A Spooky Story : The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James

FullSizeRender-3I first read this short story over thirty years ago whilst I was a student and it scared the living daylights out of me! Since then I have seen a couple of screen adaptations and fallen out of love with Henry James’ wordy style of writing. I wanted to do a Halloween related post so a reread of The Turn of The Screw seemed appropriate.

IMG_2202This has the classic Victorian ghost story set up. A group of people are sat round a fire telling ghost stories on a winter’s evening. One has just concluded their story, which we never hear, but which concerned a ghostly appearance to a child. Another listener, Douglas, then pipes up that he can provide the ultimate scare, the turn of the screw, a ghostly appearance not to one child but two.

Then begins a rather laboured build up with much foreshadowing of what awaits and several red herrings.

Douglas wants to tell the story from the self penned words of one of the players in it , a woman who recounted the story to him during the course of an unhappy love affair.

Douglas is adamant that the tale must be heard in the words of his lady friend but the had written account she sent him is at his address in London. It must be sent for and he can give no further clues. All the prospective listeners agree that this will be the most dreadful tale.

The notebook arrives and so we hear over the course of the next few nights the weird and terrible tale of a young governess sent to be in charge of an orphaned brother and sister, Miles and Flora. Her employer, the uncle, wants no contact with the chidden and the young governess has only the old housekeeper , Mrs Grose, for help.

The plot is cleverly narrated first by the all-seeing author, then by Douglas and finally we hear the words of the confused and unnamed governess. Gradually we begin to discover what happened to the children before her arrival whilst under the care of the evil Peter Quint and Miss Jessell. Many questions remain however. Why was Miles expelled from school? Why is Mrs Grose so reticent about speaking of the past?

This is not a conventional ghost story at all. It was some very modern themes. Above all, it is about perceptions. Who is seeing what? Who is abusing who?

James employs all his skills as a dramatist and there are some genuinely heart-stopping moments. I nearly screamed out loud at one point, even though I had read the story before. Of course his writing style can be a little laborious but the short story format has meant that his verbosity is kept under check.

If you are looking for something spooky to read this All Hallows evening, I can thoroughly recommend The Turn Of The Screw.

If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel

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I have found this book quite difficult to review as my opinion of it kept changing as I read.

Chicurel’s debut novel is set in the summer of 1972 in Elephant Beach , a seaside resort in the USA which has seen better days. It is narrated by Katie , a disaffected teenager on the verge of adulthood . I was expecting a classic ‘coming of age’ tale ….but if you like your novels to be strong on plot you may feel a little disappointed.

Chicurel is excellent at creating a sense of place. This fictionalised Long Island setting is crumbling around its residents. The location permeates the whole book and also serves as a symbol of the decay and breakdown of US society at the time.

Nobody promenaded by the boardwalk anymore because you could trip on a rotting board and break your leg during an after dinner stroll. The wonderful old hotels were crumbling castles, left to dust after the stars and bootleggers discovered air travel. Elephant Beach might have been only fifty-two minutes from the city by car or rail, but if you could fly to Santa Barabara or Cuba or The French Riviera, why would you spend our summers here? The hotels and the great mansions by the bay went on the market at severely reduced prices , but the taxes were monstrous and nobody could afford the upkeep of so many rooms. Their glorious floor-to-ceiling windows were broken and boarded up, taken over by squatters or converted into housing for welfare recipients.

 

In the background lurks the Vietnam War and many of the young men returning are now damaged and broken.

Katie’s voice is sparky and sassy . She conveys the excitement and power of a teenager teetering on the brink of womanhood as well as the pains and uncertainties.

On those summer nights, after I finished my shift at the A&P and showered, I would look in the bathroom mirror and it seemed to me that my eyes had never been brighter, my hair never shinier, my tan never more even. My peasant shirts hung perfectly off my shoulders and my jeans settled on my hips as though they lived there. Even my teeth seemed straighter. I looked exactly as I had always wanted to look, and sometimes I’d close my eyes and feel so good about it I knew I could never tell anyone because they’d think I was to crazy to live.

This strength of the book  is also, ironically, its weakness .At times I felt the narrative lacked context which could have tied the plot lines together. Of course Katie can’t provide this , she is a teenager in turns superficial and self obsessed and her voice is completely authentic in this regard.

It would be wrong to give the impression that This Beautiful has no story however. The characters are strongly drawn and I really did care what was going to happen to them. I began the novel feeling a little lukewarm but ended by being haunted by Katie and her friends.

If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go is published by Tinderpress on 30th October and my thanks to Georgina Moore for the review copy.

Book Review:Six Stories And An Essay by Andrea Levy

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This not perhaps the most exciting title for a new book from the prize winning author of Small Island but it does do exactly what it says on the tin!

The book brings together six of her short stories , most of which have been previously published elsewhere, and all of varying lengths , as Levy points out ,

Because short stories are short it is often mistakenly thought that it does not take long to write them. I was once offered a week to write a story by an editor with the words, ‘It doesn’t have to be long.’ But as the famous quote ( Pascal? Twain? Goethe? Cicero?) says. ‘I’d write you a shorter letter, but I haven’t the time”. Short stories can be as consuming as any novel.

I find it difficult to review collections of short stories…….are you supposed to review each one individually, write an overview of the collection or just pick the couple you liked the best?

In this collection all the stories are written in the first person. Not all of them deal with the ‘immigrant’ experience directly but all of them have the sense of the protagonist being on the outside of what surrounds him/her.

The search for identity is important to all her characters but whilst the stories often have dark undercurrents they do not lack humour. Levy explains the importence of humour in her work which she discovered in the very first writing class she attended ;

But what I really enjoyed when I read it out was that people laughed. It was much more satisfying than the revenge. And once I’d made them laugh they seemed more open to what I had to say. I have never forgotten that.

Each of the stories is preceded by a short introduction by Levy, setting it in a context or giving an indication of what inspired her to write it.

The collection opens with an essay entitled Back To My Own Country . In it Levy sets out her ‘ manifesto’ and details her personal journey as a working class black girl growing up in Britain to her realisation of the importance of the culture her parents had come from and her own need to embrace it.

I am now happy to be called a black British writer and the fiction I have written has all been about my Caribbean heritage in some way or another. It is a very rich seam for a writer and it is, quite simply, the reason that I write.

Through her writing Levy has researched Caribbean history and has come to realise its importance in explaining Britain today

My heritage is Britain’s story too. It is time to put the Caribbean back where it belongs – in the main narrative of British history.

I want to highlight the final story in the collection. This year marks the centenary of World War One and I have already reviewed a number of books dealing with this on the blog. In Uriah’s War, Levy gives us the story of two young recruits from Jamaica who find themselves on the battlefields of France. Walker explains,

You see, the Empire was our protector, that is how we thought. England was great, sort of thing.And she was under threat. You should have heard the stories of the barbarous Germans that swept the breeze. They were burning houses and churches and women and children. Some were eating babies. Well, that was one of the tales. Looking back now perhaps that was a little…..embellished. But everyone believed it at the time.

Of course Walker and Uriah discover that Mother Empire has other ideas about the nature of their contribution to the war effort ,

But our colonel made it quite clear that we West Indian troops would be labourers in France. Now, who wanted to come all tat way and be in a labour battalion? Running back and forth with shells and what-and-what for the front line. No rifle, no combat, but just as likely to die. That would have been a humiliation.

Walker and Uriah instead are sent to Palestine where they fight bravely in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, it is the end of the war and return to ‘normality’  that proves their undoing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection which gives much food for thought with the lightest of touches. The collection is published on 23rd October. My thanks to Tinder Press and to Georgina Moore for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Man Booker Prize 2014 : The Shortlist

The closing event of the London Literary Festival at the Royal Festival Hall was also the final reading event before the announcement of the Man Booker Prize 2014 on 14th October.

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All six shortlisters attended to read from their novel and the evening was compered by Kirsty Wark who will also be interviewing the eventual winner on Newsnight on Wednesday evening.

First up was Joshua Ferris reading from To Rise Again At A Decent Hour.I have also heard hi reading from this at The Hay Festival. He has a beautiful reading voice and had chosen a very witty piece in which his protagonist ruminates on the sort of passengers he sees on public transport intently reading from heavily highlighted copies of the Bible.

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Ferris explained that he feel a sense of community is very important. What his character lacks is the ability to commune with people and the novel describes his attempts to build himself a community. Ferris had felt a great sense of community with all the shortlisted authors and for him the time spent with them will be more important than who actually wins the prize.

Kirsty then asked him whether his book was a warning about the dangers of online life. Ferris feels a deep ambivalence towards the internet. It can certainly give us a lot of information but can it provide real knowledge and wisdom? He thinks that iPads and iPhones etc are in direct competition with books.

Next came Richard Flanagan who introduced his novel The Narrow Road To The Deep North as a story about the human spirit and the nature of love.He feels that writing is a journey into humility. There is a very good argument for any of the six books to win.He just wanted to say that when he loses he will feel much happiness in drinking deeply and well with the winner.

Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan

He then read a very emotional and moving extract describing an ex-serviceman’s struggle with what we now know to be PTSD. Written in the 3rd Person it captured his inability to express his love for his children although he could feel love. He was also tormented by the guilt of the survivor.

After the reading Flanagan explained that his father was a survivor of the death railway in Burma. In many ways he feels he grew up a child of the death railway as those who come back from such experiences continue to suffer from the wounds they bring home.

He realised that he needed to write the story when he happened to be walking across Sydney Harbour bridge in 2001. He was suddenly reminded of a story his parents had told him about a Latvian survivor of the camps in World War 2. After the war he had returned to his village to find it raised to the ground and no trace of his wife and childen. Eventually he emigrated to Australia and settled there. One day in 1957 he was crossing Sydney bridge when coming towards him he recognised he wife holding 2 chidden by the hand. Flanagan immediately felt inspired, rushed into a bar and wrote a chapter on the back of beer mats.

Karen Joy Fowler then read to us from her audacious novel We Are All Completey Beside Ourselves.

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler

She wanted to say that she actually feels very competitive, she is quite sure that she likes everyone more than anyone else in the group.

She then read an extract fro her novel that is narrated in the acerbic voice of the younger daughter of a family.Now an adult ,she is reflecting on a traumatic event that occurred in the family unleashing a chain of events.

Fowler had wanted to explore a family where things had gone horribly wrong but not for the lack of love. In her novel the whole family has to bear the consequences of one decision.

Wark asked her if she shared the animal rights sympathies of her characters Rosemary and Lowell. She confirmed she did. Her father had worked as a psychologist experimenting on animals and the memory of the part of the lab she was not allowed to enter had haunted her.

Howard Jacobson was next with a reading from J , a love story where a ‘quiet catastrophe’ has already happened.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

Before beginning to read he just wanted to say, ironically, that he loves all these guys and he is quite sure that he loves Karen more than she loves him.

Wark asked him if he was describing something he felt could happen. This is not a prophetic book but you would have to be a fool, in his view, to believe such things don’t occur. We appear to live in the midst of catastrophe all the time.

Does he believe that people are relatively quiescent in these catastrophes ? This is the conclusion that one has to draw when one reads about these terrible occurrences. J is not a retelling of the Holocaust in Germany. He is more interested in what we are left with when these things have happened – the survivors and those who let it occur.

Neel Mukherjee then read from his book The Lives Of Others . This is a family saga spanning several generations of the Ghosh family in Bengal.

Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee

Wark asked him whether the sort of family he describes in the book is now lost to Indian culture. He explained that the extended family is still very much the main model for the family in India. In some of the more urban areas perhaps it has been eroded but India as a country is so vast that the very numbers of people work against new ideas taking root.

Wark observed that he wrote about the Ghosh family with such affection, she wondered whether he misses living in an extended family. He replied vehemently that he did not…..for reasons which are apparent if you read the novel!

Finally came Ali Smith to read to us from How To Be Both. Her novel exists in 2 versions and so which story you get first depends entirely on which copy of the book you pick up.

Ali Smith

Ali Smith

Smith read an extract from each of the two possible openings of the novel.Both extracts were written in an energetic, stream of consciousness style.

Wark wanted to know what had captured Smith’s imagination and inspired het to write this story. She had wanted to write a book that does the same thing as a fresco. As a restorer works on a fresco and starts to remove the upper layer, they find another painting underneath. The basis of every narrative is an understory. In great books, the story is the thing you realise after you have read it.

The other strand in the book captures the feisty relationship between a mother and a teenage daughter. Smith explained that she has great hopes for the 15 year olds of today. They are able to multi task admirably…looking at two screens, whilst texting and reading a book! Such versatility will surely lead to great things.

The evening then ended with a few questions from the audience.Smith was asked about the duality and multiple versions of things in her novel. Were they in fact many drafts of an idea?

In fact, she replied, the novel had been edited very tightly. She had had to take a lot out. She had to split up lines to make a visual spiral in one part. An opening to a book is very important and causes great stress, she wanted to ask her fellow panellists about that.

Ferris remarked that the opening of his book had been buried half way through. He hadn’t realised that was the opening until someone else had pointed that out so had been spared the angst!

Flanagan’s rule is that one should rip out the first three pages of what you have written, in his experience the story generally starts there. Jacobson and Mukherjee both agreed that openings are best found when you have come to the end of writing a novel. Fowler said that she always dislikes her first draft. She tends to rewrite, then rewrite and then discover that what she has written does not belong in that novel at all.

Jacobson was asked whether characters can act as role models for life. Books certainly shape us. He has said before that no-one has ever been mugged by someone carrying a copy of Middlemarch. In literature we are taken outside ourselves and that can only be good for us.

Finally, Flanagan was asked what had happened to the Latvian man he had talked about. Did he go up to his wife or just keep on walking? He replied, mysteriously, that we would have to read the book to find out.

This was a wonderful evening. I had been feeling much less enthusiastic about the Booker than in previous years but hearing the authors read from and talk about their novels has sparked my interest anew. I can’t wait for the result and to read all the shortlisted novels.

I guess a prediction is now expected from me. I have only read Karen Joy Fowlers book from the shortlist. I really enjoyed We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves but on the basis of what I heard last night ,I would say that Ali Smith must be the winner, although Richard Flanagan must be running a close second. No doubt the judges will have a completely different idea!

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Evening of Indian Literature with Neel Mukherjee and Mahesh Rao

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On Thursday 9th October 2014, Waterstones Piccadiily played host to an evening with Neel Mukherjee and Mahesh Rao in conversation with Claire Alfree, Literary Editor of the Metro. Neel’s book,The Lives Of Others is shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize as well as the Green Carnation prize for LGBT writing; Mahesh’s novel, The Smoke Is Rising, is shortlisted for the 2014 Not The Booker prize, hosted by The Guardian.

The evening began with a short extract from each book read by the author. Neel explained his novel spans 3 generations of one family narrated in the third person but interwoven with the first person narrative of the grandson, a Naxalite guerrilla and who is keeping a diary.

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Mahesh explained his book is set in the now buzzing city of Mysore which has become something of a yoga mecca. At the beginning of his novel turmoil is caused by the announcement that India’s largest theme park, Heritage Land ,is to be built there. The novel is the story of three women. He then read a very witty extract in which Sushila, a very middle aged , upper class widow contemplates internet dating.

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Claire asked both writers why they had wanted to make the female experience so central in their novels.

Mahesh explained that when he is writing characters just arrive and you can’t really say why that is. Once they had arrived it was crucial for him that they were from different backgrounds. In The Smoke Is Rising one woman is an upper middle class widow, one more ordinary lower middle class and the third is a maid. What binds them together is that as women they all face very circumscribed situations and live in a deeply conservative society.

Neel found writing about women was much more fun. In his novel he is trying to deconstruct notions of family. The family is central to Indian life, in the West this concept is more eroded. A family can’t exist with out women . He didn’t have trouble writing his female characters at all, two of his characters did present problems for him but they were males.

Claire then asked about the issue of male violence which has a major role in Mahesh’s novel.

Mahesh explained that he had moved to India 5 years ago. Of course he had read reports of domestic violence but until you are there and here direct accounts of male violence it is hard to appreciate the size of the problem. Once he was exposed to this he just couldn’t let it go.

He wrote the novel in 2010. Of course in 2012 there was the tragic and highly publicised abduction and rape case. That was very much in the media but until then it was out of public consciousness.

Neel confirmed that when he was growing up in India in the 70s and 80s the term domestic violence was never heard. No-one talked about violence against women as that.

Claire wondered whether India has now woken up to that issue.

Unfortunately both writers agreed that they felt it had not. Mahesh explained that the Delhi rape case was stranger rape, domestic violence happens at home. There is still a notion that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife. The language used is complicit in this, men refer to giving a woman a ‘ couple of slaps’. Neel agreed and protested that each time he says something about this issue he is accused of being anti-Indian.

The two books are almost companion pieces as both concern popular uprisings. Neel explained that India has a very polarised class system. The criss crossing of lives, such as occurs in Mahesh’s novel, can happen in India.He couldn’t remember what had come first when he was planning his novel, the family or the Naxalite uprising. He wanted to look at the moral imperatives of the modernist novel form so he wanted the political movement as a contrast to the family.

There is still upheaval within modern India. Mahesh felt he writes from a position of being almost complicit in this. Even a small project like a road widening involves a displacement of people because of India’s demographic. A large number of people have no political voice at all.

Both writes get accused of being anti-National for expressing such views. Mahesh felt that there was a suspicion within India that the world wanted to continue seeing it as a slightly mystical and plagued by poverty.Neel pointed out that Indian vernacular literature has a long tradition of criticism, fired by anger and empathy and is very powerful.

Claire pointed out that both books are rich in the detail of everyday life, its texture and smells. Was this something each writer had enjoyed writing?

Mahesh said that his book had both been praised and criticised for this. He had moved to India from the UK so he noticed all this much more… the sounds, the smells, the way people speak and the shop signs. For Neel, this made the world Mahesh had created so real. He had laughed at the  name of the beauty shop, Myysstiiique. This is typical of todays India.

The detail in The Lives Of Others was necessary ,Neel felt ,as so much of his book was a restating of bits of the modernist novel and seeing if it could still communicate 100 years after the advent of modernism. A novel can be a mirror to your world and there is joy in recording the detail.

There then followed a fascinating debate about language . The Life Of Others contains a Glossary and Mahesh wondered whether there had been any heated discussions about the inclusion of this.

Neel explained there had been no difficult discussions sabot the inclusion. He was adamant that he would not do Bengali words in italics , that was political on his part. He felt the inclusion of a glossary was necessary not just for Western readers but for Indian ones too as he uses some very specific Bengali word and terminology.

The thinking now is that people will look things up or that context should explain meaning and a glossary is not necessary. Junot Diaz , for example, feels very strongly about this and refuses to have the spanish he uses italicised or to include a glossary.

Both writers agreed that English  is now undoubtedly an Indian language but with its own vocabulary. This led to some very interesting discussions during editing for Mahesh. For example , in The Smoke Is Rising he uses the term Kitty Party. This is now an institution for upper middle class women in India whereby each invitee puts some money into a kitty and one person will win the pot at the end. It required some explanation for a Western reader however.

Neel felt that the title of his novel, The Lives Of Others, tells you what a realist novel does . In order to imagine the life of others you require an amount of detail and some explanation.

The evening concluded with a quick discussion on the rules for the Man Booker prize which changed in 2014. Both writers felt that inclusion of American entrants was a good idea but there appeared to be a lack of reciprocity and the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award remain closed to non US entrants.

This was a hugely enjoyable and informative evening. I haven’t read The Lives Of Others as yet but fully intend to soon. I can highly recommend The Smoke Is Rising, which I reviewed on Goodreads. It is a very moving and powerful account of life in modern India which is also incredibly witty in places.

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And just a little insider information. The 5th floor os Waterstones Piccadilly has a bar. Yes, that’s right A BAR!!!!!! Fantastic!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review : The Love Song Of Miss Queenie Hennessy

photoIt was not without some trepidation that I began to read the latest book from Rachel Joyce. The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry was a big hit in 2012 and long listed for the Man Booker Prize and I couldn’t help wondering if this might be an attempt to recreate that success, a rather half-hearted ‘spin-off’.

Harold Fry tells the story of the eponymous hero’s journey on foot across the length of England , sparked by receiving a letter from Queenie, a woman he had worked with years earlier. Along the way Harold becomes something of a media sensation whilst we learn the story of a life half-lived and the gradual deterioration of his marriage.

In her introductory letter to The Reader, Joyce explains that this latest book is not intended as a prequel or sequel to Harold Fry but rather a companion piece in which we learn Queenie’s side of the story and what compelled her to write that letter to Harold.

Queenie is unlucky in love and leaves Corby ending up in Kingsbridge , Devon to escape another affair gone wrong.  Having obtained a job in the local brewery, she is drawn to Harold when she first catches sight of him surreptitiously dancing in the snow in the brewery yard :

‘ With your left shoulder lifted,your elbows tucked into your waist and your hands poised, you begin a soft shoe shuffle in the powdery snow. You glide a little to the left, a little to the right, sashaying your body this way and that, balancing gently on one foot, then on the other. Once, you even twist your heels and give a full turn. All the time you dance, you keep an eye on your shadow and you’re grinning, as if you can’t quite believe it has the energy to keep up with you.’

So begins Queenie’s infatuation with Harold . Harold is married to Maureen however and so she tries to remain at a distance. Despite her best efforts, Queenie becomes enmeshed  in the tragedy of Harold and Maureen’s life together and carries a burden of guilt even as she tries to build a new life for herself faraway in Northumberland.

Queenie is now resident in St. Bernadine’s Hospice, Berwick-upon-Tweed and dying of a disfiguring cancer. When she receives Harold’s letter informing her of his intention to visit, Queenie, with the help of one of the nuns, begins a series of letters giving her side of the story.

All this could make for a very depressing or even mawkish read but interspersed with Queenie’s confessional, Joyce gives us a compassionate and  sometimes humorous glimpse of hospice life.

In Harold’s story we meet an array of characters that he stumbles across on his journey through Britain. Here the characters we meet are the other residents of St Bernadine’s. A group from disparate backgrounds and with clashing personalties all thrown together by the great leveller. Finty, in particular, is a great comic creation.

As the media circus around Harold grows, the residents all become caught up in the carnival. They are all determined to celebrate his eventual arrival. Queenie’s courage and strength are starting to fail and she begins to refuse the vitamin drinks the nurses bring round in the evening. Finty encourages her

‘ It seems like you have a man walking the length of England.There are some of us here that haven’t even had a visitor. So the least you can do is not kick the bucket. Now, I know you think you look like a monster, but this is hardly a beauty pageant. Look at Barbara here. The Pearly King has a plastic arm, and I am carrying the contents of my bowel in my handbag. Either you take the drinks like we do or you’ll end up on a drip feed. Which is it going to be?

The unpleasant drinks are drunk :

‘Thank fuck that’s over,’ said Finty, rubbing at her mouth and her sweatshirt. ‘Let’s have a game of Scrabble.’

I am not sure that this book is better than Harold Fry, as some reviewers have suggested, but it is at least as good. A very enjoyable read full of warmth humanity and comedy.

The Love Song Of Queenie Hennessy is published by Doubleday on 9th October 2014 and thank you to Alison Barrow for the review copy.

The Literary Salon with Damian Barr

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On 8th September I attended one of Damian Barr’s celebrated literary salons. The event was held in the Victorian splendour of the Ladies’ Smoking Room (!!) of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Ably hosted by the effervescent Damian , it is an opportunity for bookish people to come together, discuss literature and drink gin.

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Having completed a London to Brighton charity bike ride the day before, Damian professed himself to be both chuffed and chafed to be hosting the 6th Birthday event and possibly the last salon for which he will not require a passport to attend ( he is Scots ) !

We then met our guests in turn. I haven’t actually read any of the books under discussion so rather than a review I hope to give a flavour of the evening and the books presented to us.

First up was Alan Johnson, a union leader and former Home Secretary now turned memoir writer who had come to present his latest book Please Mr Postman , a follow up to This Boy, which will be published on 18t Sept.

Alan explained that this book takes up his life story at the age of 18 and just as he had joined the Post Office ( he was the leader of the postman’s union) in Barnes London SW13. His older colleagues were all of a generation that had fought in WW2, with fathers that had fought in WW1. There was much that was very militaristic about the post office then. Everything was done by hand with no mechanisation and, in terms of working practices, very little had changed since the First World War.

In This Boy, Alan detailed his deprived childhood in West London, abandoned by his father and blighted by the early death of his adored mother, Lily. As this new book opens, Alan is married to his first wife ,Jackie, becoming a step father to her child and a father in his own right. Damian remarked that this seemed like a lot to take on aged only 18.

Alan explained that he and Jackie were allocated a council house in Slough, which they loved, he had a job for life with a pension and a union to defend him. In many ways they were not facing the uncertainties that young couples face now.

He spoke movingly of his time in the postman’s union ( then called UPOW but now the CWU) most particularly of the educational opportunities it had given him.

He doesn’t miss his time in politics and is now very much enjoying his new life as a writer. His is unsure about his next project. He doesn’t want to write a political memoir and hinted that he may be working on a novel.

Next up was Esther Freud whose book Mr Mac And Me, already published, had not been on my radar , although it certainly is now.

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Set in 1914 in the Suffolk village of Walberswick, it narrated by 12 year old Thomas, son of the local publican and recounts the friendship that grows between him and Charles Rennie MacIntosh who is visiting .Esther read an extract from the book, which Damian described as spooky with the past echoing in the present.

The inspiration for the book came from Esther’s own house in Walberswick which had formerly been the village pub. The house had in fact been in her family since the 1940s and she bought it fully furnished. She immediately felt a ghostly presence at the back of the house. She knew this was a young boy and used to greet him whenever she became aware he was there.

She had originally started to write the story of the house with the ghost appearing in it. As a writer it is horrible to admit but sometimes you just have to accept your story isn’t working. Her narrative had become boring and she was bogged down by domestic detail . She started to give the ghost a voice and Thomas emerged, after that she just wanted to be with him.

MacIntosh had actually visited Walberswick in 1914, just before the outbreak of war.He was at a low point in his life . He had been a rising star in his youth and had won the commission for the Glasgow School Of Art for his firm.By the time he visited Walberswick however his life was in decline.

He had become known as difficult and a drinker. He was a perfectionist and difficult to work with. Although he was well regarded in Europe ( crucially in Germany and Austria) he was pretty much overlooked in Britain and very short of money.

He came to Walberswick at the invitation of Frances Newberry, Director of Glasgow School Of Art, who had a house there.Shortly after he arrived , war was declared and spymania took over. He was regarded with suspicion because of his foreign ( Scottish!) accent and had also written some letters in German ( to his benefactors there) and so was arrested. He was eventually freed after the intervention of his English and well connected wife but was banned from ever visiting Norfolk, Suffolk or Essex again.

Esther felt she had known the story of Thomas for a long time before writing it as he had been present in her home but she was surprised by the many parallels in his life and Mac’s as she researched for the story.

She was asked by a member of the audience how she managed to still her critical voice in order to work.The only way to do this is ‘ Just do it’ ! The only was to still the criticism is to continue to write.

Our final guest was David Mitchell, there to discuss his latest, Booker long listed novel The Bone Clocks.

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This is David’s 6th novel and ranges in time from 1984 to a near future dystopia. He read us three extracts , the first set in 1991 with a ‘West London posh kid’ ; the second an hilarious encounter between a celebrated writer and a would-be fan at Hay Festival in 2014 and the third narrated in 2025 by Marinus a character who also appeared in Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumn’s of Jacob de Zoet.

Damian asked him how he had conceived these six interconnecting novellas, did each come as a character?

David has come to realise that he is not actually a novelist.He can only write in small units and his optimum form is between 70 o 130 pages. He sees this as his getaway car in which to escape the tedium of writing a long novel.

Asked about his main character,Holly Sykes, David explained that a comprehensive school had been a very scary place for a bookish 13 year old. It had , however, provided him with much material as a novelist. Holly was based on some of the girls he remembered from school who he admired but felt scared of.

As a teenager, Holly starts to hear voices which might , of course, be the onset of schizophrenia but what if the voices are real? Her life is then turned on its head by the disappearance of her younger brother.

Damian asked  how he has constructed the novel. David replied that as a writer you sometimes find that what you are actually writing turns out to be the ‘wanky scaffolding’ on which a better piece can be constructed, rather as Esther had described earlier.

Originally this was going to be a series of short stories showing Holly throughout her life. He found that , novelistically anyway, children are not really interesting until the get to about aged 8.

He also had to accept that short stories read differently to a novel. They  are almost like poems, each word must be gleaned for significance and you can’t use literary devices such as foreshadowing or backstory. It is very difficult to sustain that over 600 pages – as a writer or as a reader.

Damian noted that many characters reappear from novel to novel. To what degree is that preplanned or does it just develop? David has been holding Marinus in his head for a while. He is acutely aware that our lifestyle now is funded by deals for which our children and grandchildren will have to pick up the tab.

He was then asked about Crispin Hershey who has been likened to Martin Amis. David denied that he was a caricature of Amis, he hasn’t got the time or energy for confrontational literary spats . He considers Amis to be a great writer. He doesn’t think about fandom and hero worship, which to some extent Crispin experiences. He is honoured that people will give him their time and money but does find it alarming that some people can be so devoted.

He enjoyed his experience of working on the opera librettos not least  because of the pleasure of working in a collaborative way. The work of a novelist is very lonely. He has no plans for any more however. He is rather in love with this big, baggy, gentle, vicious form the novel and wants to explore it some more.

He has been quoted as saying he has his next 4 or 5 books already inside his head. David explained that by this he means he knows enough about them to start hoarding research material. He can reveal that his next project is a short book.

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This was a magical evening which I enjoyed enormously. The kind of occasion at which you find you are standing next to David Mitchell and he is carrying a water-melon. The guest list was star studded – I saw Tracey Thorne, Ben Watt, David Nicholl and just tried to look nonchalant, like this was a pretty average night out for me.

Many thanks to Damian Barr for a fabulous soiree.

 

 

Book Review : The Zone Of Interest by Martin Amis

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I hadn’t intended to write a review of this book at all……in fact I hadn’t intended to read another Martin Amis book at all………but it has made such an impression on me that I felt I had to write a short piece about it.

I WAS a Martin Amis fan, up to round about Yellow Dog. I gave him another chance with The Pregnant Widow which I rated 1 star on Goodreads and then vowed I would never open a book of his again. A review of this latest novel on the Asylum Blog site made me think again.

In this Amis revisits territory he explored to some extent in Time’s Arrow. The title refers to the area surrounding a large , and unnamed in the book, concentration and death camp somewhere in the Eastern outreaches of the Nazi Empire.

It is also a metaphor for the aspect of human behaviour that Amis wants to explore in the novel. The central question posed here is that of Primo Levi, to whose memory the book is dedicated : Is This A Man?

Amis uses three very different narrators to guide us through The Zone.

Szmul is a member of the Sonderkommando, the prisoners who are detailed to take arrivals to the gas chambers and then collect together their belongings and dispose of the bodies. He is also, unbeknownst to his captors, keeping a written record of his time there to outlive his now shortened life span . As he says :

‘ I feel we are dealing with propositions and alternatives  that have never been discussed before, have never needed to be discussed before – I feel that if you knew every day, every hour , every minute of human history , you would find no exemplum, no model no precedent.

Martyrer, mucedni, martelaar, meczonnik, martyr, in every language I know the word comes from the Greek,martyr, meaning witness. We, the Sonders, or some of us, will bear witness. And this question , unlike every other question, appears to be free of ambiguity . Or so we thought.’

Szmul is the only hero in the book and Amis allows him to die a hero’s death….it is no spoiler, I think, to reveal that he does not outlive his gaolers.

Paul Doll. the camp leader, is a much more typical Amis creation. Brutal, sodden with alcohol , vain and deluded through Doll we explore the Orwellian language used by the Nazis to describe the ‘ final solution’ as well as the cumbersome noun construction of the German language itself. His already tenuous grip on reality deteriorates as the book goes on. Increasingly he is tortured by his wife’s disdain for him and  the logistics of what he has to achieve :

‘ And mind you, disposing of the young and the elderly requires other strengths and virtues – fanaticism, radicalism, severity, implacability, hardness, iciness, mercilessness, und so weiter. After all (as I often say to myself) somebody’s got to do it……’

In Golo Thomsen , nephew of Reichsleiter Martin Bormann, Amis poses the question how did a nation so cultivated and urbane perpetrate such an horrific crime against humanity?  Speer is mentioned many times by Thomsen in the course of his narrative. In fact as a character, Thomsen reminded me of Jonathan Littell’s narrator in Les Bienveillantes , Max Aue, although I read this weekend that Amis was not an admirer of that novel. Golo is the classic outsider, coldly observing the horror around him whilst taking advantage off what any situation can offer him :

‘It was time to introduce and emphasise my theme.Under the political system that here obtained, everyone had soon got used to the idea that where secrecy began, power began. Now, power corrupts : this was not a metaphor. But power attracts, luckily (for me).was not a metaphor either; and I had derived much sexual advantage to my proximity to power. I wartime, women especially felt the gravitational pull of it; they would be needing all their friend and admirers , all their protectors.’

The Zone Of Interest is a remarkable achievement . It is meticulously researched and movingly and respectfully told and a long-awaited return to form.

 

An Evening With Ian McEwan

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Today sees the UK publication of Ian McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act. On 1st September I attended the Guardian Reader event at The Cadogan Hall at which Ian McEwan was interviewed by journalist and novelist, Jonathan Freedland.

I haven’t read The Children Act as yet . I only picked up my signed copy last night and so I can’t review it at all.  I also can’t say whether this little report of the evening contains any spoilers – I’m just recording some of the things discussed at the event.

McEwan began the evening with a reading from the very beginning of the book (pp1 -8). The main character of The Children Act  is Fiona May, a High Court Judge in the Family Division. At the opening of the book Fiona’s personal life is about to enter a crisis as Jack, her husband of many years, announces his intention to have an affair with ‘ A pretty statistician working on the diminishing probability of a man returning to an embittered wife.’

Jack makes it clear that he doesn’t want the marriage to end but, Fiona wryly reflects ‘ The moment to propose an open marriage was before the wedding, not thirty-five years later,’

Just as her private life goes into turmoil, her professional life becomes challenging when she is asked to preside over two very difficult cases, most particularly a case concerning a teenaged Jehovah’s Witness whose parents are withholding consent to life-saving treatment for him.

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Freedland opened the interview by pointing out the strange coincidence that this book is being published just as the sad news of Ayasha King and his family is all over our TVs and newspapers. McEwan was quick to point out that although that case did involve a Jehovah Witness family it did not , as far as he could tell, involve religion per se. Rather, he thought, it was best described as a ‘cascade of chaos’ .Terrible consequences have been unleashed by pushing bureaucratic buttons and now a poor child is languishing in a hospital without his family.

His novel concerns a rather different scenario of a teenager who knows his own mind and is refusing life saving treatment. The title of the book refers to actual legislation, The Children Act 1989, and the over-riding principle appears on its flyleaf – ‘ …the child’s welfare shall be the courts paramount consideration.’

Over the age of 18 one can refuse medical treatment but where that person is a child, the courts become involved in any dispute  and so we have the collision between the secular mind and sincerely held religious beliefs. We seem to be undergoing  a national period of soul searching concerning the welfare of children at a time in which it has become clear that terrible abuses have occurred .

Freedland pointed out that in the book McEwan seems to be very critical of the role of so called experts in such cases. McEwan agreed that he particularly wanted to highlight the role of Roy Meadows on whose say so more than one woman had been wrongly sent to prison. This was also a failing of the judiciary. Judges can be both brilliant and awful. Terrible miscarriages of justice do occur.

Freedland remarked that he seemed remarkably well disposed towards lawyers. McEwan agreed that lawyers had had a bad press since Shakespeare but he finds that on the whole they speak eloquently and write well. They enjoy jokes about lawyers and he would rather stand in a British court where the separation of powers offers protection against the perversity of whatever government is in power. This, of course, is not the case in many parts of the world.As a lawyer myself, I felt my admiration for him grow!

The language of the best judgements is, he has found, quite extraordinary. He mentioned particularly the judgements of Sir Alan Ward. The tone of these can be both witty and sceptical and the range of historical and philosophical references is vast. Rather like novelists, judges read and criticize  each others work…..and rather like novelists, they are toughest on those who are foolish enough to have left the conversation.

Freedland asked about the significance of Fiona’s childlessness to the novel. The absence of children is something McEwan has written about before and here he referred to A Child In Time where the absence of a particular child is harrowingly described. He feels we are all the owners of the children we once were and carry our own lost childhoods with us. In his view we are still that child to some extent. That was very much in his mind when he wrote A Child In Time.

Fiona has faced a dilemma that many women at work now face, she has delayed having children  and now finds herself without a family. The point of Fiona’s childlessness, though, is that in the boy she finds the hint of the child she never had. Fiona is very intelligent but she is not emotionally articulate.

Freedland then alluded to McEwan’s own brush with the family courts and wondered whether this had in anyway influenced his choice of subject. By way of explanation, McEwan went through a very bitter divorce and custody dispute with his first wife. McEwan found his own experience immensely painful and he doesn’t want to speak or write about it at all. There is a passage in the book where he talks about the ease with which adults persuade themselves that to divorce will be best for their children. He thinks there is an almost consumerist rush for a younger wife or a richer husband which he refers to as moral kitsch.

McEwan was asked about the significance of the world of work in his novels as several feature particular professions. He explained that the background is never the first inspiration for him , it is always the story but that he felt work was extremely important. Work went missing in the modern novel for which he blamed Henry James. James preferred his characters to have a private income so that he could explore the human condition without distraction.  McEwan is not persuaded by this. Work is often the key to our identity, it is where we meet our friends and often our lovers.

He revealed that the professions of airline pilot and architect particularly interest him.He had been thinking of William Golding’s The Spire whilst contemplating the Shard the other evening and wondering whether the building  was a triumph or a disaster ……..he had come to the conclusion that it was actually rather brilliant. Bermondsey needed something like that on its skyline!

He is more and more interested in a form of social realism in the novel, to look at where we are going now and , it seemed to him, work must be part of that. In the 70s he had flirted with the post modern , existentialist style . For example in The Cement Garden he deliberately didn’t say when or where it was……he can now reveal it was Stockwell in 1976! At this time he thinks there was a mistaken belief that  not specifying the time or place made the work more universal. That he now rejects, you only have to think of supremely regional novels such as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary to see that that is not the case.

McEwan was then asked about the length of this novel, like several of his others it is short at 55 thousand words. Did he feel that a story is best told concisely? He joked that he resented the implication that he couldn’t write a long novel , it is almost as if we were discussing sexual prowess. At one time of course we didn’t know the word count of a piece of writing, now it is there at the bottom of the screen.

He finds it interesting to move between the space and patience of a longer novel and a shorter one ,where necessarily there is a paring down of sub plot.He thinks Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and James Joyce were masters of the art of the short novel. In fact  the close of this novel pays tribute to Joyce’s The Dead. He thinks this is the supreme example of a novella and he couldn’t end without acknowledging it.

The evening was then opened up to questions from the floor and I have chosen just a few of the ones I found most interesting as I am mindful of my own word count.

A member of the audience revealed that he had studied Enduring Love for A-Level and he wondered what McEwan felt about being a set text author and whether there were any of his books he felt were unsuitable for study in school.

He does have mixed feelings about being ‘forced ‘ to read a book and wonders whether any of those readers will ever come back to him. His own son had studied Enduring Love and he found it most disconcerting to find notes lying round the house starting ‘ McEwan thinks…. McEwan is trying to say…..’. He also told us that on one occasion he had given his son the benefit of his thoughts to help with an essay. His son had come home with a D grade !!

In his opinion,  his first two volumes of short stories and The Comfort Of Strangers are unsuitable to study in school. They are so dark and depressing and you have enough to contend with when you are sixteen. He is really not sure about being a ‘ set’ author, it makes him feel dead.

A female member of the audience asked him about his favourite female authors since often his protagonists are female but all the authors he had mentioned were male.

He is very fond o the writing of Rose Tremain. He is also re-kindling his affection for Virginia Woolf. He fell out with her in Atonement but recently visited Charleston and felt her presence. His disenchantment was caused by what he thought at that time was a lack of backbone in the narrative although he feels differently now. He particularly recommended her Diaries.

He was then asked about Will Self’s article in which Self accused George Orwell of being a mediocrity. McEwan hadn’t read the article so couldn’t comment on it specifically but felt that Orwell was just about as far away from being a mediocrity as it was possible to be. Orwell captured the sensible voice dealing with difficult issues. His ghost can be heard in the voices of James Fenton, Timothy Garton-Ash and his very dear friend Christopher Hitchens, all fine journalists . Orwell of course was the first to bring pop culture under scrutiny.

The evening then ended with some general musings on current affairs.He felt that this summer has seen the darkest news cycle that he can remember. It has turned him into a news junkie……he starts the day with the Today programme, moves through the news channels during the evening , ending with Newsnight. In between he reads all the broadsheets and the New York Times. He may never find the time to write another novel again.

His current project is a screen play, first conceived in 1991 with a neuroscientist friend. It deals with the subject of deep brain stimulation. At the time it was originally written, of course, we didn’t even carry mobile phones but it foresaw in some way Google and the impact of the internet. He wants to see if this can be revived and brought up to date.

This is just a flavour of the evening we also discussed the effect of trauma on the psyche, whether he had read The Goldfinch ( he hadn’t!) and Scottish Independence. It was a fabulous evening , McEwan is an intellectual dazzler and a gifetd raconteur  and was ably coaxed on by Freedland. I am really looking forward to reading The Children Act.

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