Gatekeeper by Kay Sexton

Gatekeeper is the story of how one woman, Clare, becomes involved in a project to reintroduce wolves into the wilds of the Scottish Highlands.

Clare was forced to delay her entry to University because of family circumstances. Once the member of a tightly knit pack she becomes the lone wolf, confused and hurt by what family circumstances reveal of her parents, and finds her only solace in her role as volunteer at a local animal shelter.

When she eventually gets to university, she continues to take an interest in animal welfare and joins a group of animal activists. Not every mission goes well though and after one routine animal release goes sour, Clare is unfairly dismissed from the group. Her talents are, however, recognised elsewhere and she is recruited into the highly covert and international group working for the wolves.

The mission has already taken years to plan and takes some more years of Clare’s life as the group finds her jobs and sources her training across the world all to prepare for her role as gatekeeper to the newly reintroduced wolf pack. It will be her job to protect the pack from negative local and international interest. She must do all she can to persuade people that wolves pose no threat to humans and farm animals.

Of course the journey that Clare takes is as significant as that of her wolf pack. She learns to shake off her solitude and find her own place among humankind.

Dominance and submission are important aspects of life in a wolf pack. They are also important aspects of Clare’s life and by implication of all of our lives. It should be noted that position in the pack is always shifting, challenges are made and made again and particular individuals can forge exceptions to the rule. The threat and thrill of the challenge has a visceral and compelling presence in Clare’s story that serves to remind us of the nature and instinct inside our nurture and culture. Clare reminds us how important it is for us to live in body and mind, as beings who share the world with other humans, plants and animals.

Through this journey where violence is always present, if only in threat, there is a thread of narrative which questions the difference between an activist and a terrorist. You’ll have to read Gatekeeper to find Clare’s answer but I can say that this is relevant, elegant writing where the natural landscape in all its beauty and savagery is set against human nature.

Next week I’m reading American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Set mostly in late 1970s, early 1980s Jamaica, A Brief History of Seven Killings is a smoking mountain of a book whose characters live in a present that turns historical fiction into living history.

In 1976 Bob Marley, always referred to as The Singer in the novel, is about to sing in a peace concert, trying to unite the ghetto factions in Kingston to create a united front against external tyranny, to try and channel the internalised rage of poverty outwards, right before the general election.

But not everyone thinks his peace is the answer to Jamaica’s problems and after an initial opening channelled through a dead white politician whose lyrical descriptions of death hold a kind of justice in them (‘Living people wait and see because they fool themselves that they have time. Dead people see and wait.’ p.3), the novel focuses on the days leading up to an assassination attempt on The Singer. What motivated the attack? Who followed it through? What implications did it have for those involved and for Jamaica and the wider world?

Told through the voices of several different characters from ghetto, uptown, America and beyond, all involved in some way in that day in 1976, we follow the various routes to and from that day until we reach the 1990s. Throughout it all The Singer remains the only silent character, a kind of vacuum around whom the others gravitate trying to enforce their own vision for their future or the future of Jamaica. It’s an impressive and, at times, exhausting feat.

Though a true epic in size as well as scope, it comes as no surprise to read that Faulkner and Marguerite Duras are mentioned as inspirations for how to structure this novel in Marlon James’ acknowledgements. This isn’t just a book full of research, this is a book full of people whose voices feel distinct and whose words can reach out and mesmerise – even when I struggled with the Jamaican English its rhythms began inflecting my thoughts. There are moments that it’s hard to forget, such as when one of the ghetto characters, Bam-Bam, gets his first gun:

‘When a gun come to live in the house the woman you live with treat you different, not cold, but now she weigh word, measure it before talking to you. But a gun talk to the owner too, telling him first that you can never own this, that outside is plenty people who don’t have a gun but know you do, and one night they going come like Nicodemus and take it. Nobody ever own a gun. You don’t know that until you own one. If somebody give it to you, that somebody can take it back. Another man can think is for him even when he seeing that is you control it. And he don’t sleep until he get it ‘cause he can’t sleep. Gun hunger is worse that woman hunger for at least maybe a woman might hungry for you back. At night me don’t sleep. Me stay up in the dark shadow, looking at it, rubbing it, seeing and waiting.’ p. 72

The waiting that Sir Arthur George Jennings (the ghost politician) talks about in the opening chapter finds many repercussions throughout the book. Gangs and posses, runaways, spies, people in prison, all of them are either waiting to get out or waiting for their past to catch up with them. Tension is everywhere. No one seems to have unrestricted time. None of these characters are free. What might that mean anyway?

The last chapter offers hope to one of the characters. This hope is the possibility for redemption in which freedom becomes the ability to chose, without fearing for your life, to connect, to make meaningful, honest relationships, but this is just one character and we aren’t privy to the outcome.

I’m glad A Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker 2015 because it’s a novel we should all be reading and talking about. It’s not always a pretty read, it’s not an easy read, but it’s a novel that speaks new stories into old tropes.

Next week (or rather this week…) I’m reading Gatekeeper by Kay Sexton.

the brief history of the dead by Kevin Brockmeier

Laura is on an expedition in Antarctica for the Coca-Cola Corporation making sure its latest proposal to use water sourced from the icecap doesn’t harm local wildlife – not, in a world set in the not-too-distant future, that there is much wildlife left. But when the communication system breaks down her two colleagues go in search of the penguin research team and begin Laura’s slow journey into increasing solitude.

Meanwhile, on the other side of life, the remembered dead are living in a vast city. They believe that they continue to live in the city only as long as a living human being remembers them, even if in the most insignificant way, and only disappear when they are finally forgotten. So the dead continue to live in much the same way they did when they were alive. They eat and sleep and work and fall in and out of love.

Then something happens in the living world that causes whole swathes of the dead to disappear.

What is happening and why does Laura seem to be at the centre of it?

I’m not going to spoil the plot by saying more, but it’s fair to say that though I enjoyed the plot my greatest pleasure was in reading the contemplations of Brockmeier’s characters regarding memory and how its various configurations weave together to form an identity and a life.

“The incident was an inconsequential one – of no importance whatsoever, really. But then most of the things she remembered, most of the things anybody remembered, were of no natural importance – were they? – and that never stopped them from rising into the light.” (p59)

He writes particularly well about solitude. Not only in Laura’s journey through the ice – an epic battle against nature that resonates with all the power of religion and myth where human survival is brought to the very brink by the power of ice and sand deserts, or by water, in an attempt to forge new ways of being, as if endurance itself were the purest form of contemplation – but also through the stories of the other characters living in the city of the dead.

… “life – real life – was really just a solitude waiting to be transfigured.” (p78)

I liked the problems that his afterlife posed: if every one of us is bound within our own minds and can never truly know another, perhaps never even truly know ourselves, how wonderful to be gifted an afterlife by the most fleeting but remembered interaction with another.

Writing the Coca-Cola Corporation into the story was also amusing, though it was hard not to imagine some marketing executive finding a positive association in it. But Brockmeier isn’t pointing fingers at corporations. His near future is so much like our own and Laura’s story so much about her individual experiences with and apart from others, that any judgement is reserved for the individual. The responsibility of human history, dead or alive, rests with each and every living one of us.

the brief history of the dead is a delightful and provocative read. Its landscapes both real and surreal are delicately drawn, the force of nature wielding as much power as and within the mind as characters move through life, into death and beyond.

Next week I’m sticking with brief histories to read A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

Imagine a world in harmony, the days ordered by a music that everyone shares. It sounds idyllic but this order comes at a cost. The harmony can’t account for everything and can’t safeguard everyone. Outside the citadel where the chimes are made and sent out across the country, order erases the individual through the decimation of story.

Simon, not much more than a boy, is told by his dying mother to go to London in search of a woman. His mother says this woman will help Simon, but she doesn’t say how or why and with every passing day the music of the chimes soothes, distracts and trains thought in one shared direction. Everyone reminds Simon to ‘keep your memories close’ but he must do more than that to understand his mother’s mission and remind everyone of their past.

The plot is of course more complex than this, but to say more would spoil the journey. Though it took me a few pages to feel immersed in the vibrant world of the novel, once I was there I was hooked and quickly read to the end.

Though the novel has much to say to adults, placing memory at the very heart of narrative and identity, The Chimes reads like a young adult/cross-over novel. This isn’t to denigrate it, this is simply to describe my feelings as I read it.

I found The Chimes gripping, I enjoyed unravelling the various threads of the book but the mysteries uncovered weren’t revelations for anyone outside of the novel; there was nothing that challenged my world view or questioned my outlook. I had fun, though.

If dystopian fantasy with young protagonists sounds like your kind of thing, or you like mudlarking or music (or all of these), then you will definitely enjoy The Chimes.

Next week I’m taking a break from the Man Booker 2015 (after all, are prizes always the best arbiters of taste?) and will be reading The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.