Monday, 17 December 2012

Books of the Year - 2012

Last year I made a stack of my end of year picks and took a photo to head the post. This year, having moved house and with books scattered all over the place, I'd struggle to know where exactly to locate most of the books I want to bring to your attention and indeed it was a source of considerable anxiety to me that one of them, packed specially due to its unique qualities, went missing for nigh on a month before it was finally relocated and hurriedly placed on a special shelf for safekeeping.

Anyway, 2012 has been a year filled with enjoyable books, some of which have been very special indeed. Keeping up the blog has been a struggle at times but messages of support have turned up often just when I need them and the enthusiasm of others has always been helpful when a shot in the arm has been required. I'll be absolutely honest and say that next year really will see my posts becoming more sporadic but as long as you really want to hear what I have to say then I will try and make the effort when a book really demands it. Twitter remains an exciting place to learn and share about books and when I pretty much lost the ability to update the blog recently it was there that I managed to keep talking and enthusing about what I was reading.

Below you'll find my picks of the year, a varied collection as always, books that I found in a variety of ways. I've summarised why they made the cut below but please click on the titles to read my in-depth reviews and hopefully you'll find something that you hadn't wanted to buy... until now.

Absolution by Patrick Flanery

I read this debut near the beginning of the year but it has stayed in my mind as one of the year's best new novels, heralding the arrival of a nicely matured voice in fiction. Perhaps the most conventionally 'literary' novel on my list it actually has a rather complex structure with four narrative strands and changing viewpoints. Flanery tackles South Africa's fraught politics but also the weight of personal history and the very nature of truth itself. Ambitious and well executed it's a great read now and a very positive indication hopefully of what's yet to come.

Waiting for the Barbarians by J M Coetzee

It's not all about new books and this novel from Coetzee helped to cement him in my mind as a true master. This allegorical novel of violence, oppression and control is written with the kind of universality that makes it feel like a classic; names of people or places are not important, neither is a sense of when or where exactly the novel is set. The unflinching manner of Coetzee's approach makes for an exhilarating and uncomfortable read. A novel that challenges the reader with its views and opinions but leaves you to draw your own conclusions; what more could you ask for?

A Death In The Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Not many books made such an impact on me as this controversial novel and that's why when I was asked to pick just a single book from this year's output by Kim over at Reading Matters, this is the one I plumped for. Knausgaard made a Faustian pact when he decided to write about himself and his own family and the notoriety that has accompanied the publication of his six-volume, fictionalised autobiography is as impressive as the sales figures in his native Norway. Part one looks at drunken adolescence, the death of his father and the alcoholism of his grandmother. The final third is about as a grim a piece of writing as I have ever come across. A book that had me scratching my head about half way through had me itching for more when I finished the final page and with part 2 due next year I can only hope that there are plans to translate and publish the following four books.

Abbot Awaits by Chris Bachelder

Humour. Let's be honest, it's all too often missing from the books of many 'serious' readers apart from the odd flash here and there so when a book comes along that makes you actually laugh and smile with recognition throughout then what a joy that is. Bachelder's take on modern fatherhood is hilarious, beautiful, touching and true. Little vignettes, often of just a page in length cover the final three months of Abbot's wife's second pregnancy. Just the titles of some chapters are enough to elicit a laugh and the real skill is in not allowing the book to suffer any slumps along the way. A perfect gift for any men you may know who are perhaps expecting another arrival anytime soon.

All Quiet on the Western Front 
by Erich Maria Remarque

A genuine classic that will have you mouthing the familiar refrain of those who finally tackle one of those books they always knew they should have read: 'why didn't I read it sooner?' There's not much for me to say here about Remarque's classic war novel other than that it gave me something completely fresh to think about after I'd been performing in War Horse for a couple of years, that it was a distinct pleasure to give copies of it away on World Book Night and that it's exactly the kind of book that was never in any danger when I had a book cull before moving house recently.

Open City by Teju Cole
If I'd got my act together a little sooner then this book would have appeared on last year's book list (along with lots of other people's). It is a frighteningly accomplished novel, bursting with intelligence and written in the kind of fluid prose that makes you want to devour it in a single sitting. A man wanders the streets of New York, meets friends, has a picnic and at one point gets mugged, that's about all you'll get as far as plot goes, but this book is filled with ideas and culture that keep you're brain nourished throughout and there's even a twist of sorts near the novel's end that makes you think all over again about the man with whom you've been wandering.

Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Not dissimilar to the book above, this is another novel with little plot, a diary-like narration and lots of digression but poet Lerner's debut novel has a wicked sense of humour and a fairly repellent hero whom you can't help but be charmed by. An American poet abroad on a fellowship in Madrid smokes spliff, takes pills, experiences culture and generally bullshits his way around his research project. Along the way he questions his validity as poet, man and lover and we enjoy one of the most stimulating debuts since ... well, the book above.

Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway

Championed by bloggers all over the place but none more so than John Self in the pages of The Guardian this is a novel that more than justified the fervour behind it. I had been looking forward to it after my first experience of his writing but I wasn't expecting it to be quite as a good as it was. Ridgway's own irreverence as a writer is either extreme humility or an indication that he, along with most of the reading public, doesn't realise exactly how good he is. The novel is bold and formalistically daring, written with an ease and brilliance that must make other writers want to give up and has a variety and scope that means each reader is sure to identify a different section or sentence as their favourite bit of writing this year. Believe the hype.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

My favourite read from this year's Booker list was a triumph for small publisher And Other Stories and I very nearly included another of their titles, Lightning Rods by Helen De Witt, in this list but decided to mention it here and free up one of these limited berths for another fabulous book (very briefly, Lightning Rods is a whip smart satire that is funny, clever and shocking - read this review for more). Levy's novel is slim but packed full of resonant images, enigmatic characters and telling details. There's a wonderful darkness that clouds proceedings and seldom has there been such an enjoyable sense of being unsettled.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Look, I don't know how many times I have to tell you to read Denis Johnson but will you please just READ DENIS JOHNSON. The fact that the Pulitzer board didn't award a fiction prize this year is bad enough but the fact that they did it when a novel(la) like this landed in their laps in downright scandalous. Johnson's collection of writings is so eclectic and varied that it's difficult to say exactly where this fits in the cannon but as a fan of his I can say that I was surprised by the richness and reward that came from such a slim book, previously published as a story in the Paris Review, thankfully given the proper treatment by Granta who had a storming year with three titles in this best of list.

Building Stories by Chris Ware

What to say about this extraordinary creation? This is the book I mentioned at the very top that went missing in transit and caused me moments of genuine anxiety as I worried that I might not be able to lay my hands on a replacement copy without bankrupting myself even further. Chris Ware opened my eyes to what the graphic novel could be when I read his first book Jimmy Corrigan. I am eternally grateful to him for that because since then I have derived so much pleasure from reading more and more graphic work. For him then to return with a ... I hesitate to call it a book because it is so much more than that ... with such a gift is quite astounding. A book which cements the place of the graphic novel amongst 'serious' literature and shows at the same time how limited its supposed superiors really are, this will no doubt be seen in years to come as a definitive work.

Also worthy of note: Mrs Bridge, Dr Haggard's Disease, Seven Years, Days of the Bagnold Summer and so many more.

Emperor's New Clothes: HHhH and The Yellow Birds.


Wednesday, 21 November 2012

And the winner is....

Finally, after what seemed an eternity in limbo, my broadband service is restored after moving house and I find myself with a moment to make the grand draw in my Murakami giveaway.

Murakami, as anyone who has read him will know, has a thing for cats so I decided to involve my own cat, Willow, in deciding the winner. Each participant's name was printed on a piece of paper and laid face down on the floor. I then let Willow into the room and determined that the piece of paper she first touched her nose to would be the winner.

Willow is a cat of course and therefore wasn't interested in the role I had assigned to her. You can see the haste with which she removed herself from the room.

So we went to plan B. This is George.

He's a very willing helper and with the clear instruction to pick a single piece of paper from all of those in front of him he of course plumped for the one that Fate had placed right by his foot. The lucky winner of a complete set of Murakami's is......

Congratulations Shelley, I have probably already contacted you to let you know but just in case that hasn't come through please email me with your address details and I'll get things moving on your special delivery. Thank you to everyone who entered, sorry that there can only be one winner and I hope to get things moving on the blog once again in the not too distant future...


Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Just so you know....

.... I haven't been kidnapped, I haven't run away with the circus, or with a complete set of Murakami's.

I've just moved, I have no broadband and I should be back with you shortly.

A winner will be announced next week.


Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Amazing Murakami Giveaway

It's my birthday next month but in a neat reversal of tradition I'm going to give you all the chance of an amazing present. Haruki Murakami is an author who tends to inspire fierce loyalty in his fans. Once you've been bitten by the bug there is a wide array of work that bears his unmistakeable stamp. I'm not quite as taken by him as my wife but I've read a few books, although there's only one review here on the blog, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I'm sure I enjoyed more than my review makes it sound. There's no doubt that he's a writer to be taken seriously, so much so that Ladbrokes had him as the favourite for the Nobel Prize in Literature this year.

Vintage are re-issuing his books with new designs by Noma Bar (for a closer look at each of the designs you can follow this link for poster versions or this article) and I have not one to give away but a complete set, YES, all fifteen books above to one lucky winner.

Can we all just take a moment to appreciate what an amazing prize that is...


...bit longer...



So, what do you have to do to win this gorgeous set of books? What fiendish question will I set to sort the fans from the freeloaders?

Don't worry about any of that, this is all about giving so let's make it as simple as possible. Leave a comment below or send me an email by clicking the 'email me' button and you'll go into the hat. A draw will be made in a couple of weeks time, probably by my cat, and one of you is going to be very, very happy.

Good Luck.


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Nao of Brown - Glyn Dillon


Self Made Hero is an independent publisher of graphic work that has been quietly getting on with things for 5 years now. Making a name for themselves first with graphic versions of classic novels and manga Shakespeare they have widened their net to include crime, sci-fi, biography and more. I'm really interested in the project they began last year however: Original Fiction. I've already reviewed David B's Black Paths and the unsettling Sandcastle from Pierre Oscar-Levy and Frederik Peters (another piece from Peters, Pachyderme, is published this month too) and now comes another to trump them both; a stonkingly good book that deserves its 'original' tag.

Nao Brown is the heroine of novel. That's her on the left. That unusual name comes from her being a 'hafu', half-Japanese, half-English but also seems important when we learn a bit more about her; living in the now, the present moment, is going to become an important notion as we read her story. Nao suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) although her variant is purely obsessional, not the hand-washing and door checking that we might be familiar with but morbid fantasies about sudden violence towards those she interacts with which require a locked cutlery drawer at home and several meditation techniques to try and control those urges.

This is where Dillon makes great use of the graphic format. As our eyes follow the panels, Nao's sudden obsessional thoughts take us by surprise as much as her. They may flood the picture with a red wash or simply appear as a calm extension of her surroundings as in the panel below where a simple airplane flight is fraught with danger with her having been sat right next to the emergency exit.

Nao works in a specialist, boutique toy-shop with her close friend Steve and it is while she is working there one day that she meets Gregory, a washing-machine repair man who will become her latest obsession. This is in part because of his resemblance to a character in her favourite comic series, Ichi by Gil Ichiyama. Both Ichiyama and his comic series are another invention of Dillon's and function as a comic within a comic, allowing him to showcase an entirely different graphic style to the watercolour that dominates the main story (There is even a specially created Ichi website). The contrast in styles is marked and shows Dillon's love for Japanese comic art. You can read more about his two artistic approaches and indeed see how he builds up his artwork in another fantastic 'Director's commentary' on the Forbidden Planet site.

Anyway, Nao's story is firstly one of the ways in which she deals daily with her disease; the constant marks she gives herself out of ten to rank her mental state (with 10 out of 10 being the worst end of the spectrum) and the repeated mantra, 'Mum thinks I’m good' there to remind her that she is not the person who actually breaks the taxi-driver's neck or pushes someone in front of a train. It is also one of her search for love, failing to see where it has always been and struggling to recognise the obstacles that stand in the path she tries to follow. Nao is a character that the reader cannot help but have huge sympathy for mainly because Dillon draws her with such a brilliant knack for character through expression that I found myself completely charmed by her raised eyebrow, her winning smile, her innocent eyes and her desperate need to find some control. In fact Dillon's skill at capturing expression and gesture is worthy of significant praise, as is his beautiful watercolour work. A brilliant quote on the back of the book comes from Jamie Hewlett (creator of Tank Girl and Gorillaz) who says 'The artwork makes me jealous, the storytelling makes me even more jealous and the watercolour painting just pisses me off!' Admiration from one's peers is always welcome, their envy must mean you're really doing something right.

It's also worth pointing out that Self Made Hero have done an amazing job in the production of this book. Beneath the dust-jacket one finds not only a wonderful design embossed onto the white boards beneath but a large map that covers the inside of the dust-jacket when folded out. The paper inside is a wonderful high-quality matt that perfectly suits the watercolour artwork and the pages have even been stained red at their edges to continue the red, black and white colour scheme. All in all, a publication to be applauded, but more importantly than that: read and enjoyed.


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Lighthouse - Alison Moore

'he remembers'

Futh stands on the ferry deck, holding on to the cold railings with his soft hands.
So begins Alison Moore's Booker shortlisted novel, a triumph for small independent press Salt who I mentioned some time ago when they were running a campaign to help keep the press alive and who will hopefully see a welcome boost to their fortunes after the light that has been shone (groan) on their endeavours by this success. Futh is a middle-aged man, recently separated from his wife, on his way towards a walking holiday in the Rhineland which he hopes will be restorative. On the very first page however he is submerged in memories, in particular those of his last ferry trip at the age of twelve with his father, about a year after both of them had been left by Futh's mother. So this trip has obvious echoes of the last one and this is just the first of many echoes which bounce around the limited space of this short novel making for a read that many have completely fallen for but which I found just a little too heavily symbolic and neat to fully enjoy.

There are two strands to the story; the first following Futh on his trip around Germany as well as the memories of his childhood and marriage, the second concerns Esther who, along with husband Bernard, runs the bed and breakfast which marks the first and last stop on Futh's circular journey. This hotel is called Hellhaus, or Lighthouse. Esther's story is more easily summarised. Her marriage to Bernard is unhappy and violent, her casual sexual encounters with hotel guests the way in which she can provoke a reaction from her recalcitrant husband who may only have wooed and married her as part of his sibling rivalry. The sections of the novel devoted to the two of them have a repetitive, dream-like feel which is good for slowly building tension and unease but certainly makes them feel like the weaker sections of the book, especially when that repetition feels just like repetition. The elements of Esther's story that echo with Futh's can sometimes feel a little forced but I had better explain a bit more about him before I go into that.

As I said above, Futh is immediately assailed by memories when he begins his trip. He may be on the run from his own crumbled marriage but this trip is as much about the fallout from his parents breakup as his own. This comes in the form of two main memories, the first the trip he made with his father to Germany, the second a family holiday in Cornwall that proved to be the decisive moment in his parent's split. The trip with his father was tinged with sadness, Futh desperate for his father to talk about the woman who had deserted them both, only for her memory to be tarnished by doing so, whilst Futh's father goes on nightly conquests to extinguish her completely. Father and son shared a hotel room and Futh remembers the nights when he was supposed to be asleep and his father brought back woman after woman, taking each into the bathroom, a narrow gap in the door allowing Futh to watch them both in the mirror, a memory so present that Futh finds himself now an adult in another hotel bathroom after a bad night's sleep 'not wanting to touch the sink area, 'not wanting to look in the mirror.' This is one example of the way in which Moore writes brilliantly about the way in which memory can affect and infect the present moment.

Carried on this trip (and indeed on the one he made when just 12) is a silver perfume bottle in the shape of a lighthouse 'About ten centimetres tall and three or four in diameter...It has a four-sided tower and a lantern room with tiny storm panes and a domed top. In relief on one side it says 'DRALLE.'' This belonged to Futh's mother and in another example of Moore's connected moments it forms a crucial link to that holiday in Cornwall. Futh remembers a picnic 'on a cliff in blazing sunshine, looking at a lighthouse and listening to his father going on about the old beacon...' This is the moment that Futh's mother makes clear her disenchantment with her marriage and how boring she finds her husband. As Futh's father silently packs their things away Futh, who had been holding his mother's perfume notices something.

...then he looked down at his hand and saw the glass vial broken in his palm, the fleshy pad beneath his thumb cut open. The volatile contents of the lighthouse soaked into his wound, stinging, and ran between his fingers, soaking his boots, and the scent of it rose from him like millions of tiny balloons escaping towards the sky.
For a long time afterwards, he would lift the palm of his hand to his nose, searching for that scent of violets.

Scent and perfume is a major theme, Futh works as a manufacturer of artificial scents and Esther has a fascination with perfume that leads her to rifle through her guest's belongings to occasionally steal some. The scent of violets is mentioned repeatedly, as is that of the camphor that Bernard rubs on himself daily. These on their own would begin to grate after a while but Moore is determined to link and echo things even more and so has Esther own the very same perfume that Futh's mother had. The difference for Esther is that she had asked her new husband to make a gift of it to her, having seen it advertised as 'the most costly perfume sold in America', only to be disappointed by him buying the less expensive wooden case 'cylindrical rather than squared beneath the domed top, and less detailed than the silver one.' There is a very fine line between the point at which symbols, metaphors, themes and motifs add to the impact of a novel and the point at which they start to weigh it down. It may well be a matter of personal taste but personally I found it all too heavy before I was even half way through. Salt are a huge publisher of poetry, a medium I still have yet to get a handle on, and in many ways I found the prose of this novel too heavily laden with the kind of techniques I might expect to find in poetry or even a short story. One moment of suspended danger for example sees Esther walk through the kitchen 'where the chef is pounding cheap cuts of beef, tenderising steaks for dinner, pulping apples, and smashing black walnuts with a rolling pin, beating them beneath a tea towel to keep the shells from flying, to prevent the juice from staining the work surface.' This rather over-worked sentence (could she really see this one man do all of those things whilst passing through the kitchen?) stands in for the violence that is occurring in another room of the hotel, the kind of shot that would feel a little crass if you saw it in a student film (we may get to see if I'm wrong as I believe film rights for The Lighthouse are being contested as we speak).

There are other moments however where echoes and connections really worked for me. The fact that Futh's wife shared the same name with his mother, Angela, feels not so much like literary coincidence but the perfect way to say something about Futh's character, as well as allowing his wife to often issue the killer line in their marriage, 'I'm not your mother.' Futh is a troubling character though with his doormat tendencies. It is a stretch at times to credit his inability to recognise what is happening to his marriage but perhaps that is simply because he was never able to fully achieve what his father had toasted upon his engagement 'l'enterrement de vie de garçon'. 'The burial of a boys life.'

On reflection then this is a novel that intrigued at the outset and has plenty going for it but which slowly  wore me down with its claustrophobic imagery and connections. It's worth reminding ourselves I think that this is Moore's debut novel. It's great to see it on the list, great for a publisher like Salt to get some deserved attention, and it'll be great to see what Moore produces in the future, but this isn't the winner for me. We'll find out if I'm right or not next Tuesday.

(Watch it win now)


Thursday, 4 October 2012

Building Stories - Chris Ware

'in pictures revealed'

The space above the first line of my reviews is for the cover image of whatever book it happens to be. A review of a graphic novel will often be accompanied by a few other pictures of the work itself to give you an idea of the artwork and design. Both of those features seem somewhat inadequate when writing a post on Chris Ware's latest, an opus that he has been working on for years. Building Stories is a collation of strips previously published in the Nest Magazine, The New Yorker, Kramer's Ergot, and the Sunday New York Times Magazine. These diverse strips may have been finally brought together but this is a graphic novel with no clear beginning or end. Published as 14 separate books, booklets, newspapers and something that resembles a game board this is a cornucopia for Ware enthusiasts. It is a vast and beautifully produced collection of work, boxed with great attention to detail. This is just what you might expect if you have read Ware before or if McSweeney's has ever popped through your letterbox. In fact this book reminded me very much of a combination of McSweeney's issue 13 (a collection of comic strips curated by Ware) and 17 ("Made To Look Like It Came In Your Mailbox") and it's important from the off not to let the presentation of this work blind us to whether it is actually any good or not. This kind of thing has been done before and we should ask whether the box of goodies adds anything to the reading experience, becomes an inherent part of it, or whether it possibly detracts from its impact.

I'm being a bit unfair there. Not to Ware, but to you because I'm making it sound like I might start criticising this amazing work when in fact I love it. I loved it when it arrived via courier and I removed it from the world's largest jiffy bag. I actually hugged it to my chest once I had it in my hands. I then spent several weeks working my way through it at a leisurely pace, rationing myself to make sure that I didn't rush through it and find myself bereft too soon. I won't say it was a joy to read, anyone who has read any Ware before will now that joy isn't an emotion that appears to easily, but it was a pleasure and a privilege to be able to read it before anyone else's opinion appeared, savouring each section and allowing the work to come together in my own mind in the way I had happened to assemble it through the choices I made in which booklet to read next. This is the most remarkable thing about it. It has no set beginning or end and it is up to the reader to decide which order they read things in. If it is true that we impose a narrative on our own lives then the really revolutionary thing about this graphic work is that we the reader impose the structure of the narrative onto the lives of its three main characters. How we read about them and the order in which we do so cannot help but alter the way in which we experience their stories and so each reader is going to experience the book in a different way, something that would be true of any book of course but even more so with this one that doesn't determine the way in which the reader might read it. But the fact that there is no set order doesn't mean that there isn't an order. Reading against the strict chronology can throw up some interesting conflicts. It would for example be interesting enough to read about a woman who desperately wants a child and who finally achieves it but it's even more interesting to read about a woman struggling with the realities of motherhood and then to see how much she desired it in the past.

Building Stories focuses on a three-storey building in Chicago. It has three main tenants beginning with the old lady who owns it on the ground floor, a couple breaking apart on the first floor and woman who longs to be a mother on the top floor. Ware doesn't stop there, he also gives us two comics dedicated to 'Branford, the Best Bee in the World', a worker bee who tries to be a good husband even whilst he fantasises desperately about having it off with the queen. He also allows the building itself to become a character, not in the usual literary sense that reviewers are fond of noting to show how well written a location or locale might be but in a very real sense; the building is given a voice, it narrates the odd panel, intrigued by its inhabitants having seen so many come and go.

I don't really want to say to much about the trajectories of the main characters but for those unfamiliar with Ware's work it might be worth mentioning some of his preoccupations. The spinster on the ground floor spends much of her time thinking about the past of course, providing a link with the building's own beginnings and a different era in Chicago. She isn't the only though. The woman on the first floor who has such an abusive relationship with her boyfriend naturally thinks back to when they were happier and she felt more attractive. Even the woman on the top floor, who eventually comes to dominate the piece as the main protagonist, who seems to be so forward thinking with her wishes for the future cannot help but look back on her past relationships and family life even at the very moment that she begins to achieve some of what she has always longed for. She will eventually move out to the suburbs with her partner and daughter but this only brings a new set of anxieties and troubles

This is not a book to be reading if you're at a low ebb. Let us be very clear about that. Ware's world view makes for pretty depressing reading. A friend of mine picked up a small booklet when I first unwrapped the bundle at work and started to read it. It is a narrow letterbox of a booklet that details in small panel after small panel nothing less than the spiritual vexation of motherhood. It is a tough thing read even though it contains very little to actually 'read', leaving you exhausted and heavy by the end and like you need a lie down. My friend handed it back almost shaking her head, very unsure of what it was she had just experienced (she is a mother herself) but certain I think that she wouldn't be rushing back for more. It isn't just the format of this book that requires time of the reader but the content of it too. It isn't the kind of book that you're going to want to rush through, it takes time to absorb the detail of each page, the aesthetic of each section, the assimilation of the whole and even after you've finished the work in its  it's going to take some time to process. Once you've done that though I think you're actually going to want to read it again. How does he do that?!

I said at the beginning that we should be careful not to just say 'Ooh, pretty' and proclaim this as a work of genius before looking a little deeper at the content. If you will accept from me that there is plenty of content to be getting stuck into then we can now go back and praise this book for how damn good-looking it is too. Yes, it has been beautifully produced; yes, you are going to want to handle all of it an awful lot; yes, you are going to spend every minute required to read the painfully small text on some pages and follow some of the equally small panels on their waltz around the page. The construction of some pages, the eye for detail and symmetry, the architecture of the comic itself is breathtaking at times. There are several large double-page spreads which will take a good reading session to take in and at the end of it I found myself actually sighing with contentment, even at the same time as I might be wincing with regret and pain at what I had just read. The sheer number of hours that must have gone into making this book are perfectly reflected in the hours of enjoyment that you will receive in reading it. That is a rare occurrence in the graphic medium, where all too often the long stretch of an artist's endeavours can be flicked through in a matter of minutes so that even if we really enjoy them it is hard to really savour them.

I also questioned in my review of The Tale of Brin and Bent and Minno Marylebone where we might find the graphic work that utilised modern technology in its production. Ware's work isn't using any boundary breaking technology in its execution but it does engage with the modern world and its use of technology. Mobile phones, text messages, laptops, e-readers and tablets all make an appearance but so too does the loneliness and isolation that accompanies them. He shows the absurdity of couple sat opposite each other, each focused on their own screen, their faces illuminated by the glow that emanates from them. He shows the impossibility of reading tone in text communication and the huge frustration that often lies disguised behind it. There is a heartbreaking section in which our heroine stands naked before her partner, the awkwardness of her nakedness and the fact that this is something of a pre-arranged assignation based on the daily timetable of a pair of parents with a short gap in their responsibilities made even more acute by the fact that her partner (himself lying naked on the bed with his penis lying flaccidly on his thigh) is so wrapped up in the cool glow of his iPad that he hasn't noticed her standing there at all.

If you've read Ware before then this is probably on your Christmas list already but if it isn't or if you're reading this with an interest in his work or in graphic novels in general then do yourself a favour and get it on there. You can buy it from today for less than twenty pounds. That is bonkers, frankly. It's a beautifully made thing that would be worth the money even if the content wasn't as good as it is, but the fact that Ware shows once again that he's an innovator of the form, able to direct the eye around the page quite unlike anyone else, and that he puts so much of the decision making power into the reader's hands is probably the biggest gift of all. Treat yourself, or someone else. It even comes ready-boxed.


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Swimming Home - Deborah Levy

'all my etc'

To have been so intimate with Kitty Flinch had been a pressure, a pain, a shock, an experiment, but most of all it had been a mistake. He asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter.
'Yes,' she said. 'Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we'll all get home safely.'

I really meant to read this some time ago. When I saw details of a novel with an intro from Tom McCarthy my ears pricked up. Then came a glowing review from Mr Self in the Guardian. I'm ashamed to say that it wasn't until its Booker long-listing that I finally took the plunge and how frustrating not to have read and enjoyed it sooner. What would have been even cooler than reading it nice and early, before the other plaudits arrived, would have been to be amongst the names printed within the cover as supporters who brought the novel to publication. Publisher And Other Stories uses a subscription model you see, helping to show that there is a market and support for a title before it goes into print, and each of those subscribers will see their name printed at the back of the titles they have helped bring into being. That must pretty good, even more so now that the book has been short-listed too.

Anyway, before I begin to sound like a pitch for subscribers (click here for details!) let's look at the book itself. I'm thrilled to see it on the Booker list, not just as a triumph for small independent publishers but also to show that dark and challenging fiction has a place in the running for a prize that lost some of its lustre last year with the sniping about readability. In fact with a shortlist like this year's one wonders if there will still be so much clamour for the new Literature Prize. Swimming Home is the perfect rebuttal because its set up could so easily herald the kind of middle-class fare that encourages so much sniping at literature prizes and 'literary' fiction in general. Two families holiday at a villa in the hills above Nice. Joe and Isabel Jacobs are there with their 14 year-old daughter Nina. Joe is a poet, Isabel a war reporter. Their friends Mitchell and Laura run a failing shop in Euston that sells primitive weapons and African jewellery. It all sounds cosy enough but we are unseated immediately as the Jacobs come out to the pool ('more like a pond') and think they see something floating in the deep end, Joe wondering if it's a bear. This is Kitty Finch who is actually swimming naked underwater, an interloper in their midst who claims to be there due to a mix up with dates and who insinuates herself into the family's holiday. I was reminded of Ali Smith's The Accidental in which Amber was the uninvited guest on another middle-class holiday. The two books don't have much in common beyond that, but that sense of unease and the way in which a stranger can have a devastating impact on a family unit was all too familiar.

Kitty is an extraordinary creation and I found it fascinating the way a female novelist approached this provocateur in comparison to how I fear a male novelist would handle things. Yes, standing next to her 'was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gases seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating' and yes, she spends large parts of the book it would seem with very little clothes on (this same technique is often on display in British theatre where productions of new plays force some poor kid out of drama school to parade around with it all out on show because that's the only way to demonstrate youthful sexual allure, or temptation, or something or other) but whilst we might expect her allure to come from being some perfect, pert ingenue she is only ever 'almost pretty, with her narrow waist and long hair glowing in the dark, but ragged too, not far off someone begging outside a train station holding up a homeless and hungry sign.'

She had a north London accent. Her front teeth were crooked. When she wasn't stammering and blushing she looked like she'd been sculpted from wax in a dark workshop in Venice. If she was a botanist she obviously did not spend much time outside. Whoever had made her was clever. She could swim and cry and blush and say things like 'hogged it.'

These and other descriptions of her are so effective in their detail and the way in which they demonstrate how difficult the Jacobs and the other residents find dealing with her. She always seems dangerous in some way and yet we can never quite work out why. This is perhaps due to the opening page (part of which I quoted at the top of this post), a scene on a mountain road with Kitty and Joe in a car together, a scene that returns later in the book, sightly altered, taking on the feel of a dream. The reader always senses that proceedings could well career off the road and down the side of the mountain.

Joe and Isabel's marriage is in trouble and Kitty could well be the catalyst to blow things apart. Is this why Isabel insists that she stay rather than leave at the beginning of the novel? She couldn't possibly know that Kitty is in fact there because she is a huge fan of Joe's poetry and that she has brought a poem of her own, whose title is what lends this novel its own, for him to read. This writing link is so strong that Joe is convinced he can hear lines of his own poetry in what Kitty says to him. Kitty and Joe are also linked by their respective depressions, Joe having written famously about his treatment and Kitty having just come off her own medication, Seroxat. Joe puts off reading her poem for as long as he can but finally relents (we will read only snatches of it, with its repeated use of 'etc') and his reaction comes close to describing the effect of reading the novel.

To accept her language was to accept that she held him, her reader, in great esteem. He was being asked to make something of it and what he made of it was that every etc concealed some thing that could not be said.

There is so much hidden under the surface of the writing, just as Kitty herself was disguised under the surface of the pool when they arrived, things are alluded to, imagery and symbols are potent and interesting and each of the characters is expertly suggested by pitch-perfect detail. For the young daughter Nina this is a revolutionary moment. Fully aware of the fragile nature of her parent's marriage she is also undergoing her own transformation from child to adult and it is Kitty who assumes the role of mentor whilst the parents are distracted when Nina has her first period. In a wonderfully written scene Kitty grabs her hand and runs with her outside to the pool.

Nina could see her own shadow in the pool and in the sky at the same time. She was tall and long, there was no end to her and no beginning, her body stretched out and vast. She wanted to swim and when Kitty insisted it didn't matter about the blood, she dared herself to take off the bikini and be naked, watching her twin shadow untie the straps more bravely than the real-sized Nina actually felt. She finally jumped into the pool and hid herself in the blanket of leaves that floated in the water, not sure what to do with her new body because it was morphing into something alien and perplexing to her.

The pool is one of the most obvious symbols in the novel but what of its title and that wish as stated by Kitty to get home safely? This is where the novel feels really subversive, taking the middle-class holiday and jeopardising the ability to even escape from it unscathed. Joe, as we have learned early on, has an anglicised name, having fled occupied Poland at the age of five thus committing himself not only to 'leave no trace or trail of his existence' but also of course never to return home.

That was what his father had told him. You cannot come home. This was not something possible to know but he had to know it all the same.

A man who can never really return home, a wife hardened by reporting from fields of conflict, a daughter on the cusp of womanhood and a stranger with mixed motives. This is about as far from the comforting holiday read we might have expected before opening the cover and that is what makes the book so thrilling to read. Dark, dangerous and unknowable, this novel, like the pool at its centre with its covering of fallen leaves has hidden depths and dangers that might just make it the dark horse on this year's Booker list. I certainly hope so because it is easily my favourite of the shortlisted titles I've read.


Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A shifting perspective

No review this week but I thought I could point you towards a little project I have initiated. Two years ago I reviewed an out of print book called The New Perspective by K Arnold Price. The book had been chosen by Colm Toibin for a Guardian article called How did we miss these? in which 50 writers chose 'brilliant but underrated novels that deserve a second chance to shine.'

Price's debut novel was published when she was 84 and she only published one more after that. I thought the New Perspective was fantastic, but with copies so scarce and expensive I decided to lend it to anyone interested in giving it a go. What has begun is what I hope will be a kind of international library/book club with some of the network of bloggers and readers that I have connected with over the last 5 years sharing their thoughts on this short novel. First up was Trevor Berrett of The Mookse and the Gripes over in the US. You can find his review here (positive I am glad to say) and I'll let you know as soon as the next one goes up. All I can reveal is that the book has travelled north a little to Canada.

Max at Pechorin's Journal got a copy of the book himself and reviewed it here. He has also passed his copy on so there may be even more reviews to come...


Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Sea of Ink - Richard Weihe

'water rendered visible'

This is the third and final novella in Peirene's Small Epic series and they don't come much smaller or epic than this one. 107 pages including 11 illustrations make up 51 short chapters. Contained within those small numbers is the life of a man, the end of the Ming dynasty in China and a meditation on artistic inspiration that applies not just to the visual arts, maybe not just to the arts at all, but applies to everyone when examining what comes before action of any kind. That aspect of the book, and the fact that it is based on the real life of Chinese painter, poet and calligrapher Bada Shanren, mean that you might question how well it succeeds as a piece of fiction in the traditional sense (Weihe's Afterword and Notes on Sources show actually how well he has incorporated his research) but there is no doubt that it provides a calm and meditative read that will reward you with an enormous sense of relaxation if you can absorb it in a single sitting.

The year 1644 saw the end of the Ming dynasty which had ruled China for 276 years. The ruling family had spread far and wide but were slowly and systematically wiped out by the rising Manchu's. Those that had once wielded power were faced with the choice under the new Manchurian dynasty to collaborate or die. We follow the life of the man who was born Zhu Da in 1626, in the eleventh generation of the Yiyang branch of the Ning line of the royal family (Ning being the 17th son of Ming dynasty's founder). A sheltered childhood in the palace allowed him to develop his early prodigious gifts in poetry and art under the tutelage of his father. But with the end of the Ming dynasty and his father's death, Zhu Da is rendered mute, communicating only with his brush, before finally fleeing to the mountains, and the sanctuary of a monastery, leaving behind a wife and child, perhaps guided by wise saying, 'If you are guided by human feelings you will easily lose your way... but if you are guided by nature you will rarely go wrong.'

The opening of this novella is a little like the paragraph above, a potted history and a lot of 'plot' and I might seem to be spoiling things by giving so much away but the plot isn't really the thing. Zhu Da leaves his life as a prince behind, any returning images 'not memories, rather the dream of a life never lived.' Within the monastery he undergoes the first of his transformations, changing his name to Chuanqui, and beginning his next period of tutelage under the instruction of the Abbott Hongmin. The meat of the book is really in what it has to say about creativity, inspiration, art, expression and the position of the person who holds the brush. The Abbott has plenty of wise advice to pass on to his charge and his training is repetitive, physical and demanding. We might not think of a single, fluid swipe of the brush as a physical exertion but we get a real sense of the pain that comes from repeatedly practising movements and getting to the point where he can remove the conscious movement and allow the hand and brush to paint what is there. As his master explains at one point: "Ink is water rendered visible, nothing more. The brush divides what is fluid from everything superfluous."

The plot will catch up Chuanqui (who in turn changes his name to Xuege, then Geshan, Renwu, Lu, Poyun and finally Bada Shanren) who will have to feign madness in order to escape being assimilated into the new order when his identity is uncovered. The adoption of the face of madness, the near-constant name changing and the desire to disappear into the act of painting all throw up interesting thoughts about the position of the artist, particularly in a modern age when the cult of the artist as celebrity or brand is so strong. Bada Shanren has an interest in remaining undetected of course and actively avoids being identified (although he applies his stamp to each of his pictures) but he is constantly striving to locate who he is as an artist for himself. Again, his master will have something to say on the path of the individual artist looking at how to express themselves directly.

'...besides the old role models you also have your own: yourself. You cannot hang on to the beards of the ancients. You must try to be your own life and not the death of another. For this reason the best painting method is the method of no method. Even if the brush, the ink, the drawing are all wrong, what constitutes your "I" still survives. You must not let the brush control you; you must control the brush yourself.'
As I said at the top there are 11 illustrations of Bada Shanren's work throughout the book and one of Weihe's strengths is the way in which he technically describes the act of painting some of them. This might sound counter-intuitive but in the same way that Jean Echenoz used plain description to realise the works of Ravel into the reader's mind, Weihe describes the technique behind the paintings of Bada Shanren, something particularly important in a painting style which is all about technique and what can be achieved by single strokes, changes in pressure and the use of the right ink.

In the centre of the paper he painted a fish from the side, with a shimmering violet back and a silver belly, the tail fins almost semicircular like the bristles of a dry paintbrush. The fish's moth was half open, as if it were about to say something. It's left eye peered up to the edge of the paper with an expression combining fear, suspicion, detachment and scorn.
The eye was a small black dot stuck tot he upper arc of the oval surrounding it.
The fish swam from right to left across the paper.
Bada painted this one fish and no other, then out his name to the paper.
He had perished long ago, but he was still alive. All he feared now was the drought, when the ink no longer flowed and life had been worn down to nothing.
That is how he saw himself.

This novella is perfect reading for any visual artist (I have already passed my copy on to just such a person) but I would argue that its lessons and the thoughts it provoke would apply to anyone working in just about any field of the arts, where inspiration and creativity are as capricious and slippery as a live fish in the hand. In a modern world where everything seems to run at a hectic pace and demand is such that we might simply churn things out rather than take our time there is a lot to be said for giving this book the time it requires to read from cover to cover. That in turn might help us to appreciate the time we should take before making the first stroke, for...

....Is the whole drawing not contained in the first stroke? It must be considered long in advance, perhaps a whole life long, in order to bring it to the paper in one fluid movement at the right moment, without the need or ability to correct it.


Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Train Dreams - Denis Johnson

'gone forever'

The book that failed to bag the Pulitzer Prize in the year that the board decided that none of its shortlist deserved the accolade (or couldn't agree on which one did) actually began life as a story in the Paris Review back in 2002. As an avid devourer of Johnson's writing I had been frustrated for many years by seeing the title appear on a certain web-based book supplier but only in German, I believe. How long would it be before this novella finally got published in English again for those of us who'd missed out originally? A whole decade later it is finally in print thanks to Granta who are having a barnstorming year quite frankly. I was a little cautious too however. Johnson's last published work was Nobody Move, a novel which had previously been serialised in Playboy magazine, and whilst I found much to enjoy it felt like a bit of filler after his opus Tree of Smoke. So I was a little worried when Train Dreams finally saw the light of day. Was this going to be another bit of (previously published) filler before the next major work? Let me answer my own question with an emphatic no! Train Dreams is far from being filler. It may only be just over 100 pages, a novella, but it contains a man's life, a lost era and a richness and satisfaction that shouldn't be possible in such a short book. It might even be his best, but his readers are sure to disagree about that. It is certainly worthy of proper publication and in my limited experience of the Pulitzer shortlist (I gave up on The Pale King after reading more pages than in the whole of Train Dreams and Swamplandia! didn't appeal) should probably have picked up that prize.

Train Dreams begins in 1917 with its hero, Robert Granier, part of a group of railway workers that attempt to murder a Chinese labourer. The men have all been working together for Spokane International in Idaho on the construction of a bridge and it is from this half-completed structure that they attempt to throw the accused thief. He manages to escape after spitting curses at his tormentors and Granier in fact believes the man may literally have cursed his life, something we will watch unfold over the following 116 pages. This is an America still being tamed and settled and Granier's work on the railways and in the woods felling trees puts him at the very edge, where the wildness of nature combines with the civilising effect of human settlement. This meeting point is the crux of the novel. Not only do humans behave savagely but nature strikes back with her own forms of destruction, Granier's dog isn't nearly domesticated enough, running with wolves. Even his young child appears unsafe in the low light of his cabin.

In the dark he felt his daughter's eyes turn on him like a cornered brute's. It was only his thoughts tricking him but it poured something cold down his spine. He shuddered and pulled the quilt up to his neck.
All of his life Robert Granier was able to recall this very moment on this very night.

Granier works as a choker, looping cable around the wood that has already been felled by sawyers, cleaned up by limbers and cut by buckers, ready to be hauled out from the woods by horses.

Granier relished the work, the straining, the heady exhaustion, the deep rest at the end of the day. He liked the grand size of things in the woods, the feeling of being lost and far away, and the sense he had that with so many trees as wardens, no danger could find him.

That sense is illusory though for, as one of his aged colleagues is keen to warn, 'the trees themselves were killers'. The meeting of man and nature is important again because 'It was only when you left it alone that a tree might treat you as a friend. After the blade bit in, you had yourself a war.' We might expect this to presage an accident whilst he works but the forest attacks Granier in another way entirely when a fire sweeps through the valley where his wife and daughter live and he returns home to find no trace of them at all. So begins the solitary phase of his life (apart from that dog for company), one that he will share with the reader, one in which he will continue to live at the boundaries of the tamed world for "God needs the hermit in the woods as much as He needs the man in the pulpit."

Johnson has often written about those on the margins of society but in Granier he has a man even more isolated than most. Grieving for his losses for the rest of his life he is afraid of his dreams, of his wandering mind and the fleeting contact he has with others is just enough to keep him within the realms of what we might consider a normal life. A little like his dog we feel that left alone for long enough he might cross over to that wild side becoming even more connected to the landscape around him rather than the railway he helped to build right through it. Johnson's prose is perfectly pitched so that the dream-like or visionary image can break through the surface of civility, and in its exploration of themes as varied as racial integration, violence and isolation he also manages to make us question how sure a hold we have on what makes us human.

This is the kind of book that makes the reader marvel at how much the author has managed to cram in but which never feels crowded or overworked. I have barely mentioned any of the incident and not even hinted at the quite extraordinary way in which the story develops and concludes. It is a gem of a novella, not neat at all but rugged and dangerous, written with the kind of skill that manages to hide all the machinery away so that the reader doesn't even realise how it is all done; and whilst it is obviously a treat for those like me who already know what an amazing writer Johnson is it will be an even bigger treat for those who have yet to discover him. You lucky bastards.


Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Yellow Birds - Kevin Powers

'the curve of the bell'

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head...

Traditional U.S Army Marching Cadence

Some people are swayed by the blurbs that come attached to the dust-jacket of new novels and some aren't, but whichever camp you fall in you can't help but be impressed by the sheer calibre of the names adorning Kevin Powers debut novel, not to mention their fervour. You'll see Chris Cleave, Ann Patchett and Colm Toibin in the cover shot above but you can also add Alice Sebold, Anthony Swofford and Tom Wolfe to that roll call with Wolfe calling it "the All Quiet on the Western Front for America's Arab wars." That's some pretty impressive blurbage but as is always the case, it doesn't really mean anything when you sit down to read a book yourself. The very first thing I will say in its favour is that despite the text in my advance proof being virtually microscopic I persevered way beyond my usual threshold for tiny type (with the final dramatic irony being that a finished copy arrived the very day after I finished it). Powers is a poet and an Iraq war veteran and his debut novel about that conflict and its impact showcases both of those traits, containing both the veracity you'd hope for from a real soldier and some amazing and quite beautiful writing from the poet.

The novel is narrated by Pvt John Bartle who makes a close link with another private, Daniel Murphy, when the two of them are training at Fort Dix. Bartle is 21 ("as full of time as my body would allow. But looking back from where I am, almost thirty, old enough, I can see myself for what I was. Barely a man. Not a man. Life was in me, but it splashed as if at the bottom of a nearly empty bowl."), Murph is just 18 and considerably greener, leading Bartle to make a promise he can never keep to Murph's mother, 'I promise I'll bring him home to you.' This is the pact that frames the novel.

The two men are deployed to Al Tafar in the Ninevah Province of Iraq. Daily life alternates between periods of torpor and dangerous patrols, with the threat of mortars, RPG's and IED's never far away. With US fatalities running at about 970 both Bartle and Murph obsess about not becoming the Army's thousandth casualty, their photo sure to be used in making them exactly the wrong kind of poster boy for America's conflicts abroad. In a telling fillip on the received wisdom about military unity Bartle expresses one of the psychological tools necessary for survival.

...I'd been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not. You're nothing, that's the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust. And we somehow thought those numbers were a sign of our own insignificance.

Powers is strong as you might expect on the psychological impact of war, death and danger. We suspect early on that it will be Bartle's duty to remain strong when Murph falters but the truth is that both of them, and most of the men around them, cannot help but be traumatised by the bloody, terrifying and unpredictable nature of the conflict, with only the indomitable Sgt Sterling maintaining an aura of invincibility and strength. Bartle cannot help but ruminate on the difference between his grandfather's war with its 'destinations and purpose' and the 'slow, bloody parade' of his own campaign with its repeated battles for the same territory and the general lack of any measurable progress. This is where I would begin to question what the novel really achieves beneath the veneer of good writing. We have the dependable superior, the green recruits, the sensitive and poetic narrator, we have the banality of murder, the trauma of death, the parade of destruction. All of these are present in most narratives of war so what if anything does Powers add to the cannon?

We probably all want to know (and Powers isn't afraid to have a reporter ask the clichéd question) what combat actually feels like. By allowing young Murph to provide the answer he achieves a simplicity that avoids cliché, out of the mouths of babes....

"It's like a car accident. You know? That instant between knowing that it's gonna happen and actually slamming into the other car. Feels pretty helpless actually, like you've been riding along same as always, then it's there staring you in the face and you don't have the power to do shit about it. And know it. Death, or whatever, it's either coming or it's not. It's kind of like that," he continued, "like that split second in the car wreck, except for here it can last for goddamn days."
The reader is trying to measure the effect of trauma too because we know from the outset that Murph doesn't make it and also that war did something to him. Bartle too has spent a lot of time since, trying to pinpoint the moment he noticed a change in his charge, 'somehow thinking that if I could figure out where he had begun to slide down the curve of the bell that I could do something about it. But these are subtle shifts, like trying to measure the degrees of grey when evening comes.' Trauma is the novel's major theme, in fact those expecting to read a traditional war novel filled with incident may well be disappointed by only a couple of moments of military engagement. This is a novel about the  legacy of war, of the trauma suffered by those fighting it not only at the point at which they are fighting but most importantly when they return home.

This is where the novel could really have excelled for me because this is the real untold story of war, the story of the survivors and how difficult they can find it to settle back into their civilian lives when they return home. In Remarque's classic All Quiet... he used his hero's visit home on leave to point up the awkwardness of engaging with his own family who didn't understand what horrors he had witnessed and his desperate desire to get back to the front amongst those who did. Bartle too returns home to his family and feels as though he's 'being eaten from the inside out' because he is constantly being thanked by those who are grateful for what they're doing over there and yet he can't tell them how awful it is making him feel. We also experience how the slightest noise can trigger a memory of mortars falling and an instinctive reaction to brace for impact, and we sense the mental prison that Bartle is being backed into.

You want to fall, that's all. You think it can't go on like that. It's as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can't go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can't. And every breath you take reminds you of the fact. So it goes.

As I say, this element of the book could have been fantastic, and in many ways the style with which Powers writes Bartle's decay is impressive but I wanted to engage with that darkness a little more. There are two reasons I think for some of those quotes on the front and back. The first is to do with feeling. Powers does write in a way that makes you feel things: fear, disgust and confusion for example, and that's why I think he resonates with writer's like Cleave and Sebold. The other is to do with timing. How many novels are there about the Iraq war? Surprisingly few (and none that are going to receive the marketing push that this one will) and so Powers has the virtue of having got there first. How Wolfe can possibly acclaim this book to be in the same canon as All Quiet... is  beyond me. We won't know for years and years what the classic novel of the Iraq war might be, and this one isn't doing anything sufficiently new to warrant the excitement attached to it.

But I don't want to be too down on a book that has considerable strengths. Powers writes well, really well at times and it was only occasionally that his beautiful writing began to feel like a concious attempt to do 'beautiful writing' rather than what the novel seemed to demand. He began writing the novel to try and put into words what it's really like 'over there' and his approach is to focus less on the fighting and more on the time that surrounds it. That seems like the right place to look and if the resulting novel doesn't quite hit the heights that I had hoped for at the beginning then that may be as much me wanting it to be a novel it isn't as Power's failure to make it the novel it could have been. Near the novel's end Bartle is given a map of Iraq, a map which would, like every other be very soon out of date - 'less a picture of fact and more a poor translation of memory in two dimensions, drawn to scale. It reminded me of talking, how what is said is never quite what was thought, and what is heard is never quite what was said. It wasn't much in the way of comfort but everything has a little failure in it, and we still make do somehow."

For another view on The Yellow Birds and other Iraq-related fiction check out this post from former embedded reporter Nathan S. Webster


Tuesday, 28 August 2012

NW - Zadie Smith

'never neutral'

After a seven year wait we have another novel from Zadie Smith. Well, you might have been waiting for it but this is the first book of hers that I've read so if you want to know if it's as good as that other one of hers that you liked then you'll need to check with someone else. That time gap though, and the title of the novel (and the fact that reviews have been strictly embargoed until publication) always meant that this was going to be something of an event publication, a shoo-in perhaps for another Booker nomination (the judges did not agree I'm afraid), and what appeared to be another state of the nation novel (or state of the city) to follow on from John Lanchester's Capital. The first thing to say is that it doesn't read like that kind of book at all. Smith does capture an area of London and a small sample of its people but I'm not sure she has much interest in trying to incorporate a grand message about living in London near the beginning of the 21st century (or if there is I'm not sure what it is), it all feels far more personal than that. By focussing on four main characters who all share a starting point in life, the fictional housing estate of Caldwell, but whose trajectories since have been very different, and then allowing their paths to cross naturally she does make sociological points, political and racial ones too, but it is in personal relationships and the characters of the two women in particular that she finds most success.

NW is of course North West London and we are around and about Willesden and the Kilburn High Road. The novel opens (and you can read it yourself here) with a section entitled Visitation. First we have a literary tracking shot to establish the locale and then a face to face confrontation as Leah opens the door to a hysterical woman begging for help. This is Shar, who still lives on the Caldwell estate, visible across the way from where Leah now lives ('From there to here, a journey longer than it looks'). Shar needs help, or rather money, and it is only after this sometimes frantic exchange, which manages to incorporate some reminiscences about their shared schooling at Brayton, and Shar's departure that Leah begins to suspect that she has been victim to some rather elaborate begging or a well-scripted mugging with no violence. This section is written with fragmented sentences, thoughts jagging about, snatches of music, typographical experiments (see below), memories inserted in special chapters numbered 37 (a number given mystical significance by a friend of Leah's); it is a stylistic tour de force which will probably attract as many readers as it repels.

Then comes a section called Guest in which we meet Felix. This was the least memorable section for me, Felix never really engaged me as a character, and it made little impression on me beyond the brutality and inherent danger in the engaging with other people in London. This will become an important theme of the book however, and I'll come back to communication later, so I'm wary of discounting this section entirely but, as I say, it didn't really contribute much for me apart from a neat way of viewing the way different London boroughs segregate themselves -

He considered the tube map. It did not express his reality. The centre was not 'Oxford Circus' but the bright lights of Kilburn High Road. 'Wimbledon' was the countryside, 'Pimlico' pure science fiction.

Next comes Host which makes up over a third of the novel, consisting of 185 short, numbered and named chapters, and is the most successful part of the book. Maybe I've just got the taste for these short chapters but it is such an effective way of capturing character, covering time and including a whole life in a short number of pages. Here the focus is Leah's childhood friend Natalie, although when they were growing up she was Keisha (just as Zadie herself used to be Sadie). Natalie is the most interesting character in the novel, the most developed (do I dare make any connection between her and the author?) and also the most obvious to follow in terms of someone making an escape from humble beginnings on the Caldwell estate.
She is probably as surprised to have come out of Brayton as it is surprised to have spawned her. Nat, the girl done good from their thousand-kid madhouse; done too good, maybe, to recall where she came from. To live like this you would have to forget everything that came before. How else could you manage?

Natalie's story is one of re-invention, perhaps that is the only way a woman from a council estate can make a career in law, a woman of colour. At one stage she receives some advice from another woman like her, a QC.

'The first lesson is: turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.' She passed a hand over her neat fram from her head to her lap, like a scanner. 'This is never neutral.'

The collection of short chapters take in her childhood, her friendship with Leah, her upward trajectory, her success and its burdens, marriage, children, and always this lurking sense that none of it feels as good as it should do, the girl done good doesn't feel nearly as good as she should.

Walking down the Kilburn High Road Natalie Blake had a strong desire to slip into the lives of other people. It was hard to see how this desire could be practicably satisfied or what, if anything, it really meant. 'Slip into' was an imprecise thought...Listening was not enough. Natalie Blake wanted to know people. To be intimately involved with them.

Another form of reinvention will allow her to transgress, to go against everything that her life appears to amount to and in a novel about (mis)communication it is just one example of how a flawed attempt can have dire consequences.

The observant amongst you will have noticed that so far I have only mentioned three of the four main characters. The final member of the cast is Nathan Bogle, spoken of in disapproving tones in the early parts of the book before making his main appearance in a section entitled Crossing. Bogle is a shadowy figure, a supposed failure, exactly what we might expect to come forth from a housing estate and yet he actually seems most at ease in the terrain of the novel, a man content with his lot, his status. This is one of the more alarming conclusions to draw from the book, that the environment is so hostile and set, that it is those who attempt to lift themselves above it who will inevitably fail or even fall victim to it.

London has long been characterised as city in which so many people live and yet so few of whom actually connect. I have experienced that first hand and know also the fear of engaging the wrong person in conversation or debate. In one memorable scene in a children's playground a group of women confront a young lad who is smoking. It very quickly escalates with talk of disrespect and where people come from before calming down again but it is a perfect example of the simple engagement that can quickly become aggressive and even fatal. Smith captures these exchanges brilliantly and in fact the dialogue throughout the book is diverse, idiomatic and convincing. With such variety in the writing style for each section of this novel it isn't a surprise that my first experience of reading her fiction wasn't a complete success (and I have heard others say that she might be a better essayist) but those sections that I did like, I really liked. Smith has been quoted as saying that she finds all aspects of writing a novel tough apart from the dialogue. This I find fascinating because part of me wonders what she might produce if she turned her hand to writing a play. I doubt it will ever happen but if you're reading Zadie (!) then give it a little thought. And think about a nice part for a man approaching his late thirties with laughter lines and maybe the odd grey hair whilst you're at it.


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