This isn’t a review but I’m excited to share this recording of my story ‘A Jackdaw Calls’. Thank you The Other Stories Podcast. Listen here. The picture I’ve added here is the one I refer to in the discussion and is Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds by John Constable.
This is the beginning of Harold’s tale, one which not only brings catastrophe but also self-awareness and healing.
George, the younger brother but the one always assumed to be the elder due to his bullish behaviour and career success, loses it. His rage turns everything upside down.
I’m tempted to say more about the plot and though that would not ruin the novel – May We Be Forgiven isn’t only about plot – it would take away some of the drama of the first few sections. Instead, I want to talk about the American Dream. Continue reading
Set sometime in the future, in a radically democratised UK under the constant and supposedly benign surveillance of a computer programme, a woman dies in custody. Diana Hunter was a known antagonist of the system and was having her head examined – her memories literally reviewed – by the Witness when she died.
Inspector Mielikki Neith will be investigating the circumstances of her death and, as the novel itself explains in the opening, she will soon lose ‘faith in everything she has believed in her life’, especially the system. Continue reading
I really enjoy Sarah Pinborough’s work. I’m not in love with every novel – I haven’t even read every novel as she is impressively productive across a range of genres – but more than her sharp dialogue, honed plot lines, and moments of beautiful observation, I love her ideas. This is a writer who sees something, writes about it, and makes you think. All this whilst the pages pass in a blur as you read eager to find out what happens next.
Ideas and thrills, it’s a tough combination and one that I expect will lead to Sarah Pinborough being much more highly acclaimed than she already is. Though I’m delighted that Behind Her Eyes will be BBC Radio 4’s book at bedtime from 20th March – this could lead to some unnerving dreams – and it is already a New York Times bestseller. So perhaps this will be the book to make Pinborough a household name. This would be well-deserved.
Behind Her Eyes is all of the things I mention above. You could argue there is a magical real or science fiction element to the novel, and it’s probably in the psychological thriller genre, but categories don’t really sit well with Sarah Pinborough. Behind Her Eyes is simply the novel it is: an obsessive love story with four characters at its heart. I’m prepared to say that lucid dreaming is central to the plot, but I don’t want to say more because uncovering what might be behind whose eyes is what propels us through the book and saying more would spoil the joys of discovery.
One of the characters says ‘people are only out for themselves’ and there is a natural savagery to this book that puts our acceptance of reality in question. As I said earlier, this is where Sarah Pinborough is so pleasing to read: she shows us that what we think we know about the world around us is only a tiny fraction of what is out there, or even what is in here (inside our heads). Being able to point this out in a dynamic page-turner makes Pinborough playful, clever, provocative and fun to read.
I don’t want say a lot more about the novel because I simply would like to know what you think. Read it. See if the characters of David, Adele, Louise and Rob come alive for you. Watch them have their affairs, keep their secrets, grow increasingly complex relationships. Then get back to me. If you enjoy it, you will definitely want to read The Language of Dying, my favourite of her novels that I’ve read so far.
Next week I’m reading Blind Side by Jennie Ensor.
I’m hugely pleased to be back online after two weeks of belly ache with my hosting provider. Hence, two reviews to follow in quick succession. If you’ve been waiting… sorry and thanks for your patience.
Saul is a disaffected young adult living with his father in London. He looks out at the unending sprawl hoping for some signs of his future in the maze of London’s streets and travel networks.
Then someone pushes his dad out of the living room window. Saul is wanted for his murder. King Rat, a stinking, wiry man with phenomenal strength and agility breaks him out of prison and offers him a new world; a world where the figures of myth and fairytale step out of the shadows in all their gruesome glory.
To tell too much more might spoil the story so let’s just say it gets more complicated. What is Saul’s true heritage? Should he trust King Rat? Who is the mysterious piper?
The novel is alive with three plot lines: Saul’s, Saul’s friends who become entangled with the piper, and that of the detective investigating Saul’s father’s death. Crime and science fiction blend well with a realistically noir depiction of London and there is no doubt that the writing is compelling.
I have been meaning to read a novel by China Miéville for a long time and I didn’t realise that King Rat was his first until I reached the end. Though I enjoyed the novel, I suspect this is only half of what China Miéville can do. There is a sense of promise, a sense that social justice, a knowledge of London, and a joy in mixing genres will bring about more interesting novels as he continues to write. Certainly it has whetted my appetite for reading more of his work.
King Rat is an energetic romp around London, the city itself seeming to provide the bass line to the melody of the story. The words enable you to see graphic art images and hear the drum and bass soundtrack. Those of you who like this sort of thing will recognise it and want to read it. I suspect some of his later work has a wider readership. I’ll have to read some and let you know.
Next week I’m reading What a Way to Go by Julia Forster, which was published this January by Atlantic Books.
A Spool of Blue Thread is a family saga woven around the Whitshanks’ treasured house. Beginning and ending with the problem child, Denny, the novel unravels the reasons for his troubled behaviour offering us insights into three generations of Whitshanks, their dreams, their relationships and their secrets.
There is much to love about the novel. It would be hard to read about this family and not feel any sense of recognition. The dialogue and psychology of family drama is sharp and insightful. That doesn’t always mean it makes for pleasant reading.
There are too many ways in which an unpicking of this book would spoil the flow of the plot as it moves back, further back and then forward again in time through its four parts and I don’t want to spoil the plot when you have underage sex, coerced marriage, illegal adoption and fake burglary to enjoy. I do, however, want to unpick what it is that stops me loving this book wholeheartedly.
A Spool of Blue Thread is astute and interesting but it is also a little sentimental; its message about life is underwhelmingly safe. There is mystery, disappointment, love, death, and the unending process of simply carrying on – this is of course all true to life – but the risk and suffering in some of the characters lives never really comes through for me. There are some wonderful moments and Anne Tyler is undoubtedly a writer with a keen observational eye but I think in the end this novel, for me at least, lacks a clear message and possibly even a sense of drama.
This isn’t an easy thing to write, given that I think it’s unlikely I would be able to write this kind of family saga with anywhere near the same level of skill, but I simply wanted A Spool of Blue Thread to give me more.
I have no doubt that many will and already do love this book, and I did enjoy reading it, but ultimately it isn’t for me.
Next week I’m reading Minna Needs Rehearsal Space and Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors.
Tinkers is a brilliantly understated title for a quiet book with wide impact. Like a pebble dropped into a pond, the waves of sound and motion it creates grow ever wider.
The focal point of the novel is George’s sick bed. He starts out in a bed at home surrounded by his family, wife, sister, children and grandchildren. From there we follow the history of dying George back through his father, Howard, and Howard’s father the Minister, in an organic meandering that tinkers with memory, character, time and text. Different voices interject the narrative. We move between third and first person, between present and past as if a second or third pebble were dropped into the pool and their waves crossed paths and merged into each other. That George repairs clocks only enriches this interlacing of times, peoples, thoughts.
George tinkers with clocks and builds his own house. Howard tinkers by selling supplies to isolated farms and vagrants from a horse drawn cart. Howard’s father turns the world into a mystery of poetry and God that, for Howard at least, tinkers with existence, with presence and absence. All three are drawn to the physical magic of the natural world.
At one point in the novel, George tries to run away from home. Howard comes after him and finds him huddled in the remains of an old burnt house. He looks at his son and sees him ‘already fading’ (p120) into death:
“Everything is made to perish; the wonder of anything at all is that it has not already done so. No, he thought. The wonder of anything is that it was made in the first place. What persists beyond this cataclysm of making and unmaking?” (p119-120)
Tinkers is a thought provoking, expertly written novel that embraces the beauty of craft. I will definitely read it again.
Next week I’m reading The Notebook by Agota Kristof. Any comments or reading suggestions are very welcome.
Christopher and George have wanted to be rock stars since they were children and have been in a band together for just as long. Based on real events, Mockstars is Christopher’s account of their month-long journey from two-man dream, Satellite, to four-man band, The Lightyears, as they take on a European tour and try to win the Best New Act at the London Independent Music Awards.
Christopher, 23 and living with his parents, is beginning to feel the pressures of his unusual career choice and the tour and award ceremony are framed by a letter offering him a job in advertising. As they mock rock star life in a tour bus that belongs to George’s Dad on a tour that pays them barely enough to keep them in cheese, they hope to find that playing at rock stars will lead to them being rock stars. But women, rival bands, substance abuse, a harridan French landlady with a peg leg and snow chains all work their insidious way into the dream leaving the outcome of the final showdown at the battle of the bands a mystery until those last few pages are turned.
As I said in my review last week, I don’t naturally gravitate to comic novels, preferring my comedy mediated through speech, but Christopher Russell’s writing is a crisp flow of erudite witticism. It would make great stand-up and it is clear from the online clips that Christopher is a natural performer. Though the tone is always upbeat, there are little gems that mock middle England. For example, when Christoph, as George calls him, expresses some doubt over the ease of band life, saying that some might find the insecurity and rejection difficult to deal with, George replies, ‘That may be true, but those are also the kind of people who say things like “That’s a nice ottoman”…’
Ultimately, through all the crazy shenanigans, the message of the book is spoken by the band’s drummer, Tony, ‘If you’re lucky enough to have a dream, it has to be worth chasing after.’
Mockstars is a well-written, well-observed and impeccably timed mockumentary. I would be surprised if we didn’t hear much more from Christopher Russell in the future.
Next week, I’m reading History of the Rain by Niall Williams, followed (hopefully, if it gets delivered on time) by Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas by Patrick Modiano recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is depressing that so much of his work is unavailable in English, but that is no surprise. We are a European country that mostly reads contemporary foreign literature originally written in English. It’s embarrassing. Yes, we should all learn more languages, but we can’t learn them all. To stop the UK missing out on International contemporary literature we need to encourage more publishers to commission more translations. I am exceedingly pleased that Ali Smith continues to bring this issue to the forefront. She’ll be speaking about translation at the Southbank on 3rd December. I hope the publishing industry listens.
how to be both tells two stories: the story of George, a teenager grieving for her mother and falling in love for the first time and the story of the Renaissance Italian painter, Francesco del Cossa, whose talent is great but of whom little is known. If you want to read the novel without spoilers, stop here, and skip to the penultimate paragraph. If you don’t mind a few spoilers, read on.
The stories of Francesco and George interlink, in that Francesco is roughly brought back to some kind of life through George. Her mother found something brilliant, something friendly and clever in Francesco’s paintings and after she dies George wants to understand what it was her mother found so interesting. George and her friend consider writing about Francesco as part of their empathy/sympathy homework because so little is know about him and they could make a lot of it up:
You can’t just make stuff up about real people, George says.
We make stuff up about real people all the time, H says. Right now you’re making stuff up about me. And I’m definitely making stuff up about you. You know I am.
George blushes, then is surprised to find she’s blushing. She turns away. She thinks something else quick; she thinks how typical it’d be. You’d need your own dead person to come back from the dead. You’d be waiting and waiting for that person to come back. But instead of the person you needed you’d get some dead renaissance painter going on and on about himself and his work and it’d be someone you knew nothing about that’d be meant to teach you empathy, would it?
It’s exactly the kind of stunt her mother would pull.
And whether Francesco’s story is something George or H make up we don’t know. Their worries about language and how he would be speaking an old form of Italian hover over Francesco’s first person in the way Francesco hovers over George: ambiguously.
The idea of being both is of course at the centre of all of this because their stories more than interlink, they are part of each other, both separate and entwined. Just like the other strands of thought in George’s narrative, DNA, there are two strands that form one being. Both George and Francesco assume the other is male, both are wrong. They assume that they have little in common, but both have dead mothers who were loving, intelligent and inspiring. They both have fluid sexualities. They both believe they deserve the best of others. Both of their narratives keep the present and the past alive together, inhabiting Renaissance Italy, their mothers as living beings and the modern day England all at once: ‘Because if things really did happen simultaneously it’d be like reading a book but one in which all the lines of the text have been overprinted, like each page is actually two pages but with one superimposed on the other to make it unreadable.’ The double narrative, where the second half of the book repeats the two narratives but in a different order, is Ali Smith’s way of offering this simultaneity. As George’s mother argues, ‘Do things that happened not exist, or stop existing, just because we can’t see them happening in front of us?’ And just to play out another of her points about being both, though you wouldn’t know this unless you read about it or picked up more than one copy of the book, some of the editions of how to be both are printed with Francesco’s narrative first and some with George’s narrative first. As George’s mother also says, ‘which comes first?… What we see or how we see?’ Everything in the narratives of each story is there for us to see but how we see it changes how we read it. What we know shapes what we see.
So we find ourselves contemplating the observer. For Francesco observation is her livelihood but what makes her paintings modern or at least in tune with George and her mother, is that she paints a vision of the world that sees beyond surface rendering, that refuses to play the game society and influence have dictated: her paintings are political, playing to both lazy and attentive observers who will see what they need to see. She paints great councillors as babies naked in their pomposity and naivety or born to rule justly, depending on how you choose to see it. She paints sexual messages into the background of portraits that could just be seen as rocks and buildings. She dies prepared to wear her skin like a raw jacket because, like the musician Marsyas that her mother told her about, she was prepared to risk her skin for her art. She sees a man dying of plague and understands nature as something ‘both seeing and blind’. The musician Marsyas dared to take up Apollo’s challenge to see who could play more beautiful music. The price of failure was to be flayed alive, but, says his mother, ‘the skin of Marsyas slipped off as easily as a tomato’s will in warm water to allow the red raw sweetness out of the fruit below. And the sight of such release moved everyone who saw it to a strength of feeling more than any music anywhere played by any musician or god.’ It is no surprise it was the ‘sight’ of this released skin that brought such strength of feeling.
In the modern day of George’s England the observing eye is symbolised by a surveillance camera, which marks the start of George’s narrative. George, like her mother, believes her mother was being spied upon. The spy, they believe, is a woman for whom George’s mother developed a strong attachment. In the end, George spies on this woman herself, setting up shop outside of her house, painting eyes upon the wall opposite so that even when George isn’t there the eyes are. And it’s hard to know if this is abusive or not because as her mother said of her experience of being spied on ‘I quite liked it. … The being seen. The being watched. It makes life very, well I don’t know. Pert.’ There are also the eyes of the internet where the titillation of this pleasure at being watched is exploited in the extreme. Things can be seen again and again in real time regardless of when they took place. George feels the need to witness one girl’s debasement over and over because she sees the porn film differently, because she feels she sees the girl differently and she wants to honour this girl as a being in her own right, wants to suffer along with her, be there for her. In response to her father’s cynicism about this kind of witnessing, which he says will do nothing to help the girl, she says ‘I’ve got eyes’.
These eyes that mark the wall opposite the house of a spy [walls are important because they are both inside and out – Francesco’s father was also a brick maker and layer], or adorn the flowers held in the hand of Francesco’s St Lucia who also has sightless eyes, or Francesco’s own eyes burning out from the darkness behind his depiction of the Duke of Ferrara, as Justice in the mural in Italy, or the eyes that watch pornography or adverts [there is a whole extra layer about George’s mother who started a movement of Subverts, pop ups that subvert marketing’s status quo], or that work through the earth, are all there to encourage us to look properly, to look thoroughly, to question what we see.
At the end of the novel I feel, as I often feel when reading Ali Smith, both inspired and irked: the element of gimmick that lingers over publishing two stories twice in a different order is playful, attractive and irritating. Do we need to reread the repeated stories? How many people will? Certainly we would get something from them, but there is an arrogance in this desire to make us look again, to ask us to pay more attention to the text, but perhaps it is a necessary gimmick, a necessary arrogance in a time when we do not attend to anything for long, especially when everything in the novel asks us to look again and look closer. There is a depth to Ali Smith’s surface play that requires attention and rewards it. Enticing, enthralling, ensnaring, this is a novel that shows how brilliantly the form can stretch to explore our world, our world in which startlingly real images of dinosaurs drive past us everyday on the side of vans advertising broadband speed, our world in which the past and the present live in a simultaneity that begs interpretation. how to be both is a brilliant novel, brimming with so much more than one little review can contain, a novel which gets my vote for the Man Booker.
Next week I’m reading To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, my fourth novel on the short list of the Man Booker. I hope to read The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan before the announcement on 14th October.