Tag Archives: Fiction

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton: Never did run smooth

Cover imageAlain de Botton’s first novel, Essays in Love, was published when he was a mere stripling of twenty-three. Since then he’s written essays about travel, architecture and literature returning to love for his second novel two decades after his first. I’ve long been a fan of his gentle, humane writing. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work was published when I was reviews editor at Waterstone’s Books Quarterly. I made it the lead review for that quarter and as I was commissioning reviews, packing up books to be sent out to reviewers and editing their copy, I felt as if de Botton was sitting quietly in the corner of my office, benignly observing what I was up to while taking notes.

The Course of Love follows Rabih and Kirsten’s relationship over seventeen years, from their first meeting to Kirsten’s surprise birthday celebration at a luxurious hotel. Rabih and Kirsten are very different from each other although they share the loss of a parent early in life. Rabih’s mother died when he was twelve and his father remarried within a year to an emotionally distant woman. Kirsten’s father deserted the family when she was seven and she is fiercely loyal to her mother. Both bring this emotional baggage to the relationship. Rabih meets Kirsten through work after a long series of failed relationships based on a romantic ideal of what he thinks his partner should be. He has struggled to get his architectural career off the ground and is now working in urban design while she is a senior quantity surveyor in Edinburgh’s planning department, successful and confident. De Botton tells this likable couple’s story in the main from Rabih’s point of view, ending his novel with a list of reasons why Rabih is finally ready for marriage sixteen years after the wedding.

We know how Rabih and Kirsten’s story will pan out at the end of chapter two but that didn’t  stop me from wanting to read on. De Botton tells us that they ‘will marry, they will suffer, they will frequently worry about money, they will have a girl first, then a boy, one of them will have an affair, there will be passages of boredom, they’ll sometimes want to murder each other and on a few occasions to kill themselves’. There are frequent italicised interpolations punctuating the narrative sometimes offering an alternative, improved scenario to the one that’s just been played out, sometimes making wry or rueful comments on the nature of relationships, sometimes interpreting what makes these two individuals behave the way they do. It’s a little didactic at times but de Botton’s compassionate yet acute, often funny observations save it from falling too far into the lecturing trap. Rabih and Kirsten are an endearing couple, battling the best they can with tangles of emotion and misunderstandings as they negotiate first how to live together then how to cope with parenting while struggling with their own emotional needs, the demands of work, and running a household.

Ultimately, this is a supremely hopeful book about how a couple can live together, eventually growing into a mature and enduring love for each other which may be far from the romantic ideal peddled in Hollywood but infinitely more likely to stay the course. It’s a risky business – ‘a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate’ – but well worth the effort as I’m sure most veterans of long relationships will agree. Whether you enjoy de Botton’s novel or feel that it’s simply a thinly disguised self-help manual will very much depend on how much you like his writing and how invested you become in Rabih and Kirsten’s relationship. It worked for me but as you may have gathered I’m a bit of a fan.

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas: Bursting with ideas

Cover imageThe Seed Collectors is Scarlett Thomas’s first novel for quite some time. Her idiosyncratic books, several of which flirt with science fiction, seem to attract a passionate following. I’d read only two before this one: The End of Mr Y, about a PhD student’s encounter with a rare edition of a nineteenth-century writer’s book, wandered off into the realms of quantum physics while Our Tragic Universe explored time and immortality through a book reviewer’s struggles to get to grips with an esoteric commission. Apparently Thomas has been studying for an MSc in ethnobotany which would explain why this new novel is all about a family of botanists whose roots are extraordinarily tangled.

When Great-aunt Oleander dies she leaves Nameste House to Fleur who has helped her run it for some time. For decades Oleander has pulled together a mishmash of spirituality offering a programme which has attracted an endless stream of celebrities. As Fleur frets about how many people will come to the funeral it crosses her mind that Paul McCartney might turn up. Oleander has left each of her great-nieces and nephews a seed pod. No one quite knows what they are but it’s been rumoured that they contain within them a shortcut to enlightenment, followed by instant death. Clematis, Bryony, Charlie and Fleur each have reason to fear these pods – all have lost parents who disappeared while collecting them on the fabled Lost Island in the Pacific Ocean. Clem has planted hers and is making a documentary about it, Charlie has asked his colleagues at Kew to identify his and Bryony has hidden hers, terrified at the prospect of her kids getting their hands on it. After she is handed a book at the funeral by an old friend of Oleander’s who tells her that it unlocks the secret, Fleur is puzzled to find that its pages are blank and sets off to find the mysterious woman who gave it to her.

The Seed Collectors is prefaced with one Gardener family tree and ends with another – the rest of Thomas’s discursive, funny, erudite, sometimes exasperating, novel explains the revisions. There’s a little bit of early Kate Atkinson in Thomas’s writing, with the occasional dash of Iain Banks. She has a striking eye for description: ‘cooling towers huddled together like three fat women on an eternal tea break’; ‘Even Soho has a kind of Sunday feeling, as if it has stayed in its pyjamas all day and just can’t be arsed with all this’ give you an idea. Thomas’s characters, whose internal monologues are often shockingly funny, are wonderfully well drawn, from the insatiable Bryony, creative with her calorific accounting, to Beatrix playing the stock market from her Royal Crescent flat in Bath (she must be doing well) while stumbling upon porn sites, again and again. There’s a multitude of ideas stuffed into this ill-disciplined, ragbag of a novel which rambles about all over the place, including into the downright wacky, and Thomas struggles to keep it all under control at times. It’s the antithesis of the beautifully spare, elegantly constructed novels that I admire so much – but I loved it.

Beneath the Neon Egg: A Scandi novel written by an American

Beneath the Neon EggI’ve been meaning to read Thomas E. Kennedy’s Copenhagen Quartet for some time and was sent a copy of the final instalment recently. This might seem an odd place to start a series but I’d been assured that all the novels stand alone, as indeed this one did although I am left wondering if I’ve missed lots of connections by leapfrogging the first three. Kennedy is an American writer who like Patrick Bluett, the main protagonist of Beneath the Neon Egg, is a New Yorker who has spent many years living in Copenhagen. Apart from a deep love of jazz which clearly Kennedy shares with his character I hope the resemblance ends there.

The novel opens with Bluett on his way to an assignation. It’s the coldest winter he’s known in his twenty years of living in Copenhagen and he’s heading north. He knows this is a risky venture – Benthe is the wife of an important business contact – and when he arrives it seems that things are more complicated that he had thought: rather then one woman there are two, both of whom expect to sleep with him. Now in his forties, Bluett has recently left a rancorous marriage. His life consists of translating five pages a day – just enough to keep himself – listening to jazz, drinking, trawling music bars and trying to build bridges with his two children, both young adults. His best friend Sam thinks himself in love with a beautiful young Russian but things take a very dark turn when Sam is found dead. This isn’t a crime novel, however, more an exploration of loneliness and longing.

Perhaps it’s because Kennedy has lived for so long in Denmark that his book reads very much more like a Scandi novel than one written by an American. Taking its structure from John Coltrane’s jazz symphony, A Love Supreme, with each section named after one of the four tracks, it’s saturated in music – an essential element in Bluett’s life. Bluett is a man yearning for intimacy: when he meets a woman he wonders what she’s like in bed but when he’s presented with that clichéd male fantasy – sex with two women – it leaves him empty, unable to boast about it to Sam as he’d anticipated with relish. A deep yearning and loneliness permeates the novel – brief moments of ecstasy are followed by long introspective passages full of longing. I found it surprisingly moving, and was relieved that it ended on a note of optimism. The proof of the pudding is that I’ll being buying a copy of the first instalment very soon.

Love and Fallout: Easy reading for Guardianistas

Love and FalloutA little while ago Kathryn Simmonds contacted me asking if I’d consider reviewing her novel. It’s published by Seren, a small publisher and I always have a soft spot for them, and it seemed interesting so I agreed to have a look at it. It was the Greenham Common theme that hooked me. I’ve never come across a novel set at the women-only peace camp whose aim was to prevent the storage of American cruise missiles on British soil. For several years it provided fodder for the tabloids who outdid themselves, and each other, in an ecstasy of outrage. Kathryn Simmonds’ novel alternates between the present and those strange months in 1982 when a group of disparate women came together and tried to save the world.

Tessa runs a tiny environmental charity. She spends her spare time caught up in all manner of right on causes seemingly on a one-woman campaign to save the planet with little time or attention left over for her husband, Pete. Best friend Maggie, with Pete’s connivance, has managed to get her on Make You Over, a reality TV programme which bears more than a passing resemblance to What Not to Wear – remember Trinny and Susannah? Tessa is appalled – I’d have murdered H if he’d sprung that one on me – but is persuaded that it would help publicise her many causes. She’s more than a little irked by Pete’s reaction to the newly made over her, high heels and all. Memories of Greenham are triggered when one of her campmates gets in touch and over the course of the novel we learn why Tessa has taken the world upon her shoulders.

Simmonds frames the central Greenham section of the book with alternating present day and 1980s narratives. There’s plenty of gentle humour – fun poked at the more outlandish sections of the Greenham women and a nice parallel drawn with the Feel Good festival at the end where well-heeled young people with a conscience enjoy guilt-free pleasures while helping to raise money. Simmonds slips in a few political points along the way without disturbing her smooth flowing narrative. No literary fireworks but it’s not that kind of book, more of an entertaining easy read with an absorbing story which manages to address a few issues without smacking you round the head with them.

This is the second novel I’ve looked at for an author – thankfully I enjoyed both. I’ve another waiting to be reviewed but I think that’s it for this blogger. It’s too nerve-wracking. If publishers send me books that either don’t appeal or I don’t enjoy, I feel no obligation to review them: that’s the deal. If an author sends me a book, it’s an entirely different kettle of fish: that’s personal.

All the Days and Nights: Attentive reading and its rewards

Cover imageThis is not an easy book to write about, nor to read. Short it may be, but it’s dense and its style takes a little getting used to but if you’re prepared to make the effort it pays dividends. Narrated by Anna Brown, a celebrated portrait painter, it begins with a cry of anguish at the disappearance of John – husband, lover and the subject of many of her paintings. Anna has told her housekeeper that John is merely in town picking up art supplies but she knows that this is no short absence. Slowly – sometimes in vibrant word pictures, sometimes obliquely – a picture of John and the life they have lived together emerges through Anna’s memories and imaginings.

Driven and obsessive, always the observer never the participant, Anna is treated with suspicion in their local town. Much beloved by the townspeople, John’s openness and conviviality smooths the way for her. These two seem an odd pairing but their relationship has lasted decades. Now frail and dying but refusing to admit it, Anna looks back over their time together finally acknowledging the price John has paid, his dedication to her work, his joy in life and his sorrow in tragedy. John, it seems, has decided to visit her portraits of him, attempting to see what others see when they look at Anna’s work.

Niven Govinden’s exploration of creativity, obsession and the relationship between art and life Cover imageis compelling.  In a convincing depiction of the bond between artist and sitter, Anna’s steely determination to paint – or perhaps her overwhelming need – is matched by John’s dedication, his patience and sacrifice in bowing to her demands. In terms of length this is a novella rather than a novel but don’t expect a quick read – it’s a book that requires attentive reading.

When I was reading All the Days and Nights I was reminded of The Man with a Blue Scarf which I read a few years ago. It’s a chronological account of the seven months art critic Martin Gayford spent sitting for Lucien Freud but it’s also Gayford’s first-hand view of watching an artist work. It’s as if Freud was sitting for a word portrait while painting Gayford’s in oils. I found it fascinating and highly recommend it.

Paperbacks to look out for in October 2014

This is going to be a short post, not that there aren’t lots of paperbacks published in October but few of them take my fancy, I’m afraid, which is probably best for my credit card. I’ve already read and reviewed three at length here so I’ll start with those.

Cover imageThe first is John Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority which has a much more eye-catching jacket than the hardback. Humans look for patterns in everything: we seek the reassurance of predictability in a world which is chaotic and random. It helps to keep us sane rather than face a future in which a chance accident may rob us of all that is dear to us. At least that’s what I think. You, of course, may feel that everything happens for a reason, that there is a plan. That’s the debate at the heart of this novel which I enjoyed very much.

My second choice is Equilateral by Ken Kalfus, a tale of madness, folly and Martians. Set at the end of the nineteenth century, Equilateral opens in the Egyptian desert where nine hundred thousand Arab fellahin labour to create a vast equilateral triangle which will be seen from Mars, so Sanford Thayer, celebrated astronomer and instigator of the project, has calculated. Inspired by Giovanni Schiaparelli’s maps based on his observations of the Red Planet which depict canali on its surface together with his own theories derived from evolution, Thayer has come to the conclusion that Martians are a superior race, busy trying to conserve their dwindling water supplies, with whom earthlings should try to communicate. Sounds bonkers, I know, but Kalfus has a great deal of fun with the idea taking a few well-aimed kicks at colonial arrogance along the way.

My third already-reviewed choice is an entirely different kettle of fish. Hubert Mingarelli’s spare novella, A Meal in Winter, in which three hungry German soldiers striding through a frigid Polish forest flush out a young Jewish man, a prize which will ensure that they will be sent out to hunt again tomorrow rather than man the firing squad. One soldier reveals that he’s stolen enough food to make soup and spotting an abandoned cottage they set about lighting a fire, interrupted by the arrival of a hunter and his dog. What ensues frays the bonds between the three soldiers, opening divisions between them and forcing them to face Cover imagethe moral dilemma of what to do with their captive. A beautiful piece of writing.

My last choice for this month is James Scott’s The Kept, set in nineteenth century upstate New York where Elspeth Howell has returned to find that her family has been murdered – all apart from her twelve-year-old son. Together they set out to find the culprits. It sounds a bit like Gil Adamson’s The Outlander which I very much enjoyed and Ali’s review at Heavenali  has piqued my interest further.

That’s it for October paperbacks. If you want to see what I’ll be adding to my TBR in September, here are the paperbacks and here are the hardbacks.

All Our Names: A Novel of Love, Friendship and Identity

Cover imageI’ve been circling around this book for a while now. I’d read and been impressed by Dinaw Mengestu’s beautifully understated first novel, Children of the Revolution, which won him the Guardian First Book Award, but had found How to Read Air disappointing. Perhaps it was a case of too-high expectations. Anyway, after reading Monique Roffey’s House of Ashes I was in a serious mood so I thought it was time to take the plunge. All Our Names is set in similar territory – a young man drawn into an uprising, this time in Africa – but is entirely different.

Isaac has arrived in the States sponsored by the friend of a man who runs a social services department in the Midwest, as white as you can get and this is the 1970s when the Civil Rights movement has only recently achieved its aims. Helen, a somewhat jaded social worker who’s barely set foot outside Laurel, is assigned to help him settle in. Terrified of turning into her mother, she tries to be as different as she can but still lives at home. Gradually, chaperoning turns into something else and these two disparate characters are drawn together into a relationship which is a foreign land for both of them.

Mengestu alternates his narrative between Helen and the man she knows as Isaac who has fled an uprising in Uganda following its independence from British colonialism. It’s soon clear that Isaac is not who Helen thinks he is but the friend of the man whose passport he holds, a man he had met on the Kampala University campus each of them drawn to an institution they were too poor to attend. Isaac is a revolutionary while our narrator, his English learnt from nineteenth century novels, is a bystander, reluctantly drawn in by his friend’s fervour. Mengestu unfolds his story, interweaving it with Helen’s account of their growing relationship and her confrontation of American small town prejudices after a life of conformity. Just as her lover is negotiating the strangeness of this new land so Helen must do the same, braving the anger and contempt with which their relationship is met and refusing to hide in a corner. It’s a novel which explores identity, love and friendship within an age-old story of revolution and conflict. What’s remarkable about it for me is Mengestu’s delicacy of expression, his ability to convey both horror and delight in quietly elegant prose so understated that it must be read with attention to catch its subtlety, attention that pays dividends. The novel ends on a note of much-needed optimism.

After two serious novels I think it may be time for a little reading escapism for me.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton: A box of jewels

Cover imageThis is a book I’ve been looking forward to for some time. I first noticed it at the centre of a little Twitter storm early this year in which several people whose opinion I trust were becoming very excited, then I noticed that not only was it set in Amsterdam which I’d visited at Christmas but that Jessie Burton had taken for her inspiration the ‘cabinet houses’ that had intrigued me in the Rijksmuseum. Cabinet houses are replicas of the wealthy merchants’ homes which line the canals, beautifully decorated and furnished in miniature. Petronella Oortman’s is a particularly fine example and it’s Nella’s story that Burton tells in The Miniaturist which is, I have to say, one of the finest books I’ve read this year.

In November 1686, fresh from the country town of Assendelft, Nella knocks on the door of her new husband’s house. She hasn’t seen him since they were married a month ago. He’s a merchant, a wealthy businessman who divides his time between the stock exchange, the Dutch East India Company and searching out exotic goods far away from Amsterdam. Nella’s reception is distinctly chilly: her husband is absent, her sister-in-law taciturn and the maid sulky, only the black manservant – the like of which she’s never seen before – seems polite. Perhaps this is the way things are done in Amsterdam but as the week wears on there’s still no sign of Johannes, Marin continues to behave as if she’s the mistress of the house rather than Nella and Cornelia becomes cheekier. Nella begins to question the nature of this strange household of which she is nominally in charge. When, eventually, Johannes turns up, his gentle fondness for her fails to materialise into anything else and she continues to sleep alone. She needs an occupation which comes in the form of a present from Johannes: the cabinet house, beautifully crafted but in need of furnishing. When she commissions a miniaturist she finds the packages that are sent contain unasked for extras, dolls which mirror the inhabitants of the Herengracht house a little too exactly. As Nella becomes more confident, she begins to understand that there are many layers to the Brandt household just as there are many layers to Amsterdam. I’m not going to tell you much more than that – much of the delight and skill of this impressive, immensely enjoyable novel is the way in which Nella’s questioning peels back those layers and the many surprises – and shocks – she reveals.

This is a gorgeous jewel box of a novel packed with vivid descriptions that summon up seventeenth-century Amsterdam where ‘how you dress is what you are’ although a very plain dress many well be lined in velvet and sable, hidden well away from public gaze. It’s a city where women may walk the streets at liberty but their desire to see the world is confined to map-lined rooms. Burton is particularly adept at characterisation – there are no sinners and saints amongst her main protagonists, each is complex, many-faceted and often surprising. Nella’s transformation from naïve young country girl with visions of a glittering marriage to a resourceful, courageous woman capable of facing even the most gruelling of ordeals is a triumph. The dialogue is often snappy and the device of the mysterious miniaturist who seems to know far more that she should keeps you guessing. It’s a love story, a mystery, a portrait of a great city in which greed, betrayal and corruption seethe beneath a pious Calvinist surface – altogether a very fine book, indeed. And it made mePoffertjes want to get on the next plane to Amsterdam, head for the Rijksmuseum to look into Nella’s house then stuff my face with poffertjes or pufferts as Nella knew them. Absolutely delicious!

So, I’ve already mentioned that The Miniaturist is one of the finest books I’ve read this year – for the record the two that rank alongside it are Nikolaus Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs and Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at its Heart. We’re well past the half-way point for 2014 – what are your favourites so far?

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry: Which turns out to be not quite what I was expecting

Cover imageIt was partly the setting that attracted me to Sarah Perry’s first novel – I love Norfolk’s huge sky and lovely coastline – but the blurb was enticing, too, and I don’t say that very often. A middle-aged man exhausted by the seemingly endless heat wave that’s hit London shuts up shop and heads off to his brother’s house in Norfolk. He’s forgotten to take a map but is convinced he knows the way until his car breaks down miles from anywhere. He spots a house on the horizon and makes for it only to find himself welcomed as if he’s expected and ushered into a room which has been prepared for him where he finds boxes labelled with his name. So far, so spooky and it becomes more so when John comes down for dinner and finds himself ignored, then drawn into a conversation in which most of the house’s inhabitants seem to think he knows why he’s there. Unnerved, John begins to make a record of what’s happened in a notebook he finds in his room. It soon becomes clear that this is a case of mistaken identity but what gives Perry’s novel a twist is John’s deliberate collusion in that mistake.

Perry’s characters are a decidedly rum bunch, each of them troubled in some way: Elijah is a priest made sick with anxiety about his loss of faith; Alex is deeply vulnerable and made more so by the poison pen letters that play on his fears; Clare, his oddly childlike sister, frets about her brother’s mental state; Eve, their friend, is a talented yet frustrated pianist with whom the aloof Walker is obsessed. Over it all presides Hester, physically unprepossessing but firmly in control. During the course of a week, John – buttoned-up and rootless – finds himself embroiled in the tangled relationships of the household as each of them confides in him. It ends in tears with a birthday party and a storm.

It’s not quite the psychological thriller I was expecting from the first few chapters – it’s a much more subtle book than that in which Perry takes her time, skilfully revealing what has brought this intense household together. She vividly summons up the discomfiting claustrophobia of a household seething with unspoken resentments, powerfully conveying John’s bafflement at the odd company he finds himself in and his inability to extract himself from it. Although Elijah is the novel’s only explicitly religious character, its seven-day trajectory and Alex’s terror of flood has connotations of the Christian creation myth, particularly given Perry’s deeply religious upbringing.  It’s not without faults – the end had a bit too much of the King Lears for me – but it’s an atmospheric, thought-provoking novel which keeps you guessing.

Let’s hope that Sarah Perry doesn’t join the band of unsung women authors of which there are many. Ali from Heavenali and I have both contributed five each of our favourites to Naomi’s post at The Writes of Women written as part of her response to the Man Booker’s ten men/three women long list. Naomi and Antonia Honeywell will be posting their selections over the weekend but if you have any yourself I’d love to hear about them.

I am China: A love story in fragments

I am ChinaXiaolu Guo’s ambitious new novel is neither easy to read nor to write about. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of a love story, chock-full of well-aimed barbs fired at Chinese politics past and present, and it takes some getting into but don’t let that put you off – it’s well worth the effort, a book that leaves you with much to think about.

Iona Kirkpatrick has been sent a package of jumbled documents, some scrawled almost illegibly on scrappy bits of paper. She’s a translator and the package is from a publisher with very little explanation of what the documents are about or what they plan to do with her translation. She begins to realise that the papers form a love story between Chinese punk musician Kublai Jian and Mu, his poet lover. In order to tell their story Iona must assemble the many pieces of the jigsaw, researching as far as she can given the impenetrability of Chinese internet censorship. Gradually their story emerges and with it clues to Jian’s identity. He and Mu met at university and are polar opposites – Jian expressing his anger though his politicised music and the manifesto which resulted in his expulsion from the country while Mu follows the Misty Poets whose work was carefully coded protest against the Cultural Revolution. His family is part of the political elite, hers is poor and ill-educated. He insists that politics is the only way to bring about change while she favours a quieter route. Iona thinks herself self-sufficient with her work and the occasional one-night stand when she makes clear that even breakfast is out of the question but as each clue is uncovered, each new piece of the jigsaw falls into place, she’s pulled further into the love story between these two, and what has happened to them since Jian was seized on stage by the police shortly after marching in the Jasmine Revolution. She desperately wants to bring them back together. It’s no longer just another assignment: it’s taken over her life.

Diary extracts, letters with the occasional photos and illustrations – not necessarily in chronological order – make this a fragmentary novel; one which turns its readers into literary detectives just as Iona becomes. You’ll find yourself googling the many references to Chinese politics and culture, wondering if there’s a real Jian out there. The passion and vibrancy of the letters, the aching loss and the chasm between Jian and Mu’s differing beliefs draw you into this sad story of lovers wrenched apart yet with a long history of estrangement. Guo pulls no punches in her depiction of the Chinese political elite, their iron grip and closely watching eyes. In the end, the message of the book seems to be the final line of Jian’s manifesto ‘I am China. We are China. The people. Not the state.’ A tough read, then, but a thought-provoking one.