Room

Room, 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.

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The Debutante

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

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

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.

World Book Night: why libraries are important

I celebrated the first World Book Night – the slightly but entirely forgivably hyperbolic name for the initiative to give one million books away in Britain and Ireland to people who might not otherwise read them – at Perth’s AK Bell library.

Celebrating the night with me were authors Geoff Holder, who presented on Perth’s grave-robbing history before gruesome dramatic monologues were provided by members of a local drama group dressed in costume as a medical student – in the name of whom most bodies were stolen owing to the law applying to medical students – as well as a grave robber, his wife, and an executioner; and also Christopher Brookmyre, the ‘Tartan Noir’ satirical novelist whose forthcoming work is to be called ‘Where the Bodies Are Buried’. The evening also provided the opportunity to talk to some of the 20,000 people who have championed the books on offer under World Book Night and in whose names the books have first been given (sharing books is very much the theme, and you can record, and then track the progress of, each book you pass on of the 25 titles included in the programme).

Reading may well be a private, individual activity but it has collective dimensions too – libraries are, after all, places where people come together to share information (this motivation for the government’s attacks on libraries is a blog post waiting to be written) – and it’s good not only to be reminded of those dimensions but also to celebrate them.

Altogether, a very well put together theme for World Book Night, and all for the princely sum of a combined £3.50. At a time when libraries are threatened by government cuts, what better way to demonstrate their continued importance to our cultural lives: bringing books, as well as the authors who write them, closer to the people.

Even The Dogs

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

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.