‘Gone to the Forest’ by Katie Kitamura

2013-06-25 21.21.16There are three pages of quotes from positive reviews at the front of this book; some of them have even been written by people of whom I’ve heard. I referred to them a few times while I was reading the novel to check on what it was  I was missing, and there was always a ‘the Lady doth protest too much me thinks’ whiff about it.  It took me an embarrassing amount of time to realise that only the first page relates to this book, the rest are about the author’s first novel; in my own defence, I have to say that none of the comments on any of the three pages bear any relation to my experience of the book.

Set in an unspecified composite country on the verge of anti colonial violence, the novel is a fable about a father and son losing control of the land and their lives.  The father one of the early settlers had claimed a large tract of land on which he has lived for 40 years, wealthy from the fish he has bred in the river.  Tom, the son, has grown up under the weight of his father’s power and knows little of what goes on in the outside world.  A girl arrives, ostensibly to be affianced to the son, but instead takes to the father’s bed.  Meanwhile a civil war starts to encroach on the farm.

The most interesting thing about reading the book for me was the style of writing, which is cool and distancing; it tells rather than shows, and is staccato. With short sentences.  Where a more standard approach would be to punctuate between phrases with a comma.  A full stop is used instead.  It is very effective in making the reader aware of the book as a contrivance, as a thing of its own; it discourages an immersion into the tale, instead you are always aware of an edginess to the proceedings.

However, given that the land, and possession of the land, is, we are told, so important to the characters, it is surprisingly sketchily drawn and I had no picture of it in my minds eye.  Nor did I have any insight into the psychology of the characters.  The father is allegedly a strong man who has hewn enough of a living out of a piece of land that he can afford to import lobsters for dinner, and yet he surrenders the farm without fighting for it. It felt like an exercise in writing about a landscape that doesn’t exist, peopled by characters with no self awareness nor interior thought.

The only reason I read this book to the end was to see if I could fathom what the people who wrote so positively about it had seen in it.  In the end, I did grow to quite like the cover.

Have you read it?  Did it engage you?

‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty

2013-06-18 17.31.23This was a book which once I started it, whenever I was away from it, all I could think about was when I could return to find out what was going to happen next.  It was a tremendous pleasure, and one I’ve found with sad rarity  recently; I’m so much happier when I’m immersed in a book than when the volume I’m carrying around with me feels more like a chore than an enjoyment.

The book opens as the protagonist Yvonne Carmichael, a successful woman in her early 50s sits in court accused of a serious crime.  The case has been going well, but with one question from a barrister she realises that she is about to be undone.  The novel then unfolds the story of a brief illicit affair begun in the Palace of Westminster as Yvonne is giving evidence to a Parliamentary committee, and undertaken in a series of unlikely dark corners in central London leading to a violent and dramatic conclusion.

It’s a clever novel, as not only does it have that thriller element, asking the question how did Yvonne end up in court, and revealing the information at a satisfying pace, not too slowly (which can drive this reader mad) and not to quickly (so you can feel the tension building), but it has at its centre a highly experienced successful woman who can both be analytical enough to be aware of the recklessness of her own behaviour, and rash enough to carry on doing it anyway and blinkered enough believe the stories she tells herself about her lover.  Throw in the complex layers of deception and delusion, as well as the hint at polemic on the double standards applied in society about the sexual behaviour of women contrasted with that of men, and here is a book well worth getting your teeth into.

There is a recurring metaphor underlying the unfolding narrative.  In a scientific experiment using monkeys with their babies, the floor of their cages was progressively heated making it impossible for them to sit or stand on it.  After climbing the walls in an attempt to escape evidently eventually all the mothers would finally resort to standing on their babies.  There is always the question of what will a person do to save themselves, knowing that the answer will rarely be palatable.

The novel is also interesting from a craft point of view and the way in which it is constructed.  Much of it is written in the second person present tense, in the form of letters written to her unnamed lover by Yvonne late at night on her home computer.  It affords variety from the first person used in the rest of the book.  First person present tense is a tricky form, but it works here because the tension in the narrative is all about Yvonne, her experiences and more importantly, her perceptions; we have to be close enough to her thinking to share it, even if we as readers are telling her all the while that she shouldn’t believe everything he tells her.

My only quibble would be with the neatness of the ending, but by then I’d had such an enjoyable read that I was in forgiving mood.

I should declare a small interest here; I was very fortunate to have Louise as a mentor for a year and she was tremendously helpful to me.  I admire her writing, and could see in this book the traces of much of the advice she gave me about narrative and pace.  It  is, for me, her best book so far.

Have you read it?  Do you agree?

Iain Banks RIP

I felt genuinely sad to hear the news of the death of Iain Banks so shortly after he had revealed that his was unwell.  His novels have been very important in my reading life, one of those writers whose novels I have waited for and generally acquired shortly after publication.  I was slow to come to ‘The Wasp Factory‘ , but once I’d read it, I was a dedicated fan.  It’s bleak weirdness and black humour had me hooked.

‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’ is one of the great opening lines for a novel, and The Crow Road made a tremendous impression on me when I read it for the first time.  There was something about the abundance of ideas, of mysteries and family story, and the deepest black humour that conjured Scotland for me when I was living in Moscow.  I remember reading the book at every available moment I had, at the breakfast table, while I ate my supper and in the short time before bed when I was working 12 hour days.  I was bereft when I had finished it.

Banks was a prolific writer, producing both ‘mainstream’ novels, as well as Science Fiction under the name Iain M Banks.  I enjoyed his Sci-Fi less, but it is a mark of his versatility that I know other readers who admired these books greatly, for his comprehensive creation of an alternative world, and the sharp clever humour always at work.

I now want to revisit my favourites of his novels which are lined up on my bookshelves.  Espedair Street will be the first, I think.  A portrait of the rise and fall of a rock god,  filled with excess, betrayal, death, music and, as the blurb says ‘mistakes that paid off, and smart moves that will be regretted forever’.  It felt like an archetypal story, but with the gothic twists and sideways oddness that were so much fun in his novels.  And then maybe Whit a sardonic tale of a small religious community, led by Isis Whit’s grandfather, who may or may not be making up the rules as he goes along…….

There  is one more book to come, written while he knew he was ill.  In a very recent interview Banks joked that it could be part of his marketing strategy for it, to announce his impending death to improve sales.  It was both enlightening and terribly sad to see that he had retained his sense of humour at such a time.


‘Rook’ by Jane Rusbridge

2013-04-22 16.20.11-1It says more about the height of my ‘to be read’ pile, and the slowness of my reading, than about my enthusiasm for this book, that it has taken me so long to read Rook by Jane Rusbridge.  The slightly battered edges of my copy of the novel also testify to the fact that I have lent it to a couple of people telling them that although I’ve not read it yet, I’m sure they will enjoy it.  So when it was last returned to me I made it my priority.

It is a story about secrets, those of a community and of a family; about what is buried, both literally and metaphorically, and what one might find if one digs in the right place.

Set in the richly observed town of Bosham, it is a tale interweaving known historical facts, local folklore and a central conflict between mother and daughter, Ada and Nora.

Ada has an increasingly tenuous grasp on reality, spending much of her time reflecting on the past, through which we gather fractured fragments of her life.  She resists the care of Nora, who has returned home, without warning, leaving her life as a concert cellist to spend her time giving music lessons to local children.  The women’s uneasy home life is further disrupted by the arrival of a documentary film crew, researching the legend that an 11th century king may be buried in Bosham church, and seeking permission for an exhumation.

In order to distract herself from her own uncomfortable memories, Nora tries to keep herself busy with running and involvement with the local community, but when she finds an injured fledgling rook, the bird becomes her main focus of attention.  It lives in the house with her, and as it grows, it sits on her shoulder to be petted, or ferociously attacks unwanted visitors.  As it grows and recovers, so  does Nora.

I’m afraid, I found this aspect of the book a bit tricky, as the idea of a bird in the house, or on someone’s shoulder, sends unpleasant visceral shudders down my spine.

What I did enjoy about the novel was the rich language and the evocation of place, of the environs of the town of Bosham, and the idea of the layers of history that lie there.  It made me want to visit and explore, and to see the clouds of birds in the sky (from a safe distance birds are fine!) and feel the wind from the sea on my face, so vividly can I imagine them from the descriptions.

‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet – A Review

20130301_110437Written originally in French, and translated by Sam Taylor, HHhH by Laurent Binet is an attempt at a new take on historical fiction.

Entirely coincidentally, it comes as an excellent counterpoint to my recent reading of Jim Crace’s Harvest, and the comments he made during his talk at Foyles.  Crace said that he doesn’t do research for his novels set in the past, because facts get in the way of imagination.  Binet, or the character of himself that he portrays in the book, is the polar opposite; he drives himself nearly mad with his search for the facts, obsessively checking details like the colour of a Mercedes, green in one report, black in another, worrying endlessly about giving the historical characters internal thoughts and invented dialogue.

The novel tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, the World War II mission undertaken by Czechoslovakian parachutists to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the ‘most dangerous man of the Third Reich’.  Notionally SS second in command to Himmler, the story was that Heydrich was Himmler’s brain, which, in German was shortened to ‘HHhH’.  ‘The Butcher of Prague’, Heydrich was also one of the architects of ‘The Final Solution’, and so is a perfect subject through which to dissect the banality of evil.

Presented in 257 short chapters, the novel deconstructs the process of writing  historical fiction.  So interspersed between the story of Heydrich’s career up to his appointment as Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, and the manner in which the Czechoslovak government in exile in London was treated by the British government, are tales of the writer’s obsessive research, the films he has watched, the games he has played, his dislike of the work of his rivals and the tribulations of his relationship with his girlfriend.

This might sound as if this trivialised a serious story of great violence and astonishing bravery, but it didn’t.  Instead, despite the clear manifesto that he sets out at the beginning of the book that he will only write things he knows to be facts, dismissing others who have invented dialogue and scenaria to flesh out the history, as the work progresses, he cannot control his own imagination.  He imagines himself there, at the bend in the road, waiting for the Mercedes to arrive.  Even though he knows the outcome of the story, he cannot stop himself from imagining a happy ending for his heroes.

The pace of the novel is brilliant.  Giving the reader the information in short chapters, and, at the outset, offsetting the history with the minutiae of the writer’s life, lightens the relentless darkness of the tale; but the screw is turned slowly but constantly through the book, so that by the time it arrives at the climax of the mission, to that moment of standing at the bend in the road, the tension is nearly unbearable.  I was totally hooked and holding my breath, even though I knew what was going to happen (from a fairly awful 1970s film,’ Operation Daybreak’  with badly miscast Anthony Andrews and Martin Shaw….).

Have you read this?  Do let me know your reaction to it.

Jim Crace at Foyles

IMG00769-20130219-1931There is endless fascination in listening to writers talk about writing and their personal approach to it.

Every one is different; for each who extols the necessity of ‘writing what you know’, there are ten who insist that you must make stuff up, and for the ten who insist on years of research before setting pen to paper, there’s one who insists that you should just make stuff up.  There are the planners, setting out the skeleton of each chapter before writing anything, and then there are those who collect bits of pieces of writing together in files before they can work out what story it is they’re telling.  There are gushers and miniaturists, hand writers and iPad-ers.  For whatever aspect of character and approach you can find, it is also possible to find the polar opposite.

Maybe I’m just looking for reassurance that my own rather haphazard approach is as valid as any other.

Jim Crace (JC) is a writer whose work I admire, and as I have just read his new novel ‘Harvest‘, when a friend told me that he would be speaking at Foyles bookshop, I booked a place straight away.

He is a speaker to whom is very easy to listen, and was thought provoking in his analysis  of his own writing style.  He explained that while he might have tried to write according to what others might regard as a better way, he always returned to his own voice, which he described as the writing voice I have been given.  This voice is rhythmic, moralistic and serious, but not autobiographical .

JC suggested that his happy life is antithetical to the production of fiction inspired by the ‘use what you know’ principal, as fiction doesn’t like happiness, long contended marriages and well adjusted children.  Readers want to experience drama through fiction rather than experience it in life.

An attempt at a novel inspired by autobiography was abandoned, on the advice of his agent, after 30,000 words.  A couple of days after taking the decision to stop writing, despondent, he and his wife took a journey from their home in Birmingham to an art exhibition in London.  On the train, near Watford Gap, a generally unprepossessing space between two tiny hillocks, run through by a motorway, railway lines, home to a service station the butt of many jokes, and two rivers, one of which flows to the sea on the east coast and the other to the west, he noticed the ridge and furrow patterns in the surrounding fields.

It was that pattern in the landscape which started him thinking about the centuries of agricultural activity in England; that one of the important things about the country is that it has been occupied for so many years that there are layers of human habitation and history everywhere.  It is not possible to walk anywhere where no-one has walked before you; and that we are surrounded by the signs of history if we care to notice them; it’s all drenched in narrative.

At the watercolour exhibition the picture which jumped out at him was one of a bird’s eye view of field enclosures. This, together with his ‘Watford Gap Moment’, started him thinking about land clearances and the people affected; and that even if he wrote something ‘historical’ it could still have contemporary relevance as there have always been, and still are, people being turned off land.

He quoted Hilary Mantel’s ‘rule’ that in historical fiction if you are going to include a fact, then you must ensure that it is correct.  JC said he didn’t adhere to that tenet.  For him, facts create constraints on narrative imagination – the less you know, the more you can imagine.

The questions from the audience after he had read from Harvest, focussed on his stated intent that this would be his last novel.  Some people were worried about how he would express his creativity without fiction to write(!).  He assured us that he still has plans to write some natural history books, (which, with his love for making things up may not be entirely based on science), and that, after many years of sitting alone in his work room in his garage, he has other creative plans outside….and there’s always the possibility that he will change his mind and find the right ‘autobiographical’ book to write.

So, here’s to a Watford Gap Moment for us all today.

‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace

‘Harvest’, Jim Crace’s new novel, begins as the barley harvest is nearly over, the cutting has been done and the women and children are gleaning the last pearls before the pigs are allowed onto the fields to rootle around for the scraps.  It’s a routine familiar to every resident of the unnamed village, but their traditions are under threat.

The omens are poor when three strangers, a mysteriously appealing woman, and two men set up camp on the village’s common ground, and, on the same night, part of the manor house is set on fire.  At the same time, another man, nicknamed Mr Quill, is walking around the village scratching things in a book.

These events lead to violence, suspicion and destruction.  Over a period of a week, Walter Thirsk, the narrator, sees his adopted home ruined and his neighbours scattered.  The villagers punish the strangers cruelly, and as things worsen, turn on each other; while the landowner, newly arrived to survey the area, takes advantage of the resulting disorder.

The story is set in a past on the verge of change; old ways will be set aside to make way for sheep on the land.  It’s a time when a man might be fearful of being injured at night in case the pigs come to attack, and when the trouble caused by the arrival of strangers will so disrupt a community that they can think of nothing else, and leave farm and housework undone in order to plot revenge.

This is a book which is likely to provoke a variety of responses; dip into the discussion of it on Radio 4’s Saturday Review and you’ll get a flavour of the disparity of strongly held views.

I enjoyed it for the lyric fluidity of the prose, the evocation of an unnamed place in a time I will never know and the creation of a character I was not sure I entirely believed or trusted. But I was frustrated by the slow pace; what had felt like luxuriant description in the early chapters, got on my nerves towards the middle and end; and I was also puzzled by the narrative voice, by the complexity of expression of Walter, who declared himself to be such a simple man, but who had an extensive and elaborate vocabulary. While I was enjoying the read, I surrendered to the beauty of the voice, but, inevitably, enjoyment turned to resistance when I became impatient with the pace.

This has, however. broken a spell of my not enjoying reading anything I attempted, a time which made me feel out of sorts, and now, having found much to admire in this book, and having read it with an appreciation that took me away from being aware of the passage of time, my proper relationship with books has been restored, for which, a heartfelt thanks.

The Need to Read

IMG_2946I’ve not been reading enough lately, even though I am an adherent of the belief that it takes a better reader to make a better writer.  I’ve had a couple of false starts with novels that I began to resent having to carry around with me, and found myself reading newspapers left behind in train carriages rather than take the offending volumes out of my bag.  So I’ve abandoned the attempts at these worthy books from ‘the canon’ and instead am about to launch myself on the pile of new (ish) releases I’ve recently acquired variously through the generosity of others, and out of seeking refuge from the snow in a book shop yesterday.

I’ll let you know how I get on, but in the meantime, it’s always good to have a photo of some books.  These were in the window of a second hand shop in Galerie Vivienne in Paris.

The Bottom of the Pile

IMG00718-20130111-1137What do these two books have in common?  I’d almost forgotten I had them, but now I’ve rediscovered them, they have made me feel a little guilty because these are but a couple of the books that I have started, but never finished reading.

It’s not really apparent from the photo but both volumes are water damaged – they were at the bottom of the piles of books on the floor by my bed and were the badly affected when I had a water problem in the flat.  In a way, these are the sacrificial ones, by soaking up so much they protected the stacks above them; so even though there were 20 or so piled up handy for bedtime reading, only these two were damaged.

But the fact remains, I’ve never finished them.  Now that they have resurfaced, should I attempt to read them again?  Can I even read the water damaged pages, some of which are a little stuck together; or should I replace them and try again?  They have a war theme in common, but I’m fairly sure I bought them several years apart.

I bought Stalingrad because I had talked, or rather, encouraged my Russian teacher to talk about, the siege of the city in the Second World War, as it was his home town and he had family stories to tell.  It’s a dramatic story, but somehow I couldn’t stick with the book.

The Kindly Ones originally published in France, was a celebrated there as a literary phenomenon, and a number of my French colleagues recommended it to me.  I didn’t feel up to reading it in French, but when I saw it had been translated I bought it fairly quickly, and I tried really quite hard to persevere, but abandoned it after about 100 pages, which as you can see didn’t make much of an impression on the whole thing.

I’ll let you know if I do go back to them…..

So, what books have you never managed to finish, worthy or otherwise?

The Life of Pi – A Review

I must have picked up the book of The Life of Pi, and put it back down again several time before I finally bought it, probably as the third book in a ‘three for two’ offer.  Each time I had been put off by the blurb on the back, which talked about philosophy and theology; and generally, I prefer a story which inspires insight, rather than being signposted to something deep.

As it turned out I really enjoyed the book; I read it entirely as an allegorical adventure, as an act of pure story telling, which I consumed, utterly engrossed, and when I wasn’t reading it, I was anticipating getting back to it.  Any philosophy rather passed me by.

I approached the movie wondering how believable the story of the boy Pi surviving a ship wreck on a life boat with Richard Parker, an idiosyncratically named adult Bengal tiger, could be on the screen, when in my imagination it had made perfect sense.

The fact that the film is in 3D was also something which I wondered about, I’ve never seen a whole film in 3D before; apart from a short cartoon thing at Disneyland, I was a novice to the technology.  Until now, the movies that have come out in that format have not appealed to me, based on special effects rather than story, and so I was curious to see what the effect would be.

The answer is that the film is beautiful, exploring every possible aspect of a small boat adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, storms, waves washing over them, starlit skies reflected in still water, flying fishes, a whale, and glowing jelly fish.  All with an adult Bengal tiger (albeit mainly CGI) on board.

The thing I liked in the book was the step by step way that Pi learnt how to mange the tiger, from pure fear for his life, through incrementally, gradually gaining ground on it, to finally training it.  The cod religious themes were more noticeable to me in the film than the book but not to such an extent that it spoilt it, and it certainly didn’t feel like a long film, even though it is, at over 2 hours.

I think, because I suffer so badly from sea sickness, what appealed to me most was the strategic use of boat rocking to induce nausea to make the tiger more malleable.  I just know how it felt.

And fundamentally the film is about story telling and film making, because it poses the question about story, which would you sooner hear, an elaborate imaginative, beautiful one, or one which is bleak and mean?

I’m still not convinced about  the 3D-ness of it, as although having things leap out of the screen at me was a bit startling, it wouldn’t be my first choice for entertaininment; I think I would have enjoyed it as much in the regular 2 dimensional format (and I wouldn’t have got the dent in the top of my nose from the silly glasses.)

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