Tag Archives: Faber & Faber

Blasts from the Past: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995)

This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I know I bang on a lot about book jackets but I can’t talk about A Fine Balance without commenting on its wonderful cover which has been the same for as long as I can remember, certainly since I was recommending it as a bookseller. I’ve no idea if it’s faked or not but it’s superb. The book’s contents are pretty stunning too.

Determined to keep her independence after the sudden death of her husband, Dina sets up as a seamstress. As her eyes begin to fail she recruits two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, supplementing her meagre income by taking in a student as a paying guest. What begins as an economic necessity becomes an arrangement between friends, each wrestling with their own demons. When Ishvar and Om are caught up in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart. Through a cast of vividly drawn characters and with great wit and humanity, A Fine Balance explores the effects of the State of Emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India.

Hard to write about this book and not describe it as Dickensian, a comparison which many critics drew when it was published. Tolstoy also sprang to reviewers’ minds but Mistry claimed not to be drawn to either of these preferring Cheever, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Updike.

As far as I know Mistry has only published three novels – Family Matters came out in 2002 and there’s been nothing since. Sixteen years is a long time between books and I’m beginning to think that it may be time to give up hope.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern (2001)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Last year Cathy from 746 Books was kind enough to ask me to take part in her Books that Built the Blogger series. She’d just kicked off Reading Ireland month and asked me for my favourite Irish novel, a tough question if ever there was one – not a case of where to start but where to stop. The one that finally topped my list was John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun which has the feel of a man who has come to terms with his troubled past, a past stitched through McGahern’s earlier, bleaker novels as his autobiography makes clear. Somehow that feels appropriate for New Year’s Day.

Leaving their bustling London life behind, Joe and Kate Ruttledge have settled in a small lakeside community in Ireland. They have a farm, subsidised by Joe’s writing, and their life follows a slow, gentle rhythm, in tune with the seasons. The small dramas and quiet satisfactions of everyday life fill their world: visits from their neighbour and dear friend the incorrigibly inquisitive Jamesie, lambing and selling their calves at the cattle mart, and visits to town to pick up supplies and local news. McGahern’s gentle, almost wistful, novel traces a year in the Ruttledges’ lives, introducing perceptively drawn and wonderfully memorable characters while painting quietly restrained yet evocative word pictures of a world in which each small change delicately redistributes the balance of the whole.

McGahern’s writing has a very precise character, the product of the meticulous paring down of his prose out of which the occasional lyrical sentence shines brightly. His carefully crafted novels perfectly capture both place and time. And if I haven’t convinced you to read his work perhaps Colm Tóibín’s description of McGahern as ‘the Irish novelist everyone should read’ will.

Happy 2018!

Blasts from the Past: Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam (2004)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I remember being deeply impressed with Nadeem Aslam’s writing when I first read Maps for Lost Lovers, not just because of its multi-faceted beauty but also because of his bravery in exploring relationships and tensions within a Pakistani community with no holds barred. It took him eleven years to complete, an indication of the dedication involved in making each chapter ‘like a Persian miniature’ and, perhaps, of the degree of soul-searching required for such unflinching honesty.

Chanda and Jugnu love each other dearly but are unable to marry until Chanda’s husband can be persuaded to divorce her. Instead they set up house together becoming the object of gossip and judgement. Their failure to return from a trip to Pakistan eventually results in the arrest of Chanda’s brothers for the couple’s murder. Jugnu’s brother Shamas, the respected director of the local Community Relations Council, and his devout wife Kaukab find their most cherished beliefs challenged as they try to cope with their distress and the uncertainty which ripples throughout both their lives and the tightly knit community in which they live. Aslam’s debut traces the year following Jugnu and Chanda’s disappearance. It’s a novel in which anger is balanced with compassion and tenderness for many of its characters, in particular for Kaukab who deludes herself that Pakistan is an earthly paradise but who is wracked by the reactions of her children to her piety, and for Shamas an educated liberal man who endures great pain and humiliation.

And what about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney: Mulling things over

Cover imageThis is one of those novels that’s been gathering a head of steam in my neck of the Twitter woods. Not in an off-putting, shouty, endless-stream-of-gushy-tweets way – just enough to pique my interest. It’s a debut from a young Irish author about two best friends – once lovers – who fall into a friendship with an older couple whose marriage seems a little frayed. It’s a novel about relationships, about youth and the dawning of middle age, and about the gap between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us.

Twenty-one-year-old students Frances and Bobbi have been friends since school. Bobbi is the outspoken one, happy to pontificate loudly, lengthily and intelligently about the state of the world while Frances fades into the background, dull and lacking in personality – or at least that’s how she thinks of herself. They catch Melissa’s eye while performing Frances’ poetry on the street. She wants to write a magazine feature about them to which they agree, a little star struck by Melissa’s reputation and her marriage to a beautiful actor. Frances and Bobbi find themselves drawn into Melissa and Nick’s orbit – meeting their friends, attending dinner parties, bumping into them at Dublin’s arts events then invited to join them in France for a holiday. Bobbi has a crush on Melissa, then Frances takes an initiative which leads to an affair with Nick. Frances’ day-to-day life – her worries about her father’s alcoholism, her concerns about Bobbi’s handling of her parents’ break-up, her own seeming lack of direction – is the background hum to this affair in which neither party seems to know quite what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.

Conversations with Friends is written entirely from Frances’ point of view. She thinks of herself as nondescript – Bobbi is the vibrant, beautiful one, argumentative but erudite with it. If that was the case, it would make for a rather dull book but Frances is not what she thinks she is as Bobbi makes clear towards the end of the novel. Rooney smartly captures the awkwardness of young adulthood, trying to find a way to be and a place in the world. She has a knack of making the most mundane observations both interesting and amusing – Frances’ angst-ridden narrative reminded me at times of a Woody Allen film. Melissa’s friends are portrayed as a little jaded, painfully conscious of the age gap between themselves and Frances and Bobbi. This isn’t a book in which much happens yet lives are changed irrevocably. It’s about the endless exchanges that make up relationships, big and small; the misunderstandings, misconceptions and happenstance that can ultimately shape your life. I wasn’t at all sure about the ending but somehow it was in tune with the rest of the novel which I found curiously addictive.

Blasts from the Past: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (1985-6)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy used to be a handy bellwether for me when talking to bookish acquaintances not yet friends. Enthusiasm might well lead to friendship, blank looks or – worse – annoyance might make me think twice. Of course, this doesn’t always hold true – H can’t stand it and we’re still together. The first thing you should know is that it’s a piece of metafiction and if you’re one of those readers who thinks that kind of thing is too tricksily clever for its own good, best move on.

City of Glass is the first of the three novels. Its protagonist is a crime writer who becomes a private investigator, later driven mad by his inability to solve a crime. Ghosts is about a private eye bored to the point of insanity by his surveillance of his writer subject while The Locked Room, whose title refers to a literary device in early detective fiction, is about a blocked writer who discovers his old friend’s unpublished fiction and not only publishes it but takes his missing friend’s place in his family. Each of the novels is closely interconnected with the others. It’s all about identity, writing and the many-layered nature of reality: Paul Austers abound in the first novel – a particular bugbear of H’s – and the second’s protagonists are all named after colours.

I’ve read all three novels several times over the years but not for a while, it has to be said. Writing about them now, I wonder if I’d feel quite so passionately as I did all those years ago although I still have a very soft spot for metafiction as my reading of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 last year reminded me.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

The Long Room: A study in loneliness and obsession

Cover image I’ve been hoping for a new novel from Francesca Kay for quite some time now. I enjoyed both of her previous books which explore the nature of passion – An Equal Stillness looks at the way in which the prosaic everyday grind of marriage and parenthood can stifle creativity while The Translation of Bones examines religious fervour and the solace it can offer, misguided or otherwise. In some ways The Long Room has similar themes but this time the setting is ‘the Institute’ – or MI5 as we can assume it to be – during the last few weeks of 1981. The Cold War is still quietly raging, Irish terrorism is in full swing and the nation is gripped by Brideshead Revisited fever.

Stephen is a ‘listener’. He listens to tapes of tapped phone calls along with several colleagues in the long room, each attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery be it spoken or unspoken. His department looks after low-risk targets but every so often they’re called in to help others when it appears an operation is about to go off. Just as in any other office, there are after-work drinks to be had or avoided, Christmas parties to attend, presents to buy. Smartly dressed, Oxford-educated Stephen is seen as something of a cut above, an illusion he quietly fosters although his weekends are spent in his cramped childhood home with his mother whose pride and joy he is. When he’s called to a meeting by an operative who’s concerned about the loyalty of a colleague, he finds himself listening to the comings and goings at the Greenwood household. Soon he’s obsessed with Helen Greenwood, convinced he’s in love with her. Judgement is clouded, risks are taken and before too long Stephen has found his way down a very dangerous path.

Kay draws you in to Stephen’s story while slowly but inexorably ratcheting up the tension. Her writing is quietly low-key, summoning up the mundane life of the listeners. This isn’t the high-octane world of Spooks but very much closer to the truth I imagine. It’s a world where ‘listeners become interpreters of silence’, where ‘boredom is the condition of the listener’. Attachments are formed – Stephen imagines himself growing old with Oberon, his Jamaican target who is much the same age as himself, and worries about Vulcan the ageing communist who lives alone. Stephen’s character is convincingly drawn. His aching loneliness, his painful attempts to disguise his working-class background and his hopelessly romantic obsession with Helen all combine to form a portrait of an outsider at times poignantly so as are the passages in which his mother frets her way around her small world, remembering the golden days of Stephen’s childhood. The dénouement when it comes is hardly a surprise but this isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession. Well worth the five-year wait.

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Teasing out the threads

Cover imagePetina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly caused quite a stir when it was published back in 2009. Lots of rave reviews, then it won the Guardian First Book Award, but aside from commissioning a review for the magazine I was working on I ignored it. Short stories, you see. More fool me, if The Book of Memory is anything to go by. Within the first brief paragraph, Gappah manages to hook you with both a grisly death and the announcement that our narrator was sold to a strange man by her parents.

Memory is an albino black Zimbabwean on death row for the murder of Lloyd, the white man she went to live with when she was nine years old. She’s writing her story for an American journalist known for championing miscarriages of justice. Teased and shunned as a child, she listens inside her ramshackle home while the other children play their games, her skin too sensitive for the fierce sun. Hers is a family struck by tragedy leaving her mother unpredictable in her grief and Memory haunted by nightmares. When she’s asked to dress in her best clothes, she’s filled with joy then astonished when she’s introduced to a white man who hands a wad of cash to her mother. The following day she’s taken to his home, a beautiful old colonial house. She yearns to see her father again, but becomes used to the trappings of this new life shrugging off the racist rants of Lloyd’s brother-in-law and becoming immersed in books, still puzzling over why Lloyd has bought her from her parents and why they gave her up. Escaping the fallout of estrangement and betrayal from her first infatuation, she wins a scholarship to Cambridge. On her return all seems healed between her and Lloyd then one day she comes home to find him dead. Writing her story from her cell, she dredges her memory for answers to questions that have troubled her for years. Towards the end the whole sorry tale of what befell her parents and how she came into Lloyd’s care is unravelled.

Gappah teases out the threads of Memory’s past, slowly revealing her story, warning us that ‘It’s hard for the truth to emerge clearly from a twenty-year fog of distant memory’ then delivering a devastating denouement. Within the framework of Memory’s gripping story, a multitude of well-aimed barbs are shot at modern Zimbabwe. White society clings to its old colonial ways holding their June garden parties in the midst of the Zimbabwean winter. The superstitions of black culture which shuns Memory for her difference and brings misery upon her poor mother are lampooned. The corruption of the country’s political establishment unable to acknowledge the dire state of its prison is graphically conveyed in Gappah’s vivid word pictures. All this served up with a helping of acerbic humour in the form of prison banter and Memory’s acidic wit. It’s a very impressive first novel but not one likely to be published in her native country.

The Lightning Tree by Emily Woof: Love, and the lack of it

Cover imageI have to confess that I didn’t get on with The Whole Wide Beauty, Emily Woof’s first novel. It was lauded to the skies by all and sundry but I gave it up so you may be surprised to hear that I was eager to give her second a try but its premise is particularly appealing. The bare bones are this: girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. I find this structure a particularly attractive one: lots of lovely space for character development. So I pushed my reservations aside and was very pleased to have done so.

We start with Ursula lying in her pram looking delightedly up at a tree whose branches wave against the sky. Her mother’s inside, head in a pile of CND leaflets – a cause for which she has a passion. Only when she hears Ursula’s shrieks and spots a crow with its beak in her pram does Joyce pay attention. We follow Ursula through her childhood, standing on her head for hours in front of the TV, listening to her grandmother Mary’s litany of complaint, waking from nightmares of a nuclear holocaust, until aged fourteen she visits the hairdresser for an ill-advised perm (this is the ‘80s) and meets Jerry the trainee’s brother, precociously intelligent and the youngest member of Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society. The narrative shifts back and forth between these two following them through their passionate teenage years until their paths fork, one leading to India from which Ursula returns deeply changed, and one to Oxford, where Jerry’s politics, background and sharp intellect mark him out. Into this are woven Mary’s memories of her past which become increasingly more real than her present. Right from the start Woof tells her readers that this is a book about love, but it’s also about the lack of it which has blighted Mary’s life.

Woof’s style is immensely engaging. Funny, a little eccentric, it reminded me of the early Kate Atkinson novels while the structure has a touch of David Nicholls with a hefty dash of sassy wit and political savvy. Ursula and Jerry are well drawn, nicely rounded, sharply tugging at your heartstrings and making you root for them. The connection between Ursula’s epiphany and her great-grandmother’s which led to so much misery for Mary seemed a little strained to me but that’s a small quibble in what is a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining novel, the kind you can happily polish off in one sitting. It might be time to take a second look at Woof’s first novel.

33 Revolutions per Minute and the perils of buying online

Cover imageI tend to buy new books in bookshops and backlist online, partly because it’s become more and more difficult to track down less popular titles that have been published for a little while on the High Street. One such, Dorian Lynskey’s history of protest songs – cleverly called 33 Revolutions per Minute – had been sitting on my wish list for around two years. About time to buy it or strike it off, I thought, adding it to my order. When it arrived I was dismayed to find it weighed in at a chunky 843 pages, although it has to be said that the epilogue ends on page 685. It’s not that it isn’t a good book – the bits I’ve read so far have been interesting – but its length is intimidating and I would have thought twice if I’d picked it up in a bookshop. It opens with Strange Fruit – I’d already read a whole book on that, my fault not Lynskey’s, you can’t have a book on protest songs without Billie Holliday’s chilling classic – and ends with Green Day’s American Idiot. I’m on Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Ohio, taking it steadily, one day at a time – well, more like a couple a week. It’s not my first online surprise, and I’m sure it won’t be the last – only the other day I had to wrestle a 935 gram jar of olives into the fridge, part of a hasty supermarket order. Please, make me feel better – tell me about your little online surprises.