Archive for July, 2012

2012 Man Booker Prize

July 25, 2012

Here’s the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize:

The Yips by Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman (Sceptre)

Philida by André Brink (Harvill Secker)

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)

Skios by Michael Frayn (Faber & Faber)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt)

Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury)

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Faber & Faber)

Communion Town by Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate)

I’ve set a personal record this year: I’ve only read one of the 12 (Skios, by Michael Frayn). While I enjoyed it immensely and am a confirmed admirer of Frayn, I do find its inclusion on the longlist a bit strange — farce is not a genre that the Booker usually recognizes and this is definitely farce.

The only other book that I have on hand is Bring Up The Bodies, so I had better get to it soon — I was in the minority in not liking Wolf Hall very much but will do my best to approach it with an open mind.

I’ve read and reviewed the entire longlist in each of the three previous years of this blog’s existence (well, I did cheat a bit last year with one guest review and one title abandoned — you can find previous years’ reviews far down in the sidebar on the right). I’ve checked out the 10 titles that I don’t have and confess that I won’t be attempting the entire longlist this year. I could only find four that interested me (Barker, Levy, Joyce and Thompson) so that will be my “longlist” reading. If enough of the six that I plan to read make the shortlist, I would still intend to give it a go.

Having said that, this year again looks like one where the jury has chosen to make a “statement” by including a lot of lesser known authors and overlooking well-known or well-reviewed ones (McEwan, Smith, Amis, Carey, Warner, just for a start). I don’t object to that approach but have to say at first glance that I don’t think my tastes have a lot in common with their statement.

Incidentally, the Man Booker people abandoned their popular debate forum when they revamped their website last week — a shame because that was where I got interested in online blogging and met many friends, a number of whom show up regularly in comments here. Trevor from the Mookse and the Gripes coincidentally was opening a new forum at the same time — you can find it here . If you check it out, you will find a spirited Booker discussion is already under way — in no way is that meant to discourage anyone from commenting on this post or the books themselves when I get around to reviewing them. We tend to get longer comments here and I don’t want to abandon the Booker completely.

Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis

July 23, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

Here are a few things we learn about Lionel Asbo in the opening pages of Martin Amis’ new novel:

1.

Lionel was there, a great white shape, leaning on the open door with his brow pressed to his raised wrist, panting huskily, and giving off a faint grey steam in his purple singlet (the lift was misbehaving, and the flat was on the thirty-third floor — but then again Lionel could give off steam while dozing in bed on a quiet afternoon). Under his arm he was carrying a consignment of lager. Two dozen, covered in polythene. Brand: Cobra.

2. The narrator, his 15-year-old nephew and flatmate Des, doesn’t know what Lionel’s trade is but he has a fair idea: “Extortion with Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property were what Lionel most often went to prison for.”

3. Lionel has native intelligence but he does his best to deny it, right down to misleading mispronunciation. His sometime girlfriend Cynthia is known to Lionel as Cymfia. He pronounces ‘myth’ miff and full possessive pronouns like ‘your, their, my’ make only ‘guest appearances’ in his language, the preferred form being as in “Now wolves, they not men’s natural enemy. Oh no. You wolf won’t attack a human” (this by way of explaining the lineage of the dogs who are the “menaces” in his Extortion with Menaces business). And he pronounces his own name Loyonel or even Loyonoo.

4. Lionel received his first Restraining Directive (the precursor to the Baby ASBO — “which (as all the kingdom now knew) stood for Anti-Social Behaviour Order” — at age three years and two days, a national record. He celebrated his coming of age by changing his surname from Pepperdine to Asbo by deed poll on the day of his eighteenth birthday.

That gives you a flavor of the title character; let’s add a brief indicator of young Des. As the book opens, we meet him addressing a letter to Jennaveieve, the Agony Angel/Ecstasy Aunt columnist of the Diston Gazette, the community newspaper in the London neighborhood where he and Uncle Li live. He is seeking advice on the legality of an affair he is having with his Granny Grace — not totally as bad as it might seem at first since Grace had her first child at 12, her last of seven (Lionel) at 19 and now is still only 39. An indication of the nature of the Pepperdine family is that Lionel and her first child (Cilla, Des’ mother) are called “the twins” because they are the only two of the seven who have the same father.

Obviously, Martin Amis, known for pushing the envelope in all his fiction, has gone over the top in this one, if you will permit the mixed metaphor. Slogging a “two-four” up 33 flights? A Restraining Order (for smashing car windows with paving stones) at age three? An affair with your Gran? — the serious nature of which is illustrated by Lionel’s violent distaste for the “Grans I’d Like to Fuck” classified advertising feature in his favorite national tabloid, the Morning Lark (which makes the Sun seem seriously upmarket).

All of that occurs in Part One (of four) of the book. Any notion that the novel might settle down to a “normal” approach is dispelled in the opening of Part Two. Lionel, locked up in Stallwort remand prison along with scores of other relatives and friends after a wedding reception dust-up ended up doing six hundred and fifty thousand pounds of damage to the host hotel, is called to the Governor’s office. A month or so earlier, Lionel had passed on to Des a lottery ticket that he’d filched (he regards the Lottery itself as “a fucking mug’s game”). Des had filled it out and sent it in — the Governor informs Lionel that he has won £139,999,999.50 in the Lottery.

So, for the rest of the novel (there’s close to 200 pages to go), we are dealing with one rich Asbo, perhaps better represented as ASBO, but then Amis loves his word play. I’ve given away enough already (and rest assured it merely supplies a taste of what is to come — there as a large cast of equally strange supporting characters I’ve overlooked) but by now you should have a good idea of whether or not this is a novel for you.

North American cover

I’ll admit to approaching Lionel Asbo with much trepidation. I’ve read a fair bit of Amis’ fiction over the years (you can find reviews of Money (1984) and The Pregnant Widow (2010) on this site) and he is one of those authors whose appeal has been steadily sliding. And the reviews that I had read of Lionel Asbo were anything but promising — The Economist’s conclusion was “rather like flicking through Hello magazine or picking your nose, the rewards are limited.”

So it is a delight to report that, for this reader at least, this novel marks a return to the early form that made Martin Amis rightly famous. Every bit of it is truly over the top, but for good reason. The cover of the UK version that I read has a small label at the bottom reading “State of England” — and Amis (who has been living in New York for several years) has loaded up every satirical weapon he has to yet again take aim at his native country. Unlike some of the recent books where that has become predictably tedious, I like to think that he has deliberately overdone the approach in this one as a pointer to the reader that none of this should be taken too literally — but that perhaps it might be directionally correct (that’s the kind of posh phrase to which Lionel, Loyono, Loyonel, whatever, occasionally soars).

The result of all this was a very fun read, with many out-loud chuckles and a lot of smiles of “dead on there” along the way. I’d offer only one small caveat. By their very nature, satires (especially outrageous ones) are difficult to bring to a close — I found in the last few chapters of Lionel Asbo it helped to be thinking more “thanks for the trip that is approaching its end” rather than “I can’t wait to see where this ends up”. The journey itself was rewarding enough.

(EDIT: The first few comments that I received persuaded me that I should include a copy of the North American cover, which I think reflects the different attitude NA readers might take to the story. Head to comments for more discussion.)

Above All Things, by Tanis Rideout

July 18, 2012

Review copy courtesy McClelland & Stewart

In an Author’s Note at the conclusion of Above All Things, Tanis Rideout explains how she embarked on the lengthy creative expedition that resulted in this novel:

When I first encountered the stories of the early Everest expeditions, I didn’t even have the facts; all I had was the myth.

I was first introduced to the story of George Mallory while working at a local outfitter, selling climbing and camping gear. There was a television set on the shop floor that played gear videos, mountain movies, and adventure documentaries. My favorite documentary was one that showed black-and-white footage of the earliest attempts to climb Mr. Everest. That was how I first saw George Mallory: in pith helmet and knee socks, crossing the Himalaya. From the very start, that image and the story of his disappearance had me hooked.

The mythology surrounding Mallory is unmistakably grand. He was one of the last of the classic English gentleman explorers — an athlete, a scholar, and a writer with ties to the Bloomsbury group.

I am using that quote to back into this review of Above All Things because it supplies some ideal context. The 2012 Everest climbing season has now come to a close and, even as a non-climber, it is fair to observe it was a disaster. By all accounts, the slopes of the world’s highest peak now bear more resemblance to the midway at your local fair than they do to the lonely top-of-the-world outpost of Mallory’s day — scores of ill-trained climbers, junk from previous climbs, a circus of foolish ambition. That current distasteful situation is a significant barrier to those contemplating reading a fictional account of the quest as it existed almost a century ago.

One thing hasn’t changed, however: people still die there, as Mallory did. And, even before I begin discussion of the book, it is worth noting that Rideout has done the reading world a favor by writing this fictional version of the Mallory story, a reminder that Mt. Everest once was regarded as the world’s third unreached “Pole”, not the scene of an annual circus. And having lost the race to the other two to an American and a Norwegian, the Brits were determined to claim conquest of the third.

Rideout opens her story with a brief chapter set in 1920 as Mallory is preparing for his first Everest attempt and explaining to his wife, Ruth, the powerful hold that the mountain has on him:

He took her hands again and traced the lines of her palms, like horizons. “She was named for George Everest. He was the surveyor general of India, but he died before he ever saw her. From malaria, after blindness, paralysis, and wild bouts of insanity. He was a bully apparently, drove his men mad. He set out to force some order on the world with his maps. He started at the bottom and swept his survey up the arc of India.

So even before the first Englishman had ever stood at the base of the mountain, Everest was inspiring a fanatical attraction in some that bordered on — perhaps extended to — madness. By the time Mallory is preparing for his third attempt in 1924, when the novel proper opens, he has become one of that affected group. And while Ruth in that short opening chapter saw her husband as “the world famous explorer” by the time attempt number three is looming she has tired of paying the price for the apparently hopeless enterprise. The couple now have three children and George has a new teaching position at Cambridge — it is time to get on with proper gentlemanly life, raising a family and abandoning impossible youthful pursuits.

“You said you were done with it. You promised.” Her voice sounded tight. She breathed in deeply. “I know you, George. What you want is for me to give you leave to go.”

“No,” he started to protest, but she was right. They both knew it.

Eventually, Ruth had agreed they should think about it, and he promised they’d make the decision together. But when Hinks’s final invitation came, George had accepted without discussing it with her. He couldn’t help himself. For days after, he’d waited for the right moment to tell her what he’d done.

Above All Things is very much a book about mountain climbing, but as those excerpts show Rideout makes it much more than that. Chapters that painstakingly tell the story of the expedition’s progress to and up the mountain are alternated with a second narrative stream, a day in the life of Ruth Mallory, back in Cambridge, awaiting the post every day, hoping for a letter from her husband even though by then the letter would be several weeks old and George, assuming he was still alive, would be in a far different space on the climb.

While every attempt on Everest involves an extensive team (five climbers from England, two supporting Englishmen based in India and a host of native porters and bearers on this one), it is ultimately a lonely experience. The final thrust for the summit will involve teams of only two. And, as the climbers move higher on the mountain, the lack of oxygen plays tricks with the mind — despite the hostile surroundings, memories of the past move to the immediate mental present, often becoming hallucinations that are so real that the climber overlooks the actual reality and suffers fatally for the lapse.

Rideout offsets that mountain-slope loneliness with Ruth’s. As the months of George’s absence unfold, her own mind moves more and more to where she thinks her husband’s is. On the day that the author uses to tell her story, she plans and holds a dinner party with family and climbing friends of George’s (including Hinks, the chair of the committee overseeing English Everest attempts, whom she loathes for stealing George from her this third time). It is an effort to root herself in English reality; it doesn’t work as her own mind is preoccupied with memories of herself and George, more recent ones of how he betrayed his promise and became part of this expedition and her growing fears about what might have happened to him since his last letter.

Rideout also employs another voice in the Everest stream of her narrative: Sandy Irvine is taking a term off from his studies at Oxford as the fifth, least-experienced member of the team. He hasn’t done a lot of climbing himself but he is strong in a husky sort of way and has Mr. Fixit skills for the equipment ranging from ropes to oxygen tanks to stoves that continually breaks down as the climb progresses. George has been there before and already experienced most of the challenges and problems (except for the last few hundred feet) but for Sandy each setback is a new one — the contrast between veteran and rookie is a device well-executed by the author.

As noted earlier, I am not a climber but I do remember reading Everest books as a youth (although I can’t remember the authors or titles). Certainly as the climbers reach higher heights and mental confusion and hallucinations became more frequent, I remembered those earlier volumes. But while Rideout does this well, the strength of this novel lies in the way that she successfully captures the similarities and tensions in the parallel stories of George and Ruth, even though they are worlds apart (both horizontally and vertically). In the final analysis, Above All Things is a book about characters — not just George, Ruth and Sandy, but everyone affected by the expedition, be they climbers or those left behind.

For a debut novel, Above All Things is exceptionally well-written, a feature that has been noted in most reviews of the book that I have read. Rideout thanks editor Anita Chong (a new name to me, but I probably have not been paying attention) in her acknowledgements and, perhaps more tellingly (at least for me), also acknowledges the contribution of Ellen Seligman, arguably the best book editor in Canada. In an era when so many book publishing houses are laying off editors (and even completely out-sourcing the function to authors and their agents), this novel was a reminder of just how much value a good editor can add — kudos to McClelland & Stewart for assigning such exceptional editing talent to a first novelist because the positive results are readily apparent.

I’ve talked to friends who were hesitant about trying this book simply because it is about mountain climbing, a pursuit in which they have no interest — and it must be admitted that some curiosity about climbing and climbers is required. Having said that, the novel is much more about a time that has passed and the characters who were part of it — on this front, Tanis Rideout can lay claim to significant success.

The Dead Are More Visible, by Steven Heighton

July 12, 2012

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Steven Heighton is one of those Canadian authors who has quietly built an extensive and varied publishing resume — six works of fiction (three novels, three story collections including this one); five volumes of poetry; two of essays and numerous appearances in short story anthologies. While he has appeared on a number of “Best of the Year” lists and has won three gold National Magazine Awards for short fiction, his showing in the major prize contests is limited to one Governor General’s short list (for poetry in 1995).

I did read his first novel, The Shadow Boxer, when it appeared in 2000 but must confess I don’t remember it well. So, given my new commitment to being more disciplined about exploring short story collections, I welcomed the opportunity to check in on someone who is now an established author and sample the 11 stories that are included in The Dead Are More Visible.

Overall, “varied” is a perfect word to describe this collection. They range in length from 10 to almost 50 pages. The stories are not only not linked, they feature a wide range of styles and formats — something that is unusual in my experience with short stories, since most writers seem to gravitate towards at least some similarities in structure, tone and approach. And the narrative point of view also switches from story to story — a number feature female narrators (one, “Swallow”, has a full cast of women characters) which is a risky approach for any male writer.

So it is not surprising that I had a varied response — a number are excellent, a couple very good and some missed the mark for me. Overall, though, I would have no problem recommending Heighton and this collection, if only because it shows how one writer can use a number of different approaches and formats to develop his ideas. I’ll offer more detailed thoughts on two that impressed me, but with the caveat that these are examples, not meant as a representative sample.

The opening story, “Those Who Would Be More”, is set in 1980s Japan where the narrator is a parttime English teacher at a pricy primary school for the offspring of Japanese who can afford it. The story makes clear from the start that Principal Eguchi is an unusual woman for Japan — she not only owns her own business, she drinks beer in public. She employs male English language tutors as much to improve her own English (and seduce them) as to teach her students; in the meeting with the narrator that opens the story she has upped the beverage of choice from beer to Suntory — because she is firing him.

“Some of the parents are compliant,” she said in a rush, finally meeting my gaze.

“Compliant? You mean — in sending us their children?”

“They say the children are so happy in the juku.”

“Oh, oh, you mean ‘compliment’. As in–“

Too happy, the children. Too much play, not enough work. These parents are…”

I sat back. “Oh. These are complaints.”

“Several complaints. More than several. How many is several, Sensei? In English?”

“Well…I guess around three or four.”

“Ah. How many is many?”

“There’ve been many complaints?”

“They say that recess is half the class, Sensei! That means, two hours or more.”

I could only nod.

“And, you refuse to assign the housework.”

“Four hours seems like a pretty long time to keep three- and four-year-olds at a desk. On a Saturday.”

Okay, that excerpt may seem a bit cute, but don’t hold that against Heighton. He offsets it with another story thread — the narrator’s own attempts to learn Japanese from a second-hand primer he has picked up at a bookstand. Some back story is necessary here: Heighton did teach in Japan and most of the stories in his first collection, Flight Paths of the Emperor, were set there. He admits in an afterword to this book that there was story he wanted to write then, but couldn’t figure out how: “my experience of learning Japanese from a bizarre primer possibly authored by a psychopath”. This is that story and excerpts from the bizarre primer slowly but surely take over. Here’s an early example — they get crazier as the story proceeds:

My aunt stayed with us here for dinner last night.
The sun was bright that day and the wind was warm.
My uncle has a rifle that he found after the battle.
A rifle is no match for a bomb.

As interesting as Principal Eguchi is (and she is), she’s no match for the primer. If you are already inclined from that short excerpt to envision when it might have been written, you are on the right track.

“Shared Room on Union”, by way of contrast, is set in a version of the author’s home city, the university town of Kingston, Ontario. Janna and Justin are talking and necking in Justin’s old Volvo 240 on a Thursday night, parked outside her apartment. They sleep together most nights but not Thursdays:

Friday was her ‘nightmare day’, a double shift at the upstyle cafe/bistro where she was now manager. Thursday nights she insisted on sleeping at her own place, alone. Sleep wasn’t really the issue, he sensed. This seemed to be a ritual of independence, and he knew she would maintain it strictly, having declared she would, until they moved in together in the new year.

This Thurday night turns into a nightmare itself when a crazed, armed intruder shows up and claps the muzzle of his gun to Justin’s window. His attempt to steal Justin’s Volvo is foiled (because he can’t drive a standard) so he settles for locking them in the trunk before stumbling off. Most of the story takes place while they are in the trunk — it’s a study of how a relationship can truly be put to an unusual test and I’ll spoil it by selectively quoting the opening and closing sentences of Heighton’s last paragraph:

A curious thing he noticed in the years after: in company, he and Janna would often discuss that night, either collaborating to broach the story on some apt conversational cue (which they would both recognize without having to exchange a glance), or readily indulging a request from guests, or hosts, to hear it for the first time, or yet again.
….
When they were alone together, in fact, they never spoke a word of it.

The two stories that I have chosen are among the shorter ones in the collection — they are complex enough and the longer ones are almost novella-like in the way that the author introduces a number of threads. The narrator of the title story, for example, is a woman whose job is flooding park skating rinks overnight (this is a Canadian book, after all) who acquires a visitor, who is convinced that this particular rink location used to be a cemetery and the dead are weighed down by the obelisk that is its dominant feature — and that is only the start. “Swallow”, the story with the female cast, features a group of six women who have signed up (for handsome pay) as human guinea pigs in the testing of an oral sedative. “Nearing the Sea, Superior” takes place in an airport departure lounge — a couple (Erik and Porter, since she goes by her mother’s maiden name) who have agreed to separate are on their way to visit his dying mother, Porter’s final concession to her ex-partner.

I hope those two extended examples and three short descriptions illustrate that notion of “variety” I talked about earlier. While not all these stories succeed, I can safely say that each one offers a reading different experience — that is tribute enough to an author who obviously knows well what the short story genre can offer.

Magnified World, by Grace O’Connell

July 8, 2012

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

This year marks year sixteen of Random House Canada’s New Face of Fiction program. While Canada’s independent small publishing houses continue to introduce more debut novelists, it is heartening that the country’s largest house (with a number of imprints) remains committed to showcasing new authors. Random House also has an impressive record of success with this program — the first year, 1996, introduced us to Ann-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel, Gail Anderson Dalgetz and Dionne Brand, all of whom have gone on to international fame. (Click here for a full list of NFoF titles — you’ll be suprised how impressive it is.)

There is no set number of titles each year; the publishers say quality is the determining factor (although one has to suspect economics also come into play). This year, there are only two: Kim Thúy’s Ru (reviewed here some months ago) and Grace O’Connell’s Magnified World.

The defining event of this novel is a suicide: a few months back, Maggie’s mother, who owned and ran a New Age shop selling candles, incense, crystals and the like in Toronto’s tony Queen West district, put some zircon rocks in her pockets, crossed town and walked into the Don River. Maggie, who has taken over the shop, is the book’s first person narrator and her inability to understand or cope with her mother’s act is the dominant narrative thread of the book.

As the novel opens, Maggie finds herself on Queen Street at the front door of the shop (she and her father live upstairs), two hours after she was supposed to open it. She has no memory of anything that happened since she went to bed the night before:

We called it the blackout, like we could have lit some candles and waited it out. The blackout. Your blackout. I wanted to know what had happened in the time I’d lost. I asked Andrew [her boyfriend] and my best friend, Wendy, if they had seen me or heard from me in the missing hours. I went by George’s Diner to ask George if I had come by that night. Wendy and I had been going to the same College Street diner since high school because of George, a handsome first-generation Greek with a perfect profile and short curls that we had both spent our freshmen lectures day-dreaming about. We were all friendly, though we’d never seen him outside the restaurant.

That quote supplies an excellent example of the flavor of the novel as a whole. While the story is told from inside Maggie’s head, there is a lot of Toronto in the novel — one of O’Connell’s strengths is her ability to capture aspects of Canada’s largest city. And the internal focus is not so pervasive Maggie is totally isolated — readers will meet an extensive cast of characters as the narrator struggles to relate to those around her.

The opening pages also obliquely introduce one of that cast who will become more important as the novel progresses:

I went upstairs to my room and closed the door. On the window sill was a card, just sitting there without an envelope. When I picked it up, it was slightly warm.

I’m so sorry to hear of your loss, it said. With love, Gil.

I didn’t remember putting the card there. I didn’t even remember a Gil — was he a customer? A friend of my father’s? It sounded like an old man’s name. Dozens of cards had arrived after my mother’s funeral, mostly politely worded watery-toned notes from my father’s colleagues at the university. This card looked no different except for the pained and jerky handwriting.

That quote introduces two more threads that will continue through the novel. Sometimes Maggie’s mind is completely there (the “upstairs” one) and sometimes (the “downstairs”) it is clouded and confusing — she only remembers distorted aspects of the “magnified world” in which she lives. And trying to fill in the gaps of her mother’s incomplete history (she arrived in Toronto as a young woman of the Vietnam War era from Georgia) will be an important part of Maggie’s journey. She keeps journals about that search, excerpts of which serve as a convenient device for the author to get into the back story.

All of this makes Magnified World a difficult book to review. At each stage, the reader needs to decide which of Maggie’s minds we are experiencing at that point in the narrative — the complete or the confused one. The blackouts continue, so there are gaps for both narrator and reader. We also meet two psychologists, one conventional and one an apparent charlatan (who has his own history with Maggie’s mother) who “professionally” explore Maggie’s confusion. And the reader has three options when it comes to placing the Gil of the mourning card in Maggie’s world when he shows up in person later: he may be real all the time, or sometimes real and sometimes an imagination in her mind (my favored interpretation) or completely a figment of her imagination.

I’ll confess that this did not work for me — indeed, by the midpoint of the book I was seriously wondering if I was simply too old to appreciate the novel. One problem with first person narrators is that the reader needs to feel comfortable inside the individual’s mind (since there is no external context) — I was never there with Maggie (too old? too male? too rational?) so I found much of her experience pointlessly muddled, not illuminating. Another issue is that we can only appreciate other characters as the narrator sees them — which, particularly when the narrator’s confusion is a central aspect of the book, inevitably makes them one dimensional.

I suspect that readers who are young enough that they are still trying to sort out their own current circumstances may find much more in the novel than I did. By way of contrast, I would offer the example of Tony Webster in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, a first person narrator of my own generation, looking back on his life, whose exploration of his history I had no trouble enrolling in. Many younger readers of Barnes’ novel are frustrated by the unresolved ambiguity of Tony’s memory (I certainly wasn’t — that was the point of the book, I thought); perhaps my problem with Maginified World is that I am simply too far removed in years to engage in her challenge.

I’ve read all the New Face of Fiction titles in the last few years and despite my struggles with this one will continue to do so in the future. The editors at Random House know their business well enough that readers can be confident that chosen books are well-written — and well-edited, a characteristic that too many first novels these days seem to lack. Even when I was experiencing frustration with aspects of Magnified World, I could appreciate that that might be more about me as a reader than it was about the book itself.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Simon Mawer

July 2, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Simon Mawer is one of those mid-list UK authors who manages to escape my attention and then, suddenly, arrives with a bang. The Glass Room (2009) was his 10th book but KfC’s first and it struck a very responsive chord. The central “character” is a stunning home, the Mies van der Rohe-designed Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic, and is used by the author as a setting to explore the continually-evolving political tensions of the 20th century in that particular area of Europe: a fledgling post-Empire nation, overtaken by Nazi invasion, replaced by Soviet domination, and finally struggling into the post-Soviet future.

Mawer had a reputation as a readable plot-driven novelist, but I was not the only one who thought The Glass Room represented a major step forward for the author. The novel made the Booker shortlist and was the favorite of many who read it — alas, when it came to the final selection, The Glass Room had no chance against the overwhelming favorite, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, but it remains one of my favorite reads since starting this blog.

So 2012 offered some promise for me: Mantel has published a second Cromwell volume, Bring Up The Bodies (to be reviewed here soon, I promise), and Mawer is back on the bookstore shelves with this entry.

Like The Glass Room, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky returns to WWII Europe, but it is more tightly contained than the previous novel. The story this time centres on the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), one of those shadowy agencies that sent covert operators into France between May 1941 and September 1944 to support the Resistance Forces. Mawer slices the story even further: 39 of the SOE operatives were women and his central character, Marian Sutro, is one of them.

The author introduces her to the reader in a prologue-like chapter (titled “Trapeze”) on her way to her mission in France:

She’s sitting the fuselage, trussed like a piece of baggage, battered by noise. Half an hour earlier they manhandled her up through the door because she was too encumbered with her parachute to climb the ladder unassisted; now she is just there, with the sound drumming on her ears, and the inadequate light and the hard metal and packages all around her.

Marian is one of those characters who will be familiar to any reader who has come across fiction concerning links between the UK and the French Resistance. She’s a Brit, but her background is continental — her father was a diplomat involved with the League of Nations so she has spent substantial time as a youth in both Switzerland and Paris. One of the products of that is fluency in French, which has drawn the attention of the British spymasters.

She is already in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) when she receives the summons to come to London for an interview with one Potter, “an undistinguished-looking man, the kind that her father called a bank-manager type”:

His letter had asked her not to come in uniform. She’d thought that strange at the time, even slightly peculiar. Why not in uniform, when the whole damn world was in uniform? So she’d chosen something plain and businesslike — a navy skirt and jacket with a white blouse, and the only decent pair of shoes she had managed to bring from Geneva. She’d tried to avoid using them too much in the last couple of years. They were too precious. And silk stockings, she wore silk stockings. Her last pair.

That reference to her experience with pre-war French style will become even more important as the novel unfolds. Once Marian has been accepted and heads into intensive rounds of training to serve as a “courier” for a Resistance cell in rural southwest France, it becomes apparent that the authorities’ real interest in her is quite something else. Her youthful experience in France meant she had an acquaintance (a budding love affair actually) with Clement Pelletier, a French nuclear phsyicist who is still working in Paris.

Marian’s brother, Ned, is also a physicist. As the war unfolds, both sides are working on developing the atomic bomb and the uncertain state on the continent has involved substantial relocation of the scientists who are working on the cutting edge of the new prospect of splitting the atom. The Brits very much want Pelletier’s expertise and they need an agent to persuade him to flee from Paris to England.

The extensive training that Marian receives in how to operate undercover introduces her to a cast of characters who are also headed to France and who will become part of the plot as it unfolds. She is both smart and adept, but obviously somewhat out of her depth when it comes to the “real” mission that is seen for her — serving as a courier to a rural resistance unit is relatively easy work, but recruiting a world-class physicist, even given the love interest of a decade before, ups the stakes.

The biggest problem with The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is that we have seen this book before — as just one example, Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray is based on a remarkably similar set of premises (right down to the female Special Operations Executive female recruit with a love interest in France). And, to jump to the conclusion, Faulks succeeds in carrying it off better than Mawer does.

Mawer is a more than competent stylist, but there is a curious flatness to this novel. As Marian heads through training, assignment, arrival in France, early tasks and finally heading to Paris, there are few surprises — even the relationships that she develops seem to be devoted more to serving the plot than to establishing depth in the book. Authors who are accomplished in the spy/foreign operative genre (John le Carre comes to mind) find a way to introduce plausible, if unlikely, surprises to refresh reader interest. And the books that best succeed build interesting, complex characters who move the well-known plot into the background (think Foyle from the television series Foyle’s War, if I can be allowed a non-literary comparison). Mawer, unfortunately, simply lets the story unfold on entirely predictable lines, with a tidy conclusion to wrap it all up at the end.

Perhaps I was guilty of approaching the novel with too high expectations, but it does not live up to The Glass Room or to the comparable works from authors like le Carre or Faulks. Readable and entertaining, but not a book that will often come to mind a few months down the road I fear.


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