Friday, 4 July 2014


The adjective most applied in publicity for and reviews of this novel is "timely", which in some ways does it a disservice. It is about the First World War, and so, in this centenary year, is indeed auspicious, but there is a richness to Wake that raises it above the average.

Briefly, it takes place over the 5 days in 1920 when the 'Unknown Warrior' was selected and brought from the battlefields of France to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey. The story follows three women, each touched by the loss of a loved soldier during the war. To say more would be to give too much away.

It is beautifully written, in prose that conjures without inappropriate embellishment: London two years after the war is described as a "post-khaki world".  I found I understood all three characters - they seem to represent three stages of life - without necessarily liking them or even agreeing with their views or behaviour.  The five days are also symbolic: the exhumation of the body as the women confront their issues; the journey of the Unknown Warrior as the women fight their demons and learn new truths; its arrival at Westminster Abbey as those demons are laid to rest. This analogy is not as clunky as my explanation makes it sound, however. The book is a Galaxy chocolate bar, smooth as silk, the storylines winding in and out of each other like funereal ribbons.

I could easily see this as a BBC drama, and if you want to see how it would look, check out the YouTube footage of the procession of the coffin; you can almost see Ada and Ivy laying wreaths at the cenotaph.

Wake is a superb example of its type, an intelligent, interesting, well-written story that rewards the thoughtful reader. Anna Hope could potentially give the likes of Helen Dunmore a run for her money, and I look forward to hearing more from this first timer in the near future.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Viper Wine

I wanted so much to come up with a brilliant, poetic, intelligent, witty opening line for this review, one that reflects, and is worthy of, the brilliant, poetic, intelligent, witty content of the book itself...but as you can see, I failed dismally. And that is why Hermione Eyre is a novelist, and I am but an English teacher.

Viper Wine tells the story of Lord Kenelm and Lady Venetia Digby, happily married and somewhat oblivious to the rumblings of imminent civil war in 1630s England. Now, the first thing that is of interest here is that these characters were once real people. I find that I really enjoy fictionalised accounts of real people's lives. Fine, you say, but what makes their story novel-worthy? I've never heard of Kenelm and Venetia Digby, you say, so why has Hermione Eyre chosen to fictionalise their lives? The answer is simply that they were each extraordinary: Kenelm (I pronounce it with a silent "l" for my own aesthetic purposes, though this may well be entirely wrong) was a natural philosopher, a scientist in an age when science was looked at askance by common folk, named witchcraft by some and outrightly poo-pooed by others. Venetia, however, a great beauty in her youth, is perhaps of greater interest to a reader cynical of our own age's insidious obsession with appearance, for the lengths to which she will go to retain her youthful radiance is almost instantly recognisable from the pages of current women's magazines. The Viper Wine of the title is exactly that, a concoction imbibed by Venetia and her friends, the active ingredient of which is snake poison. It is no different to a Botox injection, and the result, by all accounts, was virtually the same: a china smooth complexion and a rigid, blank expression.

So much, then, for the content - and I must be honest here and say that as plots go, this is fairly thin. BUT - and this is the entire crux of the matter - the way this book has been dovetailed together, written, illustrated with both images and genuine documents, is a revelation. Eyre's style is at once lyrical, funny, grand and chatty. Viper Wine is both personal and impartial, both gossip mag trash and scholarly account. A favourite line from early on:

"She has filled her paps out with paper and her eyebrows are made from mink hair and egg white, but she looks good on't."

It makes me smile. It also makes me frown - have women really poisoned and tortured themselves in this manner for so many centuries? Does nothing change? Do we not learn?

And then, on top of all this, Eyre has somehow injected into this decidedly Stuart story, our own world. The modern seeps through the cracks in Gayhurst House like snakes through chicken wire. It is subtly done, and with a surgeon's precision; anachronisms abound. When Kenelm returns from an overseas voyage, he gives a talk to high minded individuals who will spread the word of his discoveries; in other words, he holds a press conference: 

"You're not the kind of man who turns back, though, are you?" said Michael Parkinson, ingratiatingly.
"Are you an authoritarian below decks? Do you swing the cat-o'-nine-tails?" said Jonathan Ross, a fool with weak 'Rs'.
"Ask my crew," said Kenelm.
"We did," said Ross. "Some of them liked it a lot." 
"And did you divide your profits amongst your crew?" asked Paxman, wincing with his own impertinence.

Later, Kenelm sings to his son, and the lyrics are Bowie. Words like "nanotechnology" are scattered carefully over the pages, yet never seem out of place embedded in the archaic language of Cromwellian England. It is beautifully done.

As well as the central players and beautiful writing, there is so much else in this book to fall in love with: the comically grotesque figure of Ben Jonson ("He spoke almost entirely in his own verses now... His brain had become the maggoty, abbreviated book of his own quotations"), and the scene in which Inigo Jones puts together a court masque is so craftily layered with image and meaning that it becomes far more than just another chapter in a good book:

"Inigo Jones [was] in the gantry, using a megaphone. 'These shows are nothing else but light and motion,' [...] said Inigo, sitting in his director's chair."

Mary Tree is another delight; her tragicomic story weaves in and out of the main action until the very end, when she finally Miss Marples her way into the primary plot.

Stylistically, this novel is very filmic. Eyre frequently uses the cinematic technique of cutting between Venetia and Kenelm, juxtaposing their actions with short, fast edits. In places, I realised that what I saw in my mind was the BBC's 2005 Casanova. The sense of heightened reality, of dark, tragic glamour, is very Baz Luhrman.

I think that finally, in a nod to those bookworms who, like myself, still shun the e-reader, it is worth mentioning that this is also physically a remarkably pleasing book.  It is, in hardback, a lovely size and shape, comfortable to hold, and I love the typeface.

Despite its anachronistic heart, then, Viper Wine paints, like Van Dyck in the book, a very true picture of Noble (and sometimes noble) Stuart Britain.  It is fun, exciting, pertinent and above all, utterly enjoyable. Taste Hermione Eyre's lyrical alchemy for yourself.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Quiet Dell

I always judge a book by its cover, or at least select a book by its cover, and the photo on  the front of Quiet Dell drew me to it: a large group of sepia men, shirted and hatted, stand in a circle around an earthy hole they are clearly digging. A few haughty women hang back, hands on hips, and there is an air of discomfort, as though what is happening here is distasteful, unpleasant, disquieting.

A quick recce of the blurb placed the scene: bodies are being recovered, the bodies of a woman and her three children murdered by a man posing as a suitor. Although I had never heard of this, the Harry F. Powers case, (why are murder cases always remembered by the murderer's name, not the victims'?) I get the impression it is one of those that lives in the American consciousness, has become almost folklore, and in Quiet Dell, Jayne Anne Phillips brings the story and those it affected to life by fictionalising it.

Her research is awe inspiring; littered throughout the novel are actual newspaper reports and trial transcripts, photographs - the one on the cover is genuine, which perhaps explains its haunting quality - and witness testimony. This really works, and, certainly for the first two thirds of the book, reality and fiction are woven together beautifully. I even remained transfixed when one of the few entirely made-up characters, a female journalist, falls immediately in love with the banker who genuinely funded the investigation. It's utterly implausible, but I was already hooked and went with it, as one does with a book one is enjoying. However, Phillips does start to push me when this same journalist finds and adopts a street urchin while she is covering the trial.  Furthermore, the way she speaks is ludicrous.  Even in the thirties, no-one - except perhaps Celia Johnson - talked like this:

"I'm a reporter, here to write about the trial.  You're not going to steal anymore because you're going to work for me...You will be my assistant and archivist. An archive is a collection of documents...I have a separate room in the hotel where you can sleep, and you can begin work tomorrow, that is, if you're willing to have a bath and a meal. Are you willing? ...I need to hear that you understand and that you accept my terms."

And that's just how she addresses eleven year old thieves!

For all that, I really did enjoy this book. It is bursting at the seams with atmosphere and intriguing characters - I would have loved more about Powers' odd wife and her strange sister, for example, and his father, who is sympathetic yet disturbing. These complex characters are the book's strength, and perhaps Phillips should have stayed with them rather than creating lead roles of her own.

The magnitude of Powers' serial murders will always remain unknown - he was convicted and executed for one death, but may have been responsible for literally hundreds. This book goes some way towards bringing to life the victims behind the police statistics. Much is made of the horror of their final days, bound and starved in cells below his garage, and there is no jot of glamour attached to Powers himself; he is presented as a pathetic and impotent creature.

For me, this is a winter book that I read at the wrong time of the year, and though flawed, is atmospheric and intriguing enough to warrant recommendation, if with reservation.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Art of Looking

I found this via Twitter, and think it looks like the sort of book that feeds your brain. Muesli for the mind.


Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A Monster Calls

OK, I'm a little late on this one; it won the Carnegie last year.  But better late than never, particularly with a book as darkly beautiful and profound as this one.

Written by Patrick Ness (quickly becoming the name in YA literature, particularly for boys), but based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls tells the story of a boy whose mother is dying of cancer, whose relationship with his grandmother is fraught, whose father has a new family on the other side of the Atlantic: a boy who is being bullied at school, and who has horrific nightmares that destroy the only supposed peaceful time he should have.  So far, so cheery.  Into this mess comes a Monster, a force of nature who arrives one night armed with three stories.

"Stories are wild creatures," the Monster said. "When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?"

They are fairy-style tales ('long ago...a wicked witch...')  but they do not end the way our hero, Conor, expects them to.  In fact, they infuriate him.  They expose injustice.  They tell us that not all stories have happy endings - the Monster is forewarning us about the very book we are reading.  They tell us that people are complicated, that right and wrong, good and evil, are never straightforward concepts.

Then the Monster wants something in return.  He wants a story from Conor.  But not just any story: he wants the story of Conor's recurring nightmare.  For buried inside this nightmare is a painful Truth, and before he can begin to come to terms with his mother's inevitable death, Conor must face this Truth.  He must speak it aloud.

There is an element of Fight Club to this book, most noteably in the scene where the Monster beats up the school bully, and intelligent young readers will quickly pick up on what is really happening here.

But what truly brings this book to life are the extraordinary illustrations by Jim Kay, and I urge you to buy the version that contains them - I can't imagine why they have even bothered to publish it without them, but mine is not to reason why.

How's this for a visual representation of the fear of losing your mother?

The pictures, which often take up double pages, curl tendrils into the text and literally weave themselves around the words.  They are terrifying, comforting, astonishing... beautiful.

One word of warning though - for the last quarter of the book, you will need tissues!

The Childhood of Jesus

I'd never read a Coetzee - no, not even Disgrace - though I am very aware of the esteem in which he is held.  When I came across The Childhood of Jesus, I had heard nothing about it, but was drawn by both the cover, a rather threatening Edwardian photo (if that isn't an oxymoron) of a young woman and two young men with a vicious looking dog - it indicated E M Forster gone bad, transposed to the East End, adapted for the screen by Guy Ritchie - and the title, which is, having now read the book, even more intriguing.  Is the story a parable?  How is one supposed to interpret the action in the light of the title?  For there is no Jesus in the story.  There is a little boy, yes, a strange and unique little boy (or is he?  We are told he is by the adults who look after him, but other than the way he reacts to school life I'm not sure that he ever does actually come across as 'special' any more than in the sense that all parents think their own child is special).  Anyway, the title adds another layer of philosophical discourse to the novel, as though there weren't already enough within the story itself.

It is a tale without time or place - by which I mean it is outside time or place - and appears to be a step in the journey through existence;  I say existence rather than life because there is the possibility that Novilla is in some way an afterlife.  A man and boy - unrelated though travelling together, and each with a name they have recently been given - arrive on a bland, emotionless island that seems trapped in its own futility.  There is no progress here, on any terms, whether industry, relationship, thought... The pair are looking for the boy's mother, and eventually find a woman willing to take on the role.

I enjoyed The Childhood of Jesus, very much.  I must have been in the right frame of mind for it, because it is not the type of book I would normally read.  But it is written in a very precise style, sparing, consciously leaving gaps for questions, which fits perfectly with the subject matter itself.  The scene where they find La Residencia is overwelmingly reminiscent of Le Grand Meaulnes, and is almost a dreamlike sequence in the heart of a prosaic world.

Does the book have a circular narrative?  It ends with our main characters heading off to find and begin a new life.  But isn't that the way it starts, as well?

Really, my only criticism is technical.  There is a certain confused use of the pronoun 'he', whereby I was not always sure which 'he' in the room was being referred to.  This may have been another conscious device on Coetzee's part, or it may have been bad editing, but having had exactly this issue with Wolf Hall, I'm tempted to say it is an onrunning problem with Booker Prize winners who write in present tense...

This isn't one for those looking for a nice, simple story - this is a book for those who want an enjoyable challenge, who want their minds to be pushed a little further than the average novel can take them.  However, it is quite short, it is surprisingly easy to follow, and, although it leaves you with a great many questions (and would therefore be good for book groups, but would need a structured discussion format), is actually a very satisfying read.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

Many years ago, I read Alexandra Fuller's first book, Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight.  Her beautiful way with words stayed with me - I remember her descriptions of Africa's smells ("hot, sweet, smoky, salty, sharp-soft.  It is like black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass...") and how she contrasted that with her first visit to England: "...the damp wool sock of London-Heathrow."  I knew that here was a writer I wanted to follow, a writer whose playful use of language brought to life places and experiences I would probably never know for myself.  For example, I've wandered round southern Spanish cities in forty five degree heat, but Africa is something else entirely:

"It is so hot that the flamboyant tree outside cracks to itself, as if already anticipating how it will feel to be on fire.  The dogs are splayed out on the floor, wherever they can find bare cement, panting and creating wet pools with their dripping tongues.  Our throats are papered with the heat; we sip at cups of cold, milky tea just enough to make spit in our mouths.  The sky and air are so thick with wildfire smoke that we can’t see the hills, they are distant, gauzy shapes, the same colour as the haze, only denser.  The colour is hot, yellow-grey, breathless, breathsucking colour.  Swollen clouds scrape purple, fat bellies on the tops of the surrounding hills.”

So, I was quite excited to finally get round to her second family biography, the magically named Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.  It does not disappoint.  Her mother - the central figure - is a wonderfully three dimensional woman (nevertheless of a type), whose strength in the face of adversity that soon tips over into horror is both heartbreaking and inspirational.

This tidy little book is funny, terrifying and intelligently told; above all, it is true.  Fuller weaves just the right amount of history into her personal tale that someone as hopelessly ignorant as myself about the arrival of the Afrikaner farmers in S.A. and the origins of the Mau Mau uprising is able to comprehend the situations her parents found themselves in, trying to raise a young family on their own little piece of a continent they love.

If it wasn't a place built on so much violence, and so deeply soaked in the blood of tribal hatred, I would be packing a carpet bag and taking my own Le Creuset pots to Africa right now.  But I couldn't face what Nicola and Tim Fuller did, not for all the beauty of the Zambezi Valley or the stillness of "leopard-watched" nights.  What Alexandra Fuller does, though, is make me feel I might have been there in some dream or past life, so vivid does that red soil become on reading her books.  And for someone who never gets to travel as much as she wishes she could, that is the very best thing a book can do.