On the bookshelf

Room, by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue‘s heavily-garlanded novel, is a captivating, uplifting story well worth the plaudits and glowing reviews bestowed on it.

The tale is narrated more or less exclusively by Jack, who turns five years old at the start of the book and whose whole experience of the world is confined to the locked room which he shares with his mother and to the powers of his own imagination, sparked by the characters on his TV and – more importantly – to the spirited games and routines which he shares with her. It is through his eyes that we see the world and the accepting approach is that of a small boy (we learn little, for example, of physical appearances). Evidently, some prisons are of the mind and Jack is never imprisoned, despite the insular situation in which the tale takes place. The book does not suffer from claustrophobia; Jack is intelligent, keen to learn and to show his learning, and well-adjusted, even if slightly on the autistic spectrum – yet evidently, as is made clear from the beginning, he is still just a little boy. The bond between Jack and his mother is evidently a more significant one than most as a result of their confined surroundings, but it is never a suffocating one and there are frequently evident tensions between them, while the mother is prone to convincing periods of depression. There is a shift in pace in the latter sections of the book which creates a feeling of drag and a certain loss of momentum but the effect, ultimately, is to highlight the bond between Jack and his mother. And it is clear that the end of the novel is not The End.

Despite the evident difficulties the author has created for herself, the tale is convincing in most aspects of its development (a small quibble is that Facebook wasn’t around in 2003, despite the quality of the joke inspiring the reference – this will be less and less obvious to future readers but that shouldn’t prevent its correction now; while we might question the easy nature with which Jack lets some things go as the novel winds to its conclusion). It is also confidently told. Through Jack’s precociousness, Donoghue manages to get in some sharp observations about societal developments yet these only rarely seem forced or portray him as mature beyond his years. Despite the subject matter, this is not a harrowing tale but there are moments of discomfort – as indeed there should be if the work is to convince.

Perhaps above all, this is a feminist novel at both the surface level – in terms of the strength of character and the sheer ingenuity of Jack’s mother – and in terms of the development of the plot, with an interesting cast on the cash-sex nexus and, in modern terms, the absence of fathers from most aspects of domestic life (though it is never anti-male). Indeed, Donoghue has created a uniquely original voice in Jack and a memorable, gripping novel with well-adjudged character portrayal – itself a major achievement, given the challenging setting – and of the plot. All in all, a triumph.


The Debutante, by Kathleen Tessaro

I’m evidently not part of the recognised demographic for contemporary women’s fiction, but I did pick up Kathleen Tessaro’s fourth novel, The Debutante.

What I found was an intriguing novel combining a historical romance with a study of the complexities of modern relationships; the former taking the shape of a mystery prosecuted by the protagonists in the latter. The present-day events take place against a backdrop of a series of letters written by the eponymous deb which both feed off, and into, each other. Wisely, however, the author doesn’t overplay the theme of how the past influences the future, or of how human beings are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. What we are left with is how an understanding of the past helps us understand the scope of some of the current day problems that we face, and to reconcile them, while Tessaro explores well her theme of the importance in our own appreciation of ourselves, and of our worth, of the role played by how we perceive that others see us.

The novel is well structured and the plot device which prompts the mystery is a clever one. Tessaro has done much research into the physical settings and the period detail, including the content of the letters, is accurately observed, the letters particularly being a delight. The resolution of the historical romance is utterly believable (prompted, as the author explains in a Note, by some contemporary events occurring as she was writing the novel) and symptomatic of the social mores of the upper classes; the conclusion of the modern day romance perhaps less so, although only those hard of heart could resist the novel’s closing words.

Letting the novel down, however, are several – really quite essential – things. Firstly, I found it hard to believe that the sisters’ Dublin and familial origins would have allowed them to be so readily accepted into London society of the 1920s and 30s. Secondly, the author’s treatment of the characters in the modern day romance frequently casts them into states of limbo. This is not just a failure of dialogue, which is of inconsistent quality – occasionally sparkling but all too frequently curiously mundane and stilted – but also the outcome of an author who is too heavy-handed with her characters. Thirdly, and most critically, the writing style is also inconsistent, the author sometimes coming up with a tone and phrasing exhibiting warmth and clarity – not least around her theme – but lapsing into stock phrases, unchallenging similes and jarring cliché (the motor car as sexual metaphor being a particularly obvious example), while she is also guilty of inconsequential narration. Some of the mistakes could have been erased with a stronger editing hand – less is more – but this is the author’s fourth book and some of these ought not, by this stage, to be present in her approach.

So, a page-turner as regards the mystery aspects and the theme, but a few regrets over the manner of the journey.

Trespass, by Rose Tremain

This is a dark ride.

Rose Tremain‘s eleventh novel – longlisted for last year’s Man Booker – is a succinctly-named novel whose central theme operates on several different levels: trespass of people against each other, both of one generation on the next and among peers, leading to possession of one by another; of new ideas and ways on old ones; of one culture on another; and of people against nature. With each form of trespass must come a penalty, and the taking of recompense, if reconciliation, reclamation and redemption – or, at least, some form of accommodation – is to be the result.

Ms Tremain has succeeded in producing an enduring, engrossing novel despite three of the four central human characters – two sets of brother and sister siblings with a very different relationship, but who share in common the dysfunctional effects of appallingly neglectful parenting – having few redeeming features: only one appears in any way sympathetic and the actions of this one character raise interesting moral questions. All the major characters are well-drawn, including with the use of savage humour, while it is a particular skill to make the reader feel active dislike for long-dead characters who appear in the novel only indirectly, as a result of the back stories of those who do. Nevertheless, the novel is a timely reminder that flawed humans are all victims, whatever they do to each other as a result of the scars that they carry.

The telling of the tale is accomplished and rounded, with few unresolved threads, as well as being largely taut, tense and with an ending whose nature is obscure deep into the final stages of the work. I have a couple of quibbles about the writing style – there is a conversational tone to some parts of the writing, which is strangely at odds with the theme; while I also have an antipathy to the parenthetical dropping of occasional foreign language words into direct speech to remind us that the speaker is a native of another country. However, the theme is otherwise extremely and thought-provokingly well-executed, evocative and with careful attention to detail not least with regard to nature which is itself a major character in the work.

A punchy and resonant read.

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

Sarah Blake has written an intriguing and ambitious novel, full of what is ultimately unfulfilled promise.

Ostensibly about the relations between three women – a radio reporter in London during the Blitz and two women listening to her in a small town on the US eastern seaboard, one of whom is emphatically not the eponymous postmistress – this is a novel that is really about words and people’s ability to communicate with one another. The writer takes so many artistic liberties – a somewhat shaky geography of Europe, a trip through the Continent which pays scant attention to the reality of the war situation, a war poster which, although familiar now on thousands of coffee cups but which would never have been seen by wartime Londoners, and (as the author blithely confesses) a key role for a piece of technology to which the person involved simply could not have had access – that the book almost completely fails in terms of the realism of its plot development. Character development is also unsatisfactory, with only Frankie Bard, the radio reporter, realised in any rounded way – albeit that sometimes her naivety appears to sit poorly alongside her achievements in having got to such a position in journalism.

Ignoring all that, what we are left with, however, is the author’s love of words – stemming no doubt from the poetry which is evidently a key part of her own life. Ms Blake occasionally over-reaches herself, perhaps as a result of a lack of experience as a novelist, but the key parts of the novel are beautifully described – for instance, the vibrant colour of a US coastal town as people enjoy a last summer of innocence ahead of the inexorable advance of war contrasts well with a bleak, desperate London staggering under the Blitz. Where the novel works best is the scenes with Frankie delivering her reports in the studio – scenes that are charged with genuine tension, seeking as they do the involvement of the US in the war effort, with a hush descending over the words on the page as in the studio preparing for transmission – which are authentically realised. Frankie’s scenes in the underground stations and her railway journey through Europe are evocatively and, leaving aside the practical aspects of the latter, realistically and movingly captured. The author has an evident, if perhaps nowadays anachronistic, love of radio as a means of communication and the angst with which her central (perhaps only) character views her work – Is anyone out there listening? Are these words having the effect I crafted them to have? What happens to the characters beyond the fragments of stories captured and presented? – is not only an important part of the development of her character but something which continues to have resonance to those involved in communications (including modern day bloggers!).

Ultimately, we have a novel about words – beautifully (for the most part) put together on the page but frequently lacking a reason to be. That’s a shame, since the central theme (fate, or destiny, and people’s perceptions of a controlling force in their lives which actually isn’t there, just other people who do have an influence, for good or evil) is an interesting one in the specific setting of the power of radio in World War 2 and, in the hands of a more experienced novelist (and I would potentially include a later career Sarah Blake in that), it could have created a powerful work. As it is, it clearly falls short of the ambition the author has for it – and I suspect that is a disappointment not least to Ms Blake herself.

Even The Dogs, by Jon McGregor

Dying alone, un-noticed and un-cared for is, I guess, a common fear – and that is the opening of Jon McGregor’s third novel. Thereafter, the novel takes us on an unrelentingly bleak trip through addictions, homelessness, squalor and human inadequacies as they try but surely fail to deal with the world around them, and as Robert’s story and the desire to establish the reason (or reasons) for his death unfolds in parallel to the journey his body takes to mortuary, the pathologist’s slab and finally to the crematory fire.

Robert’s journey is accompanied by a somewhat ethereal chorus of observers drawn from the disenfranchised among us and – as with the nature of addiction – the telling of the fragments of his life and death is made by witnesses who may well not be reliable, as well as being loose, episodic and fractured. Indeed, the novel appears frequently to be little more than fragments from the writer’s notebook.

At its best – for example, in a memorable passage focusing on Afghanistan – the novel succeeds brilliantly. Its scenes of drug use and the work of both pathologist and coroner are well-observed and researched, the latter both delivering a neat, precise counterpoint to the disjointed, unfocused remainder(as well as a welcome element of light). A few targets – people like Robert getting better care in their death than they do in their life, the failures of the rehabilitation industry and the ex-soldier’s lament of the lack of desire for Queen and country to serve him as much as he had served them – are squarely hit. The political tone of the novel is clear and, with the cuts this government is intent on making to public services, it is also worryingly, chillingly prophetic. Unfortunately, the successes are rare. I want the novel to succeed – McGregor is courageously taking immense risks with language and form in this novel and that is laudable – but ultimately novels work best when they engage the reader and McGregor makes few concessions in this direction. The casual reader is unlikely to make it much beyond a particularly difficult and over-long (and deliberately unsettling) second section. There is a good story here and a powerful message that needs to emerge, but it remains rather too deeply buried.

Are successful novels only those which are ‘popular’? No – of course not, but novels must engage their audience if writers are to get their ideas across and I suspect that this one is mired too heavily in troublesome punctuation and a writing style based on streams of (barely)consciousness to be ‘popular’. A creditable effort – but ‘less is more’ is more than just a minimalist touchstone.

The Dead Republic, by Roddy Doyle

The closing part of Roddy Doyle‘s trilogy of the 20th century history of Ireland as evidenced through Henry Smart, his larger than life hero, was published at the end of March to no great acclaim, it has to be said: newspaper reviews were not particularly favourable (The Guardian, The Times, New Statesman; and, more favourably, the New York Times) while, so far, the UK Amazon site has an unprecedentedly low number of reviews (three) for a book by a major author. It took me more than six months to discover it – and I have had an eye out for it over the past few years since the publication of the second volume, Oh, Play That Thing!

As a whole, The Dead Republic lacks the breathtaking pace of the other two volumes – but this is clearly matched to the increasing age of Smart himself and his disillusion with and disconnection both from the cause he believed in and, indeed, his family. Nevertheless, amazing things are still happening to him as he continues his dramatic journey through the characters of modern history, both in Ireland and in the US. John Ford is first castigated as The Quiet Man idealises and romanticises his story, but then somewhat rehabilitated in terms of the theme; we meet a republican with a beard (which Doyle parenthetically informs us is not Gerry Adams, as he was still in Long Kesh at the time); Smart is then wheeled out to play a key role in the development of the modern strategy of Sinn Fein. Regeneration both of structures and of individual, personal belief and faith is certainly possible. And Doyle’s writing and characterisation is taut, and contain moments of laconic humour. Smart himself remains an utterly convincing character with genuine motivation and internal, very human contradictions amidst the events taking place around him which, it has to be said, do not always contain the same levels of believability.

The first part of the novel’s three quite distinct sections is over-long; the second betrays signs of Doyle rushing to finish (Bullfighting, a new collection of short stories, is due out next April and Doyle must have been either directly or indirectly feeling the pressure of publication deadlines); but the third is a gripping and rewarding section which provides a fitting end to the trilogy. At its heart, the novel turns on the extent to which its theme of how people and organisations are in control, or otherwise can exploit, the definition of Irishness, as the defining characteristic of the struggle for a free Ireland; this treads a fine line of plausibility but Doyle just about manages to carry it off. What most struck me is the timing: as Doyle was concluding the novel, Ireland was sinking into an economic morass not of its own making but to which the rapid style of its economic development had left it increasingly vulnerable. With the Irish economy first deliberately exposed to, and then ‘bailed out’ by, international capital, the extent to which Ireland is (or can be) actually independent in the context of the binds of international capitalism delivers both a talking point as well as an interesting conclusion to the trilogy.

Or, perhaps it is a conclusion. Doyle has already written elsewhere (The Deportees) of the changing face of Ireland, and its evident economic development from the opening of the A Star Called Henry provides an interesting counterpoint here. The Dead Republic contains a bold prediction for the future, and I have a feeling that Doyle is not quite yet done with this story: a fourth book is certainly a possibility, both thematically and historically (the novel ending some way short of the current political situation). I’d buy it.

Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada

Hans Fallada’s ground-breaking 1947 novel, Jeder stirbt für sich allein (‘Each dies only for himself’) has been translated into English for the first time as Alone in Berlin and it’s the second novel I’ve read in a row (following Ishiguro’s An Artist of a Floating World) whose setting is related to the Second World War.

Penguin is to be congratulated on publishing this new edition, which features a brief biography of Fallada and a brief academic review of the novel, as well as some contemporary material of the true life story on which it is based. Translating the novel at all is some achievement – its 570 pages were written in just 24 days, and Fallada’s use of the Berlin dialect throughout appears to presents tough challenges to any translator. Furthermore, Fallada (himself a complex character stalked throughout his life by addiction demons, and who chose to remain in Nazi Germany, despite having the opportunity to leave) died shortly after completing the work, never seeing its publication (although he was able to spend a further month following the initial writing in reviewing and editing). Michael Hoffman has responded to this with an extremely colloquial translation which deploys modern day usage and argot and which may not, as a result, stand the test of time, while the frequent use of exclamation marks is off-putting both in terms of the flow of the novel and the development of its characterisation. It  is, quite literally, a tough read – and that’s before we even get into the theme.

The novel itself is a masterly achievement, documenting the lives of Berliners during the war struggling to survive and everywhere dominated by fear of the Nazi apparatus whose reach was terrifyingly all-embracing and where citizens had been divided and isolated, spying and informing on each other, and who, as a result, lived not in solidarity with, but in sheer distrust of, their neighbours. Fallada pulls no punches with his characters: frequently ugly, venal and selfish, few – including the central characters, Otto and Anna Quangel, whose only son has died in the war and who then embark on a campaign of dropping anti-Hitler postcards around the city – exhibit many redeeming features, while casual dog-eat-dog violence drawn from the way the Nazis victimised whole sections of society is an everyday part of their lives. The novel is graphically written and is doubtlessly, as a result of Fallada’s decision to remain in his country, an accurate portrayal of life under Nazism, with citizens turned into puppets absolutely under the control of a regime whose modus operandi and whose goal was terror. (Indeed, I wonder whether – inevitably in an abridged edition – this would make a suitable companion on school syllabuses to history courses teaching the rise of Nazism.)

As the novel develops and the Quangels go on to meet their inevitable fate, it is plain that the postcard campaign and the small-scale, private opposition it represents, has had little apparent impact. This would be a depressing enough conclusion (and the literal translation of the original German title is perhaps better suited to the tone of the novel) – but this is Fallada’s essential point. The sheer scale of terror and the totalitarian nature of the regime, which had successfully split people against each other, meant that there was little coherent, still less meaningful, underground activity or opposition. In such a situation, what matters is not the level of success of such individual initiatives, but that people do retain the self-respect and dignity not to participate (or to reject their earlier participation) and to make a stand towards fighting back, however small, and however much the futility of that stand is apparent even to those engaged in it; above all, to act decently and with integrity. It is those things that not only defeat tyranny but make a society worth breathing new life into – even one whose acquiescence in fascism had undeniably contributed to its own destruction.

An Artist of a Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve dipped into the history books with this, Kazuo Ishiguro’s second novel, written back in 1986. Spare, restrained and modest, it unfolds the tale of Masuji Ono, a painter forced by circumstances (Japan’s defeat in the second world war and by his family, two issues which are not unconnected in the novel) to re-assess his personal role and activities in the war as an advocate of, and propagandist on behalf of, Japanese imperialism.

There are obvious parallels here with The Remains of the Day, his next novel, and Ishiguro has himself acknowledged that it could be said about him that he had re-written the same novel three times, but I don’t want to go too far down that road: in some aspects of the setting and theme, and the observation of manners and position, certainly yes; but otherwise there are not a lot of similarities between Britain in the 1930s (as later recalled) and immediate post-war Japan.

Narrated by Ono himself, the story unfolds as a lesson of an atomised society beginning to reconstruct itself both humanly and literally. New people, and foreign powers, are in charge and individuals must respond to new approaches and unaccustomed, not to say strange, ways of relating with each other, as well as face up to their own activities and attitudes. The true extent of Ono’s role during the war is never made fully clear, but that is scarcely the point: societies are only able to emerge from such devastating periods where ordinary people are able to confront their own pasts and their own roles in what happens to others.

The telling of the tale is cautious, each word being deliberately placed and each event slowly revealed. It would, nevertheless, be a mistake to view the work as in any way inconsequential. The care taken in the telling of the tale acts as a focus for Japanese minimalism as well as a means of drawing attention to the anachronistic formality of Ono’s dealings with others in the face of a world which is rapidly marching onwards and in which all of us, regardless of our time, must carefully appraise our own position. In it, Ishiguro has written another significant novel, all the more so for its apparent, but absolutely misleading, slightness: this is a multi-layered work whose capacity to teach is just one of its strengths for the more grounded among us and one which will re-pay a second read.

The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill

Lawrence Hill, a Canadian and himself the son of immigrants and US civil rights activists in the 1950s, with a black father and white mother, has written a compelling and absorbing account of the eighteenth century slave trade between west Africa and the US (then itself a British colony). Having just read The Long Song, Andrea Levy’s account of slavery under the British in Jamaica, I was keen to read this account of the slave trade (making the distinction between slavery and the slave trade is important, and one of the successes of Hill’s book).

Hill’s account of the fictional life of Aminata Diallo, kidnapped as an 11-year old and sold into slavery, branded and transported initially to South Carolina, is told as a memoir and one which features actual events and people from the history of the times. Hill pulls few punches in raising some major, and discomforting, issues – Aminata is captured and sold by fellow Africans, who also provide logistical support for the long enforced march to the coast and who, as Aminata wonders both at the time and later (in a more reflective way), do little to help her on her march other than to make her as comfortable on it as possible. The arguments of the slave traders that slavery had brought ‘civilisation’ to the slaves is also raised, and the novel makes it clear that Aminata has, through her own endeavours, of course, but also with substantial help from those who owned and, it has to be said, at least to some, limited, extent, befriended her, benefited from her time as a slave. In implicitly criticising the lack of attention to detail of the cartographers of Africa, for whom the interior was, to coin a phrase, marked by a Swiftian ‘here be elephants’ lack of care, Hill provides an appropriate comment on the way in which the slave traders de-humanised Africa or, perhaps better said, saw it only as a resource to be raided, and traded.

The novel is meticulously researched (and the sources acknowledged, in no less than three addenda) and brings great colour and historical detail to the period and circumstances of Aminata’s immense journey. The novel lives, and breathes. In the way in which it portrays ‘the other’, whether marked by colour differences or those of language, as less than human, it reminds us that we still, today, are divided from all those involved in the slave trade by a thin and fragile, if developing, thread.

But. It’s not that, ultimately, this is a romantic tale (to deny Aminata that aspect to her life would be to de-humanise her further). It’s in the telling, which is, perhaps incredibly, given the subject matter, dispassionately objective; the tale is told in a largely journalistic style which often strays into 21st century idiom and language. It’s in the characterisation; there are almost no other characters in the novel other than the teller which, perhaps, throws a sharper relief on Aminata and which heightens the diaristic nature of the telling but which, in the end, leaves Aminata the object of caricatures when these need to be more rounded human beings. And it’s in the remarkable things which happen to her – Aminata, whatever her situation at different points in the tale, always manages to fall on her feet; being a great fan of Roddy Doyle‘s Henry Smart (with whom Aminata Diallo shares several parallels), I’m not averse to incredible things happening for the sake of fiction in the lives of ordinary people and, clearly, people’s lives can be (and frequently are) amazing. But the chances of these things happening to a slave are surely slim (and it makes the novel more uncomfortable that her life as a slave is what has given her the opportunities, if not always the tools, for these things to happen to her).

So, a flawed tale (and I’m particularly, and more than usually, conscious that these criticisms are themselves open to criticism) – but it is a magnificently flawed one.

The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy’s fifth novel, this week short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker prize, is a narrated story about the period surrounding the ending of slavery on the Jamaican sugar plantations, but stretching across three – actually, four – generations of the same family both in Jamaica and in the UK. On the surface, this is well-trod territory for Levy, albeit that the main events of this novel take place at a period much earlier in history than those of her others.

Let’s be clear, this is a novel whose theme is violence; the racist inhumanity of the exploitation of black people; and the crushing destitution of poverty. The theme is serious, difficult, dark; about humans at their most venal. Yet the tale is leavened with humour, not to say comedy: the narrator has a twinkle in her eye and a ready wit; the heavy events taking place in the novel are experienced at first hand, rather than related at a distance, but wry observation and ribaldry, and even romance, are never far from the surface. Despite an often desperate position, the slaves never lose their self-respect, and the narration relates with delight their ability to achieve small wins to keep morale going. Levy uses language with great skill, pulling no punches in the words she uses to describe both how the plantation owners spoke to (and about) the slaves who worked for them and the earthy way in which the slaves address each other, as well as in describing the harrowing filth of the conditions in which they worked and lived. And the characterisation, as developed during the narration, has largely realised a set of characters who are effective, strong and very real. The whole provides a vivid portrait of the time and of the instinct for survival and self-determination of the Jamaican people.

So far, so good. So why aren’t I clamouring for this to win the Man Booker this year? I think it’s largely the structure: the use of the device of the narrator appears contrived and the effect of having a narrator addressing both her life story in retrospect and her son in present time (albeit that the present is also historic) quickly palled, leading to a disengagement on the part at least of this reader. For a novel whose use of language is utterly gripping in the circumstances of the main events taking place on the plantations, its use in the conversations between the narrator and her son is curiously stilted, over-formal and, as a result, not particularly convincing. The romance that kicks off the second half of the book appears half-hearted. I found myself frequently wondering where the story was going as it meandered towards its conclusion and I’m left with the conclusion that Levy failed to take proper control of the back half of the novel. A shame – it’s left a flawed work whose aspirations and theme, and early telling, deserved better.

Incidentally, this is the third novel I’ve read in succession which kicks off with the narration of a difficult birth. All have been high-profile books by authors committed to achievement (and, no doubt with an eye on prize nominations). Perhaps a subconscious metaphor for the pains of the gestation of complex novels?

The Hand That First Held Mine, by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s fifth novel is a typically O’Farrell-esque relationships-based psychological drama, depicting the lives of two separate couples some fifty years apart. The drama progresses steadily within the two stories more or less in parallel, and O’Farrell manages extremely successfully to switch between the two, aided by the use of sound, well-researched period detail, such that the atmosphere in both is convincingly distinct. (The earlier-set story appears to this indirectly-informed observer to be more 60s swinging London than the same city in the 50s, but let that pass – the key remains that the two stories are quite separate in their environments.)

O’Farrell captures extremely well the shocking impact of a new baby on a reasonably new, and somewhat uncertain, relationship and portrays well the questions that such a dramatic change bring to what had previously been held secure. In the two female leads we have two extremely strong, well-drawn characters and O’Farrell has undeniable skill with crafting believable women on the pages of her novels but, in contrast, the male leads are somewhat less strong here being, in the one case, straight from central casting and, in the other, and on whom the tale spins, unfortunately rather faint. The minor characters are also rather two-dimensional (regardless of gender). O’Farrell spends less time on dramatising her male characters and, in this instance, given the plot, the result is a slightly less successful development than the book’s themes deserve; a stronger, better drafted male character would have resulted in a better realisation of her aims for the novel.

Nevertheless, this is a very readable  novel which enhances O’Farrell’s reputation as a gifted crafter of cleverly-written, engaging and satisfying stories which both hook the reader fully into the telling and which pack a compelling punch.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell.

David Mitchell’s fifth book is a historical romance which, while displaying some of the narrative tricks, symbolism and motifs for which the author is renowned, nevertheless resists the structural virtuosities of his earliest novels. The Thousand Autumns – a phrase referring to Japan itself – of Jacob de Zoet is quite literally the Japan of the central character as set at the turn of the (western) eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a Japan desirous of closing itself from external eyes and influence and which yet still makes its mark on those it allows to engage with it.

The novel commences with a powerful opening drama which not so much sets the scene for the novel but whose purpose is to set out its theme: the conundrum of modernisation: to live and thrive, Japan must open itself up to the outside world; the comforts of isolation and of primitive belief can only hold it back. Even so, those are choices that may not necessarily be those which are taken.

This tale is told in three actually quite distinct, but narratively linked parts, recalling the structural innovations of the earlier novels, and with two final codas bringing the story to a close and wrapping up loose ends both as relating to the characters and to the novel’s theme. The ending is beautiful at the level of the characters, as well as ultimately hopeful with regard to the novel’s central theme.

Outside the novel, tiny, claustrophobic and cacophonous Dejima was a genuine place, while its third section is based on a real life incident – the incursion of HMS Phaeton into Nagasaki Bay, and for similar geo-political purposes, which took place eight years after the events described in the book, adding relevance to the novel and to the historical narrative.

Mitchell’s writing style is engaging, drawing the reader in to the action both by the interplay between the characters and the description of the action. The novel is profoundly researched, influenced by Mitchell’s clear love for the country in which he has spent a considerable amount of time – yet is never showy about its learning. It is written with startling confidence, with great wit and humour, a visceral vivacity, and yet is also deeply moving. One innovatory device that Mitchell uses well is to halt the dialogue, or the action, to describe in one line what is happening elsewhere, tangentially. The effect is to heighten the dramatic tension, to bring a scene alive with a Bhuddist (or Japanese) sensitivity to nature, or otherwise simply to make time freeze. The scenes between the eponymous hero and his Japanese love interest describe an exquisite tenderness.

In a historical novel, good characterisation is essential to the credibility of the tale and of the events re-created in and by it. From the ribald drunkenness of the Dutch traders at play to the sisterly concern of the nuns at the shrine, to the cold villainy of the Abbot and the casual racism of the western characters both on land and at sea, and to the stubborn, gentlemanly honour of de Zoet himself and the courteous authority of the English Captain, Mitchell’s characters leap off the page at you: they are alive and convincingly have their own lives separate from the whims of the author.

There are a couple of problems: would a woman with a facial disfigurement really have been able to be a midwife in the 18th century – or would people’s fears and superstitions have precluded that? And the usual spelling of this temple (p. 237/238; hardback edition) is Sanjusangendo. And the polymath Marinus, despite his talents, is surely not gifted with insight into novels only written later. But these are minor gripes: Mitchell’s reputation as one of the most distinct and accomplished story-tellers of his generation is absolutely enhanced by this work.

Hearts and Minds, by Amanda Craig

This is Amanda Craig‘s 6th novel, looking at the lives and stories of a group of Londoners. The characters, some of whom have appeared in Ms Craig’s novels before (Hearts and Minds is portrayed as a sequel to two previous novels), are somewhat stock-in-trade (the idealistic teacher in a run-down state comprehensive; the kind-hearted guy escaping Zimbabwe and driving taxis for a living; the controversial, flamboyant media figure); all going about their daily lives with little cognisance of each other or how their lives are connected. Indeed, the overall impression is of a bunch of lonely, isolated, transient individuals who know things didn’t ought to be this way in a global city but who seem powerless to change things, such is the oppressive dominance of the prevailing attitude of the city in which they find themselves.

The novel scores well in its portrayal of life in London for Londoners and the author contributes the occasional welcome insight uniquely contributed by an outsider (Ms. Craig is South African), but it doesn’t really engage. The chapters are episodic and held within a rigid structure, both in terms of a uniform chapter length and several examples of cliff-hanger chapter endings which are, tiresomely, immediately dissolved by the focus of the next chapter being another character. It doesn’t help that the author is sometimes guilty of the most bone-juddering prose, a writing fault which ought to have been ironed out by now, as well as some extraordinarily awkward dialogue, but the biggest fault is that the characters remain in their rather two-dimensional lives: puppets living at the whim of the author rather than real characters in charge of their lives. The aim may well have been to put London and its controlling impact centre stage, to highlight the disconnected, uncaring and unobservant way in which modern life is lived in a big, impersonal city dependent on an under-class. Nevertheless, disengagement by the reader from the characters tends to undermine, rather than support, such an aim and, despite the good intentions of the author and the research she did into the story, she lost me way before the end.

It’s a shame, because the book comes highly recommended by authors I know and respect (as well as in some very over-the-top reviews), and – like the last book I read – made it to the Orange Prize for Fiction 2010 longlist (though Rosie Alison – whose novel I did enjoy – made it to the shortlist. Sorry, but this one got neither my heart nor my mind.

The Very Thought Of You, by Rosie Alison

A debut novelby Rosie Alison, better known as a film and TV producer and director, this is an accomplished and moving novel about love; the search for connections and meaning in life; the failure of people to communicate, brought about by a sense of propriety; and the ability of love, when realised, to give both meaning and a vitality to life.

The telling of the tale never crosses the line into sentimentality, a trap into which it would have been easy to fall and which the author appears to have been trying particularly hard to avoid, but the story is crafted with a level of skill that belies its ‘first book’ status. The period detail – from the time of the Second World War, and beforehand – is evocative and the impact of the extraordinary events of the time having a resonance on those who experience them years into the future is wholly believable (I’m writing this at the time of the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk). It may occasionally appear to suffer from a multitude of voices rather than a single one, such that the central character of the tale is constantly shifting, but the overall effect is to add to the author’s theme: that the search for love and tenderness is a universal, and dominant, theme.

The novel is not without its flaws – there is a shifting pace in different sections and the author is occasionally guilty of a ‘reportage’ writing style – but these shouldn’t blind us to its achievements: this is a period novel which has something fresh to say about its subject matter.


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