Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Thursday, 13 February 2020

A mysterious distribution of chapatis

The Siege of Krishnapur I had high expectations for The Siege of Krishnapur, perhaps too high.

JG Farrell's book is a fictionalised account of the 1857 Indian Mutiny and Siege of Lucknow. It's nearly all set in the British residency in Krishnapur, North India, and features a cast of characters of whom the Collector is perhaps the most important. He's obsessed with the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations that was staged in London. Other memorable characters include Lucy Hughes the "fallen woman", Harry and Fleury who both fall under her spell, and the two doctors, McNab and Dunstaple, who hold opposing views on the causes and treatment of cholera.

But it took an age for me to get into the story. It started well enough, explaining that the "first sign of trouble at Krishnapur came with a mysterious distribution of chapatis", which held a promise of the humour I'd heard is a great feature of the novel. Unfortunately the style of writing didn't appeal to me and I found my mind wandering. I'd read around three-quarters of the book before I really felt engaged.

As for the humour, it's more absurd than funny-ha-ha, although I did actually laugh out loud at two points, both during the siege itself: one relating to the misfiring of a gun, the other to the relative merits of Shakespeare and Keats.

I think it'll improve on a second reading.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

It was grim oop North

Union Street If you want a cosy story that takes you out of your day-to-day existence, Pat Barker's Union Street is definitely not for you. It contains seven chapters, each tracing the story of a woman who lives on the eponymous street. Other reviewers have described the book as dark, but it's more accurate to label it as authentic, or truthful.

It's set in the early 1970s in north east England, when industry was in decline and traditional working class communities and values were beginning to fracture. Older people were terrified of ending up in a care home converted from "the Workhouse", family reputations were ruined if unmarried girls got pregnant, so they were banished. An embarrassing father might "hawk phlegm up whenever his son was in the room, or lift one buttock from the chair to fart". The housewives hurried "home from the shops to get the tea ready before the men came home". If the men had lost their jobs, the women worked all day and then "were anxious to get home, to cook the dinner, to make a start on the housework".

This is not a rose-coloured, romantic view of the world, although there are occasional bursts of humour, such as the mother who always turned to housework when she was especially distressed: "It was a tribute to her stoicism that so little got done". Pat Barker writes using the language of the communities that she's describing. It's stark and reflects the reality of life as survival. However, no matter what hardships and experiences the women endure, there is at the end of each chapter the glimpse of a possibility that things might get better.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells

The Thirty-Nine Steps The thing about Richard Hannay, protagonist of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is that he's bored. "I was tired of seeing sights, and in less than a month I had had enough of restaurants and theatres and race-meetings" he tells us. In other words, he wants an adventure. If John Buchan hadn't made this so obvious in the first paragraphs of his book, it would be impossible to suspend belief and follow the frankly ludicrous story.

Hannay lets a stranger into his flat named Scudder, who spins him a tale of intrigue. Scudder is subsequently murdered and Hannay must go on the run. He's in danger of being the next victim of the murderers, has lied about Scudder to his man Paddock, might be accused of the murder by the police, and can't alert the authorities because that would play into the murderers' hands. So, he flees to Scotland.

The remainder of the story follows Hannay across the hills and glens, regularly trusting total strangers to offer him free bed and board. After all, he says, "A man of my sort, who has travelled about the world in rough places, gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower."

Published in 1915, the book is of its time and a century on is unintentionally funny. According to its wikipedia page it was very popular with soldiers in the First World War. It's a thrilling read and in spite of, or more likely because of its fantastical story, it was "greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing."

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Consequences of the little misplacement of a silver thimble

The Abbess of Crewe The Abbess of Crewe is about the political manoeuvering of Alexandra, who has recently been elected as the head of the Abbey of Crewe. In the first few pages we learn that her ancestry is impeccable, "fourteen generations of pale and ruling ancestors of England, and ten before them of France", she has electronically bugged the Abbey to listen to the nuns's conversations, and she has a secret, "most profitable pact" with the Jesuits. She also has a plan to discredit Felicity, the only other contender for the position of Abbess, which unexpectedly results in an "international newspaper scandal." The remainder of the book explains what happened, how it started "merely from the little misplacement, or at most the theft, of Sister Felicity's silver thimble".

Muriel Spark's book is short, humorous and littered with extracts of poetry. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but rather farcical in its treatment of the political shenanigans of the players. The titular Abbess embodies the privilege of the elite. They believe the "rules" don't apply to themselves and are ruthless in the pursuit of their ambitions. Alexandra will stop at nothing to get what she wants, has no pity for those who stand in her way, such as Felicity, and is willing to make scapegoats of her supporters, such as Winifrede. It's considered to be an allegory of the Watergate scandal of the 70s but it also brings to mind the political antics of some leaders today.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Rather a sad tale

The Vet's Daughter The Vet's Daughter is a curious, gothic, magical tale. It follows the adolescent Alice Rowlands, as her mother becomes ill, dies and is replaced with Rosa the "strumpet" by her cruel father. Life is neither easy nor happy for Alice.

Barbara Comyns tells her story in a simple and straightforward style, rather like a fairy tale. The characters are mostly grotesque and mostly concerned only with their own lives. It's rather a sad tale.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Why Bournemouth?

The Fog There's no hanging around waiting for things to happen in The Fog. James Herbert has disaster strike at the end of the first chapter and follows up with scenes of violence and madness that tumble one after the other. It's as if he's imagined as many unconnected examples of people and animals behaving in a deranged, uncontrolled way as possible, then makes up the "fog" as a spurious device to link them. About half way through, after the Bournemouth episode, the plot eventually kicks in and the authorities, aided by the hero Holman, must work out how to stop the horror.

The horror is of course the point of the book. Other reviewers have pointed out some of the very graphic scenes, but what Herbert really does well in The Fog is to induce tension through anticipation. The reader imagines what is going to happen: What will that man do with that axe and those nails? What will he do with those gardening shears? You don't need to read on to picture the horror, but to confront your own worst nightmare.

There's an anti-establishment theme running through the book. Some of the people affected by the fog feel they've been treated badly by those in authority; the poacher had "been dragged along by his collar as though he were riff-raff"; the office security man earning a "pittance of a salary and the privilege of having snot-nosed execs bidding him 'Good morning' or 'Good night' when they felt like it." The protagonist Holman carries out undercover investigations for the Department of Environment, but his reports rarely lead to action because "when politics - business or governmental - became involved, he knew the chances of prosecution against the offenders were slim." He wonders cynically "how you qualify to be a "special" person" to gain access to the underground bunkers, and asks if there are other shelters "for the ordinary people."

Unexpectedly there's also a bit of black humour in the horror. I chuckled at the vicar and sniggered at the homing pigeons. Then, remembering a holiday in Bournemouth, I tittered at the seaside resort's tragic fate. Had James Herbert himself spent a week's vacation there?

Saturday, 14 December 2019

Grey Goose vodka, Louboutins, and Miu Miu

Codename Villanelle (Killing Eve, #1) It's difficult to read Luke Jennings's Codename Villanelle without imagining the Killing Eve TV series (see trailer below), but here goes.

The book opens in an Italian lakeside villa where a group of twelve men are meeting to discuss their European business interests, which are being threatened by a Sicilian mafia boss. The men unanimously decide he must be killed. We then meet the assassin Villanelle and her handler Konstantin.

The story follows Villanelle as she carries out assassinations on behalf of the shady group of twelve, taking in Paris, London, Beijing, Russia and elsewhere. Villanelle is a psychopathic killer who enjoys a "Grey Goose vodka Martini," "her feet in her strappy satin Louboutins," and wearing a "Miu-miu sweater". There's a lot of named merchandise in the story. By contrast, Eve the British agent on Villanelle's trail, is a more nuanced character who becomes obsessed with finding the female assassin, to the point of harming her marriage.

It's a fast-paced plot, written primarily in the present tense, which gives the impression that one's reading a screenplay. Some may find that this places them within the action, but it can also promote a sense of detachment, which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it's used to reflect Villanelle's thoughts and actions. It also serves to focus Eve's tension in a particularly enjoyable scene where she and her colleague have broken into a house.

There's no resolution at the end of the book. Some may find this a clever way to encourage readers to buy the next instalment. Others such as myself consider it an annoying ploy.

Friday, 29 November 2019

All the freedom that loneliness brings

Quartet in Autumn (Plume) Quartet in Autumn traces the lives and thoughts of four office workers in London over the course of about a year, as they approach retirement. Written in 1977, Barbara Pym had herself reached the age of her protagonists and she paints a bleak picture of how the over 60s are viewed by those who are younger.

Marcia was "ageing, slightly mad and on the threshold of retirement." Her colleagues "shied away from her or made only the most perfunctory remarks." Janice, her social worker was patronising, and her neighbour Priscilla sanctimoniously believed "the poor souls just long for somebody to talk to."

However, one can't help but feel that Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman must take some responsibility for their own loneliness, which seems to be the result of a genteel English middle-class politeness and aversion to prying. There are plenty of opportunities for each of the characters to get to know each other better and yet they choose to remain aloof.

Pym's Excellent Women is funnier, although there are moments of humour, for instance in Letty's interaction with David the country cleric. The Sweet Dove Died is more acerbic in its treatment of an aging woman, but Quartet in Autumn most deftly captures the reality of pensioners' expectations of life in old age, with "all the freedom that loneliness brings," especially for those like Letty, who owned "no photographs, not even of her friend Marjorie or of her old home, her parents, a cat or a dog."

Saturday, 26 October 2019

An alternative history of World War II

The Man in the High Castle The Man in the High Castle poses an alternative history in which Japan and Germany were the victors of WW2, but don't be fooled by the book's blurb: "Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. [-] All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war - and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan." This is misleading. Sure, slavery is mentioned once, but it has no bearing on the story. There is one Jewish character, but to promote this as a key theme is also deceptive. So, forget about slavery and the Jews.

The story is set mostly in San Francisco, in the Pacific States which are governed by the Japanese. It opens with Mr. Tagomi visiting Robert Childan's American heritage store to collect a poster he has ordered as a gift.

Philip K. Dick describes the lives of people who depend on the I Ching to make decisions, forecast outcomes and to understand life. America functions according to the mores of the Japanese, who are strict, but at least fairer than the Germans. However, this is of little comfort to those like Robert Childan, who as an American will never attain "high-place" no matter how much of the conqueror's culture he has assimilated.

From a British point of view the book raises the question of what "winning" the war meant, especially if you take into account the strong economic growth of both Germany and Japan, the "losers", compared to the post-war struggles of Britain.

A dislikable protagonist is no barrier to a good book

Goodness
I would never be gratuitously mean or violent, [-] but then nor would I ever put up with anybody or any situation that made life unbearable [-]. I would be honest and reasonable, generous where generosity was due, and I would always always choose the road that led to a happy, healthy, normal life.

So says George Crawley, whose missionary father had been murdered for his faith. In Tim Parks's Goodness, George and his sister Peggy return home with their mother, whose "one thing I regret in my life is the words they made me speak" before they killed her husband.

George narrates his story in two parts: Before Hilary, and Hilary. In the first half he looks back on his childhood and early married life, when he firmly stuck to his own moral code. He is quite a dislikable character, self-centred and unable to empathise with others, convinced he knows best, and blaming his own problems on the faith-based ethics of others.

He's disappointed that his mother "could never marry a man who had broken a solemn vow to someone else," thus depriving her son of a new father. He believes his sister Peggy, unmarried and pregnant, was "erring in sentimentality and romanticism," and "refusing to look long and hard at future reality, future practicality," in happily refusing an abortion. He never quite understands his wife Shirley, never asks the right questions because they might elicit the wrong answers for him and his chosen way of life.

In the second half of the book we see George in a different light, his life turned on its head with the birth of his severely disabled daughter Hilary. He struggles against the hand that life has dealt him, whereas his mother, wife and sister just "get on with things, that's life."

A dislikable protagonist is not a barrier to a good book, and just as Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal by Zoƫ Heller was fascinating in her dislikability, so is George Crawley. The ending didn't suit me, but that's a personal preference and won't stop me reading more of Tim Parks's stories.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

To do evil that good might come

The Confidential Agent A ferry makes a foggy approach to the Port of Dover in the atmospheric opening of The Confidential Agent. Graham Greene's descriptions are no less brilliant when the action moves to London and to a mining village. Unfortunately I didn't much care for the characters.

D., the eponymous protagonist, has come to England on a mission to buy coal. An ex-academic, he has been widowed by the civil war that continues to be waged in his country. He is also something of a pacifist with principles, as he says, "You've got to choose some line of action and live by it. Otherwise nothing matters at all." Unfortunately the rebels and their representative agent L. are also after the coal. Greene used capital letters for his characters in order to avoid giving them a specific nationality, nonetheless, with the hindsight of 70 years, it's hard not to imagine that they are Spanish.

The book is one of Greene's "entertainments" and it touches on the theme of the immorality that war imposes on people: "you couldn't count strangers' lives in the balance against your own people's. When war started the absolute moral code was abolished: you were allowed to do evil that good might come." This theme was very prescient at the time of publication, considering that within six years London experienced the Blitz and Germany the bombing of Dresden.

Half way through the book the pace picks up, when The Hunted of Part 1 becomes The Hunter of Part 2, but it's probably my least favourite Graham Greene so far. He wrote it in six weeks in 1939 and the narrative sometimes feels agitated, occasionally almost manic. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he was fuelled by Benzedrine at the time.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Be true to yourself

Their Eyes Were Watching God Their Eyes Were Watching God is set in the southern USA when ex-slaves were still alive, and it's about the tribulations of a black woman as she searches for self-fulfilment and love.

On reaching puberty, the story's protagonist Janie Crawford is persuaded to marry an older man by her grandmother, who had been a slave. It's not the man "Ah wants you to have, baby," says the old woman, "it's protection." Janie quickly realizes that this is not what she expects of love or life and sets out to find her own way in the world. As she says, "Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves."

There are plenty of people along the way who, for various reasons, try to persuade Janie to conform to their own expectations. Some are jealous, others proud or just mean-spirited, "there with their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon left to weak folks." Janie tho' is strong and an inspiration to her best friend Pheoby, who admits, "Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus' listenin' tuh you, Janie. Ah ain't satisfied wid mahself no mo'." In the end, Zora Neale Hurston's book speaks to all women of the world and urges them be true to themselves.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Coming of age at the end of the world

The Wall By the end of the first page of John Lanchester's book, you know that the eponymous Wall is cold. So one could be forgiven for finding it a bit tedious to continue reading about the cold, the concrete, the sea and sky well into chapter two.

The story is narrated by Kavanagh, a new Defender on a two-year posting at the Wall. His mission is to keep the Others from climbing over it. If his unit fails to keep them out, then Kavanagh himself may be banished and cast adrift into the ocean.

Kavanagh is the only character that we really get to know, although we meet several of his co-Defenders: Hifa, Shoona, Hughes, and the ex-Other Captain. None of these really have any depth, but that's probably a fault of Kavanagh, who seems like a teen who has little insight or interest in the Change that brought the world into its apocalyptic state. He has no thoughts for his future either, other than "to get as much education as I could, to get a job where I made lots of money, and to become a member of the elite." Kavanagh admits this was "too vague to count as a plan."

As a post-apocalyptic story The Wall is less satisfying than books such as The Death of Grass by John Christopher, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and On the Beach by Nevil Shute. It feels cliched and says nothing new. But perhaps Kavanagh and his rather emotionless narrative is in fact the book's saving grace? Perhaps this is a "coming of age" tale, a story of how a bunch of privileged 18-19 year olds discover comradeship and trust, find out how to take responsibility and realise what they must do to survive?

Friday, 4 October 2019

It's not about the mystery

Reservoir 13 What happened to Rebecca Shaw? At the opening of Reservoir 13, a group is waiting to set out in search of the missing teenage girl, and we're led to believe this is a mystery story.

It's divided into thirteen chapters, each of which covers a year in the life of the Derbyshire village and surrounding countryside from which Rebecca disappeared. Jon McGregor's writing style is concise yet evocative. The narrative spies on family life, describes annual traditions like Mischief Night and Well Dressing, and reflects the beauty and savagery of nature; foxes, birds and sheep.

Rebecca's disappearance does affect the villagers, but Reservoir 13 is not about the mystery. It's about the rhythms of life and death in a small community where it's impossible to escape gossip.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

A detective in Nazi Germany

March Violets (Bernie Gunther, #1) It was the setting of Philip Kerr's March Violets that appealed to me: 1936, Berlin, Germany. Bernhard "Bernie" Gunther narrates the tale, a private investigator who specialises in finding missing persons. He's employed by the industrialist Hermann Six to recover some diamonds that were taken from the safe in his daughter Greta's home. The thieves set fire to the house and Greta and her husband Paul Pfarr die.

Bernie is a wisecracking cynic and something of a lech when it comes to certain types of women. He's witnessed the rise of the Nazis and like many people takes little interest in politics because it doesn't directly affect him. For most of the story, he uses banter and jokes to belittle those in authority and to make light of the growing tyranny being exercised over Germany.

Kerr's writing style was not to my taste and I tired quite quickly of Bernie's facetious descriptions: "He edged towards me like a crab with a bad case of corns," "Fatso pulled the huge brown-and-black moustache that clung to his curling lip like a bat on a crypt wall." However, there is a point in the narrative where Bernie drops his facetiousness and the story becomes quite dark. He realises at last "the true strength of the grip that National Socialism had on Germany." It's this transformation that gives March Violets its punch.

Friday, 30 August 2019

A wicked bestiary

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Wicked Bestiary Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is both the title of David Sedaris's book and one of its animal tales. Few humans appear in the stories, and when they do, it's usually as a harbinger of pain or death for the creature concerned. Many of the tales are humorous, even more are dark, but then the habits of birds, animals, reptiles and amphibians can be pretty disgusting when judged against those of humans.

For humour, I enjoyed The Cat and the Baboon. The Toad, The Turtle, and the Duck made me feel uncomfortable, and The Crow and the Lamb was pure horror. The Vigilant Rabbit got what he deserved, but for sheer ridiculous entertainment, The Grieving Owl topped them all.

The book's subtitle, A Wicked Bestiary, indicates that the stories are fables, but they're more like fairy tales. Do we still need lessons in morality as adults? People follow the rules and yet horrible things happen. Humans do nasty things for the sake of survival. As the Crow says, "I have to do what I have to do."

Monday, 26 August 2019

Double standards and the end of the world

On the Beach We're all going to die but most of us don't know when, unlike the characters in Nevil Shute's book On the Beach.

The story takes place in 1963, around five years after the book was written. A nuclear war that started by mistake and lasted thirty seven days has wiped out all human life in the Northern Hemisphere. As the world tilts on its axis, the deadly fallout is slowly carried into the Southern Hemisphere, and in Melbourne, the scientists calculate that there is up to 9 months left before residents of the city will start to die from radiation sickness. The story describes how some residents prepare for death.

By far the best character is Moira, a young woman who, at the beginning of the book is biding her time drinking double brandies and partying. She meets the rather dull and upstanding American submarine commander, Dwight Towers, and as their platonic relationship develops, she follows his example and prepares for the end of days by doing something useful. The men find dignity through their work, and get to go on dangerous submarine scouting missions. In their spare time they drive fast cars. Moira however goes in for mending Dwight's clothes and learning shorthand and typing. Well, the book was written in the 1950s, and the author was rather middle-class.

The minor character Douglas Froude also deserves a mention. He's great-uncle to John Osborne, the scientific officer. As a member of the Pastoral Club Froude discovers "over three thousand bottles of vintage port still left in the cellars," and when asked what he's going to do about it, he says there's only one thing to do, "Drink it, my boy, drink it - every drop." Here again, it's perfectly acceptable for the old goat to drink himself into a stupor, whereas Moira "drinks too much. Still, she does it on brandy they tell me, so that makes a difference."

On the Beach very much reflects the decade in which it was written. If you can get over that, it's a great premise. Initially one might find it ridiculous to imagine that in the face of certain death most people would just continue to go about their daily lives, but by the end, one wonders if that might actually be the best thing to do.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Growing wealth, endless greed

The Privileges Jonathan Dee's The Privileges is less a story, more a character study of a family. It's divided into four parts. In part one, we join Adam Morey and his fiancee Cynthia on their wedding day. Six years later, in part two, the couple have two small children, April and Jonas. By part three, the children are teenagers, and in the fourth section April and Jonas are in their early twenties.

The narrative explores Adam and Cynthia's growing wealth and endless greed. Even when "there was enough for them to live on for the rest of their lives," Adam still thought of money only in terms "of how it might be used to make more money." Adam has no qualms about boosting his funds by insider trading, and Cynthia is often contemptuous of anyone outside her close family, such as "those moms she despised, the ones you made small talk with while you waited for your kid." The fortune they amassed didn't make their children happy. April was "scared of poor people" and had no idea how to fill her days other than by getting wasted on drugs and alcohol. Jonas, whose "first minute of brain activity after waking generated so much anxiety" found some meaning in music and in studying art, but is unable to renounce his privilege, agreeing to let his mother "send the jet for him so he could at least spend a week at home."

The Morey family is overwhelmingly isolated and self-absorbed. They may be involved in charitable giving, but their relentless pursuit of wealth, their sense of privilege and how they treat others make them morally corrupt. It reminded me of Thackeray's Vanity Fair with its subtitle "A Novel without a Hero. There are no heroes in Jonathan Dee's book either.

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

A man who had given his best years to puddings

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin David Nobbs's Reggie Perrin is "a man who had given his best years to puddings," and wonders in his mid-forties what the point of it all has been. His relationship with his wife has become stale and he has no enthusiasm for his job. What is he to do?

Having watched The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin on TV in the 1970s and in 2009, I knew exactly what Reggie would do, but I wanted to see if there were differences between the book and the adaptation.

The story is the same, but the book is darker without the canned laughter track, and its sex scenes are more explicit, tho' not gratuitous. Its style of writing is straight-forward, with plenty of dialogue, as if it was written with the intention of adapting it. David Nobbs's descriptions are imaginative, such as a motorcycle's "tactless virility", a sunset "to set shepherds dancing in ecstasy", waiters with "sound-proof shoes and double-glazed eyes", and "good grey nonconformist Sunday rain". I remember the TV series to be mostly about Reggie's mid-life crisis and how he questioned his success and happiness, but the book raises issues about how isolated we can become in our own lives and communities, and what little we know about the people we are closest to.

Overall it's a good story peopled with funny characters, plenty of humour and memories of 1970s Britain.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

What it meant to be a girl

The Seraphim Room The Seraphim Room by Edith Olivier is a story driven by the character of Mr Chilvester, twice widowed, and living with his two daughters: the invalid Lilian, and the teenage Emily. The lease on their home passes through the male line, and Mr Chilvester, knowing that "the name of the family would die with him," transfers all his passion into his house.

The story is set shortly after 1928 and the passing of the "Flappers' Vote." It relates what happens when the intransigence of Mr Chilvester comes up against Emily's romantic aspirations and the youthful exuberance of the young architect, Christopher Honeythorne. Chilvester is an old-fashioned Victorian patriarch, whereas Honeythorne shows all the spirit and modernism of the Roaring Twenties. Initially Chilvester appears quite comical, but when his authority is threatened the darkness of his character is revealed.

Edith Olivier's writing style is rather old-fashioned and reflects the class and period of the subject matter. The characters' actions may seem far-fetched, but there are still plenty of parents alive today whose religion or upbringing have taught them, like Chilvester, to think that "Lillian, being only a girl, meant nothing."