An Evening with Karl Ove

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Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am a big fan of the books Zadie Smith described as being ‘like crack’ – the My Struggle series by Nordic publishing sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard. On 2nd March Karl Ove was interviewed by Claire Armistead at Foyles flagship store on the eve of the publication in English of volume 4 Dancing In The Dark ( trans Don Bartlett).

This volume covers the years Knausgaard spent in the far north of Norway as a secondary school teacher when aged only 18 himself. He explained that this was a challenging time in his life. The community in which he lived was very different from the one in which he had grown up. It was small, isolated and inward looking with a rough macho culture.

At that point in his life he was holding on to two realities : arrogance and shyness. You think you know everything about yourself at that age but, of course, you don’t.

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Claire Armistead asked how much of that time he actually remembered as in the book he recounts many episodes of blacking out following heavy drinking.

He conceded that there are a lot of things about that time he doesn’t remember. He was drinking a lot. When writing this volume it had been interesting for him to reflect that his first published novel, Out Of This World, concerned a young man who goes up North to teach. Essentially it was this story but it was fiction. In Dancing In The Dark he tries to say what really happened . He has found it is difficult to write the truth – perhaps by volume 6 he has managed to get it right. It is difficult to negotiate the ground between fiction and memory.

His  inner life at this time  was chaotic and he was drinking too much. He was drinking and partying with students. It was very difficult to write about this. He had feelings he was not supposed to have. He kissed a student – nothing more happened but it was very uncomfortable to write about it as a grown man. It was the chaos of being 18 years old, full of desires but with no idea of who you are.

Claire Armistead remarked that it seemed that in this volume he was obsessed with sex. Karl Ove raised an eyebrow ironically , he was 18 and he was obsessed with sex but he hadn’t had it yet! He was living in a small community of 200 people where everyone knew him and they knew exactly what he was doing, even the pupils in his class.

Did this circumscribe his ability to write about these events ? Writing a book is a zone of freedom for Knausgaard. What he means is that as he is writing he feels completely free in his thinking. This volume is a lot about shame. There is no shame in literature and he does not feel shame as he is writing. The shame comes when he has finished writing  and the work is complete.

He was careful to censor a lot of things that happened to other people. The project was very sensitive and  in fact there were lawyers reading over the drafts and forcing edits.

The person in the book is him and not a character. He tried to recreate himself at 18 but of course at 40 you know so much more.He doesn’t allow the ‘character’ to have any reflection in a mature sense. He joked that he has a sense of what it is to be 17 or 18 still but he tries to have more dignity in his life now.

He didn’t feel that he was betraying his 18 year old self in writing about him in this way. He had wanted to write a novel about his experiences at that time and was writing everyday. He just couldn’t do it. As it turned out he had to wait 25 years before he was able to write a novel about that time.

His view is that this is a very funny book. Having said that, when he was writing volume 2 he thought he was writing a tragedy – it was only after it was finished and he read it back he realised it was a comedy.

Volumes 1, 2 and 3 of My Struggle are not chronological. Volumes 3 to 6 are and the complete work is circular.

The project started because he wanted to write about his father’s death. He gave his publishers 1200 pages. From that it was decided there would be 6 volumes and it was then he constructed the arc that leads volume 6 back to volume 1. He then had to write 4 books very quickly.

Armistead asked him about the 240pp digression which appears in the book going back to his father. Knausgaard doesn’t make decisions when writing. He just follow what comes. He wanted to see all the people in his life from different angles and insights.

His father had changed profoundly at age 40. He went from being a very straight-laced , proper school teacher to becoming a kind of a hippie. He started to drink and then he became an alcoholic. It was so hard to relate to him.

After his death, he discovered that his father had left notebooks recording his feelings.The lawyers told Knausgaard he couldn’t quote directly from them. In these diaries his father recorded his struggle with drinking, he wanted to stop and couldn’t. Knausgaard had wanted to explore how and why this had happened to is Dad. He really didn’t think his father had an inner life until he read these diaries.

Armistead asked him what he thought of the English translation of My Struggle  done by Don Bartlett. He hasn’t read the translation in its entirety. He trusts Don Bartlett completely. He has read from the various volumes at literary events and his voice is completely recognisable and the atmosphere of each volume has been faithfully captured.

Had writing about his past changed him, he was asked? This project was always about writing novels. It doesn’t help you to know your faults. When you write about memory you inevitably change it. Memory isn’t fixed, it floats and evolves.

Armistead asked him about the importance he puts on looking at art. When he is writing he doesn’t read at all, he does however look at art a lot. Art is enigmatic and has no language. He discuss the importance of art to  him in volume 6.

A member of the audience asked about the storm his books had created in Norway where reportedly 10% of the population has read My Struugle. He confirmed it was a sensation  and his books had been on the front pages of the newspapers for weeks. Not since Henrik Ibsen had there been so much publicity about writing in Norway. He can only think this is because Norway is a small society and,  as members of his family had objected to their portrayal in the novels, this was regarded as a scandal.

He had thought that this kind of fuss about appearing in print was a peculiarly Scandinavian phenomenon however he recently wrote a travel piece for the New York Times.  This followed a journey he made across the States and the people who appeared in that piece made just as much fuss about their portrayal. He has discovered that people want profound things said about them not realism.

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The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

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There’s been a problem on the line. The 17.56 fast train to Stoke has been cancelled, so its passengers have invaded my train and it’s standing room only in the carriage. I, fortunately, have a seat, but by the aisle, not next to the window, and there are bodies pressed against my shoulder, my knee, invading my space. I have an urge to push back, to get up and shove. The heat has been building all day, closing in on me, and I feel as though I am breathing through a mask. Every single window has been opened and yet, even while we’re moving, the carriage feels airless, a locked metal box. I cannot get enough oxygen into my lungs. I feel sick.

This passage from Paula Hawkins’ new thriller will chime with anyone who commutes regularly. I am not a big fan of the thrillers and I don’t read very many. It remains a genre that produces big sales and the publishing industry is now on a quest to find the new Gone Girl, whose ( to me inexplicable) success recently led to a Hollywood film. There are several highly publicised thrillers coming out this year which like  Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train are by women and feature female protagonists.

Hawkins’ staring point is the monotony of a daily train commute – you see the same faces, stop at the same stations and pass through the same landscapes day in day out. One way out of the boredom is to invent fictional lives and names for the people whose lives cross ours everyday , albeit briefly.

This is how we first meet Rachel, one of the three female narrators of the book. She is a commuter but with a difference. In the wake of a failed marriage, her drink problem has caught up with her and she is now taking the same train every day to hide from her flatmate, and maybe from herself too, that she has lost her job and her life is approaching meltdown.

On the train she relives the moment that she discovered Tom was cheating on her with his now wife, Anna :

I found out the way everyone seems to find out these days : an electronic slip. Sometimes it’s a text or a voicemail message ; in my case it was an email, the modern-day lipstick on the collar.

Rachel is obsessed with Tom and is accused of stalking him. Her alcoholism means that she can’t always remember exactly what happened the night before. She is the classic unreliable narrator….or is she ? We also hear from two other female characters Anna, Toms new wife, and Megan, a young woman Rachel glimpses from the train every day, who each add a different perspective to the story. It is not really possible to say much more without running the risk of giving a spoiler.

I enjoyed The Girl On The Train very much. None of the characters are particularly likeable but the book is tightly plotted and kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next.As with any thriller, there are a few red herrings that kept me guessing and the plight of Rachel ,who descends from social drinking to full-blown alcoholism, is sympathetically told.

An ideal book for a long winter’s evening…..or, indeed, a long train journey.

The Girl On The Train was published on 15th January. My thanks to Alison Barrow and Transworld for the review copy.

 

Vanessa And Her Sister by Priya Parmar

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A novel about the Bloomsbury Set presents some challenges but Priya Parmar has stepped up to the plate in her book to be published by Bloomsbury on 30th December 2014.

The cast of characters is large and shifting, made doubly confusing by their love of (multiple) nicknames for each other together with their habit of hopping in and out of each others beds with alarming regularity.

Parmar has chosen to look at the group through the prism of Vanessa and Virginia’s complicated relationship. The book spans the years 1905 (just after the death of their father) to 1911 and Virginia’s marriage to Leonard Woolf.

The story is told by a series of fictionalised diary entries created by Vanessa as well as ‘ correspondence’ from her and other members of the set. It begins with the Stephens family’s move to Gordon Square, Bloomsbury and the start of the Thursday ‘at homes’ . Together with their brothers, Thoby and Adrian, the sisters preside over a household determined to kick at convention

Adrian was being pedantic and trying to persuade Virginia to change into evening clothes.

‘I do not see why I should wear a corset in my own drawing room,” said Virginia crossly. “You can breathe? Why shouldn’t I ?”

“Because you are a lady, Ginia,”Adrian repeated.

“And therefore not entitled to breathe?Since I do not need air, I will swim around the drawing room like a fish.The what will you do?”

Virginia’s logic.

Vanessa and Virginia’s relationship is tense. Virginia’s fragile health causes Vanessa to be ever watchful. Her sister’s moods can warn of an impending storm.

When Virginia is in a good mood, she enjoys hysterics. It is when she is in a quiet mood one should be careful. The stillness that presages the squall.

We follow the family through their travels and adventures however the central event in the novel is Vanessa’s courtship by and eventual marriage to the painter, Clive Bell.

Vanessa resists Clive at first only to marry him and become blissfully happy – for a short time. Her happiness is shattered by Clive’s infidelities,  first with her own sister and then with an ex-lover.

Apparently, I have misunderstood our marriage. He never thought we would be constricted by provincial fidelity. He never thought I would be so narrow minded, so Victorian, so unimaginative , as to confuse a marriage and a love affair. He never thought I would interrupt his personal freedom in this way.

Vanessa’s relationship with her sister is irrevocably altered. When Vanessa meets Roger Fry, the art critic who eventually became her lover, she warns her sister ,

No Virginia. You ruin. You ruin whatever you see coming between you and me. Roger is to my lover. He is my friend, but that hardly matters. We have a fragile, particular friendship, and you will destroy it if you can. As you destroyed my marriage. You cannot help yourself. You do not want something of your own. You want what is mine.”

I enjoyed this book immensely. At first it was a little difficult to follow who was who despite the list of characters which appears at the front. Things did eventual fall into place and telling the story through diary entries and letters did create the atmosphere surrounding the sisters, their acolytes  and of the times in which they lived.

Of course the story is ultimately tragic but there is a thread of humour running through it, particularly in Lytton Strachey’s correspondence with Leonard Woolf, then stationed in India. Strachey is constantly promoting the idea of Woolf marrying Virginia – hilariously he even prepares the ground by proposing to her himself only to have to somehow dissolve this disastrous engagement.

Behing it all stands the cpmplex but alluring Virginia, determined to write groundbreaking fiction

‘Why must a novel begin at the beginning? Who declares such a rule? Who defends it?” 

Vanessa And Her Sister is published by Bloomsbury on 30th December. My thanks to Netgalley for the proof.

An Evening With Marilynne Robinson

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At this time of the year, the blogosphere is filled with favourite books of the year and so  I thought I would finally get round to writing about my favourite author event of 2014.

On 13th November, Marilynne Robinson was interviewed by James Runcie at the Southbank Centre following the publication of Lila, the third of her novels set in the mid West town of Gilead and following the fortunes of the Ames and Boughton families. What follows is not a verbatim account of the interview but will, I hope, give a flavour of the evening.

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Lila is a repeat of the story in the earlier books Gilead and Home but told from a different point of view, that of Lila, wife of Rev John Ames who is the narrator of Gilead. One of the issues of storytelling, Robinson finds, is to get sufficient dimension. In John Ames’ version [ Gilead] he is writing a letter to his young  son and therefore he is necessarily writing to his son’s mother. It is really like parents telling different stories.

Is Lila, though uneducated, intuitively wiser than her husband John Ames? Lila describes knowing a place before it was known. She is not self-aware in a conventional way. She is outside the sense of things and outside consciousness .

Runcie pointed out that taken as a whole, the stories of Gilead, Home and Lila feel like a parable and the Book of Ezekiel and the Prodigal Son come to mind.

Robinson is haunted by Biblical paradigms . The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us that if you absolutely love someone you see them in a state of grace. God sees you more purely . The father sees his son at a distance and runs to him. If you love someone, you want to stop them from hurting themselves but it they do, you still love them.

Runcie remarked that there is a high moral seriousness to Robinson’s writing. She replied, dryly, that she was glad to be assured of that. She prefers to call it aesthetic . Good behaviour is beautiful. Humans are an amazing flowering on a planet. We have the freedom to care for one another and to forgive. She calls this a beautiful uniqueness.

Jack Boughton specifically asks for forgiveness and John Ames cannot give it to him. Robinson explained that she has created a theological Rubik’s cube. Jack Boughton may be at odds with his culture but he sees something John Ames and his father can’t. Gilead is a small self-blinded community. Jack lacks the moral confidence to point out that they are violating Christian standards. They are both wrong and both right.

Runcie asked why Lila feels such shame. Lila is fallen in the sense we all are. People who are in poverty, who are ignorant, feel shame. They are embarrassed and this, in Robinson’s view, is the major part of the cruelty of poverty. Shame reinforces injurious cultural norms.

Lila’s baptism is central to her story. Robinson’s own tradition is Congregationalist. There are only two sacraments, the Lord’s Supper and baptism. They both symbolise deep care.The cosmic force of water has always fascinated her. A member of the audience asked about the response of a younger readership to the biblical references. Robinson replied  with a flash of humour that she writes what is on her mind and she doesn’t find resistance to it. She can’t write something deliberately to be appealing.In the writers’ workshops she teaches the Old Testament from time to time. It is part of our inherited culture, for example, why is a book called Absalom! Absalom!

Runcie felt that whilst there was tentative hope in Lila, all the Gilead books are quite sad.Robinson doesn’t like the word pity and she objects to the word sad. We live in the knowledge of our own mortality. This is a profound thing. It is a fact of humaness, indeed it is what dignifies it. Runcie wondered if there is another word for pity or sad. Robinson cannot find an alternative word……..that is why she has to write novels.

Runcie wondered about the sense of loneliness there is in Lila and , indeed, in all the Gilead books. Robinson’s roots are in N. Idaho. People went there and no-one followed them so she is programmed to think that loneliness is a great Idea. She was brought up to be self sufficient.

Is she done with Gilead? She can’t be sure. She starts to write when a voice is clear in her mind.If a voice speaks to her persuasively then she may return there.All three books so far are free standing, they cast light on each other. In her view it is perfectly legitimate to read them in any order.

When she writes, Robinson needs solitude. She also needs hope, she doesn’t want to succumb to cliché . When she is writing and she likes what she is producing she can work for twelve hours. If she doesn’t feel engaged, she doesn’t work at all.She has to feel that there is a nucleus around which something is gathering to gain weight.

She had great happiness when she was writing her first book Housekeeping. She was in Brittany in France and she felt being there helped her to focus on Idaho. She never thought that it would be published. She showed her manuscript to a friend, who in turn showed it to the person who became Robinson’s agent. When she is writing she starts at the beginning and then she does what seems to be the next required thing. She never even writes an outline.

This was a remarkable evening. Robinson’s serenity leaves a long lasting impression and it was fascinating to have a glimpse at her method of working and to hear her discuss the themes in the Gilead novels .

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Ridley Road by Jo Bloom

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There is plenty of atmosphere in Jo Bloom’s novel set in London’s East End in the Summer of 1962.

Vivien Epstein , a young Jewish hairdresser, has left her hometown of Manchester after the death of her father and come to London in search of fame, fortune and Jack.

Jack ,a young Jewish journalist ,had visited Vivien’s father, Phil, shortly before his death to talk about Phil’s days as an organiser in the ’43Group’. Phil had been instrumental in  the group’s fight against Moseley and the fascists in the East End decades before. Jack, so Vivien was told, was researching for an article. Jack and Vivien had a brief but intense affair. Jack promised he would come back for her but has since fallen off the radar.

 

Viv gets a job at Oscar’s salon in Soho. The seedy world of Soho at this time with its prostitutes and strippers is lovingly recreated. The air is thick with the smell of hair lacquer and there are frequent references to the fashion styles and music of the time.

In fact the hit by Helen Shapiro, a young Jewish singer, became a bit of an ear worm for me when reading the book.

Vivian soon finds Jack but their relationship is fraught with danger. Jack is working undercover for the 62Group and has infiltrated the National Socialist Movement. The 62Group , like like their fore-runners, are Jewish activists working to defeat the fascists who are again openly campaigning on the streets of the East End.

Masquerading as a fascist, Jack is feeding back details of the NSM’s plans .He is finding the pressure unbearable but it is imperative that he doesn’t betray himself. The NSM are a group of violent thugs who openly boast of their hatred of Jews and Blacks.

Again, Bloom is expert at creating the atmosphere of fear and menace that surround the party. These passages read like a thriller and I found myself anxious to turn the page in order to find out what would happen next.

The NSM hold rallies and campaign meetings which the 62Group aim to disrupt. The violence of the fascists is sickening :

At the sound of a bottle smashing behind him, Stevie jumped, wanting to cry at the savagery of it all.When a cricket bat cut through the air close by and someone screamed, he knew it was time to run, but after a couple of steps ,a hand shot out of nowhere and punched him in the face.

“No, not me -” he shouted.

He tried to stay on his feet but his attacker hit him again.He cried out, expecting another punch, but it never came. Instead a big man with heavy cheeks took hold of his attacker’s arm, threw him to the ground and kicked him until he couldn’t get up. Then he disappeared back into the crowd.

Bloom explains at the end of the book that the NSM did exist and was on the rise in the 1960s ,led by the vile Colin Jordan. Similarly, the 62Group really was part of the Jewish community’s fightback to keep the fascist off their streets. The characters and events in the book whilst realistic are , of course, the product of Bloom’s imagination.

Ridley Road is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on 11th December and has a wonderful cover – not that I would ever judge a book by that, of course !!

My thanks to Jo Bloom for the review copy.

 

 

 

 

Getting Colder by Amanda Coe

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As we move into December, the title of this novel seems particularly apt.

Screen-writer Amanda Coe examines the fall out in an already fractured family after the death of the mother, Sara. Nigel and Louise, her children, are both grown up now with their own difficult families but 35 years earlier, Sara abandoned her children to live with Patrick, now an old man but at that time a fashionable playwright and darling of the Left.

In the aftermath of their mothers death , Nigel and Louise descend on the ramshackle cottage in Cornwall which Sara had shared with Patrick to pick over her possessions and also the reasons their mother left them all those years ago. Getting Colder is in fact the name of a hide-and-seek type game they used to play with their mother when they were children.

Both Nigel and Louise have been left damaged by their mother’s betrayal. Nigel’s years at boarding school have left him with an anxiety related digestive problem. Louise, dumped with a godmother as her carer, has constant feelings of unworthiness. Her neediness is spilling over into her relationship with her own two children. Patrick is an intensely unlikeable ,self-obsessed and self pitying bully and it is hard to see what Sara had ever seen in him.

“I’ll never forgiver her, you know. Leaving me like this.”

He meant Mum. Well, rampaging end-stage cancer was hardly running off with the milkman. Nigel pushed the sugar bowl his way appeasingly.

“Ashes,”said Patrick. “O God.” And to Nigel’s dismay, he wept. Nigel hated this, always had,the way Patrick detonated instantly into high emotion, winding you in the backdraft.

Into this heady mix comes Mia, an attractive young student apparently researching Patrick’s almost forgotten writing  but someone who has an agenda of her own.

“My cock doesn’t work,” he had told her, a few days into the blouse-button routine. ” Shut up shop years ago”

It had made everything more possible. Even at its most enjoyable, sex always made Mia feel she was missing the point of something other deployed to enhance their status by claiming to find it transformational – much like those who trumpeted their love of the theatre.Well, she was different, as usual. Her pleasure was mild enough when she fancied someone, like Jonathon; it would have been downright impossible with Patrick.

Each chapter of the novel is seen through the eyes of Nigel, Louise or Mia. Each episode is prefaced with an extract from notes, letters and cards written by Patrick and Sara over the years and through which the trajectory of their love affair and its consequences can be traced,

Given the subject matter this could be an extremely depressing read however Coe’s witty style saves the book from becoming gloomy. Here, a young Louise , who has recently been shown a sex education film in school, tries to work out why her mother has left her father for Patrick :

But Louise knew, unlike her friends that any or all of the improbable facts imparted about adult sexual behaviour had to be true. The weirdness must take place, because why else would Mum leave Dad, and them? Since nothing made sense, you had to believe in a compulsion you couldn’t understand. It was all because Mum wanted Patrick’s penis in her vagina. Dad’s penis wasn’t good enough for some reason.

The clue to the result of Nigel and Louise’s search is found in the quote from Ted Hughes which appears on the frontispiece  :

‘What happens in the heart simply happens’

A very enjoyable read and thank you to Ursula Doyle and Virago for the advance copy.

 

 

 

Book Review :Amnesia by Peter Carey

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Peter Carey’s latest book is one that I have some mixed feelings about.

Felix Moore is a discredited left-wing journalist. Brought down by the Establishment and successfully sued for defamation he is shunned, bankrupted and unemployed.

As the doors of the mainstream media closed to anyone unworldly enough to write the truth, I still published ‘Lo-Tech Blog’, a newsletter printed on acid paper which was read by the entire Canberra Press Gallery and all of parliament besides. Don’t ask how we paid our electricity bill.

He friend Woody Wodonga Townes comes to his rescue employing him to write the biography of ‘ Angel’ ,a  hacker who has released a worm into the computer systems of the Australian and US prison systems ,unlocking the doors and freeing the inmates.

Felix sees the Tolstoyan possibilities of this when he discovers that Angel is none other than Gaby Ballieux, daughter of Celine Ballieux and Sando Quinn, classmates of his in University in Melbourne.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Is there a more famous line in all of literature? Is there a greater writer than Tolstoy? Only in some lost corner of the earth, in a shack above the Hawkesbury for instance, might you find a winecaked fool thinking to himself – hang on Tolstoy, not so slick: it may not be a case of either/or.

Felix has long been addressed by what he calls The Great Amnesia – Australia’s complicated relationship with the US which, in his view, produced a CIA plot to bring down the Whitlam government in 1975 when the continued use of the Pine Gap listening facility was under threat.

We were naive of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them, of course. Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They had saved us from the Japanese . We sacrificed the lives of our beloved sons in Korea, then Vietnam. It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.

So we are taken on a romp through recent Australian political history, starting with the Brissy Riots during WW2, when American servicemen were attacked by an enraged local mob, and ending with a Wikileaks inspired plot to expose all that is wrong with global corporate control.

This is a novel that Carey clearly cares deeply about and there is much to enjoy here.Felix rails against the hypocrisy of the current Australian government,

In Lo-Tech Blog, I revealed the Australian press’s cowardly reporting of the government lies about the refugees aboard the ill-fated Oolong.

‘I can’t comprehend how genuine refugees would throw their children overboard’ said our Prime Minister.

Once again, like 1975, here was a lie of Goebbelseque immensity. The fourth estate made the whole country believe the refugees were animal and swine. Many think so still.

Yet the refugees belonged here. They would have been at home with the best of us. We have a history of courage and endurance, of inventiveness in the face of isolation and mortal threat. At the same time, alas, we have displayed this awful level of cowardice, brown-nosing, criminality, mediocrity and nest-feathering.

Felix is a classic Carey creation and his acerbic commentary on modern Australian life and self-deprecating humour are the joys of the book.

I did not however find this a particularly easy book to read, in fact at times I struggled to continue.

Firstly, the many cultural references were entirely lost on me. The book is largely set in Melbourne with frequent references to particular suburbs the significance of which are not explained.I suspect that several of the characters are representations of Australian public figures, again I floundered.

Felix’s voice is strong and engaging but the book , in part, is effectively narrated by Celine and then Gaby, as he is given access to tape recordings of their version of events. The frequent changes in voice together with leaps to and fro in time made following the events extremely difficult.

Finally, one of Carey’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to entirely inhabit the worlds he creates whether that is Dickensian London in Jack Maggs; the 19th Century outback in Oscar and Lucinda ; or the web of international art fraud in Fake. Here he convincingly creates the world of the early computer gamers turned hackers. Computer geeks, however, do not make engaging narrators . They are introverted and spend long periods of time closeted with other like-minded obsessives speaking a language that most of us find hard to understand.

I desperately wanted to enjoy this book more than I actually did. Carey is one of only three writers to have won the Booker Prize twice but I fear Amnesia does not quite measure up to his earlier works.

My thanks to Netgalley and Faber and Faber for the review copy.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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!