Archive for October, 2013

I was hugely looking forward to this novel – although at 100 pages, novelette may be a more apt title – which failed to win the Man Booker prize last night.

It is the story of Mary. That Mary. Mother of Jesus, Bearer of God, Theotokos, the Madonna.

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Of all figures to try to give a voice to, Mary must rank as one of the most challenging. Do you present her as an innocent and unknowing vessel of God? An active member of the church of her son? A saintly and divine figure? Otherworldly? A political activist? A mother?

How do you reconcile the myriad beliefs, doctrines and images of her? How do you give a voice to the voiceless perpetual virgin? Tóibín has done almost the direct opposite of Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall: Thomas Cromwell was a shadowy figure about whom little was and is known; Mary is and has been for centuries on the limelight.

And how do you avoid your reader having that Monty Python Life of Brian quotation in the back of their head? You know the one.

“He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy!”

The story that Tóibín creates focuses on Mary at the end of her life, almost in hiding. Men come to visit her for her story – presumably apostles – and she distrusts them too much to tell her story. Instead she tells it in monologue to us so that the truth be told at least once.

As a monologue, the story succeeds or fails on the strength of her voice and it is a convincing and human voice. For me, personally, it didn’t quite hit the mark, however.

Tóibín’s prose is beautiful and rhythmic but I felt perhaps a little bit overly so. I didn’t feel the rawness of the pain that I imagined Mary would feel to recall how her son was taken from her. I didn’t feel her worry, her fear, her horror.

Tóibín created distance between the narrative and the events narrated, and it is clearly a recollection than a re-living – it’s not, after all, as if anyone needs a spoiler alert for it – which perhaps accounts for the reduced rawness. But it left me wanting something… more.

The best parts to the novel? I’d say Lazarus. Really interesting and reminiscent of the Duffy poem Mrs Lazarus. It seemed that Lazarus didn’t really benefit by being returned from the dead: he was sickly and weak and distant, shunned by society. The impression given of Christ by this act was ambiguous: part arrogance, partially suspected confidence trick, partly to assuage his own guilt at not healing him earlier.

I also liked her protectiveness over Joseph’s chair.

It is such a difficult task Tóibín set himself. Mary does have a cynicism which almost leads to her trying to debunk or at least question her son’s miracles, but at the same time, she recognises the power in him. So immensely difficult!

I have to say I don’t feel he succeeded fully but it is still a very thoughtful and poetic and beautifully poignant book.

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This is the fourth in Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series – see previous blog posts for my thoughts on Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Under Ground.

There is a different feel to this book from the previous ones and, to my mind, a welcome change. There is a greater focus on the quest for The Faceless Man and less world-building. However intriguing Aaronovitch’s fantastical elements around and beneath London are, some of the earlier books felt as if they were written to put in place a concept which would be used later: the personified Rivers (which are still, for me, the imaginative heart of the novels), the fae, the Quiet People. With this fourth book, a greater pace and return of The Faceless Man was welcome.

This book opens with an arrest (normally the end of a police procedural) which, because of unexplained blood in the car, involves The Folly (the Metropolitan Police’s magical department) which is made up of Grant, his partner Lesley and his guv’nor Nightingale.

This investigation runs broadly parallel with the search for Varvara Sidorovna, a Russian Nochnye Koldunyi or Night Witch. Sidorovna was first seen in Whispers Under Ground as an undercover nurse but it’s only here that she reveals the extent of her magic. And it’s pretty formidable!

The plot lines all lead Peter and Lesley to Skygarden, a fictionalised complex of apartments and a central garden area in 1960s concrete. Skygarden is, in fact, such in integral image and plot device that Aaronovitch gives it it’s own locus genii, Sky the Dryad or Wood Nymph who, whilst immortal, ages annually with the year and, as the novel is set in Springtime, is capricious and childlike. And she just about stays on the right side of the capricious and childlike border without straying into the Jar-Jar Binks world of irritating. She is, actually, quite charming!

There is an incredible assurance in Aaronovitch’s writing and characters and I love Grant’s mixture of self-assurance, police procedure and human frailty. I think I have said before that there is some very convincing and authoritative in Aaronovitch’s depiction of the workings of the police: the close relationship, the tensions, the rivalries, the occasionally ridiculous procedures and acronyms. Small details, such as the distance behind which officers follow each other through a door just in case the first one trips over a skateboard.

Nightingale, though, is the heart of the novels: the folded steel core around which the other characters are decorative wood. Yes, that is a deliberate echo of Aaronovitch’s magical staff, which is another plot device to lure out The Faceless Man. Nightingale is the still centre of The Folly, radiating knowledge and power without demonstrating that much of it most of the time. He has similarities in that way with Doctor Who, a show that Aaronovitch has worked on and written for. I’m not going to give anything away, but we do witness (albeit from a crouching position, behind cover and from a significant distance) Nightingale in action in this novel. And he does not disappoint! The aftermath of the fight is perhaps a little clichéd and has a little too much of an eye on how it might look on a screen but it works well!

There is a massive twist at the end of the book and – whilst I was expecting something along those lines to happen – the speed of it did take me by surprise. I’d thought we might be putting things in place, perhaps for book five!

Personally, I think this was the most successful in a hugely enjoyable series! Can’t wait for the next one!