Shiny New Books and Jam

First of all, I need to tell you about a new book recommendation site: Shiny New Books. It’s the brainchild of four UK book bloggers (Annabel, Victoria, Simon, and Harriet), and features original and reprint reviews by contributors from all corners of the blogosphere. I’m in the first issue, with a revised version of my piece on Ray Robinson’s Jawbone Lake (think of this as the Director’s Cut of the original review). Have a look around the rest of SNB; there’s some great stuff on there, and I hope the site will go from strength to strength.

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In another corner of the web, Fiction Uncovered (now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize) is gearing up for another year, and I’ve reviewed for them the new novel by a Fiction Uncovered alumnus. Here are my thoughts on Jam by Jake Wallis Simons…

JamJake Wallis Simons appeared on the first Fiction Uncovered list in 2011 for The English German Girl, his novel about a girl sent to England on the Kindertransport in the 1930s. Following a thriller (2012’s The Pure, written as Jake Simons), the author returns with Jam, a novel which follows a varied cast as they experience one of modern life’s nuisances: being stuck in traffic.

Structurally, Jam resembles a disaster novel, insofar as it moves between the perspectives of multiple characters all affected by the same event – though here the event is not the end of the world, but a traffic jam on the M25; and Wallis Simons is less interested in the jam itself than in how his characters are changed by encountering each other. We begin with Ursula and Max, a couple not quite as firmly in love as they once were, and particularly concerned right now with letting their friends (whose daughter they’re bringing home) know about the delay. With no phone signal, Max heads out to find someone who will let him make a call; he gets talking to Jim, a supermarket delivery driver who makes clear that he can’t give away the stock in his van – though he does have some crisps in the front, if Max wants some. Other characters see what’s going on, and Jim’s van becomes the locus of attention, not all of it welcome.

To an extent, the traffic jam works as a metaphor for the characters’ life situations. Many of them feel stuck in some way – like Shauna, who’s looking for her dream man; or young Shahid, who rues his messed-up trial for Chelsea – and the night’s events enable at least some of them to move on. The way Wallis Simons orchestrates this is perhaps his novel’s key strength: some characters make a central contribution to events, others are peripheral; but all take their place as significant parts of the whole. By the end of Jam, we’ve seen a slice of life: some people win, some lose; one individual may be changed forever, while another just carries on as before. The vehicles start to move again, and those circumstances that brought everyone together become lost in the flow; but Wallis Simons has shown how extraordinary a mundane situation can be to those caught up in it.

(Original review.)

“Ernest, the great writer, standing in the middle of the story”

Naomi Wood, Mrs. Hemingway (2014)

Mrs HemingwayI find it intriguing when an author’s second novel is very different in subject from his or her first makes me want to look for the deeper connections that point to what the writer’s key concerns may be. Naomi Wood’s first novel, The Godless Boys (2011), concerned an alternate history in which atheist rebels had been exiled to an island off the coast of a theocratic English state. What does any of that have to do with Ernest Hemingway’s wives?

Ah, but it’s not the subject that counts: it’s the treatment. The Godless Boys could be seen as a ‘what if?’ character study: place a set of characters in an unusual situation, and explore how they might react. Wood does a similar thing in Mrs. Hemingway; it’s just that the unusual situation is real, as are the characters.

(I should say at this point that I don’t know much about Hemingway’s life or work, or the women concerned; so I approach Mrs. Hemingway very much as a work of fiction; I believe that Wood’s novel isn’t meant to be taken as entirely historically accurate in any case.)

What makes the situation of Hemingway’s wives particularly unusual is there in the book’s first sentence: ‘Everything, now, is done à trois (p. 3).’ The scene is the Hemingways’ villa in the French coastal town of Antibes, 1926: Ernest’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley, is on the ropes. She invited his mistress, Fife, to the villa in the hope of stopping the affair in its tracks; instead, Fife has effectively become part of the Hemingway household, and Hadley comes to realise that it’s only a matter of time before she loses Ernest to the other woman (when Ernest and Hadley leave the villa one morning, trying not to wake Fife, ‘it feels, to Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway, as if they are the ones who are having the affair,’ (p. 5).

This is the structure of Mrs. Hemingway: each of its four sections begins with one of Hemingway’s wives approaching the end of her relationship with him; we go back to see how that relationship developed; and past alternates with present. The thing is that each wife knows Ernest is having an affair, and with whom; the mistresses become a part of the relationship. When Martha (Ernest’s third wife), learns of his infidelity, she goes to meet her husband’s new lover, Mary; and she’s resigned to the knowledge that her marriage will soon come to an end:

They walk down the Élysées together, Mrs. Hemingway and Mr. Hemingway’s mistress…They stop off at the tobacconist to see if they can get more cigarettes. Martha holds out the door for her and lets the other woman in (p. 184).

The idea of an affair and subsequent divorce has gone from something to be fought against, to the price that one pays for loving Ernest Hemingway. Some of the wives even keep in touch with each other down the years.

So the title of Mrs. Hemingway is just that: a title, not an individual; almost an office, to be held for a finite term. Wood delineates the different ways in which Hemingway’s wives perceive that title, also showing how the women change as they move from mistress to wife (and beyond), and how the way others perceive them may not be how they actually are. For example, Hadley sees Fife as the kind of modern, confident young woman that she is not; when the story is told from Fife’s viewpoint, we see that she’s not quite so self-assured; but Fife’s glamour returns when Martha meets her some years later.

There’s another interloper in all these relationships: Hemingway’s writing. It is so often what brings Ernest and his lovers together; and so often what ultimately drives them apart. When Hadley meets Hemingway, his writing is one source of his charisma, and something he wears lightly (‘I’d rather be read by crooks than critics,’ he says at a party in Antibes [p. 58]). By the time he’s living with Fife in Key West, Ernest has become rather more concerned with what the critics think; his relationship with his writing grows more troubled as the years go by, and he sometimes turns violent. When we meet the widowed Mary at the Hemingways’ Idaho home in 1961, there’s a rueful double irony: all that’s left of Ernest is his writing, and his papers are now what feed the fire.

Mrs. Hemingway explores the characters of four women united by an experience that places them in opposition to each other, yet is also something only they can ever share. As in her debut, Wood depicts lives and individuals shaped by an extraordinary external force (in this case, their encounters with the person of Ernest Hemingway), and creates a fine work of fiction in the process.

Elsewhere
M. Denise C. interviews Naomi Wood.

The sound of fury

Joanna Kavenna, Come to the Edge (2012)

Last week, I went to the launch of the new Best European Fiction 2013 anthology; I was struck by a comment made there by the Welsh writer Robert Minhinnick before he gave his reading: that he was less interested in what a story was ‘about’ than in what it sounded like. Sure enough, there was indeed a distinctive and captivating rhythm to his delivery; it seemed to me quite a different experience from that of reading words on a page.

I was reminded of hearing Janice Galloway reading one of her stories at ShortStoryVille a few years ago. I’d read one of Galloway’s collections not long before, but that hadn’t prepared me for this. It wasn’t simply that she was reading in the Scottish accent of her narrator (something I could only ever approximate in my mind); it was that she was able to inhabit that narrative voice in a way that just wasn’t possible for me sitting on my own with a book. I can think of several other occasions when a text has been transformed for me by hearing it read aloud – transformed in a way that is hard to capture in words.

Come to the EdgeSo, how to describe the experience of reading a book like Joanna Kavenna’s Come to the Edge, which seems almost made to be spoken, and where so much of the affect is cumulative? Well, let’s see. Kavenna’s unnamed narrator has been abandoned by her husband; feeling disillusioned with her comfortable suburban life, she answers a newspaper ad to be the helping-hand on a widow’s farm, and finds herself driving up to Cumbria. The widow is Cassandra White, a larger-than-life character with forthright views on modern life (she detests most of it, from plastic food packaging, to bread, even soap). She promptly puts the narrator to work – dirty, back-breaking work.

The first chapter of Come to the Edge shows a vision of rural apocalypse: guns firing, houses burning, helicopters approaching. The bulk of the novel is the story of how that came about. The seed is planted when a couple of long-standing local residents are evicted so their house can be sold on. Cassandra decides to ‘resettle’ them in the well appointed, but rarely occupied, second home of a banker. A thriving resettlement programme is soon underway, but always with the nagging possibility that the owners of those second homes could return at any moment…

In the back of my mind when reading Come to the Edge was a comment I heard Joanna Kavenna make last year: that she was writing as though her characters didn’t have the usual inhibitions. The resulting book is darkly comic, as Cassandra pushes things ever further; and of course there’s an element of satire on contemporary aspirational lifestyles. But it seems to me there’s also a cautionary tale here about becoming too entrenched in a given viewpoint: as the first chapter shows, the valley doesn’t do all that well out of Cassandra’s high-minded ideals; and the narrator eventually realises that she’s the one doing all the leg-work.

I loved Kavenna’s prose in this novel, and I’ve thought about quoting from it; but so much is gained from context and repetition that I don’t know whether an isolated snippet can really convey what I want to. That’s why I would also think this book would be great read aloud: that momentum would build, the characters’ voices would ring out… Then again, there’s such an energy to Come to the Edge that it almost shouts from the page.

Links
Joanna Kavenna’s website
Kavenna writes about her inspiration for the book

Four tales of war

Monsieur le CommandantIn Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur le Commandant (2011; translated from the French by Jesse Browner, 2013), it is 1942 when Paul-Jean Husson – a respected writer and member of l’Académie française – writes to his local SS officer, unable to remain silent any longer. Husson begins his story ten years earlier, when his son introduced him to his new love: a beautiful blonde German girl named Ilse Wolffsohn, whom Husson later discovered to be Jewish. Husson was immediately attracted to Ilse, an attraction that only intensified as the years went by; all the while, he remained a Nazi sympathiser, regularly publishing anti-Semitic articles. But matters would eventually come to a head; and Husson’s letter to the Commandant is the only way forward he can see.

Monsieur le Commandant is an uncompromising book, which confronts the implacability and inherent contradictions of its protagonist’s worldview head-on: Husson is a character who has no qualms about describing graphic violence or venting his hatred, and the results of that are right there on the page. The novel becomes a grim, inexorable march towards a bitterly ironic ending; the weight of history bears down on our reading; but its starkness gives Slocombe’s book a power of its own.

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King of Hearts

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall (2006; translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm, 2013) is a view of 1942 from Warsaw. There are perhaps two things that matter most to Izolda: the love of her husband Shayek, and finding a way out of the Warsaw Ghetto. When Shayek is imprisoned, Izolda’s love for him leads her to do whatever she can to free him; and what she’s prepared to do seems almost without limit – she hides her identity and religion, smuggles goods into the ghetto… Even though she’s captured more than once, she refuses to give up.

In contrast with Monsieur le Commandant’s harsh precision, the tone of Krall’s book is somewhat hazier; told in a series of vignettes, the choppiness of its structure gives the text a dream-like quality, which enhances the sense of the Holocaust as something larger than those caught up in it can truly comprehend. There are moments of horror (made all the more effective by the subdued tone in which they’re written), but a deep sense of love as well. We know from several chapters within the book that Izolda survives into old age, but even then she finds herself dwelling on the past and what might have been. Chasing the King of Hearts is the story of a hard-won personal victory, and the mixed consequences it brings.

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News from BerlinHusson and Izolda could be seen as being at two opposite ends of a continuum of experience of World War Two, a continuum that Oscar Verschuur – the protagonist of Otto de Kat’s News from Berlin (2012; translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke, 2014) – might (at first glance, anyway) appear to be completely outside. Oscar is a Dutch diplomat in Switzerland, well away from the day-to-day realities of the war. That’s until his daughter Emma visits from Berlin, with information from her German husband Carl, a civil servant who covertly opposes the Nazi regime:  an invasion of Russia is planned, codenamed Barbarossa. Now Oscar must decide whether to disclose this information, knowing that to do so may place Emma and Carl in danger.

Relationships, it seems to me, are at the heart of News from Berlin: Oscar’s relationship with his wife Kate is pretty lukewarm and distant (literally so, as she’s currently a nurse in London). Both characters themselves drawn to someone else: he to Lara, a free-spirited Dutch woman he meets in a village hotel; she to Matteous, a wounded Congolese soldier whom she helps to treat. There’s a sense that both of Verschuurs are searching for something in these other people, not that they’re necessarily going to find it (Kate especially comes to realise how it hard it would be for Matteous to adapt to a life in London). Interestingly, Oscar’s new attraction draws him away from the reality of the war, whilst Kate’s draws her towards it; this mirrors their instinctive feelings about the Barbarossa dilemma. As a diplomat, Oscar’s work is fundamentally about relationships on a grand scale; the choice he now has to make brings that work down to the most intimate of levels. Like Slocombe and Krall in their books, de Kat explores the personal effects of war, how individual lives are shaped by conflict.

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Wake

War’s effect on individuals is also the focus of Anna Hope’s debut, Wake (2014), which is set in the aftermath of World War One – specifically in the five days leading up to the parading of the Unknown Warrior through London in 1920. Hope tells of three women: Hettie, a dance instructress who becomes intrigued by a charismatic man she meets at the Hammersmith Palais; Evelyn, who works at the Pensions Office and has a quite a tense relationship with her army-captain brother – but still wants to know why a man comes to her office asking after him; and Ada, a housewife grieving for her son lost in the war, who receives a visit from a boy who appears to know of him.

All three of Hope’s protagonists have seen their lives changed by war: Hettie’s brother is affected by shell-shock, but the world of the dance instructress has opened a new avenue in her own life; Evelyn lost her partner in the war and now finds herself, as an unattached woman nearing 30, outside of social norms; for Ada, it’s not so much a case of needing to find a new path as of coming to terms with the one she has travelled. In Wake, the arrival of the Unknown Warrior is presented as a moment when the British people collectively took stock of the war and its consequences, a recognition of and reflection on the changing times; this is also what Hope does individually for her characters. But there is also the sense that change continues; and, indeed, the women’s stories go on beyond the final page of this vivid novel.

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Links

Monsieur le Commandant
Interview with Romain Slocombe by Gallic Books.
Other reviews: A Life in Books; These Little Words; The Friendly Shelf; Literary Relish.

Chasing the King of Hearts
Interview with Hanna Krall by PEN Atlas.
Other reviews: Andrew Blackman; Sabotage Reviews; A Discount Ticket to Everywhere; Tony’s Reading List.

News from Berlin
Other reviews: 1streading; Lucy Popescu for the Independent.

Wake
BBC interview with Anna Hope (and Judith Allnatt, author of The Moon Field)
Other reviews: For Winter Nights; Book Oxygen; The Unlikely Bookworm; Cleopatra Loves Books.

“There is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read”

Simon Garfield, To the Letter (2013)
Shaun Usher, Letters of Note (2013)
Kressmann Taylor, Address Unknown (1938)

A few weeks ago I read Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall, which argues quite convincingly that there are analogues of social media (that is, ways of sharing information through personal networks) going back 2,000 years in history. From that point of view, there’s more continuity between how we communicate now, and how we used to, than one might suppose. But I’ve had cause to think about these issues again after reading a couple of new books from Canongate which are all about the history of letters. I’ve been wondering whether there is something unique about letters that might potentially be lost.

totheletterSimon Garfield has written a number of acclaimed non-fiction books (including 2010’s Just My Type, a history of typography, which I have been meaning to read for ages). His new book, To the Letter, is subtitled ‘A journey through a vanishing world’; so we know that this isn’t going to be just a factual account but – well, a love letter to letters. ‘Letters have the power to grant us a larger life,’ says Garfield (p. 19), telling of how he became intrigued by the story of a magician named Val Walker, after discovering a set of Walker’s correspondence for sale at an auction. There are similar glimpses of different lives and stories throughout To the Letter, as Garfield weaves together the history of postal delivery, the contents of letter-writing manuals, and notable correspondents from throughout the centuries, all into a fascinating tapestry.

If, like me, you have ever enjoyed writing or receiving letters (or both!), there will be plenty to delight you in Garfield’s book. But also, there will almost certainly be something to cause a feeling of regret and disappointment; for me it was learning that the Postman Pat theme has been changed  so he brings ‘parcels to your door,’ rather than letters. (Now I look into this further, it seems that the change came about because the new series is about Pat running a parcel delivery service, which alters my view a little, though I suppose it’s still illustrative of a general trend.) The thing is, though, that I’m really just being nostalgic for the trappings of the physical letter here; if I want to get to the heart of what letters really represent, I think I need to go deeper than that.

Tom Standage’s first example of historical social media in Writing on the Wall is Cicero staying in contact with Rome by copying and sharing letters, some of which were intended to be public documents. Garfield also has a chapter on the Romans, but he make a distinction between the public (in a sense performative) correspondence of a Cicero, and the letters of someone like Pliny the Younger, which were generally more private.  The sense of letters as a private and personal space comes through time and again in To the Letter, perhaps never more so than in the wartime correspondence which intersperses the book. Chris Barker (an RAF communications officer stationed in the south Mediterranean) began writing home to his friend Bessie Moore (who translated Morse code messages for the Foreign Office) in 1943; as time went on, their friendship turned to love – and the expression of that love as we see it in their letters is deeply affecting. I was as captivated by the tale unfolding in their correspondence as I could have been by any fictional story.

Perhaps this is what the personal letter fundamentally represents: a space for an extended, reflective engagement between two individuals. This is something that can also be accomplished by email, of course; but I do think that the act of physically writing a letter encourages it more. Either way, Simon Garfield’s book leaves me appreciating letters anew, and thinking that perhaps I should write more of my own.

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lettersofnote

The quotation heading this post is from Pliny (as mentioned by Garfield); I think it’s correct, but I was also struck on reading To the Letter (especially the Barker-Moore correspondence) at how letters can turn history inside-out, can give a view that one might not see otherwise. That feeling was brought to mind again when I read Letters of Note, a book based on Shaun Usher’s website of the same name. This book was published in association with the crowdfunding site Unbound; so that’s an online service used to facilitate a printed book derived from a website that celebrates paper correspondence – phew! Letters of Note reproduces the text of 125 letters, often alongside images of the actual documents. It’s a big, beautiful object.

It is also wonderful to read. There are the amusing entries, such as the young Queen Elizabeth II sending President Eisenhower her recipe for drop scones; or an eight-year-old boy’s letter to Richard Nixon (who was recovering from pneumonia at the time) urging him to ‘be a good boy and eat your vegetables like I had too!!’. There are letters which, as I said earlier, open up history in a way that only personal documents can: Francis Crick’s letter to his young son describing the newly-discovered DNA molecule; or a Japanese lady’s farewell to her samurai husband, whom she was sure would fall in battle. There’s the poignant and the inspiring, the romantic and the furious. I could go on, but Letters of Note is something you really have to experience for yourself. It’s difficult to imagine a better demonstration of the power and value of written correspondence.

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addressunknownNow seems a good time to talk about what I’d imagine to be one of the most powerful epistolatory stories in the English language. Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s Address Unknown was first published in Story magazine in 1938; I read it this year in a stand-alone volume published by Souvenir Press. It takes the form of a correspondence between Max Eisenstein, a Jewish American gallery owner; and his old friend and business partner Martin Schulse, who has recently returned to Germany as the tale begins, in 1932. At first, Schulse is hopeful for the future of his country under Hitler, but also expresses his reservations to Eisenstein. Schulse’s attitude soon hardens, though, and he orders Eisenstein to stop writing. The American attempts to appeal to his old friend’s better nature, but Schulse will have none of it – until events take a tragic turn, and the letters become weapons.

I think it’s the epistolatory form that really makes this story; Taylor brings together the personal and performative  aspects of letter-writing, using both to cutting effect. We see the changing nature of the two men’s relationship, and sense the deep personal connection that Eisenstein wishes were still there (and that letters can forge and capture so well). But I’m also struck by how much the letters in Address Unknown don’t show – how they filter out certain aspects of their thoughts. I’m thinking especially of the ending, where the letters advance implacably (you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean), and we have to infer what must be in their writer’s mind. Letters may be able to forge a connection between two people, but Taylor’s story shows how they might also sever one irrevocably.

Adam Roberts, The Soddit (2003): Vector review

The latest issue of the BSFA critical journal Vector has landed, and it contains my review of The Soddit by Adam Roberts. The Soddit was the first of the parodies that Roberts has produced alongside his ‘canonical’ novels; originally published in 2003, it was reissued last year. I started out imagining that the review would be just a bit of fun; as I went along, though, I found myself thinking more about the playful side of Roberts’s work, and what it is that draws me to his writing. Interestingly, Dan Hartland writes about similar qualities in his review of the story collection Adam Robots in the same issue. It seems we’re on the same page as regards Roberts’s “wilfulness and idiosyncrasy”.

Anyway, on to The Soddit

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Anyone who follows Adam Roberts on Twitter will know of his penchant for puns, which are always excellent, and never induce groans at all – honest, guv. (Thought I’d indulge in some irony, there.) And anyone who’s followed Roberts’s bibliography over the years will know that his sense of humour has found a home in his fiction, most obviously in the series of parodies he has written alongside his more serious SF novels. The first of these parodies, The Soddit, has recently been reissued (there was even a film to mark the occasion, or something), and I agreed to review it. What did I let myself in for?

You’ll have some idea of how The Soddit goes purely from knowing how The Hobbit goes, so I won’t rehearse the plot too much: a Soddit named Bingo Grabbings is cajoled by a group of dwarfs and the wizard Gandef to join them on an expedition to the Only Mountain, home of the dragon Smug; they are at pains to emphasise to Bingo that this quest is all about taking the dragon’s gold – honest, guv. An episodic narrative of various encounters then follows, until the group reaches its destination.

The humour of The Soddit typically starts with a pun on the name of a character from Tolkien’s work, and extends outwards from there. Some of Roberts’s ideas work better than others: for example, the shape-shifter Biorn is an inconsistent mishmash of Scandinavian stereotypes – he speaks in Abba lyrics occasionally, and likes his flat-pack furniture – that I found too broad-brush to be truly amusing. But I loved the translation of Gollum’s riddles in the dark into a philosophical contest with ‘Sollum’.

Beyond the humour, what comes through time and again in the book is a trait that Roberts shares with Tolkien (though it manifests in very different ways in the authors’ respective work): a love of language. In The Soddit, it’s not just about puns: there are passages where Roberts is clearly revelling in the possibilities of prose, the pure rhythm and flow of writing. If you like that in a work of fiction (and I do), it is a joy to read.

But The Soddit is not all about play; there are elements of a straightforward, serious novel here, and they work rather well. Instead of a Ring that makes him invisible, Bingo finds a Thing (complete with registered trademark) which makes true the opposite of whatever someone speaks through it. Cue the classic fantasy trope of ‘be careful what you wish for’, which Roberts uses very neatly. And I must admit to being surprised by the twist in the nature of the group’s quest, a twist that succeeds on its own terms even as one senses that Roberts is deliberately making the gears of narrative grind noisily. The Soddit is a showcase for Roberts’s sense of humour, yes; but his skill as a storyteller is also firmly on display.

We Love This Book reviews: Andrew Lovett & David and Hilary Crystal

Here are my two latest reviews from We Love This Book:

Andrew Lovett, Everlasting Lane (2013)

When his father dies, young Peter Lambert finds himself with a new life before he has had much chance to make sense of the old one.

Peter’s mother (now insisting that she’s going to be his Aunt Kat) whisks him away to an old cottage on Everlasting Lane in the village of Amberley. Kat tells him that this is his grandmother’s cottage, and that he has lived here before; Peter doesn’t remember that, but the house does seem strangely familiar. And Peter would very much like to know what’s in one particular room which is hidden away behind heavy drapes.

Andrew Lovett’s debut is partly a tale of growing up in the 1970s, and he populates Everlasting Lane with some memorable secondary characters who come into Peter’s life. These include his new teacher, Mr Gale, who comes up with his own insulting nicknames for his pupils (‘Lambchop’ in Peter’s case), and generally treats them shabbily – until a cricket match goes wrong. Most of all, there’s Anna-Marie Liddell, the pretty girl next door who is only a year older than Peter, but likes to act as though she’s far superior. She and Peter become something like friends; their relationship has a thread of uncertainty that’s very well realised.

The mystery of Peter’s new circumstances adds an extra dimension to the novel, a sombre undercurrent stemming from suggestions of tragedy in his family’s past. This turns Everlasting Lane into a dark riff on Famous Five-style tales of children solving mysteries. I’m not sure that the full force of the novel’s adult issues always emerges from Peter’s viewpoint as a child; but there is a clear and poignant sense that he is trapped in his own story. Everlasting Lane is an interesting coming-of-age tale which never quite settles into the shape you might expect.

Links
Original review
The publisher, Galley Beggar Press

David and Hilary Crystal, Wordsmiths & Warriors (2013)

In Wordsmiths and Warriors, linguist David Crystal and his partner Hilary take us on a historical tour of Britain to show us how – and, more importantly, where – the English language was shaped.

Each chapter of Wordsmiths and Warriors focuses on a particular place of significance in the development of the English language in Britain – from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons at Pegwell Bay in Kent in the fifth century, through to Randolph Quirk’s Survey of English Usage, inaugurated at University College London in 1959. The book is a mixture of a historical accounts, anecdotes and illustrations from the Crystals’ own road trip. There are even directions to each site if you want to make your own visit.

There’s a lot of interesting material in here, whether you are unfamiliar with the history of English or, like me, studied it at one time then headed in a different direction (for those with greater knowledge, I’m less sure; this feels like a general-interest book). Amongst many other topics, the Crystals’ survey takes in the Paston letters; Robert Burns and the development of Scots; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; Dylan Thomas’s contribution to Welsh English; and Roget’s Thesaurus.

The book is arranged chronologically rather than geographically, which (perhaps inevitably) reduces the sense of a journey. But the history is the main thread, and it is fascinating to view that history through its places, gaining a vivid sense of how the story of English in Britain moves (broadly speaking) from battlefields, castles and ecclesiastical establishments to scholarly halls and writers’ rooms. It remains a dynamic story, wherever it takes place, and the Crystals capture that dynamism superbly in Wordsmiths and Warriors.

Links
Original review
The publisher, Oxford University Press

Strange Horizons: new review and fund drive

Today I have a new review up at Strange Horizons, looking at The World of the End, the debut novel by Ofir Touché Gafla (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg).Gafla’s book is the story of one man’s journey through an unacceptably strange afterlife, searching his late wife, whom he thought would be there to meet him. As you’ll see from the review, I ended up feeling ambivalent towards The World of the End; it’s a lot of fun to read, but its disparate elements doesn’t quite seem to gel.

Strange Horizons is currently in the middle of its annual fund drive, so I’d like to take the opportunity to say a few words about why I value the site. In my view, SH is simply the number one place to go (online or off-) for writing about speculative fiction (I’m less familiar with the fictional content myself, but its reputation precedes it). There are two values at the heart of this: SH stands for serious, in-depth engagement with its subject matter; and it champions diversity of all kinds within the field. That’s what I want from commentary on speculative fiction (actually, make that commentary on any kind of fiction). With Strange Horizons, even if the subject of a particular piece doesn’t interest me personally, I can pretty much be sure that the writing will be engaged and engaging. To write for SH myself is always a pleasure and a privilege.

Strange Horizons is a non-profit operation which relies entirely on donations to keep going, hence the fund drive. If you already know and like SH, why not consider chipping in? If you’re unfamiliar with the site, I strongly recommend you check it out – you never know what may be of interest.

Sunday Story Society: ‘Meet the President!’ by Zadie Smith

sundaystorysmall

It’s time for the first installment of the new monthly Sunday Story Society, for which I’ve chosen to look at Zadie Smith’s story ‘Meet the President!‘ in the New Yorker (you can read it by clicking on the link). The way it works is, I start off with a review of the story, then you can join in talking about the story in the comments here, and we’ll just see how it goes. So…

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Zadie Smith has reportedly said that she’s working on a science fictional novel, which is an intriguing prospect to me. I’m not sure whether ‘Meet the President!; is an extract (it stands well enough on its own. And seems to make all the point that it needs to make), but it is a taster of how Smith may approach science-fictional material.

We begin on the edge of what is presumably still Suffolk, in a future sketched fairly conventionally, but efficiently: there was flooding a hundred years previously; Felixstowe has moved inland; a woman of forty-nine qualifies as ‘very old’ (on reflection, this may simply be reflecting the viewpoint of the protagonist as a teenage boy, but it still strikes me as fitting with the harsh nature of life in this place). Then comes the key technological innovation around which the story revolves: a personal augmented-reality device which allows users to place pretty much any situation or setting over the world they see.

‘Meet the President!’ is about dramatising contrasts. On the one hand, we have Bill Peek, the rich boy with the Augmentor, whose task (perhaps a futuristic analogue of the Grand Tour) is to travel around and use the augmentation technology to deepen his understanding of the world and its inhabitants. If that ends up looking like play, or ticking the boxes without really learning anything, so be it: Bill has the privilege to get ahead; to be safe; to move away from here (‘If you can’t move, you’re no one from nowhere,’ he says).

On the other hand, we have Melinda Durham and Aggie Hanwell, the local woman and girl who disturb Bill as the story begins. They have none of Bill’s advantages, and quite a few disadvantages if you go by what the Augmentor tells Bill about their likelihood of falling ill. But that kind of itemisation doesn’t give Bill the true measure of people – and the lacks the ability to deal with the real place in which he finds himself, as we see in the contrast between the rural community and the game Bill creates through the Augmentor.

I suppose that contrast could be seen as somewhat heavy-handed – Smith clearly has her thumb on the scales – but I think it ultimately works because there is such a sharp difference between the augmented and physical worlds that Bill experiences. I’d stop short of saying ‘Meet the President!’ is a great story (I don’t think it has quite enough depth for that); but it does make me look forward to that novel.

***

And now, over to you…

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)

If I were to rank the books I’ve read during the lifetime of this blog (and there are over 500 of them) in order of enjoyment, Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal (2008) would be right at the top of the list. I bought it on a whim, knowing nothing about it; I was nearly put off by its mannered style; but then everything clicked into place, and I ended up with one of the greatest reading experiences of my life. Naturally, then, I’ve been eager ever since to read a second novel by Catton.

Four years after reading The Rehearsal, I have now had that opportunity. At first sight, The Luminaries appears a very different proposition from Catton’s debut: at 830 pages in hardback, it is more than twice the length of The Rehearsal. Where the first novel was set in a deliberately non-specific contemporary Western milieu, the new book is tied firmly to a time and place: the New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika in 1865-6. Where The Rehearsal was fractured and stylised, The Luminaries has the appearance of being more conventional: the chronology leaps back at one point, and the novel’s twelve parts grow progressively shorter, but there’s nothing as obvious as The Rehearsal’s non-linear blurring of realities; and Catton’s prose remains within a largely convincing 19th-century idiom.

Things are not as simple as they seem. What made The Rehearsal stand out so much for me was how its unconventional form and style so completely embodied its central concern of performance, and reflected that back in myriad ways throughout the book. Catton does the same thing in The Luminaries, with a different set of concerns – but the extent of it only become apparent once you’ve finished.

Before I get further into that, some plot: we begin on 27 January 1866, when Walter Moody, a Scottish lawyer, walks into the smoking room of Hokitika’s Crown Hotel, disturbing twelve men in conference. Gradually gaining their trust, Moody hears their story: a couple of weeks earlier, a hermit named Crosbie Wells was found dead in his cottage, and a not inconsiderable fortune soon after. Around the same time, a young woman was found unconscious from opium in the road, apparently having tried to commit suicide. Through acquaintance with each other, each of the twelve men discovered that he was somehow connected to these events; so they decided to gather together in this room to discuss what may have happened, and what could be done.

As the novel progresses, more and more connections between the characters become apparent, revealing a complex and dastardly plot. It’s not for me to say much more about the twists and turns; but I will say that, if you want a page-turning murder mystery, you will find one in The Luminaries. This book is as tense and exciting a read as I have come across in a long time. But Catton does not stop there.

If you read any articles about The Luminaries, you’ll soon hear about its elaborate astrological underpinning. Twelve of Catton’s characters (the twelve men interrupted by Walter Moody) represent the signs of the zodiac; another seven represent planetary bodies (Moody is Mercury, for instance). Catton calculated the horoscope for Hokitika during the calendar year in which The Luminaries is set, and transposed the changing positions of each body into the relationships between her characters. Now, for many readers (including myself), I suspect this would not be a satisfactory end in itself: if you don’t know much about astrology, you won’t spot the connections; if you don’t believe in it, then you probably won’t care anyway. But what this astrological foundation does, to my mind, is set up some of the novel’s main subtexts.

One of these, as I’ve hinted above, is the idea of connection and relation. This is perhaps most obvious in the mystery itself: ‘there is no truth except truth in relation’ (p. 364), as Catton’s omniscient narrator puts it; and, indeed, no single character knows the full truth of Crosbie Wells’s death, or the plot going on around it. But we also see this theme manifest in the way that so many of the characters are trying to forge their own paths in life, to act on or against the world (gold prospectors in search of a life-transforming nugget, of course, but others as well), yet are scuppered by the actions of others. Catton’s characters are enmeshed in a web of interdependence that they can only begin to comprehend.

But the zodiac is not only a structure for connecting relationships in this novel; it’s also an artificial pattern imposed by humans on the night sky – and most of the characters have no truck with it. There are several ways in which Catton examines how we try to impose order on reality, and the implications and limitations of doing so. A murder mystery, for example, traditionally relies on a pattern being imposed upon seemingly unconnected facts. There are two major scenes in The Luminaries where this happens: when Moody sums up the accounts of the men in the Crown Hotel, and a later courtroom scene. Both of these sequences end with someone rushing in to announce an unexpected development. It’s a rather melodramatic device, but I see it as a literal interruption of disorder: the facts have been arranged to the characters’ satisfaction; everything seems to make sense – then in comes someone to reveal that it doesn’t. A classic fictional edifice is undermined with one of its own tools.

More pointedly than murder mysteries, there’s another example of a pattern placed over reality in the form of the gold mines themselves. These affect the world physically, silting up the Hokitika River; and Catton never allows us to forget that this is land which once belonged to the Maori. ‘You with your greenstone, us with our gold. It might just as well be the other way about,’ says one character to the Maori Te Rau Tauwhare. ‘No,’ replies Tauwhare, ‘it is not the same’ (p. 814) – but that is as much as we hear. These issues may not be explored in detail in The Luminaries, but Tauwhare’s voice still speaks eloquently, for all that it does not say.

I said earlier that each of the novel’s twelve parts is shorter than the last; more precisely, each part is half the length of the previous one (so Part I is nearly half the book, part XII just a few dozen words). This gives The Luminaries the shape of a golden spiral. It also acts like a spiral – or, to keep up the celestial theme, a black hole, stripping out information as it goes. Though the novel begins with the immersive detail of a mystery, when the focus moves back to 1865 to tell the events leading up to Crosbie Wells’s murders, the chapters then get shorter and shorter – the narrative breaks apart.

Here, the novel begins to embody the tension between the open future and rueful hindsight, the sense of predestination and the sense of free will. The summaries heading each chapter (all beginning: “In which…” take on more of the detail. Without these, each chapter would be a floating fragment of time with no context; the only reason we can place them is that we know what has come afterwards. So the novel spirals down to a singularity, a moment poised between the infinite possibility ahead for those experiencing it, and the inevitable tragedy that we know will unfold. What may seem foreordained after the event is, we see, nothing of the sort in the present moment.

I finished The Luminaries grinning from ear to ear at the experience of having read a novel so completely and idiosyncratically realised. Moments like that are one reason I read books in the first place; and they’re why, for me, Eleanor Catton belongs in the first rank of authors writing today.