Archive for August, 2010

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

August 31, 2010

Purchased at Indigo Books

The reader is introduced to the title character of Paul Murray’s novel in Ed’s Doughnut House where he is the decided underdog in a doughnut-eating race with a fellow student, Ruprecht, who is seeking his sixteenth victory in a row. In the opening sentence of the prologue, “Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair”. Ruprecht is not overly concerned:

Apart from being a genius, which he is, Ruprecht does not have all that much going for him. A hamster-cheeked boy with a chronic weight problem, he is bad at sports and most other facets of life not involving complicated mathematical equations; that is why he savors his doughnut-eating victories so, and why, even though Skippy has been on the floor for almost a minute now, Ruprecht is still sitting there in his chair, chuckling to himself and saying, exultantly, under his breath, ‘Yes, yes’ — until the table jolts and his Coke goes flying, and he realizes that something is wrong.

That introduction from the first two paragraphs of Paul Murray’s novel tells you a lot about the book set in and around Seabrook College, a Catholic boys school in Dublin. Skippy will be dead in moments. Despite having his name in the title, this book will not be a “star” vehicle about a central character but rather an ensemble production and Ruprecht will be every bit as important as Skippy — and there will be others who are almost as important as those two to the story. Perhaps more important for the reader, the excerpt shows that Murray has a taste for the absurd (or, at the very least, tangential takeoffs from the apparently obvious) which he doesn’t hesitate to indulge, to substantial comic effect.

Regular visitors here will know that I am a sucker for the school novel (for an extended discussion, see my review — and the comments that followed — of Tobias Wolff’s Old School). Which means that I should like Skippy Dies — and my impression was definitely on the positive side of neutral with this latest addition to the genre.

When it was released earlier this year, Murray’s book attracted attention mainly for its format — three paperback volumes in a slipcover. That is not just a gimmick: at 650+ pages overall, it would be a weighty tome in one volume. And not only does the content of the book break naturally into three distinct “volumes”, the format has the advantage of making the book seem “shorter” (don’t ask me why — it just does). Now that the book is out in two formats in North America, readers have an option, although it may take some searching to find the three volume version — for my money, even as a fan of hardcover books, it is worth the search.

In book one (the funniest of the three), “Hopeland”, Murray takes some time to fully introduce and deveop his extensive cast, a tactic that gives full rein to his idosyncratic humor and offers the opportunity for a number of hilarious set pieces. In plot terms, “Hopeland” features Skippy’s discovery of “the frisbee girl”, Lori, at the girls’ school next door (through the use of Ruprecht’s telescope) and concudes with his complete infatuation.

In book two (the darkest and slowest of the three), “Heartland”, Skippy pursues his infatuation, with mixed success. Murray delves deeper into the activities of the featured students and staff (that’s what makes it slow) as he sets up book three. The second volume ends with Skippy’s death.

He is however still very much present in memory and as motivation in book three, “Ghostland”, when Murray’s humor returns in suitably black (but still very funny) form. The painstakingly laid plot lines that were part of the problem in book two are all closed in suitably satisfying fashion.

(If you want to know more plot details, I’d refer you to excellent reviews at The Asylum and Just William’s Luck. I am going to concentrate on some other aspects here.)

For this reader it is the characters which are the strength of Murray’s novel. They come in three sets: casts of both students and staff are fully developed, parents somewhat less so. Not only does the author make them real, he carefully develops and exploits the inevitable tensions between their inherent sets of conflicting interests.

Skippy (real name Daniel Juster) is an affable but hardly memorable sort, middling at pretty much everything involved in school — academics, sport, video games, social relations. Precisely because of that, he becomes the central figure (but definitely not leader) of the group with whom he hangs. Everybody else is much better at something, but nobody is averagely as good at as many things so he is a necessary component of holding the group together.

Ruprecht, his roommate, is by far the smartest pupil in the school, always first to raise his hand. He is obsessed with the idea of eleven- or twelve-dimensional worlds and the prospect of going to Stanford, the home of Professor Tamashi, originator of M-Theory, so obscure that no one knows what the M stands for. He is also fat and socially inept — were it not for Skippy speaking up on his behalf, he would not have a friend in the school. Because of Skippy, he has access to a gang to help him test his crazy inventions and theories.

The gang has about six members, but I’ll only describe one other, Dennis:

Dennis and Ruprecht don’t get on. It’s not hard to see why: two more different boys would be hard to imagine. Ruprecht is eternally fascinated by the world around him, loves to take part in class and throws himself into extra-curricular activities; Dennis, an arch-cynic whose very dreams are sarcastic, hates the world and everything in it, especially Ruprecht, and has never thrown himself into anything, with the exception of a largely successful campaign last summer to efface the first letter from every manifestation of the word ‘canal’ in the Greater Dublin Area, viz. the myriad street signs procaiming ROYAL ANAL, WARNING! ANAL, GRAND ANAL HOTEL. As far as Dennis is concerned the entire persona of Ruprecht Van Doren is nothing more than a grandiloquent concoction of foolish Internet theories and fancy talk lifted from the Discovery Channel.

The central figure on the staff side at Seabrook is Howard, the history teacher, known to the boys as “Howard the Coward” from a traumatic incident when he was a student at the school. The boys have nicknames for all the teachers — surprise, surprise. For example, the French teacher, Father Green, is known as ‘Pere Verte’. Adolescent meanness is one of the things that Murray is very, very good at.

Seabrook has great connections through aumni to the financial world and Howard initially went off to a job at the City in London but incompetence (or malfeasance) there produce a multi-million pound disaster. The school values loyalty, however, and he landed back there as a teacher, a job for which is profoundly unsuited.

Howard for some years has been in a relationship with an American, Halley, but, much like of his job, it is one of easy convenience, not commitment, and that produces its own set of tensions which open up a whole new set of vistas and possiblities for the author.

Seabrook was/is Dublin’s outstanding Catholic school, long run by the Paraclete Fathers, but that may be about to change, in the form of Howard’s foil, the Acting Prinicipal:

On bad days Howard sees their [the Fathers] endurance as a kind of personal rebuke — as if that almost-decade of life between matriculation and his ignominious return here had, because of his own ineptitude, been rolled back, struck from the record, deemed merely so much fudge.

Of course this is pure paranoia. The priests are not immortal. The Holy Paraclete Fathers are experiencing the same problem as every other Catholic order: they are dying out. Few of the priests in Seabrook are under sixty, and the newest recruit to the pastoral programme — one of an ever-dwindling number — is a young seminarian from somewhere outside Kinshasa; when the school principal, Father Desmond Furlong, fell ill at the beginning of September, it was a layman — economics teacher Gregory L. Costigan — who took the reins, for the first time in Seabrook’s history.

Greg (he encourages collegial informality as a threatening tactic) has two goals: he will be the first lay principal and he will introduce modern business practices to the dreary old parochial place.

I am going to leave you to discover for yourself the rest of the supporting student and staff casts (and there are some particularly grim characters to discover) and all of the parents. Trust me, they are an interesting bunch.

You will notice that every character that I have described (and it holds for the ones that I haven’t) has an incredibly selfish motivation which leaves him or her an equally incredibly incomplete person. It is Skippy — both in life and memory — who serves as the glue that holds them together. That phenomenon is one of the substantial and impressive themes in Murray’s novel. The other, which I have not even begun to address in this review, is the author’s exploration of the power of memory of a person and how it affects actions, which is the major driving force of book three (albeit surrounded by a series of sadly hilarious set pieces).

The result of all this is one of the most readable books on this year’s Booker longlist. Perhaps it is too long, although it wasn’t for me. And perhaps if you aren’t as intrigued by school novels as I am you might find it hard to engage — I certainly didn’t. While I don’t think it has the gravitas to actually win the prize, I would be very happy to see it on the shortlist. It is the kind of serious, but very reader-friendly, book that is all too rare in modern publishing.


From Chanel to Valentino, a Foundation for Fashion: A guest post from Mrs. KfC

August 27, 2010

September 9 to 16 marks the beginning of the semi-annual ritual known as “Fashion Week”. In fact, it is four weeks of fashion shows beginning in New York, moving on to London, then Milan and finishing in Paris, home of haute couture. The first runway show was presented by Charles Worth in Paris in 1858 and this year there will be about 275 runway shows in the four cities. The most lavish of them can cost up to $300,000 to stage, which is a lot for just 45 minutes of show. But the stakes are enormous. Fashion is a multi-billion dollar industry and neither longevity nor innovation can guarantee success, as both Christian Lacroix and Isaac Mizrahi learned when their fashion houses went bankrupt.

Coco Chanel said “Fashion you see, goes out of fashion; style, never”. There are six style icons whose innovation and vision informed fashion and design over the last hundred years and they have had enduring influence on the both the art and the business of the fashion industry.

Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet and Elsa Schaparelli were contemporaries: three brilliant independent women, running businesses themselves in an era when women certainly did not work, let alone run large enterprises. The fact that the three of them were working in the same industry – creating the industry, actually – at the same time probably made them all better at their work. Each brought something unique to the game and their work is widely copied to this day.

Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux (Vendome Press) is the best of the plethora of Chanel books on the market. This book was out of print for twenty years and has just been revised, updated and re-issued. A beautiful volume that explores both Chanel’s style and her fascinating life, the book has over 600 illustrations from Chanel’s early days as a milliner to the design of the iconic Chanel jacket when she was at her peak of creativity. Coco Chanel liberated women from the strictures of Victorian fashion, eliminating stifling corsets, creating comfortably loose, yet feminine, clothes, bobbing her hair and even wearing trousers, which were an instant hit with women, if not with the men of the day. She is credited with inventing sportswear for women, including the bathing suit and beach pyjamas. By 1916, a few short years after the opening of her first salon, she had 300 employees. Never content with the status quo, in 1920 she branched out and created Chanel #5, to this day the best selling perfume in the world. In 1936, she invented the little black dress, many versions of which are captured in this book.

Although she retired and lived in exile in Switzerland during World War II, she staged a dazzling comeback in 1954, at age 71, and created some of her most beautiful work. In addition to photographs and illustrations of her clothes, there are many photographs of her salon and her homes, all of which round out the picture of this fascinating woman.

Madeleine Vionnet was born in France in 1876 and left school at age 11 to become a seamstress. By 1912 she had opened her own haute couture establishment and began a remarkable career that has had echoes in the design of beautiful clothes since that time. Madeleine Vionnet by Betty Kirke (Chronicle Books) is a must read for anyone seriously interested in the technical underpinnings of fashion design. Through her studies of the figures on classical Greek vases in the Louvre, Madeleine Vionnet pioneered the use of the bias cut in garments. This was a breakthrough event in the history of fashion, as bias cut designs are very flattering on womens’ bodies, and enabled the creative use of many new fabrics which had emerged after the First World War. Betty Kirke’s book is unique in the fashion world, as it has not only the photographs of the gorgeous clothes, but also the exact patterns of how to cut them.

The geometry of fashion was Vionnet’s specialty, but she was also a pioneering employer. She had a large staff of seamstresses and provided them with free medical and dental benefits through the staff doctor and dentist. She gave paid vacations, was the first salon to give her employees coffee breaks, and granted maternity leave to the women who worked for her. If one of her seamstresses or vendeuses got married while in her employ, she was entitled to make herself a wedding dress from last years’ designs.

Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli by Dilys E. Blum (Yale University Press) is a gorgeous record of the work of the third of these three remarkable women. “Shocking” in the title refers to Schiaperelli’s signature color, shocking pink, which was not considered appropriate for fashionable garments until she began to use it liberally. The 300 reproductions in this book cover her entire career, starting with her early work as a sweater designer, focused on designs with tromp l’oeil effects. Schiaperelli was the first designer to understand the value of mass producing her designs and entered into agreements with select department stores to market her clothes to the everyday shopper in New York and London, rather than catering to the limited world of haute couture clients. She also formed strategic alliances with textile manufacturers to further her plan of mass producing her wide array of sporting clothes.

Schiaparelli began innovating with fasteners on her clothes, incorporating zippers and hooks as elements of design, rather than just utility instruments to be hidden in the garment. As her clothes became more popular, she opened a lavish new salon in Paris in 1935. Understanding the value of publicity, she had the press clippings from the opening printed on cotton and silk fabrics and incorporated them in to her collections for her entire career.

While other designers of the day concentrated on Paris or Rome, Schiaparelli travelled extensively in the USA promoting her brand, and worked in London, as well as Paris and Rome to create new markets. She designed clothes for movies and associated freely with the surrealists in Paris, often incorporating their ideas in to her designs. Her motto was “ made beauty beats born beauty”, a reference to the fact that every woman’s beauty can be enhanced through beautiful garments.

And now to the men. The three most influential designers of the last fifty years were Dior, Yves St Laurent and Valentino.

Dior : 60 years of Style by Farid Chenoune and Laziz Hamani (Thames & Hudson Ltd.) chronicles the work of the house of Dior from its explosive beginnings in 1947 to today. The 250 illustrations and photographs are a beautiful record of the last 60 years of beautiful designs.

Christian Dior dazzled the fashion world in the spring of 1947 when he produced what has become known as The New Look. For the first time since the war broke out, he created a dramatic new silhouette. Gone were the skimpy dresses, short skirts and structured shoulders in vogue in wartime because of the scarcity of fabric for civilian uses. His bold new designs had nipped in waists, soft shoulders and full longer skirts — femininity reasserted. His show was wildly successful and, in an instant, most of the clothes on the market were passé. Stores scrambled to keep up with the demand for his lovely new look and other designers sharpened their pencils and came on board with this innovation. Ten days after his show, his salon had exceeded their profits targets for the year and it was only February! Success followed success and by the mid 1950’s Dior ateliers produced 12,000 dresses annually. He dressed movie stars and royalty and his name became synonymous with chic.

He collaborated with Roger Vivier to make shoes for his collections and launched Miss Dior perfume to capitalize on the value of his name.
Christian Dior died suddenly in 1958 and his house was presided over in turn by Yves St Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferre and John Galliano, who runs it today. This 383 page book details the successes of the House of Dior and presents a beautiful visual history of the evolution of fashion from 1947 to today.

If Coco Chanel started the liberation of womens’ fashion, Yves St Laurent finished it. He invented “le tuxedo” for women, “le smoking jacket”, popularized the well-tailored pant suit, and created the safari jacket, the trench coat and the peacoat, all of which endure to today. His entire oeuvre is beautifully captured in Yves St Laurent Style published by his former life and business partner, Pierre Berge, and the Fondation Yves St Laurent (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.). It is the catalogue of the posthumous show of his works in Paris and includes over 300 photographs of his work at the back of the book, in addition to lush full page photos of some of his most important pieces, curated by color and by era.

St Laurent’s interest in design began when he was a toddler and accelerated as he matured. He was influenced by three designers: Chanel, Vionnet and Schiaperelli. As a young boy growing up in Algeria, he amused himself by creating entire collections, and when he was a teenager he came to the attention of Dior when he won a design competition for a black dress sponsored by the Paris fashion institute. He was hired by Dior when he was in his late teens and though he was untrained his genius was apparent even then. When Dior died suddenly, St Laurent took over the famed house at age 21.

He produced another revolution at the House of Dior in 1958 with the new “A-line silhouette”, the famous Trapeze dresses of the swinging sixties. In 1961 he was called up for military service and fell in to one of the deep depressions which would plague him all his life. When Dior announced that they had hired a replacement for him, he and Pierre Berge started their own house and success came very quickly.

By 1965, he read the winds of change in the air and started his “Rive Gauche” line, adding ready-to-wear to his couture business. The democratization of fashion resonated with the hipsters of the sixties and his designs for both Rive Gauche and his couture house reflected the spirit of the new generation. At the height of his success, he dressed Princess Diana, his lifelong muse Catherine Deneuve, Princess Grace, Audrey Hepburn and countless other icons of fashion.

Valentino Garavani was the most successful couturier of the 20th century. His house endured for 50 years and was the last couture establishment to be controlled by the designer when he retired in 2008. Valentino: Themes and Variations by Pamela Golbin(Rizzoli International Publications) is 300 pages of photographs of his work from 1957 to 2008. There is scant text, but his work speaks for itself, and reading this luxe volume gives a rich history of the evolution of classically designed clothes almost all of which still represent high fashion today.

While he started his house in Rome, Valentine regularly went to Paris to present his couture lines, a risky proposition for an Italian going to fashion mecca. The strength of his work earned him great respect in France, culminating in his receipt of the Legion d’Honneur in 2007.

Valentino’s genius was in both design and embellishment, and the close-ups of the embroidery in this volume alone make it worth the price of the book. The last section of the book includes Valentino’s print advertising campaigns from the 1960’s to 2008 and is an interesting reflection of how he positioned his work with chic women internationally. Jackie Kennedy was a regular client of Valentino’s and the pink suit she was wearing when her husband was assasinated was his design. In happier times, she wore a piece from his all white collection when she married Aristotle Onasis on Corfu.

When all is said and done at the end of Fashion Weeks in late September, when close to 10,000 garments have paraded down the runways, some will have been beautiful, some outrageous, some revolutionary, and some shocking, but the ones that will succeed will be those that define style. As Coco Chanel said “Fashion you see, goes out of fashion, style never”.


The Betrayal, by Helen Dunmore

August 25, 2010

Purchased at the Book Depository

Let’s open this review with an apology to the author: For this reader, The Betrayal had two significant hurdles to overcome. The first was that Helen Dunmore has already introduced these characters in The Siege, a novel that I have not read, centred on Leningrad in 1941/42 — so I am playing a bit of catch up here. More important, I will admit that I have pretty much read as many novels as I want to read about how bad Stalinist Russia was, since they are all so similar. There doesn’t seem to be much more to say other than repeating what others have said better already. Part of me was hoping that its presence on the 2010 Booker longlist meant that Dunmore had found something new to say in this novel.

Now, to jump to the conclusion: Dunmore easily clears that first barrier — references to the siege of Leningrad are backgrounded and, while I am sure that those who read the previous novel will find more depth in this book than I did, not reading The Siege is not a perceptible problem. Alas, the second barrier remains a major issue — if you want to know more about Stalinist Russia, you will probably find this novel interesting (but there are better examples). If you have read Solzhenitsyn or any of the other dissidents, not to mention Western versions (the not-very-good Child 44 and Travis Holland’s excellent The Archivist’s Story would be recent examples) , this novel reads very much like a literary version of a late arriving train.

(I should also note that the broad context of this novel is based on a real event, the Doctors’ Plot, a Stalin-led, particularly anti-Semitic, purge which followed on earlier atrocious purges against engineers and scientists. Dunmore’s novel is not so much about that broad context — indeed, it is very much a portrait of one individual and the people with whom he worked.)

Andrei is a young doctor at a hospital in Leningrad in 1952 — he has survived the siege, married Anna and appears to have a promising career ahead of him because things “have changed for the better” as the banners proclaim. His moment of truth arrives when he is summoned to a meeting with Russov, a senior physician, in the courtyard of the hospital:

“It’s a new patient. A trick case.”

Andrei nods. “Would you like me to take a look?”

Things quickly get worse:

Russov gives a sudden harsh bark of laughter which transforms his face completely. He looks almost savage. His short hair seems to bristle.

“My ‘initial findings’ are that this patient is the son of — an extremely influential person.”

“Ah. And how old is the boy?”


“And so it is a joint problem, is it? Is that why you came to me?” Why doesn’t Russov get to the point?

“He’s Volkov’s son,” says Russov abruptly.

Volkov’s?” My God. It’s one of those names you only have to say once, like Yezhov or Beria. Andrei’s heart thuds, and he has to clear his throat before speaking. “The Volkov, you mean?”

With that, you have the plot definition of The Betrayal. In Leningrad in 1952, you do not want to be a tall poppy. Particularly when you are dealing with a cancerous tumor in the son of a senior official in the MGB. Whatever your decision, nothing good will come from this.

And it is no spoiler to say that nothing good does. Andrei needs to make a decision between avoiding risk, as his superior already has, and fulfilling his commitment as a doctor.

To supply another source of tension to this theme, Andrei and Anna have been trying to conceive. They already have a family of sorts in the form of Kolya, Anna’s much younger brother, now in his troublesome adolescence, who is both part in-law and part son (I am sure there is a back story here from the previous novel, but obviously I don’t know it). Their attempts at producing their own offspring have not succeeded (perhaps a result of the lack of nutrition from the siege?) but, no spoiler here, they eventually do conceive.

Going any further into details of the plot will only wreck it for anyone who does want to read the book, but an overview is necessary. The title suggests what the ultimate dilemma will be. Treatment of the MGB bigwig’s son doesn’t succeed, Andrei is held responsible. When you are accused of whatever crime in Stalinist Russia, those around you are also de facto accused. Does your spouse stand up for you or, in the wisdom of those who have been accused before, do you betray him or her in the interests of both yourself and your family?

Dunmore is a thoroughly competent author, straightforward with her narrative and more than capable of maintaining action that serves her plot. This is her eleventh novel (but the first that I have read) and she seems to have a following.

The problem that I have with The Betrayal is that it is entirely predictable when it comes to that plot and there is not much beyond that plot. Stalinist Russia was a truly terrible place, but we know that already. Other novels have already explored not only the central theme (read the original Russians) but some of the more obscure aspects (I found The Archivist’s Story more illuminating than this book).

There is nothing the matter with this novel — indeed, in comparison to some other Booker longlisted books, it maintains pace to the very end. And if you haven’t read other novels about Stalinist Russia, you will probably find it better than I did (but I would urge you to look elsewhere for a better analysis). Helen Dunmore fans are welcome to tell me what I have been missing. This book certainly indicates that she can write — I do suspect that there are works in the back catalogue that are better than this one.

C, by Tom McCarthy

August 21, 2010

Puchased at the Book Depository

First off, the good news — C is a much more accessible novel on the second reading than it was on the first. Now the bad news, if time is an issue for you — unless you are really into “modernist” fiction, I’m fairly certain you will want to read this twice. I certainly appreciated it more the second time than I did the first, but even then I was a frustrated reader when I reached the end. In no way do I mean that as a putdown — indeed, I think it should be regarded as an indication of the author’s success in crafting an intricate and complex book. This is a novel that both demands and rewards commitment.

I am not going to pretend that this review explores all (even most) aspects of the novel in any kind of detail. You will also note the absence of quotes — McCarthy is the kind of writer whose linked prose makes review quotes an exercise in futility (trust me, he can write). Indeed, I would predict that academics will be spending a lot of effort over the next few decades to contemplate the antecedents, references and echoes that are all part of C because it is a novel that deserves that kind of attention. This review, on the other hand, is aimed at would-be (or just-done) readers who want and respect a broad overview. Details to follow in scholarly journals down the road.

Equally interesting NA cover

I do think that Tom McCarthy should be thanking his UK publishers (Jonathan Cape) for the best physical design of a book (in terms of relating to its themes) that I can recall in recent memory. If you are lucky enough to find a version of their original presentation, it comes with a palimpsest dust cover of scribbled patterns, while underneath on the cover itself is the “C”, with a gridded starscape in the background. The black spills over into the front and back inner covers with almost furry edges. The design is an entirely fair — even brilliant — visual representation of the challenges of the book. You need to fight your way through the confusion of the present, find the patterns that are in the array of the supertext, hark back into history, knit all those elements together and then it might all make sense. (You can see why I needed two reads.)

And now to the book. Serge Carrefax, its central character, is the son of an inventor/teacher/savant who runs a school for the deaf in England — the pedagogy is on the speaking, not signing, side of that debate: “You have to make them speak. All the time!” The location is the Carrefax estate, Versoie, not just a school but also a silk farm not far outside London. The timing is 1898 and Carrefax Senior is not only a teacher of the deaf, he is an obsessed scientist, a fellow traveller with Marconi and Bell in exploring the idea of transmitting dots and dashes, radio waves, perhaps even speech, through the ether. Serge’s mother, meanwhile, may know more about making and selling silk than anyone in England, even if her husband doesn’t recognize the talent.

McCarthy chooses to tell his story through the medium of Serge (that might be “surge” like the radio wave — his father’s pronounciation — or “serge” like the cloth — his mother’s) and it comes in a series of separated episodes, starting with an exceptionally good set piece on Serge’s birth. Childhood and maturation at Versoie (titled “Caul”), moving into the war (“Chute”) and further on to London and eventually Egypt (yes, every chapter starts with C). In the opening sections of the book, this playfulness is a strength. I won’t give away the real “C” but I will admit, as much as I respected the book, the conceit wears very thin as it moves on.

And, at the risk of a major spoiler, some experienced reader advice: you need to pay a lot more attention to Serge’s sister, Sophie, than you might think early on in the book. She is three years older and is an interesting child — if Serge is inclined to the ephemeral radio waves, Sophie is very much into chemistry, botany and small insect life. There is a wonderful scene early on at the school pageant where stage manager Sophie creates so much “brimstone” in her effects on the classical theme that the audience of parents and supporters can’t get to the tea table at intermission because of the acrid fog.

McCarthy’s first (and in my opinion greatest) failing, in fact, is that he doesn’t develop Sophie nearly well enough. He needs her to create the dialectic tension with Serge’s development but she disappears fairly early on in one of the author’s less successful elements. When he finally concludes the novel, what she represents will be very important — even on a second reading, he gives the development of her character extremely short shrift. It is a major flaw in the book.

Serge, meanwhile, continues to develop his scientific side. He follows his father’s interests and becomes an amateur radio expert. One of the strong parts of the early section of the book is to watch the way that he and his sister start to diverge in their talents and interests. McCarthy plays this up by sending Serge to a German spa, Klodebrady, in a section that is so (badly) reminiscient of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain that it had me frothing.

Okay, I admit that Mann’s book is one of my favorites of all time. And what I like about it best is not the central narrative of the sanatorium, but the way that Mann contrasts the rational/spiritual, Western/Oriental views of the world which he develops in conversations between his characters — without doubt, it is one of the best novels ever written. And I appreciate that McCarthy is exploring that same tension with Serge (add Kafka in for another angle) when he sets him in this environment. But I will admit that throughout this whole section, I was gritting my teeth — the modern author is simply not up to the image that he is borrowing.

Serge then heads off to war where he is an airborne observor in the British forces in the Great War air corps. McCarthy uses this section quite effectively to establish the notion of someone who “sees from above” (while facing backwards) and then makes things happen, but is always aware that he is just an “insect” in the overall machine. And the writing is even more effective when he brings Serge back to ground and officers’ prison camp. But again, it has derivative overtones (Pat Barker did this much better) which do not serve the novel well.

Our hero acquires a drug habit during the war and when he returns to London finds a way to continue it. For me, this section of the book was the easiest to read and because of that probably the most effective. It is replete with a variety of most rewarding set pieces. There is an absolutely marvelous section where Serge exposes a psychic that makes you wish McCarthy would consider writing a totally comic novel. (Sorry — perhaps he already has as I don’t know his backlist.)

It is at this point that McCarthy gets truly serious with his novel and starts to pull some of his themes together — and I should apologize for being so flippant in the previous paragraphs. To his credit, those themes range back to early Egyptian history, pass through classical Greece and Rome and don’t ignore the decline of the British Empire as the twentieth century dawns. And he never abandons his central character Serge and his conflicts as all of this unfolds.

If the first three-quarters of the novel work for you, I think you will find this closure most effective. I had some nagging doubts, so I would rate it at maybe 4 out of 5 — parts of me wondered if McCarthy was just closing off story lines. And I did not find the closing scene very effective at all, but I suspect I will be in the minority on that count.

I will admit that on the first time through, I was pretty confused as the novel drew to a close; very much aware as I approached the end of the book that I had overlooked things to which I should have paid much more attention. I certainly felt less of that on the second read — this is a very good novel — but I could not help feeling that academics would be paying a lot more attention to this novel than most readers do. Which, in a way, is too bad as there is much to like here.

The Stars in the Bright Sky, by Alan Warner

August 18, 2010

Purchased from the Book Depository

Had I been Alan Warner’s editor, I am pretty sure that I would have gone to the mat in demanding that this book be titled Departure Lounge. And that the entire marketing budget be devoted to ensuring major displays in every airport bookstore in the English-speaking world. I am certain the commercial success would have been enormous, although one side effect would probably be that the novel would not have made the Booker longlist.

The Stars in the Bright Sky is the story of six young women in their twenties who have arrived at Gatwick Airport ready for a holiday — destination to be determined by the best last-minute, online bargain that is available. Five of them went to school together in Scotland and remain “friends”; the sixth is a stylish, posh English roommate of the member of the group now residing in London — she brings the mystery and suspicion that are necessary to put some tension into the sixsome. All of the action takes place in and around Gatwick, hence my title.

The four travelling from Scotland have just arrived by train and are on their way to the Flight Deck Hotel:

Suspicious Manda, calm Kay, fascinated Kylah and timid Chell sat alongside one another on the staunchly commandeered back seat of the Hotel Hoppa minibus; other passengers seated in front of them were also looking out, glancing upward at the circular, elevated traffic lanes.

Among all this gloom, the minibus windows seemed dirty, perhaps even tinted, yet the outside entire — those night airs — was dusted with a particular light above each sodium lamp and just below every car park floodlight; a spectral grittiness haloed vehicle tail lamps on the limited feeder lanes where cars and mysterious white vans appeared with an unbound continuity.

If you have ever travelled internationally, you have been on those dreadful minibuses. Warner also wastes little time in introducing you to someone you have encountered on one of the minibuses — the incredibly annoying, empty-headed “other” traveller who never shuts up. In this book her name as Amanda Tassy. Three of the four light cigarettes immediately upon getting off the van and Manda opens up:

Smoking her second already, Manda drawled, ‘We don’t know where we’re headed, do we? Down here getting one of these last-minute package deal things on her laptop computer.’ Manda pointed aggressively at Kay. ‘You don’t know what to pack when you don’t know what place you’ll end up. We could be away some place boiling hot, like Magaluf where I want to go, or end up some daft freezing place they all want to go to. There’s so bloody many of them, aren’t there? All the places? Wherever places we go, I don’t care, cos I’ve had my bikini wax.’

Manda is the ignorant traveller from hell (I am pretty sure you can find a version of her in the bar or departure lounge of any international airport). She never stops loudly declaiming her thoughts, none of which have any value. Back home, she is a Practice Manager in her sister’s salon, so she regularly critiques the makeup, nail polish and shaved/waxed legs of anyone in sight. She’s also a regular at Rascals, the new “club” in the village (to which she frequently texts thoughts, to keep the other regulars up to date on her progress). She also is a single mother, accent on the single, but does keep checking back on wee Sean. Warner makes it clear that she will never leave the village — it is as big a world as she can ever be expected to handle — so this holiday package trip, wherever it ends up, is Manda’s version of life-expanding experience.

(Why would anyone go on holiday with a version of Manda? Ha. If you have ever travelled anywhere in a group of six or more, there is almost always a Manda. It is a testimony to the fact that the bonds of old acquaintance don’t separate easily — or necessarily hold up to travel. What you can walk away from at home is tougher to escape on the road.)

The four, all small town girls travelling with major amounts of heavy luggage, meet up with Finn (their old school friend) and the mysterious Ava (Londoners travelling only with a backpack each) at the hotel and begin the drinking that will be a constant factor in the rest of the novel — drinking, being drunk or recovering from drink pretty much frame the action of the book. The six head to the pub:

Some of the girls, especially Manda, were disillusioned that, as they entered the Flight Deck Hotel bar, more heads did not turn to them.

Finn and Ava were now accustomed to the general anonymity and nonchalance of great cities — the curtailed glance on entering an establishment had replaced the shameless but acceptable scrutiny of their home places. In their village and small town, Ava and Finn were scrutinised for hopefull signs of incipient dissolution and decay; in the great city of London they were only scanned for their possessions; assessed for any edge. Once upon a time, people looked and evaluated the face of a stranger, nowadays they first noted clothes, handbag and your wristwatch when you get to the top of the queue in McDonald’s on a Saturday night; perhaps your shoes as you walked away.

All of those quotes come from the first 33 pages of the book and for the next 118 pages (roughly 24 hours in the narrative) Warner embarks on a writing excursion that is amusing, perceptive and shows a remarkable understanding of international airports. The girls spend that night getting drunk; the conceit of most of this section is that next day a hungover Manda can’t find her passport so they spend it wandering around Gatwick and a number of the hotels that surround it. Camps and sub-groups amongst the six form, dissolve and reform by the hour — a number of different bars are visited. For readers who have travelled, Warner uses this backdrop to observe the phoney pubs and bars, fastfood outlets, trinket shops and apparel outlets that comprise the sterile, self-contained world of the modern airport. Parts of it are hilarious, parts bring up not-so-nostalgic airport memories and parts reflect the inevitable boredom that is a part of travel. For me, it worked.

The problem is that The Stars in the Bright Sky isn’t 151 pages long, it is 394. And after page 151, virtually nothing happens that isn’t a version of something that happened before (well we discover Ava’s secret, but it is entirely predictable). The characters don’t change — they just play out variations of their flaws and strengths (much more of the former than the latter) in new permutations. Having done such a great job of establishing the empty airport world in the first third of the book, there isn’t much to be added in the last two-thirds. Manda, dominating and interestingly irritating in the early part of the book, becomes mundane and boringly irritating (still dominating) for the rest.

And if you do get to the final page of the book, The Stars in the Bright Sky may have the tritest, copout ending of all time. (Sorry, but a reveal would be the spoiler of all spoilers.)

If you find yourself with a long wait in an airport, luggage that has no room for anything else and in need of a book to pass the time but worthy of being left behind in the lounge or on the plane, by all means invest the 13 pounds in Warner’s book. I can confidently say that while you wait for your flight to be called, you can look up from the book every five or 10 minutes and find the scene you just read being acted out across the room (okay, you probably have to be in the pub for much of that to happen). And I can equally assure you that if you leave the book behind when you reach page 151 you will not have missed a thing.

As to how this book got onto the Booker longlist, I sure hope whatever judge or judges advocated it will do some newspaper piece somewhere and explain why. Despite the positive parts that I could find, the idea that this is the “best novel” of 2010 is completely beyond my comprehension.

Room, by Emma Donoghue

August 14, 2010

Purchased from the Book Depository

WARNING: There are spoilers in this review — it is the only way I can address some of my concerns. If you have not read Room and don’t like spoilers you can find enhusiastic reviews sans spoilers at Reading Matters and Farm Lane Books and an ambivalent one (very close to my thoughts) at The Asylum. I’ll admit that this review is meant for those who don’t care about spoilers or have already read the novel. (Room is scheduled for Canadian release Sept. 7 and it will be Giller eligible.)

Emma Donoghue is an Irish-born and raised author who lives in London, Ontario. Room is her eighth novel; she has had some bestsellers (Slammerkin) and is no stranger to prizes — The Sealed Letter won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction and was longlisted for the 2008 Giller Prize. Despite that record, the appearance of Room on this year’s Booker longlist was a bit of a surprise — word is that it was not submitted by the publisher, but called in by the jury. And from discussions on various forums, I would say that this novel (perhaps joined by The Slap) is the most divisive of books on the list — most people either love it or hate it. In true contrarian fashion, I am in neither camp. If I was awarding stars, I would give it a solid 2.5 out of 5. There are certainly things to like about the book but, for me at least, in the final analysis it did not succeed.

The briefest of all plot summaries: Room of the title is a 12 foot by 12 foot shed somewhere in the United States where Old Nick has kept and sexually assaulted an imprisoned Ma for seven years; she had a stillbirth six years ago; the book’s narrator, Jack, was born five years ago. Ma has done her best to turn Room into a survivable (and complete) world for her and Jack; Old Nick does keep them supplied and there are “sundaytreats” that they can request.

Let’s deal with that distinctive narrative voice first. Jack has just celebrated his fifth birthday, with cake (decorated with candies, not candles — somehow he knows enough to object to the absence of candles) and wants a breast-feeding (yes, Ma is still doing that):

“Can I have some?”

“First thing tomorrow,” says Ma, pulling her T-shirt back down.

“No, tonight.”

She points up at Watch that says 08:57, that’s only three minutes before nine. So I run into Wardrobe and lie down on my pillow and wrap up in Blanket that’s all gray and fleecy with the red piping. I’m just under the drawing of me that I forgot was there. Ma puts her head in. “Three kisses?”

“No, five for Mr. Five.”

She gives me five then squeaks the doors shut.

Those capitals could easily become annoying (and certainly are to those who detest the book) but I’ll admit that, for me, the author pulled the child narrator off. In the first half of the book there are actually three Jacks. One is far more than a precocious five-year-old — he’s an adult-like observer of the 12-foot-square world that has been his life. Jack Number Two is much like a normal five-year-old, still learning things. And Jack Number Three is representative of total absence of experience — he has never been Outside, so there is an immense amount he has never experienced at all except through the television in Room. You have to grant the author a lot of licence to appreciate this (particularly the near-adult voice) but if you do Donoghue succeeds in creating a version of what this strange, constrained world might be like for its two inhabitants.

So, having set up that confined, simple world with two characters (Old Nick doesn’t really play much of a part and Donoghue wisely doesn’t exploit the obligatory sex scenes), where does she take them? That’s where my problems with the book begin (and where the spoilers in this review start).

They escape to Outside in a development that does defy all credibility and sets the book on its downward slope. Jack fakes being dead, is wrapped up in Rug, Ma convinces Old Nick to take him away to be buried, he is loaded on to Truck, jumps off when it is stopped, runs into a man taking his child and dog for a walk, who conveniently calls some very understanding police.

Despite that, there is still the potential for a successful novel — we have a 26-year-old woman who has been isolated for seven years and a five-year-old who has never left Room, except through the medium of television. Alas, at this point the author abandons the fantasy of fiction invention and opts instead for what I would call pseudo-journalism (“what would it be like if this really happened?” becomes the point of view). Jack and Ma are taken to a psychiatric hospital and the process of integrating into the real world begins. The “adult” Jack voice disappears and the latter half of the novel has a lot of paras like this one:

There’s a tiny packet that says Shampoo, Ma opens it with her teeth, she’s using it all up so there’s nearly none left. She waters her hair for ages and puts on more stuff from another little packet that says Conditioner for making silky. She wants to do mine but I don’t want to be silky, I won’t put my face in the splash. She washes me with her hands because there’s no cloth. There’s bits of my legs gone purple from where I jumped out of the brown truck ages ago. My cuts hurt everywhere, especially on my knee under my Dora and Boots Band-Aid that’s going curly, Ma says that means the cut’s getting better. I don’t know why hurting means getter better.

Grandma, stepGrandpa and assorted relatives get introduced. Having asked the reader to enter a world of detestable fantasy (and suspend some obvious criticisms about lack of reality) the last half of the book focuses on the mundane and the obvious. It moves slower and slower and Jack, who had been established as a relatively interesting fictional character, becomes more and more annoying.

I can certainly understand why this section succeeds for those who do like the book. I am of a gender and age that has never had to contemplate being abducted and imprisoned in this kind of fashion — I can see where those who have thought about that would find more to appreciate than I did. But I will admit that I began thinking more and more often “John Fowles did a much better job with this scenario in The Collector than this book does.”

Having said that, Donoghue is an accomplished writer and the strength of the first half did stay with me — I just felt there could be so much more explored than what she chose to do with the latter half of the book. The result for me was a readable narrative, but not much more. Those who love this book engage with it emotionally; those who hate it disengage just as emotionally; I have to admit that I didn’t really do either.

Sorry for the spoilers, but every other discussion site has taken great care to avoid them, for very good reasons. I think they need to be on the table for a legitimate discussion of why the book succeeds or fails. I am not unhappy that I read it, but I can’t say that I look forward to a second read (which I do promise to undertake if it makes either the Booker or Giller shortlist).

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

August 11, 2010

Purchased at the Book Depository

I will admit that I abandon few books. My reasoning is that once you start a volume you owe the author the obligation to finish it. Unless, of course, as happens rarely, the author himself breaches that contract. And on page 202 (out of 307) I abandoned this one. After a couple of a hundred of dreadfully boring, sanctimonious pages on what it might be like to be Jewish, the following quote was all that I could take:

But if you’re asking me whether circumcision as a means of inhibiting the sexual impulse is specifically Jewish, I would say not.

Anthropologically speaking, it isn’t primarily about sex anyway, except in so far as all initiation ceremonies are about sex. It’s about cutting the apron strings. What is Jewish is interpreting the circumcision rite in the way Maimonides does. It’s he — the medieval Jewish philosopher — who would wish us to be more restrained and imagines circumcision as the instrument. But I have to tell you it has never worked on me.

And did not work on me either.

I haven’t finished this book but I have read enough to say that it has no place on the Booker longlist. It is dreadful. I don’t rubbish books on this site, but this is one that deserves the full rubbishing. And if you want to read a novel about being Jewish, Philip Roth has more than a dozen that are better than this one.

Let’s start with the original conceit from the author –“Finkler” is the name of one of the central characters, but the narrator uses it as a handy alternative to “Jewish”. Would you have bought this book if it was called “The Jewish Question”? Probably not, and if that was your interest, there are far better alternatives. If you are Jewish, you would be embarrassed by the convention; if you are not (that would be me), it verges on the painful.

Jacobson “frames” his book with three characters. Libor is in his 90s, Jewish and his wife has just died — he is in heavy mourning. Finkler (yes, he represents everything that is Jewish) is a generation behind — a successful “philosopher”, he is the CNN version of success in our time, he is the spokesperson for ASHamed Jews. Treslove is the third, currently earning his living by hiring himself out to parties as a “double” — Brad Pitt or whatever.

Treslove “wants” to be Jewish. Libor, ready to die, is happy in his circumstances. Finkler exploits his background. Duh?

I would like to say there is more to this book, but there is not. The three characters wander along, we have incidents of alleged anti-Semitism, there is quite a bit of not very good sex, and a lot of thoughts about being Jewish, none of which are useful to those of us who are not. I am not a religious person and admit I react badly to fiction about religion — perhaps this book’s greatest strength is that I felt badly for any Jew that it has been published.

When I don’t like a book, one of the first things I do is consider who might like it. I cannot imagine who would find value in this book — and if you do, please say why in the comments. And I have not read the last 100 pages, so if there is something there that I missed, please let me know.

What bothers me more than anything else is that this is the only Bloomsbury Press book that made the longlist. The jury thinks that it is better than Even The Dogs? Or The Memory of Love? Or Chef?
And all of those are from the same publisher. What on earth was this hapless jury thinking?

Regular visitors here know that I have found few books this year that I think are worthy of the Booker. But I must say, after dredging my way through two thirds of this dreadful novel, I have to wonder about the qualifications of this year’s jury crew. So far, I’d say their performance is approaching the down-side of hopeless. It isn’t that there have not been great books — they have just failed to see them.

EDIT: I promised to go back to The Finkler Question if it made the shortlist and I have — and this time I did get to the end. While I will say that my original post was perhaps a trifle excessive, I can’t say that my overall opinion has changed much.

Those who like the novel find its opening funny (and the Booker jury seems to have that opinion) but I did not. Clever, yes, and I can see why some would find it funny — alas the humor passed me by. I can’t help but think that that affected my judgement of the rest of the book. I found the latter half cumbersome and tedious. Jacobson does develop his three characters, but I was not very interested in any of them. Despite not finding the humor, his set-up of the three had potential for me, but it was not realized. Instead, the back half of the book read more like a lecture.

Certainly, it is not the first time I have been out of step with a Booker jury on a shortlist book. And I don’t think it will be the last.

In A Strange Room, by Damon Galgut

August 8, 2010

Purchased at

I would characterize Damon Galgut as an author who is on the verge of the moment, waiting for the breakthrough that vaults him from the ranks of the “very good” to “he has to be read”. He has certainly had success. The Good Doctor and The Impostor both have substantial prize credentials; I was one of many who were very disappointed when The Impostor was not on the 2008 Booker longlist. So, will In A Strange Room be the book that moves him over the next barrier? I am only halfway through the 2010 Man Booker shortlist, but I think it might be just that. It is by far the best book on the longlist that I have read so far; I find it difficult to imagine what novel might overtake it.

In A Strange Room is a short book, only 180 pages in the version that I read, the first time in one sitting. And I admit that when I turned the final page then, I went right back to the start and read it again — this review is the product of two readings. Galgut’s novel comes in three parts, each of about 60 pages, all featuring the same central character: “Damon”. He is a traveller, a trekker actually, who is at home on the road, not at home:

The truth is that he is not a traveller by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstances. He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety, which makes everything heightened and vivid. Life becomes a series of tiny threatening details, he feels no connection with anything around him, he’s constantly afraid of dying. As a result he is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forward to the next place, and yet he is also never going towards something, but always away, away. This is a defect in his nature that travel has turned into a condition.

“Always away, away”. It is a phrase worth remembering when considering this book.

Damon, like Galgut, is a South African and in the first section — “The Follower” — we meet him in Greece where he is on one of his travelling expeditions. Based in Mycenae, he is on his way to explore some ruins when he sees another trekker, walking towards him. This person (shades of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers here, if you know that book) is dressed all in black, even his pack is black. They meet, converse briefly, and part. The two were heading in opposite directions when they met on the path but the chance meeting becomes ominous when the stranger (Reiner) shows up at Damon’s hostel that night and has requested a bed in the same room.

Part one of this traveller’s tale is the story of Reiner and Damon. They agree to set a trekking agenda for the future that will see them explore together — not in Greece, but later on in the south of Africa. Reiner works for a bit in the meantime in Canada as a tree-planter (yes, that is a lucrative fill-in job for those who trek) and then shows up. The two agree to a plan to aggressively trek Lesotho, make arrangements and head there by bus — “Reiner sits on the back seat, his rucksack on his knees and his head on his rucksack, earplugs wedged into his ears”. Damon has a different experience after they arrive at a way station:

I wander around and come back, then wander again. A large part of travelling consists purely in waiting, with all the attendant ennui and depression. Memories come back of other places he has waited in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat, and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details. A paper bag blowing in the wind. The mark of a dirty shoe on a tile. The irregular sputter of a fluorescent bulb. From this particular place he will retain the vision of a cracked brick wall growing hotter and hotter in the sun.

Read that excerpt again, because it illustrates one of the very real strengths of this novel. Galgut tells most of it in the third person but every now and then (as in that paragraph) the first person intercedes. Sometimes the first person is there in the present, sometimes he is observing in memory. It is not a jarring technique in any way — the author wants the reader to join him in observing what happens from three points of view — the omniscient narrator, the person in the present and that person looking back on what happened. Part of what is so impressive with this book is the way that Galgut manages those three perspectives so effectively — we see the present from outside, we experience the present as if we are there, we look back on what happened and how it touched us.

Damon and Reiner trek and eventually fall apart. Whatever Damon was seeking in his hiking partner (and yes there are strong homosexual overtones to that) he doesn’t find. And he doesn’t know how to break the search and the split is more than awkward. If trekking represents a search for escape, this route doesn’t work.

In part two, “The Lover”, Damon is hiking in Zimbabwe — not much has changed for him and he still sees wandering as his path out. This time, he runs into and joins a group of First World hikers and Galgut has some fun in portraying that cliche. Damon, on the other hand, is transfixed by a group of three Europeans whose paths always seem to overlap with his own group, whom he is rapidly disinclined to keep following. The travel metaphor here is quite different:

In this state travel isn’t a celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself. He moves around from one place to another, not driven by curiosity but by bored anguish of staying still. He spends a few days in Harare, then goes down to Bulawayo. He does the obligatory things required of visitors, he goes to the Matopos and sees the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, but he can’t produce the necessary awe or ideological disdain, he would rather be somewhere else. If I was with somebody, he thinks, with somebody I loved, then I could love the place and even the grave too, I would be happy to be here.

If Part One represents Damon looking for a fellow traveller, Part Two is about his dependence — the hope that his travelling will produce a contact on whose coattails he can ride to the future. No secret, but this doesn’t work out either.

I am going to give Part Three — “The Guardian” — the short shrift here, even though it may be the strongest part of the book. In the first two parts, Damon was the searcher, looking for partners and helpers. In Part Three, his urge to wander becomes in itself a prison because he is the post on whom his fellow traveller (kind of) leans, perhaps “exploits” is the better verb. Galgut moves from the single fellow traveller, to the group that beckons for a better future, to the traveller who literally represents stones in his pockets.

There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it is a long way from home.

Those two sentences are the summary of this exceptional novel — In A Strange Room is a powerful, powerful book and an amazing achievement. In prose that is both sparse and lyrical, Galgut gives us a character — himself — who is searching and not finding. (If you liked Coetzee’s Summertime last year, buy this book now). The full picture of his central character is never really apparent but given the autobiographical references that is understandable. The three voices that he uses to tell his story create a very rare reading experience, at least for this reader, where one moves from one perspective to the other with much ease. And the result is a deeply understood — and equally deeply troubling — narrative of what might happen if you choose to “travel” to escape your demons.

These three chapters all appeared originally in the Paris Review, so if you read that publication and they sound familiar there is a reason. And for a second, equally enthusiastic opinion of the novel from a somewhat different point of view, check out Just William’s Luck.

Trespass, by Rose Tremain

August 5, 2010

Purchased at

In my review of Ian McEwan’s Solar a few months ago, I noted that both he and Martin Amis (The Pregnant Widow) had now passed 60 — and both had produced novels with central characters of the same age who were about to face the first of their “senior citizen” decisions. One had to wonder about how auto-biographical both novels were.

Rose Tremain has two legs up on those better-known authors. First, born in 1943, she has a half decade of extra life experience and observation — she is one of those rather rare “War Babies”, although the age difference is small enough that she almost qualifies as a Boomer. Tremain also has chosen to produce a 2010 novel that features characters of that same 60ish age who are facing rather large “life” decisions, although in her case not one but four, who come in two brother-sister pairs. And in prize-winning terms, she has a big edge: McEwan and Amis are already sitting on the 2010 Man Booker “dismissed” bench — Tremain’s Trespass bested them both by making the longlist.

I am certainly aware of Tremain (2008 Orange prize for The Road Home, shortlisted for the Booker for Restoration) but have never read her — the descriptions of her past novels were enough to convince me that they were “too conventional, not literary enough” for my tastes. So I was somewhat intrigued that this year’s Man Booker jury “imposed” her on my reading — and I was not disappointed.

Trespass is very much a novel centred on characters who have reached what may be the last decision point in their lives; the final time that they may be able to make an active choice about their future, with further choices determined as much by age and circumstance as by personal decision. While there is an element of desperation to that, there is equally an incentive to take a greater risk than has even been taken before. Consider Anthony Verey, one of London’s most successful antique dealers with a shop in Chelsea. The current recession has set him and his business on hard times (Trespass is a very contemporary novel) and the world is closing in on him. He is about to visit his lesbian sister, Veronica, at her self-imposed retreat in the near-desert of the south of France:

As he drove the hired black Renault Scenic north-west towards Ales, Anthony felt a radical new idea beginning to form in his mind. He congratulated himself that it wasn’t only radical, but also logical: if his life in London was over, then to regain his happiness all he needed to do was to admit that it was over and to dare to move on. He’d never imagined himself living anywhere else but in Chelsea, but now he had to imagine it. He had to imagine it, or die.

So, in its essence, the idea was simple and straightforward. He’d sell the flat and wind up the business. From the great emporium of beloveds, he’d keep only those pieces for which he felt extreme ardour (the Aubusson tapestry, for instance) and put the rest into appropriate sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

If you follow the auction world at all, Anthony is not an aberration — indeed, he is a harbinger of our times and there will soon be more versions of him putting their collections on the market. His decision to flee to Veronica adds much depth to the book. She has been living in France for some time with her lover, Kitty, a watercolor artist “rescued” from lower-class England. Veronica (“V” to Anthony since childhood) is both creating and writing Gardening Without Rain; Kitty thinks that she is painting the illustrations.

Anthony, who has been subject to being saved by his sister V since childhood — indeed, dependent on it — has turned to her once again:

“You know you’ve saved me, don’t you?” he said to Veronica that evening as they sipped chilled white wine in the salon.

“What do you mean?”, she said.

“London’s killing me, V. It literally is. I’ve thought about this a lot since I’ve been here, and now I’ve made a definite decision. I’m going to sell up. I should have done it two or three years ago. I’m going to be reborn in France.”

So there we have the well-bred, well-off Brits. The story demands that they have a local counterpart and that comes in the sister-brother pair of Audrun and Amaron Lunel, now in their sixties, local farming peasants with several generations of history in La Callune in the Cevennes. They have never left it and never intend to. But, just as Anthony and V have an historical attraction to each other that they cannot resist, Audrun and Amaron have an equally well-formed aversion (and a predictably shocking reason for it) that keeps them forever apart, he in the stone family house up the hill, she in the cheaply-built drywalled, modern residence down the way by the wood:

She hardly ever went inside his house — the house that had once been kept so clean and orderly by her beloved Bernadette [their mother]. The stink of it made her gag. Even the sight of his old shirts hanging out of the window to be washed by the rain, she had to turn away when she saw these, remembering Bernadette’s laundry chest and all the sheets and shirts and vests white as fondant and folded edge-to-edge and smelling like fresh toast.

Four characters on the verge of being “senior citizens”, in the form of two brother-sister pairs. Each of them facing perhaps the last fully self-determined life choice that they will make. Each twisted by their own relationships with their past, their mother (Freudian stuff is major in this book) and their sibling. Not one happy with their current status; not one totally comfortable with the decision they will make about their future.

Trespass is in some ways a thriller (the prologue indicates that, so that is not a spoiler) in the ways that these four eventually live out their dilemmas. Having said that, the strength of Tremain’s novel is not that obvious plot, but rather the way she explores how these four individuals address their looming “old-age”. While I think both McEwan and Amis opted for satire and aversion, I’ll give Tremain credit for addressing the issue head on.

The problem is that I don’t think she does it very well. The set-up for the story was more than interesting — all four central characters are well-established and I felt genuine empathy for their circumstances. But as the plot line unfolds, they become more and more caricatures and less and less characters — the strength of the novel has been those four and not the action, but the action is allowed to overtake it. One cannot help but wonder if Tremain returned to the form that has served her so well (and kept me from reading her) rather than letting the creative forces take her where they may.

The result, I must say, is a highly readable book but, like so many others on my Booker list of 2010, one that hardly goes beyond the ordinary. As it stands, I would call it an excellent holiday book — with only a little more effort, at least for me, it could have been so much more. Okay, I am a 62-year-old male so I do fit the fictional demographic of the central characters of the book and that probably softens my critical assessment. Having said that, with McEwan and Amis already weighing in, I am pretty sure I will be seeing a number of other versions of this in the near future — and I think that I and the rest of those on the front edge of the Baby Boom are still waiting for the “defining” novel of what it is like to be approaching what used to be the retirement age.

Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey

August 1, 2010

Purchased at

In his Acknowledgements at the end of this novel, Peter Carey outlines its origin: “This novel began when I read Alexis de Tocqueville’s prescient Democracy in America.” He goes on to say that in the following three years he was “nourished by a hundred other works”. Australian-born, Carey has lived in the United States for the past 20 years — whatever the commercial reasons might be for that, I think it is a fair conclusion to assume that this is, at least in part, an homage to his adopted country.

I will admit upfront that I have two major barriers to appreciating this novel. First, while I am certainly aware of de Tocqueville’s work and appreciate its signifigance, I have never read it. Carey makes allusions later on in that Acknowledgement to sentences and phrases that he has borrowed and buried — alas, they would pass me by. Perhaps more significant in terms of my appreciation of the book, I am at best a reluctant Carey reader. I have some appreciation for his first Booker winner, Oscar and Lucinda, and rather enjoyed Theft, mainly because of my interest in fiction about the art world. I’ve tried most of his other works and found them wanting, particularly his historical fiction (which certainly has legions of fans). So when Parrot and Olivier in America was published, I gave it a pass — I figured if it made the Booker longlist I would pick it up then.

Which I have — and jumping to the end, my initial misgivings have been confirmed. I can understand why this book has its fans; I am not one of them.

Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont is the de Tocqueville character of the book. The son of a noble and titled French family he represents the declining generation of the aristocracy of late 18th century France. A child of privilege, that privilege is disappearing — not only are the French aristorcrats being replaced, his family is on the bottom rung of that bunch because they failed to flee into exile when Napolean made his move. Carey opens the book with a chapter that reflects Proust:

Poor Maman. See how she suffers, her face gaunt, glowing in the gloom. In her youth she was never ill. In Paris she was a beauty, but Paris has been taken from her. She has her own grand house on the rue Saint-Dominique, but my father is a cautious man and we are in exile in the country. My mother is in mourning in Paris, although sometimes you might imagine her a penitent. Has she sinned? Who would tell me if she had? Her clothes are somber and loose-fitting as is appropriate for a religious woman. Her life is a kind of holy suffering existing on a plane above her disappointing child.

Parrot, on the other hand, is a child of the proletariat. The son of an itinerant journeyman printer, he is a representative of the future that is finding its way to fulfillment in Europe:

“Children remain tied to their father by nature only so long as they need them for preservation. As soon as it ends,” so wrote the great Rousseau, “the natural bond is dissolved. Once the children are freed from obediance they owe their father and the father is freed from their responsibilities towards them, both parties equally regain their independence. If they continue to remain united, it is no longer nature but their own choice, which unites them; and the family as such is kept together only by agreement.

More or less that’s it.

That last sentence is a fair summary of the premise of the book. While it takes a large number of pages for Carey to get them there, Olivier and Parrot end up in America, carrying the remnants of their French social and familial past to the new land of liberty. Olivier is ostensibly researching a book on American prisons, but he becomes fascinated by the new nation of liberty. Parrot is his servant (the novel does have an interesting, long diversion where he spends time in Australia as a prisoner on his way there, but it is just a diversion) who knows the old rules of engagement but discovers in the United States that they no longer apply. It gives away nothing to say that in this new land, they will find that their traditional roles become reversed.

Carey is a competent and talented writer and he carefully and deliberately unfolds that story in a reader-friendly fashion. He has obviously researched his material thoroughly — too thoroughly for this reader, because long sections of the book are taken up with explanations of the obvious that left me wanting only for them to end. While I appreciate the author’s determination to chronicle the “American” story, he does not have much new to add — his respect for the obvious history is so great that it comes to dominate the book.

All of which results in a curious flatness in the narrative, despite the author’s talents. Neither Olivier nor Parrot become real living characters; rather they are developed as examples of what the new nation produces when individuals from the background of the old Europe are located there. The story unfolds in an entirely predictable fashion and — if you haven’t enrolled in the value of the two central characters — there is an all-too-comfortable certainty of what will happen next.

I am not an avid reader of historical fiction, so the result for me was a growing frustration; I am certain that those who like the genre more than I do would find more to appreciate in this novel than I did. Having said that, Parrot and Olivier in America is no Wolf Hall — unlike Hilary Mantel, Carey is not trying to present a new version of the historical story, he is much more trying to faithfully recount a conventional one.

The novel is not a particularly difficult read. Indeed as Carey piles detail upon detail, I profess to a bit of admiration for the way he made the mundane and seemingly trivial a vital part of the story. But, since I could engage with neither his recital of the history nor the characters whom he places at the centre of the story, I found the reading experience to be dis-engaging rather than engaging. In one sense, I appreciate that Carey has chosen to pay tribute to his adopted land but as a reader I sure wish he had found a more exciting and intriguing way of doing it.

I am not surprised that Parrot and Olivier in America made the Booker longlist; I see it as a kind of lifetime achievement recognition for a novelist who has written historical novels set in a number of different places and now chooses to address the United States. I will be disappointed if it advances further — too many other authors have chosen to take more risks and produced far more interesting volumes than this one in the past year.

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