Of the six books shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize (and indeed the longlist too), this is the one that really caught my eye. Murder, death and moral ambiguity, all within an historical setting? Sign me up. To read it. Not live it. No real life murder, thanks.
This novel masquerades as non-fiction, consisting of a series of historical documents the author "found" concerning the trial of Roderick Macrae for the murders at Culduie. The story is made up of three main sections, a memoir of the events leading up to the murders apparently written by Roderick himself while awaiting trial, an extract from a book written by a contemporary expert in the criminal mind who was a witness for the defense, and an account of the trial itself as reported by the newspapers, with smaller snippets of police witness statements and medical examiner reports slotted between them. It all comes together to create a really very cohesive whole, each new source of information filling in holes we didn't even know were there, building up a complete picture of what happened layer by layer.
Roderick Macrae, also known as Roddy Black, is a quite fascinating character, the central focus of the story and the voice we are hearing a good chunk of the narrative from, but we never really get to know him, he gives us an account of what happened but never lets us in beyond the surface of himself. It is very easy to feel a great deal of sympathy for his plight, an intelligent boy in an impoverished state with no prospect of a brighter future, condemned to a life of physical labour and hardship when he could have so much more. It's not even hard to understand why he would want to rid the world of Lachlan Broad, the local constable who abuses his power and uses it to pursue a vindictive campaign against Roddy's family, he's certainly not a character who would be overly mourned.
But Roderick is an incredibly unrealiable narrator, a confessed and unremorseful triple murderer presenting his version of events, subtly swaying our perception by getting his case in first with the reader having no way of verifying the veracity or completeness of his account. Despite the sympathy his tale evokes there is a small but ever present feeling that there is something not quite right about Roderick, he's slightly unnerving and just a bit creepy, he reacts very oddly, almost unnaturally to some things, and his account of the murders is strikingly cold and detached. As a reader you just know that there is more to it than he is telling us, something worse than triple murder that he wants to stay secret.
Of course this feeling grows as the other threads of the story start to be woven in, as we hear from other people and are presented with physical evidence. There are hugely important revelations tossed in in a blink and you'll miss it moment during postmortem medical examinations, something that instantly changes your perception of what happened and maybe why, throwing everything we thought we knew into disarray and doubt, an expertly placed nugget of information that would be easy to miss but proves vital. It all builds up to the final crescendo of the trial, the most absorbing part for me, as the defence and prosecution batter each other's arguments, each side trying to prove Roddy's sanity or lack thereof.
Of course the question of sanity is hugely important here, using some of the theories that were prevalent at the time it is examined on several levels, both by the characters and by the reader, whether these were the acts of just a cold blooded killer or a raving lunatic, if a readiness to confess just shows an insensibility of the reality of the crimes or something more sinister. Ideas of social class are very prominent too, questioning whether Roddy was doomed to criminality by his origins, but also taking a look at the wider nature of the relationship between the poor crofters and those in authority over them, the church, the constable, the Factor, and the Laird, whether they are parasitic or symbiotic, abusive or just doing it for the greater good.
There is a real feeling of authenticity here, though the eloquence of Roderick's memoir requires a pinch of salt, the bleak Scottish Highlands are beautifully rendered, the dreary drudgery of the insular, isolated existence of the crofters of Culduie brought so vividly to life that you can start to forget that this is fiction. You can almost feel the hardship of the endless struggle to eek out the merest of existences, the people seemingly resigned to their lot in life, even any solace to be found in religion dampened by being told their suffering is all of their own doing. This is a pretty bleak story, not surprising considering its subject matter, but there are some welcome moments of humour, from the buffoonery of certain characters or the extravagant drama of the media.
This was definitely an interesting read, something a bit different for the Booker as this is far more of a genre story than they usually go for, although this still leans heavily towards the literary. I very much enjoyed this, reading it in a single day, drawn in completely by this rather macabre tale. Complex, fascinating and somewhat enthralling in its cold morbidity, this is well worth a read for anyone who doesn't mind a bit of murder with their literary fiction....more
Well holy brutality, Batman. This novel, winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize, is an intricately plotted tale encompassing a vast cast of characters and spanning decades, peering in at lives filled with violence from the slums of Kingstown, to the crack dens of New York, all centering around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. This novel is not brief, nor does it contain a mere seven killings.
Marlon James, born in Jamaica himself, paints a vivid, brutal portrait of a country and culture that I knew nothing about, I am the whitest person in white-town and my entire store of knowledge about Jamaica came from Cool Runnings, so the political and social climate of 1970s Jamaica, even the fact that Bob Marley was nearly assassinated, was completely new to me. The central act of the whole thing may be the assassination attempt on Bob Marley, here referred to simply as the Singer, but it is a lot more than just this one story, he is more of an ethereal presence throughout the book than an actual character. Taking in politics, corruption and police brutality, the rise of the drug trade, mistreatment and devaluing of women, issues of race and nationality, gang enforcers, hitmen, drug dealers, journalists, CIA operatives and even a dead politician, this story has scope that is hard to describe concisely.
This novel has far more literary merit and technical skill than actual enjoyment for me, though at times it was a struggle it is easy to see why it received so much acclaim, but that doesn’t make it the most fun thing to read. The use of language and structure is to be awed at, use of patois for the Jamaican characters adds a real sense of authenticity to their voices (even if I struggle reading dialect), while at points James descends into poetry or just pages upon pages with no stopping for punctuation, just word vomit in an intricate stream. This is not a leave your brain at the door sort of book, it requires a commitment of both time and brain power, it is confusing and takes time to get a grasp on, it very much drops you in at the deep end, the opening chapter is narrated by a ghost for goodness sake, but in the end it comes together and is worth it.
This is not one for the faint of heart though, it is filled to the brim with violence that is both frequent and brutal, often of a sexual nature, and never shied away from. James never lets up, never allowing us the lessening of shock that prolonged and repeated exposure usually engenders, each terrible act just as horrifying as the last as it continues to bombard us, often out of the blue, always without mercy. Whether it is an act of police brutality, or a hit ordered by a don, every act of violence is visceral, sickening, but never gratuitous, we are never reveling in the gore, it is never glamourised or put on a pedestal, this is the reality of violence, a reality many people live, and it is not pretty.
Though intimidating to begin with it, a little bit of hard work, confusing and brutal and ugly and beautiful, this is well worth a read if you’re up for it. This is not going to be for everyone though, if you have problems with violence, sexual content or are just looking for something light, this is not going to be for you. But this is certainly a worthy winner of the Man Booker, and I’m glad that I read it.
Trigger Warnings: Rape, violence, drug use, torture....more
For some strange reason, the history curriculum, at least during my time at school, seemed to be a big fan of the World Wars, the Tudors, and not much else. As a result, these are the periods of history that I just don't have much enthusiasm for reading about. The market, and my brain, are so saturated by them that I would much rather read and learn about almost any other time. Unless of course, there is something different about the story being told, a new perspective or aspect that isn't so widely talked about. This is an example of that.
I've not read Sepetys other popular book, Between Shades Of Grey, I have heard excellent things about it, it just didn't strike my fancy too much, but as soon as I heard about Salt To The Sea, released earlier this year, I knew that I wanted to read it. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is a fascinating, devastating, and all but unknown event, and my interest was sparked.
Everyone knows about the Titanic, its sinking and the enormous cost in human life (just over 1,500 perished) is infamous, my mother is certainly not alone in having a life-long fascination with the doomed ship. To a lesser extent the same is true of the Lusitania, a British ocean-liner sunk by the Germans during WWI with a terrible death count almost as high (1,198). But the death-toll of the Wilhelm Gustloff makes both of the far more famous sinkings seem like a drop in the ocean, it is estimated that the lives lost from this single ship number at more than 9,000.
This wonderful YA novel is built around that tragic event.
Rather beautifully written, this was simple but deftly done, painting a vivid picture of the frozen landscape and the desperate rush toward potential safety. Though most of the story is just one long trek with a smattering of backstory, not once was I anything but eager to turn the page. We switch rapidly between four characters, changing the point of view with each successive chapter, each only a couple of pages long or less, creating a very impactful sense of immediacy, especially as we reach the disaster we know is coming.
The four point of view characters are pleasingly varied, while we most often see the perspectives of Germans and Jews in WWII fiction, here we have four young people, each of a different nationality and experience of the war and life under the Nazi regime, providing vastly different motivations and perspectives. We hear from Joana, a Lithuanian nurse haunted by guilt; Emilia, a fifteen year old Polish girl running from a memory she can't bear; Florian, a young Prussian hell-bent on revenge; and Alfred, a young man in the German navy, consumed with self-importance and belief in the Nazi ideal.
Even though we cycle rapidly through the characters, all four felt fleshed out and real, each with a past and a secret that I wanted to discover, and I enjoyed reading about them all, even the rather unpleasant and sociopathic Alfred who was far from likable. And it wasn't only the main four that I grew attached to, the others journeying with Joana were an interesting bunch too, the wandering boy and the shoemaker were a definite highlight, they always managed to raise a smile in the bleakness, and it was very interesting to have a blind character in a setting where this could easily be a death sentence.
Considering how short a time we spent with each of them, I grew very attached and was invested in all of their fates, I both wanted them to reach their goal and wanted them to fail, hoping to somehow save them from the fate of so many who boarded the ship. Knowing the inevitable destination of our characters made for an interesting reading experience. Stories set in this period usually have a general feeling of foreboding, but here it is a specific tragedy we're moving towards. We know from every description of the book where they're heading, we just don't know how they'll get there, where they've been, or what each of their fates will be. Very much driven by character rather than plot, it's these unknowns that make things compelling.
This story is, of course, not all sunshine and daisies. There is real horror to be found within, though it never becomes gratuitous or explicit. War is not a pleasant thing, and Sepetys does not shy away from this fact, even though we are far from the battlefields and trenches. Horrible things happen, to our characters and to those we never knew, not everyone will have a happy ending and not everyone will even make it to the end. Whether it is a frozen body at the side of the road or an unknown horror lurking in an empty house, the reality and brutality of war is never far away. But thankfully neither is a glimmer of beauty and innocence and hope; in a pink woolen hat, a butterfly, or a one-eared stuffed rabbit.
This book is well worth a read. If you are already a fan of WWII historical fiction you'll of course want to snap this up, but even if like me you've got a bit of a reluctance, I'd recommend giving it a shot. Beautifully written, wonderfully fast-paced, emotional but not depressing, with just a tiny smattering of romance, and offering a look at an often overlooked part of the period, this is definitely one to check out.
The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is the greatest maritime disaster in history. Thousands of people lost their lives, many of them children. And it is about time that we remembered them.
Note: I won a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway.
Ok, rating this at 3 stars feels really stingy, it's closer to a 3.5.
This is not my usualNote: I won a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway.
Ok, rating this at 3 stars feels really stingy, it's closer to a 3.5.
This is not my usual type of book really, I know next to nothing about America in this time-period and all my previous knowledge about feudists comes from a Disney cartoon, but it sounded intriguing enough to give a go. And I have to say, it wasn't what I was expecting and it took me a while to get into, the first sixty pages I was a little confused by the jumping around in time, and a lot of it was just going over my head a little as it felt more like non-fiction about a subject I'm not really interested in, and we only learnt of the first death mentioned in the blurb second-hand which was a little odd. But then the story switched up a little and stayed in one time, following the lives of Seth Waller and Enoch Slone, and suddenly my interest level jumped enormously and I ended up really quite enjoying the rest of the book. The slow decline of Enoch Slone from the wannabe preacher boy to a figure of legend and nightmares as his relationships, and seemingly his sanity, deteriorate, was rather fascinating and a little heartbreaking. The world and community around him were richly realised also, somewhat mirroring his path as it goes from idyllic and peaceful to torn apart by feuding families and a string of violent retaliations. There's also a lot of detail included that, along with the distinctive way the characters speak, adds a level of authenticity to the whole thing, and Todd Cook clearly knows a lot about what he's writing about. I'm still not sure what the connection between the two deaths mentioned in the blurb is but it is quite possible that I'm missing the obvious, it has been known to happen, and actually in the end I kind of don't care, Enoch's story is what drew me in and that story was fully satisfying.
So overall, a good solid story with a slightly shaky start for me, but well worth checking out if it sounds like your kind of book....more