The River Flows

Eva Ibbotson's "The Dragonfly Pool"

Eva Ibbotson’s “The Dragonfly Pool”

When I was young – around the 8 or 9 mark – my absolute favourite book for a long time, and over very many readings, was Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea. I remember this vividly, as I remember clinging to the book’s pages and several of its characters vividly, but the actual detail of the story I have long since forgotten. Or so I thought.

Looking up plot summaries of it recently, I am astonished to find how much of the story strikes chords in the depths of my memory: English orphan Maia is sent away to long-lost and unpleasant relatives in the Amazon region of Brazil, where she meets and adventures with several other children – both Amazonian and European – before they join together to carry out their escape from their discontented lives. I am secretly pleased to recognise even at that age my passion for books about far-flung journeys and other cultures. And perhaps the plot had a subconscious effect on me too, before I reminded myself of the content of the story: I’ve just married my very own Brazilian, after all, having fallen in love with both him and his country!

Anyway, when I was researching books for this challenge last year, and saw that another of Eva Ibbotson’s children’s books, The Dragonfly Pool, met my conditions for the county of Devon, I absolutely couldn’t resist. There are a great many similarities between the plotlines and characters.

Eva Ibbotson's "Journey to the River Sea", one of my childhood favourites and winner of the Smarties Prize in 2001

Eva Ibbotson’s “Journey to the River Sea”, one of my childhood favourites and winner of the Smarties Prize in 2001

The Dragonfly Pool begins in London, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Precocious, young Tally Hamilton lives happily in the city with her loving father, a respected doctor, and her aunts. However, when Mr Hamilton is offered a scholarship, by a grateful patient, for his daughter to attend a fine boarding school in Devon, his concern for her safety in the impending war overrules his desire to keep Tally near him. Although initially resistant to the idea of leaving behind all she knows and loves, Tally is sent off by train to the relaxed, fun-loving, if “strange and slightly mad” (62)
Delderton Hall. And she grows to absolutely adore it, falling in love with its unique natural surroundings, so different to what she had been used to in the city:

“There was no lovelier place in England: a West Country valley with a wide river flowing between rounded hills towards the sea. Sheltered from the north winds, everything grew at Delderton: primroses and violets in the meadows; campions and bluebells in the woods and, later in the year, foxgloves and willowherb. A pair of otters lived in the river, kingfishers skimmed the water and russet Devon cows, the same colour as the soil, grazed the fields and wandered like cows in Paradise. But it was children, not cows or kingfishers, that Delderton mainly grew.” (35)

Although the novel unfortunately does not provide much description of Devon, the county is set up as a safe and romantic backdrop where freedom reigns and children flourish. Against its green countryside, “it was easy to forget […] that Britain and France and so many of the free people of the world were in danger. Here in Devon we were unlikely to be bombed […] but we must be ready to do everything to help the war effort if the worst happened” (54). Domestic staff are being called up, radio broadcasts talk gravely about the political situation, and picture-houses show newsreels featuring Hitler’s fearsome visage and harsh foreign commands.

The Devonshire countryside that Tally falls in love with

One view of the Devonshire countryside that Tally falls in love with

But Ibbotson does not tell a Blyton-esque story of a boarding school’s efforts to withstand the war; she instead catalogues the children’s adventures around the grounds and on an overseas school trip to a folk-dancing competition held in the central-European Kingdom of Bergania (a Kingdom also beset by but so far proudly resisting Hitler’s threats). Soon, this develops into a mission to rescue the orphaned and mortally endangered Prince of Bergania, a modest and lonely boy called Karil. It is all slightly bizarre, but lives up to themes I recognise and appreciate of Ibbotson: themes of foreign journeys, children’s decision-making and agency, and of the hills and valleys of Devon (and Bergania, for that matter) being just as part of the children’s lives as their friendships.

A still of Hitler from a Nazi newsreel, like those seen by Tally in the novel.

A still of Hitler from a Nazi newsreel, like those seen by Tally in the novel.

I enjoyed the book, but I think that even had I read it at age 9, it would not have captured my imagination quite as much as Journey to the River Sea did. In truth, I was disappointed that the plot and setting were not more original – I wonder what percentage of children’s books are based around their antics during boarding school life…80%? 90? – and even with a couple of mentions of the impending war, the folk-dancing set-up in Bergania seems too trivial and far-fetched to give credit to Tally’s determination to attend and to rescue Karil.

I simply did not connect to the characters or to the landscapes that Ibbotson creates here. Part of the problem is that Tally, for one, is entirely confident and level-headed; she is not a sympathetic character, or one in need of her friends’ or a reader’s support in overcoming the obstacles set out in front of her. What is more, the obstacles – whether German officers or cruel, stuffy Englishmen or the challenges of war itself – hardly seem to faze the children in their exploits. Everything seems a bit too easy to overcome. I really think Ibbotson is missing a trick here; unlike in Journey to the River Sea, there are no vulnerabilities in the characters or challenging moments in the plot that young readers can catch hold of, be gripped by or dwell on; there is no chance to will the protagonists onward in their struggle because, before you know it, they’ve succeeded in another aspect of it. Overall, as a child or as an adult, I rate it 2/5 stars.

Author Eva Ibbotson

Author Eva Ibbotson

This novel certainly has not put me off Ibbotson, however. I look forward to reading some of her other work – aimed variously at children, young adults and adults – whilst knowing that it is for Journey to the River Sea that she received most critical acclaim, winning the Smarties Prize in 2001 and being highly commended for the Guardian, Carnegie and Whitbread Awards. I am truly sad to learn that Ibbotson died in 2010, and feel that I should have known this at the time: it is like losing a childhood heroin.

Next time I’ll be reviewing my very last book ever for this literary challenge around England! It’s Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! By Alan M. Kent, a Cornish writer. Stay tuned for that, as well as my subsequent summary of my favourite books and lessons from the whole year of reading.

 

IBBOTSON, Eva. The Dragonfly Pool. Oxford: Macmillan, 2009.

Featured Image: Liechtenstein countryside – some readers believe it to be the inspiration for Ibbotson’s Kingdom of Bergania.

http://blog.011now.com/category/travel/page/4/

Inforestation

Edward Rutherford's "The Forest"

Edward Rutherford’s “The Forest”

I was a little bit daunted by this week’s book when it arrived in the post. At around 900 pages, Edward Rutherford’s The Forest is a bit of a tome. However, after a few pages I was excited to find that it continued many of the historical and natural themes present in last week’s The Lives She Left Behind, by James Long, despite being set across the way in Hampshire.

As you might have guessed given this information, the eponymous forest is the New Forest, on the south coast of England, a mere hop skip and a jump away from the Isle of Wight across the Solent. Rutherford tasks himself with recounting the forest’s vast history – or, rather, the history of humankind’s special interaction with it. The novel spans the forest’s initial protection as royal hunting grounds by William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest of 1066, until the year 2000 when its many more visitors are made up of the tourist-and-television-film-crew variety. He follows strands of the same families over these generations: the forest mutates, evolves and adapts to their usage, just as the families themselves develop varying opinions, loyalties, characteristics, statuses and livelihoods in its shadows.

The first Part of the book, for example, takes place in 1099 by telling the story of the Norman infiltration into southern Britain. Against the backdrop of a royal hunt, young Adela (of Norman origins) not only faces becoming embroiled in an assassination attempt on King Rufus, but also falls in love with courtly, Saxon Edgar, whose family has lived in the New Forest for centuries. In short, Adela and Edgar become the ancestors of several other characters in the later story, as do the mysterious, goblin-like, forest-dwelling Puckle and his wife (who are rumoured to be able to wield dangerous magic) and Godwin Pride, a cheeky peasant farmer who constantly tries to extend the boundaries of his smallholding – inch by careful inch, so as to go unnoticed – in order to defy the Norman forest laws.

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

The Bayeaux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Invasion of England

Jumping to 1204 in the next Part, the reader learns that the ‘new’ Beaulieu monastery has become of prominent importance in the Forest environs. The Pride family still features, this time in the form of Luke Pride. Luke is a trainee monk in the monastery, who accidentally hits another monk and then flees to his sister Mary’s secret protection, believing he has killed the man. Meanwhile, Mary’s other brother, John Pride, gets into a huge disagreement with Mary’s husband, Tom Furzey (watch out for that family name later too) over who has true ownership of a beloved New Forest pony. With all this drama stressing Mary out completely, when another monk Adam shows her sympathy, it ends in them beginning an affair, and therefore procreating another line of characters that feature in various ways in the rest of the novel.

New Forest Pony

New Forest Pony

It would take me a heck of a long time to summarise each of the very detailed Parts of this novel, but suffice it to say that stories of these family lines continue, through thick and thin and highs and lows, through the Spanish Armada of Elizabeth I’s reign, through the chaos of Cromwell’s uprising, through the rise of south-coast smuggling and the Industrial Revolution. The only constant is the forest; it remains “huge, magnificent, mysterious” (2), never far from people’s minds or sight. Essentially, no matter how much the characters move up or down in the world, no matter how popular or unpopular/fashionable or unfashionable Nature is within English society at certain points in history, the characters are always drawn back in the end, instinctively, to their forest allegiance and ancestral origins.

To be honest, I suppose I shouldn’t really ask for more from a novel for this challenge: Rutherford provides not only a developing picture of the politics, geography and society of the “island of Britain” (5) as a whole, but also concerns himself with the particular and peculiar spread of New Forest towns and hamlets – demonstrating how opinions and industries differ from the rest of “the island Kingdom of England” (267) due specifically to the greater proximity to European and English royal courts, as well as the significant part the region played in naval growth (shipbuilding) and farming practices. All very factual and correct.

But not very engaging.

Toing and froing from a cast of varied characters in the manner of a series of short stories is one thing I found particularly unfulfilling. Characters were not very well developed or relatable. I am inclined to believe this is an intentional styling on Rutherford’s part – he tends to pride his historical elements over the fictional – but it is simply not to my taste. The reading experience was less like diving into a brilliantly-planned Middle Earth-esque world, as I sort of hoped, and more like poring over a historical textbook on Common Law with a few made-up scenarios thrown in. Sure, I found the thing vaguely interesting and admirably researched, but I only consider it bearable since I was skimming every pagevery selectively I might add. I think this is probably a love-it-or-hate-it type of thing. Sadly, I’m probably of the latter inclination. 2/5 stars for me, even when I consider the amazing amount of effort that has surely gone into it.

The beautiful New Forest

The beautiful New Forest

Next week I’m sort of glad to be reading the much more light-hearted Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. More your thing? Then read along, I tell you!

 

RUTHERFORD, Edward. The Forest. London: Arrow Books, 2001.

Featured Image: The Spanish Armada and English ships in August 1588, by unknown painter (English School, 16th century)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Armada

 

The Show Must Go On

Martine McDonagh's "After Phoenix"

Martine McDonagh’s “After Phoenix”

Martine McDonagh’s After Phoenix, set in Bristol, was a weird one. It’s rated quite highly on Goodreads but, overall, I wasn’t phenomenally won over by it.

In the first chapter we meet Phoenix, a normal teenage boy, son of normal middle-class parents Katherine and JJ and brother of normal anxiety-riddled teenager Penny. He is home for the Christmas holidays from Oxford University and the family is hosting a New Year’s party for friends and family. Phoenix wanders from room to room narrating his scorn for his family as well as his desire to lose his virginity with any girl he can lay his hands on. Like I say, normal.

Twenty pages later, Phoenix is dead – squashed flat in an accident on his new motorbike. And that’s that.

For the remainder of the novella, Penny, JJ and Katherine must come to terms with their loss and rebuild their lives which now, just like the narrative, lack a centre. JJ retires to the garden shed almost full time; Katherine, who blames JJ for their son’s death, has a mental breakdown and checks herself into an institution; Penny battles with her exasperation at her parents’ dysfunctionality while concentrating on growing up, falling in and out of friendships and searching for new experiences wherever she can, even going on holiday without her parents noticing.

Author Martine McDonagh

Author Martine McDonagh

With Katherine in the institution, JJ in the garden shed and penny taking responsibility for the upkeep and tidiness of the house, this is a novel that concerns itself with nesting. Each of them must separately redefine the space around them now that it feels so much emptier, gradually learning to “conform to the behaviour of the majority” (119) and get back to the ‘normal’ they once exemplified.

Their behaviour is interesting to witness and the novel seems to comment on the British respect for normality, conformity and mundanity. The expectation seems to be that Britons must strive for reason and moderation in all things, even reactions to the sudden death of a loved one.

So, interesting? Yes.

Original? Relatively.

Engaging? To a mild extent.

But does it inspire passion within me to rave and rant about it? No.

McDonagh writes simply and bluntly about very real-seeming family grief. There’s nothing substantially wrong with it, it’s just not my cup of tea. 2/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching. It’s turning a little bit ghostly…

MCDONAGH, Martine. After Phoenix. Brighton: Ten to Ten Publishing, 2013.

Featured Image: The real Barrow Hospital in Bristol, where Katherine instituted herself. Now, dilapidated.

http://www.scipiophotography.com/2013/03/hdr-files-from-barrow-hospital-bristol.html

Hard-Baked and Cold-Yoked

Jasper Fforde's "The Big Over Easy"

Jasper Fforde’s “The Big Over Easy”

The subject of this, my book review for Berkshire, is Jasper Fforde‘s bizarre novel The Big Over Easy, set in Reading. It is the first in Fforde’s series of ‘Nursery Crime’ novels, featuring Reading Constabulary’s NCD (Nursery Crime Division), headed by DI Jack Spratt. Jack is responsible for solving all crimes relating to nursery rhyme characters: he was the arresting officer for “the violently dangerous psychopath, the Gingerbreadman” (12); he took the three little pigs to court over the messy murder of Mr Wolf and, now he investigates the mysterious death of Humpty Dumpty, who seems to have had a great fall from off his favourite wall…or was he pushed?

Like I said, bizarre. It is both straight-faced detective fiction, filled with all the expected twists, turns and rivalries, and comedic romp down “Grimm’s Road” (59), meeting a whole host of well-known childhood characters. You could read and re-read this novel countless times and continue to find more nursery rhyme references, some blatant and some brilliantly subtle.

Fforde’s novel is a marvellous work of imagination and extremely original but, it seems to me, a bit of a gimmick. I definitely developed allusion-fatigue by the time I was 25% of the way through, and the plot was unfortunately not strong enough to resurrect my interest at the end. I am not inspired to read the rest in the series: aren’t they all the same?! It’s another 2/5 starrer, I’m afraid.

Humpty Dumpty illustration by John Baroque

Humpty Dumpty illustration by John Baroque

Sadly (in respect of this challenge I mean) there is not much of a portrait of Berkshire in the novel either, aside from the fact that the indistinct city of Reading becomes the centre of this strange nursery rhyme world and of modern policing, which is more interested in making headlines and generating positive public opinion than the search for truth and justice.

It is interesting to think, however, that this could be considered a particularly British novel. Or, at least, an English-speaking-world novel. After all, there can’t be many other places that understand the references to Jack the giant-killer / magic-bean finder / beanstalk-climber, can there?

Next week I’ll be reading the slightly more mainstream (in a good way I hope) The Legacy, by Katherine Webb. It’s for Wiltshire, so join me then!

 

FFORDE, Jasper. The Big Over Easy. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2005.

Featured Image: Illustration of “Hey Diddle Diddle”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nursery_rhyme

Rootless

Alex Wheatle's "East of Acre Lane"

Alex Wheatle’s “East of Acre Lane”

I chose to read Alex Wheatle’s novel, East of Acre Lane, for the region of Greater London in this literary challenge. It is set in the “concrete jungle” (227) of ghetto Brixton in 1981, where the so-called African-Caribbean community is confined to council estates; where “dangers […] come from any lane, shadow or building” and “vandalism touches everything” (7-8). This is an underworld of violence, gangs, drugs and crime, of “boarded-up housing, the rubbish on the streets, the graffiti that covered the railways brides” (8), and of “filthy syringes that were breeding in dark corners” (13). The black youth within these pages are filled with fear and fury in equal measure, directed against the drug barons that live on their very doorsteps, as well as the white, racist police force that patrol the streets abusing, threatening and blackmailing as they go. From the very outset of the novel, the reader is aware that “somet’ing gonna snap, man” (23).

As you might have guessed, Wheatle’s novel tells of the run-up to the violent Brixton Riot of April 1981, when civilian protests against the racist brutality of the corrupt Metropolitan Police turned into “Bloody Saturday”. Approximately 299 officers and 65 members of the public were injured as bricks and Molotov cocktails were thrown, fires were started and shops were looted.

Brixton Riots 1981

Brixton Riots 1981

Wheatle presents the clash as not only having been fuelled by “talk of ism, schism an’ racism” but also by the apparently even greater issue in England: “de classism in dis country” (220). Frustrations of the young people, who suffer from poor housing, education and high rates of unemployment and crime, are portrayed through the protagonist, Biscuit, and his circle of friends, including Coffin Head, Sceptic, Carol, Floyd and Brenton. These young men are forced to involve themselves in crime in order to provide for their families; they are forced to feel like unwanted foreigners in their own country due to the prejudice and stereotyping of “middle England” (117); they have no pride in their African-Caribbean roots since, in their eyes, it only serves to alienate them from English society. They are, in more ways than one, the rootless generation.

Brixton Riots 1981

Brixton Riots 1981

It was the riot-oriented plot that initially drew me to reading this novel. I have read a fair few novels about real-life riots, protests and their complex political origins; it’s something I find, when done an apt, engaging way, can be particularly powerful. There’s a lot of opportunity for controversy, memorable characterisation, and dramatic state-of-England commentary. When done in the wrong way, of course, that type of thing can be a bit boring. In summary, David Peace’s GB84 gets the mixture very very right. East of Acre Lane, I think, falls a little short.

In essence, the novel was not as dramatic or tense as I wanted it to be, or think it could have been. The build-up to the clash was drawn out, but in a come-on-get-on-with-it rather than suspenseful way. I wanted to share in the characters’ profound sense of injustice and feel the tension rising with every page. However, although I engaged with the protagonist to a certain extent, the plot’s outlook gradually narrowed to predominantly Biscuit’s relationship with his family (a family which rather lacked in characterisation/originality), meaning domestic drama rather took away from political intrigue. What’s more, I think Wheatle had a great opportunity to tie in his characters’ frustrations with the general atmosphere of protest in Britain in the late 70s and 80s – not on every page, perhaps, but a couple of mentions of protests in other parts of the country would have gone down well. It would have been ironic too – black people ostracised by white Britain on racist and classist terms, and yet considering themselves part of working class discontent across the country. But despite a couple of references to the ironically-named council estate areas of “Shakespeare Road” (68) and “Albion Road”, otherwise known as “black-people-don’t-belong street” (147), the outlook of the novel was distinctly limited to “SW9” (19). Yes, that could have been the point. But these things are a matter of taste.

Brixton Riots 1981

Brixton Riots 1981

Due to the limited characterisation, too many ‘he said/she saids’ in dialogue and overall lack of suspense in what should have been a genuinely gripping story, I give this novel a 2/5 star rating.

Next week I’ll be reading the bizarre The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde, for Berkshire. Join me then!

 

WHEATLE, Alex. East of Acre Lane. London: Harper Perennial, 2006.

Featured Image: A Brixton council estate

http://www.brixtonblog.com/community-police-meeting-tonight-in-brixton/3995

In the Bleak Mid-Spring

Peter Millar's "Bleak Midwinter"

Peter Millar’s “Bleak Midwinter”

I’ve suddenly fallen drastically behind in my reviews (life, eh?), but over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Peter Millar’s Bleak Midwinter, set in Oxford and telling the story of a resurgence of the bubonic plague.

In 14th century England, this plague (known as the Black Death, the Great Mortality and many other names) killed millions of people – approximately 40% of the entire population. It left towns and villages empty and completely changed the social and economic structure of the country, since with the population so low, the number of labourers reduced, their wages increased and their demands for better working conditions were more powerful. Landowners suffered while peasants benefitted; industries (including farming and cloth) changed; trust in the Church reached an all-time low. It was one of many challenges to the underlying feudal structure of England and Scotland to occur between 14th and 17th centuries.

In Peter Millar’s world, now, in the 21st century, the disease is back with a vengeance. Caught up in the mysteries of how, why, who is responsible for a major cover-up operation and what to do about it, is Daniel (who has moved to Oxford from the U.S. to undertake research for his thesis on medieval English history), and plucky local journalist, Theresa Moon.

I have to say, it was possibly not the most seasonal or joyful title to be polishing off over this sunny bank holiday weekend. Filled with descriptions of gothic architecture, gory deaths and violent blizzards, it didn’t quite gel with my glorious, chocolate-egg-filled days (yes, I’m so far behind in life that I’m even catching up on Easter).

Magdalen College, Oxford University

Magdalen College, Oxford University

Objectively speaking, however, I rate the novel a mediocre 2/5 stars at any time of year. The plot – farfetched and melodramatic in places – was only alright. The writer’s style was okay; he could never be accused of being avant garde. His use of metaphor also became repetitive too – he seemed particularly obsessed with the phrase (already hideously overused in the media) the ‘rape of the countryside’ which, while I appreciate the problems behind it, I find people tend to use lazily and because it sounds intelligent. Suffice it to say, it sounded less intelligent the 103rd time Millar used it in this novel. (Ok, slight exaggeration.)

Its meaning might be blatant already but the ‘rape of the countryside’ is often used to describe the destruction of the natural landscape – pretty, untainted, green and rural – by brutish manmade forces. Think of laws on mandatory badger-culling that ruin habitats, EU farming quotas which mess with the land’s innate fertility, the impacts of high-speed rail and the spread of windfarms, all of which this phrase has been used to criticise. In fact, the phrase could not be less original, since every single Biblical or civil war that ever existed involves some such description of town versus country. I don’t disagree with the meaning behind it, but the phrase itself has become totally boring.

Windfarms: one version of the 'rape of the countryside' in the UK

Windfarms: one version of the ‘rape of the countryside’ in the UK

Aside from my dislike of his wording, Peter Millar uses “the rape of the countryside” (36), to refer to the outward spread of towns and cities over time, which has led to the decline of untouched, rural areas – these are “swallowed up” (93), “digested and redeveloped as little more than traffic congestion points” (93) at an unstoppable rate. As suburbia gains the upper hand, so-called country villages in Oxfordshire become filled with “little streets of identical homes as if bought in a packet” (99-100) – “those things aren’t homes – they’re packaging” (120) Therry Moon snorts on one occasion. And, the novel warns, it seems that this pattern will never end “until the whole south of England [is] one endless suburb” (36). Indeed, the ease with which this novel transitions between London and Oxford already gives rise to the idea of one massive urban conglomeration.

Daniel and Therry make up the usual contrasting duo – one is in favour of the historic countryside (Daniel loves that Oxford allows him to “touch [the past], almost see it and hear it” (8) and cannot fathom how anyone could “ever think London was attractive” (30)) and the other, Therry, is addicted to her “big-city heritage” (36).

Past and present, country and town – this is a novel of that sort, and you probably know it well enough already.

My next post (which will appear shortly since I have a bit of a backlog!) will cover David Lodge’s Thinks…, set in Gloucestershire. It’s blooming good!

 

MILLAR, Peter. Bleak Midwinter. London: Bloomsbury, 2002.

Featured Image: pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Triumph Of Death’ (c. 1562)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death

Little House on the Farley

“Mum looked hard at the four walls of the room and the walls stared right back at her. She looked away and by the time she looked round again the walls had crept forwards, closing in on her. The walls mocked her. The house mocked her, as did the council estate. Less than a hundred yards away the constant drone of cars speeding on the M1 motorway sounded like jeering. Their occupants were on their way. She did not know where they were heading but they were most certainly not stuck in Luton” (139)

Colin Grant's "Bageye At The Wheel"

Colin Grant’s “Bageye At The Wheel”

Colin Grant’s autobiographical novel Bageye At The Wheel is set in the bleak estate of Farley Hill in Luton, Bedfordshire. It tells the story of a black Jamaican family – or, rather, a feckless Jamaican husband (nicknamed Bageye) and exasperated Jamaican wife (called Blossom) and their England-born children – as they try to stay afloat in the racist world of 1970s suburbia. Think of Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners 20 years down the line, with kids in tow, featuring Jamaicans instead of Trinidadians and, it has to be said, not quite as many stylistic quirks. Ok…perhaps don’t think of Lonely Londoners at all…

The narrative unfolds through the eyes of one of Bageye’s sons, who looks on as Bageye gambles away the family’s savings and makes the family’s life a living hell with his dark moods and rules of behaviour designed to stifle everything Jamaican in favour of the pursuit of Englishness.

Bageye does everything to eradicate the family’s Jamaican roots: he “never like to draw attention to our colour” (47); he “reserved particular dislike” (66) for other Jamaican families; he “never uttered the name of any relatives” or, if he did they “came out as a kind of slur, as if the names stuck in his craw” (141) and he discourages any reference from Blossom to their previous life in Jamaica. His pride is almost insufferable for the rest of the family, especially when he grows furious with his children for reflecting Jamaican stereotypes in the sports they enjoy or the way they dress: “’Not one t’ing the Englishman expect of the black boy you gwan give him. You understan’? Not a t’ing’” (213).

Colin Grant

Colin Grant

However, Bageye’s pride and vengeance against English racism also requires his family to reject certain English ways of life: “Bwoy, you think the man gwan tell you? How you think the Englishman get where him is, get all that empire and t’ing? By let you in on the secret? No man, he must keep you where you is, ignorant, a-feed off the scrap from him table. You t’ink him gwan tell you anything but shit?…Englishman have you just where him want you” (93). Thanks to Bageye’s reign of domestic terror, the family is therefore unable to determine an identity for itself that is Jamaican or English. They are forced to live in uncertainty as to where they belong and in fear of Bageye’s next big gambling loss. Their life is one big, miserable unknown: “Bageye left behind a vacuum. It was filled with silence” (261).

The children long for peace away from the arguments and pressure to behave. They hide away in the bathroom for hours on end, they sit spellbound at in front of The Waltons, a typically English working class television family living “idyllic lives”, with “no luxuries but, equally, never suffered real privation” (62). They look longingly at the edge of town like “the edge of the world” for they have never “ventured further” (105).

Farley Hill council estate, Luton

Farley Hill council estate, Luton

It’s a bleak tale that started life as a short story. I think it probably should have stayed that way. Its characters (aside from Bageye) are underdeveloped, the narrative style is bland and unengaging – anecdotal rather than revolutionary – and the plot doesn’t really go anywhere. I wasn’t a fan of the ending; it felt ill-fitting, perfunctory. It’s a 2-starrer, out of 5.

Next week I’ll be reading Bleak Midwinter by Peter Millar for Oxfordshire. Read along with me!

GRANT, Colin. Bageye at the Wheel. London: Vintage, 2013.

Featured Image: Colin Grant’s father, Clinton George Grant.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/biographyandmemoirreviews/9349451/Bageye-at-the-Wheel-by-Colin-Grant-review.html

Line in the Sand

Julie Myerson's "Something Might Happen"

Julie Myerson’s “Something Might Happen”

Something Might Happen, by Julie Myerson, turns a typical “rustic idyll” (126) in seaside Suffolk into the setting of a chilling murder, a mystery without a resolution. Myerson’s story is not crime fiction; it is not interested in neat-and-tidy answers; we never discover who is responsible, or why smiling, relaxed Lennie was the victim. Rather, the novel focusses on her friends and family as they come to terms with their grief and loss. Lennie’s father, Ben; Lennie’s husband Alex; the couple’s best friends, Tess and Mick; the children of both couples; the family liaison officer, Ted Lacey: all are intertwined in this novel of life, death, family and solitude.

The small beach town is known as “a safe place” (9), “one of the happiest and most picturesque […] in all England” (47) according to the guidebooks. It has its own “salt-stained” (4) and sea-bleached identity that comes from being isolated at “a dead end”, with “creek, sea and river on three sides, the road going up to the A12 on the other” (46). Peaceful and lonely in equal measure, it certainly doesn’t have any of the “buildings, people, mess, dirt” (181) that London offers.

Tess knows the town’s spirit inside out and, before Lennie’s death, “used to like it” (3). She adored “that moment when you can’t see what’s what any more and sea and sky are one” (174); she enjoyed feeling “smaller, safer, a speck on the ground” (147), in awe of the beauty of nature around her. Most of all, she cherished the smell of young innocence her children possessed in the town’s environs, protected as they were from “the different contaminated smell of the outside world” (225.) But the dream of tranquillity and security of coastal living are shattered all too soon, and she is awakened instead to the “rough, sea cold that goes right through your clothes and hits your bones” (8), the creepy tales of deaths in the “marshes” (80); the eerie “energy” of the countryside “that sucked you in, that snared you” (327). As events take several turns for the worse, Tess and her family have little hope of finding peace on the town’s shores.

Beach huts in Southwold, Suffolk

Beach huts in Southwold, Suffolk

I have to say, I whizzed through this book. It’s short, it’s an easy read and, honestly, it didn’t require or incite much emotional commitment from its reader. That is not to say the novel is badly written – indeed, there are a few stylistic quirks that I appreciated, such as the lack of quotation marks around speech, which means the narrative blurs into the dialogue. This intrigues the reader into questioning what is being said vs. what is being thought, what is being shared vs. what remains a secret. I thought it was effective, too, the way in which Myerson refused to solve the murder mystery, in order to focus on the living.

I know some people adore books of this undemanding measure; it’s just that I do not find them hugely fulfilling. Plus, and it sounds ridiculous to say it, but the characters of the children really irritated me: they were too prominent, too in-the-way and Tess was far too sentimental about them – even on their naughtiest days – to earn credence or respect from me. To sit through 300-odd pages about how young, sweet and innocent children are was a little sickening, especially for someone who, personally speaking, probably won’t ever be convinced on that score anyway…

Much to my disappointment and shame, this hasn’t been a particularly objective or academic review – but then again, I forget that I’m not an academic any more, am I? Now I’m just a reader entitled to read books that engage and enthuse me. Unfortunately, this has not been one of the best: 2/5 stars.

Next week I’ve got David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green in my sights for Worcestershire. I’ve been dying to read this one for ages so stay tuned for what I hope will be a great review!

MYERSON, Julie. Something Might Happen. London: Vintage, 2004.

Featured Image: Groynes, a common sea defence on the Suffolk Coast.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/37348193@N08/8413542723/

Broadly Speaking

Simon Beckett's "The Chemistry of Death"

Simon Beckett’s “The Chemistry of Death”

Here we are with book #19 in the challenge, and I can hardly believe it’s the first bit of crime fiction I’ve succumbed to.

I have a soft spot for crime fiction, not because I enjoy reading it (although I mostly do) but because I think the roots of the genre and its typical literary features are fascinating to study. In fact, I did study them, in my final year at Warwick University. From Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, to Ngaio Marsh and, well, now Simon Beckett, I crave it all. Thank goodness, then, I found Beckett’s The Chemistry of Death, set in Norfolk.

There have been tales of trickery and misdeeds in every culture throughout history, but most scholars would argue that it was in 19th century Britain that Crime Fiction started to develop as a recognisable genre with common structure and characteristics. We can still identify these features today: there is usually a single, main detective-figure with, perhaps, a sidekick; a victim of a theft, murder or other crime; a villain with a singular motive; and a mystery wending its way between all three that keeps the reader in the dark until the very end.

Crime fiction is born out of the height of the Empire, for what better way to both propagandise and celebrate British supremacy than to have us fighting crime? Think about it.

Victim of crime is helpless + ignorant……………upstanding British gallant restores order by solving mystery, is recognised as hero.

Compare that to the supposedly benevolent attitude of the imperial mission:

Backward heathens live in ignorance……………upstanding British gallants bring order and civilisation through colonisation, are celebrated as heroes.

In both cases, order replaces lawlessness, knowledge wins out over ignorance, and the hero of the day is representative of mythical British standards of etiquette, intelligence and civilisation. Crime fiction and imperial attitudes go hand-in-hand.

As time went on and imperialism became more and more problematic and difficult to justify – a self-interested and hypocritical mission of greed rather than of any benefit to ‘natives’ – the stereotypical detective/coloniser figure evolved from restorer of order, to someone who completely upturns social order.

Benedict Cumberbatch as the BBC's Sherlock Holmes

Benedict Cumberbatch as the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes

Think about Sherlock Holmes, for example. He is the font of all knowledge, a well-off, well-respected, seriously analytical member of the British middle-classes who solves crimes better than anyone else and puts all things to rights. Admirable. And yet crucial parts of his detective process involve abusing drugs, slobbing about his house and irritating his landlady, undermining the British police – supposed to be figures themselves of justice and order – through pointing out their idiocy and disguising himself in undignified rags and fraternising with the working classes. Nor is he motivated by a sense of right and wrong; he disregards morality entirely and is only driven by the selfish need to immerse himself in an intellectual puzzle. So, not so much hero as anti-hero. Not so much restorer of order as antagonist.

More recently, of course, the popularity of Crime Fiction has spread across the world and evolved in hundreds of different strands. Nevertheless, similar trends often apply, and I’m always excited by representations of complicated detective characters that don’t fit in to what society might expect. Like Stieg Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist, rejected by his journalistic peers and with irregular romantic life, and Lisbeth Salander, seemingly as asocial and non-conformist as it is possible to be. Or Carrie Mathison of the American Homeland series, who suffers from a bipolar disorder which repeatedly gets in the way of her investigations. Examples of ironically unpopular and havoc-causing mystery-solvers abound.

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson's trilogy

Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy

As for this novel, our detective-figure is Doctor David Harper, who has moved to rural Norfolk from a well-established practice in London to escape his troubled past. Therein lies the reason society rejects him; like Agatha Christie’s Belgian protagonist, Poirot, David Harper is ‘different’ from those around him because of his origins. He is marked out from the community and often disrespected because of his status as ‘foreigner’. He never considers himself part of the village of Manham and realises how much he truly hates the place when the murders start. His lack of affiliation to his neighbours upturns order in direct contrast to his wish to reestablish it through bringing justice to the culprit. Simply put, I just enjoy that irony.

The novel plays hugely on the country versus city dynamic to repeatedly remind reads how out-of-place Harper really is in rural Norfolk. The protagonist makes regular observations that remind him of his location, such as the “coiling of vowels” that make up the regional accent “that sounded alien to [his] city ears” (16). In fact, Beckett rarely goes ten pages without in some way acknowledging that “this certainly isn’t London” (20).

The way Beckett describes the eerie Norfolk landscape makes it seem like a perfect place for a series of murders to take place. Manham is made up of “flat marshland” (13) and “reed pond” (10) with “patches of bare woodland” (13) in “a rainswept landscape that seemed as empty of human life as it was of contour”. The village itself is “older and less hospitable” (38) than anywhere around, as though part of “a different world” (237).

Ultimately, of course, Manham is dark, twisted and the site of evil while London is a land of the “electric juicer, stainless-steel espresso maker and large well-stocked wine rack” (31). Then again, London is despised by the community for its arrogance and self-obsession that means rural crimes don’t make the national papers. Dr Harper himself has a problematic relationship with the city, for it is the source of his painful memories. There is no ‘home’ for him – everyone and everywhere he knows is good and evil at the same time. Not a bad set-up for a whodunit.

The marshy Norfolk Broads

The flat, marshy Norfolk Broads

The thing is, there are so many crime novels out there, that for something to stand out for me, it really has to be either phenomenally written (and therefore un-put-down-able) or brilliantly original. This, sadly, is neither. The wounded David Harper lacks any other personality trait, making him dull. I didn’t like the first-person narrative which so often caused the mystery’s tension to get lost in slow, flat monologue. Usually pace comes in the unravelling of the clues through characters’ dialogue, which is why the detective/sidekick relationship is so successful in this genre – here, Beckett only fleetingly provides anyone for Harper to bounce ideas around with. It wasn’t a bad mystery and was interesting enough, but for me this is a 2/5 starrer, and no more. I don’t doubt that, if I continued with the David Harper series, Beckett’s technique would pick up. But, with so much awesome crime fiction out there, why would I bother?

Next week I’ll be reading Peter Hamilton’s Misspent Youth. Join me then!

BECKETT, Simon. The Chemistry of Death. London: Bantam Books, 2007.

Featured Image: “Detective Fiction Weekly” 4/2/1933.

http://pulp.annasgarlato.net/?page_id=22

‘Stuff the Country Code’

"Only One Way" - Jannicke Howard

“Only One Way”, Jannicke Howard

When, earlier this year, I first started looking for England-based novels published post-2000, you would not believe how much Zombie Apocalypse fiction found its way onto my radar screen. I could probably have set up a one-zombie-book-from-every-county challenge and I would have had just as many suggestions as I do now. Despite the temptation, I did not go down that road and, for the sake of diversity, have tried to limit the zombie horror on my List as much as possible. However, I could not resist taking a look at Jannicke Howard’s Only One Way for this place-themed challenge, torn as the plot seemed to be between North Yorkshire’s main city and its countryside.

Another factor that drew me to Howard’s zombies, rather than anyone else’s, is that her novel is self-published and distinctly sans-hype; ‘Indie’, I might say, if I was hip enough to know what that word means. I have read some big names (David Almond) and expensive publications (Alice in Sunderland) this month; it’s time to get back to the little guy.

The first thing I will say is that self-publications are risky reads and I’m not sure this one paid off for me. The lack of editing was blatantly obvious from the frequent spelling mistakes and sloppy sentence structures that, in many cases, inhibited understanding. I am also, to my detriment, a punctuation geek, and was not completely comfortable with the condition of the commas. Petty, perhaps, but I’m afraid it was enough to mar my reading pleasure.

What is more, the plot and themes contained within did not satisfy my expectations – expectations instilled in me by my dear friends and English Literature colleagues at university, Molly and Rachel, who studied zombie fiction as part of their degrees and have brilliant theories as to why

a)      it has become so popular, particularly post-9/11, and

b)      it is so apt a genre with which to represent society’s issues.

11th September 2001, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, NYC

11th September 2001, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, NYC

In fact, my dedicated experts have enlightened me to the fact that with the rise of global terrorism in the last two decades, the new, widespread popularity of zombie horror represents the fear and confusion that plague contemporary society. In layman’s terms, zombies – much like terrorists – are deadly enemies who look like us, who often share our experiences and who (especially in the case of ‘homegrown terrorists’) come from within our own communities. Despite being dismissed as trashy, or perhaps more diplomatically, ‘niche’ fiction, zombie novels can therefore be intelligent representations of the concerns of the modern world.

In addition, we all know that a zombie is a revolting creature whose gluttonous appetite for human flesh is never satisfied; they eat and eat and eat. Compare this to the culture of capitalism and consume-consume-consumerism that has grown exponentially in the techno-obsessed world and you have another reason why zombie fiction is so valuable. We may have massive national and personal debts, enough to hollow out the ground we stand on, but we still buy, buy, buy, in a vain attempt to satisfy our own monstrous greed and materialistic lust. In fact, we spend so much money that we don’t have, delaying the paying back of debts for so long, that people live eternally in a kind of negative image. And to represent this, you can’t get much more negative than a zombie, a member of the walking-dead.

In summary, Molly says, zombie horror is ‘a physical manifestation of societal problems’. Get it?

Well, if not, it doesn’t really matter, as Only One Way has very little of ‘it’. Howard does not engage with issues of the modern world more than to point out perfunctorily, in the first few pages, that the last decade has seen “terrorist attacks, petrol shortages, looming threats of flu pandemics, snow blizzards and all the other minor disasters in between” (8). The sole reminder of capitalism is that it is “hard to believe that the architects had managed to cram six individual flats into the building” (15), after which the subject is summarily and disappointingly forgotten. The same goes for the brief political observation that Britain is a “nanny-state” (7), looking for any “excuse to play big brother” (16). Even if I don’t judge it by Molly and Rachel’s standards, and look at it instead as a stand-alone read, there is very little characterisation or imagery to transcend the page or enthuse readers. I realised this lack when I became inordinately excited over the one small simile that compares Richard’s “Yorkshire dialect” to “honey over gravel” (18).

Nor do I believe that Howard designed the book to be intentionally bland in order to represent the meaningless transience of life, or anything of the like. No. Basically, the book is set on the outskirts of York. Three main characters (Ed, Richard and Naomi) watch out of their windows as the “virulent, incurable” (104) HEMO10 virus, which is spreading throughout the country and the world, takes hold of their friends and neighbours and delivers a world of “psychopathic violence and cannibalism” (83) . There are a few half-hearted attempts to classify humans as “animals” (13), part of “a dying out breed” (129), but then: The End.

At a push, I could observe that the disease seems slowly to radiate from the heavily infected city of York to the clean surrounding countryside, in much the same sad way that “outlying farming villages were sucked into the overall body of the city” as “rapid building spread out” (57). Moreover, the “city-living” (18) Ed is potentially responsible for the downfall of Richard, who lives in a small village “in the middle of nowhere” (29) and is part of “the great wilderness” (18). This might suggest that Howard is concerned that modern urban/capitalist contaminants (new buildings, motorways, material temptations) are destroying the natural countryside, as well as people’s appreciation of it. Despite this, I’m still not impassioned by the novel.

In essence, I was disappointed with this book. It was not completely terrible, because Howard did make a few attempts to engage with a problematic contemporary society through juxtaposition of city and countryside and a few comments on capitalism. However, even as a novice zombie reader without Molly and Rachel’s extensive critical knowledge, this book is underwhelming. I don’t necessarily need a book to be literarily ‘clever’ in order to enjoy it – that would be ridiculous – but I would at least like to experience descriptive setting and characterisations to hold my attention. Unfortunately, with Only One Way, I don’t, and I therefore give it 2/5 stars.

What did you think of Only One Way? Next week I’ll be reading Julie Reilly’s Money Can’t Buy Me Love, so grab a copy and have a peek before then!

HOWARD, Jannicke. Only One Way. Louise Clark, 2010.

Featured Image: Shaun of the Dead

http://www.wallpaperpin.com/album-shaun/shaun-of-the-dead-wallpaper/