I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes

Terry Hayes, English-Australian screenwriter and novelist

I think it was John Irving, the winner of both the National Book Award for a novel and the Oscar for a screenplay, who said that writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean. T.H.

I Am Pilgrim has to be the holiday read to top all holiday reads!

And despite living up to the hype slashed all over its covers, it is also not what I expected. But it is long: 888p.
It begins traditionally enough with a baffling crime seemingly unsolvable and then several chapters of interconnected back stories. Then in Part 2 another novel begins: the development of a young jihadist, simply known as The Saracen, and his decades long quest to bring down America and so similarly destroy its ally, the Saud family, rulers of Saudi Arabia, whose leaders murdered his father.
It reads like a film script; not surprising since Hayes is a noted screenwriter, with short chapters, each like a single-set scene with usually a stinger of a last line; I call them waterfalls: they link smartly into the next scene, or, in a writing trope, they lead you to hastily turn the page. Lines like, ‘I was in the North Tower when it came down’ and ‘It was time to enter the dark and brooding house’ and ‘… it was a terrible thing I ended up doing to him.’

And then there’s the simple lists of what he plans to do and the outcomes he expects, to be followed by another page turning device: predicated hindsight – lines like “but I couldn’t’ve been more wrong” or “I should’ve taken more notice of the photo but I didn’t.” And the interest level goes up a notch or three.

The plot is international: Manhattan, Bodrum, Berlin, Jeddah, and the mountains of the Hindu Kush. The threat is not nuclear, or extraterrestrial, but, ironically for the times, viral. Firstly there is the murder in a sleazy hotel in Manhattan: a woman’s body is found in a bath full of acid, face down but because of the acid she has no face, and her fingertips have been removed as well as all her teeth. She is unidentifiable.

There is the first-person hero: a spook, an intelligence officer, a spy, a detective, and all-round nice guy who isn’t adverse to doing unspeakable things but only because he has to. He has many names so you are never sure which name is real. The villain, The Saracen, you know as a teenager and understand why he becomes the deliverer of evil; you almost like him. However, his unspeakable deeds are worse.

But then there is a death in Bodrum, Turkey, which the local authorities are convinced was due to misadventure. Our man knows it’s murder but needs to prove it. And all the while we jump back to The Saracen who is consolidating his self-manufactured weapon of mass destruction, starting with medical school. His is a very long term plan.

The faceless woman in Manhattan. The Saudi teen with revenge via mass-death on his mind. And a drug dazed tourist falling over a cliff to his death in Bodrum. Are they linked? Of course they are but for most of the book it’s hard to see how. But the deadly virus is manufactured, tested, packaged into 10,000 vials, and posted; the Saracen’s job is done. Our man’s task is to find out how and where the shipment is and when it will land. The climax is unputdownable!

Terry Hayes was born in Sussex in the UK but his family moved to Australia when he was five. As an adult after working as a journalist and investigative reporter he was hired by George Millar to do the novelisation of the original film, Mad Max (1979) and then subsequently several other Mad Max reincarnations and worked as a producer and/or screenwriter for TV shows like The Dismissal (1983), Bodyline (1984), Vietnam (1987) and Bangkok Hilton (1989) and several movies, including The Year My Voice Broke (1987), Dead Calm (1989), Payback (1999), and From Hell (2001). I Am Pilgrim (2013) is his debut novel and his second The Year of the Locust is yet to be released. MGM has acquired the film rights to Pilgrim with Hayes as writer but I wouldn’t be surprised if the project is re-done as a TV series; a far more suitable format for such a sprawling yarn, in my opinion.

Here is a very interesting, although over an hour long, interview with Hayes about writing I Am Pilgrim and where the inspiration came from.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

from a low and quiet sea by Donal Ryan

Irish writer Donal Ryan

Right from the beginning I should tell you that the writing is assured and fine, but for those of you who want signposts to tell you who says what to whom you’ll be disappointed: the dialogue is imbedded in the prose, unpunctuated, so this one may not be for you.

This is proving to be popular with contemporary writers: the last three books I’ve read have been written with minimal punctuation and certainly no  dialogue punctuation. I was skeptical at first but once you read it, reading it as if it’s being read to you, it’s clear what is dialogue and what isn’t.
 

  It’s about three men: Farouk, his country torn apart by war attempts to save his family and then can’t believe the worst of reality; Laurence, Lampy, a young man with an old chip on his shoulder the size of the bus he drives, a bastard but there’s absolutely nothing he can do about that – but it might be why Chloe doesn’t love him; and John a man bewildered and damaged by idle patents and left with ‘a filthy soul’. The final chapter begins enigmatically and these three men and their relationship to each other become clear only in the last pages. It’s really three back stories before the final chapter sews them all together; a very different form of a novel.

Farouk’s and Lampy’s chapters, and the final one are written in the third person but with many a patch of close writing: third person writing that’s  a-l-m-o-s-t in the first; but John’s chapter is all in the first. I don’t think there’s anything significant about that; it’s just how it turned out. 

The prose, in every chapter, is strewn with very long, sometimes beautiful, sentences full of clauses separated by conjunctions that create a tense tone of urgency as if the speaker has to rush and get as much information into the sentence as possible before they run out of breath because there’s a full stop coming up and there’s more and more important things to say and there’s unease in the voice, which sets the tone, as if there might be failure ahead and the rush is to beat it before the full stop comes into view and there, it’s almost upon you but there’s just another very important thing to say and yet another one and here it comes and there it is.

Alex Clark in The Guardian in mid-2019 acknowledged the boom in Irish contemporary fiction writing and credited its rise to fearless publishers and writers. However, writers have always been fearless; it’s the publishers alone that should now deserve the credit. Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (2019) which takes eight sentences to fill over a thousand pages, was on the Booker shortlist that year, and was picked up by a small publisher Galley Beggar Press (GBP) which also took Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013). That took nine years to find GBP and is considered a ‘difficult’ book. Form and style have broadened literary fiction’s borders and I don’t just mean with the diminishing use of punctuation. Colum McCann’s Apeirogon (2020) on the Booker shortlist for 2020 is called ‘a novel’ on the cover but isn’t: it’s a great read but it’s definitely creative journalism. The only thing made-up about it is its form. 

from a low and quiet sea was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and long listed for the Booker Prize (2018).

If it’s writing with characters deeply drawn and language that makes you read sentences out loud just for the joy of it then this one is for you. 

Here you can watch Donal Ryan reading from this book from a low and quiet sea.

You can buy the book here in various formats. 
 

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Indian writer Amitav Ghosh

This is what novels can do: take us away from what we know and set us down in other worlds, at other times, to see the universe from another angle and hopefully reassess our choices and privilege. Yet, we still, usually – well, I do – continue to read books about and written by, English-speaking muddle-class whities.

What is most remarkable about Sea of Poppies (2008) is the language:

A quartermaster lured the boy into the ship’s store with a mind to trying a bit of udlee-budlee. But chota as he was, young Benjamin didn’t lack for bawhawdery – set upon the old launderbuzz with a belaying-pin and beat him with such a will that his life-line was all but unrove.

He also assigns formal speech peppered with malapropisms to paint an innocent, although well-meaning, young Caucasian character through her attempt at what she thinks to be  proper conversation.

Also the wonderfully colourful Indian-English of yesteryear full of jangled word-order and inappropriate gerunds “too much not time to be arousing and uprising…’ juggling accents and idiolects from the lowest poverty-stricken rice farmer to a Zamindar, the Rajah of Raskhali who looses everything to indignant hubris.

And it isn’t just his wild, wonderful, and inventive lexicon but it’s also the exotic time and place full of words for staff, house geography, clothes, food, ship-craft, and colloquialisms.

You would think all this verbal unfamiliarity would send you rushing to the dictionary; a tiresome task if all too necessary – although reading it as an eBook allows this to be less so. But no. The overall meaning of a sentence, conversation, or paragraph is always clear even if some individual words are not.

One of the joys of the writing here is it’s inventiveness and possible authenticity. Ghosh acknowledges his debt to several publications, including Thomas Roebuck’s An English And Hindoostanee Naval Dictionary Of Technical Terms And Sea Phrases As Also The Various Words of Command Given In Working A Ship, &C. With Many Sentences of Great Use at Sea; To Which Is Prefixed A Short Grammar Of The Hindoostani Language (1813).

However, whether it is authentic or inventive doesn’t matter, it’s a joy to read, and reading some sections out loud is a very pleasurable thing to do.

The book, and it’s a big one, the first of a trilogy, is set prior to the first Opium War (1839-1842) when the British successfully came to the aid of the opium merchants when the Qing Dynasty of China banned the drug from its shores. It is divided into three sections: Land, River, Sea and centres around a schooner, the Ibis, and the exotic collection of humanity that find themselves on and below its decks as it sails from Calcutta to Mauritius.

The characters are varied, three-dimensional, and extraordinary. There is Deeti, a widowed poppy farmer saved from her husband’s funeral pyre by a handsome ‘untouchable’, Kalua; Zachary Reid, a mixed race American sailor; Serang Ali, the leader of the lascars and colourfully mangles the English language along with various other tongues; Neel Rattan Halder, a Raja convicted of forgery; Ah Fatt, a Parsi-Chinese opium addict; Paulette, a French orphan raised in India; Jodu, her childhood friend; and the extraordinary Nob Kissin Baboo, a would-be priest. All of these major characters, and many minor ones, have colourful backstories, some comic, some tragic, some heart-thumping, some tear-jerking but by part three of the novel they are all on board the Ibis, bound for Mauritius and their various destinies.

As well as all the above there is Ghosh’s descriptive, rich, and luminescent prose: describing the love in a young girl’s heart along with its negative opposite, not hate but cowardice for saying nothing for fear of rejection; describing the effect of the first lungful of opium smoke in a man’s breast, nulling the gravity in his limbs and creating delusions clean of doubt; to untying a knot on a bowsprit as it plunges a sailor into a mighty wave and out the other side, like threading a needle with courage.

It’s a great read and reinforces what novels do best: carry us away.

Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 2008.

The epic story, The Ibis Trilogy, continues with River of Smoke (2011), and Flood of Fire (2015).

-oOo-

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Here you can watch an interview with Amitav Ghosh as he explains his sentiments behind Sea of Poppies.

And here is a little documentary with Ghosh as he talks about the background to his iconic Ibis Trilogy.

The Echo Chamber by John Boyne

Irish writer, John Boyne.

  ‘But you live in Croydon,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t see why not.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can purchase the book in various formats here

The Promise by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

You can buy the book, in various formats, here

UPDATE November 4 2021: Galgut’s The Promise won the 2021 Booker Prize!

The Lonely Man by Chris Power

British writer Chris Power

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

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

Oxford Dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch an interview with Chris Power here.

And here you can buy the book in various formats.

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.

Lanny by Max Porter

Max Porter Pic
British writer, Max Porter.

When you open a book to page one you usually do so with a blank mind,  but an expectant one; waiting for the writer to paint you a picture which becomes – the quicker the better you hope – understanding: place, time, people, action. But right from the start of Max Porter’s Lanny this assumption is useless.

Don’t be put off, if by the end of page 9 you haven’t got a clue what’s going on. Let the snatches of village gossip and easy chatty phrases wash over you like breezes, like waves: exactly like they do on the page – yes exactly like waves, not in straight lines.

Watch and listen to Max Porter talk about the making and the essence of his book, Lanny.

In the first sentence you are introduced to Dead Papa Toothwort; at this moment, and for a few pages to come, a mystery. The more you read the more theories of his identity test themselves until you think that Dead Papa Toothwort is a presence, something like an invisible, all-knowing spirit that flits, swoops, and hovers in and over a village, through its stories, myths, and pliable imaginations, past and present. The strange beginning and pages of wavy lines are necessary: once you accept the existence of Dead Papa Toothwort, and you must, Porter prepares you to accept a whole lot more (no spoilers here).

But the village is real, as real as a novelistic village can be; a dormitory nameless village on the outskirts of London – and we finally meet characters in that village, and we are on safer ground. Understanding, place, time, characters, action emerge like a happy vista through a rising fog. Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad and Pete. They tell you their stories in the first person, and all of their stories revolve around Lanny. A boy. An exceptional boy. Everyone loves Lanny. He scares people sometimes, especially his parents. He sings when he walks. He collects stuff like a bower bird. He soothes anger with a well-chosen question or a song.  And then Lanny disappears.

This book is not a conventional book. Porter has created something different, and what that something is I’m not sure, yet. What it has in common with a conventional book is that it is satisfying, a strange, but satisfying read. There are some conversations and dialogue but not in the familiar form – punctuation is minimal, but no quotation marks – yet it’s always clear what you’re reading, who is speaking, what is being said. You get to know these people very quickly. It’s a small book, I read it in two consecutive afternoons.

In the middle of the book when the town, the police, the media, turn on these three people the tension, the fear, and the unease is told through multiple voices; it isn’t important who says them; you can guess who says them.

Lanny is the centre of the story, but Lanny isn’t given his own voice. You learn to love Lanny via those around him. Porter gives you recognisable emotions, flawed parents, uncaring neighbours, who themselves sometimes are given a voice; familiar novelistic traits that are compensation for, it seems, for the unconventional beginning and format.

I have only one criticism: I would’ve liked to have witnessed more of Lanny’s exceptionalism; his soothing of anger with a song, for example, than just been told about it.

As Porter says, it is not a book that has much to do with today. There are no mobile phones, computers, or text-speak. It is a book about sound and our imagination and how we need to let a writer tickle that imagination into forms and acceptances that are a little out of our comfort zone.

I urge you to give him that chance.

Max Porter’s first novel, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (2015), won many awards and nominations and has been sold in twenty nine territories. A theatrical version was staged in Dublin in March 2018.

You can watch an interview with Porter about Lanny, it’s themes and genesis, here.

The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs by Damon Galgut

image
The South African writer, Damon Galgut

Don’t worry if you are woefully unread in South African literature, so is the South African writer Damon Galgut.

“Local writers are trying to escape a rigid set of moral gestures, if I can put it like that, which have imposed repetition upon us. Perhaps cliché is nothing more than the weight of the past pinning down your mind. In this sense, imaginative freedom is a way of finding the future, though it isn’t so easy to do.”

In other words, Galgut is looking out from South Africa not looking at it. However, there is a tone to his work that can easily be linked to his country, his continent: a tone that is built on the black and the white, the long distances, the heat, the poverty, the seemingly political ineptitude and the sense of people struggling to live a life they want but never seem to get. Most, but not all, of his male protagonists are slight in stature, indecisive, confused, loners with an ambiguous sexuality. Patrick Winter, the first-person narrator in Galgut’s 1991 novel, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs is one such protagonist. He is also mentally fragile since his compulsory two-year stint in the military where he became not only horrified by death and boredom but he attained a sense of hatred and terror at things like the insistent regularity of bathroom tiles and the rigid diagonals of sunlight. He takes Valium twice a day.

He travels to Namibia by car with his mother to see her black boyfriend who is politically activated in the first free elections in Namibia, formally South West Africa, where Patrick did his mandatory South African national service one year earlier and, now on this trip, he constantly wonders if the locals he meets may have been the same people that he shot at; that shot at him. It’s a story about a child and his mother; she, extroverted, thrives to belong “but her glamorous strivings were hollow’’; he, introverted, convoluted, his “patterns ran inward, spiralling endlessly towards a centre that didn’t exist.” They, tragically for both of them, belong together.

This book fell out of print but it was Galgut’s shortlisting for the 2008 Man-Booker prize with his novel The Good Doctor (2003), and subsequent fame, that gave him the opportunity to refine the text for the inevitable re-print. He was never quite satisfied with the original text: ‘discordant’ he called it.

“I woke to the sound of a pig being killed. I sat up rigidly in bed, not moving till the noise suddenly stopped. Then I got up and dressed and went outside. I had forgotten this about the farm. Its calendar runs on slaughter.”

This is typical of Galgut’s prose: stark statement of fact, short clear sentences without any mention of what the narrator feels; but the arrangement of such words, sentences, creates its own feeling, supplied significantly by the reader. Galgut draws the scene, we colour it in.

I once heard an ordinary female tourist talk about the end of her wonderful and surprising holiday on a foreign isle and her inevitable return: “Home I go,” she said, “to crawl back under my rock.” For all Patrick and his mother’s yearnings and plans this is what will happen.

“I sat down on a swing and rocked myself to and fro. In a little while, I knew, I would walk back up the road to the hotel, and we would pack our bags and go, and our usual lives would resume.”

The promise of travel and the lure of a foreign place is rarely fulfilled, it takes courage to stay out from under that rock; and Galgut by writing about this makes us aware just how rare and courageous it is.

You can find this book here.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent lic
The Australian Writer Hannah Kent

It is not all that long ago, 1994, that Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days was disqualified from the Miles Franklin Award (Australia’s most prestigious literary prize because it was not Australian enough (he won the prize for its sequel Dark Palace (2000), which contains one scene set in Australia); apparently Australian literary sentiment has grown up since then, thank god – although the real problem lies from the rules of eligibility for the Prize . Here now is an Australian author, Hannah Kent, whose debut novel, Burial Rites (2013) was set in Iceland and now her second, The Good People, is set in Ireland: and still not a gum tree in sight. The only thing Australian about this book is its author; but that’s all that is needed, and rightly so, to herald Kent as a new, rising, and shining voice in Australian literature.

Kent paints time, place, and character through dialogue. The time is 1825 in rural, south-west Ireland where the Catholic Church is as powerful as ever but also where old Irish superstition and language is still rife and useful. All of this is established through how the characters talk: here a man comes to seek council from Nance Roche about his troubling dreams. Nance Roche is a wise woman who lives alone in a windowless, mud hut near the wood and who is said to have ‘the knowledge’.

 

‘Faith, what does it matter? I’d best be on my way.’

‘Sure, Peter, Go on home.’

He helped Nance to her feet and waited as she used the tongs to pluck a coal from the fire, dipping it, hissing, in her water bucket to cool. She dried the dead ember on her skirt, spat on the ground and passed it to him. ‘You’ll see no púca tonight. God save you on the road.’

Peter put it into his pocket with a curt nod. ‘Bless you, Nance Roche. You’re a good living woman, no matter what the new priest says.’

Here archaic English (“Faith, what does it matter?”), old Irish (púca means ghost) and Catholic salutation (”God save you on the road.”) all create the world of this novel: illustrative, complex, colourful, informative, and believable. The last because of Kent’s success at creating verisimilitude: the appearance of truth. You do not need to look up the meaning of púca; nor do you need to research the veracity of the use of the word ‘faith’ as an exultation in nineteenth century south-west rural Ireland; nor that the possession of a cool coal from the hearth of a bean feasa living in a mud-hut will soothe one’s dreams. As quickly as you read the lines the reader accepts this created truth because of the trust we readers place in the creator of such truth; when the real truth is that we are sitting in our reading chair scanning and finding shared meaning from little dark marks on a pale background. All hail our imagination and those that tickle it!

Kent has done her publisher proud: produced a novel with all the qualities of her first that prompted her global success and her publisher’s trust in her in the first place (it’s rumoured her earnings from rights, foreign publishers and the like, was $1 million); mid-nineteenth century far-western Europe in a valley of poverty, crime, women, faith, and fear, but with such differences that make it fresh and new, in tone, theme, crime, spine, and ending.

This is a story of three women: a new and bitter widow, Nora; a servant girl, Mary; and a feared and revered loner, Nance Roach; unwedded, unbedded, and therefore considered unworldly, but ironically, powerful despite the “fear of any woman who was not tethered to man or hearth.” In a society of family and neighbourily trust, tension and anger can boil quickly if livelihood is threatened: if cow’s milk is without butter, if a hen’s egg is yolk-less, or if a man falls suddenly dead, the inhabitants clutch at reasons, causes – be it four crows seen huddled together at a crossroads; lights seen bobbing on a fairy mound; or a cretinous child thrust on a widow who has no means to support it.

This is what happens to Nora whose motherless and afflicted grandchild is suddenly handed to her but who firmly believes it is the mischievous fairies, The Good People, who have taken her Micheál and left her one of their own. Her attempts to return the fairy to its own kind and see the safe return of her grandson is what propels the narrative to its tragic finale.

The belief systems, be it Christian or fairydom, give meaning to these ignorant people; the world is mysterious and explanations are needed for everything that ties them down, keeps them safe, or lifts them up. They need these causes of things to be certainties to allow them to get on with their poor and mundane lives; to keep planting their potatoes, milking their skinny cows, and harvesting turf to heat their hovels because their only other choice is to take to the road: the worst of outcomes.

Some readers have found the book depressing; yes, the story is sad, but the writing is evocative and succeeds is creating a vanished world, surreal almost, for the reader to get lost in so when the world of this valley is pushed into a civilized courtroom the reader too is confronted by the complexities and necessities of belief, survival, and what is true, good, and right.

I urge you to read this book. You can find it here.