Archive for the ‘Tragedy’ Category

Mental health is a difficult topic to write about. A dangerous topic. It would be very easy for it to trivialise – or even worse, to glamourise – mental illness or trauma. 

And there were times here where is was a little concerned that the novel may be going down that route – the love of a good man, a makeover and a haircut will cure mental illness – but it managed to avoid it, skewing off at the last moment. It is also a book full of humour and comedy which it balances with the trauma beautifully. So that, overall, this was a delightfully tender and uplifting novel. For example, when describing an incident from her limited social life, she recalls a party which 

had merely been a pretext, a ruse of sorts to provide her with the opportunity to attempt to sell us sex toys. It was a most unefifying spectacle: seventeen drunken women comparing the efficacy of a range of alarmingly large vibrators….

I’m familiar with the concept of bacchanalia and Dionysan revels, of course, but… sexual union between lovers should be a sacred, private thing. It should not be a topic for discussion with strangers over a display of edible underwear.

And, on her own sense of loneliness, Eleanor remarks that

Apart from Social Work and the utility companies, sometimes a representative from one church or another will call around to ask if I’ve welcomes Jesus into my life. They don’t tend to enjoy debating the concept of proselytizing, I’ve found, which is disappointing.

Eleanor Oliphant, our eponymous narrator, has been at the same job and followed the same routine, living in the same house, for nearly a decade. We quickly recognise touches of OCD and perhaps ASD in her behaviour, her routines, her wide vocabulary deployed without regard for context. Touches, perhaps of The Rosie Project. Before many pages, however, we realise that Eleanor is scarred both physically and emotionally and her background containing more trauma than any character deserves.

We pick her story up as two incidents affect her life: she develops a crush on a singer in a local band; secondly, a colleague, Raymond, drags her across the road to tend to a pensioner who has fallen over.  Sammy’s accident and Raymond’s quiet and patient insistence – or insistent patience? – disrupt the regime and introduce Eleanor to an increasingly widening circle of acquaintances.

As well as providing her with a range of opportunities to describe her backstory to other characters and, therefore, to us the reader.

The involvement in Sammy’s family was the least convincing part of the story for me: I’ve called ambulances for people in the past And never gone on to visit them or attend their or their family’s parties. Perhaps that says more about me and social adequacy than anything else! But it provides the narrative momentum.

Eleanor herself is immensely engaging without ever being terribly likeable, the reader empathises with her without really liking her for the main part. She is a difficult woman, a difficult character, but a deeply damaged one for whom the reader roots throughout. 

And the issue of mental health wasn’t trivialised and no quick fixes were offered: the revelations when they came generally formed part of a journey towards recovery and no simple answer was offered. Not even the truth. Perhaps especially not the truth.

This was not my usual reading fare but i did thoroughly enjoy it and – more – was moved deeply by it. 

A great read.

If you enjoyed the following, you may enjoy this:

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the vegetarian

This is a very difficult book to review, to consider, to – for wont of a better analogy – digest.

It is also a book which I think will haunt and follow me. And, Heaven forfend, make me think. What an appalling concept!

The plot, such as it is, is devastatingly simple: Kim Yeong-hye is living a quiet, undemanding, unrewarding life in a fairly affluent area of Seoul until she decides to become vegetarian. That decision, simple and implacable, is also utterly inexplicable and has massive repercussions on the rest of Yeong-hye’s family: her husband, Mr. Cheong, her brother-in-law and her sister, In-Hye, in particular. The reason for her decision? That she had had a dream.

The decision, however, and Yeong-hye’s journey are far deeper than that: the vegetarianism marks the start of Yeong-hye’s gradual withdrawal from the world as she abandons sex, clothing, family and even speech. She is utterly inscrutible to the reader, which jars with the novel being almost eponymous and named for her: the first part of the novel is narrated by Mr. Cheong and the second and third parts are in the third-person but very much from the point of view of the brother-in-law and of In-Hye. Cheong-Hye speaks to us as little as she does to her family, becoming enigmatic and evocative as a character as a result. The closest we get to her voice are the italicised and stylised fragments of dreams which read like a vivid prose poetry: brutal and visceral and fractured.

Dreams of murder.

Murderer or murdered… hazy distinctions, boundaries wearing thin. Familiarity bleeds into strangeness, certainty becomes impossible. Only the violence is vivid enough to stick. A sound, the elasticity of the instant when the metal struck the victim’s head…. the shadow that crumpled and fell gleams cold in the darkness.

They come to me now more times than I can count. Dreams overlaid with dream, a palimpsest of horror. Violent acts perpetrated by night. A hazy feeling I can’t pin down…. but remembered as blood-chillingly definite.

The language – even in translation – is powerfully sensual: the foods presented to Cheong-Hye, the meats offered to tempt her from her vegetarianism and then ultimately forcefed to her by her abusive father, the peaches and fruits offered by her sister. All are lovingly described in the English translation. And, having won the Man Booker International Award, you can see why the prize is split between Han Kang and Deborah Smith, her translator. Some of the language is a little clumsy – especially the lack of names given and the heavy reliance on familial titles – but that struck me as a cultural feature rather than a linguistic lapse.

Or perhaps a stylistic choice to reflect Cheong-Hye’s distance from the family unit.

There is a yearning by all the point-of-view characters – except for Mr. Cheong – to be and to become something other than what they are, to escape in some ways. The supporting characters, characters like the mundane and unimaginative Mr Cheong, perceive Cheong-Hye to be perverse and contrary and needing discipline; or as mentally ill, to view her as suicidal and self-destructive. Which is understandable: she does slice her wrists open when her father tries to force-feed her. But I’m not sure I do. The need to alienate her, to classify and categorise her behaviour and to control it is such a superficial reaction. The word that comes to my mind is sublimation, the desire to be transformed, converted and different. And possibly better and free. The flowering of symbols in the novel – trees, flowers and birds – ah, the wonderful and beautiful sensuous descriptions of the flowers painted onto Cheong-Hye! – are all, for me, symbols of freedom and escape  and innocence.

What this book prompts in me is, really, the ultimate question: what is real? What is reality? Are we limited to the mundane, traditional lives that Mr. Cheong has – how awful would that be? – or is there something else out there? Are Cheong-Hye’s dreams or her brother-in-law’s videos or her sister’s visions any less real or true than the world?

And, of course, as a novel, is the world of that novel any less real than the world in which I am tapping at my keyboard right now?

Yes, this book will be a haunting one which will continue to inhabit me. Much in the same way as many of the Man Booker prizes will.

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Han Kang

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Deborah Smith

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Hmm mmmmmm.

Some books I’m glad I read before reading any reviews. What would I have learned? It’s set in the Stone Age. Instantly, I’d be put off. I’d be imagining Raquel Welsh in a fur bikini – not a bad thing in itself – and all the other nonsense from one Million Years BC or Ice Age. Or Clan of the Cave Bear which I just couldn’t get into when I tried (admittedly years ago).

And Gift Of Stones is so much more than that! Beautiful and evocative. And lyrical in its careful and sparse prose.

Crace – and I’ve only read one other by him, the Man Booker nominated Harvest which I reviewed in February 2014 – seems to be drawn to the ends of eras: Harvest focused on the end of the agrarian period of English history with the Enclosure Acts; here, the focus is on the end of the Stone Age and the arrival of the Bronze Age. The devastation of a community before the sweeping tide of history.

The plot itself is remarkably economical: a boy from a village which crafts flint tools is injured and loses an arm. Being unable to work flint with one arm, he becomes restless and wanders away from the village one day, meeting a woman and her daughter on the heath. Each time he leaves the village, he returns with exotic tales of ships and seas and heaths and geese and women. On one occasion, he brings the woman and child back with him.

There’s also a wonderful symmetry to the book which opens and closes with an arrow shot by a horseman.

I also find that it’s the mark of a great book – as opposed to a good read perhaps – that I end up photographing passages and posting them on Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook. And this book has a lot of quotable material in it! And, as the main character- the father of the narrator – is a story teller, many of them are focused on the craft of storytelling itself.

I mean, we could start with this one

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Why tell the truth when lies are more amusing, when lies can make the listener shake her head and laugh – and cough – and roll her eyes? People are like stone. You strike them right, they open up like shells.

Or perhaps

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Salute the liars – they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.

Or maybe

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The paradox is this – we do love lies. The truth is dull and half asleep. But lies are nimble spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.

And if lying is a craft, Jim Crace is an experienced and wonderful master craftsman!

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This book – a Booker Prize shortlisted book from a Booker Prize winning novelist – has been sat on my book shelf since forever.

I was convinced I’d read it.

I am sure I’ve had lengthy and enthusiastic discussions about it. Heated debates.

Yet, having downloaded it from Audible as a re-read, expecting something familiar and recognisable and suddenly I realise something.

I have never read this book before. Ever. It has sat as a treasured icon on my shelf … unread. I had never met Kathy, Ruth or Tommy before. I had never been inside Hailsham before.

And what a ride I’d missed out on!

Ishiguro is so adept! Kathy’s knowing but controlled narration, circling back, hinting ahead, foreshadowing and foregrounding the whole narrative. The precisely controlled and delayed the revelations of the book. Kathy narrates the novel from the final months of her life, knowing everything, but as a reader we don’t share that whole knowledge until the final chapters.

And it never seemed like a gimmicky trick – which in the hands of a lesser writer it could have! Kathy’s voice was authentic and real throughout. Clinical perhaps. Resigned. But who the hell wouldn’t be?

Kathy, Tommy and Ruth – who share a tempestuous history and relationship – are clones, bred to be harvested for their vital organs. Raised in Hailsham, which first strikes us as a simple boarding school with all the usual mixture of cliques and friendships and teenage travails, art shows, lessons and teachers, neither the characters nor readers realise that the school is anything unusual. In reality, the school is an experiment to demonstrate the humanity of the clones and, by extension, the inhumanity of the harvesting process.

And the school and Ishiguro succeed: Kathy in particular is as real and human a character as you’d want to meet.

But the novel offers absolutely no hope to its own characters. In fact, worse than offering no hope, it offers a dream of hope which it’s characters cling to desperately but which is illusory.

And heartbreakingly bleak.

It certainly does not have the tenderness and gentility of The Remains Of The Day

It is not an easy read and listening to it, excellently narrated by Kerry Fox I must say, was even more so.

There is a film of the book with Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan.

I’m not sure I could manage to watch it thoug

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I’d not normally blog about picture books. I know there are some wonderful ones out there in the world and I love The Gruffalo as much as the next guy! Possibly more. Read it most days to my daughter. And Where The Wild Things Are. And We’re Going On A Bear Hunt – also by Rosen. I also follow Rosen on Twitter.

So when I saw his Sad Book in the picture book shelves of the local library – have I mentioned I love libraries? – I thought why not?

Why not? WHY NOT?

This is one of the saddest, hardest, most painful books I’ve read!  It is brutal in its honesty as Rosen explores his grief and depression after his son, Eddie, died. I got this to read to my two-year old daughter! The dead child haunts every page of the book! I glanced over it as she romped blissfully on the floor. The idea of losing her…

It is a powerfully empowering book in a world where depression and mental health are increasing concerns for young and adult alike. People get sad. Every person gets sad. And we can’t always control it. But that’s ok: it’s ok to be sad. And even when you are sad, the world is wonderful and beautiful and there will be days when you can see it. And that’s ok too.

Now don’t get me wrong: it’s a gut-wrenchingly positive and sad book and we should live in a society where it’s acceptable to talk about loss and grief and pain openly. But it is not a toddler picture-book shelf book!

In fact, I may pass it on to a teenager who may get something positive from it.

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.


Books appeal to me in a variety of different ways.

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

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

And this was one book that did exactly that.

History Of The Rain, Niall Williams

What is this book about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… he tried potatoes again.

This time he sprayed.

This time there was no blight.

This time the river worms destroyed them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Here, Ruthie, feel.

 

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

How beautiful is that?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, go forth and read this book!

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

And love it.

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This is my second foray into Marcus Sedgwick’s writing: White Crow, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal a couple of years ago was the other.

And this is by far superior, more beautiful, more powerful, more poignant.

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This book is shortlisted for the Cilip Carnegie 2013 and tells the tales of Eric and Merle. Tales. Tales of eternal, death-defying love and – above all – the sacrifices we make for those we love; the love of husband-and-wife, lovers, parents-and-children, siblings. Sometimes, Eric and Merle are the protagonists of the story, sometimes they are protagonists of stories within the main story.

It is also a book of tales about tales and the power of stories: written in reverse chronology, tales become stories become myths sustaining and echoing and paralleling each other. There are obvious echoes here of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell in both the cycling of the narratives and the celebration of narrative.

Each individual tale has strengths – some in my opinion are stronger than others. Oddly, the opening and framing narrative of Eric Seven visiting Blessed Isle as a journalist investigating rumours of unnaturally long lives, was the weakest of the seven tales. The writing – in present tense – was languid and relaxed and there was some beautiful phrases. The island is

beautiful. It’s so beautiful, it takes his breath away. It’s not spectacular, it’s not jaw dropping, it’s simply a lovely sight, that makes his heart glad that such places exist. The greys and browns of the rocks, the trees and the wild grass, the sea, waiting for him and only for him; the place is utterly deserted, he can see neither people nor houses.

And when swimming with Merle, Eric

wonders if a few moments of utter and total joy can be worth a lifetime of struggle.
Maybe, he thinks. Maybe, if they’re the right moments.

Beautiful.

However, in my view, it is the second half of the book that becomes much more powerful which, oddly, coincides with a shift to the past tense and the story The Painter which opens with these gorgeous lines

On the girl’s seventh birthday, her finest present was not the new smock, nor the carved wooden hare, though she loved those two things very much.
The best thing was not a thing at all, but a permission.

Wow!

From this tale onwards, Sedgwick moves his narratives up a gear. There are so many elements of the fairy tale in this one – dragons and stolen apples; of the ghost story in The Unquiet Grave which is, in my opinion the most beautifully crafted ghost story I have ever read and the strongest of these seven tales; of the gothic in The Vampire.

The Vampire has an undeniable power to it and it seems that Sedgwick embraces Norse alliterative literature in his own writing as he describes how

The feast flew. Soared into the night like a ravening bird, like a fire flame, like the spread of a plague, a party as wild as the night outside was long.

As a final comment, celebrating the power of language, there is one moment, a small moment, in The Vampire when a Viking skald sings the song of their voyage and Sedgwick says

his tools were words; those mysterious gifts from the gods , and while most men merely learned how to use them, Leif was one of those wizards who had learned the secret of how to make magic with them.

Absolutely sublime play. Re-reading it after many many years and still bowled over. A GCSE set text; an integral part of Degree level “tragedy” unit (other people got to play with dead bodies, I learned how to be miserable: thanks Cambridge!!); and a vital part of my make up!

As I write, please near in mind this confession: I adore Cleopatra! With and because of all her faults, I adore her. I see in her echoes of all my favourite Shakespearean characters and feel personally convinced that Shakespeare wrote the part for the same actor who played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff in Henry IV, perhaps even Hamlet. That same boundary between comedy and tragedy, life and death, ribaldry and poetry is danced by them all!

Maybe more on that connection in a future post…

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So, the story (which is by far the least important part of this play) revolves around the eponymous Anthony, one of the thee rulers of Rome along with Octavian Caeser and Lepidus, and the wonderful Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Our first scene Opens with soldiers Demetrius and Philo berating Anthony for allowing his gaze to “now bend, now turn… Upon a tawny front” and become nothing more than a “fan / To cool a gypsy’s lust”.

Even now I feel aggrieved at that description of my Cleo! But love the unreliability of our commentators: Roman to the core, bored in the hedonism of Egypt, aching for battle. Their words undermined by her scene stealing appearance.

We quickly learn of politics that drag Anthony from his lover’s bed: his wife has waged war on Caesar; pirate lords rule the sea; Caesar needs him. So Anthony heeds the call of duty. And herein lies one of the cores of the play: the dichotomy and conflict between Rome and Egypt, duty and pleasure, land (firm and solid and reliable) and the water (treacherous and changeable), the square and the circle, marriage and love.

It is when Anthony returns to Rome that we see the latter: being passionately in love with Cleo (and yes I do think it is love not infatuation) he agrees to marry Caesar’s sister in order to apologise for his first dead wife’s war. Seriously. Was that ever going to end well?

The war with the pirate lord Pompey dissipates in a scene with a peace treaty and Anthony is soon back in bed with Cleopatra (whose reaction to news of his wedding had not been terribly gracious and left the messenger rather bruised, timid and obsequious.

Anthony and Caesar fall out again, rather quickly – something to do with the division of Pompey’s lands and Lepidus but the politics really didn’t interest me: Shakespeare is at heart a domestic rather than epic writer. Another war starts and Anthony – with a massive aromas land army at his back – takes to the seas to attack Caesar’s superior, vaster, quicker navy, principally because he is lent the Egyptian navy. D’uh! Cleo, I love you, but you ain’t no strategist!

They flee; Enobarbus (Anthony’s lieutenant) and Hercules (his divine protector) abandon him; Caesar tempts Cleopatra to betray Anthony. Enobarbus’ abandonment and regret and Anthony’s generosity to him afterwards is a wonderfully lyrical scene which I had completely forgotten about! His death is tear jerking.

Another battle, another loss, another flight led by Cleopatra again.

Cleopatra gives word that she has died in order to win Anthony back; Anthony takes his own life; she takes hers in reality (once you’ve got a good ending why change it, eh, Will?!).

It is not the plot though that drives this play! It is the character of Cleopatra (I love you, Cleo). The beauty of the language here is outstanding even for Shakespeare: the

Age shall not wither her

speech is worth the price of the book or theatre admission itself. That Cleopatra – played in 1600, as everyone knows, by a boy actor – is horrified at the prospect of

Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness / I’ th’ posture of a whore

is a wonderful piece of modernist metatextuality 400 years before modernism!

It is sublime and amazing and so full of gems! Not the best Shakespeare play (which honour goes to King Lear) but sparkling poetry and – have I mentioned – I love Cleopatra!