Friday, 25 November 2016

Made For The Market

If you were looking for a definition of a high-concept book, then look no further. Behind Her Eyes is as high-concept as it gets. A clever, plot-driven woman-in-jeopardy thriller with a paranormal twist, written in an easy-to-read confessional style and aimed directly at the thirty-something female reader, it hooks you into the story from the very first page.

For me, however, the lack of depth to the characters was the book's fatal flaw, particularly the villainous Adele who leads Louise, the victim, by the nose. In place of characterisation we get a great deal of coy pre-figuring of the if-only-she-knew-what-I had-in-store-for-her variety which quickly started to get on my nerves. But then, as a sixty something male, I'm not the target readership.

The ending took a little longer to arrive than I wanted. When it did come I thought it was going to be just as I had expected and at first that was exactly how it seemed Then came the final very neat and entirely unpredicted twist. I have to take my hat off to the author: It's a very well crafted ending but not an emotionally satisfying one. This is one of those books that ends with a shudder rather than a sigh of relief. I didn't enjoy that.

It's very much made for the market: a dash of Gone Girl, a splash of Before I Go To Sleep, a hint of Girl On A Train and then a little bit of mumbo-jumbo thrown in for good luck. But it's extremely well done. Not profound or meaningful just ingenious and entertaining.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Telling Winners From Losers

The first of a trio of Anglo-Saxon novels, The Conscience of the King focuses on the beginnings of the kingdom of Wessex, as told by its founder, Cerdic, a renegade Romano-Celt who betrays his own culture and seeks his fortune with the Saxon invaders. A completely selfish and unscrupulous individual, the progress of his carefully laid plans and the constant self-justification with which he explains his treachery is, nonetheless, quite compelling.

Equally fascinating is Duggan's portrait of the disintegrating Romano-Celtic society- in particular, the abandoned and haunted cities gradually falling prey to the elements:

"What made Calleva such a queer place to wander in in was that it had been abandoned while it was still a concern. The streets were overgrown, and most of the roof-beams had been stolen by people who were too lazy to cut timber even in that thick Forest, but many house-walls were intact. In sheltered corners you could trace frescoes on the plaster, and mosaic floors glimmered through a layer of mud."

At the end of the tale, his new kingdom established, Cerdic looks back with regret at the change he has helped usher in and, in an observation that has resonance in post-Brexit Britain, he sums up the absurdity of the Romano-British belief that their society could function as an independent unit, paying fewer taxes to Rome and organizing its own affairs:

We light-heartedly broke with the Emperor, thinking that all the honestiores of Britain would then become little Emperors on their own. Too late. we discovered that Rome really gave us something in return for the gold that left the province.

A layered view of a period of enormous historical change, The Conscience of the King reminds us that in the long term it's not always easy to tell the winners from the losers.

The Futility Of Empire

The Little Emperors is set in Britain at the beginning of the fifth century and tells the story of Felix, governor of Britannia Prima, an industrious but culturally blinkered civil servant, convinced that by screwing ever greater taxes out of the local people, he is extending the benefits of civilisation.

Though temperamentally loyal to Rome, Felix is caught up in a series of political machinations that end in the proclamation of the usurper Constantine III as emperor of Britain. Unfortunately for Felix, he is married to the daughter of one of Constantine's rivals and he ends up fleeing into the countryside. During the hardships of this journey he begins to understand how negative the effect of empire has been upon the people of the island he has governed so inflexibly.

. This is a novel about the futility of empire. Duggan's stepfather was Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, the epitome of imperial complacency; but Duggan saw his family fortune swept away in the Great Depression, served in the Second World War and then watched the British Empire disintegrate in its aftermath. It was an experience that clearly left its mark.

Essentially a political novel, The Little Emperors is a study in transformation: the metamorphosis that takes place in Britain as the grip of Rome begins to loosen is mirrored by the humiliation of Felix. Both the country and the man emerge smaller in stature but more human.

It is very good to see The Little Emperors, along with Duggan's other novels, rescued by Bello, an imprint founded in 201 by Pan Macmillan in order to bring lost classics back to life. Duggan is an excellent historical novelist who has a great deal to say to the contemporary reader. It would have been a tragedy if his voice had disappeared entirely in the great flood of out-of-print books.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Naivety And Cunning In The Sistine Chapel

On the face of it a lot of elderly clerics trying to decide who should become their next leader does not seem like promising material for a thriller. But from the first page this novel about the election of a new pope is utterly gripping. What Harris does so cleverly is exploit the conflict between the cardinals' purported humility and their covert, or sometimes overt, ambition, the gap between their spirituality and their worldliness, their naivety and their cunning.

In essence this is a political thriller, despite is religious setting. Taking place against a backdrop of terrorism, corruption and the resonance of the sexual abuse scandals of the last decade, and driven by the contrasting characters of the key players, the papal conclave quickly resolves itself into a battle between two different visions of the Catholic church – liberal or conservative as one by one champions emerge from the pack and one by one their past mistakes rise up to haunt them.

Hugely enjoyable, full of twists and turns but ultimately all about the personalities, this is one of my favourite books of 2016. I simply could not put it down.

Literature Of Squalor

A deeply unpleasant story about a young woman in America in the nineteen sixties working in a young offenders institute. Her mother is dead. Her father is an alcoholic ex-policeman. Her home life is one of unmitigated squalor. Filled with disgust for her own body, she hates her life and everyone in it. Her only pleasures are consuming laxatives and stalking one of the guards at the prison where she works.

When a new, glamorous woman comes to work at the prison, Eileen becomes infatuated and for the first time, she has a friend. The intensity of that friendship culminates in a senseless act of violence.

Repetitive, misogynistic (Can a female writer be misogynistic? On the evidence of this novel I'd say, yes) full of clumsy foreshadowing of the 'if only I'd known' type, the novel's structure consists simply of a long, slow build up to a sudden hurried climax.

This novel made the Booker Prize short list which depresses but doesn't surprise me. I want the time back that I wasted on it.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Impossibility Of Neutrality

The Gustav Sonata is the story of a friendship between the mild-mannered and self-effacing Gustav Perle and the highly talented but volatile Anton Zweibel. It begins in Switzerland in the nineteen thirties with the courtship and marriage of Gustav's parents, the looming threat of invasion by Nazi Germany, and the dilemma of Anton's father, the deputy police chief of the small town of Matzlinger who is ordered to deport Jewish refugees but cannot bring himself to do so.

Gustav's father's decision will ultimately precipitate the collapse of his marriage, a catastrophe from which Gustav's mother will never truly recover and the blame for which she will unreasonably project onto her son.

Unloved at home, Gustav finds solace with the family of his school friend, Anton, whose comfortable bourgeois life offers so many more possibilities than his mother's constricted world. Ironically, the Zweibels are Jewish and in Gustav's mother's eyes, they are the very people who have caused her so much trouble.

Despite Gustav's mothers hostility, Gustav and Anton remain friends. When they grow up Gustav becomes the owner of a hotel and Anton, a precociously talented pianist as a child, becomes a dis-satisfied music teacher. Then, late in life, an opportunity for Anton to find success as a performer beckons and he leaves Matzlinger in search of fame It is a decision that provokes a crisis in both their lives.

At a micro-level the focus of this novel is on the particular, the tiny details that acquire significance over the course of a life. At a macro-level it is concerned with the choices that confront both individuals and institutions, and the consequences that attend those choices That's all interesting fictional territory without a doubt, but the plot meanders too much for my money and the narrative seems to lack any real centre. I have enjoyed many of Rose Tremaine's novels but this one did not hit the spot for me.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The End Of Empire

The final years of the Western Roman Empire are a fascinating period: a world that has lasted for centuries suddenly begins to crumble as the landscape shifts in a kind of cultural earthquake. Out of a few biographical fragments sifted from the disintegrating record, John Henry Clay has built a compelling narrative full of complex, multi-faceted characters struggling to hold their place as all the assumptions on which they have come to depend are swept away.

It is the story of Ecdicius, son of Avitus, one of the last Western emperors, his sister, Attica and his friend, Arvandus, minister at the court of the Gothic king Theodoric. In an ingenious piece of storytelling Clay winds the narratives of these characters together against a backdrop of murderous generals, imperial pretenders and barbarian kings, all of whom hover greedily over the decaying body of the empire.

This is proper historical fiction, not the fetishistic battle-porn into which novels set in the world of Ancient Roman can sometimes descend. The focus is on the characters, not the hardware, and, in particular, the interaction between individuals and the great sweep of history. As with all the best historical fiction, the fact that we know it is going to end badly for characters whose hopes and dreams we have come to share, only makes the tale all the more poignant.

Rich in historical detail, populated by flawed but recognisably human characters, At The Ruin Of The World is an immensely enjoyable novel.