Saturday, 29 December 2012

San Miguel by T C Boyle

San Miguel by T C Boyle is the kind of novel that takes an intriguing setting, in this case a windswept island off the coast of California, throws at it a few interesting characters and then sits back to see what happens. There's also a historical element to add some atmosphere. 
   But really, most of all, it's character all the way, because I guess that's what islands do: they strip away all the appendages of civilized life - the social obligations, fashion, career prospects and class interactions, and so on. What is left is the islanders themselves and how they relate to their immediate families and natural surroundings.
    You have to be good with characters to make a novel like this work, and Boyle is supremely good. He copes admirably with writing from a female point of view - in this case three women - over two different periods of history.
    The first begins in 1888, when Marantha arrives with her husband, Will, her teenage daughter, Edith, and their Irish servant.  The island is Will's idea. Vigorous and determined, he's a veteran of the Civil War, needing a chance to be his own man, optimistic about the potential the island's sheep station offers. He has convinced Marantha to invest the last of her money in the venture, promising the clean air that will cure her tuberculosis.
    When cheerful optimism turns to bitter disappointment and worse, Edith is coerced into helping out. But she has her heart set on a more glamorous life. How these two women leave the island drives the plot for the first half of the book. 
    The rest of the novel concerns Elise's story. She has been swept off her feet by Herbie, who is exuberant and charming, just when she thought she was a spinster for life. It is 1930 and Herbie, too, is traumatized by his wartime experiences, but covers it up with his passion for Elise and for their island adventure. Elise soon becomes immersed in life on the island, and her marriage seems truly blessed, until the outside world and the rumblings of another war start to intrude.
    San Miguel may not be the happiest of novels, and it might even put you off the dream of getting away from it all. But this is a terrific story - inventive and captivating, at the same time giving the reader plenty of food for thought. Boyle is an accomplished writer, his prose is both elegant and natural - I shall certainly be seeking out his previous novels.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Light of Amsterdam by David Park

I felt like reading a Christmas book and was attracted by David Park's The Light of Amsterdam with it's blue Delft cover art. This is a novel about three sets of characters from Belfast who visit Amsterdam just before Christmas. All are anxious or depressed and find a change of heart and new resolution from their time away.
    First off, there's Alan who teaches art at a university. He's recently divorced and feeling sorry for himself for making a mess of his marriage and because he's been told by his boss to improve his act. To top it all off, he has to take his teenage son, Jack, with him to Amsterdam because his ex is going to Spain with her new partner, whom Jack can't stand. Jack is a sort of Goth/Emo who is making a mess of school and dabbling in drugs and self-harm. How is Alan supposed to talk Jack into going to the Bob Dylan concert which is the main purpose of his visit?
    Then there's Karen, who has low self-esteem perhaps because she works as a cleaner in a rest home, has been 'asked' about the missing bracelet belonging to one of the patients, and is struggling to pay for her share of her daughter's wedding. This is the daughter she raised single-handed, after the father dumped her when she was three months' pregnant. She is going to Amsterdam with her daughter's hen party and she is particularly unhappy about having to dress up as an Indian squaw for the duration.
    Richard and Marion are a couple with grown-up children who are taking a well-earned break from their busy garden centre. They plan to visit the flower markets and can afford a nice hotel. However Marion has been worried that Richard is drifting away from her, and imagines all kinds of goings-on between her husband and one of the pretty Polish girls they employ at the shop. She decides to take a bold step while they are in Amsterdam to help rekindle their relationship.
    So none of our main characters are very happy, in fact the book begins in a rather gloomy fashion, perhaps reflecting the setting of Belfast in December. Once they arrive in Amsterdam, the weather is unseasonably warm and the characters slowly thaw in an enchanting city where anything seems possible. Karen and Richard make a small, tentative connection, while Richard and Marion are seen occasionally in the distance. But mostly the three main characters are shown through their thoughts - thoughts that are often going round in circles of anxiety, with odd bursts of hope and determination.
    As you can see, this is not a book where a lot happens. It has a particularly slow beginning. However David Parks is a great creator of atmosphere and builds drama and tension cleverly towards a mildly cheerful ending. Amsterdam shines through his prose. But most of all, he has huge empathy for his characters who are ordinary folk the reader can identify with. I don't know if the book was released just in time for Christmas, but for anyone going away to recharge the batteries, this is a timely reminder of of how getting away from it all can give you a bit of perspective. Which reminds me: there is some nice stuff about art as well.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore, is one of those books you read not because it is going to be fun, but because you know it will be cleverly done and probably quite different from anything else you've read before. You know it will be clever because it was on the Mann Booker shortlist this year. And it won't be fun because early on in the book you can tell that the two main characters are doomed.
     First of all, there's Futh. (Don't ask me how to pronounce his name, but as his grandfather came from Germany, I'm guessing it rhymes with 'tooth'.) Futh keeps stick insects as pets and works as an industrial chemist creating nature-identical smells.
     Not surprisingly he is socially awkward and poor at relationships - probably something to do with the fact that his mother walked out when Futh was a boy. And perhaps this is why he is haunted by his mother's perfume. Smelling of violets, it came in a small lighthouse-shaped bottle which he carries around with him. 

    Scent descriptions linger on the page with everything he does - there's camphor, oranges, steak and onions and of course, violets. There is also some potent imagery connected with the lighthouse - is it a sign of welcome or a warning of the dangerous rocks below?
     At the start of the book, Futh has recently separated from Angela and has decided to go on holiday by himself in the country where his grandfather came from. He is quite hopeless - he gets lost when he is driving and gets blisters and sunburn when he is walking. Mealtimes come and go while he stumbles on.
     Propping up the bar at the guesthouse Futh checks in for the first and last nights of his walking tour is Ester. She runs the inn with her husband and is quite shamelessly a floozie, luring male guests into untenanted bedrooms, and flaunting her aging body in clothes too young for her. It is not a pretty picture. Husband Bernard is fit and muscled. Glowering at his wife over his crossword puzzles, he is a time-bomb waiting to go off.
     Throw these characters together into a story, and the book seems to be a catalogue of disasters waiting to happen. I found myself galloping through the chapters hoping for some kind of redemption as the suspense mounted. I wanted Futh to find out he was good at something that people would recognize and applaud him for. I wanted Ester to see herself as her husband sees her and for them to repair their marriage.
     I won't tell you what happens. This is a short book, and definitely clever - subtle and spare enough to leave much to the reader's imagination - and how that imagination bubbles and seethes. I found myself thinking that not only is the author playing with her characters in an 'as flies to wanton children' sort of way. She is also playing with the reader.

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John

The Essence of the Thing, by Madeleine St John managed a nomination for the Booker Prize in 1997. (It competed with the truly superb Europa by Tim Parks, and both of these lost out to The God of Small Things by Andurati Roy - I have a copy of this that I have never managed to read.)
    Essence is the third of St John's novels, and since I have been reading them in order, there is sadly only one to go. There is something to be said for the smaller novel, in this case a mere 235 pages - you can finish it in a day or two and there isn't time for the story to get too flabby. St John's novel has no spare words. It remains sharp and witty and leaves a lot to the reader's imagination. I for one appreciate the faith the author has in the reader to fill in the gaps.
    The story concerns a couple, Jonathan and Nicola, and what happens when Jonathan tells Nicola he doesn't want to live with her anymore and that he will buy her out of their Notting Hill flat, originally her flat, and can she leave as soon as possible please. Of course, Jonathan is a prat, but he happens to be, as Nicola points out to her best friend, Susannah, the prat that she loves.
    Nicola is desolate and the book is mainly about how she departs the flat, talks to friends, and because she isn't a prat they are happy to help out, and how eventually she pulls her life together again. There are scenes with each of the unhappy couple's parents who have hopes for their children. His parents think it is time they settled down. Nicola is perhaps not quite what one might have hoped, but nice enough. Nicola's parents likewise hope for a wedding. 'Why doesn't he have done and marry her?' declares her father.
    There are clever comparisons between different sectors of the middle classes. Jonathan's friends, Alfred and Lizzie are well-off professionals and too busy to have another child. Nicola's friends, Susannah and Geoff, are liberal, academic types and 'too poor' to produce a sibling for nine-year-old Guy. Geoff's friend, Sam, borrows his power tools, and does some amusing mental comparisons of the 'keeping up with the Jonses' kind.
    All this is achieved in short chapters, often containing a single scene using dialog and little else, which makes it a bit like reading a play at times. The dialog is pitch perfect - natural but able to move the story along nicely. And often laugh-out-loud funny. The ending is thoughtfully open-ended.
    St John's novels achieve a lot in a small sphere - ordinary people just thinking and talking, which can be a breath of fresh air if you've just been reading an epic fantasy novel as I have. In this sense, she is a kind of modern Jane Austen and reminds me a lot of Barbara Pym, and I am at a loss to decide which I like best.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The second in Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy is every bit as good as the first book.Just so you know, I have never been a great fan of fantasy fiction. And I tend to steer clear of books about vampires – sorry, really not interested. But every so often along comes a book that you can't ignore.
   Justin Cronin's novel, The Passage, was a huge hit a couple of years ago. In case you've forgotten, The Passage is a dystopian story where North America is almost annihilated by a disease that came about when some scientists tried to breed a super-soldier, but instead turned a bunch of death-row inmates into hugely powerful vampires.
   I still wasn’t convinced it was a book for me, but suddenly, The Twelve was due to be published with glowing publicity, and I thought, oh help, I've some catching up to do. Then the characters were so engaging, the plot was riveting, and the world Cronin describes was so vivid, I couldn't put The Passage down. 
    And here I am, having just finished The Twelve - named for the very twelve vampires that evolved from that first fateful experiment. Most of the old gang is still there: Peter, now a soldier, is still driven to finish what he set out to do in the last book: see all of the twelve destroyed so that mankind can rebuild and live freely again. Comrade Alicia (Lish) is a fellow officer, while Amy – the girl who can save the world – is back in Kerrville, looking after children, including Peter’s nephew, at a convent. Michael the Circuit works as an oiler in Texas, and Sara is missing, presumed dead. The original crusade against the twelve seems to have hit a roadblock.
   Meanwhile at the city of Homeland, humans in the form of ‘red-eyes’ defy old age and manage to survive without the fortress set-up of other settlements, living a luxury existence at the expense of slaves captured from outlying areas. What is their secret? And what really goes on in the basement of a building known as the Dome?
   There is plenty to keep the reader avidly engrossed in The Twelve, which begins with a few back-stories from the first apocalypse. This gives the book both a compelling plot to keep things ticking along towards a grand showdown full of guns, explosions and dramatic tension, as well as providing a few more useful chunks in the trilogy jigsaw. Somehow in the next book we know there will be another nail-biting storyline, as well as a resolution that ties up all the loose-ends that have been left to maintain our curiosity.
   Indeed, The Twelve is a very satisfying read. What carries it beyond your standard apocalyptic adventure yarn is the surety that Cronin can craft a world that lives and breathes in our imagination. There are the wonderful descriptions of an America littered with ghost-towns and the detritus of a lost civilization (ours). The characters are complex and interesting. Even the not-very-nice ones do what they do because of reasons we can identify with. Guilder, the dictator running the show in Homeland starts out just trying to stay alive, but look at the devastation he wreaks. And let’s be honest, how can any of us know how we would behave in an extreme situation like this one?