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.

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.

Ease by Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale Pic
British writer, Patrick Gale

I’m not a recipe-bound cook. I like recipe books for ideas not instructions. Generally due to this approach I produce eatable, sometimes interesting, but usually unmemorable dishes. However, sometimes I even amaze myself: my first soufflé was a triumph and I basked in my own pride, and praise from others. Usually, though, when I attempt a former triumph a second time, it is a disaster: my second soufflé was more like a biscuit.

I have seen evidence of this second-time-failure phenomenon in other human endeavours, and not just mine, but Patrick Gale’s second novel of 17, Ease (1985), is not one of them.

His first The Aerodynamics of Pork (1985) was a joy to read but Ease surpasses it: its simpler, clearer, better structured, and philosophically more interesting.

Domina (Dom, Min, Mina) Tey is a successful playwright, who lives with her long-time partner – too long to be a boyfriend, but not legal enough to be a husband – Randolf Herskewitz, (Ran, Rand, Randy – Gale loves to play with names). He’s a writer too, although an academic one, more truth-as-wonder than Domina’s truth-as-reality.

Min writes plays about “menopausal lecturers and novelists” for “the discerning Guardian-reading, professional-oblique-arty masses”, which Des (Desiree), her agent, loves and can sell, but Min is worried she’s getting bored, and therefore boring.

Min leaves Randy and leaves behind the loveliest ‘I’m leaving you/not leaving you’ note you have ever read: “I won’t be in for dinner for a few weeks but the freezer is well stocked,’ it begins. She goes to “visit herself” and “secrecy of whereabouts vital to success of spiritual growth” and she signs “Apologetic affec. Mxxxxxxx.”

She moves to “a top-floor bedsit by Queensway, with no view, in a house full of odd little men and an old-bag downstairs who used to be a mortician.” One of these little men is Thierry, a young, French, gorgeous, promiscuous, and very successful, homosexual who takes her on one of his sauna-searching escapades; another is Quintus, a young, sweet, naïve history student who is trying also to find himself but has just found God, well, not God really, more a church; and not just any church, the Greek Orthodox Church. He captures Min’s curiosity and she captures a few other little things of his as well. I won’t go on; no spoilers here, and there’s quite a lot I could spoil, but no.

No-one knows how this thing we call human life started, if only by a bolt of lightning in a pool of primordial ooze, but start it did, with or without a creative hand. It sounds unlikely but it only had to happen once in a multi-squillion or so years. Anyway, stuff happens and us humans have many diverting, equally unlikely, annoying, and definite views on how we cause or are affected by such stuff and what we then need to feel or do; but if you are of the philosophical bent of our protagonist, Min, (and Mr. Gale, I suspect) you may come away from reading this book with a more peaceful, uncluttered, and sanguine view of us, allowing you to get on with life, like washing the dishes, walking the dog, loving, reading and /or writing books.

Patrick Gale is a British novelist whose ebook editions of his many novels are published in the US by Early Bird Books, and marketed by Open Road Media.

The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin image
Irish writer Colm Tóibín

Page one can tell you a lot about a book. Here, in  Colm Tóibín’s 1996 novel, The Story of the Night, the first paragraph is in the simple past tense with a first person narrator, Richard Garay, a young Argentinian with an English mother:

“During her last year my mother grew obsessive about the emblems of empire: the Union Jack, the Tower of London, the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher.”

The second paragraph is in the present continuous: now, the time of writing.

“I am living once more in her apartment. I am sleeping in her bed, and I am using, with particular relish, the heavy cotton sheets that she was saving for some special occasion. ”

The third paragraph returns to the past, to the story Tóibín wants to tell; set in the time before, and after, his mother’s death,

“She died a year before the war [The Falkland’s war, 1982] and thus I was spared her mad patriotism and foolishness … The war would have been her shrill revenge on everybody, on my father and his family, and on the life she had been forced to live down here [Buenos Aires] so far away from home.”

What you also get from page one is the tone, generated by a sparse prose peppered with well-chosen adjectives (“her shrill revenge”); simple and often short sentences; a formal style – few contractions; and of course the situation, melancholic and fearful, which has a lot to do with meaning: his mother a widow in a foreign country with an only child who is anxious about his future and his desires.

By the end of page one it is clear that the world of The Story of the Night is dark, devious, and dangerous.

“She was elated by the election of Mrs Thatcher. Here is a woman, she said, who knows what is right and what is wrong. And that is what we need here, she said. She showed me Thatcher’s face in a magazine, pointed to her and said how sorry she was not to be in England now.”

This direct speech without punctuation; more like indirect speech is curious since there are passages of traditionally punctuated direct speech. It may be that this direct/non-direct speech, which is reported by Garay, is his version of what was said which raises the question of his trustworthiness; yet he is our key to the story. He is honest with us about his desires, inexperience, political naïveté, and inaction; or is he?

The creation of verisimilitude is essential to the novelist’s goal: to make the reader believe that what they are reading is true, even if that truth only exists in the universe that the writer has created and in which the story lives. As in the theatre, the audience, the readers, are expected to suspend disbelief and believe what they are experiencing. With a first person narrative a strong and common way to do this is, ironically, for the narrator to admit what he or she does not know:

“I don’t remember how or why I began to talk about this.”

Curiously, such a line makes the narrator more believable; we all forget things, why we said things, how we met someone, how we know something. (This doesn’t work, of course, for a third person narrative who is usually all-seeing, all-knowing, god-like) But this not remembering makes him more like us. Tóibín uses this little technique to also heighten the tension surrounding the narrative which is steeped in the political uncertainty following the war with Britain over the Falklands, the Malvinas as the Argentinians call them. Garay is fearful of his professional future; he has a lowly paid English-teaching job which he hates; he is watchful of others who may be spying on him; he is anxious about others knowing his desires; and doesn’t know who to trust. However he is brave (or foolish) enough to take a gamble and becomes politically involved with the father of one of his regular students who introduces him to an American couple, Donald and Susan Ford, with whom he embarks on a friendship but with hidden motives and where the real story, what he assumes, is possibly false. These layers of acquaintances help to deepen the fear; slipping him deeper into a labyrinth. This mixture of political and sexual intrigue creates a sense of danger that always threatens to manifest itself: it is as if danger is around every corner, under every bed, over every page. Garay is constantly on edge and so are we.

Tóibín has been criticized for getting the history wrong and although the setting is a country we all know exists, Argentina, it doesn’t have to be that Argentina; it is the Argentina of the writer’s imagination and this a reader accepts or doesn’t. This is creative writing and one has to accept that it is all created; just because he writer uses the name of an exiting place the reader should not confuse the associational reference with the place itself; anyway, how many of us know the political climate, atmospheric geography, and bar etiquette of 1983 Buenos Aires? And would you take time out to research such things at such times? I think not. The writer wants us to use our knowledge, albeit skimpy and tabloid-ish, to his advantage: he is creating a world in which it is possible for us to believe that what we are reading is true (even if it isn’t). That is the point of fiction.

The Story of the Night is a love story, a tragedy, but also an affirmation: Tóibín is too much an optimist about love to let it be down-trodden by plot.

Tóibín has written previously about men, The Heather Blazing (1992) and The Master (2004), but not for over a decade; his last three novels have been about women; but of all his long-form work The Story of the Night is the most unusual. It has been reported that he has said that his next novel will be again about a man. We can all look forward to that!

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The English writer, Alan Bennett

This book is about reading and what happens to those around her when a wealthy, elderly, busy, and duty-obsessed woman discovers the joy of it. Everyone is put out, even her dogs. This may not sound like a particularly interesting plot until I tell you that this woman is the Queen of England.

Betty Windsor has been portrayed before, in novels (The Queen and I by Sue Townsend), films (The Queen by Peter Morgan, starring Helen Mirren) and plays, (Alan Bennet’s own Question of Attribution) but Bennet in this little, but highly entertaining novel, The Uncommon Reader has the confidence, or is it audacity, to not only put words in her mouth but thoughts in her head.

“The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there is something lofty about literature … All readers are equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth…”

Prunella Scales as HRH Queen Elizabeth II and Alan Bennett as Anthony Blunt in the National Theatre production of A Question of Attribution, 1988.

The most attractive aspect of Bennet’s writing is his tone: quiet, understated, tongue-in-cheek, with an economical, proficient and assured use of the language, all of which emphasise the unexpected, the ironic, the bizarre and turn them into laugh-out-louds.

“… Seeing her almost daily meant that Sir Kevin [her private secretary, a New Zealander] was able to nag the Queen about what was now almost an obsession and to devise different approaches. ‘I was wondering ma’am, if we could somehow factor in your reading.’ Once she would have let this pass, but one effect of reading had been to diminish the Queen’s tolerance of jargon (which had always been low).
‘Factor it in? What does that mean?’
‘I’m just kicking the tyres on this one, ma’am, but it would help if we were able to put out a press release saying that, apart from English literature, Your Majesty was also reading ethnic classics.’
‘Which ethnic classics did you have in mind, Sir Kevin? The Karma Sutra?’
Sir Kevin sighed.
‘I’m reading Vikram Seth at the moment. Would he count?’
Though the private secretary had never heard of him he thought it sounded right.
‘Salman Rushdie?’
‘Probably not, ma’am.’…”

It was her unpleasant corgies who noisily brought it to their mistress’s attention that there was an intruder in the grounds: the local council’s portable library van parked outside the palace kitchen. When Her Maj feels a need to apologise for the racket she not only discovers books and the idea of reading them but also Norman, a thin, ginger-haired dish-washer from the kitchens who, unused to protocol, charms the Queen and is, at her request, promoted to her wing as a page; and who becomes her reading companion and trusted literary adviser and book-fetcher.

Her passion for reading, leads her to hold a soiree so she can meet some of the writers she has recently enjoyed. It turns out not to be a good idea…

“…She, who had seldom been intimidated by anyone now found herself tongue-tied and awkward. ‘I adored your book’ would have said it all but 50 years of composure and self-obsession plus half a century of understantment stood in the way … Authors, she soon decided were probably best met within the pages of their novels, and were as much creatures of the reader’s imagination as the characters in their books. Nor did they seem to think that one had done them a kindness by reading their writings. Rather they had done one the kindness by writing them…”

Elizabeth II has aschewed the royal plural (“we”) for the royal singular (“one”), or at least she has in this Bennett novel. I don’t see the point of researching this piece of trivia to see if Bennett is right in this; if he is, well and good, if he isn’t, this is fiction so why care? It’s a nice touch though.

Not only does she develope a passion for reading, she feels the need to daddle in literary critizism:

“…’Am I alone,’ she wrote, ‘in wanting to give Henry James a good talking to?’ It was Henry James she was reading one teatime when she said out loud, ‘Oh, do get on.’ The maid, who was just taking away the rea trolley, said ‘Sorry, ma’am,’ and shot out of the room in two seconds flat…”

The Queen let her passion for reading impose on her royal duties …

“She’d got quite good at reading and waving, the trick being to keep the book below the level of the window and to keep focused on it and not on the crowds. The duke didn’t like it one bit…”

… But on a coach ride trip back from the opening of parliament her book wasn’t in its usual hiding place: wedged down behind a cushion. When she enquired from the footman in charge he told her he thought security had thought it a risk and it had probably been exploded?

“… ‘Exploded?’ said the Queen. ‘But it was Anita Brookner.’
The young man, who seemed remarkably undefferential, said security may have thought it was a device.
The Queen said: ‘Yes. That is exactly what it is. A book is a device to ignite the imagination’ …”

I’ll leave the scene of Her Maj playing charades up to you to discover for yourself, as well as the gambit by Sir Kevin, at the behest of the Prime Minister, to be rid of Norman on account of his perceived sexuality; but enough of plot.

Bennett is always a writer that makes it obvious to his readers that he has fun doing it. What he plans for the Queen to do after she has mastered the art of reading is all due to his depiction of her as a doer, which, if one thinks about it, is the closest thing to proof that this is a masterly work of fiction. Anyway, a doer she is and it’s easy to believe him, as one must; so what does a doer do after a doer has done it. It’s a compliment to Bennett that it isn’t what you may think it is; and it isn’t what he has her do next. The joy of the ending is what she, being a Queen, has to do first in order to do what she wants to do next given that she’s a doer and she’s now done with reading.

You’ll have to read it now to know what I mean.

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy pic
English writer Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928)

There once was a time when romance meant novels about gallant itinerant horsemen, stressed long-haired girls, castles in need of a paint-job, and sour land-owners who really only needed a bit of understanding; think, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Ivanhoe (1820), and Lorna Doone, – “Sit doon Lorna, sit doon!” (1869). Today a romance means boy meets girl – boy looses girl (through a silly misunderstanding) – boy gets girl; think almost anything. However there also was a time when the old story of romance was transplanted to the lower, sometimes the very low, echelons of society, which over the eons has transmogrified into modern stories where teenage dreams, parental misunderstandings and happy endings revolve around tainted gossip, what a pretty girl – usually called Kimberley or Kylie – said or didn’t do, and a brave stance taken by a handsome boy – usually called Steve, Lance, or Duke; but it’s in that transference of action to the working class, and lower, that our modern romance stories find their roots. Works like Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and The Woodlanders.

The Woodlanders (1886) has all the trappings of a modern day soap opera. I know that term has a sour taste but the mechanics of the action are the same mechanics that make up the plots of tales in modern day prisons, hospitals, schools, country towns, white houses, and space.
There is a poor girl, Marty South whose long beautiful hair is craved by the gloomy rich lady, Mrs. Charmond, of the gloomy big manor, Hintock House, and the poor girl succumbs to selling it once she learns that the man she loves, Giles, loves another; a mysterious, but handsome, doctor, Mr. Fitzpiers, takes up residence in the house on the hill; a local – but well educated beauty, Grace, – feels obliged by family promises to marry beneath her; and a young but honest youth finds the choice of a wife far more difficult than scratching a living from a village, Little Hintock, in a dent in the woods. The names alone go far in setting the tone, time, and place.


It seems that, ironically given the title, what joins these human stories of a low society, and the actions they choose, revolve around the mortal threat, ownership, and spirit of one particular tree; but the forced fate of which has the opposite effect of that intended. As indeed do other actions of other characters: how soap-opera-ish is the denial of something which causes the want of it? This story set on a beach could be an episode of Home and Away if it were not for the language. Here is Hardy’s description of Mr Fitzpiers, the doctor who “descended, as from the clouds, upon Little Hintock”:

“His face was rather soft than stern, charming than grand, pale than flushed; his nose — if a sketch of his features be de rigueur for a person of his pretensions — was artistically beautiful enough to have been worth doing in marble by any sculptor not over-busy, and was hence devoid of those knotty irregularities which often mean power; while the double-cyma or classical curve of his mouth was not without a looseness in its close. Nevertheless, either from his readily appreciative mien, or his reflective manner, or the instinct towards profound things which was said to possess him, his presence bespoke the philosopher rather than the dandy or macaroni — an effect which was helped by the absence of trinkets or other trivialities from his attire, though this was more finished and up to date than is usually the case among rural practitioners.”

A modern novelist might translate this classic – as modern playwrights feel obliged to do to theirs- like this;

His face was soft, charming and pale; with a nose that a local sculptor, with time on his hands, might feel inspired to chisel, more elegant than powerful; and a mouth that was full and kissable. In short he looked more like a raconteur than a spiv, a look that was helped by him wearing clothes with no decoration which in this town labeled him a medical outsider.

But what an immense amount of pleasure would be lost. Go on! Give it a go! Read Hardy’s version out loud even if it takes two or three goes to get the unfamiliar intonation and punctuation right to reflect the meanings he intended.

Actually if you are a modern novelist of the Colm Tóibín kind you wouldn’t, or rarely, describe people, or places, at all. In Tóibín’s latest novel Nora Webster (2014) the only description of a person occurs on page 2: “May Lacey, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat…” which is hardly a description, more the flavour of the woman. Such novelists leave the detailed descriptive work up to the readers’ experience which has its compelling justifications; but there is also something to be said for stretching your literary experience, reminding ourselves how the language was – and can be – used, and relishing the way little dark marks on a pale background can paint pictures in your head.

Of course the stories of these people in the woods end as you would expect or as Oscar Wilde has Miss Prism deliciously say in The Importance of Being Ernest, “The Good end(ed) happily, and  the Bad unhappily. That’s what fiction means.” However Hardy wasn’t a popular and lauded novelist in his day for sticking rigidly to the form; he adds a few very intriguing surprises and “OMG” moments that would do very nicely today just before an ad-break.

Hardy is at his most entertaining, and prickly at times, when two people are caught in a room and what they want to say is stymied by custom, clothing, religion, morality, and social class; so what they actually say is layered and fraught with all kinds of meanings. Modern writers can learn a lot from Hardy’s use of dialogue: it propels the action, paints character, exposes hypocrisy, uncovers hidden motives, makes you laugh, and sometimes makes you weep.

A go at the classics now and again sharpens our literary minds to tackle and appreciate more clearly the literature that’s written and read now; it brings depth and experience to what we need when we read a modern novel.

It doesn’t have to be Hardy; it can be Dickens, Franklin, Collins, Hemingway or Twain, Stevenson or Woolf, Richardson or White. You won’t regret it, I promise.

Sherlock Holmes, where are you?

Sherlock Holmes, invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1897 in A Study in Scarlet, keeps popping up again and again; a contemporary television series “Sherlock” (2010) starring Benedict Cumerbatch, and a movie franchise “Sherlock Holmes” (1: 2009, 2: 2011, 3: in development) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Now he appears in two celebrated novels.

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

The Fifth Heart Cover pic

Fiction, by its very definition, is the process of “imaginative narration” or “a composition of non-factual events” and accordingly enables writers to create, to ‘make up’, whatever the hell they want. It is a little incongruous then that most readers seem to want to read stories that are familiar, plot driven (literary fiction is on the decline) and with an ending that is expected and therefore satisfying. I think it is fair to say that all stories can be whittled down to the good guy wins, the bad guy looses or, as Oscar Wilde has Miss Prism say about her three volume novel she wrote in her youth, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 2, Scene 1, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means”.  However fantasy and science fiction, extremely ‘made up’ narratives, are among the top five most popular literary genres. Still within their contexts what is familiar (treachery, jealousy, love, betrayal, and relationships) is still what is expected.

Dan Simmons pic

Dan Simmons is one of the few novelists whose work spans the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, suspense, historical fiction, noir crime fiction, and mainstream literary fiction. His books are published in 29 counties.

I first encountered Dan Simmons with his novel, Drood (2009), his re-invention of Dickens’ last and unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I didn’t finish it. It had nothing to do with Dickens and I have very little time for horror/fantasy. However, with The Fifth Heart (2015) I was prepared to ‘swallow’ whatever Simmons ‘made up’; and he makes up everything except the names of his two main characters, Sherlock Holmes, a made up character himself, and the novelist, Henry James, a real person.

It is clear from page one that the reader is well and truly in Dan Simmons territory: Henry James, the famous American expat novelist (and real person once upon a time) is approaching 50, in Paris, depressed, and plans to kill himself by throwing himself into the Seine under Pont Neuf. Not surprisingly he is thwarted in his suicide attempt (it doesn’t take such Holmesian logic to realise that Henry James’s name is on the front cover and this is only page 4) by a Norwegian explorer who James instantly recognises as Sherlock Holmes (you know, the literary character invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) despite the disguise (wig and puttied nose); despite the dark and misty night; despite the fact that this is 1896 and Holmes, the fictional character, has been dead for 3 years, having been killed off in the last of the Holmes published mysteries, The Adventure of the Final Problem published in 1893 which saw Holmes tumble over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in the deadly grip of his arch-foe Moriarty. The bodies were never found. Ha! Oh, Henry James shrugs off all these discrepancies, and Simmons expects us to do so too, since James remembers meeting Holmes at an afternoon soirée at the home of his good friend Mrs. O’Connor four years before. Holmes is also contemplating suicide because he is worried that he may not be a real person; he only “feels really alive” when he is on (read “written into”) a mystery. This is real fiction I keep reminding myself and I promised myself I would keep my disbelief at bay and go along for the ride…that is what readers of fiction are supposed to do.

The mystery, “The Mystery of the Century” as the quote on the jacket cover reassures us concerns a group of friends, known affectionately as The Five Hearts, and known well by Henry James. One of them, Clover Adams, The Fifth Heart, committed suicide two years prior to the action but on every anniversary of the death, the remaining members of the group all receive a type-written card announcing unsubtilely “She was murdered.” Holmes coerces James to accompany him to the USA to help solve the mystery.

A novel is within its own universe; and this universe may or may not be the universe of the reader. This is most obvious is the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy; in fact it is possible, and easy, to argue that the universe of a novel is never that of the reader.

In the same sense that the stature of David had always existed in the massive block of stone that Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci fought over and Michelangelo, who obviously won the fight, simply had to remove the outer, and superfluous, rock to reveal the image of the boy, a story can also be thought of as having happened in all its detail, nuances, and meaning and someone just needs to tell it; to write it down. This is exactly what happens in journalism, history writing, and memoir. There is also a sense of this in all forms of fiction

Let us assume that I write a story about an astronaut who develops bowel cancer. This would be a very rare, and unlucky, even ironic, occurrence since all astronauts, before donning their space suit, for rehearsal, training, and the actual space travel itself, must undergo an enema; if you wanted an occupation that would guarantee you a healthy bowel, especially if your family history was riddled with unhealthy ones, then astronaut would be the job for you. Now, my story hangs on this one event: the tragedy of my protagonist who contracts a life-threatening disease, the one he was convinced would never happen to him and how he comes to terms with his own mortality even though he is the healthiest, most positive, most enthusiastic, fearless, and life-loving person he knows; he’s walked in space, for Christ’s sake, to repair a faulty solar energy unit while conducting experiments on neutron absorption, and stood on the moon watching the Earth rise. He deserves to live.

The last thing I want my reader to do is to rush to his computer and Google ‘enema+astronaut’ to verify that astronauts do indeed undergo enemas before they don their space-suits. I want my reader to accept that in the universe of my story, which may not be his/her universe, astronauts do undergo enemas before climbing into their space suits. By the way, I have no idea if astronauts have enemas or not; I made it up, but it’s not a difficult idea to accept; it’s plausible, in the universe I have created for my story; but my point is that it doesn’t have to be plausible it just has to be acceptable.

In the universe of The Fifth Heart people that actually existed in the reader’s universe (Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Samuel Clemens – yes, Mark Twain makes an appearance) rub shoulders, have dinners and arguments, and go on mystery-solving adventures with made-up characters from other literary universes, ie, Sherlock Holmes, and even he doesn’t know if he’s a real person or not. I find this very hard to accept; I know I should, but I can’t; and that’s why I stopped reading it.

Mr. Simmons also makes a novelistic mistake: he breaks the ‘fourth-wall’ and has his narrator address the reader directly.

“Wait a minute. The reader needs to pardon this interruption as the narrator makes a comment here.” (Who is speaking here? If it is the narrator surely he would say “The reader needs to pardon this interruption as I make a comment here.” This is another narrator! (Oh, picky-picky!)

This would be fine, and normally acceptable, if it is necessary, but it is not. Simmon’s narrator is not a character in the story, he is an un-named voice and like most un-named narrative voices, is all-seeing, all knowing, omnipotent: god-like. Mr. Simmons allocates almost a whole chapter to his narrator to apologise to the reader for switching the narrative’s point of view from Henry James to Sherlock Holmes when it is an acceptable tradition in fiction writing that an omnipotent narrator can change the POV whenever it is necessary. There are many novels that do this, the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn for example (see my blog post of October 6, 2014): St Aubyn’s narrator jumps around all over the place. The reason for Simmons doing this is that he may have never done this before and he felt that he owed it to his loyal readers to explain what he is doing; or, maybe, that is what distinguishes literary fiction from other genres; or, maybe, it is the publisher/editor speaking. Oh! Never mind!

Mr Holmes by Mitch Cullin

Mr Holmes Cover pic

The universe of Mitch Cullin’s Mr Holmes is unsullied. We meet the ageing Holmes (a real person in the same universe first created by Doyle) in the twilight years of his life, in 1947. He lives in a little cottage in Sussex tended by a saddened widow, Mrs Munro, who lives next door with her young delightful son, Roger. Mr Holmes has become quite an expert at bee-keeping and despite his curmudgeonly demeanour forms an affectionate attachment to the intelligent lad who shares his fascination and love of bees.

The story has three narrative lines: his quiet and, seemingly, idyllic life in the country, tending bees with Roger; a trip to Japan, from which he has just returned, where he was invited by another bee-keeping enthusiast, Mr. Umezaki who lives with his dour mother and male partner in Kobe; and an unsolved mystery, from the zenith of his career, which Holmes has been writing, but which needs a resolution and which the young Roger finds buried on Mr. Holmes’ cluttered desk and begins to read: The Glass Armonicist.

An armonica is a musical instrument consisting of glass discs of increasing diameters on a single shaft which when spun produce, via friction, notes of calculated tones. An armonicist is a player of such an instrument.

These three seemingly unconnected narratives coalesce due to a tragedy that rocks not only the ageing detective’s sense of himself but also gives him an understanding of life and love that he didn’t know he needed. This is literary fiction at its best: intriguing, beguiling, and satisfying.

Mitch Cullin pic 3

Mitch Cullin is an American writer, born in 1968; he has written seven novels and shares his time between Arcadia, California and Tokyo Japan.

A screen adaptation, Mr. Holmes, was produced in 2015 starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, and Hiroyuki Sanada.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut


The South African writer, Damon Galgut

It is about a South African man called Damon; it may be Damon Galgut, or it may not.

He is only passing through … he doesn’t carry any abstract moral burdens, but their absence is represented for him by the succession of flyblown and featureless rooms he sleeps in, night after night, always changing but somehow always the same room.”

 He is a walker, a little lost, a little directionless, a little uncertain of his own motives; a sojourner. He is walking in Greece where he meets, on the road, an enigmatic, and attractive German, Reiner – “He knows that he is beautiful and somehow this makes him ugly”. They travel together but the relationship never grows beyond the casual, despite the sexual tension in the air. Galgut is good at sexual tension. Yet even the casual becomes a disaster.

His second journey, Lover, involves meeting a mixed bunch of people, Jerome, Alice, Charles, and Rodrigo and following them over half the African continent. He doesn’t know why. He sometimes is surprised at what his legs are doing, at what direction they are taking him. Jerome seems interested in him but Damon does nothing. He leaves them, regrets leaving them, plans to follow, but doesn’t then eventually does. This ‘action’ is by no means boring; it is the most intimate of prose, deeply interesting, deeply personal, almost uncomfortably so at times. “It is a story of what never happened, the story of traveling a long way while standing still.”

 The third part, Guardian, is concerned about his traveling companion, Anna, on a trip to India. She is teetering on the edge and threatens to drag him over with her. She relies on a trove of pills which, if taken as directed, will reboot her life but if taken all at once will take it away, and what’s he to do in India with a corpse?

There is something about this book that I must tell you; it is the most unusual fiction, although thrilling too, I have ever read. I was in two minds about telling you about it; it may put you off, I can think of two people that it would put off, but it is so essential to the tone of it, the flavour of it that I could not not tell you. It is told in the third person, and begins, “He sets out in the afternoon on the track that has been shown him….” and very soon he sees a figure in the distance walking towards him. Eventually they approach each other; both watching each other. The figure is described, all dressed in black; “Even his rucksack is black”, and then at the bottom of the first page, there is this, “What the first man is wearing I don’t know, I forget.” I felt a jolt. What? There is the walker, and the man dressed in black, and now another man? “I”? I read the first page again; maybe I had missed something. No I had not missed something. I read on and peppered sparingly are these first person references, and I realised that the third person narrator is referring to himself: the ‘he’ and the “I” are the same person, Damon; so, yes, maybe Damon is Damon Galgut. The writer is his own character. This is a little alarming only if you aren’t prepared for it; hence my telling you. Galgut is also free with punctuation especially of conversation:

Where are you from. He has an improbable English accent, very overdone. South Africa, goodness me, how did you get up here. Through Malawi, my word, I’m off to Malawi in a few days. Look around, yes please, be my guest. What did you say your name was.”

My same two friends would be equally put off by this, but it is surprisingly clear; or maybe it is only a thought of conversation, an expectation; a fictive chat.

Despite the title of the book what action there is takes place as far away from a room as you can get: the open road. Whether it be Greece, Malawi, Switzerland, India, or Kenya he is a traveler and his life is about the people he meets and journeys with, but the drama of this book is in the man himself, the ‘he’, the ‘I’ and in a sense this is a stronger form of autobiography: Galgut (I) is standing apart from himself, watching himself (he), describing his actions, trying to work out what it is about himself. “I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life. He sits in the empty room, crying.”

Lines like “I don’t remember what they do for the rest of that day” meaning ‘what I did for the rest of the day’ give the feeling of truth; ironically the admission of no action makes it all the more believable.

“In the morning his actual departure will be an echo of this one. He has already left, or perhaps he never arrived.”

Yes, in the first two parts of the book the action is languid, undefined, unimpressive; where the drama is all internal: a personal journey to try and work out why Damon is like he is; fascinating it its novelistic skill. Part three begins as expected but suddenly a life hangs in the balance and Damon is forced to act. The pace is frenetic, the action white-hot, and Galgut doesn’t pull any punches. It hits you in the guts just like it did him, and I read and read ’til the end, redefining the term ‘page-turner’. His skill at internal drama is eclipsed with his mastery of fast-paced action. It’s head-spinning stuff!

I wait with heightened expectation for Galgut’s next work.






Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut

The South African writer, Damon Galgut
The South African writer, Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut, when he is not travelling, lives in Cape Town, South Africa, is 52, and an openly gay man – which begs the question, why mention it? I mention it in relation to his latest book, Arctic Summer, which is a fictionalised account of the middle years – the early 20th century – of E.M. Forster’s life, his early career, his success with Howard’s End, his long roaming interlude that finally brought him to A Passage to India, but most importantly, his grappling with his homosexuality.

“At the time I grew up in South Africa,” said Galgut in a recent interview, “it was illegal to be gay. The whole system of apartheid was extremely patriarchal; all its values were skewed in that direction. To be gay growing up in Pretoria in the 1960s – it would be hard to overstate what a terribly suffocating oppressive place it was. I learned, like quite a lot of gay men do, to hide and to assume fake personas. That sense of concealment has stayed with me, even now. I suppose I’ve internalised a lot of self-dislike – self-doubt, maybe, is a better way to put it.”

Edward Morgan Forster
Edward Morgan Forster

Forster also hid and assumed a fake persona, all the more tragic that the persona he chose to hide behind was an imitation of the same persona all the men around him hid behind as well: English, literary, controlled, stiff-upper-lip, and straight, if only in that English way of not seeming to be interested in marriage. He also suffered immense self-doubt especially about his novelistic portrayal of relationships between men and women of which he had no experience at all. Yet he craved intimacy, especially sexual intimacy but had no idea of the actions or words needed to satisfy such a craving. When ‘it’ finally happened he stumbled into it, and before he knew it, there it was and his seducer did all the work; and although it was fleeting he was amazed and pleased, but he was thirty seven years old.

Arctic Summer was the name of another Forster novel but one that he abandoned in early 1913 having succumbed to a weariness at only writing, or being allowed to write, about the love between men and women.

Galgut’s writing is masterful especially in creating and colouring indecision, sexual expectation, and longing. Forster, who everyone calls Morgan, visits a country friend of a friend whom he hasn’t met yet although he has read some of the man’s writings on “Homogenic Love” which excited him. This country friend, Edward Carpenter, lives with his younger ‘companion’, George, a working class man from the Sheffield slums, and the three men have lunch, after which Morgan helps George clear the table. The following is the description of putting down the plates in the kitchen. A simple domestic act, but oh, there is so much more.

‘Looking for a clear surface on which to set down the plates, he was aware of George’s closeness behind him and of the sound of his breathing.
“Is this right?” he said. “Here?”
“Let me see. Yes, that ‘s all right. Just put them down.”
He put them down and stood, not moving. He could hear the sound of breathing, close enough to be intrusive. Then he realised it was his own.
“Oh,” he said, surprised.
And then a little frightened.
Because George was touching him.
It was merely a hand, in the lower curve of his back. The contact was suggestive though the fingers didn’t move. Perhaps it was the talk they’d been having, or the thoughts he’d entertained, but there was something subversive about that hand. Something flowed out of it, transmitted through the palm: a presumption of equality, or worse – ownership. Yes, this must be how it felt, to be touched by a lover. He could feel the heat of it, the possessive certainty of its contact. Then the hand dropped down to his bottom, wavered there for a moment, and came to rest a little above his buttocks, at the base of the spine.
It was astonishing. Something had happened to him. He wasn’t quite in the kitchen any more, not quite in his own body. His mind had flashed away from itself, to some inner place where the events of the day were still being arranged. Now they were arranged differently.
“Yes,” George said again. “That’s all right, there.”
Carpenter’s voice called outside, and the hand fell away.’

Forster did write a gay novel, Maurice, a happy-ever-after romance between men from different social backgrounds but it was only published after his death and inspired, Galgut suggests, by the scene of domestic ordinariness of that luncheon with Edward Carpenter and his companion, George.

This is a story concerning real people, real events but it is also full of conjuring, and flights of imagination, like the above quote – and Galgut’s depiction of Forster’s first sexual encounter – which sets this work as fiction, not biography. The above event may not have happened but it’s possible, and believable, that something like it did.

Galgut describes several of Forster’s relationships. The first, sexually unrequited, with an educated Indian, Masood, and the second, more successfully, although far from passionate, with an Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed. Galgut also gives Forster the opportunity to tell the former about the latter: a ‘romance’ he called it, and it is due to Galgut’s skill that when Foster finally says it: vocalises his love for another man I was overjoyed for him, not so much that, finally, he had known sexual love, meagre though it was, but that he was able to express it.

Arctic Summer is not unlike Colm Toibin’s The Master, about another writer, Henry James, who also grappled with his sexuality, but in the American it was buried so deep that not even Toibin’s masterly conjuring could’ve produced a scene like that above, and nor would it have been appropriate: for James, thoughts such as those reliably never existed, whereas for Forster they plagued his every waking hour and sometimes his sleeping ones as well.

This work is an example of historical biographical fiction and if you are concerned about what is true – and you shouldn’t be – all that can be said is that this is Galgut’s version of what ‘maybe’ true; and there are many others. What IS important is what the reader understands, enjoys, is enlivened and enlightened by.

Damon Galgut was unknown to me until the arrival of my ‘book fairy’, a European friend who comes twice a year to the tropical island where I live bearing news about books and his reading adventures but also books themselves. He had forgotten the name of this book and its author but knew the work was about E.M. Forster. Google did the rest. Fancy finding it here in a local bookstore! It has only been out a year.

Galgut’s first book, A Sinless Season, was published when he was 17, and following a serious cancer scare, a collection of short stories appeared, Small Circle of Beings, in 1988. He has been short-listed for the Man-Booker prize twice: for The Good Doctor in 2003 and In a Strange Room in 2010. He has also written plays and taught drama at his alma mater, The University of Cape Town.

“… we’re constructing the story of our lives all the time, and memory, in the end, is no different than the telling of another kind of story.” Damon Galgut.

I’m going to make a space for Damon Galgut on my bookshelf between Anna Funder and Helen Garner.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

The American writer Dave Eggers
The American writer Dave Eggers

The relationship between truth and fiction is, and always will be, complicated and never more so than in the reading of this book: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. It was published in 2009 to great acclaim, won many prizes and is a non-fiction account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s battle with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I had heard of Dave Eggers but had never read any of his work. He is a remarkable achiever who sprang onto the literary landscape in 2000 with a memoir with the hubritic title, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

First of all it is a handsome and well-made book and heavy for its size; expensive paper perhaps. I was immediately impressed by the simple but effective language that painted a loving and respectful relationship between Zeitoun and his American, but Islamic, wife Kathy and their four children, while building the suspense of Katrina bearing down on them. The couple ran a busy and successful painting and maintenance business in New Orleans, but also had several rental properties that they managed. Everyone worked very hard. Zeitoun, originaly from coastal Syria, was a hard-worker, a loving husband, doting father, a devout Muslim, with a strong sense of community and duty to his neighbours. Here was the epitomic hero.

As the hurricane approached Kathy and the kids left for relatives further inland in Baton Rouge leaving Zeitoun to look after the house and their other properties. The storm comes and goes and Zeitoun wonders, is that all there is? No, the mighty storm was not the problem, but the rising water was. He moves everything he can to the second floor and when the water stops rising he jumps in his second-hand canoe and paddles around the city rescuing trapped people and neglected dogs. I knew from the back cover that he would be arrested for suspected looting and imprisoned in a cage but I hadn’t got that far yet.

Then on Thursday evening I went to meet some friends for dinner in a local restaurant. I was the first to arrive and so while I was waiting I Googled Zeitoun and Eggers; I was curious about what had happened to our real-life hero, Zeitoun, and his family. I wish I hadn’t.

Much has been written and reported about Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife Kathy since this book was published in 2009. The pressures of fame that the successful book generated, harrassment by the media, and not to forget the trauma of Hurricane Katrina herself all took their toll. Kathy Zeitoun accused her husband of repeated physical abuse, the first time, reportably, but witnessed, with a tyre-lever, and they were divorsed in February 2012. Abdulrahmin was then arrested on charges of attempting to murder his ex-wife and for paying a hit-man to do the deed. Both charges were dismissed in July 2013 by the judge who sided with the defense team who maintained that the prosecution pursued the case because of Zeitoun’s growing fame. In response to his aquittal Kathy Zeitoun said “I was shocked. I am now in fear of my life. I do believe he is going to attack me again, with all my heart.”

Knowing this informaiton before finishing reading the book changed the way I felt about it. This worried me. The publishers and Eggers himself have gone to great lengths to establish the story as not just non-fiction but as fact even though Eggers writes the book as a novel: he describes the thoughts in his character’s heads and conversation, in direct speech, between Zeitoun and Kathy in the privacy of their bed. These are the traits of fiction. Did Zeitoun leave out all the ‘bad’ stuff during his extensive interviews with Eggers? Kathy Zeitoun thinks so; or did Eggers only choose what he wanted to use for his narrative purposes? This is also a skill needed to write fiction.

I had to change my attitude about the book and treat it, think about it, as a novel; that was easy because it’s written like a novel, but changing the idea of the book from non-fiction to fiction wasn’t so easy. When talking about the frelationship between truth and fiction I’ve always used the line that

‘fiction is always about truth but, to make it clear, we have to lie about it a little’.

Dave Eggers has run away, literally, from reporters who want to ask him questions about the veracity of his book and if you google “Zeitoun + Eggers”, or similar, information runs out in late 2013 after Zeitoun was aquitted of the charges brought against him.

The hurricane itself certainly had a devastating effect on the people of New Orleans but for the Zeitoun family, did being the subject of Egger’s book bring its own misery and add to the family’s woes? Or were there already chinks in the relationship before Eggers came along? Chinks that he chose to ignore.

Non-fiction is about facts, truth is about emotion. The fiction may be set on a fictional planet or place but the interplay between the emotions and feelings of the fictional characters are about truth. I believe that the physical action of the story is true: the actual effect of Katrina on the people and the city of New Orleans, but I had to accept that the relationship between the characters, although they themselves existed, was not true, but manufactured, compiled, and organised by Eggers for his own novelistic purposes. This is what novelists do.

I went back to the book, I was only 50 pages in, but I was surprised to realise that I was no longer interested. I didn’t care anymore. The book was trying to be something it wasn’t. For years I’ve been telling people that if you’re not enjoying a book, stop and read something else, even though the urge to finish something you’ve started is very strong. I usually give in to this urge, but with this book, I didn’t. I stopped. Besides I had just found in my local bookshop a book that I’ve been longing for. This bookshop has a swap policy so I swapped my copy of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, the 2013 Man-Booker winner, ironically a book I also didn’t enjoy, but finished, for  Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut: a fictional biography of E.M. Forster. Ha! Yet another permutation of fiction and truth.

All writing is fiction. The only thing true about it is its physicality: little black marks on a white background.