Tag Archives: The Gun Room

Land of the Living by Georgina Harding: War and its aftermath reprised

Cover imageA new Georgina Harding is always something to celebrate for me. I’m a great fan of her elegant yet lyrical writing and her quiet perceptiveness. Her last novel, The Gun Room, explored the legacy of war through a photographer and the unwelcome fame endured by one of his subjects. Land of the Living revisits the theme from a different perspective. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land while his wife tries to interpret his silence.

Charlie is a veteran of the Battle of Kohima, fought in the Indian province of Nagaland close to Burma’s border. His sleep is broken by nightmares, his days punctuated by flashbacks to the jungle patrol of which he was the sole survivor. Rescued by Naga warriors whose village he lived in for several months, he was taken to a British settlement where he met Hussey, a keen ethnographer and agent of the empire. As Charlie sets about his work, Claire wonders about the things he witnessed in Nagaland, colluding with the silence of this man she barely knew before they were married by asking few questions and playing the part of the frivolous woman. In 1947, three years after Charlie first met him and facing the independence of the only country he has properly known, Hussey visits the Ashes. During the night, Claire is woken from her own jungle nightmare by their laughter and wonders what the men can have found to amuse them. By morning Hussey has gone, leaving Charlie unburdened and Claire about to give birth. New beginnings are on the horizon.

Shifting occasionally from Charlie’s perspective to Claire’s, Harding’s narrative is fragmentary at its beginning, made up of memories and flashbacks as Charlie’s story unfolds, somewhat different from the sanitised version he shares with Claire. Much is left unspoken between these two , her apparent light-heartedness disguising her understanding of the chasm between them. Harding manages all this with characteristic deftness, quietly conveying Charlie’s dislocation from the prosaic everyday:

He drew the curtains and tended the fire then sat down in the armchair beside it with the whisky glass in his hand. The room only began to seem inhabited when the dog followed him in.

Much is communicated in a few well-chosen words while her descriptions of both Norfolk and Nagaland are lyrically evocative:

The fog wasn’t coming down again. The night would be clear and cold. The sky towards sunset was becoming unexpectedly lighter, pale turquoise-blue streaks bared in it, the first colour of the day.

With its exploration of the legacy of empire and war, the burden those who fought carry on their return and the silence with which it is often borne both by family and veterans, this is a deeply humane, beautiful novel which ends on a welcome note of redemption and hope.

Paperbacks to Look Out for in April 2017: Part One

Cover imageAnother fine month for paperbacks this April, worthy of a two-part preview. I’ve read each of the five books in this first batch, kicking off with Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know, one of my favourites from last year. After several miscarriages Melody is twelve weeks into her pregnancy. Her husband has stormed out after learning that the father is the seventeen-year-old Traveller she had been teaching to read. As her pregnancy progresses Melody becomes friends with Mary, caught up in a feud between Traveller clans thanks to her admission of infertility which has brought dishonour upon her family. Structured in brief chapters written in clear, clean yet lyrical prose, Ryan’s novel seamlessly interweaves both Mary’s and Melody’s stories leading to a dramatic conclusion. For me, it’s Ryan’s best novel yet.

Another favourite from 2016, Sara Taylor’s The Lauras is also a wonderful piece of storytelling. Alex is thirteen when she’s hauled out of bed in the middle of the night, packed into the car along with the barest essentials and driven off, not entirely sure what’s happening. So begins a two-year odyssey during which Alex’s education is completed, both school and otherwise, while her mother works to keep them afloat. Each year they travel further along the yellow-highlighted map that Alex finds when her mother is out, settling scores, fulfilling longstanding promises and repaying debts. Stuffed with stories, Taylor’s novel is written in strikingly vivid prose, exploring identity through both the determinedly androgynous Alex and her equally Cover imagedetermined mother. More than lives up to Taylor’s excellent debut, The Shore.

Set in 1920, Suzanne Joinson’s The Photographer’s Wife follows another young girl, this time the eleven-year-old daughter of an architect commissioned to design plans for rebuilding Jerusalem. Far too caught up in himself, his work and his social life, Charles leaves Prue almost entirely to her own devices. She spends her time looking and listening, entangling herself in relationships she can’t understand. It’s a story of duplicity, espionage and thwarted love in which Prue’s experience will have terrible repercussions for her, echoing L. P. Hartley’s Leo Colston in The Go-Between and Ian McEwan’s Briony Tallis in Atonement. Delighted to see that the striking hardback jacket has been kept for the paperback edition.

Repercussions are also a theme which runs through Georgina Harding’s The Gun Room. Set in Asia at the time of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Japanese economic boom, Harding’s new novel is about a young photographer trying to cope with the shadow thrown by not one but two wars. After witnessing what he thinks was a massacre from the air, Jonathan Ashe takes a photograph of a soldier which will become emblematic of the conflict, appearing on the front of a magazine and changing both their lives. Written in elegant yet vivid prose it’s a novel which leaves its readers with much to think about as well as to admire.

Cover imageI’m ending this first batch of paperbacks with a book that for some reason I managed to forget to include on my Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction list A shame, as it would have doubled my feeble hit rate. I’m sure authors will start petitioning to be omitted from my prize wish lists soon. Thankfully the judges weren’t so absent-minded. Set in 1885, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent is the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around Aldwinter. A novel of ideas all wrapped up in a riveting bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose, it focuses on the passionate friendship between the recently widowed Cora, fascinated by the emerging theories about the natural world, and Will Ransome, Aldwinter’s pastor, determined to ignore the titular serpent’s effect on his parishioners. It’s a very fine book indeed

That’s it for the first batch of April paperbacks. Should you want to know more a click on any of the titles will take you to my review and if you’d like to catch up with April’s new titles they’re here and here. Second batch to follow soon, full of books I’ve not yet read.

My wish list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

I tend not to get caught up in literary prize fever these days but there is one for which I make an exception – The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist is due to be announced next Wednesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2016 and March 31st 2017 qualify for the award. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably to predict who the judges will select but truth be told I much prefer to indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might favour. This year there will be fewer titles on the judges’ list – they’re restricted to twelve – but given that this is my indulgence I’ve allowed myself three more. I’ve followed the same format as 2016 and 2015, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog apart from one yet to be posted. In no particular order then, here’s my list of wishes rather than predictions for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017:

Idaho                                              The Cauliflower                          Sweetbitter

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The Gun Room                               The Crime Writer                       The Lauras

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Conrad and Eleanor                        Commonwealth                     Harmless Like You

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Our Magic Hour                                Swimming Lessons                 Another Brooklyn

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First Love                                          A Line Made for Walking           Birdcage Walk

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Who knows which of these, if any, will appear on next week’s list but for what it’s worth they’ve they’ve earned their place on mine. A click on a title will take you to my review for all but Birdcage Walk which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. Next year, of course, the prize will be called something else as it’s in search of a new sponsor: let’s hope they find one soon.

What about you?  I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, predictions or wishes welcome.

My 2016 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logoIt’s that time of year again. I had thought I might ignore the whole kit and caboodle this time around but I was prodded into action by an analysis of trends in Man Booker winners subtitled ‘Male and Middle-aged in Third Person. On that basis mine is a list of no-hopers, or close to it, with just two men making the grade and only one of those middle-aged. It wasn’t planned that way just the way this year’s cookie crumbled. That said, isn’t it about time that the judges paid a little more attention? Or perhaps that should be publishers. They, after all, are the ones who nominate titles to be considered, aside from the odd one or two that the judges call in. And while we’re on that subject, why is it that the more titles a publisher has longlisted in previous years, the more they’re allowed to nominate in following years? Seems to favour the big boys and girls to me.

Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included published before 30th September – Sara Taylor’s The Lauras, for instance or Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall – but I’m determined to include only the tried and tested. The judges will reveal their list on Wednesday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

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The Book of Memory                     Undermajordomo Minor              The Long Room

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Exposure                                            Under the Visible Life               My Name is Lucy Barton

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What Belongs to You                   The Cauliflower                         The Gun Room

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The Essex Serpent                           The Crime Writer                     The Tidal Zone

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

The Gun Room by Georgina Harding: The inescapable shadow of war

Cover imageI’ve been an admirer of Georgina Harding’s writing since reading  her debut with its poetically beautiful descriptive passages. Each of her four novels is very different from the other although three share the theme of the aftermath of war. Set in 1616 The Solitude of Thomas Cave took us to the Arctic where one man elects to leave the whaling ship that brought him there and stay for a year. The Spy Game leapt forward to 1961 with a little girl piecing together an explanation for herself about her mother’s disappearance. The Painter of Silence has 1950s Romania as its backdrop where a man, both deaf and mute, discovers a connection with a young nurse that helps him unlock his past. Set in Asia at the time of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Japanese economic boom, Harding’s new novel is about a young photographer trying to cope with the shadow thrown by not one but two wars.

Jonathan Ashe has managed to hitch a ride in a helicopter but what was to be merely a chance to see what the country looks like turns into something else when the pilot spots a village under fire. Jonathan sees a young woman, her body splayed on the ground with a stomach wound clearly visible. Then he thinks he sees a soldier shoot her in the head. By the time they land, the action is over. Jonathan photographs a soldier sitting, stunned, then finds the young woman dead, shot in the head. He returns to the soldier, still in the same position oblivious of Jonathan’s presence, and takes the emblematic photograph that will appear on the front of a magazine changing both their lives. Deeply disturbed by what he’s seen, Jonathan turns his back on a career in war photography that had only just begun, taking himself off to Japan in an attempt to lose himself in its foreignness. He takes photographs endlessly – the daily changing view from his apartment window, milling passengers at metro stations – an outsider constantly observing. When he runs out of money he turns to teaching English, meeting Kumiko at the language school and falling in love with her, until a chance encounter brings him face to face with what happened in Vietnam. Running through Jonathan’s story are the reverberations of another war in which both his father and Kumiko’s grandfather fought.

Impossible for those who’ve seen Don McCullin’s striking image Shell Shocked Soldier not to see it as the starting point for this beautifully expressed, impressionistic but powerful novel. Harding hangs her narrative on the framework of the photographs Jonathan selects for his first exhibition interspersing it with memories which illuminate and slowly reveal his life and character. Over it all hangs the shadow of war and its aftermath for those who have witnessed or taken part in it. There’s a quiet elegance about Harding’s writing which vividly conveys Jonathan’s need for anonymity in an attempt to escape the inescapable: the horror of what both he – and his father before him – have seen. The moral ambiguity of war photography is also explored: ‘He has seen, or possibly he has done, whatever it was that put that look into his eyes. Is it necessary that he did it, or was seeing enough? Perhaps seeing is guilt in itself?’ thinks Jonathan when contemplating the photograph of the soldier and, by implication, his own role. It’s a novel which leaves its readers with much to think about as well as much to admire.

Books to Look Out For in April 2016: Part 1

Cover imageWith luck those of us who’ve been struggling with a grey, damp – or worse – winter will be able to see a bit of light glimmering on the horizon by now. Far too early with that observation according to H but I’m forever the weather optimist and if I’m proved wrong there are a few books to take refuge in the first of which I have very high hopes for: Georgina Harding’s The Gun Room. She’s one of those authors who takes her time but whose novels are always worth the wait. This one follows a war photographer whose shot of a burning Vietnamese village makes his career but who remains haunted by what he’s seen. Hardly original, I know. Many novels have dealt with this theme, from Catherine Hall’s The Repercussions to William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, but Harding’s writing is always so beautifully crafted that I suspect this will be well worth reading.

I’d expect to be feeling the same pleasurable anticipation for a new Curtis Sittenfeld novel – Sisterland and American Wife were both excellent – but Eligible is a tribute novel, the kind of thing that makes my heart sink. It’s a retelling of Pride and Prejudice with the Bennett sisters transported to 1930s America, both successful career women summoned home from New York to Cincinnati to nurse their father where they meet Chip Bingley and his haughty friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. I’m going to have to grit my teeth in order to start this one but Sittenfeld’s such a good writer it’s got to be done.Cover image

I may have to do the same with Nicola Barker’s wacky looking The Cauliflower. You may feel that she’s a Marmite author but I’ve loved some of her novels and failed miserably to get on with others. Whatever you think of her she’s rarely anything but original. This one follows a nineteenth-century guru who must, at all costs, be protected from that most bland of vegetables, the cauliflower. ‘Rather than puzzling the shards of history and legend together, Barker shatters the mirror again and rearranges the pieces. The result is a biographical novel viewed through a kaleidoscope. Dazzlingly inventive and brilliantly comic’ says the publisher. We’ll see – brilliant jacket, though.

Rick Moody is another author whose books I’ve read and enjoyed. You may remember his name from The Ice Storm which tells of the accidental death of a young boy and was made into a devastating film directed by Ang Lee. Hotels of North America is set in lighter territory. Motivational speaker Reginald Edward Morse has a talent for the witty anecdote, exercising his skills at the RateYourLodging website but perhaps giving away more than he thinks. ‘Always funny, unexpectedly tragic, this is a book of lonely rooms, long lists, of strong opinion and quiet confession, by one of America’s greatest novelists’ say the publishers. Well worth a look by the sound of it.

Cover imageFinishing off this first batch of books to look out for is a debut but by a name you may well know already. Award-winning poet and rapper Kate Tempest has turned her hand to fiction with The Bricks that Built the Houses. Set in London, it spans several generations telling the story of Becky, Harry and Leon who turn their backs on the city in an old Ford Cortina with a suitcase stuffed with money leaving behind Becky’s boyfriend at his own party. ‘Moving back in time – and into the heart of London – The Bricks that Built the Houses explores a cross-section of contemporary urban life with a powerful moral microscope, giving us intimate stories of hidden lives, and showing us that good intentions don’t always lead to the right decisions’ say the publishers which certainly whets my appetite.

That’s it for April’s first selection. Quite a mixed bunch as is the second, all by authors new to me. As ever, a click on the title will take you to a more detailed synopsis.