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.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin

English author Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) on the 2017 British 10 pound note

I once stumbled on a television series, Lost in Austen (2008) in which a modern young free-talking young woman, Amanda, finds, in her tatty London bathroom, Elizabeth Bennet in a nightgown. When the apparition disappears Amanda thinks that perhaps her Pride and Prejudice obsession is, well, sending her loopy; but when it happens again, this time Lizzy is dressed for travel, Amanda steps though the ‘door in the wall’ (portal loo?) leaving poor Miss Bennett in modern day London (2008) and Amanda in Longbourn, the Bennet’s residence, in Hertfordshire, 1813. Amanda passes herself off as Lizzy’s friend while Lizzy is said to have gone to the ‘city’; how true! I may not have knowingly chosen to watch a program like this but it was extremely well done, funny, and pulled no punches.

Pride and Prejudice has become an industry. There have been several film adaptations as well as a very popular TV series; the story has been sequel-ised and pre-quelised, with and without zombies; as a graphic novel and a serial vlog; the writers of a scientific paper were inspired to name a pheromone in mouse urine as darcin, after Mr Darcy, because it strongly attracted females; and in 2016, a scientific paper published in the Journal of Inherited Metabolic Diseases speculated that Mrs Bennet may have been a carrier of a rare genetic disease, to explain why the Bennets didn’t have any sons, and why some of the Bennet sisters are so silly, although Mrs Bennet seems more like a sufferer than a carrier.

The famous first line:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife

could easily have been written as

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of no fortune, must be in want of a husband

without any loss of artistic veracity.

However, what is obvious from the short first chapter is how effective dialogue is at painting character; and that reminds me of a Sydney writer and creative writing teacher (who shall remain nameless) who told her students to stay clear of dialogue. A foolish assertion in my opinion.

Yes, the prose style is dense, the characters manipulating, and the plot well known but what is notable is the tone. It’s slightly sarcastic, ironic, but dry: the basic formula for all romantic comedies ever since.

Just out of interest, Jane herself had three romances: 1) Tom Lefroy was a nephew of her close friend Anne Lefroy. Knowing that Tom would lose his inheritance if he married a nobody Anne put a stop to the romance by getting Tom to Ireland, where, many years later he became the Chief Justice; 2) Jane had a seaside romance with a clergyman but before he got a chance to meet the family he died; 3) Jane accepted a financially rewarding marriage proposal from a much younger and inappropriate young man called Harris Wither. After a sleepless night she broke it off in the morning causing a scandal.

It could be argued that Austin’s 6 novels are really 6 variations on the same plot: girl meets boy; girl hates boy because of (insert specific reason from each novel); girl comes to her senses; girl marries boy; the end.

I’m tempted now to read Emma (1815) considered by some to be her best.

You can download a free eBook here. All of Jane Austen’s work are available free online.

You can watch a very entertaining video about Pride and Prejudice from Crash Course Literature here.

Here is a free audio book edition.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie pic
Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie

Antigone, of Greek mythology, offspring from the incestuous relationship between Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta, has been, over millennia, the subject of books, plays, films and operas.

When Oedipus, King of Thebes, finds out his tragic truth – he  murdered his enemy not knowing he was his father, and then married the man’s wife – he plucks out his eyes and wanders in the wilderness accompanied by his dutiful daughter, Antigone. After his death, her brothers, Polynices and Eteocles fight over their father’s realm and both are killed. Their uncle, Creon, takes the throne and buries Eteocles with full royal honours but decrees that Polynices, who he labels a traitor, remain unburied as food for jackals and crows. Antigone, defies her uncle, despite her sister, Ismene, urging her not to, escapes the city, and buries her brother. She is arrested and sentenced to entombment, but hangs herself instead. Creon changes his mind and sends his son, Antigone‘s fiancé Haemon, to retrieve her, but he is too late. He also kills himself; as does his mother (grandmother), Jocasta, when she hears of the demise of the last of her children.

Despite the convoluted relationships, lust, greed, ambition, and the body count Antigone‘s story, at its core, is about sibling love and devotion. And it is around this theme that Shamsie composes her modern version of Antigone, her eighth novel Home Fire (2017), setting it among a contemporary British muslim family. It’s not a re-invention of the book; the Antigone story is not “in the skeleton of the book, but in the marrow of it”.

I thought reading during the pandemic lockdown would be a pass-time that would fit the circumstances snugly, as did many friends and contemporaries, but settling into a book hasn’t been easy, for me or them, and Home Fire was the fifth I tried and the one that finally grabbed my attention.

Shamsie’s novel is set in 2014-15 and her principle characters are three siblings, Isma Pasha, the eldest, who raised her younger paternal twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz after their mother died. Their father was a notorious jihadist fighter who died on his way to Guantanamo Bay. Isma, the only child he ever saw is on her way to a brilliant academic career in the US; Aneeka, the ‘beauty’, is serious about her Muslim faith and is studying to be a lawyer; Parvaiz, radicalised by his peers, follows in his father’s footsteps and ‘escapes’ to Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of ISIS, in Syria.

Isma meets Eamonn Lone, and then he, almost accidentally, meets Isma’s sister, Aneeka. He falls hopelessly in love, and it appears Aneeka returns his love; but she has another motive: Eamonn’s father is the highly public British Home Secretary, Karamet Lone, and she needs his help to get her repentant brother safely, and unnoticed, back to England at, of course, great political risk. Aneeka arranges to meet her brother at the British Consulate in Istanbul.

The stakes are high and Shamsie allows them to gradually gain their strength and danger through a very intimate love story. This is her strength. But she, understandably, lets in the public and media outcry when the ‘plot’ is revealed (no spoilers here), in the form of newspaper stories, including salacious tabloid exposés of a sex scandal involving Aneeka ‘Knickers’ Pasha, twin sister of the Muslim fanatic Parvaiz ‘Pervy’ Pasha, and her ‘seduction’ of the Home Secretary’s son for political motives. This strengthens the plot but weakens the personal and causes the heat of the story to drop a few degrees. Quite a few, in fact.

There’s an argument here for the necessity of the public story taking centre stage but, for this reader, public tragedies are daily, and usually unemotional, events, thanks to the persistency of the media; what I missed here was the intimacy of the narrative that had, up until the public narrative took over, swept me up in its poignancy, emotion, and the oozing into it of looming tragedy. I wanted to read the climax on the page, not read about someone watching it on television. There must have been structural decisions made about this; a different structure could’ve worked better for me.

However, what I will remember are the extremely effective domestic and romantic scenes between people working out their decisions between each other in dangerous circumstances, and I am interested to read Shamsie’s previous and future work.

In September last year, Shamsie was awarded, among others, the Nelly Sachs Award for Literature from the German City of Dortmund for her contribution to fostering understanding between peoples, and I can see how Home Fire could support this. However the City rescinded the prize because of her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, and seen as anti-Israel, causing outrage from the global literary community and over 250 writers signed an open letter in the London Review of Books in September 2019 attacking the City of Dortmund for its decision. Shamsie is unrepentant and still believes that “the demonising of BDS, which is a peaceful movement asking for international law to be upheld, is an outrage“.

You can watch a BBC4 interview with Shamsie about the controversy here.

Here you can hear Shamsie talk about her experiences as a Muslim Briton and her writing of Home Fire; and it’s a particularly ‘pure’ interview since the interviewer’s questions have been edited out.

And for the more deeply interested, here is an hour-long presentation by Kamila Shamsie about Home Fire given at the Politics and Prose Bookshop on Connecticut Avenue, Chevy Chase, Washington D.C. in September 2017.

You can buy Home Fire in various formats, and other works by Kamila Shamsie, here.

 

 

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

William Boyd pic
Scottish writer, William Boyd

I place a lot of importance on the first page of a novel, and William Boyd’s first page of Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009) is a doozy.

It almost made me forget the book I was reading and move quickly on to the second page and the third… and …

Page one is perfectly in tune with the marketing cover design:

…swept along with the thundering narrative tide – Observer.

A thriller of hide and seek among London’s low life. – Tatler

A storm of a story – Daily Mirror

A compelling fugitive chase … – Evening Standard Books of the Year

I can’t remember when I’ve had a more exciting read. – Antonia Fraser

Thrilling, hilarious, intricately plotted and terrifically readable – Craig Raine, TLS Books of the Year;

and the best one saved for the front cover:

A deft combination of suspense and literature. – Stephen King

I was hooked and looked forward eagerly to starting it.

And the opening of the story doesn’t disappoint. A successful and upwardly mobile climatologist, Adam Kindred, goes into a cafe after a very important job interview, a job that could define his career, to wind down. He makes casual conversation with a man at the next table, a man who leaves behind a file. Adam surveys the technically challenging documents and finds a phone number which he rings and arranges to return the file to the man’s hotel room. When he arrives he finds the man on his bed with a knife in his chest. The man demands Adam pulls it out. “Pull it out!” Adam obeys and promptly the man dies leaving Adam with the bloody murder weapon in his own hand – and the murderer out on the balcony. He runs.

He runs and disappears; and it’s the disappearing and the people he discovers on the way that take up the bulk of the novel. This is fascinating but not particularly thrilling, in the sense that a thriller is thrilling. His particular method of disappearing is simple and surprisingly effective. He completely avoids the modern world that is defined by electronics. He doesn’t use his smartphone and he doesn’t use his credit card; the devices that make any human being knowable and traceable.

He is forced to sleep under a bush under a bridge; he is forced to count every penny he has in his pocket and use it wisely, he is forced to eat a seagull; he is forced to beg, and develops an intriguing, if dishonest, but effective method; he is forced to change his appearance – from a clean-shaven man with a head of hair to a bearded baldy; he is forced into a saintly refuge where he garners a new name, new friends, and is taken in by a prostitute called Mhouse – a wonderful literary creation – and her two-year old son, Ly-on whom she drugs as she can’t always afford a baby sitter. Through luck and circumstances of his own making he obtains yet another identity and consolidates that identity with a credit card and a smartphone. He turns into someone else.

Of course the police are after him as well as the murderer and the murderer’s superiors and these characters are equally interesting;  but of course, they are after Adam Kindred, a man who no longer exists. There are close-shaves and the stakes are high, but there is also romance and an ending that I won’t go into. No spoilers here.

I have been hearing about William Boyd for some time. He is a playwright, short story writer, screenwriter, and director and the author of highly praised and award winning books; he has been on the Booker Prize list twice and won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006 with his novel Restless; and I also understand why he was chosen by the Ian Fleming estate to write a James Bond novel called Solo which came out in 2013. I get the feeling that Ordinary Thunderstorms is one of his minor works and while I enjoyed it, it’s interesting and entertaining but not accurately reflected by the hype on the cover.

What did someone say once about how not to judge a book?

There are many enjoyable videos of William Boyd on Youtube such as this one: An evening with the Sunday Times bestselling author, recorded at the Duchess Theatre 24 September 2018.

You can find many books by William Boyd, including Ordinary Thunderstorms, in various formats here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Bernardine Evaristo pic
British writer, Bernardine Evaristo MBE won the 2019 Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other.

Even before I started reading, I saw – there were no capital letters, no fullstops and the lines were of different lengths – and my prejudices jumped up and I thought, ‘Oh, poetry.’

But then I started reading – each new sentence, no capital letter, begins on a new line and there is no full stop, just a new line; and the unconventional format didn’t hamper the understanding.  It was clear. There is punctuation within each sentence, just not to begin or end them.

Evaristo calls it ‘an experimental novel’ which could refer to its unconventional format on the page or its structure as a book: there is no through-narrative although the lives of some of the characters intersect. In a sense the narrative is Britain itself but not a novelistic narrative that starts on the first page and finishes on the last.

Girl, Woman, Other, as the title implies is about women: Amma, Yazz, Dominique, Bummi, LaTisha, Winsome, along with Carole, Shirley, Penelope, Megan, Hattie and Grace: all British women, mainly black and so all are a consequence of Britain’s colonial past and the book is therefore an example of post-colonial literature which, in a nutshell, is writing that reacts to, usually against, the discourse of colonialism that was seen to perpetuate cultural imperialism.

Primary works in this field were writing against, or back to, colonial texts: Jean Rys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is a post-colonial take on Bronte’s Jane Eyre; J. M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986) to Danial DeFoe’s  Robinson Crusoe; Patrick White’s Fringe of Leaves (1976) to the popular myth of Eliza Fraser; Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997) to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) to the colonial notion of the black man notoriously portrayed in Joyce Carey’s Mr. Johnson. In all of these post-colonial rewrites, the native character – the other – is given power denied them in the original colonial text. For example, the protagonist in Jean Rys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is Antoinette, a creole, and deals with her early life in Jamaica where she is forced into an arranged marriage to an Englishman; Antoinette is the heroine, she has the voice and the power (although not enough, she is a woman), unlike her literary dopplegänger, the un-named mad women in the attic in Bronte’s Jane Eyre – the first wife of Mr. Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Rys gives the mad-woman – a creole – a past, a name, and therefore authority.

Post-colonial writers today are not usually writing back to an existing colonial text*, but Evaristo, and her British contemporaries, Zadie Smith, Andre Levy, et al, are writing back (against) to a cliché-ed perception of what a British person is. They are also writing back to a perception of what a British woman is.

The writing is uncluttered, contemporary, conversational, and unintellectual. However, it has the flavour of journalism. Each woman’s story (and most are interconnected) feels like it was written for an article in a weekend magazine. Prose, and the characters that inhabit it, come to life when they react with each other. There is dialogue here within the prose, unannounced by punctuation but clear, but not much. Fiction works when all three elements, description, narrative and dialogue, are given their full force. This is really my only criticism. Dialogue is the most powerful descriptor of character, but here it is used sparingly, and so I felt some characters are not fully realised. There are some portraits that include intimate detailed scenes and these are the most powerful.

What impressed me was the authorial authority and bravery of writing without the usual writerly conventions: capital letters, full stops. The third person narrative slips easily into the first; the past tense seamlessly into the present without any loss of understandability. The prose has a playful freedom that is refreshing and new. I just would’ve liked to hear the characters talk more.

Evaristo is a self-confessed feminist and has been an anti-racist activist for all of her adult life.

Being the Booker-winning black woman writer in 2019 means that my black British feminist perspective is amplified around the world, and for the first time I am starting to feel heard beyond my community.

However, despite her win and her positive attitude to her win her feminist and anti-racist struggles continue. In early December 2019 over 190,000 people watched a lazy BBC announcer say ” … the Booker Prize was shared between Margaret Atwood and another author…”; he didn’t even bother to use her name and Evaristo tweeted ‘…How quickly & casually they have removed my name from history – the first black woman to win it. This is what we’ve always been up against, folks’ and started a twitter storm causing the BBC to publicly apologise to Evaristo. The Guardian newspaper also caused a furore over a headline referring to Girl, Woman, Other, Evaristo’s eighth, as ‘obscure.’ The headline was quickly re-written. It might seem trivial to some but it is the day-to-day small moments that perpetuate black people as the ‘other’; like the waitress who assumed Evaristo’s white dining companion would be the one to pick up the bill.

Girl, Woman, Other is a deserving winner of the Booker; it’s co-winner Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, less so. You can read what I thought of that book, here.

You can browse and/or buy Girl, Woman, Other and Evaristo’s other novels here.

*However, in 2015 Algerian author, Kamel Daoud, had published The Meursault Investigation, a post-colonial take on Camus’s iconic The Stranger (1942) where the real stranger was refocused as the unnamed Arab that Camus’s protagonist shoots five times on a beach.

 

Us by David Nicholls

David Nicholls pic
British novelist and screenwriter, David Nicholls.

I love this book. It’s rare to find a laugh-out-loud read these days, but this is one of them. It’s a first person narrative of Douglas Petersen, a bio-chemist, and a man who always just seems to miss out on being, cool, mainly because he just doesn’t know what cool is; he doesn’t get most things. That’s certainly what his son, Albie, would say although he probably wouldn’t be so kind. The third component of Us (2014) is Douglas’s wife Connie. She’s an artist and an ex-hippie and is definitely cool. She wakes him up one morning and tells him that she might want to leave him. They embark on a (possible) remedy: a Grand Tour of Europe, and drag a reluctant Albie along with them. This is the Us. This trio. However there is another narrative interspersed with the Grand Tour: how Douglas and Connie got together in the first place; and many more incidents of their life together. You get to know these three very well. It’s really a portrait of a marriage.

It’s divided into many small chapters, 180 in all, which in itself, propels the reading along; ‘I’ll just read the next chapter before I walk the dog’; ‘I’ll read this short one before I start dinner’; ‘Just one more, it’s short, before my afternoon jog.’ And why do you want to do this? Because you love Douglas. He’s a gem and he talks to you as if you’ve known him since kindergarten. Us became my very early morning read when a trip to the loo erased all efforts to go back to sleep. But, so I didn’t wake the sleeping one, I tried to curtail my laugh-out-loud to something like, laugh-in-loud, but stifling a laugh-out-loud made my body behave like a trampoline-in-use and the mattress was forced, of course, to follow suit, so allowing the sleeping one to sleep didn’t work. I was banned from reading Us in bed. But that’s OK; you can get through a short chapter while waiting for the jug to boil, during a TV channel promo, even while stirring the custard.

The key to the humour is Douglas himself. He doesn’t quite know what to say when staring at a painting (I like that blue bit.); he feels inadequate to say what he likes about a piece of music (It’s loud, isn’t it?); and contemporary dance (Do they have to throw themselves against a wall?); and books (Erotic realism? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?); and food (flaccid courgettes in a green-grey water sauce made from water.).

David Nicholls also has several screenwriting credits including Tess of the D’Urbervilles‘ for the BBC in 2008,  Far from the Madding Crowd in 2015, and he wrote Patrick Melrose (2018), the television series based on the novels by Edward St Aubyn. He has penned several movies including the adaptations of his novels, Starter for Ten, and One Day. He also trained as an actor at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama but never quite made it in that field because, as he admitted, he wasn’t very good at the basic stuff, like standing still and moving from A to B. However he must have picked up some performance skills since his appearance at the recent North Cornwall Writer’s Festival had the audience in stitches as he read from his latest book, Sweet Sorrow, a passage devoted to the pitfalls of first-time kissing.

Us is currently being filmed in various location in Europe for the BBC. It stars Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves with a script by Nicholls. However, a release date has yet to bee announced.

He’s a busy man and novel writing has to be squeezed in between big budget movies and television drams; he’s written five novels, so, for me, four to go.

You can watch an interview with David Nicholls about this book, Us, here.

You can buy the ebook, or other formats, here where you can also ‘look inside’ before you buy.

Rough Music by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

I first read this book decades ago and then in 2016 I discovered Patrick Gale again with Notes from an Exhibition (2007) and have remained a fan.

Rough Music (2000), like several of Gale’s novels, has a double narrative, same characters, same location, different times.

Julian a small boy, son of simple parents John and Frances, is taken on an idyllic beachside holiday in Cornwall with those parents, John and Francis. The widower, Bill, a writer, and child, Skip, of John’s sister arrive from America and cause passions and the status quo to collide.

Decades later, Julian is a grown man, a successful bookshop owner, and he returns to Cornwall for a holiday with his now ageing parents; his mother with early onset dementia, to the same beach and even, possibly, to the same house. The catalyst of drama and entertainment is that he has been having an affaire with his brother-in-law, Sandy, which began on the evening of Sandy’s buck’s party and has continued through Sandy’s years of happy marriage and the birth of his two sons to Julian’s sister, Poppy, and right up to the action of the story. No one, not Poppy or his parents, know about this. While on this holiday he meets Roly, an artist and drop-out, and he can see a possible exit from this family deception if only he can orchestrate it in time.

Some of the names of these characters change between narratives so don’t be put off by this. All will be revealed.

Each story is told in alternating chapters rendering the climax of both in close proximity to each other. A double whammy for the reader.

Gale is at his best with family relationships and spends time painting them in all their complex layers of expectation, disappointment, and flowering moments of joy. He is a wise writer, or perhaps just acutely observant.

Family life:

The only real difference was children. He had never appreciated until now how much emotional clamour, interference almost, the presence of children set up, saving a relationship from listening to itself.

How children can get in the way:

‘Ma.’ ‘What?’ ‘Leave the door open this time.’ The open door was sobering, like having a dressing-gowned child bearing mutely indignant witness from the room’s corner.

Ageing:

It was as though the only acceptable way to face old age was in a spirit of glassy contemplation and composure, to become a fund of quaint old stories (so long as one did not repeat them too often), a calm old lap on which babies might be placed and an undemanding extra presence at a dining table.

Self awareness:

Perhaps John had been right and her surliness was simply muffled sorrow.

…flirting was a kind of knife sharpening for marriage.

And humour:

Tell me what you’re thinking. Trust me. I’m a novelist.

Sometimes while reading one can feel a ‘little jump’: when you read something that can chip ever so slightly at your suspension of disbelief but for the sake of the story, and your own enjoyment, you accept it, go with it. I think we readers do this a lot. It’s only after you put the book down, days or weeks later or when you’re telling someone about the book, that you may realise that, yes, that something doesn’t quite gel, some plot point or character trait doesn’t quite fit with what has been set up for us to accept. Don’t let this colour your view of the work or the writer adversely. It is caused, I believe, by us readers assuming that the universe of the book is exactly the universe of the reader; but this may not be the case. Of course, some books are written in a universe completely alien to the reader, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings for example, but most books we assume are written in our own universe. As readers we will give ourselves far more enjoyment and commitment if we let the story be what it is and not what we might want it to be, even down to the small details of the narrative and characters.

If you know and like Gale’s work you have probably read this, if not then this, along with A Perfectly Good Man (2012), two of his best, are a good way to begin your Gale adventure.

I continue my quest to read and write about all of Gale’s work and having surmised that it is only during the winter that he writes, in the spring and summer he is far too busy (festivals, garden, cello, cooking …) these seasons give me time to catch up. He is so prolific: two books every three years on average. His last Take Nothing With You came out in 2018; I’m expecting a new one next year. No pressure Patrick!

You can buy the book in various formats here.

 

 

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry pic
Irish writer, Kevin Barry

Get up, groan, write a bit, moan, eat breakfast, write some more, cycle my bike through the Sligo hills, make up country songs as I pedal along, sing them, have lunch, have a nap, groan, moan, write a small bit more, cook dinner, feed wifey, open a bottle, or several, slump, sleep.

I don’t quite operate within the realist mode. I kind of push the stories out towards the cusp of believability – that’s the area of interest for me.
♠♠♠
The style of Kevin Barry’s Night Train to Tangier (2019) feels like a play because it was originally conceived as one; but that was not what gave me pause when I read about him and this, his new book; it was the (many times) mention of Samuel Beckett and his play Waiting for Godot, and I thought, “Uh oh!” Vladimir and Estragon sit and wait under a dead tree for Godot who never comes. Maurice Hearn and Charles Redmond sit and wait in a ferry terminal for Dilly, Maurice’s missing daughter who never comes, maybe, maybe not.
These two guys are Irish drug dealers who made a shit load of money when they were younger, loved the same woman – since deceased, and now quite can’t get their old mojo back, although they try by intimidating and threatening strangers. You wouldn’t want to meet them in a back alley. It maybe that Dilly doesn’t want to be found. No spoilers here.

The conversation is sometimes repetitive, but the language is glorious, lyrical, and adventurous:

 

Charlie Redmond? The face somehow has an antique look, like a court player’s, medieval, a man who’d strum his lute for you. In some meadowsweet lair. Hot, adulterous eyes and again a shabby suit, but dapper shoes in a rusted-orange tone, a pair of suede-finish creepers that whisper of brothels, also a handsome green corduroy neck-tie. Also stomach trouble, bags like graves beneath the eyes, and soul trouble.

 

The pages are formatted with large gaps of white between sentences. One reviewer wrote, “The blank spaces that Barry inserts between paragraphs, the empty gaps in the text, seem to signify accumulated pain.” That’s kind. I’m of a more cynical bent; they seem to me to be the editor’s doing: if you’ve decided to print it between hard covers, you need more pages.

Almost all of the reviews for this book have been glowing, and it’s been long listed for the this year’s Booker Prize. However, I was disappointed. There are three elements of novel writing: description, dialogue, and narrative. Barry’s descriptions are poetic, imaginative, and surprising. He’s at his best with description (like the quote above). Dialogue? Well, firstly, his dialogue isn’t punctuated. That’s OK: dialogue usually sounds like dialogue, but sometimes it doesn’t and I don’t appreciate having to go back and check. Narrative? I found it shallow and, again, I had to go back a page or two and take another run at it to find out exactly where we were. Contemporary readers have to do more work, I know, but I don’t appreciate feeling left behind; it stops the reader being enthralled, and enthralled is where all readers want to be; and by enthralled I mean forgetting that your reading.

For this reader, Night Boat to Tangier is about parents and parenting, and how we usually get it wrong, or this from Dilly’s mother,

The fear of turning into our parents, she said, is what turns us into our fucking parents. 

I have to admit that it did grow on me a little but not enough to send me racing for his previous works, City of Bohane (2011) and Beatlebone (2015), both lauded and prize-studded.

You can buy the ebook, and other formats, here, and you can ‘look inside’ before you buy, or hear what sounds like Kevin Barry reading from the text.

 

My Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne

John Boyne pic
Irish writer, John Boyne.

Earlier this year John  Boyne found himself in the middle of a media storm about his new book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica. The transgender community, especially on twitter, went for him fiercely: the title itself was considered offensive.

Mya Nunnaly, a poet, wrote an open letter to Boyne which includes,

You {John} write that “however, a friend of mine, born a boy, came out as transgender in his early 20s and over the last few years has been both struggling with and embracing his new identity.” HER new identity, John. HER early 20s.

As I understand it, the moment a boy (say) reveals that he believes he is a girl it is incumbent of everyone to treat her with respect and use her name and the appropriate pronoun. In fact I should’ve written ‘the moment a boy (say) reveals that she believes she is a girl…’

It may have caused less offence had the title been, My Sister’s Name was Jason.

The other issue was the use of the word cis. The word originally was, and is, used in molecular science but has been adopted by the transgender community as the opposite of trans. I am a cis man because I live as the gender of my birth. Most people are of cis-gender. Transgender are people who don’t live as the gender of their birth. Boyne inflamed the debate even further by publicly writing in the Irish Times on April 13, 2019, a piece entitled, Why I support trans rights but reject the word ‘cis. However, a word, when given an opposite, is strengthened. If our language only had the word ‘tall’ and its opposite was simply ‘not tall’ anyone who was ‘not tall’ would, I believe, feel left out, thought about in the negative, disrespected; but having their own word, ‘short’ gives both words equal standing, equal weight, and therefore gives equal respect.

I often feel that if the word ‘black’ in American society was able to be used as the equal opposite of the word ‘white’, which is the correct use, and not as ‘less than’ the word ‘white’ race relations in the US would be a lot healthier.

I see the word ‘cis’ as just another adjective to describe me. If I was in a group discussion about international politics with people of different nationalities it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with, ‘Well, as an Australian caucasian man I think ……’; similarly, if I was in a group discussion about diet with people who were either vegans, pescatarians, or omnivores it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with ‘Well, as a meat-eater I think …; and if I was in a group discussion about gender with a group that included trans people it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with ‘Well, as a cis man I think…’ It is just another adjective to use appropriately when necessary.

However, the focus is not on Jason/Jessica but on her younger brother, Sam, who represents Boyne’s chosen audience:  young cis readers. This is his sixth book for young readers, the most successful being The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). Sam tells it as he sees it: Boyne has chosen Sam as the first-person narrator. The language is clear and simple and a lot of what goes on around him he doesn’t fully understand. This background is heightened by his parent’s work: his mother is a cabinet minister, Secretary of State, eye-ing off the Prime Ministership, with his father as her Chief of Staff. The stakes are high and the media are always lurking in the bushes. 

The title is clear and  basically foretells the story. It is actually a quote from the text; a text narrated by a cis boy who like other cis people don’t understand trans people and sometimes get it wrong, particularly with language. As one trans journo put it in Boyne’s defence … he’s on our side; he’s waving our flag, he just got it upside down.  

“In writing My Brother’s Name is Jessica my hope is that children and young adults—particularly ones who are perhaps not already familiar with transgender issues—will come to this book and start to understand that anyone struggling with these issues needs support and compassion, not judgment. I have tried to write the best novel that I can. I might have succeeded or I might have failed, but I stand by it. I welcome debate and am interested in people’s views on this subject. I do not believe that the trans community bears any relationship to, or any responsibility for the abuse I have received online. I stand 100% behind all trans people, I respect them as brave pioneers, I applaud their determination to live authentic lives despite the abuse they also receive, and I will always do so.”                                                                                                                    John Boyne

 

Take Nothing with You by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall and plays the cello, modern and baroque.

Having read a few of the 19 volumes written by Gale, A Sweet Obscurity, A Place Called Winter, The Aerodynamics of Pork, Ease, Notes from an Exhibition, A Perfectly Good Man, one thing stands out: he’s very good at self-discovery; by that I mean, his protagonists cope with discovering who they are. In this latest, Take Nothing With You he does it again. This is a coming-of-age story.

Actually it is two stories about the same person: Eustace as a pre-teen discovering his love of the cello and boys, and coping with his parents; and Eustace as a fifty-something coping with thyroid cancer, mortality, and an on-line, but serious, love affair with a British soldier in the Middle East who he’s about to meet face-to-face i.e., kiss, for the first time.

Although told in the third person but from the point of view of Eustace, the narrator is so close to our hero, think of him as an imp sitting on Eustace’s shoulder, knowing, seeing, but not understanding everything – just like a 10 year old. James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker since 2007, calls this ‘close writing’, or if you prefer a more literary moniker, ‘free indirect discourse’. I prefer Wood’s term as it creates the idea that the third-person narrator could very easily slip into the first-person narrator, so close are they. Fellow British novelist Edward St-Aubyn in his quintet, which has become known as The Patrick Melrose Novels (1992-2012), uses such a technique for all of his major characters; it’s like the narrator-imp jumps from shoulder to shoulder using the language and tropes of each individual, depending on which shoulder he sits. In Take Nothing With You (2018, Gale’s 16th novel) this close writing enables Gale to create a narrative of the boy’s parents and their disintegrating marriage, including his mother’s secret, that Eustace is unaware of. This dramatic irony is what makes Eustace’s small-town family life, in Weston-super-Mare, a seaside holiday town in North Somerset, so interesting. We readers know more than he does.

By the way, his mother’s secret (no spoilers here) is never mentioned, but you know it because Gale lets you know it.

As an adult Eustace is more at ease with himself and the world, and although his thyroid cancer and its treatment are troubling, his new, as yet, unconsummated romance gives him hope and joy. The world is no longer a mystery to him, as it was when he was young, and he is sanguine about his future; but he hasn’t told Theo, the soldier, about his cancer as he doesn’t want to sour his only communication with him: their daily Skype calls. In this older Eustace narrative the action takes place mostly in the lead-lined hospital room where he goes for radio-therapy treatment and is advised, because of the radiation, that anything he takes with him has to be disposed of, hence he is told to ‘take nothing with you.’

The narrative never follows Theo which makes him less of a character and more of a metaphor for hope. But its Eustace’s hope and Eustace is who we care about.

For a lonely, quiet, and sensitive boy discovering a passion for the cello is heart-warming. Gale plays and performs on the cello himself and if you are interested in music, or a player of any instrument yourself, these passages are a delight. His passion is palpable and these scenes often blurred my vision.

Gale is allergic to clichés; in fact, I get the impression that he tries to invent clichés and then vows never to use them again. He is also a word-smith and sometimes his word choice takes you by surprise: ‘…heedlessly in love’ is almost a story in itself with a beginning, middle, and end.

Gale’s characters have meat on their bones and ideas in their heads. They are people you love, loath, want to see triumph, or fall on their arse.

Any Gale book is highly recommended.

You can buy the eBook and other editions here.

And here is Patrick Gale talking about Take Nothing With You and the three books that influenced it.