Friday, 19 April 2013

'Temporary insanity'

I've never been a fan of Matthew Kneale's best-known novel and Whitbread winner, English Passengers, but it is precisely the aspects of this novel that concerned me the most at the time that Kneale deftly sidesteps in his more recent collection of short stories, Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance. Both texts primarily focus on the English encounter with the Other. But while English Passengers felt moralistic and unfocused, with straw-man clerics flung in to allow us to feel self-satisfied about our own tolerant liberalism, Small Crimes is quite the opposite; short vignettes that tend to question rather than answer or condemn, and a pervading sense of unease that lingers long after each story is finished. It's a shame that Kneale seems to have written nothing new since his 2008 novel, When We Were Romans, which I also loved.

English Passengers examines the British colonisation of Tasmania and the plight of the aborigines in the mid-nineteenth century, while also glancing at creationism, smuggling and early eugenics. The plot is split for the vast majority of the book into two strands - the first (which I enjoyed much more, mostly because it featured the Manx smuggler Captain Illiam Quillan Kewley, who is far and away the best character in the book) focuses on the long sea voyage to Tasmania of a disparate bunch of Manx seamen and 'English passengers' - these being a sinister doctor making a study of 'native races', a deluded clergyman in search of the Garden of Eden, and a somewhat hapless botanist caught up in it all. The second strand, set in Tasmania, gives us a glimpse of the aboriginal point of view on the atrocities committed by the British through the character of Peevay, but also manages to encompass the convict camps for British criminals as well. The two strands only really intertwine to any extent in the last hundred and fifty pages or so, once Kewley's 'English passengers' arrive in Tasmania, and this severely weakens the novel, as the narrative drive is continually compromised by switching back and forth between the two plot strands, which obviously echo each other thematically but in the end only impinge upon each other in minor ways. 

There's also - as the plot summary suggests - far too much packed in, despite the book's length. I found myself questioning in particular why the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson had been included at all - despite providing the impetus for the voyage, his creationist beliefs with regards to geology had long been discredited by the scientific establishment in Victorian Britain by 1858, as Kneale recognises, and his ramblings seemed less and less relevant to the colonist theme, and more as if they had just been thrown in for comic relief. However, the character of Dr Potter, while thematically more relevant, was hardly less annoying - his shorthand style of writing was hard to concentrate on and meant he acquired absolutely no character depth. On the other hand, the Manx characters were fabulously drawn and Captain Kewley's sections hilarious. The glimpses of life in colonial Tasmania, especially in the convict camps, were fascinating, though I wished that there hadn't been quite so many different points of view from various colonial officials in this section. Despite this, however, Kneale wrote all the various voices incredibly well and it's difficult to become confused about who the narrator is. I also liked how the various narratives gave the novel an appropriately nineteenth-century feel, as if it was a bundle of old papers picked up, sifted through, and collated into a narrative, like Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White or Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Like a packet of letters, then, this book is a mishmash, and, ironically, the sequence of loosely-linked short stories in Small Crimes has almost as much coherence, and certainly carries more thematic weight. The majority of the stories manage a succinct punch of their own, but, together, they are more than the sum of their parts as they examine culpability, guilt, and what qualifies as a criminal act. Superficial similarities, such as liberal, privileged Westerners encountering the 'exotic', don't prevent most of these tales from being individually excellent, although there are a few exceptions; 'Sunlight' trades too heavily on the tired trope of a writer fictionalising his 'real' experiences, whereas the story that closes the collection, 'Powder', feels cliched after so much has been written about terrorism and suicide bombing, especially far superior efforts such as Four Lions. A couple of stories, such as 'Seasons' and 'Taste', simply feel unfinished. However, at the other end of the scale, the two opening stories, 'Stone' and 'Powder', are unforgettable, and I was unsurprised to see that 'Powder' has since been published as a separate novella. Both of the stories start with a familiar scenario - a British family tired of guided tours who want to see the 'real' China, a middle-ranking lawyer who feels he has been overlooked for promotion since achieving the rank of salaried partner - and move forward into the horrific or bizarre. Kneale's skill lies in making each of the characters' small choices seem completely rational, while the conclusions they lead them to are outcomes they would never have chosen; this anatomises the crime in far more detail than most authors manage, raising real questions about our own free will. I was reminded of George Eliot's careful examination in Adam Bede of why we do things we know to be wrong, and how wrong actions snowball into far greater transgressions.

Kneale also plays well with the space between his characters, both geographical and cultural. His range of locations does not feel like mere showing off, but exhibits the careful links he has created between his stories, such as following the production and distribution of cocaine (a theme which reminded me strongly of Jon McGregor's Even the Dogs). His descriptions are sparse and writing workmanlike, but I felt that this was very effective, avoiding the descent into travelogue and the temptation to prove that he has done his research which I felt was one of the flaws of English Passengers. Some stories are simply beautifully structured, such as 'Leaves', which uses the device of the story-within-a-story so well that the reader is instantly captivated by the second tale, rather than distracted by the digression - indeed, when we returned to the main plotline, I had forgotten that it existed. 'Metal' explores the difference between our personal interactions and political actions, as an arms dealer, Toby, congratulates himself for interacting with the 'common man' in the unnamed North African country he has come to do business with. And in 'Sound', a young media journalist, Colin, explores the narrow line between fear and violence when he believes he is being followed by a dangerous stalker, admitting to himself 'he would have been less alarmed if the man walking behind him had been white' and reassured, ultimately, when the man shouts in 'a sing-song public school drawl'.

These stories worked for me, where English Passengers didn't, ultimately because they are set in the here and now; although I'm hardly against historical novels, the themes that Kneale wants to explore are more compelling when we are forced to face them directly, rather than feel comfortable in the knowledge that we are not nineteenth-century colonisers and would never be placed in circumstances where we would act as they did. By reading the two books together, it is clear that Kneale seeks to ask why we are happy to condemn direct imperialism while ignoring or condoning indirect imperialistic actions like the examples that litter the pages of Small Crimes. As he puts it at the end of 'Stone', the terrible incident on the Winters' holiday gradually became 'Something far away, that was not quite real, and that could not touch them'.

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