Monday, 25 February 2013

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E M Forster

Holidays can be dangerous affairs. A change of scene may lead to impulsive decision-making with worrying consequences. So it seems to be for Lilia Herriton in E M Forster's novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread. Lilia, a well-off and pretty young widow, leaves her daughter in the care of her mother-in-law to take a holiday in Italy.
    Mrs Herriton and her spinster daughter, Harriet, are relieved Lilia will be travelling with sensible and practical, Caroline Abbott. In their mind, Lilia has always been a flibbertigibbet and having little Irma to stay will be a chance to teach the child some manners.
    However, a distressed letter from Caroline alerts the Herritons to the worst - that Lilia has fallen in love with a young Italian named Gino, a dentist's son with few prospects. Lilia's brother-in-law, Philip Herriton, who had recommended the holiday in the first place, is sent off to bring Lilia home, only to discover that the damage is done and that Lilia has already married. It seems there is nothing more but to leave her to her fate and return to England.
    When a Lilia dies in childbirth, Miss Abbott and the Herritons decide the baby must be brought back to have the benefits of an English upbringing. Philip and the disapproving Harriet are dispatched again in the wake of Miss Abbott. The women leave Philip to  persuade the doting father that his son is better of with the Herritons in England.
    A lot of this book is very humorous - the characters reveal the worst of living in a narrow society, in this case the Herriton's home of Sawston, where everyone seems to know everyone else's business and appearances are everything.
    Compared to this, Italy, as Philip knows, is a wonderful place, full of beauty and freedom. This is personified in the character of Gino, who everyone can't help falling in love with. Philip and Gino become for a time good friends, and Italy even works its charm on the sensible Miss Abbott.
    Yet danger lurks in the background, and the sudden tragedies that occur give the novel an edginess that lifts it above a simple comedy of manners.  Forster does this with a wonderful lightness of touch, however, so that the reader is not left too much in a state of shock. The ending is sensibly open-ended, which makes the book seem very modern.
    This is a short novel, but the more you think about it the more it seems to say. What is marvellous about it too, is that I was able to download it on to my e-reader for free, thanks to Project Gutenberg, although this Penguin Classics edition also looks very nice.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Tom-All-Alone's by Lynn Shepherd

Tom-All-Alone's is a kind of literary whodunnit,  and I mean that in a good way, featuring characters from Bleak House and The Woman in White, as well as a brilliant set of personalities of the author's own invention. I have the feeling that if Dickens were writing today about the London he knew, for today's audience, he might very well have come up with a novel a bit like this one.
   Lynn Shepherd uses a refreshingly traditional narrative voice that is both distant yet avuncular when describing its main character. He's a private detective named Charles Maddox, formerly of the 'Detective' branch of the metropolitan police where he worked alongside Inspector Bucket, whom you may recall from Bleak House.
    We first meet Charles living in a squalid room with his cat, Thunder (amazing just how cats seem to pop up in whodunnits!), working for his sole client - a missing person case he is unlikely to solve - when the solicitor, Edward Tulkinghorn, employs him to track down a blackmailer who is threatening the rich and powerful men Tulkinghorn represents. 
   At the same time, Charles's personal life undergoes a complete change, when he finds he must look after his aging uncle, the famous detective that taught Charles much of what he knows. Uncle Maddox is suffering from dementia, but has lucid moments that prove useful.
    With Maddox's help, Charles discovers the whereabouts of the blackmailer, but a mysterious fire engulfs the criminal's house, killing all within and many impoverished neighbours. Charles begins to distrust Tulkinghorn and the two are soon set against each other as Charles determines to uncover the secrets that the lawyer is at such pains to suppress.
   Suddenly the book becomes peppered with characters, much like a Dickens novel: there is the Maddox household (which includes Stornaway, an aging Scottish retainer, and Molly, an African  servant who never speaks); there are the people connected to the case (a Cornish tanner, a blond prostitute that reminds Charles of his long lost sister, fellow officers from the force, crossing sweepers and gutter snipes).
   Running parallel to Charles's story is that of Hester, the ward of a Mr Jarvis, who forms a particular friendship with the lovely Clara, who has a mysterious illness. It all seems a lot like Bleak House and the reader can only wonder about the connection with Charles's case.
   Before the end of the book, there will more murders, including two that bear an uncanny resemblance to the work of Jack the Ripper. Charles's life will be under threat numerous times - it is lucky he is such a fit and well muscled young man, and he'll also come under suspicion himself by the ever lurking Inspector Bucket.
   All in all this is a rip-snorter of a story, uncovering so evil a set of wrongdoers any picture you might have had of Dickensian London seems suddenly even bleaker. What makes it all worthwhile, is the character of young Maddox and the wonderful prose of the writer. Lynn Shepherd has just published the next of Maddox's adventures, A Treacherous Likeness about the Shelleys (Percy Bysshe and his wife Mary, author of Frankenstein). Definitely one for my 'must read' list.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I read a large part of Ian McEwan's novel, Sweet Tooth, at an airport waiting for a plane. There was a lot of noise and distraction, so not the best setting for a nicely-crafted book like this. Fortunately the voice of its young female narrator is hard to ignore as is the tale she tells.
    Serena Frome isn't a particularly nice heroine - she's far too pleased with herself. But she's the kind of character that stuff happens to, probably because she is beautiful enough to get noticed, and confident enough to move among people who can pull strings. In this case it's MI5. 
    It all begins at Cambridge, as it often does, when heading for a rather average third in maths, Serena meets Tony Canning, an academic in his fifties. Tony takes a shine to her, gives her a good grounding in politics, history and a bit more besides, then dumps her just before her interview with the secret services.  
    Although she starts out her MI5 career as a mere underling, a job that is little more than a file clerk, Serena wonders why she has been taken on, as all the other girls in her department have far better degrees than her, and apart from Cockney Shirley, are rather posher too.
    Serena is weirdly attracted to stand-offish Max, who is climbing the career ladder. Max could be rather good looking, if only he'd chuck the tweed jacket and grow his hair over his sticky-out ears - this is 1973, after all. Max helps Serena to get a more interesting assignment, the Sweet Tooth of the title. Serena has to fake a position with an arts foundation to offer a stipend to a promising young writer, Tom Haley, who, with a bit of encouragement, could be persuaded to write novels containing anti-Communist sentiments.
    We're in the middle of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union is a prime concern of MI5's. Sweet Tooth brings in all the politics of the time and the dreariness of the Heath years, when the miner's strike was in full swing, and Irish rebels were blowing things up and posing a constant threat. There are wonderful scenes where Serena and her colleagues wear fingerless gloves plus overcoats and dressing gowns at work - the heating has been turned down because of the crisis over coal. 
    Her grim little flat is not much to go home to, either - her pay doesn't extend to much - so it is no wonder that she is drawn into the world of her unsuspecting author and the things they enjoy together: spending his stipend on wine and dining out, having sex and talking about books.
    Serena can't tell Tom who is really paying for it all, just as she can't tell her bosses just how close she has become to Tom. So things start to get very complicated. On top of all this she thinks she may have been followed, and then there's the question of what really happened to Tony.
    Ian McEwan builds the tension very nicely. There are plenty of novels about young women of this era and their 'education'. Throw in MI5 and chances are you've got a nicely simmering plot, even if Serena doesn't have to steal Soviet plans or help get an agent out from behind the iron curtain. 
    However, the end of the book came as a big shock. But thinking back to other McEwan novels, why would I be surprised? (Remember Atonement, oh, yes, and what about Amsterdam?) I know the 'up-in-the-air' ending is a favourite with many writers, but sometimes it's good to read a story that really goes somewhere, with an ending that makes you think: 'Oh, ho! That's what it was really all about!' 
    Yet another five star novel from a terrific author.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Swimming Home is the second novel I have read from the 2012 Mann Booker Prize short-list and so there are no surprises that it is taut, finely written, with an evocative setting and an intriguing cast of characters. 
    At first glance, Deborah Levy's new book could be seen as just another story about the middle classes behaving badly on holiday. Joe is a famous poet and emigre Jew who escaped the Holocaust as a child. He arrives at their rented Riviera villa with his war-correspondent wife, Isabel, and their teenage daughter, Nina, to find a beautiful and quite naked young woman swimming in the pool. Actually, she is floating motionless at the bottom which causes consternation in the family and also for their guests, Mitchell and Laura.
    Isabel is the only person with the presence of mind to jump in and see if the girl is all right. The young lovely turns out to be Kitty Finch, a mentally fragile young woman that Isabel invites to stay. Unfortunately, Kitty turns out to have an unhealthy obsession with Joe's poetry, seems to be anorexic, and is the walking embodiment of the kinds of demons Joe has been battling for years. 
    Both are afflicted by depression, and it is depression that is the lurking evil in the book, ready to destroy the lives of its characters. Isabel also has her problems - her career has seen her witness terrible things, she has missed out on being a mother to her daughter, and has put up with her husband's repeated infidelity.
    Mitchell spends money like water, money he doesn't have, while Laura frets about their shop and the likelihood that they'll have to close it.
    Meanwhile the sun always shines, there are orchards and beaches to explore and Nina is growing up. The feeling of being young and on holiday in a beautiful place is very real here -  you can almost hear the cicadas and feel the sun on your face. Nina is a sensitive girl who dotes on her father, while worrying about the interloper, Kitty Finch. 
    Tension builds when Kitty insists Joe read her poem, 'Swimming Home', which Joe tries to ignore for as long as he can. He knows he will have to read it eventually, just as he knows he can't ignore her beauty and youthfulness, or their shared affliction.
    It seems the characters are headed for disaster. Can Isabel come to the rescue yet again, or perhaps Nina, who seems so sensitive to what is happening? 
    Swimming Home is a slim volume - you can read it in an afternoon - but there is a lot going on beneath its impeccably crafted surface. I'm sure it deserves its place on the Booker short-list, but if I were you I would skip Tom McCarthy's gushy introduction, which might make you imagine the book to be rather more high-brow than it really is.
    By the way, The Guardian supplied a set of six compelling video clips, explaining why each of the short-listed titles should win the Mann Booker Prize, as it did for this one:

Friday, 1 February 2013

Small Wars by Sadie Jones

Sadie Jones made a terrific debut with her novel, The Outcast, one of those stories involving family secrets, a tragic death and an awkward main character trying to make sense of it all when all the world seems against him. It was altogether stunning and I have been meaning to catch up with Jones's Small Wars, for quite some time.
    While not quite in the same class as The Outcast for a compelling character and gripping storyline, Small Wars is I think a more thought provoking novel. It describes a little-known part of British history, for me anyway - the British forces involvement in Cyprus during the 1950s - and the effects of army policy on those caught up in it all - in particular the soldiers and their wives.
    Yes, this is another soldiers' wives sort of story, but done tremendously subtly here, as you might expect, because Jones is one of those authors who can get right inside her characters and make them real.
    These include Major Hal Traherne, a talented young officer with a bright future, and his lovely wife, Clara, who has just arrived on Cyprus with their twin daughters. They are eventually housed safely in the army compound with other army families, but there is the perpetual problem with any kind of war, for men and families alike: long spells of tedium broken up by moments of violence and terror.
    Cyprus is a challenge in that although it is a 'small war', it has its particular difficulties. The Cypriot rebels use guerilla tactics often resulting in British casualties before vanishing into the mountains. To maintain control the British have to come down hard on the rebels in a way that makes one wonder where the Geneva Convention would stand in all of this. The things Hal sees and does he cannot discuss with Clara, so the war becomes a wedge between them, affecting Hal's behaviour to her and their marriage.
    Clara meanwhile tries to be the correct army wife, smiling and caring for her children. But it is a tremendously lonely time for her, and she finds friends few and far between. The thin walls that separate their house from that of Mark and Deirdre reveal a marriage in strife. Deirdre is obviously not being a good army wife, but Clara does her best to be supportive none the less. Another friend is Davis, a young classics scholar doing his compulsory military service as a translator, an important role that he frequently finds disturbing, witnessing as he does some very unpleasant interrogations.
    The story centres on the struggles the characters each experience in this small war to do what is expected of them while maintaining a facade of normal life as the violence around them intensifies. This eventually explodes into the lives of Hal and Clara, throwing them into an unenviable crisis that has life-changing effects.
    Sadie Jones does well at recreating what it might have been like on Cyprus at this time, and the book has a lot to say about the patriarchal system that dominated British colonial policy. I am sure the lengths the British went to to maintain their colonial interests here and in other parts of the world seemed perfectly justifiable in the past. We might think we know better now, but sadly there are still small wars and that is probably not going to change. As I said before, this book gives you a lot to think about.