Tuesday, 3 March 2009


by Joseph O'Neill

Netherland arrives in a blaze of promotion and controversy. Garlanded with ecstatic reviews and bearing the Richard and Judy seal of approval, O'Neill's tale of a Dutch cricketing enthusiast in turn of this century New York was chosen by many literary figures as their 'Book of the Year' for 2008. But it was when Zadie Smith used Netherland as one example of the sickness at the heart of contemporary fiction in her article for The New York Review of Books last November, that my interest was piqued. Book blogs took up her thread, reviewers quoted Smith in their own articles, the oraboris of literary life truly gorged upon itself. What is it about this slim volume, unexceptional in its plotting, unassuming in its scope, that provoked such disparate feelings in its readers? In what way can it be said to signal the 'existential crisis' of this brand of novel?

The story concerns Hans van den Broek, a successful equities analyst for a merchant bank, married to the quintessentially English Rachel, living in New York with their young son in the aftermath of 9/11. The novel's timeline veers from the immediate present to the near past, via Hans' own childhood in Holland, in such a way that the reader is pressed to remind themselves where and when they are, sometimes in mid-paragraph. This structure avoids any detailed account of the attacks on the Twin Towers, concentrating on the shadow of their absence. So vague is the event itself, that it is a shock when Hans reacts with unconcealed anger to an insensitive remark about it being 'not such a big deal' at a London dinner party some time later. O'Neill handles his big subject obliquely, chipping at the monolith with small moments and blunted memories. The result is a suitably symbolic centre from which to hang his novelist's wares.

Thus, we get Chuck Ramikssoon, an entrepreneur from Trinidad who uses Hans as an unwitting driver for his illegal gambling runs, and dominates the narrative with his colourful tales and impossible charm. We have the specter of Hans' broken marriage, though as the story is told in flashback, we already know that the marriage rift heals. We have the eccentric residents of the Chelsea Hotel, where Hans lives alone for several years. And we have cricket, the game that unites Hans and Chuck, that saves Hans from the lost weekends without his family and that provides a moral counterpoint to the attacks of 9/11. It is Chuck's ambition to build a New York Cricket Club with international status and so to start 'a new chapter in US history' but Chuck's own nefarious activities destroy both the dream and the dreamer. Hans persists in seeing Chuck as a lovable rogue until Chuck gives him no choice but to look deeper, and it is this failure of imagination that lies at the troubling centre of the book. Since it is written in the first person, at what point did Hans mutate from the man who refused to 'look below the surface', a man who agrees with his wife's definition of himself as a childlike rationalist, become the poetic author of an acute observation?

This is principally a problem of voice. Hans is the narrator and with no device to explain his account, we are asked to believe that the swooping passages of lyrical description come from the same man who we have learned to think of as a plain speaking Dutchman with a poor grasp of idiomatic English. When Zadie Smith criticizes Netherland for seeming 'perfectly done', it is this dissonance that appears at fault. O'Neill signals his own concerns with his format 'You might say, if you're the type prone to general observations that New York City insists on memory's repetitive mower...' and there are several times when the self-conscious nature of the introspection threatens to topple the whole novel into a tired creative writing exercise. But Netherland is more than the sum of the parts, it has enough wit and beauty to challenge its detractors. All novels require a suspension of disbelief, Netherland just asks you to be constantly aware of the trick.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Road Home

by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain has a facility for portraying the dispossessed with neither sentimentality nor cynicism. In The Colour, she wrote of a woman struggling for survival in the harsh landscape of a nineteenth century Australia riddled with gold fever. In The Road Home, we follow the journey of a man seeking his fortune in twenty-first century Britain. Both stories concern outsiders willing to sacrifice everything to succeed and in each tale, the virtues of persistence and hard work are extolled. Like all the best fables, the price of failure is high, and Tremain grounds her characters in a rich and realistic setting. The indignities of poverty and the cruelties of fate are never treated lightly. We see the abyss at our hero's heels.

Widower Lev has left his child in the care of his mother to travel by coach to London in the hope of earning enough money to send some back to them. His East European homeland is changing, progress is coming and with it the end of life in his valley. Already the trees that provided work and fuel in Auror have all been felled. Soon, the developers will build the damn to wash away the houses and jobs and farmland of his youth. Lev carries with him the loss of his beloved Marina and the aspirations of his friend Rudi, whose savings have helped him buy the bus ticket. Anxiety leaches from the pages as surely as the sulphur from the boiled eggs of Lev's co- passenger seeps from her hands. 

What follows fulfills every expectation of impossibility and pain. Without Tremain's gift for the poetry of ordinary life, Lev's setbacks might prove an intolerable read. There is little pleasure in the life of an impoverished immigrant, scant comfort in the hearts of strangers. The brief interludes of joy are provided by fellow travelers and by the memories of happier times. 'Life is not for dreaming, Lev,' Lev's boss tells him. But it is Lev's dream that propels this novel. We are offered hope but never at the expense of truth; the human face of the migrant population. Tremain's authorial voice is strong but manages not to overpower the stocky figure at the centre of the book whose future she insists we invest in. As told by Tremain, it is an investment worth making.


Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The End of Mr. Y

 by Scarlett Thomas

Doctoral student Ariel Manto is missing her supervisor. Professor Burlem was the reason she moved to the University and now he has disappeared without any explanation. Evacuated from the University campus after one of the buildings falls into an underground tunnel, she is forced to walk home and as it starts to snow, she seeks refuge in a second hand bookshop.  Inside, she finds a box containing a copy of a rare, and possibly cursed, book by the subject of her thesis, Thomas E Lumas. With the only money she has left, she purchases the entire Pandora's box of books and begins an adventure that threatens her own life and the possible end of all known existence. 

The Book in question is The End of Mr. Y. It is a book about a book and a thought experiment about thought experiments. You are the reader, but since you are reading the book at the same time as the narrator is reading her book, you are also necessarily the subject of the thought experiment. The consequence of this fiendish device is that while you might not give a jot for philosophical conundrums you will be welded to the plot within the first few pages, as unable to turn away as a steam train might move its tracks. This is the paradigm of a page tuner and Thomas keeps stoking the engine.

The End of Mr. Y is more than just a book. It is a friend, a fairground, a mystery, a bowl of soup and a treasure. It steals ideas from philosophers, scientists, Victorians both eminent and infamous and presents them as temptingly as the White Witch's Turkish delight. Fortunately, you will be able to go back and eat it all over again as soon as you have finished. Which desire only convinces me that while The End of Mr. Y may not be cursed, it undoubtedly casts a spell.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

One of Us

by Melissa Benn

One of Us starts as a comfortable novel, the kind of read that takes you gently by the hand and leads you into the house with as much finesse as the narrator's mother achieves during her many domestic social gatherings. Lulled by the delicate descriptions of two families slowly entwining, it would at first be easy to dismiss this tale as an unchallenging coming of age story, the difficulties of life as the child of successful, loving parents not being remarkable in their ability to harrow or surprise. Yet, the novel is surprising and its progression towards the story it wishes to tell is achieved with enough subtlety that both the message and its bearers remain with the reader long after the book is closed.

Anna Adams narrates the story in flashback, baring her soul to an ambitious journalist whose contact with Anna is just close enough to warrant her trust yet distant enough for the repercussions not to trouble him unduly. Billed as an 'Antigone for the New Labour milieu', Anna's revenge on the government on behalf of her brother is perfectly judged for the masters of spin, their response as heavy handed and brutal as any dying regime's. Through Anna's eyes, we see the destruction of hope in her fragile brother, a loss that reflects the expectation and gradual disillusionment of the country as a whole in its shiny new government of 1997. 

One of Us is an unflinching portrayal of family life; the varieties of suffering in the individual, the possibilities for misunderstanding in the relationships. Benn draws a parallel between a collapse of ideals in the drawing rooms of Islington and the war of ideas playing out on the world stage. Whether challenging the orthodoxy of a failing social welfare contract, defying the patriarchal establishment or martyring themselves in the name of peace, the central characters in One of Us leave the reader in no doubt that the personal is political. That we climb out of this cauldron of politics and philanthropy, somewhat startled by the strength of feelings the novel invokes, only shows how carefully Benn heats the water.  


Wednesday, 4 June 2008

The Night Watch

by Sarah Waters

If I tell you how The Night Watch ends it will not spoil your enjoyment of this wartime tale, for that is where Sarah Waters starts, six years after our heroines meet. In three sections, 1947, 1944 and 1941, Waters charts the stories of Kay, Helen and Julia, Viv and her brother Duncan, with the flair for period detail she has already demonstrated in Affinity, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith. By exchanging silk petticoats for satin pyjamas, Waters has lost none of the claustrophobic sexuality that characterised her earlier novels; London in the Blitz providing as many opportunities as Victorian England for intrigues and repression.
The post-war gloom infuses the first section of the novel with the torpor of its disappointed cast and we meet gallant Kay struggling to cope with both the loss of her love and her role in society. ‘Wartime is a time of kindness…The courage of people, the impossible goodness.’ Fraser, a rare survivor, tells us. And in The Night Watch we see how this might be so for one group of women. It is the men who are the victims in The Night Watch; killing themselves, whether they go to war or stay behind, by their own hand or society’s.
Gradually, Waters uncovers the tangled intimacies of these lives, rather as an archaeologist might sift through the rubble of a precious find. And if she wears her research a little too heavily and if the structure might seem somewhat arbitrary (the novel reads as well backwards as it does forwards), we shouldn’t mind the detour at the hands of such an accomplished wordsmith. The pleasure is in the heady atmosphere created by Waters’ carmine tipped prose as we discover the seeds of her characters’ destruction. But I won’t reveal the beginning, that would be telling.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

Once you pick up your copy of The Road and start reading, you will not put it down.  You will keep reading because you do not dare put it down for you know that you might not only never it pick it up again you might never pick anything up again, so great is your despair. And you will keep reading in the hope that Cormac McCarthy will take pity on you. After a while, you will realise that it is too late for pity. You will clutch at the sliver of grey light McCarthy offers, but it is slim recompense for the loss of the sun.

So why pick up the book in the first place? If you have avoided post-apocalyptic fiction and were never tempted by the oeuvre inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, you may be feeling the pressure now. As the disaster scenario unfolds, writing about the end of post-industrial life on this planet no longer fits neatly into the category of science fiction or environmental neurosis and writers from Margaret Atwood to Jeanette Winterson have decided to address the issues more directly than ever before. So it is that McCarthy brings his bleak observation of human nature to a time not so far in the future as All The Pretty Horses is in the past.

The Road follows the journey of a nameless father and son as they travel south along a highway seeking refuge from the cold and their fellow survivors. The pair wear masks to protect themselves from the ash filled air and tie plastic sheeting to their feet in place of shoes. The earth is dead, burnt trees fall in the forests and scavengers roam in search of human flesh. At the end of the world, depravity is boundless and the vision of hell that McCarthy paints is only relieved by our faith in the archetypal parent and child, the ‘good guys’ as the boy reminds his father. In their struggle and in their love we may see ourselves reflected and find some small chance of redemption. McCarthy’s skill is to make us seek beauty in the chasm of the human soul.

I am Not Myself These Days

by Josh Kilmer-Purcell                                                              
Kilmer-Purcell has led an interesting life. At the start of this memoir, the young Josh has moved to New York City and is working as an advertising executive by day and Aqua the drag queen (short for 'AquaDisiac', a reference to her goldfish inhabited transparent plastic  breasts) by night. Between the clubs, the office and the 3 hour make-up in his seedy apartment, Josh just has time to drink his weight in vodka and meet unavailable men he likes or available ones he doesn't. Then he finds Jack and everything changes. He still works at the agency in a suit and on the club circuit in sequins, but now he comes home to the man he loves, a million dollar apartment and a masochistic British businessman in chains. 
If Aqua's life, drunk, impoverished and available, seemed risky, Jack raises the stakes. It is a testament to Kilmer-Purcell's ability to charm, in prose as much as he must in person, that the reader is engaged by his self-destructive antics from the first page. He writes with an ease and directness that invites a comradeship with his audience. Think size 13 stilettos and male crack whores are not your thing? Faster than he can say 'Heel', Kilmer-Purcell will have you eating out the palm of his manicured hand. There isn't a New York City alleyway you wouldn't follow him down.
Having won the reader's affection in the first fifty pages, our hero taunts you for the rest of the book with terror for his well-being. Jack turns out to be a drug addict with a successful business as a prostitute specialising in domination. As Josh tries to get his life together, Jack's falls ever further apart and the hope of a domestic sanctuary recedes into the horizon. 
"We're the Kennedy's of Kinkiness. The Rockefellers of Wrongness. Maybe not the American Dream, but certainly a few people's American Fantasy." Josh writes. But even this Misfit's Thanksgiving ends in a drunken stupour and crack haze. We fear not just for their relationship and their health but for their lives.
There are currently plans for a film based on this book. The producers will be hard-pressed to find a celluloid Josh as charming and as dangerous as the printed one.