Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Two Weeks Since My Last Confession is a novel by Kate Genovese. It is a family saga, featuring the O’Briens from Boston, Massachusetts. On the face of things, the O’Briens are an upstanding pillar of the community.
John O’Brien is a politician, a senator no less, and a respected and long term incumbent to boot. Marie, Mrs. O’Brien, is a devout Catholic with five children. She is determined that they should be raised in such a way that ensures they develop values and respect rules. She fails.
The story centres on two siblings of the O’Brien household, and sets their stories in parallel, spanning three decades up to the 1980s. Molly and Sean are separated by several years, Sean being the older. Molly is the more impetuous of the two, Sean, in his own way, the less predictable. Things at home turn very sour indeed when Molly claims she is sexually abused by her brother. She complains to her mother, who blames her daughter for raising such ideas in the hothouse of her over-active imagination. She tells her father, who seems to be equally dismissive, being always more interested in the preservation of his own privilege and public face. It is only a long time later that she learns her father did, indeed, speak to Sean. They are words that the boy resents, for he has no recollection of having done anything.
Essentially, Two Weeks Since My Last Confession deals with the on-going consequences of these reactions which, at the time, were generated for merely rational reasons, their intended consequences designed to heal rather than harm. Events are described from the individual perspectives of the two children, Molly and Sean.
On the surface a devout Roman Catholic nuclear group, the O’Briens in reality are shot through with tension, hypocrisy, deceit and, indeed, corruption. They are perhaps a fairly standard family beneath the sheen of respect. When the lad misbehaves, his senator father pulls strings so that nothing will come of the issue and, importantly, there will be no record kept. The senator, himself, is a rampant womanizer and two timer, his clearly unhappy wife thus trapped in a marriage her religion would never contemplate ending. Sean gets up to some pretty naughty things before, during and after his tour of duty in Vietnam, but the experience of war does change him, so that his life is transformed. As he matures, he begins to understand and come to terms with the origin of the psychological demons that have haunted him since boyhood.
But it is Molly, more formally Maureen Bridget whenever her mother scolds her, who provides the centrepiece of the story. Her life is a tale of deterioration, a personal tragedy that affects all around her. In Bobby Angelo, she finds a perfect boyfriend at an age when she is just too young to convince others her feelings are sincere. She develops an early, rich, sexual relationship with Bobby, who seems to be a likeable boy of Italian descent. He is convinced he is destined for stardom as a baseball player and somehow it just doesn’t work out with Molly. In fact, it actually worked out a little too well with Molly, but he is ignorant of this when he goes off to college. Molly is thus prevented from attending college herself and she takes up a career in health care.
She has already smoked dope, as have most of her peers, and she has tried a few other things. Her professional activities facilitate her access to drugs, of course, and she begins to try something different, and then a little more, and a little more still. And so she drifts into a destitution of addiction. But it is a state that allows her to continue a semblance of a normal life for many years. The book describes the history of the whole family, however, in order to fill out details of the two principal characters’ lives.
There are marriages and births – sometimes in that order, some more marriages, plenty of divorces, more births, domestic abuse, success, wealth, failure. There are breakdowns, rehab centres, a Vietnam War and pop culture. And so the characters inhabit a confused two decades to emerge older, wiser perhaps, more stable perhaps, certainly awaiting what life will throw at them next. Ultimately, the book is an examination of abuse and its consequences, both direct and incidental. The childhood traumas that centred on Molly and Sean resurface, demand attention, regularly reassert their control of lives. They have been denied. They will not go away.
And again ultimately the book has a message of hope, as the skeletons in the cupboard are eventually brought out into daylight and positively buried. Life can be a messy process, with events becoming confused, subconsciously rejected or unacknowledged. But things do catch up with you in the end. The mistakes are truly easy to make, but unpicking their consequences can be an intricate, delicate and lengthy task.
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In Rufus And The Biggest Diamond In The World, Michael Elsmere creates nothing less than a complete fantasy world of children’s literature. Rufus has been told a story by his father about a diamond of a size beyond anyone’s dreams. It is just waiting to be found, so, having lost his parents, Rufus sets out to do precisely that.
It is a journey of total imagination, a journey through some quintessential scenes of childhood experience, settings of spectacular invention, surely reminiscent of places that many of us might have been. There is a treasure hunt bound for the Spanish Main, an adventure voyage on board ships from a chivalric, Romantic past.
But when the mission is redirected according to an omen unearthed by a submarine hero, Africa becomes the destination that Rufus and his companion, Jim, must explore. If only they could themselves have read the clues that explained how the under-sea horde was transformed into a diamond mine on land.
In Rufus, Michael Elsmere has invented a wonderful, likeable character, a young lad with an imagination powerful enough to give ideas life and to do so in the most mundane of surroundings. The author also avoids cliché at all times. There are no platitudes of magic potions that appear just as they are required to do exactly what is needed, convenient shrinking or aggrandizement, and no mere description of scene after scene.
Throughout Rufus And The Biggest Diamond In The World, Michael Elsmere offers elegant prose that provides regularly evocative surprises. It provides a quite beautiful vehicle to explore the power of imagination, to re-experience the joy of discovery. OK kids. Rufus is a good lad. He is perhaps about the same age as you. He’s lost his parents and there’s a diamond to be found. There’s a sailing ship, pirates, treasure, gold, shipwrecks, talking birds, submarines and electric eels. There are eggheads who know how to read things that other people can’t even see. Maps are redrawn in people’s pockets and point to new places.
There are lions, jungles, snakes, beautiful ladies and witches. There are deserts, oceans, seas, mountains, caves, caverns, stones, stalactites and schools. And so Rufus And The Biggest Diamond In The World becomes itself a celebration of the form in which it exists. It is gentle, subtle writing to convey truly exciting, fast-paced fun. And kids, I suspect a few parents, especially those that might be rendered a little tearful by genuine nostalgia, might enjoy reading Rufus themselves. It’s a book that genuinely inhabits multiple levels, a story that will enrapture the young, and a concept that will fascinate the once young.
But then, when you have read Rufus, you will want to read more, because that is what Rufus is about. These imagined worlds are themselves bigger, greater, more vivid and more real just because they are imagined.
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Sunday, May 25, 2008
Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester is a novel that is hard to praise too highly. Set in Hong Kong, it presents the stories of four main characters, each of which is an immigrant to this city. Behind them at all times is a culture that rules their lives, sets the limits of what might be possible, but is always hard for outsiders to penetrate.
That the culture affects all aspects of their lives, however, is a given. Each character pursues self-interest, the different eras they inhabit defining and characterising the different stages of the city’s development. Thus we see its pre-war emergence from a dirty nineteenth century right through to its contemporary role as a driving force of free market globalisation.
When Tom Stewart, on his way to Honk Kong in the 1930s, accepts the challenge of a wager, he changes the direction of lives, not just is own. A random, trivial suggestion suggests he might learn Cantonese in the thirty days of a shared voyage to new lives. His tutor is Sister Maria, a Chinese nun who proves to be an enlightened, motivating teacher.
Tom Stewart learns the language, wins the bet and begins a relationship with things Chinese that will sustain him through war, peace, economic growth, professional life, clandestine activity and property speculation. Dawn Stone, previously Doris, hails from Blackpool, but she makes it to Hong Kong. She has a career in the media, having gone through the once well trodden paths of learning her trade on provincial newspapers and then graduating to London. She makes it good and proper in the public relations business that booms out east. She seems to have few scruples and is ruled by pragmatism.
She is not alone. Michael Ho is a young businessman. He has a vision of an air conditioned future that is on a knife edge between success and failure. He is sub-contracted from Germans who operate north of London to avail themselves of the country’s more flexible approach to labour. He has a rip-off sub-contracting factory in Ho Chi Minh City. He is Hong Kong based, but from Fujian, and thus also an immigrant. He has recently relocated his family to Sydney. Interests in Guangzhou will determine his fate. Mountains are high and the emperor is far away, his contacts tell him, so practices are mainly local. He must learn. He must raise capital.
It is perhaps true everywhere in this global economy, where Hertfordshire taxi drivers remonstrate in Urdu and curse in English. And it is pragmatism that rules the place. As globalisation becomes an issue, the place is the world, not just Hong Kong. In this new world which appears to be built on the professedly liberal economic ideas that have underpinned the colony’s free-for-all, these immigrants to the place make their lives, make their fortunes in their own ways.
But still there is a constant in that they can only succeed within the protective umbrella shade of bigger interests than their own. In a city state that grew out of an illicit and illegal trade in opium as British merchants and adventurers became international drug dealers to vulnerable China, people with wealth beyond measure push people around the chessboards of their interests, occasionally enthroning a pawn they might even have previously sacrificed.
As in A Debt To Pleasure, John Lanchester has us enter the world of an anti-hero. The character that drives events in Fragrant Harbour is but a name for most of the book. He is cold, calculating, driven by raw, undiluted self-interest. In this he is perhaps no different from anyone else. It’s just that he is more successful at it, and thus less willing to risk that success. And he prevails. The emperor is far away. The mountains are high. In his case, he is the emperor and he owns the mountains. Power lives in pockets and, in a globalised economy, we are all immigrants, even in our homes. What a superb book!
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The Door by Magda Szabo is a detailed, intimate account of a relationship between two women. Paradoxically, it was the distance between them that generated the intimacy.
Presented with behaviour and attitudes she could not identify with or recognise, a young writer tries to analyse her maid’s motives, to rationalise her strangeness, to explain her unconventional behaviour. It is clear from the start that the new maid, Emerence, has had a fundamentally different kind of life from her employer. And, as the relationship develops, details of that life are slowly unearthed to be shared.
Memories and reflections unfold like a gently opening flower, each miniscule change adding to what has gone before. Eventually these individually small incremental revelations complete a picture of a life that even the imagination of a writer could not have created.
The Door is rarely a vivid book. Its tone and style are always measured. Details are picked apart and analysed, their consequences examined under a microscope that seeks out motive, honesty and guilt. Paradoxically – perhaps as a consequence of this concentration on the psychological – there is no greats sense of place or setting.
In fact, so deeply do the characters enter into the psychological aspects of their lives that they sometimes appear to have their gaze directed inwards on themselves. And eventually, an enduring reaction to the book is its constant consciousness of the distance between people, despite both intimacy and proximity.
The book’s style is quite dense. There is very little dialogue, and what is offered is often stunted and awkward. Magda Szabo employs longs long paragraphs, whose content often meanders through different strands of the character’s emotions.
It is not a stream of consciousness form, however, and always avoids the poetic, never obfuscates, does not try to cloud issues to create a false sense of significance. In some ways, this is a criticism of the book, since the overall effect tends to be somewhat one-paced, with the different characters’ perspectives inconclusively delineated. Magda Szabo’s book is still a rewarding read, especially if taken slowly, when the nuances of character and their relationships can be savoured. There are grand events between its covers, but they remain mainly domestic. It’s the detail that counts.
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Friday, May 9, 2008
My Life As A Fake by Peter Carey is a strange, multi-layered journey through a man’s past, his artistic inspiration and his products, both illusory and real.
Christopher Chubb is Australian and a budding poet. He resents the privilege of a certain litterateur and so he decides to nail him. An apparently genuine but actually bogus set of poems is supplied and adjudged significantly more than competent. The agent publishes. The material is fake. Chubb is accused and stands trial for his sins against artistic identity and integrity.
Some years later John Slater and Sarah Elizabeth Jane Wode-Douglas visit Kuala Lumpur. Slater is an accomplished poet who has hobnobbed with anyone worth hobnobbing with, Eliot, Pound, Auden, etc. He also something of a lady’s man on the side. Sarah is an upper crust girl who developed a liking for other girls at school. Aspects of her origins are a matter of some conjecture, however. Slater seems to have played a role. Her present is clear. She is the editor in chief of a miniscule literary journal devoted mainly to new poetry.
In Kuala Lumpur she discovers the story of Bob McCorkle´s fabled poetry, the fake created by Christopher Chubb. Chubb is resident in KL and has been so for several years. He has a bicycle repair shop, but still writes his own doggerel. Sarah meets him and dismisses his work as dire, derivative at best. McCorkle´s poems, however, are blissful and she tries everything possible to get her hands on the material so that she can publish it. The problem for her is the fact that McCorkle is apparently an invention of Chubb, so the only way that she can get near to the material is through him.
The Australian is now a poor artisan with ragged clothes and tropical ulcers. He speaks English strongly peppered with bits of Malay and plays hard to get. The only way that Sarah can access the McCorkle poems is to suffer Chubb’s life story, its fantasies, inventions and questionable realities. And it’s a story that comes and goes to and from Australia. It progresses through Indonesia and peninsular Malaya. We visit Penang, sup tea in the E and O as Chubb pursues McCorkle, his own now demonic invention, across south east Asia. His alter ego becomes something real, something apart from himself. The book is packed with literary references, but is in no way academic.
There is a strong sense of place, with the sights, sounds and smells of Kuala Lumpur oozing from the page. The only aspect missing is the taste, and in Malaysia food is much more pervasive an influence in the culture than we encounter via Chubb’s adoption of it. It’s a minor point. Eventual reconciliation of the Chubb-McCorkle conflict, Sarah’s pursuit of the poems and Slater’s apparent management of the process is truly surprising and it is for the reader to discover this empirically.
Overall the pace of the book is varied and, here and there, one feels that Peter Carey has over-complicated things and thus detracted from the directness that could have achieved increased impact. But then poetry is like that, isn’t it? If it was linear, uncomplicated, What Katy Did, then it would not have the richness that makes it poetry. It would lack the diversion, the invention. My Life As A Fake has all these things and probably stands alone, eventually, as an examination of the nature of creativity and invention. When viewed in retrospect, Chubb’s life, his haunting by the accomplished poet he has ostensibly created and his pursuit of the same to reclaim a daughter he believes is his own at times beggars belief.
But just try predicting tomorrow’s news, or even, especially, your own emotions or reactions. We all become inventors, with neither a past nor a future solid in our present. Eliot again.
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Friday, May 2, 2008
Double Vision by Pat Barker is a novel that defies description. Within its pages there is war, crime, murder, rape, love, hate, sex, artistry, creativity, duplicity, anger, tenderness, inspiration: a dictionary might have enough words to list its subtleties. What it has aplenty is feeling and emotion, an ability to convey its characters' innermost thoughts in an almost tactile manner, as if sculpting them for a hand to explore their surface.
At times, Pat Barker’s characters surprise even themselves. At the heart of the book is a series of relationships between four individuals – Justine, Ben, Kate and Stephen. The two men used to work together as a team. They have covered wars and conflict throughout the world.
Stephen was the writer, Ben the photographer, who would always insist on getting that one last shot, the one that the eyeless onlooker would miss, the one whose poetry would convey the true horror, the one whose horror, perhaps, might stir conscience. But one day, an Afghanistan, he pursued his perfectionist brief one shot too far and, over-exposed, another’s eagle eye picked him out. The loss felt by Stephen will never be adequately described, especially by himself. His partner’s death puts him in limbo and he retires to write. Ben’s sculptor wife, Kate, is left both numb and destroyed by her loss, a loss which becomes everything and nothing.
A commission to create a giant Christ for a prime site in a churchyard is both pressing and unexpectedly therapeutic. She wants him naked. He must be clad. But then an accident damages her arms and she must seek help from a gardener, Peter, who is clearly much more than a pruner of roses. Exactly what Peter might be adds a sense of tangible mystery to parts of the book, but these serve only to highlight the fact that he is perhaps the only one of the characters with a recorded and therefore accessible past.
Justine is the vicar’s daughter. At nineteen she was ready to go to university, but illness disrupted her plans. Being ditched by a boyfriend did not help. And so academe was deferred by an enforced gap year. She ‘does’ for Stephen’s brother and his wife, specialising in caring for a difficult, demanding child. When Stephen lodges with the family, but in a separate dwelling a hundred yards from the house, he and Justine meet. He is old enough to be her father. So what? Their relationship develops through the book, their frequent sexual encounters both rich and surprising.
Pat Barker’s ability to tease out emotional reaction, to crystallise it but at the same time to keep it fluid makes the story of Stephen and Justine exciting, exhilarating, contradictory, impossible and accepted in one. Whatever people’s ages, whatever their motives, whatever the consequences, either real or imagined, people still need love, can sense its promise, can invite it, even when they know it could hurt, humiliate, destroy.
Double Vision is thus a complex story of how a group of friends and acquaintances interact with history, reality, their hopes and fears in a small community in the north-east of England. There is a strong sense of place, a keen eye for detail in a rural landscape that is at least partly hostile. Not that other landscapes are not hostile. Memories of war and its consequences haunt some of the characters. Failed relationships taunt others. Unrealised dreams snag away at the fraying edges of what might have been. Death turns lives upside down, lives that go on to new ecstasies of joy, creativity or even plunder.
At the end of the book you know these people intimately and intuitively. But your knowledge and understanding of people is like a photograph. It is valid only for the instant in which it was taken. As memory, it solidifies an ever changing reality into an illusion of permanence, like a sculpture captures a moment of movement, a moment that never happened. Life goes on. This is a beautiful book.
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