A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

British-Indian author Vikram Seth

The story begins:

‘You will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs Rupa Mehra to her youngest daughter, Lata.

Seth doesn’t waste time, which is well to remember as you turn from page 1276 to page 1277 with several hundred to go.

It is a novel of rich history, set in the years 1949 to 1951 in the fictional city of Brahmpur on the banks of the Ganges, only a few years after the separation of the subcontinent into India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh): Hindus from Muslims. It has been reported that 2 million Muslims were killed in the violence that resulted from partition. There is little evidence of the bloodshed; Muslim and Hindu families feature prominently in the story; they mix socially and even politically but their social and political differences are only as severe as those of the other stratas of society: caste, employment, race, and education.

The three Hindu families: the Mehras, Chatterjis, and Kapoors are all connected by marriage. The Muslim family, the Khans, are linked to the other families through politics, friendship, and wealth.

Through the course of the story three suitors emerge, Kabir Durrani, a fellow student, whom Lata Mehra, the potential bride, befriends over their love of literature; Amit Chatterji, a poet and the brother of Lata’s sister-in-law, and Haresh Khanna, an ambitious and enterprising young man and the one favoured by Mrs Rupa Mehra as the most suitable boy. However, Kadir, whom Lata really loves, is Muslim.

There is also a subplot – the main among many – of Maan Kapoor, the son of the respected state Minister of Revenue and his relationship with Firoz Khan and with a beautiful singer and courtesan, Saeeda Bai.

It would be foolish to precis the plot as it may end up far longer than a precis should ever be. However, Seth uses these interconnected characters and families, history and society, time and custom, to weave a colourful diorama as entertaining, instructive, and dense as the book’s size suggests. Religious observance, sexuality and desire, hypocrisy, infidelity, colonialism, independence, tragedy, humour, parental and social power, love, and duty are all interwoven and treated with honesty and skill by a writer whose command is never in doubt.

The language is plain and sometimes surprising in its forthrightness. Standout scenes: a highly comic cocktail party with the remaining but slightly bewildered British and the newly empowered locals; the description of the near-tragic religious festival (Kumbh Mela called Pul Mela in the book) where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims bath in holy rivers all over India; and the consequences of a wayward condom.

Seth has been working on a ‘sequel’ called A Suitable Girl but as of 2019 it was unfinished; a suitable ending has proved elusive.

A Suitable Boy has been on my to-read list for years. If you decide to tackle it, give it your best. It deserves it.

Highly recommended.

Here is a charming interview with Seth from 2015, mainly about poetry and writer’s block filmed at his home in England.

The BBC produced a 6 part television series released in 2020. Directed by Mira Nair with a teleplay by Andrew Davies, you can watch the trailer here. The series is available on Netflix.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz, British novelist and screenwriter

There is a constant with contemporary crime writing: you don’t get to know the victim until after they’re dead. There is a focus on the mystery, the who-did-it, the victim is not so important, except in relation to why. Consequently, popular crime fiction has, usually, left me cold. Of course, as sheer entertainment, it fills the bill, but I don’t really care who did it; that’s not the point, I’ve been told: it’s the working it out, of having it worked out for you, that provides the satisfaction.

What attracted me to pick up Magpie Murders (2016) from my sister’s bookshelf, in the beautiful Barossa Valley, while waiting for international travel to re-start so I could go home, was the promise that this was something different; not just a who-done-it.

This is a book about a book. A book editor, Susan Ryeland, is to read the latest manuscript of her author client, Alan Conway; a man she doesn’t like very much but she likes his work (because it’s successful and makes her company a lot of money that secures her job) and is looking forward to reading Conway’s latest, Atticus Pünt mystery #9, Magpie Murders. We meet Susan in the first-person prologue as she sits in her house in Crouch End London preparing herself to read and telling us that, she didn’t know it then, Magpie Murders was going to change her life.

But Magpie Murders really did change everything for me. I no longer live at Crouch End. I no longer have my job. I’ve managed to lose a great many friends. That evening, as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin and, quite frankly, I wish I’d never allowed myself to get pulled on board. It was all down to that bastard, Alan Conway.

Then we turn the page and get to Alan Conway’s typescript itself – the book that this book is about – satisfactorily in a different font, a typescript font, Courtier, always used for screen and tele plays. However, to cement the pretense we first read About the Author, Alan Conway, and his many achievements; then a list of his other Atticus Pünd titles; then a page of glowing quotes from writers, newspapers, and magazines ending with a capitalised announcement:

SOON TO BE A MAJOR BBC1 TELEVISION SERIES (and it probably will be)

We, now, like Susan, are about to read Alan Conway’s new book, Magpie Murders.

And yes, the first victim has already been dispatched.

23 July 1955. There was going to be a funeral. Two gravediggers, old Jeff Weaver and his son, Adam, had been out at first light and everything was ready. (Gravediggers! So classic, Shakespearean even. Detail has always been the novelists’ trick to make you believe their fiction, and a day and date is the most believable detail of all.)

Conway’s Magpie Murders is set in a small English village, Saxby-on-Avon, and, as expected, small village life is far from quiet, or straight-forward; all reminiscent of Horowitz’s other vastly popular invention, Midsomer Murders. Then there’s another murder, a decapitation no less, and then another death with Atticus Pünd fishing around for clues and revealing all the undercurrents of resentment, jealousy, lies, and treachery that seem to make up British village existence.

This is all faithful to the genre in the great tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. But if you flick through the pages-to-come you will see a change in font and a return to Susan’s first person narrative in Crouch End in 2016:

Annoying isn’t it? She says. I dared not read or flick further as I wanted to let Horowitz do his work on me, and read the book as he intended it to be read, but I was re-assured that, yes, this was probably going to be a very different crime novel. I was intrigued because what we discover is that Alan Conway’s Magpie Murders is … (no spoilers here).

(I was reminded of Ian McEwan who also likes to play around with the reader, as in his novel Sweet Tooth (2012) where the fact that you’re reading it tells you how it ends.)

Whatever it was that I was expecting from Horowitz, the different fonts, and information from the front and back covers, my sister’s comments, doesn’t happen. Something else happens. The book, Conway’s Magpie Murders, and the dilemma that faces Susan Ryland, when she, and you, get to page 219 of Conway’s Magpie Murders, takes Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, off in a completely different direction … or does it?

For crime buffs, this is a real and unexpected treat, although the unexpected bit turns out to be another who-done-it: two for the price of one!

Horowitz also has his tongue firmly in his cheek – and for this reason alone I j u s t might read another book of his. (Look at that smile on his face!) Susan arranges a meeting over a cup of tea with the local policeman. He gives her 15 minutes of his time but he spends almost 12 minutes of this time telling her about the reality of murder:

All the murderers I’ve met have been thick as shit. Not clever people. Not posh or upper class. Thick as shit. And you know how we catch them? We don’t ask them clever questions and work out that they don’t have an alibi, that they weren’t actually where they were meant to be. We catch them on CCTV. Half the time they leave their DNA all over the crime scene. Or they confess. Maybe one day you should publish the truth although I’m telling you, nobody would want to read it … if you want my advice, you’ll go back to London and forget it. Thanks for the tea.

If you read who-done-its, read this one, if you haven’t already.

Here, at the end of my blog I usually supply links to interesting videos of, or about, the writer and/or their book, to compliment what I have written. But not this time. Too much information would give away the surprises.

However, I will tell you where you can buy it. Here.

Released this year is another Susan Ryeland mystery: Moonflower Murders (Magpie Murders 2). He loves alliteration.

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

When you are born into a Judeo-Christian society you are a product of that society whether you subscribe to the belief system or not, and that goes for all societies that have a belief system at their core.

Belief systems have accompanied human existence since the year dot; they predate governments and were in fact human’s first taste of governance. It belies our history to denounce religious belief as irrelevant and purely a product of our human ability to imagine a truth even if that truth doesn’t exist. It would be equally absurd to denounce our artistic nature simply because it is another product of our imagination that also allows us to make up stories.

However, there is a difference, a big difference, between a belief system and the administration of that belief system. It is the synagogue, the temple, the mosque, the church that tells their followers what to wear, what they can eat and when to eat it, how to sing, what the god meant, and what they must do to get to a better place; to be blunt, it is the belief system that sustains its followers but the administration that damages them. And to be blunt again, this book is about how a good priest comes to terms with a bad one.

I’m avoiding using the word evil, which shouldn’t really exist as a noun, it is better used only as an adjective: people do evil things, and at the heart of every evil thing is a need. In some cases that need, and the person’s actions to satisfy that need, are distorted, sometimes outrageously so, but nevertheless a need that needs to be sated. In some cases that need isn’t understood even by the perpetrator of the resulting evil deeds which makes them all the more difficult, some say impossible, to judge, correct, or punish.

A History of Loneliness (2014) is the book before Boyne’s master-work, The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) – the book that introduced me to this author – and these two books are the only ones set in his native Ireland.

Obran Yates is an Irish boy with a malleable nature. He enters a seminary in 1972 at the behest of his mother because she tells him he has a calling, and we follow his education with its friendships and frustrations, his family with its joys and tragedies, and his work as a teacher and parish priest with its disappointments and sacrifices. In parallel with this history of priestly life is the shadow of sexual abuse at the hands of priests; a shadow that grows and darkens despite that administration’s attempts to ignore it.

We all know about this blight on our Judeo-Christian society. Names like George Pell and Malka Leifer remind us of it almost nightly between Covid-19 news updates.

The writing is assured, confident, and skillful and Boyne pulls no punches. He has confessed to having a hot anger against the Catholic Church for decades but he has channelled that anger to tell a story about a good priest who like most religious leaders do the right thing and sustain the believers in their care, but Boyne also makes it clear that the old response – don’t let a few bad apples taint the whole barrel – is a very poor one. Why? because the administration of christianity is rigidly hierarchical and fiercely insular in its protection of itself, to the point of betraying then abandoning those in its care. Speaking out against their own is not what priests do. They should and hopefully will.

The belief system says “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” and the administration of that belief system has completely reversed and blighted the meaning.

This is a book that needs to be read. It is also a great argument for the power of fiction to tell us the truth.

Here is an interview with John Boyne about A History of Loneliness.

You can purchase the book in various formats here.

Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

It’s a rollicking ride of the story that we think we all know, and we do know the basic facts: the Bounty was captained by William Bligh to sail to Otaheite (Tahiti) in 1789; it’s mission was to collect seedlings of breadfruit to then transport to the West Indies as a cheap food source for slaves; his first mate, Fletcher Christian, led a mutiny a few days after leaving Tahiti; William Bligh and a few loyal followers were set adrift in a small launch; they sailed, rowed, and finally made it to West Timor and the Dutch settlement of Kampung; the survivors, including Bligh, were repatriated to England. Later Bligh became Governor of the colony of New South Wales.

But Boyne’ story is told from the point of view of the cabin boy, John Jacob Turnstile, christened unkindly by the crew as ‘Turnip’. He’s fourteen years old, smart, opinionated, and roughly educated; the offer to sail saved him from his life of poverty and as a member of a group of boys in Portsmouth lorded over by the vile Mr Lewis who not only trained them in the art of pickpocketing but also made them available to entertain the particular proclivities of Portsmouth’s wealthier gentlemen.

It’s a fascinating and adventurous account of life on board a small sailing vessel in the sixteenth century and Boyne sticks to the story as history; but what is different is the characters of the main players: Mr Bligh, captain in name only, not in rank, (fact) is a strict commander but kind to Turnip and in return the boy is loyal to him; Christian, a well educated son of a wealthy family fallen on hard times, is a charismatic and handsome specimen who is the only man on board who owns a mirror, uses pomade in his hair, and is noted for his body odour because of his lack of it.

While on Otaheite, Bligh allows the men freedom to reside on the island and fraternize with the natives; many of the men, including Turnip, form relationships with the local women whose culture isn’t burdened with social and sexul mores as is the Englishmen’s.

When two sailors foolishly desert their posts and hide in a remote part of the island with their women, Bligh is outraged and regrets his original leniency and commands all the men to ‘live’ back on board the Bounty. This, in Boyne’s version, is the deed that sows the seed of the eventual rebellion. The deserters are finally caught and Bligh, lenient again, has them flogged, rather than hanged. This is only the second flogging on the entire voyage, something of a record and one that Bligh is extremely proud of, but now, again, regrets his leniency and tries to impose his authority once again.

While on their way west towards the Caribbean the men were so depressed and angry at their having to leave the climate, freedom, lifestyle, and their newfound relationships that their mutinous mumblings are stoked by Christian into mutinous deeds.

Turnip remains loyal to Bligh and joins the other 18 men on the tiny launch Christian confines them to, as they watch Christian’s men sail away tossing all the one thousand breadfruit plants into the sea as they go.

The 42 day journey in an open boat to Timor is harrowing; some men don’t survive and some men succumb to the ordeal even after reaching Timor, so malnourished and mentally exhausted were they that medical assistance couldn’t save them. Turnip survives and we learn of his return to Portsmouth and … sorry, no spoilers here.

It’s an entertaining, accomplished, and a satisfying read. Boyne’s choice of vocabulary and syntax is appropriate to time, character, and social position. The story has been filmed five times and written about more, each with Bligh as the villian; this story is different.

You can buy the Kindle version, along with other formats, here.

The Outside Boy by Jeanine Cummins

American writer Jeanine Cummins

Like a lot of readers I discovered Jeanine Cummins via the controversy over her mega-selling fourth book, American Dirt (2020), which is a flight story of a mother and child fleeing the wrath of a drug cartel – they had murdered her journalist husband and 16 members of her immediate family – in Acapulco, Mexico for the safety of the USA. You can read my blog post about that book here. Latinx writers got very upset that a ‘white’ woman should deem to write, and successfully so, a Latina story; the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ was used a lot in the ensuing brouhaha. I’m not completely sure why, but I usually tend not to read American writers; British, Irish, European, and Australian writers keep pushing the Americans down on my to-read pile. I’ll need to address this in a future post. A friend kindly sent me the book in the mail during the Melbourne lockdown – I was caught in Australia for most of 2020. I was surprised at how good it is: a cracking good read. Yes, it was a commercial success – helped along, no doubt, by Oprah Winfrey – but the writing is also good, authoritative, and compelling.

My lock-down host then gave me this, Cummin’s second book, The Outside Boy (2010). Although this too is a book set in a different culture to her own: Ireland, and a different time: 1959, no controversy erupted over this one. Cummins identifies as ‘white’, although she has a Puerto Rican grandmother; her husband is Irish which may account for the inspirational spark here.

It is a coming-of-age story of a 12 year old boy, Christy Hurley, a tinker’s son, a traveller, a pavee, told through his eyes, his words. The mashed grammar, misplaced syntax, and sometimes literal spelling all add up to the acceptable sound of a traveller’s boy, a gypsy youth who sees the world without any city notions of blame, cause & effect, and obligation.

“She’s my mother,” I said, and even though I was whispering, my words fell into the quiet room likes stones into a pond. They rippled out til I could see them on Missus Hanley’s face. She knew the weight of them words; she took them serious.

Cummins explains in an Author’s Note that she has not been entirely true to the traveller’s voice; a truly authentic pavee voice “would have rendered the book almost impenetrable to the American reader.” Her close writing and vocabulary choices are fundamentally apt and effective, although I think an unschooled gypsy boy in 1959 Ireland would not know the words ‘precarious’ or ‘choreography’, but this is a small point.

Christy is motherless. All he has of her is a mysterious photo from a partly burnt newspaper article. She died at his birth. “I killed her!” he often says. His father is frustratingly mute on the subject of the boy’s mother, but finding the truth of her becomes his, and the book’s, quest and narrative force.

The colourful world, language, and culture of the Irish travellers are major reasons that the book is such a joy to read. Like all good fiction a novel can take you out of your own world and show you how other people live, think, and carry-on regardless.

This is a highly entertaining and moving work. Highly recommended.

Here is a short video of Cummins talking about the inspiration and the writing of The Outside Boy.

You can buy various editions of the book here.

Contempt by Michael Cordell

American novelist and screenwriter
Michael Cordell

Text courtesy of TCK Publishing.

There was a time when eBooks were thought to be the death of paper books, just like television once  was thought to be the death of movies. However, on both occasions  new ways of telling stories just slotted in alongside old ways of telling stories and all that happened was consumers were given more choice. Not such a bad outcome.

Back in 2019 Colm Toibin said, “I can’t do thrillers and I can’t do spy novels. I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing; it’s like watching TV.”

Yes, genre-fiction can be like watching TV, but writing ‘like watching TV’ is a skill in itself that some writers do well – and we’ve seen a surge of good dramatic TV writing over the last decade or more – and some writers do badly; Cordell does it well. He should know: he’s been teaching screenwriting for the past 15 years.

Thane Banning, a real estate lawyer, is on death row after being found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit. After five years he is released on a legal technicality, but soon finds himself defending a man, an innocent man, up on a murder charge, just like he was .. but the sweetness of the case, for Banning, is that the prosecutor is the same man, Bradford Stone, who put him behind bars. Win this and Banning gets to see Stone’s downfall.

It was a risk for Cordell to leave the backstory – the reason why Banning was on death row in the first place – so late in the set-up, almost a third of the way in. But there is a lot of the personal backstory to establish first, and its importance to the plot keeps the reader interested. Besides his old crime is intricately linked to the new on. No spoilers here.

Banning, a novice criminal lawyer, doesn’t start his new role well: everything, personal and professional, goes wrong and before the case really heats up Banning is heading for disaster. But his contempt for the legal system lets his determination and imagination fly. He decides to work by his own rules … hear the music thump and swell as Banning goes it alone.

This plotline is expected for such a genre piece, but Banning’s hurdles aren’t cliched ones, neither are his metaphors; standard fare for crime prose since Raymond Chandler was a pup.

We stay with Banning all the way, like an imp on his shoulder. However, unusually, even the imp gets left in the dark which gives the denouement, that little post climatic tie-up, a taste of exceptional unreality; but that’s a minor point.

This is a quick, easy, and entertaining read. What’s the ‘page-turner’ appellation for an ebook? A page-swiper? Yeah! Escapist fare.

You can find the link to the book here.

Here again is the link to TCK Publishing for more of the same.

And here is the author’s website.

The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

Australian writer, Steven Conte

Steven Conte hit the headlines in 2008 when his novel, The Zookeeper’s War won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, which, by the way, was won last year by Gail Jones.

That debut novel was set in Berlin during World War II and this one, The Tolstoy Estate, is also set during that war; this time in the winter of 1941 when a German Medical Unit is deployed to the Russian front where it sets up a field hospital in a vast country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, just south of Moscow, that is, in fact, the country home, and burial place of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known to us by his German appellation, Leo Tolstoy. The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Paul Bauer, is a Tolstoy fan and one of the senior surgeons of the unit. The estate is lorded over by the head custodian, and Russian firebrand, Katerina Dmitrievna Trubetzkaya. She is a formidable character, a writer herself, and a masterful creation. With her sharp tongue, hardened Russian loyalties, and fierce dedication to the great novelist she becomes a major thorn in the side of the German officers; as if they haven’t enough to deal with: the constant stream of fighting men with debilitating, challenging, and horrific wounds, their isolation, lice, and, most of all, the brain-numbing and life-threatening cold (-43°C). It defeated Napoleon and it would defeat Hitler, as Katerina Dmitrievna is continually telling them.

Conte immerses the reader in the life of the hospital, the officers and staff, their foibles and idiosyncrasies as well as their work at the operating tables. His description of a thirty six hour non-stop operating shift, where life and death tussle with each other like naughty children at play and that seemingly will never end is one of the most vivid pieces of writing I have read in a very long time.

As relationships develop, split, and reassemble it is the one between Paul Bauer and Katerina Dmitrievna that gradually pulls our focus. They have a shared love of Tolstoy and talk often about him and his work, but of course not often enough, especially for Bauer. The stability of the unit is severely challenged by the interactions between the German medical team and the Russian staff, which further complicates Bauer’s growing affection for the prickly Katerina Dmitrievna.

And then at chapter twelve, just over half way through the novel, Conte pulls a swifty. Suddenly we are twenty six years into the future, in 1967, and Katerina Dmitrievna is in Helsinki writing to Paul Bauer in Nuremberg. And so begins another narrative stream, an epistolary one, that, for the rest of the novel, runs in parallel with the harsh winter’s tale at Yasnaya Polyana in 1941.

Yes, we know that they both survive the war and we think we know what then may have happened, or even what might, but Conte is not such a formuleic writer for it was just five pages from the end that I let escape a loud and unwanted, ‘Oh no!’ as I raced to read what had happened. (No spoilers here)

Great stuff!

I loved this book and I hope we don’t have to wait 12 years for the next Conte work.

Here is an extended interview with Steven Conte about the writing of The Tolstoy Estate from Avid Reader Bookshop channel.

You can find out more about Steven Conte and his books here.

The Tolstoy Estate can be purchased in various formats here.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

American writer Barbara Kingsolver

On Friday, November 16, 2018 John Chau a 26 year old adventure blogger, beef-jerky marketer, and evangelical missionary walked onto the beach of the isolated North Sentinel Island, in the Andaman Sea, east of the Bay of Bengal, southern Asia. He clutched a fish and a copy of the bible. He hollered at a group of Sentinelese natives, ‘My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you.’ The natives strung arrows in their bows and he panicked slightly and threw the fish to them. An arrow pierced his Bible. He frantically paddled in his kayak back to the boat and the fisherman he had paid to bring him to the island. He was fearful but mainly disappointed. ‘They didn’t accept me right away.’ He returned the next day with the fishing boat out of sight thinking it was the boat the natives feared. He kayaked back to the same beach and attempted again to make contact. He was killed and his body has never been recovered. His father believes his son was a victim of an extreme vision of Christianity. John Chau has been called a martyr, an innocent child, a dumb American, and a deluded idiot.

John Chau’s mistakes that led to his death were a result of cultural ignorance, arrogance, hubris, and misguided religious fervour; and these are also behind the motivation of Kingsolver’s character Nathan Price, around which her novel The Poisonwood Bible turns in ever-dangerous circles. He attempts the same contact and Christian conversion of the villagers of Kilanga in what was then, in 1959, the Belgian Congo, but unlike Chau, Price takes along his wife, Oleanna, and their four young daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.

John Chau, according to his family, ‘“loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people”. Nathan Price had a similar belief in God that was so profound that he was embarrassed because God must be watching him even while his four daughters were conceived.

The story contained in the Poisonwood Bible is told only by the Price women. Oleanna opens every section but it is the girls who alternately tell the story of their continuing life-threatening existence; the villagers they befriend, the events that buffet their lives and the poverty they are forced into.

Each daughter has her own distinctive voice; this is Kingsolver’s greatest strength. The language is rich and revealing, defining and luscious. Rachel, the eldest, 15 at the beginning of the novel is self-centered and obsessed with her looks, her prised possession, a mirror. Adah, a twin, has a passion for palindromes, and has a congenital defect: the right side of her body ‘drags’; I was born with half my brain dried up like a prune. However she is witty and intelligent, opinionated but envious of her twin, Leah, who is the most outspoken, a tom-boy who worries about her salvation, and blames herself for Adah’s affliction. Ruth May. the baby, is inquisitive and observant, and sees the world as a baby might: innocently.

Seen through these five facets, the world of the Price women is multi-dimensional, exotic, and full of adversity: the natives, the forest, the river, the wildlife, the ants, the rain, the drought, and their ultimate adversary, the man, husband and father, who governs their bodies and minds. There’s no room for the devil here, not with Nathan Price around.

But it is not all doom and despair, there is childhood play and truthfulness and light-hearted growing up, but their inner lives, told to us by each narrator, tells of an existence separate, but true, from the one they have to present to their father, their supposed protector.

The Poisonwood Bible, her fourth novel published in 1998, is Kingsolver’s best known work. It as an ambitious and most assured novel. Nathan Price is almost a god-figure, rarely present, but his shadow hovers over and dominates the lives and thoughts of his women and their actions. Just like his God, he is tyrannical.

Strange to say, when it came I felt as if I’d been waiting for it my whole married life. Waiting for that axe to fall so I could walk away with no forgiveness in my heart. Maybe the tragedy began on the day of my wedding, then. Or even earlier, when I first laid eyes on Nathan at that tent revival. A chance meeting of strangers, and the end of the world unfolds.

The family seems doomed as long as it stays together, and out of sheer necessity, the women, but not all of them, save their own lives by putting themselves in even more danger.

However, ultimately this is not a book about daughters living with the day-to-day dangers triggered by a deluded dumb-American father; it’s more about how the daughters survived their deluded dumb-American father – and their mother who was powerless to stop him. Children are resilient, they survive, damaged perhaps, but they survive as best they can:

You can’t just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back.

The similarities between Kingsolver’s Nathan Price and Lucy Treloar’s Stanton Finch (Salt Creek, 2015) are pronounced: god-bothered men who put their loved-ones at great risk all for the sake of a belief system they learned, unchallenged, from their own parents.

I know many have read this book, but if you haven’t, do.

There are many free videos, short and long, on YouTube featuring Barbara Kingsolver talking about her work. Here is a short piece where she talks about the power of fiction.

You can buy the book, in various formats, here, along with her latest, Unsheltered (2018).

A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

John Boyne has in his novelistic career stretched a life over two and a half centuries (A Thief of Time, 2000); channelled Buffalo Bill (The Congress of Rough Riders, 2001); Captain William Bligh (Mutiny of the Bounty, 2008); ghosts in 1860’s Norfolk, (This House is Haunted, 2013); Gore Vidal (A Ladder to the Sky, 2018); set the action in the Winter Palace of the Tsars (The House of Special Purpose, 2009); World War 1, (The Absolutist, 2011, Stay Where You are then Leave, 2013); 1930’s London (Next of Kin, 2006); Nazi Germany (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, 2006); Ireland and the Church (The History of Loneliness, 2014, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, 2017); so a novel that stretches a life over two millennia and includes historical people and events we recognise is really just another slice from the vast John Boyne universe: testament to his wide interests, audacity, and skill. He is certainly ambitious. 

Here in A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom the unnamed narrator born in AD 1 has the novelistic trait of NOT aging with the years so that in AD 214, as he continues his own story, he is 10 years old.  Although events in the narrator’s life remain in his history no matter where the story takes him, and the story take him all the way to 2016 and on to 2080.  

However, there is a feeling of A Traveller … being squeezed into the gambit that Boyne has prescribed himself. A person throughout their lifetime doesn’t exist alone. Primarily it’s to do with the family: these people travel along with you. Boyne overcomes this by deeming that if the  protagonist linearly exists across centuries then his parents and siblings must also; names, except for their initial capital letter, change to suit the location; hence his brother Junius – in Palestine AD 1, becomes Jouni – Turkey AD 41, Juliu – Romania AD 105, and so on. Events also stay in our memory and can have repercussions in later life, these too are noted but the names of places and the principle players change similarly. This is acceptable and can be easily assimilated into the readers’ understanding of what the writer has defined; but all this has a cumulative effect: a distancing from the protagonist. And when magic, or is it divine intervention? intercedes to save our hero’s life – Greece AD 1223, an even broader distance is put between reader and protagonist; a protagonist that up to this point had been a centre of rationality, atheism and, to some degree, morality.

This did not change my enjoyment of the book, it’s still a fascinating, and unique read, but that enjoyment is skewed from my other experiences of Boyne’s work. There is not the same engagement I felt with the characters of his other work. This is a different book. So what is Boyne’s point here? 

Someday, we may build towers taller than the eye can see, fly through the sky on wings, even live among the stars. But know this much; the things that surround us may change, but our emotions will always remain the same.


Humans will always be human.


The cause and spread of the Black Death (The Plague) was not known until the 19th Century, certainly not in the 14th as described in the chapter Norway AD 1349. But, the reader can object to these aberrations, like little jumps – Hey! Hang on a minute! – or accept that the universe of the book need not be exactly the universe of the reader. However, the more the reader has to adjust their universe from the one expected the more removed they become from the text and the less chance of engagement.

I haven’t yet read all of Boyne’s work – that’s an on-going pleasure – but A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is not the book to knock The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) from the No 1 spot of the best of Boyne’s work; nor A Ladder to the Sky (2018) from the No. 2 position … in this reader’s opinion.  

You can buy the book, in various formats, here

 

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

British writer, Jane Gardam.

First of all, the title Old Filth (2004) isn’t about anything untoward: it’s the acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong; and if it’s about anything it’s about how our childhoods create us adults.

We first meet Sir Edward Feathers, Old Filth, in his very latter life: a statuesque man, private, handsome, charming, brusque, and mildly famous. Gardam then cherry picks events from his life: birth, schooling, the War, but saves the most tantalising bit of news for the end. No spoilers here.

The book is a delight! Gardam’s economical prose – where most of the humour lies, and there’s a lot of that – and her wry eye for the eccentricities of the British character and, in particular, the blatant indifference and cruel incapacity of the British to care for their young make you smile, grown, laugh, sigh, and then shake your head in disbelief, all in the same paragraph. Children seem to appear by magic, get sent away from home as soon as possible and then become exactly like their parents whom they hardly know, but are expected to love and obey. Blood may be thicker than water, but water is far more versatile and doesn’t leave stains.

I was impressed with Gardam’s complete control over the reader, her confidence in her authorial voice: I would’ve followed her everywhere, anywhere and I believed whatever she wanted to tell me. Her close writing and sparse dialogue do most of the characterisation – dialogue is good at that – and Gardam also has a healthy respect for the reader. Time jumps around but she never lost me.

Highly recommended.

She has been quite prolific since she was first published in the early seventies, in her forties – she is now 92 – and her nine novels and ten short story collections (she also has written thirteen children’s books) leave a lot of searching, collecting, and reading to look forward to.

In 2015, a BBC survey voted Old Filth among the 100 greatest British novels.

I hate the idea of sequels,” Jane Gardam told The Guardian in 2011. “I think you should be able to do it in one book.” Nevertheless her The Man in the Wooden Hat came out in 2013 which is more of a companion piece and focuses on Filth’s wife Betty, a shadowy figure in this book. And then in 2013 came Last Friends, and again not really a sequel but another companion piece focusing this time on Filth’s arch-rival and later neighbour, Veneering, again briefly mentioned in Old Filth.

Here is a charming video of Jane Gardam reading the opening of Old Filth.

Here you will find Old Filth and other Gardam books in various formats including a boxed set of the so-called Old Filth Trilogy.