Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli historian and author

Yuval Noah Harari is not a historian of centuries, epochs, or nations. He is a historian of ideas.

“According to current scientific dogma, everything I experience is the result of electrical activity in my brain, and it should be therefore be theoretically feasible to simulate an entire virtual world that I could not possible distinguish from the ‘real’ world. Some brain scientists believe that in the not too distant future, we shall actually do such things. Well, maybe it has already been done – to you? For all you know, the year might be 2216 and you are a bored teenager immersed inside a ‘virtual world’ game that simulates the primitive and exciting world of the early twenty-first century. Once you acknowledge the mere feasibility of this scenario , mathematics leads you to a very scary conclusion: since there is only one real world, whereas the number of potential virtual worlds is infinite, the probability that you happen to inhabit the sole real world is almost zero.”

His delving under the covers of what makes things happen is usually about the compromises Homo Sapiens has made in order to get what it wants.

Modernity is a deal: “humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.”

He doesn’t explain how and why a country emerged, floundered, revived, and then flourished; he explains how the Dark Ages persisted for so long – the future was thought unnecessary – but then evolved into the Renaissance and eventually into modernity because of the invention of trust and its consequence, credit. And it is this expansion of ideas that maintains and powers our modernity, and although we are looking down the barrel of an environmental disaster, it is the evolution and development of ideas, and their consequences, that may be our salvation. Not God or the return of one, but our own endeavours.


Europe for centuries was a hotbed of conflict, disasters, and battlegrounds. Now, just sixty years after the last great conflict, World War II, Europe is the most stable, cooperative, and progressive region on Earth; mainly thanks to two other ideas: democracy and capitalism. Yes, at the moment there is an energy crisis, but no hint of war.


We once asked God to help us recover from illness; now we ask science whose credo is humanism. Religion still exists. Sapiens hasn’t completely lost faith in God, but we have found our faith in humanity.
It was thought for centuries that if Sapiens stopped believing in God law and order would vanish. But the greatest threat to global law and order today is not the secular nations, the Netherlands, Sweden, Vietnam, but god-fearing nations, Syria, Afghanistan, and bands of god-warriors, Boko-Haram, Islamic-State.

“Religion is any all-encompassing story that confirms super-human legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. It legitimises social structures by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.”

Religions: Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and the like, but also Buddhism, communism, Nazism, and liberalism.
And humanism is the current one.

“If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’ so since there is no cosmic plan we can do whatever we want. We can even create paradise here on earth; we just have to find a way and overcome a few technical difficulties.” This is at the heart of the book.


Islam says do what God says, you servants, and you will be rewarded in Heaven; Christianity says even though you were created bad, you sinners, you must strive to be good; Humanism says create meaning, you humans, for a meaningless world.

This book was written pre Covid, 2015. But when referencing the Ebola epidemic in West Africa on 2014 prayers weren’t sent to Heaven (as was done as late as 1918 during the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic) but calls were made to stockbrokers, and shares of pharmaceutical companies working on anti-Ebola drugs increased to up to 90%. Now shares in Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna, and the rest have skyrocketed. They have the money to work on a cure, a vaccine in record time.

“For the stock exchange an epidemic [pandemic] is a business opportunity.”


If a woman in mediaeval Britain had sex with her married neighbour and worried later about her actions she would go to a priest, tell her story, and ask what should she do. The priest would say she must atone for her sin, say twenty Hail Mary’s, go on a pilgrimage, go without meat for a month, and put a lot of coins in the collection box. Today the woman would go to her therapist, tell her story and ask what should she do. The therapist will say “How do you feel about what you have done?”

What next? What comes after Humanism? … Dataism.

You must read the book to find out what that means.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Here is a lecture given by Harari at the University of California in 2017 about this book, Homo Deus.

And here is a shorter TED talk from 2015 on “Why Humans Run the World.”

The Magician by Colm Tóibín

Irish writer, Colm Tóibín.

In 1984 I took my first trip out of Australia, to Europe. On a clear day while wandering through the old streets of Budapest I was fascinated by some of the old buildings, solid and substantial but on closer inspection I saw pock marks in the stone, little indentations that … I audibly gasped as I realised they were damage caused by bullets. I was born in 1952 but always thought of WWII as way way in the past. Here it was right in my face. The feeling in my stomach was significant and deep. These bullet marks may have been from the 1956 uprising but I didn’t know about that then; these bullet holes brought home to me the fear of war, bullets whizzing past you at head height, but in much the same way that Toibin’s new novel The Magician did. This is curious because most of the novel is set away from the war: they didn’t experience it.  But Tóibín’s gets inside the characters and, especially, Mann himself who battles with his reactions to things and what he should do, how he should feel, the guilt he felt by leaving Germany, his horror at what is happening to his country and countrymen, and his seemingly lack of control over his two eldest of six children, Erika and Klaus. Their sexuality, politics, and morals were free, fluid and difficult and epitomised the Germany between its wars and the Germany that Hitler wanted to bury. Mann kept his true sexuality hidden and it was only with the publication of his diaries well after his death that the extent of his homosexuality was revealed.

Thomas Mann was the second most famous German in his day: Einstein was number one. A Nobel Laureate (1929) his books were very popular but of the old school; elongated sentences, long and sometimes obtuse with philosophical passages and ideas about politics, art, and beauty, not unlike those of Henry James, another writer Tóibín successfully novelised in his novel The Master (2004). Ironically Tóibín’s writing itself is not at all like that. It is bold in its simplicity, short sentences plainly made and stimulating. There are very few adverbs; no-one ever says anything ‘accusingly’; no-one looks ‘disapprovingly’. There are no contractions – a Tóibín moniker – which gives the language a formal and serious tone. It’s as if Tóibín’s plain words paints deep feelings in the reader’s mind – or should that be, Tóibín’s plain words forces the reader to paint deep feelings in their own mind? 

There are passages about writing, especially concerning his three most famous works, Buddenbrooks (1901), his first novel about the decline of a family which launched his career; Death in Venice (1912) his popular novella about death and beauty; and The Magic Mountain (1924) the work that gained him the Nobel Prize. Thomas Mann understood that while Buddenbrooks was based on his own family, there was some source for it that was outside of himself, beyond his control. It was like something in magic, something that would not come again so easily. This is what the prolific novelist Alexander McCall Smith referred to when he said writing was about opening up the subconscious. This ‘magic’, this evidnece of ‘the muse’ can also be described as like watching a television scene and writing down what you see and hear. Mann experienced it and I’m sure Tóibín does too.

The detailed passages of Mann’s thoughts about war, literature, creativity, and desire lead me to think Tóibín must have done intensive research into the works of Mann, particularly his essays, diaries, and non-fiction, and even into the works of Mann commentators. However, I had no wish to follow him there in an attempt to prove that what he writes is correct; I don’t care if he is correct. What I do care about is the veracity, the verisimilitude, of this work, this novel. What Tóibín has written concerning Mann’s thoughts might indeed be novelistic creation, ie fiction, but its believability is strong. That’s a novelist’s job: to make the reader believe the fiction even if it might not be true.

The narrative covers Mann’s life from the age of sixteen (1891) in Lübeck, a small city north east of Hamburg in Northern Germany; the family’s exile in Switzerland in 1933 and then the USA from 1940 to 1950; and final tour of a very different Germany but settling in Kilchberg, just south of Zurich, Switzerland in 1952; to just before his death in 1955 at the age of eighty.

While Tóibín’s other novelisation of a writer and his work, The Master (2004), about Henry James’s failed attempt to become a noted playwright is more creative and successful; this work, although interesting and enjoyable, is more biographical, as if Tóibín felt obliged to stick to the truth, rather than creating his own.

Here is a video of a reading by Colm Tóibín from The Magician, and conversation with Friedhelm Marx, Chair of Modern German Literature at the University of Bamberg, given recently at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Girlie Grub Goes to Bali by Annette White

Annette White, writer, illustrator
Girlie Grub

As you can imagine this book is designed for adults to read to young children. It is about a very inquisitive and young grub called Girlie and her Grub family and her journey on a blue balloon to visit Grandma and Grandpa Grub in Bali!  And that’s where her adventures really start; a magic cave, getting lost, and fleeing pesky chickens. 

Annette White has not only written and illustrated her Girlie Grub books – there’s 2 and more on the way – but she also designed her own font and now Girlie Grub has her own website! and, as you’ll see, merchandise! Click and take a look.

Grandpa Grub is particularly fond of silly jokes:

“Why do elephants wear striped pyjamas?”

“I don’t know, Grandpa, why do elephants wear striped pyjamas,” giggles Girlie.

“Because they don’t want to be spotted,” laughs Grandpa.

Annette and Ian White live in a village just north of Ubud, Bali. Like a lot of grandparents, the pandemic has been hard on Annette as she hasn’t seen her grand-daughter, Abi, back in Sydney, since December 2019, and now Abi has a baby brother, Will, who Grandma hasn’t even met yet. Annette, and husband Ian, have produced these sumptuous hard cover books and had them printed in Ubud. The pages are glossy, the illustrations colourful, and diverse. Older children will enjoy them too as they can read them for themselves.

I started drawing and scribbling in a small notebook a simple little tale for Abi, my 3-year-old granddaughter.
I would photograph a few pages and message them over to my son who would print them out to read to Abi. As the days and weeks went on, the story grew and grew and Billy kept running out of colour ink so said..get it printed into a book in Bali and post it over!
And that’s what happened!

Here is an animation video of the latest Girlie Grub adventure: Book 3, Girlie Grub Goes to New Zealand!

The books 1, Girlie Grub Goes to Bali and 2, Girlie Grub and the Grub Family go to Australia, are on the website now for you to browse; 3 and 4 are already in production but you can order the books direct from Annette at girliegrub@gmail.com

The Echo Chamber by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

  ‘But you live in Croydon,’ he said.

  ‘What on earth has that got to do with anything?’

  ‘If you don’t know, then there’s very little point in me trying to explain.’

   ‘I’ll have you know that Croydon is becoming quite gentrified these days.’

   ‘I just prefer a postcode that begins with a SW, that’s all,’ said George.

‘My father instilled certain values in me from the start that have stood me in good stead over the years. Carrying a monogrammed handkerchief, for example. Having a good tailor. Matching one’s belt with one’s shoes. The stuff of civilised living.’

‘You can’t make life decisions based on letters of the alphabet.’

‘I don’t see why not.’

It sounds like Boyne’s channelling Noel Coward! But if you’re out to write a comic novel Coward isn’t a bad role model. 

Boyne calls The Echo Chamber, his 13th novel for adults, a farce and indeed it is; and it should be read as one. Outrageous characters with appalling attitudes, self-serving decisions with names to match. Boyne, I think, had a ball writing this one and after his pummelling via social media by internet trolls and hate-loving twitter-ites over his last YA book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica (2019) – he could’ve avoided a lot of angst had he called it My Sister’s Name was Jason –  he had a lot to say and scream at, and a lot to get off his chest.  

The plot involves a famous British couple, George Cleverly, a Michael Parkinson-like BBC TV talk-show host; his popular novelist wife, Beverly Cleverly, who since her first success now employs ‘ghosts’ to pen her novels; their three Children, Nelson, an anxious nelly who can’t make up his mind who he is but likes to wear uniforms; Elizabeth, a social-media acolyte whose narcissism is only second to that of the youngest, Achilles, who scams older men via his charm and good looks while waiting to get laid by any pretty girl who sees him. It’s a family to loath but you also hope it will suddenly see the errors of its ways and move to the Outer Hebrides, or at least to somewhere without an Internet connection. 

This book is a lot of fun and is nothing like anything Boyne has written before. I hope he’s freed himself from his victimhood, taken a deep breath, and, since he’s blessed with booming sales, he will eventually, once all the PR appearances, chat-shows, and media interviews are over, settle down and chill out and let his novelistic talent that created, The Absolutist (2011), The History of Loneliness (2014), and (his masterpiece) The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017), surge again. THAT I’m looking forward to very much. 

The Echo Chamber is a great quick read to make you laugh out loud, groan a few times, and blow away a few lockdown cobwebs.  

Tring, a small town NW of London, in Herefordshire, holds an annual Book Festival; you can watch John Boyne being interviewed by fellow writer, Clare Pooley, at the 2021 event and talking about The Echo Chamber here

You can purchase the book in various formats here

The Promise by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut

It’s been 7 years since Galgut’s last novel, Arctic Summer (2014), a novelisation of the latter years of the English writer E. M. Forster, so The Promise, his latest, has been greatly anticipated. 

The most interesting aspect of this novel is the narrative voice. The writing is free-form: no quotation marks; dialogue and narrative merge – but you’ll be surprised how distinct and recognisable the dialogue is –  and usually in the 3rd person but with a little 1st, (my mother died this morning) and even a  peppering of the 2nd, like he’s talking to me, you, the reader, throwing asides at you, (check out the pic if you don’t believe me). Sometimes a character speaks aloud in a sentence started by the narrator; sometimes the narrator is embodied with feelings and sarcasm (Alwyn and his spouse, sorry, his sister…) It takes a few dozen pages for this free-form to meld into a tone, a voice, an attitude, but it does, and when it does you’ll be greatly relieved. You can relax, and once you do and let this voice work on you, you will have an entertaining reading experience. Although the narrator is unnamed, as most 3rd person narrators are, this one has attitude, likes, dislikes, and lets you know them. Changes of scene and characters happen mid sentence giving the narrative an unplanned wandering song-line, like a slideshow on a phone. It gives the work an attractive chatty tone but one that leads you deep inside the minds and actions of these flawed characters.

The book is divided in to 4 sections, each for one of the main characters of the Swart family, Ma, Pa, Astrid, and Anton. But the main character is Amor, the youngest, who is a child of 10 when her mother dies. However, days before, on Ma’s death bed, Amor overheard Ma’s dying wish: Sophia, the family’s loyal, long-serving, bare-foot black maid, is to be given ownership of her rented small and ramshackle house and land. Pa agrees. This is The Promise. Over the following decades South Africa sheds its hated Apartheid system, Nelson Mandela becomes president, black rule fails almost everybody’s expectations and hope for a brighter and more prosperous future; not unlike the trajectory of the disintegrating Swart family; like the slow decline of Sophia and her house. Amor goes her own way but the promise is forever on her mind and whenever she returns (Return to South Africa feels more like a condition than an act), only for family funerals, her determination to have the promise fulfilled is thwarted. Will the promise be fulfilled when she is the only one left? 

The knot of races in Galgut’s native South Africa seems never to be unloosed. This story could be read as a metaphor for the country; as could the plight of Sophia; as could Amor’s bruised determination; yet there is hope in that she could be the only one left standing with a future to build, albeit an unknown one and obviously difficult. 

The telling, but unconscious, thoughts of the whites (… so many black people drifting about as if they belong here) pepper the text and each time cement the notion that change will always remain elusive. Do all the whites have to die before the blacks can claim their place? 

Highly recommended.

Galgut’s The Promise has made it onto the 2021 Booker Prize long list. If it gets to the short list, as it should, it will be his third: the first In a Strange Room in 2003 and The Good Doctor in 2010. The links will take you to my blog posts. 

You can buy the book, in various formats, here

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

In my attempt to read John Boyne’s entire work for adults I’m continually impressed by the variety of people, places, times, and voices he uses.

  • 2000: The Thief of Time – a story, from 1758: the adventures of a man who forgets to die
  • 2001: The Congress of Rough Riders – about William Cody, the son of Buffalo Bill. 
  • 2004: Crippen – 1910, London, the body of a singer is discovered
  • 2006: Next of Kin – 1936, a cunning son tries to overturn his father’s will
  • 2008: Mutiny on the Bounty – the classic story told by the cabin boy, Jacob Turnstile
  • 2009: The House of Special Purpose – early 20 century, the Russian Tsar and revolution
  • 2011: The Absolutist – Tristan Sadler and his shocking secret of WWI
  • 2014: A History of Loneliness – an Irish priest confronts faith, friendship, and conscience
  • 2017: The Heart’s Invisible Furies – the life and times of Cyril Avery, Boyne’s masterpiece
  • 2018: A Ladder To The Sky – a would-be but uninspired writer finds other ways to be one
  • 2020: A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom – one family, the 1st century to the near future
  • 2021: The Echo Chamber – a comic novel of social media – to be released 5th August

This House is Haunted (2013), as the jacket tells us, and the title implies, is a ghost story. By being so upfront about what the book is, Boyne undermines any reticence a potential reader, like me, might have about ‘believing’ such a story. I don’t usually read ghost stories and wouldn’t necessarily have chosen this one except for the author. But knowing what it is, there is no need for Boyne to ‘convince’ you to go along with it; even as you open page one you are already going along with it.  

Boyne tells the straight-forward story in the past tense, in a first person narrative, as a young, determined, but plain woman, Eliza Caine in 1867. It’s not often that a writer writes in the gender not their own; Peter Carey, Jill Dawson, Ann Patchett have tried it, most don’t. Writing in the third person about a protagonist of another gender is very different to writing as the protagonist of another gender. Eliza faces an uncertain future after the death of her father and therefore unhesitatingly takes a governess position to the Westerly children of Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk. Her arrival is, of course, on a dark and stormy night and the house is large, shadowy, and turreted. The back story and her attempts to meet the seemingly elusive parents, to understand the deaths of three out of her four predecessors, and her growing relationship with enigmatic Isobella, quiet Eustace, and the other tight-lipped staff constitute the narrative; unexplainable incidents abound until Eliza is forced to admit, mainly to her practical self, that she is confronted, not by one spirit, but two. Who are they, and why are they still there? 

Like Peter Cary in My Life as a Fake, and Ann Patchett in The Dutch House both avoid any writerly pitfalls – writing in another gender – when it comes to matters of sex and romance by either making their protagonists uninterested in all that stuff (Carey) or not mentioning it at all (Patchett); Boyne also avoids such pitfalls by making his heroine especially plain and seemingly resigned to her probable spinsterhood. Good and sensible choices by all three, I suspect. 

The climax is, as expected, dramatic and almost filmic in its ghostly effects and although the ending is relatively happy – no spoilers here – it has a sting in its tail. 

This is a holiday-read, never demanding, always intriguing and for those of you who are familiar with this genre, I expect, completely satisfying. 

You can buy the book in various formats here.

 

 

 

 

The Lonely Man by Chris Power

British writer Chris Power

I was intrigued by a review of Chris Power’s A Lonely Man by Zoë Apostolides in the May 5 edition of The Financial Times for two reasons: the reviewer dubbed it ‘a literary thriller’ and used the word ‘postmodern’. I downloaded it immediately.

postmodernism: a late-20th-century style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism and has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies as well as a problematical relationship with any notion of “art”.

Oxford Dictionary

Literary theorists, usually critics, search for patterns in the literary output of the recent past. In simple terms what they found was a tendency ‘away’ from the well-plotted naturalistic narrative to a freer, less neat product. One of the postmodern techniques is incorporating the world of the writer into the world of the written; for example auto-fiction. Other examples of literary postmodernism are parody, unreliable narrators, and the abandonment of a single theme.

Although I’m not a great believer in genres, I am interested in how writers write, what the literary industry will allow, its latest trends, and how best to tell a story, but always with the reader in mind. Postmodernism, I think, lets the reader slip from the top position of the writer’s responsibilities; to be replaced by the writer.

Robert Prowe (anagram of Power), with his wife Karijn, live in Berlin. He is a writer trying to write a novel but it isn’t going well. He meets Patrick, who appears to be a rather dishevelled drunk, in a bookshop and then on a few other occasions until they form a friendship, of sorts. Patrick is a writer too and also struggling, but as a ghostwriter for a Russian oligarch, Sergei Vanyashin, who “pissed of Putin and had to get out of Russia” and so wants to write his memoir to clear his name, but, it seems, at Putin’s expense. Robert finds Patrick’s story of his meeting with Vanyashin not only fascinating but also inspiring. The meeting is described in novelistic detail until you, the reader, realise that what you have just read is not narrated by Power’s third-person narrator of A Lonely Man, but narrated by Robert and is his first attempt at novelising Patrick’s story. Robert’s dilemma is what can a writer use? Is Robert thieving or creating? The ‘thriller’ element is the threat felt by Patrick from Putin’s henchmen is transferred to Robert, but this only works if you, the reader, finds this transference plausible. This reader didn’t.

The other postmodern element is the incredibly un-neat ending: the henchmen certainly make their threatening presence felt, but then just walk away. This blunt ending feels less postmodern and more like a literary waterfall full of the expectation of a sequel.

I always enjoy writers writing about writing, and here the writing is assured and competent, but this ‘literary thriller’ did not, for this reader, live up to the hype.

You can watch an interview with Chris Power here.

And here you can buy the book in various formats.

The Absolutist by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover” goes the old saying, but of course we do. The cover of John Boyne’s 7th adult novel, The Absolutist (2011), tells us a lot: WW I, soldiers, a white feather, trench warfare. So here’s the opening lines,

Seated opposite me in the railway carriage, the elderly lady in a fox-fur shawl was recalling some of the murders that she had committed over the years. ‘There was the vicar of Leeds’s she said, smiling a little …

This is one of the things I like about Boyne: he sparks curiosity, intrigue, interest at every turn.

In 1919, Tristan Sadler, on the eve of his twenty first birthday, is going to Norwich to deliver a bunch of letters to a woman he’s never met. In a pub he thinks about getting drunk, causing a scene, getting arrested, and being put back on the next train to London, then … I wouldn’t have to go through with it.

The woman is Marian Bancroft, the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he met in army training, served with in the trenches of France, who refused to fight anymore, and who was court-martialed and shot. He was also the man Tristan Sadler fell in love with.

There is a melancholic tone to this story, but one in which Boyne trickles out important information and intriguing details which adds to the vivid characterisations and keeps your interest high.

There are two narratives: Tristan’s tough journey in 1919 to see the sister of his secret lover and public traitor, Will Bancroft, and interspersed with this, the events of 1916/17 when he first met Will at army training, and then in the rat and mud infested trenches of France where the devastating climax is revealed. But there is a coda: Tristan and Marian meet 60 years later, in 1979, when he is a famous novelist, and she a prickly woman still, widow, and grandmother, who had never liked reading novels. “Actually, I came around to them in the end. Just not yours.” It’s a bold but satisfying end to “a wonderful, sad, tender book,” says the quote from Colm Tóibín; another bit of truth on the front cover.

Boyne’s adult writing is literary fiction but his style isn’t dry or over written or weighed-down by internal musings. This one, in essence, is a story of a man going on a train to visit a stranger. The interest is why he is going, how (if) he will tell her, and what will happen then? This, of course, depends on Tristan’s backstory which is where the real plot is. Boyne is fundamentally a storyteller and he always does this admirably by putting the plot in the hands and minds of three-dimensional, flawed, but brave characters. The structure also seems right. It’s neat and satisfying and not surprising that the film rights have been bought by Ridley Scott. Although there has been no news about the production since the cast (William Moseley, Jack O’Connell, Derek Jacobi, Joely Richardson, Colin Firth, Vanessa Redgrave) and director (Stephen Daltry) were announced in 2013.

This 2011 work is up there with Boyne’s best.

Highly recommended.

Here is a short video of John Boyne talking about the inspiration for The Absolutist.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna

Australian writer, Sofie Laguna.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the marketing quotes on the covers, back and front: they were all for Sofie Laguna’s previous novels, not this one. I found this curious, particularly the quotes on the front cover. Were there no advanced critical readings? Maybe not. I have not read her previous work. However, I certainly know about her prizes and acclaim.

The title, Infinite Splendors (2020), is an uncommon collocation, and therefore very difficult to remember but when you realise it refers to the craft of painting it makes sense.

Lawrence Loman is an intelligent 10 year old growing up in Western Victoria in the shadow of the Grampians in the early 1950s. He lives remotely with his war-widowed mother, Louise, his younger brother, Paul, and next door to Mrs Barry. These people, and his teachers, Mrs St Clare and Mr Wade make up his world. They define everything he knows.

Mrs St Clare introduces him to splendors he had never imagined. One Friday afternoon she asks her students to don smocks, to stand in front of easels with paint and brushes, and to look at the large blank pieces of white paper on each one. She then directs their gaze towards the windows. What do you see? Lawrence does as he is bid, picks up the brush, dabs it in paint, and attends to what he sees out the window. Minutes later he looks at what he has done and gasps: Ah! Who did that?

From that moment he is attune to paint and light. He notices shadows on wet moss and wonders how to put them on paper; he notices the light on the mountains that loom over his world; he sees the light change and how it changes each peak; he understands how light on a face can change its expression, can change feelings. His teachers and mother are astounded at his intuitive skill, as is he. His future seems assured. These early chapters are wonderful to read and expertly described as a young bright boy discovers creativity, and more remarkably that that creativity is his own.

When his much-admired, and anticipated, batchelor uncle comes to stay everything changes, as did my expectations.

We are living in the golden age of television. Drama, particularly crime drama has been abundantly produced for the last few decades or more. Streaming services are many and the product they stream is excellent in every possible way. My only complaint at times has been the subject matter; too many crime dramas have relied on crimes against women: kidnappings, murders, rapes, mutilations, terror, and abandonment. This trend, I believe, is waning, much to my relief, but for a long time I lamented the apparent limited scope of television writers in their search for a plot. These crimes are horrific and spotlight the worst of our species and, of course, we can’t look away but as fodder for scripted drama I found it repetitive and predictable.

Similarly, was my reaction to this novel: a pedophile uncle? Oh no, not again! But yes. Lawrence Loman’s life is destroyed without any understanding, interference, or support from the adults around him: he has never told, can’t tell, anybody. His personality changes, he loses the ability to verbally communicate, he retreats within himself, and after all the adults in his world die or move away he is alone and we, as readers, are only left with his internal monologue and sparse meetings with strangers that scare him, abuse him, and think him crazy. That crazy old hermit who does nothing but paint. And paint he does, until the house is overrun with canvases, still lifes and the objects that inspire them, portraits, landscapes and cloudscapes. Anything that can capture light.

This is a great challenge for the writer: a protagonist that cannot effectively communicate and the 1st-person narrative combine to leave the writer with little but an internal monologue to work with. Laguna takes on the challenge head-on but is not completely successful. The latter half of the book is strewn with patches of repetitive purple prose that left this reader cold.

I also noticed that on her Acknowledgement Page no initial readers are thanked. So there were no advanced critical readings. This is a pity; such previews are invaluable and I’m sure this novel would’ve benefited from such a process.

Here is a short video of Sophie Laguna introducing her new book, Intimate Splendors.

You can buy Sofie Laguna’s Infinite Splendors, and her other novels, in various formats here.

Tree Surgery for Beginners by Patrick Gale

British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall

This is a story about Lawrence, a tree surgeon and a man at the mercy of his emotions and those that love him. In a bout of jealousy he shoves his wife, Bonnie, and she falls and does far more damage than he ever intended. She leaves him and takes their daughter, Lucy, with her. She not only leaves, she disappears. Coincidentally, the charred and unidentifiable remains of a female is found in a shallow grave near his house the next day and he is implicated, jailed, and tried by media as the (very) possible murderer.

This is the entry into Lawrence’s family: his mother, Dora, his father-in-law, Charlie, and his ‘batchelor’ uncle Darius. These characters are well drawn in true Patrick Gale fashion; he is a master not only of character-building but also of character-differentiation.

What impresses me about Gale is his succinct strokes of the novelistic brush: he describes Bonnie’s inexperienced seduction of Lawrence as ” … inquisitive as a Brownie, insistent as a nurse.” How clear!

We learn of everyone’s back story and the velcro-ed relationships that take us up to Lawrence’s incarceration. Bonnie and Lucy, having ‘disappeared’ to Paris with the cause of Lawrence’s jealousy, Craig, and so know nothing of the legal and media furor that enveloped her husband, return and Lawrence is released although his career, business, and demeanour are all smashed.

The bridge-expert, Darius, takes Lawrence on a transAtlantic card-playing cruise to try to restore the poor man’s self-confidence. The characters he, and us, meet are also expertly drawn; people that he wouldn’t usually come into contact with crowd around him and try as he might to distance himself from ‘these people’ they sustain him. He falls in love with the on-board entertainer, Lala, who everybody believes, and as her publicity infers, was born a man. This is handled with great subtlety, skill, and truth.

Then in Chapter 20 while on a stopover on the Caribbean island of St Martin, the plot goes off the rails. A tiger, another (unclear) death, a murder explained, a disappearance, an even more unlikely marriage, and a long-lost twin.

Keeping the reader’s suspension of disbelief* in tact is the writer’s main aim; losing the writer the greatest sin. Gale lost me with the fate of Lala and her later … no more spoilers here.

What happened in this book is that Gale let the reader fade from his novelistic decision making. I had to go back and re-read sections to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I shouldn’t have to do this. I still enjoyed the writing, but I felt this book needed another draft. When something ultra-surprising happens – and it’s my belief that if the reader is surprised the author probably was too – the writer has to overcome the disbelief of such a surprise and take the reader along – not leave them behind; take the time to describe the detail. Detail, afterall, is the hallmark of novelistic belief. Some of the twists and coincidences in this novel from 1998 were hurried and veracity lost.

Nevertheless, I remain a Gale fan and will continue on my quest to read all his work; eleven so far, nine more to go; some I want to re-read. He also has a new novel coming out this year, Mother’s Boy.

*The concept that to become emotionally involved in a narrative, audiences must react as if the characters are real and the events are happening now, even though they know it is ‘only a story’. In other words, you know you’re sitting in your reading chair by the window in your living room, all of which is real, but you can also engage emotionally, believe, the characters and setting of the fiction, which isn’t real, that you happen to be reading. This is exactly what happens in the theatre. The disbelief is that what you are reading is not real, because you are sitting in your reading chair at home – that is real; you need to suspend this disbelief in order to become engaged with the book, i.e., emotionally believe it. And this is exactly what happens with religion.