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.

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.