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imageOne after the other reviews extolling the perfection of Maggie O’Farrell’s latest and most ambitious novel come rolling in. I appear to be out of kilter with general consensus though.

What was I missing?  1) The emotional engagement I had with Esme Lennox  and 2) a novel that turned the pages of its own accord.

This will surprise many – it surprised me, particularly as the first chapter is simply hilarious, one of the best first chapters I’ve read in ages.  And the following chapters, establishing the stories and tragedies of Daniel, his ex-film star wife, Claudette, and their immediate family pulled me in.  There is something profound and sympathetic about the flawed characters in this book,  and it is this honesty that is the novel’s greatest strength.

Somewhere around page 250, though, I found myself wondering whether to read to the end.  I did, but reluctantly.

It didn’t help that I wasn’t as in love with Claudette as Daniel (though I did mellow towards her in the final third of the novel).

I did tire of the “technically dazzling” (Guardian) structure.  O’Farrell tells this story of mental and marital breakdown from the point-of-view of no less than 7 different characters. (There may be more, but I can name 7 off-hand.) These narratives are not told  in chronological sequence.  Episodic incidents shuttle back and forth through time.  Secrets revealed in one chapter unfold in minute detail 100-150 pages later.   Obviously the events aren’t of prime importance, the impact of those events on the minds of the characters is.  I have nothing against working the reader like this per se,  nor of the post-modern inserting of a museum catalogue of the ex-film star’s artifacts or of an interview with her former film director partner.  But the resulting repetitions do extend the length of the novel, in my opinion unnecessarily at times.  My biggest problem, however, was that in many of the chapters the narrative voices didn’t differentiate themselves sufficiently. (Perhaps this is where listening to the audio book enhances the experience.)

That said, there is some wonderfully perceptive writing.  I’ve already commented on the insight of the psychological character studies.  I also appreciated the details of the physical tortures caused by eczema (based, if I remember rightly from previous author events, on the experience of the author’s daughter), and must admit that Niall, the eczema sufferer was my favourite character.  Landscapes too deserve mention.  Whether rural Donegal,  or the salt desert of Bolivia, O’Farrell transported me directly to her chosen locations. As for the place of the title,  the place that is home, that is for Daniel to decide upon. The novel is, at its core, the telling of his finding it.

 

 

 

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Marian Sutro is a British operative working with the French resistance.  In 1944 she is betrayed and finds herself in Ravensbruck concentration camp; an experience she barely survives – No longer the confident woman she had been.  Following the war, she tries to return to normal life, but there are the Nazi War Trials to endure.   She marries a – shall we say – compromise candidate, but as she regains her spirit, she finds life in the early 50’s too humdrum.  The Cold War needs to be fought, and, gradually she is sucked back into the life of an intelligence agent.  However, deeply concerned at the imbalance of power resulting from the creation of the atom bomb, the scene is set for Marian to turn traitor in the name of peace.

When I read Mawer’s Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room, I had reservations about both structure and characterisation.  No such issues here.   I found the psychological portrait of Marian’s recovery fascinating.  Her wartime experiences are pivotal but appear mostly in – deeply disturbing – flashback.  She is walking a tightrope – struggling to maintain her balance in a world that considers her a heroine, that wants her to relive the nightmare giving evidence at the war trials, when all she wants is to bury her past and move on.  When she does so, her past catches up with her and seemingly casual acquaintances attain much deeper significance.

There is, of course, also the political tightrope at the heart of events.  This is the Cold War era before MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and, within its pages Mawer explores the rationale of those who were willing to pass scientific secrets to the Russians.  This is where the pace picks up, especially as Marian becomes involved in a honey trap à deux.  Highly immersive reading. Impossible to predict the outcome.

But who has all the insider information, because it’s made clear that this information is not contained in Marian’s official papers.  A framework device, for which I’m a complete sucker (blame Theodor Storm) takes care of that.

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Having completed my reading of the entire 2016 shortlist, I’m now faced with a decision.  To which novel should I award my shadow prize?  Mrs Engels was in prime position until I read Tightrope, and now I’m torn.  Given the scarcity of historical source material, McCrae’s Lizzie Burns is a finer feat of literary imagination.  Yet Mawer’s novel, set just a handful of years before I was born, is meticulous in its historical detail, and  has made me ponder the origins of the MAD world I was born into more than I have ever done before.  I need to go away and argue with myself for a few days.  Hopefully I’ll come to a decision before the official announcement on Saturday afternoon.

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imageThe fifth novel on TJ’s #12germansin2016 list is one I would never have read, if left to my own devices.  There are too many reasons not to read holocaust novels to list them here.  And yet, somehow this modern classic was waiting in the TBR for its moment to come, and so ….

In a previous review I was bemoaning a lack of sheer brilliance and emotional cataclysm.  Becker put that to rights and didn’t take many pages to do it. 15 pages in and  I knew I was reading a masterpiece.  At this point I wondered how many awards it had won:  Heinrich Mann Prize (1971), Charles Veillon Prize (1971) and this 1990 translation by Leila Vennewitz won the Helen and Kurt Wolf Translator’s Prize.

Jacob Heym is wandering around the Jewish Ghetto shortly before curfew, when he gets caught in the spotlight.  The guard, pretending that Jacob has violated curfew, sends him to the police station for punishment.  Now two miraculous things happen.  1) Jacob overhears a radio report concerning the Russian advance and 2) he gets to leave the police station alive.   The new report gives Jacob hope.  The following day he blurts out the news to his friend Mischa in order to prevent him from doing something stupid.  How do you know that? queries Mischa.  Unable to tell the truth, because no-one would believe he had come out of the police station alive (unless he were there to denounce someone), Jacob tells Mischa that he has a radio.  And this lie fuels the rest of the novel.

Radios are, of course, verboten, and to possess one is a capital offence.  This, however, is the least of Jacob’s problems.  As news of his radio spreads, so too does the need of the persecuted for updated bulletins.  Jacob finds himself having to take risks to get snippets of information from the outside.  But it’s too dangerous and so Jacob Heym gets creative.

What he’s doing is a good thing, isn’t it?  Bringing hope to the thousands of Jews, whose only way out of the Ghetto is a transport to the death camps.  If only it were as simple as that.  Not everyone welcomes the news of the radio – if the Germans hear of it, there could be a mass deportation to the camps as punishment.  And hope, in these twisted circumstances, also leads directly to the death of one who passes it on to a wagon-load of Jewish prisoners couped up in the sidings.

That one little lie turns into a real burden for Jacob, who is no hero.  He’s a curmudgeon, a loner, not a social creature at all.  Nor does his want his new role, but he recognises that the suicides have stopped and so he continues to make up his stories to keep his fellow Jews from falling into despair.  The Russians really aren’t that far away.  Deliverance is at hand.  We just need to survive a little while longer.

Easier said than done in a place where walking the streets without the identifying yellow star results in a one-way ticket for the offender and his family to the death camps.  Where whole streets are cleared on a whim.  Taking us deep into the heart of the ghetto, Becker details practical realities and individual histories across the social classes without any sentimentality.  The struggle, the despair and the arbitrariness of survival, but also the continuing humanity and dignity of an oppressed people, which cannot be vanquished even in the face of the grossest cruelty.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the telling is the narrator.  It took a while for me to identify him and to work out how he got his insider knowledge.  The realisation is heart-breaking.  For no matter how much the narrator (and the reader) wants this to end well and to believe in  the first fictitious ending, the second one reflects the tragic truth of the matter.  When the Russians finally liberated the Lodz ghetto, they found only 877 Jews alive.  The rest had been transported to the camps – among them a young lad named Jurek Becker.  Fortunately he survived.  Years later he penned this astonishing novel,  and I suspect I’ve just read my book of the year.

Thank you, TJ.

Five_Stars.GIF

 

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

This is the title on the shortlist I was anticipating the most.  Billed as the companion piece to Any Human Heart and blurbed as the best thing Boyd has ever written, it had a lot to live up to, particularly as Any Human Heart is IMO a masterpiece.

Amory Clay is the female counterpart to Logan Mountstewart.  She’s born in 1908 and dies in 1983, so sees most of the C20th.  Her profession as photographer is useful.   It allows Boyd to move her around the globe to many of the C20th hotspots.  She starts off as a society photographer with her uncle, who advises her to create a scandal to make her name known.  Cue move to the louche Berlin of the 1930s.  The resulting pictures are too effective.  Following an obscenity trial, her reputation is in shatters.  To restart her career, she needs to move to the States,  sponsored by the man destined to become her employer, lover and long-term protector.  There follow sojourns in France during WWII as a rather uncourageous war photographer, in Scotland as part of the landed gentry during the 1950s, another stint as a war photographer during Vietnam, after which her final years are spent living alone with her dog back on the West Coast of Scotland.

There’s a lot happening on this world stage, and Amory Clay’s personal life is just as eventful! As if dalliances with her married employer and a French writer, marriage with a Scottish Lord were not enough, Amory’s life still has time for final adventure chasing after her AWOL daughter to an American commune. At 447 pages, this is one of the longest novels of the Walter Scott Shortlist, and it is also the quickest read.

Boyd loves to mix his books with other art forms and so here the chosen medium is photography. Scattered among the text are photographs, purporting to be those taken by Amory Clay. Now I haven’t heard Boyd speak, nor have I read any interviews about this novel, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear of him finding a cache of unaccredited (and not always brilliant) photographs around which he has seamlessly woven his tale.  (Aaah, look what I just found.)

A key question for the success of this novel is whether Amory Clay feels authentic. She does in most things:  discovery of the carnal coinciding with the slackening of moral restraint in the C20th,  lack of courage at the front line and her honesty about it,  falling for men who are not emotionally the best choice, the  sometimes distant relationship with her daughters. Her forgiveness of her father stretched my credulity somewhat (No hints here, it’s a major plot feature.) I particularly enjoyed her analysis of light.

 I watched the day slip into night, noting the wondrous tonal transformations of the sunset on its dimmer switch, how blood-orange can shade imperceptibly into ice-blue on the knife-edge of the horizon ….

Much to enjoy, therefore, but nothing that had me as a reader firing on all cylinders. Why ever not? Let me be clear. Sweet Caress is a good novel and a vast improvement on the last Boyd I read. (In fact, Waiting for Sunrise had me thinking that I wouldn’t bother reading any more.) But I had been led to expect something on a par with Any Human Heart and so I was waiting for the sheer brilliance and emotional cataclysm of the dog food moment. It was perhaps unfair of me to do so.

 

 

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize

And so to the finale of Allan Massie’s atmospheric crime quartet set in Vichy France. (Parts 1 and 2 are reviewed here, Part 3 here.). It is the early summer of 1944. The Germans have lost the war and the allied invasion is expected, eagerly or with apprehension depending on the choices made during the Occupation. For Superintendent Lannes the end can’t come quickly enough, even though his family will suffer one way or the other, given that one son is happily working for Vichy France, the other has joined the free French and his daughter has fallen in love with a fully-fledged German sympathiser, now fighting in Hitler’s  army. For himself, Lannes just wants to be able to work again, free from political interference. At the beginning of this novel, however, he is suspended at the order of the Germans – he’s paying the price for doing the morally right thing in the previous novel.

But he is not bitter. He understands that his boss Schnyder was simply being expedient “determined to survive, however things turned out.” He is suffering from ennui, however, and so when he is approached by the Count of St. Hilaire to investigate the disappearance of his grand-niece, he accepts. The case brings him into contact with the real bogey man of the quartet, the lawyer Labiche. Throughout the quartet Lannes has crossed swords with Labiche multiple times, and with the end of the Occupation in sight, Lannes senses his chance for revenge.

Continuing to tread the streets of Bordeaux, Lannes meets the circle of friends and adversaries that have populated the previous three novels, and I do think that this may be confusing to those coming to End Games without prior knowledge. This is one series where I would advise starting at Book One. That way the jumps to the parallel lives of Lannes’s sons and Michel, his daughter’s lover, will not disconcert. Nor will their purpose. Not a single one of them comes out of the other side with their ideals intact ….

… and even Lannes, desperate to be free from intolerable political pressures, has to recognise that the time has not yet come. Now that the Boches have gone, justice will have new masters. In the words of Judge Bracal:

For four years the prevailing wind has come from Vichy. Now the wind has shifted. It blows with the Resistance, and … for weeks and perhaps months to come, the Law will be whatever the Resistance says it is.

I have followed Lannes during the dark years trying to uphold justice in the face of Vichy/Nazi law. He has at least tried to maintain his own integrity. He has not always succeeded. Finding now that similar struggles will continue through the Expiation and beyond,  he is finally embittered and filled with hatred for the hypocrises of his fellow countrymen.  Rising above it all is sometimes an impossible task.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

You can always tell when the weather’s good in Scotland – this blog goes quiet. (Good days are too precious to waste inside on the computer.) However, normal service has been resumed, and I am once again sheltering inside. Time to start on the Walter Scott shortlist, which I shall attempt to read in its entirety before the winner’s announcement is made on 18th June.

Let’s start with the only lady on the list, and a novel that is curiously not available in the UK. I had to import the book from Australia to read it. At least this made me realise how lucky we are in the UK, where books are more reasonably priced ….

Salt Creek is Lucy Treloar’s debut novel which has also been longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin award. It is set primarily in 1855 in the Coorong, a remote and inhospitable coastal region in Southern Australia. Stanton Finch, following a failed business venture, refuses to accept charity from his wealthy in-laws and moves his family to establish a dairy farm in Salt Creek. The fact that he must build his new home from driftwood, the remnants of ship-wrecked vessels, is presentiment enough for what is to follow.

Neither climate nor pasture are ideal – salt from the sea permeates the landscape. So the odds are stacked again Stanton Finch, who besides having no business sense, does not understand the ecology. Unlike the Ngarrindjeri, the aboriginal tribe who are about to be displaced – though not in a violent clash of cultures. This is a gradual dispossession – though sickness brought by the settlers, and a betrayal of Stanton Finch’s values by Stanton Finch himself who believes himself to be an enlightened Christian man ascribing to the maxim that all men are born equal. With that in mind he sets out to help the Ngarrindjeri, with gifts of food and clothing, protecting their fresh water supplies, and he semi-adopts an aboriginal child, inviting Tull into his home to educate him, the hope being that Tull will spread the values of civilisation through his own people.

Which is all very well until life deals him one blow after the next. A stubborn man, Stanton Finch exacts the price of each failure on his family. When Tull makes the naive mistake of believing himself to be equal, the despot in Stanton Finch rises while the downward spiral accelerates, shattering any remaining semblance of family cohesion. The family saga (and saga it is – perhaps a little too domestic for my taste) is told in retrospect by Hester, Stanton Finch’s eldest daughter. The harsh years at Salt Creek are the formative years for her and her siblings, and the place one they must escape if they are not to descend to the depths of their father. Not all of them do.

This is not your standard pioneering tale – a tale of man waging a successful battle against the elements, of “civilising” those who have no need of it. Rather it is anti-heroic, a “decivilisation” if you will. There are no miracles, just harsh realities depicting the self-deception of the settlers, with hard questions asked of their Victorian world view.

The role of hero in these pages is reserved for the landscape. As Treloar notes in her acknowledgements, The Coroong is strange and secluded and grand enough to humble. That’s a lesson that the presumptious Stanton Finch must learn very much to his cost.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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image

The pelican lifted up its head and beak, and shook them, wobbling its neck, trying to force the pigeon further down the sac of its throat. The pigeon was still very much alive; its fight-back stretched the skin of the pelican’s gullet until it was almost translucent, with the dark outline of the smaller bird clearly visible. It was a ferocious fighter, and Peter found he couldn’t tear his gaze away as the pigeon succeeded in struggling back up the pelican’s gullet and into its beak, and for a moment it looked as if it might manage to get free.

I love a good metaphor and this one on page 254 of Gillian Slovo’s Ten Days perfectly sums up the struggle for political survival between the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. But who is swallowing whom and why? Do politicians need motivation other than the lust for political power.  I’d say no, but there has to be a catalyst for the declaration of war and a power grab.

Cue riots on the streets of London, ostensibly triggered by the death of a black man under police restraint. In reality, however, the resulting peaceful demonstration is hijacked by those with other agendas. Look back at the UK riots of 2011 to see how events escalated into anarchy; a trajectory mirrored in Slovo’s novel with the impact on individuals and key players depicted in mesmerising detail.

Cathy Mason – a middle-aged single mother, living in the disadvantaged, restless and soon-to-be-condemned Lovelace estate, desperately trying to keep her community together. Her life is complicated by her love for Banji, the only man she has or will ever love, although he appears not to deserve her.

Commissioner Yares, Metropolitan police chief, the Prime Minister’s man, who starts his new job on the day that all hell breaks loose. A sitting duck (or should that be pigeon?) for the Home Secretary, who, while the Prime Minister is attending important negotiations elsewhere, loses no opportunity to score political points against perceived incompetence and “soft” policing.

The Home Secretary and his women: wife and PA/lover. No political drama would be complete without shenanigans of this ilk.

The Prime Minister – more off the page than on. Nevertheless, a smooth operator, not to be under estimated.

Slovo punches with both fists exposing the machinations of the powerful, the cynicism at the heart of the Met’s recruitment policies, and the sincere, but ultimately powerless hearts of the common man. That would be powerless in the face of higher authorities, but also in matters of love. The lovers (Banji and the home secretary’s PA) providing the most unexpected twists of them all in a narrative covering ten critical days that – like the riots at their centre – cannot be predicted.

This is a gutsy read;  a warts-and-all  journal of each main character’s experience, sometimes with overlapping timelines. (So reader, pay attention.) Interspersed are redacted confidential police reports, using police jargon, for the forthcoming inquiry. (Thankfully there is a helpful glossary at the back). These reports are chilling in their emotional distance, but they do provide another more objective viewpoint of police decisions that outsiders (and politicians) are quick to criticise. Further balance is provided by the experience of Chief Inspector Billy Ridgeton, who is called in from a day off to help out with the escalating unrest and doesn’t come off duty for a week.

I’ve been meaning to read Slovo since publication of The Ice Road in 2004. Glad to have rectified that omission in my reading now and am looking forward to acquainting myself with her back catalogue.  In producing this novel, filled with players and their power plays, Slovo has herself played an absolute blinder!

5stars.GIF

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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