On page 67 of Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, Peter Stothard acknowledges what the reader knew some 60 pages earlier. ‘This is becoming a bo...moreOn page 67 of Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, Peter Stothard acknowledges what the reader knew some 60 pages earlier. ‘This is becoming a book about me. That is not what I intended.’
Based on the cover, one might assume this to be a conventional history of Cleopatra; born 69 or 70 BC, the last pharaoh of Egypt, the woman who murdered and seduced to advance her political ambitions. Theatrical motifs from her life are scored into our collective unconscious. It is said that at 21 years old, she was smuggled past Ptolemy’s guards in a carpet and unveiled to Julius Caesar, then over 50, and became his mistress. She dissolved a pearl in a cup of wine and drank it to vex her other famous lover, Mark Antony, in a bet over who could feast the most extravagantly. And her grand finale, a spectacular suicide involving (if Shakespeare and the Victorian painters are to be believed) a basket of figs and an asp. There have been countless depictions of her story rendered in art and print, and yet since the age of nine, Stothard has wanted to make his own version.
This book is partly about Cleopatra and partly about the author watching himself trying to write about her. For this is Cleopatra the eighth, as in, ‘precisely the eighth time’ Stothard has attempted this biography. ‘I never intended to write so much here about my own life,’ he reiterates later in the book, getting a twinge of writers’ doubt over past promises unfulfilled:
‘But I do select every memory by how much it connects to those promises. It seems random. But there is a reason, a pattern and, in the end maybe, a picture too.’
Yes. I can confirm there is a lucid and rewarding whole.
This is a history book because I now know more about Cleopatra’s life and times than I did before. It is also a writer’s journal, a record of false starts when one has a project in mind that eats away at you if don’t get it down on the page. It is travel writing, about Stothard’s days in Alexandria in January 2011 and the prelude to the Arab Spring. And it is memoir, recalling the author’s intellectual awakening and most especially two friends, Maurice and V, who, though not so very close to Stothard in the usual sense, both challenged, frustrated and inspired him.
Peter Stothard is the editor of the TLS. He was the editor of The Times from 1992 to 2002, chronicled Tony Blair’s war from inside the goldfish bowl, is a survivor of cancer and a classicist. These accomplishments make it difficult somehow to reconcile this as the author of Alexandria, an object which represents childhood wish fulfilment. The prose is as clear and elegant as you would expect, but the tone is surprising. Alexandria is meditative, sentimental, written from the heart, not from a journalistic imperative.
One of themes in this book is how written language, the most indelible method we have of recording human thought from one century to another, is fragile. Names of the ancient Egyptian dead, cut in stone to guarantee immortality, were later chiselled out by enemies to obliterate souls in the afterlife. The burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria is another motif Stothard evokes when he describes going to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a vast, modern complex built to recapture the spirit of the original. (Of course, Stothard does what any procrastinating author might be tempted to do: he looks himself up.) Even his writing, many hundreds of thousands of words over the course of a career, is vulnerable. ‘Most have sunk deservedly deep beneath the library sea,’ he says.
Words have permanence when they’re not lost or destroyed.
Sometimes a mere fragment survives from classical antiquity for scholars to pore over. There is, Stothard explains, one example of Cleopatra’s handwriting discovered recently on a papyrus used as post-mortem packing material. It is a tax exemption for one of Mark Antony’s generals drafted by a secretary upon which Cleopatra writes in Greek, ‘ginestho,’ meaning, ‘let it be done,’ ‘make it happen,’ a single queenly command passed down through the ages.
In Alexandria, Stothard concentrates on the ephemera of his Cleopatra, different incarnations rough-written, partially typed, bits copied or sellotaped together. He arranges them in his hotel room and his mind. He’s drawn into spaces of the past, schoolrooms, college bedrooms, red tents, drab offices, while giving the reader a sense of this as unfinished business as though the decades spent on news and politics were an interruption.
It is possible, perhaps, to read too much into a bereavement or health scare as the motivation for making work. Books have a spirit of their own. Sometimes authors don’t realise what they’re writing until they’ve written it, and this memoir is unusual because it lays that process bare. The people on the page, whether they lived long ago or are alive and well today, are captured as an impression – a reaction – a mood. It’s a way for the author to understand these relationships. Stothard has succeeded in writing his book about Cleopatra, yet her presence in our memories was already assured. It is the people history probably wouldn’t remember, his friends, his teachers, his colleagues, his guides, that he has done a real service to. This is writing from kindness.(less)
During his book talk at Norwich Playhouse on Saturday 10 May 2014, Ray Davies says, ‘I didn’t use a ghostwriter, I could have done.’ This isn’t news t...moreDuring his book talk at Norwich Playhouse on Saturday 10 May 2014, Ray Davies says, ‘I didn’t use a ghostwriter, I could have done.’ This isn’t news to me because I’ve read it, and there’s no doubt in my mind he weighed and wrote every word.
There is nothing inherently wrong with rock stars using ghosts for their memoirs. These books, composed from hours of recorded interviews, are filled with pleasing anecdotes captured in the speaking voice of the ‘author’ and are often eminently readable. Keith Richards virtually shared credit with his ghost, James Fox. The problem with the ghost-written conceit is that when an artist comes along who actually does write their own book – and in doing so creates a work of dignity worthy of being read – there’s no way of telling the difference by looking at the cover.
In ‘Americana’, Davies tells two stories about his life and work in the United States. The first narrative spans three decades, beginning with the Kinks’ arrival as part of the British beat invasion in June 1965 and subsequently getting banned due to ‘bad management, bad luck and bad behaviour’. What follows is the slow rehabilitation of the Kinks’ credibility through years of touring and some 20+ studio albums until, in 1990, they are officially accepted back into the hearts and minds of America when they’re inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The second story is more recent, recalling the dramatic events surrounding a day in January 2004 when Davies was shot by a mugger in New Orleans. When news filtered back across the Atlantic that the lead singer and songwriter of one of the most influential bands of the twentieth century was hospitalised with a gunshot wound, the obituary writers must’ve been ebullient . . . but they were left unsatisfied because Ray Davies survived.
Enough is written in print and on the internet about Ray Davies’s accomplishments so I won’t repeat them here, except to say ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a flawless masterpiece. In ‘Americana’, he calls his song-writing muscle the ‘doo-di-dum-dums’ and describes it as too personal to share, an explanation that will frustrate music theory scholars for years to come. Characters and their stories are the lifeblood of his songs, and his book introduces the reader to several characters of note over the Kinks’ career including loyal roadies, trusted security minders and foppish managers. By no means is this a tell-all autobiography. There are no insights into the cause of apparent bad feelings between himself and his guitarist brother, Dave Davies, merely an acknowledgment of them and a tenor of regret. Gossip here is limited, so readers looking for vicarious sex-and-drug fuelled experiences will have to go elsewhere (although the part when Dave Davies and Keith Moon are unable to throw a television out a hotel widow because the window was too small did make me laugh).
Instead Davies builds a picture of years of touring and recording, of a relentless pressure to deliver the next show and the next album, and how these obligations have taken their toll. The road is not conducive to a stable family existence, and he missed the court appearances of his shooter and, by an unkind twist of fate, the death of his mother due recording commitments he felt he had no choice but to fulfil.
The creative life once chosen does not always go according to plan. Anxiety comes with the effort of producing and perfecting work. There’s a lovely chapter set in March 1978 in New York when Davies admits to having writer’s block and struggles even to leave the apartment:
‘Who were music people, anyway? It’s just another business, after all, and I don’t have to put myself through all this. I wanted to cry out, “I am a successful songwriter with many songs to my credit. I am an artist. I deserve to be heard.” The reality was that I didn’t feel like a songwriter because I couldn’t produce at that time. Questions kept running through my head. What are you trying to prove, anyhow? You just got lucky a few years ago, so why should the world open up to you just because you wrote a few hits in the distant past? I thought about going home to get a trade and a day job. I was ready to quit the music industry altogether . . .’
In his talk as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival (a literary event, not a music one) Davies says that when he gives a bad performance, he walks the streets. It’s easy to imagine the stream of self-reproaches, the over analysis of each mistake, the resolutions to get it right next time. In the Q & A part of the evening, I ask how the creative process has changed over the years? He replies he is more refined and more critical now, that it’s important to get the bad ideas out as well as the good ones, that no matter what else has gone before, the writing still begins with a blank piece of paper. It is refreshingly honest. And this is the real thrill in ‘Americana’, the honesty with which he deals with the recent past.
Davies goes to New Orleans in search of inspiration, to soak up blues, jazz, the spirits of musicians living and dead. He stays at a house where he can hear a high school marching band practicing nearby and decides to facilitate a project with them.
Then he tells the story of being gunned down and it is astonishing.
After being circumspect about the history of the Kinks, the reader is taken fully into Ray Davies’s point of view: the weather on the day, the face of the attacker, the instinct to fight back that was later the source of victim-blaming in the press by New Orleans authorities. The wound, the shock, the miasma of pain relief. The fact that for a time in hospital, because all his cards had been stolen, the medical staff called one of England’s famous sons, ‘Unknown Purple’. These chapters are full of intimate detail and stark vulnerability. The author wears his heart on his sleeve and whatever can’t be said directly is illustrated through selected lyrics.
‘See the sun, the day has come, and the night is just a memory / Do you live in a dream or do you live in a reality?’
It is a sincerely attempted self-portrait and a revelation.
‘Americana’ is not Davies’s first memoir. ‘X-ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography’ was a playful experiment in semi-fiction published in 1994. Twenty years later he is using prose to tease out personal truths and as healing; the result is a piece of writing of rare and thoughtful quality. With perhaps one or two exceptions (‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith springs to mind) the vast majority of Davies’s musical peers are simply incapable of this much depth and self-awareness in book form.
In the audience in Norwich, I suspect I am the only person who has read ‘Americana’ in advance and is more excited about meeting Ray Davies, the author, rather than Ray Davies, bona fide rock god. I want the interviewer to ask about his literary influences, not his musical ones, but the questions put are predictable and crowd-pleasing. The crush in the book-signing queue after is not conducive to writerly confidences and I sense an opportunity slipping away. There are several things I wish to know from this author and only the length of a signature left to ask; so I take a leap of faith based on the person I’ve met on the page.
‘It’s a great book,’ I say. ‘Are you going to write another?’ Yes, he replies. ‘What are you going to write about?’ And he tells me.(less)
One of the most resonant phrases ever written is, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’ (Matthew 4:4). To me this means there is nourishment other than...moreOne of the most resonant phrases ever written is, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’ (Matthew 4:4). To me this means there is nourishment other than the basic necessity of food to keep us alive; there is the nourishment of the heart, nourishment of the mind, nourishment of the soul. To me, it says we are more than merely physical beings, that we are entitled to make the most of our intellect, creativity, spirituality and compassion. Moreover, that we have an obligation to – that we are morally compelled to be curious about the world and the gifts in it – and if we choose not to do this, then we are letting ourselves down in a terrible way.
Reading The Emperor of Paris reminded me of this idea.
This is CS Richardson’s second book (his first was the award-winning The End of the Alphabet). It is set in early twentieth century Paris. Part way through, the Great War disrupts the lives of the Parisians, and then the story resumes with the characters picking up the threads of their lives. But this is incidental.
It is a romance, as one would expect. There is a girl, Isabeau, who reads books in the park and cleans paintings at the Louvre. There is a boy, Octavio, the son of a baker, who inherits his father’s gift for storytelling. There is a terrible fire in the bakery that destroys his library. There are the gossips who act like a Greek chorus, commenting and speculating as events unfold. Anyone who has read Girl Reading could guess how it might appeal to me. All the ingredients are here; Richardson even dispenses with speech marks.
But there are other kinds of romance: the smell of croissants; the bookstalls on the river bank; the colour of book spines; the starving artist who washes his canvases in the Seine and never sells a single work; the young woman who resembles The Spring by Ingres, and yet hides her face from the world with a scarf. The perspective switches, taking in a variety of people with little lives and little dreams.
Sometimes when reading The Emperor of Paris, the images in my head turned into book sculpture. The characters seemed to be cut from the printed page, the landscape they inhabited was novelesque, as in ‘made out of novels’. I mean this as a compliment.
When I was giving my author talks at The Philharmonic in Naples, FL, several people asked me if I had seen the Painting Women exhibition? ‘It’s synchronicity!’ they exclaimed, referring to the epigram in my novel and one of the themes explored by Elaine Newton. Yes, I did indeed see the exhibition, and I thought it was superb. What they didn’t know, however, is that the very morning before I saw Painting Women, the showpiece of which is La Visite au musée by Degas, I had read the part in The Emperor of Paris where Isabeau is given the Louvre guidebook, then goes to visit it for the first time. Now that’s synchronicity.
Reviewing a book you like or respect is a simple matter. You tease out several good points, dotted perhaps with one or two weaknesses, and so the reviewer comes across as impartial, the review balanced. However, if you love a book (or hate it), your review turns into hyperbole. The reviewer’s voice raised in hysteria becomes unreliable.
I declare that I adore this book. It is fragile and beautiful. It aches with romance. It is for art lovers, book lovers and Francophiles. It tells its tale quietly and splendidly.(less)
Suffolk, July 1940 . . . In terms of choosing a place and time to set his debut novel, Jason Hewitt is off to a scintillating start. Suffolk is a coun...moreSuffolk, July 1940 . . . In terms of choosing a place and time to set his debut novel, Jason Hewitt is off to a scintillating start. Suffolk is a county of diverse landscapes, rich in myth and fascinating histories that includes a wild man, green children, a buried Anglo-Saxon ship, UFOs and an abundance of rumours concerning thwarted German landings. The Second World War is of course much written about, but Hewitt’s angle is well chosen for this is Britain in the early throes of war with no end in sight and without a key ally, the United States, to tip the balance. The Channel Islands have just been occupied by the Nazis and an invasion of the British mainland seems entirely plausible, even imminent.
In ‘The Dynamite Room’, Hewitt tells the story of a Suffolk girl, the sole occupant of a house in an isolated village, who comes face to face with a Nazi soldier; the soldier takes her as his hostage. Whether this tale has any basis in fact whatsoever, whether it was propaganda designed to needle the conscience of our American cousins or just a product of wartime paranoia and too many pints of Adnams may never be known. But that doesn’t matter, because Hewitt’s version gives us a fleshed-out psychological drama between two extraordinary characters, Heiden, the first of a German invasion party to reach dry land, and Lydia, 11 years old and utterly alone.
Both Lydia and Heiden are resilient in their way. Both are afraid of – and dependent upon – one another. The book provides an explanation of how such a meeting may’ve occurred and plays out the intriguing consequences. Domestic challenges such as trying to get the water running, sharing a dinner with one’s captor or prisoner and procuring maps from hiding places are magnified into emotional battlegrounds. Each character probes the other for information while trying to conceal their troubled past and the anxieties of the present.
This is WWII fiction as apocrypha and alternative reality, as opposed to researched-to-the-nth-degree realism. Hewitt delves into his two lead characters’ points of view, in essence switching the protagonist/antagonist roles. Some of the flashback scenes are ambitious, and perhaps uneven as a result, because this writer is trying to explore human feeling in extremis. Not wishing to detract from the Nazi character whose conflicting motives drive the story forward, Lydia is the one who steals the show. She’s vulnerable without being passive and at a precarious age where innocence is ebbing away and full maturity has yet to blossom. Her thoughts and reactions are the soul of this novel.
It’s interesting to note that Hewitt is an actor and playwright because his work undoubtedly has the dramatic elements of a play. Claustrophobic, touching, character-driven and told in lovely prose, this novel has great crossover appeal. Readers who loved ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne and ‘The Separation’ by Christopher Priest will have a strong affinity with ‘The Dynamite Room’.(less)
In The Hunger Trace, Edward Hogan’s second novel, we’re led through a landscape that feels simultaneously familiar, intimidating and astonishing. Derb...moreIn The Hunger Trace, Edward Hogan’s second novel, we’re led through a landscape that feels simultaneously familiar, intimidating and astonishing. Derbyshire and falconry; a wildlife park and a love triangle that includes a deceased husband; a young man with special needs and a preoccupation with Robin Hood . . . Each of these themes has outward charms to be sure. But take a closer look, the way Hogan does, at these characters’ precarious existence, at their preoccupations and how they pit themselves against one another. Battles over territory, mating privileges and tests of strength pulse beneath the surface of seemingly mild personalities.
There are three characters we come to know intimately. Maggie, the young widow of David Bryant, pretty, placid and urban who inherits a languishing wildlife park. Christopher, her stepson, who is difficult and vulnerable, and at odds with his stepmother. Finally, Louisa, a woman who lives on the estate and who keeps no company except her hawks.
David is the centre of their world – and the void in it. Louisa in particular pines for him because she has the longest history with David though the true nature of her craving is obscured by the hold she had over him in life.
The natural world seeps into these relationships, literally and figuratively. There are practical problems to solve like when the herd of ibex are set free by persons unknown and tracked down to Morrison’s car park, or when the worst rains in a century come, flooding roads and endangering the raptors’ aviary. At times like these Maggie and Louisa have no choice but to work together, for whom else can they turn to?
Maggie is the warmer of the two women and sees better then Louisa does how much they have in common. Louisa, made bitter by experience, is unwilling to relinquish the comforts of isolation. They’re ostensibly rivals though the object of their mutual affection has died. The language and gestures are human; the forces moving them are animal.
Christopher is more than just a troubled teen, he is an abandoned child in a man’s body. His real mother is alive and well and has had nothing to do with him for years. He cannot accept the maternal overtures from Maggie for what they appear to be. What he would like most is to create his own family where he’s the man of the house or, alternatively, live the life of a noble outlaw in Sherwood Forrest. Neither dream is very realistic. Christopher is the physical embodiment of David, the new focus of Maggie and Louisa’s emotions, challenging and unpredictable. He requires no less patience than an injured animal who may attempt to bite you while you’re trying to save it.
The recurring image of falconry in this book is excellent. The delicate balance between care of the birds to keep them healthy, and the measured denial of food to keep them returning to the falconer’s fist works for numerous reasons, exposing the complexity of the human relationships that surround. This is but one example of Hogan’s creative brainpower, whose prose is crisp, the sounds and views of Derbyshire beautifully recreated. Equally impressive is the thorny friendship between Louisa and Maggie, how it deepens through the story, how each finds themselves influenced by the other.
Jealousy, hostility, helplessness and growth. The reader’s instincts constantly prickle. The Hunger Trace is accomplished and understated, a gem of a novel that manages to perturb and ultimately to reassure. For when we are consumed by terrible pain, what better therapy is there than to take care of a creature more fragile than ourselves?(less)
In Lost, Stolen or Shredded, Rick Gekoski draws upon his expertise in antiquarian book dealing, academia and his proclivity for collecting to explore...moreIn Lost, Stolen or Shredded, Rick Gekoski draws upon his expertise in antiquarian book dealing, academia and his proclivity for collecting to explore the hows and whys of missing art and literature. What unfolds is a collage of history, memoir, commentary and some truly fascinating stories – well known and obscure – of art heists, cultural vandalism, protected reputations and greed.
Each chapter covers a story or theme and Gekoski’s reflections on it. He tells, for instance, of Vincenzo Peruggia, an unprepossessing Italian picture framer working at the Louvre in 1911 who took the Mona Lisa off the wall, stuffed her up his smock, walked out with her unchallenged and kept her in his bedroom for two years. What’s intriguing, as Gekoski explains, is the public reaction to the theft. When the gallery opened a week later, thousands queued to look at the space the Mona Lisa left behind in an extraordinary convergence of crime scene curiosity and ritual mourning.
Another object, one never recovered, is a gaudy sounding edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a twelfth century Persian poet translated by Edward Fitzgerald) bound by Francis Sangorski with a peacock design in gold leaf and over 1,000 precious stones. It was commissioned in 1909, took two years to make, then sank with the Titanic in 1912. A further lesson, as if the Edwardians needed one, on the fallacy of decadence.
Some of the moments recounted by Gekoski are most poignant because they are deeply human. A striking example is the library of Guido Adler, a pioneer of modern musicology, whose collection included a personally inscribed manuscript of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (‘I am Lost to the World’) by Mahler. Adler, a Jew, died of natural causes in Vienna in 1941. His daughter, Melanie, inherited his library and unquestionably aware of its importance tried using it as bargaining chip with the Nazis in exchange for her life. An act of desperation assuredly and, with hindsight, naivety. Needless to say they procured the keys to her father’s library and its contents, and murdered her anyway.
Far less harrowing though no less interesting is a personal anecdote of Gekoski’s meeting with the Irish writer, Brian Coffey, in the 1980s regarding placing his papers with various institutions. In the 1920s Coffey was personal friend, golfing buddy and correspondent of Samuel Beckett. ‘How many letters would you say you had from Sam?’ Gekoski asked, book dealer antennae twitching. Coffey replied that he never counted but it was probably ‘thousands’ and that he threw them all away. Gekoski (presumably reeling from shock) asked him why?
‘At first, I just answered a letter, then chucked it in the bin. As you do. But after a few years, and Sam got well known, then I made sure to throw them away . . . because they were private.’
And this is the core of what Gekoski’s book is about, how we relate to works of cultural significance. Depending on our point of view art is personal property; a sellable commodity; of immeasurably greater historic than intrinsic value; damaging to individual reputations; a political firework waiting to go off; or rubbish getting in the way. Equally the loss and destruction of art and literature provokes different responses, emotional and real world.
As wide-ranging as this book is, there’s much material left for Gekoski to cover. Only as I was reading it (July 2013) a news report emerged of a mother in Romania who apparently burned paintings by Picasso, Monet, Matisse and Freud in her oven. The woman claims it was an attempt to ‘destroy the evidence’ following her son’s arrest for an art theft from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal Museum in October 2012. The work had a collective value of between 100m and 200m euros. This kind of story confirms what Gekoski explains: art thefts are not jaunty Thomas Crown style escapades by eccentric billionaire collectors, they are ham-fisted and motivated by money. And the more famous and highly valued a work, the more difficult it becomes to move it along the chain of dealers. Priceless paintings become virtually, even literally, worthless.
Paradoxically the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad during the Bush/Rumsfeld/Blair war in Iraq, the loss of thousands of ancient Mesopotamian pieces and the subsequent saturation of the antiquities marketplace in the West meant prices tumbled. Gekoski meditates on whether the appropriation of one culture’s treasures by another has any benefits? His juxtaposition of the case of the Elgin Marbles makes interesting reading. Still it’s a chilling thought that in the modern age, rather than taking an enlightened approach to artefacts, devastation is potentially systematic and the channels to sell merchandise superefficient.
Lost, Stolen or Shredded is based on the Radio 4 documentary of the same name. I didn’t hear it myself, but if Gekoski’s voice on the air is the same as it is on the page, then he’s witty, knowledgeable and engaging – someone I’d definitely want to be seated next to at a dinner party. Despite the big themes this is a hugely readable book about an intriguing subject.
In his afterword Gekoski reminds us with Buddhist-like reflection that even when it survives accident, political turmoil and bungling, art doesn’t last forever. Art is fragile and temporary. Its very impermanence is what we should cherish.(less)
This is a novel about mental health, memory and how the fabric of families can potentially unravel – all rich subjects for fiction – and Susan Elliot...moreThis is a novel about mental health, memory and how the fabric of families can potentially unravel – all rich subjects for fiction – and Susan Elliot Wright delivers them splendidly.
The Things We Never Said begins with Maggie waking up in a mental hospital in the 1960s unable to remember who she is or how on earth she got there. She gradually acquaints herself with her fellow patients and the staff ‘caring’ for them, having to learn (or is it relearn?) the rules and etiquette as she tries to recover her past. It’s a great premise to launch the story from, and the bygone era of chilly mental institutions and electroshock treatment (that seems to be used as punishment rather than therapy) are absorbing and scarily plausible.
Meanwhile in the present day, we meet Jonathan, a teacher with a pregnant wife and aging parents. His first challenge in the book is to find a way to tell them they’re going to be grandparents. There’s no obvious reason why they’d be unhappy about it, it’s simply a case of Jonathan choosing his moment . . . And yet this becomes but one of several things various characters leave unsaid, or have difficulty finding the right words for, and naturally their lack of communication has consequences.
The Germans have a term, Weltschmerz, for the sadness felt when one realises the world cannot match the ideal of one’s mind. This is what Jonathan is going through. He is in crisis because he cannot accept his father for the barbed and distant man he is; and, when he learns an uncomfortable truth, is drawn into a spiral of anxiety and unseemly behaviour that threatens his job and relationship.
While Maggie’s far more dramatic break down is exacerbated by the prejudice and ignorance of post-war Britain, Jonathan’s issues have a distinctly modern flavour: binge drinking, pent up rage, the ups-and-downs of marriage and imminent fatherhood, not to mention the stress of being embroiled in a workplace investigation. The comparisons and contrasts drawn out between the two eras are subtle, and cleverly done.
Some of the most touching portions of the novel, past and present, take place when it snows, a detail not even hinted at by the cover design. Perhaps it’s because I read this on trains in December on my way to and from family visits, but there’s something very appropriate about the author’s choice here: the quietness of snow; the numbing cold; the way it disguises familiar landscapes; the connotations of Christmas, sentimentality, journeys and reconciliation. It’s probably not the easiest angle to promote a debut novel from, but this is an excellent winter read.
The themes in The Things We Never Said are treated knowledgeably, but gently, and I was swept along by Elliot Wright’s assured storytelling. An ideal choice for readers of genealogy mysteries.(less)
In her debut novel, The Sea Change, Joanna Rossiter writes about a peculiar kind of grief. I do not know the name of it. I wish I did.
Her book, you se...moreIn her debut novel, The Sea Change, Joanna Rossiter writes about a peculiar kind of grief. I do not know the name of it. I wish I did.
Her book, you see, is about lost landscapes. She bases her story on two real events: the appropriation of Imber, a Wiltshire village, by the War Office in 1943; and a coastal community in India crushed by tsunami in 1971.
In each case there is destruction, the residents are displaced, their homes are robbed and the familiar environment scarred and garrotted. War and wave bring death to families caught up in them – and yet there are survivors too, left to mourn, recover and possibly to rebuild.
Rossiter gives us one family touched by both incidents. In 1971 (‘the present’), Alice is travelling overland through the Middle East to India with her spur-of-the-moment husband, having left her mother, Violet, in England on bad terms.
Meanwhile, her mother’s Imber upbringing forms the other portion of the story three decades earlier. She is the daughter of a parson, and Pete is the object of her teenage infatuation.
When catastrophe comes, personal loyalties are tested: the roots to the past that hold you back; the excitement and appeal of new experiences pulling you forward.
Violet’s love for Pete is intriguing. He is a wanderer without sentiment for any specific location, whereas Vi harbours a deep desire to ‘go home’, though war games have rendered Imber unrecognisable.
Her relationship with her daughter is equally complex. Alice’s adventuring hurts Violet, is intended to spite her, perhaps. The strings of affection tug, knot and unravel.
Rossiter has a gift for bringing geography to life, her descriptive passages are some of the loveliest and most effective I can recall reading. Likewise the devastation of landscapes she’s so skilfully created are poignant and anxiety-inducing. Rossiter makes it easy for us to see through Violet’s eyes, to empathise with her pain as her beloved birthplace is ripped apart. But as well as being a beautiful book, I think this is a subtle one. Is there something self-indulgent in Violet’s grief? Undignified even? (Bricks and mortar aren’t people after all.) Do villages have a heart, the same as any other loved one? It is an interesting question, intelligently asked.
One of the greatest pleasures I had reading this novel is the recurring theme of water damaged paper: the patches of mould on wallpaper like an atlas; the damp books drying over a banister; the ring from a teacup on an open map; the letter turned to mulch by the sea. I read a chapter in the bath and accidently got some pages wet – it was as if the moisture had leaked out of it.
Rossiter has a mature sensibility. She writes with fluency and grace. It seems implausible that The Sea Change is a debut novel, but it is. And the prospect of more work as good as this, or even better, is tantalising. She knows herself.(less)
I’ve recently learned that there’s a single sentence which, when used, compels me to read a book better than any other sales pitch, incantation or bri...moreI’ve recently learned that there’s a single sentence which, when used, compels me to read a book better than any other sales pitch, incantation or bribe ever could: ‘This plot has a twist we beg you not to disclose . . .’ Hello? I thought.
No spoilers here, I assure you. Beatrice Hitchman’s secret is safe with me.
Petite Mort is set in the silent film industry of early twentieth century Paris, and is told from the point of view of Adèle, an aspiring actress. She escapes her drear and parochial village to pursue her dream, only to find herself sharing digs with a prostitute, and scraping together a living as a seamstress in the Pathé studio costume department. Adèle is tormented by the opulence of garments she makes and cannot wear. However, her fortunes appear to change when she catches the eye of André, an influential producer: what he offers, instead of a starring role, is a job as his wife’s personal assistant.
The title alone gives the reader a suggestion of what could be in store, like a lady’s ankle on display in a salon. Added to the mix is the mystery of a film lost in a factory fire; the peculiar personal habits of Terpsichore, Pathé’s leading lady; and an infamous murder case. In fact there are several rather tasty twists in this novel, more than enough to keep you guessing until the end.
It’s difficult to tease out comparisons with other books, or movies for that matter, because Hitchman is leading us into relatively unexplored territory. At different times I was reminded of Moulin Rouge, The Prestige and (with my admittedly limited knowledge of silent film history) Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger.
Like the silver screen world Hitchman portrays, her writing shimmers, drawing you in with glamour and trickery. A fascinating, beguiling and wily debut. What will she do next?(less)
Rook is a novel about a community with buried secrets, figuratively and literally. In it, Jane Rusbridge (author of The Devil’s Music) has woven toget...moreRook is a novel about a community with buried secrets, figuratively and literally. In it, Jane Rusbridge (author of The Devil’s Music) has woven together threads of historical fact, and local folklore, into a fabric of subtle colours and closely observed details.
Life in the village of Bosham is disrupted when a TV documentary maker arrives, and makes a case to exhume the remains of an eleventh century king purported to be at rest under the floor of the parish church. The village has links to the Battle of Hastings, and is mentioned in the Bayeux Tapestry. While the ghosts of the Norman conquest are still in a sense present, the real conflict takes place between a modern day mother and daughter, Ada and Nora.
Ada is a woman in her declining years with an unravelling grip on reality. Her fragmented memories run through the whole novel, giving the reader skewed glimpses of the family’s history. Her daughter, Nora, is a cellist who has apparently abandoned her destiny to play at international concert venues in favour of teaching music to schoolchildren. Nora’s abrupt return to Creek House is unwelcome as far as her mother is concerned, and one of the real virtues of this novel is the almost unbearable tension which develops between them: there’s hardly any arguing, just a pattern of disapproval and festering resentments.
Nora takes on several projects to occupy her, such as long-distance running, and volunteering in the village, but her main preoccupation is the adoption of a baby bird, Rook, who she attempts to nurse back to health. Rook is an adorable creation, fragile, volatile and weird-looking; at the same time he’s the eerie embodiment of spirits of the past. The attachment between Nora and Rook, her foundling, potentially redeems them both.
Where this novel really flies is in the evocation of environments, of spring tides, flooded roads, rookeries, archaeological digs, battle grounds, and vast skies. The landscapes which emerge from this novel are vivid, even cinematic. Equally impressive is the way Rusbridge’s prose sweeps down to the smallest detail, to a painted glass jar, the ridges of a scallop shell, or the lining inside a coat.
Father figures are also important and recurring – idolised, substituted, lamented and often unattainable – the legendary kings, Cnut and Harold, occupy a space in the imagination, as do the masculine ex-lover, and the beloved absent parent.
You feel the author’s deft touch on every page. Rook is a novel of layers and textures, patiently crafted, and beautifully finished.(less)
This intriguing novel uses as its starting point Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition of 1910-13. Scott led a team of British explorers to t...moreThis intriguing novel uses as its starting point Captain Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition of 1910-13. Scott led a team of British explorers to the South Pole which, after a great deal of planning, expense and suffering, he reached on 17 January 1912, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had been there five weeks earlier. Their achievements and tragedies are recorded in a swath of letters, journals and photographs, not to mention in the very clothes, artefacts, preserved foodstuffs and tools they used, now on display at museums like the Scott Polar Research Institute. Scott himself didn’t make it back, neither did several of his most trusted colleagues, including Captain Oates (“I am just going outside and I may be some time”) and Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, which brings me to Richard Pierce’s novel and his main character. Birdie Bowers is a woman in the present day obsessed with her historic namesake. She’s an interesting choice of leading lady; erratic, irrational, prone to risky behaviours and a bit of a flake. Though written from the point of view of Adam, Birdie is the character who really drives this story. Adam, by comparison, smokes too much, drinks too much, and his interest is initially in her rather than her elaborate plans to walk in the footsteps of Terra Nova. At first their relationship is painfully unequal; Adam pines for her from a distance and (here comes that word again) obsesses over her as unattainable, while fantasising about having a home and family with her. And here I had a little realisation. Dead Men isn’t really about Scott’s mission, it’s about obsession in its various forms: Scott’s obsession with the pole; Birdie’s obsession with history; Adam’s obsession with Birdie. It’s about the insane lengths we’re willing to go to satisfy our pride, curiosity and lust. Antarctic aficionados may find Dead Men a little thin. This novel is not a retelling of events already captured in true accounts, such as Captain Scott’s Journals, and Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. Rather, Dead Men riffs off these so that Pierce’s novel is something entirely new. Historians, biographers and researchers who read this book will relate to Birdie and Adam’s fixation: the hours spent in libraries and institutions; the meticulous planning to go on a fieldtrip; the bureaucratic brick walls and, most rare of all, the magical discovery – the euphoria of intuition and effort rewarded. Throughout the novel are little vignettes from the past dealing with the emotional fallout of Scott’s thwarted ambition. Atkinson, Cherry-Garrard, Amundsen, Kathleen Scott and others are briefly brought to life, then fade away again. And yet they’re never really absent from the page. The voices of the dead men calling across the Ice, like sirens on the rocks, are incredibly eerie and very satisfying. Dead Men is an emotional adventure and an unsettling ghost story. It’s an exploration of those two opposing magnetic forces – the one pulling us onward, and the one pulling us home – and a sympathetic salute to the flawed and foolhardy human spirit. (less)
If you read this book, remember to breathe. Several times my eye zipped all the way down to the end of a chapter, or jumped back over several details...moreIf you read this book, remember to breathe. Several times my eye zipped all the way down to the end of a chapter, or jumped back over several details in the previous paragraph, before I took in oxygen again. Book Apnoea, I’ve decided to call it. The premise is simple: 39 people are in a lifeboat. That’s practically everything you need to know, except even the most casual reviewer should supply a bit more. It’s set in the year 1914 somewhere in the Atlantic. It’s told retrospectively from the point of view of Grace, who survives the ordeal and is now standing trial for a terrible crime. And from the start fatalities are not possible, but inevitable. The genius of this novel is the way it turns the lifeboat into a community, a gossipy parish complete with factions and paranoia. Morality and pragmatism rub up against each other creating friction at first, then overlapping, then merging. Comparisons jump out at you. It’s like ‘Lord of the Flies’ with Edwardian ladies. It’s like ‘Touching the Void’ – like ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ – like ‘127 Hours’ and it’s true ‘The Lifeboat’ occupies a genre space with these other works, real and imagined. It also reminded me of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ which I read at the age of 13, and which has given me the creeps ever since. But Charlotte Rogan has something else to offer too, the rare gift of articulate literary prose combined with thumping-good storytelling. After I finished this novel, I felt like standing up and applauding. More, Charlotte! More! (less)
Lloyd Shepherd’s debut, The English Monster, begins with a puzzle: six pirates are hanged from the gallows by a river; five of them are dead, but one...moreLloyd Shepherd’s debut, The English Monster, begins with a puzzle: six pirates are hanged from the gallows by a river; five of them are dead, but one of them is only pretending to be dead. It is an enticing hook – macabre and gory – and sets the tone for a yarn which is part pirate adventure, part detective story, part historical fiction and part horror. The novel is broadly set over two time periods, with two narratives. In 1564 (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth) a flotilla of ships, captained by John Hawkyns, is on a clandestine trade mission; his crew includes Billy Ablass, a young man seeking his fortune. In ‘the present’ (1811), the local officials in Shadwell and Wapping bungle the investigation into a set of apparently motiveless killings, which will go down in history as the Ratcliffe Highway murders. The jaded magistrate, John Harriott, undertakes to catch the perpetrator, with the assistance of Waterman-Constable Charles Horton. John Hawkyns’s voyage, a real historical event, was the first official attempt to exploit what Shepherd chillingly refers to as ‘African treasure’. Rumours fly above and below decks as Billy Abless pieces together the purpose of their grizzly assignment. It will spawn a global trade, generating fabulous wealth for some – and unimaginable suffering for a great many others. The riches seem to be guaranteed; the question becomes whether Billy will return to his beloved wife, Abigail, with his body and soul still intact? Meanwhile, the 19th century murders take place in a filthy maritime metropolis on the Thames. Trade (with a capital ‘T’) is the lifeblood of the riverside community now living in fear. Law and Order, by comparison, is still in its infancy. There are no established procedures to run an effective murder investigation, only the intuition of Waterman-Constable Charles Horton, a character with a shady past and an undignified fascination with the facts that is ahead of his time. It is he who discovers the killer’s calling card, a silver piece of eight. Shepherd’s imagination is dark and disconcerting. He has knitted together two distinct episodes from British history (or rather, English history) to make a ghoulish exploration of greed, bloodlust and perceived entitlement. This novel is very much a post-Credit Crunch work; it is a story of how the mindless pursuit wealth – at the expense of people – is ugly, immoral and devastating. The corruption of young Billy Ablass is more successfully drawn than the Regency murder mystery. Occasionally, Shepherd is distracted by his admiration of the historical figure of John Harriott, when he has actually created a compelling new detective in Charles Horton who deserves more time centre stage. Despite this, The English Monster is atmospheric, gruesome and compelling. With Shepherd as their quartermaster, readers who enjoyed ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Suskind will find plenty on this voyage to appal and intrigue them. (less)