Saturday, 26 October 2019

Good story, disappointing book

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story What makes a good book? There are as many answers to this question as there are readers. And this reader's requirements weren't met by Hyeonseo Lee's The Girl With Seven Names.

That's not to say it isn't a good story. It's an autobiography/memoir of a North Korean woman who defected "by mistake" aged 17. She lived and worked as an illegal immigrant in China for several years before making her way to South Korea, where she was automatically entitled to citizenship. Then she executed a plan to help her mother and brother to defect and join her. They now all live happily ever with her American husband in the USA.

Most of what I didn't like was the writing style. The first section contains a description of childhood events as she "was told about them", perhaps by her mother. The language is stilted and cliched, as one might expect from an inexperienced writer. Most annoying was the overuse of anticipation: many chapters ended with a phrase, sometimes a paragraph, that served as a harbinger of some terrible event. This device, perhaps intended to keep us reading merely reduced the impact of future episode. By the third section, the writing style had improved somewhat.

Finally, the book is overly trite. In the prologue the author says she came to understand "that we can do without almost anything - our home, even our country. But we will never do without other people, and we will never do without family." Does Hyeonseo Lee really believe this? By the end of the book what comes across is that those who are seperated from family and birthplace when they are young are able build a life elsewhere. "Home" moves with you. It was clear that over time, distance and lack of contact, the writer was unable to see things from the same point of view as the family she left behind.

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

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.