The Narrow Road to The Deep South by Richard Flanagan

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untitledTaking its title from the famous Basho poem, Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize 2014 winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep South tells the story of working class boy done good Dorrigo Evans, surgeon, war hero, and national celebrity.

The novel opens with Dorrigo’s earliest childhood memories and proceeds to chronicle his life -time in a non-linear epic narrative which weaves in and out of its key moments.

We see him before, during, and after the war and watch how these strands combine to weave a story about survival and its aftermath.

The passages portraying the older Evans shows a man who has grown cynical about his renown as a war hero and feels himself to be a fraud.

We observe as he does the rounds of receiving various honours befitting a national treasure in an alcohol induced haze and pursuing a multitude of marital infidelities. He seems to be a haunted man unreconciled with himself.

The reasons for this unease with his present are rooted in his traumatic past. We learn that Dorrigo’s wartime experiences entailed being taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to work on constructing the infamous Burma Death Railway.

In the midst of the horror Dorrigo has leadership thrust upon him and finds he must inhabit the role of the “big fella” a name his fellow prisoners have given him.

Knowing he must live up to the legend created by his men, he labours under the weight of leadership. In this role his is called upon to make unimaginable decisions which his post-war self struggles to reconcile with the decisions he made.

Also playing on Dorrigo’s mind is a torrid love affair he conducted with his uncle’s young wife before the war. This passionate encounter casts a long shadow over Dorrigo’s life and haunts him for the rest of his days casting a pall over his engagement and marriage.

Unsurprisingly, I found the parts relating Dorrigo’s war time experiences to be the most gripping part of the narrative. The sections featuring Dorrigo in old age also paint an interesting portrait of a survivor’s difficulty to reintegrate into everyday life. I also enjoyed the sub plots which followed the fates of some of the Japanese guards.

The passages portraying the affair were a little bit too Mills and Boonish for my tastes and I read them cringing a little as the prose veered towards the purple end of the spectrum.

I also found the story a little dragged out, and am still puzzling about the authors decision to follow a well-managed revelation in the plot to be followed closely an unlikely chance encounter, which for me was a coincidence too far and as such rendered what preceded it false.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a staunchly conventional novel which is both its strength and weakness.

Don’t expect any avant garde innovation, the prose is common place and isn’t going to set anyone’s world on fire, but if you are looking for a big pacey slab of narrative to get stuck into you could do worse .

 

 

 

How to Be Both by Ali Smith

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How to Be Both is a delightful novel from the very start, beginning with its format. The book is split into two sections, and is published in such a way that either half may come first.

This innovation adds a random element to how a reader will experience the novel and sets the playful tone of what is to come.

The half which I encountered first, told the story of deceased and almost forgotten 14th century fresco painter Francesco Del Cossa, a real historical figure.

The ghost of the post-mortal painter first appears on the page in a stream of consciousness which eventually stabilises as she recollects who she is.

In Ali Smith’s telling Francesco is really a Francesca who takes on a male identity so that she may pursue her dream of becoming a painter.

We hear her recount her childhood as the daughter of a stonemason, and we watch as she develops into an renowned artist, pursues patronage, and eventually observe her untimely demise.

Francesca is a charming narrator who is hard to resist. As a character she is utterly convincing and has a personality which suits the paintings attributed to her.

Smith’s ekphrasistic elucidation of Del Cossa’s work creates an appetite in the reader to go and see the pictures described for themselves.

The paintings serve to link both parts of the novel as does the ghost of Francesca.

Throughout the telling of her tale, the ghostly Francesca describes a girl who she is observing who turns out to be the thoroughly modern teenager George. George is the protagonist of the second part of the book in the form which I encountered it.

George has recently lost her mother and lives with her family who aren’t coping well. I found this sudden switch in perspective a little jarring at first having been so taken by Francesca, but soon settled in.

George is an unforgiving grammar pedant who is devastated when her Mother dies, leaving her to live with her terrified younger brother and unreliable father who has taken to the bottle.

The precociously intelligent George struggles through the shock of her mother’s sudden departure, navigating the disorienting maze of well-meaning adults and their unasked for sympathy.

As George recounts her memories of her mother and tries to construct some sort of meaning in her sudden departure she relates her mother’s enthusiasm for the work of a certain Francesco Del Cossa, now made male by history.

George’s delivery from grief comes in the form of friendship, when she meets a kindred spirit at school. The two become firm friends and their interaction brings relief to George. The character of George convincingly conveys the worldview of an acidly intelligent, yet ultimately vulnerable, teenager to life.

The novel itself is as clever as its two protagonists. Befitting its structure it features two covers. One a detail from a fresco by Del Cossa, The other an iconic depiction of Francoise Hardy and Sylvie Vartan.

As characters in the novel repeatedly referred to these cover images I found myself repeatedly flipping the book over to scrutinise them.

Hats off to Ali Smith for contriving a way to write a passage involving a spectral fourteenth century fresco painter describing the Hardy, Vartan photo. What a stroke of giddy genius./p>

Cleverness also abounds at the end of George’s story, when we discover she is writing a school assignment on empathy.

To do this she has decided to write it in the character of Francesco/Francesca Del Cossa which may or may not be the genesis of the Francesca narrative. I myself prefer the supernatural explanation.

The novel satisfies on the level of narrative but there is so much more to it than that. Its form is a wonderful commentary on art itself and its manifold possibilities. It is an act of elegant bricolage which shows how structure and ideas are a re-combinable set of possibilities without end. On top of this How to Be Both, achieves the dazzling feat of being terribly clever without being irritating.

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

ISBN: 978-0-00-735358-3
Bring Up The Bodies is the title of Hillary Mantel’s Booker shortlisted sequel to her previous Booker prize winning novel Wolf Hall. Picking up where her last novel finished, we return to Tudor England and find Thomas Cromwell at the height of his powers. His benefactor, King Henry, is married to Anne Boleyn, at least for the time being.

The present Queen of England’s position is tenuous due to her shouldering the blame for not having produced a male royal heir, as well as her unpopularity with the general populace who view her as a witch. On top of this the plain and chaste Jane Seymour, who is every inch Anne’s opposite, has caught Henry’s eye.

The novel being a sequel shares much the same merits and flaws as its predecessor. Again I found Mantel’s over-identification with her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, to be to the books detriment. Cromwell is presented as a sort of Tudor James Bond, his decisions always correct and his lines always the best. The author’s breathless portrayal of him stretches credibility at times and undermines the book’s verisimilitude, a move potentially fatal in the sober world of historical fiction. Even when he appears to have failed at a task you can be sure that it is part of his cunning plan. His opponents are all scoundrels and depicted in such a negative light that sometimes the novel veers towards a “goodie vs baddie” dichotomy.

While reading the novel I admit that at times I entertained the childish refrain of “If you love Cromwell so much why don’t you marry him Hilary?” While I can sympathise with the fact that the author is attempting to address the imbalance in the portrayal of Cromwell, which has tended towards the negative at least from the Victorian period onwards, her blatant partisanship somewhat marred my enjoyment of the novel.

Like Wolf Hall, the novel features a strong supporting cast filled with a wide array of fascinating and amusing characters. My favourite of Mantels new characters has to be the foul mouthed French boy Christophe, whose talent for profanity is without peer. Depictions of Cromwell’s domestic life are also a success, perhaps because the character is allowed to appear ridiculous around his family, much of the novel’s humour takes place there. The domestic passages are written with real warmth and provide a welcome relief from the tense atmosphere of Henry’s court.

Where Bring up the Bodies excels over Wolf Hall is that it moves along at a brisker pace, having had the expository foundations laid by its forerunner. The challenge for writers of historical fiction lies in finding the correct balance between the demands of historical accuracy and those of art. On this point I feel Bring Up The Bodies outdoes Wolf Hall, which sometimes buckled under the weight of history. I found Bring Up The Bodies also displays slightly better prose, its opening paragraph in particular being one of the more arresting pieces of writing I have read recently.

While some reviews have suggested the reading of Wolf Hall to be unnecessary in order to enjoy Bring Up The Bodies, I strongly disagree. Without being familiar with major characters such as Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas More, a reader, excepting Tudor history enthusiasts, will find certain passages unclear and confusing. While the novel will not be rendered incomprehensible, I cannot understand why anyone would seek diminish their enjoyment of Bring Up The Bodies experience by forgoing Wolf Hall.

The true success of Mantel’s retelling of Cromwell’s story lies in the fact that she tells us a tale which we may already abe vaguely familiar with and makes it fresh and engaging. Mantel should also be commended for the scale of her ambition, a trait she shares with her protagonist. If you enjoyed Wolf Hall you will find much to admire in Bring up the Bodies. If you did not enjoy Wolf Hall you may not. I for one look forward to the third part of this trilogy.

The Garden Of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

ISBN: 978-1-905802-62-3

The Garden of Evening Mists is the title of the booker shortlisted novel by Tan Twan Eng. Opening with an epigraph from Richard Holmes, “There is a goddess of memory, Mnemosyne; but none of Forgetting. Yet there should be as they are twin sisters…” the novel signals its thematic concerns from the very beginning.

The story itself begins in the 1980’s with the impending retirement of Supreme Court judge Yun Ling Teoh. Yun Ling has been recently diagnosed with aphasia and is in a race against time to construct her memories into a narrative which will help her better understand her life. The aphasia adds a sense of urgency to the project of remembering and serves as a metaphor for the equal role forgetting plays when we seek to produce a cohesive narrative of our past.

In order to better pursue her project of remembering, Yun Ling returns to the Cameron highlands, where previously she had spent two years learning the art of ornamental landscaping from a former head gardener of the Japanese Emperor, Aritomo. Their relationship is a complex one given that Yun Ling was a former “guest of the emperor” in a hidden internment camp during World War Two. Here amongst the many deprivations she suffered, the memory of her sister’s death stands out. Her sister Yun Hong, the prettier of the two girls, a fact which perhaps sealed her unfortunate fate, was selected to be a ‘comfort wife’ for the Japanese soldiers in the camp.

This euphemistic term covers what amounted to repeated systematic rape by multiple men. Attempting to escape the horrors of the camp, both sisters took to imagining gardens like the gardens of Kyoto, which they had witnessed in their youth when visiting Japan with their father, and constructing their own. Yun Hong in particular was fascinated by the subject of gardening and it is in honour of her memory that Yun Ling seeks to construct a Japanese style garden.

While staying with family friends including South African tea magnate and Boer War veteran, Magnus Pretorius, his nephew Frederick Pretorius, and his wife, Yun Ling hears about the existence of the Emperors former Gardener Aritomo who now lives in their locality. Seeing the opportunity to commission a garden fitting to her sisters’ memory, Yun Lin approaches Aritomo only to be told he no longer constructs gardens for others. He offers instead to teach her the art of Japanese gardening amongst other Zen like pursuits, such as archery.

The story takes place over three main time periods, World War two, the 1950’s and its ‘present day’, the 1980’s. As Yun Ling’s memories unfold, so to do the stories of those around her who share her world. The world which the novel explores is that of colonisation on the cusp of collapse and the emergence of a new world. The characters depicted occupying the twilight of the colonial world are products of history and the encounters it produces, the personal results of the abstract historical experience. This world, as it is depicted, is cosmopolitan and varied reflecting the complexity of the colonial experience. Marriages between mixed races and nationalities exist in this liminal space, a situation which would be unheard of under normal circumstances.

The novel features a wealth of information and research. Topics covered range from the history of Asian decolonisation and the Boer wars, to more esoteric topics such as gardening, archery, woodblock printing and the art of tattooing.  Each topic covered furthered my knowledge of this area to a greater degree, engendering in me an interest in ornamental gardening I previously had not possessed, which I found to be an enriching experience.

While the novel’s structure is heavily conventional, using as it does the common device of an aged narrator recounting their life, the way it weaves its historical threads together is expertly done giving an illusion of effortlessness in accord with the precepts of Zen philosophy which reside at the core of this book. The pacing of the story, which is slow and gentle, may not be to the tastes of an impatient reader but I feel it is appropriate to the story which is being told.

Complex strands of history and plot are presented and flow effortlessly without betraying the amount of work that must have gone into researching and plotting the novel. While reading I was reminded of T.S Eliot’s adage, Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort or by both”.The novels culmination makes patience worthwhile providing a satisfying ending which recasts the relationship between Yun Ling and Aritomo. I found the Garden of Evening Mists to be a satisfying read and would recommend it without hesitation to patient readers who will find their disposition rewarded.

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.