Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Prodigal

It is easy in the end, to stand in the wreckage, much easier than she had hoped, the huge door tilting on its hinges, parallelograms of sky at unreasonable angles. Alisha stands in the middle of the space and makes herself breathe in the mushroom smells of wet-wood, clover and owl-life. A broken chair lies on its side, rotting into the earth, its pink paint peeling away in fatigue patterns.

Outside in the field, the day is forfeiting its light to the storm, a low sky billows out before the wind, grey as a forgotten sheet. Alisha feels in her pocket for the key, but it is no available. Her fingers worry the dusty corners of her pockets, make themselves sore for what is irretrievable now. At the far end of the barn is the ladder, staggering up to the old hayloft. Old rosettes hang at jinxed angles. She remembers warming her hands on the side of the horse, creeping in here to lean against a single true thing, but it is as though she once read about it, rather than did it.

The rain comes in from the West, with its puzzling, volatile perfume. And at the edge of the field the evening's ignorant owl cries Who? into the dropping light. I am writing this so that it will stay true.

Reading List: Derby Day D J Taylor

This is D J Taylor's second Victoriana novel, a clever pastiche of Victorian mystery, which details the events leading up to the great race, and the conniving machinations of the central character Happerton. The most intriguing relationship in the novel is that between Happerton and his wife Rebecca, for if Happerton is no more or less than a scheming bounder, then Rebecca has a much more credibly dark edge to her character. Cooler than Happerton, and more judicious, she is capable of great, if unrealised, passion, and it is this glancing passion that lends the novel its finest moments.

Derby Day has some splendid set scenes, and the descriptions of Scroop Hall are pleasingly atmospheric, but it is unfortunately almost impossible to read without comparison to Sarah Waters Fingersmith and The Little Friend comparisons which don't favour this novel. To be sure, it is on the whole well plotted (with the possible exception of the jewellery raid in the middle which seemed a bit out of place) and the characterisation and setting are polished and satisfying, but there is something just a bit flat about it. Maybe the pastiche overshadowed Taylor's voice, so that it read more like an incredibly accomplished exercise, than a fully realised world of its own. It was technically impressive but lacking in unique sensibility,. There was insufficient that was thrilling about this novel, in the end, to make me feel like it had been a worthy addition to the Booker longlist.

Friday, 14 October 2011

The Australian Season: Due Preparations for the Plague

Janette Turner Hospital's novel  tackles the themes of terrorism and international espionage on a personal scale. Due Preparations for the Plague, a title borrowed from Daniel Defoe, suggests that it might be possible to prepare ourselves for unspeakable natural disaster. Her novel painstakingly unpicks this assumption until it is in tatters and we know ourselves to be helpless, if not for love.

This is a novel packed with literary and philosophical allusions, which  set it apart from traditional thriller material. Like her other novels, it has a mythic quality, a chorus of narrative voices, which serve to shift the focus, move the action along, and provide a tragic commentary. It shares with her other novels, perhaps especially The Last Magician, an unsettling preoccupation with fate and whether we can avoid it, whether in fact it is ever possible to make due preparations. Her writing is lyrical, elegiac even, but this is a novel with both pace and suspense. Much of the suspense we feel is, inevitably, informed by our memories of 9/11. This is also the site of the novel's greatest elision. We learn nothing of the political motivations of the hijackers. What we attend to is the small reparations that people make towards each other, the redemptive quality of love to connect us in ways that are as equally complex and mysterious as the sinister political connections which also rule our lives. Due Preparations is thrilling, risky, and undeniably moving, it may have a flawed core if one insists on a hard-nosed political reading, but it nevertheless is a tremendous novel.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Prodigal

Electra is in the park, in the golden nude evening, under the flush Midas light of late Autumn. Tomorrow is tempting, but this evening is still unmapped, potentially empty, reluctant as any landscape to succumb to perspective. The air just now is radiant, exalted with fire. If she closes her eyes she can see the wall, stripes of lemon across the uneven surface. Faint vicious words scratched into its surface, frustration texts: TWAT; Please kill me; my heart has never been this open; DIE; Think of this as a window.

The sun slipping out of the cloud, like shook foil, alerts her, snaps her out of a displace, and time suddenly speeds up so that it is soon much later. A boy is standing by the lake, lifting his arms to the sky, a pale halo of light about his head. Pale-eyed fractious seagulls circle above him, a solitary goose rises from the lake and beats its wings.

Rafael, Rafael, she calls to the boy, Rafael, I found it! You can come home! And it was so easy in the end, standing in the wreck. It wasn't as hard as we thought it would be. Rafael, look! It's me.

Her pleading voice sounds tiny in her ears, disproportionately small. But it, or the sudden wind looting the trees' gold, startles the deer. A stag. Havoc leaps in all their hearts, the stag runs straight at the boy who, like someone in a dream himself, looks up, and of course it isn't Rafael. There are no recesses in those walls. Boy falls. Water slates close in all the colours of shark over his thrashing arms, as the memorable dissolves into the irretrievable and Electra rushes forward into the ghastly present tense.

The Prodigal

Rafael, in his cell, imagines the blue door. There are no recesses in these walls, no alcoves. There is only surface, not even the illusion of depth. He has reached that place where all knowledge, belief, learning have dissolved, or resolved themselves into taboo. Outside, the same golden nude evening extends itself in voluptuous curves across an horizon chaotic with light. Even Rafael's cell, which is uniformly grey, is lit briefly with yellow stripes.  From here, Rafael does what he must do. He concentrates. He has turned himself into a pilgrim of perception, an acrobat of the mind, an illusionist. He recites the sad and subtle stories of the room to himself and fills it with untold richness. He is, after all, genetically predisposed to genius. His nails are grey, like old Russian silver. He is turning his cell, his cells, into his very own treasure trove. He is in a place beyond atlas and map. Now Rafael resides in the old country, the commanding landscape of memory, and he stalks through it, as though he is in a procession.

Sunday, 9 October 2011


Were I to have kissed him, it would have been on the day of ash, when I emerged from the chimney's velvet belly, my skin all glittery with mica and coal, and saw him, standing in the storybook kitchen, holding an impossible shoe against his heart, stricken with knowing. Well we cannot rectify it. Even fairy Godmothers cannot change the past. We never enjoyed the luxuries of the body. Not for us reckless necking on the back seat of a crystal coach, under the sly moon, violet with Novembral dusklight.

But if I had kissed him, it would have been then, with the precious gilt of a crown of light about his head, and his half-smile as he reached for one of the little pears in the white bowl. But the clock struck and we forgot to count the passing of time. And now he has gone.

Well then, let him go: said my stepmother, sewing me a gown of black waxed calico, fashioned from one of her discarded blackout blinds. Let him go, for you have grieved and wept, and it is enough. If he could have stopped it hopping he'd have fucked a frog.

But if I think on it now, trying to connect that day with this, I feel the rush and howl of a prince's soul longing to dwell in flesh and blood beneath the ballroom dome of the sky, and I wish, that black day, that I had understood the story better and kissed him.

Booker Longlist: The Sense of An Ending

Julian Barnes continues his engagement with the impact of grief and bereavement in The Sense of an Ending, an elegant, philosophical novel about dying and living. His writing is coolly incisive, and lit with insight into human nature. Taking his title from Frank Kermode's literary criticism which explores the ways in which writers use the technique of a surprising twist to confound the reader's suppositions about the novel, we can expect from the outset that this will be a novel which will leave us puzzling over its beginnings, going over the ground again, trying to see where it was we missed the clue that would have alerted us to the final twist in the tale. Curiously, for such a slight book (it extends to no more than 150 pages), it requires a prodigious act of memory from the reader to keep abreast of the subtleties of plot and character.
The novel begins with a list of remembered things, all of which are watery, and the last of which is imagined rather than remembered, thus flagging up for us the idea that memory is elusive, protean and foundational. The truth of a memory lies in its impact upon a life, not in its reliability. Memory is what we are. We make ourselves up out of what we remember, or out of what we try to forget. Barnes' narrator, Tony Webster, navigates the choppy waters of his memories and relationships with an engaging ruefulness, though he could have perhaps used a copy of Through the Looking Glass, wherein the Queen remarks: 'It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.'
Kermode's book of essays suggests that we habitually impose false paradigms upon life and in particular, upon time, because it is in our very nature to do so: we are creatures inextricably devoted to plot. Time in its pure state is disorganised. We attempt to overcome this in fiction, and in life, by insisting upon a beginning, a middle and an end. Our plots, whether they are literary , political or personal, are the ways in which we try to make sense of chaos, but such sense is at best provisional. It creaks under pressure. "Time" Tony says "first grounds us and then confounds us".
Barnes writes with a particularly lucid economy and this is a novel which leaves you feeling you have drilled deep into remorse, understood something newly unsettling about mortality and  about the memorial propitiations that a life might require.

Booker Longlist: Far to Go

Alison Pick's novel Far to Go is a moving and powerful account of the provisionality of all the stories we tell ourselves about history and identity. Piecing together the fragmentary evidence that surfaces, years later, of the story of a Czech Jewish family in the lead up to the German Occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, she weaves a narrative that is both convincing and insistent that it is only one possible version of events. There is, for example, the unknown sibling, whose marginal story is only alluded to, and then unpicked. The fragments that persist are: a watch; a photograph; some lost letters; historical documents and that most conditional of evidences: memory. Holocaust novels tread a difficult line, in that it is hard to see what they can say that doesn't simply collapse into a condemnation of Nazi Germany. Pick though, offers us something else. Her narrative is unflinching, not only in its depiction of the way in which greed and insecurity made special spaces for Nazi ideology to flourish even in closely-knit communities, but also for the way in which ordinary people make mistakes out of hope, love, fear and desperation.
The story is in part narrated by Annaliese, a contemporary Holocaust researcher who has dedicated her life to uncovering the stories of the kindertransport children. She constructs the story of the Bauer family, a Sudeten-Czech secular Jewish family who send their little boy Pepik on the kindertransport to Scotland. Her story is an imaginative elaboration of their lives, motivations and compromises. The psychological faithfulness is both devastating and curiously enlarging. While in essence, we learn nothing new about the Holocaust, we do feel we know what we know in a newly truthful way. Surely, that is the one of the great purposes and pleasures of reading?

Sunday, 25 September 2011

GFBA: The Book of Lies

The Guardian First Book Award is an award fraught with challenge, and that is one of its greatest strengths. As a  multi-genre award it requires comparisons between apples and oranges. The longlist is always enticing, and also often frustrating to one's expectations.

Mary Horlock's novel is no exception. It  has aroused a strangely mixed response in me. Interleaving two stories, both in the confessional form of diaries and letters, it interrogates the slippage between what we say and what we mean, through the device of history repeating itself. Set in Guernsey in the 1980s and an account written in 1965 of events of the second world war, both stories are told by unreliable adolescent narrators. Both narrators confess to murder, both are obsessed by their relationships with 'poisonous' friends who they feel betray their loyalty.
The novel tackles profound questions about truth and trust, documentation and denial. But there is something unsettling about the characterisation. The thing about lies is that for them to work, you have to believe them. Trust is at the very heart of a lie, and I never felt that I truly trusted or believed in the central character Cat, appealing as she was from time to time. Mercurial and wry and capable of some darkly funny insights, she had the potential to captivate me, but the way in which she disinvests her own narrative of credibility by an increasingly grating parenthetic commentary in which she is self-consciously younger than her years, served to stifle any affection I might have fostered for her.
The narrative is sprinkled with footnotes, interrupting, contradicting, reinforcing the stories, and again this should have been a device which worked to challenge our response to the historical novel, but somehow the dissonance was so destabilising that in the end it robbed the book of much of its essential warmth.
Should it make it to the shortlist? On the strength of having read only two of the longlist I'll give it a definite maybe.

The Feast of Telemachus

Death is the mother of beauty. I stare in my mind's eye at my father's beautiful corpse. His body, glazed in salt, lies in humble majesty upon the slab. I can barely bring myself to tear away from this dream.
They are making me a feast. Cook says she will do figs baked with pomegranate to appease the appetites of my mother's suitors. For me she will do a banquet of wild birds. Perhaps not starlings, but thrushes stuffed with lavender and attar of roses. Or, if they can be had, the tongues of skylarks braised in honeyed wine. Such fragrant feasts recalled in the mouth like a clinging veil of abstracted light.
We live in a world where beauty runs in rivers green as weed, as swift and chill as water off the mountain. I look at my mother and wonder how long hers can be preserved. Her hands bleed with knotting the strands of silk she is using to weave the cloth of fidelity. I have seen what she does in the dark secret of the night, but I cannot imagine to what good I can put this knowledge.
If the old man dies, the undreamt of treasure is mine. This palace, with its brocades and marbles, and its vistas of the sea from every window would legitimately become mine own. So long as she does not marry one of the pretenders. So I drink with them, and watch them out of the side of my face, while the chained dogs bark and the night's chill steals upon us. And their company is livelier than hers, even if they do plan to usurp what's mine.
My mothers pious longing for Ulysses outshadows everything else. She can talk of no-one but him. Even her memories, fractured by the events of the day, are elaborated to elevate him above the salt tide. Ulysses, my father. A colossus in our fabrications of him. And Penelope the virtuous. No-one could say my parentage was not illustrious.
Way below, in the stone kitchen, the fabulous feast bursts the barriers of longing, and hunger, or something close to it, moves me.

Booker Longlist: On Canaan's Side

Sebastian Barry continues his poetically inflected investigation into the multiple and contradictory stories of the Dunne family in this his latest novel. Grief, separation and trauma have marked the lives of this family, from the Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Annie Dunne, through what I consider to be still his best novel A Long Long Way, his play The Steward of Christendom and  his prize-winning novel The Secret Scripture, but Barry treats his subject with great compassion and a lightness of touch that keeps us as absorbed by his stories as if they were our own. The stories of the Dunne family are both particular and exemplary, telling the larger historical narrative through the story of the family. The redeeming factor in all the stories is love. It is love that keeps the heart beating, love that ushers in forgiveness, love that furnishes the resources to reinvent a life, even in exile.

This novel tells the story of Lilly Bere, at the very end of her life, reflecting on its considerable heartbreak and losses. Although in the process of coming to terms with the recent suicide of her grandson, Lilly retains an endearing quality of practical optimism. She is immune to self-pity in spite of the long sequence of shocking events which have punctuated her life, right from her birth which occasioned the death of her mother. For just as surely as she is marked by grief, thanks to the poetic cadences of her language, Lilly inhabits grace. Her reflections upon the events of her life are lit by Barry's particular lyricism. To her he gives the gift of metaphor, so that as all she loves falls away, the way she comprehends her loss is through a splendid, distinctive poetry. This has the effect of rendering the narrative both disquieting and urgent. There is a steady incandescence to Barry's writing, a valedictory quality which pleads mercy. He manages to pull off an intriguing, seductive balance between despair and plenitude: blighted content and dazzling form.

The bulk of Lilly's story is told in America, on Canaan's side (the promised land), and it is typical of Barry's writing that even the title carries with it the suggestion of waters crossed, and temporary anchorage. Barry honours history for the distances it reflects, and for the way it continues to empty itself into the present. All the major events of the twentieth century are here, but their roar and flood are secondary in their intensity to the deep and turbulent waters of Lilly's own life. For Barry the personal is the political, and politics is only meaningful for the way in which it deluges ordinary life. Beautiful, moving and elegiac.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Booker Longlist: The Last Hundred Days

Patrick McGuiness's novel The Last Hundred Days is another of this year's debut novels to have made it to the long-list. Shot through with poetry, the novel is at its best when at its most meditative, when everything slows down to concentrate on a particular moment. Then it regains speed, and the sharp focus seems suddenly almost dreamlike as the images and action whip themselves into a disarming crescendo. In this, it is a novel so vivid it is filmic, and may well at times have been written with the film in mind, but McGuiness never loses sight of the literariness of his enterprise.

Set in the dying days of Ceaucescu's Bucharest, the novel depicts a regime both absurd and appalling. It is decadent, vicious and disappearing. The premise of the novel is Kafka-esque - an unnamed narrator ends up teaching at Bucharest university on the basis of an interview which never took place - and so we are encouraged from the beginning to think of this novel in existentialist terms. The protagonist is caught up in a series of relationships which he cannot comprehend, moving between incompatible worlds of corrupt luxury and crumbling reality.

One of the best characters in the novel is Leo. A jaded academic, with an engagingly acerbic take on the city for the narrator, Leo is writing a book, the City of Lost Walks, in which he aims to chart all the disappearing monuments, churches and parks of a city which is daily reconstructed for Ceaucescu's modernisation programme. This uncertain cartography serves as an urgent metaphor for the uncertainty with which all the characters navigate their lives, both literally and morally.

The city is vividly  evoked. Baggy, beautiful, bewildered and part-demolished, the descriptions are reminiscent of Iain Sinclair's deep meditations and love affair with London. And it is these evocations of the city, above all, that lend the novel its greatest authenticity. The narrator is cut loose, disassociated from his own life and from his relationships, which makes him hard to care about. But here, in this disintegrating city of shifting alliances and  sudden descents, he is shown at his most innocent: the innocence, it is true, of the ingenue, but innocence nonetheless.  And we are beguiled into following his stumbling progress through the alarmingly realised city.

Impressive rather than lovable, this is nevertheless a finely wrought and compelling novel.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Rhythm and Blues

This old blue day in the grotto, I am beating out the rhythm of hope; when the rhythm skips a beat, my heart stutters also. On the cave floor, puddles are set in collars of silica. The sky flows into them in different moods of blue, as though all blue can be perfectly calibrated. There is a cold scent upon the air: something radiant, lethal, divine, as the day drops into evening calling for a tin-foil moon to shiver in the wind,  and cast ribbons of improbable light upon the surface of the sea. It is freedom of a sort, I suppose to sit here, beating out the rhythmic names of God into the echo of this blue cave.

At the edge of sight, a line of blue beetles crawls up the cave wall, tracing the mercurial hierpglyphics of desire or despair. Worship or terror. At this scale, who can tell the difference? They plot their inscrutable route. But I won't look up. I am too busy whipping up a draught of blue notes for the ethereal choir of midges. When the wind falls in stripes, it will be time.

Booker Longlist: Half Blood Blues

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan is a novel which shines out of the Booker longlist like a splash of light. It tells the story of a group of  Afro-German jazz musicians in Paris and Berlin in the 1940s and counterpoints this story with the more contemporary narrative of Baltimore, Paris and Berlin in the 1990s. It is written in vivid, elegant prose, and wears its research very easily, ringing true all the way through. Edugyan handles her material well, structuring the novel as a piece of musical magic. Race, friendship, betrayal and identity come together in unique, fleeting harmonic alliances which rhythmically displace each other, fracturing and delighting the narrative sequences in surprising ways. This is a slightly surreal, deliberately off-kilter, fully realised and darkly beautiful novel.
The reluctant narrator, Sidney Griffiths, has a complex unsettling voice, capable of drawing us into the story and simultaneously inviting us to step back from it and wonder what other stories are shimmering below the surface. What for instance, would have been the story as told by Hiero, the brilliant trumpeter whose shattered narrative is told only in fleetingly beautiful passages, full of passion and soaring majesty, but largely submerged and undisclosed at the tragic heart of this novel.
The snuffed-out ecstasy of shared purpose and creative originality is heart breaking, and this is a novel which makes you cry. Why would you want to read something that made you cry? because it is a way of knowing you still feel. Half Blood Blues alerts us to the things that matter in life,  and in story, and revises for us all the things we thought we knew, but never knew so well as we do now. This is a piece of sustained and uncommon beauty, the echoes of which lie in the heart long after the novel is finished.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Booker Longlist: The Sisters Brothers

Patrick deWitt's novel The Sisters Brothers might just be my top favourite of the Booker shortlist, and my biggest surprise so far. I was dreading reading this book, knowing it only to be about two hired assassins in the Wild West, and coming to it unadorned via the kindle. So I was utterly unprepared to meet the beguiling tenderness of the narrator Eli who, with his brother Charlie, sets off on a vastly entertaining picaresque adventure, to hunt down and kill a gold prospector the unlikely named Herman Kermit Warm on the instructions of their boss. Eli's voice is an irresistible mix of sincerity and reflectiveness. Temperamentally unsuited to murder he is nevertheless capable of a towering black rage which his brother uses to devastating effect. In the murderous moment, he confesses to feeling a mixture of lust and disgrace, exemplifying deWitt's piercing economy when investigating human excess. Although soft-hearted and implacably loyal, Eli is the most unpredictable and therefore the most dangerous of the two.
The conventions of the Wild West are the conventions of fantasy, and by no means is this an historical novel. Instead the brothers offer us a reinvention of the past. With their flinty virtues and unthinking cruelty, the brothers hold up for us a foxed mirror into how people visit arbitrary violence upon each other, tenderly sentimentalise their animals and set their course by fluke and shifting alliance. This is a novel which asks some powerful questions about love and death, but it does so with thrilling disarming slapstick. We are in a world so darkly and surreally imagined it cannot help but beg comparisons with Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and fortunately for us, it stands up well to such comparisons.
de Witt's novel is both original and part of a tradition and he handles those two factors with grace and sureness. Wonderful, memorable and definitely worthy of a prize.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Booker Longlist: Snowdrops

Starkly elegant,  Snowdrops is a moral enquiry into contemporary life and how submerged we have allowed beauty (and if we are to believe Keats, truth) to become. It takes the form of a confessional: a letter to the narrator's fiancee, thus explicitly inviting the reader to judge the decline of the narrator, English lawyer, Nicholas Platt.
Platt is at once infuriatingly apathetic and inexplicably beguiling. He has arrived in Moscow, rudderless, having buried his father, to work for a law firm which specialises in advising banks to broker multinational deals. The novel then unpacks his decline, an unravelling of the moral self, as Nick abandons himself to the bewildering, sometimes terrifying, charms of the city. Menace stalks the story, and sometimes this is protested just a bit much, but the three interwoven plot lines are on the whole deftly handled, and Platt retains our sympathy even when behaving badly.
Strangely compelling, it invites comparisons with James Meeks' novel The People's Act of Love (comparisons which don't do it any favours, since that is such a magnificent novel) and also perhaps the Penguin novels by Andrey Kurkov...but Miller offers us something else here: this is not just a book about contemporary Russia. One of the corpses buried beneath the snow, waiting for the thaw to reveal its rotten decay, is Britain.
This is a novel wherein the surface gives way, is profoundly unstable and disrupts our judgement. We see what we shy away from, but we fail to recognise it for what it is. The opening scenes of the funeral for Nicholas's father should have alerted us to an anulled moral authority. If not that, then his release into playful self-gratification might have caused us to pause for thought, but actually we too are snow-blind, and thus complicit in his decline. The strategy of writing the novel as a love letter is a stroke of genius, nudging us to judge kindly, to turn a blind eye. Like putting lipstick on a pig, Snowdrops exposes the moral vacuity that occupies the space where a heart should beat. We have become so enamored of surface that even when it's wrong, if it has the right signals, we'll turn a blind eye and call it great.

Scaggy Mishkin

The moon is on its back, having a smoke behind the trees, but still its dappled face briefly illumines her smile, and the stream, full of old iron. Here she comes: Scaggy Mishkin, vagrant, blues harpist and small time metal dealer. She zigzags through the forest using ancient tracks that are known to her only by the shapes of mysterious stars tattooed onto the inside of her wrists. It is in this mazy light that she chances upon the apple tree, tree of knowledge, beloved of serpents and naked curious women. She checks the branches just in case. Scaggy Mishkin keeps her eyes open for the main chance, though her love life, if it can be called that, is somewhat at the mercy of her ugly moods and mercurial energies. Often it has been the case that she has torpedoed the main chance and been left with only the forlorn plain smell of love hearts, with their blurred print: big boy; miss you; and you're fab, melting on her tongue.

Through the forest into the underworld of legend, Mishkin treads softly. She carries so many things close to her heart: a recipe for pomegranate syrup, lint, an old coin which tastes of tears and gives her the sensation of tumbling back into her childhood. The earth smells of its treasures: hyacinth bulbs, jonquil roots and the intricate corsetry of woodlice. Now the curving tunnel of the fox shatters and she falls further, tumbling past the backs of industrious insects into Pluto's cave. She is suddenly amazed. The underworld has a nostalgic smell, as if some sunny splendour had not long since passed through it, like the passing of the dawn chorus which vanishes with the first rain. Struggling to recognise this world, Mishkin stands, knee-deep in its light. And from somewhere far off, she recognises a wild hunger growing in her.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Booker Longlist/GFBA: Pigeon English

Two weeks beyond the reach of technology, living the simple life and reading reading reading. And I return to find the longlist already redundant, the shortlist having been published a couple of days ago, but so glad to see that Jamrach's Menagerie has made it, and On Canaan's Side, The Sisters Brothers, and Half Blood Blues (all of which more anon). But to resume where I left off: Pigeon English - this also made it to the shortlist and onto the Guardian First Book Award longlist (which I'm also hoping to be blogging over the next few weeks). Of all the ones that made it to the shortlist Kelman's novel was the one I felt most dissatisfied with in the end. I like the relationship between the boy and the bird. And there were aspects of this novel which were genuinely moving, especially the end. But in the end, for me the narrator's voice was just too forced, and disconcertingly he seemed to be a good few years younger than his ostensible age, which had the consequence of making you wary of him, critical rather than wholly on-side. Could it win? Oh, certainly. But if it does, it will overshadow far finer novels: novels which are more elegant (Snowdrops), more elaborately conceived (Jamrach's Menagerie and Half Blood Blues) more moving (On Canaan's Side) and more exuberantly written novels (The Sisters Brothers). All of which I urge you to read. And of course, there is the Julian Barnes which I haven't read yet, but shall before the deadline. Might Pigeon English win the Guardian First book Award then? Well, it's the only one I've read on that longlist so far. Its quirkiness and social commentary will recommend it to the judges, I'd have thought. Should it make it to the shortlist for the GFBA? Probably. One of the criteria we've always used in the Oxford group as a deciding factor is the question: would I read this author again? In this case I think his second book will be far better than his first, and I look forward to it.

All in all though a much more robust and exciting shortlist  for the Booker than last year's.And an intriguing and rewarding romp through the longlist, the highlights of which I shall be posting shortly.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Writers Group

A magical and hilarious last evening for the summer term, writing to the theme of kiss. Writers came looking for some uplift, some unexpected splendour and some opportunities to write beyond their limits. The evening evoked all manner of responses:  we kissed and told, kissed and made up,  we recalled the healing of a mothers kiss, lipstick kisses and hersheys kisses, blowing kisses and first kisses, kisses of betrayal, kisses of passion, chaste kisses, whiskery kisses and kissing games. We commented on how important kissing is in fairystories from frogs to sleeping beauties. And this just barely touched on what was yet to emerge. My thanks to all the writers who have made this year of writing so special and so illuminating.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The secret city

Imagine a city rooted in its own inversions. Or imagine negatives where there ought to be a city. An old girl walks in a dream world. Over the curve of the hill, the sea. A shimmer of light, an intensity, a frequency: the ghost of a possibility. The city stands above its scribbled reflection. Through the maze of streets there are discoveries to be made, friends to be met, stories to be shared, as the spectral city spirals in your imagination. There is the smell of ripe peaches or appletini, like a child's breath through dreaming.

Scaggy Mishkin walks these streets, jubilant in her petticoats and silver. She moves like a chandelier, brazen, blazing and impossibly delicate. Joy hammers in her veins. Tread softly, for although the city is yours, conjured from the white flags of your own imagination, she is about to take up residence.

The house she chooses is built like a secret in the forgotten heart of the city. A spiral of cobbled streets leads to it, so that its discovery is a dizzying surprise. The sun huddles, a  surly convict in his old cave. Curtains and door close as you pass. Do not imagine you can come prepared. Who could prepare themselves for the blaze of yellow when you finally open the door and enter a house whose very breath is sweet and chill, like iced honey? Who could prepare themselves for this hostess in her crinolines, glittery with ash? who could imagine the mended room beneath her outstretched arms? Do you begin to turn, hoping to flee as though in a dream?

Come in, she says, I'll give you shelter from the storm. Just when you thought you could resist, the song catches in your throat and the sound you make is ruinously lovely.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The dream house

I walk for thirty days before I find the dream house, tilting on its axis, sunk in its vault of green. The wooden porch is soft with rot. I prise open the front door and the smell of crabbed apples clamps itself across my mouth, cool as a corpse's hand. Insects drop out of the air and die on the windowsills. I press on. A slim tree is growing up through the chevronned boards of the hall. I rub one of its leaves and release the fragrance of geranium, or crysanthemum, as surprising to me as a fragment of song.

I feel in my pocket for the half bottle of whisky and find with it a key, like the key to a safe. or the key to knowledge. What do I do? Do I unlock the treasure of this house or will I in my turn lose the key and remain as unconvincing as the last or the next finder?

Beyond the blue staircase is a room with the letter M stencilled on it. I push the door and pull it close again quickly. my heart is beating like a live owl in a cage. Behind the door is a lost child. A girl. I push the door again. There she is again. I blink. Too much whisky. Or not enough? She is a puppet child, mimicking grief but not experiencing it. She throws an antique glove in my direction and as I catch it both glove and child vanish, leaving the sweet stink of dead mouse on the air. My mouth is painful. I can taste the family jewels of grief and they are dark: beryl, tourmaline, jet. I close the door, shaken. My steps, footprints in someone else's skin, invite me to walk backwards, back through the hall, past the slim tree, into a porch and out onto a thirty day walk.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011


Midnight: every church across the Lune Valley rolls out the clock. Far beneath the ocean, a ghost ship swings in dark space. In the lowest pools mermaids turn tail and their pulse cools. Below the old ship a dead King lolls in a throne of green seafossil. Tiny fuschia fish swim through the surprised empty clock of his face.

Here on the surface the cracked bell chimes, pumpkins sag in the allotments, tiny mice-men scuffle to their duty beyond the pillars and urns of the Palace Ballroom. The dead King hears the creak of water above him, the swell of tide and time. Tiny bubbles rise from his body to the surface.

My midnight feet are made of glass, as we struggle back up the shingly beach, lolling in each others arms, back to the matronly seaside, with the whisky-hollowed faces of the men on the street corners, and the gleam of patent leather boots and a flash of transvestite thigh.  The moon shuts her pearl eye and winks. A bare flex runs from my heart to his. The clock strikes its ultimatum. I hold my breath and wait for transformation as I always have. Behind us the sea shucks off its green jewels as we look for an abandoned doorway to kiss in

As the sky lifts its dark skirts the gulls scrawl exciting hieroglyphs across the surface of the day. Slowly under the ocean the ship tilts and the King's arm rises slowly, pointing to noon, to no-one, to a palindrome of timelessness, waving not drowning. The King is dead, long live the King. I sit on the shingle and inspect my bleeding feet. A sumptuous belief in living happily ever after is beckoning

Booker Longlist: Pigeon English

Reading Pigeon English on the kindle is a wholly different experience from reading a paper copy. There are none of the nuanced clues that come from packaging. The book comes through to you, direct, unimpeded by endpapers, blurbs, author biogs...and what I'm loving most is the tenderly emergent relationship between the narrator and the feral pigeon. It was such a welcome surprise, such an elegant and witty idea.

Once again we are in the hands of a teenage narrator, this time a would-be sleuth. And once again it is impossible not to draw comparisons with other debut novels, most notably Catherine O'Flynn's novel What was Lost. There are times when this narrator's voice seems just slightly laboured, when the pigeon English, grates and slips from absolute credibility. But on the whole (and the large part of the book remains to be read) I'm enjoying this novel.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Prodigal

The surprise of the secret city is its lustre. It is bathed in light: its rivers glitter, dark with indistinct lights. Upon its bridges gather the rich, the lazy, the perverted, the curious. An eccentric chill on the early air half blows the fool's flower from his hair. We are all masked, anything can happen now. Under the bridges the water hits the banks with a wet slap. Little blisters of light flare and disappear. How we found ourselves here I will never know. But here we are and we are about to make our mark.

Feathers and glue, fivers and glee. When Alisha came up with the idea of a circus we were all amazed. She clapped her hands in the oily candlelight and announced her plan. We will build ourselves a circus and travel the seven Cs she said: Celebration, corruption, calumny, creativity. These were just the first four cs. My heart quailed.  We will visit the coded, the cracked and the crowned she finished. We will immerse ourselves in a mess of sequins and feathers and live a highwire life of gaudy glories. Nothing will ever look the same again.

I shut my eyes and pretend it is a dream, her dream, and that in a minute she will awaken to the smell of singed feathers and I will be holding a mirror to her mouth.

Alisha sees me, reads my thoughts too easily and smiles.

Come, come, Electra, she promises. We can start living life for kicks, take your nourishment from the mythic fruit, the pomegranate, the shiny apple, go on I dare you...

She has about her the edginess of a horror movie, my mother, with her sooty eyes and her lightness of gaze. My mother is a woman who can look right at you and see you as her next big project. I fear it will be scary work this circus.

Great raspberry-coloured silks go up, hoisted aloft and tied to a golden pole by naughty chimpanzees. Curtains drop over darkened apertures. My mother is a stripteuse of the imagination. She sees our dreams and undresses them.

The tent is strung with little turquoise lights, floored with sawdust and the petals of rejected roses that my father buys for her by the hundred. It smells of wood, silk, lust, something faintly urinous. Oh yes, the circus has a funky smell. She called it our big top and the words sounded ludicrous in her mouth. But she spun at its centre like a whirling dirvish, like a freak or a visionary.

Rafael and I are the aerialists. He steps out across the abyss, the wisdom of the spheres ringing in his head.My talcumned feet bleed each night and she binds them in ribbons of torn-off silk. He follows his bliss. Holes and fissures seem to spring up behind his feet, and he steps lightly. Unlike everyone else he knows, he does not take himself seriously. And far below, Mary in blue, stitches in tiny stitches as she mends the rents. (What she cannot mend is the hole in his soul.) Courage she says, and two tears stand in her eyes. They are the only signs of water in her. In the middle of the rope he stops, stoops and whispers in my ear: To the audience you are already a ghost. If I flinch, I lose my footing. If I fall, I fall like an acrobat. Falling and flying, says Rafael, are almost identical sensations, almost twinned. Only in the very last detail are they differentiated. When we crash, we crash spectacularly.

Booker longlist: A Cupboard Full of Coats

So I finished the Cupboard Full of Coats and have been allowing it to settle with me for a couple of days. It's a searing piece of work. She handles her characters well, and the structure, expecially the transitions between the two time frames. It has a disarming simplicity and there were times when I wasn't completely convinced by the teenage voice of Jinx, but on the whole I believed in everyone enough and cared about them to want to keep reading. Did I feel I was in the hands of a master? no, and in that sense it has to come second to the Carol Birch. But given that it is a debut novel I thought it stood up well against Jane Rogers for example, and also against February, The Room and it far surpasses The Slap (all on last year's long list).

Now commenced Pigeon English. A theme seems to be emerging amongst this years list, of disaffected teenage voices....

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Prodigal

Alisha says: Play in the Jereboam Winter is an icy enterprise. I peer through the skeleton forest, watch Electra practise her wise manouevres, a raven flip, winged in the colours of the storm, she performs perfect dark circles until Rafael interrupts her play and crowns her with celandines stolen from the river's mouth. She sinks beneath the warm veil of his kiss, and I am hollowed out with pride and longing. My rough rouged cheeks pinched  a sudden red but maybe that's the cold. He bends his mouth to her ear. Her reply is a masterpiece of silent cinema, with both of them laughing and mouthing words into the air, making language visible, high vaulted with desire. I nurse my rookish passion for them both, a mad maternal instinct from this nursery-rimed cradle in the trees. My legs are crooked stiff. The dead are etched into the living. I am as clear as a piece of glass.  And I ask you: Who'd be a mother to such ingrate innocence?

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Prodigal

Electra sits at her morning mirror and sees the world in translation, reading from right to left. Her brisk mouth purses a thought, but won't share it. Behind her the room is in arrears, the rumpled bed with Rafael still lying across it. When Rafael falls asleep he puts on a suit of lead. The smell of old blood on an easterly wind draws him down. No woman ever felt so alone as one who spent a whole night with Rafael. Not even Electra with her rainy, tie-dye prayers, her shivering heart, her abundant, pristine wisdom. Not even Electra had the key that would unlock his isolatory spirit.

A bleak sun is spooled across the distant morning. In the street below a car of pearls stutters into the gutter and disappears. Everything she has remnounced will now take on life. Electra at her morning mirror with her mouth of snow and her fan made of the gull's wing. Electra sits at her morning mirror and sees the lost world, in translation, reading backwards from right to left.

Booker Longlist: A Cupboard Full of Coats

Have commenced A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards. It's early days but it has a gritty energy that is appealing. The characters are compelling (with names like Jinx, Lemon and Red) and I'm intrigued to see how they develop. Edwards is one of the four writers whose debut novel has made it to the longlist. I suppose comparisons will be drawn between her and Andrea Levy or Monica Ali. I wonder if she will make it to the pantheon of post-colonial British novelists...

Writers Group

We rocked the ages last night, took a holiday from our sensible selves and time-travelled through some hilarious pieces of writing - lit by electric fires, nourished on lemon puffs and cream crackers. A wild variety of characters emerged amongst whom were Hugo with his fear of full rainbows, Fifi with her plastic heart and her secret wish that her mother was a porcelain doll. The room was lively with laughter and creativity, an astonishment at what could be kindled from a few words and numbers. We swam through oceans of deep-sea(ted) desires, and the room swam through our tears of laughter. We were buoyant, reborn, exhilerated and full of the visceral joy of writing together.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Booker longlist: The Testament of Jesse Lamb

Finished The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which never really lifted itself off the ground for me. I couldn't quite believe in Jessie, and was irritated that she was the sacrificial Lamb.  The different worlds of the activist groups were blurry and insufficiently well differentiated, and the most credible of the relationships was that between Jessie and her father, though even that seemed clunky. I could understand why he resorted to desperate measures but couldn't believe in the level of brutality. I didn't see the point of the brutality given their relationship. So, the overall impression is that it was all a bit disappointing, and I was particularly disappointed because I wanted it to be so much better than I thought it was. Maybe it will last, linger in the mind, insinuate itself into my daily internal meanderings and I will think perhaps it had something deeper and more powerful than on first impressions.

Also, it is one thing to be reading a book from choice and another to be reading it because it is part of a list, which although it is an annual treat for me, you cannot help but draw comparisons rather than reading each book on its own merit.

Oh well, onwards brave hearts, a whole list awaits our generous attention....

Monday, 8 August 2011

Aunt Hope

She was an undiscovered treasure, an unclaimed jewel, her mother had always said, stroking her cheek, so who could have imagined she would, at the age of sixty-four, find herself in the magical city of Istanbul, a city of minarets and mosques, circled with a bright ring of water; the Bosphorus shimmered in her mind's eye with the bright sails of a thousand yachts. Istanbul: even the word conjured up in her a strange mixture of exhileration and terror, like life or a fairytale. Black swans on the surface of the sea, glittering fountains fashioned from lead crystal brought in the vaults of antique boats from Europe. It was a city full of grace and photographers.

Aunt Hope carried her key on a silver chain around her waist and could feel it press into her soft old flesh as she walked up and down the cobbled streets of tthe old harbour. Behind the wall the sea turns over in its bed and will not settle. A herring wind whips up and reinvents her, as herself, once a young woman, in love. She feels suddenly free in her cold clothes which are the strange uneven colours if tan old moon, or raw potato. Love. That was grace. That was beauty. That was where her real life should have been lived.

She tilts her chin to the ribboning wind and narrowly avoids a misshapen embrace with a street vendor selling soup from a large tureen he is wheeling in front of him, balanced in an old pram. They stand in the almost shock of missed collision, a static of confusion crackling between them. Until he smiles and a halo of longing lights up around him, and Aunt Hope remembers how hungry she has been.

Istanbul impromptu improvisation

Yesterday, straw was the flavour of happiness. Something golden, gilt-edged, like the first beer on a royal afternoon. The Captain and the Queen had executions to arrange. I know because the sound of the axe falling echoed through the turquoise corridors, and the Mr Whippy flags, rainclotted in the gutters, had the forlorn pale scent of solitude.

Agatha turned a pearl upon her finger and cut the silken cord to bring the bachara chandelier crashing to the ballroom floor. The King, out fishing on the Bosphorous, looked up to the dark clouds. A crescent moon slid out from behind the clouds and briefly illuminated the last monarch jumping into the waves that connected East and West forever.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Booker Longlist

So now I am embarking upon Jane Rogers' The Testament of Jessie Lamb which, although it will be quite a different flavour, I am looking forward to because she is one of the few writers on the list I have read before. I enjoyed Mr Wroe's Virgins, Promised Lands and The Ice is Singing. And I once went on an Arvon Foundation Writing course where she was one of the tutors. So she is the only writer on this year's longlist who I can claim to have met....

Initial thoughts: it's intriguing, but to begin with it seems like quite a blunt instrument. She's occupying some fiercely contested territory, of course, and while comparisons are odious (as the man says) it's impossible not to draw comparisons with novels like Oryx and Crake and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Her chronology is slightly disturbing, layered, dissonant: set somewhere in the near future, it nevertheless is shot through with nostalgia for a time perhaps forty years ago, and this gives the novel an interesting edginess. Well, early days in terms of both this novel and the longlist as a whole. For me, she has yet to beat Mr Wroe's Virgins.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Where we begin

Where we begin may be a concealed paradise; verdant, hydrant, saltant. Were we lain by a solitary God beneath the leaves, among the blades of early gardens. Or were we born of water? Carried on the plume of  a wave, shipwrecked among the sea-traffic of mermaids and serpent-sirens. Did you roll in saltant joy towards me on the sea-bed? Were you given to me to satisfy my loneliness?
Well wherever we began, here we are. Let the stars shiver in the nervous sky. It is blogging time, time to doodle, spool and play.
Finished Jamrach's Menagerie. She very cleverly draws on our island/seafaring fantasies to scour out what is meant by character. The last section of the novel is patchier and less robustly worked than the first two sections: did she get tired? or is it something about the endgame of a novel that makes it always somehow troubling? It's a novel full of men, her female charactes are so scantily drawn as to be almost lacking in credibility, but this is more than compensated for by her main male characters. On the whole I loved it. Had it been on last year's list i think I would have wanted it to win - I certainly vastly preferred it to The Finkler Question, which I considered a very mealymouthed, self aggrandising novel.

And so on to the next in line...

Friday, 5 August 2011

Learning all the time. Today's blog appears idiosyncratically as two comments on yesterday's blog, and this is an unlooked for addendum attesting to the newness of the process. Jaffy continues to use language that is not quite congruent with his character, but still it's a mesmerising story. The silver lining to the cloud of shame that overshadows how few of this year's Booker longlist I had heard of, let alone read, is that there are undiscovered gems to be clasped to the bosom and made one's own. Lovely long moments in the sunshine with new friends, laughing and crying and adventuring on the high seas of someone else's imagination. Carol Birch has written nine other novels and I'll be making my way towards them in the Autumn.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Welcome to the 21st century prodigal blogger! I shall be blogging daily (ha) about books, writing, creative prompts, creative retreats and workshops. Right now I am reading the Booker longlist, starting with Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie, and I'm loving it. It's a bit like Rose Tremain meets Yann Martell, though Birch has her own distinctive voice, and for me she follows Tim Winton's Cloudstreet which is a hard book to follow, so I'm hoping she will make it onto the Booker shortlist.

Here endeth the first blog...