It being March, the CILIP Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced and I’m embarking on the ritual of trying to read them.
This year, the list is:
This certainly has a distinctive and gorgeous cover on it, which has graced the window front of local bookshops for weeks!
But they do say that you shouldn’t just a book etc etc etc …
The book is narrated by Isabella, a young girl on the island of Joya, who has been brought up on her father’s stories and myths in the years following her brother and mother’s deaths. The world Hargrave creates is intriguing: there is a nineteenth century feel to the world, and perhaps a colonial setting with the almost omnipotent Governor; yet familiar names are rendered differently with passing references to Amrica, Afrik and India. References which must, perforce, be passing as the island appears to be cut off and isolated from the rest of the world; and indeed Isabella’s town of Gromera cut off and isolated from the rest of the island. This isolation makes Isabella’s father’s occupation of cartographer particularly redundant, but the idea of maps and of creating charts and of knowing our place in the world is a redolent one.
Hargraves does move the plot along at a rattling pace and I wasn’t sure that it quite worked in the first half of the book: a girl, Cata, is found dead; a curfew imposed; a public act of violence; and Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, runs into the forbidden and forgotten rest of the island to seek the killer. Isabella, inevitably, gets included in the expedition mounted to rescue her and embarks on a voyage into the interior, somewhat unnecessarily dressing as a boy to do so.
Hints are dropped that there is something dark occurring on the island: songbirds have fled it; livestock run into the sea and drown; marks beside Cata’s body are apparently huge gouges in the earth, suggesting that those responsible for her death may not be human. But these hints are dropped in and undeveloped; the world is undeveloped; the characters and their relationships felt undeveloped and I wasn’t sure whether I was truly engaged or not.
In hindsight, however, this is more of a fairy tale, myth or an allegory than a novel. And stories and myths of the family and community are told and retold throughout the novel, particularly the story of Arinta. The mythography – for wont of a better word – within it was much stronger than the characterisation or the psychology or the world building. In fact, Isabella is explicitly following in the steps of one of her father’s legends as she descends towards what may – or may not – be a fire demon at the heart of the island. And that light-touch characterisation actually helps to create the mythic and allegorical feel of the book.
The novel – or series – that I feel bears most comparison to this one is Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. In both books, the main character is thrust into a fantastical world through the discovery of an horrific death; in both books, there are monsters. But Riggs’ hollows were described and clearly depicted and lost much of their power as a result; Hargraves’ tibicenas remained clothed in shadows and smoke even after we encountered them.
Hargraves created something more by giving us less. And I feel that the books will remain with me and I’ll reflect on it for longer than Riggs’.
In short, I am not surprised by the fact that it has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for 2017.
I am coming to adore Frances Hardinge!
I’ve only read this and Cuckoo Song to be fair, but there’s something about her
imagination and her writing which chimes with me: dark, intensely personal, yet somehow mythic at the same time. She captures a sense of wonder, of terror, of awe which is simultaneously so childlike and so mature.
And she does write girls who are struggling to find their own identity really well!
Here, Hardinge branches away from contemporary fantasy to historic fiction with a fantastical edge. Perhaps magic realist. But not quite. She’s a hard writer to pigeonhole into a genre – as if that is ever a meaningful thing to do in any event! Anyway, the novel opens with Faith Sunderley consoling her brother Howard on a ferry to the island of Vale as her father, Reverend Erasmus Sunderley – famed naturalist – and her mother Myrtle busy themselves elsewhere.
We are transported whole-heartedly into this provincial Victorian post-Darwinian world. Science strives against religion; women strive against patriarchy and each other; children strive to find themselves. Reputation and courage and a coquettish sexuality become the currency with which her characters compete.
The move to the island is shrouded in mystery for a large portion of the book, as is a mysterious plant brought along by Erasmus.
And we are introduced to the microcosm of the island: phrenologists, photographers and prelates; scheming wives, a hint of a love that then did not dare say its name, ratting and archeology; the faithful, the faithless and the superstitious. All the details – especially perhaps those deliciously macabre details of the mocked up post-death photographs in a world without PhotoShop – were so utterly convincing.
Hints and teases of layers of symbolism lay behind almost every image in the book. Nothing ever pinned down by a clumsy exposition. The feeling I was left with is that, like the lie tree itself, these layers – perhaps these leaves – of subtle whispery layers of meaning would burn away with too much sunlight. Enjoy the teasing. Enjoy the evocation. Don’t try to pin down a single meaning because you’ll lose so much more!
The mystery persists in the book until, that is, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderley dies and Faith discovers his notebooks and the fantastical truth: the plant feeds off lies and its fruits contain visions of truths. Her father’s big lie was a fraudulent skeleton of a nephilim; the truth he sought was of the nature of God and man.
Big topics for a purportedly young adult book!
The novel is – in part – a detective mystery seeking to uncover the truth of Erasmus’ death. It is a meditation on the power of narrative. It is a coming-of-age story. It is a multifaceted jewel. A pomegranate of a book.
There was so much to love in it! But what particularly moved me was Faith’s reconciliation with her mother: distance and coldness became active disgust on her father’s death; but, as Faith became more aware of the constraints put on women by the patriarchy, there was a genuine mutual respect and warmth between the two.
It is a delight of a book and deservedly won the Costa prize this year and – all things being equal – should garner a clutch of other prizes too.
Kate Atkinson is one of those authors who I have been aware of but avoided for a while. I put my hands up, it was and has been deeply unfair of me. Like that chap in the village I grew up in who always crossed the road when he saw my mother to avoid talking to her. For no apparent reason. But the truth is, that with Kate Atkinson, I was that man! And I can remember where this irrational aversion came from: as a young and impressionable fellow, I distinctly recall a copy of Behind The Scenes At The Museum languishing on the corner of our bath. It was my mother’s. And it was water-warped, crinkled, coffee stained and genuinely mouldering. Abandoned. I responded to the sight of the rotting book with a visceral repulsion which I appear to have transferred to the whole of Kate Atkinson’s opus.
Perhaps the fact that the copy of Life After Life I have is the pristine white of the picture has helped overcome that reaction. As well as the praise and publicity which the book received. The list of awards it has won and been shortlisted for (and the quality of the novels which beat it) is impressive: it won the 2013 Costa Award, was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women Prize, Waterstone’s Book of the Year and was nominated in a clutch of other Books of The Year lists. All of which praise, I must say, is absolutely justified.
This is a magnificent and wonderful book.
Recapping the premise briefly, because I’m sure most people are fairly well aware of it already, Ursula Beresford Todd – Little Bear – is born in a legendarily snowy night in 1910 and the novel is essentially a Bildungsroman following her life from mewling babe to her death. Or deaths. Because the narrative continually returns to the birth and snow of 1910 every time Ursula dies and she is born again, re-living the same life with minor variations and changes which often have immense repercussions on her future. If I recap a handful of the ways she dies, we bear witness to her being drowned in the sea, falling from windows, succumbing to Spanish ‘flu during the 1918 Armistice celebrations and on numerous occasions during World War II, on both sides of the conflict.
It could very easily have become a tedious and repetitive conceit save for the beauty, quality and wryness of Atkinson’s writing, and the strength of Ursula as a character. She is created and presented by Atkinson with intelligence and wit, with an emotional depth and delicacy and with such a strong historical and social context that she genuinely does breathe from the page. She is one of the most real characters I have encountered for a while!
There are certain fixed points in Ursula’s narrative which recur life after life: she is born at home in Fox Corner, surrounded by siblings – the warm Pamela, the rambunctious Maurice, the idolised Teddy, later the youngest Jimmy; her father Hugh is a delight and one of the very few realistically portrayed and positive male figures in Ursula’s life; her mother Sylvie is initially endearing enough but descends into bitterness and petty cruelties. The irascible but reliable Mrs Glover who cooks for them and the flighty and romantic Bridget who serves as their maid. Aunt Izzie who only truly appears half way through the novel is delightfully wayward, eloping to France with a married man and embracing the freedom of the libertarian after her return. The family and Fox Corner are perhaps an idealised and mildly sentimentalised depiction of Britain during the wars: it is a world which is un apologetically middle class and bucolic: the gardens and copse and stream and fields and farms behind Fox Corner a pastoral idyll which – as someone who grew up in a not dissimilar part of the country – is not quite real. But it is certainly a vision of Britain which is worth saving and protecting through two world wars… and I imagine that that is the point! At least, for me it was the point.
The idyll of Fox Corner, however, is not wholly idyllic: a sexual predator prowls the lanes and fields, a story which a lesser writer would have brought to the fore; the relationship between Hugh and Sylvie sours and we glimpse Sylvie with another man. This does bring me to my biggest criticism of the book: there are very few good men in it. With the exception of Teddy, Jimmy and Hugh, men generally bring sex and violence into the narrative. In addition to the predator, Maurice brings home a friend whose interest in Ursula is carnal and casual and more cruel because of its casualness; typing tutors study Esperanto and expose themselves; the marriage to Derek Oliphant is abusive in the extreme and a very harrowing depiction of domestic violence; her marriage to . Maurice himself is persistently labelled as vile by his sisters.
And of course there is Hitler. Not the best role model for male readers.
Ursula’s time in Germany, in my opinion, was the most forced and least satisfying part of the novel. Perhaps I just missed Fox Corner as much as she did. But the plot device – if you knew about the horrors of World War II, would you kill Hitler? – seemed a little too familiar and clichéd and unnecessary. Atkinson’s depictions of the war, in both England and in Germany, are so horrific and real and convincing that that the question itself seems redundant.
Atkinson’s writing is absolutely on point at every turn. Where it needs to be tender and tragic we get descriptions like this
“Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.”
Yet, where it needs to be sardonic, a wry and amusing counterpoint to the pain in the novel, we get snippets of doctors whose
“patients, particularly their exits and entrances, seemed designed to annoy him”.
or jarring images of Mrs Glover’s tonguepress intruding itself into one of Ursula’s first kisses. Nor is Atkiinson averse to commenting on the growth of a blackmarket economy in kittens in the farms around Fox Corner, nor dispatching said kittens with a single wry sentence
“To Pamela’s surprise, this promise was kept and a kitten duly acquired from the hall farm. A week later it took a fit and died. A full funeral was held.”
All in all, an exemplary book. Simply by reason of its conceit, it cries out for comparison with The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Bone Clocks. For me, this comparison is easy: Life After Life is a truly magnificent book and even The Bone Clocks pales in comparison.
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.
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.
Sedgwick has been on my radar for a few years now, creeping into the shortlists for the Carnegie Medal regularly. I’d previously read his White Crow, and Midwinterblood. The first of those I had thoroughly enjoyed, bouncing between time zones; the second was breathtaking, tracing echoes of a story back through generations and encompassing wartime escapes, ghost stories and vampires, all with a mythic resonance.
My Swordhand Is Singing is in many ways simpler than either of those: the structure is a straight forward chronological one; the narrative is strongly plot-driven; the language is sparse and economical.
The novel revolves around a father and son, Tomas and Peter, itinerant woodcutters who have settled in a small village called Chust in a Central European setting. In the vicinity of Romania. Or Transylvania.
Sedgwick, for me, captured two things effectively in this novel: the brooding presence of Mother Forest in which humanity is trying to carve out its niche; and the ritualised superstitions the villagers used to protect themselves from the oncoming winter. The tar daubed on houses. Hawthorn briars thrown into graves. The wedding of the dead. The haunting song of the dead, The Miorita. This is a community to which fear clung closely: the practical fear of a hard winter; the suspicious fear of strangers; the superstitious fear of the dead rising.
Because this is, at heart, a vampire tale – and that may well have been one reason why I had allowed it to slip down my to-be-read pile. Young Adult. Vampire. The fear of reliving the torture that was reading Twilight may have allowed other books to overshadow this one.
But, I could not have been more wrong! Sedgwick’s undead “hostages” are as far removed from Edward Cullen – or indeed Stoker’s Dracula – as you could want. He does not dwell too long on the descriptions of the undead but they are bloated corpses, twisted by jealousy and malevolence towards the living, more reminiscent of zombies than either the urbane Dracula or the glittery Cullens.
There are some confusions, I felt, in the depiction of the vampires. Characters told us that they returned to their homes after death, leaving their wives pale and weak – nodding the Lucy Westenra; or cunning enough to pretend to be another person. Yet there was a bestiality to them when we saw them and a bloodlust which seemed just a little jarring.
This may be the result of Sedgwick’s deliberate attempt to create a vampire tale consistent with its earliest roots. He has clearly done his research and helpfully includes an Author’s Note listing all the names they are known by: krvoijac, vukodlak, wilkolak, varcolac, vurvolak, liderc nadaly, liougat, kulkutha, moroii, strigoii, murony, streghoi, vrykolakoi, upir, dschuma, velku dlaka, nachzehrer, zaloznye, nosferatu. I knew some of these already – and can see potential derivations of The Brucolac, the vampire lord from China Miéville’s The Scar – and nearly broke autocorrect copying them out! I do wonder whether the effort to reconcile such divergent original stories explains for some of the slight contradictions.
There is a presence in the novel of the Shadow Queen who, even within the universe of the novel, occupies a space between myth and superstition. This novel’s sequel, The Kiss Of Death, picks up on Peter’s quest to find her. There’s certainly enough here to make me keep an eye out for that one, although, set in Venice, away from the primitive world of Mother Forest, it would have a very different tone.
It’s that time of year again: the Carnegie Medal Shortlist is announced! Much joy! Genuine excitement! Much fretting over how to juggle reading the Shortlist with doing work, marking, planning … and, this year, entertaining the baby!
And Roof Toppers was a lovely way to start the Shortlist … Which I finished today by reading it out loud to the baby! Who says men can’t multitask?!
The story follows Sophie, a year-old baby orphaned in a ship wreck in the English Channel and rescued by an English gentleman and gentle man by the name of Charles Maxim. It is set in an undefined period but with perhaps a nineteenth century feel: the authorities disapprove of a man raising a female child and, as she hits puberty, try to take her into care. To escape, Charles and Sophie flee to France in order to find Sophie’s natural mother as – despite all the evidence to the contrary – Sophie is convinced survived the catastrophe.
Rundell has a lovely turn of phrase in the book: the prose has a musicality which is perhaps unsurprising when we realise that Sophie is saved inside a cello case in which is the first clue that sets her en route to Paris. It’s the sort of book where I find myself underlining phrases such as
he had kindness where other people had lungs, and politeness in his fingertips.
In fact, Charles is a jolly good role model for a parent: unconventional, eccentric, scholarly to the point of archaic, he brought Sophie up on a diet of imagination, Shakespeare and music with large helpings of ice cream!
In fact, there are echoes of Shakespeare through the book. The eponymous roof toppers are a group of youths who inhabit the aerial spaces above Paris: the roof tops of buildings and tree tops of the parks. They are not far removed from the fairies of A Midsummer Nights Dream and Sophie’s mother’s photograph is discovered from the doomed vessel in which she was disguised as a man. Sophie also makes a copy of Hamlet “slightly damp” whilst using it as a booster seat and
had a habit of breaking plates, and so they had been eating their cake off the front cover of A Midsummer Night’s Dream….
Sophie … waited until Charles was looking away, then dropped the book on the floor and did a handstand on it.
Charles laughed. ‘Bravo!’ He applauded against the table. ‘You look the stuff that elves are made of.’
So, overall, and endearing and lovely book which is unlikely to win because it’s too sweet
I loved this book, for so many reasons!!
It is the story of a week in an unnamed village in an unspecified part of England at an unspecified period. And I loved the timelessness of Crace’s prose: his narrator’s language is lyrical and deeply informed by the landscape but not archaic or faux-authentic.
If we were identifying a period for what is quite clearly an historical novel, the brief reference to the plague and the enclosure of the common ground to make way for an invasion of sheep would put us in the early seventeenth century, perhaps a hundred years after Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies was set.
There are clear links between this book and Mantel’s. I wonder whether Harvest would have been as lauded as it – quite rightly – is without Mantel’s winning the Man Booker. Historical fiction seems to have been an overlooked genre in the past, somehow insufficiently literary. No-one reading Harvest could doubt its literariness: almost every page oozes metaphor with an extraordinarily well judged balance between the literariness and the narrative voice. The language never asserted itself to the detriment of the narrator’s character.
The character of the narrator, Walter Thirsk, is an interesting one: he is introduced as one of the fifty-eight villagers working to bring in the eponymous harvest; but he is also articulate beyond his fellow-villagers and somehow distant. Even a passive observer of events rather than an active actor. There are narrative reasons for that distance: when his master – and milk twin – Master Kent married into the local landowner’s family, Thirsk entered the village with him as an outsider, residing at the manor house; only when he married the villager Cecily, did Thirsk join the village. He himself dwells on the correct lexis to describe his position: settled into the village but not a part of the village; sometimes included in the first person plural pronouns we and us; sometimes not.
Thematically, however, Thirsk’s isolation and greater or lesser exclusion from the village is key. Over the seven days of the novel, the village faces waves of outsiders arriving: firstly, Mr Earle – nicknamed Mr Quill and quite possibly the closest thing to a hero this book has, however unlikely an epithet that might be for him – who observes and notes down and records the village, cataloging and categorising each part of the land in preparation for the enclosure of it; three strangers appear, evicted from some other village by the same enclosure of land; Jordan, the usurping landowner using local superstition and his ancient claim through his bloodline with Master Kent’s dead wife to forge a modernist future; and Jordan’s men, rough, ignorant and cruel. Amongst this heady brew of locals and outsiders, crimes are committed, injustices rendered, deaths dealt.
This brave new world sweeps away ancient and traditional ways of life, extinguishing them.
There is one character, the one woman in the group of three outsiders, who dominated the blurb of my copy of the book. She has a tiny role: we see her briefly four times and I don’t think we ever hear her voice. She becomes an object of fascination and horror for the narrator for whom, as a widower in such a small village with almost no single women, the appeal of a new female has a magnetic carnal appeal. She is almost a cipher rather than a character: she lurks outside the harvest dance like Banquo’s ghost; she evades every attempt to find and protect her, or to find her for less hospitable reasons; she never quite escapes the word witch once it is bandied about loosely. Her name is never discovered save for the label Mistress Beldam.
Crace is never, in this book, romantic or idealising in his depiction of village life: the harshness and paltry returns for back-breaking work is unstintingly conveyed. There is a lyrical delight, however, in the language and idioms of the countryside as well as its traditions: the Harvest Queen, the ribaldry of the harvest scene which opens the book, the named of the flowers and plants.
What Crace paints beautifully here is the end of an era, an end of a way of life. There’s no overt political motivation decrying the Enclosure Acts or the relentless march of progress – indeed, Master Kent may have been able to manage the enclosure peacefully and to the benefit of all – but a simple depiction of loss. It is, perhaps, above all, an elegy to a way of life.
I have an opinion.
Just the one, but an opinion nonetheless. And my opinion is this: that most writing is, at least in part and at least tangentially, about the writing process itself. Books about books, about creation, about reading, about interpretation. How much reading do we come across in books?
Ozeki seems to share the same view because her Booker nominated A Tale For The Time Being revolves almost solely around the act of reading and the relationship between Ruth the reader and Nao the writer.
Nao is a sixteen year old schoolgirl in Japan and a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing her diary, a sheaf of letters, another diary in French and a broken watch washes up on the shores of the remote island on which Ruth lives with her husband Oliver and their cat, who is named Schrödinger but known as Pest.
The novel revolves around the way that Nao’s diary affects Ruth, uncovers memories and worries and increasingly existentialist concerns.
Nao is one of the most lively and engaging narrative voices that I have read in a long time. There is a lightness and a deftness, a sense of presence in the prose of her diary which is really quite astounding. Listen to the opening pages:
You wonder about me.
I wonder about you.
Who are you and what are you doing?
Are you in a New York subway hanging from a strap, or soaking in your hot tub in Sunnyvale?
Are you sunbathing on a sandy beach in Phuket, or having your toenails buffed in Brighton?
Are you a male or a female or somewhere in between?
Is your girlfriend cooking you a yummy dinner, or are you eating cold Chinese noodles from a box?
Are you curled up with your back turned coldly toward your snoring wife, or are you eagerly waiting for your beautiful lover to finish his bath so you can make passionate love to him?
Do you have a cat and is she sitting on your lap? Does her forehead smell of cedar trees and fresh sweet air?
Actually, it doesn’t matter very much because, by the time you read this, everything will be different, and you will be nowhere in particular, flipping idly through the pages of this book, which happens to be the diary of my last days on earth, wondering if you should keep on reading.
And if you decide not to read any more, hey, no problem, because you’re not the one I was waiting for anyway. But if you do decide to read on, then guess what? You’re my kind of time being and together we’ll make magic.
There is a wonderful simplicity and directness and – as I said at the beginning – a presence.
Ruth’s narrative – in third person – is, in my opinion, the less successful half if the book. These sections are well written and thoughtful and there is a sense of location and setting but her narrative is hugely introspective whereas Nao’s expressive. As Ruth is a novelist struggling to create her second book, and married to an artist whose medium is measured in geological ages, that thoughtfulness and introspection is natural but rather distancing to us mere mortal readers.
Ruth’s narrative revolves around the nature of ideas, information, existence and influence. It is significant and deliberate that the cat is named Shrödinger: quantum theory creeps into the final pages. In my view, a little too much quantum theory!
In this post, I used the image of the palimpsest. The tablet or the parchment which is written on, wiped clean and written over. It is the image of a palimpsest that Hamlet evokes when, in one of my favourite Shakespearean quotation of all time, he says
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables!—Meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
Of course, Hamlet’s problem is that papers and tablets have a memory: markings and shadings and letters from previous writing remain and blur the boundaries between past and present, between lover and revenger.
And the same occurs here. The narrative is one of the most layered tales I have read: in addition to the two narratives of Nao and Ruth, the text is littered with footnotes which I initially read as authorial but which quickly reveal themselves to be part of the narrative itself; there are the translated letters of Nao’s great uncle; and his secret diary recounting the same events differently; there are appendices which again blur the lines between authorial and narrative appendices. Even the simple fact that the character is named Ruth as is the author continues to layer the narratives and to confuse and conflate those layers. Books are hidden within the covers of other books. Dreams and memories layer the reality of Ruth’s life. The diary freezes Nao as a sixteen year old, bridging the gulf of time from its date of creation to the time it’s read, creating a sense of urgency and immediacy which seduces both Ruth and the reader. There are the stories of Jiko, Nao’s great grandmother and anarchist, feminist nun; the story of Nao herself as an outsider, bullied and ostracised; the stories of her father and his career and suicides.
Because of these myriad layers, it is almost impossible to pin down what the story of the novel is except to return to the relationship between reader (or readers) and writer (or writers).
It’s not unreasonable or infrequent to see writers’ works influencing the lives of those people who read them. What this novel posits towards the end is where that leaves the reader? Are we as much a construct of the writers as their characters are? Are we being written? And can we reverse the influence? Is there any way in which we as the reader can influence the writer through the act of reading?
This is one of those rare novels: a positively and challenging intellectual read which simultaneously works as a narrative. When I started reading, I was cross that I loved Nao’s voice so much but already knew this hadn’t won the Booker. I think, actually, that whilst A Tale For The Time Being clearly warrants inclusion on the Shortlist, the slight – so slight – imbalance towards philosophy over narrative in the final chapters justifies it’s not winning.
Although I say that blindly, not having read The Luminaries yet!
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.
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.