I started this with a fairly long-standing exasperation with the sameyness of modern literary fiction – but having recently loved works by Nicola BarkI started this with a fairly long-standing exasperation with the sameyness of modern literary fiction – but having recently loved works by Nicola Barker and Edward St. Aubyn among others, I knew it wasn't all a lost cause. Anyway, I'd long set great store by the Granta lists. (I'm probably not the only person on Goodreads who as a teenager had ambitious daydreams of being one of the writers on it. That's definitely not to be now as I would be well over the age limit in 2023 even if I were suddenly somehow able to do the whole 'writing a very good novel' thing.)
This being Best of Young British Novelists, and a group of them which would look great on any employer's diversity stats, I looked forward to hearing a lot of very different views of life in Britain. But don't read this collection, especially the first half of it, for that. Half-consciously, I was expecting the stories here (regardless of the writers' other work) to fill a remit like that of the BFI 100, “culturally British”, including all the many cultures & experiences that could mean in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Many of the stories – or rather excerpts from unpublished novels, which make up the majority of pieces - are set abroad, featuring characters who've never lived in the UK. These would have been interesting if they were fewer in number, but it rarely felt like what these authors had in common was a country as well as an age, even if there can be said to be a common theme of dislocation. This article gives a more considered view of the un-Britishness of the collection... I wished it was more like our version of the modern American literature its author describes. And, in the words of a literary blog"the double fact of not being responsible for the gifts of half of these, and not being able to hold on to the other [who have emigrated], must say bad things about our literary culture." Previous BYBN collections featured stories commissioned for them; this time the rules had changed: writers could submit bits of works in progress and 17 out of 20 have done so here, which makes this a less enjoyable read but reflects well on the three authors who do have original stories: Naomi Alderman, Taiye Selasi and Ross Raisin - less so on the rest, especially those who would have known they were strong candidates. The excerpts also have the cynical commercialism of effectively making people pay to take in a large number of trailers for forthcoming products.
These writers have great diversity ethnically, and there is a majority of women among them. (Many more black & asian women than men though.) But almost all either live in London or have a degree from a Golden Triangle university, and in most cases both apply. The majority went to Oxford - even the Cantabs could claim to be an oppressed minority here. A terribly narrow selection from the point of view of British regional and educational diversity; none without degrees and few without qualifications in creative writing – though at least we're not quite at the stage of the US and their MFA mafia. Philip Hensher in the Spectator says there is a lack of mention of sexual minorities: "as far as I know there aren't any". I wonder to any extent if this is part of the very modernity of it, because among young liberal people it's not something one necessarily needs to make a point about now; there may be more people who don't actively label themselves and are on a scale which can slide this way and that. Ned Beauman's writing always seems to include some man on man sex but can I find anything online mentioning the author's own sexuality? Nope.
In the book itself there is a lot of competent but unspectacular writing. None of the punk-Victorian verbal fireworks of Will Self, and remarkably little humour of the sort you can expect from him and from Nicola Barker. (The only really comic story here is Naomi Alderman's, though Zadie Smith and Sarah Hall at least have some sparky lightness at times.) Sometimes it felt like half the book was made up of stories by Oxford-educated non-white female writers who use no humour and try to write in a typical lit-fic style from the viewpoints of male characters from disadvantaged backgrounds living in non-western countries. Post-colonial writing still seems to be stuck under the shadow of Salman Rushdie. [Rewriting this in June, I have an unread copy of Mohsin Hamid's [book:How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia|17471016] which looks promising. Hamid was one of the authors the judges regretted being unable to include because he was slightly too old.]
Summaries of the stories & writers Serious post-colonial women: Kamila Shamsie, Tahmina Anam, Nadifa Mohamed, Taiye Selasie, Helen Oyeyemi. No humour and competent but unspectacular style in all these excerpts. There are surely are female writers from similar backgrounds who are funny and inventive, but not in this collection. (I Do Not Come to You by Chanceby Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is one I'm looking forward to reading.) Some of Oyeyemi's novels sound like they're doing something interesting with a mixture of horror genre & literary styles but her piece here isn't.
White male writers, predictable subjects: Benjamin Markovits (US campus), Adam Foulds (British historical, Second World War), Adam Thirlwell (one night stand collapses or dies on guy in US hotel room, After Hours style), David Szalay (Hungarian amateur pimp, enforcer & callgirl take a trip to London), Ross Raisin (disaster tale – this wasn't quite such a predictable “young male” subject as the others but I was still a bit meh about the writing). Some of Raisin, Thirlwell, and Szalay's published books do sound more interesting to me than these particular stories though. The much vaunted Ned Beauman kind of belongs in this group too, as his story is about a young male drug dealer. But it's also got gay sex in it, and, unlike an awful lot of current literary fiction, sounds slightly futuristic. He's one of the few authors here who seems to be doing something substantially different and interesting. I'd consider reading the novel his excerpt came from, but I'm not really interested in those he's published so far.
Steven Hall doesn't fit into any of these categories; his work is more experimental than any of the others. But its structure made it especially hard work to read on a Kindle; the stress of trying to get the second half to display in the right order outweighed any enjoyment I was gaining, and so I gave up. Better read in print. Sunjeev Sahota's story about illegal immigrants in Sheffield wasn't groupable either; I was really interested in the subject but would have liked a more distinct style and more humour.
Stuff I liked: Naomi Alderman (funny, Neil Gaiman-esque: Elijah comes to stay with North London Jewish family), Evie Wyld (tough woman on Aussie sheep farm running from her past – an excellent trailer for her new novel which I'm dying to read just to find out what happens), Joanna Kavenna (safe, familiar, friendly tale of bohemian urban friends in their 30's), Zadie Smith (American kids in 50's or 60's Greenwich Village – really want to read the rest of this unfinished novella), Sarah Hall (female conservationist works with wolves in US & signs up for aristocrat's reintroduction project in UK), Xiaolu Guo (very brief snippet about Chinese immigration experience with a little more humour than the other immigrant stories ; had really wanted to read one of her books anyway, and this just reminded me), Jenni Fagan (I loved this excerpt about a middle aged bohemian guy fleeing to the country in a post-apocalyptic England. Dying to read more. But am not interested in her already published novel The Panopticon.) (All female writers - yet in the past I've tended to read more men than women.)
Pevear & Volokhonsky translation; also read first few chapters of Edmonds. [4.5. Especially if we ignore the Epilogue.] 02/12/14
Like a huge and comPevear & Volokhonsky translation; also read first few chapters of Edmonds. [4.5. Especially if we ignore the Epilogue.] 02/12/14
Like a huge and complex orrery. The elegant movement, construction and synthesis was awe-inspiring. (Though, like other possible analogies - a classical symphony, or a dance in a Regency ball scene - there are other things I love more, whilst still being very impressed with what's there.) I was always interested in what was happening to the cast of characters, but didn't care strongly about any of them other than Marya. The elegance of the book - and perhaps some facet of the translation (P&V) - gave it a coldness. It was still frequently mesmerising though, especially in the second half, once I no longer felt the commitmentphobe's metaphorical suffocation and wish to thrash around to get free and run.
I've never been good with very big books. This is almost certainly the longest single volume I've read cover to cover since Norman Davies' Europe: A History not long after its publication in 1996. That I at least managed in one go; this was a game of two halves. Although it's only available in one volume; as a kid, despite there being a very nice 60s edition of The Lord of the Rings at home, I had to get the three separate volumes, convinced I'd never finish the thing otherwise. And I never would have bothered with this one, were it not for someone who'd always said they were even worse with big books than I was. I had lazily metonymmed a longish email of mine War and Peace (I've since written many longer reviews on here), and received a reply including a delightful, playful reflection on how it was and was not like W&P. If they could read it, so could I, I resolved instantly. (It not having occurred to me just yet that one could know the story from a film.) Reading War and Peace had been, to me, something people didn't really do these days... There are plenty on my GR friendslist who have, but before and away from GR, almost everyone I know who has is an older relative.
It's rather a twenty-first century beast in concept, this mélange of novel and narrative history and over-long all-out rant about historical causation. The first two work quite excellently. The third, well, there is too much of it. Readability was maintained as long as it was woven into the main book, but I join the legion of non-fans of Epilogue Part Two. The theories of causation, whilst an obvious leap forward from the Great Man theory that remained a staple of popular narrative history and schools long after W&P appeared, are clearly outdated because we now have ideas like systems theory, complexity, chaos, feedback etc to deal with the ideas that Tolstoy always manages to take a bit too far in the other direction from Great Man (or feels are contradictory - e.g the idea that a person can be a product of a society and also influence it). Though it's all a big puppet show by God in the end. Having done two university modules on historiography, I can see why this wasn't on the main reading lists... Though it would have been a good inclusion to encourage wider reading.
I've said an awful lot already in my notes below about the first half, and the status updates from the second. Some of the arguments are a bit blunt. There are no direct spoilers that would jump out when skim-reading such as "X dies" or "Y and Z get married" but some things may be implicitly given away. So just a few more points I especially want to make.
Being more used to Tolstoy's English contemporaries, such as Dickens or George Eliot, I always felt there was something missing in not having substantial working-class characters. In the second half there are more non-aristos, but we don't hear their internal thoughts; often the peasants and workers have something close to a hive-mind, or they are idealised types like Platon Karaetev (whom I must admit to liking regardless). Tolstoy's politics made him sympathetic to the working classes, but he started life at the other end of the social spectrum from Dickens, and slavery had only just been abolished in Russia when W&P was written - so, despite good intentions, he may not have had the same sense of working people and the poor as individual and interesting personalities. This seems obvious having heard that Pierre was based partly on himself. (He also has no qualms in heaping praise on this character or in giving him an incognito adventure that suggests Peter the Great. One can also see similarities in other characters, such as the rather meta collecting and reading of history books.) A negative way to talk about Pierre would be as a class tourist embarked on a particularly intense Eat, Pray, Love style experience - able to endure hardships better than most due to a strong constitution and healthy upbringing, and to get sympathy in the right places via his noble manner and education. But it can't be denied that difficult experiences can be transformative for many such, regardless of the cynicism it's common to apply these days.
And Natasha was based on Sofiya Tolstoy. She's one of the most widely praised characters in classic literature, but I'm afraid I just don't get it. The scenes where she's acutely miserable are brilliant, I was with her all the way, but also thinking like Winona in Heathers... I didn't know she was so deep. Otherwise she's a cute flibbertigibbet who manages to say the right things, who must be more appealing on film than on the page. I much preferred Maria, because she was such a thinker and I could understand her many struggles with bad sides of herself, (and admire her success). Lev was often uncomplimentary about his characters' appearance and later on re. Natasha he does his thing of liking things that society doesn't. One wonders what Sofiya thought, but it seems almost everyone does these days, to the point of its becoming tedious. It was almost funny to see him say of Napoleon, "never to the end of his life was he able to understand goodness, or beauty, or truth, or the meaning of his own actions, which were too much the opposite of goodness and truth, and too far removed from everything human for him to be able to grasp their meaning. He could not renounce his actions, extolled by half the world". Shows how times change. Once Tolstoy was admired widely for his pacifism and politics. But nearly everything I've heard about him in the past couple of years (and more recently about Gandhi, whom he inspired), is how badly he treated his wife. As has been common among great writers, he can be very observant and wise on the page, though a pain to live with; it might have been nicer for others if he'd lived alone with some paid help. The episode on family life near the end is remarkably Victorian-English in its ideals and prescriptions (and it contrasts itself with an implicitly more decadent French approach) - and includes - as a somewhat more matriarchal, stronger form of the Angel in the House - that concept shared by both patriarchy and many strains of feminism that women are supposed to be a taming, civilising influence on men and by extension society. One gets the impression that the women in that section had rather more say in their lives than Mrs Tolstoy, because they didn't have to spend time transcribing manuscripts.
I often wonder if modern authors of historical fiction make characters too empathic. Tolstoy may not have been universally representative in his own politics, but I think he'd have made accurate observations of behaviour at executions and battles regardless. He shows a tendency whereby soldiers or others can be quite friendly and helpful at rest, but can go into a killing mode where they don't care, and not always when they need to (men upset by carrying out executions, for example). I'm still reluctant to project this further back in time; measurable phenomena like decreases in capital punishment and violent crime indicate something changing over time in many (though not all) societies, and most obviously from the nineteenth century. [General theories, though not without flaws, in works by Stephen Pinker & Lloyd DeMause.] In Tolstoy's time there were still people around who'd lived through 1812 (he interviewed them for the excellent battle scenes, and it shows), so he can say "If in our minds we have formed an opinion of the arbitrariness and crude force characteristic of that time, it is only because the legends, memoirs, stories, and novels that have come down to us record only the most outstanding cases of violence and brutality. To conclude that the prevailing character of that time was brutality is as incorrect as it would be for a man who sees only treetops beyond a hill to conclude". But I am less certain about applying that to older examples, such as those you could find in reviews of A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.
When I was a kid, someone said to me "War and Peace isn't difficult, it's just long". Whoever it was, was quite right. There are a lot of ideas and characters in it, but it's also a big soapy story, nicely told. (Especially if you ignore the Epilogue.)
---------------- Notes on War & Peace, halfway through, 31/10/13
- A four star book. It's not all that - not the best thing I've read this year (Mason & Dixon and Life A Users Manual), nor the best major nineteenth century novel as far as I'm concerned (Middlemarch or Bleak House). But it's certainly not terrible. - Changed from the Edmonds translation to P&V after about 100pp. Whilst P&V do make word choices that annoy me and sometimes sound too modern, there is a liveliness to their version that makes it quicker to read and easier to concentrate on. Given that I just want to get through the thing, that was the priority. (I can understand why some people call this book boring.) - P&V's intro, notes and summaries of historical characters are great and mean it's almost possible to read the book without needing anything else. What they could really have done with adding, though, is a good selection of maps. - Quite a bit of W&P is, in the pejorative, lazy sense, Jane Austen-ish: narrowly concerned with aristocratic society and the marriage prospects of young nobles & gentry of the Napoleonic War era. Though with a little more high feeling and scandal than JA would include. - Emotions are frequently stronger than in British nineteenth century classics. (Oh, those Russians!) And there's an interesting dichotomy of greater insolence (saying or doing various things that would just be unthinkably bad form to the English, without consequence of being entirely shunned from all society) alongside greater worship of authority. - I don't find Tolstoy to have any more startling insight into human nature than many other well-regarded novelists. Again, he's in no way bad, simply not exceptional among them. He is also overly fond of generalisations about human behaviour and types, a pet hate of mine in fictional narratives, though admittedly a nineteenth century ubiquity. He wrote the book at the age I am now, and I would say that one of the most important things I've learned as an adult is the importance of variation between people and that generalisations, whilst they are incredibly easy to make based on cumulative experience, get in the way of understanding and relating to individuals. - Perhaps it's inevitable I'd say this being primarily a historian rather than [remind me what the term is for literature grads] but the political and military sections are a heck of a lot more interesting than most of the society stuff in town. (Though the country scenes and landscapes are what I love best. My favourite scene of all so far is Christmas at the Rostovs, which brought to mind the most joyful bits of Bergman's Fanny & Alexander.) - They simply couldn't help it, being permitted so little access to more interesting things to think about and do, but most of the female characters are relatively dull, with the exception of Marya, with her religion, charity and quiet battle against and not to be like her tyrannical father. - Religion and a religious message is more significant than in British novels of the time IIRC, though I can't say I'm bothered by it, it's just historically interesting. - As I remember thinking when I read the first 150pp or so at the start of Oct, (the rest I've read this week) this is a book of fairly normal characters who are included in their mainstream society; there are no Steppenwolves in War & Peace. - It's quite a relaxing book because - though there is the odd paragraph or scene - it rarely brings up sad memories or reminds me of people I've known. - Pierre and Andrei are engaged in various sorts of philosophical journey, where what they are doing with their time, their relationships, and all of their lives tends to be bound up in a set of feelings and ideas that is a complete world view which changes over time. (Marya is perhaps similar, it's just that her philosophy is so far entirely static, whilst P & A each change over a number of years in a way I personally understand.) - Tolstoy is rude about the appearances of so many characters in a way I can rarely recall from a serious writer. Some of these descriptions perhaps sound more pejorative nowadays, but there are people described as unattractive etc. At the start he also seemed fixated on describing characters' mouths but this has now worn off. - Given the size of the book I do miss inclusion of significant characters from the middle and working classes in a way that wouldn't really be fair comment on a 300 page novel, or about one which wasn't so frequently described as all-encompassing, “a complete picture of the Russia of its day” etc. Tolstoy, and some of the protagonists, are evidently sympathetic to improving the lives of peasants, but it's all much more distant and marginal than in his English counterparts. (And probably worse conditions: a minor character recounts that he gave three families of house serfs for a pedigree hunting dog. How did their living conditions – as serfs or freemen - compare with those of Industrial Revolution factory workers? Tolstoy is not the place to find out.) - Never would have occurred to me until I saw it frequently repeated in user reviews that W&P is not a typical novel. Perhaps because of the sort of thing I've been reading, it seems rather conventional in all but size. The other day I found that Will Self had written a rather good introduction to an edition of The Master & Margarita. Among other things he had phrased much better, and embellished, an idea I was also trying to get at in another post a few weeks ago. ...quite as wrongheaded as imagining Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote to be precursors of literary postmodernism. The truth is that all styles and modes of fictionalising were attempted before the crystallisation of the social-realist novel in the nineteenth century; that this one mode has become a deadening - near-Stalinist – orthodoxy says much about the extent to which literature is the complaisant poodle of post-Enlightenment progressivism, and very little about the rites that may be performed at the altar of high art. - It requires a sort of zen will to endurance that's something I associate with learning or re-learning certain physical skills more than with reading. Though I remember noticing it when I read The Luminaries (830 pages) a couple of months ago. (Also, I reckon Catton got her "infinite sky" - at the start - from W&P.) - Getting way ahead of myself! Was browsing editions of Proust. - I'd agree with whoever it was who told me a few years ago that War & Peace isn't difficult, it's just long. It's much like sitting through a classical symphony by a composer not quite to my taste; the structural co-ordination is the most impressive thing about it. ...more
[4.5] For a while I'd assumed from its place near the top of that list that this Irish novella was one of those Goodreads fads you practically never hear of anywhere else. Then I noticed it had won two awards for Irish books in 2012 but wasn't yet officially published in the UK. (It is now.) And - as I'd read very little new fiction for a few years - I wasn't even aware of the Waterstones Eleven until recently, let alone this book's inclusion in it.
The Spinning Heart is one of the best-constructed new books I've read so far in 2013. I just wasn't captivated by it quite so much as by the arguably slightly faultier How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia or The Friday Gospels. This sort of solid quality workmanship seems to be what wins awards though.
Having heard that it was narrated by 21 different characters in an Irish village and nearby town wrecked by the recession, I didn't expect quite so much of a story but that it definitely is, as well as being a very good portrait of a community. (The spinning heart of the title is just a little decoration on a rusty old gate - this isn't a romance.) Most of the characters know one another, none ever narrates more than once, and sometimes events are relayed as gossip, sometimes first hand. I'm quoting reviews from The Spectator a lot recently but again they describe this so well: Ryan triumphantly pulls off a trick more usually associated with the best theatre: that of entirely convincing heightened speech. These monologues, you feel, may not be exactly what the characters would say — but they are exactly what the characters would want to say. (Article here.)
The next narrator was never who I expected it to be, and there were also several events which genuinely surprised me: I usually hate predictability in art, so was very pleased with this book. A subtle avoidance of cliché is often there even in small decisions: most authors would have made the East European builder a Pole; Vasya is instead from a former Soviet Siberian republic. There are also a few male characters who care about what women they know think whilst also being pretty confident. I'm not sure why but that seems rare in first-person narrators: perhaps writers want to present clear types or caricatures, but many male narratives in modern litfic are either arrogant chauvinists or socially inept dorks.
I've read shockingly little Irish literature but what I can say is that Ryan's writing has more beauty and artistry than Roddy Doyle's (as I remember it... It was the 90's, it seemed like you had to read Roddy Doyle even if you didn't enjoy his books much). He likewise uses a vernacular, a readable one that wonderfully captures a sense of people and place but doesn't have the altered spellings of, say, Irvine Welsh - and where nearly all the dialect words are understandable from context.
Pretty much the only criticism of The Spinning Heart that's much repeated is that there may be too many characters. I was very happy with them. A large number of characters is something I like in social realist novels as it gives a truer sense of characters' circles than long stories in which someone appears only to ever speak to four people.
No fault of the author but right now I'm tired of unreliable narrators who are planning or have committed crimes; even having a small fraction of that type in here bored me somewhat.
My only criticism of the book - and I hesitate with this because I'm getting exasperated with the levels of PC sanctimoniousness on Goodreads - is of two topics which are introduced early on: a character with schizophrenia who talks about violent tendencies and a negative portrayal of a male primary school teacher. Groups who don't need bad fictional publicity on top of what the media has already done over the years with isolated real cases.
I've grown tired of plotlines about the financial crash yet this one was fresh to me: I've only heard about it in Ireland through articles and documentaries, and most fiction deals with bankers and writers and never mentions people who work in the likes of plant hire or children's nurseries. Aside from one or two grumbles this was a very impressive little book which I wouldn't have guessed was a first novel.
ETA: In a comment on this Guardian article about the Booker longlist, the excellent book blogger John Self said "The Spinning Heart is actually a very entertaining and funny novel (albeit with a sad story at its heart)... though I did think in the end that it's a bit too much of a virtuoso performance: the author showing what he can do over and over again." Absolutely spot on - it's something I was half-thinking at the time of reading but hadn't managed to put into words. But heck, if you're a debut author without lit-world connections and already this good, then a bit of artistic pride is simply self-awareness....more
"You mustn't believe what you see on TV. In this country it's the prosecutor who conducts the serious inquiries. The police help as much as they're to"You mustn't believe what you see on TV. In this country it's the prosecutor who conducts the serious inquiries. The police help as much as they're told to, but all they do on their own is chase car thieves and burglars." "Surely you're exaggerating." "A little," smiled Szacki.
If crime fiction can be good for giving a picture of a country and society - including the mundane and grotty stuff away from the tourist traps - Entanglement is top-notch. There's satisfyingly realist detail about the characters' work (they actually have to deal with several cases which started at different times and which don't turn out to be related). Each chapter opens with a series of news headlines for the day - the story takes place in June 2005 - and we also get some history when Prosecutor Szacki digs around in archives from the Communist era. There are metaphors and idioms and sayings which are obviously local (thank goodness for translators who don't try and transpose everything into English ideas) and a lot of locations and descriptions as lifelong Warsaw resident Szacki drives around his city. (Unfortunately there aren't maps, as were obligingly provided in some of Arnaldur Indriðason's Erlendur novels - but I enjoyed looking things up and by the second half of the book had built up a sense of where recurring places were in relation to one another.)
In the last year or so, a handful of jounalists keen for the new hype thing, and sales-hungry publishers, have touted Polish crime fiction as the new Nordic. Whilst there is apparently a boom in Poland, there isn't much of it around [as yet] in English - plenty of Goodreaders and book bloggers could, if they wished, finish the lot in two or three weeks. (Two of the Teodor Szacki trilogy, two standalones from Stork Press, four from the Eberhard Mock series, and two by Anya Lipska set among Polish expats in London and written in English.) For the noir side, yes, it could compete if there are more series as well-written as Miłoszewski's - but to those who read Nordic as part of a dream of living in well-run countries that share many of their personal principles, a Polish setting may not have quite such strong appeal. Catholicism is strong, and religious conservatives are numerous and noticeable: anti gay rights protests and politicians are a major theme in the news bulletins, and homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks are tolerated more than in Britain - though Szacki never makes them himself. Problems of the past loom large on a national political and social level - not only in the mind of one angsty detective. Whilst there are a number of female characters in senior jobs, this is still evidently a more sexist society than Scandinavia at the same point in time. A quarter of an hour washing-up, if he wanted to make the promised breakfast. God, how tired he was. Instead of sleeping until noon and then watching television, like all the other guys in this patriarchal country, he was trying to be a super-husband and super-dad.
Like most contemporary crime fiction I've read, Entanglement has a metafictional aspect in which characters refer to crime novels and what people typically do in them. This is done in a more sophisticated manner than some (the standard of writing here is generally comparable to the better Nordics I know such as the Erlendur series, and at times more imaginative in terms of sentence-by-sentence style). During a conversation, Szacki mentions he's a fan of Lehane, Chandler, Rankin and Mankell. An underlying wish to be an old school hardboiled detective comes through in the misanthropic, critical way he talks about many people, his perennial dissatisfaction and in the "woman who walks into the office" trope - though thankfully there's no use of the trad-noir writing style, which I can never take seriously thanks to multiple viewings of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid before I ever saw the real thing. Some GR posters refer to the influence of Rebus and other British crime novels; I'm not sure I've ever read more than the odd Ian Rankin short story, so can hardly comment, except that Szacki likes classic rock, as Rebus is known to. The social and political dimension, and procedural structure, of Nordic crime fiction is most definitely here though. The strand relating to old spies initially brought to mind the Millennium Trilogy [seen 9h film version, don't plan to read the books]. (view spoiler)[I wondered if the necessity of compromise under pressure, cover-up, and talk of corruption, related to the Italian novels Monika mentions: Camilleri and Leon. At any rate, most un-Scandinavian. (hide spoiler)] It's odd after all this to have the Christie style big reveal and speech at the end; this is a book which moves between the realist and the theatrical and traditional in a slightly different way from anything else I've seen so far. I wasn't quite sure about the set-piece ending, but it had been so long since I'd read one that it was hard to mind too much.
This is as good a read as the Scandinavian stuff, and just as addictive - I started book 2 a few hours after finishing this one - but rather than recommending Entanglement unreservedly, it's fair to mention that Szacki has traits liable to annoy some readers. He's not quite into the territory of sounding psychic, but he's often aware of an 'itchy brain' feeling, knowing his subconscious must have picked up something he hasn't realised on the surface, and when things click, he follows them doggedly when there may not be enough evidence to justify this to others. Whilst there's not a great deal of respect for the church in the novel, there is a little space for aspects of the unexplained or supernatural, such as a minor subplot involving a clairvoyant. Those who hate plots where detectives contemplate or have extra-marital affairs should probably avoid this one too.
Szacki is pretty misanthropic, he's never entirely happy with anything or anyone, and in his close- third-person narrative is often critical of others, sometimes switching back and forth quite fast between positive and negative opinions of people close to him. He's pretty vain, cares a lot about appearances, and is often to be found assessing his own and others', whilst rarely saying so out loud. There could easily be 20 pages of thoughts on fellow characters' looks and dress in here, and it’s tedious even as someone who might notice similar things. He never fails to notice how a man is dressed, if he's in better or worse shape than him, is generally ugly or good looking. As a straight man who's starting to want out of his marriage, he does spend more time on women's appearances, and can be quite rude (which may rile some). The author doesn't always let him get away with his appearance critiques: e.g. Szacki fails to understand that a man ten years younger looks like someone in a 1970s East German film not because he's a nerd with no style, but as part of a retro subculture. Szacki may not articulate all these thoughts, but he’s still brusque enough that other characters call him rude several times, to his face.
The prosecutor is quite a hardcore gamer in his spare time, and this novel features the most detailed descriptions and conversations about gaming I've seen in a book that doesn't set out to be part of geek culture. In one instance he coaxes a teenage witness to open up via a multi-page conversation about Call of Duty. Considering how many real people are gamers, it's odd how little you see of it as a hobby in general fiction.
I was hugely impressed by Miłoszewski’s invention of a curious form of group therapy for the plot: a writer whose bio mentioned no study of psychology had got all kind of nuances spot on, the good – and the bad, including the way that some therapy theories go too far by ascribing physical illnesses or complex conditions such as autism solely to psychological nurture factors. Then a founder was referenced, and I searched – it was real, just not common in Britain (though presumably better known to those who’ve taken an interest in Gestalt, to which Family Constellation therapy is related). Tangible non-verbal phenomena such as body language and facial expression, as well as things actually *said* can subconsciously remind a person of someone else and lead them to fall into patterns, providing a rational explanation for transference. And likewise, understanding of how the body is mapped in the brain, mirror neurons etc show how mirroring or adopting someone else’s posture can, especially in more sensitive people, replicate an emotional state. But I find the principle behind FCT difficult to accept, that very strong transference and projection could occur between random strangers and enable them to take on emotional states of the relatives of another therapy participant they'd never even spoken to – let alone that this could have an effect on those relatives’ behaviour via any means other than changes in the way the participant related to them. Workshops taking place over a weekend do help some people, but plenty of things take longer, especially the sort of complex dynamics this deals with. Having read the acknowledgements, I got the feeling that the author or someone close to him had a positive experience of this type of therapy, which led him to put it in the book – although the plot shows it in an ambiguous light. I have an attitude to things like this more like the approach many people would have to food or sports – if circumstances allowed, it would be interesting to try it, simply for the experience, with no expectation of it changing anything. It could just be an odd form of amateur dramatics, or something curiouser.
Ingenious though it is, I think there is a flaw in the plot. (view spoiler)[Driving someone to suicide via a perverted use of psychotherapy seems a very chancy, inefficient form of murder. Especially when the object is well off and well connected, and could easily find and afford a different therapist if he had doubts about the current one. Plus – this guy was in the secret service. He may be upset due to bereavement, but secret police don’t exactly choose their personnel based on emotional sensitivity. Ultimately he’d surely have a core of resilience that would make him way harder to crack even than the average person. You’d expect someone of the murderer’s age in that country to think of that. Although there is poetic justice in the idea of brainwashing a former secret service agent. (hide spoiler)]
Grumpy bloke Szacki isn’t the most original detective ever, albeit he has a number of distinguishing features. However, there’s a lot of other unusual material, and some pretty good writing, in Entanglement to set it apart from the average procedural. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The Friday Gospels, told by five first-person narrators, is about a family of British Mormons, a group most[4.5] Like a Mike Leigh film in book form.
The Friday Gospels, told by five first-person narrators, is about a family of British Mormons, a group most people don't think about unless some come to their door. Several blogs said Jenn Ashworth should have been one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, though she was on the BBC Culture Show's similar list a couple of years ago. She was also brought up as a Mormon in Lancashire. Wisely, this story about LDS in Lancs is her third novel, an accomplished piece of semi-comic fiction inspired by other sources as well as her own story - not another confessional debut.
If there's anything wrong with this book it's that it has so much happen in one day, such a lot of plot, in a soapy sort of way. Though perhaps farce would be a better comparison if you're willing to include some serious topics in farce as well. That one day involves the homecoming of golden-boy second son Gary who's been away on his missionary training in Utah for two years. Problems in the lives of the four other Leeke family members: mum, dad, older brother & younger sister, all come to a head over the course of the day. Some quite naturally because Gary's return is a watershed, others more absurdly.
I may have been generous to give this novel five rather than four stars but that's because not only did I love its working class provincial setting, but I really liked what it was saying about religion - the first time I've encountered a novel which has an atheist or at least anti-certain-types-of-organised-religion agenda. (But it doesn't have to be read that way.)
Ashworth has a wonderful phrase here about religion: you "feel it clanking like a chain around your ankles even when you did not believe in it any more." Absolutely spot on. I have a feeling that people with that experience will find more meaning in this book.
I went to a Catholic school but had confusing messages at home from a parent who professed atheism at times yet also went to church fairly regularly. I had a curious intermittently-devout phase between the ages of about 6-9, largely self-imposed as a sort of comfort and defence. Its principal instrument was obsessive re-reading of Sixty Saints for Girls, a gift from my late godmother,(which book I now consider to be a largely pernicious - and continuing - influence, though I don't blame the godmother in the least as she was a great person and it was a case of book + environment + personality, not just book). Aside from actual R.E. lessons, the school was not terribly severe in its religious proselytising - mitigated I think by a couple of teachers who'd experienced the horrors of Irish convent schools in the 50's and who later became politicised in the sixties. I never felt affected by fear of hell (an old-fashioned myth no-one really believed in any more, I was told more often than not) or rantings about sexual morality (religious people just didn't mention sex as anything which might affect me until long after I'd already got a plethora of info from Usborne books, novels and teenage magazines). And no-one really bothered me when I decided I didn't to be confirmed aged 12 - though it made me feel left-out and immature - but there are certain things that always stick. So it wasn't a terribly religious childhood, but enough to give me some affinity with those who were more affected. An ex, whom I lived with for a couple of years, grew up partly in a Jehovah's Witness commune (and became an atheist as eloquent as Hitchens and probably better informed about the other side). The tone of many of the Mormon morals & strictures in The Friday Gospels is familiar from his stories.
In The Friday Gospels the idea of whether there is any higher power is subtly left open: one could choose to see certain events as coincidental, as precipitated by people, or as part of a divine plan. However there is certainly indictment of aspects of religious teaching and of the stricter and more priggish members of the LDS community, and of the shame they try to impose on those who don't meet their standards. The best critique of all is contained in the events surrounding the daughter, Jeannie: of a culture which implicitly or explicitly encourages kids to act according to fables they hear, which rewards silence and a lack of questioning, and which tells girls to "defend" themselves against male sexuality whilst actually leaving them less able to deal with it than most of their non-religious peers. And perhaps worst of all (view spoiler)[black-and-white values like "Heavy petting counts as sex even if you’ve got your clothes on so by that point I was a lost cause anyway." (hide spoiler)]
The people in The Friday Gospels are very much people, characters rather than symbols for delivering a message. Ashworth isn't criticising human beings, rather teachings and beliefs. Her preparedness to find some good even in distinctly dodgy characters is what I'd associate with someone who's done social welfare work (she used to be a prison librarian) and confounds what it's usual to expect from a certain type of narrator. I felt that her prognosis for Pauline, the mother was potentially over-optimistic (view spoiler)[though thank goodness all I know about severe birth injury and what can be done to repair it comes from forums (hide spoiler)] but I could quite understand what Ashworth was trying to show. And I can't remember when I last read a book including more than one non-elderly character with a disability.
Perhaps more objectively this isn't quite a five-star book but I still think it's doing something unusual and important in containing what's usually the stuff of non-fiction rants into a very approachable work of literary or domestic fiction. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
"So my Lord is also a student of the subject?" "That's a rather strong term to use, in this island of ours. You study something, we merely have hobbies"So my Lord is also a student of the subject?" "That's a rather strong term to use, in this island of ours. You study something, we merely have hobbies. I dabble in the English mystics the way a retired general would set about exploring his family history. As it happens, those things are part of the family history."...
He seemed to embody a historical past the way no book ever could. My intuition told me that here was the last living example - and an exceptional one at that - of the genuine student of the arcane in the guise of the aristocrat-alchemist, the last descendant of Rudolph II of Prague, and one for whom, as late as 1933, Fludd had more to say than Einstein.
An expat Hungarian intellectual narrates a very British caper. (Perhaps this what I felt was missing in the Jeeves books: more ideas... and after all I'm not 100% English myself.) The Pendragon Legend, written after the author had spent time in England researching his serious non-fiction, is a satirical melange of many styles of popular British upper-class novel of the twenties and thirties, with a narrator somewhat less straightforwardly likeable than Bertie Wooster et al (closer to a Somerset Maugham character written in more polished prose), and it works really rather well. Had I read it before so many of its tropes were familiar - often from later stories - it might have been a five star. And the easiest way to describe it is, even more than with most books, by way of allusion.
From the long tradition of Gothic horror comes the journey to the castle with occult history (there are better books suited to the current weather...); the scientific bent of the current lord's researches recalls nineteenth century works from Mary Shelley to R.L. Stevenson to Arthur Machen. Mysteries tinged with supernatural possibilities may refer to Sherlock Holmes adventures like 'The Speckled Band' and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Twentysomething characters take matters into their own hands in a Famous Five-ish manner like they do in Ken Russell's The Lair of the White Worm. There are Rosicrucians, horsemen of the apocalypse, ninja-like assassins.
And romance swirls into all this like...Cold Comfort Farm, maybe? But it's not that simple. There are femmes fatales in the wings, there are more bedroom scenes than a similar English writer of the period would have dared, a couple of characters may be gay or at least bi, and our hero, like Wooster, is surrounded by strong-minded women he isn't always that keen on. (It's quite understandable in the none-too-bright Bertie, seems fair enough not to want to be intimidated by one's fiancee. But Janos Bátky admits to being that depressing creature, the intelligent man who doesn't find high intelligence in a woman terribly attractive. However we all have unfair turn-offs related to things people can't help, and the narrator often does appear to be sending himself up subtly.) An article I saw earlier this year compared Antal Szerb to Simon Raven as well as to Wodehouse; I'd meant to save this until after I'd read some Raven, but forgot; perhaps it's the racier element of these adventures that led to the Raven allusion. And the other way in which The Pendragon Legend isn't always as cosy as Wodehouse are the oddments of Imperial racism during scenes in London. (The Jeeves stories I've read have been so ahistorically nice in this respect that I wondered if the recent editions had been Blytoned. Although being actively rude about people in a book does involve mentioning them in the first place...)
These things are par for the course in a novel of this age though, and most of The Pendragon Legend is great fun. (The repeated use of the word "kind" to describe it in several blurbs is a touch misleading; this is a good book, simply not as twee and fwuffy as one might expect.) It has a slightly different angle on very British sorts of writing, whilst pitching the humour perfectly - an excellent translation - and it deserves many more readers among people who like similar stories of the early to mid twentieth century. ...more