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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Don’t step on the cracks

Laura Barnett - Greatest hits‘Don’t step on the cracks’ – the title of track 7 on the fictional Cass Wheeler’s soon to be released album, and a suitable warning for this reviewer.  I was on my guard from the first epigraph, a quote from Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks to the effect that “Each song is a lifetime.”  What does that meanThe Green Manalishi maybe, but that was before her time.  So I was looking for cracks from the off.

And nearly stepped right on one.  Opening page functioning as slow and less than riveting camera pan: “In Cass Wheeler’s garden, partitioned from the Tunbridge Road by a series of high dry-stone walls …”  What? I thought. High dry-stone walls?  And in Kent?  A cautionary Google affirms it is so, though, but most of those pictured would appear to be soft-southern dry stone walls, constructed from pre-shaped ‘stones’.  Glad I checked.

Given that Laura Barnett was born in 1982, much of her Greatest hits (W&N, 2017) – cover sub-title The soundtrack of a lifetime – is practically a historical novel; her heroine, the musician, singer and songwriter Cass Wheeler, was born 1950.  You have to take it for granted that no fictional tale of artistic success, no matter in what medium, stands a chance in competing with the twists and absurdities of the ‘real’ life, but on the whole, as far as verisimilitude goes, Greatest Hits makes a decent stab at it, particularly in regard to Cass’s inspirations, first steps in performing, her rise to stardom its maintenance.

At least a couple of factual niggles.  Cass aged 10, in 1960, in her interesting bohemian aunt’s car: “On the drive home, she left the radio on, and they sang along to Lonnie Donegan and Elvis Presley and Ricky Valance as the hedgerows and the fields turned back into the high walls and dusty pavements of the city.”  Radio Luxemburg was hard enough to get a decent signal from under the bedclothes in those well-before BBC Radio 1 days, let alone in a moving car, and in the daytime.  And twice there is specific mention of Milton Keynes when all that existed of our fair city was plans on maps and in architects’ offices : Cass’s partner going off to “a gig the following night in Milton Keynes” (p97); and in their first proper stint in a recording studio, in 1970, they share the green room with: ” … three long-haired guys from Milton Keynes who had yet to settle on a name for their group but were unfailingly generous with their drugs.”  Just saying, like.

The guitar players, by Lairie Lee. A pic to break up the text.

This is the set-up.  Damaged successful singer and writer Cass Wheeler, age 65, hasn’t had anything to do with music for 10 years (“Ten years in which … no music has thrummed from the living room stereo“) after the trauma of her daughter Anna’s death: “Ten long, silent, empty years, of which, after her two internments in the hospital, she had made what she could. Her books, her painting. Black-and-white films in the afternoon, soothing voices on the radio, and long drives with no set destination …”

A friendship with 70-year old Larry, an American sculptor (only Tate Modern, MoMA and Yorkshire Sculpture Park successful), has got her going again.  The plan is to release an album of the songs from her back catalogue that tell her story – not a greatest hits compilation, there have been plenty of them already apparently – along with the new stuff: “… a very particular kind of retrospective. Her life, reflected in the songs that only she, and only she, could choose.”  She’s to spend the day alone in her studio reacquainting herself with these old songs dating back to 1970 onwards, before a party to celebrate her return and air the new songs.  She remembers the events that were behind the songs; oh, of course! – greatest hits at least in part, though only one is not metaphorical.  There is tension in i). whether she’ll be able to cope, and ii). whether Larry will turn up.

For still, Cass asked herself what sort of mother she had been, what sort of wife, what sort of woman. Selfish, troubled, angry, flawed. A woman unworthy of love. A woman who was surely better off alone. A woman who should not allow this man – this good man, this man who was so generous, so honest, so incapable of dissembling – to make the mistake of offering her his heart, and his future.

If he turns up.  I’m not giving it away.  And yes, she is a bit of a drama queen.

Shorn of its musical setting, what we have here is an enactment of Philip Larkin’s This be the verse: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.”  Cass and Ivor, her original musical partner and subsequently husband, both have troubled backgrounds, though at least it means in Cass’s case that she ends up age 10 with a Bohemian aunt and her jazz-loving husband who are players in the burgeoning ’60s scene.  Cass and Ivor also become splendid examples of why having a child is not necessarily the best way to save a marriage.  Not that there wasn’t a whole lotta love there to begin with, as evinced in this quote, to which I add no comment:

It occurred to her that this – their love-making, the easy quiet proximity of their bodies – was also, in its essence , musical. It was as if they were running through a song they already knew: a tune both familiar and strange, in which their voices melded and soared.

Another one to break up the text – Maria Assumpcio Raventos’ The music of the sea.

Cass’s schooldays, early boyfriends and musical development are skillfully handled, though I’m not entirely convinced by her 15-year old’s instant conversion to folk music after Aunt Lily plays her Joan Baez, Shirley Collins, Ewan McColl, and Peggy Seeger records:

And so they listened, sitting before the brick fireplace with a pot of mint tea. The women’s voices were high and breathy and unpolished [Baez?], and sang of maidens and shipwrecks and cruel lords. Cass closed her eyes and experienced the curious sensation that she was drifting back through time, watching lives as they once had been lived.

Though populated with characters from central casting – like all the industry types, really – the North London squat she moves into with Ivor at 17 rings true, and their rise through cellar folk clubs to the heights of American rock stadiums is reasonably done (though the ‘rock journalist’ – just the one – Don Collins is not exactly out of the golden age of the NME).  Then come the conflicts and jealousies, Ivor turning into a rock monster, the disillusionment.  After going to the funeral in New Orleans of a drifter with a guitar on his back who was her first big inspiration, she’s in a bar:

Was there something truer, Cass asked herself as they sat in that tiny, tumbledown room with its bare wooden floors and roughly plastered walls, in the efforts of these men – and the occasional woman – playing for little more than tips and beer, than in the cavalcade her own career was becoming.
         The pomp and pageantry, the peacock strutting and the preening. The driving force of her ambition, her desire to be … what? Listened to? Recognised. Acclaimed. Cass Wheeler – a name to be shouted, whispered, caught in newsprint, each new utterance erasing the last traces of the girl she had once been. The girl lifting a hand to her cheek, still feeling the sharp sting of her mother’s blow. The girl lying awake in the dark, wondering where her mother had gone …

Fair enough.  One would hope there are stellar successful musicians out there who have these moments, though not necessarily the self-hate.

I can’t say I enjoyed reading Greatest Hits, but I did see it through to the end.  As I said earlier, there are few good novels with creative artists at their centre – only Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, Jennifer Egan’s A visit from the goon squad and Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments immediately spring to mind as far as rock music goes.  Greatest Hits format, not so much a slow reveal as a series of hints before the detailed delivery inevitably becomes somewhat repetitive given where the story starts from.  Each episode is punctuated with a page or two of lyrics (pretty good, actually) along with the song’s fictional recording details and credits, down to the engineers involved.  Anna’s story – it was no big spoiler to say earlier that she died – is a harrowing one.  Cass’s return to music after hearing a choir in Canterbury Cathedral – dragged in by her new beau – is both corny and quite moving, and, of course, a scene crying out to be filmed.    Laura Barnett‘s prose can run from the pedestrian, with added superfluous detail (“She replaced the teapot on the tray, afraid that it might fall, scattering its hot contents across the carpet in a wide, seeping stain.”), to the purple.  It’s a brave attempt to tackle a subject that is important to her.  To nod to an early TV music show Cass would have watched as a young teenager: I’ll give it a three.

Cambridge University Botanical Gardens (c) DRQ. Of no relevance, but there is there is an appendix of nitpicking that follows.

While I’m still here, a few indulgent quibbles.  How many books have I published? – none.  And I really should get out more.  Nevertheless.  I know it’s hard to write about music, but I am still baffled by this about being sharp: “She had always instinctively recognised the power of a misplaced sound: flattened or sharpened, anti-chromatic, an interloper in the smooth, sequential pattern of the scale. She was, after all, famous for her idiosyncratic tunings” – not that her tunings had been mentioned up til then.

Then there are some strange uses of language.  It’s hard sometimes to tell whether they are creative writing or crying out for an editor [my italics]: the headmistress’s “warm elocuted voice“; in a café “They refused the buffet“; nipping outside for a fag “she’d been standing in the lee of the studio“; seeing “the Rolling Stones live in Hyde Park” in 1969 (as opposed to miming?); Aunt Lily’s demise through “A stroke sustained quite suddenly in her bedroom” (in a medical textbook maybe); a cathedral’s “buttressed stone” when it seems we are inside the building, with the choir singing in the ‘quire’ (a usage I’ve never encountered before); driving down an “unspooling road“;  and I’m just confused by flowers forming “an Impressionist painting of hazy whites, blues and greens, glossily vivid against the white marble countertop.”

On the other hand I did like: “the flowers that are not from Larry “; and “Deep inside the belly of Heathrow’s terminal three, Larry Alderson stands beside a baggage carousel, watching a string of cases inch by like booby prizes in a game show“.  

But I am very sure – and I speak with recent grandfather experience – that there is no way a one-year old Anna was stacking bricks, rather than gleefully knocking them over; stacking comes much later.

 

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My title is taken from a passage about half-way into Sebastian Barry‘s novel of the First World War, A long long way (Faber, 2005):

For no matter what mayhem was afoot in the ruined fields of the Lord, the army was deeply attached to its regulations, always allowing for the fact that the staff officers didn’t see battles, didn’t understand what happened in battles, and probably didn’t want to. It was line officers only that knew the drear paintings and the atrocious music of the front line.

It’s not a bad example of the quality of his prose and approach: its rhythm, the vernacular touch, the deft choice of imagery; men glorying in having “quarters that shut out the bladed wind and drunken snow.”  Nor elsewhere does he labour the point about the ruling class generals way back at High Command; indeed one particular line officer is held in high regard and affection by his men.  He doesn’t need to preach; though one of the men does opine, “Anyway, they don’t write books about the likes of us. It’s officers and high-up people mostly“.

As a novel of men at war A long long way is right up there with the best.  The writing is – given its subject matter – remarkably free of cliché, and as with his recent Days without end, Sebastian Barry takes you – seemingly effortlessly – there.  This is what it feels like to be in the midst of the action, of the brutality of battle, as well as the longeurs, sharing the banter (there’s a neat riff on a Bovril ad), the camaraderie and esprit (laced, though it can be, with spite).  And you, the reader, is also taking in the sights and sounds of their immediate surroundings, of  the natural world, and this never getting in the way of the tale.

Here they are back from the trenches, having  abath, in the reserve area:

The water held them gently, warmed their inmost marrow; and if they had forgotten what it was to bathe, and some of them maybe never had a proper bath in their born days, they soon had it high on their list of sumptuous things to experience on God’s earth. They would be devotees in their private minds of this immersion.

More relief, of a very different kind:

It was difficult for his head to love and think of the future when he could not feel his feet.
‘By the good fuck,’ said Christy Moran, ‘this is some war.’
Then something miraculous occurred. The lice in Willie’s clothes began to stir again, and one morning the music of the cold, with its piercing little notes, seemed to pass away. The greens and browns seeped back into the world.

Never mind poppies:

Meanwhile, the roadsides burgeoned up and grew almost noisy with memory-laden colours. The arrogant sun had touched them and the casual rain had done the rest, leaving these million marks of respect on the neglected edges of fields and paths and roads. Even in fields, where most likely some calamity had stolen away the tillers, great weaves and plethoras of field flowers appeared, army after army of yellow heads, golden heads and blue, red and burning green. It was like a sudden paradise. Birds fiercely sought those sites on which they could bestow their efforts all the summer, the heroic house-martins and swallows come back from whatever Portugals and Africas they knew, to rest their faith again in Flanders, and the safety of Flanders.

But it is – as well as the sheer quality of the writing – an Irish dimension that gives A long long way a special status in the literature of the First World War.

Our main man is Willie Dunne, “born in the dying days” of the nineteenth century, son of a high-up Dublin policeman.  His relationship with the folks back home – his family, his girlfriend – are a significant part of the narrative but I’ll not dwell on them here.  It’s not a first person narrative, but it is mainly what he sees and feels and thinks that drives A long long way.  We are back in a time when the whole of Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom and the Empire; Home Rule legislation has been suspended for the war.  Willie, with many others, volunteers in 1915, making common cause with other European nations against the bullying might of Germany.

His war kicks off with his unit being victim of a horrendous mustard gas attack, which is followed by some recovery time back home.  Having embarked on the boat to return to the Front, they are mysteriously ordered to disembark, and rushed back to the streets of Dublin to find they are being used in the quelling of the Easter Rising, required to use their arms on their own countrymen; the rebels’ pro-German rhetoric left little choice.  (Yeats’s ‘terrible beauty’; you can see why that was a centenary mutely celebrated).

Then it’s off to the slaughter in Europe again.  This all makes for a confusing and distressing time for Willie.  News of the execution of the republican leaders of the rebellion by the English government filters through to the men, and all is grey:

The executed men were cursed, and praised, and doubted, and despised, and held to account, and blackened, and wondered at, and mourned, all in a confusion complicated infinitely by the site of war.

One of Willie’s younger comrades is arguing the rebel’s cause.  He’s getting on people’s nerves, he won’t let it lie:

‘Can’t you just eat your maconochie like the rest of us, Jesse, and to hell with Ireland and this Ireland and that Ireland? You’d give a saint a headache with that talk, man dear.’ [p157]

Why should he pay him any heed in the upshot?  There had been thousands of deaths just in the last days over by the ruinous river. Two thousand Irishmen of the 36th alone. He thought Jesse Kirwan was all twisted up in a rope of his own making; he knew he was. He had made a trap for himself in the wood of his own heart. He was the snare, the rabbit, and the hunter all in one. [p159]

Jesse does more than just preach though, and death by firing squad is his reward.  Willie, with a good voice, sings a requiem:

Poor Jesse. He hardly knew him, but he felt brotherly about the matter. He sang both verses of the hymn. The moon was quite playful among the August clouds. As Willie Dunne was no fool, he knew that he wouldn’t be the same Willie Dunne he had been before this happened.

He’s sung the Ave Maria twice before in the book – as a boy at a singing contest, and at an earlier quiet interlude in the trenches, as related here:

Ave Maria, gratia plenis, full of grace, and many of the men caught that it was just the Hail Mary all dressed over in another lingo, the prayer of their childhoods and their country, the prayer of their inmost minds, that could not be sundered, that could not be violated, that could not be rendered meaningless even by slaughter; the core inviolable, the flame unquenchable.

Here’s the craft of Sebastian Barry: he doesn’t try to explain the situation regarding Irish independence – we just get to see it through the soldiers’ and others’ understanding of what is going on.  Nothing is really spelt out, and there’s no discussion of nationalism as such – ‘this Ireland and that Ireland‘ – but the sense of a country coming into being, of a national identity forming, seeps through.  It’s all left hanging, and the swiftly changing situation, and the situation in the trenches, does not help Willie Dunne:

He knew he had no country now. He knew it well. Finally the words of Jesse Kirwan had penetrated deep into the sap of his brain and he understood them. All sorts of Irelands were no more, and he didn’t know what Ireland there was behind him now.

A long long way is a remarkable novel, both in its vivid portrayal of what ordinary soldiers went through in the Great War, and in its capturing the uncertainties of one individual – a good man – caught up in and living in a time – a moment even – of great social change.  Sadly, tragically, Willie didn’t survive to see what happened next; you weep for him, for the bad timing of his end.  That this novel can go back to then, its pages (it would appear) untainted by authorial intervention of what we know of what follows (and is ongoing) in Ireland, is a striking achievement.  Sebastian Barry is a great writer and a fine chronicler of the human condition.

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The problem with a book like Kent Haruf‘s Our souls at night (Picador, 2015) is that, once you’re familiar with Alice Munro‘s short stories, you can’t help wondering what she might have done with this material, and in considerably fewer pages.  Not that Our souls at night, August’s Book Group book, is that long (192 generously spaced pages) or without its merits.

You’re being too hard on yourself again, Addie said. Who does ever get what they want? It doesn’t seem to happen to many of us if any at all. It’s always two people bumping into each other blindly, acting out of old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings. Except I still say that this isn’t true of you and me. Not right now. Not today.

A lot of Our souls at night is dialogue, and to its credit, it dispenses, as above, with speech marks.  The language is deadpan – Hemingwayesque without much physical happening – and, well, as some in the group said, flat, but with the dialogue contained, it does have a flow to it, and in the end that develops one’s passion – especially an intense dislike for one selfish young man in particular.  But I jump ahead.

One day in a small town in Colorado, Addie, a 69-year-old widower, turns up at the door of widower Louis, a contemporary and near neighbour she only vaguely knows, and invites him to sleep with her.  Just to share her bed and talk; she’s lonely and she guesses he is too.  He thinks about it and it comes to pass.  They tell one another of their lives, failings and disappointments.  Her son comes along and dumps Jamie, her traumatised grandson on her while he tries to sort out his marriage, and she and Louis slowly draw the child out of himself with the help of a dog.  Son returns and reacts far worse to their arrangement than the community at large (“We’re old news“), plus he’s scared he might lose his inheritance.  That’s not the end of the relationship but it has to change.  Bitter sweet indeed, and it lingers.

It’s all nicely done.  I wasn’t alone in thinking that they seemed older than their stated ages (my age, as it happens), something also I’ve found elsewhere in my reading.  The question of sex does arise, but Haruf doesn’t linger and his handling of it is defly anti-climactic: “After Jamie had left they tried to do what the town thought they’d been doing but hadn’t.” 

The more I think about it, the less I regret (a first impression) having spent the time – it’s an easy read and oh! how one can celebrate short Book Group books! – with Our souls at night. 

All change

It was over 4 weeks ago now, but All change … Stories & Songs of Milton Keynes, the MK50 (Milton Keynes’s 50th anniversary) concert collaboration of the Milton Keynes Community Choir with the Living Archive Band cannot go unmentioned as the stirring event it was.

Both halves of the evening – there was a multitude of cake provided by local Stroke Association volunteers in between, profits going to the charity – followed the same pattern:  The choir opened with three varied and rousing songs (my favourite being God only knows, even though I’m an atheist), then gave the stage to the Living Archive Band for four songs from their extensive repertoire. The choir then performed a couple of interesting excerpts from a new specially commissioned MK50 composition (music by Choir Musical Director Craig McLeish, words from Yaw Asiyama) which is sounding promising indeed.  The choir and band then joined forces for a couple more of the band’s songs – some amazing goose-pimpling moments ensuing.  The evening finished illogically – because they could, said Craig – with them all performing a moving arrangement of Phil Colclough’s beautiful Song for Ireland.  A special night.

The Living Archive is one of the really good things about Milton Keynes.  Easier to let them describe what they do (from the website at http://www.livingarchive.org.uk/):

Living Archive collects, preserves and shares the history and heritage of Milton Keynes. Conceived as an antidote to the assertion that ‘new towns have no history’, and nurtured by the belief that ‘everybody has a story to tell’, it has recorded, archived and celebrated the unique history of residents’ lives and sense of place.

This has meant collecting those stories – through oral history and documentation – of the people who were living in the area before the creation of Milton Keynes, including vivid memories from serving soldiers and those at home from both World Wars, and the development of Wolverton as a railway town.  From this work the shifting membership that is the Living Archive Band have crafted shows full of songs crafted from these memories.

One of these songs has been a not unwelcome ear-worm since the concert.  The night the Stones rolled into town, written by Kevin Adams and Neil Mercer, commemorates a legendary evening in March, 1964, at Wilton Hall in Bletchley (when there was talk of ‘a bigger, brighter Bletchley’ in the days before Milton Keynes).  Here’s the chorus:

And we were living for the future
Glad to be alive
Oh, then one day you wake and find
The future has arrived.

There’s a tinge of sadness in the delivery, with the sensible advantage of the musicians only making a very fleeting nod to the Stones.  You can hear this for yourself at http://livingarchiveband.bandcamp.com/track/the-night-the-stones-rolled-into-town or even buy it for a quid if it takes hold.

An English vineyard

A pleasantly relaxed early Saturday afternoon a couple of week ago with the MK Humanists.  A short entertaining intro, then wandering through some of the 1800 vines, a buffet meal … oh, and sampling the ‘Earls Baron’ produce.  Which was surprisingly good.  Majority favourite was Saxon, the blend (I bought some).

Earls Baron is also the name of the nearby Northamptonshire village where the vineyard is situated.  “Set on a picturesque, southwest facing gentle slope overlooking the Nene Valley”, it says here, “Its location is very near to one of the oldest recorded vineyards of Roman times.”  Which is quite a thought, is it not?

You can find more details, including grape varieties (I think the above is Pinot Noir) at http://www.newlodgevineyard.co.uk/New_Lodge_Vineyard/Home.html .  At the moment they’re updating the website and the history page is missing, so I’ll just quote from the handout.  The vineyard was first established in 2000 on horse paddocks, which apparently is very good for this sort of thing:

Octogenarian owner Joyce Boulos-Hanna and vineyard manager daughter Gabby tend each and every vine personally by hand, all year round, with love and passion.

They are easygoing evangelists for English wine, and great fun with it.  “We’re not going to try and sell you the wine, but if you want to buy some, we’re happy to help you do so.”

 

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Sebastian Barry‘s Days without end (Faber, 2016) is one powerful piece of writing, the best book I’ve read in ages.  And in a while to come too, I’ll wager.  The sustained rhythm of the prose – the language of the first person narrative lyrical, vivid, visceral, engrossing – is an accomplishment of wonder.  There aren’t many long words, but paragraphs cover pages because they have to, to do justice to the vision, to all of what our man saw and felt.  It just flows, carries you along.  He’s telling us his story a long time after the events, but it’s like we are there.

The paperback blurb gives a reasonable brief outline of the action:

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in. Then, when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

But there is so much more going on.  Narrator McNulty and Cole are more than brothers-in-arms but the achievement of Days without end is that no big deal is made of this and what follows; there are no physical details, you just feel the love.  They met and teamed up as 13 year olds, when things are not going well for either of them.  They join the army because as they grow they can no longer pass as paid female dancing partners – in full garb, but no funny business – in a frontier dance hall.  Thomas doesn’t mind being in the dresses and this theme develops as the years and events pass.  Extraordinary to have just read this as Donald Trump tweets away about trans people having no place in the US armed forces.  In what follows, Winona is the young Indian girl of the blurb, who has witnessed terrible events herself, and Thomas is at this point disguised in women’s clothes:

Winona loosening too, and laughing now. She just a girl and should be laughing regular. She should be playing maybe if she ain’t too old. Certainly acts the lady and knows how. We like mother and child right enough and that’s how it plays.  I give thanks for that. Maybe in my deepest soul I believe my own fakery. I suppose I do. I feel a woman more than I ever felt a man, though I were a fighting man most of my days. Got to be thinking them Indians in dresses shown my path. […] I am easy as a woman, taut as a man. All my limbs is broke as a man, and fixed good as a woman. I lie down with the soul of a woman and wake up with the same. I don’t forsee no time where this ain’t true no more. Maybe I was born a man and growing into a woman. Maybe that boy that John Cole met was but a girl already. He weren’t no girl hisself for sure. This could be mountainous evil. I ain’t read the Book on that. Maybe no hand has ever wrote its truth.

And that’s as much of a questioning as occurs.  It’s beautifully done.  I hope you won’t see this as a spoiler; I’ll bet if you start reading Days without end you’ll have forgotten you read that earlier here pretty soon; until it hits again.

Meanwhile, there’s no shying away from the horrors of the soldiering.  There are brutal and savage passages relating his involvement.  And we get to experience the camaraderie, the hard drudge and boredom of military life.  The betrayal of the Indian Nations is laid bare in specific events, not evangelised.  But, you know, life can be beautiful.  The evocation of nature’s wonders and the passing of the seasons is never far away in the relation of events.  Normally in these reviews on Lillabullero I will pick out some quotes to give a flavour but with Days without end it’s so hard to know where to start from and where to end.  It is such an enervating – exciting, absorbing, relaxed in turn – total ride.  Here, from the final devastating confrontation with a proud Sioux chief:

Sometimes you know you ain’t a clever man. But likewise sometimes the fog of usual thoughts clears of in a sudden breeze of sense and you see things clear a moment like a clearing country. We blunder through and call it wisdom but it ain’t. They say we be Christians and suchlike but we ain’t. They say we are creatures raised by God above the animals but any man that has lived knows that’s damn lies. We are going forth that day to call Caught-His-Horse-First a murderer in silent judgement. But it was us killed his wife and his child.

This is a novel about the making of the USA, a literary spaghetti western – the later Sergio Leones – told in a vernacular by a Huck Finn who came over the Atlantic as a boy from Ireland.  And, though not obvious from what I’ve said here, there is, rest assured, a measure wit and humour in Thomas’s telling too.  I hear echoes of Mark Twain’s judgments on his land too.

When that old ancient Cromwell come to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work. Ain’t it the way of the world. No such item as a virtuous people. Winona the only soul not thrown on the bonfire.

Almost at random, if you want the experience:

Big train blowing steam and smoke at the depot. It’s like a creature. Something in perpetual explosion. Huge long muscle body on her and four big men punching coal into her boiler. It’s a sight. Going to be dragging four carriages east and they say they’ll go good. The light pall of snow hisses on the boiler sheets.

Days without end is a profound and consistently brilliant piece of writing.  I love this book.  It will stay with me for a long time; I feel a Sebastian Barry binge coming on.

**********************************************************************************

And now for something completely different …

July’s Book Group book was a Marmite book.  Some hated it, others thought it had its moments and weren’t sorry to have read it.  I liked it well enough.  Meg Wolitzer‘s The wife (2003) is narrated by the wife of one of the (fictional) big beasts of post-war American literature.  On the plane  on their way to the presentation ceremony for the fictional Helsinki (one down from the Nobel) Prize for Literature (“this award for a long hard labour on the fiction chain gang …”) she decides she is going to leave him.  What follows is a skillful telling of their marriage, family and careers going back and forth between the past and present, from their first meeting in 1956 – Joan a talented student, Joe the tutor on a creative writing course – to the acclamation his pretty much career full stop.  This is the beginning of a new phase, Joan,” he tells her.  Yes, the insufferable phase,” is her response.

 

Now, even the Book Group people who didn’t like The wife could see the big twist coming from a mile off, so it’s not really a spoiler to reveal about Joe that:

All he had was the look. The attitude, the reverence and the desire to be a great writer, but that was meaningless without what he called “the goods”

and that, presented with the proud draft of his first novel – effectively about his divorce and their coming together – Joan is dismayed to discover how lifeless it is and edits it so heavily as to effectively have written it herself.  Being the ’50s, and having been told that being a woman novelist was a loser’s game by a bitter woman novelist, she is happy for the illusion of his authorship to be maintained and continued.  This is not actually revealed till quite late on, which I suppose you could say is cheating.  Anyway, the story behind that first novel, The Walnut, or rather the story of the actual walnuts, is an amusing little diversion in itself, while what happens to their two daughters and the problem son – the children of a celebrated writer – give the tale more depth.

So The wife is an insightful, sour and witty look at the American literary life in the ’50s and early ’60s, the rivalries, infidelities and jealousies as the men joust and put themselves about. “Wives are the sad sacks of any writers’ conference,” she opines at one point.  Given she was born in 1959 one wonders how much of it Meg Wolitzer got from her novelist mother.  Joe and Joan’s early struggles in a New York garret, taking fun in late fifties Greenwich Village is nicely done too.  With the social changes of the late ’60s and the emergence of women writers as serious players you could say that The wife is the starting point for a literary equivalent of Mad Men.

How about this, one of the reasons he’s up for the Helsinki, for Joan’s disaffection?   And probably at least a sad half-truth:

In America it had been a year of literary deaths, one after the other, men whom Joe had known since the fifties, when they used to gather sometimes for socialist meetings. A decade later they gathered at marathon, all night readings whose purpose was to protest the war in Vietnam, and suck all the energy out of the audience.

For what it’s worth, the very first original hardback book I ever bought was Norman Mailer‘s groundbreaking account of the march on the Pentagon, Armies of the night (1968).  I’m long over him now, but still, Ouch!  He gets it in the neck again later too, the only one of those big beasts to actually get a real life namecheck.

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I love the opening, and title story, of Penelope Lively‘s first collection of short stories in twenty years.  And I love the opening of the opening story:

I am the Purple Swamp Hen.  Porphyrio porphyria, if you are into taxonomy and Latin binomials.  And, let me get this clear, I am Porphyrio porphyrio porphyrio, the nominate sub-species, not to be confused with the Australian lot […] And others. No, indeed, we are talking species definition here, the enduring stuff, and thus I endure – founding father, the Mediterranean nominate.

Do eighty year-olds write like this?  Well this one does.

Wondering where all this is going? Have patience. You’ll get your story. You know me. You know me on the famous garden fresco from Pompeii – somewhat faded, a travesty of my remarkable plumage, but nevertheless a passable portrait. You all exclaim over those frescos: the blues and greens, the precise depiction of flora and fauna. Oh, look! You cry – there are roses and ferns, oleanders, poppies, violets. […] You eye me with vague interest, and pass on. It’s just like a garden today! you cry.

That’s right.  We are being addressed by a bird on a fresco painted before 79 AD.  And it is anxious to rob us of any illusions.  Much is made in the other stories in this collection of POV – ‘point of view’.  A timeless garden scene?

      No, it isn’t. Wasn’t. […] make no mistake, the garden of Quintus Pompeius, where I passed my time, was nothing like any garden you’ve ever known.
      It hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household and associates. We simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction; far more imaginative, Homo sapiens. […] Eat out, sleep out, wash the dishes, pluck a pigeon, gossip, quarrel, wallop an old slave, fuck that pretty new one, plot, scheme, bribe, threaten. Get drunk, utter obscenities, vomit in the acanthus.
I saw it all. I heard it all.
      Let me fill you in on the general situation that autumn …

Which is what happens over the next 6 pages.  Dispassionately, wryly – the specificity of the acanthus! – we get amorous intrigue, dark deeds and a slave’s escape as Vesuvius threatens, then does its worse.  A tour de force.  The swamp hens, in the garden for decoration, flee to an ecologically appropriate marshy place, a habitat somewhat but not catastrophically threatened these days, our frescoed narrator assures us.

The other fourteen stories in The purple swamp hen (2016) are set in a later age.  From 1947 (a mother doing a Mrs Bennet – the story’s title – for her three daughters, the social sands shifting as each ‘comes of age’) to pretty much now, a couple of them with a gothic tinge.  They may seem to concern mainly middle class problems, but there’s a universality to the causes and resolutions.

How changing social mores and times affect individuals, the simple random contingencies of how couples come together (and how they turn out), the aforementioned importance of recognising others’ points of view, the dilemmas and otherwise of getting old, all are exposed in neat, forensic, sometimes staccato prose, often the sweet being in the sour.

A young home-help discovering the woman she helps was a spy, the ‘truth’ of writing and publishing a biography of someone recently deceased, a scriptwriter finding her professional skills are failing her in her own life – these are just three of the stories.  Abroad – opening line “50 years ago there were peasants in Europe” – has ’50s artists living cheaply in Europe using peasants as subject matter … until they run out of money and have to pay their debts in kind.  Lorna and Tim , the history of a marriage, has rich-from-birth Lorna left still not understanding how it failed; last devastating line – “You were rich.”  I think I shall be reading more Penelope Lively.

On the right here is the bookmark I was using while reading The purple swamp hen.  Quite apt in itself in that the stories take place in the decades portrayed, and the revolutionary paperback imprint Penguin was launched just a couple of years after its author was born.  As it happens, there’s a character in the very next book I read who collects Penguins: “I got a couple of Graham Greenes,” said Clean Head with satisfaction. The three-and-six editions. With the full colour Paul Hogarth art.”” Clean Head is a shaven-headed African-caribbean taxi driver, whose name I suspect derives from the jazz and blues singer Eddie Cleanhead Vincent in whose band a young John Coltrane once played, but I digress.   Now while the specific editions mentioned are not actually represented on the bookmark – that would be too perfect – I have a weakness for these little synchronicities, and it’s close enough for me.  And it is precisely the charm of these specific details that has me hooked on The Vinyl Detective.

The invention of a ’60s rock group for novelistic purposes is quite a hard act for a writer to pull off, and Andrew Cartmel doesn’t do badly at all in the The Vinyl Detective: The run out groove (Titan, 2017), the second in a series featuring said VD, a man with no name, whose business is finding rare vinyl but whose innocent jokey business card usage of the word ‘detective’ gets taken literally by others and hence into various scrapes.  Unlike the globetrotting first book in the series, this one stays in the UK.

Valerian is both the band’s name – out of the ’60s Canterbury scene – and the name its charismatic vocalist (“an English Janis Joplin“) went by.  The band broke up with her unexplained suicide, and mystery has always surrounded what happened to her young child.  It has been surmised (myths ahoy!) that the run-off groove – you know, like on Sergeant Pepper – that the run-off groove of the band’s last single – only briefly released and quickly withdrawn after her death and hence extremely rare – might offer solutions to what happened.  A relative from the US and a journalist are looking for a copy of that single … and we’re off on a plot taking all sorts of twists and turns involving a variety of ’60s survivors, and including, not least, an acid trip in a burning house and some gravedigging.  Entertainingly absurd, of course, but all done racingly well, and coming to a satisfactory and heart-warming conclusion.   The writing is smart, the series characters – a good quirky team, including the two cats – full of charm.  It would make a great tv series, properly casted, à la Beiderbecke Tapes.

I’m a sucker for the incidentals, the details – a sort of obnoxious knowingness – which may be lost on many potential readers but ring bells for me.  Like: “They might have a copy of the Artwoods’ first album, the original Decca issue, with the Mod cover.” Tinkler’s voice had softened rhapsodically.”  Or: “It’s a Garrard 301,” said Tinkler. “It’s built like a Russian T-34 tank”” – vinyl rules, obviously.  There’s even a Clean Head disquisition on the re-badging of DAF cars with variomatic transmissions as Volvos – the factuality of which I do not doubt – which while to me gibberish, still entertains in context.  I just about remember Lita Roza, or at least That doggie in the window:

I went to put some music on, to lighten the mood. I chose a Decca ten inch of Lita Roza. It was one of her true jazz recordings. She was singing here with the Tony Kinsey Quartet, including the mighty Joe Harriott on sax. The Colonel turned and listened for a minute and said, “Didn’t this girl sing ‘(How much is that) Doggie in the window’?” “She did indeed,” I said, “but not on this record, thank god.”

Guitarist Eric Make Loud – Eric McCloud to his mum – is a great creation:

Erik Make Loud strode towards us, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “My involvement with her was that I had to use the toilet on the band bus after she did and breathe the stink of her shit. I breathed the stink of her shit for four years in that band. Four years in a career that has spanned fifty years.” he actually said ‘spanned’. “I’ve played with dozens of bands and hundreds of musicians. But all anybody wants to talk about is Valerian.  It was all over a lifetime ago, but all anyone wants to talk about is Valerian.”  We’d hit a sore spot all right.

They get around him by zooming in on his playing with Frank Zappa.  But it’s that “he actually said ‘spanned'” is the kitemark of quality.  I look forward to the next volume, which apparently moves into the world of classical music.

Last month‘s Book Group book was Patrick Ness‘s A monster calls, which for me was a re-read.  The Book Group copy was the plain text edition of 2012, as opposed to the stunning prize-winning 2011 illustrated one shown here, and for me it had lost none of its power, nevertheless.  Others in the group were less willing to overlook its origin as ‘teenage fiction’ and were less spellbound by its spellbinding blend of horror, fantasy, Jungian symbolism, compassion and a young teenager’s off-handedness.

Conor’s mum is dying, his dad elsewhere, his grandma is a nightmare ( “… the way she talked to him, like he was an employee under evaluation“) and he has withdrawn into himself at school when his situation became known.  A tree, a Green Man’s representative of a tree, walks up and starts telling him stories (You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?“) and leaving berries on his bedroom floor.  The resolution of all this, his pain at home, at school, the moral of the tale – I’m not saying – is beautifully done; it had me lachrymose and beaming. 

What I picked up on this time was the tone of the prose, Conor’s surface refusal to descend into melodramatics:

      The monster looked at him quizzically. How strange, it said. The words you say tell me you are scared of the berries, but your actions seem to suggest otherwise.
“You’re as old as the land and you’ve never heard of sarcasm?” Conor asked.
Oh, I have heard of it, the monster said, putting its huge branch hands on its hips. But people usually know better than to speak it to me.

How effective the italicisation of the yew tree’s voice is!  As is the defense of story: Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might awake?”  And, finally, how about this as a summation of young boy’s misery?:

Some bread in the toaster, some cereal in a bowl, some juice in a glass, and he was ready to go, sitting down at the little table in the kitchen to eat. His mum had her own bread and cereal which she bought at a health food shop in town and which Conor thankfully didn’t have to share. It tasted as unhappy as it looked.


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Augustus

How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable – and yet who, out of animal energy and accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power?”

It’s a problem, right?  In  this instance – John Williams‘ brilliant historical novel Augustus (1973) – they’re talking about Mark Anthony.  I am so in awe of this novel that I feel the need to escape from hyperbole by slipping into anecdotage.

One of those significant moments of advance in one’s intellectual life: an A-level essay on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which I kick off with a quote from Dylan’s recently released Maggie’s Farm – “Well I’ve tried my best / to be just like I am / But every body wants me / to be just like them.”  Turns out in the end he was a bit of a tosser “who did not even perform his own suicide well …

It is often suggested that life in Ancient Greece and Rome – events, ideas, dilemmas that I have skipped over – have in essence anticipated pretty much everything that has gone down since.  It seems a reasonable notion, and one I’m a lot more likely to explore after reading Augustus.

It’s an incredible story.  When he was 19, Octavius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s nephew, JC’s recently adopted son and successor, was off on a Greek island doing student stuff with his mates (and being educated).  No long after, in 44 BC,  JC was famously assassinated, and Octavius – like Brazilian footballers he took to being known as Augustus a bit later, as Emperor and, um, god – hastened back to a Rome that was in chaos, with civil war in prospect.  No-one expected him to pick up the reins, but he did.  When he was 19.  Diversionary tactic 2: cue my mate Naomi Rose’s song Nineteen because now it’s there it won’t go away:

By the time Augustus died he had left an economically prosperous Roman Empire at peace within itself and secure within its extensive borders – the era that is known as the Pax Romana.  But not without huge personal cost.  The story is told in a patchwork of lletters, memos and memoirs, petitions and poems, senatorial proceedings, reports, military orders, and journal notes – chronologically, but with the dates of the sources jumping backwards and forwards, providing a commentary on events. 

As the book progresses more and more space is given to the journal of Augustus’s daughter, Julia, whom he loves, but who has been callously, strategically, used over the years, and is sentenced to a lonely exile by him, for treason.  She has been on a hell of a journey.  Ordered by her father, “I returned to Rome in the consulship of Tiberius Claudius Nero … Who had been a goddess returned to Rome a mere woman, and in bitterness.”  Furthermore “I was not to be free. One year and four months after the death of Marcus Agrippa [an old, gay, mate of his] my father betrothed me to Tiberius Claudius Nero. He was the only one of my husbands whom I ever hated.”  Her fate: “So I am once again to be the brood sow for the pleasure of Rome.”  Hers is a tale that could easily stand as an outstanding work of its own.  She achieves a certain liberation, experiences sensual pleasure and ultimately reaches a peace in her situation:

Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? “Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”
My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe it has,” he said. “We both must believe it has.”

The books ends with an astonishing 36 pages, as a lonely dying Augustus, voyaging out at sea, looks back over his life in a sequence of letters to the only surviving friend of his youth, a scholar.  It is one of the most powerful sustained passages I have read in a long time.  It’s fiction, of course, so one doesn’t know, but … well, try this:

Thus I did not determine to change the world out of an easy idealism and selfish righteousness that are invariably the harbingers of failure, nor did I determine to change the world so that my wealth and power might be enhanced; wealth beyond one’s comfort has always seemed to me the most boring of possessions, and power beyond its usefulness has seemed the most contemptible. It was destiny that seized me that afternoon at Apollonia nearly 60 years ago, and I chose not to avoid its embrace.

Compared to Alexander the Great, he opines that Alexander had it lucky, dying so young, “else he would have come to know that if to conquer the world is a small thing, to rule it is even less.”
“… I have never wished to conquer the world, and I have been more nearly ruled than ruler.”

He puts in a good word for the poets, whose company was often held against him:

Of the many services that Maecenas performed for me, the most important seems to me now to be this: He allowed me to know the poets to whom he gave his friendship. They were among the most remarkable men I have ever known …

I could trust the poets because I was unable to give them what they wanted …

Horace once told me that laws were powerless against the private passions of the human heart, and only he who has no power over it, such as the poet or the philosopher, may persuade the human spirit to virtue.

Great book.  Capital G.

Razor Girl

And now for something completely different.  I love reading Carl Hiaasen, just gulp his books down.  What it says on the cover.  He specialises in outlandish, yet I thought the actions of the woman of the title of his latest book were too much, even for the Florida of his oeuvre.  And then I read the disclaimer to Razor Girl (Sphere, 2016):

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. However, true events in South Florida provided the lurid material for certain strands of this novel, beginning with the opening scene. The author also wishes he’d dreamed up the part about the giant Gambian pouched rats, but he didn’t. Those suckers are real.

There’s a lovely rhythm to his writing that just pulls you along.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

That ‘He nearly made it’, if you’re familiar with Carl Hiaasen, is no harbinger of doom for Coolman, but rather an invitation to the reading treat in store.  He keeps a handful of narratives going and works seamlessly to intertwine them with calamitous and desperate irony.

There‘s the central character, Yancey, a disgraced detective who now, busted to public hygiene inspector, works the roach patrol in local restaurants, is anxious to get his old job back.  So he involves himself in what starts as a mistaken kidnapping which introduces into the plot a top-rated scripted fake reality TV show called Bayou Brethren about a hillbilly family business breeding speciality chickens for fly-fishing flies.  Enter a psychopathic fan of the show who has bought into its conceit – including unofficial dodgy right-wing rants on YouTube –  wholesale. Then there’s the out-of-his-depth guy running an eco-destructive con providing sand to hotel beaches who owes money to the mafia, who ends up mid-chase electrocuting himself trying to recharge a stolen Tesla.  Not to mention the tangled love lives and Yancey’s real estate problem of how to get rid of potential next-door neighbours threatening to build big and destroy his view. Among other things.

Hiaasen is basically a moralist, appalled at what big money has done and is doing to Florida.  Razor Girl displays less of the eco-warrior than usual – and it’s hard not to rue the non-appearance of Skink, the ragged one-eyed wild man ex-governor of Florida who’s gone native in the Keys, who features in some of his other books, but Hiaasen is still rooting – relatively speaking – for the good guys, albeit with many degrees of grey on the way.  The mafia guy is appalled to discover that the beach con man has been using a fake Helper Dog jacket on any old mutt to milk the privileges that one brings.

Carl Hiaasen is a master of dialogue and pushing the action along.  And he can be very very funny.

The reader on the 6.27

Weird, touching on desolation, yet charming, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s The reader on the 6.27 (Mantle, 2015), translated by Ros Schwartz), is one of those shortish books that seem to only ever appear in translation.

Guylain Vignolles has not had it easy with a name that, subjected to spoonerist manipulation, gets him called ‘Ugly Puppet’.  He has a soul-crushing job in a factory pulping books.  He rescues random pages that escape the machine and recites them out loud next day to commuters on the train to work.  Some even look forward to it.  At work there’s a bossy boss and a jealous assistant.  There’s a sub-plot that takes in his reading for an hour, by invitation, at an old people’s home.

A while ago there had been an accident at work and a friend had lost a leg to the grinding machine; he, the friend, had traced how the pulp produced that day had been used, and was buying up copies of the cook book printed on that paper; he’s buying copies up.  Guylain helps him by pursuing second-hand copies at weekends, looking to help his friend get some sort of closure from a full set on his bookshelves.

One day on the train home Guylain finds a USB stick and discovers thereon a quirky document written by a woman working as a concierge in a public toilet in a shopping centre.  Enchanted, it is from this he now reads to his fellow commuters, and makes it his mission to find the writer.  And in the end, a drawn out love story.  Weird, charming, and highly recommended.

Scribal Gathering

You’d think the energy, industry and invention that went into The Antipoet would be enough for most mortals, but no, Paul Eccentric (“the mouthy half of … the beatrantin’ rhythm’n’views act” as estimable host Jonathan JT Taylor described him in the events page for the evening on FB) is an accomplished solo spoken word performer and, after a change of jacket, seated vocalist with the entertaining Polkabililly Circus,  who variously rocked, folked, emoted and mixed it up as you’d expect from their name. (Not to mention his other side projects:  http://pauleccentric.co.uk/ ).  Another fine way to spend an evening with Scribal: other poets and musicians were standing.

Archivists please note: JMD was unable to attend.

YorkieFest 2017

Best for me at YorkieFest this year, the fifth no less, were tucked away in the middle of the day.  Innocent Hare‘s repertoire draws masterfully from a number of folk traditions and the trio – a family affair – ebulliently led by Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe, went down a storm with the modest collection of souls in attendance at that time.  The ever immaculate harmonies and musicality of The Straw Horses followed, and in retrospect it was a mistake on my part to try to eat a vegetarian crepe (from La Crepe Franglais) – delicious though it was, it required concentration with that plastic fork – while they were on.  The continent-wide African guitar work from Safari Boots impressed. 

Special mention should also be made for my introduction to the sport and art of Tea Duelling from The Order of the Teapot, aka the local Steampunks.  It involves biscuit dunking, judgment skills and a lot of nerve.  Shame a few more didn’t come given all Pat Nicholson (one half of Growing Old Disgracefully, or GOD) and others’ hard work, but glad to say, money was made for the charities supported.

Chloe gave me a sticker to stick on an instrument to spread the word. I guess this my instrument. And I’ll stick it on the notebook I carry.

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There were times when reading Barney Norris‘s Five rivers met on a wooded plain (Doubleday/Transworld, 2016) when it felt like I’d wandered into the pages of one of those self-help personal growth tomes.  This is a young man’s novel.  Ambitious, over-written and striving too hard – death and the meaning of life and all that.

The paperback blurb writer does him no favours:  “One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash. At that moment five lives collide…”  Except they don’t, really. 

The actual crash (spoiler alert) is delivered as a slow reveal, so the reader is inevitably wondering when this flamin’ crash is actually going to happen.  We are at least a third of the way into the book – sorry, my copy’s gone back to the library so I can’t be exact – before the crash happens, and even further before we know who’s taken to hospital.  Of the five people the book features, only two are actually involved in the crash, two are observers who don’t linger at the scene, and the fifth has observed the observers. 

So we actually have five people (Hey, five rivers!).  All are undergoing some sort of crisis in their lives, and we get the full context of that.  They range from teenage schoolboy up, roughly representing decades,  all speaking in the first person.   Their lives, or their families’ lives, have more or less obliquely touched one another; they have been in the same place at the same time once or twice.  Not collided.  Which is, chasing the epigraph, a quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch that introduces the text, the self-proclaiming and highly creditable point of the book:

 That is the secret meaning of this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.

That is the closing sentence of the opening chapter, which unfortunately is immediately proceeded by “there exists in all of us a song waiting to be sung which is as heart-stopping and vertiginous as the peak of the cathedral.”  The quiet city is Salisbury, the chapter’s title is The burning arrow of the spire.  Rather good, that.  But the chapter is a load of psycho-geographical babble, linking the settlements in “the green south of Wiltshire” over time from Woodhenge through Stonehenge (“We know they heard the song“) to Old Sarum and the building of the Cathedral to the modern-day city.  Which might just have worked in verse form. Even the book’s greatest defenders at Book Group – nay, champions even! – were not averse to my use of the word pretentious here.

The book has its moments, the way their stories entwine is nicely done, and Barney Norris obviously cares.  While I wasn’t wholly convinced by any of the five, I ended up wanting to know what happened to each of them to the extent of bewailing please, author, get on with it as I read, especially in the case of the lonely soldier’s wife, stuck out in a suburb.  As it happens, Norris, whose primary artistic focus has been theatre, uses her to make a convincing case for local theatre as both an effective personal and ongoing community therapy.

Here’s the problem.  Barney can write, but at the moment he can’t help but Write with a capital W; given his theatrical background I think it’s fair to say he slips into being a Writ-or too easily.  At our Book Group meeting, for instance, one woman, whose judgment I respect highly, surprised me by quoting this passage as being particularly impressive:

The mind is like a flood plain. The slightest rainfall can leave it awash with old stories that seep into your newer terrors and swell them, drown you under the long-forgotten feelings as your life rushes over you.

As it happens, that was a quote I’d found jarring, particularly coming from the mouth of a gauche 16-year old schoolboy.  She said she’d once known a 16-year old capable of stringing that together.  So what did I know?  (That’s rhetorical to myself, by the way, not an indication of her demeanour).  There were other passages, but I’ll pick on this one; he finds some solace in a service in the cathedral (where else?):

The miracle of a ritual. I felt my shoulders begin to ease. I thought to myself, I don’t want to believe in this. But when you run a story through your neural pathways like a line of beads through your hands, it stands to reason you unblock them, and your own life flows through afterwards, rushing out of the oxbow lakes of the plans you didn’t see through to their conclusion, the phrases that wouldn’t come till long after it was too late to use them. A hymn, nothing more than a tune and a string of words someone had invented, was somehow making things better.

Ah, ‘oxbow lakes’, an abiding memory of school geography.  But ‘neural pathways’ even now?

We were all agreed that his next novel, if he so chooses to continue in this sphere now all this has been got out of his system, is highly likely to be a very good one.

 

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