Archive for the ‘Intertextuality’ Category

magpie

Detective fiction is a funny thing. The moment of most conflict and drama generally takes place outside the narrative, often before detective has been called in. The narrative arc is pretty formulaic: scenes are inspected, witnesses interviewed, discrepancies explored. And the conclusion is pretty predicable: the culprit is identified and society made safe from him or her. And they can become self-parodic: the body count in the various villages around Midsomer and Cabot Cove and St Mary’s Mead; the stereotypes of the detectives – the lonely genius of Holmes and Morse, the cantankerous Inspector Frost, the rebellious Luthor; the implausibility of the amateur sleuth.

But they are beloved!

And I love them.

They are the form of writing where the relationship between the reader and writer is at it’s most active and mutual. It is a dance, a tango; it is a battle of wits; it is a running joke. The reader is constantly building his own narratives, reconstructing the clues presented to him, re-evaluating the interviews. We judge and weigh up both the characters and the writer: we know that the early obvious suspect is a red herring with another 300 pages to read or another hour to watch.

And this book is a hymn to these classic, golden age cozy novels and their modern television counterparts – perhaps unsurprisingly as Horowitz has written for Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and written two new “official” Holmes novels as well as taken on Bond.

The novel is, as they say, a book in two parts: the first half is a presented as the ninth Atticus Pünd novel by Alan Conway – echoes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot abound in Pünd: dapper, clever, gentlemanly, foreign and a consultant to various police forces in 1950s England; the second part is a contemporary investigation by editor Susan Ryeland into the death of Conway himself and a search for the missing final chapters of his book.

Ryeland as a narrator is herself steeped in detective fiction and the novel is a delightful homage to and pastiche of the cozy detective novel – eschewing the darker notes that have grown with the growth of “nordic noir”.

Whilst well crafted and engagingly written, it is not a deep portrayal of character: Susan as a character and narrator was a little two-dimensional and her relationship with Andreas was not terribly fleshed out; the characters within the Atticus Pund novel had no more depth. In both parts, the characters felt like little more than chesspieces moved around and into place by the writer.

And there did seem to be an awful lot of summarising and of recapping of the information given in the previous couple of hundred pages which, ironically, could have been edited out quite happily. And the opening chapters which methodically showed every main character’s reaction to the first death in Conway’s novel felt somewhat formulaic and by-the-numbers.

Horowitz played with a range of different voices in the novel: Conway’s narrative voice in the Pünd novels, his true voice and his somewhat pretentious derivative literary voice; we hear snippets and extracts from these and from his sister and a rival would-be writer. It did come across as a little smug in parts, a little too self-consciously clever. Did he name his author Alan Conway after the conman who impersonated Stanley Kubrick? Did he rely on plant names for his characters in the same way that Susanna Ryeland, working for Charles Clover, derided Conway for doing? Invented interviews between Horowitz and an author who doesn’t exist promoting a book that Horowitz wrote himself…

It’s a great, fun read and a cosy winter’s treat, like an open fire and mulled wine. But it’s no literary masterpiece.

cover-nutshell_ian-mcewan

Some books need more of an exercise in imagination than others. A bigger suspension of disbelief.

An unborn narrator, for example, is one such.

And not just unborn in a metaphorical sense but literally foetal.

The narrator of McEwan’s most recent book – recently serialised on Radio 4 – is a third-trimester Hamlet, set in modern London, recounting his mother’s and uncle’s attempts to usurp his father. And once you’ve created such an unconventional narrator, I suppose it makes complete sense – once your reader has abandoned that much disbelief – to make him very articulate, learned and astute. McEwan tosses in the occasional nod to Radio 4 podcasts as an explanation for the narrator’s knowledge, but – to be honest – who needs it? It’s a talking foetus; why not an articulate one?

It is a particularly intriguing notion for me at the moment. However indulgently and self-consciously artificially written, the concept of a vivid and thoughtful interiority of the foetus drives home to me: my own three-year old is smart, clever and manipulative but, for reasons so far unknown, not talking. I am, perhaps, therefore, already conditioned to see and cherish the interior life of the silent. To let the silent child speak to me in her own way.

And it is more than just a writerly frolic and unnecessarily facetious twist. It does shine a light on Hamlet’s twisted and fluid relationship with his own mother Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play – or Trudy in McEwan’s novel – and it shifts that relationship to the centre of the action, and makes her a knowing co-conspirator with the dullard Claude. And their relationship is brilliantly serpentine and mutually destructive, leaving the reader never quite sure who is taking advantage of whom.

Of course, McEwan’s Hamlet – like many of McEwan’s characters and stories and novels such as On Chesil Beach and In Between The Sheets – looks at the coarseness of sexuality in the face… quite literally in this case:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage, they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls…. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence….

Here I am, in the front stalls, awkwardly seated upside down. This is a minimal production, bleakly modern, a two-hander. The lights are full on and here comes Claude. It’s himself, not my mother, he intends to undress. He neatly folds his clothes across a chair. His nakedness is as unstartling as an accountant’s suit…. And my mother? On the bed, between the sheets, partly dressed, wholly attentive, with ready hums and sympathetic nods. Known only to me, under the bedclothes, a forefinger curls over her modest clitoral snood and rests a half-inch inside her. This finger she gently rocks as she conceded everything and offers up her soul.

Like those other novels, this coarseness is both repulsive and hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Deeply unsettling and thoroughly engaging at the same time.

The novel works on a range of levels: it is an intriguing thriller as well as an exploration of the death of love as well as a reimagining of Shakespeare.

And I enjoyed it immensely.

  This is an absolute gem of a read – or more likely a listen, as Pullman wrote it for Audible as a free giveaway at some point. That’s how I collected it – see what I did there? – and it’s been lurking in my library ever since and today I thought I may as well read it.
It is a delight!

Don’t be put off by the reviews which talk about it as a prequel to His Dark Materials trilogy, even though it probably does work as that. It is at heart a self-contained, delicious and creepy horror story which is very reminiscent of M. R. James and Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Boy in particular.

Academics and art collectors with their own little petty squabbles and rivalries. Mysterious objects being found and horrific incidents occurring, apparently through their agency. Or maybe coincidence.

The objects in question are a portrait of an enigmatic and beautiful woman and the sculpture of a repugnant and malicious monkey. That’s the connection with His Dark Materials: it’s a young Marissa van Zee before she became Mrs Coulter and her monkey dæmon. But that’s almost beside the point. This is just a cracking good classic gothic yarn!

By golly, Pullman can write!

And as an extra bonus, it’s read by Bill Nighy!

 The second Thursday Next book picks up immediately after the end of The Eyre Affair and is a fun and joyful thing! A bit of lovely fluff: light, quick and just fun. 

It does perhaps suffer from its role in the series: The Eyre Affair was pretty self-contained; it has spawned a series of – I don’t know how many – books. This book feels like a bridge between a stand-alone and the series. It expands the basic concept of entering into and exiting a book but, whereas the first book required a device to do so, it has become an innate ability by this one.  Yes, there were moments in the first which prepared you for this, but it’s a huge extension of the scope of the narrative. 

The plot takes a little while to get going and feels almost secondary to the concept. A copy of the lost Shakespeare play is discovered; the villainous mega-corporation continue to be, well, villainous; a series of increasingly bizarre coincidences nearly kill Thursday. But don’t. And, almost as an afterthought, the world’s coming to an end. No one seems terribly concerned about that: it just hangs there in the plot. Mentioned occasionally. 

Losses accrue, and they are quite heartfelt, to be honest. But there’s a sneaky suspicion that it’s all rather reversible. In a universe where dodos and Neanderthals and mammoths have been recreated, and extinctions reversed, an individual death seems less weighty than it should somehow. 

Anyway, the heart of the book is The Library: a metaphysical collection of all the books that are, were, will be or might have been written are. And the interchange, I suppose, between fictional and real worlds. A transmetaphorical border control, if you like. Those who can read themselves into books can access the library and vice versa. And from the library, you or your fictional friend could pop into any written world. Imagine holiday img in Hamlet‘s Elsinore or sharing a pot of tea with Sherlock Holmes, Magwitch or Mina Harker. 

Or being partnered with the somewhat cantankerous and redoubtable Miss Havisham to police the fictional worlds. 

Is this a metaphysical exploration of the boundaries of the real and fictional worlds, exploring the impact of both on the other and the vexing question of identity? No. Not at all. It’s fun and quirky and – as a reader – somewhat self-indulgent but… to be honest… what’s wrong with that?

Enjoy!

  Oh I’m in two minds about this book. 

I so wanted to like it.  A alternate history world in which the borders between reality and books is flexible and malleable. Who would love to pop to Wuthering Heights for a cup of tea with Nelly Dean? Or stroll through the 100 Acre Wood? Or play hide-and-seek in the Garden of Eden (who’s going to find you behind that apple tree?) for an afternoon? 

You could pop into Fifty Shades and inform Ms. Steele what consent actually means.

And you have to dodge Baconians on the street seeking to convert your views on Shakespeare’s authorship. A world where entertainment includes coin-fed Shakespearean soliloquy dispensers and wholly audience-participation Shakespeare plays with the atmosphere of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

And you can own dodos in Fforde’s world. I mean, dodos!  Because genetic splicing is a thing. 

And time travel. 

And vampires and werewolves. 

I’m sure many people would find the range of alternative structures thrown into this mix quirky or witty – which each one is individually – I mean, book worms which crawl around and eat prepositions and excrete apostrophes or, if they’re stressed, capitalisation – the range of ideas, concepts and conceits thrown in, to me, felt confused. Almost as if Fforde wrote himself into plot holes and had to go back to insert a random new feature in order to provide him with a way out. Or woke up with an idea and the words “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if…” on his lips. 

What we’re presented with is essentially a crime caper: the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen and Thursday Next is called in to investigate. We discover increasingly shady departments of the Special Ops forces of which Next is a member; the sinister Goliath corporation manipulating the investigation, a subplot involving Next’s love life and her time in the Crimean War. 

In addition to the confused gamut of tropes, there were more issues which irked me, as a writer myself. 

[It is a new thing to self-identify as a writer for me… but it felt lovely saying it!]

The other issues. Oh yes. For a book so aware of the limitations of the first person narrative (it actual is a significant plot device towards the end, the fact that Jane Eyre is itself first person), the novel failed to either give Thursday a convincing narrative voice or to remain in its own first person narrative. We see numerous scenes from outside Thursday’s point of view: whole chapters took place miles away from Thursday; some chapters alternated from Thursday’s and an omniscient narrative point of view within the chapter. 

And to have your first-person narrator randomly look at herself in a mirror just to describe her for the reader? Really?! I’d expect that from kids at school. What was even the point to tell me that she was 

somewhat ordinary features…. Her hair was a plain mousey colour and of medium length …

What do I learn of her from that? Really? Were her looks a plot point? No. 

And sometimes Fforde did try. After a botched arrest attempt, we learn what happened from Thursday’s interview with internal affairs. That’s okay. That’s a good idea: you can create the emotion of the protagonist directly; you can deliver half-truths and dramatic irony and unreliable narrators. Or, you can do what Fforde does, and simply retell the story in the same bland voice that Thursday’s narrative voice has. 

And our antagonist, Acheron Hades. With a name like that, how could Fforde have expected him to be anything other than a cardboard cutout villain. Imbued with a range of unexplained powers. Powers which are not shared by anyone else. 

Let’s have a look at Fforde’s naming system. Thursday Next is odd; Acheron Hades is too obvious and blunt; Jack Schitt is childishly scatological; but minor characters like Millon de Floss or Felix Tabularasa have sparks of fun and wit. 

Maybe I’m being too harsh on Fforde – or his editor, in all likelihood. A stronger editorial control could have made this a much better book. Maybe, though, just maybe, there’s a really clever developed story arc which will tie everything together over the rest of the series. Maybe I’m too foolish to recognise meta-literary post-modern irony and see them as a lack of control over the narrative. 

Maybe. 

I will probably give one more in the series a go. Just in case. 

If you liked this, try:

Mark Hodder, The Curious Case of Spring-Heeled Jack

Kim Newman, Anno Dracula

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

Why are so few book covers yellow? This looks gorgeous! Like a literary bumblebee. I have to confess, the only reason I picked this up was the cover – despite the advice parents give their children the world over. That and Waterstone’s promotions. But I’m really glad I did because it’s a powerful, haunting, human and compelling novel.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Peize in 2014, the novel revolves around three children. Two of whom are missing. All of whose share one story.

We enter the story in 1996 when our narrator, Rosemary Cooke, is at college. I was at University and socially awkward between 1992-6, so there were elements of Rosemary’s life which struck a chord! Although generally my experience lacked the drugs, arrests and ventriloquists’ dummies which Rosemary had to navigate.

We first meet Rosemary witnessing and accidentally becoming embroiled in a scene (as my mother would say) or a fracas (as a police officer might describe it) initiated by another student, Harlow Fielding. As a result, both are arrested. An unlikely friendship between the outwardly reserved Rosemary and overly dramatic Harlow.

This friendship, though, is not the story; nor is this incident the start of the story. Over the course of the novel, we hear the story of Rosemary’s childhood focussing on her aged five, dispatched to her grandparents house for a week.

Or rather the stories. We receive the consciously modified and edited version given to Harlow as a safe and practiced narration, crafted for effect. But the same story is retold with the edited sections removed and we learn that her sister, Fern, disappeared whilst Rosemary was away. We hear memories, possibly reliable and possibly not; recovered memories. In 1996, having done his own disappearing act, Lowell visits Rosemary and we hear new accounts of the same event from his point of view.

The structure of the story, starting in college but circling the events of fifteen years previously could have become tedious and dull, or confusing,  with a lesser author or a less engaging narrator. Rosemary was delightful! Smart, damaged, insecure, funny, self-aware. A remarkable guide on the journey that the novel represents. The novel does explore these layers of memory, consciously or subconsciously shaped into different stories. And it does chime with my own experience and understanding of memory. Do I feel like I know the truth about Fern’s disappearance? No. Did I feel that the novel was strikingly experimental in style? Not really (compare Eleanor Catton’s novel The Rehearsal). Did I feel her use of language was lyrical and poetic? Again no (compare The History Of The Rain by Niall Williams).

Do I feel as if I’ve met a real person in Rosemary? Yes. What more could I ask for in a novel?

For me, at times, the novel did veer a little towards the didactic, the moral lesson of non-human animal rights. There were occasions when we were, effectively receiving science or philosophy lectures. Theories of Mind. Mirror Tests. The experiments of Winthrop Kellogg and Gua. The Animal Liberation Front.

I didn’t mind those moments for two reasons: they were delivered unerringly in Rosemary’s voice and entirely suited her character and history; and they were genuinely quite interesting studies of animal behaviours. And these scientific expositions were balanced with frequent literary allusion and references too including A Tale Of Two Cities (Ahhh! Madame Defarge!) and Thomas More’s Utopia. It really was a very literary novel.

And at no point did these expositions detract from the central grief at the heart of the novel and of Rosemary. Her grief at the double loss of her sister and brother.

I did want more Harlow, though. She exploded into the book. Several times. She broke boundaries. Seduced men carelessly. Stole. But she was engaging as hell! Oh well. Maybe any more time spent in her company would have made her tiresome.

I now have a choice. There is a huge ‘reveal’ perhaps 75 pages into the book. You may already be aware of it from other reviews. I think I’ll choose not to say what it is. But it may fundamentally change your response to the Cooke family. It may not. Enjoy reaching it!

What’s the bravest thing you ever did?
He spat into the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.

Yup.
That is how bleak the world of this book is. Tragically, lyrically and devastatingly bleak, but bleak nonetheless. Nothing grows. Nothing lives. The world contains nothing of beauty or of value and very little of utilitarian use. Whilst the man and boy we follow are “good guys”, the rest of the world appears to consist of “bad guys” by which McCarthy means paedophiles, rapists, murderers and cannibals.

The story, such as it is, is ridiculously simple: a man and his son are walking south in search of something. This is narrative stripped bare, stripped to its literal bones. It has the sparseness of a fable or an allegory or a parable and puts me in mind of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress more than anything else.

The setting, however, is science fiction: a post-apocalyptic vision of hopelessness: animal and vegetable life appears to be devastated. The word “dead” occurs so frequently it would be easy to mock. The man and his son are

Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold….

The road crossed a dried slough where pipes of ice stood out of the frozen mud like formations in a cave. The remains of an old fire by the side of the road. Beyond that a long concrete causeway. A dead swamp. Dead trees standing out of the gray water trailing gray and relic hagmoss.

Again, for me, echoes abound, particularly of Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The man and boy are very literally walking through the shadow of the the valley of death. I’m not so naive and McCarthy’s not so pedestrian that you can see direct parallels but this novel in which the man and boy “carry the fire” is embedded in these narratives and lyrics of Christian pilgrimage and Christian faith. And it is through that fire that such a bleak novel lives on with such optimism and hope. Throughout the novel, the man’s faith is repeatedly rewarded by hidden caches of food or the remnants of an orchard.

The other story which echoes through my reading of The Road is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. The road itself as a symbol; the pair of travellers; the absurdity, beauty and pathos in their interactions.

But the novel goes beyond that Christianity and beyond the evocation of other texts. There is a deeply human relationship between the man and boy, full of the love and hope, the frustration and fear which is so recognisable. And almost unbearably painful: the man’s horror over the gauntness of his son, his sense of inadequacy trying to comfort him, the bleak practicality of his teaching his son how to shoot himself. There is never a shred of doubt that this father would die before allowing harm to come to his son; and would suffer worse than death to allow his son to escape suffering.

And his final words to his son. Oh god. As a dad, that final conversation was worth reading the whole book for. And all delivered in terse almost monosyllabic dialogue.
It can sometimes be hard to think of strong and positive father figures in literature (Atticus Finch, Jean Valjean excepted and I’m sure many others who haven’t come to mind yet…) so I notice them when I come across them. And strong father-son relationships seem even rarer.

Anyway, I digress…

The writing style of the novel is different to the traditional: the sentences are often fragmented and, when not, they are short and simple, only linking clauses together with coordinating conjunctions, the “and” echoing through the prose like the tired footfalls of the protagonists. There is extremely scant use of adverbs. The man and boy are never named. Apostrophes and dialogue markers are omitted sometimes.

I’m more sanguine about that that most of the commentators on Goodreads. The sentence structures work beautifully well and, as I’ve said, contribute to the lyricism in their sparseness. And, even if I mourn the absent apostrophes just a little, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful books around. A writer who can come up with this line

“If he is not the word of God God never spoke”

should not be criticised because some people would prefer a comma there.

Haunting. Beautiful. Muscular.


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. 

   

 


IMG_7050
Anthony Horowitz, for me as an English teacher is almost synonymous with his teenage spy Alex Rider. Although probably with fewer helicopters, assassins and explosions. And more writing. The series is a very boy friendly, speedily paced series of novels which are one out go-to series for reluctant boy-readers. So it was with some surprise and not a little interest that I discovered, on reading the afterword essay following The House Of Silk, that his career includes Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie and Foyle’s War.

Apparently, this is the first officially sanctioned new Holmes novel – sanctioned by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. And what is clear from reading it is that Horowitz knows his Holmes! Knows him well! So well he even includes a quiz at the end of his afterword. I got 6 / 10. Could do better. He also includes frequent references to other novels and short stories: The Red Headed League. The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. These are all explicit and fleeting, nothing which would put off a newcomer to Holmes but a pleasing nod to the canon for those readers familiar with it.

Horowitz’ tone and structure is also pretty authentic. I mean, I don’t profess to be a Holmes expert, but the familiarity of the opening scene – Holmes at 221b Baker Street astounding Watson with his deductions as we await a fateful knock at the door – takes you straight back to The Hound of The Baskervilles. Similarly, the length of time spent without Holmes, his disappearance from the narrative, the intertwining of two apparently unrelated plots, the time devoted to other characters giving their own stories in their own voices all felt delightfully familiar. In fact, if anything, characters seemed to be falling over themselves to tell their stories.

I usually don’t worry too much about spoilers but a Holmes novel does require a certain delicacy, I suppose. So let’s instead look at some of the ingredients Horowitz has added to his mix: an art dealer haunted by a vengeful figure from America; a corpse discovered in a hotel room; the Baker Street Irregulars and a charitable school; and, of course, the eponymous House of Silk. We also have the familiar cast: Lestrade, Mycroft and Mrs Hudson. And a mysterious nighttime assignation with an unnamed yet urbane criminal figure. As Horowitz’ sequel is named Moriarty, I think we can make certain assumptions!

These last few years have been golden ones for Holmes fans: BBC’s Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is a delight; Robert Downey Jr’s films are fun. Horowitz’ Holmes, though, does seem far closer to Jeremy Brett than his more modern counterparts. I have to say that, in my head, some of Holmes’ dialogue was read in Brett’s lugubrious tones. Stiller, calmer than the somewhat frenetic Messrs Cumberbatch and Downey. Maybe hearing Brett’s voice intone Holmes’ words is a tribute to Horowitz’ writing; maybe it just reveals how impressionable my mind was when, as a child, I saw Brett in The Hound of The Baskervilles.

So, returning to Horowitz, I thoroughly enjoyed this. It was, possibly, a little too self-conscious of its place as part of the canon and maybe a little too reverential. But perhaps that is the nature of all pastiches: without that reverence for the source material it would become a novel featuring Sherlock Holmes rather than a Sherlock Holmes novel.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes novels, it transpires that a lost Holmes short story has been discovered in Selkirk, Scotland, written to raise money for a bridge. See here for the full report.

IMG_7053

IMG_5061-0.JPG

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.

IMG_5072.JPG

IMG_5073.JPG

IMG_5057-0.JPG