Archive for April, 2015

   

Okay. 

I’m going to ‘fess up here. 

This is no great work of fiction. This is not a literary masterpiece. It is neither lyrical, resonant or thought-provoking – those three adjectives appearing more and more regularly on my blog as praise-words for novels. It does not sparkle with intriguing new metaphors; its prose does not ring with the clarity of a bell; its characters rarely emerge beyond sketchy two-dimensionality. 

If you’re looking for these things, you’ll not find them in this book and you’ll be disappointed. 

If, however, you’re looking for a good, rollicking, fun burst of inventiveness, you’ll be happy. 

This is the second of Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne series and cracks straight on from the first, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. The same alternate reality Albertian London re-appears; the same range of inventively steampunk mechanisms and genetically engineered swans, dogs and parakeets return to fill its streets, run messages and transport people. This time, they are added to by insect carcasses, grown to immense sizes, hollowed out, powered by steam and used as public and personal transport. The VW Beetle becomes very literal! We are also re-acquainted with the familiar historical cameos of Lord Palmerston, Oscar Wylde, Charles Babbage, Isembard Kingdom Brunel and Florence Nightingale. These are now supplemented with Burke and Hare in a less grave-robbing incarnation than you might expect and the philosopher Herbert Spencer. 

Hodder uses this second book to expand both the geography and mythology of his world: we see beyond London to the Tichborne estate; we learn of three giant black diamonds with mysterious and mystical powers. Fragments of these diamonds had been used in Spring-Heeled Jack’s time travelling suit in the first book; two are recovered through this one. The third book is clearly set up as a rescue mission to recover the third and final diamond. 

As to the core plot here, it revolves around the real legal scandal – for more details of which you can read here – in which a purportedly lost aristocrat returns to reclaim his title. Apparently, despite overwhelming evidence against him which led to both his claim failing and a criminal case for fraud against him, the affair roused popular opinions and the imposter received immense public support. 

Hodder develops a unique explanation for the support his version of the Claimant received. An explanation which involves mediums, wraiths, a horde of abjectly apologetic and verbose zombies as well as the black diamonds. 

The battle towards the end of the book where the “well dressed, debonair and faultlessly polite” walking dead – who are absent for most of the book – have their day, apologising all the while, is ridiculously fun. 

“I’m mortified,” one of them confessed as he jammed his fingers into a constable’s eye sockets. “This really is most despicable behaviour and I offer my sincerest apologies.”

Yes, the humour detracts from the tension in the climactic battle. But it’s fun!

Hodder’s imagination clearly steers towards the large-than-life and the grotesque – the Claimant himself is the obvious example. But he writes with enthusiasm and, I imagine, a broad grin. Is his dialogue convincing? No, not really. Is the description of Burton as “the famous explorer” too often repeated? Probably. Are his characters any more than over-drawn cardboard cutouts? Not particularly. Could you drive a horse and cart through plot holes? Probably, if you were so inclined. 

Does it matter in this case?

Not a jot!

It reminds me of The Avengers: over-the-top, very silly in places and hugely enjoyable. 

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I am no historian and my knowledge of World War Two is pretty much skewed by literature as much as my knowledge of World War One is skewed by poetry. But literature of World War Two seems to have waited. Almost as if it were too horrific, too traumatic to digest. Much of the literature I’ve read has been very recent: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett. Actually, looking at that list, they’re all Young Adult literature as well. But then you’ve got Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, The English Patient, Atonement… and now All The Light We Cannot See. 

  

 Let me start by saying that this is a beautifully written book! Doerr’s power of description and of using unexpected and beautiful imagery – almost synaesthetic at times – is exquisite. In part it needs to be, as one of his main characters, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, is blinded at the age of six by congenital cataracts and so Doerr has had to look to her other senses to furnish his descriptions. Let me quote one paragraph:

Color – that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. It’s scientists are lilac, lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues down the hall towards the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.


I’m not sure what research Doerr may have done amongst the visually impaired but this, to me, sounds both utterly accurate and lyrically beautiful. Stunning!

The story basically alternates between the childhoods of blind Marie-Laure and Werner Pfennig, an orphan in Germany from 1934 through to the siege of Saint-Mâlo in August 1944. Both characters were completely convincing and engagingly vulnerable as the familiar mechanics of the war ground in the background. And this novel needed the characters: it is not a novel, in my opinion, in any way about the war; it is a character centred novel revolving around these two children who, Marie-Laure tells us “grew up before we were grown up.” Both become embroiled in the war as France becomes occupied and Marie-Laure and her father flee from Paris to Saint-Mâlo and Werner’s skills get him drafted into to the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta. We witness the privations of war in Saint-Mâlo and the discipline of Schulpforta; the resistance movement in Saint-Mâlo and the atrocities committed in Schulpforta to decent people. We see how children were reduced to cogs in a machine. 

And yet there was so much that was touching throughout the novel: poor short-sighted Frederick whose love of birds was so out of place at Schulpforta; the agoraphobic great-uncle Etienne whose radio played music for his brother who died in the war; the giant Volkheimer who hides a tender gentility and listen to “classical music. Mozart, Brahms, even the Italian Vivaldi. The more sentimental, the better.” Music and sounds permeate the air of this novel – quite literally – through the central image of the radio through which one person can inspire a child a world away, or maintain a network of family births, deaths and marriages, or reveal the location of enemy weapons. 

Also at the heart of the novel is the mythical diamond, the Sea of Flames 

“a brilliant blue, the blue of tropical seas, but it had a touch of red at its centre, like flames inside a drop of water… The Goddess of the Earth told him she’d made the Sea of Flames as a gift for her lover, the God of the Sea, and was sending the jewel to him through the river. But when the river dried up and the prince plucked it out, the goddess became enraged. She cursed the stone and whoever kept it… The curse was this: the keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain… But if the keeper threw the diamond into the sea, thereby delivering it to its rightful recipient, the goddess would lift the curse.”

The Sea of Flames is acquired by the National Museum in Paris before the war and then smuggled out – along with some decoy forgeries – by various members of the museum staff including their lock keeper, Marie-Laure’s father. At one level, the book is a simple adventure story in the style of Indiana Jones (with fewer whips) in which the corrupt Nazi von Rumpel tracks down a mystical gem. 

But it is so much more. 

I also love the fine line Doerr treads between dismissing the mythology of the Sea of Flames as superstition and hinting at the possibility that it could just possibly be true. 

“You know how diamonds – how all crystals – grow, Laurette? By adding microscopic layers, a few thousand atoms every month, each atop the next. That’s how stories accumulate too. All the old stories accumulate stories. That little rock you’re so curious about may have seen Alaric sack Rome; it may have glittered in the eyes of Pharoahs. Scythian queens might have danced all night wearing it. Wars might have been fought over it.”


When I was an impressionable teenager, which feels a long time ago now, I imbibed a lot of Arthurian legends. Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, Gawaine, Bedivere, Ector, Cai, Pelias, The Fisher King, Tristran, Iseult, Mordred, Morgana La Fey. And from there, at University, a unit on Medieval Literature reunited me with Gawain in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight ( or Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt) which remains one of my favourite poems … and don’t get me started on the connections between that and The Lord Of The Rings. I even quite enjoyed the BBC show Merlin with Colin Morgan as an unexpected twist on the Merlin mythology. And Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur. Oh and The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot. 

So it was with a good deal of excitement that I learned of The Buried Giant by the author of The Remains Of The Day, Never Let Me Go and The Unconsoled, set in a post-Roman, post-Arthurian Britain. 

  My hopes were stoked by the opening paragraph:

You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which Englamd later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land; here and there rough-hewn paths over craggy hills or bleak moorland. Most of the roads left by the Romans would by then have become broken or overgrown, often fading into wilderness. Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too we the ogres that were then still native to this land. The people who lived nearby – one wonders what desperation led them to settle in such gloomy spots – might well have feared these creatures, whose panting breaths could be heard long before their deformed figures emerged from the mist. But such monsters were not cause for astonishment. People then would have regarded them as everyday hazards, and in those days there was so much more to worry about. How to get food out of the hard ground; how not to run out of firewood; how to stop the sickness that could kill a dozen pigs in a single day and produce green rashes on the cheeks of the children. 

I was taken by the mixture of the historically aware voice, the matter-of-fact reference to ogres alongside the practicalities of life. I continued to like our introduction to the main characters, Axl and Beatrice, although “perhaps these were not their exact or  full names” who lived in a Briton village consisting of holes and burrows carved out from the hillside. I liked that. It felt like a nod to The Hobbit although Axl and Beatrice’s burrows were dark, cold and dank. Everything that J. R. R. Tolkien told us the deliciously middle-class Hobbiton was not.

Unfortunately, then people spoke. 

A lot. 

And the dialogue, which we know Ishiguro has a keen ear for, did not work. It was neither stylised nor natural; neither faux-archaic nor modern. Long lengthy expositions from one character, uninterrupted, which rambled

“You surprise us, Sir Gawain,” Axl said. “What do you mean by hiding yourself here?”
“I’ve been down here a while and walking before you, friends. Yet with this sword and armour and my great height, which forces me to stumble and go with bowed head, I can’t walk quickly and now you discover me.”
“You hardly explain yourself, sir. Why do you walk before us?”
“To defend you, sir! The melancholy truth is the monk have deceived you. There’s a beast dwells down here and they mean you to perish by it. Happily, not every monk thinks alike. Ninian, the silent one, brought me down here unseen and I’ll guide you to safety yet.”
“Your news overwhelms us, Sit Gawain,” said Axl. “But first tell us of this beast you speak of. What is its nature and does it threaten us even as we stand here?”
“Assume it does sir…”

And this continues. In the same vein for three more pages before they start moving again. Terrible news, betrayed, entrapped. And not a shred of emotion. Show don’t tell!

The central concept is a fabulous one: the memories of the entire nation have been lost – no specific memory but all of them. Girls go missing for a few hours and people forget what they are searching for. Parents forget that they have children and wander off leaving them unattended. Most don’t even remember that there has been anything to remember so don’t realise but Axl and Beatrice remember enough to recognise that something is wrong. They name the forgetfulness the “mist”. It is perhaps less a nationwide amnesia than a nationwide Alzheimer’s. I’m fairly sure the late lamented Terry Pratchett described his Alzheimer’s as a fog. 

Anyway, they recall enough to remember that they once had a son and had once considered going to visit him. They decide to embark on a trip to his village to do so. On reaching a Saxon village, they acquire two more companions,  a Saxon warrior Wistan and a young boy Edwin who is thought to have been bitten by an ogre and cursed. Following an encounter with soldiers, they then meet Sir Gawain.

Here, Gawain has transformed from the courteous but perhaps flawed knight and heir to Camelot into a Don Quixote-ish aged warrior, tall and thin in rusting armour on a worn and haggard horse barely able to draw his sword which serves as a walking stick more than a weapon. 

From Gawain, we learn that the mist of  forgetfulness may be being caused by the she-dragon Querig who happens to live conveniently nearby albeit well-hidden. Quests to protect or to vanquish the she-dragon abound involving mad monks and mysterious boatmen, devilish dogs and pesky pixies. And amid all this we learn more of Axl and Gawain and Querig’s pasts and atrocities committed by Britons on the Saxons. We learn that Querig’s breath was enchanted by Meelin to cause the memory loss in order to eradicate the memory of atrocity in order to forestall a cycle of revenge. 

And therein lies the soul of the novel: the buried giant is the collective memory of national suffering – and also personal memory of sufferings and wrongs and resentments within a marriage or a family. How many of those wrongs have we all buried at both these levels? Are these hurts worth re-awakening? Is the truth worth the pain? Is there a difference between a self-imposed amnesia and one inflicted by another?

It also came across as an allegory of death: the various boatmen we meet seem to be echoes of Chiron; the mysterious island to which they ferry people has echoes of Avalon. It does seem like an awfully dull afterlife, though (if that’s what it is) where you’re unable to speak to anyone else. But then, if the level of dialogue and conversation is as it appears to be, that might be a blessing. 

Now this is my other problem. I want to love this book. It is thoughtful, humane and resonant in its central ideas. It was written by Ishiguro. But I can’t love it. Because I don’t think it should be a novel. It is too symbolic, too allegorical. Perhaps too literary somehow for a novel. It would have made a cracking poem, perhaps. 

   

 


  This is a remarkable novel.

Of the three CILIP Carnegie nominees I’ve read, this is my clear front runner. And I’m saying that having read Patrick Ness!

Before I review it, however, I’m going to play a game with my sixteen year-old stepson, whose birthday it is today. Despite his protestations, he is going to give me three numbers between 1 and 408, which is the number of pages in the book. His choices are: 407, 52 and 64. I think that the novel is so rich in (or over-abundant in, depending on your sensibilities) figurative language that I’ll be able to find an example on each page!

Page 407: Trista’s smile is “thorny”, which may be literal or figurative; her life is a “book” which could have been “closed”; the Crescent family is a “jigsaw”.

Page 52: The doctor smiles “warmly” and describes trauma as being like a time when you “swallowed a marble” causing “A … sort of tummy ache of the mind”; an explanation which is “homely”.

Page 64: Triss was driven home “with jazz in her blood” made up of “leaping” melodies; her sense of identity “closed in on her again, like cold, damp swaddling clothes”; a motorbike is described as a “lean, black creature”, out-of-place like “a footprint on an embroidered tablecloth”; it was “bold”, with the “rough cockiness of a stray dog”.

One of the first things that leapt at me from the novel was the level of metaphor, simile, personification and pathetic fallacy. Perhaps it was particularly noticeable having used the word “sparse” to describe the prose in previous recent reads. In fact, it was so noticeable I had blogged about it here.  Not quite purple prose but a little self-indulgent perhaps, a little self-aware. Actually, quite close to my own writing style so perhaps I recognised the richness in the same way I’d recognise my own reflection – and that was a very deliberate analogy!

But each simile and metaphor is gorgeous and resonant. I particularly liked the following quote

Outside Triss’ room, the evening came to an end. There was movement on the landing, muffled voices, door percussion. The faint rustles and ticks of the sleep-time rituals. And then, over the next two hours, quiet settled upon the house by infinitesimal degrees, like dust.

The story itself is evocative and powerful. And very British. It revolves around changelings and fairies and elves – but very much in the vein of Shakespeare’s Puck rather than Disney: mischievous, childish, animalistic creatures whose interactions with humanity are nervous, whimsical and suspicious. And it is a crackinglingly good adventure story in its own right.

Set in the aftermath of World War One, it is also a bone-achingly dissection of grief and loss. Not simply at an individual level – Triss’s brother, Sebastian having died in the French trenches – but also at a societal level. The shattering of the pre-war traditions and beliefs and structures; and the futile efforts of some characters to cling to the empty traditions. I can recognise that in my own grandmother’s attempts to maintain the facade of respectability and gentility which did feel like a pantomime – a memory of a ghost of a pantomime – even to my dulled senses.

So how much more appealing is the world of the fairies (or the Besiders) – immigrants forging a life a new life in the cities and towns, fleeing from the countryside and foreign countries. And how apt and poignant is that? As the UK enters a General Election with UKIP currently on 15% of the vote. The Besiders are chaotic, dangerous, afraid; some may be malicious, mostly seeking nothing more than shelter and safety. And in there, perhaps, lies one of  the many beauties in the novel: neither the immigrant Besiders not the indigenous humans are demonised. Both communities have suffered; both communities are suspicious of the other; both communities are rich in different ways.

And beneath this again lies a psychological tale of parents and children, the thorny boundaries between love, protection and autonomy being explored in all their complexities and knottiness. Triss’s dependence on her parents, their dependence on her dependence, are dissected with a brutal honesty; sibling rivalries and love grow and rip open characters. How do we forge our identities, our sense of self, when so much of what we are is inherited, borrowed from and imprinted on us by the limited worlds we inhabit. The image of Triss / not-Triss / Trista stuffed full of leaves, twigs and ribbons and borrowed memories is an apt metaphor for each of us struggling to create our own stories, our own voices.

And Violet.

Violet was a wonderful creation: the uncompromising, unsentimental, jazz-feulled motorbiking Violet.

There’s certainly scope in the novel for a sequel – even a series. But I hope Harding doesn’t go down that road. I’d rather have these characters live independently in my imagination, a right that they fought for throughout the novel.