Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Night Train to Jamalpur by Andrew Martin

Andrew Martin might well have called this novel 'Snakes on a Train'. His railway detective, Jim Stringer, has been sent to Calcutta  to investigate corruption and security arrangements on the East Indian Railway. It is 1923 and with Lydia and their sixteen year old daughter Bernadette in tow, his secondment was supposed to be a kind of working holiday.
    But someone has been secreting venomous snakes in first class carriages and the body count begins to climb. Jim feels that this should be something he could look into, and of course he does, hampered as he is by fellow investigator, the cigar smoking and monstrously rude, Major Fisher. The two are on the night train of the title, when a murder takes place - Jim rudely awakened by sounds outside his compartment and then gunshot.
    The Anglo Indian, John Young, with whom Stringer had been chatting and sharing an evening drink just hours before, is found dead while horsemen ride off into the night. It is difficult to suggest a motive for the killing unless Jim himself is the target, a means of stalling any investigations into railway corruption.
    And Jim can only wonder who has stolen the folder of potentially damning information that had arrived on his desk the day before. If only he'd had the chance to read it first. Jim is inclined to suspect Fisher, who is uncooperative and who he believes is carrying a gun, which for some reason fails to appear when their carriage is searched by police.
    If that isn't enough to be going on with, Jim begins to worry that his daughter Bernadette is about to be swept off her feet by the son of a Maharajah, known to the family as the RK. On top of this Bernadette is out almost every night dancing with her posher pals and spending small fortunes on hats. Meanwhile Jim's wife, Lydia, is eager to spread the word about the women's movement in India at a time when revolution is in the air. But Jim worries that there is something else niggling her.
    Jim's investigations take him from balls held by Anglo high society and golfing with the RK to clandestine meetings with snake charmers. There is a host of potential suspects, most of them peculiar in some way - the strangely faceless William Asquith in charge of the traffic department who spends more than he could possible earn,  his subordinate Dougie Poole, who has a brilliant mind hidden by his tendency to be off his face most of the time, as well as Professor Hedley Fleming who knows an inordinate amount about snakes, to name but three.
    While this novel isn't as pacy as some Jim Stringer novels, there is a lot going on and enough action to keep the reader well amused. And laced through everything is Jim's knack for wry observations and local colour. The India situation in itself is interesting, with whisperings about that upstart, Gandhi while Lydia has plenty to say about British colonial domination.
    Night Train to Jamalpur is the last in the Jim Stringer series to date, its author seemingly beavering away on other projects. We've seen Jim delve into all manner of cases in a range of interesting settings. Will there be more in the series? I certainly hope so as this is probably my favourite current mystery series - where it doesn't really matter 'whodunit', as the story is all in the telling. Which is just as it should be.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila is the third novel in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead trilogy, the first of which tells the story of John Ames, an elderly minister who is writing his family story for his young son. He has married for the second time late in life and he may not live long enough to see his son grow up.
    Lila is his wife's story. Told from Lila's point of view, it is at times a harrowing tale, but also one of those stories where the human spirit triumphs over adversity, which Lila experiences in spades.
    Lila is a neglected child, rescued if you can call it that, some would say kidnapped, by a passing drifter. Doll lives a hand-to-mouth existence, moving from town to town and picking up odd jobs. She has a scarred face and is illiterate, but no one can doubt her love and devotion to Lila. The two make a strong bond, but times become tough indeed when the 1930s Dust Bowl hits. They team up with a family driven off their farm and the group pool their resources, though Doll and Lila are barely tolerated.
    I have never read a novel where I recall such vividly recounted poverty - a lack of food and shelter experienced by ordinary folk who are just trying to get by. But somehow the two pull through and Doll even manages to stay in one place long enough for Lila to get a smattering of education. We learn that Lila is surprisingly bright, but fear drives them on again, Doll always looking over her shoulder and hiding her distinctive face in the shadows.
    These early years in Lila's story are recalled in flashbacks. Now a mature young woman, perhaps in her thirties, though this is never clear, Lila has made her way to the town of Gilead and meets Reverend John Ames. The two strike up a friendship and share interesting discussions about God and his purpose.  Lila helps herself to a bible from the church and alights on the grimmer texts from the Old Testament which resonate with her own struggles. She completely lacks what you might call social graces, but her intelligence and questioning nature have Rev. Ames scratching his head.
    Robinson is writer who stands out for her empathy and her ability to create an extraordinary character who has been through so much and who can think so deeply about it all. The love story that underpins the plot is delicately done, running parallel to the story of Lila's past, it all coming seamlessly together. She is also wonderful at creating a sense of time and place, the small town of Gilead, the Dirty Thirties, rural life in Iowa. It reminded me a little of Harper Lee, and Steinbeck with a hint of Pygmalion.
    For a book that really makes you think, Lila is also a pleasure to read, and I shall be hunting out the previous books in the trilogy, both of which have won literary awards. No surprises there!

Friday, 10 April 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven is one of the more original novels I've read in some time. It describes a world where a deadly flu virus has killed more than ninety-nine per cent of the Earth's population. But this isn't a simple dystopian/survival novel, although it has elements of that. It's also somewhat 'six degrees of separation' as it follows the lives of several people caught up in events on the last day before the flu wreaked havoc.
    And it all begins on stage at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto with the Act Four death of Arthur Leander due to cardiac arrest. Although Arthur will not be around for the 'end of the world as we know it' that follows, he is the character that connects the others, one way or another.
    Leaping on stage to give CPR, is Jeevan Chaudhary, a trainee paramedic. Jeevan was at one time a paparazzo who stalked Leander, one of the most celebrated actors of his day and with a gossip-worthy social life. It is through Jeevan, that the reader gets to take in the dawning horror of the pandemic, the panic hoarding of groceries, the final decision to abandon the city in an attempt to survive.
    Also on stage is child actor, Kirsten Raymonde, who is still playing Shakespeare twenty years later with a travelling orchestra. The world has altered enormously, people preferring to live in small settlements, some ruled by fear or menace, to protect themselves from marauding bandits. The players are armed with crossbows and Kirsten carries several knives at her belt, which she has learned to throw with deadly accuracy.
    The novel switches back and forth between the nail-biting future and a more decadent past, centred on our famous actor, introducing more characters who will somehow play a role in what transpires later on. One of these is Arthur's first wife, Miranda, who works for a shipping company, and spends her free hours creating a richly imagined alternative world called Station Eleven, in the form of intricately drawn graphic novels.
     Kirsten has a couple of copies, much read and dog-eared, to go with her small collection of memorabilia - the press cuttings featuring Leander, and the snow-globe she has carried in her backpack since that fateful night in Toronto. But she isn't the only one who harkens back to the past. The players find Shakespeare relevant to the new world they finds themselves in, and their motto: Survival is Insufficient, is a quotation from Star Trek.
    The story moves on in this zig-zag manner throwing up more connections between the characters as the orchestra, escaping from a cult leader and his team of thugs, converges on a disused airport. This is the home to one of the larger communities of survivors, and here Mandel has created a brilliantly atmospheric setting. It is good to know that if you find yourself in an airport when civilisation comes to an end, there is a lot of useful stuff on hand.
    Station Eleven is a wonderful book in which you can completely immerse yourself, combining the page-turning action of a survival story with complex characters and thoughts on nostalgia and celebrity culture. It is, not surprisingly, another of the novels I have read recently that have made the long-list of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction - the short-list will be announced in a few days.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

Pym is often described as a 20th century Jane Austen. Perhaps this is more obvious in Jane and Prudence as the eponymous Jane sees herself as a bit of matchmaker. Although she doesn't quite get into as much trouble as Austen's Emma does, and as Pym puts it when describing the modern novel, the ending is not obviously a happy one, with a number of possibilities still on the table.
    The story begins with Jane and Prudence, who were at university together, at an Oxford reunion. Here their old tutor, Miss Birkenshaw, remarks about what her students have gone on to achieve. A number, like Jane, have married clergymen, others have their work in a ministry or have dogs, while a question mark hovers Prudence. Jane feels Miss Birkenshaw might have said that Prudence has her love affairs.
    As she and her husband settle into a new parish, Jane begins to look around for a suitable husband for Prudence, now twenty-nine - an age when she could so easily miss the marriage boat altogether.
    Prudence meanwhile lives in a tastefully decorated flat in London, where she works as an assistant for a Dr Grampion, editing books 'nobody could be expected to read'. She has secretly been in love with her employer who one evening when they were working late, had laid a hand on hers and said, 'Ah, Prudence.'
    Pym creates amusing little scenes around Prudence's workplace, where the older ladies, Miss Clothier and Miss Trapnell, fuss about whether the typists will manage to bring in the tea on time, or if Mr Manifold can be prevailed upon to share some of his tin of Nescafe when the tea has run out. This is the early fifties and rationing is still the bane of everyone's existence.
    Similarly in Jane's village, there is always the worry of what to have for dinner, Jane usually relying on opening a tin, but rescued by the wonderful Mrs Glaze, the housekeeper whose nephew is the village butcher. Mrs Glaze consequently knows whose turn it is for liver, and who will be having 'a casserole of hearts' that evening.
    The scene is set for plenty of humour as Jane lines up potential candidates for when Prudence comes to stay, lured by a fundraising whist drive. The most obvious seems to be the recently widowed Fabian Driver, who has had a few love affairs himself but has a nice house on the green. There is also young Mr Oliver who looks palely interesting when reading the lesson, and the local MP, Edward Lyall. So many possibilities.
    It could all be a bit silly if it weren't for Pym's wit and the lively dialogue that captures the time; the daft preoccupations of parish life, starkly contrasting with quotations from Jane's academic speciality: the poetry of the seventeenth century.  Contrast gives the book a bit of oomph in many ways - the two main characters, one from the town and one from the country - and the contrast between people's expectations and what transpires. Jane and Prudence is a delightful read, redolent with subtle wisdom, that will leave you in a better place.