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Review of ‘The Aftermath’ by Rhidian Brook

September 20, 2013 1 comment

‘The Aftermath’ by Rhidian Brook

Published by Penguin

ISBN 978 0  670 92112 6

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of The Aftermath was provided by Booksellers New Zealand.

Have you ever thought about what happens after a war in which you were on the losing side? Specifically, when your country was invaded and your side lost? For some, it is unimaginable. For others, it will be all too real. One of the strengths of Rhidian Brook’s third novel, ‘The Aftermath,’ is the way that in this era of global conflict, with refugees and reconstruction missions so constantly in the news, a story set sixty years ago will resonate with people going through, or at least observing, the same thing going on today.

‘The Aftermath’ is set largely in Hamburg, Germany, immediately after the second world war. Brook acknowledges inspiration from his grandfather, who requisitioned a house there in 1946, and he constructs a story that shows the rebuilding of post-war lives in a way that is both fascinating and horrifying. His website says the book is being translated into twenty-three languages. Assuming one of those languages is German its audience there will, perhaps, react with more emotion than any other.

Those who remember what it was like in Europe in the post-war years are rapidly dwindling in number. My own grandparents, gone now, were in their late teens and early twenties in 1939-1945. My parents were both war babies, and grew up in a time of ration books and austerity. But those days were over by the time they were in their teens, and their remembered youth was more milk bars and mods, Bill Haley and Elvis, motorbikes and day trips to Clacton-on-Sea.

Rhidian Brook’s novel shows us that immediate post-war austerity, from the perspective of both the British who were sent to help Germany rebuild, as well as the Germans who survived. Can you imagine the reaction of the British as their government sent food, supplies and manpower to a country that was, last month, still killing their young men, while children at home went hungry? Can you imagine what it was like to have all semblance of civilisation stripped away – your mayor, your government, your everything – before surrender, and now be faced with the very soldiers who were killing your families arriving and throwing you out of your house?

Once the emotion of the events that frame the novel settle down, the story is somewhat more conventional. The novel hinges on the decision by Lewis Morgan, a British Army Colonel who is allocated a substantial and beautiful house next to the Elbe in Hamburg, to allow the Luberts, whose house it is, to remain living there alongside him and his family. This is highly unusual, and draws concern and criticism from Lewis’s fellow officers, but he insists that to do otherwise would be the opposite of what they are trying to achieve – the rehabilitation of a people and the rebuilding of a country.

It seems almost inevitable that the attention of Rachael, Lewis’s wife, is drawn away from the reserved, English Army officer, always busy with his important work, towards the interesting, cultured and strong-minded Lubert, whose own wife was killed in the war. After all, Lewis is hardly ever home. Lewis and Rachael had their own wartime tragedy which they’ve never come to terms with. And, for his part, Lewis is attracted to the intelligent, interesting women working for the government, helping rebuild a conquered country. Multi-lingual, well read and bright-eyed, they tempt him.

Around these intensely personal and emotional interactions, there is the horrific backdrop of a devastated nation. A city like Hamburg, especially, with its important port, was flattened. There were no services, no government, no jobs. Children roamed the streets scavenging food and cigarettes. Ordinary German men and women were demoralised, destroyed. Brook carefully lets us know that the world is not black and white. Some British army officers are coarse, corrupt and cruel. The Allies were at war with Germany, not all Germans. There are people on both sides who wish the war had never happened, and those on both sides who wish it hadn’t ended. And, in the background, there are the international tensions that led to the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.

‘The Aftermath’, for all its darkness, is a story of hope and it is that which perhaps makes it a lesser novel than it could have been. Its strength is that it shows us a time and place few can remember and few have written about, at least in fiction. It reminds us that winning and losing in war is a relative concept. To be on the losing side – if you survived – is to be denied your very existence and identity, and to be the victor brings extraordinary responsibilities towards the same people who were, yesterday, your mortal enemies.

The book’s weakness is to pick, as it reaches its conclusion, a slice of that time and place where humanity, compassion and good fortune triumph. It is not that the books ends on a happy note – everyone here is damaged beyond repair – but I couldn’t help but think that for most of the people who found themselves in these kinds of circumstances, in the late 1940s, in places like Hamburg or Bonn or Frankfurt, things ended less well.

I believe ‘The Aftermath’ would have been even stronger with a less redemptive ending. Nevertheless, it is brilliantly written, deeply moving and makes a very strong addition to the collection of novels – by the likes of Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, John le Carre and William Boyd – about the wars and related events that shaped 20th century Europe.

Review of ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter

September 18, 2013 1 comment

‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter

Published by Penguin

ISBN 978 0  670 92265 9

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of Beautiful Ruins was provided by Booksellers New Zealand.

In the early 1960s the movie ‘Cleopatra’ was being filmed in Rome. It remains one of the most expensive movies ever made, and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. It, and the fallout from the high-profile affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during shooting, forms the backdrop to ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter.

Beautiful Ruins was first published in 2012 and topped the New York Times bestseller list. The New Zealand edition, published by Penguin, has a bold, retro-coloured photomontage with plenty of accolades on both front and back covers. It can’t, therefore be read without a high degree of expectation. With a quote on the front from Nick Hornby that says, ‘Beautiful Ruins is a novel unlike any other you’re likely to read this year,’ the bar is set high. I wasn’t disappointed.

Jess Walter’s novel is a complex, emotional and moving story. The structure is imaginative and unconventional, but not necessarily ground breaking. We get multiple points of view, often in the same chapter, but Walter’s assured prose leaves us in no doubt as to which character we are with at any given time. There are extracts from books, scripts and unpublished memoirs, sometimes presented as whole chapters, sometimes in the middle of chapters. The reader has to trust that while, moments ago, the prose was a conventional third person narrative in modern day Los Angeles, and now is an account of a treacherous mountain crossing in the 1800s, the author is doing it for a reason that will be revealed when he’s good and ready.

I was reminded me, in a way, of Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ where the form of each chapter can be quite different but works together as a whole. This kind of writing, this kind of structure, can seem contrived and artificial and such criticism has certainly been levelled at Egan and Walter. This kind of approach is successful only when each component has a part to play, and when the reader doesn’t fully realise what those parts are, and how they all fit together, until the end. This is, of course, true with all fiction. Every sentence must do its job. When an author plays around with form – including scripts, letters, or even powerpoint presentations in the case of Egan – then the form itself must do something for the story, as well as the content. Walter has pulled this off brilliantly in ‘Beautiful Ruins.’

At the heart of ‘Beautiful Ruins’ is a love story between an obscure American actress and a young Italian student forced to stay in his remote coastal village after his father dies. Real, famous people rub shoulders and more with Walter’s fictional creations, and the background is boldly coloured with the fallout of the second world war, as well as Hollywood and the Burton-Taylor mythology. Walter spans five decades of the lives that were touched by those ‘beautiful ruins’ – the term comes from a real interview with Burton – and in doing so he tells a story that can’t fail to touch the reader.

In other hands such a story could have turned to schmaltz, but Walter shows incredible control of emotion and time, and does it in a way that makes this novel impossible to put down. While some may regard the ending as a little too neat, it is hard to see how it Walter could have gone any other way.

I can only start to imagine the time it took to write and re-write, the thinking, mapping and exploration it took to weave together this story so that, in the end, it all makes sense. Some of the connections, revealed without any tricksy manoeuvres or contrived circumstances, take your breath away. The cast of characters is large, but they are all there for a reason. It took Walter fifteen years to write this book – or, as he says in the author interview included in this edition, what he means is he ‘…managed to squeeze in two or three years of writing during fifteen years of drinking and self-loathing.’

Having paused for breath I went on to read the author interviews a couple of weeks after finishing ‘Beautiful Ruins.’ I came away with such huge admiration and respect for Jess Walter that I went straight out and bought ‘Tumbled Graves,’ his first novel, and I intend to work my way through his other four books as soon as I can.

Review of ‘New Finnish Grammar’ by Diego Marani

December 7, 2012 2 comments

‘New Finnish Grammar’ by Diego Marani, translated by Judith Landry

Published by The Text Publishing Company

ISBN 9781922079664

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of New Finnish Grammar was provided by Scoop Review of Books, and was first posted here.

New Finnish Grammar received the Grinzane-Cavour Prize, was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award, and comes with an impressive array of plaudits. The most prominent is featured on the cover: The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard says, ‘I can’t remember when I read a more extraordinary novel, or when I was last so strongly tempted to use the word genius of its author.’ It is impossible to come to this book without high expectations and, for me, they were definitely met.

On the surface New Finnish Grammar has an admirable simplicity, but its strength lies in its many layers. Marani is a professional translator and there can be no doubt about his love of language. He invented Europanto, a mock European language, in which he writes newspaper columns. It comes as no surprise, then, that New Finnish Grammar is, at one level, about language.

The main character, Sampo, has no memory of who he is or where he came from. Because he is wearing the clothes of a Finnish sailor when he is found in Trieste, the doctor who treats him – a man called Friari, a Finn who left his country many years before – assumes Sampo is Finnish. Friari sends Sampo to Helsinki to better enable him to recover his Finnish identity and re-learn his language.

In Helsinki the conflict known as The Winter War between Russia and Finland features heavily, deeply affecting Sampo as he sees people come and go, and tries to understand some of what is being said around him. Sampo’s loneliness, his despair, and his decisions about what to do with his life are at the heart of the story. This alone would make it special, but it is the way Marani chooses to tell Sampo’s story that takes it to another level.

The novel is presented as a series of extracts from Sampo’s journals as found, and transcribed, by Friari who has finally travelled back to Helsinki, troubled by unresolved issues in his own life as well as his actions towards Sampo. The premise is that Sampo simply did not have sufficient a grasp of Finnish to write coherently, and that Friari has edited, augmented and interpreted Sampo’s journals so they can be understood. Friari also includes some narrative of his own from time to time including a prologue which is, really, Marani’s masterstroke. It is rich in information and foreshadowing, setting the context for everything that happens within the remaining 190-odd pages, without spoiling anything.

The approach Marani has taken is similar to Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music, which I reviewed in July. In The Big Music Gunn claims she was ‘presented’ with boxes of papers, written by someone else, which she ‘ordered and organised’ into the book. The author’s narrative in The Big Music appears not in italics, like Friari’s, but in the form of copious footnotes and appendices. Of course, in The Big Music, the ‘Kirsty Gunn’ who organised the papers and wrote the footnotes is as much a fictional character as Friari.

The idea that Marani wrote this in Italian adds another layer to the linguistic complexity on the page. The subtlety of the story and the language comes through clearly, but I wondered at times whether something had been lost in the translation to English. It feels flat in places and Judith Landry, the translator, employs the term ‘as if’ constantly. Was it more lively, more varied, in the original Italian? Or are we seeing Friari presenting his adaptation of Sampo’s journals in precisely the way Marani intended?

Nevertheless, New Finnish Grammar is a deeply moving novel. It is not long, coming in at just under 200 pages in the English version, but every page conveys the tragedy and the tenacity of Sampo. By showing us Sampo through the double lens of his journals and Friari’s adaptation of them, Marani puts distance between the reader and Sampo. We imagine we hear Sampo speaking directly, but it is Friari’s interpretation of Sampo’s journal. It is as if a beneficial uncle is speaking on behalf of a child, filling in the gaps he thinks the child should know, but really projecting his own thoughts, beliefs and desires. How much of what we read is Sampo, how much is what Friari wants to believe Sampo was thinking, and how much is what Friari wants the reader to believe Sampo was thinking? All of this is coloured and set up from the outset by Friari’s prologue, and results in a novel that is a masterful, subtle construction of personality and meaning.

For me there was yet another layer of intrigue, but it came from the author, not the novel. Thirty years ago I worked at a children’s holiday camp in Devon, in the UK. I was 18. One of the kitchen hands was a man called Diego, slightly older than me. It was only after I’d finished New Finnish Grammar that I looked more closely at the photograph on the back cover. The glasses. The shape of the mouth. I checked Wikipedia – Marani was three years older than me. I e-mailed his publisher asking that they pass my message, and the attached photograph, on to the author. Diego’s reply was waiting for me the next morning.

Diego is coming to New Zealand in 2013 on a promotional tour, and we’ll catch up for sure. Who knows what we might remember about the past, what might come to light about that distant summer, once we start talking?

Review of ‘The Prague Cemetery’ by Umberto Eco

November 26, 2012 1 comment

The Prague Cemetery’ by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon

Published by Vintage Books

ISBN 9780099555971

Reviewed by C P Howe

Take the fragmented and volatile nature of 19th century European history, mix in a grand cast of real people, show how well read you are by referring to a wide range of real and fictional writing, and invent a thoroughly dislikeable anti-hero to tie it all together. The result is Umberto Eco’s sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, a book full of intrigue, deception and betrayal, which goes back to the familiar ground of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose.

Eco’s academic credentials include philosophy, semiotics, literary criticism and media and communications. Fifty years ago he first published his ideas on ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts, and in his novels it seems he has pushed these ideas through into practice. The Prague Cemetery certainly requires the reader to engage, and engage deeply, questioning what is being reported on the page, and by whom. To add to the complexity, readers also need to remember that this is a translation from Italian into English. That such a complex and dynamic piece of writing should retain its integrity after such a process is remarkable.

It is also clear that Eco really meant what he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2011; ‘People are tired of simple things; they want to be challenged.’  Not only does The Prague Cemetery require nothing short of your full attention, moving as it does between a narrator – we are supposed to think this is Eco himself, perhaps – the journal entries of Simone Simonini, and notes made by Simonini’s alter ego, Abbe Dalla Piccola. It also assumes the reader has a very high level of trust in the narrator, whether it is Eco, Simonini, or Dalla Piccola, to recount in great detail the complex shifts in power in 19th century European politics. Eco knows it is unlikely many readers will be as well read on this subject as he is, and spares us no detail.

But he is not just doing this to show off. Simonini is a forger, used by more than one government, or would be government, to supply ‘genuine’ documents to the other side. Who is on the other side, and who is on his side, it is hard to say. Simonini is an unreliable narrator, and it is mostly his account of his life, written nearly thirty years after the events themselves, that we are reading. We cannot be sure that anything he tells us is true. At best it is just a version – his version – of the truth. Add in the brief notes by Dalla Piccola and the interjections by the narrator and we see the world as Eco wants us to see it – complex, confusing and where we can’t know everyone’s true intentions and motivations. Just like real life.

Eco has included monochrome images of supposed engravings of the events Simonini writes about, showing us that Simonini is in fact writing a journal for publication. He is, we are supposed to believe, finally writing down the truth about his colourful life, and the role he played in producing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an account of a meeting of Jewish elders in a cemetery in Prague. The Protocols exist, and are widely held to be a hoax. That did not stop them being used by the Russians and the Nazis, and even today there are claims that they are genuine.

Eco threads layer upon layer of fiction, fact, history and humour throughout this novel. Those who are not experts in this period of European history may find the detail distracting or annoying. I’d recommend setting aside your concerns; don’t try and remember all the characters and who they are aligned with. Never heard of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies? Don’t worry about it. Not sure who Garibaldi was? Never mind. Unclear about the sequence of events with the Prussians, Bonaparte and the French Revolution? Let it go. No-one really knows all the details. Simonini certainly doesn’t, and you shouldn’t try. There are plenty of other books you can read if you’re interested.

Instead, read The Prague Cemetery for what it is: a rollicking tale of a thoroughly unlikeable, anti-Semitic, food-obsessed murderer, at the heart of deception after deception that shaped the course of European history at the time and – in the case of the forgery that sits at the centre of the book, the Protocols – decades to come. For Europeans, especially continental Europeans, the events in this book were not that long ago. They are, still, fresh in the memory. France and Italy are proud republics with volatile political environments. In that sense, they are still very much the countries described in The Prague Cemetery. And this is a serious business; the Protocols were used by the Nazis, in part, to justify the Holocaust.

The Prague Cemetery won’t be to everyone’s taste. Simonini is a nasty piece of work, but unlike most anti-heroes it’s hard to ever feel any sympathy or empathy for him. The historical details can be exhausting. And while we know its Simonini, not Eco, being anti-Semitic, the thoughts Eco puts in Simonini’s head, and the words he puts in his mouth, are disturbing.

If you want a story about conspiracies, European history and deception where you know who the villain is because he’s an creepy looking albino priest who tortures himself, where the world is threatened and saved at the last minute, and where the hero is an American and gets the girl, Dan Brown’s the author for you. For everyone else, there’s Umberto Eco.

Review of ‘The Phoenix Song’ by John Sinclair

November 1, 2012 1 comment

‘The Phoenix Song’ by John Sinclair

Published by Victoria University Press, October 2012

ISBN 978 0 86473 825 7

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of The Phoenix Song was provided by Booksellers New Zealand. This review was first published on their blog.

John Sinclair, with his first novel The Phoenix Song, has created something of a challenge for readers. The story is densely packed with the history of relations between Russia and China and at times this can be overwhelming. He also introduces just enough authentically named Chinese and Russian characters to make it difficult, but not impossible, to remember who they are. We are helped by his decision to include a contents page and chapter headings to signpost some of the shifts in time and place. I had the feeling he could have made it even more complex, and the novel he has given us is a judgement call. It already takes a dedicated reader to commit the concentration required; if he had gone any further he might have lost us all.

The commitment and concentration required to get to grips with The Phoenix Song, however, certainly has its rewards.  Told through a first person narration by Xiao Magou, starting in 1950, a year after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China when she was eight years old, the story reveals remarkable aspects of life in the young nation. With a father who is a party official, the young Xiao’s musical talent is quickly recognised and cultivated, but ever present throughout her story is the all embracing power of the party and the extreme control it exercised over the population. Entangled in Xiao’s story is the complexity of Chinese-Russian relations, with secretive negotiations about treaties and personal relationships; the Russians feature heavily in Xiao’s early life, and her parents’, as well as at the Shanghai Conservatory where she studies violin.

The book does have its lighter moments, usually when the Russians are involved. Sinclair has great technical control of the words on the page, and effortlessly moves into dialogue and flashback when relating events that Xiao witnesses, as well as stories she hears from her mother, or imagines when looking at photographs. Some of the exchanges between the Russians at the Shanghai Conservatory are, while not exactly laugh out loud, highly amusing.

There’s a darker side to the humour as well. Some of the decisions by the Party in relation to musical development in China would be, if they weren’t true, laughable. The demands on citizens to be productive, to labour, in culture as well as the fields and factories, seem absurd to our modern day understanding of creativity. The idea of quotas for symphonies and songs, as if they were tonnes of pig iron, is remarkable. The arbitrary decisions on which western composers are suddenly in favour, and those that are to be discarded, are equally astounding. When students at the Conservatory have to suspend their studies for days just to attack Debussy and his work, to burn his scores, we’d like to think it is purely fiction, but we know it isn’t; Sinclair has done his homework.

The story has an arc which is relatively predictable. Sinclair is a New Zealand writer, and the book is published by Victoria University Press. The promotional paragraph on the cover tells the story moves between China, Europe and New Zealand. It doesn’t take much thinking to work out what is going to happen, especially when Sinclair drops in the occasional paragraph to make sure we know Xiao is telling the story from a point a long way into the future. Nevertheless, the way he weaves together the events is skilful and accomplished, and creating a consistent and convincing voice on the page for a young Chinese girl in the 1950s is quite an achievement.

Sinclair has produced an interesting and technically accomplished novel, but it didn’t engage me quite as much as I’d hoped. Using the first person to relate a mostly chronological story means sometimes the narrative drags. Xiao consistently relates details of what she sees in a colourful way, painting a picture of her surroundings for the reader, but its does tend to slow things down. There are moments of excitement and tragedy, but Xiao is emotionally cold. There’s a reason for this, but I had hoped to see more of her feelings.

The Phoenix Song is a book about a world so different to ours it demands to be read. Music and freedom (or its absence) are its themes, and it reveals frightening truths about the role these played in determining the future of twentieth century society. Xiao’s young life touches decisions and people – Mao Zedong, Deng Xiao Ping, Khrushchev – at the highest level of geopolitics. It might not be as emotionally engaging as I had hoped, but it is certainly a book worth reading. Whether John Sinclair is contemplating writing a second volume of Xiao’s story I don’t know – it will be obvious what this should cover once you’ve read The Phoenix Song – but I would certainly be near the front of the queue if he does.

The Phoenix Song in the window of Unity Books, Wellington

Review of ‘Telegraph Avenue’ by Michael Chabon

October 15, 2012 1 comment

Telegraph Avenue’ by Michael Chabon

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

ISBN 978 0 00 731849 0

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of Telegraph Avenue was provided, and was first published, by Scoop Review of Books

Michael Chabon, with his contemporaries Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, has an astonishing knack for writing about American lives in a way that makes you feel you know personally the places and people behind the stories.

Chabon once found, at his parents house, a box of old comics he’d put away as a child, and was reminded how much he loved them. That led to his most widely acclaimed work, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book that takes in Houdini, the Holocaust, and the golden age of comic books, through Sammy and Joe’s invention, a hero called The Escapist. To read Chabon is to be in an alternate universe, where the characters and story arcs are utterly familiar, totally convincing, yet completely fictional.

Telegraph Avenue is Chabon’s latest novel. He also writes young adult and science fiction, comic books that bring to life The Escapist titles from Kavalier and Clay, and more. Telegraph Avenue isn’t a slim volume – it runs to 468 tightly spaced pages. Chabon has said, ‘If you want to write novels, they take a long time, and they’re big, and they have a lot of words in them…’ and how he makes sure he writes for four or five hours a day, every day. Even taking this work ethic into account the volume of work he creates is remarkable.

Telegraph Avenue is set on the border of Oakland and Berkeley in California, in the mid-2000s, and follows the owners of a small, independent record store, the existence of which is threatened by a new development – Dogpile enterprises, a music megastore – a couple of blocks away. Chabon’s characters are immense and have great depth; they have real lives, real flaws, real loves. The love of music and records, for one. Complex families and friends, with unfaithful husbands and newly discovered teenage children. Semi-famous pasts as footballers-cum-blaxpoitation movie-actors, or musicians who made sought after classic albums, but never made it big. The sort of people whose collectible cards are now worth more than they are; the sort of people who still play gigs with their old Hammond organs, heavy and expensive to repair.

Chabon has also said that Kavalier and Clay was the first time he was really satisfied with his attempts to write from multiple points of view. We should be glad that he succeeded, because Telegraph Road takes that success and runs with it. We see the world through Nat and Archy, the record store owners; through their children, Titus and Julie; through their wives, Gwen and Aviva; and even through Mr Cochise’s parrot. And throughout, their collective problem looms large – the soon to be built Dogpile Thang, with its promise not of bland mega-mall music, but of a depth and quality of vinyl that Nat and Archy can only dream of. How could they be against something that is precisely what they stand for, even if it means their own demise?

The narrative is dense, complex, and challenging in places, and after 190 pages I started to wonder just where Chabon was going with it. And, at precisely that moment, he absolutely nails it. Although the book is divided into five sections – shown on the cover, as if they were tracks on a record – what Chabon does between pages 193 and 198 splits the book neatly in two. It is as if everything that happened up to that point couldn’t have led anywhere else, and what Archy says as he arrives at Mr Cochise’s funeral sets the second half on an inevitable course.

Telegraph Avenue doesn’t have the big historical themes of Kavalier and Clay, or DeLillo’s Underworld. It is about Archy and Nat, their family and friends, their community, making their way through life, the occasional fleeting touch of fame barely remembered by anyone. And it is about the music, always the music.

I loved the way Chabon has constructed this novel. The incredible dialogue, the sense of place, the complex relationships, all create a vivid world for the reader. His metaphors may be strained sometimes, but a book that includes a pair of seventies Blaxploitation actors, an elderly kung fu teacher called Mrs Jew who claims to have ‘kicked Bruce Lee’s ass, every day,’ and a Hammond organ playing musician who owns a parrot called Fifty-Eight and once made a record called Redbonin’ is allowed to go over the top from time to time.

All the way through to the acknowledgements – which include, for Mythbusters fans, a special thanks to Adam Savage for advice on ‘dirigible liberation’ – Telegraph Avenue is a hugely entertaining, interesting and moving book. Highly recommended.

 

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.

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

Review of ‘The Invisible Rider’ by Kirsten McDougall

August 18, 2012 2 comments

‘The Invisible Rider’ by Kirsten McDougall

Published by Victoria University Press, 2012

ISBN 9780864737670

RRP $30

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Invisible Rider is an incisive and moving collection of seventeen short episodes from the life of Philip Fetch, a Wellington lawyer, and his family and friends. Each carefully placed chapter dives deep into Philip’s emotional confusion and uncertainty. Illustrated with evocative soft pencil drawings by Gerard Crewsdon, the book has plenty of character and style. It shows us the kind of questions middle aged professionals – men in particular – ask themselves, unexpectedly, as they wonder where their twenties and thirties went, and what happened to their dreams.

Readers who know Wellington will smile – and wince – at the way Kirsten McDougall brings to life familiar places we know and love. In other hands a chapter set in a bookshop with its ‘small handwritten notes,’ and ‘readings were held there, with wine and olives, and small salty crackers,’ might come across as too knowing. We all love the bookshop she’s describing but McDougall goes on to use the setting to reveal much more about Philip and his friend James, heading off perfectly any sense of indulgence.

I turned the pages of this book with great admiration for the way McDougall has observed so much that is true about people like Philip. As I read about him taking his children swimming, or thumping the bonnet of a car that nearly knocked him off his bike, or trying to stay with it at a party of the city’s movers and shakers, I not only identified closely with what was happening, I felt I knew Philip Fetch and that I’d lived parts of his life. Especially the bonnet-thumping.

It maybe that this book won’t connect quite so closely with readers from other places and other demographics, but the themes and characters are universal. Friends, family, love, temptation and loss, they’re all here, and McDougall reminds us with this carefully crafted sequence of stories that we don’t face them alone.

The Invisible Rider is McDougall’s first book, although her poems and stories have been published in journals and she also won the ‘Short’ section of Unity’s ‘The Long and Short of It’ competition in 2011. In a way her winning story, Clean Hands Save Lives (in The Long and The Short of It, Unity Books, May 2011,)does something similar to The Invisible Rider. It shows us a character – in this case a mother – at a stage of life many of us can identify with, dealing with things we know all too well. What parent hasn’t been knocked back the first time they hear their child swear? At that moment you realise not that they’ve grown up, but that they will grow up one day, even the one that took ‘thirty-six hours and a knife to come out.’ There are many equally moving moments of insight into life in The Invisible Rider

A graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, McDougall’s prose is clean and feels effortless, a sure sign that great efforts have been made to make it appear that way. I was particularly impressed by McDougall’s ability to show place without explicitly telling us where we are. One chapter is clearly set in France, although the narrative never says so. McDougall’s writing unobtrusively and seamlessly leaves us in no doubt at all about the setting in each chapter.

At times I thought a firmer editorial hand might have helped. McDougall has a tendency to repeat words or phrases in quick succession. We see ‘out the window’ five times in the first two pages, for example, whereas a tougher editor might have suggested alternatives.

If there are other shortcomings, they are to be found in McDougall’s limited exploration of some of the book’s other characters. We see something of Philip’s wife, his children and his friends, but perhaps more could have been done with them? It’s not as if the book, at 150 pages, is overly long. Could it have accommodated more material? As it stands there is no padding at all, no filler, nothing on the page that is unnecessary, but rather a lot about life in remarkably few words.

I have no hesitation in recommending The Invisible Rider.  With a main character we care about, plenty of emotion and events, and a story arc that reaches a perfect conclusion, all threaded together with the way people face up to the loss of certainty about life in middle age, it tells us many truths that we surely know but have most likely not yet admitted to ourselves.

Review of ‘Stonemouth’ by Iain Banks

July 30, 2012 Leave a comment

‘Stonemouth’ by Iain Banks

Published by Little, Brown 2012

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of ‘Stonemouth’ was provided by Booksellers NZ and is posted on their blog here.

Iain Banks, who also writes science fiction under the name Iain M Banks, has written twenty-five novels in as many years and shows no sign of slowing down. There’s something about authors with such a volume of work to their names that I find unsettling. How difficult would it be to remember all your books in sufficient detail to avoid repetition? Do writers like Banks have their work indexed and searchable so they can double check, for example, that Phelpsie or Wee Malkie, minor characters in Stonemouth, haven’t appeared before?

In truth, you don’t need to be a die-hard Iain Banks fan to know that these characters, or people like them, have appeared before and will undoubtedly appear again. While Stuart Gilmour, the protagonist and narrator, has some depth the rest are largely stereotypes verging on caricatures: the patriarchs of the town’s two crime rings with their loyal but dim sons and beautiful but independent daughters (one of whom Gilmour, of course, falls in love with); the bisexual best friend who is a heavy drinker and drug taker; the son of a wealthy estate owner whom they all befriend to get access to what is effectively a giant playground; the old man who takes Gilmour under his wing in an odd kind of friendship who turns out to be his future girlfriend’s grandfather. And so on.

Gilmour, and his friends and enemies, are the mix of smart/thick, druggy/clean, friendly/violent people you’d expect to meet in a town like Stonemouth which – just like any other provincial, semi-industrial town in slow decline in Britain – has everything from sink estates to hunting estates, but I didn’t see enough of them to feel I was involved in their lives. Even though Gilmour relates the story I never felt sufficiently drawn in to care about, or really believe, his motivations and feelings.

While Banks is a more than competent writer, Stonemouth doesn’t have the breadth or depth of imagination of some of his other work. While he includes his trademark moments of sickening violence set within everyday surroundings, it is in the end a very straightforward story, and one which did not entirely convince me.

Banks also makes a bold effort to write for the digital age, but it doesn’t quite come off. I don’t really believe Gilmour would speculate about whether he’d have time to change his Facebook profile to ‘dead’ while falling into the river Stoun; it seems gratuitous and as if Banks is trying to persuade us he’s up with the times. The digital references go on throughout the book – in fact the plot point on which the whole book turns, revealed late in the narrative, depends on one specific aspect of the digital world – but mostly they don’t feel at all natural. It may be that only a ‘digital native’ – at best, someone born no earlier than 1990 – will be able to truly write about this stuff in an uncontrived way. There is certainly a theory going around that the current upsurge in historical fiction – that is, anything set in the 1970s or before – is a result of mainstream, established authors not being able to include the digital world in their narratives in a convincing way. So they simply resort to setting their stories in a time when such things didn’t exist.

I also had a problem with the voice. Gilmour is a bright, articulate young man who left Stonemouth five years ago for reasons that form the centrepiece of the book, but as a first person narrator he doesn’t quite ring true. Often we get one or two paragraphs of pure description of his surroundings, almost as if Banks is filling up his word count. Are we meant to believe Gilmour has simply stopped what he is doing and is telling us what he can see, because he feels like it? There’s an uncomfortable mix of Scottish colloquialisms and standard English. Gilmour’s narration is straight – most of the time – even though he’s from Stonemouth, and I could live with that, but it was the variation in the written dialogue that caused me problems. I wasn’t convinced that Gilmour, Ellie and others would speak in perfect English, while often the people around them are speaking with strong accents.

Set over five days and told by Gilmour in the present tense, albeit with substantial past tense flashbacks, Stonemouth redeems itself by revealing gradually the events of five years ago, and by building to an admirable if predictable climax. Despite its shortcomings, it is definitely a page turner.

The book doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t trick you, and it probably won’t surprise you; it just lets Gilmour tell you his story. Those more familiar with Scotland will see some subtleties in the commentary – nothing has changed since Gilmour left five years before, despite growing political independence and the promises that went with it – but most readers will simply recognise the social and economic variety and inequity that goes with the slow decline of any provincial town or city in Britain, the United States or indeed any developed country. Couple that with a straightforward tale of love, violence, betrayal and family honour, and you have a familiar and universal story that resonates all the way from Romeo and Juliet to The Sopranos.

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