Sunday, 28 February 2016

Silent House - Orhan Pamuk

Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in 2006, so we can take it for granted that he writes like a dream.  Silent House was his second novel, published in 1983 but only translated into English in 2012, which seems frankly bizarre. The book is written in the first person but the twist is, each chapter is in a different voice to the one before as the main characters give their perspective on the events of one long weekend in a holiday town in easy reach of Istanbul.

The main characters are the ninety year old Fatma, long widowed, who lives in the titular house with only the dwarf Recep to attend her.  Recep also happens to be the illegitimate son of Fatma's late husband, conceived - as was his younger brother Ismael - in the housekeeper's hut in the grounds of the mansion. Fatma's son Dogan died - a drunkard and non-achiever like his father - a decade and a half ago.  His wife, Gul, predeceased him.  Their children have come to visit their grandmother as they reluctantly do every summer: Faruk, a third generation drunken failure, the glamorous sister Nilgun, who inclines to the politics of the Left, and younger brother Metin, who plans on making an 80s-style fortune in America but who first hopes to seduce the local beauty Ceylan.

Nilgun and Ismael are not given first-person narratives.  Instead of Ismael, who lives away from the Silent House and only visits right at the end of the book, we hear from his son Hassan, who is between Nilgun and Metin in age and who was allowed to play with them at the mansion as a child.  Like Metin he dreams of great achievements, but whereas Metin is a star student in the big city Hassan is a drop-out in an unimportant little seaside town.  In 1980, as today, Turkey was torn between the rightwing Nationalists and the Leftist intelligentsia who saw Turkey was either the last bastion of Western Europe or the western frontier of the Soviet bloc.  Hassan hangs out with the local Nationalists, who spray slogans on walls and not much else.  Whilst Metin hankers after the lovely Ceylan, Hassan is besotted with Nilgun.  Unfortunately for him, she gives the impression of not knowing who he is.  This leads to the unforeseen climax of the story and is the reason why Nilgun has no chapters of her own but is only seen and appraised by others.

The young folk are immersed in their own problems.  Recep, in many ways the most appealing character, struggles to find positives in his situation, pandering to every whim of the embittered old woman who lamed his brother and may well have stunted Receps growth.  And marooned in her bedroom Fatma goes over and over her long life - a life she has no intention of giving up any time soon.  She came to hate her husband, despised her son and is largely indifferent to her grandchildren.  Her relationship with Recep, the living proof of her late husband's depravity, is the fulcrum on which the novel depends.  She cannot survive without him yet she cannot forgive him his paternity and cannot resist tormenting him.

Silent House is a brilliant book by a master of modern fiction.  Essential reading.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Rising - Brian McGilloway

I started The Rising with high hopes.  Post-Troubles Ireland is a fascinating setting for crime fiction and McGilloway seemed to have taken the trouble to polish his prose in order to bring some quality to a genre that is always at risk of slipping into cliche.  Sadly he apparently only took the trouble in the early chapters and, frankly, the unique setting quickly became irrelevant.  By the middle of the book I was losing track of which side of the border Devlin was on at any given time; there seemed to be no difference, though I'm pretty sure British citizens living in Ulster might not always be so forthcoming to Garda officers like Devlin.

The Rising itself is an extreme community group cracking down on drug dealers.  Again, early on, they seem to be verging on paramilitary tactics, but it soon wears off and they're not really the drivers of the story.  The story is about drug dealers, and it's good that McGilloway ups the ante by involving the son of Devlin's former colleague and lover, but the key twist was ludicrously obvious and when I saw that coming the tension failed.

The Rising is the fourth and latest in the Devlin series.  The problem generally with police series is that the protagonist tends to develop a barrowload of personal problems, most of which have now become cliched.  Devlin doesn't have those problems.  Unfortunately that makes him boring and characterless.  The particular issue that McGilloway has handicapped himself with is that he chosen to write in the first person.  We therefore see this world solely through Devlin's eyes.  We therefore know that he is going to see out the story, so that's the effective tension gone.  Secondly, Devlin is a bit bland, largely conservative-with-a-small-c in his outlook, and thus an uncontroversial-bordering-on-uninteresting guide to his world.  The one whose inner voice we really want to hear in this story is Caroline Williams, mother of the dead boy and ex-wife of the appalling Simon - there's the character who would have given this storyline zing.

Maybe I would be happier with the author's other series, the DC Lucy Black thrillers...

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Thunderstruck - Erik Larson

Thunderstruck is one of those great ideas that doesn't quite work.  Larson had scored a hit The Devil in the White City, about the parallel careers of Daniel H Burnham, architect of the White City at the Chicago World Fair, and H H Holmes, who killed and processed so many visitors at his Murder Hotel. The key is that the two men were active in the same city at the same time.

Thunderstruck juxtaposes the stories of H H Crippen and Guglielmo Marconi. The link between them, obviously, that Crippen was tracked and caught by virtue of Marconi's sea-to-shore wireless telegraphy. The snag is that Crippen and Marconi were rarely in the same place at the same time. The time discordance is fatal; all the interesting events in Marconi's career were before 1910 - indeed, by 1910 he had become rather unpleasant - and Crippen's time in the spotlight was entirely 1910.  Larson's technique is to interleave their stories, thus by the tricky middle part of the book their apparently continuing lives are five years adrift.

The middle section is where I lost interest slightly.  Crippen's story was coming to the boil just as Marconi's had dwindle to a tedious simmer.  The beginning and the end are both great, though, and Larson writes prose perfect for his subject-matter.  He is a writer who obviously cares about and loves his work. Not all can say the same.

I should perhaps make it clear that Thunderstruck is non-fiction and that Larson's research is more than thorough, it's incredible - far more than I have met in any other account of either Marconi or Crippen, both of whom fascinate me, too.  Actually, I should modify that last statement slightly: it is the secondary characters in the stories of Marconi and Crippen that intrigue me - people like Sir Oliver Lodge who demonstrated wireless telegraphy several years before Marconi and Inspector Dew who chased Crippen across the Atlantic.  And I suspect they came to intrigue Larson too, because he gives Lodge, in particular, more coverage than he perhaps warrants.

An excellent read, I must definitely chase up The Devil in the White City.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Toby's Room - Pat Barker

It's a follow-up to Life Class, apparently, but it is, inescapably, an offshoot of the magnificent Regeneration Trilogy which made Barker's name and won her the Booker Prize.

The trilogy was about World War I, poetry and mental illness.  Toby's Room is about World War I, painting, and facial disfigurement.  The art school chums who met at the Slade in Life Class are now exposed to the full horror of mechanised warfare.  Kit Neville, the Christopher Nevinson clone, has his face blown off in France and is brought home to Queen Mary's Hospital in Sidcup where the plastic surgery pioneer Harold Gillies does his best to make the facially disfigured acceptable and 'Harry' Tonks, professor at the Slade, draws meticulous records of the process.  Gillies and Tonks are obviously real whereas the 'students' are thinly fictionalised.  The Bloomsbury Set make a brief cameo appearance - notably and memorably Lady Ottoline Morrell.

The titular Toby is Toby Brooke, brother of the artist Elinor.  They are very close - too close, indeed. Toby goes to war as a doctor and is posted missing, presumed dead.  Elinor feels compelled to find out the truth.  Neville was a stretcher bearer in Toby's unit.  Elinor contacts him through fellow student Paul Tarrant, himself invalided out of the front line.  They visit Neville at St Mary's where Elinor is recruited by Tonks to assist with his "Rogue's Gallery".

The problem is, the book is in two distinct halves - pre-war and towards the end of the war.  It may well be that Life Class forced this structure onto Toby's Room.  I don't know but will certainly find out. It makes Toby's Room, as a standalone novel, clumsy and disjointed.  The characterisation is, nevertheless, excellent, especially with Neville himself, who is far more interesting than our apparent heroine.  And the writing, as always with Barker, is exquisite.

Not perfect, then, but a fascinating addition to the canon.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere - Jan Morris

This, it makes very clear from the outset, is Jan Morris's last book.  Though she is still very much alive at the time of writing, Morris decided to call it a day in 2001, perhaps because she is at heart a travel writer and she was in her mid-seventies in 2001.  She chose to make her exit with a reflection on Trieste because it is both bizarre and at the same time mundane - an outpost of Northern Italy, hugely redeveloped in the Nineteenth Century as the seaport of the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire, but really part of Slovenia.  She also spent time there immediately after World War II and suggests that her first true travel writing was done here.

I say 'suggests' because that is the magic of Jan Morris.  She can describe a house, a restaurant, a public piazza in a few crisp sentences, but what really matters are the sensations and memories it evokes.  The city enclave comes across as a fading beauty, not really Italian and certainly not Slovenian.  Naturally James Joyce is a presence but I had not realised that Italo Svevo was a Triestine or that Rilke wrote his masterpiece in the area.

I am new to Morris (but will be back).  I knew her story, however - one of the great personal journeys of British culture in the second half of the Twentieth Century - and wonder if she relies too much here on the reader knowing her background.  Does a new reader who doesn't remember her in her heyday understand how the wartime soldier writing his essay down by the harbour in Trieste became the woman who returns in the millennium?

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Green Road - Anne Enright

On the face of it, there's nothing that should appeal to me here. An Irish Tiger family divided and reunited? Blah, ug, kak! But magnificent writing, characterisation, compassion and insight can elevate the most hackneyed story into something fresh and new and inspiring. And Anne Enright has all of these in spades.

Again, on the face of it, there is nothing new or fresh about the characters - the demanding self-serving matriarch, the obligatory gay failed priest, the wanderer of the world, the second generation mammy tied in a perpetual tug-of-love with her own mother, and (ah-god-jaysus-no) the wannabe actress.  Enright enrichs the stereotypes by giving them their own sections of the book, each in its own specific time which cleverly helps to progress the over-arching narrative.  Some of these work better than others and I expect that different readers will prefer different siblings.  Personally, as a sated dramaturg, I would walk many a mile to avoid a petulant thirty-something actress in her cups.

Rosaleen, the widowed mother of this brood, is the last to have her story, and herein lies Enright's masterstroke.  We realise she too is a child, just an ageing one.  She demands attention just like Hanna, and Dan, and Emmet and Constance.  The difference is, she has hit upon a device for achieving her demands.  She announces, out of the blue, her intention of selling the family home.  That brings the children scurrying back to the Emerald Isle for Christmas.  They squabble and bicker and Enright lets us form the conclusion before she spells it out - they are all failures, all immature drifters.  Rosaleen leaves them to it, and wanders off to the Green Road itself, an emblem of Ireland's dewy past, an emblem of shared youth and hope.

The Green Road is something a masterpiece which easily transcends its somewhat hackneyed genre.  Enright is not the one who made it hackneyed and should not be blamed, or overlooked, for the sins of others.  After all, every one of us has a family, a childhood we can never truly escape, and an innate concept of something called home.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Three Brothers - Peter Ackroyd

Perhaps put off by his trivial 'brief life' of Wilkie Collins (reviewed elsewhere on this blog) I have been neglecting Ackroyd's fiction, as indeed has he. The last one I read was either Clerkenwell Tales  or The Lambs of London, both written more than ten years ago.  Since then Ackroyd has 're-written' The Canterbury Tales and Mort d'Arthur (don't need either, thanks) but only two original novels, The Fall of Troy (2006) and The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008), which is a shame because he is an extremely good novelist with a fantastic take on literature and the world.  Hawkmoor, of course, is a classic, and I especially loved Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem.  Who wouldn't want to read the book behind a title like that?

I'm not going to pretend that Three Brothers (2013) is in that league but it is very readable, captivating, with a touch of a magic to it.

The premise itself is not up to much.  Three brothers, born exactly a year apart, and their early adulthood in London of the Sixties and Seventies.  For brothers so ostensibly linked, they live entirely apart in later life albeit they are linked by the mystery of their mother, who walked out on them when they were pre-teens.  Harry Hanway becomes a Fleet Street editor, Daniel a Cambridge lecturer, and Sam a lost soul, wandering through life.

It is Sam who happens upon his mother and her secret.  That secret in turn links the brothers - unknowingly, because they are not in contact - with other characters, the slum landlord Suppta, the monstrous newspaper proprietor Flaxman, the corrupt politician Askisson, and the pied piper charmer Sparkler.  It is London and its linkages that underpins the story - small worlds within the vastness of the megapolis.

And the magic... The brothers occasionally experience the emotions of their siblings.  Sam finds and then loses a nunnery, which disappears overnight, only to resurface at the very end.  The boys' insubstanstial, inconsequential but dutiful father, whose funeral brings them together for a day, looks back at them as his coffin disappears behind the curtain at the crematorium.  And Harry sees an apparition rise from the body of his sleeping wife.  These instances are left unexplained and therefore fascinate.  They are the making of the book, they justify the other, mundane and worldly coincidences.  They have reawakened my interest in Ackroyd.  I am re-enthused.