Book review

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

W B Yeats, The Second Coming

The standard reading, the academic consensus, sees Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel Things Fall Apart as a depiction of pre-colonial village life in Nigeria based upon a “coherent social structure forming the institutional fabric of a universe of meanings and values.” This analysis goes on to argue that:

“because this image of Africa was quite unprecedented in literature, it also carried considerable ideological weight in the specific context of the novel’s writing and reception. For it cannot be doubted that the comprehensive scope of Achebe’s depiction of a particularized African community engaged in its own social processes, carried out entirely on its own terms, with all the internal tensions this entailed, challenged the simplified representation that the West offered itself of Africa as a formless area of life, as “an area of darkness” devoid of human significance”.

(The Crisis of Cultural Memory in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, by F Abiola Irele).

Putting it more simply, the portrait of a complex, structured society in pre-colonial West Africa is characterised as a refutation of the racist myth – seen for example in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but obviously not originating there – that this part of Africa was uncivilised and its people ‘savages’. Things Fall Apart shows us, if we needed showing, that life in West Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans in large numbers in the late nineteenth century was not ‘devoid of significance’, not a world of savage brutality. It had rules and obligations, a system of justice, artistic achievement, codes of ethics and morality.

I am not sure if you read Things Fall Apart without an awareness of this conventional interpretation you would draw this conclusion. Because the novel portrays tribal life as brutal in the extreme. Toxic masculinity means women are treated as possessions, punished violently for any infringements of their husband’s wishes or society’s arbitrary rules. Family life is devoid of what we think of as the natural affections between family members. Infanticide is not just tolerated but mandated in some circumstances such as the birth of twins. This is a violent, misogynistic society in which life is hard, violence is ever-present, and affection rare. Any temptation to romanticise tribal culture will find little encouragement here.

In fact Things Fall Apart dares to suggest that the arrival of white men and in particular missionaries was a positive thing for some Africans. The markets now have goods on sale that were previously impossible to find. The missionaries educate the children, and provide sanctuary for the people previously rejected by the tribe:

“There were many men and women in Umuofia who did not feel as strongly as Okonkwo about the new dispensation. The white man had indeed brought a lunatic religion, but he had also built a trading store and for the first time palm-oil and kernel became things of great price, and much money flowed into Umuoifa.” (chapter 21)

The novel is set in Nigeria in the late nineteenth century, and through the life of one man, Okonkwo, shows how life changes with the arrival of the missionaries, Okonkwo has three wives and ten children and is a man of high status within his tribe. He is haunted by the need to be a better man than his weak father. He works hard farming yams, and is tyrannical and violent towards his family. A turning point in the novel arrives when he is appointed as the guardian of teenage boy taken in effect as a hostage, as part of a peace settlement with another clan, a traditional method of avoiding a wider conflict. The boy lives with his family for several years, and they grow close, but unexpectedly the village elders decide that that he must be killed. Okonkwo carries out this sentence as a demonstration of his masculinity. This traumatic murder (although not deemed as such by the villagers) is hard for Okonkwo to come to terms with. A little while later he accidentally kills another man (his aging gun explodes at a funeral – the villagers obviously have some Western artefacts, although their source is unclear) and his whole family is exiled.

While he is in exile, rumours reach him of the arrival of white men in the area. At first it is thought this is a mistake – that the men are possibly albinos – but the rumours are confirmed. The missionaries build a church and start to convert people to Christianity. The villagers have to choose – to fight back and expel the white men, with possibly violent consequences, or trust in their own gods, who they believe will expel the white men on their own, at a time of their choosing. Okonkwo is in favour of a violent, aggressive response, particularly once his son Nwoye starts to become interested in the new religion. A mild response to an insult with tribal customs and beliefs is met by Okonkwo and other village leaders being taken prisoner. War appears inevitable but Okonkwo’s leadership is not followed and he soon faces an impossible choice.

Seen simply as a response to Conrad, Things Fall Apart is unconvincing. The racist imagery of Africa as the ‘dark continent’ peopled by savages never suggested the continent was entirely devoid of any form of civilisation. Education was widely unavailable, material and scientific development was a long way behind European standards, and the villagers subsistence way of life was very vulnerable to drought or other natural disasters (hence I suspect the taboo around twins – two mouths to feed at the same time would be too many?). But Europeans’ main concern about this way of life would have been the absence of Christianity, from which all other sins – infanticide for example – could be said to have derived.

Things Fall Apart is a much more nuanced novel than this interpretation suggests. It chronicles the end of a way of life that seemed to have little to commend it. It’s hardly surprising that Achebe, baptised with the forename Albert, the son of Christian converts and the beneficiary of a Christian education, would have not looked back on tribal life with much of a sense of nostalgia. If you are looking for a reductionist ‘colonialism = bad, African = good” narrative this novel will disappoint. That colonialism was destructive for traditional African society but in its wake brought some benefits is a less black and white interpretation than the novel usually attracts. The novel’s title, and the poem from which it derives, suggest that colonialism signalled the arrival of a blood-dimmed tide upon Africa’s shores. The second coming may not be the moment of redemption that Christians believe it to be, but it’s equally not the apocalypse of Revelations either.


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, 1958

Book review

Anyone who has seen him wildly ad-libbing on Would I Lie to You will know that as well as being a wonderful comic Bob Mortimer is also a brilliant story-teller. It’s a pity therefore that his childhood provides such depressing material for the opening half of this his autobiography. His dad died unexpectedly when he was young, and his mum struggled to support the family of four sons in working class Middlesbrough. The sad clown trope in which the comedian’s childhood insecurities are compensated for by comedy voices and routines (impersonations of teachers being a favourite) is very often a feature of similar accounts. But Bob was too shy even for that role. He’s very frank about how difficult these years were for him, but what is surprising is how long he struggled with this aspect of his personality. I found it genuinely sad that his footballing abilities didn’t provide an outlet for him – although he played for the Middlesbrough boys team for several years he tells us he hardly shared more than a dozen words with his teammates off the pitch. He later describes his time at Sussex university as the most difficult years of his life and that “throughout my entire three years at Sussex I never spoke to another law student. I talked in tutorials but as soon as they finished I was away back to my room to listen to my records.”

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The opening chapters of this absorbing autobiography are interspersed with an up-to-date chronicle of Bob’s heart problems, which brought a very sudden taste of his mortality. In childhood we have to come to terms with the inevitability of our own deaths, but we are able to treat it as sufficiently distant as to be an abstract concept, something that will happen one day but is not too frightening. But in later mid-life, with an unambiguous and critical diagnosis, it becomes a much more immediate reality. Bob response to the dawning realisation that he was not going to be around in ten or twenty years was to try to make the most of what time he had left. And to go fishing with his friend Paul Whitehouse. If you haven’t seen it Gone Fishing is wonderfully relaxing and contemplative comedy.

And Away… is admittedly fragmented. I got the impression that however hard Bob tried to be honest, he edits the story of his younger years to sanitise them. I can’t blame him for not wanting to dwell overly long on moments of his life best left behind, (not least because he would in doing so give away the ‘true or false’ answers to some of the more ridiculous anecdotes on Would I Lie to You) and he hurries on to the transformative moment when he meets his comedy partner, Vic Reeves. These are obviously the days Bob remembers with particular fondness, allowing him to leave behind a legal career he clearly wasn’t that interested in and to develop a stage persona in which he felt more comfortable than in his own skin. Imposter syndrome is possibly an exaggerated way of describing the common feeling that we don’t quite deserve the success we achieve and Bob certainly shares this feeling – it is almost as if he can’t quite believe his luck in getting to share the stage and screen with Vic, and would never want to emerge from his role as sidekick where he feels he belongs. He tells the story of their amazing success on television almost as a fan would describe it, a series of lucky breaks and undeserved second series, rather than the reward for hard work and comedic talent.

Bob comes across on television as a decent, genuinely likeable and yet humble man, someone who it would be wonderful to go for a beer with. This memoir confirms that impression without really giving the reader any new insights. Perhaps autobiographies are always going to hide as much as they reveal, which is why we wait for biographies for the real warts-and-all revelations.

And Away…, by Bob Mortimer, 2021

Book review

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first, because seemingly it’s mandatory for every review of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy to mention its length. The paperback edition is over 1500 pages long, which makes it easily the longest single edition novel I have ever read (Clarissa was longer but came in 12 editions so isn’t a fair comparison). Apart from the fact that the book was slightly cumbersome to handle, for me this wasn’t really an issue. If you were reading it to a deadline for a review or coursework then I can appreciate the concern, but otherwise I am not sure why all reviews seem to obsess about the length. The impression I have is that Seth was determined to ignore the traditional ‘rules’ of novel writing, so if the novel ran to 1500 pages then so be it, not his problem (he displayed the same rule-breaking approach when he wrote his 1986 novel The Golden Gate entirely in verse).

A Suitable Boy is set in India in the early 1950’s, a few years after independence from the UK and the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. Partition was a traumatic and violent event for the people of the region, with tens of millions displaced and hundreds of thousands (on a low estimate) killed in communal violence. The immediate days and weeks of independence have been explored at length by writers such as Salman Rushdie (in Midnight’s Children), so the setting of A Suitable Boy in the early but not immediate post-colonial period provides a fresh perspective. The India described in A Suitable Boy is in the circumstances remarkably calm and law-abiding compared to that of a few years earlier. Partition has still left its mark – families are separated, and communal violence remains a threat – but overall things are remarkably calm, even to the extent that a national election can take place. Hindu and Muslim families on the whole do not intermarry, but they mostly live alongside one another in relative peace.


To explore this world the novel follows the interwoven stories of four families: the Khans, Mehras, Chatterjis and Kapoors. Seth helpfully provides a detailed family tree at the opening of the book which I regularly referred to. If such a diffuse novel can be said to have a central narrative it is probably that of Mrs Rupa Mehra’s search for a ‘suitable boy’ for her daughter, Lata, an intelligent and independent 19-year-old undergraduate (to be honest, this storyline is usually deemed the central narrative simply because of its connection to the novel’s title rather than because it dominates the book or holds it together.) Rather than meekly accepting her mother’s decisions, Lata has her own views on whom she should marry. Her bullying brother, Arun, also tries to intervene and influence her choice. Three suitors emerge, all with various complications. Kabir Durrani is a cricket-playing student. He is charming and kind, and Lata quickly falls in love with him, but he is a Muslim so, according to her family, he out of the question. Haresh Khanna is an ambitious young man employed by a local shoe-making company, but he has a former lover who remains in his heart, and he is dismissed by some members of Lata’s family as a ‘cobbler’. To complete the trio of suitors, Amit Chatterjee (Lata’s brother’s brother-in-law) is part of the extended Mehra family and therefore in many ways more suitable than the others. Amit is an acclaimed poet and author, clearly modelled on Seth himself. The novelist is brutally honest about Amit’s/his own failings and unsuitability as a potential husband.

This isn’t really a love story though. Lata’s romantic interests provide a narrative thread of sorts, but for long stretches the novel diverts into a wide variety of other topics and themes, from considerations of land reform, the Congress Party, elections, the Hindu/Muslim conflicts that continued throughout this period, as well as following the personal stories of a wide cast of peripheral characters. By ‘peripheral’ I mean that while they are not central to the core narrative, Seth doesn’t treat them as such, to the extent that the whole concept of a central narrative is flawed. All of these characters are brought to life and given time to develop their own stories. This seems part of Seth’s determination not to follow the traditional structures of the Western novel, but to write about what interests him. If it leads down a narrative rabbit hole then so be it; if the novel balloons to an incredible length, then it does.

Two of these ‘minor’ characters in particular stood out for me: Maan Kapoor, Lata’s brother-in-law (technically her sister’s brother-in-law) and Meenakshi Mehra nee Chatterji, wife to Arun and sister-in-law to Lata (and yes, in case you were wondering, I did just check the family trees to make sure I got this right). Maan is a playboy who becomes besotted with Saeeda Bai, a musical ‘courtesan’ – in other words a high-class prostitute. Through this storyline the reader is introduced to the complex sexual morality of India. While some women were kept virtually imprisoned in purdah, not allowed to show their faces to any man other than immediate family members, and forbidden from even going outside, other women such as Saeeda are allowed to sing at high-class social events without causing scandal, protected by the senior status of their customers. The double standards are shown, but Seth doesn’t moralise explicitly. Saeeda’s position is insecure – she knows that if she loses the patronage of some of her most senior ‘lovers’ she will be quickly ostracised by society. Later in the novel it is revealed that Maan had gay relationships while at boarding school and occasionally continues his long standing relationship with Firoz Khan, a school friend. He is in other words secretly bisexual. This secrecy is needed because being gay at the time in India in theory could lead to a life-long prison sentence, and would have been immensely damaging to his father’s political career. (His father is a minister in the Indian Government). Extraordinarily, homosexuality was only decriminalised in India in 2018 even though Hindu culture has a long tradition of recognising the complexity of human sexuality.

Meenakski is an interesting contrast to Saeeda and Maan. Although married she conducts a love-affair with one of her husband’s friends in which she is clearly the dominant party – she pressures him into liaisons and refuses to allow the relationship to lapse, apparently reckless or unafraid of the social stigma and other consequences that would ensue were they to be discovered. She is sexually liberated, and appears to enjoy her affair consequence-free – at one point she does fall accidentally pregnant, but loses the baby to a miscarriage and is secretly pleased at this outcome. The novel doesn’t pass judgment on Meenakski. As with Saeeda Bai her decisions are shown but not condemned.

Towards the end of the text Seth comes close to breaking the fourth wall when Amit, his avatar within the novel, is asked about the length of his own forthcoming novel. It is easy to imagine that this was a question Seth had to answer many times when his publishers released details of the page count of A Suitable Boy:

Do you believe in the virtue of compression?’ ‘Well, yes’, said Amit warily. The lady was rather fat.

Why then is it rumoured that your forthcoming novel – to be set, I understand, in Bengal, is to be so long? More than a thousand pages!’ she exclaimed reproachfully, as if he were personally responsible for the nervous exhaustion of some future dissertationist.

‘Oh, I don’t know how it grew to be so long’ said Amit. ‘I’m very undisciplined. But I too hate long books: the better, the worse, If they’re bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch’. (Don’t we all?)

This is Seth’s response to the commentary about the novel’s lack of ‘compression’ – to mock his critics who are unable to bear the weight of the book or to read it without going into their own version of purdah.

Mostly the narrative is gently paced, following the lives of the characters wherever they end up. Periodically there are major events that in a traditional novel would be used to drive the narrative forward. I don’t think it is a coincidence that these dramatic incidents are used to end episodes of the television adaptation of the novel, providing cliff-hangers to ensure viewers return the following week. There is a tragedy at the annual pilgrimage to the Ganges (in the novel, the event is called “Pul Mela” instead of “Kumbh Mela”) which is based on a real event from 1954 in which hundreds of people were crushed to death. Although one of the novel’s minor characters is injured in the crush there are no long-term consequences – he recovers fully. Later another character is stabbed, but while at one point it is thought he might die, there are no long-term injuries and the attacker is cleared of any wrong-doing. Time and again events such as Meenakski’s pregnancy or Kabir’s declaration of love for Lata, which in other novels would be major turning points, turn out to be false starts, and things quickly return back to normal. I am not sure how to interpret this – it could be that Seth is making a broader point about Indian history and its future. Despite the many events that shook national life at the time the country quickly returns back to normality. It persists and survives.

Unsurprisingly, the novel contains a lot of detail about traditional Hindu festivals, traditions and ceremonies. Largely these are just shown to the reader – there’s no real attempt by the narrator to explain their purpose or background. This means the reader either heads off to the internet to do some background reading (making a long read even longer!) or goes with the flow and accepts the traditions as background colour which are important to some of the characters (others treat them with disdain) but not essential to an understanding of the plot.

Although the main story-lines are resolved by the end of the 1500 pages, much is left unsaid. This means the novel functions largely as a portrait of Indian life in the early 1950’s rather than a conventional story. When it was first published some reviews of A Suitable Boy compared it to epic nineteenth century novels such as War and Peace. I’m not sure such comparison are helpful. A Suitable Boy spans only around eighteen months, focuses on domestic rather than national events (national events without question feature in the novel, but they act more as a backdrop rather than as the focus of the narrative) and in some ways is closer to a soap-opera than a dynastic saga. I suspect it was this structure which made it an obvious choice for a television series rather than a film adaptation. Ultimately one has to admire the novelist’s determination to write the novel that he was interested in, rather than accepting the conventions of a genre which have developed over time (arguably in the interests of publishers rather than readers?). A Suitable Boy will reward the time you have to invest in it. It is an engrossing portrait of India which should not be rushed.

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, 1993

Book review

“People change,’ she said
‘Oh, no they don’t. Look at me. I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.”

Greene’s 1938 novel of gang warfare in Brighton pulls off a rare achievement – it is at

Brighton Rock By Graham Greene

once both an adventure story and a serious mediation on good and evil. I was blown away by it; not necessarily by the plot (the ending is largely predictable) but by the quality of the prose. Greene’s control of language is masterful throughout, and virtually every sentence is a gem.

Charles Hale comes to Brighton to distribute cards for a newspaper competition. Hale has somehow underestimated the antipathy felt for him by a local gang, a mistake he quickly comes to regret. The novel tells the reader as much with the ominous opening line:

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”.

To avoid being isolated by the gang who begin tracking him through the crowds of day-trippers, Fred picks up Ida Arnold, visiting Brighton for the races. This helps keep the gang at arms length, but he is then briefly separated from her, long enough for them lead him away to his fate.

Pinkie Brown, (also known as The Boy), is the leader of the gang that murders Hale. Pinkie struggles through the remainder of the novel to avoid the consequences of this killing. Although he has carefully planned the timing of his alibi, things quickly unravel. One gang member, Spicer, is tasked with distributing Hale’s leftover cards around Brighton in order to confuse any investigation into the timing of his death. But a witness, Rose, the waitress at a café, sees him leaving one of Hale’s cards, and is able to identify him. Pinkie knows that the waitress’s evidence could reveal his complicity in Hale’s murder. Rose is an innocent and vulnerable 16 year old, a fellow Roman Catholic, and she falls into a destructive and abusive relationship with Pinkie.

Pinkie is the novel’s central character, and much of the story is told from his perspective. He is a highly damaged individual – only 17 years old and already a killer. We are told repeatedly that he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and is a virgin. He inherited control of the gang following the death of the original leader Kite in a fight on St Pancras station, and rules the gang through fear of his instability and propensity for sudden violence. As well as his weapon of choice, a razor blade, he carries around a bottle of acid (“vitriol”) with which he threatens Rose. He aims to silence her with fear, before later deciding to marry her, as wives were unable to testify against their husbands law at the time.

The police are peripheral figures in Brighton Rock – a gang fight at the races doesn’t merit an investigation; neither does Spicer’s obviously suspicious death. Pinkie is floundering with the challenges of his new role – his immaturity is emphasised by his diminutive nickname. The local police persuade a witness to an attack by the gang to withdraw his evidence, make a mess of the investigation into Hale’s death, if any, and encourage Pinkie to join forces with the mobster planning to take over his territory.

Hale’s death does not go completely uninvestigated however. Ida Arnold, who was with him moments before his murder, doesn’t believe the inquest verdict, and decides to try to discover how he came to die. The novel’s narrative voice consistently if gently mocks Ida, but she sets about the investigation in a very systematic manner, following up leads and persuading the local police to let her see the report into Hale’s death. She takes all the steps that one would expect a traditional investigator to follow, including starting at the scene of the crime and attempting to trace Hale’s contacts on the day. But we are encouraged throughout despite all the evidence to the contrary to see Ida as a clumsy, rather foolhardy figure.

Ida is a fascinating character. The narrator tells the reader that

“You thought of sucking babies when you looked at her”

says she has

“A touch of nursery and the mother”

and describes

“Her Guinness kindness”.

In other words she is the last person one would expect to bravely confront murderous gangsters and bring them to justice. But she does just that. I can’t think of any other character in fiction to can compare to Ida. Women in detective and thriller stories usually are given a subordinate role, and those that do feature are usually young and sexually attractive. The exceptions – Miss Marple for example – are usually shown as eccentric and devoid of sexuality. Ida’s actions consistently undercuts the narrator’s depiction of her as an ineffective slightly comic figure.

The novel also contains a serious discussion on the Christian concepts of good and evil, damnation and salvation, without being in any way didactic. Rose is terrified that she might be damned, but is prepared to lose her mortal soul for the sake of Pinkie; Pinkie is certain about the existence of hell, but less convinced about its counterpart:

“But you do believe, don’t you,” Rose implored him, “you think it’s true?”
“Of course it’s true,” the Boy said. “What else could there be?” he went scornfully on. “Why,” he said, “it’s the only thing that fits. These atheists, they don’t know nothing. Of course there’s Hell. Flames and damnation,” he said with his eyes on the dark shifting water and the lightning and the lamps going out above the black struts of the Palace Pier, “torments.”
“And Heaven too,” Rose said with anxiety, while the rain fell interminably on.
“Oh, maybe,” the Boy said, “maybe.”

Pinkie is a Roman Catholic and knows that his crimes are sins for which a price will be paid at some point. Ida is the counterpoint to Pinkie in the novel. Her ideas about sin are in stark contrast to Pinkie’s – she says:

“It doesn’t do anyone any harm that I know of. It’s human nature…It’s only fun after all…fun to be human.

Reflecting on an afternoon of sex with her gentleman friend Corkery:

“She knew what was right and what was wrong. God didn’t mind a bit of human nature – what he minded – and her brain switched away from Phil in pants to her mission, to doing good, to seeing that evil suffered”.

All these elements come together in the climax of the novel with extraordinary pace and flair. The thriller element of the story is highly effective, and perfectly balanced with the ideas about morality – the two elements complement one another rather than providing a distraction. Without the discussion of good versus evil this would just be a quite limited detective story, albeit one that introduces a new kind of amateur detective to fiction. Without the detective element this would be a tedious debate about what makes people commit crimes. Together they form a compelling story.

There’s much else of interest in this novel. The prose is luxurious and complex without being in any way obscure. For his gangster characters Greene adopts a limited version of Polari – a slang dialect initially derived from travellers which in the 1950’s became popular within the gay community to allow ideas to be openly discussed without being overheard or understood by others.

The novel is crowded with vividly realised portraits of characters, especially Pinkie’s gang and their base at Frank’s. For example, Pinkie’s rival, Colleoni, is an aging Italian mobster

“in glace shoes, with a white slip to his waistcoat and a jewelled pin”

who stays at the Cosmopolitan, a world away from Frank’s, the seedy boarding house which acts as the base for Pinkie’s gang. Frank’s telephone number is 666, either Greene’s or Pinkie’s joking reference to Revelations and the number of the beast. There is also a strong sense of place about the novel – the streets of Brighton and the local landmarks are vividly captured.

At the close, Greene provides us with an understanding of the cruel events of the novel, in a line quoted in Jed Bartlett’s extraordinary Two Cathedrals speech from the West Wing:

“You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the…appalling…strangeness of the mercy of God.”

But there is still time for one last shock, as Greene allows Rose to discover Pinkie’s true feelings toward her, described as “the worst horror of all”.

Brighton Rock is a magnificent, rewarding, complex book that demands to be read and reread for a long time. It has its flaws, but in my view is one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene, 1938

Book review

Orwell dismissed A Clergyman’s Daughter as “tripe” and more bluntly as “bollocks”, and prevented it from being reprinted during his lifetime. He thought it even worse than Keep the Aspidistra Flying, as “it was written simply as an exercise and I oughtn’t to have published it, but I was desperate for money”.

Is it really that bad, or was this simply false modesty?

Dorothy Hare, 28 years old and single, works tirelessly as an unpaid curate (vicar’s assistant) to her father, the rector of Knype Hill, a small town based (it is believed) on Southwold in Suffolk, where Orwell’s parents lived after retirement from India. Dorothy is run ragged with the responsibilities of the parish and her household. Her father is feckless and totally unsympathetic, so she takes the weight of the whole parish on her shoulders, from running the girl guides and Mothers’ Union, typing up his sermons, and visiting the sick. One day, following a particularly challenging day’s work, she is sexually assaulted by Mr Warburton, an aging lothario who casually attempts to seduce her (as he sees it). This assault triggers an episode of amnesia for Dorothy, who wakes up several days later in the Old Kent Road wearing a new set of clothes. How she got to London from Suffolk is never explained. Knype Hill society assumes she has eloped with Warburton, who has conveniently gone on a long European trip at exactly the same time.

Dazed and confused, and extremely vulnerable, Dorothy joins a group travelling to Kent for the hop-picking season. Slowly her memory returns, and she writes to her father explaining her situation and asking for help. When no reply comes she assumes she is persona non-grata and at the end of the hop season she travels back to London. Once her money runs out she ends up living on the street joining a group of tramps in Trafalgar Square. The chapter describing the night spent sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square is written experimentally, with a nod to Ulysses, in play format. As the cold worsens and lack of sleep leads to exhaustion, Dorothy enters an almost dream-like state which only ends when she is arrested and imprisoned for vagrancy.

Dorothy’s father meanwhile, has reached out to his well-to-do cousin, Sir Thomas Hare, to try and find Dorothy and help her. Bringing her home seems out the question, the implication being that the rector believes the rumours that she has eloped, despite her reassurances to the contrary. Sir Thomas has an efficient man-servant who quickly tracks Dorothy down – easily enough as she is in custody – and finds a a job for her in a small private school run by the monstrous Mrs Creevy. At first Dorothy enjoys attempting to awaken her students’ dormant interest in learning, but these attempts are quickly quashed when parents protest about the lack of focus on practical learning, writing and mathematics. The children rebel, understandably, but the issue quickly becomes moot when Mrs Creevy dismisses her without notice when she finds a replacement.

There is just time for Mr Warburton to appear out of the blue as Dorothy’s unlikely saviour and to take her back to Knype Hill. Here she quickly resumes her old routine. Although she has now lost her faith she still retains a belief in the value of service to others, and this is where the novel closes.

A key element of the plot of A Clergyman’s Daughter is Dorothy’s loss of memory. Orwell uses this plot device to send her on a journey round his old haunts – hop-picking in Kent, dossing down in Trafalgar Square, and teaching in private schools in the suburbs. We are invited to believe that exhaustion combined with her distress at Mr Warburton’s sexual assault triggers this amnesia. There’s no attempt to explain how she finds herself in London in a new set of clothes, or anything that happens to her in the meantime. What we do now know is that in an earlier draft of the novel Warburton’s attack is more explicitly described as an attempted rape. I think we would today see the surviving description as such an event, but the point is that to an 1930’s audience the description could more easily be dismissed as a clumsy attempt at seduction.

This sentence jumped from chapter Chapter 5 (page 285 in the Penguin classic edition):

It was one of those bright cold days which are spring or winter according as you are indoors or out.”

Ring any bells? Here’s the first line from 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

The re-use of content from Orwell’s journalism is pretty blatant. Reportage from Down and Out in Paris and London and Orwell’s hop-picking diaries seems shoe-horned into the novel with only the flimsiest of pretexts. The later chapter on Dorothy’s time as a school-teacher are also largely autobiographical. Orwell certainly wasn’t the first writer to re-purpose some of his journalism into novel format – Raymond Chandler for example welded his shorter stories written for magazine publication into novels such as The Big Sleep – but this is clumsily done.

There are also some horribly out-dated attitudes on display in this novel. Of course there is always the defence that these are his characters’ views not the novelists, but that defence feels weak in a novel which relies so heavily on reportage, and where the same attitudes are reflected elsewhere in both his novels and his journalism. For example here is the narrator’s description of the travellers at the hop farm:

Quite half the pickers in the set were gypsies—there were not less than two hundred of them in the camp. Diddykies, the other pickers called them. They were not a bad sort of people, friendly enough, and they flattered you grossly when they wanted to get anything out of you; yet they were sly, with the impenetrable slyness of savages. In their oafish, Oriental faces there was a look as of some wild but sluggish animal—a look of dense stupidity existing side by side with untameable cunning. 118

More generally there is the novel’s views on the working class. There is plenty of evidence here and elsewhere in his work to suggest that lower-upper-middle-class, privately educated, Old Etonian Eric Blair thought that working class people smell – not least because he tells us more than once that he did. This is a contentious view, I appreciate, and there has been a surprising amount written on either side of the issue. It was already a debate while Orwell was still alive and writing, used by his political opponents to undermine his arguments. But for someone who didn’t really think the working classes smell there’s an awful lot of references to the smelliness of the working class.

In The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell defined the attitude of his class towards the working class as “an attitude of sniggering superiority, punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred.” At times some of that approach emerges, perhaps subconsciously, in Orwell’s own work.

Consider this description from the first chapter of A Clergyman’s Daughter, while Dorothy does her parochial visits:

Dorothy knocked at the Pithers’ badly fitting door, from beneath which a melancholy smell of boiled cabbage and dish-water was oozing. From long experience she knew and could taste in advance the individual smell of every cottage on her rounds. Some of their smells were peculiar in the extreme. For instance, there was the salty, feral smell that haunted the cottage of old Mr Tombs, an aged retired bookseller who lay in bed all day in a darkened room…. In nearly all the cottages there was a basic smell of old overcoats and dish-water upon which the other, individual smells were superimposed; the cesspool smell, the cabbage smell, the smell of children, the strong, bacon-like reek of corduroys impregnated with the sweat of a decade.

Orwell addresses this issue face on elsewhere in The Road to Wigan Pier:

Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West–the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell.

… my childhood we were brought up to believe that they were dirty. Very early in life you acquired the idea that there was something subtly repulsive about a working-class body; you would not get nearer to it than you could help. You watched a great sweaty navvy walking down the road with his pick over his shoulder; you looked at his discoloured shirt and his corduroy trousers stiff with the dirt of a decade; you thought of those nests and layers of greasy rags below, and, under all, the unwashed body, brown all over (that was how I used to imagine it), with its strong, bacon-like reek. “

You’ll notice the language from Wigan Pier, which was published in 1937, echoes much of that in the earlier passage from Clergyman’s – ‘bacon-like’, ‘sweat/dirt of a decade’ etc. Also, I can’t let this paragraph pass without mentioning the casual way Orwell lumps together murderers and sodomites in this passage!

A Clergyman’s Daughter isn’t really a bad novel. But it shows every sign of being quickly thrown together: the characters are pretty two-dimensional, the plot a mess, and the discussion on faith which closes the novel is perfunctory at best, tacked on to give some much needed but unconvincing depth. Another one for Orwell completists only.

A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell, 1935

Book review

When We Were Orphans is very nearly a great novel. I am probably going to spend most of this post explaining why it is nearly great, and how it just falls short. But first, a quick plot summary. It’s important as always to understand that these summarises iron out the plot in a very unrepresentative way, particularly so in a novel such as this where the time structure is so complex. The narrator is Christopher Banks, who when we first meet him is an aspirational detective having recently graduated from

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Cambridge, ‘setting himself up in the world’ in London. Over the course of several chapters Christopher slowly tells the reader the story of his childhood in Shanghai. When he was ten his father, a businessman involved in the opium trade, went missing. Christopher was convinced (at the time, and remains so) that he was kidnapped. A few weeks later his mother, who had been vocally active in opposition to the opium trade, also disappeared. After weeks without any sign of them, he was eventually sent back to live with a maiden aunt in Shropshire, and from there on to public school. In the present, Christopher recounts several meetings with former school-friends as well as an attractive and ambitious young woman, Sarah Hemmings, who incidentally is an orphan, and comes to play an important role in his life.

Time passes, and we are told that Christopher has become a successful detective. His detection skills are such that he can visit the scene of a crime several months after the event, and still discern sufficient evidence to solve the crime. While are always told about these abilities by Christopher they are never demonstrated or explained in any detail – the crime are just solved. Despite any natural scepticism – is he really as good at solving crime as he thinks he is – his skills are widely recognised and lauded. This work is in preparation for his most important case, a return to China to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his parents. This return is much delayed, and matters are complicated when he – seemingly spontaneously – adopts a young Canadian orphan, but finally after several years he returns to Shanghai and begins to try to solve his parents’ case. His work is a matter of much public interest and his success is so much taken for granted that he is asked to confirm details of the arrangements for the ceremony when his successfully located parents are returned to freedom. However the deepening conflict between China and Japan makes the investigation even more complex than it would otherwise have been, and it is only at the last moment that the secret of what happened to his parents is revealed.

While reading When We Were Orphans – and I read it in one compelling sitting – two authors came to mind as comparators to help me make sense of what was going on (because at times, what was going on made no sense!). One obvious influence seemed to be Kafka. Christopher is disorientated, struggling through a world that increasingly no longer complies with the ordinary rules of behaviour, where strangers know more about him that he expects, and where the landscape becomes strangely fluid and confusing. Christopher is unable to satisfactorily explain what happens to him in the novel. Frequently his view of the world seems dramatically at odds with the people he meets. His memories of school vary wildly from former schoolfriends (to emphasise the point Ishiguro has this happen twice). People look at him strangely when he makes everyday comments. He gets angry when people misrepresent events from his past:

For gradually, from behind his cheerful anecdotes, there was emerging a picture of myself on that voyage to which I took exception. His repeated insinuation was that I had gone about the ship withdrawn and moody, liable to burst into tears at the slightest thing. No doubt the colonel had an investment in giving himself the role of an heroic guardian, and after all this time, I saw it was as pointless as it was unkind to contradict him. But as I say, I began to grow steadily more irritated.

There is a common perception among the people he meets that his investigation will in some unspoken way do more than locate his parents (who he unquestioningly believes are still alive) but also resolve the growing military and political tension between Japan and China which threatens to spill over into an international conflict.

The Kafkaesque atmosphere of the novel intensifies when the search for his parents reaches its climax. Working his way on foot through the ruins of a slum on the frontline between the Japanese and Chinese forces, he meets a badly wounded Japanese soldier who may or may not be his childhood friend Akira. They finally reach the building Christopher has become convinced is the place where his parents are being held, but inevitably he is wrong. He is whisked away by the Japanese forces and safely returned to the British consulate where he finds out the real fate of his parents.

Another type of unreliable narrator, where the author slowly and deliberately exposes the narrator’s delusions, and a more convincing ‘reality’ is shown, is more closely associated in my mind with Nabokov, and in particular with his extraordinary Pale Fire. For a long time I expected to find out that Christopher’s descriptions of his prowess as a detective, his childhood memories of his life in Shanghai, and his status within the ex-patriate community, were going to be revealed as delusional, (possibly as a result of an addiction to opium, which would have been ironic!). But while his account of his story is clearly flawed, the essential elements are apparently reliably narrated. He is, everyone agrees, an extremely successful detective, his prowess is widely recognised and appreciated, and he does survive the arduous journey along the front-line of the battle of Shanghai. Which leaves the many instances in which he is baffled by the behaviour of others around him, and they by him, unexplained. Ian McEwan does something similar in Enduring Love where the hints throughout the novel that the narrator’s account of the ballooning accident is flawed come to nothing, and the final chapters confirm that everything we have been told is true despite the many improbabilities and suggestions that ‘something’ is wrong with the account.

Why include scene after scene emphasising the unreliable nature of Christopher’s narration only to finally confirm its essential accuracy?

There are a couple of other issues I wanted to mention before closing. In a Guardian review of the novel, Philip Hensher focussed on the slightly awkward phrasing of much of Christopher’s narration:

“Ishiguro’s avoidance of phrasal verbs is a major problem here – it gives his narrator a circumlocutious, cautious air which isn’t really very helpful. More than that, it gives him a particular tone of voice which is not that of his social setting. It is bizarrely unconvincing as an idea of upper-middle-class London in the 1930s – I think Ishiguro will find that society beauties did not say ‘pardon’ then and do not now – and the inadequacy can be pinned down to the narrator’s voice, and his choice of verbs, as much as the details. “

This comment breaks a fundamental rule of reading, which is that if you notice something ‘off’ about a novel don’t just assume that it is a weakness in the author’s abilities as a writer (especially as we are talking about someone who had already won the Booker in 1989 with Remains of the Day). Instead ask the question – why? Why does it sound as if English is not the speaker’s first language? Could it be that Ishiguro is trying to convey the fact that Christopher lived for the first ten years of his life in China and is not convincingly part of the upper-middle-class world he circulates in? Is his fractured relationship with reality being conveyed here with his ‘circumlocutious, cautious air’? Giving a character a specific voice to illustrate their character wouldn’t be that revolutionary a technique would it?

Not wanting to end on too negative a note, but the novel’s description of the ‘fate’ of Christopher’s mother is grotesque and plays to very out-dated cliches about the Chinese. I’m not going to dwell on this or be more specific, and I am sure such things did happen occasionally, but it’s needlessly distressing.

So why ‘nearly great’? Even Ishiguro himself accepted that ‘it’s not my best book’. If he had been able to conclude the novel with an explanation that allowed the reader to make sense of Christopher’s confusion, his apparent ability to solve long-past crimes with the aid of just his slightly ridiculous, sub-Holmesian magnifying glass, and the many conversations where there is obviously a big gap between what he tells us and what is ‘actually’ perceived by the other characters, then the novel would have been an exciting mystery. I still enjoyed reading the novel, but I was so disappointed in the lacklustre ending where everything that had been promised failed to materialise.

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro, 2000

Book review

“In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.
Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought.
And then I did.”

Post Office is an almost entirely autobiographical account of Bukowski’s years working for the US Postal Service in Los Angeles throughout the 1950’s and 60’s. It was written over the course of three weeks immediately following his decision to leave the Post Office and write full-time. “I have one of two choices – stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.” Bukowski had written poetry and for magazines since the 1940’s, (he was born in 1920) but this was to be his first novel. It contains a lot of detail about the role of an American postman, and as such there is an unlikely parallel with another memoir of someone working in this role at about the same time in the UK, Alan Johnson’s Please Mr Postman.

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The speed with which the text was written and its reliance on his personal experiences are the dominant features of the novel. These are both positives and weaknesses. The unfiltered nature of the narrative – Bukowski is brutally frank about all aspects of his life, his gambling, drinking and womanising – gives the text a raw immediacy. But there is a contradiction between the image Bukowski projects of his life as a complete nihilist and the fairly mundane existence of a postman and mail clerk. There is enough detail in the novel for the reader to understand that Bukowski – or strictly speaking, Chinaski, the author’s avatar here – took his work as a postman seriously, and kept working hard at his job despite being badly treated by an unsympathetic supervisor, terrible weather, and the ubiquitous ankle-biting dogs. Chinaski may have gone to work with a hangover every day, smelling of booze, he may have cheated at his postal service exams, he may have been written up for insubordination and lateness all the time, but he stuck at the job for a decade or more.

In terms of its plot, Post Office is insubstantial. Chinaski gets a job as a substitute post man, which he works half-heartedly at for a few years until he quits to become a professional ambler. Inevitably this can’t last forever, however scientific his approach, so he goes back to working for the Post Office as a mail clerk. His relationships during this period are casual and based on a shared enthusiasm for alcohol. The novel ends with copies of disciplinary letters sent to him – I think it is fair to say these were almost certainly replicas of letters Bukowski would have received – warning him against lateness etc, and finally with his decision to quit and become a full-time writer. But the plot is not really the point of the novel – it is a sketch of a counter-cultural life-style, living within the system (because where else is there?) but rejecting its norms and standards. Getting drunk becomes an act of rebellion; not trying hard at work a blow against society.

John Martin, the founder of Black Sparrow Press, who was responsible for launching Bukowski’s career, has explained that “he is not a mainstream author and he will never have a mainstream public.” This is an odd thing to say about a poet who sold millions of books and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Bukowski has been more recently been called “an established part of the 20th-century literary canon“, an observation which I suspect he would have hated. The New Yorker in a recent review called him “the man who occupies the most shelf space of any American poet”. That’s the contradiction inherent in the life of any writer or artist who struggles to live and work outside the mainstream of society but whose success eventually leads to them being courted and adopted by the very same society they reject.

It’s always difficult for a modern reader when out-dated attitudes are portrayed uncritically in texts. There’s the temptation to offer excuses – the author is just reflecting the consensus of views at the time, and one should not confuse the views of the characters with those of the author, however closely we are encouraged to see the two. Sometimes these points are sustainable, but I don’t think they will stand up to any scrutiny here. Yes Post Office is a product of its time, as are all novels, and yes it is a work of fiction, but there are some painful misogynistic attitudes represented in the novel, including a scene where Chinaski appears to rape a woman on his post round. This is an integral and difficult part of the dark, farcical element which overshadows Bukowski’s prose. He is arguably the post-war heir to Henry Miller. Both their work was self-consciously rule-breaking, transgressive, nihilistic and focused on people living on the margins of society. They also share a brutal attitude towards women. Of course Miller was writing in the 1930’s when there were a lot more taboos about discussing sex than there were thirty years and one World War later. The question I am not sure about is whether Bukowski had anything more to say than Miller, and whether his work has stood the test of time imposed by the last fifty years or so?

Post Office by Charles Bukowski, 1971

Book review

I received a host of superb books this Christmas which will form the heart of my reading for at least the first part of 2022. These include:

A signed copy of Bob Mortimer’s autobiography, And Away;

Post Office, Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical account of his time working for the US Post Office – there couldn’t be much more of a contrast with the Bob Mortimer text!

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – not a novel I would normally have bought for myself, which I cannot stress strongly enough is a good thing. I want to read outside my comfort zone, and this looks as if it definitely falls into that category;

The Promise, Damon Galgut’s 2021 Booker Prize winner, which will also maintain my push to complete the Booker list (only eight novels left on this list now which gives me a good chance of finishing it in 2022, although some of them are quite hefty);

A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell. One of my very low-key reading targets is to read Orwell’s minor novels. I’ve read Coming Up for Air and Keep the Aspidistra Flying thus far, so A Clergyman’s Daughter will be a good addition to the list. Technically this will be a re-read in that I first read this back in school for an Orwell project – but as that was over 40 years ago it is hardly surprising that all I can remember is a scene where the eponymous character explains to her students the meaning of the phrase “Macduff was from his mothers womb untimely ripped” which causes quite a stir.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe which has been on my must-read list now for so long.

Charles Dickens – a biography by Michael Slater, to accompany my 2022 Dickens which is going to be Great Expectations;

When we were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro. Not one of his better known novels, and as far as I know it has not been televised/filmed, but the premise – an unsolved mystery story – looks intriguing;

The New Elites by George Walden – a really timely commentary on why things have gone so badly wrong for the UK in recent years. I suspect I will have a lot to argue about with this book!

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak – another book well outside my comfort zone (again, a very good thing) which I am looking forward to;

Finally, I also plan to re-read Persuasion this year; the last of the major Jane Austen novels I have yet to review.

What with the above and finishing A Suitable Boy, this will be enough to keep me busy for well into 2022 I suspect.

My reading plans for 2022