Tuesday, October 23, 2007

with the lights out

When an American child tires of everyday routine they might gun down their school friends - a Japanese child might behead them. Always eager for something a little twisted I thought I would kick off my R.I.P. II challenge reading with a serving of horror Japanese style.

‘The return of the dead fundamentally undermines the order of the living, and I wholeheartedly shared Kei’s conviction that contact with such beings was something to be avoided.’

Sounds like common sense to most of us - not so for Harada, central character in Taichi Yamada’s Strangers. When he meets a couple who bear uncanny resemblance to his long dead parents he doesn’t run a mile, instead he slots them neatly into his social schedule, spending evenings eating with them, playing cards with them.

This novel deftly walks the fine line between what we wish (perhaps unconsciously) for and what happens when wishes comes true. The horror comes when we are shown our inability to resist returning to something highly dangerous to us - something everyone around us, except us, can see is steadily killing us.

Yamada tells a neat little story. Initially we are lulled by a setting far from typically scary - no remote country house, instead a modern developed cityscape. But one by one those essential scare boxes are ticked - the failed light switch, the empty building, the character questioning their sanity when faced with the impossible, the silence -

‘…it hit me how quiet the building was. Too quiet, I thought.’

Yamada also makes skilful use of repetition - lines, images and encounters occur again and again and grow more unsettling each time. My only concern was that the prose felt somewhat disconnected and passive but perhaps this owes more to the translation than to the original text.

All in all a good creepy read with no screaming, no hysterics, no moonlit chases - just a slow steady crawl of goose-bumps across your skin.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

barely a breath

The news has rarely felt so long. Edge of my seat, rubbing my hands together, smugly hoping I had predicted the winner when…

… a quick cut to Howard Davies, mid-sentence, he spits out that the winner is Anne Enright for The Gathering. (We didn’t see that one coming did we?)

She looks shocked, I look shocked. She scuttles to the stage, smiles and is gone.

That was it. All over. For another year. Thanks for reading along with me!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

the end of the tunnel

So here we are. Mere hours away from the announcement of the 2007 Booker Prize winner. And thankfully, unlike last year, I know I will have read the winning book, whichever the judges choose to pick.

Its been a great reading experience, with a hearty stack of titles almost all of which entertained me. The Booker Dozen (or thereabouts) was a good progression, avoiding a baggy long longlist with titles quick to fall by the wayside.

My personal shortlist would have been -

Self Help
The Gathering
The Gift of Rain
Animal’s People
Mister Pip

- which gives an overall picture of a reader who leans toward a liking for the miserable. A fairly accurate assessment!

If I had to pick a winner that also features in the judges shortlist my prize would go to Animal’s People. It was striking and entertaining, handling a serious issue without detriment to literature. And the further I move away from reading it, the clearer it stays in my mind.

I have an inkling that that judges are likely to pick Darkmans or Mister Pip - but from now till the 10 o’clock news, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Indra Sinha. See you on the other side.

Monday, October 15, 2007

the one that got away

In most things I’m a firm believer in saving the best till last - I finish the cornet before eating the flake, open the junk mail saving the parcel. Except when it comes to a box of chocolates, when I always leave those I don’t like till last in the hope that someone else might pick them instead. (Note - contrary to recent appearance I am not food obsessed, I read far more than I eat, I’m just food analogy obsessed). But with this years Booker I took the chocolate box approach - leaving the unappealing trio of Self Help, The Gift of Rain and Winnie and Wolf till the end. The first two proved quite tasty but I choked on the latter.

25 pages in and there is a hint of nausea within - I’m feeling edgy, my fingertips plucking at the corners of the page, my eyes all over the shop. I just can’t do it, almost like an allergy, the novel repels my every attempt to focus.

To be honest I was bored by the cover blurb. I liked the sound of the Hitler content, and I was happy to accept a hearty dose of European philosophy, but the opera wass a step too far. Add in the tone of the novel - the blithering narrator and his pseudo text-book style and it was a lost cause.

I used to force myself to finish every book I started. But then I realised that life is far too short and there are too many better books gathering dust for me to spend time with ones I don’t get along with. So Winnie and Wolf will join the slender ranks of this years unfinished. Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree - which I know I will return to, but just wasn’t right on that particular day. Will Self’s The Book of Dave - which I wanted to like, having partially conquered my fear of his use of unfamiliar words when I thoroughly enjoyed How the Dead Live, but which I didn’t get on with at all. And Claire Messuds’ The Last Life - which struck me as too dreamy and too French.

It’s a huge shame that in quitting this novel I’ve failed my self set Booker challenge. But perhaps liking the first 12 used up my Booker luck, so A. N. Wilson became the unlucky 13th.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

bullets with butterfly wings

Another book that doesn’t exactly shine through its synopsis and cover art - The Gift of Rain was always destined to be in the balance for me. On the downside there was war and martial arts, on the up the Eastern setting. However Tan Twan Eng cast a subtle spell that made me love all the things I usually despise. Early on, when Phillip Hutton is introducing us to Penang we learn of his love of the sea - and from that moment on I knew I was in too deep! Even the descriptions of the aikijutsu lessons welcomed me - physical activity described in terms of thought and feeling and spiritual connection.

In a similar way to The Reluctant Fundamentalist the story unfolds as Hutton relates his life story to a female visitor to his home. We are taken back to his teenage years, his struggles as a mixed race child, his friendship with his Japanese teacher, and increasingly the turmoil as his homeland is invaded by the Japanese. The tale is told with an unhurried pace, everything will be revealed in due course, but we must be patient.

‘His words had bones in them, like the flesh of fish one bites into innocently.’

Tan Twan Eng creates a strong sense of place - of people within their environment, complete with sounds and smells, of water, trees, birds and insects. But for a fair part of the novel these didn’t feel alive to me. They felt stifled and reserved - somewhat like Phillip’s fathers cases full of mounted butterflies. You can see the beauty but you can’t touch - but in time the doors are opened and the colours flood out and surround you. Eventually the characters and their surroundings warm to you, and welcome you, and then the novel truly springs to life.

‘All around, candles had been placed on my father’s collection of statues and they appeared to move like living things as the flames fought the breeze.’

And then war comes. Tearing into the idyllic home you have come to love, leaving you wincing at the brutalities. In a similar way to The Welsh Girl boundaries between friend and enemy are constantly shifting. Along with the characters our loyalties are questioned and challenged - do we know for sure whose side we would stand on?

A novel with a strong plot and distinctive characters, I’m surprised and disappointed that The Gift of Rain didn’t make the Booker shortlist. I loved it - and won’t forget certain striking passages where scenes came to life almost as if a photograph in your hand suddenly shifted from black and white to colour -

‘the Temple of Azure Cloud, where hundreds of pit vipers took up residence, coiled around incense holders and the eaves and crossbeams of the roof, inhaling the smoke of incense lit by worshippers.’

fade to grey

An uninspiring cover opens to reveal a novel more typical of previous Booker lists, yet quite out of character this year. Pages of prose offer prolonged musings on the human condition. Mostly centred on one family, and their hangers on, we move between London, Paris, New York and St Petersburg - each appearing more bleak than the last. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that calls on the colour grey quite so frequently -

‘The road was striped from the centre with grey sludge - plain grey, dark grey, darker grey and black grey, churned and squashed and churned again by endless traffic.’

The cold introspective tone of the setting suited the people it housed. These characters are indulgent people - not just materially but emotionally and mentally. Happy to sit for hours stewing in their own juices - though by the last quarter I began to despair at their constant complaining and wanted to shout aloud to pull themselves together.

You may think by now that I didn’t like this book - on the contrary I almost loved it. There were moments of pure poetry in Docx writing -

‘battered Czech wrecks and tattered Russian rust-crates’

and he managed to portray time as a distinct and animated presence -

‘the worst night of his life was squatting black and heavy in the shabby courtyard outside.’

Maybe the mood of the book suited the recent change in our weather. And St Petersburg according to Docx felt far more recognisable and welcoming than Barker’s Ashford. (I am somewhat familiar with both places, from childhood visits to an Aunt and Uncle in the latter and a one day trip to the former).

Clearly a self obsessed kind of novel I enjoyed getting caught in the meandering loops of someone else’s thoughts even if I didn’t like the person very much. Unlike Darkmans Self Help seems to solidify into the memory of a great read the further I get from it - and I shall be searching out Docx other novel. Whilst not a light or particularly pleasant read, and probably not the kind of place I would want to come to often, Self Help is somewhere good to visit every now and again, if only as a warning to myself.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

shadow puppets and starlings

Darkmans is a very hard book to hold - at the beginning it pulls you towards the right, and by the end it starts to swing you back the other way. It dents your knees and strains your wrists. It’s exercise without leaving the armchair. It is also a hard book to review, but not, despite my fears, a hard book to read.

Reading Darkmans was a bit like changing TV channels and coming in halfway through a programme. You don’t know who the characters are or what’s going on, what type of programme it is, or how long its been on for - but you find yourself strangely drawn in, transfixed, unable to turn away.

And 838 pages later you’re not much clearer on what you’ve been reading. In fact you’re likely to be left with two main questions - what happened? and did I like it? Plot is a slippery beast in the hands of Nicola Barker. I would say that Darkmans deals loosely with a network of friends, enemies, acquaintances and relatives grouped in or around Ashford, Kent.

‘Nanna Spivey - was so old that she had hardly any teeth or skin or hair. She looked like a fractious newt or a newly born kitten. The veins in her temples and on her hands were the same shade of blue as willow-pattern china.’

History, both near and distant haunts many of the characters despite never departing from the modern day. Barkers’ skill lies in creating a novel that feels so unusual without messing with the form, mainly through loose plotting and an undying faith in the power of minutiae. Scenes imbued with fairy tale imagination (a jar of feeding fleas tethered by invisible thread) are bordered by passages of mundane realism.

‘He carefully inspected his hands. He frowned. He chewed off the jagged tip of a broken thumb-nail. He inspected his hands for a second time. He stopped frowning. He took out his phone. He re-checked his texts.’

Her descriptions are often striking and memorable, especially when writing about people -

‘As she talked, her hands neatly and rapidly dissected her third consecutive clementine, clambering over the individual segments like a pair of frantic but purposeful albino spiders.’

Although as the novel goes on it can feel like she over-describes everything. In progress reading Darkmans felt like a pleasurable and worthwhile experience. But afterwards I am left unsure - was I awestruck, or bored, confused or enlightened? Is this novel a bold and brave epic, or is Barker just trying to see what she can get away with?

To stick with my novel as food analogies, which are becoming rather frequent, I think Darkmans would be oysters - we are not encouraged to linger over the taste, or get our teeth stuck in, we just have to throw our head back and swallow.