When I read Life After Life a few weeks ago, I so fully admired its craft that Kate Atkinson led me to use a new set of critical questions as I leaptWhen I read Life After Life a few weeks ago, I so fully admired its craft that Kate Atkinson led me to use a new set of critical questions as I leapt through the chapters. What is she (Atkinson) doing in this uncommon sequence, and its disdain for expected sequences? Where is she taking me in this unexpected narrative? How could this novel have evolved in this graceful and yet angular way? Its parts seemed folded over each other, not assembled in any usual, contiguous structure, like origami applied to narrative, but not with experimental arrogance. Think of the square folded paper toys you once made out of notebook paper, with ominous fortunes written inside. Or something like that. Case Histories, an earlier novel, is ostensibly about crimes, but they too are folded unpredictably together with improbable coherence. And that became a criterion for my reading: Against what odds, I asked myself, am I thinking with Kate Atkinson here, and following the remarkable flow of the cards she is dealing me? Then I remembered another fresh novel that recently led me toward this new sort of collaboration with an unconventional narrative: The Orphan-Master's Son.
Perhaps I am becoming a better and more patient reader, or I am discovering more complexity and more illusions of insight as I progress. Or maybe I simply have come upon three books that have led me to the edges of awe. Two of them by the same writer, however, tells me there is no accident in this experience....more
Quirke does not change, ever. Nor do the demons he carries and evokes involuntarily throughout his work as a forensic pathologist in nineteen-fiftiesQuirke does not change, ever. Nor do the demons he carries and evokes involuntarily throughout his work as a forensic pathologist in nineteen-fifties Dublin. The haunted man's fragile consciousness allows a form of nearly-lost love for his daughter and his actress companion, though he would prefer to be isolated from virtually everyone in his life. The murders he encounters are almost always in some way evocative of the tremors of Quirke's life; in this book, the victim is someone he and his daughter have known. The procedural that follows involves the church and its priests -- and inescapable memories of his brutal childhood at their hands. He is drinking and hallucinating, and we cannot anticipate his future with optimism. The murder becomes increasingly bare of importance, though yet immense in pathos and misery. The writer Benjamin Black/John Banville also does not change: his sentences inspire awe and his dwelling within Quirke is flawless, making the reader both full of joy in the reading and full of sorrow for the capacity of grief it can hold....more
Fin McCleod seems reduced in this final volume of a superb trilogy. The book has so many flashbacks and early life history that I failed at times to kFin McCleod seems reduced in this final volume of a superb trilogy. The book has so many flashbacks and early life history that I failed at times to keep up with the contemporary narrative, or to see Fin as a grown, haunted man. Throughout the three books what has been most compelling to me is the construction of the Lewis world, insular as it is ancient, unforgetting as it is vengeant. As with books of this richness of character and place, it is not the purpose or unraveling of the problem that reveals the most, but the construction of an entire society with a history of unhealed wounds. As a mature reader I know that such wounds may never heal. But as a projecting reader who has now lived inside this protagonist with a messy history for three thick and superior stories, I want him to find a peaceful place in these isles, with an abundance of solace and reconciliation. These are superior novels that transcend genre....more
After The Blackhouse, this is the second in May's Lewis Trilogy, extending the tensions and dark weather of the first book. This is very good news forAfter The Blackhouse, this is the second in May's Lewis Trilogy, extending the tensions and dark weather of the first book. This is very good news for readers of crime procedurals, especially those requiring the living to excavate the past. The excavation in this novel is literal, but it has an extraordinary imaginative dimension in that much of the past is related to us through clouds of an old man's dementia. In retrospect, I am struck by the extraordinary architecture of the past that May has invented and mastered in both books. I learned to admire this in the work of the great American master, Ross Macdonald, almost fifty years ago. Such crafted coherence and tireless detail still deserve awe. On to Book Three....more
In this book set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, Dublin detective Fin Macleod returns to the barren place of his childhood, coincidIn this book set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, Dublin detective Fin Macleod returns to the barren place of his childhood, coincidentally at a deeply barren time in his own life. But there is little true coincidence here: the barrenness is endemic and pervasive in both the place and the man. Not unlike Tana French's excellent novel, Faithful Place, it is clear in The Blackhouse that the past is a state of mind with tenacious claims on the conscience. And, not unlike Ms. French, Peter May has a superb capacity to clarify the weight of metallic sea, grey stone, peat smoke, tribal manliness, and how these crush the human tendency to expand and grow into a contemporary life. It is a place where breathing is difficult without inhaling infectious spores of one kind or another: betrayed love, economic stagnation, near-primitive protestantism, and all the smothered possibilities deep beneath. May creates the claustrophobic vines of the past, but also assures that its tendrils drag down the living day in a contemporary crime of brutality and amorality. The crime, however, kept slipping from my attention as I read, so thrilling is this writer at portraiture and landscape. His people are not vague, nor are his places scenery: we are there and a part of us wants to stay there and fill our senses, despite what we inhale. This is the first of a trilogy; the second book, The Lewis Man, is in my hands now. It is even better than The Blackhouse is....more
The quality of the writing in this work is superior to any other crime novel I have read, and its protagonist is among the most complex and opaque amoThe quality of the writing in this work is superior to any other crime novel I have read, and its protagonist is among the most complex and opaque among a legion of inquisitors. The prose simply stopped me, requiring a rereading, and sometimes another. Here, a man enters his father's nursing home room.
"There was a bed, a chair, a bedside locker. A copper beech tree outside loomed in the high sash window, darkening the room within and giving it an underwater look. Jack's father inhabited this cisternlike space with the indolent furtiveness of an elongated, big-eyed, emaciated carp. Over time he had taken on protective coloring so that always when Jack entered the room it took him a moment to make out the old man's figure against the background of drab wallpaper and the brown blanket on the bed and the rusty light in the window." A page later the father transforms from a fish to something like an insect: "As a young man Philip Clancy had been tall and thick and now he was stooped and gaunt. He had a small head with a domed forehead and a curiously pitted skull on which a few last stray hairs sprouted like strands of cobweb."
Most often the sentences that hold the reader are simply extended by a phrase or a repetition, a nuanced fold or an evocative word, all done with subtlety and exquisite purpose.
There are inexplicable deaths, of course, and detection of the Dublin murder police sort, but in the end the resolutions seem to be merely required afterthoughts; as reader I wanted more of the murky pubs and motives, drink and smoke and dark air. All of the books in this series, set in the smothering fifties of the last century, are barely modern. Quirke, the police surgeon at their center, might as well have emerged from a book co-written by Dickens and Dostoevsky. He carries an impenetrable darkness everywhere, and that is the pull for the reader. And, as in all good books, it does not end at the final page....more
After the traumas of moving, I have read one book at last, but very slowly in the midst of exhaustion. Three stars for this third novel by a favoriteAfter the traumas of moving, I have read one book at last, but very slowly in the midst of exhaustion. Three stars for this third novel by a favorite writer, because her second book was so fine, and now her fourth -- as I have read -- is the best of all. I love the voices in this novel, all Irish, all common with such graceful intimacies and insults among old friends amid their toxic families. The families are bleak, and the place (Faithful Place) is at its best in memory, where much of the novel is set. An old murder, a new murder, and the detective is drawn reluctantly back to his roots. Tana French is an engaging writer. If a reader wants to try her, I would start with her first book and read them in order. ...more
The sure voice of Easy Rawlins allows us to see the searcher as a person of methodical edginess, asking questions that probe and invite but do not invThe sure voice of Easy Rawlins allows us to see the searcher as a person of methodical edginess, asking questions that probe and invite but do not invade or disrespect. As a black veteran in postwar Los Angeles, he is an artful gymnast always on shaky ground, trying to remain human while maintaining the uneasy balance of a job, a home, and experiences with the depravities of white and black cultures. His treasured house is his anchor; the dissonances of war remain consequential and ambiguous, but having a place in the world makes Easy more of a man likely to survive. Always a reluctant detective, I think, he takes on the quest in order to be a man who can help to make things right. While he is honorable and conscientious in this way, dire threats surround him from everywhere, and there is no trust or guidance to master the fears he must negotiate. In my notes for a talk I gave about this book, I acknowledged how little I cared to know the fact of guilt or innocence, or method or motive. I wanted the glide of Easy's thinking and constructing, the telling of the story, the angle of his view. ...more
Hack, hack! Cough, cough! Everybody smokes in 1950s Dublin, so I am feeling the need to air myself out. There is such pleasure in these books, going bHack, hack! Cough, cough! Everybody smokes in 1950s Dublin, so I am feeling the need to air myself out. There is such pleasure in these books, going back safely into the fifties -- as in the new BBC drama, "The Hour" -- and thinking of the tentative recovery of Britain from the war. Benjamin Black (John Banville) is such a superb writer; the first descriptions remind you of what an artful hand can do, and they simply improve. This series is fine, reminding me to pick up the next John Lawton as soon as possible, just to keep the smoke billowing and the heavy tweeds fragrant....more
This is where one might well start in reading the Frederick Troy series, since it is the chronological foundation of these novels, even though the booThis is where one might well start in reading the Frederick Troy series, since it is the chronological foundation of these novels, even though the books have not been written sequentially. My interest in the era leads me to Blitz books, and this one added to my knowledge of the period and the psychological complexity of Britain's state. Though it is fiction, it tells very well, with close observations that only fiction can offer. Lawton is very strong in this capturing, and the reader is part of his captivity. The book begins in Europe, with Hitler taking Austria, then moves its multiple strands of storytelling to England, where they play out. The reader needs to accept a high incidence of coincidence, irresistible sexuality, and the rights and powers of huge wealth. But there is plenty of kitchen-sitting, pub-talking, and murder under the bombs....more
Another fine novel in the southern genre that combines interracial friendship, hidden sex, personal betrayal, and rural crime. (Is this a sub-sub-genrAnother fine novel in the southern genre that combines interracial friendship, hidden sex, personal betrayal, and rural crime. (Is this a sub-sub-genre?) Characters here are all sharply drawn, even the minor ones. While it addresses a pretty gentle but unforgiving local ethos -- and I am guessing its details are captured well in the book -- it is more about a personal ethic and how it has to emerge (despite being submerged) after decades. ...more
This surprising and compelling novel is written for the intellect, though it is dominated by sorcery and magic so arcane that a lexicon is provided --This surprising and compelling novel is written for the intellect, though it is dominated by sorcery and magic so arcane that a lexicon is provided -- but having the words does not mean that the reader can possess or describe these events with rationality or continuity. Something happens, something else happens, then magic happens and the flow of the story slides into another dimension. There are three equally engaging narrative streams here: the story of Jane Doe, an anthropologist living under a stolen identity; a series of journal entries from her time as an observer of peoples who live off the map, in worlds defined by spirits; and a serial, ritual murder case in Miami. Not even the last, dominated by a homicide detective named Jimmy Paz (who appears in other works by Gruber), is pedestrian in the slightest way. The other novels I found resonant as I read these pages – Heart of Darkness, Possession, Poisonwood Bible, The Magus – suggest to me that I was reading while transported. (Fowles is the closest of those four.) In a world suffused with excess rationality, and a limited plane of discourse, it is often useful to be reminded that, “The only way back to normal is through the magic.” ...more