Archive for August, 2014

Books appeal to me in a variety of different ways.

Some are intellectually challenging; some have intricate or gripping plots; some tug on the heart strings; some create whole worlds inside me; some create characters who live on inside my mind and imagination.

And some sing to me. They breathe under my fingers. They live

And this was one book that did exactly that.

History Of The Rain, Niall Williams

What is this book about?

A young woman, Ruth Swain, little more than a girl, is ill in bed. Surrounded by several thousand of her father’s books in which she hopes to find him, most of which are names, referenced and catalogued throughout the novel.

That’s pretty much it really in terms of plot! Oh, and she goes to hospital a couple of times. And it rains.

But, as she’s in bed, she narrates the tale of four generations of her family, interweaving this historical saga with her own personal story: yes, the image of the river is a massively significant one in the novel and, as Ruth herself says, her story meanders and potters delving from deep pasts to presents and back again. Compared to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which, of course, won last year’s Man Booker, with its very strict structure to the point of near rigidity, this is a breath of fresh air. The fluidity of the narrative(s) creates a beautiful dance between past and present and it is one of the few books I have read where you really do feel that time is not linear but the events of the past are just as much in the present – in our memories, feelings, in the way it shapes us – as the things occurring before our eyes are. 

There is so much to commend this book that it is hard to know where to start.

Firstly, it is hilarious! The novel abounds with literary allusions both explicit and implicit some of which I got and many of which I am sure flew over my head. Characters in the novel are repeatedly compared to characters in other novels. Beyond that, however, there are moments of pure comedy: the kidnapping of baby Jesus from the school nativity was genuinely laugh-out-loud; the fractious and competitive marriage of Abraham and Margaret which consisted of “silent skirmishes… moving a chair back where he wanted it, leaving open a newspaper he knew she wanted folded away, opening windows she closed” . As Ruth tells us

But in those days once you were wedded you were in Holy Deadlock, and in Ireland the priests had decided that once a man entered a woman there was No Way Out. The vagina was this deadly mysterious wrestler that could get you in a headlock, well, metaphorically speaking, and then boys, you were rightly stuck.

That Will teach You was Number One sermon at the time.

It is a gloriously and joyfully silly, surreal, self-aware, punning social commentary that sums up their marriage, gender relations and a whole range of sociological and religious dogmas. Part of my mind rebels and wants to complain that this generalises and overstates the concerns and is probably not historically accurate. I don’t know enough about Ireland and Catholicism to say. But it is joyous!

Poor Mrs P had the dubious benefit of hearing my reading certain extracts – baby Jesus being one – to her and seemed to find them funny even without the full context.

Alongside the comedy, however, there is incredible tragedy. I’ll avoid giving away spoilers but the Swains set themselves up as a family to whom misfortune, failure and tragedy are familiar. Williams often undermines the failures with comedy. The family has declared itself to suffer from the Philosophy of Impossible Standard bequeathed by Ruth’s great-grandfather The Reverend Absalom Swain and enshrined in the names of her grandfather, Abraham, and father, Virgil.

For example, Virgil Swain, father to our narrator, falls into farming through his marriage and lack of other option and planted potatoes contrary to the local advice and didn’t spray them against blight. The crop failed and Ruth Swain tells us that the following year

… he tried potatoes again.

This time he sprayed.

This time there was no blight.

This time the river worms destroyed them.

Williams continues however with a second account of the same failure from Mary, Ruth’s mother:

Those potatoes were all right, Mam said, when she told it. Aeney and I were maybe ten. All of us were at the table. A large bowl of floury potatoes had summoned the story.

“The way I remember it, those potatoes were all right,” she said. She looked closely at one she held upright on her fork. “If you cut around the worms.”

I screamed and Aeney ughed and Mam laughed and Dad smiled looking at her and letting the story heal….

Somehow the worm-ruined potatoes had become this happiness, somehow the years-ago-hurt had transformed, and I think maybe I had a first sense then of the power of story, and realised that time had done what Time sometimes does to hardship, turn it to fairy tale.

There was, however, a heartaching inevitability to the central core tragedy which unfolds in the novel: most readers will be able to see it coming from a distance but I won’t make it explicit. For two nights this week, when I was towards the end of this book, I set it aside because I knew what would have to be described in the final 50 pages and I needed to steel myself for it and screw my courage to the sticking point. That doesn’t happen with many books!

Gender is interesting here too. Sorry, this is just a little digression but Niall Williams has chosen as a man to write in the voice of a female character, despite the fact that she had a male twin whose voice he could have used. The first half of the novel felt very masculine: Absalom and Abraham Swain held sway both in their households and in the narrative. Virgil himself is an almost silent character: he is seen through his actions and the prism of other people. Once his narrative commences, female characters start to come to the fore: Nan, Mary, Ruth herself, even Mrs Quinty. Just an observation.

This is a book that – as stated before – is steeped in literature. It is also written in a particularly beautiful and lyrical way, wonderfully balancing the natural realism of Ruth’s narrative voice with the lyricism of poetry. The world around Ruth lives and breathes and moves exquisitely 

The River Shannon passes below our house on its journey to the sea.

Come here Ruthie, feel the pulse of the water, my father said, kneeling on the bank and dipping his hand, palm to current, then reaching out to take my hand in his. He put our arm into the cold river and at once it was pulled seaward like an oar. I was seven years old. I had a blue dress for summertime.

 

Here, Ruthie, feel.

 

His sleeve darkened and he rowed our arm back and let us be taken again, a little eddy of low sounds gargling as the throat of the river laughed realising what a peculiar thing was a father and his daughter.

How beautiful is that?!

The tenderness of the relationship between father and daughter. Look, look at the use of the phrase “our arm” as if the two people were one. Feel the immense imaginative symbolic and mythic power of the river water tugging “seaward”: a metaphor for life, for story telling? Hear the onomatopoeia; see the personification. That river is as much a character as either of the human beings reaching into it, isn’t it?

And that quote is from just the second page of over 300.

The book’s ending is also exquisitely balanced – and the pinnacle of the lyricism of the novel. The final pages are some of the most gorgeous writing that you are likely to find. It is, i think, impossible to give spoilers because there is no ending to spoil: Ruth is in hospital for some form of investigation and is aware that she may not be strong enough to recover – details of Ruth’s illness are left deliberately blank throughout and she explicitly tells us she does not want her story to be weighed down with science instead relying on euphemisms like having Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, being Fine except for Falling Down – and she is “taken down” as the novel closes.

Niall Williams has very consciously – I think – not given any suggestion whether she is ever brought back up again. How much self control must that have taken! 

But how much better is that act of silence than either a Disney Happy Ending or a clumsy attempt – presumably by another narrative voice – to explain how she died. The reader, instead, is left waiting for news.

If you read, you will love this book. If you write, you will love this book. If you believe that we as people are as much a creation of imagination as we are of genetics, you will love this book. If you believe that stories matter, you will love this book.

So, go forth and read this book!

Stop wasting time reading reviews of it: go out and but it, download it, borrow it.

And love it.

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I am a huge Patrick Ness fan!

Let me put that out there at the start of this.

I hugely admired his Chaos Walking Trilogy but was utterly blown away by the visceral emotion and mythic scope of A Monster Calls. There are few books that dig inside you as much as that one.

This book is different again: much closer to the feel of Chaos Walking although without the epic scope and scale – and no less powerful for that.

At one level, the book is a rip-roaring adventure: Seth, our protagonist, dies in the prologue. On page 11. Dies with 469 pages left to fill. Those pages recount what Seth does after his death. Maybe.

Having died in a frigid ocean, in winter, in America he is somewhat surprised to have found himself on the path of his parents’ old house in an abandoned and apparently post-apocalyptic English town in Summer. Alone. Perhaps.

Echoes of I Am Legend, Robinson Crusoe and George Romero’s films – minus the zombies – abound as Seth navigates this empty town, discovers and loots from camping stores and supermarkets. There’s even a discovery of a foot print to make the link to Robinson Crusoe stronger.

Seth discovers – or is discovered by – two other survivors in the town: the defensive and resilient Regine and the delightfully tenderly vulnerable Tomasz. And with them, the book acquires other echoes: a sinister black-clad visored Driver pursues them as if stepping out of a Terminator movie; the world has – or may have – integrated – or been forced to integrate – itself into a digital alternative reality programme in the style of The Matrix.

There are sufficient run-ins with, escapes and rescues from and fights with the Driver that this book could be read purely at that adventure story level.

It does follow the tropes, patterns and cliches of the science fiction / action adventure movie genre.

And behind the adventure that awaits Seth in the world he wakes up in is a beautifully tender and painful tale of growing up. Seth is one of the very few gay characters I can bring to mind in Young Adult fiction. His secret relationship with Gudmund is described in beautifully tender prose. The taking of the photograph, which eventually exposes their relationship, is real and touching and deeply moving. As is the pain of separation between them.

And beneath this coming-of-age narrative is the deeply traumatic tale of Owen, Seth’s younger brother, who was – perhaps – abducted from their home when Seth was eight.

It’s a book of books, of stories, of narratives. Characters’ pasts are revealed in dreams and flashbacks; characters reveal parts of their own stories to each other. The sharing and offering of their own stories rendering them vulnerable and binding the trio together.

Towards the beginning of the book in a flashback, Seth and his friends Gudmund, Monica and H are discussing the cheerleaders and Gudmund considers having sex with one for a bet to which Seth replies

“What,” Seth said, “and then secretly find out that she’s got a heart of gold and actually fall in love with her and then she dumps you when she finds out about the bet but you prove yourself to her by standing outside her house in the rain playing her your special song and on prom night you share a dance that reminds not just the school but the entire wounded world what love really means?”
He stopped because they were all looking at him.
“Damn Seth,” Monica said admiringly. “‘The entire wounded world.’ I’m putting that in my next paper for Edson.”
Seth crossed his arms. “I’m just saying a bet over Gudmund having sex with Chiara Leithauser sounds like some piece of shit teenage movie none of us would watch in a million years.”

And that’s the point. Seth knows how cliched some of the events are. He avoids living in the cliches of these narratives. The existence of convenient cliches cause him to come close to dismissing the reality of the world because it follows narrative tropes. He recognises that last-moment rescues would be expected if he were living through a story. He expects apparently dead antagonists to return for one last assault.

And he questions that. And we question it.

Is the world real? Are his memories and dreams real? Are Regine and Thomasz real? Are they echoes of Viola and Manchee from Chaos Walking? Are Owen, Gudmund, H or Monica real? Is the love between Seth and Gudmund real?

And does it matter?

This is one of the most thoughtful and – dare I use a deeply unfashionable word? – philosophical novels I have read for a long time. And the philosophy within it never becomes pure exposition. It is always embedded in character – and often undermined by either Regine’s pragmatism or Tomasz’ affection. As Regine tells Seth:

“I think I’m the only real thing I’ve got… wherever I am, whatever this world is, I’ve just got to be sure I’m me and that’s what’s real.” She blows out a cloud of smoke. “Know yourself and go in swinging. If it hurts when you hit it, it might be real too.”

In addition to the characters and relationships, the flashbacks and the power of stories, what (else) I love about this book – and I imagine others will be put off for exactly this as well – is that, in the end, on the final page, Seth and we are no clearer to knowing where this world is, how real Seth’s experiences are or what is going on. At all. Ness saw no obligation to explain, tie things up or concretise anything.

The entire book is unsettling. Disrupts our sense of reality. Deliciously tilts our world. And it achieves it through simply written, elegant prose.

Remarkable.

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I’ve been meaning to get round to reading Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy for a while but haven’t managed to find the time recently. Work. Children. Babies. Goatee growing. You know: the things that take up your time.

But with the summer holidays coinciding with a new book, Half A King, I thought I’d start there.

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Half A King is a fantasy novel aimed at the Young Adult audience which is a difficult one to succeed with: the pace required to satisfy a modern teen male audience brought up on video games, instant gratification and the internet can be inimical to the development and depth required to create an authentic High Fantasy world.

Does this one succeed?

Not entirely, in my opinion.

Gettland is one of the kingdoms around The Shattered Sea, the world of the novel. Whilst fictional, The Shattered Sea has echoes of Norse and Viking culture and language which lends the novel both a familiarity and alienness. It’s not as ubiquitous in our culture as the Greek or Roman mythologies of the Low Fantasy Percy Jackson series; but stories of burning longboats and raiding parties are still part of most school children’s education.

The novel focuses on Yarvi, second son to the King who unexpectedly ascends the throne in the opening chapter, following the deaths of his father and older brother. The novel proceeds to follow his slightly tenuous grip on the throne in a series of adventures and set backs. At its heart, it is a coming of age book as Yarvi is forced to follow a journey into adulthood. As is typical of this genre, our unlikely hero collects unlikely allies and forged unexpected friendships to aid him on his journey.

Abercrombie maintains the pace of the novel well: Yarvi’s various exploits are episodic and at times we seemed to lurch from one incident to another. Only once or twice does Abercrombie slow things down enough to try to develop characters and their relationships. For me, it marred the book a little.

Nor was I terribly keen on the main character, Yarvi. He started engagingly enough: the youngest son, rejected because of a malformed hand, reticent and shy, forced into a role he did not desire and for which he was ill-suited. So far, so good. But he becomes an altogether less engaging character as the novel progresses and far more blood thirsty and distinctly lacking in empathy. The attempts to humanise him – through his friendships with Rulf, Jaud and Ankram and the hint of romance with the somewhat exotic navigator Sumael – did not convince me. It’s hard to give specifics without giving spoilers away but there is one point in particular when I was quite shocked by his lack of empathy.

As someone who dislikes violence, I was also mildly concerned that violence – or more precisely “steel” -was often viewed as the “answer” to almost every problem. In fact, on several occasions, we were told exactly that. I’d have liked Yarvi, having been trained for the Ministry, a scholarly and advisory role, to have been more reliant on his wits and tongue and less reliant on befriending people to fight for him.

One character I did like a lot, though, despite his fairly minor role, was Grom-gil-Gorm, a neighbouring King. His presence was quite magnetic, especially as we generally viewed him from the point-of-view of Yarvi kneeling at his feet.

There is something very much of the Game Of Thrones atmosphere in this novel: Laithlin, Yarvi’s mother, is reminiscent of Cersei Lannister; the historical-fantasy world; the inter-familial violence; the competing religions; the ambiguous characters trying to balance honour and ambition. Personally, I found Phillip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur more effective on many levels and navigating the same ocean with far more satisfying results. For my review of that book, see here.

Another blog review on this book is here.