Fiction Uncovered 2012

Fiction Uncovered, the initiative to highlight the work of established UK authors who may have fallen off the radar, is back for another year. The 2012 list was revealed on Wednesday; unlike last year, I wasn’t able to attend the announcement, but I was still keen to see which titles had been selected. Here are this year’s books (quotations taken from the Fiction Uncovered website).

Peter Benson, Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke

What the judges say:  ‘The tease of a title gradually resolves itself as the delightful comedy of drug-running in rural England plays out. The cartel meets Ambridge.’ – John Sutherland, Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL; Chair, 2012 Judging Panel

It’s fair to say that I probably wouldn’t have picked this up if I saw it in a bookshop, though the blurb’s suggestion of a supernatural note is intriguing, and I do like the narrative voice in the extract I’ve read. Looking up Benson’s other books, he seems a wide-ranging author, but with a particular focus on landscape, especially that of Somerset. I think he’s a writer I should investigate further.

Cressida Connolly, My Former Heart

What the judges say: ‘A family saga spanning the second half of the twentieth century, this gentle story of women’s lives in Egypt, Lebanon and the London Blitz is at once tender, comic and wise. Following on from the success of her short stories, My Former Heart marks out Connolly as a novelist to watch.’ – Katy Guest, Literary Editor, Independent on Sunday; 2012 Judging Panel

This is a first novel from Connolly, who has previously published a short story collection and a historical biography. Family sagas aren’t generally my thing, and I don’t feel particularly inclined to try My Former Heart; but I think Fiction Uncovered ought to be broad in scope, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s no problem if not everything on the list appeals to me.

Jill Dawson, Lucky Bunny

What the judges say: ‘With sleight of hand, a little rouge and a mind as sharp as a razor, Queenie Dove does battle with all the Depression, the war and her father have to throw at her. Dawson writes with a pace and humour that is infectious and her cast of characters will stay with you long after finishing the book.’ – Jasper Sutcliffe, Head of Buying, Foyles Group; 2012 Judging Panel

The synopsis makes this sound fun – a tale of wartimeEast Endcrime capers – and the extract suggests a novel with a serious heart; that’s a pretty unbeatable combination when it’s done well, so I think I’ll be taking a look at Lucky Bunny.Dawson’s bibliography suggests she’s another writer whose work covers varied ground, which is always a good thing in my book.

Tibor Fischer, Crushed Mexican Spiders

What the judges say: ‘Small minded readers might object that this is not a novel but two exquisitely packaged short stories. But the stories themselves – sardonic and beautifully chiselled – radiate wonderfully.’ – John Sutherland

Here’s something that wasn’t on last year’s Fiction Uncovered list: a book of short stories. (Admittedly there are only two – printed back-to-back – in this 64-page volume, but still.) Tibor Fischer is one of those writers whose name I know without knowing anything about his work; now I’ve looked it up, his fiction sounds just the sort of quirky stuff I enjoy. This collection could be a good place to start.

Doug Johnstone, Hit & Run

What the judges say: ‘The whole panel were impressed with the non-stop energy of Hit & Run. Just when you think his protagonist has no further left to fall, he makes another crazy decision that amps up the suspense to an even greater level.’ – Matt Thorne, writer and Head of Creative Writing at Brunel University; 2012 Judging Panel

I felt that last year’s Fiction Uncovered list missed a trick by not including any ‘genre fiction’, so it’s nice to see titles like My Former Heart and this thriller being selected now. Hit & Run sounds like a book which delivers the goods as a thriller whilst also offering something more substantial in its characterisation; that would be a good combination of attributes.

Susanna Jones, When Nights Were Cold

What the judges say: ‘A delightful adventure full of feisty women, mountaineering, all kinds of escape and Edwardian derring-do, this is narrated by a classic unreliable narrator who looks back on friendships gone catastrophically wrong among the peaks of theAlps. Jones’s fourth novel deserves to put her on the literary map.’ – Katy Guest

I read one of Susanna Jones’s earlier novels, The Earthquake Bird, a couple of years ago, and rather enjoyed it. The contemporary Japanese setting of that book is quite different from the early twentieth-century British and Alpine background of When Night Were Cold – but, as should be clear by now, I like variety in an author’s oeuvre. And I have a soft spot for books with unreliable narrators, so this could be good.

David Park, The Light of Amsterdam

What the judges say: ‘From the problems between fathers and sons to the perils of going to see Dylan in his dotage, this is a deep and richly pleasurable reading experience.  Park depicts the frustrations and excitements of everyday life with equal clarity.’ – Matt Thorne

I first heard of David Park in an article from last year in which various writing and publishing types were asked to name writers they thought deserved more attention (frustratingly, I can’t find the link) – and now here he is on the Fiction Uncovered list. I’d like to read one of his books, but can’t honestly say that the synopsis of The Light of Amsterdam sounds interesting to me; perhaps I’ll try a different Park title.

Dan Rhodes, This Is Life

What the judges say: ‘Using his trademark dark humour Dan Rhodes draws his protagonist Aurélie Renard, and the reader, deep into the heart of the most romantic city in the world, Paris. Rhodes explores art, politics and modern life, with hilarious and enlightening results.’ – Jasper Sutcliffe

Now here’s a writer who I know deserves a wider audience. I’ve read and greatly enjoyed Rhodes’s previous two novels – Gold is especially good – but have heard mixed things about his Paris-set latest, that it might not have the spark of his others. Still, this is Dan Rhodes we’re talking about, and I’d never dismiss one of his books without reading it. I’ll probably read Timoleon Vieta Come Home first, mind.

You can find the Fiction Uncovered titles on display in a bookshop near you.

Elsewhere
Read Simon’s take on the list over at Savidge Reads.

Book notes: Shepherd and Lightfoot

Lloyd Shepherd, The English Monster (2012)

(NB. I can’t say what I want to say about this book without revealing a key plot development from about a third in; bear that in mind if you read on.)

Lloyd Shepherd’s debut novel takes as its foundation theRatcliffe Highwaymurders, a pair of multiple killings which took place near theLondonarea of Wapping in December 1811. As Shepherd presents them, these gruesome crimes are beyond the comprehension of most people; but John Harriott, magistrate of the Thames River Police, is determined that the culprit will be brought to justice. His watchman-constable, Charles Horton, has an unorthodox technique for fighting crime: the systematic investigation of evidence – ‘detection’, as Harriott calls it.

A parallel storyline begins in 1564, when we join young Billy Ablass as he’s about to set sail fromPlymouthin search of fortune. But the ship he has joined is on a mission to gather slaves, and its voyages lead Billy ultimately toFlorida, where he becomes the victim of a curse – never to die, but always to carry the burden of what he and his crewmates have done, a burden which will rot him from the inside.

As a crime story, The English Monster fairly rattles along; but, in the end, the mystery element comes to seem almost beside the point. What interests me most about the novel is its subtext, which is all about the the emerging modern world. The two narrative threads highlight key historical junctures and the tensions around them: a more ‘scientific’ approach to policing is emerging, but is largely viewed with suspicion; the Wapping docks are growing, but not everyone will experience the economic benefits; a world is being built on the trade of human beings. Against this background, Charles Horton and Billy Ablass could be seen as emblematic opposites: Horton as the positive force for progress, Ablass as the negative aspects of human nature which persist and hold us back.

I understand that Shepherd is planning more novels featuring The English Monster’s characters; the pace and subtext of this first one leave me very keen to see where he goes next.

Frederick Lightfoot, My Name Is E (2011)

Judith Salt, Abigail Sempie and Grace Powers are three deaf girls all born in the same Cumbrian village in 1945. Though unrelated, they meet each other as young children and come to think of themselves as ‘sisters’. Judith’s and Grace’s Grade II deafness is acquired, and they have some ability to speak and hear; but Abby is Grade III deaf from birth, and can utter only the single syllable ‘E’. It’s apparent from the beginning that something happened to Abby, because Judith (our narrator) returned to her home village aged twenty-five, intent on avenging her. Judith tells the intertwined tales of that time, her childhood, and her current life at the age of sixty.

I’m ambivalent about My Name Is E. On the one hand, Frederick Lightfoot creates a vivid portrait of the village community and its precarious social terrain; on the other, I find his prose style a little too dry at times. The mysteries of Abby’s fate and what the twenty-five-year old Judith with do are strong narrative hooks, though the resolution of that latter thread is less effective. I find myself remaining on the fence as far as this book goes.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (1989)

I’ve been thinking back to that Leo Benedictus article on ‘hindered narrators’ which crossed my mind whilst reading The Quiddity of Will Self. In it, Benedictus refers to the previous generation’s idea of ‘a literary novelist: a titan of the typewriter [whose] own voice was all you ever got from them, even when they swathed it in a made-up “I.”’ I’ve often had trouble with that sort of writing myself; I tend to think that a first-person voice should be tailored to the narrator’s character. That was one of the problems I had with Kazuo Ishiguro’s novella collection, Nocturnes – each of its narrators had the same voice, and it was one which didn’t suit all of them.

It was time to try Ishiguro’s work again, and I went for his most lauded novel, The Remains of the Day. I found that same first-person voice here, but its slightly stuffy formality works perfectly for this narrator: Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall in Oxfordshire, whom we join in July 1956, as he’s preparing to take a drive to the West Country. He’s planning to visit Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn), a former housekeeper of the Hall, who has written to Stevens after many years, describing how her marriage has foundered and hinting (so Stevens reads into the letter) that she may wish to return to Darlington; Stevens’ pretext for the journey is to discuss the latter with Miss Kenton, because he’s struggling to manage the Hall with the few staff he has left; but there are hints from the beginning (and growing throughout) that there may be a more personal dimension to their relationship than Stevens is willing to admit.

Something else that didn’t sit right with me in Nocturnes was a character who was effectively dismissed completely as a person by a supposed friend, and just accepted it – I simply couldn’t imagine someone in the present day being so yielding about that. Again, I find similar character traits in The Remains of the Day; and, again, they make more sense in this context. Stevens’ life and outlook are defined by service: his job, as he sees it, is to facilitate the work of the gentlemen he serves; the man Stevens might otherwise be himself is subsumed under that notion of duty. To his mind, the most fundamental quality of a great butler (not that he would be so bold as to consider himself ‘great’, you understand) is ‘dignity’ – the capacity to retain one’s composure whatever the situation; not to let one’s inner life become apparent to the outside world. There’s no doubt Stevens has this capacity: the most extreme example is probably when Stevens’ father (who at the time was working under him at Darlington Hall) has a stroke and dies below stairs whilst his son is attending to a conference of dignitaries; Stevens carries on performing his duties, keeps his emotions largely in check, and still feels a small sense of ‘triumph’ thirty years on at being able to maintain his dignity on that occasion.

Stevens’ relationship with Miss Kenton is similarly characterised by such ‘dignity’. Their conversations, as he recalls them, are stiff and rather cold; when she tries to inject some warmth into them, Stevens doesn’t respond to it, and Miss Kenton in her turn becomes barbed and distant in how she deals with Stevens’ professional requests – but, crucially, he can’t now recall whether some criticisms came from Miss Kenton or his old employer, Lord Darlington; this both underlines how Stevens’ work and ‘personal’ life are as one to him, and emphasises the mental filter through which we’re viewing events.

The theme of conflict between private and public life is reflected not just in the person of Stevens, but also in wider life at the Hall. Stevens remarks at one point that important political decisions may influenced at private gatherings in country houses – and it’s such a diplomatic conference that Lord Darlington organises in the 1930s in an attempt to avert war; one delegate warns another in secret that he may be the target of manipulation – and, in an illustration of the social forces at work, this is brought sharply into the public sphere.

But it’s Stevens who is ultimately the focus of Ishiguro’s novel, and we see a man who lacks vital self-awareness. He may be at pains to stress – may believe ardently – that he’s a servant; but his bearing makes it easy enough for some of those he meets on the road to mistake Stevens for a gentleman. He acts well enough like a lord in his own domain; is quite unaware of the effect that can have on others; and takes the view that ‘ordinary people [cannot] be expected to have “strong opinions” on all manner of things’ (p. 204). It’s only gradually that Stevens comes to realise some of his negative qualities, and something of what he may have missed out on in life – and, even then, it’s clear he’s only just beginning. At the start of the novel, Stevens is unsure how to feel about and respond to his new American employer’s banter; by the end, he’s coming to think that banter ‘is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth’ (p. 258). It’s the first step on a new road for him.

After I’d read the prologue of The Remains of the Day, I was concerned that the novel might be too unsubtle in its depiction of Stevens. Now I see I was approaching the book in the wrong way: what Ishiguro does is take a character who might border on caricature and make a fully-fledged individual of him. So I’ve come to appreciate Ishiguro’s work that bit more with The Remains of the Day; it’ll be Never Let Me Go when I read him next, I think.

Book notes: Darling, Zeniter, Meredith

Tom Darling, Summer (2012)

Tom Darling’s second novel, Summer, is the story of teenage Grace Hooper and her nine-year-old brother Billy, who arrive on their grandfather’s farm as orphans, their parents having been killed in an accident on holiday. School will not begin again for several months; until then, the children face a summer in an environment far removed from the London they know (underlining their sense of disorientation, it is never clear just where the farm is), with a relative who might as well be a stranger (and, indeed, is referred to almost exclusively in the book as ‘the old man’).

Summer is a quiet book that takes time to unfold, often telling its story in the gaps between scenes as well as within the scenes themselves. It moves between the present, the past, and the old man’s dreams, generally maintaining the same tone. These techniques can be effective; the children’s memories feel like the mirages they are, aspects of the present rather than an equal reality; and, though it’s evident from the grandfather’s bad dreams that something terrible has happened on the farm previously, the reader has to piece that together over time. However, the novel also feels a bit too diffuse; its different narrative components are not tied together as closely as they might be, and some key points may be lost amongst the whole.

But what Darling does particularly well in Summer is delineate the change in his protagonists. At first, it’s Billy who takes instinctively to the farm environment, and his grandfather is only too happy to accommodate his interest. Billy’s existence on the farm becomes almost elemental, and he spends more time in one of his outside hideaways than in the farmhouse. Grace, in contrast, is more cast adrift at first, but eventually comes to her own instinctive—though subtly different—understanding of her surroundings; her relationship with the farm is mediated through human contact more than is Billy’s, and the way she ultimately views the place is more ordered. It’s in details like this, and as a study of character, that Summer shines most strongly.

This review also appears on Fiction Uncovered.

Reviews elsewhere: Learn This Phrase; What Sarah Reads; Stevie Davies for the Guardian.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (2010/1)

Alice Zeniter was 23 when she published Jusque dans nos bras (now superbly translated from the French by Alison Anderson as Take This Man), and it really feels as though she has captured in it something of contemporary life for her generation. We meet Zeniter’s protagonist (also named Alice Zeniter) as she is about to marry her Malian childhood friend Amadou (‘Mad’) Traoré – a marriage brought about because it will prevent Mad from being deported under new immigration laws, despite his having lived in France most of his life. The novel’s chapters alternate between the lead-up to the wedding and Alice’s various encounters with racism.

Take This Man begins with a brilliant passage listing the touchstones of Alice’s generation as she sees them; it captures a mixture of optimism and anxiety which carries through to the main novel, where one senses that Alice is never quite sure whether marrying Mad is really the right thing to do (her first-person narration frequently lapses into addressing herself as ‘you’, emphasising that dislocation). Zeniter traces the complexities of Alice’s situation – her father may be from Algeria, but she appears white, and discovers that her experiences are not the same as Mad’s – and charts her growing political awareness, all in fizzing prose.

Review at Soifollowjulian.

Christopher Meredith, The Book of Idiots (2012)

Christopher Meredith’s first adult novel in fourteen years seems at first like a tapestry of the mundane. Interspersed with tales of boyhood games, Dean Lloyd narrates episodes from his adult life: interviewing candidates for a new position at his workplace; conversations at the swimming pool with Jeff, an old work colleague whose trunks keep threatening to disintegrate; a country walk with a friend named Wil Daniel, who tells Dean about a chance meeting at hospital with a woman he once knew, and its consequences. But there’s more going on than Dean – or the reader – may suspect.

Meredith has a particularly sharp ear for dialogue which feels like actual speech; and he creates a sharp portrait of thwarted potential – for example, Wil wonders what use his degree in English and history has really been; the answer, as far as the novel goes, is that he can play a guessing game with Dean about how different historical figures died.

I don’t think I managed to grasp everything Meredith was doing in The Book of Idiots; but the title intrigued me and, with the novel’s mentions of Ancient Greece, I looked up the original meaning of ‘idiot’ – which, as I understand it, was someone focused on the private sphere, on themselves. Viewing the book through this lens, I see characters with personal concerns which they don’t share, or don’t recognise in others – with tragic consequences. It’s the unseen things in The Book of Idiots which carry the greatest impact.

Review and interview by Gwen Davies in New Welsh Review.

Q&A: Robert Davidson of Sandstone Press

With The Testament of Jessie Lamb having won the Clarke Award last week, I thought it would be interesting to find out more about the small Highland press which published the book. So I got in touch with Sandstone’s Managing Director, Robert Davidson (pictured left, © Gary Antony), who was kind enough to answer a few questions.

***

DH: What’s your background, and where did the idea for Sandstone Press come from?

RD: Sandstone flowed quite naturally from the activities of my earlier life. I sometimes entertain the dangerous notion that everything up to its beginning was preparation for what was to come. For more than two decades I had lived not just a double life as engineer by day, writer by night, but triple since I was also intently involved in hillwalking, the local community, the Neil Gunn Trust, Reviews Editor at Northwords Magazine, and much else. My second book was titled Total Immersion; not for nothing. Something had to give and in 2000 I came out of my job with Site Works begun and many other projects being actioned. Soon I was Managing Editor at Northwords, where I spent three years. By that time much had been learned of what not to do and a bit more about what actually works. To extend both my own creative work and also my work with other people and projects, a new structure with new mechanisms was required and Sandstone Press was born. I think it must be obvious from outside the company that, by now, Sandstone Press is a lot bigger than any one person. There have been changes in personnel, the arrival of two great Board members in Iain Gordon and Moira Forsyth, ever rising ambitions, great support in recent years from Creative Scotland, achieving Faber Factory Plus as selling agents, many more books and increasing international recognition and outreach. My early ambitions are now refined down to project management of the whole thing. Personal projects will have to wait. I have probably written my last book, which is a sadness, but the larger project prevails. Don’t misconstrue that as a complaint. This is one of the most exciting times of my life.

DH: What do you look for in a book when you’re deciding what to publish?

RD: The strap line to our principal logo is ‘contemporary quality reading’. The list has also become refined and now focusses on outdoor (which is a natural product of our Highland location), literary and biographical non-fiction, and more general, contemporary fiction. An increasing number of titles will be bought in from abroad and it is likely that we will publish fewer, high risk, first time authors. That rather avoids your question though.

The first thing I look for is the ‘idea of the book’, and I feel it is best if it can be described in just a few words such as ‘the biography of the recently retired leader of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team’ or ‘what happens to a child when his parents mysteriously disappear in Australia’. This is the seed from which all else grows. There can be too many ideas at root, I believe, and ideas which come along in the course of writing should conform to that key note.

The second thing both I and Editorial Director Moira Forsyth look for is, quite simply, good writing. Good writing can carry a book through to a disappointing conclusion and it still be deemed a success, as every reader must know. Some of their favourite books have flat or implausible endings. The word ‘quality’ looms large for us and I guess that recognising quality beyond personal leanings is one important mark of the successful publisher.

Increasingly we must seek the commercial. Personally, I love the art book. I love the quixotic and different and lyrical. To also publish such titles we must first pay the bills. We therefore seek quality and commercial attributes combined.

DH: Let’s talk about The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which I guess could be considered your breakout book. Clearly it has struck quite a chord; what was your feeling when you read it?

RD: I had no doubt about its quality as I turned the A4 sheets. I am already on record as saying it is a work of genius on several levels. Mature adult subjects treated through the eyes of a child or young adult are difficult to almost impossible to bring off and it takes an author of the highest calibre to do so. Jane Rogers achieves this with what looks like consummate ease. Its themes are contemporary and vital. It gives food for thought, indeed argument, to feminists, environmentalists, moralists of every stamp, and Christians. The work goes deep. If your heart is not aching for Jessie and her father by the end it must be made of stone. To me, all of these things were obvious. There is a part of me that wants to carry the book forward with Sandstone alone, but Canongate’s offer of partnership will work best for the title and the author. It was also too generous to refuse and I should say that I am very happy with the relationships which have developed and which are continuing to develop.

DH: What can we look forward to from Sandstone in the future? What are your ambitions for the press?

RD: My ambitions for the Press are what they always were. We are to be a self-sustaining, which is to say sustained by trade, international publishing company located in Highland Scotland, employing here and contributing to our economy. The rest is growth and  . . . Beyond that? Let me repeat what some senior Waterstones personnel said to me earlier in the year in Edinburgh. ‘Just keep publishing great books.’

DH: Finally, please recommend a book that you think deserves a wider audience (but not one that you publish).

RD: I should have been ready for this one! Still seeing myself as a writer, editor and publisher I would choose Journal of a Novel (The East of Eden Letters) by John Steinbeck for other writers, for editors, Letters from the Editor by Harold Ross, original editor of the New Yorker, and for publishers, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, of course.

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Thanks to Robert for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about Sandstone Press on their website.

Sarah Hall, The Carhullan Army (2007)

I come to The Carhullan Army relatively late, after it has been pretty firmly established as a significant novel – it was shortlisted for the Clarke Award, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and Tiptree Award , and came top in the Torque Control readers’ poll of best sf novels by women from 2001-10. It threw me a little at first to discover what an unassuming book this is; its narrative voice is not undescriptive, but is far more focused on what it wants to say than on how it’s saying it – yet that same clarity is what gives Sarah Hall’s novel much of its heft.

The voice belongs to a woman who claims only the name ‘Sister’; she left behind her life of pointless labour and repression in Rith (i.e. Penrith), and fled to the farm at Carhullan, high in the Cumbrian hills. There, a self-sufficient community of women – established and led by the charismatic ex-soldier Jackie Nixon – lived beyond the reach of the Authority’s oppressive regime. Though unregistered, and therefore effectively outlaws, the Carhullan women were mostly pacifist; though Jackie Nixon had other ideas, and had been creating a militaristic unit within the commune, to take the fight back to the Authority. The story of The Carhullan Army is not that of the eventual battle – we learn the outcome of that on the very first page – but rather that of Sister’s personal journey to, and transformation within, Carhullan.

The physical and personal – landscape and character – are intimately connected in The Carhullan Army. The town belongs to the Authority, the extremist faction who came to power in the wake ofBritain’s environmental and economic turmoil; it’s a grey, harsh, decaying place. The countryside, in contrast, is the domain of the Carhullan women: Sister knows that Jackie Nixon comes from old Cumbrian stock, and has the feeling, as she travels further away from Rith, of entering Jackie’s territory. At the start of her journey, Sister considers herself reasonably familiar with the landscape, and a competent hiker; her first encounter with the Carhullans shows how much less at home she is in this environment than are they, and hence also how far apart she and they are ideologically. Towards novel’s end, when Sister has become one of Carhullan’s insurgents, she reflects on how Jackie’s training has changed her, and explicitly links this with the landscape:

She broke down the walls that had kept us [women] contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather. It was beautiful to walk in. As beautiful as the fells that autumn. (p.197)

This passage also points to one of the other central themes: that of gender and violence. There’s a gendered element to the Authority’s oppression: women are forced to have contraceptive implants inserted, and Hall clearly frames this as a violation. Jackie’s thoughts are of retaliation: ‘What do you think, Sister?’ she asks. ‘Do women have it in them to fight if they need to? […] ‘Do we have to submit to survive?’ (p. 116). Sister replies: ‘I think we’re capable of attacking when it’s something worth fighting for’ (p. 117) – but it’s only over time, and subtly, that Jackie brings Sister around to living those words wholeheartedly. Of course, the issue is intractable: Sister’s reasons for fighting against the Authority are entirely understandable; but, to do so, she becomes like them, using their methods.

Given the time at which I read The Carhullan Army, my thoughts turn naturally towards Jane Rogers’ Clarke-winning The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which also portrays a female protagonist making her way quite reasonably towards a decision with unreasonable implications. I appreciate both novels for the clarity with which they depict the transformations of their respective characters, and for how fully they show the harshness and complexity of what their choices mean. But I think Hall’s novel ultimately has the edge, because Sister’s decision feels more grounded in the world than Jessie’s; and there’s something more forceful about seeing an adult, rather than an adolescent, going through that kind of process. The Carhullan Army is a quietly powerful novel that lives long in the mind; one that I suspect rewards – and that I’m certain deserves – repeated readings.

Elsewhere
Sarah Hall’s website
Some other reviews of The Carhullan Army: Victoria Hoyle for Strange Horizons; Richard Palmer at Solar Bridge; Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria.

Clarke Award 2012: The Winner

The 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award has been presented to… Jane Rogers for The Testament of Jessie Lamb.

That’s a nice result, I think. For a start, it’s the strongest novel on the shortlist (in my view). It’s good to see the Clarke go to a female author once again (for the second year running – the first time that’s happened since 1999); for it to go to a non-genre title (the first time in at least eight years); and for it to go to a book published by a small press.

Congratulations to Jane Rogers and Sandstone Press, and I look forward to following the Clarke Award again next year.

Joe Simpson, Touching the Void (1988)

A million books were given away across the UK on World Book Night last week, and I got one of them at my local branch of Waterstones. I tend to think that the ideal book for World Book Night is something that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of reading, but that looks interesting once you start to consider it – a gentle nudge away from your comfort zone, in other words.

That’s just the sort of book I received in Touching the Void, Joe Simpson’s account of his and Simon Yates’s 1985 expedition to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. It’s what happened on the descent which makes the story so famous: Simpson broke his leg, and, whilst being lowered down the mountainside by Yates, got stuck in mid-air. With Simpson unable to move up or down, and Yates losing his grip, Yates decided he had to cut the rope joining the two of them. Simpson fell into a crevasse, but nevertheless beat the odds and made it back to camp, alive.

Touching the Void begins prosaically enough:

I was lying in my sleeping bag, staring at the light filtering through the red and green fabric of the dome tent. Simon was snoring loudly, occasionally twitching in his dream world. We could have been anywhere. There is a peculiar anonymity about being in tents. (p. 15)

That tent will, naturally, assume vital importance later on; in a neat mirroring, the familiar light inside the tent at the beginning becomes an alien sight when Simpson is approaching it from the outside, in desperation, towards the end. This is one of several examples in the book of the same thing taking on different qualities at different times – the mountain scenery is by turns hostile and welcoming, for instance.

The passage I’ve quoted there also contains the first of Simpson’s observations about the peculiarities of climbing. I’ve never been up a mountain myself (though I have done my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and so have some experience of outdoor activity), so perhaps I didn’t connect personally with the descriptions of climbing as I might otherwise have; but this exchange did strike a chord:

‘What shall it be then?’ Simon held up two foil bags. ‘Moussaka or Turkey Supreme?’
‘Who gives a toss! They’re both disgusting!’
‘Good choice. We’ll have the Turkey.’
Two brews of passion fruit and a few prunes later we settled back for sleep. (p. 39)

It’s the odd combination of foods and flavours which brings home the reality of having to eat what you’ve got, and of eating for energy rather than taste – a sense of how one’s priorities change on a mountain. We also see the kind of mentality that may be needed: Simpson tells the story at one point of how, on a previous expedition, Yates saw two unfamiliar climbers fall to their deaths from the same mountain he was climbing; when he returned to camp, says Simpson, Yates ‘had sat numb’, turning the incident over and over in his mind; but, the next day, ‘he was his normal self again: an experience absorbed, shelved in his memory, understood and accepted, and left at that’ (p. 64). The capacity to put even the worst experiences behind you can, this suggests, be useful – even vital – to mountaineers.

Yates’s capacity to do just this is tested to its limit when he’s faced with cutting the rope; as Simpson shows (in passages written from Yates’s viewpoint), this was both an impossible choice and, really, no choice at all. As he’s making his own way down the mountain, assuming (quite reasonably) that Simpson is dead, Yates veers back and forth over the question of how to describe what happened, whether to feel guilt or resignation. Simpson creates a fine portrait of an extreme moral dilemma.

But it’s Simpson’s account of his time alone and injured on the mountain which live most vividly in my memory. The description of his plummeting into the crevasse, then lying there in the dark, is horrifying; and we feel Simpson’s pain and frustration (as far as that’s possible, of course) at every slow step of his journey down. It makes his survival seem all the more remarkable.

This edition of Touching the Void includes a section written in 2003, after the making of the film version. As part of this, Simpson describes how he returned to Siula Grande and played himself in reconstructions of the incident. This seems so strange, I can’t begin to imagine what it might have been like, nor find the words to describe how I responded to reading about it. Simpson himself closes the book reflecting on how his life has changed in such unexpected ways:

Life can deal you an amazing hand. Do you play it steady, bluff like crazy or go all in? I’ll never know (p. 215).

So, Touching the Void ends with a question we might all have cause to consider at some point – and it has opened a window on an extraordinary human experience. A fine book for World Book Night.

This book fulfils the Travel category (though ‘travel writing’ seems an inadequate way to describe Touching the Void!) of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.

April wrap-up

Book of the Month

April was mostly about the Arthur C. Clarke Award on here; the best book I read all month was not on this year’s shortlist, but a previous Clarke nominee: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I’ve been meaning to read Mitchell for ages, and now I can see that I had good reason.

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