Archive for July, 2011

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

July 31, 2011

I’m retired now. I have my flat with my possessions. I keep up with a few drinking pals, and have some women friends — platonic, of course. (And they are not part of the story either.) I’m a member of the local history society, though less excited than some about what the metal detectors unearth. A while ago, I volunteered to run the library at the local hospital; I go round the wards delivering, collecting, recommending. It gets me out, and it’s good to do something useful; also, I meet some new people. Sick people, of course; dying people as well. But at least I shall know my way around the hospital when my turn comes.

And that’s a life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so. Maybe, in a way, Adrian knew what he was doing. Not that I would have missed my own life for anything, you understand.

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

That quote comes from the end of the first section of Julian Barnes’ engaging novel/novella The Sense of an Ending (it is only 150 pages in my version) — I have bumped the quote to the top of this review because it is a concise summary of the life of the narrator, Tony Webster. Now in his early sixties, he is contemplating his approaching end, but that also means looking back at what was, or, even more important, what might have been.

As the title of the novel implies, this is a memory book. And, as the quote makes clear, Tony will be ignoring the mundane which has dominated his life (“they are not part of the story, either”). Rather, he will be considering the exceptional that has floated to the top as he looks backward at a life lived. Here is his summary of what is motivating him in this project:

And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled, and primeval. Whose chief charcteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made. Even so, forty years on, I sent Veronica an email apologising for my letter.

Barnes has drawn a powerful scale for measuring the impact of things we wish we haven’t done with that paragraph. “Shame” is relatively easy to deal with, “guilt” can be assuaged at least to a point, “remorse” is the emotion that we cannot escape as a result of some things we wish we had not done.

Julian Barnes was born in 1946, I was born in 1948 — so I fit the demographic of this first-person book. As he writes elsewhere in the novel, when we are maturing we often look ahead to the ambitions we have and what we will “be” in life, including what we will think in our final decades — as youths, however, we don’t consider how we will look back on the choices that produced that state of mind. The Sense of an Ending is about both those choices and the memories (“remorse”) that they provoke several decades on.

So. Who are Adrian and Veronica?

Adrian is a student who arrives at Tony’s school late in the pre-university process, when all the students’ attention is focused on getting the grades to open the doors to what will come next. Tony is already part of a gang of three with “serious” pretensions (‘That’s philosophically self-evident’ is a favorite argument ender) but Adrian, without any initiative on his part, is absorbed into the group and makes it a foursome.

He is obviously brilliant and illustrates that on his first day at school when, challenged by the history master about the nature of history, he states that it comes down to “something happened”. (This is an elaboration on a previous contribution from another student who has amended his first definition — “there was unrest, sir” — to “I’d say there was great unrest, sir”.) In a later lesson, discussing the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand which provoked the Great War, Adrian expands his notion:

“But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

Take that as a warning about how much credibility to ascribe to Tony’s account or, perhaps more usefully, what attitude should be taken to joining him in his exploration of a central event in his personal history. Tony’s memory expedition is centred on Veronica who may (or may not) have been his first love. Tony and Veronica met at Bristol early in his university career and she was far “smarter” than he. She mocks his taste for Dvorak and Tchaikovsky (not to mention that he actually hides his soundtrack recording of Un Homme et Une Femme since it would not even make her starting gate) but does show respect for his color-coded Penguins and Pelicans (unread charity shop purchases, alas), although her taste runs more to poets like Ted Hughes.

And then there’s the sex, or rather lack of it — as Barnes perceptively observes, for most of of us who came to maturity in the Sixties, the “permissive Sixties” didn’t really arrive until, too late, the Seventies. This is a long quote, but it is worth the effort because it captures the sexual tension of the time (now recognized, of course, as being very permissive) and illustrates the way that Barnes anchors Tony’s memories in a perceptively-observed broader world:

Veronica wasn’t very different from other girls of the time. They were physically comfortable with you, took your arm in public, kissed you until the color rose, and might consciously press their breasts against you as long as there were about five layers of clothing between flesh and flesh. They would be perfectly aware of what was going on in your trousers without even mentioning it. And that was all, for quite a while. Some girls allowed more: you heard of those who went in for mutual masturbation, others who permitted ‘full sex’, as it was known. You couldn’t appreciate the gravity of that ‘full’ unless you’d had a lot of the half-empty kind. And then, as the relationship continued, there were certain implicit trade-offs, some based on whim, others on promise and commitment — up to what the poet called ‘a wrangle for a ring’.

Tony doesn’t get ‘full sex’ — ‘It doesn’t feel right’ is Veronica’s response when he tries. He does get a weekend visit to her parent’s home in Chislehurst, Kent; his only suitcase is so large that it prompts her father to observe ‘Looks like you’re planning to move in, young man’ when Tony is picked up at the train station.

The aging Tony’s memories of this watershed weekend are sparked by a totally unexpected event. He receives from the executor of Veronica’s mother’s estate a letter saying that he has been left a bequest of £500 and two documents, but only one is attached. While he and Veronica ended their relationship more than 40 years ago (yes, she and Adrian did get together which sparked the incident that has produced his remorse), the executor’s letter does open the Pandora’s box that was his youth.

Barnes does not waste a single word in this wonderful short novel — I’ve tried to include enough quotes to show that, but rest assured I have not spoiled the book if you choose to read it. I can think immediately of two other excellent short novels that attracted Booker Prize attention: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (both also “memory” novels) and The Sense of an Ending deserves to be ranked with both.

I will add a caveat to my positive assessment: I cannot set aside my own age when it comes to appreciating the way that Barnes has captured the process of looking back into what produced this current stage of life and left the trails of “remorse” that he explores in the book — as Tony makes clear, he leaves out the ordinary and concentrates only on this exceptional stream of experience. For me, The Sense of an Ending was a very special book that demanded — and got — an immediate second reading. It was worth it and I will not be disappointed at all to see this slim volume on the Booker shortlist; indeed, I will be disappointed if it is not there.


Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris

July 28, 2011

Purchased from the Book Depository

I confess that when I scheduled this post to appear a few days after the announcement of the 2011 Man Booker Prize longlist I was confident that I would be reviewing one of the just-announced contenders. Gillespie and I has been out in the UK for a few months (and was just released in Canada) and received glowing reviews from a wide variety of sources I trust, many of whom have quite different tastes. Many participants on the Man Booker debate forum had it on their personal longlists prior to the official announcement. And reading it suited my schedule — as a longish literary mystery (504 pages) it promised to be my kind of “summer book”, a volume that could be read for 15 minutes or two hours, not too demanding, but challenging in its way.

Well, I was wrong about the longlisting (that’s hardly ever happened before 🙂 ). But I was dead on in my positive “summer book” evaluation — Gillespie and I is entertaining and challenging in equal measure. With half the summer left to go, if you are looking for a book to take to the cottage or lakeside that will fill a week or two of reading in shortish spurts, you could do a lot worse than buying a copy of Jane Harris’ novel.

The bulk of Gillespie and I is set in Glasgow in 1888 — Ned Gillespie is an “artist, innovator and forgotten genius; my dear friend and soul mate” who died prematurely at the age of 36 “just as (in my humble opinion) he was about to reach the very zenith of his creative powers”.

The “my” in those references is one Harriet Baxter and she is writing those words in Bloomsbury 45 years later in 1933 in a manuscript that is part biography and part memoir. She notes that this will be the first book about the artist and, in addition to the questions raised by the overly effusive praise in those quotes above, there is an ominous note about the project in her introduction:

You may also wonder why I have been silent for so long, and why it has taken me all these years to put pen to paper. Perhaps I needed to gain some distance from a sequence of profoundly affecting events, not least of which was that Ned, in addition to wiping out his artistic legacy, also took his own life. By that time, I was thousands of miles away, and powerless to help him. Confident of an eventual reconciliation, I never suspected that we were moving towards such a rapid unravelling, not only of our relationship (what with all that silly white-slavery business and the trial) but also of his entire fate. However, let us not get ahead of ourselves. I will come to that in due course.

While by definition all memoirs are the author’s selective view of history and carry some degree of unreliability, that introduction plants a crimson-red flag on this writing project, in addition to offering some tantalizing hints of what will happen as the story unfolds. Harris’ great success in this novel is the balance she achieves for the reader in recounting a version of what happened in Glasgow 45 years ago while simultaneously building skepticism about just how much of the narrative should be taken as objective truth.

Harriet’s Glasgow introduction to the Gillespie family comes while she is walking the city’s streets — she is a woman with a trust income and has come from London for an extended period to take in the first Glasgow International Expedition. Her attention is drawn to what she first thinks is street theatre:

There, indeed, was a lady, perhaps in her early sixties, lying on the pavement near the entrance to the Argyle Arcade. However, now that I could see clearly, I ascertained that she was not a ‘commedienne’, but that she had suffered some kind of collapse. This was evident from the genuine dismay on the face of the girl at her side, a pretty golden-haired creature in print frock and tall-crowned straw hat. The girl gazed around wildly and then hailed a youth in dusty clothes who happened to be passing. I could not overhear what was said because at that moment a cab sped by, but after a few words were spoken on both sides, the boy turned and dashed up Buchanan Street, no doubt in search of help.

I include that quote as much to indicate Harris’ Victorian style in the biography/memoir sections as to recount a development in the plot of the book. Harriet, who has first aid training, will save the older woman’s life: she has swallowed her upper set of false teeth and Harriet extracts them from her gullet (that’s the term Harris uses). The older woman, Elspeth, is Ned Gillespie’s mother; the younger is his wife Annie. Once Elspeth has recovered, Harriet is invited to call and apparently her introduction to the Gillespie family is underway.


We discover on Harriet’s first visit that she has already met Ned Gillespie in London some months ago at an exhibition of his work in the Grosvenor Gallery. She has noticed that a Gillespie work is listed in the Exhibition catalogue and wonders if it is the same artist:

He and I had spoken only for a few moments and I had, more or less, forgotten about him until my arrival in Glasgow when I noticed a Gillespie listed among the artists in the catalogue of the Exhibition, and wondered, vaguely, whether this could be the same man.

The life-saving act and her interest in art is enough to make Harriet a welcome regular visitor to Ned and Annie’s flat since she lives just around the corner — Elspeth’s flat is just across the street. That device enables author Harris to relate the narrative of the 1888 story; the novel alternates those sections with present-day chapters from London in 1933 which allow her to develop the “unreliability” thread.

In both threads, Harris rations the revelation of significant events in her story with deliberate care and I will respect that by going no further in describing any elements of it — that last quote comes on page 25, so I have left you 479 to discover the remainder of the story yourself. We know already that there is going to be a trial at some point, so some kind of (alleged) crime is obviously going to take place — one that Harriet feels demands a recounting several decades on.

Let me sum this up with an observation that has been made elsewhere, but I’ll repeat it. If you are a fan of Sarah Waters and her disturbing literary mysteries (Fingersmith and The Little Stranger come to mind) and are eagerly awaiting her next work, Gillespie and I is an excellent volume to fill the void while you wait. Like Waters, Harris is a storyteller of the first order and has a way of setting the ambiguities of her tale in delicious aspic, carefully rationing out the meaty parts so that all 504 pages are rewarding.

I won’t speculate on what the Booker jurors found wanting in this book — I have nine of their 13 choices to read (they are described in the post below this one if you haven’t seen the list yet), so perhaps I will know better in a few months. All I can say at this point is that I would have found no fault with the jurors at all if they had included this compelling and highly readable story on their longlist. Curl up by the cottage fire with this on your lap and I predict it will add to your vacation.

2011 Man Booker Prize longlist

July 26, 2011

The 2011 Man Booker longlist was announced today — and to say there are surprises in the 13-book list is an understatement. There are four debut authors (Stephen Kelman, A.D. Miller, Yvette Edwards and Patrick McGuinness) and three Canadians (Alison Pick, Esi Edugyan and Patrick deWitt) — I think that is Canada’s best showing ever, even if none of the three are household names here (yet). Just as surprising are the books that are not on the list — e.g. Alan Hollinghurst is the only previous winner, although five or six were eligible. (And KfC is delighted to see that the heavily-promoted The Afterparty is not on the list.)

I’ve reviewed the entire longlist in each of the past two years and will try to do the same this year, although that statement of intention comes with a minor caveat. I’m not a great fan of dystopian fiction or novels about the collapse of communist states, so if time is pressing I may let those pass — I may look for reviews elsewhere from bloggers who are more inclined give them a fairer shot than I.

Three of the longlist have already been reviewed here, one is awaiting review and another is on hand. I ordered the rest this morning, so do come along for this year’s Booker journey. Here’s a thumbnail summary of each of the 13.

Novels already reviewed here

Far To Go, by Alison Pick. For me, the most pleasant surprise of this year’s longlist — I didn’t even know this Canadian novel was eligible. Pick’s book was one of my choices for last year’s Giller and I was disappointed when it missed that longlist, so this belated recognition of a very good book is welcome. Her story is a version of the Kindertransport saga, the 10,000 Jewish children (including the author’s ancestors) who were “rescued” and placed with families in England or North America. The novel is delivered with both passion and compassion and Pick does not hesitate to bring its implications into the present day — the effects of Kindertransport are still present in her family as they are in others, so that is relevant. An entirely worthwhile choice.

The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst. In a longlist dominated by surprises, this novel (together with Sebastian Barry) was the only “obvious” choice that made it. Hollinghurst also is the only one of the five or six previous Booker winners to make the longlist (Ondaatje, Enright and Swift are among those who did not). Having said that, I did not like the book — Hollinghurst’s prose for me was tedious and over-bearing turning its 550+ pages into a chore. It is only fair to note that those who like the book (and I am definitely in the minority) find the writing to be its major asset — I tried to include enough quotes in my review to at least allow visitors to make an assessment.

Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman. Quite frankly, the presence of this novel on the longlist causes me to question this year’s jury’s definiton of “literary” fiction. A debut novel, it is lightweight and entertaining, in its way, but hardly the kind of fiction that is going to be attracting attention even a few years down the road. It is the story of a killing on an English council estate, told from the point of view of a pre-adolescent Ghanaian boy who is “investigating” it. Then again, my review compared it to last year’s Room and that novel certainly appealed to prize juries in a number of competitions.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. (EDIT: Review is now up here) Literally the only book on my personal 2011 Booker longlist (since I didn’t know Alison Pick was eligible) that the jurors chose. It is a slim volume — 150 pages — told in the first person as an aging male character looks back on some not-so-pleasant youthful memories. Not an uncommon literary conceit, but Barnes delivers on it very well, although the fact that I fit his character’s demographic probably influenced me positively.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. House of Anansi sent me a review copy of this a while back and I have been saving it for pre-Giller reading — so now I’ll have to move it forward to Booker longlist reading, a tribute to deWitt. The opening description of the book: “Oregon, 1851. Eli and Charlie Sisters, notorious professional killers, are on their way to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. On the way, the brothers have a series of unsettling and violent experiences in the Darwinian landscape of Gold Rush America.” From that short description, you can probably understand why I didn’t think it would be a Booker contender.

Longlist titles to be reviewed later

On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry. Along with the Hollinghurst, the only “cert” that did prove to be a cert. Barry was shortlisted (and expected to win) with The Secret Scripture a few years back. The description of this one (it will be released in a couple of weeks) promises familiar territory — opening in First World War Dublin, the central character, Lilly, emigrates to America in “a novel of memory, war, family ties and love”. We’ve all read Irish novels with that description before, but those who have read Advance Copies of this one say it is very good — definitely a favorite for the shortlist.

Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch. Booker judge Susan Hill left a comment on the forum a few months back about an excellent book that had a dreadful cover — speculation is that this is the book. The book opens in London in the mid-1800s and its central character is rescued by a circus owner; the description says it then moves on to a ship headed to the Indian Ocean. I should say that a number of readers whom I respect were very enthusiastic about this novel.

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan. By far the biggest surprise for me on the longlist — I do track Canadian books and I have not heard a boo about this one since its release in February (and I had to order a copy from the UK today because none were available in Canada). Set in pre-war Berlin and wartime Paris, but viewed from some decades on, the description promises jazz and the jazz culture as the unifying theme. Territory that has been tread in novels before, for sure, but perhaps worth visiting again.

A Cupboard Full of Coats, by Yvette Edwards. From the publisher’s description: “Fourteen years ago, Jinx’s mother was brutally murdered in their East London home. Overwhelmed by the part she played, Jinx’s whole life has been poisoned by guilt.” Crime (and post-crime) is not my genre but I did read and like two crime novels in my pre-longlist reading this year — Elizabeth Haynes’ Into The Darkest Corner and Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I (review to come in a couple days). If A Cupboard Full of Coats is better than those two, it has to be pretty good.

The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness. This one probably ranks with Half Blood Blues as the “least heard of” book on the list — and I can’t say the publisher’s description enhances its appeal for me. The title refers to the collapse of the Ceaucescu regime in Romania and I am afraid that I prefer non-fiction accounts of brutal communism to fictional versions written by Westerners. As far as I can tell, a novel that almost nobody had heard of before today.

Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller. A “psychological thriller” set in the “new Russia”, this debut novel did attract positive comment on the Man Booker discussion forum when it was released earlier this year (Gorky Park is the frequent comparison). I’ll admit that I figured then that I didn’t need to read another thriller set in wintery Moscow, but I will do my best to approach it with an open mind.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers. I have seen no reviews on this and will admit that I may well not read it. Dystopian novels based on biological terrorism are just not my cup of tea (I can’t even stand Atwood’s most recent works because of that and I used to like her writing). I will keep my eye open for a review from someone more likely to give the book a fair chance.

Derby Day, by D. J. Taylor. Of the nine I haven’t read, this is the one that I am most looking forward to, but that is a highly selfish response — I’ve admitted before that I have a taste for horse-racing books. I’ve heard good things about it but am surprised to see it on the longlist since it seemed to be more popular than literary. We shall see when I get to it.

Wish You Were Here, by Graham Swift

July 21, 2011

Purchased from

The title of Graham Swift’s new novel, Wish You Were Here, comes from a postcard that thirteen-year-old Jack Luxton sends to his neighbor, best friend and soon-to-be lover, Ellie Merrick. Jack’s family have run a dairy farm in North Devon for centuries (the first Luxton farmhouse was built in 1614) — a life that requires attention 24/7, 365 days a year. But for two years running in his teens, his mother insisted that she be allowed to take Jack and his younger brother, Tom, for a week-long holiday at a caravan camp at Brigwell Bay, near Lyme Regis, so that they can understand, however briefly, that there is life beyond the farm.

They might have been the first postcards Ellie had ever received. They were certainly the first Jack had ever written. And the first of the two would have been a serious struggle for him, if his mother hadn’t helped him and, after a little thought, suggested he write, ‘Wish you were here.’ And he had. He hadn’t known it was the most uninventive of messages. He’d written it. And he’d wished it.

Spoiler Alert: Without trying to put too fine a gloss on it, that incident is about as cheery as Wish You Were Here gets. Wish You Weren’t Here would have been a more accurate summary of the tenor of the novel, but it lacks the wistfulness and longing of the actual title. If you have an aversion to spoilers and are contemplating reading Swift’s novel, abandon this review after this paragraph and come back once you have read it — I can’t write about the novel without revealing some things that Swift doesn’t address until later in the book. On the other hand, I promise to take some care in what I do reveal; even if it seems a spoiler, trust me that I have left important aspects unsaid.

Wish You Were Here is about death and the different impact that deaths have on those left behind, hence the irony of the title. Swift wastes little time in introducing readers to that theme, although his opening example doesn’t even involve human life:

Sixty-five head of cattle. Or, to reckon it another way (and never mind the promised compensation): ruin, at some point in the not-so-distant future, the ruin that had been creeping up on them anyway since Vera Luxton [Jack’s mother] had died.

Cattle going mad all over England. Or being shoved by the hundreds into incinerators for the fear and the risk of it. Who would have imagined it? But cattle aren’t people, that’s a fact. And when trouble comes your way, at least you might think, though it’s small comfort and precious little help: Well, we’ve had our turn now, our share.

That quote early in the book actually comes in the form of a memory for Jack. In the present tense, he is sitting in another caravan holiday camp — this one is on the Isle of Wight and he and Ellie, now his wife, own and operate it. He is watching television (“It was the big pyre at Roak Moor, back in Devon. Thousands of stacked-up cattle, thousands more lying rotting in the fields. The thing was burning day and night.”) and this disaster is not the BSE contagion that led to the culling of the Luxton dairy herd, it is 10 years on and this threat is foot-and-mouth disease.

Swift also quickly establishes that in the present Jack and Ellie are in the midst of some very serious dispute:

Ellie has been gone for over an hour — this weather yet to unleash itself when she left. She could be sitting out the storm somewhere, pulled up in the wind-rocked Cherokee. Reconsidering her options, perhaps.
[Jack’s] already taken the shotgun from the cabinet downstairs — the keys are in the lock — and brought it up here. It’s lying, loaded, on the bed behind him, on the white duvet. For good measure he has a box of twenty-five cartridges (some already in his pocket), in case of police cars, in case of mishaps. It’s the first time, Jack thinks, that he’s ever put a gun on a bed, let alone theirs, and that, by itself, has to mean something.

Virtually everything that has occured between the culling of the Luxton dairy herd and the situation on the Isle of Wight is the result of a death. The poppy on the cover of the book is a well-chosen image. Two Luxton brothers died in the same incident in the Great War — one was awarded the DCM but the family has always believed that was a random choice and both deserved it. Remembrance Day is the only day that Jack’s abusive father, Michael, puts on a suit and he always ends the outing by making a once-a-year visit to the pub (“Drink, Michael would say, is money down the gullet”) where he puts a twenty on the bar to stand a round for the vets and others gathered there after the ceremony and silence.

Vera Luxton’s death of cancer when Jack is 21 leaves an unfillable void in the family. Death in the Luxton family is a cumulative experience; when someone passes on, the survivors inherit not just the farm but all the destructive emotional baggage of previous generations. Jack’s father is not up to that and neither is his brother Tom, who five years after his mother’s death reaches the age of majority and runs away to join the British Army (adding yet more guilt to the load his father and brother are already carrying).

For Ellie, however, death is not just a painful departure, it is also a liberating experience — she buries the inherited baggage with the coffin. When her own alcoholic father dies (only a few weeks after Jack’s father), Ellie sees the potential for escape for her and Jack, not more pain. In fact, another death some months previously opened the opportunity of taking over the Isle of Wight caravan park. Needless to say, Jack’s departure from the farm after almost four centuries of Luxton ownership adds yet more to his personal burden.

All of that is presented in retrospect, brought on by another death which I won’t reveal. The worth of Wish You Were Here is captured in the way that Swift explores those two dramatically different types of reaction to the departure of those close to us. The separation of Jack and Ellie which he introduces in the first chapter of the book and which continues as the present-day framing incident of the entire novel is ample indication that the author believes they cannot co-exist forever. It is a tribute to Swift’s ability that both Jack and Ellie are portrayed in a way that requires the reader to respect the reactions of each to the passing of those around them, even if those reactions are poles apart.

Swift explored some similar themes in his Booker winning novel, Last Orders (which I think is the only one of his 10 previous novels that I have read). For me, he does it in an even more accomplished fashion in this new book. The very nature of the theme means that many readers will want to give it a wide berth (and that is why I ventured into revealing possible spoilers) — those who are willing to explore this inherently depressing territory will find much to contemplate.

The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst

July 18, 2011

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

The defining event of Alan Hollinghurst’s new 564-page novel, The Stranger’s Child, is a 1913 weekend visit by the young poet, Cecil Valance, to Two Acres, the almost-rural home (it’s in Middlesex, then on London’s outskirts) of his Cambridge chum, George Sawle. George is besotted with Cecil and they have already started a tentative affair. Also already besotted with Cecil, even though she has yet to meet him, is George’s 16-year-old sister Daphne.

Daphne is in the garden, awaiting the arrival of the two — they are late (the excuse will be that Cecil missed his train) because they have taken “the long way” to Two Acres, a chance for some time alone on a weekend that will be dominated by being with the Sawle family. Daphne hears them and spots them in the distance:

Under the trees the dusk was deeper, and their little wood seemed interestingly larger. The boys were dawdling, for all Cecil’s note of impatience. Their pale clothes, the rim of George’s boater, caught the failing light as they moved slowly between the birch-trunks, but their faces were hard to make out. George had stopped and was poking at something with his foot, Cecil, taller, standing close beside him, as if to share his view of it. She went cautiously towards them, and it took her a moment to realize that they were quite unaware of her; she stood still, smiling awkwardly, let out an anxious gasp, and then, mystified and excited, began to explore her position. She knew that Cecil was a guest and too grown-up to play a trick on, though George was surely in her power. But having the power, she couldn’t think what to do with it. Now Cecil had his hand on George’s shoulder, as if consoling him, though he was laughing too, more quietly than before; the curves of their two hats nudged and overlapped. She thought there was something nice in Cecil’s laugh, after all, a whinny of good fun, even if, as so often, she was not included in the joke. Then Cecil raised his head and saw her and said, ‘Oh, hello!’ as if they’d already met several times and enjoyed it.

That is a very long quote to be ended with ‘Oh, hello!’ as its moment of dramatic conclusion, but it is chosen deliberately. Hollinghurst is sometimes Proustian in prose style and often uses hundreds of words to develop in advance observations on all the nuances of what turns out to be a seemngly prosaic conclusion when he finally gets to it. To appreciate it, you need to be able to treat every comma, semi-colon and colon as an extended word itself (also a talent that Proust requires). And you have to quickly adjust yourself to the idea that most outcomes of these flights will not be dramatic but are important in the writer’s overall scheme of things.

The author uses the weekend to introduce an expansive cast of characters who will return (either themselves or their offspring or their offspring’s offspring) in the near-century of narrative that will follow in the book. This list is only a start but that includes George and Daphne’s older brother, Hubert; Harry Hewitt, the bachelor neighbor who keeps sending Hubert expensive presents (the most recent being a gramaphone); and Jonah, the young servant boy who has been conscipted as Cecil’s “valet” for the weekend.

U.K. cover

More important to the structure of the book, however, is the way that Hollinghurst uses the weekend visit to sketch the theme that will be even more central to the book than those specific characters. Cecil comes from Corley Court, a far grander estate than the modest Two Acres, and his ascending literary reputation (Daphne finds elements of Tennyson in him) is based on poems describing Corley. While there is much talk about creating poetry on the weekend — and even some carefully-staged reading — the creative discovery that will dominate the novel occurs when, after Cecil has departed, George heads upstairs in search of Daphne’s autograph album which the guest has promised to sign.

A minute later George came back down, with Jonah at his heels, and Daphne’s mauve album open in his hands. ‘My word, sis…’ he said abstactedly, turning the page and continuing to read; ‘he’s certainly done you proud!’

‘What is it?’ said Daphne, pushing back her chair but determined to keep her dignity, almost to seem indifferent. Not just his name, then: she could see it was much, much more — now that the book was here, open, in the room, she felt quite frightened at the thought of what might come out of it.

‘The gentleman left it in the room,’ said Jonah, looking from one to the other of them.

‘Yes, thank you,’ said Daphne. George was blinking slowly and softly biting his lower lip in concentration. He might have been pondering how to break some rather awkward news to her, as he came and sat down across from her, placing the book on the table then turning the pages back to start again. ‘Well, when you’ve finished,’ Daphne said tartly, but also with reluctant respect. What Cecil had written was poetry, which took longer to read, and his handwriting wasn’t of the clearest.

‘Goodness,’ said George, and looked up at her with a firm little smile. ‘I think you should feel thoroughly flattered.’

The “autograph” turns out to be an extended poem, ‘Two Acres’, which both Daphne and George interpret as a love ode directed to her or him. Cecil will die in the Great War in a few years, leaving behind a slim oeuvre — ‘Two Acres’ will become a staple of English poetry anthologies and required reading for generations of students to come. While Hollinghurst skips decades and even generations as the rest of the novel develops (Daphne will marry three times, her first husband is Cecil’s younger brother), ‘Two Acres’ the poem is always present. The ‘real world’ of the novel is an exploration of the creative and academic classes of twentieth century England — the ‘creative world’ is how every person present at the weekend (and their children and grandchildren) are touched by the poem, its reputation and the way it influenced them. Their own efforts range from novels to autobiography to critical biography, but none of those works will escape the influence of the poem.

As I hope that brief outline indicates, it is not just prose style that provokes comparisons with Proust. While the time frame in this novel is much longer (and the overall literary project much, much shorter), the writing tactic of using “strategic digressions” to explore in detail various people and aspects influenced by central elements is present in both works. Androgyny, homosexuality and gender-based sexual politics are another commonality. As is the sense of oppression that history and memory impose on individuals in whatever the present tense is of each section.

For this reader, that is where the comparison ends. Hollinghurst won the 2004 Booker Prize for A Line of Beauty and this novel has attracted some enthusiastic reviews which proclaim The Stranger’s Child as a contender this year. It is not for me — the prose started out flat, moved on to annoying and became even more self-indulgent and tedious as the novel wore on. I like Proust (and his style) but I am afraid the characters and world that Hollinghurst portrays never came to life for me. Unable to enrol in either story or style, I found the read a difficult slog. Then again, I had similar troubles last year with Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and it went on to win the Prize so maybe my taste and that of the Booker jury will diverge again this year.

A note to North American readers: My copy of The Stranger’s Child was an Advanced Reading Copy from Alfred A. Knopf, not due for release in the U.S. and Canada until October — and that is the cover featured at the top of the review — so I am jumping the gun with this review because of Booker considerations. The U.K. version was released July 1 and I have included that cover. While each accurately captures an aspect of the book, my view would be that the maze of the U.K. cover is a better graphic reflection of the novel — for me, reading it was like venturing into a maze that ended up being not very interesting. Others have obviously found it more rewarding.

Into The Darkest Corner, by Elizabeth Haynes

July 12, 2011

Purchased from

I don’t read a lot of crime fiction, which means that I don’t have a lot of experience reviewing crime novels. While spoilers are annoying (or more) in literary fiction reviews, they truly are book-destroying when it comes to crime — so if parts of this review are opaque, please accept that it is a learning experience for the reviewer and I would prefer to err on the side of caution.

Into The Darkest Corner is a first novel from Elizabeth Haynes — the biographical note says she is “a police intelligence analyst” based in Kent and that background does show up in spades in the book. The tag on the back cover labels it “General fiction/Crime fiction”, a dual listing that I think is accurate so I’ll try to focus on the “general” part.

The author does help out on the spoiler front by opening the novel with seven pages of testimony from the 2005 trial of Lee Brightman, including both direct and cross examination. We learn that he is accused of assaulting Catherine Bailey — his version is that she was suffering from ’emotional problems’, was excessively jealous when his ‘investigative’ work (which he cannot tell her about) took him away for days at a time: “She went mad at me. I’d been working on a particularly difficult job and something inside me snapped. I hit her back. It was the first time I’d ever hit a woman.”

Haynes adds some more back story (and another character) in the opening of the novel proper, dated June 21, 2001 (you do need to pay attention to the dated chapter headings in this book):

Naomi Bennett lay with her eyes open at the bottom of a ditch while the blood that had kept her alive for all of her twenty-four years pulsed away into the grit and rubble beneath her.

As she drifted in and out of awareness, she contemplated the irony of it all: how she was going to die now — having survived so much, and thinking that freedom was so close — at the hands of the only man who had ever really loved her and shown her kindness. He stood at the edge of the ditch above her, his face in shadow as the sun shone through the bright green leaves and cast dappled light over him, his hair halo-bright. Waiting.

A third time frame, November 2007, is introduced a few pages later in the first person voice of Catherine Bailey:

Getting up isn’t my problem, getting out of the house is. Once I’m showered and dressed, have had something to eat, I start the process of checking that the flat is secure before I go to work. It’s like a reverse of the process I go through in the evening, but worse somehow, because I know that time is against me. I can spend all night checking if I want to, but I know I have to get to work, so in the mornings I can only do it so many times. I have to leave the curtains in the lounge and in the dining room, by the balcony, open to exactly the right width every day or I can’t come back in the flat again. There are sixteen panes in each of the patio doors; the curtains have to be open so that I can see just eight panes of each door if I look up to the flat from the path at the back of the house. If I can see a sliver of the dining room through the other panes, or if the curtains aren’t hanging straight, then I’ll have to go back up to the flat and start again.

So we know from the start that Into The Darkest Corner is not a “whodunit”. “What” was done and “how” are open questions — even more compelling is the issue of “why”. And the present tense stream of the narrative acquaints us early on that there have been severe personal consequences for Catherine Bailey.

Haynes chooses to tell her story by alternating two time frames — the events that led to that 2005 trial and what the emotionally-damaged Catherine is doing in trying to put together a life in 2007. The author puts her “investigative analyst” background to good work in simultaneously exploring both what led to the incident that provoked the trial and what the ongoing consequences of that were and are.

The result is a perceptive study of what it is like to be a victim — not just the obvious damage, but the coping strategies that are developed, the destructive obsession with trying to ensure safety and the way that all of that makes it impossible to lead any version of a normal life, however much that might be desired by the individual involved.

Yes, the two story lines do eventually come together with some very well developed suspense. By then, Catherine (at least for this reader) has become a very sympathetic character — the concluding pages are a good example that “general” and “crime” fiction can exist in the same book.

Into The Darkest Corner maintained my interest throughout; Haynes has a strong narrative voice and uses the alternating time frames to good effect. If the story outline sparks your interest, I think you would find this debut novel a worthwhile read. If it doesn’t, your time is probably better invested elsewhere.

Mother’s Milk, by Edward St. Aubyn

July 9, 2011

Purchased from

Welcome to stop two of my three-stage “catch-up” on the life of Patrick Melrose and the work of Edward St. Aubyn. As I indicated in my review a few months ago of Some Hope, the trilogy of short novels that introduces readers to Patrick Melrose, St. Aubyn’s story (the first volume was published in 1992) had escaped my attention. The latest (and one assumes final) part, At Last, is attracting much Booker speculation this summer — readers whom I respect urged me to read the earlier volumes first. The experience has been more than worthwhile; I’ll finally get to At Last in a few weeks but I recommend reading them all.

Perhaps what most struck me about Mother’s Milk is how different it is from the three volumes of Some Hope. I know that is an unconventional way of opening a review of volume two of a trilogy, but the impression is so strong that I can’t resist. The Patrick Melrose of those first volumes is dissolute in the extreme. St. Aubyn introduces him as a child being abused, moving on to describe a country weekend where his parents entertain some truly vapid friends. As a young adult, Patrick turns to alcohol and drugs; a trip to New York to pick up his deceased father’s ashes provides the excuse for an escapade in chemical indulgence that, for me, was reminiscent of John Self in Martin Amis’ Money.

So it was with some surprise that I read the opening of Mother’s Milk, a description of Patrick’s son, Robert, emerging from the womb (“Why had they pretended to kill him when he was born?” is the novel’s opening sentence). The babe’s adult-like perceptiveness continues in an observation of an exchange between nurse and mother:

Then the nurse looked at Robert and he locked on to her blue eyes in the heaving dimness.

“He’s very alert. He’s really checked me out.”

“He is going to be all right, isn’t he?” said his mother, suddenly terrified.

Suddenly Robert was terrified too. They were not together in the way they used to be, but they still had their helplessness in common. They had been washed up on a wild shore. Too tired to crawl up on the beach, they could only loll in the roar and the dazzle of being there. He had to face facts though: they had been separated. He understood now that his mother already had been on the outside. For her this wild shore was a new role, for him it was a new world.

Okay, a newborn, literally only minutes old, is not only incapable of making those kinds of observations, he could not even see the nurse — if you want an author who sticks to the “real”, you’ll want to give St. Aubyn a wide berth. On the other hand, if you are willing to grant licence to substantial diversions from reality, St. Aubyn rewards that by using them to heighten the perceptiveness of his observations not just of the Melroses, but the upper-class world around them.

Robert represents generation three of the family; the abusive elder Melrose may be long dead but his widow is still around, living at the French estate where we first met Patrick in Some Hope. A few pages into this novel, Robert is five years old with a new brother added to the family — he is still precociously perceptive and provides the bridge between the generations that is the central concern of this novel:

His brother was probably floating right now in Robert’s old crib. The grown-ups didn’t know what to make of floating. That was the trouble with grown-ups: they always wanted to be the center of attention, with their battering rams of food, and their sleep routines, and their obsession with making you learn what they knew and forget what they had forgotten. Robert dreaded sleep. He might miss something: a beach of yellow beads, or grasshopper wings like sparks flying from his feet as he crunched through the dry grass.

He loved it down here at his grandmother’s house. His family only came once a year, but they had been every year since he was born. Her house was a Transpersonal Foundation. He didn’t really know what that was, and nobody else seemed to know either, even Seamus Drake who ran it.

“Your grandmother is a wonderful woman,” he had told Robert, looking at him with dimly twinkling eyes. “She’s helped a lot of people to connect.”

“With what?” asked Robert.

“With the other reality.”

There is an undertone of “selfishness” in that exchange, which introduces a trait that is common to all members of the Melrose family and their acquaintances. For a child like Robert, it is just fine since he is learning life’s early lessons — although he already has an ability to do imitations that amuses his parents greatly. And we know from the first volume that selfishness is a foundation element of Patrick’s character, although in this volume the chemical abuse has been replaced with an equal obsession about being a repressed son and husband, the prison of being the “in-between” generation. Robert’s mother, Mary, has the trait in spades as well — with the new baby, she has devoted herself entirely to motherhood and effectively abandoned her husband.

Perhaps the most selfish of all in this novel, however, is Patrick’s mother, Eleanor. A victim in the first novels, in this book she becomes the victimizer with her decision to bequeath the family estate and wealth to the Transpersonal Foundation led Seamus, who trained as a nurse with Irsh National Health but has been adopted by her as a guru for her declining years, despite his obvious self-serving charlatanism.

Patrick was not a sympathetic character in his youth but he becomes one in this book. While he cannot completely overcome his own selfishness, at least here it is devoted to trying to preserve the family estate from the clutches of Seamus and his own mother’s version of self-serving behavior. Alas, his own history has so deeply ingrained the trait (evidenced by the fact that an old flame, Julia, and her daughter are annual visitors to the estate — something his wife hates, but Robert likes) that he is hapless at altruism, even if the motivation is there.

All of this makes Mother’s Milk an intriguing book. While every character is deeply-flawed, the author uses that to establish a depth of dimension that makes each of them credible. And with that in place, their interactions and inevitable conflicts introduce a distinctive version of “reality” that is both entertaining and instructive.

Mother’s Milk was Booker-shortlisted in 2006 — and deservedly so. I’d like to offer my thanks to Will Rycroft from Just William’s Luck who in a comment on my review of Some Hope convinced me that I should read this novel before opening At Last. It was time well-invested and, after a few weeks of rest (Patrick Melrose is both a demanding and depressing character so I need the break), I will be approaching the new novel with some anticipation. Patrick Melrose is one of those multi-novel characters (like Nathan Zuckerman and Rabbit Angstrom) who are special attractions in the world of fiction.

(A note for North American visitors here: Mother’s Milk shows up as “sold out” on NA online sites — I ended up buying an unread new copy from used bookseller Alibris. If you click on the cover image at the top of the review, it will take you to the UK Book Depository site where copies are available — it is worth the effort to get a copy of this very good novel.)

Guest Post: Author Peter Behrens on The O’Briens

July 6, 2011

Peter Behrens

I posted my review of The O’Briens yesterday. Thanks to his publisher, House of Anansi Press, KevinfromCanada is honored to present a guest post from author Peter Behrens.

Family connections in The O’Briens

The O’Briens is a novel — it’s fiction — but also a family story, for me. My previous novel, The Law of Dreams was based on the story of my great-great grandfather, of whom I know very little, other than that he was an O’Brien and emigrated from Co. Clare to Canada during the Great Famine in Ireland. In history, the stories of the very poor are usually lost, so I had to make most of his story up: but I always had that real person in mind.

Now, that emigrant’s grandson was my grandfather, also an O’Brien; and this book is his story. And his wife’s and children’s stories, too. The O’Briens is not a history or memoir, and large chunks of it come straight out of my storyteller’s imagination — but many of the scenes are borrowed from the history of our family. My grandfather worked in the railway construction business in Western Canada during the railway boom before WWI. The scene of Mike coming home from the war, and appearing at the house in Westmount while the family was having dinner, and them all thinking he was in North Africa — that’s a story I have known all my life.

My mother’s name was Frankie O’Brien. I always thought it was a great name for an Irish bar — but my mum was a Montreal debutante. My family have always seemed mythic, to me. My grandparents lived in a big house, over the hill from our house. Their silences were awesome, and the sense that they belonged to another world, was intriguing and mystifying. My aunts and uncles were the most glamorous people I knew. Those generations have slipped away now, and maybe that’s what allowed me to write their story, and to tell it as a novel.

Frankie O'Brien

The other thing was, no one in my family ever talked about things like motives; about why they acted the way they did. No one ever interrogated their own behavior, habits, compulsions. I think that generation of Canadians were pre-psychological: they weren’t much interested in analyzing their own behaviour. They just acted.

I’ve always known that I was going to write this book. Just had to figure out a way to tell it.

I’ve attached a photo of Frankie O’Brien.

The O’Briens, by Peter Behrens

July 5, 2011

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

If there is a central metaphor for Canada — not just the country itself, but also the character of the country — it is the symbolism of the railway that links us “from sea to shining sea”. The natural topography of North America flows north-south not east-west. Even today, commerce and trade flow in that direction; had it not been for the railway providing a countervailing “east-west” force, there would have never been a Canada.

While the country is now approaching its 150th birthday (2017 — and I suspect we’ll be wanting Prince William and Catherine back for that) and the “last spike” was driven in 1885, the metaphor is so pervasive that it extends into modern life. By way of personal example, my journalistic career was spent at the Calgary Herald, which celebrated its own centenary in 1983 when I was the managing editor. I mention that because the first Calgary Herald “press” arrived on the very first train that arrived in this Western Canadian city — and let me assure you that every tour of the Herald building to this day reminds visitors of that fact.

Author Peter Behrens has his own ties to the metaphor of railway (you’ll find out more in his guest post tomorrow) and has appropriated it (along with some others) in his new family epic, The O’Briens. Behrens arrived on Canada’s literary scene in 2006 with The Law of Dreams, a Governor-General’s Award winner about “the poverty of his family’s Irish immigrant roots” to quote the jacket cover of this book (I confess to not having read it). He returns to those roots in this new novel — if the first was about immigrant poverty, this one is about how at least part of the family became prosperous, not unlike the growing prosperity of the Canada that was their new home.

Joe O’Brien is the central character in the story and we meet him and his family in Pontiac County, Quebec in the early 1900s. His father died in the Boer War when he was 13 and his mother, thinking there was no other way of surviving, re-married a drunken fiddler, Mick Heaney:

Their stepfather was just another mouth to feed, and when he drank he was brutal, but he was absent for weeks at a time. The only other good thing about Mick Heaney was that his seed was infertile, so Ellenora did not bear any more children to share in what little they had.

It doesn’t take long for Joe the entrepreneur to emerge:

When he was fifteen, Joe knew his mother was exhausted. There were days she hadn’t the strength to get out of bed. That winter, using firewood money [Joe’s first earnings came from delivering firewood in the village], he leased timber rights for fifty cents an acre on forty acres controlled by the parish, and he contracted to supply logs at such-and-such a price to a pulp mill downriver.

Joe is too young to sign the contract, but his mother does, with the priest as guarantor. He makes a net profit of one hundred dollars and the next winter obtains leases for 320 acres — a capitalist has had his successful start.

Life in the family is far less rosy. His mother’s health is slipping but, even more unsettling, one of his younger brothers reports that Mick has been molesting their two young sisters. The three brothers have their revenge on Mick, taking turns kicking the body of the passed-out fiddler before sending him on his way — Joe, now the family patriarch, has already planned the futures of himself and his siblings after his mother dies, which happens only a few months later. Sisters Hope and Kate are sent to the Visitations convent in Ottawa, brother Grattan has a job offer from a wealthy Santa Barbara citrus grower (a benefactor of the local priest’s order) and brother Tom is delivered to a Franciscan order in the Bronx to train as a priest. Joe himself will be heading West.

All that occurs in section one of the novel, which takes a mere 57 pages of the 548-page book. I have gone into more detail than perhaps is warranted, but I wanted to provide some indication of Behrens’ approach. The novel is divided into sections that often involve skipping decades — but in each period where he chooses to stop and narrate, the author is devoted to providing substantial detail. It is his way (and he is very successful at it) of providing as complete a picture as possible of the times, environment and his characters in each of these snapshots of time. Collectively, they build the story of both a family and a developing country.

“Snapshots” become an important metaphor in section two of the book, set in the new suburb of Venice Beach, California, in 1912. Grattan O’Brien is selling houses in the new development and we are introduced to Iseult, New Hampshire-born but Pasadena-raised, now eager to escape that stuffy, established enclave for a place by the seashore. She buys a cottage in the new development and meets the visiting Joe O’Brien, still in his twenties but now an established railway engineer with a contract to build “a mountain section, through the Selkirks in British Columbia”. This is Canada’s second trans-continental railway line, the Canadian Northern, a few hundred miles north of the Canadian Pacific. Joe may only be 25 but he is now an employer of thousands of laborers (a mixture of Chinese and other immigrants) — winter is understandably downtime for Canadian mountain railway constuction (“my piece is frozen up and snowed under at the moment”) and he is on his way to look at a project in Mexico.

Iseult proves to be a significant distraction and Joe never gets to Mexico — the two marry and the next generation of the O’Brien family story is set in motion, but not before Iseult has learned photography from Grattan’s wife, Elise (both will be significant characters in the rest of the book). Joe sets this in motion by introducing Iseult to Elise:

“She makes a living with postcards and studio portraits, but every Sunday she goes out on the boardwalk and takes snaps of strangers — I don’t know why because there is no money in it. She’s a Jew, Elise. The priest at St. Monica’s refused to marry them even though she agreed the children would be baptized Catholic. I wrote him to see if I could change his mind; my brother did as well, but he never replied, so Grattan and Elise were married at Santa Monica City Hall.”

With that, you have the foundation elements of Behrens’ story — Joe the builder, Iseult the observor, Grattan the ne’er-do-well wanderer, Elise the artist, all affected by the pressures of the current time. While it is the Church and railway building in these early stages, that final aspect constantly changes — the novel’s time frame extends to 1960, so the Great War, Prohibition, the Depression, World War II and the post-war years are all to come. Canada came of age during that period; this novel is the story of the successes, tensions and disasters that one family faced as that history unfolded.

Let me emphasize that this review has done little more than introduce Behrens’ story — I have opted to try to indicate how he approaches each of his portraits rather than try to provide an overview of the broader canvas. This novel is the author’s version of his own family history and he has opted to look in depth at various periods in it. I’ve tried to indicate the depth rather than breadth — for me, his approach did capture both.

Historical family sagas are not normally my cup of tea, but The O’Briens did keep me enrolled from start to finish. I know enough Canadian history to appreciate the way that Behrens respects it; the way that he has chosen to structure his novel allows him to create his own “snapshots” of both the particular era and his family. Character development is strong (I haven’t even mentioned Joe and Iseult’s children who are major players) and that, coupled with his perceptive observations on the world they are part of in each period, kept me enrolled throughout. The novel won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you have any attraction at all to historical novels, The O’Briens is a signifcant achievement.

As I indicated above, a guest post from Peter Behrens that provides some background to the novel will be up tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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