Monday, 31 August 2015

Booker Longlist: A Brief History of Seven Killings

No wonder Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, looks fed up in his author photo. Perhaps the first thing I should tell you about this novel is how very misleading the title is. There is nothing brief about this history, a novel of over 700 pages in maybe 7pt type, and there are many many more than seven killings. Marlon James' account of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the 1970s and the cold war politics of the 1980s is a complex and ambitious interleaving of multiple narratives - indeed the cast of 76 characters extends over two pages.What is most remarkable is that there is hardly any plot to this assassination story, only the briefest character development (most notably Nina Burgess - whose story was the one I cared the most about) and barely any description. What there is, there is in abundance and that is Voice: this is a book that is all about the voice.
Its flaw is that hardly any of the voices are sufficiently differentiated - I could not tell at a 'blind' open-the-page-at-random testing whether I was in Papa-Lo's story, Alex Pierce's,  Bam-bam's or Josey Wales's. Everyone speaks with the same disaffected, edgy, interior voice. Their narratives are unrelentingly grim: brutal, ruthless, profane and angry. The rhythms of the book are insistent and rough, the relationships bitter, self-defeating.
I am a reader who likes books that challenge me, I like to read a book that leaves me feeling the world is larger and more imagined than I had believed possible. I am also a reader familiar with the post-modern, post-colonial steer to represent the world in all its conflicting, contradictory, sometimes harsh sometimes magical variety. I understand that a novel might be more than simply about the pleasures of the text, that it might be about life, about story itself. So I would have perhaps considered myself prime audience for a novel like this. But there was precious little pleasure in reading this novel, scant story for a novel so ostensibly taken with the themes of uprising, survival, redemption songs and ganga guns. It's big and baggy and it sags so low in the middle you think you are going to be permanently scarred by the ride.
It left me feeling exhausted, dejected and deeply unsatisfied in my soul. Now, let me go and listen to a bit of Bob and lively up myself before I can embark upon the next novel on this Booker Longlist

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Booker Longlist: Lila

Back in the land of Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's latest novel Lila revisits the story of the Preacher John Ames and turns its steady gaze upon his second wife, Lila.
Lila, whose name not only evokes the lily of the resurrection but also echoes Lilith and Lamia, is as soon as she is named, already marked contradictorily as full of grace, and both fallen and serpentine. She arrives in Ames' life with a knife in her garter and a past full of hardship and it seems she is put there as much as anything in order to question his faith. In Gilead, Ames blesses his good fortune in finding love at this late and unlikely stage in his life. In Lila, we are invited to consider this surprising blessing as it is experienced, no less powerfully, by his wife.
Like Robinson's previous novels, Lila is deeply philosophical, concerned with the nature of love, of redemption, of salvation. And the conclusions she draws here are just as pitiless. Love may not always represent salvation. The hand of intimacy, however longed for, might be as scalding as any hand laid in anger upon a body, suggests Robinson. And so, she urges, we must proceed in love with great gentleness, careful not to judge, just as careful of our own scar tissue as of the beloved's.
The novel is structured with two distinct narrative arcs, the story of Ames' and Lila's courtship and marriage, and the story of Lila's childhood and life before she stumbled into Gilead. Both narratives are shot through with deprivation, hardship, abandonment. But both are written with a kind of radiance and an elegant simplicity that elevates them beyond the merely sincere to something much more revelatory than that, something which marks Marilynne Robinson as a truly unique writer of contemporary fiction. Her novels are a meditation upon the nature of grace, which is to say, upon what it means to be human, at fault, disappointing to those who might nevertheless love us. And because Robinson is so faithfully preoccupied with the relationship between suffering and spirituality, her characters emerge as beloved: shown in a kind of infinite light, they shine with truth.
Regularly, in this novel we are taken by surprise. We experience, with Lila, and with Ames, the consolations of faith, we share in their spiritual insights, and we are brought, in the end to regard them with awe and joy, because they are so humanly, wretchedly lovely.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Booker Longlist: The Green Road

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Anne Enright's latest novel is the accomplishment of making the family the narrator. Greater than the sum of its parts: contradictory, secret, despairing, spiteful, forgiving, in The Green Road the family emerges as a thoroughly credible, absolutely reliable narrator. This is a very elegantly written novel, with a sure-footed sense of the competing loyalties and frustrations that power a family. At the heart of the novel is a reunion, but the intelligence that underpins this novel is that reunion is both unnecessary (for the connections are unbreakable) and impossible (for the slippages are great, the fragmentations inevitable, the hostilities unbreachable.) In a family, Enright claims, what connects us is precisely what holds us apart.
Through the circling narrations of the different family members at different historical moments Enright builds up a picture of the profound unknowability of those we love. We think we understand them, we think we belong to them, but ultimately who they are remains elusive, their motivations inscrutible, their aspirations unthinkable. Rosaleen, mother to this family, is theatrically selfish, begrudging her children's lives even as she desires them. Her children circle around her, leave her, refuse her and indulge her, but they do know know her and she does not, will not know them.
If this sounds bleak, then so be it. Enright's writing is sparse to the point of plain. Her characters are all in different ways spiritually and emotionally impoverished. They show each other no mercy. And yet as readers, again and again we are gently encouraged  by Enright to pity them and the landscapes they inhabit.
And landscape is something else Anne Enright understands and can represent in deft brushstrokes. From County Clare to Mali to New York, she quietly asserts her ability. Each location is thoroughly evoked, reminding us that Enright is not just capable of a bit of  your Auld Oirish but able to transport us beyond what we thought we could expect to something utterly other. The Green Road navigates the uncertain terrains of different identities, different lands, different mindsets but ultimately brings us home, to the family, with all its flaws, its rawness and its ups and downs.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Booker Longlist: Satin Island

Reading Satin Island by Tom McCarthy is a bit like being on a waltzer or a switchback. It's simultaneously thrilling and migraine inducing. It's also over incredibly swiftly and leaves you feeling mildly unnerved, like you're sure there was a point to all that wizardry, but you're not sure whether the point was to leave you feeling defeated. The tropes of the novel are all about surface and depth, truth and falsehood, the raw and the cooked, all of which are suggested and then postponed by buffering. The novel itself keeps on buffering, calling for patience, calling for us to wait and see whether in time meaning will emerge, and the narrative will resume something approaching normal service. There is a sense of shimmering, of weightlessness. There is a sense of pattern, of burnishing something perfect and lovely. This novel, which is deliberately anti-real, nevertheless deals with the virtual shifting realities that we take for granted in our lives, our news-feeds, our online identities, even if we resist it in our contemporary fiction.
The narrator, U, (maybe you, ie us, maybe Ulysses) is a voyager, tasked with the great reveal: the story of our age, deciphering the deeply encrypted codes that make meaning for us. U works as a 'corporate anthropologist' for The Company. A nod to Kafka and to Saussure here. His task, which he never seems to start, which is endlessly deferred (pace Derrida) nonetheless succeeds in conferring upon him status, even applause. The deferrals, by which I mean the novel itself, constitute a series of disconnected observations, proposals, anecdotes, insights, and suppositions, leaving us feeling both overstimulated and under-served. Cleverly though, in spite of its many disparate and unfulfilling parts, the sum total does add up to a shifting yet piercing ethnographic account of our status-addicted tribe (mankind circa 2015).

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Booker Longlist: A Little Life

And here I am, tear-stained and exhausted at the end of only the first of this year's Booker Longlist.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a novel of brutal beauty and desperate ugliness. Its surfaces are scarred and flawed with trauma: self harming, sexual abuse, betrayal, but peel these away (and that in itself is painful work) and you get to something real and rare: a book rigorously concerned with the deep philosophical questions of love, beauty, goodness.
There is much to admire in this novel which assembles and then rubs down the structures of our lives: art, law, commerce, morality, but, perhaps, not a great deal to like. Except that we do like, in spite of their flaws, its characters: the beautiful and the damned, the gifted and the blessed, the sordid and the good. The central relationships between the four friends: Jude, JB, Willem and Malcolm primarily and then around Jude, other clusters of important friendships: Julia, Harold, Andy and Richard, form architectures of light and strength in which to hold the themes of the novel. Excruciatingly and patiently Yanagihara suggests again and again that the world is one which must be endured before it can be loved.
The time structure of the novel is equally elegant, foreclosing the future, bringing forward the past, collapsing time into the eternal present of the traumatised and because Yanagihara pays such close attention to structures, it works. What persists is story: the stories we tell ourselves and each other about who we are. If friendship is to mean anything, Yanagihara insists, it must be candid. Indeed the moral universe that the novel creates is one delicately, painstakingly formed through the flimsy assemblages of human love: friendship, filial, paternal, sexual. At the heart of the novel is the single devastating question: Can we be saved by love? and around the stone of that single question ripple out others, equally tough: do we owe it to those who love us to stay alive? is it possible to love unselfishly? where are we doomed? and where might we be saved? And because these are the central questions the book becomes more than just an account of suffering. It is a deeply spiritual book, as equally concerned with redemption as it is with damnation.
It is a raw deal this book: it's rare for a book to make me cry, and this one did, quite a lot. But it's also a wise book, and a book that unfolds for us great tenderness, incomparable beauty and the certain knowledge that at the end of it you have experienced something true about art, and something true about love.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele