Adrift

“You never really pay attention to my culture. You English once took over Hong Kong, so you probably heard of that we Chinese have 5000 years of the greatest human civilisation ever existed in the world…Our Chinese invented paper so your Shakespeare can write two thousand years later. Our Chinese invented gunpowder for you English and Americans to bomb Iraq. And our Chinese invented compass for you English to sail and colonise the Asian and Africa” (289)

“In the West, in this country, I am barbarian, illiterate peasant girl, a face of third world, and irresponsible foreigner. An alien from another planet” (154)

Prejudice enrages me. Freedom of movement fills me with hope.

 ***

I love the feeling when you read a book and think, however delusionally, ‘Wow, this was written just for me’. That is how I felt when I turned the last page of Xiaolu Guo’s novel, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, set in Hackney, in the City of London.

Xiaolu Guo’s "A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers"

Xiaolu Guo’s “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers”

Zhuang Xiao Qiao – or ‘Z’, as the English are encouraged to call her since “my name too long to pronounce” (48) for them – is a twenty-three year old Chinese woman who travels to London for one year from her simple, rural home in China, in order to learn English. She struggles. England is “cold”, the people unfriendly (“nobody smile to me” (43)) and their system of etiquette in social situations a complete minefield. Trudging between her befuddling English classes, her bleak hostel and the late-night cinema showings (just to have something to do) Z is lonely and racked with confusion. It seems as though the Chinese and English cultures are just too different – seemingly incompatible. Even her beloved Chinese-English dictionary has difficulty defining the meaning she desperately needs; among other words, “romance not to be found in my Concise Chinese-English Dictionary” (91).

Guo makes this incompatibility between cultures all the more obvious and effective by setting out the novel in the style of the protagonist’s notebooks, in which she records new vocabulary and pens her diary entries, side by side. Through this original and compelling format, the reader is exposed to Z’s innermost thoughts and frustrations as well as her battle with the English language and with finding a place for herself in her new environment: initially, she feels like “a little alone teacup” or “like cat without master” (90).

Victorian Terrace in Hackney

Victorian Terrace in Hackney

On her journey, Z meets and starts living with an older Englishman and soon realises that the fight for understanding is not limited to nations, but occurs between individuals too. “You a free man of free world. I am not free, like you” (113); “You possess my whole body. […] My whole body is your colony” (132). What is more, the waters of love – or dependency – are treacherous: there is so much Z does not understand above love, sexuality, men and women; there is so much she is ready to give if she can…but when language between individuals fails, is physical proximity enough?

“After all these fightings, all these miseries, you don’t talk as the way you did before. You just listen; listen to my words; then stop listening and think of your own world. But I can’t stop talking. I talk and talk, more and more. I steal your words. I steal all your beautiful words. I speak your language. You have given up your words, just like you gave up listening.” (293)

The language Guo uses is simple (both because Z doesn’t know much of it and, later, because Z’s style is always innocently direct) but the emotions are complex – and, for me, painful. It is not so much the plot that makes me feel that this book is so personally relatable (although in many ways it is), but rather the fear of loneliness contained within every page and every exchange between characters. A person’s loneliness is something to which my heart almost always responds, wrenchingly.

Xiaolu Guo. In 2013 she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of this decade.

Xiaolu Guo. In 2013 she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of this decade.

At the end of the novel, Z sums up England as “the country where I became an adult, where I grew into a woman, the country where I also got injured, the country where I had my most confused days and my greatest passion and my brief happiness and my quiet sadness” (353). It is not only London that Z gets to know, but it is to London that she responds. Unlike the novel’s representations of the English themselves, who see “London is a place sucks”, “the place making everybody aggressive” (167), where “you can’t find love and keep it” (168), Z “loves these old oily cafes around Hackney. Because you can see the smokes and steams coming out from the coffee machine or kitchen all day long. That means life is being blessed” (118).

This is not a happy novel, but it is a phenomenally beautiful one. I love it. 4/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle, set in Greater London. Come and have a look-see then.

GUO, Xiaolu. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. London: Vintage, 2008.

Featured Image: Inset page in the front Xiaolu Guo’s novel.

http://allbookedup2014.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/book-5-review-concise-chinese-english.html

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Heads Together

David Lodge's "Thinks..."

David Lodge’s “Thinks…”

David Lodge’s name jumped out at me from my list of Gloucestershire suggestions as several of his books of literary criticism helped get me through my English Literature degree at the University of Warwick, and I had absolutely no idea that he wrote fiction. Thinks”, part novel and part psychological thesis (in an absolutely non-boring way), is yet more evidence of the intellectuality and alertness of his mind, and he has absolutely no hesitation in immersing himself – artistically speaking – in aspects of technology, sexuality and criminality of the modern world. Not bad for a 79-year-old.

The plot begins with Ralph Messenger, a Cognitive Science professor at the fictional University of Gloucester, who shamelessly records himself with a Dictaphone as he voices every unadulterated thought (and some are definitely perverse) that comes into his mind in the hope of producing a true human ‘stream of consciousness’. Why? “To try and describe the structure of, or rather to produce a specimen, that is to say raw data, on the basis of which one might begin to try to describe the structure of, or from which one might inter the structure of … thought” (1).

He wants to define how thought processes work: something that has always eluded scientific minds. “Imagine,” he explains to everyone who asks, “if everyone had those bubbles over their heads that you get in kid’s comics, with ‘Thinks…’ inside them” (42).

David Lodge

David Lodge

In fact, the closest humans have ever been able to come to documenting what thought processes actually look like, is not through science but through art: fictional, narrative consciousness. That’s where Helen Reed comes in: she is a newly arrived resident writer and English professor at the university. Over the course of the novel, aside from developing the above academic investigation together through their professional relationship, their burgeoning private relationship provides the main fruit of Lodge’s novel.

Cleverly, in a novel focussed on the difficulty of defining thought patterns and of comparing individual perceptions, Lodge alternates his narrative perspective between Ralph’s recordings of his private consciousness, Helen’s diary entries of her own, and an occasional omniscient narrator that dives between the two. Instead of their thought patterns ‘being on the same wavelength’, these different perspectives only emphasise the contrast in the way the same events are understood and detailed by Helen and Ralph. Even though they believe they are expressing themselves openly and honestly, Helen and Ralph – and, indeed, all humans – are shown to be isolated inside their own minds, their understanding of each other limited by differences in perception, by the constraints of language and punctuation (how do you actually write thought? How do you punctuate it?), and by the social embarrassment associated with airing private thoughts. There will always be a chasm, Helen realises, between “my neurotic self and my more rational, observing, recording self” (14). And how can that ever be measured scientifically?

Lodge’s characters, then, suffer from a sort of Locked-In Syndrome unbeknownst to anyone: “locked inside your body, completely helpless, unable to speak or gesture, unable to even nod or shake your head” (87). Isolated.

Gloucestershire Cathedral

Gloucestershire Cathedral

This theme of isolation is certainly iterated in the novel’s setting too: the University of Gloucester seems to be a sort of factory for individuals each moving on their own paths, without convergence. Students are shuttle-bussed around the campus “as in an airport car-park” (11); the university is a production line, a means to an end, and not the destination itself. Thus Helen is filled with a sense of emptiness as she looks around her new home and workplace. She feels entrapped by the “wire perimeter fence” (31) outside of which “there are only dark fields and darker clumps of trees, and scattered farmhouses whose lights gleam like distant ships at sea” (12) – it could not be more remote compared to her life in London. What is more, “all the necessities of life are provided on campus: there’s a small supermarket, a launderette, a bank […] Lots of students never leave campus from one end of a semester to the other” (19), compounding the unpleasant locked-in sensation.

Lodge’s novel is certainly self-conscious, “avant-garde fiction” (2) at its best. It is intelligently written, thought-provoking and can be read in a whole host of different ways – all according to individual perception. It’s nothing like anything I have read before, and nothing like what I expected from this writer who I already believed myself to be somewhat familiar with. Reading the ‘About the Author’ section in my edition, it is awe-inspiring how many prizes for fiction Lodge has won between 1960 and today – the Hawthornden Prize, the Yorkshire Post Fiction Prize, the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize, numerous Booker Prize nominations and a CBE for services to literature, among heaps more. I’m also astonished to learn that Thinks… is not considered one of his best novels…?! Well, mind blown. I really cannot wait to read more. This one was 4/5 stars.

Also, for any beloved University of Warwick-goers, Lodge’s campus setting and isolated location rings a LOT of bells – possibly something to do with him having taught at the University of Birmingham for almost 30 years? Maybe I’m just over-eager.

Next time I’ll be reviewing When Ravens Fall by Matilda Wren. Join me then!

 

LODGE, David. Thinks… London: Penguin, 2002.

Featured Image: Roy Lichtenstein, Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But…, (1964)

http://artsamerica.org/blog/genre/art-museums/pop-art-powerhouse-roy-lichtenstein-at-the-art-institute-of-chicago/

As The Twig Is Bent

We’re officially halfway through our challenge with this week’s beautiful novel!!

“There was a wood once. Just itself to begin with. […]

Later, someone found it, defined it […]

Used it. Gridded out, like a town, and its quarters named. Then it was cut into rides, hunted, managed, grazed, chopped about, foraged, felled, filled in again. Now it’s a country park […]

And it’s where the runaways go. […]

And the town’s right there, playing grandmother’s footsteps with the wood” (3)

Laura Beatty's "Pollard"

Laura Beatty’s “Pollard”

Laura Beatty, the author of Pollard, lives in historic Salcey Forest in Northamptonshire, a home that undoubtedly inspired many elements of the mysterious, whispering wood in her first novel.

At age 15, the awkward and unusual Anne decides to run away from her home “that hadn’t been one” (30) and find “a patch, […] her plot” (58) among the trees with which she had always felt an affinity. She sets out with nothing but, as she spends time “learning the place, looking at it […] walking, discovering” (65) she gradually gathers the necessities, constructs her home beneath a pollard ash and wages a war of survival against the “iron” (91) winter along with the wood’s other creatures. Although at times the “loneliness” (78) of her new life gets to her, and her voice grows “cracked and rusted with no use” (86), she is rarely tempted to return to the town, where the only landmarks are the battery farm, abattoir, “new estates” and “industry parks” (8). Instead, she appreciates the beauty and seclusion that other “human beings” (153) fail to notice, in the woodland environment and even at the neighbouring rubbish “tip” (77), to which she is introduced by ex-soldier and survival-guru, Steve: “She liked the dump. It fitted her almost as well as the wood. She liked its geography, the simple straight lines of the trailers and sheds, the blocks of the containers, the order of it. A little world in itself” (82).

But Anne’s struggle to survive comes to the fore as civilisation encroaches on her private existence. Information signs “spring up” (153) on familiar tracks; men “carrying clipboards” (154) arrive with plans for cycle paths, roads, treetop walkways and visitor centres; strangers arrive in their droves in the form of “walkers, riders, joggers, cyclists” and even a park “Ranger” (156); words like “officialdom” (157), land “ownership” (162) and “authorised persons” (259) begin to cloud her head. She can sense the “slow suffocation of the trees” (155) and with this, her private existence is thrown into turmoil.

Salcey Forest's Treetop Walkway (the unflattering angle)

Salcey Forest’s Treetop Walkway (the unflattering angle) – inspiration for what happens in Anne’s wood

So this is a novel that highlights the traditional theme of the urban world threatening the rural. The reader is exposed to careless dog-walkers and harmful litterers and ignorant traipsers and destructive youths and arrogant bureaucrats and heartless construction workers, all of whom incite the reader’s negative judgement of humanity for ruining the natural world. Certainly, Anne loathes this cast of characters, fears them, and eventually falls prey to them.

But, untraditionally, that’s not the whole story. Looking deeper, Beatty’s novel is not about Anne at all, or her rural/urban war, but about The Wood itself. The Immortal Wood.

Beatty gives her trees a voice – which they use far more than Anne, it seems – and the power to “witness” (9) everything that happens under their canopy, like a Greek “Chorus” commenting, singing, dancing as tragedy unfolds. But unlike Anne, The Wood “think[s] nothing of [the] nibblers, strippers, choppers” (132) that are altering its shape and Anne’s life; it cares nothing for the individuals it swallows under its shade, for The Wood’s “concern is with life, not the individual” and “there’s always another time, for someone else, if not for [Anne]” (9). The world of The Wood is endless, for it is “good at retrenching […] for every trunk lost” (132) and “looping back on itself forever”, holding on to “some forgotten sense, […] a particular life” (303). Even Anne – whose head is “so full of [the trees’] rustling” and whose own limbs “hung loose and sinewed” (148) at home under the boughs – cannot comprehend this timeless spirit. She “can’t see the wood for the trees” (18) she is always told as a child. The tragedy in this novel is Anne’s alone; the wood will survive, in spirit if not in size. It is the hubris of humanity that believes it can tame nature when, in fact, we are only contributing towards our own downfall.

Pollard Ash

Pollard Ash

I did not expect this novel, which deals so explicitly with rural-urban convergence, to be so original in its form and its plot. Giving trees narrative authority seems a risky move for a debut novel, but the surrealism pays off. In fact, reading this reminded me a great deal of Booker Prize-winning How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman – in very simple terms, both protagonists are outcast from society and victims of state authority; both narratives are filled with bewilderment, misunderstanding and impotent fury; both narrators implicate the reader in systems of injustice; and both novels sound an ironic call-to-arms that clashes with the inevitable, hopeless knowledge that nothing can change.

In Pollard, I think more could have been made of Anne’s conflicts with the state, especially in the final pages. Similarly, I’m not sure if Anne’s relationship with schoolboy Peter Parker was fully effective in providing the novel’s climax. I also think Anne should have been shown to grow even angrier – more violent or more verbal – to contrast with the sing-song placidity of the “Chorus of Trees”. But really, I’m just being picky. This was a fascinating, unusual read and for that I have huge admiration. 4/5 stars.

So next week I’ll be reading Julie Myerson’s Something Might Happen. We’re over the halfway mark by now, and into Suffolk territory!

BEATTY, Laura. Pollard. Reading: Vintage, 2009.

Featured Image: Salcey Forest, Northamptonshire.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mjsullivan/4053668806/

The Root of the Problem

David Dabydeen's "Our Lady of Demerara"

David Dabydeen’s “Our Lady of Demerara”

I couldn’t resist picking David Dabydeen’s Our Lady of Demerara to represent the West Midlands in this literary journey – although I never met him, and wasn’t even aware of him until researching this novel, Dabydeen is a Professor at the Centre of British Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick, my alma mater. Not that I’m biased or anything. And although it was tough-going at times, the novel is a perfect choice for a challenge that wrestles with the issues of place and space.

Lance Yardley, aged 30, is desperate to cut his ties with the working-class council estate he was brought up on: Albion Hill, in rough and seedy Coventry. He seeks escape through his work as a (failed) writer, through his (dysfunctional) marriage to middle-class actress Beth, through trawling the backstreets of the grimy city for prostitutes, and, eventually, by travelling across the world to Guyana on the trail of a dead Coventry priest who was once a missionary there, and in whose memoirs Lance urgently searches for the meaning of life. A strange progression of events, but this is the journey of someone rootless, in turmoil and very possible insane.

Prof. David Dabydeen of Warwick University

Prof. David Dabydeen of Warwick University

It is not only Lance’s relationship with his lot that seems to have cracked; this novel problematises all relationships, including those between family members and spouses; between different classes and races even living in the same neighbourhood (Lance labels his own wife “’a bourgeois empty-headed cunt’” [13]); between England and Guyana, with a colonial legacy that has left the latter in a shambles. Everyone is separated by prejudice and ignorance; Lance is a man torn apart, in a world torn apart. It seems fitting that he journeys to Guyana, where “slavery done two hundred years now but the Negro still feeding on the past. He too lazy to make effort for the present and the future, so he save up the past like a hoard of saltfish, and when he chew his mouth go sour and he spit” (77). Lance is shown to feel the same obsession, hatred and resentment for his own history. These are emotions that abound in this novel.

But let’s get back to the beginning.

Dabydeen presents a hellish view of England, which suffers from “incredible cold […] grime” (53), “ignorance and spite”, where the only spiritual connection is with “the high-street shop” (54). Coventry itself seems post-apocalyptic, with “houses joined to each other in an endless march of bricks […] asphalt, metal” (255), interspersed with “burnt-out shells […] and the crowded graveyards [which] were testimonies to the German bombing” (64-5) of the Second World War. The air is filled with the “hideous rumble of wheels, the hollering of drivers” (256) and the whole place feels like “the ending of the world” (105).

The ruined shell of Coventry Cathedral, bombed in WW2, still stands today.

The ruined shell of Coventry Cathedral, bombed in WW2, still stands today.

In amongst this mess is the drab council estate, Albion Hill. ‘Albion’, the ancient and poetic name for Great Britain, is an ironic title for this district in which there is no sense of national pride or belonging, or affinity with those “posh gits”, “the ones with suits on and secretaries in offices” (40) who run the country whilst maintaining wilful ignorance of the working classes’ existence. The notion of ‘Britishness’ means nothing to the residents; they have abandoned it as it has abandoned them.

Not only does Lance feel disconnected from Britishness, but from the rest of his family and his neighbourhood too. His lack of belonging is a product of his childhood – during which time his mother walked out, his father (now dead) was imprisoned for theft and he was shifted continuously between foster families – as well as his ambition; he wants more from his life than “what every child in Albion hill aspired to – a council flat and the dole, the income boosted by a little burglary, a little trade in stolen goods, a little job on the side cleaning, plastering, decorating” (28). He is ashamed of his class, of “the cultural desert” (15) he lives in, of being “a local born and bred” (14) when others around him can boast such “exoticism” (45). His wife Beth treats her Indian heritage flippantly because her past is “utterly irrelevant to [her] life” (14); Lance is filled with envy, anxious to define roots for himself that mark him out from others, to which he belongs so completely that he can exclude her.

'Insulae Albion et Hibernia' (Islands of Great Britain and Ireland) from the 1654 Blaeu Atlas of Scotland

‘Insulae Albion et Hibernia’ (Islands of Great Britain and Ireland) from the 1654 Blaeu Atlas of Scotland

Suffering with “maimed wing and spirit” (121) without a proper family history on which to prop his existence, Lance goes on the hunt for “a moment of vision” (9), “wholeness and transfiguration”, a means to cleanse “his life of the accretions of Coventry dirt” (110) and give himself “depth” (93). His spiritual search does not get off to an auspicious start, ironically beginning on the streets of Coventry looking for a prostitute called Corinne. Indeed, no matter how far he travels away from it, the reader feels Albion Hill “in his shadow and his conscience” (68), recognising all his efforts as being “thwarted, unfulfilled” (69).

Ultimately, the only way Lance can discover his desired identity is to imagine it, to surround himself with a fictional version of the past and of his roots, to convince himself that he has found his home and his heritage. The life of the priest, Father Jenkins, is the key to the re-conception of Lance’s own life: through blending himself with the priest in his letters home, Lance makes himself believe in his own significance and value in his community. As though playing dress-up, Lance takes on a sudden spirituality that allows him to boast of inner “peace” (260) and present his transformation as a Christian reincarnation. Ironically, his fictional concept of self at the end of the novel, made up as it is of odd parts of other people’s lives and containing very little truth, is more severely jeopardised than ever.

At once, with Lance’s creative power over his story realised, the narrative of Our Lady of Demerara is thrown into chaos for the reader; if it was fragmented and confusing before, here is where it gets really mind-bending.

“My priest’s story was broken and haphazard. Cryptic lines. Gnomic paragraphs. Obscure notes. Doodles. Impossible puns. I would mend the sentences, make them flow, give them purpose and direction. I would design his life and where there were holes and gaps I would conceive of incidents and themes. My landfill would be my imagination but I would draw too on actual people I knew, give them places in the story. [They] lived ordinarily, purposelessly, even stupidly. I would revise their existence on the page, or originate a new existence for them […] If, because of my superior education, I owed them anything, then it was to rewrite them” (93).

  • If Lance is recreating his own life, what else in the novel is subject to his alterations?
  • Are the characters, Dabydeen’s creations, actually presented through Lance’s transformative eyes? Is Beth really so middle-class, is Miriam truly acceptant of her Albion Hill lot, or is that just how the frustrated Lance sees them?
  • Is this a novel with a frame narrative, and does the pervading authorial voice belong to Lance, and not to Dabydeen, as we assumed?

The reader begins to question their assumptions of ‘truth’ behind the narrative when it is revealed to be mediated by Lance, who is so hungry to reinvent everything and everyone around him, who admits to fabricating and “caricaturing” (46) people in his letters and plagiarising sentences from Jenkins’ memoirs, “purged or reinstated in different forms” (51).

Aeneas, the hero, flees Troy with his father on his back and his son at his side: 3 generations striding forth into the future. Unlike the rootless Lance who leaves his family behind.

Aeneas, the hero, flees Troy with his father on his back and his son at his side: 3 generations with hope of a new civilisation. This is unlike the rootless Lance, who leaves his family behind.

The effect is disorientating, alienating and, because of this, hugely successful. Lance is thoroughly unlikeable because of his cruel treatment of others – especially women – and seedy pastimes, and yet we are made to feel as disappointed by the state of the country and humanity as he is. We are guided, bemusedly and against our will, to Guyana on the will of his unhinged character and challenged to follow his incoherent, tortuous and, at times, dull review of his existence to a solution that fails to satisfy us – or the rest of the characters – because of its foolishness. And yet we follow it and this anti-hero, and pity him, because it is a kind of poetry; an agonised, filthy poetry.

I would go as far as to say that Our Lady of Demerara is the modern Aeneid, detailing Lance’s odyssean journey across oceans to develop a mythology on which to base his identity and to find a new home away from Beth, who is the Dido weighing heavily around his neck. But Lance’s quest ends in nothing; there is no promised land. Unlike Aeneas, Lance is not a hero; he is misogynistic, dishonest and corrupt. Nor is he sailing towards Albion, to a place where he can found a new Britain to be proud of; rather, Albion Hill, and Britain as a whole, is the ravaged and ruined land, like Troy, that he is leaving behind. Britain certainly is presented as ruined in this novel, guilty of a greedy colonial past, damaged by decades of war and capitalism, and plagued by a complete lack of unity among its immoral inhabitants. Britain is worthless, this novel seems to say; it has no future except further decay.

Aeneas recounts the ruin of Troy to Dido. Painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1815.

Aeneas recounts the ruin of Troy to Dido. Painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1815.

Overall, this was a novel that to read was not always pleasant but constantly impressive. Its characters were hard to relate to and barely developed, but that was the point. The narrative was nonlinear and fragmented but that was the design. The plot was slow-moving and unbelievable but it could have worked in no other way. It was epic, artistic, intelligent and truly awesome. I’ve never struggled for so long to decide on a rating for a book: if I was still at university I’m sure I would have rated this a full 5/5 for its sheer scope and literary achievement, but here, back in the real world, I tell myself reading pleasure has to count for something. Phenomenally constructed but hardly loveable for its bleakness, finally, 4 stars go to Our Lady of Demerara.

Next week I’ll be reading The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood, set in Cambridge. We’ve almost reached the halfway mark!

DABYDEEN, David. Our Lady of Demerara. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press Ltd, 2009.

Featured Image: Breugel’s “The Burning of Troy” c.1621

http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~peradott/Journey%20of%20Odysseus/n_Troy%20Burns.htm

Fensed In

I have never read Susan Hill’s 1983 horror novel, The Woman in Black; I have never seen any theatrical or filmic production of it and, most significantly of all, I have almost no idea what the story is about. And yet, still, when the new Woman in Black film came out in 2012, I was somehow automatically sceptical. How can a story that has come from a book be scary?, I thought. What a load of poppycock.  This ignorance from a long-term literature lover and English graduate. *sigh*

As you might have sussed, until this week, I had never even flipped open the cover of a scary novel – not a single ghost tale, horror story, or gore-fest. I’d seen the odd scary film of course (or rather, I’ve been in their vicinity, even if I was tucked safely behind the sofa at the time) and I was quite confident I could identify the typical formula:

Capture final

To summarise, your senses of hearing and sight are bombarded with signs of creepdom and thus, you are creeped out. To summarise the summary, scary films require elements that cannot possibly be recreated in books.

In a book, the only sensory perception comes to us second-hand, mediated by the characters. It is a character’s ears that are pricked up by unnatural sounds and their nose that detects faint odours of decay and their eyes that bear witness to events. The reader has no senses; there is no music or creaking or darkness that we can see; only the words on the page. There are no make-you-jump moments; reading a paragraph takes longer than a sudden change in camera angle. Pace is sacrificed, our senses are sacrificed…so what’s left that’s worth getting excited about?

Well, what a journey I’ve been on in Louise West’s 50-page ghost tale, Late, set in her home county of Lincolnshire. (I know it’s not technically a novel, but I’ve been dying to read something like this and I’m also a bit behind in blogging – it kills two birds with one stone. No murderous pun intended.)

Louise West's "Late"

Louise West’s “Late”

In this short story, a teacher is working late in a dark and draughty school that is “well over one hundred years old” (2), when she hears a noise and comes face-to-face with a ghost of a young boy who has unfinished business to which he must attend. During the night that follows she experiences the fright of her life, an existential crisis, a car accident and hours of dragging herself through mud and swamp in the pitch black in an effort to survive.

Her rural location is significant to the plot throughout: the impressive Gothic school that still stands is where her nightmare begins, her lack of phone reception “this far out in the Fens” (19) leaves her completely isolated and, under the direction of the ghostly boy, she is drawn away from the main village road and into the wild Lincolnshire countryside. Initially the landscape is hostile and unwelcoming and she, “too used to bright lights and small rooms, struggled to make out any features or landmarks” (22), which makes her dependent on her ghostly tormentor. For a while, she dreams only of being rid of him and returning home to the fireside, her dogs and her vision of domesticated comfort. Soon, though, as she treks deeper and further and comes to understand her companion’s wishes, “her eyes […] adjusted to the darkness” so that she becomes aware of “the shape of the land” (25). She even begins to identify with the boy, finding his cold, tiny hand feeling warm in hers and that the “wind blew straight through her” (23) just as it did him.

The Lincolnshire Fens

The Lincolnshire Fens

Overall, the biggest thing I’ve learnt through this novella is as follows: the suspense in a scary book may come to us indirectly, through someone else’s perception, but the fear the words inspire could not be more personal. The image of the ghost isn’t given to us ready-prepared (as it would be in a film); the reader’s imagination has to do most of the work. This, I can now see, is a far scarier tool.

Brilliantly and thrillingly written, I can’t wait to read something longer by Louise West. A worthy 4/5 stars.

Next time I’ll be reviewing Berlie Doherty’s Deep Secret. Get reading!

WEST, Louise. Late: A Ghostly Tale. Marston Gate: Amazon, 2013.

Featured image: ‘Getting Late, Lincolnshire Fens’, a painting by Bob Armstrong.

http://www.kentmerehouse.co.uk/gallery.htm

Game-changing

Chris Cleave's Gold

Chris Cleave’s Gold

This week I’ve been reading Chris Cleave’s Gold, set in Manchester in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games. It follows the equally intense careers and personal lives of Britain’s two best female track cyclists, Kate and Zoe, and explores the difficult dynamic between friendship and rivalry as they train and grow up together, under the supervision of their coach, Tom. Whether for closeness or for competition, the two women depend on each other more than they think.

I chose this book, out of all the wonderful suggestions offered for Greater Manchester, for the same reason I chose to read Money Can’t Buy Me Love a few weeks ago – because of how recent the setting is. As I said then, it always amazes me when I find a book about events in my own living memory, having spent so many years reading curriculum-prescribed classics. Cleave, in an interview published in this very edition of Gold, explains this far more eloquently than I manage to:

“Some people find it jarring to read work that is set almost in real time. I understand that – it’s not something novelists generally do – but I like that territory for fiction and I suggest that it’s a fascinating space in which to be an artist, because it’s the space in which public opinion is formed. My novels area hybrid between reportage and fiction and they take place in the five year gap between the point at which newspapers leave a story alone and the point at which historians generally take up their analysis.”

'Fan-fiction' - is it so bad?

‘Fan-fiction’ – is it so bad?

Wonderful as it has been so far, my education – along with many other people’s I imagine – usually encourages me to associate modern writing, no matter how popular, with so-called ‘bad’ literature, simply because it might not (yet) carry historical or canonical weight or might not use complicated language or need footnotes to translate allusion and symbolism.  I admit I have been guilty of turning my nose up at Jodi Picoult’s global bestsellers, hiding my apparently humiliating enjoyment of Dan Brown and rolling my eyes at the epic Twilight series. But the truth of the matter is that these are the books that sell in modern times; the pursuit of understanding why certain genres have such cultic followings in the present is as fascinating and meritorious as the research done in any Jane Austen class, the real difference being that only one of these subjects has already been done to death.

(This video clip is a trailer for the 2009 book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody of Jane Austen’s classic in which the Bennett sisters are trained to fight the undead as well as to find suitable husbands.)

Think of this decade’s vampire phenomenon, the prevalence of zombie apocalypse fiction since 2000, and how, in 2012, erotic fiction suddenly became widely acceptable – even in the staunchest minds of our middle-age, middle-class relatives – and made its way onto bestselling shelves with Fifty Shades of Grey. Why then? Why not before or after? What forces are brewing under the surface of society now that might erupt into a new literary craze in ten years’ time?

I spent most of my final degree year (and all the time since – hence this blog) obsessing about these very questions, my interests shifting away from Shakespeare and Chaucer – as much as I value them – and resting on what I’d always dismissed: the current. I refused to stay in the closet any longer: having an interest in popular culture isn’t a cop-out; nor is it glamorously avant-garde. It’s a study of the nitty-gritty here-and-now, of the themes and events that are relevant to us in an increasingly battered world.

I love being on the other side of the dividing line that Cleave defines between history and fiction in this challenge. Producing serious writing set in ‘real time’, without being pejoratively classed as Airport Fiction or Chick Lit or Easy Reading – all the terms synonymous with Trash that sceptics choose to deploy – is a skill, and one that Cleave succeeds in. I find it bizarre that some reviewers describe his plot as predictable or farcical and his characters as underdeveloped. I completely disagree. I was deeply impressed with the descriptions of training and races in particular; I could feel the athletes’ muscular and emotional sensitivity twitching the pages in my fingers. There is an intense physicality and even sensuality in reading this novel which, aside from making you believe you’re on the racetrack too, gives the novel a cinematic feel – you hear the breath of Kate’s pursuer and the hum of Zoe’s tyres on the ground. It is not the same exhilaration as I felt when watching the London velodrome events on television last year; it’s much more tuned-in, more personal, more close-up. In short, Cleave is able to describe so much movement in so much slow-motion detail without once comprising on pace. Masterful. For this aspect of the novel alone, it’s a 4/5 star read.

Bodies at their limits: Anna Meares (Australia) + Vicky Pendleton (GB) fighting for victory in the final Sprint.

Bodies pushed to their limits: Anna Meares (Australia) + Vicky Pendleton (GB) fighting for supremacy in the final Sprint.

So finely tuned are the girls’ bodies, in fact, that the distinction between themselves as animals and machines is difficult to make, and Cleave’s juxtaposition of the two is hugely effective. Their “twelve thousand dollar American prototype race bike[s]” (9) are extensions of their own limbs, with “no distinction between their skeletal systems and the bones of their bikes” (74). In racing and training their reflexes are mechanical – superhuman, programmed in – and yet at the same time, bestial. Their senses are heightened to a primal state, in which changes in the breath and slight movements in the muscles of their competitors causes immediate and instinctual physical responses to achieve the most primitive of urges: to win. Teeth gnashing and claws scratching all the way.

And yet these girls have been friends for 15 years, through youth training, national competitions, the Olympics in Athens and Beijing…They are a support to one another, understanding the dangers of such a high level of competition, both physically and psychologically. There are, in fact, constant reminders of the damage it causes: Tom’s dodgy knees, the girls’ sore ankles, Zoe’s crash, Kate’s difficulty in juggling career with family life, Zoe’s brother’s early death and her resulting emotional trauma and failure to maintain relationships, as though “as soon as she got off the bike her heart was expected to perform all these baffling secondary functions – like loving someone and feeling something and belonging somewhere – when all she’d ever trained it to do was pump blood” (45). Cleave expresses, completely convincingly, the way in which racing obsesses them, consumes them and is always one step away from breaking them. They cannot even escape their bodies’ pressure when off the track, for when sitting on the sofa and unable to switch off, “Kate hated the way her body still readied itself to race […] hopelessly” (11).

Manchester's National Cycling Centre, where the girls (and so many real Olympians) train

Manchester’s National Cycling Centre, where the girls (and so many real Olympians) train

The complicated relationship the girls have to their own bodies results in an equally complicated relationship to the space around them: they cannot belong. For Zoe in particular, everything outside the racetrack is described as unfamiliar and disconnected. Despite her ability to see practically 360o from her luxurious skyscraper apartment – she looks over Manchester city and can pinpoint Snowdonia, Liverpool, the Blackpool Tower and beach and Cheshire plains in the distance – she feels so out of touch with the ground beneath her that she is like a “ghost” (42). There is “no traffic noise; no sound of the neighbours’ TV; nothing” (44), her apartment no more than an empty space designated for living by a faceless architect. Even Management has identified the need for a “souvenir of Earth” this far above it and is intent on “making a ‘green space’ with birds and plants and a water feature” (40) – but the “Italian olive tree ascend[ing] silently past [her] window” (45) attached to its crane only makes Zoe’s world even more surreal.

In fact, the whole of the country seems, to Zoe, like a series of disconnected “planet[s]” (86), Manchester being one of them, the generalised “up north” (220) another and “Surrey” a third, where “rain comes in bottles labelled Evian” (221) rather than being icy cold and endless. (North-South divide, we meet again.) Much like her inability to connect genuinely with other people, she is unwilling to admit to affection for any place she has lived or raced.

Victoria Pendleton, GB's winner of Gold in the Keirin and Silver in the Sprint of London 2012

Victoria Pendleton, GB’s winner of Gold in the Keirin and Silver in the Sprint of London 2012

Ultimately, Cleave creates an excruciating world in which the girls race round and round in circles on tracks that never change: no wonder their bodies jar at the tension between so much speed, and absolutely zero movement. Kate notes at one point, “What good did it ever do anyone to ride themselves back to their point of origin?” (16). Add to this the pressure of personal lives and off-the-track developments and Cleave has produced an excellent novel that has as much of a human factor as superhuman. I’ve heard it said that London 2012 did great things for the popularity of cycling in Great Britain – writing this novel in 2011, Cleave knew what he was doing.

Next week I’ve picked up Maureen Lee’s The September Girls to read. Can’t wait!

CLEAVE, Chris. Gold. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2013.

Featured Image: Anna Meares (Australia) vs. Victoria Pendleton (GB) in the Track Sprint at London 2012.

http://www.cyclingweekly.co.uk/news/latest/541076/anna-meares-returns-to-international-track-competition.html

We’re All Mad Here

When I was about 9 years old, one of my school Creative Writing assignments was to compose a strange or spooky story. From the moment this was announced by my Year 5 teacher, Mrs Orlovac, I knew I was in my element, having a knack for writing and a wild imagination that had always made me a firm class favourite. (What can I say? I was an irritating suck-up as a child.) At home that evening, I scribbled down a tense and twisty narrative of ghosts and goblins, elves and fairies, drawing on the weird and wonderful elements of favourite childhood stories.

"Alice in Sunderland", Bryan Talbot

“Alice in Sunderland”, Bryan Talbot

When Mrs Orlovac returned my masterpiece to me, having been marked, I felt a nasty jolt that I hadn’t received another gold star in my best subject. She explained that although the bulk of my story had been the best in the class, the ending had let it down: it is, apparently, a poor story-writing technique and ‘the easy way out’ to end with the main character waking up to find the whole experience has been nothing more than a strange dream. I was stunned. What would happen, I thought with terror, when people realised that The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland – my favourite childhood stories – were no good? Would they be thrown onto the rubbish heap simply because they ended in ‘and it had all been a dream’?

Anecdotes aside, it is my turbulent relationship with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland that piqued my interest Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland – that, and the fact that I have always, always, always wanted to read(?) a graphic novel but have had, previously, no idea where to start. Is it cheating to include what some people see as a ‘glorified comic strip’ in a literary challenge that focuses on ‘novels’? I don’t think so, but I’ll come on to that later.

As the title suggests, this book is set mostly in Sunderland in Tyne and Wear, a county that was formed in 1974 as an amalgamation of districts from bordering counties, such as Northumberland and Durham. In fact, Talbot never allows us to forget the location of his novel, for “we have to know exactly where we are. This is crucial” (9) – at the very beginning he uses several frames of his artwork to create a detailed map of the region, situating Sunderland in the North-East, the North-East in England, England in Europe and, zooming out even further, the Earth in the Universe.

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll

Superficially, the story is concerned with reclaiming Lewis Carroll from Oxford – a city and a university which “jealously guards its ownership” (31) of its successful literary don – to his roots in the North-East, and Sunderland in particular, where, Talbot insists, Alice was created. Already, in the premise, the North-South divide is addressed. However, by way of gathering historical and personal evidence to achieve this feat, Talbot goes several steps further.

Digressions abound in this, Talbot’s very own Divine Comedy of Sunderland. Defining the plot is, in fact, difficult, for there is only a steady stream of fictional and factional details of the city’s religious birth, geological make-up, shipbuilding roots, industrial importance, parliamentary support, famous figures, iconic buildings, varied inhabitants, historic residences, natural wonders, literary characters, friends and enemies…Talbot blends absurdity with truth, myth with reality, histories official and unofficial, to create a written document, an epic, of Sunderland through the ages, to make up for its seeming insignificance in modern England, dilapidated ‘culture vacuum’ as it is now considered to be, cut off from political power. It is the history of a city, “of England in microcosm” (25), with a great deal of imagination thrown in.

Union Flag

Union Flag

Ultimately, Talbot channels Carroll’s “anti-establishment rebelliousness” (227) to criticise right-wing politicians’ exclusion of anyone outside the power-bubble, whether that is Mackems from the north of England (Thatcher sacrificed Sunderland’s shipbuilding station during the economic downturn of 1990, effectively snatching the city’s purpose from under its feet), or foreign immigrants (which, with our Celtic, Saxon and Viking roots, everyone in England can claim to be in some shape or form) who are constantly vilified and made to feel worthless. “The language of the press and opportunistic politicians legitimises prejudice” (295), Talbot argues, and “the extreme right appropriate this [union] flag as an emblem for a small-minded tribal concept of a mythological Britain that has never, nor will ever, exist” (298). If “there’s no such thing as a typical Mackem, just as there’s no typical Londoner or New Yorker” (61) then how can anyone possibly define what ‘typical Britishness’ is? I found myself clinging to this theme in the novel as something I too struggle to understand.

Indeed, by using the image of the flag at the end of 319 pages of intense cultural bombardment, Talbot highlights how ridiculous it is to have one symbol to represent all the different myths, legends, beliefs, facts, individuals, groups, literatures, traditions, and so on, that he has portrayed as part of English heritage, let alone those associated with Scotland or Wales that he has not addressed. He takes issue with a society that can ostracise part of its own, and forces us to question what is real and what we’ve been led to believe by said opportunistic politicians. His moral seems to be that we, British people as a unit, should take pride in what we see around us and appreciate the history of our cities and our country without excluding others from it.

Moving away from the content of Bryan Talbot’s work to concentrate more on how he delivers it, his artwork deserves a whole post of its own. As I said, I am far from a seasoned graphic novel-reader but, even to my untrained eyes, his artwork is phenomenal; this is not a book to be read but experienced. He mixes self-portraits with those of famous people and cultural icons; he blends photographs and newspaper cuttings with outline sketches; he plays with the use of old-fashioned illustrations to accompany the words of Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and pictures Henry V as a pierced and tattooed thug through mocking the literal meaning of Shakespeare’s famous Harfleur speech; he combines Stone Age, Medieval, Victorian and modern frames on a single page. We, as the audience, are thrown backwards and forwards through time, spiralled down rabbit holes, blasted with vivid images and half-recognised faces so that we too seem to be part of Alice’s dream-world, only one based in Sunderland rather than Wonderland.

Tenniel's original illustrations, The Mad Hatter's Tea Party

One of Tenniel’s original illustrations of “Alice in Wonderland”: The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, 1900

One element of his drawings I found particularly clever is the way many of them are crafted to appear unfinished, or shown to be in progress over several frames, as though Bryan Talbot’s story is unravelling faster than he can illustrate it. Despite the weight of history in this work, it is through techniques such as this – as well as always using language in the present tense, even when describing ancient events – that brings an incredible sense of pace to the separate stories and makes the whole thing feel very relevant to the present.

After all this, if we were still inclined to look down of graphic novels as “somehow sub-literate” (194) because of the fact that they contain pictures, Talbot offers an explicit defence of their craftsmanship, comparing comic strips to the colossal Bayeux Tapestry, woven to tell the step-by-step story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He encourages respect for the form in a very convincing way; after all, his work “makes you think […] an’ ain’t that what Art’s all about?” (292).

This graphic novel therefore deserves its place in this literary challenge in more ways than one; not only is it an incredible reading experience, but it also has a lot to offer on the subject of Englishness and Britishness, advising us how we can all debunk the myths and celebrate the facts (and vice versa), whilst also maintaining a flexible understanding of ‘truth’ which, after all, depends on individuals’ understanding and should never be taken for granted. That being said, sometimes the sheer detail of the history or geology was a little dry. It is perhaps a shallow comment considering the epic proportions of this book as a whole, but that is the only reason why I haven’t rated it higher than 4/5 stars. It’d be great to get your views on whether you agree or disagree!

Next week I’m reading Paul Torday’s The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall which has been recommended to me for County Durham, so pick up a copy and get reading with me!

TALBOT, Bryan. Alice in Sunderland. London: Jonathan Cape, 2007.

FEATURED IMAGE: Bayeux Tapestry, approx. 1077.

http://larsbrownworth.com/blog/2010/08/11/is-the-bayeux-tapestry-reliable/

Mantelpiece Surrounds

This week I read Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which is set in Cumbria. Throughout the novel there are several explicit references to the characters’ Lake District environs, on top of which the protagonist lives and attends school in Ambleside, plays football against nearby Grasmere and takes trips to coastal St. Bees – all of which are real Cumbrian towns.

"My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece", Annabel Pitcher

“My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece”, Annabel Pitcher

It turns out I did not have a lot of choice when it came to modern books set in Cumbria; despite plugging my List at every possibly opportunity, this northern county has remained relatively under-represented in suggestions for this challenge. That being said, Pitcher’s fantastic debut – which also, rather aptly, deals in part with issues of under- and misrepresentation – might well have been my first choice in any line-up, despite being yet another so-called ‘children’s book’.

Perhaps because I’ve spent almost all of my educational life reading novels about Victorian aristocrats or epic poems written in Middle English, I’m always astonished when I come across texts that make links to real events – especially acts of atrocity – that have happened in my living memory; I imagine, with discomfort, what literature students will be saying about such ‘ancient history’ in 50 or 100 years’ time. In this case, reminiscent of the 7/7 London suicide attacks in 2005 that killed 52 people, Pitcher’s characters live in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing in London which resulted in 62 casualties, including Rose, the sister of the young protagonist, Jamie.

Unsurprisingly, this trauma tears Jamie’s family apart: his parents split up, he moves with his Dad and remaining sister, Jas (Rose’s twin), to the opposite end of the country, and is confronted again and again by his parents’ grief and neglect. Most devastatingly of all, Jamie is filled with guilt and confusion that he feels no loss; he was, after all, too young to remember his sister or exactly what happened, and his naive attempts to re-fuse his shattered family are all in vain.

Ambleside_&_Waterhead_Panorama_2,_Cumbria,_England_-_Oct_2009

The real Ambleside, Cumbria

Jamie’s bewilderment at what is going on around him is the most powerful emotion in this book; having moved away from London to the Lake District, he has lost everything he once relied on. What is more, he seems to have no hope of establishing a stable sense of belonging within his new home or his new school due to his complete inability to relate to the one event that defines his devastated family: Rose’s death. He is forever desperate to connect in some way to the girl he is supposed to be mourning, but the only memory he has fills him with self-loathing for its vagueness: the image of “two girls on holiday playing Jump the Wave, but I don’t know where we were, or what Rose said, or if she enjoyed the game” (7).

Ironically, while Jamie feels lost, there is huge importance attributed to the ‘right place’ for the dead Rose. The very title of the book establishes Rose’s ashes as belonging in her urn “on the mantelpiece” and Jamie’s father effectively keeps this area as a shrine to his daughter, providing her with food and drink, Christmas presents and a constant supply of kisses, so that the hallowed ground fills 10-year-old Jamie with fear. When the family is in the car, Jamie notices that “Dad even put a seat belt around the urn but forgot to tell me about mine” (44). Jamie’s fear that he doesn’t belong in his family home, and that he is “five steps” away from “disappear[ing] out of sight” (71) altogether, is only exacerbated by the difference he sees between his father’s treatment of him and his dead sister who is always, literally and figuratively, in “a better place” (6).

The Lake District, Cumbria

The Lake District, Cumbria

In fact, Pitcher demonstrates that the only way Jamie can come to terms with his new living situation, in the north of England, is to measure it repeatedly against his old home in London, which is “so different […] the complete opposite” (3). In contrast to the capital city, to which it is much “too far to drive” (26), there are “no people” (3) in Ambleside and “no buses or trains if Dad’s too drunk to go out” (9). Even when the findings are positive – Cumbria has “twisty lane[s]” (3) instead of “main road[s]” and the “gurgle gurgle” (26) of streams instead of the constant sound, sight and smell of traffic – Jamie finds it hard to let go of the comparisons with his London background. Although the North-South divide is not presented as tangibly in this novel as in David Almond’s The Fire Eaters, it is clearly a massive issue for young Jamie, who finds it hard to settle in between the “massive mountains” (3) that make everything else seem insignificant.

Differing concepts of what it means to be “British” (26) also come under fire in this novel, although it is not the most advanced part of the plot. For Jamie’s dad, being British and being Muslim are shown to be mutually exclusive; his grudge against the Islamic extremists that were responsible for his daughter’s death extends to all reaches of the Muslim faith, without exception. For him, the north of England epitomises “real” Britishness, where white Christian people go about their daily business, surrounded by rolling hills and beautiful views, far away from any of “that foreign stuff” (26) associated with life in London. The irony is (as Jamie soon realises) that his drunkenness, neglect and broken family are further outside his ridiculous ‘British’ standards than any characteristic Sunya portrays: she has “lived in the Lake District all her life” as part of a respectable family, with a “brother at Oxford University” (73), traits that Pitcher seems to suggest are stereotypically British. I am not wholly convinced by Pitcher’s brief treatment of ‘Britishness’ in the novel – she seems to adhere to as many stereotypes as she breaks – but she also manages to present this confusion as part and parcel of life in modern England, which makes it an important theme of the novel.

The true brilliance of this book, and something that it shares with The Fire-Eaters, is the way all of this is narrated, believably and artfully, through a child’s perspective. Although I am sometimes skeptical of this technique (it can be overused), the depth of the subject matter versus the simplicity of the child’s understanding is a winning combination in Pitcher’s case, and deserves a 4/5 star rating. It is also a pleasant surprise – literally speaking – to find a children’s novel that also results in an intentionally untidy and not-wholly-happy ending. Due to all the unanswered questions and loose strands, I would not call this, as some have, a Bildungsroman, but Jamie does at least come to the satisfying realisation that the only thing that makes a house a home is the (living) people within its walls, even if all Jas has to do is “put a cushion” (5) on the windowsill to be the best sister in the world.

Next week I’ll be reading Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland for Tyne and Wear. Let me know what you thought of this one before I get stuck in!

PITCHER, Annabel. My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece. London: Orion, 2011.

Featured image: 7/7 suicide attacks, London 2005.

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/77-inquest-i-nearly-sat-next-103936

Incoming

This week I read David Almond’s The Fire Eaters, set in Northumberland. Here’s what I thought:

“The Fire Eaters”, David Almond

I first came across David Almond when I was 11 or 12, when my English lessons involved taking turns to read parts of Skellig aloud to the rest of the class. I loved it and so, although he is technically a children’s writer, I leapt at the chance to read another of his novels when someone suggested it to me for this challenge.

So what claims does this book have to that county? We are told that the young protagonist, Bobby, lives in a northern, “coaly” (37) town called Keely Bay that is on the North Sea coast, only a bus ride from Newcastle (which was part of Northumberland when this book was set) and less than 90 miles from the Scottish border. If we were left in any doubt, the very first page is devoted to Almond’s own personal ties to Northumberland, where he lives with his family.

I am pleased to say that, as expected, there is nothing childish about this book; its characters – both young and old – are complex and emotional, reflecting the complex political and social context of the setting, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The fear of impending doom permeates people and places; Bobby senses all around him that “the tide was turning and the centre was all eddies and swirls and agitation” (10). The once-comforting routine of his home life in Keely Bay – represented by the toing and froing of “the sea coalers and their ponies” and the endless circles of the lighthouse light “that swept the sea, the land and then the sea again” (16-17) – now makes Bobby restless as he becomes more aware of the world outside, where the USSR and the USA compete for dominance with nuclear weapons. They live in constant fear of “the drone of engines” (38) from above.

April 1962, London CND March

Despite this frustration and restlessness, and with the destruction of all he knows seeming a real threat, Bobby is also desperate to strengthen his connection to his “home beside the sea” (1) and become one with his surroundings: he thinks his blood tastes like the sea’s salt; he gives off a smell, McNulty notices, of fish and salt that is unique and distinct from Newcastle’s “sour smell of the river” (5); he wants “to be the sea, the sky, a stone, the lighthouse light” (139) in order to regain, internally, the peace and innocence he associates with Keely Bay. Indeed, perhaps the most striking moment of the whole book is one which highlights how connected Bobby and his friend Joseph are to their hometown, without necessarily realising it: the two boys are spying on “the new kid’s house” at night, from the beach, and each time “the light” (25) swings round from the lighthouse they know instinctively to duck from it so as not to be seen. Not only does this scene show how sensitive they are to intrusion from outside the town’s tight circle (the new boy, Daniel, and his family, is from Kent, raising the age-old issue of the English North-South divide) but it also demonstrates how much understanding the boys have for the needs and ways of Keely Bay, something the new family – shut away in their fancy, new house that sports “a huge window at the front facing out across the sea” and which will, the boys know, only seem foolish when the winds begin to lash and the waves “crash within yards of it” (66) – so far fails in.

The North-South divide is a key theme of Almond’s novel and, distanced physically from the decision-making centre that is London, the community from Keely Bay is left feeling powerless and insignificant. London, with its dramatic CND protests, is depicted in the same exotic and far-away terms as Cuba and the USA. Bobby’s friends have plenty to say about the new “nancy boys” (26) and “ponces from the South” (212), but the really cutting judgement is shown by Almond to swoop in the other direction. New boy Daniel compares Ailsa and her sea-coaling family to “ancient devils…like something from ancient tales. Half human” (115) and typical of “the North” (66). The townspeople are dismissed repeatedly by Daniel’s family, the ‘local’ council (headed by Westminster, in the south), and the teachers of the nearby public school (also from London and the Home Counties) as “common folk” (133) who do nothing but “scrap and fight like animals” (117) and who “must be taught to conform” (92). These judgements soon affect the boys’ self-esteem; they begin to dismiss their own Keely Bay as “bliddy derelict” (37) and their families as “pale ghosts” (114) or “half-human thing[s]” (117). Thus, anyone who intrudes on the small community is deemed a threat to its well-being and its survival, a danger that is reflected in the way the boys call each newbie an “incomer” (154) which sounds similar to how one would describe an approaching weapon.

Coal Sands in Northumberland

Throughout the majority of the novel Almond presents us with a view of England that is extremely divided, not only along the mythical North-South line but also along the Scottish border, represented by the controversial character of McNulty on whom I wish I had more time to focus. This sense of difference is made all the more apparent by Almond’s use of language. By using “mam” instead of the ‘Standard English’ spelling of ‘mum’, as well as other alternatives such as “nowt”, “howay”, “aye” and “lugs” that are stereotypically associated with northern English, Almond seems to blur, purposefully, some readers’ understanding of certain quips and observations in a way that shows the North-South divide exists just as much in 2003, when this book was first published, as it did in Almond’s portrayal of 1962.

However, using the setting of the Cuban Missile Crisis also allows Almond to portray North-South relations on the cusp of possible change; Bobby feels that “if we could just get through these days and nights of dread a time of great excitement might be waiting for us all” (242), an opportunity to do away with social prejudices and share in a new closeness that is not influenced by physical distance from anyone or anything. Simply replace the Cuban Missile Crisis with the fear of other terrorist atrocities today and the novel’s message still resonates. It is Almond who chooses to present a hopeful outlook on the possibility of national unity, but it is a children’s book, after all…

The novel does not end with this big unanswered question of North-South or global relations, however. Rather, it returns ultimately to the local, without succumbing to that feeling of powerlessness presented in the beginning. Bobby recovers from his fear of destruction and reconciles himself to life in Keely Bay, “beside the lighthouse, near to everything” (222) he loves. He is filled with awe for the little things around him – his home, his family, his friends, his school life – which all add up to the “hugeness” (249) of the land’s importance. He no longer feels abandoned or insignificant in a corner of England, but chooses instead to “[sweep] his map away” (230) and focus his efforts on looking inwardly and standing up for what matters to him. Almond thereby gives Keely Bay its own intense power, independent from its geographical location.

Almond’s novel is an ideal choice for this challenge, offering a surprisingly complex insight into relationships between people and places and investigating the social importance of developing – and being allowed to develop – a sense of belonging. Its additional themes of war, self-harm and other personal turmoil seem to advance far beyond what I normally expect from this type of literature, making it a highly insightful and enjoyable read for any age group. Overall, I give it 4/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece for Cumbria. Join me!

ALMOND, David. The Fire Eaters. London: Hodder, 2009.

FEATURED image: UN SECURITY COUNCIL OCTOBER 1962

http://darkroom.baltimoresun.com/2012/10/cuban-missile-crisis-50-years-later/un-us-cuba-ussr-diplomacy-missiles-files/