Sunday, 28 October 2012

'My triangulated family'

'Let me tell you something. If you wanted to curse someone, I don't know why you would, but if you did, if you wanted to make their life hard, if you wanted to make them as vulnerable to grief as possible, I reckon you could do a lot worse than make them a woman in a house of men.'

These compelling lines open Owen Sheers' recent novella, White Ravens. Eerily, this could just as easily be the opening to a book I read immediately before it, Lionel Shriver's A Perfectly Good Family. Both novels focus on the plight of a young woman with two brothers, and the pain that these three siblings cause each other when the brothers force her to choose between them; and hence, both novels hark back to a third story, the plot that Sheers consciously bases his novel on; the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, which forms the second branch of the Mabinogion

I have to say that I was disappointed by Sheers' retelling, which forms part of a sequence of modern retellings of stories from the Mabinogion, an initative from small press Seren which mirrors Canongate's fabulous Myths series. I thought his Resistance and The Dust Diaries were fantastic, but the quality of his writing was not as much in evidence here, except in the early portion of the novella, which is narrated by Rhian, a young Welsh woman who has recently abandoned both her brothers after a lifetime of loyalty. She never expected to do this, Rhian explains, but after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease led to the shooting of all of their sheep, her brothers turned to a bloodier trade which she can no longer countenance. Like modern-day border men, they have taken to stealing sheep from other farms, locking them into a van, slaughtering them en route to London, and selling the fresh meat to high-class restaurants.

 In this lopsided reflection of the famous cauldron in Branwen's story, I thought Sheers had done something quite wonderful; Rhian's voice, as is evident from the opening paragraph, is utterly convincing, and the imagery as memorable as the original Celtic myth of reattaching limbs and reanimating bodies. There are shades of the opening story, 'Butcher's Perfume', in Sarah Hall’s engrossing collection, The Beautiful Indifference, here. Unfortunately, he then switches – through the device of an old man that Rhian encounters outside the Tower of London – to a much less convincing straightforward retelling of the story, despite his assertion in the afterword that ‘I knew I didn’t want to faithfully hit every beat of the original.’ Nor should he; the power of such stories cannot be exactly reproduced in this day and age, when casual violence evokes very different responses, and his attempt to put the pieces of the Branwen tale together is clumsy, despite brilliant touches such as the weaving in of the legend of the ravens in the Tower (if they leave, England will fall). At times, it reads as if it was written in a rush, especially when it comes to dialogue, when one character, Ben, is used frequently to awkwardly gloss the novella: “We keep telling them [the Mabinogion stories] like, in different ways, but they’re still the same. An’ I reckon they’ll go on being so til’ we learn from ‘em.” Yes, I wanted to say, I get it; what next?

The reader could do worse than to turn to Lionel Shriver’s caustic exploration of family dynamics, A Perfectly Good Family. Corlis grew up as the middle child and the only girl, and sided with her ‘good’ younger brother Truman once he was old enough to assert a claim on her. However, now her ‘bad’ older brother Mordecai is back, to stake a claim on their family home after her mother’s death. Corlis can choose, once again, to side with Truman or with Mordecai, and implicitly, with her conventional desires or her risky impulses. What could have become a dull, small-scale narrative turns, in Shriver’s hands, into something rather fascinating. The touch of genius is the introduction of a ‘fourth child’ – the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] and the revelation that their parents have willed a quarter of their estate to this organisation. This switches the dynamic from a black-and-white struggle between Truman and Mordecai to a much subtler exploration of this ‘normal family.’ For Corlis, the ultimate metaphor for her mother’s life is their giant freezer, where she stored remnants of meals that nobody liked at the time for much longer than they would ever keep, and it is cathartic to clear this out after her mother’s death: ‘I had started hacking at the ice murals of dinner we didn’t finish... wondering if the impulse wasn’t to save most what you never really had in the first place...Oh, she’d saved all right, but saved what? A life of freezing. That was what my mother did. She froze.’

As Corlis explains, her mother was so afraid of losing anything good in her life that she started to turn it into a memorial before it was even over – hence, the many holidays she remembers when her mother would exclaim, “Aren’t we having a wonderful time!” – and this permanently damaged her relationship with her husband, a stickler for protocol who refused to give in even over the most trivial matters. Shriver is wonderfully observant on the minutae of life. Truman’s joy in buying new things, as if he has scored a moral victory by using up the soap or toothpaste, Corlis’s duplicity in adopting different personas as she moves between the brothers – ‘They have completely different sisters’ – and Mordecai’s triumph in securing a bank loan through utter blagging, are beautifully skewered. Again, I wondered if the ending of this novel, as with Checker and the Derailleurs, wasn’t a little too upbeat, and it’s hard to see an older Shriver letting it pass. The extreme rifts within the family seem to vanish very quickly – and Shriver is also guilty of using the all-too-common trope of ‘character improvement through sudden disablement’, when it seems much more likely that a man like Mordecai would become increasingly embittered. Still, this novel is a joy to read for its fresh perspective on family life, and I’d recommend it as heartily as any of Shriver’s work.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

'I don't know how one could ever forget a house like this'...?

This is a difficult book to review. Although the linked short stories that make up the narrative are often precise, memorable and compelling, there's also some rather dull writing and characterisation; perhaps unfairly, I can already sense that this novel will be forgettable, despite its many strengths.

In this book, Elizabeth Wilhide presents a series of vignettes from Ashenden's past, beginning in the eighteenth century and moving full-circle to the present day, which occasionally share common characters, but otherwise are connected by nothing except the house. I felt that this would have worked well enough as a series of short stories, and it is the clumsy attempts to connect them more closely that are the most serious weaknesses of this novel. Most of the stories begin with a 'linking paragraph' that jumps out from the otherwise spare and well-written prose by labouring the obvious with overblown descriptions: for example, in 1929, 'It's a simple equation: spend more than you earn, no matter how little or how much that is, and there's trouble sooner or later... Trapped in the looking glasses here and there are pale reflections that rise up out of their depths and fade away again.' I swiftly began skipping these paragraphs, and the stories would be improved at a stroke by cutting them all. More trivially, I did not get much sense of what the house was like, despite the frequent references to architectural detail like the clerestory windows, and I felt, for this reason, that much of the description was wasted.

However, if you don't think of this book as a whole, but treat each story in turn, there's much to enjoy here. I found that the early and late chapters dragged, but the middle section introduces set after set of interesting characters and well-observed, inventive, situations. At times, these were too briefly explored, as in 'The Treasure Hunt', but at other times, the brevity of the story is its strength, as in 'The Boating Party' and 'The Photograph.' The links to historical events are usually deftly explored, taking an unusual angle rather than making the obvious links that lesser historical novels (and Downton Abbey!) usually go for, especially in the sections set in 1909, 1916 and 1946, exploring the two world wars, their beginnings, and their aftermath. Certain characters are instantly engaging, despite there being very little space to place them on the page, the mark of a skilful writer; I longed to find out what had happened to Pudge from 'Love in Bloom' and Frances from 'The Treasure Hunt'. On the other hand, however, I did find myself wondering if Wilhide is simply a better writer of short stories than she is a novelist - two very different arts - for when characters did appear in more than one story, like Reggie and Hugo in the twentieth century, or James Woods in the eighteenth, I found myself losing interest in them. Again, this suggested that the parts were stronger than the whole; I wasn't sure if Wilhide had anything to say, overall, about home, place, and belonging, although she explores other themes so well in microcosm.

This book was well-written, interesting, and well-researched, but ultimately, for me, failed to come together. Because of this, it sits uncomfortably in the shadow of stronger country-house novels such as Atonement and The Little Stranger, and could be unfavourably compared to Sebastian Faulks's recent A Possible Life, which achieves a unity of theme across much more disparate stories, and manages to work as a whole. It's certainly worth reading, but I don't think it's a book that I will remember.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

'She knows this life is hers to change'

‘Historians and anthropologists have a common subject-matter, “otherness”; one field constructs and studies “otherness” in space, the other in time.' - Bernard Cohn, 1980

The narrator of Mischa Berlinski’s first novel, Fieldwork, is a freelance, footloose traveller currently resident in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with his girlfriend, Rachel; however, his is not the only story that the novel tells, despite the first-person narrative voice. The narrator – whom we later discover that Berlinski has named after himself – becomes increasingly interested in the story of Martiya van de Leun, a one-time anthropologist who has recently committed suicide in a Thai prison, where she was incarcerated for decades for the murder of a Christian missionary, David Walker. But David has his own story as well, as do the other members of the Walker clan. Even the central narrative, Martiya’s, comes out in dribs and drabs from old friends, lovers and acquaintances, all of whom give her different roles to play. Tim Blair, an ex-boyfriend, begins his story by saying ‘You know she voted for Nixon, don’t you? Christ, man, that blew me away,’ a detail that stands out precisely because he cannot fit it into his idea of who Martiya was, while for Karen Leon, an anthropological colleague, sees Martiya as part of the exhilarating experience of her first fieldwork, and cannot believe her old friend could have killed someone.

So this is a story about stories, but also a story about ‘fieldwork’, and the possibilities and impossibilities of entering someone else’s world-view. For much of the novel, Martiya feels that a huge gulf stretches between her and the Dyalo, the invented people whom she is studying, who simply tell her ‘It is our custom’ when she asks any question about their culture. The figure that haunts her is that of the apocryphal ‘Eskimo Kathy’, a former anthropology student who deeply offended the Eskimo community she did her fieldwork with, and disappeared from the profession, but it seems with Martiya that it’s all or nothing; by the end, she is so deeply integrated with the Dyalo that she cannot leave. Retaining a professional distance seems impossible, as does understanding Dyalo beliefs without coming to believe them. Perhaps, Berlinski seems to be implying, true understanding is impossible without actual conversion; although Martiya’s scholarly articles on life in a Thai women’s prison might suggest otherwise.

This engrossing first novel is packed with life, voices, and fascinating questions, and reads like a thriller while raising questions as profound as anything tackled by Sebastian Faulks in his latest offering, A Possible Life. Far from being Faulks’ first novel, this is his eighth, and the five linked novellas that make it up often seem to be labouring under the weight of that earlier work. Like a ‘greatest hits’ album, we are taken back to occupied WW2 France and incognito English (Charlotte Gray) in Part I, ‘A Different Man’, reflect on the evils of finance and banking (A Week in December) in Part III, ‘Everything Can Be Explained,’ explore primitive nineteenth-century ideas about the mind (Human Traces) in Part II, ‘The Second Sister’, and sophisticated neuroscientific concepts of consciousness (Engelby) in Part V, ‘You Next Time,’ as well as in Part III again. With these links rather too obvious, I can’t say that this is Faulks’ best work, but there is still some memorable writing here.

The opening novella, ‘A Different Man,’ is simple but affecting in its depiction of a very ordinary turning-point in in the life of a man who has experienced true horror in a prisoner of war camp. ‘A Door into Heaven,’ with its captivating opening line, ‘Jeanne was said to be the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she had lived most of her life,’ is equally pared-down, but works through its depiction of Jeanne and the reader’s engagement with her outwardly uneventual life. The only real failure in this novel/collection of novels was, I felt, ‘The Second Sister,’ which uses a rather crude depiction of nineteenth-century mental illness to make obvious points about the brain and our concept of identity. ‘Everything Can Be Explained’, set a few decades into the future and dealing with the career of a brilliant neuroscientist, Elena, also rather over-simplifies Faulks’ ideas about the consciousness by basing them, somewhat implausibly, on a single construct in the brain, although it’s an interesting and necessary introduction to his standpoint for those who have not read Faulks before.

However, ‘You Next Time,’ the final story, is Faulks's triumph. Anya King is an aspiring musician in the 1960s, and the narrator of the story, her friend and lover, Jack, thinks she is little short of a genius. However, Anya’s rise to fame comes fraught with emotional difficulties, and their time together is limited. In one of Anya’s early songs, concerning a woman who hopes for reincarnation to live the life with her lover she was not able to in the present, the message is clear: ‘I will die and rise/The shadow on your wall/My name will be the only one you call/Oh my darling, you next time.’ Jack realises early on that Anya does not sing songs that can be neatly bracketed into those that draw upon her personal experience, versus those that are beyond her experience, and this realisation is not only applicable to art, but to life. Our ability to emphasise with those around us becomes, in this story, a sense of a Jungian idea of a universal consciousness and a counterpoint to the bleak materialism of Elena’s neuroscience, where we die with our brains and bodies. While not accepting the idea of an afterlife or, indeed, bodily reincarnation, Jack is able to see something beyond the individual brain. He thinks of himself as a small boy, how he no longer shares any cells with that boy, and reflects upon his life as a whole: ‘the list of facts that make my life... They could be mine, they might be yours. I’m an actor playing a part I’ve never mastered.’ Anya sings about herself, but also about others; the walls between individual lives seem to be coming down.

It's an apt note on which to end this book, which for all its faults I still found more exciting than much of the fiction I've read recently. And having finished it, I found myself remembering Fieldwork, which I read earlier, and reflecting on the similarity of the books’ themes – our efforts to understand ‘the other’, and how such efforts can be both too hard, and too easy, at the same time.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

'Stay if you wish to hear a tale of my making'

The Long Song opens with a palimpsest. Our narrator, ‘Miss July’ (although whether that is her real name or not is never made clear), is telling us the story of her birth. She relates how her slave mother, Kitty, was so strong, relentless and heroic that she simply gave birth without noticing while chopping sugar cane in the fields, grabbed a cloth, swaddled her baby and heaved her up on her back, and carried on chopping. The story has all the characteristics of the tall tales of American folk literature, or, more loosely, Jamaican trickster tales concerning the spider Anansi, and it’s no surprise to discover that it isn’t true. Instead, July tells us, Kitty was screaming so long and loudly in prolonged childbirth that the master of the plantation came to try and silence her because she was putting him off his strawberry preserves, and, once July was born, she never stopped crying either. The implication is that it would be nice if the folk-tale were real, if racist beliefs about the insensibility and strength of ‘negros’ were true, but July intends to tell us the truth, and because she may twist it at times, we, her readers, had better learn to distinguish.

Of course, July proves only partially reliable as a narrator, hiding painful details, attempting to end her story in several different places, skimming over times that contained too much suffering to be related, and occasionally inventing happy resolutions that never happened, and this is where the great strength of The Long Song lies. Like all of us, July wants to create a life-story for herself that is more than just meaningless suffering, even though she spent the best part of her life firstly as a house slave, and then as an indentured servant, in Jamaica in the 1830s. As Andrea Levy notes in her afterword, she wanted to capture the humour in a slave’s life, as well as the horror, and she’s partially successful, although not always (see below). July’s storytelling brings her older self vividly alive, and what she chooses to leave out is often as important as what she leaves in. Ultimately, this is a story full of holes, based on what July wants to recollect, and what she wants to pass onto her son Thomas, for whom she is writing the manuscript, and this sketchy structure does as much as anything else to bring home to us the devastatation of being born into slavery.

Levy is good at conveying the petty distinctions that oppressed groups always create to try to find somebody lower than themselves to hate. She details long discussions amongst freed slaves about ancestry and ‘white blood’, with the implication that paler skin and more white relatives makes one superior, and how July herself looks down upon ‘field slaves’. She’s less good on white oppressors. The major white characters in the novel, Caroline, Thomas, William and Tam, are largely caricatures, with occasional gestures towards development (a complaint I also had about Bernard in Small Island) and although we could hardly expect to encounter sympathetic characters in this context, it would have been interesting to explore the different types of prejudice they embody more thoroughly. Levy comes closest to this with William Goodwin, a white missionary who becomes overseer on the plantation after the end of slavery, and whose faith initially drives him to try to treat the former slaves more kindly, but eventually, he too collapses into brutal, blunt racism. I had hoped she would explore how Goodwin’s prejudice manifested itself in different ways, how being kind can be itself a way to wield power, and how he preaches tolerance but condones racism in very different language to that of the original planters. However, unfortunately, the demands of the plot curtail the exploration of Goodwin’s character, as they do, less obviously, that of Miss July. The years rattle on so quickly in this novel that we feel we hardly get a chance to know July before she is thrown into another very different set of circumstances, and although the pace makes it very readable and enjoyable, I felt that this was at the sacrifice of depth.

The experience of life as a slave is hardly one that fiction has left unexplored, and I am still wondering if it’s possible to bring anything new to that literature. I think it can be done; but I’m not sure that Levy manages it. There is much to explore about the subtleties of racism and oppression that she simply leaves untouched. Like her acclaimed Small Island, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which I also enjoyed, this is a strongly-written novel with convincing characters, but it remains little more than the sum of its parts; to be cruel, you could call it paint-by-numbers. This novel will move you, engage you, grip you, while you are reading it; but I am not sure that it will make you think.

PS This doesn’t really belong in the review, but as an historian and a writer, I was fairly unhappy with Levy’s statement in her afterword that in writing an historical novel, one can employ imagination, whereas the historian has to stick to facts... I believe the writing of any good history, especially when sources are sparse, as they would be for slave experiences, demands the exercise of some degree of imagination – but then I don’t believe writing history and writing historical novels are as far apart as she seems to think. Hmph.