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.

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.

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Irish Writer, Colum McCann.

1

“This is a hybrid novel with invention at its core, a work of storytelling which, like all storytelling, weaves together elements of speculation, memory, fact, and imagination.” Colum McCann

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It could also be called a work of creative journalism.

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Apeirogon: a generalized polygon with a countably infinite number of sides.

4

At the core of the book is the murder of two girls, ten years apart and their respective fathers, Remi Elhanan, Israeli and Bassam Aramin, Palestinian. These are not novelistic characters; they are the guts of non-fiction.

5

There is no narrative arc. Instead the story emerges like the image of a jigsaw emerges as each piece finds its place. This is a story with 1001 pieces but not in the order you would expect. The pieces tell us about the times, birds, geography, music, backstory, names, politicians, and newsworthy events like the tightrope walker, Philippe Petit, who walked across the Hinnom Valley in 1987 and released a white dove of peace (actually it was a pale pigeon but Petit hoped no-one would notice). The ‘pieces’ or ‘chapters’ are pages long, one line long, or 4 words long.

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At ‘chapter’ 500 we hear Rami Elhanan’s voice. For many pages he tells us about his daughter, about her murder, about his grief, and what he did with it. McCann’s piecing together of the narrative is lengthy, emotional, journalistic, and sometimes moving, as journalism can be. It’s like the ‘chapters’ 1– 499 have all prepared you for this one, 500. Then the next chapter is 1001 and you don’t know why so you read on to find out. Ah! We have ‘chapter’ 500 again but this time we hear Bassam Aramin’s voice, his loss, his grief and then the chapter numbers descend; at the the centre of the book are the voices of these two men.

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Bassam Aramin and Remi Elhanan

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In 1997 a young girl, Smadar Elhanan, was the victim of a suicide bomber, her body battered with shrapnel. Abir Aramin, a young girl, was shot in the back of the head with a rubber bullet by her school gate. She had just bought candy. Smadar was born in Hadassah hospital. Where Abir died.

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The two fathers turned their grief, rage, and hatred into friendship, reconciliation, and hope. They travelled the world telling their stories, their daughters, their loss.

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At the 2016 Young Presidents’ Organisation EDGE (annual showcase of thought leadership and innovation) in Dubai, Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan gave a moving and inspirational account of the close friendship they formed after each lost a precious daughter to violence in Israel.

Listen to them here.

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Listen to Colum McCann talk about this book.

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Bassam and Remi are members of a not-for-profit organisation called The Parents Circle Family Forum.

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The Parents Circle Family Forum works towards an end to violence and towards achieving an accepted political agreement.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ call for elections has thrown his political future into peril, forcing him to negotiate competing demands to engage with a friendlier U.S. administration, mend the rift with his militant Hamas rivals and keep his unruly Fatah movement from breaking apart.

15

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appeared in a Jerusalem courtroom to formally plead not guilty to corruption charges just weeks before national elections in which he hopes to extend his 12-year rule.

1001

The PCFF members are opposed to the occupation and believe that it is possible to end the conflict. They wish to influence the public and the political decision makers to choose reconciliation and the path of peace over violence and war.

The Merry-Go-Round by W. Somerset Maugham

William Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) British playwright, novelist, and short-story writer; one of the most popular and highest paid writers of his day.

W. S. Maugham’s first literary success was his first novel, Lisa of Lambeth (1897); his greatest work is Of Human Bondage (1915); by then he had 10 novels published and 10 plays produced, and at one time had 4 plays running simultaneously on London’s West End; 40 films have been made of his writings – Of Human Bondage has been filmed three times, The Razor’s Edge twice, and The Painted Veil twice, the latter, a very faithful adaptation, in 2006 starring Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Diana Rigg.

He had an affair and a child with Syrie Wellcome, an interior decorator, whom he later married in 1917. Their daughter, Elizabeth, eventually married a Baron. However, he had other female and male lovers until he met, an American, Gerald Haxton in the Red Cross at the outbreak of WWI. They were mostly together until Haxton’s death in 1944. His later partner was Alan Searle until Maugham’s death in 1965.

I tried to persuade myself that I was three-quarters normal and that only a quarter of me was queer—whereas really it was the other way around. – WSM

-oOo-

The Merry-Go-Round (1904) is his fifth novel.

The axis of a merry-go-round is usually covered in mirrors; all the better for us going round and round to see ourselves going round and round. In Maugham’s The Merry-Go-Round the axis is Miss Ley and doing what every freshly polished mirror does.

Miss Ley accidentally witnesses a romantic assignation by a married friend:

“None was more indifferent to convention than herself, and the marriage tie especially excited her ridicule, but she despised entirely those who disregarded the by-laws of society, yet lacked courage to suffer the results of their boldness: to seek the good opinion of the world, and yet secretly to act counter to its idea of decorum, was a very contemptible hypocrisy.”

The themes of The Merry-Go-Round are those that obsessed Maugham throughout his writing career: social and marriage hypocrisy, the class divide, conscience vs sense, love vs reason, and the tyranny of money.

The wealthy spinster, Miss Ley, a bastion of realistic good sense, observes those around her as they confuse themselves with what they want to do and what they feel they must do; they hurt themselves and each other and rarely do good; they go up and down and round and round. Dominating her social landscape are three couples: Basil Kent, law clerk, righteous and duty-bound, and the beautiful but lowly barmaid, Jenny Bush; Grace Castillyon, bored wife, and Reggie Bassett, young, lazy, handsome, but frivolous; and Bella Langton, sympathetic, plain, but devoted, and Herbert Field, young, poetic, sensitive, but consumptive.

As you can see from the above quote, the language is dense with every word used to its maximum effect. As with Hardy, James, and Dickens I read the first few chapters, stop, go back and start again: I need to rehearse the understanding, get ‘into’ the language, before the full meaning of the text is revealed. But when you do the rewards are powerful; even the melodrama, by our contemporary standards, is rendered real and moving.

We live in a very different world to those who lived 120 years ago. The rules of our social behaviour are also different and far less rigid. Maugham’s language not only relates the story but creates the world within which his story can effectively be told.

You can download the ebook for free here. Project Gutenberg allows free ebook downloads from works out of copyright. Most of Maugham’s works are available for free on this site.

The paper version is available here.

And here is a BBC interview with Maugham at his villa on the French Riviera in 1965.

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.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Winner of The Booker Prize, 2020.

Scottish – American writer Douglas Stuart

This is written traditionally: it’s not a stream of consciousness (Anna Burns’ The Milkman 2018 Booker prize; Marlon James’ The Brief History of Seven Killings, 2015), it’s not multiform (George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo 2017 ?), and it’s not experimental (Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, 2019). Even the quotation marks are traditionally doubled.


What gives Shuggie Bain its uniqueness and makes it so place specific is largely due to the dialogue. Stuart writes 1980’s Glaswegian talk phonetically, and if you take the time to read it as intended, aloud, you get the unmistakable flavour of Glasgow: irreverent, rough, pragmatic, and laugh-out-loud funny. Of course it isn’t funny to the talkers; they’re just telling the truth. The dialogue rolls in your mouth like half-spent jelly beans. All the characters speak like this, except Shuggie. He speaks like a normal boy, which is ironic because he thinks of himself as so far from normal he could be from another planet.

It’s a story of decimated domesticity; a portrait of just how shit-awful human beings can treat the ones they’re supposed to love, and told in vivid, often startling language but always with hard-edged truth where parenting, for all its good, but loosely held, intentions, is no match for the stifling religion-laced society of poverty that only booze and drugs can soften, but of course never does.

It is a portrait of a family steered blindly by the mother, Agnes Bain, who really wants to be steered herself, and who flaunts with glamour, attracts men as easily as they abuse her, and looks down on her skinny unkempt down-at-heel neighbours who in turn, turn their noses up at her and wonder “who the bloody hell does she think she is?”

Her taxi-driving second husband, Shug, moves the family into a newish but too small tenement – but it has its own front door! – and then abandons them. Catherine the eldest who sees quick marriage as the only way out, to South Africa, and Leek, Alexander, the second from her first husband, who wants to better himself but can’t see how. Then there’s Shug’s own, Shuggie (Scottish diminutive for ‘Hugh’). He’s the softest and youngest Bain who is no right, a mammy’s boy with a rag doll called Daphne. 

It turned to the summer holidays, and the road was hoaching with McAvennie children and their cousins and their cousins’ cousins. They were making the most of the two weeks of good west-coast weather, bouncing footballs off kerbs or riding bikes and screaming as they sent great mouse-coloured clouds of slag dust into the air. Shuggie wilted away from them. He felt something was wrong. Something inside him felt put together incorrectly. It was like they could all see it, but he was the only one who could not say what it was. It was just different, and so it was just wrong.

Shuggie practices his walking, to walk like a real boy, to try not to cross his legs when he walks, to try and make room for his cock, as Leek says he must, without his arms swishing as they do; he gets excited about things because his mother, Agnes, wants him to and then when they don’t turn out he’s learnt to accept it. Disappointment isn’t so bad if it’s familiar.

She’s sorry for him. “Why?” he asks. She says “I’m sorry you have a prick for a father.”

Agnes Bain is one of the most tragic, colourful, and alive novelistic characters I have read in a long time. She’s an attractive monster and the epitome of self-destruction. She hurls her stilettos as weapons, breaks windows with rubbish bins, and sets fire to curtains to get her way. Shuggie is her guardian angel and his fierce love for her ties him to her threatening to bring him down with her. She almost saves herself by joining AA, again, but then Eugene, a ruddy bear of a man, who might, she thinks, save her, takes her out, pours her a drink;

“Look, ah’m no trying to get ye drunk. Ah’m trying to have ye try a drink.”

“But why?” Agnes was suddenly very tired.

“Because … Because it’s what normal people do.”

… so she tries a drink, and falls back into her black hole again and becomes so not normal; his ardour wains and he disappears, leaving her desperation battling against her dignity when all she ever wants is another drink.

Whatever Agnes had done now, Shuggie couldn’t say, but they had filthy words for her. New names that sounded dank and foustie; woman’s words that put spittle on their lips and made sucking sounds like a boot in the coal slag. The imaginary moat Eugene had laid around the Bain house was gone now; he rolled it up as easily as a carpet when he left. Now the McAvennie weans hammered their feet against the locked door. They shouted all the familiar poncey names at him. They made slurping kissing noises, then they made sing-songs of kissing noises, and then started the dirty names again.

I’m aware that I might be putting you off because of the subject matter, but the writing supersedes this. It’s inventive, illustrative, surprising, and glorious. Highly recommended.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Here is an interview with Douglas Stuart about Shuggie Bain from the Greenwich Library in March 2020 before the Booker mailstrom overtook him.

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.