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Review of ‘The Cutting Season’ by Attica Locke

September 24, 2012 Leave a comment

The Cutting Season’ by Attica Locke

Published by HarperCollins (Allen & Unwin in New Zealand,) October 2012

RRP $36.99

ISBN 978 1 84668 803 4

eISBN 978 1 84765 850 0

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Cutting Season’ is Attica Locke’s ambitious second novel following her well-received, Orange Prize nominated, first book ‘Black Water Rising.’ It undoubtedly falls within the crime fiction genre – it is the first title in the Dennis Lehane crime imprint at HarperCollins – but it comes with a serious take on slavery and immigration in American history and culture, and a quality and style of writing that puts it firmly in the ‘literary’ canon.

Located in and around the antebellum sugar cane plantation of Belle Vie – now a tourist attraction – the novel centres on its manager, Caren Gray. Locke weaves together multiple strands in the book’s 400 pages. There is a recent murder, and perhaps an older one too; there are descendants of the original owners of Belle Vie who regard themselves as ‘having done right’ by their black slaves, and descendants of those slaves who still feel robbed and oppressed; there are complex families involving children, separation and loss, both modern and ancient; and there are today’s industrial farming conglomerates and illegal Mexican cane cutters, mirroring the plantation owners and black slaves of generations ago.

Caren discovers the murder, and it is this incident and its consequences that drive the novel right from the start. Locke keeps the tension up throughout, keeping the reader guessing, and cleverly using minor characters to unlock key aspects of the plot.

Locke’s cast are what you might call in a movie ‘stock characters.’ Locke is also a screenwriter, and it may be that this has influenced the way she has created her characters in this book. Caren Gray herself, for example, is little too weary and passive to be completely believable. There is the older black woman who runs the kitchen, who has seen it all; the hard done by younger employee with a minor criminal record for whom Caren has sympathy and feels has a good heart; the unpleasant neighbouring estate manager who…but let me stop there, before I give something away. Suffice to say Locke’s characters are not exactly subtle, but they work effectively in a story of this nature.

Locke has also worked very hard – perhaps too hard – to mirror past events in the present. Almost every aspect of the story has a parallel strand in the past. I found this over the top; it just wasn’t necessary to do this with absolutely everything, as if the symbolism and history repeating itself lesson needed to be hammered home. Attica, just hold off a little; we get it.

Thankfully Locke does not jump around in time, or shift the point of view away from Caren. I was greatly relieved when I realised we were not suddenly going to find ourselves in 1880, hearing about what happened then through the voice of an ex-slave. The story is told straight, strictly through Caren’s point of view – in the third person – over the course of a week during the sugar cane cutting season. Because the complexities of the story are all about Caren’s personal and family history, how she finds out aspects of it she was previously unaware of, as well as her part in solving the murder, this approach works perfectly. Remaining firmly with Caren’s point of view means the reader understands things – or not – as Caren does, which is a very satisfying approach to storytelling.

‘The Cutting Season’ is perhaps a little long, and some sections seemed to drag. The mechanics of getting from the gate to the house, or the library to the slave quarters, in the dark happened once or twice too often, and some of the interactions with Morgan, Caren’s daughter, didn’t quite ring true for a nine year old.

Attica Locke has written an interesting crime thriller that is a cut above most. It has context and history, an almost pitch perfect point of view – Caren’s  – and a murderer whose identity keeps you guessing. Locke also resists tying everything up nicely, or giving her characters what they really want – and she does well to sustain the idea that, perhaps, they don’t even know what they want. It takes courage for a writer to work a story this way.

Although there is a sense that Locke has tried too hard in places, ‘The Cutting Season’ brings together contemporary social and cultural comment, recent American history, and the complexities of modern family life, with a classic crime whodunnit. Overall, despite its flaws, I’d recommend it.

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Review of ‘A Possible Life’ by Sebastian Faulks

September 20, 2012 2 comments

‘A Possible Life’ by Sebastian Faulks
Published by Hutchinson, September 2012
ISBN 9780091936815

Acknowledgement: The review copy of ‘A Possible Life’ was provided by Booksellers NZ. It is also posted on their blog.

Described by the publisher as a novel, this latest offering by the highly-regarded Sebastian Faulks – the Financial Times says, ‘Faulks is beyond doubt a master,’ – is in fact a collection of five stories. Each story has its own title, but they are also labelled Parts I to V, signalling that they are supposed to form a coherent whole; that they are in some way linked.

A Possible Life reminded me a little of Edward P Jones’ two volumes of linked short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children and Lost In The City. The links between Jones’ stories are subtle and curious; a name might re-appear in a different context, or a location will feature again, but at a different time or with different people. The connections between the five stories in A Possible Life are even less obvious, and reflect Faulks’ fascination with what makes us human. Science, consciousness, artistic creativity, families, love and the Holocaust all feature. Only once the book is finished is it possible to reflect on the stories as a collection, and try and make sense of them.

Each story traverses the whole of its subject’s life, set in different times and places from 18th century France to mid-21st century Italy. The middle three stories struggled to live up to the emotional and heart-breaking narrative of the first – the stoicism and suffering of a man subject to the horrors of the Second World War – or the re-imagining of the love affair between Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash on which the fifth and final story is loosely based. The first story sets such a high standard, although it certainly has flaws, that the rest were always going to be hard-pressed to follow it. Its strength perhaps explains why I felt such disappointment at turning the page and realising that ‘Part II’ was a completely different story.

What is it that makes the middle three stories less satisfactory? Writing about the future, unless you’re a top notch science fiction writer, is always a challenge. The knowing nods to the present that make science fiction interesting – the novelty of someone reading printed newspapers instead of screens, or a reference back to the global financial crisis – have to be done extremely well, otherwise they seem a little obvious, a little contrived.

The Victorian workhouse boy who toils his way to a comfortable life, against the odds and with family challenges that test his integrity, seemed too much like a parable. And the 18th century French servant girl who leads a life of drudgery just didn’t have enough depth to satisfy me, despite Faulks showing us the families for whom she works, with all their pretensions and shortcomings.

I also had a problem with the way that for just a paragraph or two, in each story, Faulks shifts the point of view away from the protagonist. It is difficult to imagine this is unintentional but when, in fiction, the point of view changes temporarily to another character then shifts back again, it is as if the writer has given up on finding a way to show us what he wants through the eyes of his protagonist. There are lots of great books where the point of view jumps around all over the place – Nicola Barker’Behindlings or The Believers by Zoe Heller – but it is unusual to find examples of what Faulks has done in A Possible Life. Perhaps he’s trying to show how human consciousness flickers in and out of focus, how we can’t know everything? Perhaps, but the result is unconvincing, and doesn’t feel right.

Faulks’ decision to put what are, effectively, five novellas into one book makes them feel compressed and constrained, but the first and the last suffer most as a result; it feels as if there are longer, deeper versions waiting to be told; that important insights and events have been skipped over; that words have been sacrificed to make space for the other three stories.

If there is a common theme in A Possible Life, it is universal: life unfolds in many different ways, often we can’t control what happens, and love is difficult to find and to cope with. Isn’t that what most fiction is about? It could be argued that the middle story, set in the future, about a scientific breakthrough related to consciousness and the mind, is the ‘answer’ to the book’s question, but it doesn’t do enough to properly fill that role.

By packaging these stories together with the title A Possible Life, Faulks promises something more profound than two strong and three weaker stories linked by only the most tenuous of threads. Rather than judge each on its own merits I was always looking for something more, and disappointment was inevitable. The strength of the first and last stories goes someway towards redeeming the book but, in the end, Faulks does not keep his promise, and we are left with a collection that is not, really, much more than the sum of its parts.

Review of ‘Sweet Tooth’ by Ian McEwan

September 4, 2012 4 comments

Is it possible to write convincingly from the point of view of the opposite gender? Is it possible to write a review of an Ian McEwan novel without giving too much away?

The answer is, of course, it depends how good a writer you are. Kirsten McDougall presented Philip Fetch, in The Invisible Rider, so authentically it is hard to see how she could have known all the thoughts and feelings of a middle aged male lawyer. Some people loved Lloyd Jones’ Matilda in Mr Pip, whereas others had a problem with him writing as a 13 year old girl. And then there’s Ian McEwan. Perhaps the best known instance of McEwan writing as a woman is his masterpiece of trickery, Atonement, which includes McEwan writing convincingly not only as a woman, but as a woman writing as a woman. So there’s no doubt he has form in this matter.

The idea of trickery resonates throughout Sweet Tooth, McEwan’s latest novel. The book starts with the main character, Serena Frome, telling us how she was recruited into MI5 in the 1970s, where there’s plenty of trickery and deception going on. She’s a voracious reader who prefers her authors to ‘make use of the real world’ and avoid ‘tricksy haggling over the limits of their art… .’ On no account should writers ‘infiltrate their own pages as part of the cast.’ The clues about what McEwan is doing with Sweet Tooth come thick and fast and don’t let up.

But, like the very best novels, the extent of McEwan’s ambition and achievement can’t be seen until the last sentence has been read and fully absorbed.

McEwan layers on the literary content thickly, with the story echoing his own experiences of being published for the first time in the 1970s. His friends and publishers get name checks, as do various pubs, restaurants and parks. McEwan also indulges us with jokes. The ‘new fangled Booker prize’ gets several mentions, and he plays around with the name of a former director-general of MI5 and makes her a high-flying contemporary of Serena.

Its clear from what we’re reading that Frome wouldn’t have liked McEwan’s writing in the 1970s, and perhaps still wouldn’t today. We hear about other writers Frome likes and doesn’t like, giving us plenty to think about in respect of McEwan’s own likes and dislikes. There’s a lot of reading between the lines as the book reaches its middle act, especially when Frome starts to quote chunks of her lover Tom Haley’s newly penned fiction to the reader, some of which clearly reflects McEwan’s own writing from the 1970s.

McEwan shows great confidence in delving into a world so well chronicled by the likes of John le Carre and Ian Fleming, although he sets it a few years after Smiley’s era. Still, the idea that no-one knows anything, that the respective agencies are actively competing with each other – the dissatisfaction ‘five’ has for ‘six’ comes through strongly – and that around every corner, in every cramped, smoke-filled office there might lurk someone working for the other side, are themes that many readers will be familiar with. Why shouldn’t McEwan write about spies, the 1970s and people who like books and writing? It seems so obvious now he’s done it.

Less familiar is the idea that the secret service might have funded artists and writers, which is central to the book and on which the real story hangs.

I’m not going to give away the main plot twists here. For me, one of the pleasures of Sweet Tooth is McEwan’s skilful circling back, his ability to make everything that happens matter one way or another. As connections are revealed and Serena’s personal desires – for literature and for love – conflict with her professional duties, the dramatic tension builds.

So, has McEwan written convincingly as a woman in Sweet Tooth? Well, Serena Frome is certainly a strongly drawn character. She has clear views, and even when she has doubts she knows very clearly that she has them. She consistently tells us what she thinks, and how she feels, about her lovers and potential lovers. She is unexpectedly confident about sex, and yet there are other things she doesn’t tell us that we would have perhaps expected her to know. She appears to be consistently interested in the social turmoil around her – the cold war ending, the UK economy on its knees, the Troubles at their peak – but is that a true reflection of the interests of a bishop’s daughter, educated at Cambridge, even one who works for MI5?

Would Serena really act and react like this? Perhaps she would.

The ending was too quick, too neat and, if I dare say so, too contrived for me. It explained too much about some things and not enough about others. I can’t really say anymore without giving McEwan’s game away, and I certainly don’t want to do that. Perhaps after reading Sweet Tooth you’ll come back to this review and notice my own clues about what happens in the book, and decide whether I’ve said too much, or not enough.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sweet Tooth and while the ending didn’t exactly satisfy me, it did have me shaking my head once again in admiration of McEwan’s inventiveness in giving fictional words on the page a reason to be there, his ability to entertain, and the sheer audacity and confidence that is necessary to attempt things other writers wouldn’t even contemplate.

The review copy was provided by Booksellers NZ, and this review is also posted on their blog.

Published by Random House NZ, August 2012

ISBN 9780224097383

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