Friday, 31 January 2014

'Imagine your new splendid life!'

I've read both of Tash Aw's previous novels, The Harmony Silk Factory and Map of the Invisible World, but can remember almost nothing about them. After finishing Five Star Billionaire - a book whose premise initially seems much bolder and more brash - I'm wondering if this forgettability is written into his prose. As with Aw's previous work, Five Star Billionaire follows a number of characters, but, unlike his other novels, focuses tightly on a single location, if a massive one; the metropolis of Shanghai. Phoebe Chen Aiping is a 'girl from the provinces' who is trying to hide her humble background and become a successful and attractive woman; Gary also hails from poverty but has become a pop superstar; Justin, having devoted himself to the interests of his family's property empire all his life, is turning his back on it at last; and his former friend Yinghui is a successful businesswoman, a career at odds with her disorganised activist past. The figure of 'Five Star Billionaire' Walter Chao, rich and secretive, weaves through all of their narratives, although the precise nature of his connections with these four characters is never made entirely clear. Walter, however, is the joker in the pack; if not for his machinations, the riches-to-rags tales that Phoebe, Justin, Yinghui and Gary have to tell would be even more predictable than they already are. Aw's style is gentle and his writing flows seemingly effortlessly, but the problem with this is that no detail ever sticks. As I reached the end of the novel, I felt that it was more of a fairytale than the glimpse into the ruthlessness of Shanghai society that it seemed to promise at the start.

This isn't to say that there's nothing worthwhile here. It was Phoebe's story that gripped me. Beginning as an illegal migrant worker, Phoebe is captivated by a cheap self-help book called Secrets of A Five Star Billionaire. She uncritically swallows all of its advice, and begins to use a series of mantras to regulate her life. 'Imagine your new splendid life and it will soon come true!' she thinks to herself as she buys an 'expensive fake' designer handbag and takes carefully-posed selfies for her internet dating profile. While the other narrators' voices sometimes bleed into one, Phoebe's is always distinguishable due to the stream of cliches she has internalised. For example, one of her chapters begins, 'That day Phoebe felt her life was awash with good feelings. She was dressed according to the rules of fashion that she had picked up from observing Shanghai women… this was the standard of woman she aspired to be, and on this day, going to have coffee with a man she'd met on the internet, she felt certain that she had finally attained that level of sophistication. Her life would now surely change for the better.' The sad irony of Phoebe's story is that her self-improvement stems not from her own efforts but from luck; after picking up an ID card that another girl leaves in a cafe, she is able to get proper work in a spa rather than living in a crowded dorm with other illegal factory workers. Believing that the only way forward is to trample on others, Phoebe makes herself indispensable at the spa by turning away other girls seeking work, and has another girl fired for giving her phone number to a client. She believes her success is due to following rules like 'Being nice is your mom's job - and look where it got her' but we can discern the string of chances behind Phoebe's rise.

The three other narrators echo the themes of Phoebe's story - the transience of unearnt success, the harm that comes from seeking money, the vulnerability that results from being honest - but I didn't find any of them captivating in the same way. Justin and Yinghui's stories occasionally flared into life, but Gary's tale has been told so many times before, although by poorer writers than Aw. And ultimately, Phoebe's arc is predictable and comforting; she might seem ruthless on the outside, but on the inside she just wants to be loved and taken care of. The only real monster here is Walter, the Five Star Billionaire. I felt there was a missed opportunity here to explore the questions the novel raises more deeply, but Phoebe, like the other characters, simply fades away. After each of Aw's novels, I've thought that I will carry on reading his work, despite its faults, because he is evidently a good writer. And I still think that I will read his next novel. I do wish, though, that he would deploy his obvious literary talents to do something slightly more daring, to say something less obvious. A multiplicity of characters and settings is no longer enough.

[Yes, this was meant to be a review of AM Homes's This Book Will Change Your Life, but I've come to the conclusion I will not get round to reading it in the near future, so that review is cancelled. Apologies.]

Monday, 27 January 2014

Monday Musings: Making a contract

I've discussed Umberto Eco's message to the reader in his introduction to The Name of The Rose before, and my feelings about his request that the reader slow their mind to the pace of a medieval cloister before embarking upon the novel are still very ambivalent. While such an explicit command in an introduction does feel somewhat patronising, I also know where Eco is coming from. As a writer, you know that you cannot control how the reader comes to your novel, and that there are some novels - The Name of the Rose being one of them - that demand more sustained attention and yes, a slower pace than others. This isn't because the writer deserves respect from the reader before they've earnt it, but because the reader does partly make their reading experience for themselves, and there are books that cannot be enjoyed quickly. There's a suggestion here that we should give the greatest novels more of our precious time, and this is probably why Eco's statement initially comes off as arrogant, but I'm not sure that this is true. While wonderful novels such as Marilynne Robinson's Gilead absolutely deserve time and space, some equally wonderful novels don't need it - think Pride and Prejudice, which ought to be read at full speed. I certainly don't think that The Name of the Rose is a great novel, but it is a rewarding one - if you read it slowly.

Every reader will have confessions of their own to make in this department, and at the risk of sounding too much like the General Confession (or Tyrion Lannister) I'm no exception. I have certainly sinned against many novels, even those that I loved; I have read them too quickly, I have skimmed sections, I have counted pages, I have read just to tick them off a list, I have read a book because I ought to read it. I'm certainly not advocating that we need to read every book with intense concentration, but there are so many I ought to have read better. But where does the author stand in all this? I've heard a number of authors despair over reviews which castigate novels for not telling the story that they wanted to read, and I do sympathise with these authors. Many readers (and I'm sure I've been no exception at times) never consider what an author might have been trying to achieve with a novel or that it is impossible to anticipate all readers' preferences. But (as readers of this pretty acerbic blog will have guessed) this doesn't mean we ought to let authors off the hook. It is possible for authors to guide readers towards reading a text in the way it ought to be read, without writing an Umberto-Eco style introduction. I've seen it done by writers such as Kathleen Jamie, whose prose is just so careful and brilliant that you are inspired to read it carefully; by Eleanor Catton, who skilfully uses storytelling devices such as recaps and retellings to get the reader to pay closer attention; and by Kazuo Ishiguro, who gets his reader in on a conspiracy to catch his unreliable narrators being unreliable.

This does not mean that these authors are immune to bad readers, or conversely, that anyone who dislikes their works has been reading them badly. But herein lies the power of the re-read. I'm a big advocate of re-reading, and when I'm reunited with my full book collection (happy days) I intend to do what Susan Hill did in Howards End Is On The Landing and read nothing but books I have already read for a year. Re-reading books has often delivered me some of my favourites. I wasn't sure about Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, for example, when I first encountered it, but now I think it is one of the best modern novels I have ever read. Of course, the author has to do enough to deserve a re-read, and I certainly don't intend to re-read books I thought were complete duds the first time round - but I'm always a little concerned by readers who say they never re-read. I understand this is a common stance and that it can be very difficult to find the time to read a book once, let alone twice, but - don't you ever want to go back?

That's probably enough from me for now, but next week I will be discussing what novelists can learn from soaps/long-running TV series, featuring such diverse delights as Downton, House, Doctor Who and Holby City. I'm sure nobody wants to miss this.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Farthest North and Farthest South #6: 'Men with frozen beards'

My recent North/South Pole binge started with Gavin Francis's Empire Antarctica, continued to Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita, and finished with Sarah Moss's The Frozen Ship. Reading these three books alongside each other was more illuminating than I had initially expected. Both the Francis and Wheeler are memoirs of travelling and living in Antarctica, whereas the Moss takes an entirely different tack, examining our fascination with the Arctic and Antarctic since the early days of exploration. Francis and Wheeler reminded me of the importance of voice in a memoir. Although you of course do not 'get to know' the author through a memoir, you 'get to know' the fictional self that they have chosen to present to a reader, and it's hugely important whether that self is likeable or not. Indeed, I think I could cope with a narrator I didn't like in a novel much more easily than an objectionable narrator in a memoir - probably because the sense is that you are meant to like them. Fortunately, both Francis and Wheeler are good company, with Francis coming off as less judgemental and more easy-going, while Wheeler is the superior writer.

Francis worked as a doctor on a British base, Halley, wintering over with a small group of people while he watches the nearby colony of emperor penguins. While his memoir was a little too penguin-heavy for my liking, ice and silence get a good innings as well, and the image of Francis braving the cold to lie in the snow and watch the aurora has already stayed with me for some time. In contrast, Wheeler did not winter over in Antarctica, but supported by a grant from the US National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists' and Writers' Program, she travelled about the continent, staying on a wide array of international bases and sleeping in Captain Scott's hut. Both Francis's and Wheeler's accounts are full of the idiosyncratic detail that is one of the things that most appeals to me about accounts of the farthest south. Francis recounts his attempts to mitigate the effect of constant darkness on the sleep cycles of Halley's staff, using white and blue lighting, but despite this, 'a couple of people started free-running onto a new, internally determined body clock of their own', dealing with a night a quarter of a year long. Wheeler's asides are usually lighter; she describes the secret Corner Bar on McMurdo Sound, which drew 'any reprobate who arrived on the ice' towards itself 'like an iron filing to a magnet.' The bar, 'presided over by a hyperactive carpenter called Mike, ran on goodwill' and held a range of paraphernalia, including 'a life-sized model penguin with the concentric circles of a shooting target painted on its chest.'

After reading both Francis and Wheeler, however, I felt bombarded with descriptions of snow, cold, and eccentric behaviour, and this is where Moss's text comes in. Rather than a memoir - Moss has never been to the Arctic or Antarctic - this text takes a more academic angle, examining how narratives of polar exploration have been constructed since the earliest accounts of Greenland in Norse sagas. In many ways, this was easily the best of the three books, but in others, I found it horribly frustrating. This is becoming a familiar response for me when I read Moss's work. With both her fictional Night Waking and her non-fictional memoir Names for the Sea I felt frequently enraged by one thing or another while impressed by the originality and intelligence of her writing, and this book is no exception. It's certainly a text I'd recommend to anyone interested in the history of the exploration of the Arctic or Antarctic; it effectively contextualises famous explorers such as Sir John Franklin while highlighting lesser-known expeditions such as Salomon Andree's attempt to reach the North Pole by hot air balloon in 1897. However, I did feel frustrated by her lack of academic distance, which was especially highlighted for me by her treatment of Scott, although other explorers are certainly not exempt from her barbs. Her uncritical use of Roland Huntford's (in)famous hatchet job, Scott and Amundsen, is concerning enough in itself, especially as her bibliography indicates she has read later correctives such as Max Jones's The Last Great Quest. Alongside this, however, her own readings of Scott's journal seem to me to be distorted and malicious. Scott writes, trapped in a blizzard on the way to the Pole, 'It is very evil to sit here in a wet sleeping-bag and think of the pity of it… Surely few situations could be more exasperating than this forced inactivity when every day and indeed every moment counts.' Scott was concerned because 'We have this morning started  our Summit Rations' which meant the success of the expedition was being jeopardised. Whatever one might think of Scott's methods, I found his worry at this point very understandable. Moss, however, emphasises 'his petulant tone and the continuing emphasis on his conviction that he deserves to succeed, that the Antarctic owes him good weather.'

I don't wish to come across as a Scott apologist (I loved Wheeler's description of Antarctica as 'a testing-ground for men with frozen beards to see how dead they could get') but Moss's close readings of Scott's writings are extremely unsatisfying, and do seem to be forcing a certain interpretation on to his words. I also found her assessment of why Scott has remained a national myth to be lacking. She feels that 'the British treasuring of Scott' is seen by other nations to be both 'typical and incomprehensible' and explains it by stereotypically summarising the Edwardian mindset, a mindset that she claims was swept away by the First World War, and so Scott became 'an emblem of all that was lost.' Recent historiography would not agree with Moss's description of the pace of social and political change after the war; indeed, the current emphasis has been on continuity and conservatism. Also, as Max Jones points out, while glorifying failure has been viewed as a peculiarly British characteristic, this is not actually accurate, and other national myths other than the British possess similar features. Personally, it seems to be that if a hero from the 'Golden Age' of Antarctic exploration is still unnecessarily glorified today, it's Shackleton, not Scott. Scott's reputation has continually suffered from the 'debunking' that the British do also seem to love indulging in, but there ought to be some more debunking of Shackleton as well, who was at least as prone to reckless, dangerous decisions as Scott, if not more so. However, Moss passes over him uncritically. For these reasons, I found her account both fascinating and unreliable.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Monday Musings: Show and tell

It frustrates me sometimes that 'show, don't tell' still seems to be a staple of writing advice. While this is probably helpful for the absolute beginner, I can think of countless novels that deliberately tell rather than show to magnificent effect. The first that comes to mind is the brilliant The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, one of my favourite reads of 2012, which effortlessly mixes folktale with modern-day conflict in the Balkans. One of the things that makes this novel so wonderful is the way in which it appeals to our innate desire to be told a story. There is little dialogue or indeed any scenes as such in The Tiger's Wife; instead, our first-person narrator tells us stories of herself and of her grandfather that don't need to show us anything to be captivating. This is not a long novel, but many of my favourite long novels use 'telling' to similar effect; Sarah Waters, for example, writes fantastic dialogue and set-pieces, most notably in The Night Watch, but is equally capable in 'tell' mode in The Little Stranger.

Perhaps, however, it's unfair to use novels like this to disagree with 'show, don't tell'. Is this a piece of advice intended for lower-brow reads - whatever that means - or for writing for children or teenagers? Again, however, I'd have to disagree that this advice is always or even often relevant. Like 'never use the passive voice', another writing rule that frequently perplexes me, telling doesn't necessarily mean that you are writing lazily. Children's classics like Charlotte Sometimes, Tom's Midnight Garden and Marianne Dreams tell parts of their stories, and their long survival indicates their appeal to young readers. In contrast, more recent offerings sometimes take the 'show' injunction to extremes, leaving the reader perplexed by the world-building, like teenage hits Divergent and The Hunger Games (much as I guiltily enjoyed those two novels). Genre reads, too, can suffer from the problem. Everyone knows how much I love A Song of Ice and Fire, but A Dance With Dragons, the weakest so far in the series, was bogged down by endless 'showing.' Martin rarely tells the reader anything directly in Dance, but in earlier instalments he was willing to do so more often, leaving us to deduce the most important information in the novel rather than worrying over lengthy scenes between minor characters.

Telling is not something recommended to the beginning writer because it is difficult to do it well, and I can think of many novels that seem only to skim the surface of the story they are telling because their telling is not deep enough (Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie springs to mind.) However, the ease of spinning out pages of dialogue can also be deceptive, and knowing exactly what you want to 'show' in 'showing' scenes is harder than you might think. The worst offenders are scenes that try to avoid exposition by 'showing' through dialogue, when the facts they're trying to convey would have been much better told. I'm reminded of this classic piece of writing from Enid Blyton's Upper Fourth at Malory Towers, when Darrell Rivers and her sister Felicity are leaving for boarding school: 'Mr Rivers looked at them and smiled. "Both off this time!" he said. "Well, I remember quite well Darrell going off alone for the first time almost four years ago. She was twelve then - now you're fifteen, aren't you, Darrell!"' While few bits of modern dialogue are quite this bad, there's often a sense of the author's hand at work.

If telling-not-showing is bad, exposition is the worst variety of telling, especially expounding upon the backstory to your novel before the plot has really got going. And yet, although the risk of confusing and alienating one's reader is very real (I couldn't get through Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season because of the exposition) I still don't think that this rule is set in stone. One of my favourite fantasy novels of all time, Robin McKinley's Sunshine, spends more time on backstory than on story. In this case, I think it works because Sunshine's voice is so convincing and because McKinley knows exactly what she is doing (her earlier novels are also examples of how to tell well - Rose Daughter is my favourite, but it faces fierce competition from Deerskin and Beauty.) But this is also a matter of personal taste (I'm very fond of parentheses, for example, but I know some readers are not.)

One might come to the easy conclusion that 'rules are made to be broken.' But then how much can an author demand of a reader without losing their attention? I'm going to think about that next Monday.

Friday, 17 January 2014

'Those who fought an unrelenting battle'

Alma Whittaker is the kind of heroine that I normally dislike. A mannish and unattractive girl born at the beginning of the nineteenth century to a wealthy family, she turns to botany to feed her intellectual appetite and undergoes a sexual awakening after reading some risqué books of her father's. When she acquires an adopted sister, Prudence, who is beautiful, polite and silent, she feels unable to identify with her, and inadequate in the face of Prudence's evident desirability, and she scorns the silly Retta Snow who attaches herself to the two sisters. All of this reads to me as an incredibly familiar narrative imposed by modern authors upon nineteenth-century women; as if it is somehow still daring to portray a nineteenth-century woman who can think for herself, who is not obsessed with frills, corsets and sewing, who might - shock horror - have a sex drive. Even worse, there's the underlying suggestion that pretty women must be empty-headed, that being a 'tomboy' is morally superior. I suspect this sort of narrative is what critics of historical fiction are often thinking of when they condemn the genre for being conservative and pedestrian, and on this point, I'd have to agree with them. However, somehow Elizabeth Gilbert takes this unpromising material and weaves out of it a story that is quite compelling and much more complex than I'd thought it might be at the beginning - and a story that I found myself increasingly warming to as the telling went on, something that is extremely rare.

I say the 'telling' because Gilbert's incredible readability, which I also appreciated in Eat, Pray, Love, stems from the sense that you are sitting down and listening to a story. Sometimes this reads like a biography, but the narrative drive is strong enough that this isn't a problem. This narrative tone is set early on in The Signature of All Things, when Gilbert spends a couple of chapters telling us the story of Alma's father, Henry Whittaker, and how he acquired his vast fortune, having been born into poverty as the son of a gardener at Kew. I usually detest these sorts of digressions in books - it isn't necessary to know the history of a character's family to understand the character - but Henry's story is captivating in itself, and does, eventually, tell us a lot about the adult Alma. Reviewers have taken pains to emphasise how different this novel is from the autobiographical Eat, Pray, Love, but I disagree. Despite the disparity in content, this novel is also fundamentally about a middle-aged woman who sets out across the world to find herself, and is surprised by what she finds. Gilbert's talent lies in pulling this tale off, and making Alma's voyage of self-discovery satisfying rather than self-indulgent, a balance that she possibly didn't quite manage in Eat, Pray, Love. 

Telling the reader a story has its drawbacks as well as its positives. If you are a rabid adherent to 'show, not tell' (more about this in my next Monday Musings) you won't be a fan of this novel. To my mind, Gilbert makes full use of the advantages of 'telling', but in doing so, she simplifies the lines of her story. There is something akin to a fairy tale or a moral lesson in The Signature of All Things, which works as far as it goes, but leaves the reader with little to grapple with, no way to get deeper into the story. The depiction of Tahiti, late in the novel, for example, is idealised, and despite close attention to detail, we feel as if this is an essentially fictional version of the world, and not a narrative that is set in a real place. This isn't necessarily a problem, and it certainly adds to the novel's charm - but it prevents it from becoming a truly great book. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by Gilbert's abilities as a novelist, and have added her first novel, Stern Men, to my to-read list. (Gilbert has, however, been ill-served by her publishers: the cover for The Signature of All Things is one of the most hideous I've seen for some time. Something better for the paperback, please?)

Monday, 13 January 2014

Monday Musings: The debut novel

When David Mitchell published his fourth novel, Black Swan Green, the critical response was interesting. Reviewers were positive, but seemed a little puzzled. Most notably, Ali Smith wrote in The Telegraph: 'If I didn't know better, I'd say that Black Swan Green was a fine first novel from a gifted young writer. If I didn't know that David Mitchell's real debut, in 1999, was the startling, many-storied Ghostwritten… I'd maybe be persuaded that this was nothing but a sweet, expertly-done piece of narrative contrivance.' She concludes, of course, that this is not all that Black Swan Green is, but the implications in that first paragraph are worrying (this is not a criticism of Smith, who is bringing these issues to our attention rather than necessarily concurring with them). Firstly, there's the assumption that if Mitchell hadn't already shown what he could do, this parochial novel centring around an adolescent boy in Worcestershire in the 1980s could easily be written off, which raises some worrying questions about why Ghostwritten is somehow a more valuable novel because it is set in more places and has more different narrative voices. (Cloud Atlas: greatest novel ever written, using this rubric!) But secondly, and more interestingly for the purposes of these musings, Smith suggests that if this novel was just a 'piece of narrative contrivance' then that would still make it 'a fine first novel.' I'm not sure I understand why.

Why do we expect different things from debut novels that are of course rarely debuts at all? (Hilary Mantel, to take just one example, published her real debut, A Place of Greater Safety, after her first novel.) There seems to be this assumption that debut novels are: semi-autobiographical; experimental; introduce a 'new voice'; often shorter; often 'less ambitious' [read: set in a single geographical location, or not set in Foreign Climes.] In contrast, 'breakthrough novels' are: 'ambitious' [read: set in many geographical locations in Foreign Climes]; told in many voices, or through many sets of eyes; often longer; and have often 'found their voice.' Of course, there are so many contradictions to these assumptions, and that's why I want to talk about them: why do we continue to insist that debut novels somehow stand apart from the rest of an author's career when often, as with David Mitchell, that isn't the case?

My concern is that debut novels do, to an extent, fulfil these stereotypes because some publishers are looking for a certain type of debut, or because later novels simply wouldn't have been picked up if they were the writer's first. Eleanor Catton's Booker-winning The Luminaries is a wonderful novel, but would you really want to publish an 800-page debut? No; you'd pick up something like her real debut, The Rehearsal, short, experimental and new-voicey. To take an earlier example, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece, but the opening is (deliberately) stiflingly boring; would this have caught an agent's eye if he had been allowed to submit only the first fifty pages? (That might about get Stephens past the county border). A Pale View of Hills is a better first novel; intriguing, brief and flashy in a way that Ishiguro's more mature writing is not.

There are two issues here, I think. First, there's this assumption - and of course this doesn't hold true in all cases - that shorter, more autobiographical, and home-country-set novels are less worthy than long epics that span the globe. As Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, one would hope this assumption is being challenged, but sadly I don't think it's that easy. Second, there's the one-size-fits all approach to an author's career, when some authors may only produce one book, or refuse to produce them on schedule, as Donna Tartt and Marilynne Robinson refuse to do. A debut shouldn't just be a sign of better things to come, or the herald of a new voice, whatever that might be; it should be a good book in its own right, or it should not have been published.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Tigers Nine: Strangers in the night

What is it about tigers? They're enchanting and terrifying in the way nothing else in the animal kingdom is; they can add an instant frisson to a narrative, a hook to a title, and they can even make me like magic realism. To be honest, I began my Tigers series on this blog because I happened to read three books in a row about tigers, but if I wanted to pretend that wasn't the case, I'd be able to find a lot of evidence for the of the fictional tiger, starting with that classic, The Tiger That Came to Tea. But to return to the topic at hand. Fiona McFarlane's debut, The Night Guest, is no exception to the tigers rule. It begins memorably with the ageing Ruth awakening to the sounds of a tiger moving through her house on the coast of New South Wales: 'Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said "Tiger." That was natural: she was dreaming. But there were noises in the house, and as she woke she heard them. They came across the hallway from the lounge room. Something large was rubbing against Ruth's couch and television and, she suspected, the wheat-coloured recliner disguised as a wingback chair. Other sounds followed: the panting of a large animal; a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent; definite mammalian noises, definitely feline, as if her cats had grown in size and were sniffing for food with huge noses. But the sleeping cats were weighing down the sheets at the end of Ruth's bed, and this was something else.'

The reason I've quoted this opening paragraph at such length is because I think it so strongly demonstrates the quality of McFarlane's writing and of her portrayal of Ruth. The rhythm of the paragraph is beautifully judged; the bald statement at the beginning followed by the reassuring rock of the two clauses divided by a colon; the pitch-perfect description of the tiger as a huge household cat followed by the songlike last sentence that confirms Ruth's fears but is somehow reassuring, preparing us for Ruth's thrill, rather than horror, at this possibility. Ruth's character is also beginning to be established in these few lines; we guess that she is old, but we cannot write her off as an anxious and helpless old lady, as we witness the logical progression of her thought and the accuracy of her description of the tiger's noises. This feeds into one of the central themes of the novel - ageing, and the determination to hold on to one's independence - and instantly puts us on Ruth's side, as we see that although she may struggle with mobility and back problems, her mind isn't one to patronise or stereotype. (The electronic proof I received from the publishers repeated this paragraph numerous times, and, as a finale, scattered its words throughout the copyright information at the front. Although this was clearly an error, I'm quite thankful for it; it allowed me to appreciate McFarlane's prose in a way I'm not sure I would have done had I simply rushed on to the next paragraph.)

The day after the visit of the tiger, a woman called Frida arrives at Ruth's house, claiming that she is a government carer and that she is here to give Ruth help around the household. Ruth, who is capable and independent, argues that she doesn't need any help, but Frida insists… and so the games begin. Although we suspect Frida's motives from the start, however, this novel never becomes merely a story about a poor old woman duped by somebody with dubious intentions. Firstly, as I explored above, Ruth never falls into the stereotypes we often believe about the elderly, and McFarlane effectively demonstrates how easily somebody with a capable working memory could come to doubt their own mind in the face of a stronger-willed opponent, as when Frida insists that Ruth must retract her 'wrong' statement that Suva is the capital of Fiji. Secondly, as the tiger continues to prowl, we recognise that the links between Frida and the tiger are more complex than we initially expected. If Frida is the tiger, what can we make of Ruth's affection for it, and her delight in its presence? Is this simply another demonstration of how Frida has abused Ruth's trust? But the tiger also brings with it a jungle - described in words wonderfully reminiscent of the jungle in Max's room in Where the Wild Things Are - and the jungle offers Ruth solace as well, even after the tiger is gone.

Like Life of Pi, The Night Guest resists a simple symbolic interpretation, but it's very much worth reading for Ruth's voice alone, and difficult to say much more without spoiling the novel. I'll be looking for another tiger book to complete the Tigers series (ten seems a round number). And I managed to mention two picture books in this post - both highly recommended. 

NB. I received a free electronic copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley. It's out on January 16th.

Friday, 3 January 2014

The three and a half star novelist?

While I enjoyed Sadie Jones's first two novels, The Outcast and Small Wars, I didn't get on very well with her third, The Uninvited Guests. I'm pleased to say that she's back on form with her fourth - if 'form' is the word for it. As Victoria from Eve's Alexandria articulated much better than I can here with her post on The Outcast, I have a funny relationship with Jones's fiction; for me, it seems to be constantly caught between the mediocre and the memorable, and while her novels are not forgettable, they often seem to become more old-fashioned than they ought to be. Fallout is no exception, despite its evocative portrayal of 1970s London theatre makers, and I'm afraid, as with The Outcast, I had to return to its gender roles to try to work out why.

Luke is from a working-class family in the north-east, and feeds his obsession with the theatre by collecting playbills and programmes from performances he cannot afford to go to. A chance meeting with Paul, an aspiring producer, and Leigh, his assistant, propels Luke from his familiar world and inspires him to head to London. Turning up on Paul's doorstep, he is taken on to help with their fledgling company, working as a bin man part-time to pay his rent. When Luke starts to write his own plays, the promise of an entirely different future opens up before him, although he is still tethered by his painful past, especially his mother, confined to a mental institute. As Luke struggles with his writing, young actress Nina Jacobs is crumpling under the weight of her mother's expectations and her own frailty. Even when she wins a central role in her drama school's end-of-year production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, she is unable to deal with the strain of a problematic relationship alongside her part. As Paul, Leigh, Luke and Nina continue with their careers, their fates increasingly begin to intertwine, and Nina and Luke enter into a desperate and volatile affair. What will be left of them both when the smoke clears?

The obsessive love between Nina and Luke is at the centre of this novel, but I felt that Jones was only halfway there with her portrayal of its unholy strength. A significant problem for me lay not in the portrayal of the relationship itself but in the depiction of their two characters. Luke was a stand-out for me from the start, never becoming a naive working-class stereotype but standing up for himself even in a world that he knows little about, and ultimately becoming a greater part of it than those who were born to the theatre. Nina, however, was far more problematic. Much as I detest the use of the term 'strong female character' and the depictions of fictional women who do little else but be strong, I think I can see its flipside here with Nina, who is essentially defined by her weakness. Jones does a good job with the interplay between Luke's long-established role as his mother's carer and his attraction to Nina's vulnerability, but it's difficult to understand why Nina is so attracted to Luke, other than that he represents something so different from everything else in her life. The supporting characters add little. Paul never felt like much more than a name to me, and Leigh, despite enjoying considerable success in her own right, remains Nina's foil, a stable shoulder to cry on who struggles to escape from the set of contrasts Jones sets up between the two women - one of whom is 'good' (for her romantic partners) and one of whom is decidedly not.

It's these stagnant gender roles that mar Fallout, despite its strong writing and interesting subject matter. While still worth reading, especially if you have enjoyed Jones's previous novels, I'm afraid it only confirms my previous frustrations with Jones's work. The novels I read tend to fall solidly into one of two categories; three-star (mediocre) or four-star (good to very good). Jones, however, is consolidating her position for me as a 'three and a half star' novelist - which, considering how critical I am of most of what I read, isn't necessarily a bad place to be.

N.B. I received a free copy of this title from the publishers via NetGalley. It's due out in May 2014.