Henning Mankell – After the Fire

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A slow burn, and then the reader is pinioned by ice – with no Wallander in sight

Henning Mankell’s last book, published after his death, is one of several he wrote which were free of the detective genre, though crimes there are, and trying to understand the who and the why is part of the journey made, by the central character, and the reader.

After the Fire takes up a story already followed some years ago, in his 2006 Italian Shoes (translated into English in 2009) This was meant to be a series, I believe, as the book was described as the first in the Fredrik Welin series. This is now the second, and final one, translated by Marlaine Delargy.

Firstly, rest assured, you do not have to have read Italian Shoes in order to understand or enjoy this. I did do so, back in the day, but have forgotten most of it, though I recollected its melancholy tone. Central character, in both novels is retired surgeon, Fredrik Welin. Welin was in late middle age in the first book, retired from his profession after a mishap, and retreated to a gloomy, dark, half resentful half embracing isolation on a sparsely populated island in the Swedish archipelago. His was not a character who handled humanity at large up close and personal well :

The view from the window was the same as the view in many other countries. The densely packed traffic induced in me a feeling of despair about the world into which I had been born and in which I happened to live. What were these people, many of them alone in their cars, thinking? Were they thinking at all?

Welin is now in his 70s. He is not a likeable man, not one to warm to. He dislikes most people. He had a difficult relationship with his estranged wife (the trajectory of Italian Shoes involved her final illness and death) and a challenging relationship with the daughter he never knew he had. This challenging relationship still continues, and is, for the most part, full of occasional unsatisfactory phone and internet communications.

Mankell has not given us a character to easily empathise with. He is irascible, suspicious, gloomy, self-sufficient and, at the same time, needy. He knows he lacks easy ability to make and keep friendships – though, nonetheless his fellow eccentric island dwellers – all pretty much those preferring isolation to connection, – seem to have affection for him. He is also lustful, and still dreams of a romantic connection, though he feels somewhat foolish for holding these yearnings.

An inexplicable fire in Welin’s home, which appears to have been deliberately started, alarming the community, is the precipitation of a whole series of events which challenge his long, settled into a somewhat grumpy, predictable existence. Firstly, he is suspected of having started the fire himself, in order to make a fraudulent insurance claim. Partly to clear himself, he begins to try and investigate. A local journalist becomes a kind of friend and fellow investigator. Further fires happen in the homes of others on the archipelago. The original fire, completely burning down Welin’s home brings him back into better contact with his difficult, also dysfunctional, adult daughter. The home, after all, would have been her inheritance.

I went up to the counter and explained that I had no bank cards and no ID; everything had been lost in the fire. The clerk recognised me but didn’t seem to be quite sure what to do. A person without any form of ID always constitutes some kind of threat nowadays

Now, this probably does not sound like the most absorbing read – but, if you are someone who likes books about complex, tangled, difficult human relationships, and the challenges, particularly between parents and their adult children, as the ravages of age and time lend an urgency to some kind of reconciliation and understanding – I would say this will be indeed, absorbing.

The ‘crime’ – who the arsonist is – may be obvious to the reader quite early – but the ‘solving’ isn’t the point of the book – it is Welin’s journey, where he must come to understand himself, and others, which matters. After I had settled into the realisation this was not a novel about action, but one of unfolding reflection, I was hooked

Ageing, death, loneliness, redemption, finding a meaning, in the face of there being none.

One day I will walk through into the land where memory has been swallowed up by forgetfulness

All, beautifully written. Mankell always one to think into meaning, always writing about wider than individuals

Escapist fiction this is surely not.

I received this as an ARC from the publishers, via NetGalley

It will be published on October 5th

After the Fire Amazon UK
After the Fire Amazon USA

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Jennifer Egan – Manhattan Beach

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A big, old-fashioned, absorbing historical narrative – America in Depression and At War

Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach follows the story of two different tranches of the American immigrant experience, and is set during the Depression and the Second World War.

There are 3 stories followed, which interlink with each other through Anna’s story. At the start of the novel Anna Kerrigan is nearly 12, a young girl idolising her father, and close to her mother and her sick sister. Father Eddie struggles, as so many working men did, at this time, to make a living. He has lost much in the crash and is now working as a kind of muscle for a longshoreman union official. Keeping the family together, particularly with the medical needs of Anna’s sister Lydia, is not easy.

Eddie has decided to take a chance on getting more lucrative work – but this must come at a price, as he intends to offer his expertise to Dexter Styles, a man with mob connections, who has hidden his Italian background, and is riding high in society, happily married. The family he has married into is old money, established class. Everyone knows he is somehow connected, still to ‘a shadow government, a shadow country..A tribe. A clan’ He is though someone who is good at subterfuge, though there are plenty of rumours about him, and as long as no one looks too closely at the source of his wealth, and is just happy enough with that wealth, he, and they, will get along fine.

Eddie has taken Anna along to his job ‘interview’ with Dexter, as knowing something about a man’s family gives him a certain edge and information. And Eddie will be offered employment

Egan then takes a forward jump, and we, like Anna, are in the position of ‘something happened’ – but we don’t quite know what. All we know is that at some point, some years ago, Eddie disappeared. Anna still holds a memory of the mysterious Mr Styles, and the glamour of his house, on that day Eddie took her along. It is now Anna’s job to keep the family together. America is now at war. War has created opportunities for young women, working in fields never open to them before. Anna is now one of a female workforce employed in Brooklyn’s Naval Yard, measuring and inspecting tiny parts for battleships. She has a better dream – the desire to be a diver, to inspect and repair vessels underwater.

This whole section of Anna’s story, her struggle to work in an area thought unsuitable for a woman, was particularly fascinating.

There is also a more conventional story beginning – a chance encounter between Anna and Styles in a nightclub – she recognises him, but he has no idea who she is, especially as when she introduces herself she gives a false last name – a story which will be in part a detective story, and in part a love story. Anna wants to find out the truth about her father’s disappearance, and the mysterious Mr Styles is a sensible place to start

Anna’s story, Dexter’s story – and also the story of Eddie’s disappearance. And it is also the story of capital, labour, and the American Dream

I see the rise of this country to a height no country has occupied, ever….Not the Romans. Not the Carolingians, Not Genghis Khan or the Tatars or Napoleon’s France….How is that possible you ask. Because our dominance won’t arise from subjugating peoples. We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible

High money and low money, muscle, graft, honest labour and labour less honest, corruption, class, race and sexual prejudice – it’s a big canvas.

I did not get to read Egan’s Pulitzer, A Visit From The Goon Squad (though I am minded to, now) That was, I understand, a far more experimental/unusual structure. This is not, though we do have the 3 voices, and the 3 stories, but the structure is a conventional narrative. I found it a fascinating read, particularly because I am drawn to books which engage with describing hard physical work – stuff of craft and muscle.

I could not resist adding this YouTube first part upload of John Adams’ magnificent Harmonielehre, a version conducted by Simon Rattle. The spur to its composition was the idea of a great tanker rising through the air. As I read the physicality of the Naval Yard workplace sections, Adam’s amazing piece, with its incredible opening, was in my mind’s ear

I received this as an ARC from the publisher, Simon and Schuster, via Netgalley. Gratefully.

It will be published on October 3rd

Manhattan Beach Amazon UK
Manhattan Beach Amazon USA

Kamila Shamsie – Home Fire

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And if you have no place within you to call home……….

Kamila Shamsie’s thoughtful, immersive, disturbing book starts with an emotional punch, and does not let up

Isma is a British Muslim. She is on her way to take up an academic post in Massachusetts. And is stuck in interrogation at the airport :

Isma was going to miss her flight. The ticket wouldn’t be refunded because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of the departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room……She’d made sure not to pack anything that would invite comment or questions – no Quran, no family pictures, no books on her areas of academic interest…The interrogation continued for nearly two hours. He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites

Shamsie immediately drops the reader into the experience of being regarded with suspicion, because of ethnicity

Home Fire is on one level just a very human story about a family, and a love story. Older sister Isma takes up her academic position in the States. She meets a vibrant, interesting fellow academic whose path kind of crossed her family’s, back in her teens. Ayman has become Eamonn:

so that people would know the father had integrated…his Irish-American wife was seen as another indicator of this integrationist posing rather than an explanation for the son’s name.

Isma and Ayman/Eamonn become friends, though Isma finds herself harbouring deeper feelings for the man whose affection for her is merely brotherly.

Isma is the plainer, studious eldest sister, who has become surrogate mother to her younger siblings, twins Aneeka, fiery, creative, beautiful, and her less sure, less confident brother Parvaiz.

Circumstances will bring Aneeka and Ayman together, initially without Isma’s knowledge, and a story of the love, jealousy and heartache will play out.

But this is far more than a kind of fairy story of the prettier youngest sister. There are deceptions, deliberate obfuscations and a distinct sense of always living with the potential of menace and misunderstanding because of the real history and the perceived history of race and religion

Parvaiz has vanished, and is not spoken about. He is a family secret, and what has happened to him is on one level obvious.

Isma’s family has a past regarded as suspect. Eamonn/Ayman’s family has integrated so well that his father became an MP. But at the end of the day, integrated or not, ‘identity’ will be recognised by appearance.

This is a hugely uncomfortable (in the very best way) read. It made me feel long and hard about identity. Many of us trace our complex history back with pride, discovering perhaps a history of different European immigrations across the centuries. But where geography is written in skin colour, assumptions, not our own, will be made about who we are.

I shall certainly read more of Shamsie. On this showing, she enters into the psyches of a range of characters, and, whatever the positions, we do get presented with the human complexity within

Antigone – Theatrical Poster

One of the strands within this book is a working of the story of Antigone, whose dead brother is denied burial, on the grounds of being seen as a traitor. To be honest, as someone drawn to Greek myth and history, it was one of the reasons I requested this title, but the connections are there if you wish to acknowledge them, but do not in any way reduce the power of the book’s effect upon the reader if you don’t. All it really shows is that these ancient myths and histories have their uneasy power to move us because we seem to repeat our history, with different names, but, effectively unchanging motifs, across the millenia

I received this as an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Home Fire Amazon UK
Home Fire Amazon USA

Gustave Flaubert – A Simple Heart

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Kindness, pathos, simplicity and despair

Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, published in 1877 as part of a collection ‘Three Tales’, and currently re-issued as a stand-alone, part of Penguin’s ‘Little Black Classics’, must have been quite revolutionary in its subject, at the time.

The central character, possessor of that simple heart, is Félicité, a servant. This was not, is not, the class generally forming major literary focus, especially at that time. Félicité, as would have been common for her class and gender, cannot read. Secondary education was anyway not available to girls until the 1880s in France, and did not become free until the 1920s. The main readers of literary fiction would have been the bourgeoisie, who would also be the more usual subjects of it.

This is a portrait, childhood to death in old age of a humble, loving, loyal and emotionally lion-hearted woman. And the author’s attitude towards her is without sentimental bombast, rhetoric or patronising caricature. There is no attempt to ‘do funny dialogue’ or make a more sophisticated readership feel superior in their social position, wealth or intelligence. Instead, Flaubert accords her with the serious, dispassionate and depth filled observation usually accorded to those higher up within society.

Flaubert does not comment, or obviously use devices to wring our withers or excite out own (presumably) more sophisticated hearts. Instead, his dispassionate observations on the behaviour or others, within Félicité’s story, are left very factual, a recounting of events. Flaubert is a master of showing, not telling his readers, what to feel. In many ways, we are left to examine our own responses, our own moral judgements – was this fair, just, kindly? Who occupies the moral high ground, who should be our role model here?

Félicité, as a young girl, almost starving, repeatedly beaten is grateful to find a position as a servant to a widow with two children, Madame Aubain. A position she keeps for more than 50 years, loyally:

For just one hundred francs a year, she did all the cooking and the housework, she saw to the darning, the washing and the ironing. She could bridle a horse, keep the chickens well fed and churn the butter. What is more she remained faithful to her mistress, who, it must be said, was not the easiest of people to get on with

Madame Aubain is not cruel, but lacks the ability to see outside humanity clearly outside her own class, although, as the inevitable tragedies of life – loss, infirmity, affect her too, she does grow more affectionate towards her ‘servant’, less indifferent to the sufferings of another.

A Parrot,  Loulou,  plays an important part in this tenderly told story

This is, in the end, an immeasurably sad book. Félicité, in the generosity of her ability to care for others and value them is shown to be made of far finer, more heroic qualities than any of her betters. She is vulnerable, tender-hearted, loyal, and also has great resilience. In a sense, she does not have the indulgence of doing other than getting on with life. She lives by being the best she can be – the clarity and simplicity of her heart, truly ‘loving thy neighbour’:

She wept at the story of Christ’s passion. Why had they crucified a man who was so kind to children, fed the hungry, gave sight to the blind, and who had chosen, out of his own gentle nature, to be born amongst the poor and the rough straw of a stable…..all those familiar things mentioned in the gospels had their place in her life too….. Félicité loved lambs all the more because of her love for the Lamb of God, and doves now reminded her of the Holy Spirit….Of church dogma she understood not a word and did not even attempt to understand it

This is a beautiful, un-flamboyant piece of writing, a tale of a life which superficially might seem to be of no account, no importance in the eyes of the wider world. Flaubert’s craft makes the reader reflect on a tale which is rather more than just an account of ‘a good and humble servant’

A Simple Heart Amazon UK
A Simple Heart Amazon USA

Anthony Horowitz – The Word Is Murder

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Goofy, spoofy, – and (sometimes) truthy, but sometimes…..not

Anthony Horowitz is a wonderfully tricksy, playful and mischievous writer. A very clever one, too. I have to admit that some writers who play tricksy, clever games on their readers can feel tiresome, especially if the reader senses this comes out of a feeling of over-intellectualised self-congratulation. It is very different when the writer encourages the reader to enjoy the game, as Horowitz assuredly does…….rather like an audience who come to watch a stage magician. We want to discover the ‘trick’ but, at a deeper level, hope we won’t.

Horowitz’s trick (well, one of them) in this dazzle of a crime investigation book ‘ Murder Is The Word’ is that he is actively involved in investigating the murder, in this book, in the guise of being a kind of ghost-author for Daniel Hawthorne, ex policeman now private investigator. The whole book comes as Hawthorne’s suggestion/commission. Hawthorne first met Horowitz when employed as a series advisor on the TV adaptation of Foyle’s War, which Horowitz wrote the screenplays for. Hawthorne has been kept as a kind of consultant by the police force, and gets called in to assist investigations when the murder investigation team are making no headway. As is the case here, in this account, which Horowitz, initially unwillingly, takes on, becoming a kind of Watson to Hawthorne’s maverick but Sherlockianly astute investigation.

Diana Cowper, a perfectly healthy, not to mention wealthy, late middle aged woman made funeral arrangements for herself – an increasingly popular practice – with an impeccable firm of undertakers. However, later that same day she is found murdered at her home.

Interspersed with Horowitz’s account of the tortuous, wriggly, herring filled solving of this crime, Horowitz includes a lot of material from his own personal and professional history.

Michael Kitchen, Honeysuckle Weeks and Anthony Howell from Foyle’s War, TV drama created and written by Horowitz

The reader would not have had half as much pleasure reading this book had it been written in a pre-internet, pre-Google search world. Indeed, it is unlikely Horowitz could or would have written such a book, Part of the lure and addiction of reading this is the constant desire to check facts, dates, people, places…..is this real?….a real event…..or is it invention?

Every time I checked something and it proved to be a ‘real Horowitz event’, I chortled appreciatively, and every time interest led me to look up something which turned out to be ‘invented Horowitz’, or at least slight-bending-of-the-truth-Horowitz I chortled with even more delight. Real luminaries stalk these pages, but entering into some real-ish situations are Horowitz characters a playing. Some other reviewers have mentioned the best of these, but I am staying mum, for your readerly delight – I’m sure that a particular encounter with luminaries will be a better high spot for not being revealed.

‘The Word Is Murder’ is not a book which Horowitz wrote without certain, difficult challenges to face. As he explains, comparing the writing of ‘The House of Silk’ his magnificent homage to, and ‘as if’ written by, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle :

It struck me from the very start that my job was to be invisible. I tried to hide myself in Doyle’s shadow, to imitate his literary tropes and mannerisms but never, as it were, to intrude. I wrote nothing that he might not have written himself. I mention this only because it worries me to be so very prominent in these pages. But this time round I have no choice; I’m writing exactly what happened

And here, Horowitz as Watson (so, still flirting with those tropes) is having to record the investigations which Hawthorne is intent on – not to mention, at times, a little sneaky investigation by Horowitz into the secretive, shadowy ex cop himself. Poor Horowitz also struggles to be allowed the task of writing this book, in his style. Hawthorne may be a brilliant, left-field investigator, but he is no writer, though he shows himself something of a control freak, fighting every attempt Horowitz makes to inject style and atmosphere into the telling of the story. Hawthorne would prefer Plod-the-Policeman dialogue, all ‘I was proceeding in a south-westerly direction’. Horowitz, understandably, wants to give the facts of the investigation and keep our interest going, and the reader, awake

If I had sat down to write an original murder mystery story I wouldn’t have chosen anyone like Hawthorne as its main protagonist. I think the world has had quite enough of white, middle-aged, grumpy detectives and I’d have tried to think up something more unusual

In case, by focusing on the meta-fiction aspects, I have put off any potential readers who just want a credible, difficult, sometimes gory murder investigation, sometimes spiced with real danger, twists and satisfying herrings aplenty, and an utterly credible denouement, expertly written by someone who utterly respects the genre, and is, moreover well versed in its history – rest assured Horowitz is, fabulously, that writer. Not to mention the fact that Hawthorne, despite, or perhaps, because of, his grumpy, secretive brilliance, is the investigator the reader is keen to be spending further time with.

John Nettles, Jason Hughes from Midsomer Murders – also written by the prolific Mr Horowitz

I sincerely hope that Hawthorne, finding a well deserved fan base for his criminal investigations, will decide to stick with Horowitz as his ‘Watson’ and that he does not decide to either go it alone and write his own books, or approach some other writer to record any future investigations he may be called on to solve.

Please, if you read this, Mr Hawthorne, let us have many more of your cases, but do stick with Anthony Horowitz as your ‘recorder’

I was delighted to receive this as a review copy. As should be obvious, highly, highly recommended

The Word Is Murder Amazon UK
The Word Is Murder Amazon USA

Ngaio Marsh – Death at the Bar

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Murder In The Sticks

Ngaio Marsh’s 9th outing for Roderick Alleyn, Chief Detective Inspector of the C.I.D, originally published in 1939, sees him and the trusty Foxkin motoring down to deepest darkest Devon, called thither by an upper class rubicund shouty District Chief Constablle : Colonel The Honourable Maxwell Brammington. A murder (of course) has been committed and it has proved an effort too far for the local super – who also knows Alleyn, from yore – to solve

I must confess I enjoyed this a little less than most of my previous romps with Alleyn and his coterie. This might have been partly because, this time, the great man is only accompanied by Fox. The other regulars from his team are lacking, as is Nigel Bathgate, his sometimes a little foolish Watsonish foil, who can always be relied on to excitedly draw the wrong conclusions for the solving of the puzzle, and allow the witty, urbane and ferociously intelligent Alleyn to have some fun (with Fox) when true revelation is laid out before the reader. It might also be that on this one, I was a little more aware of the challenges offered by the prejudices of the times – primarily, class, and an automatic superiority of upper class Toryism, and the foolishness, not to mention, the somewhat distastefulness of those uppity working classes who get above themselves with a belief in socialism.

So…….to the fiendish and clever murder which Alleyn will solve, not to mention our cast of suspects, murderer and victim, already on the scene before the crime haps, and our trusty Alleyn and Fox arrive to shed light on darkness – it is thus (no spoilers)

Nothing whatsoever to do with Ngaio Marsh, but this 1949 Kitty Wells song has the same title, and the player looks suitably vintage

A group of impeccable uppercrusts, a KC, his cousin, a highly admired and well known actor, and their mutual friend, ditto hightly admired etc landscape and portrait painter always go away for a few days holiday, painting, walking, chatting et al to an absolutely out of the way Devonian hamlet. They stay in a particular hostelry, the landlord is a suitably forelock tugging, dialect speaking, rustic and loyal working class salt-of-the-earth Tory, However, being 1939, a well established ‘Left Movement’ has also been gaining sway. The landlord’s son is a member, it even employs a treasurer and secretary, has quite a few members, funds etc. There are no tugged forelocks and the members of the society who are regulars at the pub just might not take kindly to knowing their places. Also on the scene is a local femme fatale, so we might have several reasons for emotions to run high. Completing the cast are a couple of easy comedy types : a local Devonian oo-ar lush, complete with funny dialect, and a holidaying and eccentric Irishwoman, an impeccable Hon, but comedy turn Oirish, to be sure, to be sure, also. Local rustics of regions cue for comedy turns and slightly superior laughter.

The crime and its fiendish solving is ingenious as ever, but I missed the various developing relationships between Alleyn and his fellow professionals, and the incursion of Alleyn’s private life, and how his professional and private worlds relate to each other. There is a very enjoyable sequence where the good and warm friendship between Alleyn and Fox, and the understated respect and love they have for each other, is shown, but I did feel (perhaps wrongly) that this particular one was much more Marsh-by-numbers, written from the surface of her work, rather than inside her lovely creations. 4 stars, still, enjoyable, but not as MUCH as normal

Death at the Bar Amazon UK
Death at the Bar Amazon USA

Gerald Durrell – My Family and Other Animals

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Gerald Durrell’s Corfu childhood Ark, with far more than two by two

I first read this, Volume 1 of Durrell’s Corfu Childhood books, when I was probably around the same age as the period of his life he is describing. The book absolutely resonated with me, with its love of landscape. Durrell rather ascribes almost a sentience, not only towards the ‘other animals’ which this book is largely about, but to the very mountains, vegetation, winds, waves, sunlight and rain. This was very much my own view of the natural world, so reading Durrell, as a child, was a kind of coming home to how I felt about ‘nature’

However……..at the time I read this, Durrell’s sensibilities gave me clear indication that I was, after all, not going to be cut out to be a naturalist myself. Although a clear lover of the wild, unconfined, natural world, and of the animal kingdom, he quickly made me realise that I was a definitely restricted speciesist – plants were wonderful, but my real love was for the warm-blooded furred and feathered creatures. Durrell delights in all of it, the slithering, the buzzing, the finny, the scaled, and anything which scuttles on somewhere between 6, 8 and a multiplicity of uncountable legs.

I had utterly forgotten (carefully buried the memory) from whence my shrieking horror of a species I have never met, in the flesh, came from:

Up on the hills among the dark cypress and the heather shoals of butterflies danced and twisted like wind-blown confetti, pausing now and then on a leaf to lay a salvo of eggs. The grasshoppers and locusts whirred like clockwork under my feet, and flew drunkenly across the heather, their leaves shining in the sun. Among the myrtles the mantids moved, lightly, carefully, swaying slightly, the quintessence of evil. They were lank and green, with chinless faces and monstrous globular eyes, frosty gold, with an expression of intense, predatory madness in them. The crooked arms, with their fringes of sharp teeth, would be raised in mock supplication to the insect world, so humble, so fervent, trembling slightly when a butterfly flew too close

It is (I hope) clear what a wonderfully observant, carefully crafting writing Durrell is, as well as, of course, ditto, a naturalist. He regarded his older brother, Laurence, as the writer of the family, and only began his own (highly successful) books about his idyllic, (in his eyes, as a young naturalist) eccentric, anarchic time on Corfu, and his later books about his zoological expeditions around the world as an adult, in order to make money to finance them, and his own zoo.

That quoted paragraph shows also a rather assured and filmic, dramatic sense. He surely knows how to craft a scene, to build narrative, climax, change of pace and mood. I was lulled into a deceptively tranquil, dreamy, Edenic scene, with those wafts of butterflies, before the scene darkens, and the reader can almost feel a tension rising mood music, ratcheted up to the insecty equivalent of that shower scene in Psycho!

Durrell is a wonderful writer. Here there is a mixture of no doubt absolutely precise observation of the natural world and a certain amount of writerly shaping to emphasise the entertaining aspect provided by his strongly defined, individual, family members: remarkably tolerant Mother, the almost comically artistic/intellectual elder brother Larry, with his equally Bohemian ‘set’ paying visits to what Larry was offering as open house artistic colony with sunshine, vino, and food on tap. Gerry’s other brother Leslie, the practical one, happily tinkering with building boats, cleaning guns, and shooting the wildlife, and sister Margo, defined as romantic and a bit of a magnet for local and visiting swains. There are various brilliantly structured set pieces around Gerry and a succession of arriving and departing tutors, vainly trying to find ways to teach the budding naturalist the basics of an academic syllabus, spicing the dull stuff, ‘If it takes x number of men x hours to dig a trench’ with inserts culled from the natural world – forget men and trenches, substitute tortoises looking to safely lay their eggs.

Best of all is an extended dramatic French farce sketch, involving snakes and renegade birds discovered in unlikely places, during a huge all day party, for family, visiting friends and locals. This had me snorting, chuckling and guffawing in an otherwise silent tube carriage. Irrepressibly joyous writing.

Tea would arrive, the cakes squatting on cushions of cream, toast in a melting shawl of butter, cups agleam, and a faint wisp of steam rising from the teapot spout

This book, and its sequels, was turned into a successful TV mini-series in the late 80s. One I felt unable to watch. The power of Durrell’s writing creating those images of mantid malevolence meant I was scared in case they featured in the natural history bits! There was also a later adaptation of the book.

There is such joy, such delight, such warmth in the writing, and, like the family, falling under the spell of the landscape, the reader falls in love with Durrell’s gloriously unclichéd, visceral evocation

Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquillity, a timelessness, about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality

I also knew that Durrell’s later life had had certain struggles (as life tends to have) so I re-read this with a sense of poignancy. There is such effervescence, joy and love in this recounting of a childhood. Maybe a certain amount of rose-coloured spectacles and maybe that childhood was not always as idyllic as set out here, though there is no doubt in the solace and excitement the young Gerry found in his ‘other animals’

My Family and Other Animals Amazon UK
My Family and Other Animals Amazon USA

John Boyne – The Heart’s Invisible Furies

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Warm hearted narrative: a 70 year span of changing attitudes towards sexuality.

John Boyne’s beautifully titled ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ reminds me not a little of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart/ The New Confessions. A central character, fictional, with some connections to the artistic world, is taken through a lifetime’s sweep of cultural and attitudinal shifts, often around personal relationships. The individual life story is set within the wider story playing out. Fictional characters within the book, who are artists of some kind, with a body of work, are nudged by comparison with real works, and ‘real named characters’ flit through on the sidelines as passing players. This gives a hook to make the reader feel they are reading ‘reality’ rather than the fiction they are actually reading, but the ethics of making ‘real’ characters do things they didn’t do, is not transgressed, as the ‘real people’ are left as minor, background, chorus.

There are a couple of important characters in this book, written about at length, both of whom are writers, and though I did know these were ‘fictional’ their work was described so well, and their history and psychology seemed so authentic and believable that I did have to Google their Wiki pages, and search for the titles of their works on Amazon, laughing at my foolishness whilst I did so.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies takes place primarily in Ireland, but also in the Netherlands and America, from 1945-2015. It follows the life of, and is narrated by, Cyril Avery, the adopted son of a rather unusual couple, the writer Maude Avery and the successful (but sometimes fraudulent) financier Charles Avery. Maude and Charles are both self-obsessed, eccentric and larger than life. They are not cruel parents, though they are rather indifferent and laissez-faire ones, absorbed in their own pursuits. Cyril, narrator of this story, begins his first person narrative at the age of 7, in 1952, a rather shy and lonely little boy. He has, from this early age, even without quite understanding its importance, had a kind of falling in love with a much more extrovert, defined and assured little boy, whom he briefly meets, the son of Charles Avery’s solicitor.

Friendships and loves, sometimes in the unlikeliest of guises, are going unfold across a lifetime, in a kind of tapestry of many colours and textures in this book : tragic, heart-breaking, joyous, accommodating, kind, bitter, reconciled, and at times amusing and surprising.

However……Cyril’s story starts before his birth, when he is still in his mother’s womb, and he does not learn this part of the story till he is in late middle age, when it is recounted to him. This is the story he tells us, in reflection, and it starts the book, with surely a most wonderfully hooking, seductive paragraph :

Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Munroe stood on the altar of The Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore

I was utterly hooked by the rhythms of that opening sentence and by the carefully exploded bombshells, and had to read on. Nor was I disappointed. Here is a writer, a story teller, who bowled me along for nearly 600 pages, and the journey itself, long as it was, did not seem so. It was a full, eventful one; a grand one

Pulling me back for complete 5 star surrender: very late in the day, Cyril turns out to be a dry and witty man, particularly in conversation, not something he had displayed much of earlier. This did feel, a little, as if the writer had felt the need to inject some wit, humour and banter in the dialogue as we neared the end of the journey.

If I’m being hypercritical, there are a lot of coincidences which drive encounters and plot along – though I must say Boyne manages them with wonderful charm. I think this is because the reader (but not the central character) is kept aware that there will be meetings and connections which will drift in and out until their final connections become clear to Cyril, in the patterns of his own story. The sense of it seemed to me like some courtly, formal dancing in sets – partners change but all will meet again as the dancers move around the circle, and down the line of sets. And like this kind of dancing, there is a joy in the lovely pattern of changes, repetitions, and the form itself.

This is a book the reader can happily lose themselves in. Lock the door, take the phone off the hook, ignore interruptions, they will only annoy

I was delighted to receive this from Amazon Vine UK

The Heart’s Invisible Furies Amazon UK
The Heart’s Invisible Furies Amazon USA

Ngaio Marsh – Overture to Death

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Theatrical Am-Drams, and a darkening mood in Marsh

As I continue on my sequential journey through ‘The Empress’ of the Golden Age of Crime, it is not surprising that with this one, published in 1939, a began to feel a darker and more sombre tone developing. Marsh’s own craft in writing is appreciable growing and, in this one, not only are characters becoming more layered, and more psychologically interesting, but there is also an occasional ‘stream of consciousness’, from inside the minds of some of the major characters – including those under suspicion

The longings of two friend-and-rival spinsters of the parish, female jealousy in general, not to mention the destructive talents of a femme fatale in a small community are brilliantly laid out in this. Yes, Marsh retains her usual style and her usual wit and light touch, but there is also pathos. This does not just come from Alleyn and his team, who are all refreshingly well-functioning individuals, but it also comes from some of those who may not like some of the other characters within the community (for good reason) but do come to appreciate the depth of suffering the unlikeable ones might be experiencing: they might be a little more than just figures of fun, mockery and irritation

Rachmaninov’s Prelude plays an important role in the story……..

The generally upper middle class denizens of a small community are engaged in some pleasurably entertaining ‘good works’ – am-drams to raise money for a cause close to their own hearts – a better piano in the village hall. Into the mix and another (of course) ingenious murder are thrown the spinsters, the object of their affections (the local high Anglican cleric) an affair which might damage the social standing of someone otherwise respected in the community, a pair of star crossed (or at least, minorly class crossed lovers) and the added complication that the local police surgeon and the local acting chief constable are not only witnesses but might themselves have motive for murder.

A solo piano version of Ethelbert Nevin’s Venetian Suite is also much discussed

All the usual and expected formulas are in place, so murder ingeniously managed and the eventual ‘re-staging of the scene of the crime’ which will flush out the murder for the benefit of the reader and the innocent others, are present. Alleyn and his brothers in the Yard had already solved the case, but just are waiting to precipitate denouement/confession/evidence. Blessed Bathgate, of course, is as slow on the uptake (or, possibly, even slower) than Marsh’s devoted readers

Overture to Death Amazon UK
Overture to Death Amazon USA

Colm Tóibín – House of Names

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“As flies to wanton schoolboys are we to the gods”…..? (King Lear)

It is always a deep delight to submerge into a book by Tóibín, whether he is writing about modern times and places, or is deep within a past which is so long ago that it has become part of mythology, where whatever was ‘real’ has accreted metaphor and patterned story over itself.

Here Tóibín is engaged with the latter, the deep past, a dark, terrifying place which is perhaps, part history, part long ago tales where history is entwined with the mysterious gods, where the workings out of the divisions between ‘fate’ and free will, lie. Morality, justice, retribution, deep lore, deep taboos. Whose laws, not to mention whose lores and whose taboos are we observing or breaking?

House of Names is the story being played out in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a play dating from some 500 years before the Christian Era. This is also a story told in Homer’s Iliad, so the narrative would have been known to the audience. In keeping with this tradition, Tóibín prefaces his story by letting the reader know what the narrative events were. We, like the play’s audience, need not to be distracted from ‘why and how’ by ‘what happens next’ in this story of the curse of the House of Atreus.

Clytemnestra: “It was the fire that brought the news, not the gods. Among the gods now there is no one who offers me sustenance or oversees my actions or knows my mind. There is no one among the gods to whom I appeal. I live alone in the shivering, solitary knowledge that the time of the gods has passed.

I am praying to no gods. I am alone among those here because I do not pray and will not pray again. Instead I will speak in ordinary whispers. I will speak in words that come from the world, and those words will be filled with regret for what has been lost

Clytemnestra, kills her warrior husband King Agamemnon, and has plotted his death for some years, with her lover Aegisthus. Monstrous Clytemnestra, we might think. Except, this is deep revenge, or even, retribution, and is a dish served very cold of some years in the making, following a monstrous act committed by Agamemnon – the sacrifice of his (and Clytemnestra’s) young daughter Iphigenia. This was apparently a demand made by the goddess Artemis, whom Agamemnon offended. The goddess promises victory in war if this sacrifice is made. Agamemnon tricks Clytemnestra into bringing their young daughter to where the army is waiting. The Queen believed her daughter was going to be married to the heroic and idolised Achilles. Instead, she has brought her daughter to a funeral, not to a wedding at all. Monstrous Agamemnon. The King and Queen had other, younger children, and two of them are major players in a continuing, horrible history. Electra is the younger daughter, not the favoured one. Orestes, still a young boy, idolises, like Electra, father over mother. The final act of a tragedy of the daughter murdered by the father, the husband murdered by his wife, to avenge the daughter, will be the son, helped by his sister, killing the mother to avenge the killing of the father.

Clytemnestra: “If the gods did not watch over us, I wondered, then how should we know what to do? Who else would tell us what to do? I realised that no one would tell us, no one at all, no one would tell me what should be done in the future or what should not be done. In the future, I would be the one to decide what to do, not the gods

These Ancient Greeks are deeply, terrifyingly dysfunctional in this tale, clearly, but their ‘role’ is also to show aspects of human nature, to make the audience/listener/reader engage in weighty thought, felt and inhabited debate on questions of morality, justice, free will versus ‘destiny in the stars’

Electra: “I gravitate from their world, the world of speech and real time and mere human urges, towards a world that has always been here. Each day, I appeal to the gods to help me prevail. I appeal to them to oversee my brother’s days and help him return, I appeal to them to give my own spirit strength when the time comes. I am with the gods in their watchfulness as I watch too

And how wonderfully this dark tale is served by Tóibín, who can take small lives, the lives of ordinary people and make them stand for thousands (Nora Webster) and, as here, operatic, mythic lives, possibly the movers and shakers of history, and bring them to a scale where they become recognisably human like ourselves.

      Source: BBC website, In our Time : The Oresteia (Chorus)

The style of the telling is curious, and interesting. The female protagonists, Clytemnestra and Electra are given a first person narrative. Orestes, first as a young adolescent, later as a young man has his history and point of view told in the third person.

The effect of this is that though inevitably females in this society have far less obvious power, both Clytemnestra and Electra watchfully wait, plan and instigate action, of their own volition. Their identities become clear to themselves. Clytemnestra is allowed to speak for her own case, in this ‘I’ voice, and the reader can follow a coherence in the character, however much the actions of others may thwart her. And Electra, although initially much less powerful, feeling herself with less autonomy, more an instrument of fate decided by the gods, is repeatedly shown as developing her mother’s steely resolve. She moves steadily into taking her own power, a sense of the will of ‘I’ ; ‘I’ decide, ‘I’act, ‘I’ take responsibility.

Orestes story is third person. Although he is the one to strike the killing blow, right from the start, by the third person voice, in contrast, is a kind of inability to take ownership and coherence for self. I found this a brilliant stylistic way to underline the character aspects Tóibín suggests for Orestes. And, curiously, this stirred my pity, most, for him. That small child, desperately seeking approval from male role models, father figures, as he ‘plays soldiers’ continues in the later Orestes section, where we see him as young man. Writing method underlined personality and psychology

Orestes: “We live in a strange time,” Electra said “A time when the gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don’t. Their power is waning. Soon it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings”

He did not know how to reply to this…….Instead, he listened carefully……He wondered about the accuracy of what she said……..he did not mention this

House of Names took me further into a fascination I already had with Ancient Greece, which seems so very far away and alien on one level, but, on another could be seen as close and accessible. As I read, particularly in the early Orestes section, I thought of more modern times, of recent conflicts, where rough justice, outwith the rule of law, is meted out; individuals, performing honour killings, factions united around shades of ideological beliefs, both secular and faith based, around nationalisms and ethnicities, taking the blade, the gun, the explosive device into their own hands, carrying out killings to ‘serve’ some ideology or another. Is this any different from ‘actions put in train by fate, serving curses and retributions laid down by the gods’ That eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, you killed mine, I kill yours, you then kill mine in revenge and retribution for my action in killing yours, which was my revenge and retribution for your killing of mine.

    William Adolphe Bouguereau : The Remorse of Orestes, 1862

And, of course, all these many layers and continued thinking Tóibín brought me to, happened subliminally. He does not feel didactic to me but somehow seeps his characters, his worlds into mine.

I was delighted to receive this as a digital version for review from the publishers via NetGalley

House of Names Amazon UK
House of Names Amazon UK