The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguru


GIANTThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguru features themes of memory and forgetting playing out against the type of vague backdrop so beloved of the author.

A great mist has descended on the populace of ancient Britain obscuring the memories of the indigenous Britons and their Saxon neighbours alike.

The novel follows the fortunes of a pair of pilgrims, Beatrice and Axl. Both native Britons are haunted by their lack of memories.

They inhabit a dreamlike post-Roman Britain which is populated by half-imagined monsters such as ogres, pixies and an amnesia inducing dragon.

Determined to regain their past, the pair resolve to undertake a journey to their son’s village where they hope they will be welcomed and find refuge from the mist.

Along the way the couple cross paths with some fellow wayfarers, an exiled Saxon boy who carries a terrible wound, a warrior whose skilful swordplay is matched only by his impeccable politeness, and an aged knight in rusting armour accompanied by his clapped out steed.

These characters, seemingly drawn together by chance, are niggled by a sense that they may know each other. As is often the case with quests, the journey soon evolves into something beyond the characters’ original intentions.

Much controversy, and of course publicity, has greeted Ishiguru’s disavowal of the fantasy genre, with heavy-weights like Ursula Le Guin giving their two cents about the author’s perceived sniffiness towards fantasy.

While I do find more ‘literary writers’ resistance to being identified as having produced genre fiction amusing and somewhat precious, this time I feel myself siding with Ishiguru.

The Buried Giant is not a fantasy novel. Readers of the novel can, and will, argue the toss endlessly, but one particular point disqualified The Buried Giant as fantasy for me. That was the seemingly intentional unreality of its supernatural beings.

To my mind, fantasy seeks to convince us of the literal reality of its monsters. Not that monsters in fantasy are necessarily without a metaphorical dimension, but that the metaphorical dimension functions alongside a sense of the reality of the monster within the text.

When the Nazgûl were hunting Frodo in The Lord of The Rings I could feel them breathing, if ring-wraiths do indeed breathe, down the back of my neck as they mercilessly sought their quarry. The danger they represented in and of themselves seemed very real to me as a reader. In The Buried Giant the fantastical beings are more hallucinatory and less consequential than in fantasy novels.

Some readers have reacted with frustration at the marginal role which Ishiguru has granted the supernatural creatures, perhaps agreeing with Chekhov’s maxim regarding guns:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” The rifles being ogres in this instance.

I for one found these creatures all the more intriguing for their elusiveness and lack of consequence in the story.The monsters in the novel act as beautiful scenery which helps to construct a pleasing  phantasmagoria for the characters to inhabit. I found it liberating to walk by ogres, admiring them in passing, without dwelling too much on them.

The Buried Giant borrows some of the clothing of the fantasy genre but underneath its surface lies a very different beast.

The fantasy elements are a backdrop for the human drama central to the story. Of course fantasy can feature human drama, but in The Buried Giant the novel is almost exclusively concerned with its themes of collective memory, psychic repression and the nature of love and forgiveness. The dragons and sword fights really don’t matter much at all, whereas in fantasy proper, for better or worse, they do.

Literary references ranging from The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Greek myth are interspersed throughout the tale. These references and fragments contribute to building the novel’s peculiar  kaleidoscopic atmosphere.

I am a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguru’s work and enjoyed The Buried Giant. Perhaps my familiarity with his previous work inoculated me against the disappointment others may have felt with the book.

I never expected balls to the wall fantasy from Mr.Ishiguru, but rather restrained melancholic prose and bitter-sweet musings on memory and forgetting. All of which I found present in abundance.

While The Buried Giant is certainly not the author’s strongest novel, it still has enough going on in it to warrant a reader’s attention. It seems to be a novel which pushed the writer outside of his comfort zone.  The result is this wilfully odd genre bender which is hard to pigeon-hole, and as such worth a look.

I’ve included the link to the original article which sparked the fantasy/not fantasy furore below:

Where I Left My Soul by Jérôme Ferrari




Where I Left My Soul by Jérôme Ferrari tells the story of French military man Captain Degorce. Having survived torture at the hands of the Gestapo and internment In Indochina, Degorce’s military career has landed him in Algeria amongst the events which pre-figured the fall of the French Fourth Republic.

There is unrest as disenfranchised Algerians agitate against French rule, recently radicalised by the Sétif massacre. Degorce and his unit are responsible for the capture and interrogation of members of the Algerian resistance the FLN.

Inevitably this results in Degorce becoming a torturer himself. Degorce sees himself as a Christian man of conscience, a position he had the luxury of occupying when he was the subject rather the executor of torture. Now in the role of Roman centurion rather than Christ his actions weigh heavily on him.

As a result of his situation Degorce finds himself becoming increasingly isolated, unable to communicate with his colleagues in Algeria, and family back home. His wife persists in sending him letters to which he is unable to respond, given his inability to explain the horror he has witnessed in Algeria, and the shame he feels at his complicity in its production.

Degorce finds a counterpoint in his subordinate Captain Andreani, a man who is at ease in the grimy world of ‘information gathering’.  Lacking Degorce’s compunctions in regards to torture, Andreani spouts the usual defences about necessary evils whilst revelling in the cruelty he inflicts.

Andreani and Degorce’s relationship is defined by mutual loathing. Having once idolised Degorce Andreani is disgusted by his qualms against violence and what he perceives to be Degorce’s hypocrisy.  Degorce finds Andreani’s easy cruelty abhorable.

When Degorce’s unit captures Tahar, the head of the resistance, things become even more morally murky. In Tahar Degorce finds a man at ease with violent actions due to his belief in his cause, something Degorce now lacks.

Degorce becomes preoccupied with Tahar and the peace which his impending martyrdom brings him. Eager to play the noble warrior Degorce affords Tahar full military honours .This doesn’t sit well with Degorce’s colleagues and superiors.

Where I Left My Soul features some beautiful prose and in its pages Ferrari illustrates how the logic of torture dehumanises both its instigator and subject. In one passage, reminiscent of Kafka’s torture device from InThe Penal Colony, Degorce feels that he is the caretaker of an inexorable engine of torture which must be fed “organic fuel”, torture becoming both the means and ends in a hellish cycle.

Such a topic is extremely relevant in today’s society where, due to military double speak and political wordplay, the hellish spectacle of torture is downplayed as somehow necessary for the greater good. Ferrari should be applauded for writing a serious and thoughtful novel which unflinchingly deals with the subject.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan


ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

Donal Ryan burst onto the Irish literary scene last year helped in no small part by his novel The Spinning Heart being nominated for the 2013 Booker prize. The Spinning Heart paints a picture of post boom time Ireland and features some of the most bewitching prose I’ve come across in a while.

The backbone of the story centres on the fall of local hero Bobby Mahon. Bobby is a former football star who worked as a building site foreman during the times of economic prosperity. Despite being adored by his fellow towns people Bobby is a self-effacing, hardworking man who does not like too much of a fuss being made about him.

Things begin to unravel for Bobby when his boss, the quintessential Irish boom time property developer, ‘Pokey Burke’ skips town to avoid paying debts.  Pokey leaves a half-finished housing development or “ghost estate” and a crew of disgruntled builders in his wake.

On top of all this Bobby also has to shoulder the burden of his spiteful father, an undying man who seems to be sustained by hate. His father, jealous of Bobby’s relationship with his now deceased mother, was a man who; “sat silently swallowing her claim to a life…drunk he was leering and silent and mostly asleep. Sober, he was watcher, a horror of a man who missed nothing and commented on everything. Nothing was ever done right or cooked right or said right or bought right or handed to him properly or ironed straight or finished off fully with him. We couldn’t breathe right in a room with him.

Matters go from bad to worse when it transpires that the greasy Mr.Burke has neglected to pay social security on behalf of his employees meaning they are not entitled to redundancy payments or unemployment assistance. Bobby, decent man that he is, feels responsible for this situation despite being unaware of Burke’s machinations.

Amid the aftermath of Pokey’s flight a murder happens in which Bobby is implicated and the consequences reverberate throughout the town. The story is related to us from the vantage point of the various townspeople, twenty-one in total, their fragments revealing the broader story to the reader.

Ryan successfully finds distinctive voices for each member of his literary symphony, each possessing their own idiosyncrasies, and back stories which could stand alone as short stories. The only shortcoming in the novel lies in one of these characters narrative trajectories which features an ill-conceived child kidnap sub plot which fails to convince.

This lapse is forgivable in light of Ryan’s prose and highly memorable turn of phrase. The local gossips are referred to as “The Teapot Taliban,” whose aged veins run with “pill thinned blood”. I will restrain myself from quoting any more as once one begins quoting a writer of Ryan’s quality it’s hard to know when to stop.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a love of literary fiction or an interest in seeing a snapshot of modern rural Ireland. The Spinning Heart was one of the most enjoyable pieces of fiction I read in 2013.I hope to have a review of Ryan’s second published novel The Thing About December posted by early next week.

The Human Script by Johnny Rich

indexSurely if someone writes a novel which is gripping, bursting with ideas and evidently written by a skilled story-teller, these merits will guarantee it gets published right? Sadly the answer to that question is no. While we sometimes like to think of art as a lofty endeavour which transcends the mundane world of economics, this is simply not the case.

Take the world of publishing for example. In times of economic uncertainty, such as now, publishers become risk averse and understandably tend to stick to what they know will sell, rather than taking risks on unknown quantities. This means that those who do not conform to these models, such as unpublished and experimental authors, lose out. While it would be great if meritocracy reigned within publishing, unfortunately harsh economic realities render this unlikely.

As a result of comprehending this unpalatable reality I have become a haunted man. My dreams are filled with spectral libraries, vast purgatories of the unpublished. Translucent tomes taunt me with their intangibility, their spines unreadable and unknowable. How many great books have been denied to our culture due the current economic climate? To quote Joseph Brodsky, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” What then of those whose actions unwittingly prevent their publication and prevent even the possibility of reading them? Those bankers have a lot to answer for…Damn you Goldman Sachs!

Yet where pessimists like me see devastation and waste, there are those who are clear-sighted enough to realise that hundreds, perhaps even thousands of unpublished works of high quality floating about in the ether presents a real opportunity. Enter Red Button Publishing. I recently received an email from Red Button, a new digital imprint for fiction. The email inquired if I would like to review The Human Script by Johnny Rich. It also explained that Red Button was established by Caroline Goldsmith and Karen Ings, two people who have enjoyed successful careers in print publishing. Crucially the email also explained that Red Button were established to remedy the situation of conservative publishing due to economic factors by providing an outlet for talented authors who may have been overlooked. Excited by their innovative response to the current publishing climate I agreed to review The Human Script, but you guessed that already, I hope…

The Human Script tells the story of Chris Putnam, a rather introverted young research scientist who is working on the human working on the Human Genome project. Chris lives in London with his flat-mate Elsi, a perpetually stoned philosophy enthusiast who indulges, and engages with Chris’s existential dilemmas offering sympathy, tea, advice and an endless stream of joints. Emerging from mourning a lost relationship with his boyfriend Gill, Chris is just beginning to enjoy life again when he receives news of his estranged father’s death. Chris’s estrangement from his father stems from their disparate world views. Chris being gay, and more significantly an atheist inevitably disappointed his Calvinist father.

On returning to his hometown Dunmarrick for the funeral he encounters his twin brother Dan, a brash young British artist type who seems to be Chris’s polar opposite. Where Chris likes to avoid the limelight, Dan revels in it. Dan like any YBA worth his salt courts controversy, and seems to live by Oscar Wilde’s dictum, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” It is through Dan that Chris encounters Leo Martin, a young actor whose star is on the rise. Chris and Leo hit it off but unfortunately for the budding couple their liaison must be kept secret as gay leading men do not make good box office.

I must admit that I was a little dubious on encountering this cast of unlikely characters when I began reading the novel. A gay geneticist who lives with a philosopher flat mate, who has a remote Calvinist and a twin brother who is an artist and eventually dates a closeted movie star? The potential conflicts seemed to be too loudly signalled, it all seemed a little too contrived and well, novelistic.

But then something wonderful happened. As the novel unfolded I realised I’d been had. It was the author’s intent that the characters should appear that way to me. Like most readers who devour large amounts of fiction, I have developed the ability to anticipate narrative trajectories with reasonable success. Without divulging too much for fear of diminishing enjoyment of the story, Johnny Rich had duped me and I loved it. I finished the novel with a big stupid grin on my face.

I also enjoyed Rich’s writing on science and belief systems. By juxtaposing systems such as science, religion and even astrology, Rich uses them to explore ideas like pre-destination, probability and the human tendency toward narrative. His passages about DNA are beautifully lucid and informative, especially for those of us who are a little fuzzy about amino acids. I was also relieved that his take on religion is sympathetic, while not endorsing it neither does he succumb to ill-informed arguments against it.

Rich demonstrates that science or religion can be equally restrictive, with genetic determinism providing narratives not so far from ideas like Calvinistic pre-destination as it would like to believe. It’s not that I am overly religious myself; it’s just that I am tired of reductive materialists such as Richard Dawkins and his ilk spouting ill-informed nonsense about it. Rich’s sophistication in engaging with the matter refreshing.

The Human Script is an engaging novel brimming with ideas, so much so I feel it would stand up to multiple re readings within a short space of time. To say I enjoyed The Human Script would be an understatement. It provided me with the long forgotten thrill of not knowing how a novel will conclude, and for that I am grateful. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys clever, well written fiction.

I have included links below to Red Button’s website; I have also provided a link to an interview with the author on the Red Button site:

The Infatuations by Javier Marías

ISBN: 978-0-241-14537-1

ISBN: 978-0-241-14537-1

The Infatuations is the title of Javier Marías’s latest novel. It tells the story of María Dolz, a middle-aged woman who works in publishing. María is a habitual loner who gets drawn into a web of intrigue when a murder occurs. The victim is an innocuous seeming businessman who takes breakfast daily with his wife at the same restaurant as María.

The handsome couple seem to be exceptionally well matched, and due to this have become a subject of interest to María. Despite the fact that María has never communicated with them, the couple occupy a background position in the everyday routine of her life, their routine providing a sense of reassurance and constancy.

This sense of reassurance is shattered when one day while reading the newspaper María is shocked to discover the husband, whose name she learns was Miguel Desverne, has been stabbed to death by a homeless man for no apparent reason. When she next meets with the widow, Luisa Alday, she decides to introduce herself and offers her condolences. This results in an invitation to the grief-stricken Luisa’s house. Here María is introduced to the deceased husband’s former best friend, the handsome and charming Díaz Varela.

Diaz Varela has offered himself as a shoulder to cry on for Luisa in accordance with the wishes of his departed friend, as it transpires.  María is quite taken with this suave gentleman, and after a chance meeting in a museum they become lovers. Alas the affair is rather one-sided, its progress driven on by María’s infatuation with Diaz Varela rather than by any initiative on his behalf. Over the course of their one-sided courtship María overhears a snippet of conversation which reveals that Desverne’s murder may have not been the random tragedy it initially seemed.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy and various collections of his short stories, I picked up this book with high expectations which unfortunately were dashed. It is not that the novel is a complete failure. There is much to commend in it, but rather it fails in comparison to the high quality of the author’s previous work. If presented by a less illustrious author it would no doubt be hailed as a career highlight.

My main problems with the novel lie in the narrator María Dolz. For some reason her voice didn’t convince. I constantly felt I was reading the thoughts and opinions of the sixty-two year old author rather than those of the character, a woman in her mid-thirties. This seemed particularly apparent in the passages where María muses on mortality. The tone feels wrong, a little too jaded for a woman with so much ahead of her. This left me with the rather disturbing mental image of an elderly author trying squeeze himself into the body of a younger woman, wearing her as a costume in order to perform an unconvincing literary drag act.

While some authors have no problem representing a range of ages and genders, the singularity of Javier Marías’s voice, its distinctiveness, renders it hard to separate it from the author. This is reinforced by the characters often becoming a mouth piece for what seem to be the authors’ views. Chapters are taken up with long exchanges between characters where they expound on the author’s favourite themes such as memory, mortality, the banality of violence, and literature.

Much room is also given to characters interpretations of Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, and inevitably in a Marías novel, Macbeth. These dialogues are unconvincing as they are too coherent to have merely occurred in spontaneous conversation. At times the novel feels like an essay with a story tacked onto it at the last minute.

These flaws however are not fatal. If I am going to read large passages about memory, mortality and literature etc… there are not many people I would rather hear expounding on these topics than Marías. The author is a master of his craft, even if he does err occasionally. His treatment and subversion of tired genre tropes is a pleasure to behold. He expertly leads a reader through the story, his set ups unfolding in unexpected ways. He is also an expert at depicting the selfish sides of attraction and romance, and the potential barbarity which exists just beneath the surface of society.

The Infatuations is an imperfect novel. It belongs to the interesting literary tradition of the relative failure. That is, it is a failure, but only in relation to the authors previous work. There is still much to engage the reader and provide an enriching literary experience. I would have no problem recommending this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction, but would urge that they also read the authors other work in order to contextualise this flawed but still worthwhile novel.

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

ISBN: 978-1-908276-02-5

Swimming Home is the title of the Booker prize shortlisted novel by playwright and author Deborah Levy. The book opens with a rather heavy handed introduction by Tom Mc Carthy which advises us on how the novel should be interpreted. This unacceptable act of literary tyranny is further compounded by Mc Carthy, who seeks to reassure potential readers with a resume of Levy’s literary influences, which includes Lacan, Barthes, Deleuze, Duras,Stein, Ballard, Kafka and Robbe-Grillet.

It is a pity that Mc Carthy does not seem to have shared Levy’s reading choices. If he had he would have encountered Barthes 1967 essay, the The Death of the Author,which argues against exactly the type of literary analysis which his introduction subjects Levy to.

Mc Carthy’s introduction does a further injustice to the novel when he states; “If the setting and plot of Swimming Home are borrowed, almost ironically, from the staid English-middle-class-on-holiday novel, all similarities end there.” In fact all similarities do not end there. The book is undeniably what Mc Carthy claims it isn’t, despite his snottiness and half-assed claims of irony. This in itself need not be a bad thing if the writing is up to scratch, which is a decision the reader, not Tom Mc Carthy, must make. While I feel introductions may serve a purpose when contextualising historically important novels and their effects, for example D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and its attendant obscenity trial, doing so with a newly released novel is both boorish and presumptuous.

If you skip past the introduction you will find a novel featuring impeccable prose, which is perfectly acceptable if not a little predictable. The story involves Joseph and Isabel Jacobs who are holidaying in a villa located in the south of France, along with their teenage daughter Nina, and their friends Mitchell and Laura. All present are members of the upper middle class. Joseph is that most elusive of beings, a rich poet and his wife Isabel, is a hard bitten,( is there any other kind?), international correspondent. Laura and Mitchell run a faltering antiques store which specialises in primitive weapons. One day over the course of their holiday the group of friends arrive home to find a beautiful young woman, who introduces herself as Kitty Finch, naked in their swimming pool. Stranger still the young woman is invited to stay by Isabel, a surprising move given her husband’s predilection for infidelity. Could she be plotting an end to her dissatisfactory marriage?

As Kitty settles amongst the holiday makers it becomes more and more apparent that she is a cuckoo in the nest. Obsessed by the poetry of Joseph, which she believes to be a mode of exclusive communication between them both, her goal is to have him read her poetry. Over the course of the novel it transpires that Kitty suffers from mental illness, the nature of the illness, as is often the case in literature, is never really defined. Whenever the mental illness occurs in the novel it manifests in a glamorous and cinematic way, as it tends to in stories involving Botticellian pale skinned, flame haired female poets.

The only other character to suffer from mental illness in the novel is Joseph, who you will remember is also a poet. This naïve perfume advertisement approach to mental illness detracts significantly from a novel which seems determined to take itself so seriously. Further flaws lie in the use of clichéd supporting characters, a randy French waiter, and a nature loving, German, dreadlocked stoner amongst them. Even the novels strengths are not without their downsides. An atmosphere of impending doom is successfully evoked but when said doom arrives it is unconvincing.

Where Swimming Home succeeds is in its portrayal of female characters excluding Kitty. Isabel, Nina and Laura are nuanced and complex creations. Of particular note is the depiction of the friendship between Isabel and Laura. When reading these passages it struck me how little genuine adult female friendship appears in literature without being simplified or over sentimentalised. While refreshing, this portrayal of adult female is not enough to carry an entire novel. I would hesitate to recommend Swimming Home to anyone but the most hardened Levy fan.

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

ISBN: 978-1-907-773174

The Lighthouse is the title of the Booker nominated debut novel by Alison Moore. This debut novel possesses a curious atmosphere all of its own, the sum of its parts adding up to a much greater whole. As such, the difficulty involved in the task of synopsizing the plot is proportionate to the amount of enjoyment a reader will obtain from this distinctively eerie novel.

We begin on a ferry where we meet the hapless Futh on deck feeling seasick. He is on his way to Germany to take a hiking holiday in the wake of the breakdown of his marriage. As the trip unfolds we journey through Futh´s recollections of his put upon past.  Hampered from childhood with a violent cloddish father and a self-absorbed mother who soon abandons him, Futh seems doomed from the get go. The only memento Futh retains of his mother is a perfume container in the shape of a lighthouse from which the novel takes its name, this sad keepsake also seeming to inspire his career choice of developing synthetic smells. The container is much treasured by Futh and accompanies him on his trip.

As Futh´s memories move from childhood to his teenage years we witness his awkward interactions with his neighbour Gloria, who would in the parlance of today be termed a cougar. Gloria seems to vacillate between wanting Futh as a lover or a son, having effectively lost both of these figures due to her infidelity, finally shacking up with Futh´s father instead. Her belligerent son Gary reluctantly visits only occasionally. Gary and Futh were firm friends as children but their friendship did not survive when Gary and his father moved out and they ceased to be neighbours. Now they regard each other warily, the diminishing returns of their relationship mutating into a peculiarly intimate form of hostility, particularly on Gary´s behalf who resents Futh’s regular visits, at Gloria’s invitation, into his one-time family home.

As Futh recollects his past his pointless pilgrimage proceeds onwards, the sunburn and blisters he accumulates making it seem more like a mild form of self-harm than a holiday. Futh avails himself of a travel service for hikers which forwards his luggage to the poor quality guesthouses along his route, his baggage preceding him both literally and metaphorically as he proceeds.

It is at the first of these dissatisfactory guest houses that we encounter the novel’s second protagonist Ester. We meet Ester propping up the bar of the establishment which her husband owns, wearing make up in an attempt to conceal a black eye. Ester is a faded former beauty given to serial infidelity despite, or in spite of, her husband’s often violent interventions. Her co-fornicators of choice primarily consist of single male guests who stay at their establishment, who she brazenly approaches spiriting them away to the unused rooms where she conducts her fleeting affairs.  As we become acquainted with her past we see a complex figure emerge, more fleshed out than one might expect from what could have if portrayed by a less talented writer, been a two-dimensional stereotype of a randy tavern owner’s wife. Both Futh and Ester’s fate become entwined through their mutual possession of Lighthouse perfume, this seemingly benign object a catalyst for Futh’s terrible fate.

As I mentioned earlier this rough synopsis does no justice to the totality of this endearingly strange novel. The prose is precise and taut as a drum skin conjuring an eerie aura of foreboding throughout. Imagery is used masterfully, especially a link between a thumbed doughnut, the smell of cigarette smoke, and the subject of motor car repair which sadly I can’t disclose for fear of ruining a reader’s experience.

The characters, while engaging, are not sympathetic and the problems which they confront are mostly of their own making. While Futh is often a victim, it is hard to maintain sympathy for him past childhood as he seems to be comfortable with this situation. The author must be applauded for this brave portrayal, flying as it does in the face of the common book club complaint of “I didn’t like the novel because I didn’t like the characters!” which reduces the world of literature to some kind of adolescent popularity contest. Lighthouse is an assured and impressive debut from a fascinating new talent whose next work I eagerly await.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

ISBN: 978-0-571-275762

Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil’s Booker prize nominated debut novel, takes us on a tour of 1970’s Mumbai, then called Bombay, and its seedier spots.  We are introduced to the inhabitants and patrons of the picaresque Shuklaji Street, home to Rashid’s world renowned opium khana. Here drugs are cheap and life even cheaper.

Amongst the motley bunch of characters we meet, are the unhappily married Rashid, the idealistic transsexual Dimple, her gruff but kindly benefactor, opium vendor and exile Mr Lee as well as the unhinged and murderous misogynist Rumi. What these characters share in common is a compulsion to take refuge in the escape drugs provide, swathing themselves in a narcotic haze attempting to insulate themselves, at least temporarily, from the harsh reality of their everyday lives.

While the characters suspend time and space in the cocoon provided by opium, all around them Bombay, and India as a whole, is rapidly changing. The primary way these changes enter the characters’ lives is through the drug culture which they participate in, as it moves from opium to cocaine arriving finally at the horrific destination of ‘chemical’, low quality heroin cheaply cut and adulterated with rat poison, which becomes ubiquitous due to it being imported cheaply and easily from neighbouring Pakistan. This device works well, the drugs providing fitting metaphors, opium standing for an older, slower world of tradition and heroin bringing with it a trajectory of addiction and decline which matches the furious pace of contemporary global capitalism.

As is expected with narcotic inspired narratives, time is non-linear. Death does not guarantee that a character will not pop up a few pages later as a hallucination or in ghost form to casually partake in conversation. Reminiscent of Burroughs, apocalyptic imagery looms large in the minds of these pharmaceutically addled characters. I lost count of the numerous scenes depicting characters experiencing dreams involving end of world visions dripping in portents. I feel these passages are the line which will divide  the books audience, who will either love or hate them. I found such scenes tried my patience, their prose tending towards the purple end of the colour spectrum.

Having overdosed on the vicarious thrills of narcotic narratives provided by Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr. in my teenage years, I find there is only so much drugged up psychedelia one can write before veering dangerously close to Jim “follow the snake to the lake” Morrison territory. If you are partial to that kind of thing you may very well love Narcopolis, if not you may find it a frustrating and unrewarding read. On the plus side I found Thayil’s dark sense of humour to be amusing, particularly in a scene where a character expounds on children’s unsuitability for living in the world due to their small size and stupidity. Sadly this positive isn’t enough to sustain the entire story.

Personally I found Narcopolis to be an unremarkable novel; I just couldn’t shake off a sense of ‘been there done that’. Although the representation of the characters may reflect the realities of a life of drug addiction, the problem lies in the fact that addiction narratives the world over are quite similar regardless of setting. This results in reality taking on the appearance of cliché. I say this not to diminish the affliction of addiction, but rather to illustrate the difficulties inherent in its portrayal. Given that, I would find it hard to recommend Narcopolis to anyone but the most hardened fan of drug inspired literature.

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

ISBN: 978-0-224-09621-8

When is a satire not a satire? The answer to that question is apparently when the author changes his mind. Lionel Asbo, the latest novel by Martin Amis is/was a satire of British tabloid culture and how it lionises the great unwashed, elevating them to the heights of celebrity. The novel has been badly received by critics, being almost universally panned. The main points of criticism focused on Amis’ seeming inability to understand what constitutes satire.

Throughout the book there is a fatal ambiguity between what Amis is supposedly satirising and how much of the detail he presents is an attempt at verisimilitude. This flaw has killed many an attempted satire before, and Lionel Asbo seems destined for the same fate.

But wait! This isn’t satire you see. It’s a ‘modern fairy tale’, whatever that is. It says so on the back of the book. This dodgy defence has been mustered by Amis repeatedly in defence of his defective latest novel. The problem is describing the book in terms of a genre you or one your marketing people have contrived at a meeting just won’t do. To be of a genre, a novel must contain identifiable features which make it so. A fairy tale by its definition demands a supernatural element, the clue residing in the reference to ‘fairy’ in the genres title, a detail which I am sure that Amis a professional writer is aware of. The novels conventions in terms of representation and style are more akin to the genre of satire than that of the fairy tale. Call me old-fashioned but I’ll judge a books genre by my own criteria which I have developed over my lifetime of reading rather than follow the prescriptions of a books back cover.

The story, in so far as there is one, revolves around the eponymous Mr.Asbo a living embodiment of all that’s wrong with Britain today. “Is he a banker or Tory politician?” I hear you ask. No, I ‘m afraid, Mr.Asbo is a member of the underclass. That Amis, a writer existing in tumultuous times of unprecedented global financial strife and chaos, caused by short-sighted politicians in cahoots with the rapacious pirates of the financial industry, set his sights on the underclass as a target for his ire is baffling to say the least.

The novel is set in fictional Diston, an urban wonderland of cartoon violence populated by grotesques who make Dickensian ne’er do wells look like shrinking violets. Describing Diston, Amis tells us, “On an international chart for life expectancy, Diston would appear between Benin and Djibouti…And that wasn’t all. On an international chart for fertility rates, Diston would appear between Malawi and Yemen (six children per couple-or per single mother).” By comparing Diston to these yucky foreign lands Amis conveys the uncivilised nature of the place. This charming piece of domestic imperialism via comparison, conjured up images of Amis’ research for the novel, which seems to have comprised of him slapping on a pith helmet and khakis, buying a six-pack of special brew, and sipping it tentatively in front of a boxed set of Shameless whilst taking notes, in his no doubt capacious and well-appointed house.

The pantomimic protagonist Asbo is a loutish figure at odds with society. He blunders from violent incident to violent incident, wilfully refusing to learn or grow as a character. Asbo is the son of Grace Pepperdine, their different surnames explained by Lionel’s decision to legally change his to Asbo in a typical display of his antisocial stubbornness and pride. Grace, a single mother, has multiple children sired by many fathers from various cultural backgrounds, because as Martin Amis would probably tell you this is what those kinds of people do.

As a member of the underclass she also has no problem in ignoring the universal taboo that prevails in every culture currently in existence, namely incest. You see Grace is improbably having sex with schoolboy Desmond, the son of her deceased daughter, and another product of one of those shocking multi-cultural couplings. This will prove to be a problem for Desmond if Asbo, a man who doesn’t take kindly to his mother having a sex life with anyone, never mind relatives, finds out. Desmond, through whom we witness most of Asbo’s brutish behaviour, is the character the reader is supposed to empathise with. In the absence of his Father and due to the premature death of his mother, Desmond has looked to Asbo as an unlikely father figure.

Despite his willing role in the incest with his grandmother we can tell Desmond is a good guy because he reads books. This clumsy indicator of the characters innate morality reminded me of the fusty ideas about the link between morality and education which held sway in Victorian times, an era that Amis would no doubt feel more at home in than our present one. As the novel progresses the years pass, Des goes to university, Asbo goes to prison, Grace gets dementia, Des gets a boring girlfriend called Dawn, Asbo gets out of prison, Des gets a job and has a kid with Dawn, Asbo goes to prison etc… During one of his many prison stays Asbo wins the lottery. The media find out. Asbo becomes a celebrity with predictable outcomes.

He acquires a glamour model girlfriend Threnody who’s pin up rival is called Danube. Geddit? Danube a river!!! Like…Jordan! This is pretty much the level the humour and satire aspires to throughout the novel. I could continue to summarise the plot for you but don’t see much point given anyone could guess it with equal accuracy, if told to imagine the most pedestrian formulaic scenarios possible involving an underclass lottery winner.

The biggest problem with the book is that it almost reads like it was written by another author satirising Amis’ perception of the underclass, in which case it would be a roaring success. Unfortunately the book is written by Amis, and as such he must be taken to task for defecating in the public’s collective unconscious. At this point you may be thinking that critical response has been a little harsh and begin to feel sorry for the writer, who has toiled away thanklessly to present his work to the only to be savaged by a hostile press.

While such compassion is useful especially when dealing with delicate emerging talents, please remember that we are talking about Martin Amis here. When a writer of his vast experience unloads such a clunker it cannot really be attributed to a misunderstanding of how literature works. The only real explanation one can ascertain is laziness. Amis seems to have lost his hunger and sits complacently on his laurels churning out sub-par copy, feeling that his half-hearted efforts are good enough. The only circumstances I could recommend this novel to be read under would be as an exercise in literary rubbernecking, where you can with morbid fascination observe the corpse of mangled literary ambition wrapped around the dense lamp-post of complacency.

Pure by Andrew Miller

ISBN: 978-1-444-72428-8
Pure by Andrew Miller tells the story of inexperienced engineer Jean Baptiste. Jean, a fish out of water in Paris due to his rural origins, has been commissioned by the powers that be in Versailles to remove the Les Innocents graveyard, deemed no longer fit for purpose, from the Les Halles area of Paris.

Due to the increasing residential population around Les Halles the living and the dead are finding it hard to co-exist. Bodies are overflowing from graves and crashing through cellar walls as continued excavation puts pressure on the graveyards capacity. The overcrowded graveyard is also a health hazard to those in the surrounding area due to decomposition not occurring at the rate it should, and a foul aroma lingers in the local air leaving its taint on everything including the local’s breath.

The removal of the graveyard proves to be an exercise of staggering logistical complexity. Sacred space is being disinterred and all bodies recovered must be accounted for and reburied, on top of this a church must be demolished. Some locals are opposed to the removal of their beloved graveyard and will enact extreme measures to preserve its existence. Given that Jean Baptiste’s previous practical engineering experience amounts to one ornamental bridge the removal of this pocket of potential pestilence is going to prove no easy task. To complicate matters further the year is 1786 so the French revolution is ready to kick off.

This unusual premise for a novel takes its inspiration from a book which mentions this actual historical event entitled L’Homme devant la mort or The Hour of Our Death by Philippe Ariès. Provided a setting by history Miller proceeds to populate it with a varied selection of lively characters. We are introduced to the Monnard family with whom Baptiste is lodging. The family consists of Monsieur Monnard, his wife, and daughter Ziguette as well as voyeuristic maid Marie. The Monnards are conservative petite-bourgeoisie whose home overlooks Les Innocents. The parents have designs on the young engineer, imagining him an ideal match for their daughter. This proves a mistake on their behalf due to a later attempted murder by said daughter, a graveyard partisan, on the hapless Baratte.

What interested me most about these characters is that Miller sets up what initially appears to be a romantic sub-plot only to subvert it with violence. This process of setting up a situation and resolving it in an unexpected way happens on several occasions and it is refreshing to have one’s expectations derailed in such a manner. This effect is further increased by the awareness that the French revolution is beginning to unfold off page. Knowing that an event of such magnitude is about to take place made me feel that I was reading a sub-plot that takes place within a larger story alluded to by the author. This strange effect is unique to historical fiction and while it might not be to all reader’s tastes I found it to be an enjoyable experience.

Other characters which Barrate encounters include Père Colbert, a mad old priest who inhabits the church which is to be demolished, the churches sexton and his saintly granddaughter Marie, the ominously named observer Dr.Guillotin a man of science, and the flamboyant, boozy, ladies’ man and church organist Armand. Armand has connections to the mysterious ‘party of the future’ whose presence grows daily. Armand becomes Baratte’s friend, confidante, and guide to becoming that most fashionable thing in France 1786, a ‘modern man’. Also present is Baratte’s old college friend, current site foreman, and fellow utopian idealist, Lecouer, as well as a crew of miners enlisted for the project. These characters are well represented on the whole and their various interactions and narrative arcs made for an interesting story.

There was only one character I had any problems with and that was the ‘love interest’ Héloïse Goddard. Héloïse is a strikingly beautiful young prostitute nicknamed the ‘Austrian’ due to her physical resemblance to Marie Antoinette. Despised by the local women she is something of an outcast but is self-sufficient enough not to care. My problems with this character lie with the author’s very male squeamishness about his love interest’s job. Special care is taken in describing the ins and outs, or rather lack thereof, involved in Heloise’s profession.

You see Heloise is a special prostitute who doesn’t practice penetrative sex but rather involves herself in saucy light-hearted escapades with lonely but ultimately decent old men. These passages reveal the author’s inability to seriously engage with themes like prostitution. His need to preserve Héloïse’s vaginal integrity seems to stem from the notion that a standard prostitute is a soiled thing unworthy of love, and as such would be an unsuitable match for his male protagonist. A braver writer would have presented the characters profession, no pun intended, ‘warts and all’.

While the author failed in terms of the character Héloïse, there is much else in Pure to recommend it. The writing is first class as Millers experience as a novelist shines through. His attention to historical detail is precise and his ability to evoke an immersive setting populated with vivid characters is without doubt. If historical novels or well written prose are your thing, give Pure a try, it’s a novel that will keep you entertained and you might even learn something along the way.