Light by M. John Harrison

Iain M. Banks said ‘Light is brilliant’. And of course light is brilliant usually, even dim light. But the light of this novel, the Kefahuchi Tract, a huge asteroid deep in space that has no horizon, is all the aspects of light you can imagine: searing, dazzling, hypnotizing, the expression of more energy than any physics or mathematics can handle, entrancing, splendid, portentous, it sheds light but on what? A search for meaning is what Light is all about, and whilst I can’t pretend to understand half of the science, the fiction is elegant and compelling.

Given an understanding that space and time can be bent, we jump through time seeking only the salient points in our journey to understanding the Kefahuchi Tract. We follow the lives of Kearney, who discovered the possibilities of space travel, in our own time, Seria Mau and Ed Chianese in 2400AD. There is something beautiful about the connections between their stories, all of them somehow unable to connect to the world around them. Seria Mau and Ed Chianese are brother and sister, but they do not meet in the story. Kearney’s partner Tate, goes everywhere with a white cat on his shoulder and it comes as no surprise that Seria Mau’s ship is called the White Cat and that when she sends an image of herself to talk to people, she appears as a white cat. And all three are spurred on by beings whose reality flickers – something best not followed up if you don’t want the plot ruined. But these connections remain physically unfulfilled, as if touching people in any way but on the periphery (and Ed Chianese is a twink when we first meet him, that is someone who lives in a tank and dreams away his life in a kind of 3D video field) were some metaphor for the countless civilizations unable to do anything but sit on the edge of the Kefahuchi Tract, and so Light is marked by both the desire for answers and the pain of loss.

Seria Mau and Ed Chianese lost their mother, how, we are never sure, but there is some suggestion of foul play. Certainly their father is not the benevolent kind. He abuses Seria Mau, gets her to play mother in more ways than one, and Ed Chianese witnesses it. Instead of supporting his sister, he turns his back on her, as she heads off to drive a K-ship, a process that all but destroys your body to wire you to your ship forever. This wiring is called an Einstein Cross and the sacrifical demands of creation, of progress, are reiterated throughout Light.

Kearney misunderstands the shadow creature he sees in the gaps between everything. He thinks it is others he must sacrifice to save himself and so his life can easily translate into the delusional musings of a psychotic serial killer. And again, a ragged, bloody religion rears its head. Light presents us with a kind of belief that leads to a life much more like the saints of Flaubert’s Trois Contes than the two-dimensional heroes of science and religion that we might prefer. Reaching beyond the extremes of the possible is not for the faint-hearted. Seria Mau is just as bloody as Kearney and all of them, save perhaps Ed Chianese, who has to be taught, thirst to play god, the shadow creature most of all.

The Kefahuchi Tract is a new version of the final frontier, something for us to reach towards, as if seeing everything would be, finally, to comprehend. The civilization of conquest does demand sacrifice and often at a cost most are unwilling to sanction. And Harrison is aware of the sexual underplay of this drive as all his characters remain somehow bound to it, indeed Kearney is only granted a full view of the Kefahuchi Tract after his first act of penetrative sex. The heady mix of all of these desires for reproduction, for truth, for love, can be played out with their humanitarian mine fields alight because the space setting of this novel distances us enough from our everyday world to contemplate human nature without such a great risk of offense. I’m not sure if I admire that or am annoyed by it. Perhaps I’m only annoyed that many non-science fiction books are too timid to shine a light into the darkness of our human hearts. This is not to say that all science fiction books do, but perhaps more to say that Light, even though I often felt I had no clue what was going on, is a great book and should be read by more than science fiction enthusiasts. I’m quite keen to finish the trilogy, but next week is Saramago’s Cain. So perhaps in a few weeks’ time.

If you don’t mind getting lost in a book – I mean both senses of that – then give Light a go. It’s illuminating (couldn’t resist). No, seriously, Light is a book that does what I believe real literature should do: Light poses difficult questions about the meaning of life and the causal way in which we strive to view it. If you are looking for where literature is progressing, this is a good place to start.

The Odd Women by George Gissing

It is not often that books make me cry, but this one did. It could be that it’s been one of those trying weeks and perhaps I would merely have felt sad otherwise, but I think, nonetheless, that The Odd Women is a very affecting book despite first being published in 1893.

The Odd Women is about the emancipation of women and therefore it is also about marriage (and deliciously, if you look for it, about the novel, often referred to in morally ambiguous terms allowing us to posit a shared rise in esteem of women and the novel as a literary form). If womankind is to be recognised as equal to mankind (in this instance obviously used only in reference to men – such a misogynistic word isn’t it?), then marriage has to become something different, something which does not see the wife as the dependent financially and morally. It would be easy to be annoyed with some of the views expressed in the book and not just from the men about how women need to be guided and about the lower classes, but the novel is trying to put all of that into question and I came away thinking that The Odd Women begged a new book on relationships.

The odd women are those middle class women who don’t, for various reasons, marry. What are they to do with themselves? Should they see themselves as having failed their purpose or should they not undertake an interesting independent life? Now, of course, we can read the book knowing that it is these odd women to whom we owe much of our emancipation. Perhaps, to further assert female independence, we should now be exploring in more depth why society still views with question women who choose not to have children. We do not judge men in the same way. ‘Unnatural’ is a word used in the nineteenth century, but one which still sits in our minds. It would be interesting to try and break free from it. After all, natural is surely all the things that occur in the ‘natural’ infinite realms of time and space and that would mean everything that does, has and will happen. It seems many of the concerns of the book remain alive today and reading how eloquently George Gissing expressed the intimate intricacies of relationships made me wonder why he isn’t as well known as Thomas Hardy for example. It is true, he is less melodramatic – he chooses to focus on the story of the rational, more mature and intelligent Rhoda Nunn rather than on the young and impulsive Monica Madden – but is the more melodramatic more literary? Only for the sentimentalist.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Odd Women and won’t say more about the plot in case you decide to find out what happens to Rhoda, Monica and all the others. The Odd Women was like a vigorous walk into the past that delivered me, robust and full of energy, into the present. I would recommend it.

Next week I will be reading Light by M. John Harrison. I found it hidden, out of place, in my own bookshelves! The week after next I will be reading Cain by Jose Saramago and the week after The Human Script by Johnny Rich. Do send in suggestions for further books to put on the list.

Good to Be God by Tibor Fischer

I was nervous approaching this book. One, because my lovely friend Heidi James gave it to me (who, by the way has a great blog, click on her name for a read) and so I wanted to like it and two, because anything that comes with the endorsement ‘one of the funniest writers in the business’ (Daily Telegraph) worries me – I worry I have no sense of humour. However, I did chortle out loud when reading and I enjoyed the book. Phews all round.

The protagonist, Tyndale, has lost everything: his job, his wife, his home, his health. He does still have friends though, and one of them suggests Tyndale borrows his passport and goes to Miami to a sales conference on his behalf. As Tyndale has nothing else to do and it would mean free board, free food and some sunshine, he agrees. He goes to Miami, milks the conference and company credit card for what they’re worth and decides to stay in Miami and become God. Surely he could make money without doing a great deal, without having any credentials, simply by persuading others of his divinity? He’s going to give it a go and he gets another friend to hook him up with a contact and lodgings.

The significance of his name is not lost on me. This Tyndale, despite never reading the scriptures, is doing his best to translate religion into the modern vernacular. This truly is a religion with all the money-grabbing, power-wielding warts. But the trouble is, Tyndale’s observations of the world are too starkly real –

Our earthly time is mostly a battle to conceal. To conceal our odours, our disappointing features. There’s the physical and then there’s the spiritual, striving to hide the greed, the hate, the weakness. Civilization is spiritual clothing. It’s a pretence that we are better than we are, spiritual garb, spiritual aftershave. (p197)

– and his heart too good (he prays for everyone, he tries to do good things for the people around him, he sees miracles in sandwiches) for him to ever succeed in the religion business. His cynicism is a veneer. He can’t help believing in something beyond himself, and in the idea of a designed world, a world in which his place has impact, a world in which events aren’t random but have meaning. So even though he doesn’t become recognised as God, he does believe that he has a hand in bringing down two illegal organisations (read it and see).

Despite the failure of his supposed mission, his time in Miami does take him somewhere and does win him believers in his worth as a person, if not a god. And although this should be heartening, I was depressed by the world reflected in Good to Be God. Yes, I laughed but, and this is probably why I worry about reading funny books, I can’t get all the bad stuff out of my head: the cheating, the idiocy, the disappointment, the idea that ‘laziness always wins’ (p19). At least women get a good press for being able to handle life when it doesn’t go their way.

Even though this is a male mid-life crisis book, which would usually have me ranting about the predominance of venerated male voices harping on about their problems in a way that no other person should have to listen to, for once it actually stands up as a modern world life crisis book that is both funny and sad. If you like funny books that bemoan the modern world whilst maintaining a strange grain of hope, you will love Good to Be God.

I was meant to be reading Light next, but somehow it’s got lost so instead I’m reading The Odd Women by George Gissing and will hope to find Light in the meantime!

The Anchoress by Paul Blaney

It took me a couple of pages to get into The Anchoress by Paul Blaney, but as soon as I found my bearings, oddly just as the main character, Maggie, did, I was hooked. I wanted to read until I’d read it all.

This is the story of a woman who crawls into her walk-in wardrobe one day, turns off all the lights, and doesn’t stray beyond her bathroom until she has figured out why she crawled in there in the first place. The novel begins with a dream of the past and ends with dreams of the future, a future unclouded by delusions Maggie created for herself when her mother died.

Not only is The Anchoress touching and believable it is also full of beautiful gems about the reason for reading in the first place. ‘Storytellers, writers,’ Maggie says, ‘they all use bits of their lives, stitch them together. You don’t ask which parts are true and which are made up. Stories aim at a higher truth, whatever serves the story best, whatever works.’ As she struggles to figure out her own story, so are we encouraged to question the truths we allow to dominate our own lives.

This is a beautiful little book. What a shame that Independent publishers, who are the ones usually brave enough to publish work like this, have such an upward struggle when it comes to getting their books out there. We need to help them and get books on bestseller lists through word of mouth alone. The Anchoress is only available as an e-book, so if you don’t have an e-reader of some kind, get one and read The Anchoress. You won’t regret it.

The Medici Mirror by Melissa Bailey

The Medici Mirror is Melissa Bailey’s first novel and it is a gripping one. Hidden in the basement of an abandoned Victorian shoe factory is a sixteenth-century mirror, cursed by the Black Queen, Catherine of Medici. When Jonny, a twenty-first century architect charged with renovating the factory, stumbles across the mirror his life is threatened by its dark reflections. Will he unravel the past before it unravels him? Will his love life end in triumph or murder?

Catherine of Medici’s story is a compelling one and I would have liked to hear more from her. With the added history of the factory and its hidden love affairs, sometimes there is almost too much past. Without the mirror, these other histories remain unfettered to the present-day characters making me question what, ultimately, the book wants me to go away thinking about. But I am driven by the plot and despite wishing there were slightly fewer sex scenes, the characters are connected through a curse that turns desire into possession making The Medici Mirror a sexy, scary ride that stays with you long after the book has been put down.

If you like spooky, sexy mysteries with a historical flavour then The Medici Mirror is for you. Melissa Bailey’s is undoubtedly a name we will all become familiar with.

Look out for my review of The Anchoress by Paul Blaney, which I hope to post at the end of this week.

My current reading list – please send in suggestions

This last week I read The Medici Mirror by Melissa Bailey (I will post the review tomorrow) and I am currently reading The Anchoress by Paul Blaney. Next week I will be reading Good to Be God by Tibor Fischer and following that, Light by M John Harrison. If there is a certain book you would like to add to my reading list, please send in suggestions. Just comment on this post!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

As I was in the process of reading this novel, it was announced to be the winner of this year’s Mann Booker Prize. Whilst I still wish that We Need New Names had won I am nevertheless pleased with this alternative. The Luminaries is an impressive volume, in size, style and intrigue. It is a tale about numerous characters experiencing life in the New Zealand gold rush in the nineteenth century. Written with a nineteenth century cadence, embracing an era in which the novel was at its height of popularity and influence, and the novelist was unquestioned in their authority, the book has a nostalgic charm, quite apart from the fact that the particulars of the story make for a page-turning frenzy in the reader. It really is a joy to read.

I like the chapter summaries, again so reminiscent of earlier forms of the novel, and I love the careful, and slightly formal, construction of the language. From the beginning I am keen to unravel the mystery of Francis Carver, a scarred ex-conman who has seemingly involved other New Zealand dwellers in crimes they did not intend to perpetrate.

I would have liked to find out more about Walter Moody – the character who introduces us to the gold town of Hokitika and the criminal machinations of Francis Carver – and what happened to him after he helps to bring Carver to justice. In fact, there are many character ends that are left to our speculation in favour of the astrologically twinned young characters, Anna Wetherall and Emery Staines whose first intended romantic encounter ends the novel. I assume they are the luminaries around which events are influenced, but it isn’t quite as straightforward as that – indeed all the characters are people of influence somehow destined to interact.

I do not follow astrological charts and perhaps I would get more from the novel if I did, but I think it is testament to the writing that I can enjoy the book without knowledge of astrology.

However, despite all of these accolades, I still think We Need New Names is the true book for our age. Giving We Need New Names the prize would have been a more radical choice, would have forced more of us to contend with a novel whose subject matter and delivery is more forward thinking, more challenging. As much as I enjoyed The Luminaries and feel its creation does indeed need to be praised, it is the more sentimental choice. But perhaps a choice the panellists were more likely to make given a heavy interest in nineteenth century literature: Chair, Robert Macfarlane, did a PhD on George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde; Robert Douglas-Fairhurst specialises in the nineteenth century as his books make clear, Becoming Dickens (2011) and Victorian Afterlives (2002); Martha Kearney presented a documentary on Jane Austen; Stuart Kelly wrote Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented A Nation. The only panellist with an obvious love for another period is Natalie Haynes who loves the classics. It’s not really a surprise then that they favoured Eleanor Catton’s novel. Ah well. At least it’s a great rip-roaring tale.

Harvest by Jim Crace

I enjoyed Harvest, one man’s tale of the end of a village and a way of life. It is full of all the quiet beauty I expect from Jim Crace’s prose but I wouldn’t have chosen this as the winner of the Booker. It is where I would like my more mature writing to go – not narrowed by fame and comfort, not sent scurrying for something more dramatic to write about or desperately writing about something I feel I ought to write about (really I’m thinking of Ian McEwan here – how I loved his early work), but emboldened to give merit to the realities of the small world we sense around us. It makes me want an old student of mine, David Strickland (though student implies he might have had something to learn from me, which certainly he did not), to finish his novel and get it published because this quiet attention to the world we breathe is something he is also excellent at.

Harvest is not my favourite work by Jim Crace, but he remains one of my favourite writers and I admire him deeply. If you want to feel what a rural England without fences and hedges might have been like, an England where the lord of the land is the law, then this book is for you.

Only one more short-listed novel to go! Of course I knew, as I started to read it that it was likely to be the winner simply because I hadn’t read it yet and only had three days to read it. How right I was!

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Here is my review of We Need New Names, written and read, before the Booker prize was announced.

I’m really glad this book is on the shortlist because it feels like a book that really has something to say, that isn’t covered in academic dust. Not to say that it isn’t beautifully written and bursting with intellectual conflicts, but those conflicts just happen to breathe.

Darling is a young girl living in a Zimbabwean shantytown. She lives the troubles of her country until she is “lucky” enough to go to America where she is imprisoned by the luxury because to leave would mean not returning. She misses home. She is accused of abandoning the burning house of her falling apart country but what choice does she really have? She is safe and not hungry in America, even if she is forever foreign now, not American but also marked and separate from her family and friends back in Zimbabwe.

I am a great fan of Dambudzo Marechera and there are echoes of his turmoil and his anger at the tensions of a forked tongue. To fit in, Darling has to learn an American English that her friends from home do not recognise – she is severed from the land that bore her – using the language of privilege is a kind of betrayal.

It is the first time I have read a story about children living in hunger and civil war since I’ve had my own children and I had nightmares imagining them having to live with that level of fear and hunger, that lack of shelter from all the worst parts of being human, and for that, and for what we expect immigrants to undergo to live in our privilege, this is a book I feel we should all be reading even if, at the very least, all we do is appreciate our luck for once.

This book is relevant and interesting and I would be very pleased if it won the Booker but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t because it is almost the antithesis of the western male contemporary realism prizes like the Booker seem to value. Just read it, that’s all that really matters.

I’ll be posting my review of Harvest, by Jim Crace in a couple of days, after which I’ll be reviewing the Booker prize-winning, The Luminaries and then I’ll be starting the blog in real time – that’s to say one review a week – with Melissa Bailey’s The Medici Mirror.