Archive for the ‘Magic Realism’ Category


Once again, a deliciously striking cover for Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, and the most recent entry into the Hogarth Shakespeare Project… and the first in the project that I’ve read.

Now, I have a confession to make before going much further: I’ve never really got Margaret Atwood. I’ve wanted to; I’ve tried to. I really have. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, The Heart Goes Last… I’ve found them all daunting and I’m not usually daunted by books. Maybe daunting isn’t the right work. I’ve just never got into them however hard I’ve tried.

But this one, I actually really loved!

A re-invention of The Tempest, Hag-Seed is set in Makeshiweg, Canada where Prospero is re-imagined as Felix, the director of a local theatre festival, usurped by the Machiavellian machinations of a deliciously corporate Tony, an act which similarly de-rails his plans for a production of The Tempest. And within that circularity is encapsulated a taste of the delightful self-referentiality of the novel: theatres and productions and prisons and revisions and re-versions of the play multiply dizzyingly. Felix seemed perpetually with one-foot in the play: even before the villainous firing, he had lost his wife and named his daughter Miranda.

And Miranda is the heart of this novel: unlike Prospero’s daughter, Felix lost his own child and conjures her up as a memory which elides into an hallucination and slips into ghostliness through the novel. Simultaneously present and absent. Desperately clung to by Felix. Student and teacher.

Despite the ridiculous over-the-top caricature which Felix can become

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Atwood truly creates empathy and real pain in his oh-too-real experience of his grief as a father. At times, it feels touched by Hamlet rather than just The Tempest.

Felix slinks into a self-imposed exile following his firing and spends twelve years following the evil Tony’s rise to government and slowly plotting his revenge, a revenge which requires the Fletcher Correctional Facility to achieve via a Shakespeare Literacy Programme in which the inmates perform a Shakespeare play each year. As Tony and his cronies circulate and plan to visit Fletcher, Felix uses The Tempest as a tool with which to exact his revenge in a dark and drug-fuelled finale.

Personally, I preferred the build-up and rehearsal to the actual performance of the play and the enactment of the revenge. I loved the way that the inmates who were Felix’s cast toned down the self-indulgent theatricality of his original ideas and added rap, cynicism, kitsch and machismo to his re-invented re-invention. The actress Anne-Marie – a feisty and cool kick-ass dancer who can hold her own in the prison – becomes his Miranda; his Miranda becomes his Ariel.

At heart, the novel is an achingly painful and beautiful farewell from a father to his memories of his daughter and an ownership of grief. The final farewell genuinely brought tears to the eyes.

Other entries to the Hogarth Shakespeare Project include Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew). I look forward to picking these up and, when they’re released, Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to come.





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.



This book might win the most striking cover award this year: the stunning autumnal russets and reds are gorgeous!

But you know what they say about judging books by their covers?

As a parent and as a teacher, we trot out that truism time and again but on what else are you going to judge a book? Well, the author is one other way and Ali Shaw was the author of The Girl With Glass Feet in 2010 and that was a book which has stayed with me hauntingly. The Trees looks like a heftier and heavier novel than that one – and I suppose length is as reliable a way of judging a book as any other – coming in at about 500 pages.

Just as with The Girl With Glass Feet, Ali Shaw’s The Trees inhabits the boundary between mythology and the mundane, between the fantastical and the real, between the magical and the ordinary. It is, I suppose, a magic realist novel although there is very little magic as such in it. A mythological realist novel perhaps. And the mythology does feel deliciously British: forests and trees and a return of the primal woodlands over which mankind has built and paved and lived. And a very abrupt and violent return of the forests:

Then the trees came.

The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming uppercuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass. It sounded like a thousand trains derailing at once, squealings and jarrings and bucklings all lost beneath the thunderclaps of broken concrete and the cacophony of a billion hissing leaves. Up surged the tree trunks, up in a storm of foliage and lashing twigs that spread and spread and then, at a great height, stopped.
In the blink of an eye, the world had changed. There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement.

Branches stilled amid the wreckage they had made. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, a suburb had lain, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins. Some of the trees were flickeringly lit by the strobe of dying electricity, others by the fires of vehicles that had burst into flames. The rest stood in darkness, their canopy a gibbet world hung with all the things they’d killed and mangled as they came.

The violence is, to be honest, rather muted and mainly directed at the fabric of humanity’s world rather than the humans in it. Reference is made to deaths and it’s usually fleeting; very few deaths are actually shown in any detail.

It’s almost as if the novel arose from one of the many what if writing prompts that float around the internet. The how and the why and details of the trees’ appearance is almost irrelevant; how people deal with their appearance matters. And Shaw chooses a small and discreet group of travellers: Adrien, a self-loathing cowardly English Teacher (and a small part of me wrankles at that choice of career for our non-hero); Hannah, a nature-loving mother and Seb, her tech-savvy son; and Hiroko, an enigmatic Japanese girl with a knack for using a slingshot.

Adrien, Hannah and Seb leave their devastated home town and trek through the forest, meeting Hiroko along the way, as well as wolves, endangered mushrooms and kirin, a mythical creature which seemed partly unicorn and partly a woolly rhino. As well as “whisperers”, tiny creatures made from leaves and twigs and moss which seem to haunt the forest and Adrien in particular. And something darker that lurks in the heart of the forest too.

Like many post-apocalyptic novels, the real threat to our main characters is from the other humans which they encounter rather than the wolves of the forest. In many ways, it feels a lot like The Walking Dead in parts: the forest is often just the backdrop, the people are the true horrors. How do you react when every social, societal and legal structure disappears overnight? Do you forge new bonds or do you reforge yourself and, if so, in whose image? What governs your behaviour when there is no judge but yourself?

Much of what I loved about The Girl With Glass Feet was the lyricism of Shaw’s language and there was less of that here. There was certainly a power to the language, especially in the more surreal vision that Adrien has of the earth and its creatures. But perhaps the quest structure, the driving narrative of the journey – in this case to reunite Adrien with his wife in Ireland – gave less opportunity for it. And I missed that and the intimacy of The Girl… The Trees has, by its nature, a global dimension which perhaps distracted a little from the character-driven prose of that earlier, first book. I liked the characters in general, although Adrien was a little tiresome and I wasn’t really convinced by his journey and Hiroko seemed a little two dimensionally inscrutable.

However, I am grumbling and nit-picking and I know it. It’s what us self-loathing English teachers do. This is a grand book and, despite the weighty length, a rapid read with a good pace. In fact, the modulation of chapter length was particularly effective.

But, no, a good cracking novel, touching on some of the mythological and fairy tale elements that I love.

Certainly good enough for me to be on the look out for the intervening book, The Man Who Rained.


This was … not what I expected.

A band of travellers in the England of 1348, travelling and telling tales to each other over the course of their journeys. The reviews and comments on it make an obvious but – to my mind – highly suspect assertion that this somehow a re-imagining of The Canterbury Tales. In fairness, I don’t think the author Karen Maitland makes that assertion. But many reviewers did and it is in no way a re-imagining of Chaucer.

What Maitland offers instead is a disreputable rabble – liars by profession or necessity or self-delusional – thrown together and roaming the cities, villages, forests and marshes of England. There is an aimlessness about the journey – which has no end point save to avoid the plague – which seems to reflect in the meandering structure of the novel. The opening hundred pages or so chronicle the coming together of an apparently random assortment of nine characters; the final hundred pages finally gets its teeth into becoming a psychological thriller; the middle three hundred pages … meanders.

Sure, we get to see a lot of Maitland’s historical research thrown back at us: details of a variety of cons and tricks and unpleasant menial tasks. But I never felt fully drawn into the world. It felt a little too much like Madame Tussaud’s or Warwick Castle for my liking: somehow it was as if those historical details were waxworks and contrived. As if the history was the end in itself rather than serving the needs of the plot.

And the characters were all rather bleak. Our narrator is Camelot,  a peddlar of relics using his lies to sell ‘hope’. His company is swollen initially by Joffrey and Rodrigo, musicians, and then the travelling magician, Zofield; a pregnant woman and her husband, Adela and Osmund; a waif like child Narigorm, whose white hair and pale skin mark her out as strongly as Camelot’s missing eye, and her nurse Patience; and most bizarrely Cygnus, a boy whose arm is in fact a swan’s wing. I mean, what? A swan’s wing? And everyone just accepts that as a fact? Really?

Not many of the characters were actually all that likeable: Zofield in particular was abhorrent decrying Jews, vampires, women, children and homosexuals with equal vehemence and venom. I mean seriously, why did these people put up with him? Joffrey was a whiney little boy who needed a good slap. His story was possibly the most interesting but one of the least developed. Patience was no more than a silent two-dimensional character. In fact, did Maitland give any of her female characters the richness they deserve? The richness we deserve as a reader?

I could go on.

I did quite like Camelot but his easy acceptance of almost everything he encountered did jar. There was something very modern in his sensibilities which jarred with the setting. I fear that, however unpleasant Zofield was, his was a more typical depiction of attitudes in the fourteenth century.

Having said this, it did keep me engaged and interested through the whole novel although some of the chapter transitions were very abrupt and jarring. Part of the reason for this was the narration by David Thorpe, whose voice had a lovely authentic northernness to it which was wonderfully refreshing. But there were perhaps half a dozen moments when a chapter would end on a slow heavy ominous note and Thorpe would leap in with “Chapter X” in a jaunty voice, full of cheer.

There are two moments I want to highlight for you. The birth of Oswin and Adela’s baby was probably the strongest chapter in the novel – the claustrophobia of the incomplete chapel in which it occurs, the dire warnings and portents surrounding it, the sheer physicality of the task.

In contrast, the final chapter – with its heavily signposted revelation – was a terrible ending. I think Maitland was aiming for a cliffhanger of suspense – like the phone ringing at the end of An Inspector Calls, with which it actually bears many similarities – but it just falls completely flat.

So, in conclusion, I have reservations – mainly that it’s overlong and its characterisation- but I did get gripped and I did enjoy the more psychological thriller aspect. I’d probably read another by her. It was, after all, only her second novel.


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.

And evocative.

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.

  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!


Ahhh… a new Patrick Ness publication is like a new China Miéville publication: an event to be savoured. 

Chaos Walking. A Monster Calls. More Than This. He writes science fiction, fantasy, dystopian fictions with drama, true emotion, real depth so well! 

So it’s difficult with this book. It’s fabulous. It really is. But it’s not quite there with those others. 

The basic premise is, you’re a normal teenage child, finishing school, looking forward to prom and graduation (yes, it’s set in America) and worried about trying to get a date… But your town is a hell mouth (for want of a better word; stealing deliberately from Buffy The Vampire Slayer). You’re not The One. You’re not Buffy. You’re not Willow. You’re not even Xander. You’re just trying to finish school and a whole lot of weird stuff is happening around you. 

It’s a GREAT premise! 

It mocks with a real but warm humour the trope and cliches of The Chosen One genre; it also works as an example of that genre. That’s a clever trick and shows a masterful touch. The antics of the “indie kids” which threaten to interrupt (or destroy) the graduation simultaneously irk and frustrate us, and thrill and excite us. The incident with the zombie deer or the possessed police are genuinely creepy. A tad clichéd but so well done – and sparingly and knowingly done – that it doesn’t jar. By golly, Ness is a writer so much in control of his characters and plot. 

The book suggests that we are important as people, even if we are not The Chosen One. We count. All our personal demons, fears and insecurities count every bit as much as the literal demons. Our small acts of courage and kindness and generosity are just as heroic as the demon hunting “indie kids”. 

Each chapter opens with a summary of what the “indie kids” are doing whether it be dying (frequently£, opening portals or battling demons. The chapter then reverts to the trials of Mikey, Mel, Jared and Henna. Dealing with eating disorders, unrequited love, obsessive compulsive disorder, overbearing, absent or alcoholic parents, the descent into dementia of grandparents, sexuality, identity and political differences. 

I’ve noticed this book creep into the recommended reads of the local Waterstone’s and into the supermarkets. Well… I was reading it first!

  So, what do we have here? 
It is a murder set in Dublin, Ireland revolving around the Murder Squad. It’s the fifth in French’s series which, as I understand from other reviews, not having read any of the others myself, have returning and revolving characters so that a minor character in one book becomes the protagonist of another; the main character of one gets a cameo in another. I like that idea: it seems slightly less egomaniacal and more realistic as friendships, partnerships and rivalries grow and wither. But, anyway, I’ve not read them so…. Back to The Secret Place

The novel opens with a teenage Holly Mackey – apparently a witness in a previous novel – seeking out Detective Steven Moran in the Cold Cases Unit. In her hands, she’s clutching a postcard which she found at her boarding school claiming that someone knows who killed a boy murdered there the previous year. A quick trip to the Murder Squad and a bit of wheedling and the ambitious Steven is en route to the school to re-interview the girls, assisting Detective Antoinette Conway whose case it is, and getting his foot into the Murder Squad’s door. 

The rest of the narrative follows the events of that single day which gives the prose – which at times is genuinely lyrical, especially when describing light – a tautness which is sometimes missing from crime dramas. There is no waiting for forensics or autopsies or fingerprints; nor is there any traipsing around Dublin searching for witnesses. Everything is contained by the one day and the walls of the school grounds.  And, within those grounds, French explores issues of class (the working class detectives bristling in the exclusive St. Kilda’s), gender, generational tensions. 

Alongside the investigation narrative, and alternating chapters with it, is the back story: the year that led up to the death of Chris Harper.

It is these flashback chapters which, I suspect, will divide readers. They divided me from … well … myself. On the one hand I adored the depiction of the two groups of girls around which the novel revolves. The preciousness and beauty and magic of those intense childhood friendships – magnified by the intimate claustrophobia (or claustrophobic intimacy) or the boarding rooms – is genuinely beautiful. As beautiful, in fact, as its disintegration is painful. Take a look at the description as one girl calls another and she

turned towards her voice, hand reaching, and her head bent back into that dark shape. Their arms folded around each other’s shoulders like wings, drawing tighter, like they were trying to meld themselves into one thing that could never be prized apart. I couldn’t tell which one of them sobbed….
A night bird ghosted across the top of the glade, calling high, trailing a dark spiderweb of shadow over our heads. Somewhere, a bell grated for lights-out; none of the girls moved. We left them there as long as we could. 

I also love the parallel between the teenage friendships in the past and the blossoming of the friendship between  Moran and Conway in the present as prickly defensiveness melts into tolerance, respect and a genuine bond. 

What irked me about the girls’ chapters was the use of youth slang. I work with teenagers day in, day out and I’ve never heard anyone at any point use “OMG” the breathy “Ohmygod” as a single word, “chillax” and especially not “totes amazeballs”. It jarred with what was elsewhere a pitch-perfect mixture of credible voice and lyrical beauty. 

There is one other aspect to the novel which was … unexpected. There was a surprising touch of the supernatural running through it. Chris Harper’s ghost was sighted more often than his corporeal presence was during his life! These occurrences were readily explained as the mass hysteria of the cloistered teenage girls… but Holly Mackey and her clique (Julie, Selena and Becca) seemed to discover, through their sisterhood, confidence, strength, peace. And magic. Yes, magic. It’s not a huge part of the plot – we’re at St. Kilda’s, not Hogwarts – and a very quiet form of it, symbolic of the strength and bond they share. I liked that slightly unsettling addition: what the girls discover is love, beauty, peace and poetry and those things are magical. 

I can anticipate, though, that many readers picking this up as a police procedural would balk at it. 

Personally, I’m now pretty keen to pick up the earlier novels if this is anything to go by: genuinely engaging, literary crime fiction. 

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.