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

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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

Vital Organs

Benjamin Wood's "The Bellwether Revivals"

Benjamin Wood’s “The Bellwether Revivals”

Most other people who’ve read Benjamin Wood’s The Bellwether Revivals, set in Cambridge, seem intent on comparing it by degrees to A Secret History and Brideshead Revisited, other novels set in elite academic environments. I’m not going to do that – primarily because *SHOCK, HORROR* I’ve not yet read either of those great works. I know, I know; I haven’t read those, I hadn’t read any science fiction or ghost tales or zombie horrors or graphic novels, or indeed many modern novels at all before this blog. What have I read?! But, hey, at least this review might be a little different to the others out there.

Oscar Lowe, “bright” and “bookish” (according to the blurb), escaped his frustrating and unhappy working-class roots early, before finishing school or realising where his thoughtful mind could take him. Now living in Cambridge and working diligently as a care assistant at Cedarbrook nursing home, the shadows of the university’s famous buildings haunt him on every street, reminding him of the world of privilege and academia that he can never be a part of. That is, until he is drawn into King’s College chapel one evening by the sound of swelling music, and meets the beautiful and intelligent medical student Iris Bellwether, as well as her frighteningly arrogant, mad-control-freak, musical prodigy, genius brother, Eden. (It’s a sign of Wood’s brilliant characterisation that I find summing up his characters in a few words nigh impossible.) So begins Oscar’s tumultuous relationship with the wealthy Bellwether family and his insight into the Cambridge circle, leading to love (for Iris), fury (at Eden), wonder (at the family’s way of life), shame (at his own), hope (for brighter prospects), fear (of losing everything) and pain (of knowing he can never truly belong).

King's College, Cambridge (Chapel on left)

King’s College, Cambridge (Chapel on left)

While the plot itself is extraordinarily unpredictable and profoundly moving, it is Wood’s characterisation in particular that blows me away. Every single character’s individuality has been created painstakingly. Through implicit and explicit detail, as though their lives are strains of music on the wind, readers grow to sense their loves, hates, talents, weaknesses, motivations, relationships – some of their secrets remain hidden from us throughout. Each character, however fleeting or prominent their presence in the novel, possesses enough depth to be a fascinating psychological study, and yet is so rounded and ‘real’ that they can’t be pinned down. This is truly an amazing debut, worthy of 5/5 stars.

The character of Cambridge itself is a weighty presence in the novel’s pages, and something Wood admits to having a particular relationship with:

“Like [Oscar], I did not attend the university, but I lived in Cambridge for three years […] Walking around the place, it is difficult to ignore the monuments to history that surround you. It is a greatly inspiring environment for someone who values the importance of learning, as I do, but it is also an overwhelming place for someone who is not an invited member of that world – the colleges are mostly walled off and unavailable to non-members, and there’s a feeling that you’ll somehow never be completed connected with it, as much as you peer in from outside.”

Indeed, the reader is distinctly aware of Oscar’s overwhelming feeling of separation from the academic world that is “lurking, pressing” (66) on every pavement. The “old buildings” (53) incite true fear in the character at times, the “formidable gothic […] spindles” and “giant blackened windows” a sight he loathes for the way they make everyone else feel “tiny, irrelevant, godless” (4). Compared to these formidable, institutional facades, Cedarbrook’s pretty, floral exterior is “like the genial smile of an old friend” (207); this juxtaposition is ironic considering the hope and opportunity that should be associated with the former, against the decay and death encroaching on members of the latter. Suffice it to say that admiration and criticism for the Cambridge environment flow in equal measure.

View over Cambridge

View over Cambridge

As well as the physical environment, it is the class implications of life in Cambridge that make it a unique setting in this novel. Prosperity and privilege are shown to go hand-in-hand here: the “tightness and etiquette” (266) of Cambridge traditions having been established by, and tailored to, the expectations of the private-schooled, the wealthy, the lucky-in-life, they suit Iris and her university clan down to the ground. The students live in a “private world” (18) on these “hallowed grounds” (8) and share memories and experiences from “a private source” (39). Oscar, as a result of his background, schooling, housing, work, and myriad other inescapable nuances of class that shouldn’t matter, but do, is an outsider. So different and, initially, unwelcome, is he to the usual circle that he is treated by Iris’ mother “as if he were one of her abstract paintings that she was training her eyes to appreciate” (100). So the unfortunate peculiarities of the British (or is it only English?) class system.

Johann Mattheson's 'perfect' organ at St Michaelis in Hamburg: both Mattheson and the haunting music of the organ are key to the plot of this novel

Johann Mattheson’s ‘perfect’ organ at St Michaelis in Hamburg: both Mattheson and the haunting music of the organ are key to the plot of this novel

However, through his relationship with Iris (who doesn’t share her mother’s snobbery, her father’s conservative class views or Eden’s sense of entitlement to the same degree) Oscar does begin to find a way in to the world he has previously been walled off from: a world of opportunity, of dreams. All Oscar has known from his childhood are “mouthy teens who […] blocked the smoggy corridors of nightclubs on weekends” (9) and estates where “the houses all looked the same. Square, innocuous brick-piles, clad in cheap grey stucco” (73). Cambridge – the city and the university, inextricable as they are – offers an alternative to this reality of modern, motorway-riddled England, where Oscar can escape with the rest, fantasise about the future, slowly learn to separate himself from his roots and the rest of reality. In doing so, he starts to understand the attraction of large houses and “acreage”, of the “tranquillity” (245) that removal from “civilisation” brings (245). For a time, he plays along with the family life in the manor, as though it’s “some theatre set: a trick house made of paper and paint, with nothing behind it but the brick walls of the stage” (233).

But, for one reason and another, he will never truly belong: his job will call him back to earth with a jolt; disaster will strike and wake him from his fantasy; words will be exchanged that remind him of his roots. No matter how high Cambridge – or dreams of returning to his education – let him float, or how wide his view over the world, he will never be able to have the life he fantasises, or stop feeling “lonely and directionless” (64). His line has been drawn since birth, his class and his choice to leave school early marking his destiny for life. The spirit of Cambridge, like a Greek Fate measuring the thread of Oscar’s life, will not grant him a second chance. Wavering from his destined path now only brings pain, heartache and hopelessness.

Hope, it seems, was only ever a form of madness, a way of temporarily filling a void. Hope, like music with its “swelling harmonies”, is capable of “flood[ing] the yawning space above them” (6) – but only fleetingly, leaving life all the more painful when it departs.

 

Next week I’ll be reading The Queen’s Secret by Victoria Lamb. Can it match up? Join me next week!

 

WOOD, Benjamin. The Bellwether Revivals. London: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Featured Image: Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge.

http://www.wallpaperdownloader.com/bing-wallpaper/images/name/TrinityCollege_20100921

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/