first love, and, yes, the existence of sexuality and passionate feelings in a group of people whom most of us might think are `past it’ proved more absorbing than I might have supposed.

I received this as a review copy from the publishers

Ruth Rendell, photo from Daily Telegraph

Ruth Rendell, photo from Daily Telegraph

The photo of Rendell is from The Daily Telegraph, and in their review of this novel we were reminded that she has been writing crime fiction (and more) for over 50 years. She is now in her 80s. Gosh. And clearly, is still writing prolifically

The Girl Next Door Amazon UK
The Girl Next Door Amazon USA

Eric Ambler – The Mask Of Dimitrios

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The Mask Of DimitriosA Masterclass In How To Write A Spy Thriller : Europe Between The Wars

Finding what to read next after finishing a book which satisfied on every level, can be a real problem – well it can for me, as the stunningly successful book is one which shakes me up, and continues to make me think, feel, reflect and react for some time after I finish reading it.  It then proceeds to hang around for a bit, insinuating itself between me and my next book, and, generally, will be almost bound to make me disappointed in that next read.

So……I finished Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to The Deep North roughly a week ago, and that met my criteria of being a great book – not just the story, the characters, the quality of the writing, but it was ‘about stuff’ and engaged my intellect, my heart, my guts and has continued to make me reflect on its layered ‘stuff’

So……….I have picked up and put down, half read, read in disappointment books which don’t make it onto here. But how to break the spell? Reading something purely for entertainment won’t work, as I still want ‘stuff’ . Reading something where my little miss picky is going to be irritated by writing which is not of the same calibre won’t work either. Only a re-read will do, And the inspired choice was Eric Ambler’s The Mask Of Dimitrios.

I love these books written in the interwar years, by writers with an interest in world affairs, thrillers with a finger on the pulse of international affairs. Graham Greene, who wrote several of these (Stamboul Train, A Gun For Sale, The Ministry of Fear) classing them as entertainments, won’t do for me at THIS point, because Greene is a writer who always takes the reader right inside his characters, creating empathy, unsettling, and even in ‘the entertainments’, engages viscerally, making the reader feel and suffer with his characters. Flanagan wrung me too hard emotionally, and I want, at this point, a cooler, distanced engagement.

Ambler is perfect. He writes wonderful, absorbing, twisting stories, and his characters are plausible, interesting, and of a piece with themselves, rather than purely ciphers. But, – he doesn’t engage (at least not in this one) with any personal stuff, nothing intimate, nothing of relationship. Hearts are not stirred, shaken and broken, though bodies might be!

The Mask of Dimitrios is in many ways an old-fashioned, intelligent thriller, displaying all the craft of disciplined good writing.

…propaganda always begins with words, but soon it proceeds to deeds. When there are no facts to support lies, facts must be made

The central character, Latimer, is an academic and writer. He has written books on economics, but, latterly, has become successful as a writer of popular, well written detective stories. Travelling abroad whilst he works on finding a plot for his next novel, he happens, by chance encounter, to meet a high ranking Turkish colonel, through whom he gets drawn into hearing the story of Dimitrios, a man who evaded capture across Europe, for over a decade. He was implicated in several murders, political assassination attempts, was a mercenary, and ran a drug ring. In short, he was some kind of personification of the master criminal.

Latimer, almost idly, is intrigued to see, as a writer of detective stories, if he himself can do some detection into all the many gaps in Dimitrios’ history.

By making his central character a writer, not a professional investigator, criminal, journalist, policier, secret service agent or political activist, Ambler has found the perfect method for instructing the reader in any background information which is needed, without the novel degenerating into a lecture on policing, the autopsy room, the drug trade, espionage and the like. Latimer, like us, is innocent of these things and will need instruction. Ambler uses an old fashioned, third person narration, which works perfectly well – the author as a cool, cerebral narrator of events. Latimer seeks out various experts along the way who can do things like translate official records written in Bulgarian, explain how spies are recruited and run, and the like. All these experts are also interesting, rounded, individualistic characters, who have unique voices; not just vehicles for information.

Presently, however, the floor was cleared and a number of the girls who had disappeared some minutes before to replace their clothes with a bunch or two of primroses and a great deal of suntan lotion, did a short dance. They were followed by a youth dressed as a woman who sang songs in German; then they reappeared without their primroses to do another dance

What did however strike me forcibly is that what is absolutely missing in the novel is ‘the personal’ None of the characters are given any domestic background. We know nothing about husbands, wives, parents, children, siblings or friends. Everyone is engaged in the business of the central story, and the ‘wants’ and motives are, in the main, greed, money, power. This is a deadly and cerebral crossword puzzle of detection. And utterly successful at that.

Ambler has the reader as feverishly unable to leave the story alone, and desirous of knowing ‘what happens next’ as Latimer himself. And he does this with an incisive writing style, and what is clearly his own urbane sense of wit and humour. This is also given as one of Latimer’s engaging qualities, keeping the reader closely engaged with, and rooting for, our central character

on his face was a look that Latimer had not seen there before. It was the look of the expert attending to the business he understood perfectly. There was a sort of watchful repose in his face that reminded Latimer of a very old and experienced cat contemplating a very young and inexperienced mouse

A stylish, engaging and pacey thriller, whisking the reader effortlessly through several Eric AmblerEuropean countries during the 20s and early 30s

The Mask Of Dimitrios Amazon UK
The Mask Of Dimitrios Amazon USA

The book was made into a noir film with Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. If you intend to read the book, you might choose not to see this clip, until you have done so, as it contains spoilers.

 

Aside

Margaret Forster – My Life In Houses It’s publication day!

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My Life In HousesIt’s release day for Margaret Forster’s interesting and informative autobiography of a life told through the houses she lived in, which is as much a history of the times as a recount of her specific life within these times Here is my original review, written after receiving it as an ARC from NetGalley in digital form

My Life In Houses Amazon UK
My Life In Houses Amazon USA

Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road To The Deep North

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A tangle of despair, degradation, confusion, certainty, beauty, horror and meaning

flanagan.jpgThis is a book which at times I struggled with – a hard book, but for all the right reasons, as it is confrontational, shakes the reader awake, out of complacency and denial

I read this book at times as if grasping at mist. It is ‘everything’ filled both with a sense of the utter, pointless indifference and suffering of existence and the flips, almost on a knife edge, into ‘peak experience’ super reality, deep meaning, which vanishes as we grasp at recognising it.

A book which leaves the reader (well this reader) all shook up, spread-eagled and exhausted by the whole complex STUFF of living, wondering at times whether they can bear to continue reading – or bear to stop reading. If you think ‘what on earth is this reviewer going on about’ – well, in part that IS what the book is like, as it follows the story, flipping back and forth over a period of some fifty years, in the life of Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian, an Army doctor, caught up in World War 2, captured by the Japanese, and a POW involved in the brutal building of the Burma railway for the glory of Japan

HELLFIRE_PASS_ON_THE_THAI_BURMA_DEATH_RAILWAY_THAILAND_JAN_2013_(8608492819)

‘Hellfire Pass’ on the Death Railway, Wiki Commons

The structure of the novel flips over and over between Dorrigo in his 70s, the young Dorrigo, in his 20’s, recently enlisted, undergoing training in Australia, then, slightly later, that intolerable, impossible experience as a POW. The ‘old’ Dorrigo of course is at the same time those younger versions, in the way we are always living our present lives backwards, since the place we are always contains the places we have been. He, like all of us, tries to find the story which explains him to himself.

This book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, or indeed those with weak stomachs. There are scorching descriptions of atrocities, the terrible effects of starvation and disease, and the implacable brutality our species can visit upon each other – and, indeed upon anything at all.

Horror can be contained within a book, given form and meaning. But in life horror has no more form than it does meaning. Horror just is. And while it reigns, it is as if there is nothing in the universe that it is not.

What Flanagan achieves however is to prevent easy demonising – we see, time and again, the weak and the petty achieve moments of humanity – and even those we easily dismiss as monsters are made sense of. Devotion to ideals can damn us all as surely as it can raise and refine us. Even the heroes are more complex, and, in day to day life, sometimes more cruel than we might need them to be.

Because courage, survival, love – all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in them all or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves

Parallel to the stories of nations and individuals representing those nations and their ideals, the ‘isms’ through which a wider society gets shaped, and shapes us, are the more personal ideals we may live by. Dorrigo Evans carries both these aspects, that of the world stage, and that of the private and personal myth and story.

Shortly before being catapulted into the war Evans was involved in a scorching, overwhelming encounter with Amy, his uncle’s wife, and one of the themes of the book is the cataclysmic effect of love – or lust, and the confusion between the two – to shape a life, the idea of love as a guiding star, which may be as destructive – or constructive – as devotion to an ideal.

Camellia Japonica

Camellia Japonica

The book’s title refers to a collection of poems about the solitary, reflective travels undertaken by the revered 17th Century Japanese poet Bashō, which comment sparely on moments, and, within a Zen tradition, invite reflection. Two of the Japanese POW guards discuss the poems and reflect upon them. They, like Dorrigo, and many of the characters, attempt to understand ‘why am I here at all’, and the moments of utter pointlessness of a life, and its absolute crystallisation of meaning, dizzyingly are lost and found, again and again.

It is a stunningly written book, horrific, beautiful and troubling, as hewn out of elemental stuff as Greek Tragedy, reminding me of how raw and transformative literature can be, when it engages with our deep need to make sense of our time here.

The complex central character of Dorrigo Evans, is also, no surprise, a passionate reader and writer. At one point, he muses thus:

A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to re-read the book. A great read compels you to reread your own soul

And this most definitely does.

Flanagan’s own father was one of those POWs who worked on the line, so this book Richard-Flanaganclearly arose from personal, family history, and holds much more than just ‘objective research into a subject’

My thanks to fellow blogger Reading, Writing and Reisling whose impassioned review of the book added it to the tottery pile of ‘must read immediately’ books. I took it slowly, as she intimated it needed, and, indeed it is far too loaded a book to race with

The Narrow Road To The Deep North Amazon UK
The Narrow Road To The Deep North Amazon USA

Val McDermid – The Skeleton Road

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Complex history and investigations, successfully explained; not completely successfully a novel.

Skeleton RoadI had mixed reactions to Val McDermid’s cleverly titled novel, a murder investigation which leads to exploring the deep issues within global conflict, and how love, in its widest reaches, and revenge, are not by any means in opposition to each other, but bedfellows.

Karen Pirie, a remarkably and satisfyingly well-functioning DCI, (not a dysfunctional ‘maverick’!) who heads up the ‘Cold Cases’ Unit is investigating a dead body found in a rather surprising location. The case leads her to a meeting with Maggie Blake, an Oxford professor of geopolitics. Blake was involved in underground liberal/radical feminist education programmes, and war relief programmes in Croatia, during the Serbo-Croat and wider war taking place after the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Pirie and Blake are both strong, extremely likeable, plausible intelligent complex women, well-functioning, both have strong friendships, and either have, or had, good supportive relationships with their respective other halves. Neither are dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, during the wind-up of the war crimes investigations unit, a couple of lawyers are involved in another enquiry, as their brisk and dynamic new broom of a boss tries to uncover the reason why so many war criminals, with lengthy cases prepared against them, appear to meet underground rough justice and be offed before the slow legal wheels bring them to trial

The narrative effectively unfolds in 4 voices, and the book constantly cuts between them Blake has a third person voice in the present, though her history throughout the 90s is a first person narrative. It took me a little time to work out what was going on here, and why. Pirie’s voice (third person narrative) is the other major strand

The two ‘buffoons’ from ICTFY, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Macanespie and Proctor, are almost like a world weary, seedier version of those beloved characters originally appearing in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Charters and Caldicott, who then recycled into other films and even a TV series of their own. They add humour in their bumbling, often rather inept investigation and love/hate rivalry. Without these two, the story would be unremitting in its bleakness.

Former Yugoslavia 2008, Wiki Commons

Former Yugoslavia 2008, Wiki Commons

So – in effect, there are 3 investigations, plus a fourth, run by Pirie’s partner, also a cop, heading up a different division investigating domestic violence crimes.

My ‘with reservation’ reactions to The Skeleton Road, which did not really abate till around half way through the book, were caused by the problems of marrying excellent research and explanation into the novel form. In order to give the reader the information needed to understand the background, McDermid uses the device of having characters deliver lectures to each other, even when both of them know the same facts, and have drawn similar conclusions. This tricky, clumsy device is for our edification, and is not part of ‘narrative and character in relationship’

I was absolutely drawn into ‘being clearly taught complex information and the history of the conflict within former Yugoslavia’, (McDermid’s journalistic background and ability to explain complexity clearly much in evidence) but aware that there were sections which were breaking the back of the needs of a novel . The narrative and the psychology of character were ring-fenced and to a certain extent on hold as these were forced to carry the burden of reader instruction.

In the Balkans, the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. History and geography have constantly collided with the human capacity for cruelty in those disputed territories

And then, finally, came a tipping point. Pirie and Blake eventually connect and pool their knowledge, skills and professional abilities, as for different reasons they are drawn to uncover something in the very dark history of that ‘former Yugoslavia’ and the conflict after (and before) Yugoslavia came into being. From that point, the novel as a novel, where the ‘about’, the narrative, and the psychology of believable character and action work beautifully together, held me fast.

I do, strongly, recommend this, even if the earlier parts of the novel, though excellent,
are not quite ‘excellently a novel’

Smiles all round … Val McDermid at the official naming of the new mortuary. Photograph: Dave Martin/Fotopress Dundee (published in The Guardian and appears as 'for reuse' on advanced search)

Smiles all round … Val McDermid at the official naming of the new mortuary. Photograph: Dave Martin/Fotopress Dundee (published in The Guardian and appears as ‘for reuse’ on advanced search)

I received this as a copy for review purposes, from the publisher, Little, Brown via NetGalley. My digital review copy had quite a lot of awkward typographical errors, which I assume will have been eradicated in the paid for download

I’m grateful to fellow blogger FictionFan whose review of this led to my scurry-to-read

The Skeleton Road Amazon UK
The Skeleton Road Amazon USA

Damon Galgut – Arctic Summer

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E.M. Forster and the writing of A Passage To India

Arctic SummerI have struggled, to some extent, with Damon Galgut’s ‘biographical novel’ about E.M. Forster, Arctic Summer, which uses the title of an ‘incomplete’ novel Forster wrote, which was unpublished in his lifetime.

The subject matter of the book is two-fold, taking as it does not a cradle-to-grave biographical approach, but an examination of the process of writing itself, particularly the writing of A Passage To India, and also, Forster’s struggle with the straitjackets of his class, at a particular time in history and in geography (the time of Empire) and of a sexuality which was not only illegal, but, for a large part of his life, shameful to Forster, whether expressed or not.

My struggle with this book, much as I admire Galgut’s writing, is that he is himself a writer with a tendency to conceal as much as he reveals. He is a writer of spare and beautiful prose, but the reader is deliberately not drawn in. There is a reserve in his writing. This does of course perfectly fit his subject in this book. Forster was also a man of reserve, both through the entirely stiff upper lip repressed attitudes of the times, rendered even more obvious in Forster because he did have so much to hide, and in many ways was so very unlike the hearty, anti-intellectual Empire builders of the time, who did not mingle socially with, and indeed despised, ‘the natives’.

This was a vigorous, outdoor world, full of sports and guns. If you didn’t join the club or play polo or shoot tigers or subdue barbarous tribes on the borders, you were immediately an unsound quantity, the more so if,…you lived in your mind a great deal and wrote books. Of what earthly use were novels? How did they help anybody?

So, Galgut, a writer of some reserve, and a tendency to a kind of cool unfervent mysticism – most potently seen in In A Strange Room – writes about Forster, who seems similarly reserved. Both men are/were clearly both deeply thinking and deeply feeling, but the ‘Only Connect’ central to, I believe, both writers, is not easy, in either of them. Reserved writing about a Reserved writer in the end left me wanting more, as the book wore on.

Now in an extended clarity, he saw the way forward. He had wanted the story to open out, and suddenly it had, in the most Indian of ways, into wider questions about the universe

It’s strengths for me were in the earlier part of the book, where the absolute awfulness of living at a time and in a place where sexual orientation was so rigidly and restrictedly defined and culturally and legally controlled, are beautifully expressed. Galgut does not use polemic, or bang drums, or preach to a possibly largely converted audience, but, almost dispassionately, lays out what is/was, and lets the effect of that resonate for the reader. His recounting of the sense of shame and self loathing which so many ‘minories’ inhabited, was deeply distressing.

E.M.Forster painted by Dora Carrington,  Wiki Commons

E.M.Forster painted by Dora Carrington, Wiki Commons

Forster’s discomfort with the prevailing racist, classist attitudes of his peers, AND his sense of shame and self-loathing at the times he became aware of those self-same attitudes within him, also formed a telling part of the story.

It is perhaps inevitable that ‘Forster the man’ and the difficulties and challenges which Galgutarise through being part of one culture, time and place, are more immediately resonant to a reader who is not a novelist than the interesting (but, for me, more cerebrally experienced) passages about writing itself, and particularly the gestation and difficulties of writing A Passage To India, which at times for me became a little dry. I very much admire Forster’s writing, but was less interested, in this case, in the process of that writing, whereas the man within the larger world, within his time, was absolutely absorbing

He had cut himself open and showed the innermost part; it had been rash and unconsidered and regrettable. Now he had to close himself up again, to seal the carapace, and he began to do what was necessary. It was part of a willed cheerfulness he had learned back in his childhood already, as protection against disappointment. The only defence against raw, naked feeling was reason. Understanding made sadness easier to bear

Arctic Summer Amazon UK
Arctic Summer Amazon USA

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