J by Howard Jacobson

In the not too distant past, in the memory of their grandparents, WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, forced the creation of a new society built to suppress violence and enforce forgiveness. Under Project Ishmael, everyone was given new names making victim and perpetrator one in the general forgetting. Only it isn’t working. Aggression and brutality are on the rise but with no outside forces, no others for society to rally against, the violence is being enacted on those closest at hand: spouses, lovers, friends.

In the midst of this new unnerving world, are Kevern and Ailinn, two people brought together by their difference. Kevern lives in the small seaside town of Port Reuben but even though he was born there he is never considered a local. He is a lone woodcarver whose obsessive fastidiousness when it comes to protecting his home or pronouncing the letter J – when he places two fingers across his lips like his father before him – marks him as an outsider even before his lack of sexual aggression, his hoards of things from before WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED and his love of comedy come into play. He lives surrounded by more objects of the past than allowed, but knowing very little of that past. He feels unrooted. The beautiful young Ailinn, an orphan from a northern town, is equally untethered, but is their instant attraction orchestrated? Ailinn was brought to town by an older friend, Esme, who encouraged her interest in Kevern. Why?

The heavy unease of fear and suspicion encircle J, creating a world in which memory is central. Whether remembered through personal experience, archive or hearsay, memory holds the key to identity and power. Those in charge of dictating what memories matter are the enforcers of collective and individual identity. Their new society of forgetting doesn’t work, but what could take its place? Esme thinks she knows. She searches for the illusive victim, the other against which society can rally belief in itself, turning its talons outwards. Kevern and Ailinn are at the centre of her plans.

In some ways, the plot reads much like a blockbuster science fiction film, but J doesn’t return us to a point of safety, to the best version of our current society. This is not entertainment as much as provocation. The idea that human society requires others to channel what would otherwise be untrammelled violence is compelling and terrifying. We find ourselves thrown headlong into Nietzsche’s vision of the eternal recurrence. There is no escape from the story of the past and that ongoing comedy is mankind’s tragedy.

J is a complex and provocative novel whose central story is beautiful as well as challenging. This is the kind of book I hope to see on the Man Booker list. J is a novel that will undoubtedly become a classic. It’s not easy reading. I’m not always sure of the political, philosophical and psychological implications of Jacobson’s vision, but I am enervated by it. Looking into the pages of J becomes a disquieting mirror that provokes revelations of prejudice within ourselves.

Next week I’m reading The Cave by Jose Saramago.

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

On the long list for the Man Booker 2014, We are all completely beside ourselves is a book that is hard to talk about without ruining some of its own device. The novel is narrated by Rosemary who is struggling to tell her own story by telling the story of her family who involve her, from the earliest months of her life, in a research project into the differences between ourselves and our closest animal relatives. The results of this project and its multiple complications change all of their lives irrevocably.

Rosemary used to be a talker and her father’s advice to tell stories from the middle, to save himself from having to listen for too long, is a useful directive through which the narrative can develop without drawing attention to the natures of all of the characters involved. We are meant to be entering the story with as little bias as possible, allowing us to unravel the familiar narrative of family dysfunction – parents whose seemingly intentionally damaging decisions take children years to comprehend, often when it is too late to remake their lives in the light of new discovery – to make an unusual story ordinary. In some ways the narrative succeeds too well at this. I wanted to be forced to further question my views on animal intelligence. Then again I might not be the person at whom the narrative may be aimed, I already believe humans are far too quick to judge other animals on human terms rather than their own.

Whilst I devoured We are all completely beside ourselves, embracing its storyline with increasing interest, finding the characters believable and compelling, in the end the novel didn’t go far enough for me. I wanted to be pushed further into the non-human animal mind. I wanted to further explore that alternative perspective. Perhaps, again that’s the point, but as I wasn’t engaged enough on an emotional level either, I didn’t feel as if I’d undergone Rosemary’s connection to the non-human animal mind and so for me the book is a good book, a page-turning book, but not a book I expect to see on the short list for the Man Booker. However, I’d be happy to hear from those who think the failing to engage was my own…

Next week I’m reading J by Howard Jacobson followed by The Cave by Jose Saramago. Keep the comments and suggestions coming.

The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills

I’m very fond of Magnus Mills’ work and when I found The Restraint of Beasts, his first novel, in a second hand bookshop, I was excited. I wondered what his first novel would be like and the title was promising.

The narrator is an English fencer working for a Scottish firm specialising in high tensile fencing. The novel opens with him being made foreman of a team of two almost inseparable Scots. Tam and Richie, both motivated by beer, survive on an endless system of subs and loans that dwindles their coming month’s wages. Unlike the narrator, they have no thoughts of extending their career beyond fencing. It doesn’t take long for the reader to extrapolate wider meanings for the term beasts.

The team is put together for a job in England, but before they can go they first have to fix a job they have supposedly just finished: Mr McCrindle’s fence has gone slack; not a very good start (something that gets said a lot). When they get to England they fall under the stronghold of the Hall Brothers who seem to be in charge of all the beasts from pigs to men. Before long they are working for the Hall Brothers on a seven foot high, high tensile electric fence with no gates. They wonder how you get anything out and I wonder how you get anything in. What is the fence for? Why are Hall Brothers workers all men fed only on Hall Brothers’ meat? What does it really mean to win the school dinners contract? Why is it so easy to bury the mistakes of a labourer (you’ll see what I mean)?

I enjoyed The Restraint of Beasts but in the end too much was left unexplored for my tastes. Whilst I understand that Mills is contemplating the nature of contract working, extrapolating out from one closed nit community to the workings of society in general, and that the worker doesn’t need to see the big picture to complete his job whose boundaries are as clear as the fences he’s building, I’m surprised there isn’t more conjecture on the narrator’s part. He likes to imagine he is a little higher up the food chain than Tam and Richie. Perhaps if the novel had been a little longer I would have had many more questions answered, but perhaps the book would then no longer have been the dance Mills intended. I wanted the novel to step further into the unspoken surreal edge that hovers around the story, crackling with the electric tension of the fence its main characters are busy building. I wanted more allegory and Mills went for more mystery.

The Restraint of Beasts is an intriguing book, but if I were to recommend a novel by Magnus Mills, I would recommend Three To See The King. That’s a book that does more of what I had hoped The Restraint of Beasts was working up to. Nevertheless, The Restraint of Beasts has a bleak humour that raises a rye smile about the economies of contract working and its implications for the restraints we place around ourselves.

Next week, I’m reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, followed by J by Howard Jacobson.

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

Though The Fifth Child is definitely dated by its lack of politically correct language, a lack central to the issues of the novel however, I ate this book up with frightening relish. David and Harriet are an unusually ordinary couple who long for domesticity, a large welcoming family home and lots of children. Their fifth child presents a challenge that rocks the foundations of everything they thought they stood for.

I couldn’t get enough of this family and the extended relations that brought class, education, money and disability into the mix. There were so many brilliantly evoked scenes where the unspoken bristled and that strange tense acceptance of family relationships, regardless of their faults that brews under the bottle cap waiting to explode, sat cleverly beneath surface discussion. It’s a very well observed book full of the complexities of relationships and family decision-making. The blame, shame, anger, resentment and exhaustion make for compelling reading. This is the book we should have been discussing in relation to the difficulties of loving an emotionally distant, unloving and violent child, not We Need To Talk About Kevin. But perhaps this novel has been forgotten, lost to the ravages of political correctness and to welcome psychiatric developments. Certainly the situation would provoke different handling in 2014 and I did find it difficult to listen to the mother describing her fifth child as a genetic throw back – though of course the expression of how people actually feel should never be censored and finding it difficult is a reaction the book certainly intends – and the care home he is sent to does anything but care for its charges. The issues, however, of how a family meets and deals with difference are fascinating and relevant. The novel is riddled with parenting dilemmas all crying out for discussion. Read it and lets have some of those discussions. I wonder, when the mother says she has given birth to a monster, if it possible to be more controversial?

Next week I’m reading The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills, followed by We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.