Jeanette Winterson – Gut Symmetries

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Wonderland, Divinity and the Stars

Gut-Symmetries-finalIt feels a bit of a challenge to review Jeanette Winterson’s wondrous 1997 novel Gut Symmetries. And that is Gut, not as intestinal, by the way, as I quickly discovered but as in Grand Unified Theory, which Wiki gives as : a model in particle physics in which at high energy, the three gauge interactions of the Standard Model which define the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions or forces, are merged into one single force. Though Winterson does also twine in what might be described as our own visceral gut instinct to that more dizzying ‘strong interactions of forces’

Essentially, this beautifully written, dazzling, dizzying novel is a story of an affair, though I even wondered whether describing it as a novel was quite right. It is more like a kind of prose poem, a metaphysical meditation. There is a narrative, but it is not linear. Everything tangles and connects, but is also reassuringly present. I know, irritating waffle from me, but the book is a kind of treasure chest, and the reader picks out fragments and gets obsessed by them, and another reader will probably pick out something quite different

Alice is an English theoretical physicist, and is working through her family history, particularly approaching that time where parents become frail. Jove (Giovanni) is an Italian American, from a Catholic background, older, charismatic, and in the same field. His wife, Stella is a magician of words, a writer, of Jewish background, mysticism her heritage. The three are tied as the electromagnetic weak and strong interactions, merged into a single force. Even in the names of her characters, Winterson is saying more than lies on the surface

Mathematics and physics, as religion used to do, form a gateway into higher alternatives, a reality that can be apprehended but not perceived. A reality at odds with common sense

Lest it seem just some writer’s conceit to weave the story of an affair (whether or not it is a mite more unusual than expected) with a meditation on quantum physics and tangles of mysticism, think on this : The quantum world, with all its peculiar charms, quarks and disappearing cats in boxes, alive or dead, and particles which manage perhaps to be waves, here, not here and there, turns on its head the solidity of our world. The chair I sit on, so solid seeming, is full of space.

Quantum giphy

Think about that quantum world, and suddenly the world and its comforting familiarity is upside down, looking glass, topsy turvy, strange, enchanted and magical seeming. A pretty parallel to the headiness of falling headlong into love, discovering not only that the world itself is strange, but the lover and the beloved are strange, enchanted and magical to each other. That quantum world of interactions of forces merged into a single force

Breathe in, breathe out. You breathe time and time’s decay. Matter disposing of itself, still imprinted with its echo, the form it took, the shape of its energy for a little while.

The mediaevals thought that the damned lived in Satan’s belly, hot pouch of indigestion, but damned or saved, what we were continues in the lungs of each other. Nitrogen, oxygen, tell-tale carbon.

Do not mistake me. This is not the afterlife. This is no afterlife. There is life, constantly escaping from the forms it inhabits, leaving behind its shell. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. History is in your nostrils

Winterson has provided a work-out for mind, heart and viscera, seething with energy Jeanette-Winterson-006and conundrum. I am not sure why or how did not read her when she wrote her first novel back in the 80’s. But I’m thrilled to have a back catalogue to explore

Gut Symmetries Amazon UK
Gut Symmetries Amazon USA

Peter Ho Davies – The Fortunes

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American History through Chinese and Chinese-American eyes.

The FortunesPeter Ho Davies The Fortunes is a mainly American set account of the Chinese American experience, told through 4 different viewpoints, over more than 150 years, starting with the building of the railways, opening up Goldrush routes in California in the 1860s, and ending with the experience of wealthy childless couples in the market for unwanted babies from less wealthy nations – in this case, as a result of China’s ‘One Child’ policy, and the less favoured status of girls.

Ho’s book is extremely well written, but, covering as it does the experience of what it means to be an immigrant – or even to be second generation, but of mixed ethnicity, – it is a remarkably depressing and distressing read, particularly at this time of turmoil and casual, not to mention not-so-casual, evidence of racial hatred and distrust as part of the water table.

The Fortunes (which has a title page subtitle of ‘Tell It Slant’) is beautifully structured in four sections. Each story is set in a different time and place, seemingly disconnected though there are nods to the previous experiences, and 3 of the stores feature real people, though Ho Davies makes it clear this is a fictionalised interpretation. There is a satisfying framing device.

Transcontinental Railroad

The first section, Gold, is the story of the railroad and the Goldrush. Ah Ling is the son of a ‘saltwater girl’ a prostitute from Hong Kong and a ‘white ghost’, her probably British protector. The reader is battered from the start from everyday racism – both within China itself, as Ah Ling is a Tanka, reviled by the Han Chinese, and then, after he is sold to be a laundry boy to ‘Uncle Ng’ in San Francisco, the blanket racism towards ‘chinks’. We are reminded also, that whatever the experiences suffered by men, the status of Chinese women was even lower. Racially abused, sexually abused. The laundry Ah Ling works at is also a brothel, and Ah Ling, as a young boy, has his eyes opened by ‘Little Sister’ – who of course lacks even her own name, described only by family relationship:

How can you hate your own people

“How? I tell you how! You know who sold me to Ng?” She paused to catch her breath. “My father! You know why? So he could send a brother to Gold Mountain to make the family fortune.” She nodded heavily. “That’s right. Chinamen love gold more than girls.

Silver follows the story of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star from the 1920’s onwards, whose career covered both silent film, talkies and stage. This section is structured almost like a silent film, with short chapters with headers in capital letters, as if they were scene titles

THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME

Turned down for the role of a lifetime – O-Lan in The Good Earth, a Chinese female lead; how many of those will she ever see? – and turned down for a white actress. It’s a public humiliation, a famous snub. A loss of face, she’s still Chinese enough to think.

She’d been tipped for the role in the press for years; “born to play it,” they said. It was what she’s been waiting for all this time. But she’d known she wouldn’t get it as soon as they cast Paul Muni, Scarface himself, in the lead. The Hays Code forbade the portrayal of interracial relations on-screen, even when white actors were playing in yellowface.

Jade, the third section, is based on the story of Vincent Chin:

if you remember it a all, if you were around in the eighties, say, what you remember is a Chinese guy being beaten to death in Detroit by two white auto workers who mistook him for a Japanese. This at the height of the import scare, when Japanese manufacturers were being blamed for the collapse of the Big Three U.S. auto companies.

Maybe you remember it happened outside a club where the Chinese guy – actually a Chinese American named Vincent Chin – was celebrating his bachelor party. Maybe you remember he was buried on what should have been his wedding day.

But perhaps you thought it was just an urban legend, a bad joke come to life

The final story, Pearl, concerns a middle class couple, Chinese American John Ling, teaching university students, and his wife Nola, also a teacher, in their mid-thirties, with a history of difficult and failed pregnancies. They are part of a group of other couples with similar difficulties, going to China to adopt a baby.

Ho Davies, one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, is British born, to Welsh and Chinese parents, though he now lives in the States and is also a University lecturer in Creative Writing.Peter Ho Davies

This is, as stated at the beginning, an emotionally difficult read, but a recommended one. He writes very well, his characters are clearly delineated, and complex. It left me with lots to think about, and distressing matters to feel about, particularly within the context of many world events, at this time, and a resurgence of ‘populist’ parties with simplistic foci for ‘blame’

I received this as an ARC from Amazon Vine UK. It will be published on 25th August in Hard Cover and on Kindle in the UK, but curiously, Statesiders will have to wait until September 6th for HardCover or Audible, with, at the moment, no Kindle version listing. Curious, because Ho Davies now lives in the States, and this is set for the most part there.

The Fortunes Amazon UK
The Fortunes Amazon UK

Alan Sillitoe – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

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Nottingham in the fifties : an exuberant, cynical and poetic slice of the times

saturday-night-sunday-morning-alan-sillitoe-paperback-cover-artAlan Sillitoe’s first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, first published in 1958 rather burst into that territory which came to be described, in literature and especially in theatre, as that of ‘The Angry Young Man’ Playwrights such as Wesker and Osborne were writing about working class experience in a way which celebrated and showed the vigour of a kind of angry, cynical awareness of class politics, and how the establishment worked to grind down the working class.

Sillitoe himself, who died in 2010, had left school at 14, and failed to get into a grammar school – despite the fact that as the adult man would prove, he was fiercely intelligent, with a ferociously enquiring mind, and deeply thinking.

Saturday Night and Sunday morning is the story of a deeply flawed, often unlikeable, mendacious young man of extreme charm and more self-reflective depth than his heavily boozing, serially philandering and enjoying of fisticuffs would indicate. Arthur Seaton, 21, works in a bicycle factory (as did Sillitoe himself, aged 14, and his father before him). He both hates and despises the daily grind of the factory, and prides himself on his manual skills – and the ability to outwit the bosses and the time-and-motion-study piecework rate organisers. He has a good friendship with an older man working in the same factory. Nonetheless despite the odd twinge of guilt, his friendship does not prevent him from having a passionate affair with his colleague’s wife. Nor does that passionate affair prevent him from simultaneously embarking on another affair with a second married woman, and risking the safety and reputation of the two women, who know each other, and have a theoretical loyalty to each other. The women, Seaton, and the husbands all exist within a close knit community. To add to the complexity, Seaton also plays around with a young unmarried woman hoping to catch a husband. As well as charm, Arthur has that much to be admired prospect – at this point, a steady job, and his skills at the lathe are netting good results, on piecework.

Arthur Seaton - or should I say Albert Finney

           Arthur Seaton – or should I say Albert Finney

Womanising, heavy drinking and a keen sense for sharp dressing fashion are Arthur’s passions. Sillitoe shows that his antihero, despite the fact that he prefers to settle disagreements with his fists and workman’s boots, has a sharply analytic mind. In fact, he muses in an almost existential way on what the point of it all is. Arthur not only loves danger, and excitement, and womanising, but there is a side to him which has passion for something more quiet – days spent solo, fishing by the riverside: a pastime naturally giving the space for reflection.

On one level this book can be said to chart a journey from wild rebellion towards an acceptance of, in the end, accommodating and settling into accepting family life, marriage and parenting.

At times, in this first novel, Sillitoe does labour some of his imagery a little overmuch – fishing, swimming with and against the stream etc. are metaphors which hold a multiplicity of possibilities, and I did feel that by his second outing, the wonderful novella The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, he was trusting his reader, and himself, much more, and paring back.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning became of course an iconic Karel Reisz film, launching the bruised, powerfully sexual young Albert Finney on his road to stardom, a perfect casting for Arthur Seaton. Although Sillitoe himself wrote the screen adaptation for that 1960 film, it is perfectly obvious, from the quality of the writing in the novel, that he did not write the book FOR the film, with ‘this would make a brilliant (and money-earning) film, as his objective. Something I sadly feel is rather different now – there are writers (and many are not very good!) clearly writing with the idea of film, video and TV as their springboard, so that narrative, and often implausible narrative at that, becomes the driver, and operatic desire to shock the tool.

Sillitoe has character, multifaceted, at the heart of his novel. Arthur Seaton is powerfully and deeply realised, and thus becomes an archetype. Writing the archetype, and not the individual is what makes for two-dimensional writing, but if the writer, as Sillitoe does, makes the individual both unique and reflective of his cultural time and place, he will become fully rounded, as the complexity of his humanity is explored

Finney’s portrayal has all the dark, brooding quality of Seaton, Sillitoe’s book, whilst that is very powerfully there, also has savage humour, a cruel celebration of some kind of ability to laugh and self-mock. Perhaps there was a desire to launch Finney as Britain’s answer to Brando. Reading the book I have been more aware of Arthur’s mocking, self mocking laughter – less obviously bitter, more biting and mordant in how the writer shapes thingsSillitoe 2009

I received this as a review copy from the excellent digital publishing company Open Road Integrated Media. My version included an afterword, with photographs of Sillitoe, by the writer Ruth Fainlight. Fainlight and Sillitoe were married for 41 years,

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Amazon UK
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Amazon USA

Robert Harris – Imperium

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Prodigious research; prodigious narrative; full of grim echoing down the centuries

ImperiumImperium is the first volume of a trilogy by Robert Harris which tells the story of Cicero, politician, orator, philosopher, and lawyer, who lived from 106 B.C.E. to 43 B.C.E. Much is known directly about Cicero from his published letters, speeches and treatises. Cicero’s writings were rediscovered by the fourteenth century scholar and humanist Petrarch, so Harris would have had a great amount of direct source material to give direction to these novels, plus of course any number of works by later scholars referencing Cicero.

Cicero

Cicero

Imperium is far from a dry scholarly read though. Harris is a novelist, and knows how to shape and tell a tale as well as how to flesh out real people with real histories.

Rather than third person narration, or even a narration by Cicero-in-the-first-person, he makes his narrator another historically real individual, Tiro, Cicero’s slave and scribe,later made a freedman after his master retired from public office. Tiro, who died in 4 B.C E. aged 99, published Cicero’s speeches after his death and was a writer himself. It is also believed that he invented an early version of shorthand.

Tiro is presented as both highly intelligent, but, because of his status he has a certain naïvity – he is not always the recipient of Cicero’s thinking, or the receiver of personal confidences, though he is always present in Cicero’s public outings, to scribe him. His lowly status also casts him as observer and interpreter of the great events. He is a kind of intelligent everyman, without a defined ego and agenda of his own to prosecute. He’s fluent, engaging and with understated humour as part of his nature : a good companion for the reader. Tiro is writing his life of Cicero long after these events have happened, a good half century later.

Cicero denounces Cataline, Cesare Maccari 1888

Cicero denounces Catiline, Cesare Maccari 1888

This has been a particularly apposite read in these troubling, corrupt times. It is a book about the politics of Rome, in the first half of the last century B.C.E, but of course, there being nothing new under the sun, the corruption which underpins so much of the life of power, money, and the division between classes, not to mention the particular workings of states, nations and empires, stalks Ancient Rome as heavily as it does our own times and places.

Cicero is a man not of the aristocracy, therefore despised by them, as his intelligence and skills, and his championing of the ‘public’ brings him closer to taking the reins of power himself. However, the closer he comes to that, the more he will have to, and will, dirty his hands and play the system to achieve the ends desired

Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them

Initially rather soft-hearted, hating to see cruelty and violence done, Cicero will have to steel himself and harden himself, fostering steely resolve

If you must do something unpopular, you might as well do it wholeheartedly, for in politics there is no credit to be won by timidity

Tiro will be the recorder of Cicero’s journey towards a kind of cynical pragmatism

the journey to the top in politics often confines a man with some uncongenial fellow passengers and shows him strange scenery

Whatever the venality, cupidity and self-serving arrogance of some of those currently attempting to achieve the greatest political stages in our own time, they had their moulds in ancient Rome. Indeed, I found myself visioning some of our present politicians in the guise of the worst characters stalking Imperium’s pages, Crassus (well named) and Verres. Unfortunately, learning from history’s mistakes isn’t something we seem to do well, even if Cicero himself, over two thousand years ago, was urging the study of history. Tiro quotes this from Cicero :

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?

A terrific read, and I shall for sure want to read the next two volumes, but I may let Robert Harristhe fallout from the recent referendum, not to mention the upcoming election in the States this autumn, settle first. Reading how easily the populace can be manipulated by brash and power hungry demagogues, and how serious the consequences of such manipulations may be is a little too close for comfort, even if this account has as its real setting the Rome of over 2000 years ago.

Imperium Amazon UK
Imperium Amazon USA

Christopher Isherwood – Goodbye to Berlin

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Autobiographical Fiction reflecting on Troubled Times

Goodbye to BerlinIn troubled times of our own, with the rise of ‘populist politics’ it seems both sad and sagacious to be drawn back into a re-read, a fictionalised account by Christopher Isherwood, of time spent in the Weimar Republic, primarily in Berlin, between 1930 and 1933.

Goodbye to Berlin, first published in 1939, is a collection of six short stories or novellas, with a cast of characters who sometimes reappear in more than one story, all linked together by the narrator ‘Christopher Isherwood’

In a short foreword, Isherwood reminds the reader that although he has given his name to the ‘I’ narrator, we should not assume that this is purely autobiography, or that the characters with the pages are EXACT portrayals of the other people. Isherwood points out that “Christopher Isherwood” should be regarded as a kind of “convenient ventriloquist’s dummy”

However, those interested in the man and his writings certainly can read biographies which let the reader know which real individuals are being described.

Goodbye to Berlin of course also later appeared as a stage play ‘I Am A Camera’ – a direct quote from the book itself, as, very early on Isherwood states what he intends this writing to be

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed

And, of course, one of the central novellas in this collection is “Sally Bowles” and that particular story gave rise to the successful musical and even more successful film, Cabaret.

To return to the book, it is Isherwood’s creation of his “Christopher Isherwood” ventriloquist’s dummy – or camera – which gives the book its cool power. He casts himself, and is, the Englishman abroad, drawn to the unprovincial, dangerous, decadent, colourful and extreme life of Berlin, where personal and political morality is open, not hidden, where political extremes walk the streets, and where, quite quickly everything is in change and confusion. Isherwood makes his ‘dummy’ an interested-in-everything observer. It is the very reverse of polemic writing – though it is always clear where the writer’s mind, heart and moral judgement lies.

Jeanne Mammen - Carnival in Berlin

                   Jeanne Mammen – Carnival in Berlin

Starting in 1930, the narrator, earning his (small) living by teaching English, is staying in a not quite respectable boarding house, run by an impoverished ageing woman, who rather turns a blind eye to the fact that one of her guests earns her living on her back, whilst another, a not particularly talented cabaret artiste, is an ardent Nazi (at that time, just a rather laughable party led by a silly little man no one really expected to go anywhere). The book ends in 1933, when the silly little man has formed a cabinet, and ardency in populist politics is clearly going in the direction it does, or, as Isherwood observes, about his landlady:

Already she is adapting herself, as she will always adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about “Der Führer” to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the election last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town

And in between Isherwood’s arrival in 1930 and departure in 1933, the writer introduces us to a brilliant mix of messy humanity. There are three major stories to follow – Sally Bowles, the louche daughter of a wealthy English family come to Berlin to be an artiste and to enjoy sexual freedom; The Nowak Family, almost on their uppers, whom Isherwood lodges with when he is so poor that he can’t even afford to stay at Schroeder’s any more, and the wealthy, liberal established German Jewish family The Landauers.

The writing, like the humanity, is wonderfulIsherwood

‘Goodbye to Berlin’ as a title, also demonstrates the layers of meaning Isherwood packs into his clear and deceptively simple prose. This is not just Isherwood saying ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ at the end of his stay – it is Berlin, saying goodbye to itself.

Goodbye to Berlin Amazon UK
Goodbye to Berlin Amazon USA

Eowyn Ivey – To the Bright Edge of the World

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Opening a deep, strange, Alaskan history up the Wolverine River

To The Bright Edge of The WorldAlaskan author Eowyn Ivey’s first novel, The Snow Child, set in 1920’s Alaska, was a runaway success, eagerly enjoyed by many.

So her second novel was going to be one arriving with very high expectations indeed

She does not disappoint, though this is a different kind of book, the mythic elements exist as more unexplained, puzzling and unresolved for her characters,. And in many ways, writing something a little different has been a good choice. Ivey clearly is not just a one trick pony of a writer

Ivey stays with her home state, one whose landscape and culture clearly deeply resonate for her, and are in her sinews.

To The Bright Edge Of The World is fiction, but reads much more like history. For a start, there is the structure of the novel, set for the most part in 1885, and being the journals of Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester, and his journey from Perkins Island up the Wolverine River, as part of an opening up of Alaska, not only for the sourcing of gold and copper, but for transport, settlements and trade. Forrester’s quite terrifying and challenging journey through an isolated, beautiful and dangerous landscape is intercut with the diary written by his young wife, Sophie, left behind in Vancouver Barracks, Washington Territory, to wait for her husband’s return, which is likely to take a year. There are also other journals from Lieutenant Pruitt, one of Forrester’s party, whose role is to manage various scientific instruments to record the weather, and also, with photography as a fairly new medium, to curate a visual record of the ground-breaking journey. As the vast territory is also home to Native Americans who have inhabited the land, a trapper who is familiar with some of the languages spoken by the different tribes, is also part of Forrester’s party.

In fact, Forrester and his specific expedition and the other people are Ivey’s brilliant invention. Journeys did of course happen, and some of the history of that ‘opening up of Alaska’ also happened, but she used real expeditions as fuel for her imagination, not as ‘fictionalised biography’.  This gives freedom

Her account of Forrester’s journey is magnificent, eerie and spell-binding. She winds in some of the shamanic, spiritual traditions of Native Americans, and there are ‘unexplained’ happenings. These do not feel like ‘magic’ or ‘fantasy’ but they do feel inexplicable to a linear, cause-and-effect thinking, and are something which Forrester, Sophie, and others experience, and are left uneasy by, precisely because of their ‘more things in heaven and earth’ nature.

The character of Sophie is particularly interesting. She is an unconventional young woman. Her own family history is creative, free-thinking, and with a strong personal-spiritual identity. Sophie is highly intelligent, and with a passion for the natural world. She is one of those women who almost stand on the threshold of a more modern world, a good generation or two ahead of her time.

Giving the ‘fiction’ she has created even more veracity, Ivey bookends and interleaves the 1885 journals and diaries of the Forresters with letters between Walter Forrester, Allen Forrester’s great-nephew, now in his 70s , and Joshua Sloan, the exhibits curator of the Alpine Historical Museum. Walter wishes to gift the writings, and the various artefacts from the journey, to the Museum. It’s a good literary device, allowing Joshua to explore further research, and also allows the reader to compare then and now, as he and Walter, in their letters, talk about the various artefacts, family history, and both of their own stories are opened out and developed by the exploration and development happening to Forrester, Sophie – and of course, Alaska itself

And if all these many delights were not enough – there are many photographs, newspaper clippings, line drawings and plates from books of the time scattered throughout the text.

I truly felt as if I was discovering for myself a window into a strange past.

A magnificent book. Ivey is a more than a bit of a magician. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven also is deeply present in the text, and I confess to having nightmares and being a bit wary of the smaller corvids in my local park (crows) whilst reading this. Her beautiful writing, sure plotting, and fascinating characters wove a satisfying spell, and the ‘strange stuff’ was a seamless and coherent part. I can’t say more, as the reader needs to discover this for themselves, without foreknowledgeeowyn-ivey

I received this book from Amazon Vine UK as an ARC, and strongly recommend it. It will be available hardcover and Kindle, in both the UK and USA on 2nd August. A reading treat in store!

As for me, I hope she is deep within her third book, which I’ll be keenly waiting for…..

To the Bright Edge of The World Amazon UK
To the Bright Edge of The World Amazon USA

Marcus Sedgwick – Mister Memory

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“Memory…given to us in order that we may learn, understand and build upon our previous achievements”

Mister MemoryI first came to Marcus Sedgwick from a chance find of one of his children’s books, Blood Red, Snow White, in a charity shop. Sedgwick is a magnificent writer, mainly for the YA market, managing a deft balance between page-turning plot, fascinating, complex character, crafted writing, and balancing sometimes complex themes. Blood Red Snow White was typical Sedgewick, based on the real-life story of children’s writer Arthur Ransome, taking in fairy-story and its tropes, and, where Ransome crossed world events, the Russian Revolution, a love story, and espionage.

A couple of years ago, he wrote his first book for adults, the absorbing A Love Like Blood, a very different take on the over-crowded, often drearily repetitive vampire-lit market. Which I normally avoid like the plague, except when a proven, rather lit-ficcy writer strays into the territory. So I was eager to jump at the chance of Mister Memory.

Set in post-Commune Paris, at the tail end of the nineteenth century, this is – with many, many genuinely shocking, genuinely apposite twists, several things : a tale of corruption and sexual scandal in high places; a police procedural, not to mention police cover up; a political thriller; a murder mystery; an exploration of theories of ‘mind medicine’ at the time, and a unpicking of memory itself, its mysterious workings, and philosophical reflections about it.

That’s one of the ways in which powerful men become powerful; they do despicable things, and if they get away with it, then stories are rewritten, facts are ignored. History, as we know, is written by the victor

The story, recounted through 3 viewpoints, is this: ‘Mister Memory’ himself, Marcel Després, a man who can forget nothing he reads or experiences, Inspector Petit, a man with tragedy in his past, and Doctor Morel, elderly ‘Alienist’ at the Salpêtrière hospital for those seen as mentally impaired. The third person narrator/author guides us overall.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Commons, Wiki Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hysteria in a patient at the Salpetriere. Lithograph after P.A.A. Brouillet, 1887.

 Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hysteria in a patient at the Salpetriere. Lithograph after P.A.A. Brouillet, 1887. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Commons, Wiki

Marcel, returning early from his ‘Mister Memory’ cabaret act, finds his flirtatious, sexy cabaret dancer wife in flagrante delicto with one of her many admirers. In jealous rage, he shoots her dead, an immediately gives himself up to the police. Petit, investigating the crime is astonished to discover that, far from going through normal channels of police procedure, trial and sentence, Marcel has instead immediately been whisked away to the Salpêtrière. Motivated by a personal desire to see proper justice done, as he perceives it – the death penalty, or at least transportation to the ‘dry guillotine’ (Devil’s Island) Petit begins an off-the-cuff investigation. Initially he thinks he is carrying out normal procedures, but is inexplicably and heavily warned off the case. Meanwhile, Doctor Morel, a rather dry, unempathic clinician, is fascinated by the opportunities Marcel presents, in terms of scientific understanding of the mind and its processes.

Devil's Island, made infamous by the true Dreyfus Affair, and even more so by the largely fictional book, adapted into a film with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman

Devil’s Island, made infamous by the true Dreyfus Affair, and even more so by the largely fictional book, Papillon, adapted into a film with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman

I found this a generally very absorbing, and at times, genuinely jaw-dropping in shock and surprise, read (for the right reasons)

I have some reservations, mainly because I felt that Sedgwick, in this one, offered fewer over-arching reflections for me to think about. Though there were a few of these, he generally sews more of them seamlessly into his books.

This was also a little over-long, even at only 326 pages. There were times when the various investigations and unravellings – Petit’s, Dr Morel’s, and Marcus’-through-Dr Morel, lumbered a little. But there were always those jaw-drop moments to absolutely gather and drive renewed forward momentum in my reading.

Not to mention some passages, in the light of present political happenings, which made me wince and wryly shiver:

Do you know what memory is for?……… Most people, if you ask them, will tell you that memory is about the past – it is, after all about remembering things that have happened. But that is not what memory is for. The ability to recall past events is a mere by-product of what memory does for us. It was given to us….in order that we might be able to negotiate the future……That is what memory is about: the future, not the past. The future.

I finished my reading of this on the Hundred Year Anniversary of the battle of the Somme. In sombre moodMarcus Sedgwick, some time ago

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK. It will be published in the UK on hard and digital on July 14th, but sadly it looks as if Statesiders will only have access to this on the Kindle on that date – hard publication is showing as 2017.

Mister Memory Amazon UK
Mister Memory Amazon USA

Lionel Davidson – Kolymsky Heights

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A stylish, chilly, Siberian set thriller, with dabs of Sci-Fi

Kolymsky HeightsLionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights was first published in 1994. As the major political adversaries are Russia on the one hand and the intelligence services of Britain and North America on the other, the book was slightly out of time with itself, as the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s meant that Russia was not quite such a potent repository for parking all ideas of ‘the foe to be overcome’, a necessary part of any adventure story.

I’m certainly, on the strength of this one, interested in investigating more of Davidson’s books. This one was re-published in 2015, to critical acclaim. Although I can’t quite concur with Philip Pullman who said it was “The best thriller I’ve ever read” , being a devotee of early Greene and Eric Ambler for that accolade, it is certainly, in my mind ‘a tremendous thriller’

Something appears to be going on at a research station deep in Siberia, and surveillance satellites and spy planes have taken some curious photographs. A Soviet scientist who once attended a conference sends an ambiguous and unsigned message to an English academic whom he met at a conference some years earlier. It is not easy to see and understand quite who the real recipient of the ambiguous message should be, nor even where the scientist sent the message from, or how. He has vanished from the scientific community.Bering Strait

British and American intelligence mysteriously converge on the English academic. They are keen to discover who this message is really being sent to.

Enter a classic, unbelievable, with-one-bound-he-was-free hero, Johnny Porter. But the bounding one, possessing any manner of physical and linguistic skills, is nonetheless very far from ‘cartoon’. He is not James Bond, he does not indulge in a string of bed-hoppings with the pulchritudinous, though he does have a great ability to charm people. He is indeed a good man, an intelligent man, – and an extremely reluctant spy. Johnny Porter, also known as Jean-Baptiste Porteur, comes from a tribal Indian background from a particular area of British Columbia. He is an academic, and involved in various progressive causes. He’s also a loner, and a bit of a shape-shifter, in that he can successfully pass himself off as belonging to a number of possible ethnicities, from part Korean to part member of a number of Siberian ethnic groups – Evenk, Chukchee.

Evenk herder and his reindeer - in summer

Evenk herder and his reindeer – in summer

Pullman’s foreword to my edition is an unusually fine foreword. I read it, as is now my wont, after I finished the book. Too many forewords reveal plot. Pullman doesn’t, though he does let us know why the book is so successful. It is a classic ‘hero quest’ story: an unlikely person, with hidden gifts, sets out on a dangerous adventure. Along the way they will meet surprising companions who will aid them in their dangerous quest. Fairy stories would make the companions magic talking animals, fairy godmothers disguised as poor beggar-women and the like. The dangerous quest (and there is a lot of danger here) in fairy and myth involves something of great and rare value. The quest will transform and extend the seeker. And IF successful the seeker will bring the gift of value back to his or her wider community. And there may very well be a rival quest going on at the same time by those forces who wish to stop the good seeker being successful. This is NOT a fairy-story, but it has the myth/fable structure, meaning ‘helpers’ may be surprising. The quest adventure is a classic kind of story, and can be done well or badly.

Here, it is done very well indeed. One of the real pleasures is that Siberian setting, and the complexities of different ethnicities, languages and cultures within that vast region. Another is the very detailed physical descriptions of how exactly our hero gets to do some of the things he is doing. For those who care about these things these detailed descriptions do not include graphic and gratuitous accounts of violence or sexual encounters. But it is the detailed descriptions of, for example, the building of a particular truck type vehicle which can cope with cross country Siberian travel, which also does give me some reservations. It is a long read, nearly 500 pages, and at times those descriptions, whilst they ground the story in reality, sometimes do hold up the forward pace. Greene and Ambler go for greater tautness, and a shaving of excessive detail. Perhaps they trust, a little more, that the reader acknowledges the genre, and WILL suspend their disbelief if enough, but not too much, reality joins the dots of the one freeing bound!

Nonetheless, recommended!Lionel_Davidson

And, finally, big thanks to the excellent Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, who sent me racing to buy this one, after her unstoppably appetite whetting review.

Escapist reading of fine quality is some comfort in these parlous times

Kolymsky Heights Amazon UK
Kolymsky Heights Amazon USA

Erri de Luca – The Day Before Happiness

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A love story to Honour, and to Naples

downloadThe Day Before Happiness is a short novella, by Neapolitan author Erri de Luca, first published in Italian in 2009, but here in a new translation by Jill Foulston. And I assume a fine one, as the various voices seemed to have their unique personalities, and I had a sense of rhythm and flow which felt vernacular, easy, assured. This felt particularly commendable, as something running warmly through the book is humour, provided by a rather volatile character who is prone to Malapropisms and has pronunciation problems I think it takes great skill to translate humour born out of wordplay:

The other evening they performed False Daft at San Carlo”
What do you mean, False Daft? Which was it, False or Daft?”
“Don Gaetano, the opera: False Daft”
But what do you mean, False Daft? Was it really silly?
“No, False Daft. That’s it’
But what are you going on about? Did you laugh?”
Don Gaetano was scared of La Capa, but he wouldn’t let him get away with it. La Capa couldn’t say Falstaff

There are a couple of layers of narrative voices, and a couple of time settings.

The central character, now a young man, whose name we never learn, is preparing for a cataclysmic change He is looking back to the moment which set the change in motion : he was a young boy, an orphan, aged eight, when he saw a young girl, a few years older, looking out of a tenement window, and fell in love, secretly, though he never spoke to her, and only saw her behind her window, a few times after that.

Naples

Without family, he is befriended by Don Gaetano, porter/concierge/repairman in the tenement. Don Gaetano tells the young boy stories from the German Occupation of the city. Don Gaetano is salty, pithy, profound and wise, a kind of transforming philosopher for the young boy. He also has other wise teachers – books, he is a greedy reader, and also the kindly Don Raimondo, a second hand book seller

Books retain someone’s imprint even more than their clothes or shoes. Heirs get rid of them as a kind of exorcism, a way of banishing the ghost, with the excuse that they need the space, they’re being suffocated by all the books……..the emptiness you feel before a bare wall after its collection of books has been sold off is the most profound one I know. I take those banished books away and give them a second life

The narrator looks back on his own life, and tells himself the profound stories Don Gaetano told him, about his own childhood, youth and manhood. Don Gaetano will also reveal some secrets about the narrator’s origins, and, for the reader, there are satisfying patterns, repetitions and resonances which play out.

The book is extremely charming, the story telling and the story tellers seduce with their language and their reflections, but the tale does more than just charm. In some ways, it seemed far more Spanish than Italian, a sense of some deep, dark, mysterious, but necessary fate/rite of passage playing out. I thought, as the end neared, of Lorca, and of the raw, pain and joy mix of Spanish flamenco music and singing

Recommended, a good combination of playfulness and deadly punch

I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine, UKErri de Luca

The Stateside version is an older translation by Michael Moore. To my mind, looking at the look inside facility on the Moore, version, and reading both aloud, Foulston has a more lyrical, measured flow, and the Moore seemed to have the quality that a more literal translation has.

The Day Before Happiness Amazon UK
The Day Before Happiness Amazon USA

Susan Fletcher – Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew

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Let Me Tell You About A Man I KnewI had never read (or heard of) Susan Fletcher, but the subject matter of this novel interested me – Vincent Van Gogh’s year in the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy, where he admitted himself, and was a patient for a year, from May 1889- May 1890, painting some of his most loved, intense paintings during that time.

What made the book particularly intriguing to me was the fact that Van Gogh is not the central character. There have been novels and films about the painter, telling his story, but Fletcher has written from the perspective of an ‘ordinary person’ affected by art and the artist’s vision. The central character is Jeanne Trabuc, the warden’s wife at Saint-Paul. Jeanne is a woman in her 50’s, a quiet woman, a woman who has stifled, or had stifled, her blaze, and free-spiritedness. She is the mother of 3 grown-up, long left home, boys. She loves her repressed, correct, conventional husband, a decorated Major from when he was a young man, during the Crimean war, but the two have become externally estranged from each other, somehow trapped in mutual sorrow, and unable to emotionally connect and express their true feelings.

Wheat Field With Cypresses, 1889

Wheat Field With Cypresses, 1889

Can ancient stones be loved? But if love is a strong, settled fondness, a vine that takes hold and grows and wraps itself about you, as she’s imagined it to be – then perhaps her fondness of the swallows that nest in the crevices and of the goats dozing in the olives’ shade and of the Romans and their slaves and wives that Jeanne has pictured have all grown into love

Although both Charles Trabuc and Jeanne were real people – and Van Gogh painted them – as were other major players in this book, Peyron, Poulet and Salles, the first two hospital workers, the last a cleric, friendly to Van Gogh, Fletcher has imagined their lives, fleshed out an invention. This is not fictionalised biography, and she takes no outrageous liberties with the man who is the central focus for everyone in her book – Van Gogh. She has used his letters to his brother Theo, and, most particularly, used the paintings he created whilst at Saint-Remy, the gestations of which are stunningly, powerfully, dynamically rendered in this book. She focuses on Van Gogh, observed by Jeanne, in the act of painting, what he says about his art, and what Jeanne, seeing the painting happening either before her eyes or as finished works on the canvas, feels for the works.

A painted portrait is a thing of feeling made with love or respect for the being represented

(from a letter written by Van Gogh to his sister Wilhelmina)

Now this is not a book which will satisfy if the reader is demanding huge action and operatic emotionalism. Rather, the central characters other than Van Gogh – the Trabacs, are pent inside themselves, quietly and rigidly suffering. Van Gogh, man and painter, is a catalyst of change, he and his paintings are cathartic, but it is in the interior landscape, not in huge dramatic events.

Starry Night 1889

Starry Night 1889

This is a stunning book, though it did take time for me to settle into the quietness of time, place and character – a sleepy, conservative small village community in Provence, at the tail end of the nineteenth century, gossipy, traditional, suspicious of those who are different.

Portrait of Madame Trabuc

Portrait of Madame Trabuc

Fletcher gives voice to small people, and shows their uniqueness, and how reined in, private natures may blaze with dreams, desires and subtle, refined sensibilities. Jeanne is a wonderful creation – and so is her husband, and they make an individual and connected transformation. Along the way, themes of love and loss – youth, age, death, the losing and finding of friendships is beautifully laid out, And the paintings, which rather underpin everything about this book are both illuminated, and illuminating the story.

The heart, she thinks, is the painter. Love, and moments like this, are the art. The Dutchman taught her that

I was offered this as a review copy by NetGalley and for sure am going to explore Fletcher’s earlier writing.Susan Fletcher

I sometimes feel very leery about writers who invent the lives of real people. And this is mainly when privacy seems to have been invaded, or detrimental untruths have happened. Now I have no idea whether Jeanne and Charles Trabuc were quite like Fletcher’s inventions or not, but I am fairly sure that if there are known descendants of the two, they would be more likely to be charmed by Fletcher’s tender, invented portrayal. It reads, indeed like  “a thing of feeling made with love or respect for the being represented

 Let me Tell You About a Man I Knew Amazon UK
Let me Tell You About a Man I Knew Amazon USA

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