Archive for August, 2012

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

August 29, 2012

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

The author page at the front of Sweet Tooth lists 14 previous titles from Ian McEwan and I have read them all. Obviously, I am a fan — indeed, a few years ago (say at about Atonement time, four books back) he was definitely on my short list if asked for favorite authors. My enthusiasm started to slip with Saturday, came back a bit with On Chesil Beach and fell further with Solar — but remained active enough that I was looking forward to this latest arrival. Its failure to make the Booker longlist, announced a month ago, tempered expectations and suggested it was not one of McEwan’s best — now that I have read it, I’d have to say I have no quarrel whatsoever with the jury’s assessment.

The pre-publication description of Sweet Tooth had me wondering in advance if McEwan and Simon Mawer hadn’t fallen under the influence of the same muse when it came to their latest offerings. Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell From The Sky features a brainy but socially awkward young woman who is recruited to join the Special Operations Executive and is parachuted into wartime France. Sweet Tooth may be set a generation later in the 1970s but its central character, Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume”), is recruited straight out of Cambridge to join the Intelligence Service — there may be no active war, but there is a Cold one, not to mention Irish disturbances that provide fodder for “intelligence” work.

Like Mawer’s Marian Sutro, whose father is a British diplomat at the League of Nations, Serena is well-bred — her father is an Anglican bishop in a charming small city in east England. Part of Marian’s attraction for the shadowy authorities was a youthful crush, not quite affair, with Clement, who is now a significant nuclear physicist in Paris. Serena for her part had a summer affair with her tutor, Tony Canning. He had done time with the MI5 and, in the grand spy novel tradition, now supplements his academic work by keeping an eye out for potential recruits — Serena will be his last.

Let’s pause for a moment here. One of the problems with reviewing “spy” novels (even those set in the Cold War) is that it is impossible to avoid spoilers. I’ll do my best but if you are spoiler-averse and interested in Sweet Tooth you might want to stop reading now.

Like the rest of her intake group, Serena’s initial assignment is in the secretarial pool — most of her work consists of organizing and retrieving files for those who are actively directing agents or observing potential threats. For the new staff, “intelligence” work is pretty much confined to office gossip about why they are watching whoever they are watching but, even more, what the current rumors are about who will next get promoted into “real” work.

Serena’s chance comes with the Sweet Tooth project. For some years, the Americans have been running a CIA program where they financed and directed the publication of anti-Communist writing that was meant to “balance” the obvious left-wing bias of conventional media. They have recently been caught out, with much ensuing embarrassment (okay, this part is real history). MI5’s response is not to avoid this tricky territory but rather to jump in with a program that will show the Americans just how to do it properly. Sweet Tooth will involve the subtle subsidy (through established arms-length foundations) of 12 young writers who have shown appropriate anti-Communist tendencies — rather than being “directed”, CIA-style, they will simply be nurtured.

There has been some dispute inside MI5, but at the insistence of the project leader one of the 12 will be a fiction writer. Serena’s Cambridge degree may be in mathematics, but she has always been a voracious reader of fiction. Her move into “real” work will be the recruitment and minding of the fiction writer.

If all this sounds as though you have read a version of it before, you probably have. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if you were handed the sections from the two novels chronicling Marina and Serena’s recruitment interviews, you would have a hard time saying which was Mawer and which was McEwan. Still, at this point I had hopes that McEwan’s considerable talent would elevate Sweet Tooth above the genre norm.

Alas, the novel headed in the other direction. The chosen author is one Thomas Haley, currently completing his doctorate in English literature at the University of Sussex and teaching to make ends meet. He’s published enough journalism (an essay on the East German uprising of ’53, a “goodish piece” about the Berlin Wall) to establish his anti-communist credentials but it is his five published stories (in journals ranging from the CIA-sponsored Encounter to the highly-respected Paris Review and Kenyon Review) that have convinced the MI5 types that he is their man of fiction.

One of the weakest aspects of Sweet Tooth is the way that McEwan chooses to acquaint us with those five stories. Here’s a brief excerpt that starts the process as Serena begins to read them before heading off to meet Haley for his “recruitment” interview:

I count those first hours with his fiction as among the happiest in my time at Five. All my needs beyond the sexual met and merged: I was reading, I was doing it for a higher purpose that gave me professional pride, and I was soon to meet the author. Did I have doubts or moral qualms about the project? Not at that stage. I was pleased to have been chosen. I thought I could do the job well. I thought I might earn praise from the higher floors in the building — I was a girl who likes to be praised.

McEwan eventually takes the reader through all five stories but we see them only through the eyes of Serena the reader, with frequent italicized quotes. Here is an example from the first she reads which features Edmund Alfredus, a social history academic and Labor MP:

He’s well to the left of his party and something of a trouble-maker, an intellectual dandy, a serial adulterer and a brilliant public speaker with good connections to powerful members of the Tube train drivers’ union. He happens to have an identical twin brother, Giles, a milder figure, an Anglican vicar with a pleasant living in rural West Sussex within cycling distance of Petworth House, where Turner once painted. His small, elderly congregation gathers in a pre-Norman church whose pargeted uneven walls bore the palimpsests of Saxon murals depicting a suffering Christ overlaid by a gyre of ascending angels, whose awkward grace and simplicity spoke to Giles of mysteries beyond the reach of an industrial, scientific age.

While the tactic of description and semi-quoting is mildly amusing at first, it quickly becomes annoying — partly because McEwan extends the process through several pages every time he introduces one of the stories. If the stories are any good, let us read them I was mentally shouting. Otherwise, tidy it up quickly and get on with the book we are actually reading. Beyond raising questions about how much of Haley himself was present in each story (surely readers go through that with every novel they read and don’t much care what the answer really is?), they don’t add anyting to Sweet Tooth.

I don’t think I spoil things too much by saying that Thomas and Serena fall in love (you’ve already figured that out, haven’t you?) and that that is what will provoke the drama that eventually resolves the novel. My qualification earlier on in this review that the presentation of the stories was “one of the weakest aspects” of this novel was deliberate — for this reader, there will be an even more serious one that we can discuss in comments if you choose to read the book.

McEwan remains a superb wordswmith so most of my negative reaction was of the “surely he could do better than this” sort rather than something more serious. (In fact, as is usually true for McEwan, there are some wonderful London moments — a dinner at Sheekey’s, one of my favorite London restaurants, was particularly well-presented.) He is definitely not a difficult author to read, even when not in first rate form, and with 15 novels and story collections already under my belt, I am sure I will pick up number 16 as soon as it appears. Let’s just say that expectations have been diminishing with the last few and will be lowered yet again as a result of this disappointing effort.

The Shadow Giller Jury is back!

August 26, 2012

Canada’s Giller Prize season gets under way with release of the longlist Sept. 4 — so it is time to confirm that the Shadow Giller Jury will again be in action and declaring its “winner” in advance of the Real Jury selection on Oct. 30.

Regular visitors at KfC are undoubtedly familiar with the Shadow Giller but for newcomers here is a short bit of background. This is year 18 for the Real Giller: the Shadow Giller has been in existence for 17 of those years. It is based on the assumption that those readers who want to criticize a prize jury have a duty to make their own choice known in advance of the real selection. We started in 1995 with a 20-minute conversation in the newsroom of the Calgary Herald (and agreed with the Real Jury and selected Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance as our winner). For many of the following years, the Shadow Giller held an annual judging “lunch” (a pale imitation of the Real Giller banquet) — it must be admitted that a few years we were reduced to a telephone conference call, but we have always announced our choice before the real selection was made. And I’ve always been able to recruit at least a couple of people who were delighted to serve as Shadow jurors.

Since the KevinfromCanada blog started four years ago, it has served as headquarters for the Shadow Giller and will again this year. Like the Real Giller, we feature an international jury (the Real Jury this year is Irish author Roddy Doyle; Leningrad-born, now U.S.-based, author Gary Shteyngart; and Canadian Anna Porter, a former book publisher). This year’s Shadow Jury is the same as last year’s: Kimbofo in London, England who blogs at Reading Matters; Trevor, who has recently relocated from New Jersey to Utah, at the Mookse and the Gripes and Alison Gzowski, an editor at the Globe and Mail and former producer of CBC’s Talking Books, who doesn’t blog but offers her thoughts on all three that are involved.

This year’s Real Giller has already provoked some discussion: the original longlist date of Aug. 28 was pushed back a week, supposedly to give jurors time to read all the books. Conspiracy theorists (what would a literary prize be without a conspiracy?) might spot early jury disagreement. On the other hand, the 2012 Canadian publishing schedule is even more fall-loaded than normal, so the official rationale is probably legitimate.

The shortlist date (Oct. 1) was not changed so the Shadow Giller faces the same challenge as in previous years. There simply will not be enough time for us to all read the entire longlist. As before, we promise that at least one of us will read and review each of the longlisted titles — some of those reviews will appear on Kim and Trevor’s blogs, but I’ll be posting excerpts and links to their reviews here. And Alison will also be offering the occasional guest review here.

We again commit to all four of us reading (and reviewing) the entire shortlist — in addition to my own reviews, I will again be offering excerpts and links to those of Kim and Trevor. Comments from fellow travellers are most welcome at all three blogs.

All four of us also pay some attention to the Booker Prize and last year found the Giller list to be far more interesting reading than the Booker. It is a better Booker list this year, but I still give the Giller a good shot at coming up with a better list — I’m certainly looking forward to the reading.

And if you want to jump the gun, the Giller people have again compiled a list of the more than 200 titles that were eligible for submission for the 2012 Prize — you can browse that entire list here.

We look forward to others joining in the Shadow Giller journey. As I said earlier, your comments and thoughts are always welcome.

The Yips, by Nicola Barker

August 24, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

If there is a contemporary author who offers a reviewer more challenges than Nicola Barker, I have no idea who he or she is. The two novels of hers that I have read — Darkmans and Behindlings — came before I started blogging but I did think while reading both “how on earth would you descibe this to anyone?” With Booker-longlisted The Yips now read, the time has come for KfC to face the challenge.

Let me quote from the opening pages to provide a set-up:

Stuart Ransom, professional golfer, is drunkenly reeling off an interminable series of stats about the woman’s game in Korea (or the Ladies Game, as he is determined to have it): ‘Don’t scowl at me, beautiful…!’ — directed, with his trademark Yorkshire twinkle, at Jen, who lounges, sullenly, behind the hotel bar. ‘They like to be called ladies. In fact they demand it. I mean …’ Ransom lobs a well-aimed peanut at her — she ducks — and it strikes a lovely, clear note against a Gordon’s Gin bottle. ‘…they are ladies, for Christsakes!’

[A descriptive paragraph follows explaining that this is happening at the Thistle, "a clean but generic" hotel, in Luton just past midnight and that Ransom is the only customer in the bar.]

‘But why did you change your booking from the Leaside?’ Jen petulantly demands (as she fishes the stray peanut from its current hidey-hole between the Wild Turkey and the Kahlua). ‘The Leaside’s pure class.’

[Another descriptive paragraph on how Ransom finds the voluptuous, nineteen-year-old Jen attractive -- her curves evoking images in "the keen yet dispassionate eyes of a man who has oft pitted his talents against the merciless dips and mounds of the Old Course at St Andrews".]

‘I’d give anything to stay at the Leaside,’ Jen persists, gazing dreamily up at the light-fitment (where three stray midges are joyriding, frenetically, around the bulb). ‘The Leaside’s so quaint — perched on its own little hill, right in the heart of town, but just out of all the hubbub…’

Jen’s pierced tongue trips on the word hubbub and she frowns –

Hubbub?

So let’s start with the conventional aspects of Barber. Her novels do have a storyline and a straight-forward timeline — all 550 pages of The Yips take place in Luton over a period of a few weeks. But it would be misleading to call that storyline a “plot”; it is much more a common “direction” that affects the characters. While they all experience the same external events, they spin off from them in wildly different responses — the novel is not about what happens, but to whom it happens and how each responds.

And, still reasonably conventional, the novel features a number of central characters. Ransom and Jen will soon be joined by Gene, the bartender, who has successfully survived one, seven or ten attacks of terminal cancer depending on whose version you believe (the question “how can it be terminal if he survived?” does get asked, but not for a long while yet) — ambiguity or exaggeration is present in virtually all aspects of the book. And through another of Gene’s jobs (reading electric meters) we will meet Valentine, an agoraphobic tattoo artist with a peculiar specialty: she supplies clients (mainly Japanese women) who have no pubic hair with an ultra-real tattooed version.

Those four will be joined by a few others as “central” characters and that begins opening the Pandora’s box of the Barker challenge because, while the “central” characters do interact, they each have their own set of acquaintances (Ransom’s, for example, includes an entourage of an ex-manager, a current manager, a faithful supporter and a journalist, among others) whom the author gives full-scale treatment. The eventual cast involves a couple score of people (it is a good thing Barker doesn’t write plays because no theatre company could afford to cast the whole group) — “quirky” is as close as any of them gets to normal, “pleasantly absurd” would be the adjective that fits most, “outrageous” a few.

And then there’s the “dialogue” of the book which the excerpt I have quoted illustrates. I put “dialogue” in quotes because Barker’s characters don’t talk with each other, they talk at each other. They are all talkers but their notion of conversation is more thinking out loud than anything else (as Ransom’s thoughts on woman golfers demanding to be known as “ladies” show) and the only listening they do is to pick up a riff that sends them off on another tangent (see Jen’s musings about the attractions of the Leaside).

Barker seasons all this with some of the most elaborate punctuation imaginable — ellipses, italics, brackets, commas, exclamation marks as again shown in the excerpt and that is only a start — and seemingly trivial details (Gordon’s Gin, Wild Turkey and Kahlua bottles; joyriding midges on the light fitment; the topography of the Old Course), versions of which are included in virtually every conversation or monologue competition or whatever best describes the narrative.

And finally, as is true of most thinking out loud, those details are present only in that particular exchange — it is no spoiler to say that the issue of “lady” golfers never again shows up, for example. Slowly but surely, the reader needs to become accustomed to the reality that every section of the narrative (they tend to come every five pages or so) will involve a wealth of details, some relevant, some totally extraneous.

So how did all this land? For this reader, my response to The Yips was very similar to my response to both Darkmans and Behindlings:

– for the first 150 pages, I was completely enrolled. The author makes all of her central characters (and most of the subsidiary ones) three-dimensional. And the set pieces, with all those details, are cleverly developed and genuinely amusing — Mrs. KfC said from across the room that I seemed to be smirking throughout this opening third of the book.

– Barker does such a good job of character development in the opening third, in fact, that doubts start to set in in the next 150 pages. While the situations tend to become even more absurd, the reader (at least this one) understands the characters so well that their response to increasingly weirder events is quite predictable — not a good sign when the halfway point of the novel has yet to be reached.

– All of which makes the last 250 pages a bit of a letdown. I liked the characters well enough that I cared about the eventual resolution, but I could have used a surprise or two to challenge my understanding of them. Given that it is the response of the people, not the events, that is the backbone of the novel, it demands more depth and nuance and that simply did not happen.

The fact that I have read three Barker novels is indication enough that her idiosyncratic approach has appeal to me. I continue to believe that one day she is going to find a way to carry the energy and insight that I found in the first third of the novel throughout the entire book — alas, as enjoyable as parts of The Yips were, this is not that book.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

August 20, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

Harold Fry has lead a quiet and uneventful (some would say dull) life as a brewery sales representative in Kingsbridge, Devon. That life got even quieter six months ago when he retired — Harold and his wife, Maureen, pretty much stopped communicating with each other more than a decade ago, so his current existence is both dreary and lonely.

Life takes a turn one day when the post arrives. Author Rachel Joyce’s prose is consistent enough that it is worth quoting the opening of the novel, both to set the narrative stage and to illustrate the straightforward declative tone that characterizes the entire book:

The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday. It was an ordinary morning in mid-April that smelt of clean washing and grass cuttings. Harold Fry sat at the breakfast table, freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie, with a slice of toast that he wasn’t eating. He gazed beyond the kitchen window at the clipped lawn, which was spiked in the middle by Maureen’s telescopic washing line, and trapped on all three sides by the neighbours’ closeboard fencing.

‘Harold!’ called Maureen above the vacuum cleaner. ‘Post!’

He thought he might like to go out, but the only thing to do was mow the lawn and he had done that yesterday. The vacuum tumbled into silence, and his wife appeared, looking cross, with a letter. She sat opposite Harold.

The fateful letter is from Queenie Hennessy, a former colleague of Harold’s at the brewery — Queenie was the first-ever woman to head the accounts departmment and she and Harold used to travel offsite to check the (cheating) books of various landlords. Queenie departed following a flare-up with management twenty years ago and the two have not been in contact since; the letter from her informs Harold that Queenie is now suffering from terminal cancer in a hospice in Berwick on the England-Scotland border, 627 miles northeast of Kingsbridge.

Harold has never told Maureen about his “relationship” with Queenie (frankly, there wasn’t much to tell — they spent time together on business travelling from brewery to pub and then back). So when he writes his very short response, he keeps it hidden from Maureen and simply tells her he is heading down the road to mail it.

He almost puts the letter in the neighborhood post box, but feels ashamed of his inadequate response before he drops it in. So he decides to continue on to the next…and the next after that, because his mental dilemma remains unresolved. Memories, not just of Queenie but of what life used to be like with Maureen, start popping into his head as he passes post box after post box.

All this continues until Harold reaches the outskirts of town and discovers he has missed the midday collection. He heads across the street to a petrol station to buy a snack — the girl with the HAPPY TO HELP badge suggests a microwaved BBQ Cheese Beast with fries. Harold tells her about his “posting” mission and Queenie’s cancer; the girl talks about her aunt who had cancer:

‘You have to believe. That’s what I think. It’s not about medicine and all that stuff. You have to believe a person can get better. There is so much in the human mind we don’t understand. But, you see, if you have faith you can do anything.’

And so the Unlikely Pilgrimage has been inspired. When Harold leaves the petrol station, he turns not towards home but away from Kingsbridge and north toward Berwick, more than 600 miles away where Queenie lies dying. He may be wearing a shirt and tie (and deck shoes) but the faith he will express in journeying on foot to Berwick will keep her alive.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a “walking” book where the hero sets off on foot for a faraway destination that is important to him. It is a not-infrequent literary device — my blogging friend Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes in his review of this novel has offered a number of examples and I won’t repeat them here, but it is worth checking out.

It is easy to understand why the “walking” book appeals to novelists. The approach allows for the introduction of a wide variety of characters (and Joyce does just that) but, by definition, they show up and disappear into the background quickly, so they only have to be sketched. A small sampling of those in this novel, in addition to the “garage girl”, include some extensively- and expensively-equipped metro-based trekkers, an east-European emigre doctor (now employed as a cleaning lady) and a free-lance journalist, who sells a version of Harold’s story that for a few weeks turns his lonely trek into a cult-based following of misfits. On one level, all “walking” novels are a collection of set pieces.

All that current stuff, though, is just the icing on the cake of the walking experience — the real sustenance lies in the back story. Again by definition, walking is a lonely experience and the walker’s thoughts tend to turn to memory, what was and what might have been. In Harold Fry’s case, that bounces back and forth between the times he spent with Queenie and what led to the breakdown of his marriage with Maureen.

Let me extend that cake metaphor just a bit. With some “walking” novels (say W.G. Sebald), the cake is dense, flavorful and fruity, much like the ones your grandmother used to make months before Christmas and regularly drench with brandy to get them ready for the holiday season. Others are more like the sponge or angel food cakes your mother used to whip up in the afternoon, ready for heaping with whipped cream and fresh strawberries following that evening’s meal.

For me, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was a reading version of that sponge cake. This may be a debut novel for Joyce, but she is a more than competent writer and it went down just fine. The problem was that there was not much substance to it and one chapter tasted pretty much like the last one — and offered the promise (always fulfilled) that the next would be very similar.

I never really engaged with Harold, his past, or his present journey with the result that I found the novel to be a sentimental trek at best, one that I was quite happy to finally finish. It was all just too predictable.

I should note in closing that other readers have responded far more positively — Tony at Tony’s Book World predicts it will be “a new classic” and various Amazon sites have numerous five-star reviews. I am sure that it is a far better book if you do engage in Harold’s trek and I suspect a large number of book clubs will be going through the “sentimental” versus “classic” debate in the upcoming months.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize and, I think, illustrates the wide gap in tastes on this year’s jury that is reflected in that longlist. At one end of the spectrum, we have novels like this one and Michael Frayn’s comic Skios, both as conventional as conventional can be, and at the other the modernist Swimming Home and Will Self’s unconventional Umbrella (as yet not read by KfC). It will be interesting to see how the jury resolves these different tastes when it comes time to declare a shortlist. I confess I’ll be disappointed if The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry shows up there.

Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

August 16, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

Two English couples have taken a lease on a French Riviera villa outside Nice for the summer. Joe and Isabel Jacobs are the dominant pair — he is a poet of some reknown (his readers know him by his initials and only his wife calls him Jozef) and she is a war correspondent. Mitchell and Laura are friends who run a shop in Euston that sells international exotica — its main recent claim to fame is regular vandalism and they fully expect the windows to be smashed when they return. The villa party is completed by fourteen-year-old Nina Jacobs, an aneroxic adolescent who is starting to discover some of the mysteries of adulthood.

The group acquires an additional member as Swimming Home proper opens:

The swimming pool in the grounds of the tourist villa was more like a pond than the languid blue pools in holiday brochures. A pond in the shape of a rectangle, carved from stone by a family of Italian stonecutters living in the Antibes. The body was floating near the deep end, where a line of pine trees kept the water cool in their shade.

‘Is it a bear?’ Joe Jacobs waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the water. He could feel the sun burning into the shirt his Hindu tailer had made for him from a row of raw silk. His back was on fire. Even the roads were melting in the July heatwave.

It is not a bear — that impression was the result of a newspaper article the group had read the previous day about a bear that wandered down the Los Angeles hills into a Hollywood actor’s pool. The floating body is the naked Kitty Finch — she knows the owner of the villa and thought she had a reservation to stay there and had jumped into the pool to cool off. She gets out and finds her sundress, the group converses for a bit and Isabel invites her to stay in the spare bedroom for a few days until a hotel room is available.

Except…

Kitty is a botanist, but she is also a poet. And she has tracked Joe to the villa because she wants his impression of her poem, Swimming Home — allegedly about her greatest desire (to see the poppy fields in Pakistan), but really her notion of a private conversation with Joe himself. To complete the picture, Kitty has depression issues and has abandoned her meds.

Joe is used to this:

Joe stopped walking. So that was why she was here.

Young women who followed him about and wanted him to read their poetry, and he was now convinced she was one of them, always started by telling him they’d written a poem about something extraordinary. They walked side by side, flattening a path through long grass. He waited for her to speak, to make her request, to say how influenced by his books she was, to explain how she’d managed to track him down, and then she would ask would he mind, did he have time, would he be so kind as to please, please read her small effort inspired by himself.

The reader already knows how this will turn out. In a short prologue, author Levy has introduced us to Kitty driving across the French landscape with a passenger who says ‘Why don’t you pack a ruck sack and see the poppy fields in Pakistan like you said you wanted to?’ The pair have spent the day in the luxurious Hotel Negresco and are now contemplating the price:

To have been so intimate with Kitty Finch had been a pleasure, a pain, a shock, an experiment, but most of all it had been a mistake. He asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.’

(Aside: That is not the only spoiler in the novel. The version that I read from publisher And Other Stories also features an enthusiastic introduction from author Tom McCarthy which pretty much gives away the whole “plot”. If you hate spoilers, avoid the introduction — but this is a modernist novel and plot doesn’t really count anyway. Personally, I found McCarthy’s thoughts useful, but forewarned is forearmed.)

The strength of Swimming Home is also its greatest weakness. The characters that Levy gives us all have elements of potential interest, but she deliberately leaves them woefully incomplete, demanding that the reader fill in the gaps. They are all narcissists (self-pre-occupied is perhaps a better, more neutral description) concerned with their own desires — but again the author expects the reader to complete the picture. Symbols abound but the obvious is often left overlooked — for example, we get a few excerpts from Kitty’s poem but never see the whole thing. Levy sketches the outline of the “what” but the “why” and often even “how” are left ambiguous.

“Sketch”, in fact, is the perfect description for this novel. Landscape artists (at least the great Canadian ones) spend their summer in the wilderness making paint-box sized sketches — in the winter months in the studio, they develop some of these images into much broader, more complete canvasses. In no way does that diminish the value of the “sketch” (the Group of Seven ones are selling for upwards of $1 million some decades on), but it is just a starting point when compared to the real thing. If, as a reader, you enjoy the prospect of filling in the blank spaces, Swimming Home is a significant achievement; if, on the other hand, you want the author to take you on the broader journey, you will find it sadly lacking.

I fall in the middle on that spectrum (as, I must admit, I often do with “modernist” fiction). For me, Swimming Home was an extended novella, comfortably read in a single sitting and supplying sufficient return on the time invested. But in the final analysis, I was mainly impressed by the “writerly” aspects of the work: the way that the author deliberately left her characters as incomplete shells and carefully avoided any emotional attachment with the story. While I admired and respected the talent that was involved in doing that, it was an appreciation of the exercise — the novel itself left little impact even the next day.

This year’s Booker jury features a more literary bunch than other recent ones have and I am guessing that that authorly achievement led to Swimming Home being included on the longlist. I suspect that most readers will respond as I did: just because something is difficult to write does not necessarily make it powerful to read.

The Deadman’s Pedal, by Alan Warner

August 13, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

The rail line from the Port terminus extends 60 miles south to Glasgow. It is a spur whose time has long since passed — only the inertia of union contracts and can’t-be-bothered management keep it operating. Still, for the communities at that terminus it means paid employment for a dozen train drivers, six guards, a few ticket sellers and signal controllers. The engineers based at the Port take the trains halfway down the line to Ardencaple signal box, a thousand feet up, no station, no platform:

Drivers or secondmen pull up their diesels expertly in the dark — the cab interior is suddenly lit yellowish — and the cab door opens; two men holding flasks or sandwich boxes and metal-cased torches step out onto a brief wooden platform with steep staircases and banisters — like some hastily assembled gallows. The city footplate men and their guard take the train southbound while the rural crew take the other train back up northward and west, over the familiar route.

Night driving, these northbound enginemen have full knowledge of the invisible road. There are no headlights on these diesels, so drivers move forward in a spectacular blindness through the starless dark, using trackside landmarks, platers’ huts or numbered bridges and viaducts to triangulate their location so the land exists in their minds more than to their senses. That ancient dark comes smothering close around the trains in the inhuman places.

The rail spur line supplies author Alan Warner with both the title of The Deadman’s Pedal (literally, it is a bar plate that the engineman must keep depressed — if he lets up, say by dying, the engine immediately stops and the train comes to a halt) and one of his story lines. Running the trains between the Port terminus and Glasgow gives him the opportunity to describe that part of the Scottish landscape; keeping them running is a community of working-class, unionized under-achievers whom Warner takes some delight in bringing to life.

He does that through dialogue and that is one of Warner’s major strengths — his only previous novel that I have read, The Stars in the Bright Sky, was an excellent illustration of that talent which left me looking forward to this novel. Longlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize, it told the unlikely story of a collection of Scot’s lassies stranded at Gatwick Airport on their way to a girls’ getaway weekend.

A second story line offers the author a different opportunity for dialogue: the central character of the novel, Simon, has just finished fifth-year school and is contemplating his future. Here are the opening paragraphs of what turns into a multi-page exchange with his mate, Andy Galbraith:

‘I’m leaving, Galbraith. I’m telling you. [...] I can work with my old man any time I want to. ‘

‘Aye, aye. That’ll be right; flushing the trailers with a hose but you can’t drive a lorry till you’re eighteen.’

‘I drive lorries all the time.’

‘Aye. Round and round your old man’s garage like the dodgems; you got up to over five mile an hour yet?’ Galbraith laughed and made the strange animal sound of his. Simon noted how big and loose the shoulders of Galbraith’s school blazer still were — bought for another year’s use yet.

Galbraith said, ‘Check it out man. Nikki Caine’s down the gates there, yah jammy bass. Bet it’s you she’s waited on too. Fucking fancies you like anything, man.’

Indeed Nikki and Simon fancy each other, even though she lives in the council flats and he is the son of the town’s leading entrepreneur (his father now has ten lorries in his firm, competition for the struggling railway line). Simon has even taken Nikki up to the cave and promontory that is Simon and Galbraith’s secret hideaway.

At the early stage in the novel where this conversation takes place, Warner has already used a flashback to introduce another element that will form his third story thread: more than a decade earlier the Queen herself came to the area to name Andrew Bultitude, master of the Broken Moan estate, as the Commander of the Pass. Simon has struck up a friendship with the son of ‘the doomed family’ and through him meets the intriguing, disturbed and attractive Varie Bultitude — he soon finds himself in a teenage love-torn conflict between lower class Nikki, her worldly sister Karen and the landed aristocrat Varie.

Forbidding landscape, imprisoning class and painfully growing into maturity — those are the elements in which Warner grounds his story. Simon does decide to leave school and applies for a job as a Traction Trainee, thinking it is work at the hospital (you know, for people with broken legs) where Nikki’s older sister is a nurse but it turns out to be a train driver apprenticeship on the railway. He gets the job and, to his father’s dismay, becomes the sole member of a new generation in a working-class community of “waiting for retirement” railroaders.

The Deadman’s Pedal is not a weighty novel — mainly it is the story of how Simon struggles to adapt to the conflicts that are inherent in each of those three story threads. Warner uses that structure to develop a series of set pieces and, to his credit, delivers on most of them. The result is not so much a coming-of-age story as it is a series of observations, viewed through a young man’s eyes, on a world that time has temporarily left behind — rest assured, reality intrudes as the book moves along.

Reviews elsewhere had touted The Deadman’s Pedal as a candidate for this year’s Booker longlist; I picked it up on that basis, coupled with a grudging appreciation of The Stars in the Bright Sky, a novel that succeeded more often that it failed. I have known a few train engineers in my time, so that aspect interested me (and I wasn’t disappointed with that thread). The novel didn’t make the longlist and I can’t say I am surprised — despite that, it was a worthwhile read. Warner creates an interesting cast of very human characters and does a good job of portraying the isolated community that is their world — The Deadman’s Pedal may not be an ambitious novel, but it is a successful one.


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