Monday, 26 June 2017

Guest review by Graeme Fife: IN PARENTHESIS by David Jones

Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography, works of history, four studies of the mountain ranges of southern Europe and, like many of us, waits with the patience of Job for decision on a number of manuscripts.

In Parenthesis grew out of the seven months between December 1915 and the Battle of the Somme. Its seven parts trace the journey of a unit of the Royal Welch Fusiliers with whom Jones served from embarkation to France and the grim fighting in Mametz Wood. However, although rooted in the experience of an individual soldier, John Ball, and his fellow privates, it concerns itself more with the minutiae of their life than with the horror of their death. Indeed, Jones said that although ‘it happens to be concerned with war, I should prefer it to be about a good kind of peace,’ in part, thereby, explaining the title of the work, the war itself being a sort of brackets within which they existed and out of which they were glad to step.

The style of this essentially poetic work is complex but not baffling, even if the literary cross references, the passages of demotic language, the peppering with slang, the evocation of particularly Welsh myth, in the epic poem Y Gododdin, and Arthurian legend, call for author’s notes, much in the way they were deployed by T.S. Eliot.
I have never read so moving and richly coloured an evocation of the sounds and perpetuum mobile of life in the trenches, the constant nag of military orders, discipline, parades, longueurs of the army routine. And the cheery and scabrous joshing of the men subject to it. I’ve read nothing more immediate, chaotic, provoking. By scattered image, staccato interjection, wild allusion, literary reference, word painting, it startles and surprises constantly. Of course I miss much – to slow my reading to the pace of chasing each conundrum would be to lose the pace of the narrative’s onward push, the relentless current, but the impression sticks. And the impression, of men drawn into a plight which mirrors, somehow, in extremis, the human condition in any circumstance, is of deep humanity and what Jones called ‘the extreme tenderness of men in action to each other’. This is something rather more than camaraderie, though such is obvious, largely in the humorous banter with which the text is sprinkled. Of a wounded comrade-in-arms: ‘Nothing is impossible nowadays my dear if only we can get the poor bleeder through the barrage and they take as much trouble with the ordinary soldiers you know…Lift gently Dai, gentleness befits his gun-shot wound…go easy – easee at the slope – and mind him…’

These men, drawn from worlds apart, from Wales to Bromley-by-Bow, have their counterparts in the misted past of ancient battles fought in these islands for whom the elegies of the ancient Welsh poems were written. They have their shades in the Arthurian knights, and in that continuum of human courage, of suffering, of simply making do, they unite the theme of compassion: the sacrificial lamb, the goat cast into the wilderness to bear the burden of guilt, the vast multitude of the men along the Western Front who ‘lie still under the oak / next to the Jerry / and Sergeant Jerry Coke…’ that play on the two senses of Jerry underlining the pity of this conflict.

I’d liken the language and the eccentric pointing of its punctuation, rich in its shifts of tone – jocular and even scurrilous here, exalted here, matter of fact here, a sudden descant of military terms and indicators, numbers and letters, largely incomprehensible without the maps but curiously comic – to a symphonic score. The language of music is not generally susceptible to explanation, not logical, but it has a suggestive power which Jones echoes in his blending of elements of a voice which speaks direct as well as in passionate digression and ornament:

‘But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.’

But: ‘…who gives a bugger for the Dolorous Stroke.’ This last an allusion to the wound inflicted on the guardian of the Holy Grail by a mystic weapon, counterpart to the spear which despatches Christ on the Cross.

This is a world where mundane details of a sort of substratum of mortal existence plays out, subject to the rules and regulations of the army, often needless, meaningless, plain daft – ‘groundsheet not to protrude under pack more than two inches’ – but where, nevertheless, an innate nobility holds, a nobility which extends beyond the imperatives of this sordid business of waiting in water-filled trenches to visit death upon those who wait to visit death on you.

‘The relief elbows him on the fire-step: All quiet china? – bugger all to report? – kipping mate? – Christ, mate – you’ll have them all over.’

In Parenthesis is published by Faber & Faber.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Guest review by Julia Jarman: THE IMPROBABILITY OF LOVE by Hannah Rothschild

Julia Jarman has written books for children of all ages. Her work includes The Time Travelling Cat series for readers of eight to twelve or thereabouts and the acclaimed picture book, Big Red Bath. She is currently trying her hand at writing for adults ‘to see if I can’.

Don’t let the first dozen or so pages put you off.

Attracted by the blurb I started reading this novel on a long flight from China. I needed something to keep me awake and looked forward to a light-hearted read in which I learned something about art and the art world.  The prologue, detailing preparations for the sale of a famous picture by Watteau at an illustrious London auction house, was entertaining at first but began to grate. Did I need to know every prospective purchaser and all the members of staff assigned to mind them? It didn’t help that the character through whose desperate eyes we see this line-up is an unattractive oh-so sorry-for-himself penniless Old Etonian, who is in charge of the sale; records must be broken if he is to collect his bonus and restore the family fortunes. Did I sympathise? Hmmm. The chapter ends with a hook hinting at skulduggery to come, which kept me turning the pages. Clearly this auction will not go to plan . . .
Flashback. (Sorry, Colm Toibin, this plot flash, bangs and wallops from Skulduggery Past to Skulduggery Even Further Past and Skulduggery Long Before that, before it gets back to the auction.) In chapter one things look up when we meet chef Annie McDee, thirty-one and broken-hearted, but gamely trying to rebuild her life in London.  Looking for a present for her new boyfriend she comes across an old picture in a junk shop, likes the look of it and buys it.  It is of course THE picture, The Improbability of Love, and the find sets in motion a mostly fast-moving, rollicking tale with more ups and downs and twists and turns than my wonky spiraliser.  

Write about what you know, we’re told, and author Hannah Rothschild knows lots. Part of the fabulously rich Rothschild family, she grew up immersed in fine art and old rich. She went on to study art and made her career in art and the media, which brought her into contact with the new-rich: Russian oligarchs, hedge fund buyers and pop-star billionaires. She has facts at her finger tips that would take most of us years to research and her accomplishments are prodigious. Acclaimed as a hard worker, she has written biography, art criticism, film scripts and documentaries, as well as serving on the board of various art galleries. In this her first novel she writes assuredly, effortlessly it seems - I do mean seems - and evidently enjoys the freedom fiction gives to imagine and invent.

Flashback 2: the talking picture. This for me is her most delightful invention. The picture, The Improbability of Love, is a character in the novel speaking to the reader directly. I love this personification of the conceit that pictures ‘speak to us’, or not of course. The picture speaks to Annie in the metaphorical way which is why she buys it, and that distinguishes her from most of the potential purchasers.  I hear a female voice, by the way, possibly because of the Miss Piggy-ish way she refers to herself as ‘moi’.  I loved the way she described her life going back to Watteau’s first inspired brushstrokes, with detailed portraits of her various owners, some of them very nasty characters indeed. 

The story has a dark side and gives the reader plenty to think about.  It raises the question: what is Art and what is it for?  In the book as in life for some characters it’s merely currency, for others status and for an increasing number it’s a substitute for religion. Next time I go to a gallery I’ll ask myself ‘Why?’

I should perhaps say this is a much commented-on book, well aired on the media and short-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.  A lot of people love it, but not a friend of mine who knows a lot more about art and the art scene than me.  She says - shock horror - there are mistakes. ‘And did you know there’s no such picture as The Improbability of Love?’

I’m still thinking about that.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Our tribute to Helen Dunmore, poet and novelist, 1952-2017

Celia Rees: Helen Dunmore was one of those writers who could do everything, seemingly effortlessly. As well as her prize-winning adult fiction, she wrote for children and young adults and she wrote poetry. It seems wrong to be writing about her in the past tense. She was the kind of writer you thought would always be there to show the rest of us how it is done.

I remember sitting opposite her at a jolly Hay Festival dinner hosted by Scholastic.  I confess to being more than a little star struck but she was as charming as she was beautiful. Her fame was immaterial.  She joined in happily with the table talk and laughter, all writers together.  We will all miss her. I can’t believe she’s gone. 

Linda Newbery: I never met Helen Dunmore or heard her speak, but somehow feel that I have, through the impact her books have made on me as both reader and writer. 

She died just two days before the announcement of the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, of which she was the first winner (in its original incarnation as the Orange Prize) for A Spell of Winter. In her last few days she wrote a poignant poem about the approach of death, Hold Out Your ArmsShe was a poet as well as a novelist, and it showed in everything she wrote: in the precision and sensuousness of her language and the seductiveness of her rhythms.

Her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, was widely praised for its freshness and immediacy and the luminosity of its prose. I read that on publication and have read most of her books since. Her subjects were wide-ranging: the First World War and its aftermath, the Siege of Leningrad, the French Revolution seen from England, domestic life with its tensions and rivalries. In The Greatcoat was a novella for Random House's Hammer series in which a haunted figure brings back the terrible losses of aircrew in the war (a subject which resonates with me, as my father was a navigator in Bomber Command). She could be deeply unsettling, as in the relationship between brother and sister in A Spell of Winter and between sisters in Talking to the Dead. Everything she wrote had her distinctive stamp of honesty, insightfulness and lyricism. 

She wrote wonderfully about landscapes and weather, especially in the coastal settings she loved. Here is Daniel, in The Lie, looking down from a cottage roof. "There was the brown, bare, sinewy land running down to the cliffs. There were the Garracks, and Giant's Cap, and the Island. There was the swell, like a muscle under the sea, moving in long, slow pulses to Porthgwyn. I looked west and saw rainclouds, damson-coloured and making a bloom of shadow on the sea." She was always good on food, as here, when Nina in Talking to the Dead makes a tart: "the apples must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness, which will lap around in ring after ring, hooping inwards, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black, but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once." It's enough to make you salivate. 
Food is abundant in this novel, while in The Siege she 
wrote powerfully and unforgettably about hunger and cold, desperation and survival. 

Completing her final novel, Birdcage Walk, she knew of her terminal cancer. In its Afterword, she wrote: "The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm."

I'm glad now that there are Helen Dunmore novels and poems I haven't yet read. I will ration them out to myself, in order not to use up the new reading experience too quickly. She was an exhilarating, generous talent whose words sing from the page and will ensure that she is remembered.

Adèle Geras: I can't remember the year exactly, but it was in the early 1980s. I'd just started to write poems again. I'd not written any since leaving school in 1963. I entered a competition run by the Lancaster Festival and judged by Ian McMillan. Lancaster had a very kind way of awarding prize winners: all the poems the judge liked were published together in a pamphlet and the poets were invited to Lancaster for a reading.

Some of us went out to an Italian restaurant afterwards, and I can't account for why, but Helen Dunmore was at that meal and I was sitting opposite her at the table. Years later, when I started reading her novels with enormous pleasure, I would think back to that lunch and my memories of what she was like. Trivial as it may sound when you consider her gifts as a poet and novelist, my abiding memory is of her beauty. Photos don't do justice to it. I would say: radiant, but that sounds trite. Trite but true.

The last book I read by her was Exposure, which I really loved and couldn't put down. I read what she wrote as she published what she knew was to be her last book, and the grace and bravery of her words was some consolation in the face of the tragic news she was conveying. I defy anyone to read her final poem without weeping.

Helen Dunmore died much too young. But we have her books and they abide.

What are your memories of Helen Dunmore? Or your favourites of her novels, stories and poems? Do please add your comments as part of this tribute to an exceptional and much-loved writer. 
Thank you!

Monday, 5 June 2017

DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING by Madeleine Thien, reviewed by Linda Newbery

Three weeks ago we featured Sheena Wilkinson's review of The Dark Circle, by Linda Grant, which is currently shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Here's another strong contender.  

Like Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago or Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, Madeleine Thien's novel takes the reader through a harrowing time of political upheaval in which individuals struggle to keep any sense of purpose and integrity. The story here revolves around three exceptional musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music: Sparrow, his young cousin Zhuli, and a pianist, Jiang Kai. The novel opens in Canada with the first-person narrative of Jiang Kai’s daughter, Li-ling or Marie, from whom we learn that her father killed himself in 1989. 

The circumstances of this are slowly revealed, taking us back, through three generations of linked characters, to communist China under Chairman Mao, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the rule of Deng Xiaoping – leading, with a sense of inevitability, to the Tiananmen Square protests. This sounds grim, even daunting, but we approach obliquely through various intertwining stories, linked by music, especially Bach’s Goldberg Variations and by Sparrow’s own composition, and by chapters from a fragmented book, part fiction, part reality, which is copied, preserved, and passed from one character to another. These writings first appears in notebooks given by Wen the Dreamer to his future wife Swirl: “As her candle flickered, she became certain that the writer had gone into exile or perhaps met with some tragedy”. Or maybe “the names were part of a code, a trail that someone could follow.” As readers, following this trail back and forth through the generations, we begin to see patterns: love and loss, loyalty and rebellion, exile and survival, music and silence.  

Both writing and composing were of course highly dangerous in a culture in which nothing could be private, and where attitudes, tastes and even thoughts were expected to conform to narrow party lines. Sparrow’s own Symphony No.2, “which he knew to be a work of great beauty, languished in his desk drawer, having never even been submitted for approval … His students wanted revolutionary accessibility and his superiors tried to educate him on the correct political line, but what line could this be? As soon as he contained it in his hands, it opened its wings and filled the sky.” Western music, especially, is seen as bourgeois and contaminating, and soon Zhuli, a violin student devoted to Bach and Prokofiev, is targeted, denounced and assaulted by zealous Red Guards. Tellingly, Sparrow gives up his music to work in a factory making radios: radios which blast out Party propaganda from every open window. He feels that “the weakness of his time had lodged inside him, slowly pulverising all that was unique and his alone, because he had allowed it to do so.” Even to love is to risk Party disapproval: “Love, if it served the smaller self before the greater one, the individual before the People, was a betrayal of revolutionary ideals, of love itself.”

In spite of the weighty and tragic events recounted, there’s often a beguiling innocence to the writing, as in this charming glimpse. “Swirl heard an infant weeping, went to the window and when she looked down, she saw a couple trying to fit their baby into his winter coat, adjusting arms then legs then head as the baby lolled and weakly fought, then scrunched up his face and wailed, and still the outerwear refused to fasten. Wen the Dreamer came along the avenue, a block of pages sticking out of his pocket. He leaned towards the weeping child like a comma in a line so that, momentarily, the child, confused, suspended his wailing, the outerwear was fastened, and the little family went on their tremulous way.”  

The story is framed by the arrival in Vancouver of Ai-ming, Sparrow’s daughter, who has fled China after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Marie and Ai-ming form a close bond echoing that of their fathers; but Ai-ming, attempting to take up residency in the United States, disappears again, mourned by Marie. “Long after she departed, Ai-ming’s voice tugged away at my thoughts, returning me again and again to the same ever-expanding, ever-contracting piece of music … It’s taken me years to begin searching, to realise that days are not linear, that time does not simply move forward but spirals closer and closer to a shifting centre.” The Book of Records is fragmented and unfinished, but copied and disseminated. Sparrow’s music is concealed but eventually rescued, recorded and distributed. Marie / Li Ling continues to piece together her past and that of her family. In this way the characters, their dreams and aspirations, live on.

Reaching the end of this memorable and rewarding novel, I felt that I needed to start again at the beginning, and in retrospect I should have made notes, to understand more quickly how the characters are connected. (A friend to whom I passed on the book also stopped halfway to start again, for clarity - it does demand some initial effort from the reader). As I was about to leave for two weeks in China, it sent me back to Wild Swans, which covers the same period in memoir form and kept me absorbed throughout my trip. I learned that although Wild Swans is translated into 38 languages it is still banned in China; that most Chinese people are unaware of the events in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989, and that Madeleine Thien has been told that her novel can be published there only if the chapters about the protests are removed - reminders that China, though embracing Western influences in many ways, is still under tight control. 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta.

Monday, 29 May 2017

RED SHIFT by Alan Garner, reviewed by Celia Rees

In a Lecture given in 1975, Alan Garner said that each of his books could be seen as an expression of a different myth. For Elidor we should look to Childe Rolande and Burd Ellen; The Owl Service to Lieu, Blodeuedd and Gronw from the Fourth Book of the Mabinogion. And Red Shift? The Ballad of Tam Lin. Unlike The Owl Service, the connection is not obvious, not to this reader anyway, but it is typical of Garner that, once seen, it is clear. The story of the earthly knight trapped in elfin form by the Fairy Queen then snatched from her clutches by plucky young Janet who pulls him from his horse, holds on to him through some fierce shape shifting and finally cloaks his naked body in her green mantle thus saving her love and the father of her child, informs and infuses the novel in a deep kind of way, barely discernable on the surface but THERE.

Once one knows, then this layer of this multi layered work becomes obvious.  At the beginning of the novel, modern star-crossed lovers, Tom and Jan, are separated by class and soon to be by distance. She is the daughter of doctors while he lives with his working class parents in a caravan. She is moving to London while he will be staying on at the caravan park. Tom is a troubled young man, highly intelligent, at odds with his parents, hypersensitive and barely in control of his emotions. Another reference, in a book with many references, is to Tom o’ Bedlam in King Lear. The novel starts with the two lovers looking down at the M6 motorway as they contemplate their parting. The novel is, of course, set in Cheshire, a county with deep resonance for Garner. As in all his novels, place is as important as myth (myth of the place most important of all) and place is key to the different strands of time that run through the book. The two modern lovers inhabit and wander through a landscape that has been inhabited before. Tom’s caravan park is at Wulvern, the site of an ancient burial mound; they take an ancient track leading from Crewe Station across railway sidings to the village of Barthomley and finally to Mow Cop, a place of ancient sanctuary and 'the netherstone of the world' on which 'the sky mill grind stars'. 

 The novel shifts back and forth from the present to Roman Britain and the English Civil War. The times are linked not just by place, but by the night sky. The lovers are linked by the moon and Orion even when they are far apart. This links them, in turn, to pairs of lovers in the past.  They are also linked by a votive Bronze Age stone axe head that is discovered and kept by each of the troubled young men and the strong young women who protect them.

The stories are marked by quite shocking violence that twists and turns, looming and receding though time, and is centred on the young men. Macey, at Mow Cop, is a berserker with the Roman soldiers, who is capable of flipping and killing indiscriminately. Thomas is subject to fits and visions and is trapped with other villagers in the church tower at Barthomley by Civil War soldiers in a siege which becomes a historic massacre that occurred on Christmas Eve 1643.  Both of these young men are saved by the love of a strong young woman and both are troubled by visions that link them to the modern Tom. The violence resonates to the present with references to the Vietnam War which was going on when Garner was writing. The Roman soldiers have American nicknames and speak in army slang. 

This is a multi layered and complex novel which makes few concessions to the reader. The movement between time frames is abrupt. Most of the modern story is delivered in jittery, jagged dialogue between Tom and his girlfriend. It is a novel of high compression. Only155 pages long, it requires the reader to do most of the work. The brevity is a stark contrast to most modern YA novels, especially fantasy, and what Garner manages to achieve, the amount he packs in to those few pages, is breath taking. In recollection, it seems a much longer novel, so much is contained within it and much of that actually goes on within the reader’s own head. The elliptical style, the sudden changes, the refusal to provide any easy explanations mark it as a true Young Adult novel defined, not by content, but by narrative sophistication. There is nothing easy about it but it is utterly compelling. Challenging in the true sense, it makes demands on the reader and demands to be read and read again.

‘It contrasts to the deadweight tedium of so much other ‘teenage’ fiction. The virtuosity with which he manages pace and dialogue is dazzling.’

So said The Times in 1973 and still true today.  

I'm writing this review on the same weekend as Philip Pullman's much awaited The Book of Dust is being trailed and previewed and I'm wondering if Red Shift would even be published now, for Young Adults anyway, or would it be seen as too 'difficult', breaking just too many rules? 

Monday, 22 May 2017

SIRACUSA by Delia Ephron, reviewed by Adèle Geras

Monday, 15 May 2017

Guest review by Sheena Wilkinson: THE DARK CIRCLE by Linda Grant

Described in The Irish Times as 'one of our foremost writers for young people', Sheena Wilkinson writes both contemporary and historical fiction for young adults. She has won many awards, including the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year. Her most recent novel is Street Song (Black and White). 

I blame the Chalet School. Linked to an Alpine TB sanatorium, it sparked off in me a lifelong obsession with all things tubercular. In real life, I am too squeamish even to watch a hospital drama, and flinch from every cough in the street; in the pages of a book no medical detail is too vile. As long as it is about something I am pretty safe not to encounter in real life. So, no to cancer, yes to cholera; no to stroke, yes to scarlet fever.

But TB, of course, is the best. And a novel set in a TB sanatorium, thus combining medical beastliness with the enchantment of the closed community – bring it on! Add in social change, the dawn of the NHS, lesbians and twins – could Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle tick any more of my boxes? I’ve enjoyed several of her novels before, but I would have picked this one up regardless of who wrote it, simply because of the setting and subject matter. It very quickly became my favourite book of the year so far. I finished it reluctantly and have been busy recommending it to everyone I know.

It’s hard to define what makes a book compelling, but from the moment I started The Dark Circle, I really couldn’t put it down. Grant introduces us to eighteen year old twins, Lenny and Miriam, coming of age in post-war London. It’s a grey world of austerity and anti-Semitism but change is in the offing, and Lenny, who ‘had slept with three birds already’ and ‘had his own London drape with two pairs of trousers’ is determined to dodge his national service and be part of the coming boom. He doesn’t expect to be told he has TB and that his twin sister Miriam is also affected. Though the novel spans a wide cast of characters, from patients to doctors to the inimitable Uncle Manny, it is to the twins that we always return, and around their bond that the action spins.

This being the dawn of the NHS, these working class characters are swept off to the Gwendo, formerly an exclusive private sanatorium but now ‘opened … to anyone.’ Everything is alien to them – the strict regime; the threatening landscape; the still mostly genteel backgrounds of the patients. They make connections with people they would never otherwise have met, ladies and army captains, girl graduates and even an American sailor.

What binds these characters is quite simply their shared experience of their disease: a horrible thing, traditionally a death sentence, but, by the early 1950s, starting to respond to new drugs. Grant acknowledges the romantic cult which has always surrounded TB, but sets this against the reality of symptoms and treatment. Her characters cough, and bleed, and sweat and spit. They grow bored and cold on bed rest open to the elements. They have their lungs collapsed and, in one of the most horrifying scenes, their ribs broken and removed, leaving permanent disfigurement. They grow podgy under the enforced rest and milky diet. A far cry from Keats and even the Chalet School.

Grant brilliantly captures vicissitudes of life in this isolated community, poised always between boredom and high drama. Who will live and who will die? Until now, this has mostly been a matter of luck but as the novel progresses, a new treatment becomes available: ‘Streptomycin… It’s supposed to be as compete a cure as you can hope for.’ But stocks are limited. Who will be offered it, and on what grounds?

At first I was slightly disappointed when the action of the novel moved on from the intensity of the Gwendo; I had become, like the characters, institutionalised. And that first long section, ‘Each Breath You Take’, remains my favourite. But as I read about the developing fortunes of our heroes, into almost the present day, I decided that this was one of the book’s strengths: to show how close we are to that time which might otherwise seem so distant. It reminds us that Lenny and Miriam and Valerie are our own parents and grandparents. And with a health service in crisis and the terrifying rise of antibiotic-resistant infections, The Dark Circle is a great deal more than a brilliantly-observed period piece.

The Dark Circle is published by Virago.