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.

Theatre Of Endurance

Set in the early days of polar exploration, Under A Pole Star is the story of Flora, the a celebrated female explorer and of Jacob de Beyn, an American geologist with whom she has a relationship. Like The Tenderness Of Wolves, this novel is a celebration of frozen wilderness and of solitude.

It is also a detailed depiction of the difficulties encountered by women, however determined resourceful and brave, in making their way against the fiercely competitive masculine culture of early and mid twentieth century exploration.

As compelling as Penney's evocation of the natural world is her exploration of the territory of passion, a landscape at first less familiar to Flora than the frozen north which has presided over her childhood.

The love affair between Flora and Jacob ignites when their rival expeditions are thrown together. Thereafter, all its twists and turns, celebrations and misunderstandings are as carefully and bravely examined as the ice-bound coastline the explorers have set out to map.

This is a novel about survival – physical survival and the survival of passion. Out of the hostile arctic landscape Penney creates a theatre of endurance and against this backdrop her characters play out an intense and murderous drama of ambition, love and loss.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

A Plot Made Of Blocks

Set in contemporary Bristol and narrated in a first-person voice reminiscent of Nick Hornby, A Boy Made Of Blocks is the story of Alex, twenty-something father of autistic eight-year-old, Sam. As the story opens, Alex's marriage is collapsing due to his complete inability to relate to Sam, or to his wife, Jody.

Alex's problems are long-standing, reaching back to the death of his older brother in a car accident outside his primary school gates. The trauma of that event has left him unable to express himself emotionally or to face up to the enormous problems confronting him both as a husband and as a father.

Alex's salvation, and his way of finally beginning to communicate with his son, is the computer game, Minecraft. By joining Sam in his virtual world of buildings constructed from blocks, Alex finds a way to break through the barriers in is own life as well as in Sam's.

Sincere, emotional and often very amusing, A Boy Made Of Blocks nevertheless has its weaknesses. In particular, it is often repetitive and the plot, with its stock characters, like the friend whose marriage seems to be so perfect but who turns out to be addicted to online gambling, feels a little bit as if it, too, has been constructed from blocks.

Less about an autistic boy and more the story of an emotionally immature man - territory that has already been well-mined - this is an entertaining and sometimes insightful read but by no means a revelation.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Unheard Voices, Unseen Lives

Set initially in London at the beginning of the twentieth century, A Place Called Winter is the story of Harry Cane, a conventional married man, quite unaware of his true nature until a chance encounter with an actor makes him aware that he is homosexual.

When Harry's affair is discovered, he is disgraced. Forced to leave his wife and family, he sets off to make a new life in Canada where he falls prey to an entrepreneur called Troels Munck, a predatory, controlling individual who comes to dominate Harry's life to such an extent that their relationship culminates in dreadful violence.

Harry ends up in an asylum from which he is eventually rescued by a progressive doctor who has set up a pioneering therapeutic community. Here he is befriended by a bisexual Cree Indian, an individual who thinks of himself as having two souls but who is tortured by guilt acquired during a Christian education.

A Place Called Winter is at its best when describing the furtive intimacy between men at a time when homosexuality was considered a monstrous perversion, and also when depicting the stark grandeur of the Canadian prairie. I was less taken with the chapters set in the therapeutic community. Characters were less clearly drawn and the life of the community only sketchily evoked. It felt almost like another novel in embryo.

Nonetheless, this is a vivid and compelling depiction of an individual who finds himself at odds with the world in which he has grown up and an important testimony to the lives of characters whose stories conventional society has often preferred to ignore.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Harry Potter With Flair

thirteen year old boy discovers he has special powers and is recruited into a hidden order of knights who protect the world from chaotic forces. A routine fantasy premise certainly, but there is nothing routine about the panache with which Dave Rudden writes. His prose sparkles with arresting images, his characters leap off the page, and his plot twists and turns like a technicolour eel.

He is, in short, a first class storyteller. You can positively feel his enjoyment in creating and layering the narrative, playing with the reader’s expectations, then pulling the rug from under them, and that enjoyment is infectious. As a result, reading Knights Of The Borrowed Dark is enormous fun. It’s like Harry Potter with flair.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Sleep-Walking In Bangladesh

Just before she is due to set off for a dig in Pakistan, Zubaida, a Bangladeshi woman studying palaeontology in America, falls in love with a young American man she meets by chance at a concert. They spend almost every minute of those last few days together; then Zubaida sets off for Pakistan and gradually her life begins to unravel.

When the dig is closed down by the army she goes home to Bangladesh, to the parents who adopted her when she was a baby. In a vulnerable state she sleep-walks into the marriage her family have always planned for her. Unhappy and confused, she becomes obsessed with trying to trace her birth mother, a quest that sees her ill-fated marriage collapse as she struggles to re-make her identity.

There is some exquisite observational writing here that often forced me to slow down and take note. However, the effect of this is offset by the tone which is declamatory and sometimes feels over-blown, and by the looseness of the structure: there are so many different plot-strands that, at times, it feels like two or three novels bundled together.

Nevertheless, The Bones Of Grace is an intriguing novel, not least because it offers a glimpse into a world and an experience that is hugely under-represented. It’s the kind of novel that Reading Groups would enjoy. There is so much to talk about.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A Dysfunctional Family In The Process Of Kealing.

Carys Bray writes literary fiction about the kind of people that literary fiction often ignores. Her first novel featured a Mormon family falling apart at the seams; The Museum Of You is about twelve year old Clover who lives with her under-achieving father, a man who has been in emotional limbo since his wife, Becky, was killed in a road accident a few weeks after Clover’s birth.

Clover spends a lot of time with the elderly woman next door or down on her father’s allotment. Then a school visit to a museum and a chance encounter with a curator gives her the idea of creating a museum to her dead mother out of artefacts rescued from the vast pile of junk from her parents’ married life that her father has not got round to sorting out.

The trouble is, in the absence of any meaningful conversation with her father about what Becky was really like, Clover gets it all wrong and when she finally presents the resultant installation her father, it is a long way from being the nice surprise she had envisaged.

Perhaps that makes this book sound like a sombre read. Actually it’s more wistful than anything else, sometimes very funny, and ultimately uplifting. But what really makes the book work and what gives it the ring of truth is the relationship between Clover and her father. Carys Bray understands parenthood intimately, its joys and sorrows, its rewards and compromises. That knowledge finds its way into every page of this book and the result is a compelling portrait of a dysfunctional family in the process of healing.