Tag Archives: Sceptre Books

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller: Love and war

Cover imageI have a history with Andrew Miller’s writing: I loved Ingenious Pain so much that I included it in my One-Hundred-Book Library and Pure came a close second. It’s not that his other novels haven’t been enjoyable but Ingenious Pain was so inventive in its premise and so beautifully executed that I’ve been left mildly disappointed by them. Having read Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, I’ve come to the conclusion he’s is at his best when writing historical fiction. This novel about a cavalry officer invalided out of the disastrous Peninsular War who finds himself unable to return to it sees Miller on top form.

Captain John Lacroix is delivered, unconscious, to his Somerset home in the winter of 1809. Nursed back to physical health by Nell, the servant who has known him all his life and to whom he occasionally blurts brief descriptions of the horrors he’s seen, he arranges a passage to Scotland through his brother-in-law. Assaulted and robbed of his money and his boots in Glasgow, Lacroix finds his way onto a supply boat heading for the Hebrides, putting ashore somewhat ignominiously astride the back of a cow. There he meets the veteran of another war and is taken in by three English siblings awaiting the leader of their utopian community. Cornelius prattles on, combing the peat bogs for relics while his sisters attend to more practical matters. Lacroix finds himself drawn to Emily whose sight is failing, accompanying her to Glasgow for the risky surgery she’s determined to undergo. Meanwhile, a ferocious English corporal accompanied by a Spanish officer edge ever closer to their goal: executing orders to dispatch the man Calley has told the authorities is responsible for a dreadful atrocity.

Miller’s novel is a consummate piece of storytelling, pulling the thread of suspense nicely taut by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with Calley and Medina’s chase. Themes of war and culpability are woven through the novel, explored in eloquent yet understated prose. Lacroix’s part in the events in Spain is quietly unfolded so that our sympathy has been engaged before we learn the extent of his involvement. There are many pleasing details to enjoy, sometimes laced with a surprising gentle humour, from Nell’s soft spot for Tom, which may well be reciprocated but will never be revealed, to Medina’s joy at finding a band of naked men cavorting in a river contrasted neatly with Calley’s sourness. Altogether a thoroughly absorbing novel, neatly avoiding the trite in its ambivalent ending. I was sorry not to see it on the Man Booker longlist.

The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells (transl. by Charlotte Collins): Death and how to survive it

Cover imageThis may sound obvious to seasoned readers of literature in translation but one of the things I’ve learned to look out for is the name of the translator as well as the author. The penny dropped when I noticed how many of the translations I’d enjoyed were by the late Carol Brown Janeway. Now I’d point to Jamie Bulloch and Anthea Bell as favourites but top of my list is Charlotte Collins for her beautiful translations of A Whole Life and The Tobacconist. That said, the premise of Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness, which follows three children into adulthood after an accident leaves them orphaned, was always going to attract me. Collins’ name was the icing on the cake.

The novel opens with forty-one-year-old Jules in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life, much of which has been spent daydreaming about how things might have been. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. The children were sent to a state boarding school where they were immediately separated. Jules is the youngest of the three each of whom deal with their loss in very different ways. Liz, the oldest, takes to promiscuity and drugs long into adult life. Already a misfit, Marty loses himself in study, finding solace in a lifelong friendship and a lover who understands him. No longer the fearless seven-year-old he was before his parents died, Jules becomes a dreamer, trying his hand at all sorts of work but unable to settle at anything, always yearning for Alva, his fellow pupil who seems to understand his pain but carries her own and disappears from his life. When these two eventually find each other again it seems that all is set for a happy resolution.

Wells narrates his novel through Jules’ voice, unfolding the family’s story through his memories and dreams, from the years before his parents died to his recovery from his own accident. Jules’ loneliness and pain is sensitively portrayed, the happiness of his early childhood tempered by the adult knowledge of his father’s depression and his retreat into fantasy and daydream painfully real. His writing vividly evokes loneliness and grief – And now here we were, sitting at the table like three actors meeting again after a long time who can no longer remember the script of their most famous play – but Wells neatly avoids the maudlin. As Marty tells Jules: From the moment we’re born we’re on the Titanic. Death cannot be ducked; it’s what we choose to do with that knowledge that helps shape our lives, along with chance and circumstance. All this may sound somewhat gloomy but it’s not: The End of Loneliness may well explore what many of us would rather not think about but the clue’s in the title.

Before Everything by Victoria Redel: A gorgeous paean of praise to friendship

Cover imageEvery now and then a book comes along about which it’s hard not to gush. Victoria’s Redel’s lovely Before Everything fits that bill for me. I was very much attracted by its premise – five women, friends since school, come together when one of them is dying – but I hadn’t expected the bonus of such graceful, elegant writing.

Anna’s cancer has recurred. She’s been in remission several times but is done with invasive surgery, debilitating chemotherapy and the emotional rollercoaster her illness has taken her on. She’s the lodestar of the Old Friends, the name the five adopted when they were eleven. Beautiful, clever and vivid, Anna can also be selfish, manipulative and bossy. They all know that but they love her, regardless, as do the many others that Anna has drawn into her orbit over the two decades she’s lived in her neighbourhood. The women gather themselves around Anna for what may be their last day of the never-ending conversation the five of them share, taking her out on an ill-advised outing, stepping a little carelessly on the toes of the women they think of as her new friends and struggling with the imminent loss of the woman they love dearly. Each of them has their own lives, troubled and otherwise, but Anna has always been at the centre. Meanwhile, Anna’s husband continues with the hard graft of caring for his dying wife despite their estrangement.

Redel uses a fragmentary structure for her novel – full of flashbacks, vignettes and anecdote – smoothly switching perspective between Anna, her friends and her husband. These are women who have seen each other through joy and misery, difficulty and triumphs, for decades. None of them can envisage a world in which they won’t rush to tell Anna of their news, fashioning the latest mishap into a story, confiding a fear or a hope. Redel neatly avoids the saccharine, portraying the women with all their flaws and capturing the intimacy of death when the world falls away, all attention focused on the dying. It’s a beautifully crafted novel. There are a multitude of quotes I could pull out but here’s a smattering to give you a flavour: ‘They have done so much laughing, these five, they’d managed to laugh their way through even the unlaughable’; ‘Fear was always there, a gauze between her and the vivid rest of her life’; ’She imagined her dresses flouncing through town, a flutter of hems waiting at a crosswalk, an A-line flare pressing a code at an ATM’ and perhaps my favourite ‘We are here. And then we’re not. For a little while, we are a story’. A gorgeous empathetic and tender portrait of friendship, shot through with a dry humour which steers it well clear of the maudlin, Before Everything is the first of Redel’s books to be published in the UK. I hope that Sceptre have plans for her other four.

It came as no surprise to find that Redel is a poet which often turns out to be the case when I’ve particularly enjoyed a novelist’s writing, the most obvious example being Helen Dunmore. It may be a little presumptuous but I like to think that she would have loved this novel as much as I do.

Blasts from the Past: The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999)

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.

Jake Arnott was featured in a documentary on the trials and tribulations of getting your first novel published back in 1999. The Long Firm later became a bestseller, dramatized by the BBC several years later. I’ve often wondered how the other writers felt about this personable, camera-friendly literary star in the making whose success was contrasted with their increasingly desperate efforts as they waded their way through their well-thumbed copies of The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook looking for an agent. Arnott’s debut is the first of three novels set in the gangster world of the ’60s East End. Sadly, the other two didn’t quite match its brilliance although I’m pleased to say that his new novel, The Fatal Tree, is every bit as good.

Narrated by five very different characters, The Long Firm follows the career of Harry Starks, a gangland boss with a weakness for stardom and a yearning for respectability. Each narrator tells the story of their dealings with Harry: Terry is Harry’s pretty suburban kept boy; Teddy is the corrupt peer who finds himself out of his league; Jack the Hat is a freelancer who flits dangerously between Harry and the Kray twins; Ruby is a fading Rank starlet and Lenny is a criminologist whose relationship with Harry leads him into the dark realities of the criminal underworld. Set in mid-60s London amidst enormous social change and written with a wit as sharp as the cut of a gangster’s suit, Arnott’s novel explores the dark underbelly of a period often recalled as vibrant and exciting, expertly blending fact and fiction in a vivid evocation of the times. Not only can Arnott write but my contemporary historian partner assures me that the period detail is spot-on – high praise indeed.

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

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist (transl. Henning Koch): A grief observed and endured

Cover imageAcclaimed poet Tom Malmquist’s book comes labelled by the publisher as a piece of ‘auto-fiction’ – a novel based on the author’s life rather than a memoir. Already garlanded with prizes in the author’s native Sweden, it’s the story of Tom whose partner Karin dies a few weeks after the premature birth of their daughter, beginning with Karin’s emergency hospital admission and ending with their daughter’s first day at pre-school.

Struggling for breath, Karin is rushed to the intensive care unit of a Stockholm hospital, six weeks before she’s due to give birth. At first it seems she may have pneumonia but several tests later she’s diagnosed with a case of acute leukemia. Her baby is healthy but needs to be delivered before Karin deteriorates beyond saving. Tom finds himself in a frantic daze of shock, desperately trying to grasp the situation, attempting to master it by gleaning every detail he can from Karin’s medical team and spreading the news to family and friends with whose shock and horror he must cope as well as his own. What feels like a few hours after Karin was admitted, their daughter Livia is thrust into his arms then taken quickly to the neonatal ward. For the next few weeks, Tom travels from one ward to the other, impotently watching his partner’s decline while his daughter begins to thrive. Soon he must take Livia home alone, then a bureaucratic nightmare is unleashed. Tom and Karin weren’t married: he has to prove he is Livia’s father to keep her. Stunned by grief and exhausted by lack of sleep, Tom devotes himself to Livia. Four months after her birth his father is admitted into palliative care. Malmquist’s heart-wrenching novel plumbs the depths of Tom’s grief through which shine flashes of joy as he learns how to take care of his beloved daughter.

This is an intensely immersive book. The choice to write it as fiction rather than autobiography allows Malmquist to play with form and language making it much more immediate. There are five sections but no chapters within them, only the occasional break. The first section is taken up with Tom’s experiences in the hospital; its breathless tone conveys the confusion, shock and panic of the situation much more powerfully than a tidy linear account. It’s a strange disorienting time when trivial concerns such as Tom’s worries about whether the hob has been left on at home and the whereabouts of a puffer jacket throw up a screen as if to shield him from the horror of what is happening. In the following section, vivid memories of Tom’s relationship with Karin punctuate his new life spent wrestling with Social Services, arranging Karin’s funeral and anxiously learning how to be a parent. Poignant details leap out from the often matter-of-fact narrative – Tom’s repeated calls to Karin’s phone to hear her voice, his singing of Here Comes the Sun to Livia. It’s an extraordinarily powerful book, impossible not to be moved by it. I hope Malmquist found some sort of catharsis in writing his novel.

The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis: Storytelling, Southern Gothic style

Cover imageI like to think that I’m reasonably resistant to marketing hype, quite capable of making up my own mind thank you very much, but truth be told I do find author puffs seductive, particularly when they’re from writers I admire. I would have been attracted to the premise of Phillip Lewis’ debut regardless of the ringing endorsement from Ron Rash but I have to admit it did nudge me along a little. The Barrowfields is set against the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains, Rash’s own literary stomping ground, and tells the story of a family afflicted by tragedy with more than a touch of Southern Gothic.

The youngest son of Maddy and Helton Aster, Henry is very different from his down to earth parents who are much more at home in the hardscrabble town of Old Buckram than he is. To their and the town’s mystification, Henry spends his time reading whatever he can get his hands on. He’s the first one of the family to go to college and is determined to become a writer. Henry falls in love with Eleonore at the library, convinced that this vision of loveliness heading towards the rare book room is as besotted with books as he is. They marry and Henry becomes a lawyer – writing far into the night – while Eleonore teaches. When Maddy’s health begins to decline, Helton writes to his son. Henry knows what he must do: he and Eleonore find themselves a place to live in Old Buckram, settling into the gothic ‘vulture house’ where Henry sets up a library for himself, tracking down first editions mouldering in second-hand bookshops, and continues to spends his nights writing and drinking. They have a son, named for his father, then – nine years later – a daughter who her father names Threnody. When Maddy dies, Henry sinks into a deep depression. A few years later, tragedy strikes pulling him down deeper and leaving his family to fend for themselves. The younger Henry departs for college, rarely coming home to fulfill his promise to look after Threnody, unable to face the pain of Old Buckram’s memories. He has his own tale to tell, falling for a young woman whose story is as tragic as his own.

Lewis’ prologue sets us up nicely for a bit of Southern Gothic with its abandoned desk and empty bottle of absinth overlooked by a fair imitation of Poe’s raven. Narrated by the younger Henry, this is the story of his father and the long shadow he casts over the family, beginning in the crumbling mansion which has its own macabre history. The Rash endorsement raised my expectations for some of my favourite stripped down prose which didn’t materialise but Lewis knows how to turn a phrase: ‘It was horribly tart. It drew my eyes in together so much I thought they would touch’ graphically describes the young Henry’s reaction to his grandmother’s cider; his father writes ‘because it’s one of the only things that seems real to me… … it’s the only way short of death to make time stop’. Lewis’ narrative bowls along nicely, replete with eccentric characters of the kind John Berendt delivered in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil with stories to match. He knows how to spin a tale – his storytelling skills put me in mind of John Irving’s at times – but the novel is not without its flaws: I wondered what had happened to Henry’s four siblings, never mentioned beyond the fact of their existence, and there were a few too many Southern Gothic touches for me. That said it’s an engrossing read which drew me in, keeping my attention throughout its well over 300 pages, and it ends with a sentence we could all learn something from.

Blasts from the Past: Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller (1997)

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.

Ingenious Pain is the example I often cite when talking about the difficulty of following an impressive first novel. It’s a book I didn’t expect to love not being a huge fan of historical fiction but I found myself drawn in and entranced by it. Set in the eighteenth century, straddling the old world of quack shows and superstition and the new world of religious doubt and scientific enquiry, it’s the strange story of James Dyer.

Conceived on an icy night, the result of an adulterous coupling with a stranger, Dyer is an odd child whose inability to feel physical or emotional pain marks him out. When his family are all but wiped out by smallpox his adventures begin. He attaches himself to a quack show, is abducted and kept in a rich man’s house as a curiosity, acts as an assistant to a ship’s physician and, later, becomes a brilliant but supremely arrogant surgeon in fashionable Bath. When scandal ruins his practice he joins the race to St Petersburg to inoculate the Empress of Russia against smallpox. En route he meets his nemesis – a strange woman whose miraculous powers give him the gift of pain. From here the road to redemption leads through madness and eventually to a modicum of peace before he dies, aged thirty-three, in a small West Country village.

I was working in Waterstone’s when the novel was published and Andrew Miller was a local author living in Bath, a mixed blessing as any bookseller will quietly tell you. Some authors had a tendency to move their books to the front of the shop, demand to know their sales figures and castigate us for not stocking more of their titles. The epitome of modesty, Miller was the antithesis of that. Sadly, he’s never quiet matched Ingenious Pain for me although Pure came a close second.

That’s it from me this for a few days. H and I are off to explore the delights of Antwerp tomorrow. Back next week

The Fatal Tree by Jake Arnott: A rollicking tale of thieves and whores

Jake Arnott’s first novel, The Long Firm, was published way back in 1999. I was a huge fan: he summoned up London’s underworld in prose as sharp as a ‘60s mobster’s suit, expertly blending fact with fiction. A hard act to follow, then, and sorry to say Arnott’s never quite matched it for me but I’ve stuck with him, ever hopeful, and The Fatal Tree proves that fidelity can win out. It’s a triumph – a rip-roaring tale of thieves and whores, love and folly, corruption and redemption, much of it told in flash, gloriously vivid eighteenth-century thieves’ slang.

In 1726 Edgeworth Bess is in Newgate Gaol, awaiting trial for possession of stolen goods which may well lead her to Tyburn’s gallows. Billy Archer has petitioned Mr Applebee, a publisher of confessions popular at public hangings, to commission him to tell Bess’ story. Bess began life in the home of a noble family – the daughter of a servant, thrown out when she’s caught in bed with their son. With only the guinea he’s given her, she finds her way to London, easy meat for the city’s madams eager for fresh faces. Punk Alice saves her from the worst of them, installing her in Mother Breedlove’s bawdy academy where she learns how to please both the punters and herself. Smart and sassy, she’s soon at home amongst the denizens of Romeville, a buttock-and-file who whores and picks pockets, attracting the attention of both Jonathan Wild, self-proclaimed Thief-taker General, and Jack Sheppard, a carpenter’s apprentice who puts his skills to use as an expert burglar. Bess and Jack fall for each other hard. Jack’s strutting arrogance will trip him up badly but his jail-breaking skills will make him a legend while Bess will need her sharp-as-a-tack wits to get him and herself out of trouble, all under the gaze of Wild who holds Romeville in his grubby sway. Alongside Bess’ story, Billy – petty thief, scribbler and molly – tells his own, intertwining his narrative with hers as each moves towards a decisive conclusion.

Arnott alternates Bess’ confession, told in her own words with Billy’s letters to Applebee. Written in flash, Bess’ sections will have you frequently diving into the glossary at first but, rather like The Wire, once you have your ear in, so to speak, her narrative is easy to follow. Arnott keeps the tension nicely taut with cliff-hangers and foreshadowing throughout, liberally lacing his story with both the salaciousness promised in Billy’s first letter and a fair dose of humour. The period detail is vivid, descriptions of the thieves’ dens nicely lurid, but Arnott takes care not to get too caught up in what has clearly been meticulous research, rounding out his characters so that they leap off the page. John Gay wanders through Billy’s narrative, a frequent acquaintance, keeping his ear to the ground. There are echoes of our own times both in the language – I think we’d all like to see ‘impeach’ in common use soon – and in the tidal wave of greed preceding the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel, a wonderful piece of historical storytelling as atmospheric as Michel Faber’s The Crimson and the White. I have a feeling that Arnott had a great deal of fun writing this book, delving into the lives of spruce-prigs, twangs and buttock-brokers.

I can’t finish this without quoting a few more of my favourite flash expressions: gospel-shop  a church; glaziers eyes; pot-valiant drunk; dandyprat a puny little fellow; caper-merchant a dancing master and prattle-broth tea. I long for a way to work these into the conversation.

Blasts from the Past: What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (2003)

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.

Anyone who’s had more than a passing conversation with me about books will know that this is one of my favourite novels. It’s sublime but despite several re-readings I’ve never written on it in any detail. I think most bloggers will understand what I mean when I say that it’s far harder to write about a book about which you are completely passionate rather than one that’s simply very good. Below is a brief synopsis but What I Loved is about very much more than those few sentences can convey. Its themes are all-encompassing: art, love, family, friendship, work – life.

The novel is written from the point of view of art historian Leo Hertzberg looking back on his long friendship with Bill Weschler whose work he first discovered in a New York gallery when Bill was a complete unknown. So impressed is Leo with Bill’s work that he tracks him down and their lives become entangled. Hustvedt’s novel is the story of their intense relationship, of the women they live with, their work and their sons both born the same year but whose lives take very different turns.

Hustvedt’s writing has an extraordinary depth. Her descriptions of Bill’s work are wonderfully vivid. She brings to it an art historian’s training coupled with superb descriptive skills. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. And if you’d like to read another besotted blogger’s views you could nip over to Biisbooks where Belinda’s been on a bit of a Hustvedt binge.

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

The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson: Literary fan fiction at its best

Cover imageBetter start this with a confession: I’ve never read a Patricia Highsmith novel. I’ve often thought about it, been urged by fans to do so, but I’ve never got around to it. Jill Dawson, on the other hand, has long been addicted to Highsmith’s fiction as she tells us in her acknowledgements. Obviously, my reading of The Crime Writer will be entirely different from a Highsmith fan’s but my ignorance didn’t stop me from enjoying it immensely. Dawson takes Highsmith’s sojourn at Bridge Cottage in Suffolk and weaves it into a story which constantly pulls the rug from under her readers’ feet.

Highsmith has bought the Suffolk cottage to be in easy reach of her married lover, Sam, who lives in London with her brutish husband and their eight-year-old daughter. She’s agreed to have her fiercely protected privacy breached by a Virginia Smythson-Balby, a journalist after a piece for the local paper on the famous author in their midst. Aside from Sam, the only person welcome in Highsmith’s life is Ronnie, a writer friend who calls in daily to prise her out of her shell. She’s unsettled when Virginia turns up, sure that she’s seen her somewhere before, but Highsmith’s no stranger to such niggling suspicions, constantly dogged by the conviction that she’s being stalked. It’s true that a stream of letters were sent to her in Paris, some signed ‘Brother Death’, but the gendarmerie dismissed them as only to be expected by a crime writer. Highsmith bristles at this particular epithet, insisting that – like Dostoevsky – she writes ‘suspense stories’. She struggles with the two books she’s writing – one a novel, the other about her craft – longing for Sam and painting her lover’s portrait to fill the void. One evening her yearnings are fulfilled and Sam arrives. Then things take a very dark turn, or do they?

Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction, replete with a multitude of allusions to Highsmith’s work as Dawson makes clear in her acknowledgements for the ignoramuses among us. Biographical details are all present and correct, from Highsmith’s grim childhood to her obsession with snails. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator and unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning, claustrophobic inner monologue. The irascible Highsmith is a woman constantly in the grips of a paranoia aggravated by her alcoholism. Dawson is careful to tie in some loose ends but we’re left wondering what exactly happened inside and outside Ms Highsmith’s head. It’s a very clever piece of writing, absolutely engrossing. I’ll be interested to hear what Highsmith’s fans think of it. It’s left me determined to get my hands on one of her novels as soon as I can. The question is which one. Any suggestions?