Book review

I reviewed The Essex Serpent back in 2019, and in a passing comment said “I am … convinced that this would make a hugely popular television series in the right hands.”

Well I am glad to say someone agreed, because the novel is now being televised on Apple TV with the first two episodes being released yesterday. The leads – Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston – look perfectly cast, and the production wisely filmed extensively in Essex itself.

I’m not on any commission from Apple TV – I don’t even have a subscription – but it is nice to see a novel that demanded to be filmed finally making it to the screen. I think a television adaptation (as opposed to a film) is a much more sensible way of telling this atmospheric story, giving the characters time to develop rather than rushing everything to an end in 90 minutes. I hope it does it justice.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (again)

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Book review

Diary of an MP’s Wife is a deliciously indiscrete and gossipy insider’s account of British politics spanning the second decade of this century. It opens with the election of the Cameron/Clegg coalition in 2010, followed by the Tory’s unexpected election win in 2015, the the unfolding tragedy that was the Brexit referendum, ending in the election of December 2019.

The whiff of entitlement coming of the pages of this text can at times be overpowering. The author is the daughter of John Nott, one of Thatcher’s Cabinet Ministers, and her MP husband is an old Etonian. She frequently expresses frustration at this paradox – being an Old Etonian was seemingly a disadvantage in securing a position in the coalition cabinet when the Old Etonian Prime Minister was looking to appoint a more diverse top team. The summary of the Cameron years 2010-2016 contains few surprises – it was always fairly obvious even at the time that this was a clique of close friends with a largely shared, broadly progressive but still old-school Conservative view of the world. The account of the times spent drinking and plotting with the Cameron set seems entirely authentic:

They are all here, the ones that eat, drink, party together, they are all intimately interlocked, some from university days, some from the research unit, some later, such as with us through the selection procedure. We all holiday together, stay in each other’s grace-and-favour homes, our children play together, we text each other bypassing the civil servants. There are old rows, forgiven betrayals and historic rivalries. This is a very particular, narrow tribe of Britain and their hangers-on. It’s enough to repulse the ordinary man, already angered by the continuing hold of the British class system.

It’s hardly surprising therefore that when the political system begins to take its toll, the personal relationships and friendships under-pinning the Government are also put under pressure. Friendships fray and are broken.

I can’t avoid the suspicion that even the frankest of political diaries have the tendency to edit out the more egregious mistakes and highlight comments that seem in hindsight perceptive. There is plenty of that going on here – at one stage Swire says:

“2020 may be a dim, far-off date in the diary (my note – the reference to 2020 is because at the time this was written, shortly after the election in 2015, it was assumed that the next general would be 2020 – in fact we were to have two elections before then!) but whichever side will win there’s going to be plenty of internecine warfare in the meantime. In fact, and manner of things could happen (watch Keir Starmer rise and rise)” (201)

All manner of things indeed.

Another thing you often see in political diaries is a loathing for the constituency activists that the MPs depend upon for funding raising and re-selection, but who can be shall we say ‘difficult’ characters. Swire writes of her husband’s East Devon Conservative Association activists:

“They hate, in equal measure, foreigners, Europe, defence cuts, gay marriage, Liberals, the BBC, Germans, the Japanese, the coalition, and garlic.” (140)

There is some suggestion that Swire had publication of these diaries in mind all along – some particularly scathing criticisms of fellow Tories is softened with an unconvincing concluding sentence or paragraph commenting on the general good intentions of them all. Swire seems not to have wanted to burn all her bridges with the Conservatives, but I don’t think the publication of these diaries will have done her much good. When extracts from the book appeared in the media it was reported that the author was upset by their presentation, suggesting that they had in some way been way been distorted. Is anyone really that naive? It’s easy to see how Tory feathers would have been ruffled – at one point Swire claims David Cameron said to her: “The scent you are wearing is affecting my pheromones. It makes me want to grab you and push you into the bushes and give you one.”

The troubling figure of Boris Johnson slowly emerges from these pages as the years pass. Initially he is a fairly distant, slightly comic figure, but his rise to the top of the Conservative Party is charted with precision. Swire is clearly attracted to his energy and his charisma, but has no illusions about his trustworthiness. His pivoting on Brexit as a political manoeuvre rather than on a point of principle is a matter of record, but it is still interesting to see reactions recorded at the time. David Cameron is recorded as saying that:

“Boris…had always been a supporter of Europe, free movement and migration…this whole episode was to do with his leadership ambitions, nothing else”. (242)

Well no shit Sherlock.

I’m not sure this book actually tells us much we didn’t already know. Hugo Swire was a relatively minor figure in the Cameron Governments, and his wife’s best stories are his, repackaged at second-hand. They may have socialised with the key figures but weren’t in the room when key decisions were made. It’s an interesting perspective from a minority grouping within the Tories – self-identifying as ‘Cameroons’ when the label no longer has any meaning, remaining loyal to the Tories largely over the issue of Brexit when so many others have long since parted ways. Hugo Swire stood down from Parliament in 2019 to spend more time with his money, but it is really hard to see him having any part to play in Boris Johnson’s Brexit Party-lite Conservatives.

Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power, by Alexandra Patrusha Mina Swire, Lady Swire, 2020

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Book review

Keneally was inspired to write the remarkable story of Thomas Schindler after a chance meeting with Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. In some ways this novel is as much Pfefferberg’s as it is Kenneally’s – his persistence is trying to ensure Schindler’s story had a wider audience was remarkable. He was an advisor to Kenneally during the novel’s development and accompanied him to Poland during his research. Keneally dedicated Schindler’s Ark to Pfefferberg: “who by zeal and persistence caused this book to be written.” He was then also involved in persuading Steven Spielberg make the film of the novel.

Schindler’s Ark is in many ways more a history text than a novel. Kenneally has justified the designation of the text as a non-fiction novel (which I know is a recognised literary genre but still feels like a contradiction in terms) due to the inclusion of reconstructed conversations between participants. I take his point, but these are clearly an imaginative way of presenting some aspects of the narrative, and in no way undermine the exhaustive and detailed research that underpins the text. Further there is always a risk that presenting the text as fiction allows sceptical readers to distance themselves from the appalling brutality the novel exposes.

As I am sure almost all readers of this blog will know, Schindler’s Ark is the story of Oskar Schindler, a businessman and entrepreneur who during the Second World War helped save the lives of thousands of Polish Jewish men, women and children. They worked in his factories, and he protected them by insisting that their labour was essential in keeping his factories open, and that in turn the factories were vital to the German war effort.

As the war progressed that was a fiction that was increasingly hard to maintain. His workers were moved first into the Krakow ghetto, and subsequently into brutal labour camps. Those were the ‘lucky’ ones of course – many others were taken directly to the concentration camps. Schindler’s factories produced goods that had a very marginal impact on the war – usually just domestic goods – and any weaponry was very low grade. In any event the Nazi’s blood-lust was such that they were prepared to destroy any Jewish people they could find, irrespective of whether they worked in industries critical to the war. So how was Schindler able to protect his workers when millions of others were being taken to the death-camps? His approach was simple – bribery. He spent lavishly on all sorts of expensive and hard-to-find goods to buy influence and favours, and keep the local Nazis pre-occupied and distracted while all around millions of Jewish people were being slaughtered.

Schindler was clearly a flawed human being – a member of the Nazi party, a drinker, womaniser and a war profiteer – and Kenneally’s portrait is unsparing about Schindler’s weaknesses; he makes no attempt to disguise these aspects of Schindler’s personality. It is possible that it was his very unsaintliness that allowed him to make the difficult decisions he had to make every day to preserve the people under his protection.

Unlike any other novel, film or programme I have seen or read, Schindler’s Ark chillingly portrays the brutality of the Holocaust. You think you know what happened, and perhaps want to avoid some of the details. While Schindler’s Ark is unsparing in its descriptions of Nazi brutality it is the mundane aspect of the regime, its businesslike approach to the industrialisation of murder that is so terrifying. The novel also brought me closer than ever before to an understanding of why Jewish people felt and feel the need for an Independent Jewish state, where all aspects of society – the Government, the police, the media and so on – are under the control of Jewish people. Because during the Holocaust Jewish people felt and were powerless in the face of the German state and were unable to look to anyone – other than the rare exceptions such as Schindler himself – for help or protection. I know I am in deep water here and I in no way want to provide blanket justification for the actions of the Israeli state and its sometimes brutal treatment of Palestinian people, but understanding the mindset which leads to condoning that behaviour is for me a new way of looking at the Palestinian conflict.

Kenneally’s determination to do justice to Schindler’s story makes Schindler’s Ark a dense, and at times distressing read. There is a vast amount of detail to be absorbed, dozens of characters who appear briefly and move on, and minute analysis of minor details of the operation of the factory. These details are probably important when weighing the negative aspects of Schindler’s life against the more obvious positives, but a more ruthless editor might have made this an easier read. Not all novels need to be easy to read, of course, but I wonder how many readers will have given up at some point and watched the film instead? The novel’s retitling for its American publication and the subsequent film, List instead of Ark, is interesting. It’s reductive – it’s so much easier to write a list than build and protect an ark. Escaping the Holocaust wasn’t only a matter of whether you were on a list or not. The film’s title, if not the film itself, reduces Schindler’s heroism to a single act rather than the arduous and lengthy process of fighting every day to preserve the lives of the Jewish people under his protection.

Schindler’s Ark deservedly won the 1982 Booker Prize against a varied and interesting shortlist. The chair of the 1982 judging panel John Carey said “This book has behind it a powerful organising and speculative mind, exercising great tact and restraint in the presentation of its terrible story“. This quite in itself restrained compliment is interesting – the powerful organising mind of the author was an important factor in doing justice to the story, even if it does sacrifice some of the narrative drama for a more exhaustive detailed account of events. But the restraint and tact are equally important – it would have been easy to have presented this as an adventure/escape story, which would have been tasteless and disrespectful to those who didn’t survive. In the end it is a portrait of an almost unimaginable horror and a brief glimmer of hope.

Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Kenneally, 1982

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Book review

Set in the early 1980’s, Black Swan Green is the tale of a year in the life of 13-year-old Jason Taylor. Jason lives in a Worcestershire village and suffers from a stammer which makes his school life difficult – he is permanently afraid of it being discovered by his class-mates, and uses a variety of strategies to avoid words that might trip him up. The prospect of public speaking fills him with dread.

Jason gives different elements of his personality their own names and to an extent their own identities. Externalising these parts of his personality help him face his fears. His stammer is ‘the hangman’ for example, showing how fearful he is of having his condition ‘exposed’.

This is not just the story of Jason and his stammer. Much of the narrative revolves around his relationships with his peer group at school and time spent just hanging around the village. It quickly becomes apparent that the mundane challenges of day to day life as a teenager in a small English village in the 1980s are of quite limited interest, unless the nostalgic references to 80’s popular culture appeal. Jason has what are presented in his account as adventures (he falls over while skating, he is barked at by some fierce dogs, he goes for a long walk), and no doubt to him that’s what they seem, but they are not much more than everyday events with little in the way of drama. The only event that really stands out occurs when he meets an eccentric European woman Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck who robustly critiques his poetry but still encourages his aspirations to be a poet. Eva seems out of place in rural Worcestershire, and disappears from the narrative as abruptly as she appears, extradited as a result of her husband’s dodgy financial affairs.

Black Swan Green is a slightly less funny version of the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 and 3/4. Admittedly there are a few differences between the two novels, in setting and tone, but the extent of the similarities is striking. The central characters are the novels’ naïve teenage narrators. They are the same age. Their parents are both splitting up, although Adrian/Jason comes to realise this a lot later than the reader. They both secretly write poetry. Both take a superficial interest in current affairs, in particular the Falklands War, and along with all teenage boys have crushes on young women. Both are embarrassed to be seen with their parents. Both their fathers are laid off. I could go on – but while Adrian Mole is played for laughs, while at the same time serving as an acute observation of the anguish of teenage life, Black Swan Green is a lot less funny.

So why did the author of the complex, modernist/experimental novels such as Cloud Atlas write a unfunny version of Adrian Mole? I am genuinely puzzled? Of course there is a strong autobiographical element to Black Swan Green, and the similarities with Sue Townsend’s creation may be coincidental (none of the dozens of reviews I read on Goodreads noticed the parallels, so maybe it’s just me?) but this was a surprisingly below par effort from Mitchell. I’ve been fairly critical of the tone of some of his other novels – Slade House for example was in part in poor taste – and the handling of the supernatural elements was unconvincing, but there was no question of his abilities as an author, in crafting compelling stories and characters. Black Swan Green isn’t a young adult novel, or at least it’s not marketed as such, but it might play better to that audience that to readers of his more mature fiction.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell 2006

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Book review

I thought Galgut’s The Promise showed sufficient – well, forgive me – promise to justify trying another of his earlier Booker contenders. In a Strange Room stretches the definition of novel to near-breaking point. It comprises three first-person (although more on that in a minute) narratives. The narrator is a South African writer named Damon. In the first section, The Follower, Damon is travelling in Greece when he meets a German tourist, Reiner. They strike up a strangely detached friendship which is renewed months later when they plan a walking trip together in Lesotho. Damon seems to be on holiday perpetually, and when back in South Africa couch-surfs without every needing to find a job. His trip to Lesotho is funded by Reiner, but the practicalities of a walking tour in a tropical African country with very limited infrastructure are never adequately addressed. Part-way through the tour an argument leads to Damon abandoning Reiner and the trip and returning to South Africa. Throughout the narrative there is a luke-warm sexual tension between the two men which is never acted upon.

The ‘novel’ thing to do would have been to have Reiner appear during the later narratives in the novel, but Galgut eschews this approach. Instead he is quietly forgotten as Damon moves on to his next adventure, this time a walking trip (initially solo) in Africa. This chapter, ‘The Lover’, appears to be set a few years after ‘The Follower’. Damon is older and a little wiser, but still listlessly travelling non-stop without the burden of a career or occupation to hold him back from his nomadic existence. In Zimbabwe he meets three Europeans – a French man and a pair of Swiss twins. Although they have different routes they keep bumping into one another, until eventually they decide to travel together. Damon is clearly attracted to one of the twins, Jerome, who has “a beauty that is almost shocking”, and changes his travel plans to he can join them. They crisscross Southern Africa with the expected complications with visas and passports, but not a lot happens. Damon doesn’t appear to enjoy his travelling – he really could be anywhere. Later he follows Jerome back home to Switzerland before moving on to London and beyond. The relentless travelling without destination or direction is obviously a metaphor for how Galgut sees his own life, but it gets a bit tedious.

The novel’s final section, ‘The Guardian’, features yet another unsuccessful journey. Damon accompanies Anna, a friend suffering from manic depression, on a recuperative journey to India. He is totally out of his depth in dealing with Anna’s illness – despite his best endeavours he cannot protect her from herself, and she ends up taking an overdose. The Indian hospital system struggles to give her the treatment she needs to survive, and the situation descends into a chaotic, distressing nightmare.

These three journeys have some thematic links, but they also had a strong personal memoir sense. On an ‘acknowledgments’ page at the end of the text, the author thanks the editors of the Paris Review ‘where these pieces first appeared, suggesting that they may not have been conceived as part of a larger whole at the time they were originally published, and have been welded rather uncomfortably together to create a text of sufficient length to justify publication in a book format. Although ostensibly they are all about journeys, the third section involves very little travelling, and is really focused on the serious issues regarding metal health and suicide. I don’t think they sat together well at all, and ‘three long short stories’ would have been a more honest representation of the text.

In a Strange Room is written in the third person, but occasionally often the narrative flips to the first person: he talks about the Damon character as if he is someone else, and then at other times, sometimes changing in the course of a single sentence, he will describe him as “me”. To me this was a slightly irritating device. After the initial confusion of working out what was happening – was there someone else present? – it just became an affectation. I assume it was a way of showing the unreliability of memory – when the memory was vivid ‘I’ was used because the narrator felt present, when it was less clear ‘he’ was used to indicate the lack of connection. That’s how I rationalised it anyway. But it emphasised all the more clearly that In a Strange Room is a memoir, albeit an unreliable one used as a creative springboard for a novel about rootlessness.

Periodically sitcoms (especially long-running ones) have clip-shows – episodes comprised principally of clips from previous episodes, put together mainly to maximise the use of content originally used elsewhere. I can’t shake the suspicion that In a Strange Room is the novelists version of that technique. There’s plenty of precedent for this approach – the one that springs to mind is Raymond Chandler who re-used short stories originally published in crime magazines as the components of novels such as The Big Sleep. But Chandler could get away with this, making the whole much larger than the parts. I’m not sure Galgut achieves the same effect.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut 2010

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Book review

Beryl Bainbridge has been on my ‘must read more by this author’ list for a long time, particularly since I enjoyed her An Awfully Big Adventure‘ back in 2018. It’s taken me until now to act on that resolution, and only then because I came across her Master Georgie, which was shortlisted for the 1998 Booker Prize, in a charity shop at a bargain price.

The novel is told in six brief chapters, which Bainbridge describes as ‘plates’, introducing the photography theme which provides a structure for the novel. The opening plate/chapter is told by Myrtle, a Victorian foundling who has been taken in (and is later adopted) by the Hardy family who are from Liverpool. Any echoes of another orphan child found in Liverpool and taken in by a family (Heathcliff?) seem coincidental. Myrtle is obsessively devoted to Master Georgie, the son of the household. Set in 1846 this introductory chapter tells the events of the day of Mr Hardy senior’s ignominious death of a heart attack in a brothel, and how his body is smuggled back into the family home in a cart (previously used to present a Punch and Judy show) to try to avoid any scandal.

Four years later we next hear from Pompey Jones, an Artful Dodger-like character who having helped with the removal of Mr Hardy’s body from the brothel to his bed has become another part of the extended Hardy household. Pompey is working with Master Georgie, now the master of the household. on his experiments with amateur photography. George is now married and a surgeon. There are also hints in Pompey’s narrative that his relationship with George has a sexual component.

Another time skip takes the novel to the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 Sevastopol. For reasons that are unclear (to me on a first read, I may have missed something by way of explanation) George having signed on as an army doctor, has been followed into the conflict by Myrtle, his brother in law Dr Potter, and their families. Pompey is also there as an assistant to a war photographer travelling in the trusty and multi-purpose Punch and Judy cart. This chapter is narrated by Dr Potter, and having checked it seems his explanation for travelling into the heart of a war-zone is that he needs to be there as an ‘observer’ which seems unconvincing at best.

The conflict gradually heats up and comes to dominate the narrative, ending in the bloody battle of Inkerman. These are the strongest scenes of the novel in which the horror of the conflict is captured in gory detail. Death, which has dominated all the sections of the book, almost overwhelms it.

One of the things that stood out from An Awfully Big Adventure was the author’s clever manipulation of point of view narration to slowly build the narrative. It’s the jigsaw building method of story-telling, where the final picture only emerges as the pieces are assembled by the different perspectives. Bainbridge uses the same technique here, although to much lesser effect. The narrators leave it to the reader to fill in many gaps in the narrative, but it is fairly easy to piece these together and work out the relationships between the characters with a little care and attention. When the final picture is assembled in An Awfully Big Adventure it is with a sense of revelation, something that is lacking here. Constructing the novel around the six photographs, one taken in each ‘plate’ was probably a clever idea, but it runs the risk of being over-pleased with the conceit without adding much to the narrative. Each chapter is a snapshot of events rather than part of a coherent narrative, and while piecing the connections between each ‘plate’ is a comfortable enough task for the reader, it didn’t feel as rewarding as I think the author may have intended.

Master Georgie is a lesser novel in other ways. Myrtle has the potential to be a central character, but her portrait is horribly one-dimensional. Apart from her slave-like devotion to Master George, to the extent of having his children and then giving them up to his wife to raise as her own, her character has no depth whatsoever. All she does is follow George around like a puppy dog. This is such a waste of a potentially interesting character – it would have been interesting to have seen her gradually come to realise that he didn’t deserve her devotion for instance, or for her to have found something to do other than hang around on the off-chance he might need her. Dr Potter is also problematic (although to a lesser extent). The amateur Victorian geologist is something of a cliché in the first place, but his role in the novel is unclear other than to provide a contrasting voice to the other narrators. Why does he follow George to war? I understand there was an element of war tourism in the Crimea, but Potter isn’t there for that. For the initial stage of the journey he is accompanied by his wife and children, as is George, even though it is clear that a serious conflict is brewing. It just makes no sense why they would all recklessly head off to the Crimea in the way they do. George seeks out the conflict because he believes he can help as a doctor, and possibly as some form of redemption for previous weaknesses or to prove himself (the novel’s title infantilises him, suggesting he needs to do some growing up), but the presence of the others is inexplicable.

Master Georgie has the beginnings of a great novel about the Crimean War, using that conflict to reflect on Victorian society, class and personal relationships. The structure of the novel, based around the six photographs, is cleverly designed. There are glimpses of what might have been, but only glimpses. It had an incomplete or draft feel to it. I have no issue with the reader being asked to do the heavy-lifting and sketch in the missing details of relationships between characters, for example, but here even when that work is done we are left with a picture with too many missing pieces.

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge, 1998

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Book review

Any novel set in modern South Africa is going to be about apartheid. There’s obviously no way of avoiding the subject, but the author needs to find a way of addressing it that is original, to find a new way of telling the same story. The Promise is an interesting addition to the collection of novels that try to talk about the experience of the end of apartheid. It might say more about my reading choices than anything else, but most of these stories tend to be told from the white/Afrikaans perspective.

The Promise is told predominantly from the perspective of the Swart family, landowners and farmers just outside Pretoria. I say predominantly but one of the distinguishing features of this novel is the extraordinarily fluid narrative voice. It moves from character to character and scene to scene remarkably quickly, and there is often a beat where the reader re-orientates themselves to the new point of view. While it is usually made clear quickly who’s eyes we are now seeing the world from, that moment of uncertainty is disorientating. As a technique this is really effective in keeping the reader focussed on the word on the page – this is not a novel you can coast through, not without getting thoroughly confused anyway! It is broken into four sections, each set around ten years apart and focussed on the death of a family member.

Amor is the youngest daughter of the Swart family, and the closest the novel comes to a central figure. She is the still centre of the novel around which the other characters revolve. She witnesses her mother, on her death-bed, ask her father to promise to give the family servant, Salome, ownership of the run-down house she occupies on the family farm. The promise is given but insignificant to him and he quickly forgets it. When reminded by Amor he can barely recall having done so (although he never denies it) but it is clear he has no intention of doing keeping his promise. The worth of his promises is underlined when he assures Amor she will not have to return to the hostel she has been living in during her mother’s sickness, another promise that is quickly broken.

As successive family members die, Amor returns to the family farm to remind the surviving members of her father’s promise. Each time the issue is raised it is waved away as a nuisance. It’s hard not to translate this situation to the wider political context, with the farm representing the country and the promise being a political commitment to restore ownership of the land to the black community. During the course of the novel the apartheid regime comes to an end, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee completes its work, and Nelson Mandela is freed and becomes President. But the white community as represented in the novel retains its privileges and its prejudices, and the changes going on in the outside world seem to leave the Swart’s unaffected.

Of course the word ‘promise’ can also mean potential, and this novel is also about the wasted potential of the younger generation of the family. As a young woman, Amor promises to be beautiful, but that promise is (it is suggested) wasted, as she rejects her family, breaks contact with them other than to attend periodic funerals, and refuses to accept any income from the farm under the terms of a family will. This money collects in a trust account and she intends it to eventually go to Salome.

Anton, Amor’s older brother, undergoes a steady mental breakdown through the course of the novel. This breakdown is precipitated when, during his army service, he shoots and kills a woman protestor on the same day his mother dies. He believes he is in some way responsible for his mother’s death. It is that which troubles him, not the death of the black woman herself. He slowly descends into alcoholism, and while doing so tries to write a novel, which eventually Amor comes to read. She describes it like this:

“There are interjections from the author in the margins too. Is this a family saga or a farm novel? one says. And another. Weather is indifferent to history! And also, Is this comedy or tragedy? ..The phases of the man’s life, separated by intervals of roughly ten years, will map out his development into full maturity, from promise through defeat to return and ripening, in tandem with the seasons.” (277/278)

It is quite common for authors to anticipate and address critics comments within the novel itself, but I am not sure if I can remember someone doing it quite so openly. The Promise is both a family saga and a farm novel (another genre that is new to me!), and while the rest of this description parallels without quite matching the novel in which it appears, it seemed to me a very unsubtle way of reminding the reader that this is just a novel not a record of a real family’s lives. This breaking of the fourth wall happens at several points throughout the novel. At one point the narrator’s restless focus switches to a homeless man, almost as if by accident. After he is arrested for vagrancy, fined and discharged, the narrator observes:

He has a long walk ahead of him, back to the church that he regards as home, but there’s no reason to accompany him and, come to think of it, there never was. Why is he obscuring our view, this unwashed, raggedy man, demanding sympathy, using a name that doesn’t belong to him, how did he waste our time with his stories? He’s very insistent on being noticed, how self-centred of him, what an egotist he is. Pay him no further mind. (203/204)

The Promise reminded me of the 2007 Booker winner, Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Both are constructed around families returning to the family home for a funeral, both of course won the Booker, and both front covers feature photographs of young girls staring directly down the camera. The Promise is the stronger, more interesting of the two, and I can see why it won last year’s Booker (from what seems quite a weak shortlist). Eventually it fizzles out, stopping rather than ending, and I was left wishing for a novel about apartheid that for once isn’t written from the white people’s perspective. Galgut could have given the black characters in this novel more than just a handful of lines, and portrayed them as more than victims or walk-on characters. Perhaps it’s not his place to write about the black South African experience of apartheid, (it’s not like he portrays apartheid as a good thing! or his racist characters in a positive way) just that the attempts at redemption by Amor (she goes to work as a nurse in ward for Aids victims) seem pathetic by comparison with the scale of the crime that was apartheid.

The Promise by Damon Galgut 2021

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Book review

Before you start to read any novel you have a set of expectations (sorry) about what it is going to be like, both in terms of the broad plot outline and some of the likely features. These ideas are informed by other novels and works you may have read by the author, the novel’s representation in popular culture, and smaller details such as the cover illustrations and comments on the blurb. You may also have read reviews and commentary on the text. All this adds up to a picture before you even start reading, and for classic novels such as Great Expectations that picture is fairly detailed. My perception of Great Expectations was something like this: I knew that the novel started with the central character, Pip, meeting an escaped convict in an isolated churchyard (the name Abel Magwitch is pretty unforgettable). I knew that the novel features a Miss Havisham who lives among the ruins of her wedding feast. I also knew that at some point Pip moves up in the world and becomes a young gentleman, presuming this to be related to his great expectations. Beyond that things were a bit hazier. I assumed, given that this was Dickens, that there would be long-lost relatives reunited with siblings or children at some point, evil villains plotting the downfall of the innocent hero or heroine, and that fortunes would be inherited and marriages arranged at the end of the novel to end with a happily-ever-after finale. Finally, I also assumed Pip would probably be the novel’s hero, and would exemplify all the positive virtues we expect of such a hero – kindness, loyalty, honesty etc. In short, I suspected the novel would be a reworking of David Copperfield or Oliver Twist.

Of course I was quite wrong. Pip is a flawed character who ends the novel with a redemption, of sorts, but spends much of it being disloyal and unkind to his relatives. At one point he receives a letter telling him he is going to receive a visit from his brother-in-law, the ever amiable blacksmith Joe Gargery. Pip is brutally honest about his reaction to this news:

“Let me confess exactly with what feelings I looked forward to Joe’s coming. Not with pleasure, though I was bound to him by so many ties; no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money.”

This is not the reaction of a hero – but it is intensely human of Pip to admit to these feelings. Unlike the conventional plot of a traditional Victorian novel the hero here doesn’t inherit a fortune, he loses one (arguably two). The romance at the heart of the novel is painful and unrequited, as far from a traditional love story as it is possible to be. In other words this is a novel that confounds the readers expectations – the title becomes not a promise but almost a taunt. Pip’s expectations as to how his life is to develop may be great, but they are not realised. His life is not conventionally tragic but he is not really the hero of his own story, and his realisation that his life is not going to take the trajectory he anticipated is far from what the reader will have come to expect from Dickens. I once argued that Dickens an extremely consistent if not predictable novelist, and that it was hard to see much progression in his work. Great Expectations confounds that theory – it is clearly the work of a mature novelist who knows that some novels need more than a happy-ever-after ending in which all the loose ends are tidied away.

Pip’s redemption is the core concept of the novel, but it is also very much an adventure story. Dickens brilliantly captures the reader’s attention in the opening pages by diving straight into the novel’s key scene. Magwitch has Pip by the throat almost before Pip has had time to introduce himself:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip….

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

“Oh! Don’t cut my throat, sir,” I pleaded in terror. “Pray don’t do it, sir.”

Notice how Magwitch appears to Pip almost as if risen from the dead. The sense of place evoked in these lines is extraordinary.

The novel is constructed in three parts, all three books being narrated by Pip from some distant point in his future. In book one Pip is a seven year old orphan living with his older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery on the coastal marshland of Kent. On Christmas Eve Pip meets Abel Magwitch, an escaped convict in the scene shown above. Magwitch scares Pip into stealing a file (to remove his chains) and some food and drink. Magwitch is swiftly recaptured, along with another convict with whom he has been fighting. This is an almost dream-like memory for Pip who has no idea of the significance it is going to have for his later life.

The other key childhood memory for Pip occurs when Miss Havisham, she of jilted at the altar fame, asks neighbour Mr Pumblechook to find a boy to visit her. (Out of context this seems a strange request – she takes little pleasure from Pip’s visits and instructs him simply to ‘play’. Pip sees nothing particularly unusual because he is a child and has yet to develop a sense of what is and isn’t strange. He is unphased by the fact that she still wears her old wedding dress and is surrounded by the detritus of her wedding day. Pip is smitten by Estella, Miss Havisham’s adopted daughter. Estella has been brought up by Miss Havisham to be hostile to all men, as a perverse form of revenge on the male sex. The regular visits to Satis House eventually end when Pip becomes as an apprentice blacksmith in Joe’s smithy. The final turning point of this stage of Pip’s life, and this book of the novel, comes when Mr Jaggers, a lawyer, tells Pip that he has been given a large sum of money from an anonymous benefactor, allowing him to leave the forge and become a gentleman.

The second book of the novel follows Pip’s experiences in London. He lives with Herbert Pocket, the son of his tutor, a cousin of Miss Havisham. Pip is convinced Miss Havisham is the source of his good fortune. He learns more about her story which cements that conviction. He sees little of Estella and even less of his sister and her husband. Despite his generous allowance he builds up some serious debts. For me this section of the novel lagged. Pip seems to waste most of his time trying to become a gentleman, although the precise nature of his tuition with Mr Pocket is never described (nor barely mentioned). Fortunately this period of his life comes to an end when he finally learns that his benefactor is not Miss Havisham but Abel Magwitch, who has made his fortune (we are never told how) in Australia. Pip is traumatised by this news – he feels any money he receives from Magwitch is compromised and must be returned. As Orwell rightly points out in his classic essay on Dickens, ‘Pip is conscious all along of his ingratitude towards Joe, but far less so of his ingratitude towards Magwitch. When he discovers that the person who has loaded him with benefits for years is actually a transported convict, he falls into frenzies of disgustnot because when Pip was a child he had been terrorized by Magwitch in the churchyard; it is because Magwitch is a criminal and a convict. But Pip’s sense of revulsion towards Magwitch slowly changes as he comes to realise that the convict may be a criminal but his instincts and intentions are far from evil.

The final book of the novel draws these threads together as everyone is given an ending suitable to their character. There are some dramatic incidents in which fate intervenes to ensure justice is served, and some long-lost secrets are revealed. I am as you can see trying to avoid too many spoilers. Pip matures significantly once he learns that his chance meeting with Magwitch in the churchyard all those years ago was the source of his great expectations. This seems to lead him to be determined to do the right thing regardless of the personal cost. He eventually comes to see Magwitch in a loving, dedicated way (feelings surely more due to Joe) and he dedicates himself to caring for the convict at the end.

While this is not a typical Dickens novel neither is it short on the things we expect and love from his work. The central characters are convincingly realised, even when they are eccentric or downright unpleasant. The plot is more compact and less byzantine than usual, and the cast of minor characters with strange names and idiosyncratic personalities – while still very much present – is shorter than in many of his earlier novels. The humour is often subdued – there aren’t many laugh out loud moments, although I did enjoy this description of a Saturday night at the Three Jolly Bargemen:

There was a group assembled round the fire … attentive to Mr. Wopsle as he read the newspaper aloud…. A highly popular murder had been committed, and Mr. Wopsle was imbrued in blood to the eyebrows. He gloated over every abhorrent adjective in the description, and identified himself with every witness at the Inquest. He faintly moaned, “I am done for,” as the victim, and he barbarously bellowed, “I’ll serve you out,” as the murderer. He gave the medical testimony, in pointed imitation of our local practitioner; and he piped and shook, as the aged turnpike-keeper who had heard blows, to an extent so very paralytic as to suggest a doubt regarding the mental competency of that witness. The coroner, in Mr. Wopsle’s hands, became Timon of Athens; the beadle, Coriolanus. He enjoyed himself thoroughly, and we all enjoyed ourselves, and were delightfully comfortable. In this cosy state of mind we came to the verdict Wilful Murder.

Great Expectations is commonly considered one of Dickens’s greatest works. It was ranked above Bleak House, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities in the BBC Big Read survey back in 2003. I am not sure it merits that status – it goes without saying it is a great novel, but for me it didn’t have the depth of some of the others mentioned here. The fact that he changed the novel’s ending to allow readers the hope of a reconciliation between Pip and Estella suggests Dickens may have had his doubts as well.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, 1860-61

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Book review

Peter Carey’s 1988 Booker-prize winning Oscar and Lucinda tells the parallel stories of its eponymous characters: Oscar Hopkins, a disgraced clergyman, and Lucinda Leplastrier, owner of a glass factory. The novel is narrated by one of the Oscar’s descendants several generations later, who is always keen to point out the role random chance seems to have in determining their fate. Although they eventually meet on board a ship headed to Australia, for a large part of the novel their stories are separate.

Oscar is raised in remote Cornwall by his father who is a preacher in the Plymouth Brethren, a harshly non-conformist group which believes in the literal truth of the bible.

He (Oscar) comes to believe that God wants him to convert to Anglicanism, despite his father’s conviction that this means he is going to hell. But his conversion is also, incidentally, a means for him escape from rural Cornwall and achieve an education. At Oxford while training to become a priest Oscar discovers gambling, a sin he is never subsequently able to escape from. Whilst at university Oscar is a social outcast. His poverty marks him out, as does his other-worldly appearance and his complete lack of social skills. By chance he meets a fellow student, Wardley-Fish (a larger than life character I wish we had seen more of) who introduces him to the joys of gambling. At first his horse-racing winnings provide him with the funds to stay at Oxford, but his gambling – even on the Sabbath – eventually gets him into trouble, to the extent that the church authorities decide to exile him to Australia.

Lucinda’s story is also dominated by her fascination (or perhaps it is an addiction?) with gambling. She is orphaned when she is a young woman. She inherits the large farm in Australia her parents bought following a move from the UK. Not really knowing what to do with either her inheritance nor the rest of her life she spontaneously decides to buy a glassworks. Making a success of the business isn’t easy – the fiercely misogynistic glassblowers don’t even allow her to enter her own factory. At a loose end, Lucinda falls into the wrong crowd, and begins gambling on cards. A trip to London isn’t the way of rebooting her life she is looking for, but on the way back she meets Oscar.

Oscar’s terror of the sea – and large bodies of water more generally – means he is unable to socialise or move freely around the liner taking them to Australia. Nevertheless they bond over their mutual hobby, and Lucinda eventually invites Oscar to stay with her in Sydney. Their friendship develops and society is scandalised when they live together seemingly as man and wife, although in fact entirely innocently. Their relationship falters as Oscar is convinced Lucinda is in love with Reverend Hassett, a glass expert she consulted on the acquisition of her factory.

The finale of the novel involves a dangerous and improbable bet – Lucinda challenges Oscar to deliver a glass church to Reverend Hassett in his new living in Boat Harbour. Yes, a glass church. If that were not improbable enough, instead of taking the church by sea, Oscar’s fear of water means he has to travel overland, through largely uncharted territory. This fanciful expedition inevitably extracts a high price from them all.

Oscar and Lucinda could have been the great Australian novel. Carey is recorded as having said of his writing “My fictional project has always been the invention or discovery of my own country“. The colonisation of the continent by the British and others, and the impact this had on the indigenous peoples, is a theme which ripples through this novel, but always as the background to the lives of the central characters rather than ever being foregrounded as an issue. In the novel’s opening introductory chapter the narrator tells the reader a little about the area where he grew up, including the following:

“I learned long ago to distrust local history. Darkwood, for instance, they will tell you at the Historical Society, is called Darkwood because of the darkness of the foliage, but it was not so long ago you could hear people call it Darkies’ Point, and not so long before that when Horace Clark’s grandfather went up there with his mates – all the old families should record this when they are arguing about who controls the shire – and pushed an entire tribe of aboriginal men and women and children off the edge.”

This shocking massacre is part of settler history, and no worthy of further exploration. While other writers might think this story worth telling, in this novel it is just window-dressing, local ‘colour’. Oscar and Lucinda are both European settlers, as is almost everyone else they meet or mix with, while the indigenous Australians are virtually voiceless. Towards the end of the novel there are some brief exceptions to this rule – Kumbaingiri Billy, for example, a friend of the narrator’s father, is introduced as the source of the story of the glass church – but overwhelmingly this novel is about the experience of colonial Australia, in which European settlers struggle to come to terms with the challenges of the new world. That settler experience is only part of the story of Australia. Australia wasn’t invented or discovered by Europeans – I am pretty sure it was there all along and had been inhabited by people for thousands of years. While Carey doesn’t ignore that fact he really doesn’t address it at any length either. It is only recently, in A Long Way from Home for example, that Carey has finally started to address face-on what he has called “the fundamental, bloody circumstance of my country”. In the promotional interviews for that novel Carey said that “You can’t be a white Australian writer and spend your whole life ignoring the greatest, most important aspect of our history, and that is that we – I – have been the beneficiaries of a genocide.” The fact is he managed to do just that in this novel. I know it might seem strange to critique the novel Carey hasn’t written, and I understand his reasons for not feeling qualified to write about the aboriginal experience, but I can’t help feeling it was a huge missed opportunity.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey 1988

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Book review

“She is awake…”

That’s a great start to a novel! Who is ‘she’, and why is her awakening so important, so ominous? Sadly, after that this never really gets any better.

The Leviathan is set in Norfolk and is told in two threads, one set in a time of relative peace in 1703, and one sixty years earlier during the English Civil War. The narrator of both tales, Thomas Treadwater reflects on his time serving in Cromwell’s army. During a seasonal break in the fighting he returned home to nurse his wounds. His return was hastened by a letter from his sister who suspected a new servant of ‘drawing our father into corruptions’, alleging she was using witchcraft to do so. By the time Thomas reached their remote farm his father had had a stroke, the farm was in chaos, and the servant had been arrested on suspicion of being a witch. Thomas recollects his struggles to come to terms with what had happened as events snowball beyond his control.

There are a number of issues with The Leviathan, some of which I can discuss avoiding spoilers, others, sadly not. If that is likely to be a problem for you, and if you are planning to read the book, (and I admit, the premise is intriguing) don’t read on.

For a novel set in North Norfolk, an area of the country with a very specific geography, a sense of place is almost completely lacking. Apart from the fact that the Treadwater farm is set in remote countryside, we could be almost anywhere. What is so frustrating about this is that this part of the world has such a haunting atmosphere – huge skies, towering flint churches that seem wildly out of scale with their villages, coastal marshes and crumbling cliffs. Although most of the drainage windpumps that survive to this day were built later, at this time (i.e. in the seventeenth century) there would have been windmills stalking over across the flat landscape. What a missed opportunity this was. The sense of the period is captured very effectively – the world turned upside down – with parliament challenging the supreme authority of the monarch, but the sense of place is missing.

The novel opens as a fairly conventional story of witchcraft and witch-finding. The sinister and zealous Witchfinder Rutherford is introduced, but any expectation that he is going to be the novel’s villain is confounded when he goes missing, shortly after having proposed to Thomas’s young sister Esther. No-one seems particularly troubled by his absence, and that storyline is quietly dropped, as eventually is the witchcraft thread of the novel altogether. Why Esther would have accepted Rutherford’s proposal when she is – we later find out – not in any position to do so, is unexplained. Certainly the engagement is short lived! (Just to be clear, it is later suggested Esther had a sinister motive in accepting Rutherford, or in getting close to him, but the presentation of her acceptance is completely at odds with this motive. It appeared very inconsistent characterisation).

The introduction of John Milton to the novel as a character who helps resolve the mystery of the Leviathan is unconvincing and strange. He seems shoe-horned into the novel to provide it with some period detail, although his future as one of England’s greatest poets as well as his role as a radical figure within the Commonwealth Government goes largely unmentioned. Using historical figures as detectives in popular fiction has become a bit of a cliché recently, but Milton’s contribution to resolving the novel’s central mystery is in any event marginal. His presence is a wasted opportunity.

Thomas eventually finds out that his sister, Esther, has become possessed by a devil or demon. Their father rescued her from a shipwreck sixteen years earlier, and all this time the demonic entity has been lying dormant, sparked into life by the envy Esther feels towards her father’s new (and attractive) young servant. This makes some sense – Wikipedia tells me that Thomas Aquinas described the biblical Leviathan as the “demon of envy, first in punishing sinners”. But it is never made clear what the relationship is between the demonic entity that possesses Esther and the Leviathan itself, an enormous ship-crushing sea-monster. If I found The Essex Serpent disappointing in its non-existence, the literal appearance of the Leviathan was in many ways even more disappointing, and certainly less convincing. For horror to be effective it has to be credible, and while the ideas of witchcraft and possession have some basis in historical fact and can be explained by reference to actual phenomena, real-life sea-monsters summoned from the deep by demons are harder to believe.

My theory is that there was no sea monster, no Leviathan in the first draft of this novel. It was a story about witchcraft and possession, about faith and scepticism. The appearance of the great sceptic Milton in that novel makes complete sense. But then I suspect an editor read the novel in draft and suggested some changes that would make it more marketable (which to be fair is their job!). The book trade must have been looking for a successor to The Essex Serpent for some time (in the same way that I am sure editors are considering at this very moment the first chapters of The Tuesday Lunchtime Homicide Association penned by a moderately famous television presenter!). The Leviathan’s marketing leverages its apparent similarity to The Essex Serpent, not least in the serpentine design of the book’s cover. It’s not a coincidence that it was displayed in my local Waterstone next to copies of the Perry novel, nor that Goodreads describes it as “perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent.”

So The Leviathan 2.0 was (my theory goes) born, in which a storyline about a sea-serpent was grafted clumsily onto a witchcraft/demonic possession gothic horror novel. The joints show and creak. The remaining elements of the original horror story show some fairly obvious borrowing from nineteenth century gothic. As in Jane Eyre a mad-woman kept trapped in the attic breaks free and destroys the family home with fire. There’s also more than a hint of Wuthering Heights in the storyline whereby a foundling is taken in by a family living in a remote farmhouse who grows up with destructive urges, undermining the adoptive family from within.

There are some other issues with the unevenness of the narrative. When Thomas first returns to the family farm he sees dozens of sheep lying dead in the fields. The illness that has swept through the herds is quickly forgotten (as is the unpleasant job of disposing of the carcasses) and was obviously just added for atmosphere. Thomas’s infected and agonising war wound quickly disappears after a poultice is applied and he has a few days bed rest. And the end of the novel is confused and ambiguous. Gothic horror is always going to struggle in this context – either the author can resolve matters with a naturalistic/scientific explanation (it was the crusty old janitor wearing a mask all along) or the supernatural is real, witches and magic exists, and the reformation was all a lie. I’m not sure there is a correct answer to that conundrum, but if an author is going to invite us to believe in monsters and demons then they need to be summoned with a little more conviction.

The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews 2022

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