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.