Thursday, 30 August 2012

Gathering the Water - Robert Edric

I was reminded strongly of William Golding - one man, isolated in extreme nature, utterly focused on a daunting task, in this case supervising the flooding of a Yorkshire valley to create a new reservoir to feed the demands of Victorian industry.  We really only have Weightman himself; the only other character of note, the slightly older widow Mary Latimer, with whom he is obsessed but not sexually, is and remains a bundle of secrets, and her sister Martha is genuinely insane.  The other locals resent Weightman, naturally, because he is drowning their world and driving them away.  At the end, only Weightman remains.

I continue to be impressed with Edric.  He is one of the few contemporary literary writers who has a distinct voice and subject matter.  I still don't understand why he isn't better known.  Apparently, Gathering the Water was longlisted for the 2006 Booker.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Jamrach's Menagerie - Carol Birch

One of the sensational shortlist for the 2011 Booker Prize, which rather predictably went to Julian Barnes, this is historical fiction derived from two real events - the rescue of a little Wapping boy from the jaws of an escaped Bengal tiger by wild animal trader Charles Jamrach and the sinking of the whaler Essex.  To begin with, we are lulled into thinking it is a children's story in the manner of Leon Garfield, but it goes much, much darker as we read on.

The early chapters in and around mid-Victorian London's notorious Ratcliffe Highway are pure Garfield and entirely captivating.  Our hero, eight-year-old Jaffy Brown, is rescued from the tiger and given a job at Jamrach's.  There he meets Tim, and through Tim, Ishbel.  Soon Jaffy and Tim and Jamrach's supplier Dan Rymer are sent round the world on a rich client's whim in search of a living dragon.  They travel aboard the whaler Lysander.  Here, I have to admit, I got bored and was in danger of abandoning the read.  So much time is spent establishing the multitudinous crew members that for me it was a struggle to keep going - but Birch has to risk this because we need to feel for these people later.  I am so glad I kept going.

The scenes of whaling are gross but diverting.  They sail to the ends of the earth.  They find their dragon - a Komodo, I assume, though Birch is not explicit - and then everything goes horribly wrong.

The writing has a richness that's almost tactile.  The whole story is told by Jaffy who starts out an undeducated sewer rat of eight and during the course of the novel grows up in the hardest way imaginable.  How you 'voice' that radical a character development is critical - and Birch succeeds brilliantly.  Tremendous stuff, highly recommended.  I checked out Birch's other novels and have added her Scapegallows (2008) to my must-have list.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

A Rabbit Omnibus - John Updike (2)

Rabbit Redux...  Ten years on from Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Angstrom's life falls apart again.  This time it's Janice who leaves him, seduced by the slick charms of Greek car salesman Charlie Stavros.  Rabbit finds himself footloose and fancy-free in the 1969 summer of sex, moon landings and Black Power.  Before long he and thirteen year-old Nelson are sharing their suburban home with wealthy dropout Jill and her dealer Skeeter, the Black Christ.  Rabbit's mother has Parkinson's and wall-eyed Peggy has also been abandoned by her spouse.  Enter Mim, Rabbit's sister, the wannabe movie star turned escort, doing what she does best to restore balance to the world of Brewer.

Brilliantly plotted, exquisitely written.  Updike perfectly captures the era when America began to lose faith with itself.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Chemistry of Tears - Peter Carey

What a brilliant artist Peter Carey is.  Not only can he do different voices and literary styles (compare Parrot and Olivier, Jack Maggs and History of the Kelly Gang) but his structure, the framework on which his story hangs, can be dazzling.  Here, the structure is as cunningly wrought as the automaton which brings together Henry in the 1850s and Catherine in 2010.

Henry has convinced himself that the only way he can save his consumptive young son is to commission him a clockwork duck of the utmost ingenuity.  To do so, he has to travel to Germany, home of the cuckoo clock.  He describes his experiences there in a series of journals.  The journals are read 160 years later by Catherine, a horological conservator, who has been given the task of restoring Henry's automaton to take her mind of the sudden death of her longterm lover.

The writing styles of our two narrators are distinct but they are linked early on by shared personal tragedy and loss of love.  Embroidered through the narrative is the unfolding ecological tragedy of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (hence the choice of 2010) and the mid-Victorian parallel of the onset of the industrial revolution and its effect on both landscape and craftsmanship.  And to round it all off, a highly amusing twist (which Carey has been dropping hints about all along) concerning the wunderkind Carl.

Not one word wasted - and again, as with le Carre's A Most Wanted Man, a perfectly crafted ending, sufficient unto the purpose and no flummery.

For my reviews of other Carey novels, which predate this blog, see my media and culture blog.

Monday, 13 August 2012

La Manivelle/Lettre Morte - Robert Pinget

La Manivelle is only real known because Pinget's friend Samuel Beckett translated it (The Old Tune, available in all his collected works and the British Library complete radio plays recording). Well ... actually he did a lot more than translate it. Even the characters' names are changed and the action is relocated from Paris to Dublin. That makes a difference and, like it or loathe it, there is no way of judging what is Pinget and what is Beckett without comparing the two - which is why as a serious student of modern drama or just Beckett alone you need to have this bi-lingual edition. The other play included here, Lettre Morte, is a one-act stage play and no translation is provided. There is a translation available by the BBC radio producer Barbara Bray, who also translated the 'suite radiophonique' About Mortin. If you really want to know why it's unfair that Pinget has been eclipsed by Beckett, you should check out About Mortin.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

A Most Wanted Man - John le Carre

I liked this 2008 thriller much more than le Carre's latest, Our Kind of Traitor.  This is absolutely le Carre's home turf and these are quintessential characters about their customary murky business.

All the characters here are empathetic, even the mysterious and deeply troubled Issa who foists himself on a Turkish family in Hamburg, wrecks the life of human rights lawyer Annabel and rattles unwanted skeletons out of the ancestral closet of ex-pat British private investment banker Tommy Brue.  (How do you make a millionaire private investment banker sympathetic?  Give him to John le Carre.)

Issa is the eponymous wanted man - wanted by authorities and quasi-legal organisations all over Europe and beyond.  Is he an evil man?  Is Dr Abdullah, the 95% moral media Muslim who gets sucked into his ambit, a duplicitous crook?  Are the secret services justified in setting them up?  This is the beauty of le Carre at his very best - we never know.  And the ending, which obviously I won't reveal here, is simply perfect.  None of this what happened next or what became of our heroes flummery.  It happens, it's over, the book stops dead.

Written at the height of the war on terror and immediately before the intercontinental criminality of the banking world fell apart, A Most Wanted Man couldn't be relevant.  A movie version is apparently in the works.  Let's hope for great things.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

In the Midst of Life - Ambrose Bierce

A vintage Penguin from March 1939.  We know this because it handily advertises its own publication date on the back.

Bierce is one of those fascinating characters like Carravaggio and Villon who simply walked out of history.  Bierce is especially impressive because he was much more famous in his lifetime and vanished in 1913, the height of the US newspaper boom and some years into the development of mass communication technology.  Better still, vanishing without trace is a regular trope in his macabre fiction.

Macabre is the word for Bierce, not horror or the supernatural or even weird.  He delights in haunted houses, odd coincidences, the unpredictable twist of fate.  Essentially he knocked out hundreds of these stories for the popular press and they are collected in innumerable editions.  This means that once you have read one collection of Bierce you are never going to find another in which all the stories are unknown to you.  "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge", "Chickamauga" and "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot" appear in most.  Then again, every time you dip in to another collection you find a new golden nugget.  In this case, for me, it was "Parker Adderson, Philosopher."

The London Satyr - Robert Edric

On the face of it, a novel about Victorian pornographers; in reality a carefully crafted, utterly non-salacious novel about the compromises we have to make in life and how, so often, the battle to get ahead and perhaps even escape ends up sucking us deeper into the mire, achoring us ever more firmly to our rung on society's descending scale.

Webster is a middling professional photographer, not good enough to survive as an independent but just about good enough to take photos of the costumes in Henry Irving's productions at the Lyceum so that Irving's manager, Bram 'Mother' Stoker, can add them to his obsessive lists and inventories.

Webster has accidentally hit upon a way of earning a few bob on the side.  He lends the costumes to the pornographer Marlow, who has a lucrative line in photos of women getting out of said clothing.  Webster takes a shine to Marlow's partner Pearl and, one lucky night, finds himself invited to an evening of tableaux vivantes at Marlow's place.

Webster is a man of modest ambitions: he doesn't want to leave his frigid wife and appalling (but highly entertaining) daughter, he just wants to build himself up in their regard.  He wouldn't in theory mind getting up close and personal with the enigmatic Pearl but in practice can't even bring himself to have it away with the young skivvy who offers him anything he fancies on the proverbial plate.

Then a debased artisto murders a child prostitute.  The London Vigilance Committee launches a crusade (this is after all 1891, only three years on from the Ripper's Autumn of Terror), and Webster realises just how deeply he has been drawn in to the sex business.  Worse, Stoker announces a complete stock-take and Marlow, who has several of the items Stoker wants to find, has fled abroad.

Incredibly entertaining, finely judged in terms of its moral standpoint, and beautifully written.  Why isn't Edric better known?  He has won and been shortlisted for most of the major prizes but I'd never come across him before.  My tip: get to know his considerable ouevre forthwith.