Archive for February, 2012

Oh, this is an extraordinary book!

There are very few books that make me feel genuinely emotional and (a very little bit) teary but this was one. There is something about in simplicity of the prose, the inevitability of the ending, the unflinching acceptance of extraordinary and unavoidable pain, the wonderful mythic nature of the eponymous monster… It is simply deeply powerfully moving.

The story revolves around Conor O’Malley, a school boy whose mother is painfully and fatally ill. Although its not spelled out – and one of the delights here is that Ness is respectful enough of his audiences that he doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out – it is clear that she is suffering from cancer. As the story is based in an idea Siobhan Dowd had as she faced and lost her battle with cancer there is a potent autobiographical parallel here.

As Conor is awoken by the sound of his name one evening he sees “the great yew tree that rose from the centre of the graveyard” as it’s branches “gathered themselves into a great and terrible face, shimmering into anything and nose and even eyes peering back at him.” The yew tree becomes “the spine that the mountains hang upon… The tears that the rivers cry … The lungs that breathe the wind … The wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly… The stag, the mouse, the fly that are eaten… The snake of the world devouring its tail… Everything untamed and untameable”. This language is so lyrical, so primal, so mythic that the creature itself is a towering literary creation.

It reminds me of The Iron Man in its sheer alienness and inhumanity.

Stories are at the heart of this book. The Monster – like Dickens’ ghosts – has three stories to tell and asks for (expects, demands) a fourth rom Conor.

Half way through the novel, Conor discovers that his mother’s most recent chemotherapy treatment is derived from the yew tree. We witness him from inside the novel try to force the narrative into a fairy tale on which he has summoned the monster in order to heal his mother. Ness, however, refuses to allow the narrative to become quite so trite: it is genuinely heartbreaking when the Monster tells him “I did not come to heal her. I came to heal you”. In fact we the reader share Conor’s experience: the conclusion is utterly inevitable; we all know what will happen; but we all hope for and deceive ourselves into looking for an illusory happy ending.

Parallel to the Monster, Ness offers us snapshots of Conor at school. These chapters offer a contrast to the myth of the Monster but complement it beautifully. The strained friendship between him and Lily is beautifully judged and again Ness avoids the temptation to be trite and wrap up the trauma with his mother in a jarring sugar coated romance. Understated, quiet and moving, the friendship, their alienation and reconciliation is – as with the whole novel – simply beautifully judged.

This is as close to perfection as I could ask for in a novel. Simply stunning. I challenge anyone not to be moved to (near) tears by it. These are characters who will live with you and hang you beyond the end of the novel. Beautiful.

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16.2.2012

Just about to start this: good reviews on Goodreads and an interesting cover… All bodes well!

18.2.2012

Finding the dialogue in this book the most irksome thing. The characters seem likeable enough, the war scenes are impressively described, some of the narrative is genuinely witty and has been read out loud to my wife. But the dialogue is just jarring. The author doesn’t seem to have an ear for how people actually talk to each other! Perhaps because I’m reading The Shipping News by Annie Proulx at the same time who DOES have a GREAT ear for dialogue ….

Finished reading this now, waiting for students at school to catch up! If only some damn fool of a teacher just let them read it instead of teaching it and making them do work on it! Oh well!

This is an outstanding book! The quality of the writing literally glitters on the page and the novel reads more as a poem than a novel: I have never read such a lyrical piece of writing.

The novel revolves around the character of Tsotsi, a young man who is the leader of a gang of four thugs in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1950s. The name Tsotsi itself means “thug” or “gangster” and we are told in chapter one that it is a nickname: he has no recollection of almost any part of his past including his own name. Identity is a huge part of this novel: Tsotsi’s lack of identity, his inability to construct his features in the mirror into a man with meaning; and his gradual realisation of who he is and how he came to be where he is by the end.

Tsotsi and his gang a clearly very shallow, violent characters lacking empathy with the people around them. Within three chapters, they have stabbed a man on a train, raped a woman in a shebeen, Tsotsi has beaten and “broken” another member of his gang and attempted to rape another woman. He is only stopped in the rape attempt when the woman thrusts a shoebox into his hands which contains a baby.

A word here about the Gavin Hood film of this book. The film updates the novel to the 21st century and seems to make Tsotsi younger and less hard than I had expected: he seems to stab the man on the train almost as a mistake, regretfully, when he starts to complain; he acquires the baby in the film by hijacking a car in the film and shoots the baby’s mother and, again, seems to be an accident. In the book, Tsotsi is utterly remorseless: the murder on the train was a deliberate and calculated murder, not an unfortunate escalation of a robbery. He is shown as not simply accepting violence or being violent but as defining himself through violence and the hurt he deals to others.

I felt that the second half of the book was slightly less tightly structured and written than the first half. The section in the Church and the explicit Christian message seemed unnecessary to me; and the abruptness and ambiguity at the end if the book frustrated me.

In addition to the lyricism, which I mentioned before, what I did relish in the book were the minor characters: Gumboot Dhlamini, the victim on the train; Morris, whom he stalks in the middle of the book; and Miriam whom he forces to feed the baby. The power of these minor characters, inhabiting the furthest outskirts of society, is extraordinary. Their desperate perseverance to keep hold of their lives, whether toiling in the mines or crippled on the streets or waiting for a husband who will never return home, is genuine and authentic and utterly convincing.

13th February

Need to reread this for work and already blown away by the lyricism of the prose. This is a hugely character driven story and, from what I recall, Fugard makes them more than mere ciphers. The small moments of challenge between Tsotsi and Boston in Chapter One reveal Fugard’s theatrical background.

Very lucky to have a job where reading books like this is “work”!

29th Feb

Reading the section in the book where Tsotsi runs from the slums of Sophiatown into the no man’s land between the black and white areas, a liminal space in which the colours became bleached in the moonlight leaving “a prismatic, polished, gleaming world of white surfaces… A glacial white” in which the sounds become “hard, leaping, crystal” and the moonlight “lay around him in pools… Mobile as quicksilver”. An absolutely stunning otherworldly (perhaps drug induced) description. And a moment later, Tsotsi will have the baby that will change his life thrust into his hands. Fabulous!

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Having read Scar Night some years ago and noticing it and it’s sequels online, I downloaded them.

I had memories of the city of Deepgate, suspended over an Abyss like the gaping maw of some vast creature (urban planning council had a lot to answer for!). I recalled a scarred feral angel whose monthly bloodletting was simultaneously vampiric and werewolf-like.

It was a bit of a shock then that Deepgate had collapsed into the abyss entirely and the scarred angel Carnival appears to have been dispatched within two pages of her reappearance. The main protagonists remain Rachel and Dill but they have now become separated at a metaphysical level: Dill, having sort of died and been reborn in Scar Night is dispatched to Hell once more in Iron Angel as another angel usurps his body; and his body and Rachel disappears into obscurity for the central section of the book.

In my view, this novel suffers from typical mid trilogy issues. The original novel did hint at a wider mythology but was firmly rooted; this novel expands on the mythology often using dialogue to expand develop and explain it to us readers. And in the process, character and empathy is lost. It is like Campbell zoomed out from a manageable citywide focus to a continental one in which we just lose sight of characters – even the ones he doesn’t kill off. Those that remain do so in an utterly passive state: they are placed into a scenario and wait there for another character to tell them what to do. It is a rather frustrating read!

On the plus side, there is a potent imagination at work here. The descriptions of a Hell (or the Maze in the book’s mythology) created out of our own souls was intriguing and the fluidity of form in Hell both in the malleability of the world around the characters and on the characters own forms (bodies is patently the wrong word but the dead tend to retain the form of their erstwhile bodies) was fascinating.

In conclusion, I think Campbell’s own games designing Grand Theft Auto background is visible here. He is a world builder, his backgrounds and settings have potency; but I do not think he is character driven and, consequently, nor is his novel and for me that is a huge let down.

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I’m not sure why but I had high hopes for Kurt Wallander. Perhaps it was the fact that it had been adapted for TV, wherein he was played by Kenneth Branagh; perhaps it was because I’d read some good reviews. And certainly the opening chapter of Faceless Killers looked set to fulfil those hopes.

An atmospheric farmyard, the dead of night, an increasing sense of unease that things were not right at the neighbours; a prose style that, whilst somewhat terse, had an understated quality to it; a murder with just enough hints of incredible violence without the lurid details and embellishments that a writer like Jo Nesbo may have felt tempted to dwell on.

All seemed well and looked promising.

But never quite delivered for me.

Perhaps it was the fact that this was in translation but I found that the prose was too clipped and too laconic. As the novel progressed, swathes of action were summarised in a matter of paragraphs; months passed within fractions of a sentence; an infatuation became an affair and seemed to fizzle out within two lines.

Perhaps Mankell was trying to accurately capture the sometimes tortuously slow pace of police work; whilst simultaneously maintaining the pace of a novel but, speaking personally, it grated.

Nor did the Big Ideas work. The characters would at times become mouthpieces for political questions. The murders are blamed on foreigners, that being the last words of one of the victims corroborated by a strangely knotted noose. An immigrant camp is firebombed, racist threats are made, an Somali is shot in revenge. And we are treated to a few pages of stilted dialogue about immigration. A known criminal is arrested on a completely unrelated burglary and another couple of pages of dialogue decry the modern police system where we cannot lock people up just because the police think they probably did something or might do something else.

By the process of time, coincidence and luck, Wallander solves the crime.

I will probably persevere with the series in due course. It is on TV after all so must be good! And I am informed that later books are better … But my high hopes are now considerably reduced.