Archive for August, 2011

On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry

August 30, 2011

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

(Blogger Note: I’ve advanced the posting of this review — many more people have read this book than Rogers, it is a serious Booker contender and, heck, the review is already written. Let the comment dispute begin — I suspect we will have some thoughtful and challenging disagreement on this one.)

If there was ever an author whose reputation and considerable skill stands in the way of my critical assessment, Sebastian Barry is he. As someone who has an affinity for Irish novels (see my raving about the work of John McGahern here), there is no doubt that Barry, along with compatriot Colm Toibin (and, yes, many others — those Irish can write, I must say), deserves to be considered with the best of the current generation. And, yet, each time I pick up his latest work, as is the case with On Canaan’s Side, the promise of the first two-thirds of the novel is not delivered in the conclusion. It is a tribute to Barry that that still makes the book “good to very good”; it is a criticism that “excellence” has been missed.

On Canaan’s Side is another “testament” novel, by my count the fourth on this year’s Booker longlist — Julian Barnes, A.D. Miller and Jane Rogers complete the list of novels framed as first-person memoirs by the central character. It is only right to note that Barry employed a similar approach in his last novel, The Secret Scripture, which was widely tipped to win the 2009 Booker and fell short to The White Tiger, apparently much to Barry’s dismay.

So let’s cut right to the chase — the first half of On Canaan’s Side is as good as the first half of any other novel that I have read this year except for Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. Lilly Bere, the diarist of the novel, is 89 and we know early on that she has decided to end her life when this diary project is done — the book consists of notes arranged as chapters that she composes during her last 18 days. The suicide of her grandson Bill, who has just returned from the first Iraqi War, has provided the immediate impetus, but there are many other elements which have fertilized her decision.

Lilly’s family, the Dunnes, has featured in Barry’s fiction before — they were on the “wrong” (read British) side of the Irish war of independence. Her father was chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police when the latest independence troubles started; her deceased brother, Willie, fought for the British in the Great War and died in Picardy. He was Lilly’s favorite and she never quite recovers from that loss. Lilly doesn’t understand or endorse these politics but she has to live with the consequences.

Alas, for Lilly, there is an even bigger dislocation looming when she strikes up with Tadg Bere. He is a returned solider and like many has taken employment with the Black and Tans, on the British side, since no other paying work is available. His presence at an incident where the Tans kill a number of IRA attackers has led to a death warrant on not just Tadg, but Lilly.

You may have noticed that there has not been a quote in this review so far. And there will not be one in the remainder. In terms of prose style, Sebastian Barry (four novels, seven plays, four books of poetry) is as good as the modern English writing world gets — head off to the bookstore and open any Barry volume (including this one) at any page and you will see how good writing can be. There is no need for me to repeat it here.

Still, that considerable skill alone is not enough to carry off an outstanding novel and I don’t think Barry succeeds with this one (but he does come close), just as I don’t think he succeeded with The Secret Scripture a few years back. As good as he is at writing, he doesn’t do plot in either of these books. And the problem is that as the plot disintegrates, the writing becomes twee instead of impressive — the book’s greatest strength effectively becomes an annoying weakness.

Lilly’s journal starts about 70 years back from when she is writing it, comfortably ensconced in a cottage on the Hamptons which is about as close to “really rich” America as you can get. The last decades of her career were spent as a cook for a wealthy American family; the daughter and current dowager, Mrs Wolohan, three decades younger than Lilly, has effectively adopted her. Lilly’s mind is not just parked in the past, however, it is also distracted by the present, in the form of Bill’s suicide in the lavatory of the local school, the implications of the death of Mr Nolan (the Wolohan’s gardener), but perhaps most of all, her present tense need to look at her own history, now that she has decided it is time to end her life.

Many decades ago after that Black and Tan incident, when the IRA put out that death warrant on both Tadg and Lilly, her father’s contacts made it known to him and the couple were able to escape on a boat to New York where there was a cousin. Alas, that cousin wasn’t found and the two (living under aliases) made their way to Chicago where another sort-of cousin lived. They were planning to be married and after their first, glorious sexual episode (delayed many months because these two are quite religious) they head off to the Art Institute for an afternoon outing.

The Chicago Art Institute Van Gogh self-portrait

Tadg is admiring one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits when Lilly becomes aware of a shadowy figure approaching. She tries to alert her lover but he is entranced by the Van Gogh — the stranger (obviously IRA) murders him, Lilly bolts and starts a new life as a refuge.

Barry manages to hold all this together (actually, he does it exceptionally well) for the first half of the book. The language is marvelous, Lilly is a real character, the history (at least as viewed through her eyes) makes sense. When I put it down at that point, I was most impressed and even more interested in where the author would take this book.

Unfortunately from then on, everything in this novel went downhill — yes, it was still more than worthwhile to read but its “masterpiece” caliber shrank from page to page. I’ll supply only hints of my disappointment. Having Dr. Martin Luther King show up as the only black at an outdoor dinner party on the property of one of America’s richest families on Long Island just days before he will be assassinated is just too much of a stretch — it is not just an anachronism, it is the fiction version of extreme bad form. If we are to believe in the fates of Lilly’s son and grandson (“they went to war and came back irreparably damaged” is simply not good enough), more attention needs to be paid to them — had this novel been written in the third person, not the first, that would have been possible. And the background of Mr Nolan is so thoroughly presaged that its eventual dramatic revelation is almost an afterthought — and it comes so late in the book it doesn’t really matter.

Don’t take this the wrong way — Sebastian Barry has again produced a novel that showcases his substantial writing skills and, for those who are willing to overlook his plot issues, it is a substantial achievement. On Canaan’s Side is a highly readable book and, even with its problems, it is worth the trouble — certainly better than most on this year’s Booker longlist.

The problem is that this novel, much like The Secret Scripture, offers the potential of being great — but it is not. Barry is such an excellent writer that I believe he will achieve it eventually. I guess we just have to wait another five years until the next effort appears.

(Digression: Two things should be noted about this novel. The first is that Barry’s dramatic skills apparently don’t just extend to writing plays — he is doing the round of literary festivals and all reports say that his presentation of this novel is exceptional. And I am sure having “heard” it would affect a reader’s impression. Second, apparently the incident in the art gallery is a reflection of Barry family history — hardly a big deal for the novel, but relevant for those who are interested in that kind of authorial history. Both of these angles are reported in Lizzy Siddal’s report on Barry’s appearance at the Edinburgh book festival here. Thanks from afar, Lizzy.)

The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers

August 28, 2011

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

When the Booker longlist was announced, I admitted my distaste (that is an understatement — loathing might be more accurate) for dystopian novels and acknowledged the possibility that I would not read this one if it did not make the shortlist. I promised to look for a favorable review — my self-serving excuse was that I wanted to be fair to the author rather than simply ravaging her book; the selfish version is that I wanted no part of hours of reading that I knew I would not enjoy.

There have not been a lot of good reviews of The Testament of Jessie Lamb but I have found one that is written in the kind of form that reflects most of the reviews here. So, please welcome “Mister Hobgoblin (aka MHG), a Booker Prize Forum regular who is working his way through the longlist”. Those are his quote marks not mine and here is his review:

The Testament of Jessie Lamb fully deserves its Booker longlisting. For such a short book, there’s so much in it.

Ostensibly about a dystopian future in which pregnant women die, we find a novel about teenage innocence, the desire to be heroic, questions about the meaning of life and, at the most basic, the relationship between father and daughter.

There are some parallels to other texts – most notably Never Let Me Go – but this take is original enough to stand on its own merit.

Some commentators have thought that Testament is fundamentally feminist. I’m not sure how far that’s true. The basic premise of Maternal Death Syndrome does involve women but the impacts will be universal – without a cure, humankind will die out. Moreover, the question of young people laying down their lives for a greater good has traditionally been, perhaps not quite exclusively, the preserve of men in warfare or terrorism. In creating the MDS, Jane Rogers has cleverly found a way to reverse the gender roles. As a man, I think the principles of martyrdom are universal.

The writing style of Never Let Me Go was more stylized; more perfect. The device of a diary interspersed with an epistle is sometimes a bit clunky and Jessie Lamb’s confused ideals make for a less clean novel. Ishiguro’s clones had been brought up to expect their own sacrifice. Jessie Lamb wasn’t; she saw news reports and chose to take on her role. She had the choice. Yet, for all this, there is still the same issue — what is the point of living when you know that it will all come to an end — which is pretty much where we all stand. On the one hand, we can live for the pleasure of the moment. On the other, we can feel a need to pass things on to future generations. And mostly we lurch wildly between the two positions.

The story is pacy and has moments of real tension. Whilst some of the characters are rather two dimensional, Jessie herself and her father do feel real, solid and develop as events unfold.

If there’s one moment of clunk, it is right at the end when Jessie Lamb says what we have all been thinking – that she has much in common with suicide bombers. Actually saying it cheapens the effect a little. But mostly this is a novel teeming with ideas and leaves the reader thinking.

I do hope The Testament of Jessie Lamb goes further.

To re-insert KfC into this thread, MHG’s references to Never Let Me Go (a novel that I did not like, but many did) strike a responsive chord. And to state the obvious, there seem to be elements of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (another much-loved novel that I didn’t like) in this one. MHG didn’t address it in his review, but may expand in his comments.

Another note for those visitors here who are collectors. If you are lucky enough to get an original version of this book, published by the small Scotland house Sandstone Press, there is a spelling error (Jesse, not Jessie) on the spine. Could be very valuable if this one moves on and you have that first edition.

I should note that the review has produced some very articulate critical responses on the Booker forum — you can find them in the discussion thread here if the review sparks your interest.

Thanks, Mister Hobgoblin for letting me borrow your thoughts.

Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch

August 25, 2011

Purchased at AbeBooks.com

I think I have finally discovered my problem with this year’s Booker longlist: 10 of the 13 novels are narrated in a first-person voice. Now the first person is not a totally impossible point of view (Proust and Camus certainly come to mind as exceptional successes), but it is a difficult one to carry off. Indeed, a couple on this year’s list (Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side — review to come soon) either succeed or come very close. But go to your shelf of personal all-time favorites and look at how few are written in the first person (War and Peace and Ulysses would have been impossible, Austen, James and Wharton all found the third-person more than acceptable for their deservedly-famous works). So I think I have found my 2011 Booker problem: especially for one who does not like memoirs or autobiographies (that would be me), even when a first-person novel comes close to success, it fails. By definition, the point of view is restricted — rather than being impressive because of what is told, the novel becomes a story of what is missing (again, a characteristic that can succeed — see Barnes — but carries with it an enormous risk). In the hands of the inexperienced or middle-talented, that can produce a reading adventure that is incomplete and unsatisfying at best (another apt summary of too much of my Booker reading this year).

All of which is an introduction to yet another Booker longlist novel told in the first person (and reviews are pending on three more). Author Carol Birch introduces Jaffy Brown:

I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.

The young Jaf’ found his head in the tiger’s mouth purely through curiosity — Jamrach, the menagerie owner, was leading the animal down the street to his warehouse and the seven-year-old boy strode up to stroke the tiger’s nose. Jamrach saved Jaf’s life and delivered him home. For Jaffy Brown, that leads to eventual employment as a yard boy in Jamrach’s menagerie and it is his experience there that will set him onto the adventure that occupies most of the book.

I’ve characterized this novel as representing the genre of “animals as metaphor” (consider Animal Farm as the model) elsewhere and some have disputed that — I continue to believe this is very much an “animals as metaphor” book (starting with that tiger). If you read and loved Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi, stay tuned because this is about to become even more of your kind of book.

While the opening section takes place in the slummy London menagerie with its creatures ranging from small birds in tiny cages, to bigger birds, to monkeys, to tigers, to elephants, the “real” Jamrach’s Menagerie begins when Mr Fledge commissions Dan Rymer (both friends of Jamrach) to undertake the capture of a “dragon” in the South Pacific to add to his collection:

‘A dragon of sorts.’ Dan doodled on a scrap of paper. ‘If it exists. Certainly the natives believe it does. The Ora. There have always been rumors. I talked to a man on Sumba once who said his grandfather had been eaten by one. And there was a whaleman once, an islander. He had a tale. There are lots of tales.’ He showed me what he’d drawn. It looked like a crocodile with long legs.

‘It’s not a dragon if it hasn’t got wings,’ I said, ‘not a real dragon.’

Jaf’s best friend, Tim, is signed on to the project as Rymer’s assistant in capturing the dragon. Jaf’, who is far better with animals than Tim, quietly slips off to the dock and signs up as a rookie sailor on the crew of the whaler Lysander whose captain has agreed to divert it for a few weeks to search for the dragon.

(Spoilers coming up, but they are totally predictable in the book itself.) After lengthy, not very good, passages, about life on a whaling ship including the killing and butchering of a whale and recovery of its oil, the “dragon” is found and captured. Massive problems ensue (not all the dragon’s fault, but it is the symbolic cause — this is an animal as metaphor novel, after all), the Lysander sinks in a very unrealistic storm and 12 crew, including Jaf’, Tim and Rymer escape into empty seas in two whale-hunting skiffs for a seemingly endless attempt at survival (given that he is telling the story, Jaf’ obviously does, which tends to make the drama even more disappointing). Cue Life of Pi again, but at much greater length.

Novelist Birch falls victim to two of the entirely predictable problems of first person novels as this unfolds (a fate she shares with a number of her longlist colleagues). The first, and perhaps most common, is a reliance on “dream” to expand the narrative. I confess to a general aversion for “dreams” in novels — it is an all too convenient way for the author to head into another world to deal with problems that cannot be addressed in the principal narrative. I was less than a third of the way through this novel when the continuing escape to dreams began to annoy me; from then on it seemed the author ventured off to dreamland every two or three pages. Certainly, when the skiffs were drifting, it was a form of dementia — from a writing point of view, it was still a lazy device.

Also, when a book is not succeeding, some otherwise minor authorly flaws start to expand like rapidly-growing, bad-tasting fungi. In Birch’s case, this came in the form of filling up the text with useless adjectives. Read the following passage with special attention to the many adjectives, then go back and ask yourself how many actually added to the picture (which, after all, is what the well-chosen adjective is supposed to do):

We rowed in through house-high rocks covered in barbarous plants like halted green explosions. A river ran down from a high forested ravine, skirting one edge of a sheltered beach, horseshoe-shaped, fringed with creamy-blossomed trees and split about the other edge by a long spur of dark pink rock. Beyond, upland and inland, tier on tier, slender shock-headed palms leaned elegantly one way, as if about to pull themselves up from the earth and set off on some sweeping migration. On either side of the bay, tall crags rose up.

Those with an affinity for sea novels, a deep affection for Life of Pi or a fascination with “animals as metaphor” may well find something in this Victorian historical novel — I know from reviews and opinions elsewhere that a number of people did. I know that I didn’t and that my frustration led to even more dismay with aspects of Birch’s writing. In a year where the Booker longlist has many disappointments, Jamrach’s Menagerie is going to be somewhere in the bottom third of my ranking.

(I appreciate that my distaste for memoir/autobiography may have influenced my response not just to this novel but also my disappointment with so many on the longlist. I have no theory about why this jury finds the first-person voice so persuasive given that it is not commonly used to great effect and far more often produces disappointing results. If you have thoughts, by all means leave them in the comments now — I intend to return to the issue in a week or so when I post my shortlist thoughts and we can join that debate then.)

A Cupboard Full of Coats, by Yvvette Edwards

August 22, 2011

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

For fourteen years, Jinx has been living in a public version of virtual secrecy — there’s a physical person there and she goes about all the usual activities, but it is a facade. The real person is hiding behind that facade, knowing that the subterfuge cannot continue forever. The charade comes to an end with the reappearance of Lemon at her front door “while the crocuses in the front garden were flowering and before the daffodil buds had opened”:

He just knocked, that was all, knocked the front door and waited, like he’d just come back with the paper from the corner shop, and the fourteen years since he’d last stood there, the fourteen years since the night I’d killed my mother, hadn’t really happened at all.

I had imagined that moment a thousand times; Lemon had come back for me. He knew everything yet still loved me. Over a decade filled with dreams where he did nothing but hold me close while I cried. Had he come sooner, my whole life might have panned out differently and it might have been possible to smile without effort, or been able to love.

Lemon has come back because Berris has been released from prison: Berris, convicted of the murder of Jinx’s mother (we now have two people who killed her), just days before he was to become her stepfather but some months after his live-in status had dramatically altered teen-age Jinx’s life.

This action all takes place in East London and those four characters (Jinx, her mother, Lemon, Berris) effectively represent the complete cast of the book. They share something else, however, which for me was the strongest part of Edwards’ novel — all can trace their roots to the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat. If Sam Selvon’s Moses trilogy is the defining standard for portraying the life and lingo of displaced Caribbeans in London, A Cupboard Full of Coats is at least an attempt at providing a modern update.

So let’s look at how Edwards introduces that aspect of her story, in the form of Jinx’s version of how her mother came to London:

She was the only child of a poor, uneducated Montserratian land worker and his semi-literate wife. In an era when it was normal for Caribbean migrants to leave their children behind with relatives as they headed out to the Motherland to make their fortune, with the wild card Hope flapping hard against the ribcage, my grandparents took their daughter with them. Between the three of them, they bore a single cardboard grip, and most of what was inside it belonged to her. Everything I know about them I learned from her, and the sum of everything she said was that they could not have worshipped God himself more than they worshipped the ground she walked on. Full stop.

There is another aspect to the Montserratian “diaspora” that adds to the positive side of this novel: the food. Edwards’ description of some of the kitchen action is enough to send a reader off to the closest exotic food store to pick up ingredients (you’ll have to read the book to find them) and start cooking, instead of reading. And, of course, enjoy the eating, which rather interrupts the reading.

Those threads are put in place quite well by the author in the opening pages of the story. Let me introduce one other element (and there are Potential Spoilers here) which is essential to the story. Berris (who appears only as seen by Jinx and Lemon in the book) has a violent streak, perhaps not uncommon to displaced people in a world whose rules of behavior they don’t really understand. When he gets upset, he beats Jinx’s mother. And then, in an expression of remorse, he buys her an expensive coat. The title of the novel says the rest — the coats do reappear as the novel progresses.

Most of the 250 pages of this novel are devoted to Jinx reviving her memories from 14 years ago — with an awkward literary device, Edwards has a somewhat-drunk Lemon recount his version in lengthy soliloquies to supply another point of view. For what it is worth, I found the past tense stories more interesting than the present tense ones, but I will admit it was a challenge.

This is going to be a much shorter review than is normally featured here because that effectively sums up the novel. Like so many on this year’s list, it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t very good. This year’s jury has included two versions of books about displaced Black people in London on its longlist — Pigeon English is the other– and I do prefer this to Kelman’s novel. Given what has happened recently with the riots, that inclusion is appropriate but I only wish the examples chosen were better books. Edwards and Kelman both set worthwhile objectives, but I am afraid their results just don’t deliver.

Having said that — and read Sam Selvon’s trilogy — I found A Cupboard Full of Books a frustrating book. It shares, with so many books on this year’s longlist, the characterstic of being a very worthy idea that has been badly executed. Full marks to Yvvette Edwards for her ambition, far lower marks for the delivery. As for the Booker longlist, another very strange choice in a year when so many very good books did not make the first cut.

And if that theme of Caribbean dislocation interests you, do rush out and buy a copy of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners. It is light years better than this book and much overlooked.

Derby Day, by D.J. Taylor

August 19, 2011

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

Full Disclosure: I attended the 1984 Derby on Epsom Downs and the spectacle remains the greatest sporting event that I have personally witnessed. There were more than 250,000 people spread across the Downs (much of it is a public area open to all so there is no official attendance total), the ladies’ hats in the walking ring area were reward enough in themselves (no ugly fascinators in that era) and the race itself is permanently etched in my memory. Two furlongs from the wire, the even-money favorite, El Gran Senor, and a longshot, Secreto, hooked up and drew away from the pack of about 20 horses in a scene that could have come straight from a Stubbs work of art.

That duel supplied my personal connection to the race — both El Gran Senor and Secreto were offspring of the incredible Northern Dancer, the Canadian-bred stud who many in this country believe is the nation’s greatest athlete of all time despite his four-legged status. My seatmate in the grandstand had an even closer connection. He was a Yorkshire publican who had taken the day off for his annual “holiday” and journeyed to Epsom for the race. And he had bet £20 on Secreto (I forget whether the odds were 12/1 or 20/1, but they were long). I don’t think I have ever seen a happier racetracker when the photo was posted showing Secreto had won by a short head and he had won hundreds of pounds — I was treated to two pints of bitter, simply for being a seatmate with a “connection” to the sire of “his” winner.

I indulge in that lengthy personal introduction to illustrate the pervasive nature of the Derby that lasts to this day. Okay, not every Brit is a horse-racing fan, but one day a year a very high percentage are. An amazing number make the journey to Epsom Downs and every one of them has a personal “stake” in the outcome.

Given my unforgettable Day at the Derby, is it any wonder that I approached D.J. Taylor’s Derby Day with much anticipation? True, the Derby Day of the title takes place in the mid-1800s, a century-and-a-half before my excursion. While a lot has changed in those years, the horse-racing business has some constants — everyone at Epsom then and now has a stake in the outcome and, for some, that stake is big enough to provoke every possible kind of outrage up to, and including, murder.

While this is his first novel that I have read, Taylor has a well-established reputation. His speciality is Victorian mystery — one of his previous books is actually titled Kept, A Victorian Mystery and the front cover strap on this one proclaims it “A Victorian Mystery”. I’d argue that is somewhat misleading: there is not a lot of mystery to the book, but every one of its 404 pages is loaded with “intrigue” (I know, “A Victorian Intrigue” hardly seems an adequate promotional label).

The author wastes no time in introducing the reader to the intrigue. In the opening pages, two small-time, pub-based bookies, Mulligan and McIvor, are sharing pots of ale in Clipstone Court and developing a betting scheme around the Derby that will be contested a few months down the road. First, we have the hatching of the plot, with Mulligan carefully composing a handbill come-on to attract interest:

‘Here we are then. A widowed lady, relict of a gentleman long esteemed in some of the highest sporting establishments in the land, is in possession of information pertaining to this year’s Derby race, which she will gladly divulge in exchange for the sum of one half-crown, to be remitted to Mrs Faraday, Post Office, Drury Lane, London W. Reads well, don’t it?’

‘I should say it does,’ said Mr McIvor, who had been very impressed by the word ‘pertaining’. ‘But what do we do when folks start sending their money in?’

The hook having been baited, a few paragraphs later we are introduced to the racehorse who is at the centre of Derby Day, “that horse from Lincolnshire”:

Seeing from the look on McIvor’s face that he had never heard of any horse in Lincolnshire, he [Mullligan] went on:

‘Tiberius. Mr Davenant’s horse. The one that ran five furlongs in a minute and five on Newmarket Heath last spring, and that Joey Bailey would have rode in the Ascot New Stakes if he hadn’t broke ‘is collar-bone the week before. Was a feller talking of him no-end in Post and Paddock the other month. I remarked it at the time. Mr Newcome is already offering tens on him, and nobody knowing whether he’s to run or no.’

If Mulligan and McIvor are bottom-feeders when it comes to exploiting the opportunities of the Derby, Mr Happerton occupies the other end of the spectrum. The reader first meets him when he shows up at a lunch where Mrs Venables is entertaining Rebecca Gresham, the daughter of an aging well-connected barrister with a house in Belgravia:

‘Here,’ he said, reaching into a canvas bag that had accompanied him into Mrs Venables’ drawing room. ‘Tell me what you think of this.’

It was a watercolour picture, perhaps eighteen inches square and framed behind glass, of a lithe black horse cropping the grass of what might have been Newmarket Heath.

‘What is it?’

‘That is Tiberius.’ For the first time in their conversation, Mr Happerton became thoroughly animated. ‘Won the Biennial Stakes at Bath only the other day. It was in all the newspapers. Though not the kind of newspapers you read I daresay, Bec— Miss Gresham.’

‘I never saw a copy of Bell’s Life, Mr Happerton.’

‘Eh? No, I don’t suppose you did. Well, you may take it from me, Miss Gresham, that Tiberius is the coming thing. There are men who would pay five thousand to have him running under their name.’

‘And you are one of them, Mr Happerton?’

Indeed he is. Not only that, he is aware that the current owner, Mr Davenant, has debts all over and he has been quietly buying up the notes so that he can force Davenant into bankruptcy and acquire the horse. The problem is, Happerton is running out of capital — marriage to Miss Gresham would provide potential access to her father’s wealth so he could complete his scheme.

Having sketched the top and bottom representatives of the cast of scoundrels looking at the Derby as an opportunity, let me assure you that there are a host more in the novel — jewel thieves, ne’er-do-well hangers-on, overweight jockeys, an honest squire, a confused governess and, yes, murderers — will all be introduced. If Derby Day was a wedding cake, it would be seven or eight layers and I’ve noted only minor features of the top and bottom ones. In fact, if there is a problem with the novel it is that Taylor develops so many sub-plots that the latter part of the book becomes a literary juggling act in keeping them all in the air and eventually bringing them to resolution. Then again, this is a Victorian novel, so that comes with the turf (pun intended).

I thoroughly enjoyed Derby Day. The Booker longlist always seems to have an extended historical novel on it — while this is no Wolf Hall, the 2009 winner, I found it to be a legitimate representative of the genre (and better than Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I, another Victorian novel I rather liked which did not make the longlist). Undoubtedly, my affection for horse-racing novels and personal memories of my wonderful day at Epsom influenced my enjoyment, so keep that in mind if you are contemplating the book.

Derby Day will make my shortlist and I suspect the jury’s as well, although that is more a reflection of the weakness of other books on the longlist than the worth of this one. As much as I enjoyed it, the novel does not deserve to win the Prize — it is more rewarding entertainment than a strong literary novel.

Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller

August 16, 2011

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

Nick is a lawyer originally from London, now coming up to the end of four years based in the chaos of post-Soviet Moscow where he does the legal paperwork on the highly questionable, but also highly profitable (for some), “deals” that characterized the time. His comfortable ex-pat life is about to change as a result of an incident on the Metro. He has already spotted an attractive woman on the platform (“I can at least be sure of her name. It was Maria Kovalenko, Masha to her friends.”) but it is an incident involving her as they are getting off that sets things in motion:

She was about five metres behind me, and as well as screaming she was wrestling against a thin man with a ponytail who was trying to steal her handbag (an ostentatiously fake Burberry). She was screaming for help, and the friend who had appeared alongside her — Katya, it turned out — was just screaming. To begin with I only watched, but the man drew back his fist like he was about to punch her, and I heard someone shouting from behind me as if they were going to do something about it. I stepped forward and pulled the thin man back by his collar.

So opens the first storyline of A.D. Miller’s debut novel, Snowdrops. A lonely Nick has been “introduced” to Masha and Katya; infatuation quickly follows. The conceit that supplies the format for the book is that it is being written a few years down the road, with Nick back in London, and he is writing it as a “confession” of his Moscow experience to the woman he is about to marry.

Miller has obviously read, and been impressed by, Raymond Chandler, as that “action” quote indicates. Here’s another example of how the updated descriptive voice plays out, his description of his first sight of Masha:

She was wearing tight jeans tucked into knee-high brown leather boots, and a white blouse with one more button undone than there needed to be. Over the blouse she had one of those funny Brezhnev-era autumn coats that Russian women without much money often wear. If you look at them closely they seem to be made out of carpet or beach towel with a cat-fur collar, but from a distance they make the girl in the coat look like the honey-trap in a Cold War thriller. She had a straight bony nose, pale skin and long tawny hair, and with a bit more luck she might have been sitting beneath the gold-leaf ceiling in some hyper-priced restaurant called the Ducal Palace or the Hunting Lodge, eating black caviar and smiling indulgently at a nickel magnate or well-connected oil trader. Perhaps that’s where she is now, though somehow I doubt it.

The endpaper of Snowdrops describes it as “a riveting psychological drama”; the last two sentences in that quote offer enough presaging on where that storyline will head, so let’s move on to storyline number two. Miller was the Moscow correspondent for the Economist from 2004 to 2007 so he has substantial experience with the “free market” abuses of the time:

In those gold-rush days — when half the buildings in the centre of the city were covered in submarine-sized Rolex adverts, and apartments in Stalin’s wedding-cake skyscrapers were going for Knightsbridge prices — money in Moscow had its own particular habits. Money knew that someone in the Kremlin might decide to take it back at any moment. It didn’t relax over coffee or promenade with three-wheeled buggies in Hyde Park like London money does. Moscow money emigrated to the Cayman Islands, villas on Cap Ferrat or anywhere else that would give it a warm home and ask no questions.

The foil in this storyline is the Cossack, a deal-maker who is proposing to construct an oil shipping terminal in the form of an old tanker which will be permanently anchored offshore in the Barents Sea. Nick is acting for a bank whose financial support the Cossack is seeking for his “project”. Even without the author’s presaging, the potential pitfalls in this storyline are apparent from the start given what we know of the Russia of the time so I will go no further on that one.

Storyline number three is the “snowdrop” of the title: “1. An early-flowering bulbous plant, having a white pendant flower. 2. Moscow slang. A corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw.” That corpse is introduced in a short prologue (“I smelled it before I saw it”) so the reader is alerted that it will feature later in the book.

I am including a lot of quotes here because I think potential readers will find them useful. If the narrative style sparks your interest, you will probably like the novel. If it leaves you cold, it is probably best avoided.

Nick is one of those people who “goes with flow”, rather than acting from a set of personal principles. Given the “flow” of the Moscow of the time (which Miller obviously knows well), it is apparent from the start that none of the three storylines will turn out well. Even the “confessional” aspect of the narrative is more a series of rationales for Nick’s lack of real character than an exploration of what he might have done differently.

Snowdrops has been out for some months and many people have liked it — I am being deliberately vague because I don’t want to spoil it for those who might join that group. I found it badly wanting. The dramatic development in all three story lines is entirely predictable; it doesn’t have any of the punch or twists that characterize Chandler’s work. The narrative style attests to Miller’s journalistic background; straightforward and well-paced, but lacking any emotion or nuance. And despite the author’s experience with Moscow, there is a curious lack of depth to both his descriptions of the city and the business environment of the time.

For me, Snowdrops was a quick and not entirely unenjoyable read — like so many books on this year’s Booker longlist, “ordinary” is the term that came to mind. It certainly would not rate as one of my 13 “best books” of 2011.

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

August 12, 2011

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

Half Blood Blues, the second novel from Canadian author Esi Edugyan, is still two weeks away from its Canadian release but already the book has acquired a “story” — one that invites comparison with last year’s Giller Prize winner, The Sentimentalists, and its intriguing publishing history. Edugyan’s novel was scheduled for release in February this year but got caught in the bankruptcy proceedings which led to the shutdown of publisher Key Porter. Thomas Allen has rescued the book and it will be out later this month. In the meantime, a UK version published by Serpent’s Tail is on the market — and it has made the Booker longlist.

For this reader approaching the novel, there was both a downside and an upside, so let’s admit the biases upfront:

The downside: It is another Holocaust novel, set in pre-war Berlin and early war Paris. So much very good fiction has been written about this period that many readers (including KfC) have a sense of “enough”. If you are going to use that framework which so many excellent authors have used before, the book has to be very, very good.

The upside: The central theme in the novel is about jazz musicians in Europe in the pre-war years. The Jim Crow atmosphere in the United States led many creative blacks (painters and writers as well as musicians) to head to Europe in the 20s and 30s where the atmosphere was friendlier — and then it became deadly. A good bit of non-fiction has been devoted to that phenomenon but there has not been a lot of fictional work.

Half Blood Blues opens in Paris in 1940, in a decrepit recording studio. A jazz quartet has been working on a number and their leader, Hiero, has dismissed the latest effort as “just a damn braid of mistakes”:

Did that ever stun me, him saying this. For weeks the kid been going on about how dreadul we sound. He kept snatching up the discs, scratching the lacquer with a pocket knife, wrecking them. Yelling how there wasn’t nothing there. But there was something. Some seed of twisted beauty.

That quote gives you a flavor of the jazz side of the story (and the twisted lingo that will pervade the book). Here is another excerpt, only a few paragraphs later, that supplies an indication of the political environment:

We lined up the empty bottles along the wall, locked up real quiet, gone our separate routes back to Delilah’s flat. Curfew was on and Paris was grim, all clotted shadows and stale air. I made my quiet way along the alleys, dreading the sound of footsteps, till we met up again at the flat. Everyone but Coleman, of course, Coleman was staying with his lady. We collapsed onto dirty couches under blackout curtains.

I’d set my axe against the wall and it was like I could feel the damn disc just sitting there, still warm. I felt its presence so intensely it seemed strange the others ain’t sensed it too. Its wax holding all that heat like an altar candle.

The narrator is Sid, the bassist in the quartet, and he has secretly lifted the master copy of the latest recording effort, before Hiero can destroy it. Hiero (properly Hieronymous Falk) is a brilliant 20-year-old black trumpeter — German-born, but of mixed breed (note the title of the novel), which is a disastrous mix in Nazi Europe. Coleman will soon disappear from the story but the fourth member of the quartet, Chip, the drummer, will loom even larger as the novel proceeds.

Delilah is the unifying force at this stage of the novel. A vocalist, she hooked up with the group in Berlin a few years earlier and more than one of them fell in love with her. She is also a good friend of Louis Armstrong (yes, he was in Europe at the time and does appear in the novel) and had originally set them up to do a recording with him. The Nazi takeover of Berlin put paid to that but the musicians have managed to move on to Paris, although a number of their comrades have been abandoned, captured or distracted along the way. Despite advice to escape Paris now that a German invasion is on and Delilah’s access to well-forged documents and passports providing the opportunity to do that, they are sticking around to complete their recording — and the work is obviously not going well.

If the Paris sessions are the centrepiece of the novel, Edugyan also supplies a back story in the form of how this crew came together and what the atmosphere was like in the cabarets of pre-Nazi Germany. More important to the structure of the novel, however, is the “post story”. A half century after this Paris experience, Sid (who was never very good as a bassist and left jazz some decades ago) and Chip (who built a successful career as a jazz drummer) are headed back to Berlin.

That studio disc that Sid purloined happened to survive, along with a handful of others that the group had recorded in Berlin. An academic has produced a publication that in turn led to “cult” status with a focus on Hiero (SPOILER: He was captured by the Gestapo and last seen headed to a concentration camp). A famous documentary director has picked up the story, with interviews from both Sid and Chip featured in the film and the two elderly men are on their way to post-1989 Berlin for the premiere. The strength of Edugyan’s novel is the way that she knits these three stories together.

If you have been following the Booker longlist or are a regular visitor here, the overarching structure of Half Blood Blues is raising some obvious comparisons — Alison Pick’s Far To Go. This novel starts with Kristallnacht, that one Kindertransport. Pick develops her wartime story by concentrating on a Czech family that chooses to stay behind despite the obvious danger, just as Edugyan’s musicians do. And both novels have a “present tense”, a half century down the road — the trauma produced by those times has never gone away.

Despite my interest in jazz and jazz fiction, Pick emerges as a clear winner on this comparison. The “war” part of Half Blood Blues is shallowly told and adds nothing to previous work. The curious “lingo” that the author uses in the book is forced and unconvincing. Most disappointing is that the jazz aspect of the story simply never comes together. If I can again resort to comparisons with Pick’s novel, she captures (realistically, painfully and emotionally) the challenges and heartbreak that the parents in her novel faced — Edugyan simply never develops a version of that for the musicians in her novel.

Half Blood Blues has not attracted a lot of attention, so I have not seen a review that enthused about the book. I salute Thomas Allen for making sure that it has been published in Canada — I’ll admit that I can’t see what the Booker jury found in it.

2011 Man Booker: Mid-longlist thoughts

August 8, 2011

The Man Booker forum now has dedicated threads on all 13 long-listed novels in their Winners Debate section (and I have a lot to go), but I thought I’d offer some early overall thoughts about this year’s jury and their selections. I think the 2011 competition is very, very different from all the ones that I have known since I began following the Prize many years ago and there is reason to be alert to it now. I have read only seven of the 13 so far, but that experience plus descriptions of the remaining six have led me to form this extended hypothesis. It is still only that, and subject to revision (or outright rejection – I won’t take it personally if your comment is “This is utter crap”) once I have read the remainder.

Genre fans have frequently complained that their favorites get overlooked when it comes to the Booker. Even as one who likes “literary” fiction (I won’t try to define it here, but by all means offer yours), I have to agree but I would argue that, until this year, the Booker has been a “literary” fiction prize — if your sci-fi favorite is to rate, it needs to have appropriate literary appeal. Genres have their own prizes, this is just the “literary” one. Its reputation is based on that – others have bigger monetary value (IMPAC), more tightly-defined mandates (Orange), bigger sales potential (Richard and Judy put this one to shame). For me, the Man Booker’s reputation for evaluating literary fiction has been justly earned – it should be wary of being “taken over” by other interests.

I think this year’s jury, deliberately or not, has quite a different view. I have always assumed, perhaps naively, that the Booker longlist represented the “13 Best Books” of the year – I don’t think that is the case this year at all. In fact, I would argue that this jury has consciously avoided any attempt to choose the 13 best books of the year. Rather, they have opted for the “dog show” approach (that may or may not be a perjorative) – let’s put together a longlist of “best in genre” (e.g. “best in breed”), narrow those to six and then proclaim the “best in show”.

Consider the list of 13 by genre (my labels are cumbersome but bear with me — or substitute your own):

Western – The Sisters Brothers
Victorian melodrama – Derby Day (note the absence of Gillespie and I)
Dystopian – The Testament of Jesse Lamb
Adolescent narrator – Pigeon English
Brit historic – The Stranger’s Child (Adam Mars-Jones didn’t make it)
Irish historic – On Canaan’s Side (too bad, Anne Enright)
Holocaust historic – Far To Go
Dreadful Communism historic – The Last 100 Days (The Free World did not measure up)
Post-Soviet (noir) historic – Snowdrop
Tangential, cultural historic – Half Blood Blues
Animals as metaphor – Jemrach’s Menagerie
Fictional memoir – The Sense of an Ending
Gritty modern London – A Cupboard Full of Coats (Graham Swift is too dreary, also not London)

(I have noted only some obvious exclusions because they are in genres that I read – you may well have your own in the others.)

My problem with this approach from the jury is that, being limited to 13, they have to overlook several classes or smash them into the limited literary ones available on their agenda, e.g. novels part of trilogies (Ghosh, Mars-Jones); “wide-screen” generation novels (Linda Grant); intense introspective personal novels (Swift); anything from Asia, Africa or the Carribean (The Chinamen) and I could go on. The jurors seem to like genres that have a lot of action and story, not those that look inward at society (Jane Austen would not have done well with this jury at all and Joyce would have had absolutely no chance). Not only that, when you select by genre, you invite historical comparison to good work in the genre – most of this year’s “best of breed” are sadly lacking when compared to the high previous standard. And finally, as a couple of others have observed, this approach has resulted in a very, very middle-class, English approach to evaluating fiction – and I would argue the Man Booker is not well served by that restrictive view.

The Guardian for a few years has had the Not the Booker Prize. I’d suggest that this year, the official jury is giving us a “Not The Literary Novel” Prize (even though they have included a few and one of those might well win). It is an interesting approach – and certainly allows for people to cheer on the genre novel of their preference in the final (Snowdrop and Pigeon English, two I don’t much like, already have their advocates and more power to them). I won’t denounce the jury for its approach but I would ask: Given that literary novels don’t have their own prize (except for the Man Booker), why are we turning it into a “best of genre” award? Why not call it the “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” award, this year in honor of the 75th anniversary of Orwell’s novel – a celebration of middle-class values that once were? Why does literary fiction have to take a back seat?

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

August 4, 2011

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

The presence of an unconventional title on the Booker Prize longlist is no longer a surprise — indeed it is conventional for there to be one. Heck, DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little actually won the Prize. In recent years, Me Cheeta (2009), a Hollywood memoir narrated by an ape (Tarzan’s co-star), and The Stars in the Bright Sky (2010), a group of hard-drinking young women stranded at Gatwick, filled out the role, although neither made it to the shortlist. So the presence of a Western set in Oregon and California during the Gold Rush in 1851 on the Booker 2011 longlist is hardly a surprise, just this year’s break with convention.

That does not make it any easier to write a review of The Sisters Brothers. While I do read a fair bit of historical fiction set in Western North America, it tends not to be the gunslinger variety. Indeed, before even trying to describe my response to the book permit me to cut to the chase by quoting an assessment (in full) that “asbo” left on the Booker Forum after reading this book:

I could easily see the Coen Brothers making the movie of The Sisters Brothers, so if you like Coen Brothers movies I guarantee you will enjoy the book.

I’m not a fan of the Coen brothers’ work (and John C. Reilly has apparently bought the rights, but you can see what “asbo” is getting at), so that statement is made without personal endorsement here — I do suspect it is an accurate assessment and if it lands positively with you, you might not want to read any farther here and just go buy the novel.

To help with my challenge with deWitt’s novel (he was born in Canada but now lives in Portland — we might see this one again when the Giller longlist is announced), let me sketch a conceptual triangle of Western fiction. At one of the bottom corners, you have Zane Grey and the conventional good guy/bad guy model with a fair bit of killing as part of the action. At the other bottom corner, Cormac McCarthy (especially The Border Trilogy) — hostile Nature joins hostile people in the mix. And at the peak, let me place Wallace Stegner (see my review of Angle of Repose) where the story focuses on confronting that hostile nature rather than shooting each other, even if there is a fair bit of non-fatal human conflict involved.

Charlie and Eli Sisters are gunmen who have been hired by the Commodore to kill a prospector in California named Hermann Kermit Warm. Eli narrates the story and, while he is very much a killer, he does have a humane side (very unlike his brother) and is actually thinking he might escape his current line of work for something quieter, say running a trading post in his native Oregon. Consider, for example, Eli’s contemplation of his new horse (Tub) while he is waiting for his brother to get instructions from the Commodore — the brothers’ last pair of horses were “immolated” on their most recent job:

I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot-popping eyeballs. He could cover sixty miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him or clean him, and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it? Tub is a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner.

The brothers face a trek of several days from Oregon to San Francisco where Warm is and it does not start well. The Commodore has said that Charlie is to be the “lead” on this project (and will get a bigger share of the take) — Eli does not think this is right, so there is tension between the two from the start. Things get worse on day one when Eli is bit by a spider and his head swells grotesquely when he reacts badly to the antivenom. They visit a second doctor and it is worth a pause to illustrate how deWitt sketches his characters:

The story of Reginald Watts was a luckless one dealing in every manner of failure and catastrophe, though he spoke of this without bitterness or regret, and in fact seemed to find humor in his numberless missteps: ‘I’ve failed at straight business, I’ve failed at criminal enterprise, I’ve failed at love, I’ve failed at friendship. You name it, I’ve failed at it. Go ahead and name something. Anything at all.’

‘Agriculture,’ I said.

‘I owned a sugar beet farm a hundred miles northeast of here. Never made a penny. Hardly saw one sugar beet. A devastating failure. Name something else.’

‘Shipping’.

Watts failed at that too, but you are going to have to read the novel to find out how (it is quite a funny paragraph, actually — deWitt delivers a number of very good set pieces). We are moving in the direction of McCarthy territory here and the rest of the first half of the book features elements of both Grey and McCarthy. Watts survives his experience with the Sisters; the same will not be true of many of the other characters the two meet on their way to San Francisco. Charlie’s response to confrontation is to shoot first and bury later (with Eli helping out as required in both the shooting and burying); I did not attempt to keep a body count as the book went on.

While all this is taking place, the author is establishing Eli as a character with more than one dimension, although that does require some “give” on the reader’s part. And, when the brothers finally get to San Francisco and find Hermann Kermit Warm, deWitt puts a curveball into play and the novel moves much closer to Stegner territory — I’d say the last half would be virtually at the centre of my conceptual triangle. And there is no point in spoiling how it gets there. If you don’t like the outline of the first part of the book, you probably want no part of any of it — if it sparks your curiosity, the novel does acquire depth.

deWitt is a strong writer; the narrative is fast-paced and even the awkwardness in some of Eli’s wording is effectively deliberate. Unfortunately, for an action-based book, most of the incidents are quite predictable and even when the story becomes more contemplative you can only take the notion of a hired gunslinger with a heart so far.

The Sisters Brothers deserves high marks as an entertaining Western, with the added praise that it does have a non-Western twist to its second half. For me, that is not enough to make it Booker shortlist material, as worthy as it might have been as this year’s conventional “unconventional” title on the longlist.


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