Friday, 29 June 2012

'Tell me your story'

It is difficult to warm to this excellent novel, but this is really a proof of its success. It’s genuinely disturbing, not in the ‘horror film’ sense, but because it disturbs the reader’s settled pre-conceptions and leaves you not quite knowing where to settle them again. Ray, Nathan and Serena are the three members of a BBC production crew who have come to India to make a documentary about life in a ‘prison village’, a rehabilitative experiment where prisoners who have behaved well during their first years in jail are allowed to live under controlled conditions with their families while they serve out the rest of their sentences. Ray, the central character, straddles these two worlds uneasily – from North India originally, she speaks fluent Hindi and refers to herself as ‘veg’, a shorthand for religious and clean-living – but actually, although she can’t quite accept this, has much more in common with the other privileged Westerners.

As the documentary is filmed, the theme of voyeurism becomes so strong that it almost seems a little laboured. Ray is continually imagining scenes in terms of camera angles or close-ups, or actually taking random shots through her viewfinder. And Lalwani does not only focus on the visual element of filmmaking – dialogue is also key. Ray is aware of the mistranslations that are fed to Serena and Nathan, but despite being able to speak to the villagers directly, she is constantly aware that she’s not really sure what they are saying. At one point, acting as translator for Nathan when he interviews a village boy, she alters both sides of the conversation as if she is editing a tape, re-imagining what Nathan ought to have asked and what the boy ought to have said. Although this works well in demonstrating the increasingly shaky morality of what the documentary crew are doing, I felt that the dubiousness of their work perhaps shouldn’t have been so obvious from the start. A more gradual realisation might have brought the point home even more strongly, and the fact that Nathan, Serena and even Ray are all so unsympathetic doesn’t help.

Despite this slight flaw, Lalwani does a masterly job at dissecting Ray’s character even as Ray tries to dissect those around her and find out ‘their true stories’, demonstrating her lack of self-knowledge. Ray distances herself from the other two film-makers throughout most of the novel by protesting that she has nobler motives, that she wants to show a UK audience that India can be forward-thinking in terms of justice and highlight the suffering endured by some of the prisoners in their previous lives, but it is evident she is fooling herself when she thinks she would like to be able to secretly film her subjects through special glasses (banned because of the ethical questions they raise). Ultimately, Ray demands truth from the villagers but lies to them about who she really is. While complaining that they are putting on a show for the cameras and aren’t being ‘natural’, she fails to see that she is putting on a show for them; trying to fit in with what they expect her to be even though she has rejected this ideal in her English life.

Though uncompromisingly bleak, this thought-provoking novel is genuinely gripping and all too brief. And if you enjoyed Lalwani’s take on how we present and reimagine ourselves to suit others, I would recommend Jennifer Egan’s Look At Me, which deals with similar themes in a very different context.

Monday, 25 June 2012

'There, even the dogs are dead'

In Even the Dogs, his third novel, Jon McGregor illuminates the lives of a group of homeless, itinerant drug addicts in much the same way as he shed light on the lives of ‘ordinary’ people in If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. What makes this book perhaps more valuable, if not more well-written, than his wonderful debut is the way in which his writing encourages us to form a kinship with this most demonised underclass. This is most obvious in his use of the first-person plural throughout large sections of the narrative – for example, ‘And how long must we wait. How long have we waited already. For something to happen’.

McGregor encourages this identification through more than this rather transparent ploy. Firstly, ‘we’ refers not only to the group of addicts but to the all-pervasive ‘we’ of an all-seeing consciousness that takes the God perspective on the events following Robert’s sudden death. For example, as policemen force the door of his flat, ‘They don’t see us, as we crowd and push around them. Of course they don’t. How could they. But we’re used to that.’ This appeals to the idea of a common imaginative world that we share with the main characters, as well as pulling us closer to the particular we of their group, their experience of being removed from the rest of society, and passing unseen in the streets. Secondly, McGregor helps us empathise with the characters by focusing on the small, precise details of the society that we share. Laura, Robert’s daughter, has been told by her keyworker that she will be on her road to recovery when she can get up and make a cup of tea first thing in the morning without thinking about drugs. Near the end of the novel, Laura considers the impossibility and the banality of this ordinary ritual: ‘Watching the teabag rise to the surface and turn and fall. Can she give herself the time. Is she halfway there and. Waiting for the tea to brew. Scooping out the bag and dropping it in the bin and stirring in the milk... Sitting at the table with the steam rising out of the mug and catching the light and turning in the air.’

On that note, there are two passages in the novel that I want to discuss in more detail, because they form some of the best writing in the book and because they most completely express McGregor’s view of the interconnectedness of space, time and society. The first appears near the very beginning of the novel, when the police are investigating Robert’s flat. As they tape off the scene of his death, McGregor takes us through his whole lifetime in this flat as if it were a time-lapse photograph: ‘The steam from the bath curls out into the hallway, easing the wallpaper away from the wall. Peppered spores of mould thicken and spread towards the ceiling... Dated felt-tip stripes creep up the wall by the doorframe, tracking their daughter’s growth’. But even as the flat ages, McGregor describes Robert and his lover, Yvonne, bathing together in their youth as if it were still happening, and still is, in another time. The other passage of this kind is later, describing the production of heroin from its origins in poppy fields to its arrival in England, as Ant, one of the group, struggles through Bosnia on a journey of his own: ‘the boys and their light-footed mules are halfway home, their pockets fat with money and their talk full of what they will do with it, the things they will buy their families and the savings they will put towards a scrap of land on which to grow poppies of their own, while somewhere overhead Ant still lies in the belly of the helicopter as it clatters over the landscape’. Instead of separating the addicts into a world of their own, McGregor reconnects them.

But having brought us so completely into their world, McGregor ends the novel with something akin to the scene in Lord of the Flies where an adult suddenly arrives at the boys’ island and sees it differently. The final chapter concerns a transcript of the official inquest into Robert’s death, where Laura is called as a witness. The grace and poetry of Laura’s narration is suddenly reduced to the inarticulate face she presents to the outside world:

CORONER: Do you know why he hadn’t drunk any alcohol prior to his death?...
LAURA: Only, I mean, he knew about me going to rehab, he found out about it like. I told him, I mean. He might have thought, after that, you know.
CORONER: He might have decided to do some rehab of his own, you mean?
LAURA: (inaudible)

And ultimately, we realise that there is no way into, or out of, her head. ‘Where will she go now. What will she. Leave town and. Stick to her script and wait for another place in. Will they let her have another.’ With supreme irony, The Daily Mail calls this novel ‘a short, brilliant and beautiful lesson in empathy’; it’s a lesson that not only the readers of that paper could benefit from, but all the readers of this book.

Friday, 8 June 2012

'It enlarges the imagined range for self to move in' (George Eliot)

I loved Robert Macfarlane's two previous books in this 'loose trilogy', Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places, and he is one of my favourite writers on landscape, place, and travel. So I have to confess to feeling some disappointment with The Old Ways. There are some very fine passages in this book - Macfarlane's description of following 'the deadliest path in Britain', his journey to sacred mountain Minya Konka (which compares extremely favourably to Colin Thubron's account of a similar journey in To a Mountain in Tibet) and his brief sketch of the final days of Edward Thomas in the trenches spring to mind. For this reason, I still enjoyed it, but it ultimately lacks the coherence, restraint and power of its predecessors.

A major problem with this book is a lack of focus - Macfarlane seems to play with and then discard the idea of centring it around paths - and I thought it would have worked better as a collection of essays. But even then, several of the chapters are simply over-long and repetitive; Marfarlane makes the very interesting points that walking helps us unravel our thoughts, and that we are shaped by the landscapes in which we live, over and over again. His writing can also become slightly pretentious and pseudo-academic at times, which I didn't think ever happened in his earlier work - ironically, because Mountains of the Mind is actually a far more academic work about man's fascination with mountains, and yet a much easier and more interesting read than this. In the same chapter, his descriptions range from the spot on - 'a slice-of-lemon daytime moon and a hot-coin sun' - to the laboured  - 'landscape that was both real to the foot and mirageous to the mind' - and sometimes he simply says too much - 'moss as nightmare proofing-absorbent, a dabbing cloth for ill feelings.' After the very strong section on Thomas, the book simply trickles to an end with a meandering ramble about footprints.

On the other hand, Macfarlane's strengths are still showcased in this work, even if they are more diluted than normal. The mini-biography of Edward Thomas is simply beautiful. I've long been a fan of short biographies, which often seem to distil the essence of their subjects more effectively than long, comprehensive ones (Carol Shields on Jane Austen is a great example) and Macfarlane provides further evidence for this here, although I'm still keen to read the Matthew Hollis biography of Thomas that he uses extensively as a source. His description of the relationship between Thomas and his wife Helen is heartbreaking in its brevity: 'Their relationship is founded on her absolute love for him. But unconditional love is arduous to give, and even more arduous to receive... You cannot match my love; your love will always fall short of mine. Added to this is the realisation that the lover who loves you so much cannot be hurt by you; that their love is imperishable. Therefore you can try, almost guiltlessly, to hurt them'. While I have no way of knowing if this is factually true, the emotional truth of this description of such a relationship shines through, and this calibre of writing is evident in many isolated passages throughout the book.

I would recommend reading this by dipping in and out, as, if not a success as a complete book, it's a wonderful quarry. I appreciated the glossary, but I'm suspicious that no pages have been left free for maps in my proof copy and so wonder if this is a problem in the final version as well. 'Paths need walking' says Macfarlane, and it would be a shame if the reader could not follow him.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

'Shuffling the day's events like cards'

I feel that I am one of the few people in the world not to have enjoyed Mark Haddon’s well-known first novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Although the narrative voice of a teenage boy with Asperger’s was initially funny, in the end I found it dull, over-long, gimmicky and even a little emotionally dishonest in the way it used Christopher as a mouthpiece (there have been some criticisms that Asperger’s is portrayed in the novel in an inaccurate way e.g. Christopher’s ‘savant’ abilities with maths and physics, and his seeming lack of sexual desire). Despite all this, I felt that Curious Incident did showcase that Haddon was a good writer, and so I decided to pick up The Red House. I’m so glad I did. It’s so much better.

The Red House is primarily an intense exploration of character, focusing on two families on holiday together for a week in a cottage in the Welsh borders. Angela and Richard are siblings, but have been estranged since childhood; Angela’s husband, Dominic, and her three children, Alex, Daisy and Benji, are also on the holiday, while Richard’s second wife Louisa and stepdaughter Melissa complete the uneasy mix. Haddon’s style is fragmentary, dipping in and out of his characters’ heads and frequently following strings of associations for poetic effect. In a similar vein, he often has them refer back to thoughts they’ve had previously in shorthand to indicate an emotional state, for example when Daisy, struggling with her identity, thinks “Gemma’s Choice”, a school play that she’d remininised about earlier in which she felt she could hide herself under the ‘lime green cardigan’ of the character she’d been playing. I can understand why some readers might have struggled with this approach, but I loved it; it raised the novel away from an anatomically-precise but rather airless depiction of family ties (think Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations) into something much more imaginative and mobile. There are echoes of Ali Smith and Jon McGregor in the way that Haddon uses the most banal of everyday details to illuminate setting, as well, although he is also able to be poetic; the final line of the novel, in which a ‘red kite’ is ‘weaving its way through the holes in the wind’ illustrates this beautifully.

Not all of the characters, however, hold equal weight, and I was particularly impressed with Haddon’s handling of teenaged Daisy. Other characters are also expertly presented, but I felt that Haddon wrote Daisy’s thought processes exceptionally well; whirling, confused, and easily distracted, but with significant memories and realisations popping up with great clarity, like a series of snapshots. Daisy’s realisation about halfway through the novel means that the reader can join the dots in her earlier character development in a way they couldn’t before, and it’s a pleasure to discover the trail that Haddon has carefully laid. He captures the sense of how we think, and how we come to conclusions, with all the dead ends, loops and contradictions, brilliantly. The weak points in the novel, therefore, lie in character and not in style. Although the rapid shift of points-of-view within paragraphs meant that I sometimes lost track of who was narrating, this only happened when less-developed characters, such as Dominic or Angela, were onstage, never with Daisy, Melissa, Alex, or Richard. Angela’s mental struggle throughout the week made her narrative very difficult to follow, and as for her husband Dominic, the detail introduced early in the novel that he’s having an affair was a plotline that I thought could have been omitted. Alongside other strands in the narrative, it made the set-up feel a bit too much like the cliched ‘family secrets are revealed during a holiday’ plot-line, and didn’t seem to help much in the development of Dominic’s character or the depiction of his marriage. Nevertheless, these weak moments were few and far between.

Very much recommended – and I’m now keen to read A Spot of Bother as well.