09. Chopin’s Piano, by Paul Kildea

cover-jpg-rendition-242-374It’s not really about Chopin’s piano.

Oh, it starts off adhering to its title well enough: Kildea gives some background information about Chopin and his lover, George Sand, an infamous female author who liked to scandalise Parisian salon society by dressing as a man. The two moved to the island of Mallorca for the winter of 1838-39, where Chopin’s lovely Pleyel piano got held up in customs and he was forced to make do with a pianino built by a local craftsman, Juan Bauza. That is the instrument on which he wrote his Preludes, “scraps” of music that have baffled listeners, players and critics ever since their premiere. Kildea’s idea, at least to begin with, is that tracing the pianino will shine some light not only on the circumstances under which the Preludes were composed, but on their vexed history of interpretation and performance. Since he also sees the Preludes as a symbol of Romanticism itself, the way in which pianists have approached them – from the ethereal stylings of Cortot to a later Romantic fad for greater attack and intensity, as befitted the larger halls in which public concerts could now be performed, and which publicly performed music now had to fill – is representative, for Kildea, of the history of the artistic movement in general.

None of that is particularly evident from the way he structures his book, though; I have come to the conclusion that this is what Kildea wants to explore because I’ve mentally winnowed the many, many pages of digression, distraction, tangent and plain irrelevance with which Chopin’s Piano is riddled. It’s not totally unenjoyable. If you have any interest in historical detail at all, some of it is great fun: descriptions of nineteenth-century Palma, the Mallorcan port town, are vivid (if too long), and the section set in the twentieth century doubles as a primer on the Nazi art-theft industry. (The pianino came into the hands of Wanda Landowska, a Polish pianist who had an affinity for Chopin and his music. Her instrument collection was scattered by the Nazi looting of great Parisian houses; some of it has been put back together, but the pianino has not been conclusively traced.) But there is just so much of it. Barely a few chapters into the book, Kildea launches into an explanation of how a nineteenth-century artist would produce a linocut. It goes on for some paragraphs. This has been prompted by the existence of a linocut of Palma as Chopin and Sand would have seen it. It’s interesting information on its own, but in a book like this, it’s vexing, an obstacle to the reader’s pursuit of the actual story.

Kildea does write evocatively about performance, which is historically his strength, given that his previous book was a biography of Benjamin Britten and that he was the artistic director of the Wigmore Hall from 2003-2005. He compares the various styles of the musicians who have attempted the Preludes with great thoroughness and erudition; it’s quite clear which side he comes down on (Cortot’s, and the gentler tradition’s), but he enables us to understand his partiality, because he can tell us what he hears. Nor is it his fault that the trail of the pianino goes cold, though it is narratively unsatisfying. The real issue, though, as Igor Toronyi-Lalic wrote in his Literary Review article on the book, is that one gets the impression Kildea is bored of being “a mere music biographer, and wants to be a Writer. Fatal.” I wouldn’t say fatal, but I would say it’s a waste of a good story.

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04. The Stopping Places, by Damian Le Bas

41hq1jsvw3l-_sx309_bo1204203200_Damian Le Bas grew up around the Hampshire-Sussex border; he name-checks Petersfield on the first page, which is where my grandparents live and where I spent my summers from the age of seven onwards. Le Bas’s childhood, however, was spent selling flowers at the market there, and bombing around the countryside with various uncles and cousins, working on construction projects. He comes from a family of Travellers, or Gypsies, or Romanies—he uses the word Gypsy of himself and of people he knows, although my understanding is that for gorjies (outsiders), using either “Traveller” or “Romany” is less likely to give offense. He doesn’t, however, look particularly like a Traveller; he is light-skinned, fair-haired, blue-eyed. His education also marks him out: he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital as a schoolboy, and went on to study theology at Oxford. Like many people whose life has taken them to places their early childhood never hinted at, Le Bas has anxieties about his identity, about what he can call himself and how to reconcile his heritage with the endless comments of “you don’t look like a Gypsy”. To that end, he decides to spend some time driving around Britain in search of atchin tans or stopping places: spots that traditional Traveller families knew as good sites to camp or to halt at, temporarily, on the road.

Despite Le Bas’s reminiscences of his childhood, the resulting book is really much more a travelogue than a memoir. His wife, Candis, for instance, appears regularly—she joins him for some of the later legs of his journey—but we don’t really get a sense of her as a personality, nor of how they met and entered into a relationship with each other. They seem not to speak much while they’re on the road, and he only rarely describes any particular feelings towards her; she’s just sort of there. Perhaps this is to free up space to talk about the atchin tans, which are interesting, although for at least the book’s first half there is a strong suggestion that the whole thing might end in failure: Le Bas finds himself unmoved by many of the stopping places he first visits, and there are several dark nights of the soul where he ponders why he’s making these trips in the first place. The reader could be forgiven for wondering the same thing.

Fortunately, after a trip to France to join in the Continental Gypsy pilgrimage to the shrine of St Sara-la-Kali, emotional engagement seems to kick in. Le Bas’s descriptions of Appleby horse fair, past and present, constitute some of the best and most evocative passages in the book. He’s also skilled at evoking the world of Traveller masculinity and honour, the rigid codes that govern a society that only appears free-wheeling to outsiders. But the most effective elements of The Stopping Places are Le Bas’s conversations with his indomitable grandmother, who grew up one of ten children in a world where Travellers still used wagons (they’re mostly in caravans or bungalows now): her retelling of her memories functions as a kind of oral history project. There’s too much in the way of regurgitated itinerary, and we don’t get to participate in Le Bas’s emotions and thought processes nearly as much as we ought; instead we’re mostly relegated to passive recipients of what he informs us he is thinking and feeling. But the fact that I can think of no other currently published mainstream book about Traveller life and culture is indicative of The Stopping Places‘ significance. It’s certainly a tantalising beginning.

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel

61n-3ut7n1l-_sx323_bo1204203200_It’s so nice when reading overlaps a little, and reading this back-to-back with Dragon Lords provided rather a good level of continuity. The first of the twelve manuscripts that De Hamel examines is known as the Gospel Book of St Augustine (of Canterbury), which dates from about the sixth century; saints and kings mentioned in Eleanor Parker’s book also get airtime here. De Hamel is the director of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, so he knows whereof he speaks. Twelve manuscripts spanning nearly a thousand years are given the full-on examination treatment: we get the histories of the material objects, the significance of the writing and illumination within, and, last but not least, a travelogue style of narrating, where De Hamel shares what it is actually like to look at the manuscripts. As he points out, most people with the will and the travel budget can go to see the Mona Lisa, if they want to; it is far harder to physically access a manuscript in person, though they are some of the greatest cultural treasures in the world. And so he gives us the experience, insofar as he can. We learn what it’s like to walk inside the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, or the Black Diamond building of the Royal Library in Copenhagen, or the Pierpont Library in New York. (Some of this stuff is worth the cover price for the sheer gossip value: De Hamel is always utterly professional, but his strong feelings about various buildings and their staff still come through. Copenhagen’s library seems like a lovely place to visit, full, as he describes it, of serenely long-haired students like time-frozen hippies and helpful, cheery staff; his experience with the Morgan library, by contrast, is one of polite bafflement at America’s love affair with bureaucracy, authority, and procedure.)

Not only is this book ridiculously beautiful (with lots of full-page colour illustrations, as you would hope), and outrageously informative (I know all about the difference between uncials, insular majuscule, and capitalis rustica now), it’s also far, far funnier than it has any right to be. De Hamel’s account of the day when both Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury bowed to him on live television (he was carrying an extremely old copy of the Gospels at the time) is characteristically excellent: self-deprecating, with a keen eye for the ridiculous, as when he describes various dolled-up prelates as “walking Christmas trees”. If all of this wasn’t enough, it’s full of trivia that makes you gasp: there’s a book called the Codex Amiatinus, for example, that is repeatedly referred to as being ridiculously huge, and when you finally see a photo of it, you immediately get it. (De Hamel says it weighs about 90 pounds; then, winningly, he adds that an eccentric antiquary of the Victorian era described it as “weighing about the same as a fully-grown female Great Dane”. De Hamel opts for the slightly more sensible comparison unit of a twelve-year-old boy. Either way, that is a very heavy book.) It’s not just for antiquarians, this; anyone who likes beautiful things, or old things, or books, in any way, would get a lot out of it. It’s certainly earned a spot on my best-of-2018 list.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

Dragon Lords, by Eleanor Parker

51cfbybnhcl-_sx307_bo1204203200_If you were to choose a book to be reading in public with the deliberate strategic purpose of getting the number of the guy who works in your local Indian takeaway, it is unlikely that you would choose this one, but truth is stranger than fiction and I must therefore tell you that that is exactly what happened when I wandered into the curry house on Crouch Hill holding a copy of Dragon Lords. “The history and legends of Viking England” is quite an enticing subtitle, so perhaps that had something to do with it; it was certainly a major factor in my requesting a reading copy of this from the publisher’s rep. It’s also a slightly misleading subtitle, since Dragon Lords is both more focused and less conclusive than an overview of late antique/early medieval British history might be. I think it might be a book version of Parker’s doctorate (she’s now a tutor at Brasenose College, Oxford), which is no bad thing, though it meant re-accustoming myself to writing that isn’t necessarily for a general audience.

Dragon Lords is primarily interested in early medieval narratives about Anglo-Danish interaction. (Sexy!) Since there were multiple waves of Danish/Viking conquests, the history is not nearly as straightforward as the phrase “Anglo-Danish” makes it sound; the conquerors of one generation became the naturalised inhabitants of England, and the people conquered, in the next round of organised invasion. Intermarriage and cultural diffusion happened, as they always do, and the resulting culture was a whole lot of things rolled into one: pagan-Christian, Anglo-Saxon-Danish-with-a-splash-of-Norman. Naturally, the stories that this motley culture told itself over several hundred years—about where it came from, and why—also changed: sometimes a Dane is a good Christian king, sometimes he is the leader of a band of ravening, monk-murdering sea-wolves.

Because Parker’s emphasis is on the continuity (or not) of narrative elements, the sheer accumulation of detail can sometimes be difficult to follow. In the second chapter, for instance, she follows the trail of a mysterious figure called Ragnar Lothbrok, who appears in Anglo-Danish narratives in all manner of guises. Sometimes he’s a thug with many sons, murdered at the hands of the King of Mercia and avenged by his children; sometimes he’s a more innocent figure, a stranger in a strange land betrayed by a jealous courtier. It’s impossible to make any concrete assertions about the historical figure (or figures) that might have been behind the Lothbrok stories—he’s like Robin Hood or King Arthur—but Parker’s greatest asset as a writer is her curiosity, and that carries the reader a long way, too. (My particular interest in Viking Britain is literary, and I especially enjoyed her long section on the early verse romance Havelok the Dane. There are also some interesting sections on stories, or story elements, that Shakespeare clearly drew upon when he was writing Macbeth and Hamlet.) Dragon Lords is unashamedly niche, but if you want to know more about pre-Conquest Britain—and trust me, there are hundreds and hundreds of years’ worth of eventful, exciting, violent history there—this is for you.

In response to a reader request, I’m trialing breaking up these reading diary entries into individual ones on each book. It goes against my tendencies to publish posts that are so brief, but I’m sure someone will tell me if you feel you’re being shortchanged.

Reading Diary: Apr. 30-May 12

coverIn 2009, a young music student named Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum’s exotic bird collection at Tring in Hertfordshire. He carried away around three hundred bird skins, many of which were not only immensely valuable on the black market, but had incalculable scientific value. Some of them were from Alfred Russell Wallace’s famous expedition in the Malay Archipelago, and still bore biodata tags with Wallace’s handwriting on them. Rist was caught, but questions remained: who was this kid, and how had he managed a heist of this magnitude? What had he wanted the feathers for in the first place? And—given the number of skins missing from the museum—had he been assisted by someone else? Where were those skins now?

In The Feather Thief, Kirk Wallace Johnson has written an outstandingly readable account of the theft and its aftermath. Rist was a homeschooler, a brilliant flute player, and a champion salmon fly-tier. Fly-tying is a curious community; tiers become obsessive about recreating Victorian “recipes”, which often call for extremely rare feathers, sometimes from birds that are now endangered or extinct. As a result, much of the international black market in feathers is represented by single-minded tiers looking for, let us say, a Flame Bowerbird skin. Rist sold much of his loot to people like this. Some, when he was busted, agreed to return what they’d purchased. Others—most of the others, in fact—either refused outright, or became increasingly cagey before refusing to return Johnson’s messages. (Johnson enters the narrative about two-thirds of the way through; he hears the story of the heist while on a fishing trip, and becomes increasingly invested in seeing as many of the skins returned to Tring as possible. He also interviews Rist, who escaped prison by way of a psychological assessment that concluded he had Asperger’s Syndrome and was not aware of the gravity of his actions. Johnson is not so certain, and his account of the interview raised serious doubts for this reader, as well; Rist displays none of the characteristics of someone with Asperger’s.)

In among the true crime stuff, Johnson sprinkles natural history and straight-up history: accounts of the first birds of paradise to be caught by Europeans, statistics regarding the wholesale slaughter of exotic birds for Victorian and Edwardian millinery, the esoteric world of salmon fishing and fly-tying, and the murky online forums where, in the early years of the twenty-first century, tiers swapped not only tips and tricks, but feathers: sometimes legally sourced, sometimes not. It’s a profusion of detail that could be confusing, but Johnson’s journalistic training means he writes with great clarity and restraint. The Feather Thief ticks so many boxes: science, history, true crime, and the mysterious now-what-the-hell factor that all good stories have. Very worthwhile.

9781786073228Shahad Al Rawi’s debut novel, The Baghdad Clock, isn’t metaphorically titled: there really is a large landmark clock in Baghdad with four faces. It perches on top of a tall stem, visible from all directions, like a kind of Martian Big Ben. In the novel, it serves as a place for the unnamed narrator and her best friend Nadia to meet up with the boys they love. It also serves as the title of the book the two girls decide to write: a history or memorial of their neighbourhood, which is increasingly decimated by emigration as sanctions tighten on Iraq during the late ’90s and early 2000s. The clock marks the forward pace of time, but it also helps to keep time still, to preserve moments and individuals forever in a particular state of being, as writing does.

Al Rawi explicitly cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude (our narrator, dreamy and imaginative, adores it; Nadia finds it boring). Unlike many novels that look to Marquez, Al Rawi seems to me to be a completely legitimate heir to his project; like him, she delineates the effects of the outside world, of time and strife, on a small community, in this case a middle-class neighbourhood in Baghdad. Magical realist touches are dotted throughout the story so naturally that it comes as something of a shock to discover that they’re there: when our narrator goes for a midnight stroll and encounters an enormous cruise liner parked next to the eponymous clock, it takes us some time to realise that it’s not a dream. This mostly succeeds because the narrator’s voice—by turns naive, sparky, precocious, and creative—is the medium through which we encounter the whole story, and it’s consistent and convincing. Fans of The Kite Runner and The Iraqi Christ, as well as the aforementioned Garcia Marquez, will want to read this.

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The Yukon River in Alaska is home to the king salmon, a fish that has been commercially hunted to the point of absolute peril and which also forms a large part of the religious and cultural life of the indigenous folk of both Alaska and Canada. (Adam Weymouth, in Kings of the Yukon, uses the words “Indian” and “Eskimo” to distinguish between ethnic groups which are not differentiated by catch-all terms like “First Nations” or “indigenous peoples”. He notes, also, that many Alaskan indigenes use “Indian” or “Eskimo” themselves. It never particularly stands out, or at least it didn’t to me, and never appears to be used in disrespect.) This book is an account of a voyage made down this enormous river in a canoe, over the course of several months, on the trail of king salmon.

Weymouth’s nature writing, particularly his descriptions of river, forest, and wildlife encounters, is reminiscent of John McPhee’s extraordinary Alaska travelogue Coming Into the Country. So is his journalistic eye: his encounters with the people who live and work along the Yukon are reported with a sense of interested detachment (except for a scene in which Weymouth and his partner Ulli Mattson encounter some young people at a fishing camp who seem particularly threatening; the intrusion of authorial fear is jarring enough that the reader understands how truly serious the situation seems.) The real star of the book is, of course, the king salmon, a mysterious creature that engages in behaviour unlike any other animal on earth, that has supported whole civilisations on its back. It is now the cheapest fish you can get in a supermarket. Weymouth focuses on the differences between commercial and subsistence fishing, demonstrating how enforced Department of Fish and Game quotas disproportionately affect subsistence fishers and do little to discourage big commercial actors. He also writes with some wonder on the weird biology of the king salmon, its restlessness and relentless homing instinct, and how hatcheries are at best a partial solution to the problem of a shrinking population. Most importantly, though, Kings of the Yukon is intensely readable: a mix of adventure and natural history with a dollop of sociology. Like The Feather Thief, it is immensely worth your time.

51teaie8lhl-_sx313_bo1204203200_It’s difficult for me to approach Bill Bryson with critical or analytical intent, mostly because he’s as integral a part of my childhood, and of my family’s particular culture, as winter picnics, or the annual intergenerational Thanksgiving football game, or putting out beer for Santa. (We do that.) A Walk in the Woods has always had a particularly special place in my heart because it’s about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, which runs in part along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, about twenty minutes from where I grew up. (My parents spent a not inconsiderable amount of time pushing me and my brother up those trails when I was a young’un.) So when the bank holiday loomed and I decided not to bring any proofs away to Sussex with me, but instead to reread an old beloved or two, this was a natural choice.

There’s been some controversy surrounding A Walk in the Woods, mostly because of the way Bryson portrays his walking companion, an old school friend named Stephen Katz whom he hasn’t seen since they backpacked around Europe together twenty years earlier. Katz is a phenomenal comic creation: he’s philosophical, simple but able to get to the heart of things, amusingly materialistic, and most of all, crazy as a bedbug. (He has a temper tantrum and hurls some important things, like food, out of his pack and off a cliff. What sort of things, Bryson asks, worried. “I don’t know”, says Katz. “Heavy shit. Fuck.” We’ve all been there, no?) He’s also a reformed alcoholic, and near the end of the book comes a rather moving scene in which Katz attempts to open up to Bryson about the desperation and boredom of staring down the barrel of the rest of your shitty little life without booze to make it feel worthwhile. The scene is delicately rendered, suffused with a specifically male absence of demonstrative affection but full, nevertheless, of unspoken, deeply charged emotional truth. But it occurred to me, both then and in earlier scenes where Katz’s lack of physical fitness is dwelt upon, that this was potentially very hurtful material, and might even constitute something like a betrayal of trust. Writers’ friends are told not to trust them for good reason.

There are two primary virtues of A Walk in the Woods. Firstly, it is casually but highly informative about forests and human relationships to nature in America in general, and about the Appalachian Trail in particular. This is the sort of talent that enabled Bryson later to write A Short History of Nearly Everything, the best popsci primer I know. Secondly, and most importantly, it is devastatingly funny. There is a scene in which the two men have to escape Waynesboro, Virginia (a town through which my mother drives twice a week) without being shot by the husband of a woman Katz has inadvertently picked up in a laundromat, which has me nearly weeping with laughter every time I read it, and I’ve read it four times in the past ten years. He’s still the funniest travel writer I know.

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More Virginia with Kevin Powers’s second book, A Shout in the Ruins. Consensus seems to be that it’s good, but not on the same level as his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which set the bar for early literary explorations of the (Second) Iraq War. Having not read The Yellow Birds, all I can say is that it must be absolutely bloody outstanding, because A Shout in the Ruins is really very, very, very good.

Powers is interested in war in general: A Shout in the Ruins alternates between chapters set during the American Civil War, and chapters set in the 1960s and 1980s, during which the Vietnam War and its aftermath crops up regularly. Much of Powers’s best writing focuses on the intimacy and the brutality of armed conflict, such as a scene in which Bob Reid, the owner of a shipping business near Richmond, loses half his arm during a skirmish near Mechanicsville. His conversation with a nearby, and equally badly wounded, enemy soldier is made possible because both men believe they will die. When Reid is rescued, the Confederate scavengers who find him savagely murder the man whose companionship has kept him awake and alive. Powers is too canny a writer to do more than show us a brief glimpse of this, but what we do see is haunting. He does the same thing when outlining emotional states. The manipulative behaviour of Mr. Levallois, Reid’s neighbour and eventual son-in-law; Reid’s mental disintegration after his injury; his daughter Emily’s diminishment in her marriage; and, over all, the untold emotional traumas of Rawls and Nurse, a slave couple whose fates are entwined with the Reids: all are recounted but not dwelt upon. Powers leaves us to conjure for ourselves the deep horror of, for instance, Rawls’s crippling, as a child, by a master determined to stop him running away.

The effect is that the evils of slavery are fully presented, but in a way that doesn’t read with the almost pornographic flavour of explicit violence. Unlike Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, or even a scene or two in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground RailroadA Shout in the Ruins doesn’t dive deeply into the physical torture inflicted upon slaves by white folks; it just shows us, on nearly every page, that it’s there. As a white Southern male author, Kevin Powers’s position in relation to the history of American slavery is necessarily going to be different from the positions of Whitehead or James, and as such, his decision prevents the novel from falling into prurience (the white gaze on the tortured black body). It feels as though the book respects its characters, even as their lives are made increasingly difficult.

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Historical literary fiction is doing rather well at the moment, and the casual reader could be forgiven for feeling perhaps a bit wearied of the whole thing: the elaborate covers, the gushing praise, the mannered titles. I’m here to tell you that The Illumination of Ursula Flight is worth the read. It would appeal, I think, to fans of The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, but it is in many ways a very different book. Ursula, our protagonist, speaks to us in her own voice throughout, and it is a voice with wit, sparkle, and plenty of youthful callowness; she is far from a flawless heroine, making decisions that remind us of how very young she is when cast into the world (fifteen at her marriage, nineteen at the end of the book). If, occasionally, she almost seems more adult in her thinking than is plausible, recall Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, who claimed to have ceased being a child at the age of eight.

Ursula is born on the night of the Great Comet in 1664, just before the Restoration of Charles II. Throughout the book, the tensions in England – vanquished Puritans vs. decadent courtiers – are mirrored by the tensions in Ursula’s own life: her family is noble but needs money and so she is married off to the dour (and foul-smelling) Lord Tyringham, whose devoutness is matched only by his hypocrisy (he has an almost fetishistic fondness for plain clothes that leads him to sexually assault his female servants). Ursula, who has grown up surrounded by love and the freedom to roam the fields, read what she will, and write her own plays, is suffocated by marriage; she takes joy in the Court, in fashion, and in the theatre. It may be a cruel world, but it glitters.

Crowhurst’s research is worn lightly, and mostly integrated in speech patterns. (I particularly like her characters’ attitude to grammar, which is manifest in letters from nobles of the time; they also say “how d’ye do”, never “how do you do”, and “babby” for “baby”. It’s small but pervasive, and it makes a huge difference to the sense of verisimilitude.) She’s also funny: Ursula’s observant and uncharitable teenaged eye makes her a good playwright but also an enjoyable narrator, reminding me very pleasantly of Catherine Called Birdy (did anyone else love that book as a kid?) My sole complaint is with the ending (spoilers in white, highlight to read): can we, just for once, have a story in which the heroine doesn’t carry her unexpected pregnancy to term? It makes sense in the context of Ursula’s character, and what she’s lost up to that point,  but I still found myself hoping that the abortifacient would work, and she would keep her liberty: single, unencumbered.

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Finally, Kat Gordon’s The Hunters is set in the 1920s and ’30s amongst the Happy Valley set in colonial Kenya. Theo Miller is fourteen, accompanying his parents and ten-year-old sister Maud to their new home outside of Nairobi. His father has been appointed director of the railways; his mother is preparing herself for a life of charitable works and social engagements, the model of a colonial industrialist’s wife. Everything changes, though, when Theo meets Freddie Hamilton and Sylvie de Croy in a Nairobi hotel. Bohemian, beautiful, worldly and yet ethereal, Freddie and Sylvie capture Theo’s imagination and his schoolboy heart. Over the course of fifteen years, Theo comes slowly to understand the darkness that lies behind the glamour and the gaiety of their unconventional circle. At the same time, his parents and sister are affected by the changing political situation in Kenya, the encroachment of World War II, and the decisions that must be made when one world replaces another.

For sheer atmosphere and addictiveness, The Hunters is going to take some beating as this season’s reasonably literary beach read. Gordon effortlessly conjures the wildness of the Happy Valley set: cocktails, croquet, open-topped cars, safaris, nights at the Nairobi Club, country house orgies, young gentlemen swinging from the chandeliers. Her most impressive achievement is her characterisation of Theo: although he’s our protagonist, he is a moth to flame, caught up too young in Freddie and Sylvie’s romantic games and nearly fatally unable to see them for the immature and thoughtless – and therefore cruel – people that they are. (It is a matter of conjecture as to why Theo’s parents permit him to go on overnight stays with adults ten years his senior, with whom they are not friends and about whom they have heard only negative things. From a modern perspective, he is being groomed; from a late Edwardian perspective, he is damaging his own prospects and possibly the family’s. Obviously, the plot requires that he be allowed to spend time with Freddie and Sylvie, so that is what happens.)

Our moral centre is Maud, Theo’s sister, and here is where The Hunters palls slightly; Maud is made into a white crusader for native rights, a clear-eyed anti-fascist when everyone around her is applauding Mosley and the Blackshirts. There are sometimes people who are capable of looking at their own time from a distance, but it always feels so very convenient when a work of fiction produces such a character and uses them as a demonstration of its own social progressiveness. I am not saying that Maud is necessarily anachronistic, merely that she is presented much as Miss Skeeter in The Help: this book’s obvious advocacy for sovereignty for Africans does not extend to giving its African characters particularly complex roles or even very much dialogue. Maud’s love for, and eventual bearing of a child with, Abdullah, the family’s house boy, is presented as bold and transgressive – for her. No one in the book ever pauses to contemplate the danger Abdullah faces in this relationship. In addition, the final thirty or so pages are unnecessarily melodramatic (why must there always be an accidental death?), in a way that drags down the (much fresher) rest of the book. Still, a page-turner: I read it in a day.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of wilderness. Also, I only read one book over the bank holiday weekend, which was weirdly liberating. There are so many proofs lined up on the shelves that to just let them all go for three days felt salutary.

Reading Diary: Apr. 22-Apr. 30

9781786697080There ought to be a law that if your book has a crackerjack premise, you must execute it with commensurate panache. I don’t know how this might be enforced – through the imposition of a fine, perhaps? – but it might stop books like In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide from getting me really excited and then letting me down hard. It’s a crime novel set in a Scotland that never signed the Act of Union, so the country has always been independent of England, and has relied for the past several centuries on its Central American empire, the Caledonian States. (In this version of history, the Darien scheme was a smashing success.) Malcolm Mackay sets the novel in the northwest port town of Challaid, which is slowly dying as industry dries up. Darien Ross, a private investigator with a jailbird ex-cop dad, a mildly criminal older brother, and a lot of fine lines to tread, takes a case from a classic noir femme fatale: Maeve Campbell walks into the office he shares with his boss and asks him to track down the man who stabbed her boyfriend, a money launderer descended from Caledonian immigrants. Ross, of course, takes the case.

The setup is great. It’s a shame, then, that the pay-off is so minimal. For what Mackay does with his cleverly imagined setting is to write a noir crime novel so straight that it could just as easily be set in Cardiff, or Manchester, or anywhere vaguely northern and rainy. As a novel about a private investigator goes, it hits all the beats it needs to  (although there are some frustrating choices in Maeve’s characterisation, and in the revelation of the killer). But there are a million things about an independent Scotland that could have been developed: what are its relations with its southern neighbour? Why are its industries in decline? (It must be a reason that has nothing to do with English rule and/or political decisions, but we don’t get to hear it.) There are hints of unrest regarding immigration from the Caledonian states, which are agitating for independence; Ross interviews a waiter from Costa Rica who will be entitled to a Scottish passport if he can just keep working in Challaid for another two months. But nothing is made of it, it doesn’t go anywhere. You can’t entice readers with the promise of world-building and then avoid building the world. The “primary source” documents which interleave the chapters – historic newspaper articles, investigative reports, etc. – are perhaps an attempt to do this implicitly, but they are not elegantly integrated into the main narrative, and therefore are less of a help than an obstacle. It’s a shame, especially given that the last alternative-history book I read (KJ Whittaker’s phenomenal False Lights, back in September) managed its world-building so well.

33590210Roy and Celestial are a middle-class black couple from Atlanta. He’s a banker; she’s an emerging artist. They’ve been married for a year when Roy is arrested, tried and convicted for a crime that he didn’t commit. Sent to prison for twelve years, he’s let out after five, but the damage to his marriage is already done: how can he and Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre, figure out a way to live after their lives have been destroyed?

An American Marriage is a lot like Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, which I read last week, in that it asks questions about how marriages and relationships actually work, or don’t work, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that the answers might be devastating. It is never in question that Roy and Celestial love each other, but the strain of incarceration on a brand-new marriage is intense. Jones gives Celestial some wonderful, incisive dialogue about what it feels like to be a black woman standing in line for a prison visit with your husband: how you know the guards are judging you, how you’re judging yourself, how desperately you don’t want to feel part of the sorority of black women all around you who are also there to visit their men. It’s not just romantic relationship dynamics that are under scrutiny here: Roy’s mother’s husband, the man who raised him, is not his biological father. While in prison, he meets the man who fathered him, and Jones explores, through their oddball, tentative relationship and through the love between Roy and his adopted father, Big Roy, the various ways in which boys can become men. Characterisation is deep and convincing, dialogue is on point – there’s nothing about An American Marriage that rings false. It’s a highly addictive story told with great powers of observation and empathy. UK readers are lucky that the brilliant publisher Oneworld has made it available in this country.

cover2Even though I’m trying hard to read more nonfiction, A Spy Named Orphan still isn’t the sort of thing I generally go for. It looks like a book on the “hard” edge of the spectrum: the history/biography lists that are still overwhelmingly white educated male-centric. For some reason, I rescued a proof from oblivion a few months ago, and now I’m very glad I did. Roland Philipps has written a sympathetic, nuanced and informative biography of Donald Maclean (one of the original Cambridge Five who passed large amounts of classified information to the Soviets from posts within the British establishment during the Second World War and for decades after it). Not only that, but Philipps’s style is easy, combining erudition with accessibility in a way that alienates neither the casual reader nor the aficionado. It’s a very impressive piece of work.

Maclean himself was also an impressive piece of work: he possessed a first-rate ability to synthesise and summarise information, a genuine desire to make the world a safer and more peaceful place, and a self-destructive alcoholic streak that very nearly killed him. The combination of these traits makes for gripping reading. Philipps also – unusually for this sort of history/biography, I feel – acknowledges the central role that Maclean’s wife Melinda played in his life: loyal to him throughout their marriage and despite his frequently appalling public behaviour, she stuck by him even after he vanished behind the Iron Curtain, not knowing if she would ever see him again. Despite the evident faults of both husband and wife, and the cruelty of various acquaintances from the diplomatic world who generally described Melinda as a simpleton, Philipps makes it clear that they loved each other. (All things come to an end, however: when Melinda and the Maclean children were eventually exfiltrated and allowed to join Donald, she ended up running away with Kim Philby, which is the sort of thing you couldn’t make up.) A Spy Named Orphan is a genuinely gripping story, told with clarity and verve. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: I’m still reading a lot of books which, if not exactly crime, certainly involve being on the wrong side of the law. This continues with my current reading, Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. (I read nothing from Thursday night until this morning, due to being the maid of honour at a family wedding over the weekend, which went smashingly.)

Reading Diary: Apr. 15-Apr. 21

814ysf3sdjlI’m going to go ahead and call it now: The Secret Barrister is probably the best non-fiction book I’ll read all year. (It’s actually called Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, but that seems more like a subtitle to me, and the author’s name is the big sell on this one, since the Secret Barrister is a massive blog that’s twice won Independent Blogger of the Year at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. So I’m referring to it as The Secret Barrister and that’s that.)

Readers of the blog will be familiar with the impetus behind the book: to reveal the myriad ways in which the English justice system – which, schoolchildren are taught, is the best in the world – is desperately broken. The anonymous author, a junior barrister practicing in London, ultimately agrees that the adversarial system in the UK is the best one that there is, but the persistent under-funding of the Crown Prosecution Service, the absurdly arbitrary nature of sentencing guidelines, and the frankly alarming power wielded in magistrates’ courts (presided over by magistrates, who, unlike Crown Court judges, have no legal training or qualifications whatsoever, and whose presence is a hangover from medieval times, when it was less important that justice be fully served than that it be quickly served) are crippling the justice system. Though the Secret Barrister never explicitly allies themselves with a particular political party, it is quite clear that the budget cuts and benchmarks set by successive Tory governments are in large part responsible for the absolute chaos in which most criminal cases are prosecuted and/or defended.

The best thing about this book – apart from the statistics, and the clear, quantitative analysis of just how many things can go wrong in a court case, and the outstanding job the book does of impressing upon the reader that anyone can end up in court, anyone can be burgled or assaulted or even falsely accused, and that therefore it is in everyone’s interests, even us smug middle-class wankers, to make sure that criminal justice works properly, which is to say that it is properly funded and less subject to dog-whistle knee-jerk bullshit from politicians and the Daily Mail than it currently is – is that the Secret Barrister can really write. The book opens with a cross-examination of a man named Mr. Tuttle, accused of punching his neighbour, who happens to be both blind and on crutches, rendering Mr. Tuttle’s defense (“he punched me first”) somewhat incredible. The scene feels immediate, funny, even absurd – I laughed within seconds – and it works because the prose is flawless: well-oiled, conversational, competent in the little things, like exactly where a comma or a hyphen makes a sentence more effective. It’s a joy to read, as well as deeply informative, and scary as hell. I am sending it to everyone.

51my9o-wxml-_sx327_bo1204203200_In 1622, Diego Velazquez traveled to Madrid from Seville. In December of that year, he was appointed painter to Felipe IV of Spain and invited to bring his wife and daughter to court. He would retain that position – painter to the king – until his death in 1660. Amy Sackville, in her third novel, zooms all the way in on Velazquez’s life and work at court.

While it might be described as a fictional biography, what Painter to the King does most consistently and remarkably is convey what it feels like to be someone who sees the world as a painter – as this particular painter – does. Velazquez’s naturalistic style, his insistence on using live models, his relatively limited colour palette, all attract mockery, even scorn, from other painters, but it is the quality of his vision that makes Felipe value him. He sees people, and what he sees is, not unkindly but nevertheless with great fidelity, what he paints. Sackville’s prose style here is tactile, interested in texture and colour, lights and darks, the encrusted paint on Diego’s fingers, the heft and bulk of a water jug. It also constantly interrupts itself; we feel we are inside the head of the artist, particularly in scenes like the one in which he tries, again and again, to capture exactly the musculature of a horse’s leg, the swell of its belly, the flick of its tail. The sentences are breathless, fragmented, em-dash-heavy:

…dip, swipe, dip, swipe: The leg of the horse curves up into the belly here, like –– Here, the top of the leg rounding into the socket like –– The curve of the belly barrel-like –

–– No

It’s maybe the most effective technique for describing the process of artistic creation that I’ve ever seen.

There is another intruding narrative voice: that of someone who might be the author, and is certainly an observer; someone who knows Velazquez’s paintings well, through long acquaintance with them in galleries and museums. That voice lifts you out of seventeenth-century Spain, but not, I would contend, in a distracting way: on the contrary, it provides necessary breathing room, amongst all that painterly detail. All together, Painter to the King is a little like the bastard child of How To Be Both and Wolf Hall, but to compare it is to diminish it: it is its own thing, and that thing is very good.

cover1The title of Diana Evans’s new novel, Ordinary People, comes from a John Legend song. “This ain’t the honeymoon, past the infatuation phase,” he sings. “Right in the thick of love, at times we get sick of love…” And then: “We’re just ordinary people/we don’t know which way to go.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem for Evans’s protagonists: two couples, Michael and Melissa, Damian and Stephanie, trying to keep their relationships alive after marriage and/or children, moving to the suburbs, losing a parent, discovering that they will very soon no longer be young.

Evans would be most easy to compare to Zadie Smith, although the hyperactivity, focus on working-class second-generation immigrants, and high intellectualism of Smith’s work is less evident here; instead, Evans has written a literary novel about the domestic lives of black people in London who—though some of them are second-generation immigrant stock—have entered the middle class. There is, of course, a political aspect to the book: Damian’s father was a Jamaican intellectual obsessed with the black struggle; Michael’s increasing comfort in a suit is a quiet metaphor for his assimilation into a professional world that is overwhelmingly white; Melissa finds herself thinking of de Beauvoir and Kristeva when her children whine, feeling that she’s sold out feminism but unable to turn back now. Evans’s writing decisions, especially her plotting, is brave: not everyone gets a happy ending, and we’re forced to question what happiness can look like, the possibility that finishing things amicably with your partner can actually be the right choice, and no one’s fault. Ordinary People is an extraordinary book for posing those possibilities while also telling an apparently familiar story about domestic strife; it’s very impressive.

35654063Salt Lane is the newest novel from William Shaw, the beginning of a series featuring DI Alex Cupidi, who made an appearance in the book Shaw released last year, The Birdwatcher. Salt Lane too is set in rural Kent, that strange flat marshy part of England where the sea and the sky and the land flow into one another. This time, Shaw sets his sights on immigrant labour: the illegal fruit picking and farm work that goes on under the noses of police. Two murders in quick succession—a local woman who has been living under an assumed name for twenty years, found in a ditch, and a migrant labourer who has been drowned in a farm’s slurry pit—assume sinister proportions when it turns out that they’re related. Cupidi must find who’s responsible while also developing her relationship with her teenage daughter Zoe, acting as a mentor to the insouciant and pretty DS Ferriter, and protecting her own reputation on a squad to which she is new, and which knows all about the scandal that drove her away from London.

There is slightly too much going on in Salt Lane; some of the supporting characters confuse the arc of the investigation, rather than adding to it, as does the fact that the dead woman is connected to a cold case from 1995. (We learn about this in the prologue, a flashback which misleads us into thinking that the old crime is going to be more significant in the present-day storyline than it actually is.) I’m also not certain about Shaw’s portrayal of immigrant workers; he’s not offensive about them or about the hell in their countries of origin that drives them to the UK, but I wasn’t convinced that he’d ever spoken to a refugee. Najiba, a migrant worker who acts as a police informant, is fairly well-rounded, but the others seem like ciphers; Marina Lewycka’s Strawberry Fields is a more moving and humanising portrait of this world. As ever, though, Shaw’s grasp of pacing and procedure makes it hard to put Salt Lane down.

macbethThere are, plainly, as many ways to fuck up adapting Shakespeare as there are Shakespeare plays. Jo Nesbo has chosen the path of poor judgment: he tends to make the wrong choice about where to diverge from Shakespeare and where to follow him. His Macbeth is set in an unnamed, rainy, context-less Scottish port town ravaged by drug wars and the death of industry; Macbeth is a corrupt policeman. It’s an excellent idea, but in execution, it feels like reading Grand Theft Auto for 500 pages: not so much because of the action sequences (though there are many, and they’re generally the best bits) but because of the odd sense of complete inconsequentiality. The town never feels like a real town; even its architecture and geography lacks substance. Why is there an enormous disused train in the middle of a public square flanked by a James Bond-esque casino and a railway station populated only by junkies? None of it is how anything—urban planning, police procedure, drug-empire-enforcing—actually works.

Nesbo makes another unfortunate decision, which is to follow the beats of the major monologues and some of the better-known dialogue. While he occasionally manages this well (the “Out, out, brief candle” speech feels contemporary and convincing, mostly because it’s not spoken but thought), it also results in hardmen calling each other things like “good Duff”, which jars. When Macbeth or his scheming partner Lady breaks out into an expository paragraph that’s completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the scene, it feels awkward and noticeable. One particularly odd choice involves Nesbo’s failure to update Lady’s reproductive history: he keeps the part about her plucking a child from her breast and dashing its brains against the wall, but makes that an actual recollection, not a hypothetical about promise-keeping that she throws at Macbeth, as it is in the play. Wouldn’t it make more sense—and be more emotionally resonant—in a contemporary updating, to give Lady a history of multiple abortions about which to feel guilty? To unthinkingly plug in Shakespeare’s words plunges the scene, and Lady’s characterisation, into a grand guignol that feels cheap and tone-deaf.

All of this said, there are lots of reasons why someone might want to read a video game, particularly this video game. The action sequences are generally excellent, high-octane and well choreographed. A level of artifice—one might say, of theatricality—is inherent to much genre writing, and Macbeth is a genre novel; Nesbo writes noir thrillers and has never claimed otherwise. For my taste, though, his version of Shakespeare lacks sufficient thought, fun and pacy though it may be.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: A lot of crime, which will carry over into Monday as I’m currently reading another Scottish-set thriller, In the Cage Where Your Saviours Hide. Overall an excellent week, with three great books, one decent one, and one that was at least fun to dislike.