Monday, July 26, 2010

Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd

Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem is quite simply a masterpiece. Every aspect of the novel is remarkable. It’s a whodunit, though it suggests a couple of credible suspects right at the start. It even convicts its central character to death by hanging before we have even got to know her. Clearly things are not going to be obvious. The novel is also a study in character, especially that of its central actor, Lambeth Marsh Lizzie, later Mrs Elizabeth Cree. It’s also an evocation of London in the late nineteenth century, complete with colours, smells, vistas and perspectives. 

It’s a highly literary work, ever conscious of its place beside the genres it skirts. Overall, it’s a wonderful example of how form can be used as inventively as plot to create a story. The novel has a series of interlocking stands. In one our anti-heroine, Lizzie, is accused of the murder of John Cree, her husband. In another, John Cree’s diary reveals certain secrets that not only he would have wanted to hide. In a third strand, we learn of Lambeth Marsh Lizzie’s past, how she came to a life in the theatre and how she met her husband. A fourth strand follows the career of Dan Leno, a music hall player, worshipper of the silent clown Grimaldi and mentor of Lizzie’s stage life. And in a fifth strand we see how, in a great city like London, our paths inevitably cross those of great thinkers, writers, artists and, of course, history itself. Peter Ackroyd thus has his characters cross the paths of a writer, George Gissing, and a thinker of note, one Karl Marx, as they tramp the streets of Limehouse after a day at the library. 

 As usual, sex has a lot to do with the relationships in the book. It is usually on top, but here it also comes underneath and sometimes on the side of events. Mrs Cree is accused of poisoning her husband. Their married life has been far from conventional, but are its inadequacies the motive for a series of brutal killings of prostitutes and others in the Limehouse area? As a result of the curious placement of certain trophies, the killings are attributed in the popular mind to a golem, a mythical creature made of clay that can change it shape at will. Karl Marx examines the Jewish myths surrounding the subject. Others steer clear of the subject. Lizzie continues on the stage until she meets her husband. She learns much stagecraft from Dan Leno and eventually resolves to help her husband to complete the play over which he has unsuccessfully laboured. When the book’s plot resolves, we are surprised, but then everything makes such perfect sense. And in a real piece of insight, Peter Ackroyd likens the mass murderer to Romaticism perfected, the ultimate triumph of individualism. There is much to stimulate the mind in this thriller. 

 A reader of this review might suspect that Dan leno And The Limehouse Golem is a difficult read, a book whose diverse strands never converge. But quite the contrary is true: it comes together in a wonderful, fast-flowing manner to a resolution that is both highly theatrical yet thoroughly credible. Read it many times. View the book on amazon Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Serpent In Paradise by Dea Birkett

Towards the end of Serpent In Paradise Dea Birkett offers a personal confession. “We all hold a place in our hearts – a perfect place – which is the shape of an island. It provides refuge and strength; we can always retreat to its perfection. My mistake was to go there.” It may have been another mistake to have written about it. Serpents In Paradise is a perfectly good read. It is well written, if a little clumsy here and there. Personally, I blame the editor. It’s a travel book, relating the history and experience of the author’s quest to Pitcairn island.

At the time of writing, just over two hundred years had elapsed since sine the famous mutineers on The Bounty had stumbled upon a wrongly-mapped island in the south Pacific. Thus they found their own perfect hiding place, so they burned their bridges, in their case a ship. It is largely their descendents who still inhabit Pitcairn and it was in this society that Dea Birkett sought her own personal paradise. Getting to and from Pitcairn is an adventure in itself. It has no regular services and no harbour. A visitor has to make an application to the island’s authorities – basically the entire population – for permission to land. 

And Pitcairn islanders don’t like writers. Dea Birkett’s ruse to gain access was a project on the Island’s postal service, whose stamps and franks are both rare and in high demand from collectors. Then you have to find a freighter, usually out of New Zealand, over three thousand miles distant, that happens to be charting a course near to Pitcairn and is planning to pause there. When this happens, the Island’s entire population turns out. There are supplies to be delivered, fish to sell to the ship, trinkets to sell to the crew. Occasionally, there are people to transfer up or down the rope ladder. The author made it into the pitching longboat below, but initially failed in several other feats during her stay. 

What she did accomplish was the creation of a rather light, impressionistic view of life within a dwindling island community. We are on first name terms form the start, but strangely most of the characters we meet retain an anonymity. As we read on, an explanation emerges. Dea Birkett eventually records how this community usually seems to act as a single entity. They share tasks, forage, fish and cultivate in groups. Decisions emerge out of communally chewing over an issue, apparently without ever confronting it directly. They are driven by their religion, Seventh Day Adventism, to impose restrictions on possibility, but then not everyone takes the rules seriously, hence the local division of inhabitants into “old and young”, effectively traditional and modern. But the tradition came from foreigners in the late nineteenth century, and the modern involves imported beer. And it was into this largely biblically-literal society that Dea Birkett brought her serpent. 

As in the original, it was temptation embodied. Forbidden fruit were tasted. There was a fall from Grace. And yet the author does not tell us whether there were consequences as a result of her island fling. She does, however, continue the quote at the start of this review as follows: “Dreams should be nurtured and elaborated upon; they should never be visited. By going to Pitcairn, I had vanquished the perfect place within myself.” And thus we reach the nub of the problem. With the printed word, the medium is not the message. This always has to be disentangled, revealed and understood. In Serpent In Paradise, we have a perfectly good read, a well-described travel experience, but it may be too focused on a journey within to really take us there. View this book on amazon Serpent in Paradise

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Burr by Gore Vidal

The passage of time edits history. The roughness and corners of detail wear away under the constant erosion of recall and interpretation. Eventually, unless events or people are sufficiently insignificant so they can be merely forgotten, the process rounds off what remains to form mere icons, summaries that become anodyne cartoons of once complex events and motives. I can recall the celebrations that surrounded the bi-centennial of the American Revolution. At the time, I thought I knew something about the history. Names such as Washington, Jefferson and Adams became commonplace for a while. 

A couple of years before, Gore Vidal had published his novel Burr, which I had not read. Having just finished it, nearly forty years after it appeared, I now know much more. In the novel Gore Vidal presents a history of the War Of Independence and its aftermath through the eyes of a contemporary, Aaron Burr, who was Vice President to Thomas Jefferson. Burr’s form is a brilliant invention. The treatment enhances the content, allowing Gore Vidal to lay several perspectives before the reader. Aaron Burr lived to a ripe old age. 

We meet him first in the 1830s approaching his final years. He is still very much an active participant in life, however. He still has an eye for the ladies, two very big eyes for money or opportunity, and a very much alive and kicking penchant for political dabbling. His proclivities have left a world-wide trail of successes and failures, personal, political and familial. A gentleman called Schuyler, who considers himself Dutch first, American second, is commissioned to write the old man’s memoirs, after a fashion. He researches, contacts and interviews. There is a motive. The writer’s commission is barbed. What Burr might reveal can be used to lever contemporary political advantage. Schuyler’s task is to prise out the useful from the detail the old man might reveal. And it is from this quest that the book’s eventual surprise materialises. It is, however, quite a long wait. 

Schuyler meets Burr several times and, on each occasion, the old man develops a section of his memoir. The writer records the words and, here and there, interprets. Burr has lived a long and eventful life. His rise to fame was accelerated by participation in the War Of Independence. He became a battlefield commander and earned a reputation for success, not difficult when apparently everyone else involved, in Burr’s estimation at least, lacked commitment, competence or both. This included George Washington, who is revealed as a selfish, bungling incompetent. Burr was also, both by choice and inevitable proximity, a confidante and colleague of Thomas Jefferson, who saw Burr as a competitor. Jefferson’s ideals are portrayed as naiveté and his judgment as eccentric. 

And Burr was always a threat to Jefferson’s personal interest and ambition, and thus had to be controlled, manipulated, excluded, undermined. As ever, for the good of the country, of course… But Burr was a survivor. A tempestuous private life riddled with success, failure, allegation and counter-claim, alongside a roller-coaster political career took the central character close to both power and ruin, ecstasy and despair. It also took him close to death several times. Burr’s enduring claim to fame is the duel he fought against a rival, Alexander Hamilton. Their long-standing rivalry is chartered through the book. Hamilton’s death in the duel surfaces many times in Burr’s narrative before the event itself is presented and, of course, there is more than meets the eye. 

 Gore Vidal states that he chooses to write historical fiction rather than history to reveal the frailties and shortcomings of icons such as Washington and Jefferson. He cites fiction’s ability to ascribe opinion, its opportunity to create illustrative drama via dialogue in meetings that only might have happened. And at this level, Burr is a remarkable success. Events and people that have become statuesque icons are questioned, reassessed and often revealed as quite different from what we have learned to assume. Burr is also a book of forensic detail and, when that detail is reaffixed to the historical figures we thought we already knew, it is surprising to see them anew, revealed as merely human. It is not a book for the uncommitted reader who might be only partially interested in its subject. This, eventually, is its strength. View the book on amazon Burr (Narratives of a Golden Age)

Worst Fears by Fay Weldon

Fay Weldon’s novel Worst Fears starts and finishes with bereavement. It examines how a woman deals with simultaneous loss and revealed betrayal. Alexandra is an actress, if I might be excused such gender specificity. She is also quite successful. She is currently appearing in a London West End production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. She is therefore away from home a lot. Her husband Ned has just died, apparently discovered on the floor of the family home by a visitor. It was a sudden and massive heart attack. Alexandra wonders what might have brought it on. She takes time off work, thus allowing an understudy temporarily to take her role. 

She returns to the rickety, old, antique-stuffed cottage in the country. It is perhaps a rural idyll that now has to be rewritten. Her worst fears are that there is more than meets the eye. She also has some hopes, but from the start it seems unlikely they will be realised. She is greeted by the dog, Diamond, who seems to know something is wrong. She contacts local acquaintances, Lucy and Abbie, whom she suspects know more than they are saying. Hamish, her husband’s brother, comes to stay to help sort things out. Sascha, Alexandra and Ned’s little boy is with Irene, Alexandra’s mother. It happens often when Alexandra is away at work. 

Her husband Ned, as usual needed space at home to concentrate. He was, by the way, was an authority on theatre, a critic, an expert on Ibsen and also interested in costume design. As Alexandra delves into recent events, she discovers a tangle of interests, relationships and liaisons. All of them have implications for her, despite the fact that she was often not directly involved. The protagonists relate directly to one another. They socialise, if that might be the right word. They interact. They act. They play-act. Alexandra’s worst fears begin to materialise. Ned’s surname is Ludd. It is surely not a coincidence that he shares a name with one of the wreckers of history. He is the only developed male character in the novel, despite his being dead. He never speaks, but his presence pervades, perhaps even controls everything that the still living can do. The truths of his life have been at best partial, his interests specifically personal. It seems that the women are positioning themselves to lay claim to ownership of his memory. 

And thus recollection, rumour and revelation unfold their tangle. The above may suggest a rather one-dimensional approach towards a feminist moral, but it is much more subtle than that. This thread is there, of course, and is epitomised when Alexandra’s part in A Doll’s House – itself a play about women and emancipation – is exploited to success by her understudy via sexual stereotyping. And Worst Fears opens with two of the women involved viewing Ned’s body, their attention drawn to a part of his anatomy that is to become one of the book’s main actors. Their reverence is sincere as they genuflect before their flaccid altar. This accepted, it seems also that the book deals more fundamentally with the more universal issues of self-interest and selfishness. All of these characters, despite their often social or private relations, are in conflict. They compete with one another and even with themselves. When liberation becomes a possibility, it is revealed as no more than an opportunity for even greater self-obsession, a means of shutting out the interest of others. 

 As the plot of Worst Fears unfolds, the impression it leaves is that these accomplished, middle-class, apparently comfortable people are all still engaged in a primeval struggle for raw animal dominance. The currency that is hoarded in the process remains the same as it would have been if the characters had never evolved from quadruped apes in a forest gang. There is no liberation here, for anyone, except, that is, via their words, the very weapons they use to prod, punch, pierce the reality that effectively confines them to themselves. These could be anyone’s worst fears. View the book on amazon Worst Fears