King Rat by China Miéville

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 by Anne Tyler

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 by Paul Harding

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)

What indeed?

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.

Mockstars by Christopher Russell

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 by Ali Smith

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.

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.

In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know opens when an old friend of the narrator’s, Zafar, turns up on his South Kensington doorstep with nothing but a small bag and a story to tell. The narrator proceeds to tell that story in a first person narrative whose referent floats between the narrator and Zafar, using style as well as substance to question the nature of identity. Zafar was born in Bangladesh of a girl raped in the war with Pakistan and was adopted by relatives who brought him to England. His thirst for learning took him away from his life as the son of waiter, into the life of the intellectual elite. In what literary and cultural history does Zafar’s story find a home? Zafar may try to find a home in the world of the ideas, but it leaves him no less troubled. His is a voice of learning cut free from a sense of belonging. His is a story with multiple tongues.

In The Light Of What We Know suggests that all we can learn, any new experience or knowledge, can only be interpreted by what we already know, so that all perception is filtered by who we have been and what we have learned so far. What is beyond our horizon is viewed in the context of what rises to meet that horizon. Two people may learn the same things, but perceived from different angles that learning will be interpreted very differently. The main characters in the novel, the unnamed narrator, and his friend Zafar, may have originated from a similar part of the world – the narrator from Pakistan and Zafar from Bangladesh – but the narrator was born into an elite, well-educated Pakistani family and Zafar was born into poverty. They met at Oxford studying mathematics, but the way they choose to wield the power of their knowledge is very different. Class as well as race are shown to play a large role in both how we access and use knowledge.

Early in the novel, Zafar’s ex-girlfriend, Emily, an upper class English woman, asks him to go to Afghanistan.

“You could make such a difference to the lives of twenty-five million people.

Did she think that Afghanistan was the only place that mattered? And did she think that I might be flattered into coming? Worse still, did she think that anyone could make such a difference? She did. They all did, this invading force of new missionaries. They were an army in all but name, not the army carrying guns that cleared their path, nor one carrying food or medicine. But they came bearing advice and with the arrogance to believe that they could make all the difference. Yes, they mean well, but the only good that an absence of malice guarantees is a clear conscience. I knew Emily believed in their creed, and when I saw that she did, suddenly, as if a wire had been cut inside, I had in me a thought, not yet an intention, but a question, one set out in the languages of my childhood and in the perfectly clean lines of mathematics. I had a thought as powerful as an idea born in oppression: Who will stop these people?” (p34)

 In The Light Of What We Know is full situations in which we are made to question how people earn the right to make decisions about and for others, often without having asked those others what they know or what they think. We follow events in Afghanistan and we are privy to discussions on the finance behind the banking crisis, but the novel is also about the relationship between the narrator and Zafar, and their relationships with their families and with women.

Despite its syntactical and linguistic elegance – written to be quoted alongside the many works the novel itself quotes freely from – and its playful stretching of narrative form, there are things about the book that I found frustrating. The novel is as much a love story as a novel of modern times; yet love, in particular romantic love, is one of the few things the novel truly struggles to express. Perhaps the lessons of subterfuge learnt from the international stage of finance and war sabotage any hopes for meaningful relationships. Even the relationship between Zafar and the narrator is fraught with misconception and deception.

Either way, Meena, the narrator’s wife, and Emily, are central figures in the novel and yet we barely hear a word from either of them. Important moments of emotional crisis are gestured towards but ultimately left seething in an uncomfortable silence. It has not escaped me that this may be intentional – what is not said or written is as powerful as what is and perhaps the potential replaying of the circumstances of Zafar’s own conception are best left unvoiced – but it leaves me frustrated.

The one chapter that does try to write about love is the story of Alessandro Moisi Iacoboni, Chapter 13, and its sentimental tone would, had I been the book’s editor, have made me mark it for deletion. It does however, highlight the importance of lost mothers who seem to be the true vehicles for love in Zafar’s life, but as they are lost they can only cast shadows over romantic affairs that are anything but sentimental or romantic. If anything love affairs between men and women are charged with frustration and self-loathing. There are women in the novel who are viewed in a favourable light, but the main thrust of the story is mostly concerned with the male milieu. It depresses me how easily a novel of international affairs can dismiss women, though the blame for that does not lie entirely with the author, and it makes we wonder about why so much of what we consider to be literary has such a dominantly male tone.

Despite these quibbles, In The Light Of What We Know is a profoundly engaging novel, full of provocation and intrigue. I admire the writing and the conception of the novel immensely. Sometimes I was unsure of how knowing the author was in his use of quotation. Whilst it is ostensibly the narrator who chooses to ground his story in multiple quotations from great writers and thinkers, Zia Haider Rahman is having his cake and eating it. He is asking us to question how knowledge is accrued and delivered, he is asking us to question intellectual posturing, and yet he is also able to wear his very great learning upon his sleeve. This confliction is very typical of the kinds of knots the novel presents. There is something delightful about this kind of provocation, but In the Light of What We Know, never lets you forget that the pleasure comes at a cost.

In The Light of What We Know is a novel full of the pain of wanting to belong. A novel of and for our time, this is book that everyone should read.

Next week I’ll be reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Please do send in suggestions for future weeks.