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.


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.



Milkman by Anna Burns

Anna Burns pic
British writer from Northern Ireland, Anna Burns.

The very first line begins,

The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to by breast …

and it made me feel I was in safe hands; a safe writer’s hands. She could’ve used the simple word, somebody, but the capital letters and the Mc told me where she was and also her attitude to this person, it could’ve been one of many people from the place she comes from. Guns are rife. Even if you hadn’t read the Booker Prize announcement or the publicity it generated, or the back of the book itself and discovered Anna Burns is from Northern Ireland and always writes about the Troubles you could work it out: the use of Mc tells you it’s either Scotland or Ireland but the prevalence of guns tells you it’s probably Northern Ireland given it’s history which any reader must remember.

When one uses an article in front of a noun it gives information about that noun; “a success” means something different from “the success”: the former means success in general, the success of anything; the latter means  a particular success, the one we’re talking about. If there is no article the meaning is different again; it means the quality of success, success-ness. Anna Burns omits the article of the noun, brother-in-law; as in …

there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law,

… which suggests there is such a thing as brother-in-law-ness. The insinuation is that she has a lot of experience with brother-in-law-ness since this one is just the first one. It’s like a job – all plumbers are the same type, just like all brother-in-laws. And she doesn’t like them.

No one is named, but they have names. She calls her mother ma,  her name is ma; ma calls her middle daughter, she calls him maybe-boyfriend, and him, third brother-in-law, and her brothers, thingy, thingy, and thingy; she calls him, milkman. Not the milkman, just milkman; no article, so no name but with a name, milkman. Even though he has nothing to do with milk, not even its distribution, he has milkman-ness: he knows where everybody lives, especially daughters, and what they have for breakfast. Ah, but this is not to be confused with real milkman. This is a man of a rare kind.

The stream of consciousness can be daunting: each page is densely packed with words; direct speech, brief though it is, is imbedded in the paragraph, there is little page-space. It gives the impression of dense weight.

Yes, there is a narrative in the traditional sense. Let’s call this the plot. But the plot is sparse. The narrative is really inside her head; this young innocent girl trying to live a life in a war zone, but a war that isn’t an official war, but therefore it’s much more dangerous, because even the language is full of weapons, bullets, and grenades.

As regards this psycho-political atmosphere, with its rules of allegiance, of tribal identification, of what was allowed and not allowed, matters didn’t stop at ‘their names’ and at ‘our names’, at ‘us’ and ‘them’, at ‘our community’ and ‘their community’, at ‘over the road’, ‘over the water’ and ‘over the border’. Other issues had similar directives attaching as well. There were neutral television programmes which could hail from ‘over the water’ or from ‘over the border’ yet be watched by everyone ‘this side of the road’ as well as ‘that side of the road’ without causing disloyalty in either community. Then there were programmes that could be watched without treason by one side whilst hated and detested ‘across the road’ on the other side. There were television licence inspectors, census collectors, civilians working in non-civilian environments and public servants, all tolerated in one community whilst shot to death if putting a toe into the other community. There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’. Placenames. What school you went to. What prayers you said. What hymns you sang. How you pronounced your ‘haitch’ or ‘aitch’. Where you went to work. And of course there were bus-stops.

The narrative inside her head, which the above quote gives you a taste of, is relentless – as thoughts are – and in the midst of all this danger – 80% of the book is this danger –  there is the simple plot: a much older man, milkman, is stalking her, and even if she doesn’t reply and just stands there letting him talk, even with her arms folded, not engaging with him, wishing he would go away, she doesn’t like him – she likes maybe-boyfriend – but he won’t go away – and when he does go away it’s as secretly and silently as he arrived – but he’s there long enough for them to be seen together. That is enough for chins to wag and tongues to spit. They were seen together so she, daughter, must be having an affair with milkman, and it must be true because Mrs Someone and Mrs Thingymabob said.  Even ma doesn’t believe her. What’s a girl to do?

Did I enjoy this novel? To start with, yes; but as it progressed it felt repetitive and over-written. The Man-Booker judges have, in recent years, favoured the experimental voice to the detriment, I believe, of story-telling and therefore of their readership. Although a stream-of-consciousness novel, James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late won in 1994 the past four years have seen more experimental novels taking the prize. New writing doesn’t necessarily mean better writing.

Here is a very short video of Anna Burns after winning the Man-Booker and talking briefly about the writing of her novel. She seems overwhelmed by the media attention, which given its intensity is understandable. I apologise for the god-awful and too loud backing music.

You can buy the kindle version here.

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst pic
British writer, Allan Hollinghurst.

A common theme throughout Hollinghurst’s work is how the past can be shaped by the present. The Stranger’s Child (2011) is about a poem written just before WWI but after the poem becomes famous it acts as a microscope on the lives and descendants of the people who were spending that weekend together when the poem was written in a teenage girl’s autograph book. Even his first The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) the past is a crucial element: a young lay-about is asked to write the biography of an ageing aristocrat and in reading the old man’s diaries comes to see the passions, oppressions, and obsessions of an earlier gay life refracted in his own; and, here too in The Sparsholt Affair, a sexual dalliance at Oxford during WW2 , is re-remembered when a lost memoir is discovered shortly after the author’s death. Whatever is happening, or improved, about the present it’s all because of what happened before.

Hollinghurst studied English Literature at Oxford in the 1970’s but concentrated his interests on writers whose homosexuality, though never expressed or admitted to publicly, permeated their work:  E.M. Forster, Philip Firbank, and L.P. Hartly. He is reported as saying that “I was fortunate to come along just as gay-lit was coming into its own” but it was actually his first, The Swimming-Pool Library, that let the way – particularly in literary fiction – in my memory. And that’s the point. Memory is such a slippery thing. Someone once said, “it’s like an oven; you put something in, wait a bit, open the door and there it is: something else.” Yes, there is an affair in The Sparsholt Affair (“Money, power … gay shenanigans! It had everything”) – in fact there are many Sparsholt affairs – but how much people remember about it is what interests Hollinghurst.

“If you think about the Poulson scandal in the early 1970s [a property and corruption case that resulted in the resignation of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling] … the Profumo affair people remember a bit better, but actually, if we tested each other on it now, we’d probably be a bit rocky, and that was a very, very prominent scandal.”

David Sparsholt arrives in Oxford in 1940 and all eyes, from a room across the quad, are on him as he, in a sweaty singlet, lifts weights in what he thinks is the privacy of his own room. The assemblage, mainly gay, some gay-ish, young men, plot and scheme to get Sparsholt’s attention; all to varying degrees, although one in particular succeeds spectacularly. So ends Part 1: The New Man.

In each successive Part – there are five in all – Hollinghurst jumps decades ahead to the Sparsholt family, friends, some from that Oxford group, now ageing, some new, some older, successful, some dying, to Part 5 which concentrates on David’s son, Johnny Sparsholt, a painter, now in his 60’s whose long-time partner Patrick has just died. Here at the end of the book a regular Hollinghurst theme emerges: how gay life of today is so much different from gay life then, when it was illegal, tragic, rife, but clandestine; and Hollinghurst gives us the most vivid and delicious description of gay clubbing, leisure drug-taking, sex for the moment – during which the past emerges, yet again. Permeating all five parts is the affair from Part 1, or it is the real Sparsholt Affair, the one that made the papers, and shocked the socks off everyone?

“What would two long-ago lovers be likely to feel, one of them twice married, the other losing his memory.”

Curiously, or not, for some, the central character, David Sparsholt is rarely in the spot light; he is relegated to the edges of the story, to the shadows of people’s memory and belief – even his son is a little vague about what his father is like;  but it’s the idea of him and what he did, or did not do, that is at the centre, and what was remembered about him, it.

What has always interested me about novels is not so much what happens but how each is told. Apart from Part 1, which is a first-person memoir, Hollinghurst employs a narrator that entirely operates through what his characters sense. They are all experts at defining and opinionising the thoughts, desires, and threats that flit and tumble over the faces of everyone else in the room. His language is Jamsean and sometimes you relish reading a sentence again just for the pleasure of it. He is interested in the tone, the flavour of things, be it the atmosphere in a bar, of a welcome, in the furnishings of a home, a decision, a sigh; and at times you are impressed by his descriptive accuracy:  “the gay voice that survives through generations, the illusionless adenoidal whine and drag …”

Hollinghurst is a stylist because he has a style, and one feature of this style is his phrases of opposites. It’s his logo, his leitmotif. They pepper all his work.

     ” … seemed to know and not to know …”

     “ … passed from shadow to shadow in doubt and then brief solidarity.”

     “ … he was smilingly both enemy and friend” which, of course is true of any auctioneer

     “ … more present and also more covetably remote…”

     ” … his relief that he wouldn’t be alone with Francesca was mixed with the relief that he wouldn’t be alone with Ivan… “

     “…he might be about to cry, or was just possibly stifling a laugh.”

     “It was as touching as it was annoying.”

     “ … magic as routine …”

It says something about the human condition – always to the fore in a Hollinghurst book – that these opposites are surprisingly apposite.

This is a book I will read again and unlike music which we listen to again because of what we remember, we re-read books because of what we forget, and not just the incidents but the pleasure of re-finding the joy in the details, the words, the phrases, the descriptions.

My only complaint with this book is the editing, or the lack of it, which, sadly, is what we have come to expect these days. I’m pleased that I’m not overtly annoyed by comma splices, of which there are many, but the sloppy use of pronouns especially in scenes with many characters of the same sex make re-reading for clarity an annoying necessity. There is even a sentence on page 181 that makes no sense at all but is due to, I suspect, a cut and paste not being checked for coherence.

Hollinghurst was born in a market town near Oxford in 1954; the only child of a bank manager, he had a happy childhood and especially remembers being flooded with relief, when his father said: “Awfully sorry, old chap, but you’re not going to have any brothers or sisters.” He didn’t mind at all and rather enjoyed playing Hide-&-Seek by himself: “It can’t be hide and seek if no one’s coming to look for you, darling,” his mother told him. “It’s just Hide.” He had a safe and uneventful childhood and eventually studied at Oxford and after gaining a BA and a MLitt lectured for a while at his alma mater, Magdalen College, and several other tertiary piles before landing a job in 1982 at The Times Literary Supplement and becoming its assistant editor from 1985 – 1990.  He spectacularly burst onto the literary scene with The Swimming-Pool Library which put well-adjusted and happy gay lives firmly into the literary landscape. I remember seeing the book, in hard-cover, large and impressive, being handled and protected carefully in the arms of an Anglophile friend of mine, a mauve sweater draped around his shoulders and a sleeve caught in its pages, like a bookmark. I knew very little about it except its gay theme, but what struck me that day was that it exuded importance. He won the Man-Booker Prize in 2004 for his 4th novel The Line of Beauty.

The Booker, once the sought-after pinnacle of literary fiction in English, has been tarnished somewhat by the inclusion, some say, in 2014, of work by American writers; two of them having won the 2016 and 2017 prizes, Paul Beatty for The Sellout and George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo, respectively. In February this year 30 publishing heavyweights wrote to the Man-Booker Foundation asking that the 2014 decision be reversed. The reason for the dispute seems to be to avoid “an homogenised literary future;” or, it could be because a Brit hasn’t won it since 2012. The Foundation responded with “The Man Booker prize expanded in 2014 to allow writers of any nationality, regardless of geography, to enter the prize providing that they are writing in English and published in the UK. The rule was not created specifically to include American writers.” The 2018 prize, its 50th, will announce the long list in July.

You can buy this book in Kindle, hardback, or paperback editions, here.

A Sweet Obscurity by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall with his husband farmer. They raise barley and beef. He plays the cello in a string trio, is chair of the Endellion Summer Music Festival, and loves gardening, dogs and nature.

Finally, on page 47, the complicated filial relationships of the four main characters, are explained. Several readings of the first three chapters doesn’t make them clearer, and the introduction of another family with a similar structure only confused matters even more. (I even cheated at the blurb on the back cover) It’s never clear to readers, and neither should it be, who makes these structural decisions, writer or editor, but waiting ’till page 47 is too long. Many readers would’ve given up; I nearly did, but I’m glad I persevered.

A common, and probably over-used, novelistic structure is a brief introduction followed by a major plot point – a birth, death, a prodigal brother, an earthquake – and then the back stories to fill in the gaps; and finally, the consequences that lead to a climax (another plot point or two) and finale. Gale doesn’t really abandon this structure, he stretches it and the long wait for the first plot point is ameliorated by his interesting characters and relationships.

Dido is a 9-year-old girl going on 25. Her upbringing is shared by her aunt, Eliza, Giles, Eliza’s estranged husband, and Julia, Giles’ girlfriend. All three are involved in music: Giles is an impossibly handsome counter-tenor, Julia works for the agency that handles his career, and Eliza is a musicologist who is struggling to complete her doctorate on the Elizabethan madrigalic composer, Trevescan. Dido’s single mother, Hannah, Eliza’s older sister, a wayward but determined woman died in a mountaineering accident well before the action begins. Dido’s father is unknown. They all have eccentricities of dress, self-regard, expectations, failings, and sexual proclivities; they are all in the beginnings, middles or ends of their warm, messy relationships, or planning, or foreseeing new ones; but are all basically good people trying to get along in the world as best they can. A trip to Cornwall, the discovery of a ‘lost’ madrigal, and a broccoli farmer change everything. As a reader, you want them all to find what they are looking for. They deserve to be happy.

Then finally, Gale drops in the first plot point. It isn’t another character, or an event, or an action; it’s a piece of information, something only some of them know. He could’ve plopped it down near the beginning but he saves it for near the end; and once it has hit you between the eyes – it’s something I can guarantee you would never guess – a few little more bombshells are dropped and the webby entanglements of all their lives re-arrange themselves (probably to begin a new cacophony of bumpy attachments); but Gale leaves these wonderful people at the moment of most contentment, or, at least, the promise of contentment, and the reader closes the book with great satisfaction.

The book doesn’t stop there. There is an interview with Gale, and a little essay by Gale himself about the writing of the book: it’s his only work to date based on a dream.

You can buy the eBook here.

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

British humourist P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975)

With an opening like this…

I marmaladed a slice of toast with something of a flourish, and I don’t suppose I have come much closer to saying ‘Tra-la-la’ as I did the lathering, for I was feeling in mid-season form this morning. God, as I once heard Jeeves put it, was in His Heaven and all was right with the world. (He added, I remember, some guff about larks and snails, but that is a side issue and need not delay us.);

a setting of a country pile called Totliegh Towers near the village of Totleigh-in-the-Wold; wold, by the way, apart from being the past participle of ‘will’ which we never use, is, apparently, a piece of open ground in Lincolnshire; and a cast of characters such as Sir Watkyn Basset, his daughter, Madeleine, Roderick Spode, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Emerald Stoker, the Rev. Stinker Pinker, and his fiancée, Stiffy Byng, you know what to expect, and that’s exactly what you get.

The irrepressible, and un-embarrassable Bertie Wooster and his faithful and loyal Man, Jeeves, motor to the said house to mix with the said folk and chaos ensues but it’s chaos of the very English countryside kind: all misunderstandings, gnashing of teeth, rolling of eyes, and spurious and fuzzy relationships where love is something like a decision about which scarf one should wear today, given the unseasonable weather.

Bertie Wooster, always the narrator, who doesn’t have a job – unless a job is having lunch at his club – often refers to himself in the third person, a somewhat English habit not unrelated to the royal ‘we’ and the uppity ‘one’. He has the hide of a hippo and the intelligence of a gnat. He seems to hate everybody except those he likes, and those he hates, hate him back, of which he is totally unaware; and those he likes think he’s a bit of a dill. That’s where Jeeves comes in, and always in the nick if t.; and that is one of Bertie’s little tropes, if ‘tropes’ is the word I want? (Ditto). But if it weren’t for Jeeves, who when he does come in it’s usually with tea on a tray, there’d be no story, no 14 books, and no laughs. Thank god – no, thank Wodehouse – for Jeeves since he knows absolutely everything about everything. Wodehouse, by the w, is pronounced ‘Woodhouse’ contrary to usual English pronunciation; so very Bertie Wooster!

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881 – 1975) was a prolific writer of humour and social commentary: novels, articles, short stories, and lyrics for musical comedies (Anything Goes, 1934), – at one time he had 5 musicals – in which he had a hand – running on Broadway, films (Gentleman of Leisure, 1915, Sally, 1929, The Girl on the Boat, 1961), and the creator of many memorable characters, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves being just two of them. At the age of 93 he received a long-overdue knighthood in 1975, but died on St Valentine’s Day 45 days later.

In his 90’s he was asked, “How about writing?”

Oh, as far as the brain goes, I’m fine. I’ve just finished another novel, in fact. I’ve got a wonderful title for it, Bachelors Anonymous. Don’t you think that’s good? Yes, everybody likes that title. Peter Schwed, my editor at Simon and Schuster, nearly always alters my titles, but he raved over that one. I think the book is so much better than my usual stuff that I don’t know how I can top it. It really is funny. It’s worked out awfully well. I’m rather worried about the next one. It will be a letdown almost. I don’t want to be like Bernard Shaw. He turned out some awfully bad stuff in his nineties. He said he knew the stuff was bad but he couldn’t stop writing.

“Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves” was first published in 1963. The plot? Well, let’s see. It has something to do with an ugly black amber objet b’thingummy which may or may not be stolen; an engagement that may be off, or it may be on; which all has something to do with a steak and kidney pie (see jacket cover). Perhaps I need to explain that the engagement is also threatened by conflicting opinions about sunsets, elves’ bridal veils, and something Dante wrote. Does that help? Oh, and there’s also a bit of fisty-cuffs and the cook elopes with someone’s fiancée which has a devastating effect on the prospect of dinner. Anyway, it’s all very cleverly muddled together to be as light as a … what’s the word I want? Starts with an f. Oh, yes; as light as fluff. And if you’ve ever tried to describe fluff you’ll know what I mean; light fluff is even trickier, but this being so light in fact, it blew away with the breeze before I had a chance to remember it. So, sorry, but entertaining? Very! If you like this sort of English thing; but it can be an effective diversion if read after Frank Morehouse and James Joyce.


You can find all things Wodehouse on his official website:

This particular book you can find here.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan
British novelist, Ian McEwan

McEwan’s first published work, First Love, Last Rites, appeared in 1975; another short story collection, In Between the Sheets, appeared in 1978 then two short novels, The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981). My then he was known as “Ian Macabre” for the subject matter in his work. An early story is about a love affair between a writer and her pet ape told from the ape’s point of view; another concerns a disgruntled husband who discovers a technique of body manipulation that results in the person disappearing into himself; he tries this on his wife during sex.

His work settled down a little but there is always something dark at the centre of his stories. His three most accomplished works belong to this latter period; Enduring Love (1997) which concerns a science writer being stalked by a disturbed man: both of whom witness a horrendous accident involving a hot-air balloon; one of the most suspenseful and superbly written opening chapters you can ever hope to read, rendered rather ho-hum by the 2004 film starring Daniel Craig; Atonement (2001) in which a young girl witnesses her sister having sex but misconstrues it as an assault and ruins her sister’s and lover’s lives, which the young girl, as a grown-up novelist, atones for by writing about it but with a happy ending. This was superbly adapted as a film in 2007 with Keira Knightly and James McAvoy. And Saturday (2005), a day in the life of a neurosurgeon who is confronted on the street by a man, who, as recognised by the surgeon, has a neurological disorder; the mentally ill man then menacingly invades the surgeon’s home.

He won the Booker Prize for a slim volume called Amsterdam in 1998, about a pact between two male friends who re-connect at the funeral of a shared lover, and he was nominated again for On Chesil Beach (2007) which begins with the wedding night of an extremely sexually naïve couple. I was so embarrassed for them, McEwan’s writing was truly effective, that I shut the book at page 6 and have never opened it since.

His 2014 novel, The Children Act, confronts a modern dilemma involving personal faith and medical intervention. You can read my blog on this here.

Nutshell, is another slim work, –  nothing wrong with that – which begins with a superb, but short, opening line – I’ll leave it for you to discover. It is basically about the planning and execution of the murder of a poet, John, by his estranged wife, Trudy, and her lover, his younger brother, Claude. The identity of the narrator of this murderous pact by two unpleasant but intriguing people is the crux here: John and Trudy’s unborn foetus. Generally a reader can accept all of what a writer conjures, and this is the main ask a writer makes; however this foetus prefers a Sancerre, preferably from Chavignol, over a grassy Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand; loves the radio; tends to use Latin and French in lieu of English when the urge arises; insists on words like ‘youngly’; is intimate with the physics of sound and the work of 20th century composers; clearly au fait with the intricacies of human sexual behaviour and romantic attachment; has a fine understanding of poetics, and has studied the psychological preferences of murderers, all garnered it seems from BBC Radio podcasts favoured by his mother. But if you have made your narrator a foetus then it is de rigueur to make him an intelligent one; no use boring your readers with goo goo and gar gar. Although how much suspension of disbelief is too much?

It feels like a short story s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a novella: too much about the self-absorbed (and observed) narrator and not enough about the protagonists. But then how is he to know? It’s a dilemma McEwan side-steps. However, if you accept without question what the writer throws at you it’s an entertaining and amusing read.

The title comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the continued illusion to that work – the main players, the victim, John Cairncross, A.S. Cairncross is famous for a 1936 book entitled The Problem of Hamlet, the mother, Ger(Trudy) and the usurper, (Claude)ius, (get it?) – still doesn’t raise it above a minor work. Let’s hang out for the next one.

You can find all editions, including the ebook, here.

Black Water by Louise Doughty

British writer, Louise Doughty.

In Indonesia in 1965, fifty-one years ago, a coup against President Sukarno was crushed by the military leadership of Suharto and the blame fell on the Communist Party (PKI) which led to mass killings of suspected Communist members, sympathizers, and their families. Nowhere was the massacre more severe than in Bali: in the weeks surrounding Christmas 1965 it has been estimated that 80,000 people were killed; around 5% of the island’s population. Village people could not opt out: if you did not name someone as a Communist, you, yourself were suspected of being one. Even if you were merely fighting for land reform or education for women and girls, these communist-tainted ideologies were enough to condemn you. Villagers who huddled with their terrified, but relieved, families after naming a neighbour, then had to listen to screams as those neighbours were dragged from their beds and hacked to death with machetes; no-one could expect the relatively swift and painless bullet from a gun: too expensive. Villages only had long-handled sickle-like knives they used for cutting grass for their pigs; those and other methods that were easy at hand.

“We shoved wood in their anus until they died. We crushed their necks with wood. We hung them. We strangled them with wire. We cut off their heads. We ran them over with cars. We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished”.

— Adi Zulkadry, death squad leader quoted in the Oscar nominated documentay The Act of Killing

Old scores, family feuds, village rivalries that had been simmering for decades, generations, suddenly had an outlet for settlement. Any Bali villager today over the age of 60 must have memories of that time; and their families, being spared, must have had a hand in it. So the logic goes.

There have been various books, (including Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously), and films and documentaries (40 Years of silence: An Indonesian Tragedy, 2009, The Act of Killing, 2012) that were based on this ‘tragedy’.

“1965 is an event that has and continues to influence many Indonesians and as such, we chose to dedicate a proportion of the program to enriching our understanding about this, through themes of reconciliation and remembrance. We hoped that these panel sessions would enable conversations to take place that continue Indonesia on its journey of healing, particularly for those whose lives were so severely affected.” Janet deNeefe, Founder and Director, Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

The Ubud Festival has presented many written and visual works based on the killings at various festivals but it was the 2015 festival that the police stepped in and forced the organisers to cancel various sessions; the 50th anniversary too remindful, too dangerous, too raw to allow talk and debate about such a controversial event – “the massacre of up to 500,000 or more alleged Communists between 1965 and 1968 by the Suharto regime.”
“Unfortunately, whilst we pride ourselves in bringing topical issues to the forefront of national and international dialogue, we had to consider the festival’s program in its entirety and the many other important issues which will be explored through it, including human rights, activism and censorship,’ DeNeefe said.

Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, last year refused to apologise to the victims of 1965, even though he had made an election promise to confront Indonesia’s past cases of human rights violations. The event is not taught in schools; it is being erased from the country’s history.

It was this event of 1965 that inspired British writer Louise Doughty, a regular visitor to the Ubud Festival to write Black Water, her ninth novel, which was published by Faber & Faber earlier this year.

Ironically many writers choose fiction to highlight real events.

“Novels arise from the shortcomings of history”.  So said Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, born 2 May 1772 and known by his pen name, Novalis. The facts of history are usually dry and un-engaging, so to engage readers writers use the novelist’s art of researching the facts by talking to the participants, then imagining the detail; the personal detail that can grab a reader’s attention, put them in the character’s shoes and inspire them to dig further, light their own imagination and spur them on to seek more answers: the truth can inspire fiction in the writer and then that fiction can inspire truth in the reader.

Black Water tells the personal fictive story of a mixed race (Dutch, Malay) man, an intelligence operative, called, by his English name, John Harper. The book is divided into three parts: the first set in 1998 when Harper is on ‘forced leave’ in Bali (why?) and embarks on a love-affair; part 2 is his early mixed race life in the Dutch East Indies, Holland, the US, and then Indonesia from 1942 to 1965, the year of ‘the tragedy’ which marked the making of Suharto; and finally, back to 1998 where the personal and the historical co-mingle; where we discover what really happened to John Harper.

Doughty is often described as a thriller-writer but in supplying the personal facts to colour the historical truth Doughty doesn’t describe the horrific violence but ‘imagines’ what could happen: dense prose of the atrocities that could befall you if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time; like most village victims. This and rather flippant drops of dryness, along with little glimpses into the future undermine any suspense as if such novelistic techniques were too commercial; or maybe it’s her attempt to dislodge the ‘thriller’ epithet. Consequently, the reader is distanced from the actual threat to Harper’s life rendering his fear as mere paranoia until well towards the end where the narrative takes on a page-turning haste that would’ve served the text better had it arrived earlier. It’s really a small point but important from a reader’s point of view. However, Doughty’s side-stepping of horrific descriptions of torture and murder may just be her novelistic skill at work: preparing us, blind-siding us, for the tense and terrifying climax. But Doughty at her best is when she is charting the geography of the heart especially of lonely, damaged people as they fumble for some support, trust, and commitment even if talk of such things are rarely on their lips.

Doughty, a British writer of Romany descent was born in 1963. She spent most of her twenties in casual teaching and temporary secretarial jobs, the latter supplying material for her first novel Crazy Paving (1995). She has been nominated and won many awards as well as being a judge for some of the prizes she has, in the past, won.

Black Water is the first book I have read that is set in the place where I live. I was interested in Doughty’s book to give colour, weight, and detail to the events of 1965 that have only filtered through to me via the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Literature in Indonesia is not an important pastime, especially in Bali where free time is usually taken up with duties to the banjar (village council) and the temple. But this is changing although Indonesia’s most famous novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, via his Baru Quartet, publishing in English by Penguin, is not known in Indonesia: the book in the Indonesian language is banned because of its anti-authority themes. Indonesia is a country that is crawling out from under its past but it’s a slow and bumpy ride. Black Water should help to it along a bit.

You can find the book here.

Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden

British writer Margaret Rumer Godden (1907 – 1998) 

This is a story of drugs, prostitution, murder, and nuns.

Of all the writers of the 20th Century the British writer Rumer Godden (1907 – 1998) best known for her 1939 novel Black Narcissus filmed in 1947 by Michael Powell and starring Deborah Kerr wrote the most searchingly and movingly about women’s servitude to the Catholic Church.

Although born in England she spent most of her life in India, growing up in Narayanganj, colonial India (now in Bangladesh), later in Calcutta where she founded and ran a dance school for children for over 20 years and where her writing began, but then in Kashmir in India’s north west. She returned to England in 1945 to concentrate on her writing. She did not convert to Catholicism until 1968 but was always interested in the mystical and emotional balance between the Catholic Church and the practical world of secular existence. She lived, from 1968 to 1973, with her second husband, in Lamb House, Rye: also inhabited at various times by writers Henry James (Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw) and E. F. Benson (Mapp and Lucia).

She wrote 27 novels, 11 works of non-fiction, 4 volumes of poetry, and 28 books for children. She was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1993 and her last novel, Cromartie vs. the God Shiva (1997), was published the year before she died.

Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy (1979) her 20th novel, and set in France, tells the story of Lise (just one of her names), a notorious ‘madam’ with a facial wound and known to the press as La Balafrée (The Scarface), and Patrice, her lover, her jailer, her protector, her pimp. But it begins with her journey, after her release from prison, to a nunnery: a place she can’t wait to get to. Along the way Godden weaves narratives in various tenses and voices to colour Lise’s story and her past; how a painter might use colours to give depth to a picture. But what she doesn’t disclose is why she was in prison in the first place. She saves that for later.

It’s easy to call her work melodramatic, which is probably why 9 of her works have been filmed, but her writing skills belie the degrading element of that classification.

What obviously fascinated Godden was how belief, not necessarily the subject of that belief, can completely take over a person and compel her to sacrifice herself to a god and even live a life outside of how that same god commanded them to live (“Be fruitful and multiply”, Genesis 1: 28). Lise’s obedience is not to her god but to her order, which protects her from the world, but also, and more importantly, from men. A man ruined her life so she seeks the protection of women, which, ironically, is in the service of a paternalistic church.

Parallel to Lise’s story is that of Vivi and Lucette. The former, a 14 year old whore eager to get away from the arms of the nuns and into the arms of handsome Luigi; but once that happens and she has a babe forced into her own arms she rebels and hates Luigi, his family, and his child: she denies all wifely and motherly instincts prescribed to women but which are also the instincts that are shunned by nuns; one woman is damned, others are exulted.

Lucette is a lost child who is released from prison on the same day as Lise but who sees Lise’s desire to run into the care of the nunnery as nothing but out of the frying pan and into the fire.

“They tell me that often the worst criminals make the best nuns.”

Spiritual and mystical beliefs by women to a masculine god tussle with what other women think being a woman is all about. This is what makes Godden’s work so interesting.

You can find a full list of authors and titles, including 13 by Rumer Godden – and not all about nuns – at or follow @OpenRoadMedia on facebook or twitter.

The Madness of Art


Author, Author by David Lodge

British Writer, David Lodge

When the Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, was working on his (masterpiece?) The Master (2004), about the American-English writer Henry James, he visited Lamb House, HJ’s East Sussex home in the town of Rye, and met 3 other writers all doing exactly what he was doing: researching HJ. There has been a resurgence in interest in Henry James usually considered an obtuse fiction writer but a recognition that his most alluring characteristic is that he was, like most literary greats, a writer like no other. The English writer, David Lodge, also produced a book on HJ in 2004 which seemed to have sunk from view since Tóibín’s effort was so successful: it was shortlisted for the Booker-Man Prize in 2004. Lodge’s story focuses on the same events, and in particular James’s unsuccessful foray into the theatre, as Tóibín’s, but it is a very different novel.

Lodges’s story is more old-fashioned in the sense that he puts HJ in the midst of his history setting up a life of work, friendships, and his exhausting social life, into which then Lodge plunges the unsuspecting, and dare I say it, theatrically naive writer to surround the reader with an understanding of the great cataclysm that befell HJ  and his subsequent inability to come to terms with what had happened: failure.

 It is not enough that one succeeds – others must fail.

However, Lodge has a more nuanced ambition: the juxtaposition of a literary figure and his sense of his own talent against the success of his peers, and in HJ’s terms, his inferiors. James had a contemptuous attitude towards his contemporary, Oscar Wilde, whose unprecedented theatrical success was a claw in his side, made more painful by the success of An Ideal Husband, an early performance James attended on the opening night of his own fateful play Guy Domville. He hurried from the thunderous and appreciative applause of Wilde’s audience to the jeering ‘gods’ of his own. HJ was deeply humiliated by the audience’s reaction to his play. Guy Domville only lasted three weeks and was, ironicly,  replaced by Wilde’s even-bigger success, The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s subsequent fall, social disgrace, trial for sodomy, and imprisonment were his just desserts in James’s mind even if they were, not for low-brow literary frippery, but for ‘outrageous and disgraceful conduct’; James’s own sexual proclivities were always buried deep and, it is surmised, never allowed expression. However it was the popular successes of his good friends, George Du Maurier and Constance Fenimore Woolson  that really contrasted HJ’s failure and showed his idea of friendship to be constantly compromised.

It was Wilde who quipped

Anyone can sympathise with a friend’s success, but it takes a truly exceptional nature to rejoice in a friend’s failure;

which he topped a little time later with,

It is not enough that one succeeds – others must fail.

Gore Vidal, that Wilde-ish American, rephrased it in the late twentieth century as

Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something inside me dies.

HJ’s close friend, George Du Maurier, was famous as an illustrator for Punch magazine and only turned to writing a novel, Trilby, because of failing eyesight: he dictated the text to his wife. Trilby was, by today’s jargon, a blockbuster, on both sides of the Atlantic, in print and on stage; a level of success that Du Maurier never quite understood. Neither did HJ. The Trilby hat, the phrase ‘in the altogether’ and the name ‘Svengali’ are all due to George Du Maurier, who is now forgotten; his name only lives on in that of his grand-daughter, the novelist Daphne Du Maurier (1907 – 1989), author of Rebecca and Don’t Look Now.

Henry James at his desk, 1900. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times.

Henry James had many female friends but his closest was Constance Fenimore Woolson (grand-niece of James Fenimore Cooper). She, as did Du Maurier, considered HJ as a writer of the highest order and was always self-deprecating about her own short stories and novels which sold much better than HJ’s; he agreed with her but never said so. He was always haunted by her suicide – she fell from her apartment window in Venice to the payment below – in the fear that it had something to do with her un-reciprocated love for him.

In both Tóibín’s and Lodge’s accounts the failure, and in particular the doomed opening night, of Guy Domville is the focus, although Tóibín places it near the beginning, while Lodge puts it near the end. Both also are deeply interested in HJ’s recovery and his return to prose-writing. However Lodge’s structure of the event wrings every bit of drama there is. He alternates the thoughts and utterances of the audience members– HJ’s friends and allies – on the opening night with James’s actions and thoughts as he dresses and prepares for the evening, sits through a performance of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, – which he hates and thinks is crass and silly, and then hurries to St James Theatre to be on hand, if required, for the curtain-call. It’s a very effective use of dramatic irony – the reader knows what the protagonist doesn’t – and when George Alexander, having just taken his own curtain call, beckons the unsuspecting James onto the stage, HJ assumes it has all gone well (readers mentally yell, ‘No, James! No!’); but when his presence in the spot-light elicits a volley of abuse from the cheap-seats he is confused and to make matters worse bows not once but twice causing the rabble to ramp-up the volume of their displeasure. The already humiliating moment is compounded by Alexander who then makes a fawning and apologetic speech about him promising ‘to do better, next time.’ Despite mixed reviews – and positive ones from the youthful but the then unknown H.G Wells and George Bernard Shaw – no report, vocally or in print, avoided the mention of the reaction from the ‘gods’, and the play was doomed.

Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something inside me dies.

What Lodge is getting at is summed up thus,

Something had happened in the culture of the English-speaking world in the past few decades, some huge seismic shift caused by a number of different converging forces – the spread and thinning of literacy, the leveling effect of democracy, the rampart energy of capitalism, the distorting of values by journalism and advertising – which made it impossible for a practitioner of art of fiction to achieve both excellence and popularity, as Scott and Balzac, Dickens and George Elliot, has done in their prime.

And the result of this was a growing craving for un-intellectual entertainment. Lodge is referring to, of course, the difference between what today we call popular fiction and literary fiction.

The plot of Guy Domville angered the public the most: an eligible bachelor, a Catholic, plans to enter the priest-hood, but he is the last of his line; he discovers that he is loved, decides therefore to marry, then realises his intended is loved by another; he fosters that relationship, succeeds, and then joins the priesthood anyway. The End; three acts and over two hours to finish as it began, and no happy ending. To James it was a serious dilemma, skillfully presented as art, to the public it was boring.


The effect of such an event on a writer, his work, his sense of himself, and his friendships is what makes this novel so engaging. It’s one of the most enlightening works on success, failure, and friendship and any reader interested in such things should read it no matter what their artistic bent.


The review of Author, Author in The Independent in 2004 puts it succinctly;


Lodge deploys all his seductive storytelling craft to explore not merely the life and art of James himself, but the fate of any proud writer in an age of hype and spin.


David Lodge’s Author, Author is an immensely enjoyable work; I scheduled reading time – always a good sign.

The kindle and paper editions of Author, Author are available here.

I leave the last word to Henry James: We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.




A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

British writer, Patrick Gale

This is a very different book, Gale’s latest, from his other work which have usually been an insular look at a group of people in a localised area, usually a small Cornish community. A Place Called Winter is epic in its geography, historic in its time and language, and romantic in its tone. If you had to write a précis of this book it would read something like a historical romance, complete with abandonment of wife and family, a journey across the ocean to a strange and inhospitable land, the finding of love in the most unlikely place, a world war, murder, insanity, tragedy, and a villain of truly despicable proportions, but Gale avoids all the possible clichés that would otherwise render such a story fit only for the sensational shelves of suburban bookshops patronised by retired ladies.

“I didn’t decide, ‘Now for an historical novel!’ Rather I found myself more and more possessed by the material suggested by the fragments of my great-grandfather’s story,” and Gale has been reported many times as saying that for the purposes of fiction, and to account for surprising decisions from his ancestor’s known but sketchy life, he ‘turned’ his great-grandfather gay. This is not surprising for Gale readers, as Gale, an out gay man, writes often and well about sexuality. However “The great challenge in this novel was to write about sexuality while inhabiting the head of a man who realistically would not have had anything like the psycho-sexual vocabulary we take for granted now.” Indeed, in his first homosexual experience, which he, Harry Cane, subconsciously seeks out under the guise of a remedy for his stuttering from a handsome, but opportunistic actor and speech therapist, says, when it is obvious what is going to happen and without any stutter at all, “I have absolutely no idea what to do.”

Once his affair is discovered by a kind but firm brother he is forced to avoid a family scandal and possible imprisonment, and flees to the wild cold west of Canada where he is befriended, then abused, but finally set up by a land agent next to a shy and reclusive brother and sister pair, there for their own reasons of displacement. It is here, near a place called Winter, that he discovers what life, love, sacrifice and family really mean. Plot points of self-realization, murder and reunion are described in unsentimental terms and even the climatic act of …. No; no spoilers here.

For all of Gale’s extolling his attention “on the psychology and emotional life” of his characters I found A Place Called Winter, although enjoyable and sustaining, not as rewarding as his other works that focused on a domestic band of rural characters dealing with each other, and more importantly, themselves. The Cornish landscape, both emotional and geographic, he knows well and writes about it with, insight, force and understanding, while such considerations in A Place Called Winter are a little overshadowed by the grandeur of the plot. However, there is a lot to gain from this book; it’s probably the most commercial of his works and one that will gain him a new and, hopefully, loyal readership. He’s prolific: this is his 17th work and I eagerly look forward to what next he has to offer.