Book Review: Transition (Iain Banks)

A book set somewhere, or some many wheres, within an infinity of infinities, in an ever-expanding multiverse, will no doubt inevitably suffer from the limitations of the space between its physical covers. Iain Banks’ characters visit necessarily limited versions of reality. That much might be forgiven, given the infinite possibilities on offer; however, even within the finite, Banks still manages to turn out a convoluted and unsatisfactorily messy affair. Writers are sometimes seemingly prescient in how their works may be received, insofar as messages they leave within the work itself are concerned; sometimes they might be entirely unaware of how certain lines can come to define or describe their final creations. How Banks perceived his writing in his final years is currently unclear. Consideration, in either regard, should however be given to the following though, as the author labours towards the end of the offering under review: he writes about ‘a swirling, hideously complicated, topologically tortuous, possibly knotted exposition.’ He is describing a plate of spaghetti as analogy of his main character’s life, but it might as well be something else entirely.

Transition (Abacus, 2010) primarily focuses on Temudjin Oh, an agent of what is known as the Concern, or l’Expédience, a shady organisation nominally determined to ‘help societies across the many worlds, aiding and advancing positive forces and confounding and disabling negative, regressive ones.’ All is not as it seems, however. From the outset, Banks declares an ‘unreliable narrator’ status. The Concern is governed by members of the Central Council and, in particular, one Madame Theodora d’Ortolan, power-crazed and determined to rid herself of all those not allied to her aims. In opposition, one Mrs Mulverhill, one rung down in the hierarchy but not without her own powers. The main characters are able to ‘transition’ between alternate realities by means of a drug, septus, monopolised by d’Ortolan. Temudjin Oh is drawn into the power struggle, develops into an assassin, and then, beyond this, he emerges as some super-‘Awake’ demi-god of the many worlds, able to transition or ‘flit’ without the use of septus at all. We have seen this sort of trope in a variety of films, of course, many times.

Banks seemingly sets out to embrace the tried and tired filmic essences in much of what Transition is (he also book-ends his novel with a character, Mike Esteros, who just wants to make a film about alien tourists to Earth): there is a dose of The Matrix, complete with Neo’s woken transformation, there is the Sliding Doors take, and there are splashes of Harry Potter or the sceneries of Terry Pratchett (notwithstanding the fact of the books before the screen versions) in the ludicrous setting of the University of Practical Talents, complete with its multitude of ‘piled-together’ buildings ‘all domes, spires, elongated windows and flying buttresses’ and its central gold-capped Dome of the Mists. This world is Calbefraques, a version of Earth uniquely not called Earth, base-home of Temudjin Oh. When he transitions, on mission, he leaves his own body, which then operates in a low-watt, powered-down and stripped-back, purely functional state, occupying the body of some unknown other, somewhere in the infinity of Earths. It is always Earth. Banks slowly unfurls the purposes of a variety of other characters along the way: Adrian Cubbish, a greedy city trader, enlisted to Mrs Mulverhill’s cause, ultimately for a singular purpose in a version of Venice, late on; The Philosopher, a torturer; the Lady Bisquitine, a delinquent, an experiment, developed late in the proceedings, harnessed by d’Ortolan for her powers and pitted against Oh; Patient 8262, lying in a hospital bed, somewhere unidentified, hiding, waiting. We know he will be significant, and we surmise him early on, but Banks drags out his existence and purpose to tedious lengths.

As one might expect of a seasoned writer, there are lines of subtle intelligence (‘I live in a Switzerland,’ Banks writes, as Temudjin Oh. ‘The indefinite article is germane.’); there are lines that may have amused the writer in their appearance (as Adrian Cubbish, the trader, he writes: ‘Blood might be thicker than water but it’s no match for liquidity.’); there are lines and passages that suggest that Banks does not care that he might offend (again, as Cubbish: ‘I’d left my own current main girl back at the flat. She was lovely, a dancer called Lysanne and all legs and gorgeous long real blonde hair but she had a Scouse accent you could have etched steel with.’). Character development aside, and Cubbish does stand out as someone successfully odious, Banks’ writing in Transition embraces the afore-mentioned spaghetti plate essence in its whole.

To borrow a concept which Banks comes back to from time to time, the essence of his writing here is perhaps synonymous with what he terms ‘fragre’. That is, when Temudjin Oh transitions, or flits, between realities he has an additional sense on which he can rely: he can take in the feel of the place, the tone or timbre, as it were. Banks’ main character knows, for example, when he has landed in a ‘Greedist’ world by way of its essential ‘fragre’. In our day-to-day reality, or whatever we perceive that as, we may perhaps also go quietly through our considerations of it all with a kind of sense of place, of season, or of milieu. Transition’s fragre is a complicated affair to try to define, and so that spaghetti plate suffices, if not fully satisfactorily.

In the burgeoning Neo-fication (Matrix-style) of Temudjin Oh, Banks has him slide in and out of Venice, a Venice at least, and soon enough he is able to perceive all manner of perspectives that the mere throng of tourists and locals around him cannot even begin to imagine. Madame d’Ortolan tracks him down and throws all her available resources at him in her power-play and near five hundred page background war against Mrs Mulverhill. Along the way, there are hints at an interchangeability of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’, but we can be fairly sure which way Banks wishes our allegiances to lie come the final scenes. Hindered by an array of the not fully explored or developed ‘blockers’, ‘spotters’, ‘trackers’, and the seemingly unhinged and volatile Bisquitine (a powerful child-like enigma in a woman’s body, spurting a gush of apparent nonsense along the canals), Banks brings us to the Rialto Bridge, a denouement, in anticipation of a grand finale.

However, it seems that the author has long-since tired of any intention that might have been to provide anything other than an unsatisfactory ending. It is a shame because, throughout, Transition does contain some notable characterisation (for example, the annoying Adrian Cubbish), locations (a Moscow nightclub, a warehouse/office in the deserted zone around Chernobyl, a palace on the top of Mount Everest), and flights of fancy (albeit some elicit the feel of sexual fantasy and exploration seemingly only provided for the author’s own indulgence and amusement). It is an irony, perhaps not entirely lost on an author such as Banks (should he still have been around to perceive it), one certainly blessed with the ability to create, that in an infinity of infinities (if such a case were to be true) there are a multitude of other Transitions — some of which must, by definition, rest more elegantly in the mind.


Book Review: American Pastoral (Philip Roth)

To a reader not born or raised in the United States, promise of investigation into the post-war American psyche is an intrigue in the making. Philip Roth’s main character is Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov: a seemingly uncomplicated man whose dream, it transpires, is just to embody the spirit of ‘Johnny Appleseed’: who ‘wasn’t a Jew, wasn’t an Irish Catholic, wasn’t a Protestant Christian — nope, Johnny Appleseed was just a happy American. Big. Ruddy. Happy. No brains probably, but didn’t need ‘em — a great walker was all Johnny Appleseed needed to be. All physical joy. Had a big stride and a bag of seeds and a huge spontaneous affection for the landscape, and everywhere he went he scattered the seeds.’ Needless to say, Swede Levov’s life is not so simple.

American Pastoral (Vintage, 1998) begins in the first person by way of the narration of Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman, a writer some six years the junior of ‘the Swede’, who he idolises at school in the 1940s. Swede Levov excels at all the school sports but he seems to suffer no egotism in receipt of universal hero worship. He breaks the school basketball scoring record on the same day in 1943 when ‘fifty-eight Flying Fortresses were shot down by Luftwaffe fighter planes’ and the Swede becomes a symbol of hope, of distraction for the local people of this small corner of New Jersey that is his home. In 1995, Zuckerman receives a letter from the Swede, via his publishers, asking to meet. There is a line that proves intriguing to the writer: it is a line that suggests the possibility of uncovering layers beneath the surface of the almost perfect man. However, on meeting in a restaurant in New York, Zuckerman is left disappointed: the Swede discloses nothing. Soon after, at a school reunion, Zuckerman learns that the Swede has died. Thus he determines to write an account of Swede Levov’s great intrigue, as he begins to perceive it.

Swede Levov is a third generation immigrant Jew, nominally, who follows his father and grandfather into the family glove-making trade in Newark, New Jersey. He takes over the business and makes a success of it, marries the former Miss New Jersey 1949, Dawn Dwyer, a Catholic of Irish descent, and they live in a two-hundred year-old stone house in the small village of Old Rimrock, Morris County, and raise their daughter, Merry. Such bucolic calm is the epitome of the American pastoral dream for Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov. Merry, however, proves to be the undoing of all his inner peace. At the age of sixteen, vehemently against what she sees as the atrocities exacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Vietnam War, Merry Levov ‘brings the war home’ to American soil and plants a bomb at the local Old Rimrock general store and post office. She kills the doctor, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, goes into hiding and then on the run, finds herself in a commune in Oregon, and kills three more people in terrorist attacks across the United States. Swede Levov’s life is slowly undone. His wife, Dawn (who only agreed to enter the local beauty pageant to raise money for her brother’s scholarship, who went to Atlantic City as the home state’s great hope at the Miss America contest, but didn’t win, who only wants to raise cows for a living), suffers psychological trauma. Nothing is the same for the Levov family, or their community, again. Yet, the Swede remains, for the most part, stoical: at least in appearance. All that is written after Nathan Zuckerman, the writer, learns of the Swede’s death at the school reunion in 1995 is a third person account of ‘the shocks that befell’ Swede Levov and his family, as unravelled and assumed by the writer. Problematically, however, the writer-narrator never returns to the first person again, and the whole affair ends weakly.

Roth’s writing is, at times, immersively engaging in its visceral fullness and unrelenting pace and staccato-attack dialogue. However, the reader also has to account for long, long lines, often unaccountably split open with inserted meanders in inexplicable places before returning to the point in hand. Furthermore, the American syntax used is sometimes a little torturous for the non-American reader. Roth’s writing is replete with detail, but it is a fine line between delivering depth that truly enhances the context of the tale, resulting in a reader’s respect for the writer’s knowledge, and delivering detail that is just sheer information dump. The minutiae of the glove-making process is a case in hand.

Roth writes of the ‘disruption of the anticipated American future’, in which successive generations of immigrant families were supposed to have got smarter and smarter, ‘breaking away from the parochialism a little further, out of the desire to go to the limit in America with your rights, forming yourself as an ideal person who gets rid of the traditional Jewish habits and attitudes, who frees himself of the pre-America insecurities and the old’. Swede Levov is a personification of ideals but, when Merry bombs the local general store and post office, it is ‘the daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral — into the indigeneous American berserk.’

Five years after the Old Rimrock bombing in 1968, Swede Levov is holding onto the dream of his life. His wife has all but jettisoned the memory of their daughter and wishes to jettison the old stone house with it. Roth introduces a cast of characters in a long, drawn-out dinner gathering scene and there are allegories to be had in the form of neighbour, Bill Orcutt, for example: self-styled custodian of local history, descendant of New Jersey men stretching back to the days of the founding fathers. Roth tackles morality, race, religion, immigration, and what it purportedly means to be American in the late 20th century.

In exploration of the post-war American psyche, American Pastoral attempts to peel back the layers in the same way that the layers of Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov’s life are unfurled. For the reader of a national psyche according to one writer, there is an immersion to fall into in the details of a timeline predominately between the Second World War and the cusp of the 21st century. More than this, however, Roth proves prescient in his examination of what is transpiring to be the turning of the historical cycle. By way of the words of Lou Levov, the Swede’s father, who is watching the unfolding of the Watergate affair on TV in 1973, Roth writes: ‘If we can just tar and feather Nixon, America will be America again, without everything loathsome and lawless that’s crept in, without all this violence and malice and madness and hate. Put him in a cage, cage the crook, and we’ll have our great country back the way it was!’ With the imminence of a new President-elect, at the time of writing, what shall be the fate of Johnny Appleseed?


Book Review: A Fool’s Alphabet (Sebastian Faulks)

The essential plot lines of a life may, conceivably, be read as randomised if disarranged and placed down again in a different order. What then, asks Sebastian Faulks, might a life look like if that new arrangement were structured by the alphabetical order of some of the places a character has visited? This then being the central conceit and framework of an idea, we are introduced to Pietro Russell who has reason to travel widely because of his photography profession. Faulks lays down what we are to assume to be key moments and, by extension, places of Pietro’s life (though we’re later told that, of course, these are not the only places that he has been to, and therefore a different story altogether could have been told); however, the writing is unchallenging, to the point of being bland — so much so that even Pietro’s great psychological meltdown in Quezaltenango, Guatemala is drab, barely registering as potentially important.

A Fool’s Alphabet (Vintage, 1993) begins before Pietro Russell’s birth, with A for Anzio, Italy in 1944, where his father, Raymond Russell, is engaged in the war, convalescing then in Sorrento from a shell wound. Whilst in the country, Russell Senior meets Francesca: a beautiful nineteen year-old farmer’s niece who lives with her uncle and aunt on the farm with their three large sons. Francesca, of course, is the future mother of Pietro, who will be born in 1950. After the war, Russell Senior develops into a dull man, interested in etymology. From an early stage in the reading, Faulks’ reliance on stereotypical characters becomes obvious. The offspring of such parents can perhaps be forgiven for having no spark of character himself. Pietro is, despite Faulks’ attempts at rendering him as a little troubled by the tribulations of his life, for all intents and purposes merely a hook on which an author hangs his idea.

Pietro’s life is placed down in non-chronological order, skipping back and forth in time between Anzio in 1944 (his parents’ meeting being, of course, important to his own life) to Yarmouth, England in 1991, taking in various places in America, Europe, the Far East, Central America, the Middle East, and England along the way, and ending back in time with a trip to Zanica, Italy in 1970, where his parents once rented a room for a night. Of course, this was the room in which Pietro was conceived. During the course of his life, variously, Pietro meets a business partner in the States, marries a Flemish woman and has children with her, makes a life-long friendship, works at a ski resort, falls in love with a girl he meets at school in West London, is left by her in California, talks with a psychologist in Oxford, 1976, has a breakdown in Guatemala in 1974, and so forth. A little after half-way through the telling of the travails of Pietro Russell, Faulks has his main character saying to Dr. Simon, his pyschologist (who makes only a brief appearance, despite what we are led to believe by the Observer’s reviewer on the inner leaves): ‘Couldn’t we talk about someone else? I’m so bored with this character.’ Indeed.

Once the premise of any book is accepted, it can be lived with and the author and reader can walk on in relative ease. Faulks’ construct of non-chronology ordered by means of alphabetising places (Anzio, Italy, 1944; Backley, England, 1950; Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1980; Dorking, England, 1963, and so on) requires a little patience to begin with, but his writing style is not arduous to follow. There is a certain physical flipping back and forth that may be necessary, in order to reacquaint the reader with what happened when, where and with whom, but there is nothing too taxing in this and the words settle easily. Where the construct risks a descent into fakery is in the knowledge that the author will need to crowbar in places and events for letters such as Q and X. By the time we reach Xianyang, China (which is the only chapter not to be accorded a year), we realise just how much a conceit has been played out. Pietro Russell never visits China, though he does look out into it from Kowloon, Hong Kong in 1980: Faulks cheats when he declares that Pietro had ‘let it [Xianyang] become in his mind the representation of all the places he would not go, and Xianyang was the name he gave in his mind to the place or the time in which the half-remembered love affair and the healing birth had happened.’

There is the feeling that Faulks tries to trail such literary significance beneath the surface. Very early on, in the chapter nominally regarding Anzio, he writes of Russell Senior in the streets of Sorrento: ‘As he began to walk downhill he passed a magnificent sign in which the iron was wrought like arthrithic fingers to read ‘Pasticceria’ and hammered into a pink wall on the corner of a street. Under his feet the pavements were ankle-deep in grey dust from the volcano [Vesuvius].’ The line sticks out like a sore thumb. Later, in Sorrento, 1958, we read that the boy Pietro and his mother, Francesca, ‘continued uphill [and] passed a magnificent sign in which the iron was wrought like arthrithic fingers to read ‘Pasticceria’ and hammered into a peeling pink wall on the corner of a street. Under their feet the pavements were damp and cool where the cleaning lorry had passed.’ In his literary undertow, Faulks repeats names for different characters, leaving the reader to wonder why, but nothing of significance transpires. Pietro’s life, despite attempts to render him of interest, is still dull and uninspiring. The only event of any potential emotional impact on the reader occurs when Pietro’s young daughter, Mary, has an altercation with a lorry in Uzes, France in 1987. Faulks toys with the reader for a few lines and we find that Mary is fine.

In truth, so is Pietro, though the author would have it that he is troubled. Pietro Russell has a loving wife, a young family, a job he is capable of doing and one which has allowed him to travel the world. Some places highlighted as chapter titles are barely excuses for using the initial letter (Vladimirci, Yugoslavia, 1986, offers a brief meeting at a printing works for Pietro and his business associate, Paul Coleman), veering off on other tangents afterwards; Jerusalem, Israel, 1982, has Faulks attempting to weigh in on the socio-political issues of the region; many other chapters are merely stopping off points and passing places.

In a work such as A Fool’s Alphabet, which despite its hints at the contrary offers little by the way of any great significance, it is inevitable that its author will attempt to close the circle by relating the story of its main character’s conception. In Zanica, Italy in 1970, the twenty year-old Pietro makes a form of pilgrimage, finding the bar in this small place in which his parents had asked for a room, having once lost their way on an excursion. Pietro convinces the owner (a young woman when his parents called in twenty years or so previously) to let him stay, and the scene shifts to Russell Senior and Francesca. Faulks’ description of how Pietro was conceived is, frankly, embarrassing, and Pietro’s story ends, not begins, in the final pages, with his father’s ‘milky fluid spurting and charging into the rosy flesh’ and with Russell Senior visualising the ‘brave outrider of himself . . . urging the seed on, willing it home.’ In light of Pietro Russell’s unremarkable travails, his father and Faulks might well have been better advised to avoid the energy expended altogether in the moment and the moments of their creative endeavours.

Book Review: The Iguana (Anna Maria Ortese)

Pressed deep in the tangle of a convoluted text, a line of almost self-conscious abashment lies limply, whereby its author, Anna Maria Ortese, writes of her main character (aside from her eponymous one): ‘The Count felt tired, finding this whole affair to resemble some tormented story out of Seventeenth Century Spain [sic], and utter madness within the clarity of the present age.’ It is an ironic moment of lucidity from a much-acclaimed darling of the post-war Italian avant-garde, encapsulating her torturous novel so fittingly: for the most part, the exploratory magical realism of her writing is sucked dry of any marvellous trace of the ordinary/extraordinary inter-play, sunk as it is in a quagmire of farce which is either (and sometimes both) fey or deliberately disjointed.

The Iguana (Minerva, 1990, translated from the original Italian by Henry Martin; originally published, 1965) attempts to shine a light on aspects of the human cultural condition, or to ensnare it in a glare, and the act of reading must be entered into with a great faith that art can appease the spirit; however, Ortese’s prose is either too high in its self-regard or often too vapid in its long, drawn-out sentence structures for great faith to be repaid (compounded by a late descent into a destabilised narrative of rapidly shifting neurosis/dream-type scenes). With regards to language and structure, fairly early on in the piece comes the likes of the following:

The Marquis observed that he surely had no right to overlook the contrasting economic conditions that differentiated the two countries, Italy and Portugal — bringing the one to the fore, as it were, and leaving the other considerably behind — but that this, for as much as he could see (and here, he added, he might be wrong but felt better off if not) was fairly irrelevant to any real explanation of the delay, in Portugal, of an artistic and literary renascence, and thus of the enterprise of publishing.

The Count, or Daddo, or Aleardo, is the character through which Ortese chooses to play the main thread of her story, which deals in degrees with such themes as oppressions, love, rights, good and evil. Don Carlo Ludovico Aleardo di Grees, of the Dukes of Estremadura-Aleardi and Count of Milan, to give him his full title, sets off on a sea voyage, nominally in search of new land to buy for real estate, but also on a mission to discover new literature for his Milanese friend, Boro Adelchi, to publish. The Count discovers a small uncharted island, Ocaña, off the coast of Portugal, inhabited by three brothers and an iguana, their servant. Don Ilario Jimenes of the Marquis of Segovia, Count of Guzman (also later referred to, in alternate guise, as ‘no longer the tremulous Ilario, but the hard and determined Mendes: that gorgeous and self-confident youth’) is a Portuguese noble and a poet of questionable skill. He is young and fey and not at all worldly-wise and the Count, continually referred to as good of nature, wishes to take the Marquis back with him to introduce his foppish sensitivity to the high people of Milan. His brothers, Felipe and Hipolito, are for the most part pantomime figures, ugly sisters, interchangeably arranged. The Count and Ilario, the Marquis, quickly begin to interact with each other as ‘my friend’ or ‘my dear’, following the former rowing ashore from his anchored yacht and staying as guest at the latter’s residence. In the basement, accessible both via a trapdoor in the large wardrobe of the Count’s guestroom and similar in the kitchen next door, resides the servant, Estrelita, the iguana.

Ortese anthropomorphises this creature, having her clothed and able to speak, though she is the figure of oppression in the work and so the Count, good of nature, succumbs to another cause in the attempted aiding of her lot. The iguana is loved by the Count, though despised by the Portuguese nobles, paid in stones (enabling the author to address the virtue, or lack thereof, in capitalism), and treated as a figure of evil in her ‘soul-less’-ness. The iguana is depicted as infantile and stupid, greedy, and bloody-minded, yet at the same time as a tragic figure, intended as pitiable and worthy of greater respect.

At no point, however, does any character succeed in rousing the reader to such considerations. Dialogue of turgid self-importance and an overall irreality of scenes render the playing out of themes opaque at best; in such a wavering structure, characterisation becomes a flimsy quip between author and other such literati invited into the sorry joke of it all. If the middle section of The Iguana can be read in some state of pallid acceptance of the viscous narrative we find ourselves in, and it is possible, then the final quarter of the book quickly submerges us in a spongy no-mans-land of confusion. Scenes chop and change, the island falls away, there is a hearing regarding the death of God, and God is a butterfly, and the iguana is at the bottom of a well. Ortese has lured us into a trap of thinking that we might start to feel some affinity for someone, or anything portrayed, an understanding of context and content, but she repays the reader’s faith in their continuance of turning pages with her greater literary joke: a complete disassemblage of coherent structure seals the fate of the Count, Ilario the Marquis, his brothers, and their iguana in a cask as curio with no connective capability.

There is a great deal to be said for the high art of simplicity in response to works such as Ortese’s The Iguana: that is to say, it is a shame that the condition of the writer cannot always grasp the beautiful, the sublime, the extraordinary of the ordinary. A baroque deluge can result in a richness of texture, but only in careful hands, though a simple thoughtfulness (as opposed to an overwroughtness) can have far more weight. Ortese’s writing has its small moments of such capability (for example, the simple descriptive that is ‘. . . of occasions in the garden and downstairs drawing room of the villa: occasions when golden liqueurs and crisp pastries unfailingly emerged from heavy walnut sideboards and flower-encrusted porcelain boxes’), but the moments are lost in the whole.

Book Review: The Ghost Road (Pat Barker)

It is the summer of 1918 and the third and final book in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy opens with Billy Prior holed up in Scarborough, following his departure from the Ministry of Munitions in London, waiting on the prospects of being sent back to France. Despite the potential chances of being killed or, for the survivors, further psychological trauma, it is in France that Prior, an officer, feels the least alienated. Billy Prior is a psycho-sexual mess, but the war offers him some modicum of purpose.

The Ghost Road (Penguin Books, 2008; originally published by Viking in 1995) takes Barker’s main characters, Prior and Dr W. H. R. Rivers, headlong into the final months of the First World War, though via different countries and by way of very differing experiences. Divided into three parts, the first section of one hundred pages or so is largely slow-going. Prior is in the acquaintance of Wilfred Owen in the north, whilst Rivers works at a hospital in London, and nothing of huge consequence takes place. It is a waiting game, or merely a going about the business of one another’s daily lives. The reader is left wondering where this lack of narrative drive can go. Barker drops in Prior’s engagement to Sarah Lumb in the north, and there are psycho-sexual allusions placed in Rivers’ recollections — with references to his and his siblings’ childhood memories of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) — but this latter investigation is left merely as a faint form of apparition in the text.

Indeed there are several strands of understanding the apparitional or the ghost-like in this work, whether as perceived by the reader, as above, or as intended by the author: the ghosts can be seen as the young men sent to war, but also in the apparitions seen by those who are traumatised and hospitalised, suffering nightmares of guilt and so forth, whom Rivers supports; there are also the ghost ancestors of the skull houses of Melanesia, where Rivers and his anthropology colleague, Hocart, study and live with the indigenous people of Eddystone Island in 1908. Parts two and three of The Ghost Road intersperse accounts of Rivers’ memories of this experience, told in the third person, with Prior’s first person diary on his return to France.

The pace of Barker’s writing picks up in the second section, but not until after Prior has spent another short sojourn, in Amiens, with Owen and a few other officers, thinking that the war has somehow overlooked them. Drafts of men are eventually sent to them. Wilfred Owen is, perhaps, one of or the most synonymous of names associated with the First World War, yet Barker reduces him here to a secondary character. This is, after all, not an account, as such, of Owen’s war: it is Billy Prior’s war (internal and external) that we are following. In the Western Solomon Islands ten years earlier, Rivers and Hocart meet Njiru who is their ‘best translator’, healer, spiritual guide, shaman, though not the chief. There are overt and covert parallels drawn between Rivers and Njiru. They speak pidgin English to one another, and Njiru is sometimes keen to show Rivers the minutiae of his society’s culture and sometimes reluctant to share such offerings. Rivers is particularly intrigued by the funerary rites: the islanders revere their ancestors’ ghosts and keep their skulls secure on a mountainside. The ‘old ghosts’ wait seated for the ‘new ghosts’ at a particular rock. The undertow, the parallels with the ghosts of war, are not difficult to ascertain.

For the most part, the quickening of pace in the second and third sections of this offering does present a more discernible focus. That said, Rivers’ and Hocart’s fieldwork expedition of 1908 makes for a more engaging story than the final months of Prior’s First World War experience, as recounted by Barker. There is an inevitability in the latter, worn into place by a certain knowledge and some degree of historical desensitisation: Owen will die a week before the Armistice; there is the ‘no quarters given’ attitude and propaganda of the Army top brass; there is mud and rain and utter futility sown into all the fighting. This we know, sadly.

This is Billy Prior’s war but again, as in the previous books of this trilogy, Rivers’ presence on the pages is the more engrossing. Barker writes Prior’s voice with a fair consistency throughout his missive offerings (notwithstanding the occasional jarring of an incongruous word more suited to authorial narrative rather than the writing of ‘working class boy made good’); however, there is also the occasional sense that the ride the writer often takes (when deep enough into the creation of a work) has overtaken the characters — the dovetailing of Prior’s diary, for example, sometimes fits too neatly into the very different (and not explicitly known or necessarily knowable to Prior) anthropological experiences of Rivers. Elsewhere, Prior writes that he’s had second thoughts about an entry he made days earlier and so destroyed it, though it is an entry we have already read. Such authorial instances of being ‘in too deeply’ can cause a dissonance in the reading experience.

At the attempted bridging of the Sambre–Oise Canal in France, Barker duly kills off Owen; Billy Prior, of the ‘Manchesters’ (2nd Manchester Regiment), lies in the wet fields between his own artillery and the German machine-gunners on the opposite bank, focused only on the battle at hand. Meanwhile, in London, Rivers and his sparse staff take care of the wounded, such as Hallet: a young officer shot in the head in France some weeks earlier, and rescued by Prior. Hallet’s fate has parallels with the inevitability of those deemed soon to die by the islanders of the southwest Pacific (those who are essentially already dead). Barker also makes links between Hallet’s head wounds and the revered ancestral skulls of the likes of Ngea, a chief whose body is left to decompose but whose cranium and jaw are then carefully held together and subsequently placed in the skull house.

Following the events at the Sambre–Oise Canal, Barker has one final ghost to bring to the pages. Rivers, in many ways the heart of the Regeneration trilogy, is exhausted at the hospital and, in keeping with the hallucinations of many of the traumatised men he has treated, he himself is visited by the apparition of Njiru — shaman, translator, healer, the one ‘who knows’. It is understated yet, in some ways, fitting. The Ghost Road, as with Regeneration and The Eye in the Door, is at its most successful when with Rivers: Billy Prior’s war is a seedy, murky, grim affair and its lead character is not one who can be readily sympathised with, despite the hopelessness of his situation; W. H. R. Rivers is, by contrast, this war’s humanity, as known by Barker.

Book Review: The Eye in the Door (Pat Barker)

It is 1918: several months on from the events depicted in the first of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. We find that the erstwhile Second-Lieutenant Prior (now plain Billy Prior of the Ministry of Munitions, London) is more or less the central character of the continued story (more or less because Dr W. H. R. Rivers’ appearance, a little later in this offering, does absorb the reading focus with his presence). Prior has left Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, and we meet him again, early on, in a somewhat grubby and clandestine sexual encounter with one Captain Charles Manning, also of the Ministry of Munitions.

The Eye in the Door (Penguin Books, 1994) follows several strands of plot arc or character development, and the deepening of the understanding of Billy Prior’s psychological field is one of these strands. Prior is an attempted complexity of sexual need, childhood trauma, and father issues. Within and around this personal framework, Barker spins out the background story of an alleged plot to murder the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. According to the author’s own notes, the fictionalised account of the character Beattie Roper (known to Billy Prior from his childhood days in the backstreets of Salford, Manchester) is based on the real-life story of Alice Wheeldon, accused of conspiracy to murder the Prime Minister in the 1917 ‘poison plot’.

Another strand woven into the work is the real-life 1918 libel trial of the MP Noel Pemberton Billing who, as a newspaper owner and editor, ran articles written by a Captain Harold Spencer, claiming to be a British Intelligence agent who had seen a ‘Black Book’ containing the names of 47,000 ‘subscribers to a private performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome’. Maud Allan, dancing the lead part, sued Pemberton Billing over the implication that she was a lesbian (the 47,000 of the Black Book being susceptible to the Germans’ use of the presumed knowledge of homosexuality).

Beattie Roper is a key figure in Billy Prior’s childhood, having taken care of him and whose own children he spent his days with. Her daughter, Hettie, is a one-time love interest, and the Ropers’ home is used as a safe house for pacifists, or ‘conchies’ (conscientious objectors). Into this mix, deeper into the story arcs, we are introduced to Paddy MacDowell (‘Mac’), a close childhood friend of Billy’s. Mac is involved in disrupting the munitions supply lines and in aiding the cause of conscientious objectors in their escape to Ireland. When Billy Prior visits Beattie in prison, his loyalties are divided: she, who has been accused of conspiracy to murder, is on hunger strike, and Billy (also torn by the internal divide of his working class roots and his officer and Ministry status) must be seen to be towing the army line whilst also trying to support and help her. Having secured a private meeting with Beattie in her cell via his Ministry status, we learn of the eye depiction on the back of prison doors: objectors are kept naked with a uniform ready and folded for them on their beds; the depicted eye has within it an actual spyhole. For Prior, the conflict of this scenario is also further complicated by the traumatic scene of his recent past (as described in the first book of this trilogy) whereby, in the trenches of France, he picks up the dislocated eye of one of his men following an enemy shelling.

Billy Prior travels north to seek out Hettie Roper in an attempt to further support and aid Beattie, and in so doing is drawn back into the orbit of Paddy MacDowell, his childhood friend. There is a tension in their conversations as Mac warns Billy that their meeting had better not be a means to entrap him. Billy’s loyalties lie north, but his working army life is south. Into the plot lines Barker adds Lionel Spragge. Spragge is directed to the Roper safe house, trusted as someone in need of the pacifists’ help, but actually working undercover for the Ministry. When Mac is caught, Prior’s investigations lead to Spragge as the informant.

However, Barker has further complexity for Billy Prior to have to contend with. Another strand of her writing includes the general idea inherent in the Jekyll and Hyde characters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Prior’s character develops an alter ego: he suffers memory lapses and becomes increasingly fearful of what takes place in these periods of time when he’s unaware of what’s happening. When Dr Rivers returns to the pages, the sometimes confusing entanglements of Barker’s various lines of inquiry settle with his presence. Now nominally engaged in the therapeutic treatment of pilots in a hospital in London (nominally, because Barker does not pay a great deal of attention to this notional endeavour), Rivers agrees to support Prior again, as he does for Captain Manning and the late re-emergence of Siegfried Sassoon, sent back again from France to the nearby American Red Cross Hospital. Billy Prior’s character(s) are supported by Rivers and, in time, Prior must examine if Spragge was indeed the cause of Paddy MacDowell’s downfall or if someone else, far closer to home, was responsible. Barker continues her ‘47,000’ strand, meanwhile, and Manning, Sassoon, and Robert Ross (Oscar Wilde’s literary executor) are all variously implicated.

The various strands that flow around one another in The Eye in the Door contribute to an ambitious write. However, there is just too much packed into the one book for it all to result in as smooth an offering as might have been desired. Billy Prior’s more fully-formed alter ego state appears relatively late on, and earlier foreshadowing in the writing cannot, therefore, be confidently seen as this: Barker may just as easily be regularly conversant in the arts of reverse engineering. This all said, there is a certain flow to the whole, even if some re-establishment of earlier events is necessary on the part of the reader. The grubby feel of the opening scenes is maintained, for the most part, in keeping with a dark eye on the times in question, and Barker’s writing is, also in keeping, if not exactly ‘clean’ then ‘readable’.

The real strength though of this, the second of Barker’s trilogy, is again the character of Dr Rivers. His presence on the pages focuses the reader on the psychological complexities of his patients, on himself, and indeed on First World War Britain and its social mores regarding class, gender, sexuality and morality. Through Billy Prior, Barker’s eye sees and creates a multitude of perceived ‘sins’; via Dr Rivers, we can try to understand.

Book Review: Regeneration (Pat Barker)

In 1917, when Second-Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, the First World War poet, protests (by way of a written declaration) in respect of ‘the political errors and insecurities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed’, it is regarded as a somewhat sensitive matter for the military authorities. A process of court martial is deemed too inflammatory for the continuance of the war effort, and so Sassoon is sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near the city of Edinburgh, ostensibly to ‘recover’, receiving psychiatric treatment along with the other officers suffering there from shell-shock or other mental breakdown.

So begins the first book of Pat Barker’s trilogy. Regeneration (Penguin Books, 1992: followed by The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road) is, in fact, not only a story of the recovery journeys of various Craiglockhart patients but also the story of how those patients’ journeys have their affects on their doctor, W. H. R. Rivers. Rivers, an army captain in his early fifties, is aware that he often becomes a father-figure to some of the far younger officers he treats. Despite his various descriptions (or allusions to being described) as psychiatrist (in the text), as psychologist (in the book’s back cover reviews), as ‘neurologist and social anthropologist’ (in the author’s own notes), Rivers’ treatment method is in the form of talking therapy for the officers. Some, like Second-Lieutenant Prior, will not or cannot initially speak, such is the trauma of their experiences in the trenches of France; the field medic, Anderson, develops a debilitating phobia of blood; David Burns is an officer who, having been blown into the air by a shell, lands face-first in the decomposing midriff of a German corpse and, subsequently, is unable to eat properly, vomiting at the memory of his experience.

Sassoon is largely a catalyst for the story of Rivers and his other patients’ developments. The poet stands by his declaration but wishes throughout, in sound mind and in good physical condition, to return to France and to his men. There is a form of love implied within the honour of brothers in arms. Whilst in Craiglockhart, awaiting his Medical Board summons (the members of which Rivers reports to regarding patients’ fitness to return to duty), Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen, who is also recovering from the affects of the war. Owen is depicted as starstruck at the meeting with Sassoon, and the latter helps the former write and edit the poem that he is probably most famous for (Anthem for Doomed Youth). Meanwhile, Rivers continues on his daily rounds of the hospital: he is subtly caught between his core military duty (that of treating and recommending a return to action of the incumbent patients) and a dis-ease brought on by the reflection that perhaps Sassoon’s declaration of the unnecessary sacrifice of young lives is correct.

Barker’s writing, throughout, is generally uncomplicated to follow, although there are occasions of ambiguity within some passages of dialogue (of which there is plenty, as might be expected in such a work depicting the interactions between therapist and patients): the literary decision not to include dialogue tags in certain sections (not a criticism in itself) does sometimes cause a blurring in the ascertaining of which character is currently speaking. Some passages are, however, as also might be expected for the setting that is the horror of the ‘Great War’, harrowingly effective. There are instances of detail regarding both the horrific situation that the young men on the Western Front are in and, simultaneously, the ludicrous nature of their enforced lot. Second-Lieutenant Billy Prior tells Rivers, for example:

‘You wait, you try to calm down anybody who’s obviously shitting himself or on the verge of throwing up. You hope you won’t do either of those things yourself. Then you start the count down: ten, nine, eight . . . and so on. You blow the whistle. You climb the ladder. Then you double through a gap in the wire, lie flat, wait for everybody else to get out — those that are left, there’s already quite a heavy toll — and then you stand up. And you start walking. Not at the double. Normal walking speed.’ Prior started to smile. ‘In a straight line. Across open country. In broad daylight. Towards a line of machine-guns.’ He shook his head. ‘Oh, and of course you’re being shelled all the way.’

Prior’s story takes up a fair proportion of the middle section of Barker’s pages. It transpires that, in the trenches, he narrowly avoided a direct hit from a shell which instantly killed the two men he had just been talking to: Prior picked up and held the dislocated eye of one of them — a memory he seems to have repressed the horrors of. During his recovery period, he decides to go into Edinburgh (the patients are free to come and go) but he removes the badge that marks him out as someone from the Craiglockhart Hospital. Prior meets Sarah Lumb, one of a group of women who work at the local munitions factory. Sarah and her work colleagues have the yellowing skin and copper-coloured hair of all the others who work to supply the ammunition for the men in France. Whilst development of Prior’s relationship with Sarah is largely sensitively observed, Barker does rather spoil her earlier prose with the bathos of a scene which ought to be a retrospective contender for the ‘Bad Sex in Fiction Award’. She writes, for example, that Prior’s ‘nostrils filled with the scent of rock pools at low tide’ and, in context, this is a ludicrously poor allusion to have survived the final edit.

This all said, the author does also sprinkle her writing with a wry humour, respectfully limited for the subject matter. She writes of ‘Fothersgill, Sassoon’s new room-mate, a fanatical Theosophist. He spoke throughout in mock medieval English — lots of ‘Yea verilys’ and ‘forsooths’ — as if his brief exposure to French horrors had frightened him into a sort of terminal facetiousness.’ Later, Barker has Sarah and her work colleagues taking a crude swipe at their factory supervisor:

They watched her walk away. ‘Eeh, I hope a man never tries to shove anything up her flue,’ Lizzie said. ‘Be cruelty to moths.’

Dr Rivers must eventually take some time away from Craiglockhart because the psychological impact of the war on his patients has an increasing affect on him. He analyses his own dreams, just as he has his patients recount their nightmares, and he confronts his own repressed stammer, a documented symptom of many who return from the Western Front. Rivers cannot stay away from his professional reason for being, however. He agrees to a social visit and stay with Burns, who has been discharged but not returned to France, at his coastal home. Rivers deliberately does not project his doctor persona whilst there as a guest, but Burns’ eventual relapse brings about the re-emergence of the father-figure/therapist.

Rivers returns to Craiglockhart, prior to taking up a new position offered to him in London, ‘in the late afternoon of yet another stormy day’. It seems that this is a form of reverse-engineering on Barker’s part: a reference to a line in one of Sassoon’s poems, which the latter hands to his doctor a few pages later in the narrative. In the fullness of time, Siegfried Sassoon is passed fit for a return to France, having spent his purpose within the pages, and Rivers is unsure if he will survive or if he will even want to. The irony is that Rivers (according to the author’s notes), as real a person as Sassoon is within this fictionalised account, died in 1922, only five years after the events of Regeneration take place; Sassoon died, in old age, in 1967.

Pat Barker’s writing in this, the first of her trilogy, is largely evocative, succinct in the trauma details of an absurd war, by turns wry or subtle. Her characters have the depth of war about them, though some dialogue could perhaps have been a little more polished. Regeneration begins a journey in itself, as its characters are also on, and the contents of her second offering in this series, The Eye in the Door, have been provided favourable foundations.

Book Review: Sophie’s World (Jostein Gaarder)

Perhaps it is apt, when considering a book constructed with a philosophical base, to ask of it questions that cut to the truth of its matter: that is to say, in this particular case, for example, what is the essence of the manuscript, which once must have landed on an editor’s desk, that suggests it rank as a publishable accomplished novel? A novel must have depth of characters, setting, story, but Jostein Gaarder is, on the evidence of this particular offering, incapable of or unwilling to supply any of these essential aspects within his pages.

Sophie’s World (Phoenix, 1996, translated from the original Norwegian by Paulette Møller; originally published as Sofies Verden by H. Aschehoug & Co, 1991) is, in the main, a textbook on philosophy. The author admits as much, directly, some three quarters of the way through this work, via the words of one of his main characters, Alberto Knox, a philosophy teacher to the young teenage Sophie. By this stage, however, Gaarder’s non-textbook, attempted storyline, threaded in between the educational elements, has descended into a complex mess of meta-writing, being every bit as irksome and cumbersome as some of the meta-writing of Javier Marías or Italo Calvino, for example. At the heart of the matter of Gaarder’s book seems merely to be the philosophical questioning that is: what if you were really a character in a book? (i.e. who are you?)

Sophie Amundsen is initially presented to us as a character to believe as real (as is the accepted way of fiction). She starts to receive unsolicited mail from an unknown character and these communications ask philosophical questions in an attempt at developing her thinking. Alberto Knox, unaccountably, wishes to teach her philosophy. At this early stage, the fictive suspension of disbelief begins to fracture: Sophie willingly accepts this stranger’s overtures and, furthermore, her mother limply does very little to stop her daughter regularly going to meet this man. Alberto’s motives are purely for the teaching of philosophy, but the set-up rings entirely untrue. This accusation can also be levelled at Gaarder’s novel-writing attempts in general: he repeats the refrain and structure of how Sophie receives a letter and goes to read it (we lurch here into a written lecture on Socrates or Plato, for example), and then she receives another letter and Sophie goes to read it, and so on; Gaarder introduces a second young teenage female character, Hilde Møller Knag, and he repeats his clumsy writing style whereby Hilde reads a manuscript secured in a ring binder, then she falls asleep and it drops to the floor, and then she reads the manuscript, and so on.

The manuscript that Hilde reads is written by her father, Albert Knag, a UN battalion officer serving in Lebanon, who is soon to return home to Norway. There is, however, precious little, if any, Norwegian identity inherent within any of Gaarder’s characters, settings, or depicted ways of life. Any semblance of a coherent storyline unravels quickly as we discover that the book that Knag has written for Hilde, for her birthday, is this book, Sophie’s World, and its two main characters are Sophie Amundsen and Alberto Knox, the philosophy teacher. So we have the set-up: Sophie thought she was a real girl who, by way of her interactions with Alberto Knox, and initially via a mysterious mirror, comes across clues to the possible existence, beyond, of a girl called Hilde, who has the same birthday as her; Hilde reads a book written by her father (who has a very similar name to a character in that book, Albert Knag/Alberto Knox), and that book is about the character known as Sophie Amundsen. One step removed from this, of course, is the fact that Hilde is a character written by Gaarder, who deliberately plays God in the complexity of his attempted story and confused meta-writing, but he forgets to make the whole an enjoyable affair.

All his characters are, at best, utterly two-dimensional. Perhaps this was intentional, though this would be a generous assessment. Certainly, in the latter chapters, Gaarder deliberately sketches lesser characters as stereotypes and flimsy creations in order to paint in an absurdist garden party scene, but any subtlety or cleverness of application to philosophical points made up until that juncture is entirely unappreciated under the weight of relentlessly poor execution of technical novel-writing skills. Flights of fancy are acceptable in the hands of structurally sound fictive works but Gaarder’s progressively ridiculous device of having fairytale or other story characters turn up in order to dispel their existence is tiresome.

What is all the more frustrating is that, in the main, the textbook element of Gaarder’s writing would make for a largely informative offering. That is to say, although there are some turgid chapters on certain philosophers’ thinking (i.e. within the contents of the letters sent by Alberto Knox to Sophie, and then by way of a video he makes for her from Athens, and then in direct one-to-one teaching to her), for example the soporific treatment of Immanuel Kant, the brief author biography of Gaarder as a teacher of philosophy is evident. What would have been preferable is that Gaarder (or his editor) strip out all reference to the ludicrous storyline within this book, all character references, and therefore all of Alberto Knox’s demeaning sobriquets in referring to Sophie as ‘child’ in his teaching, and all of the author’s uses of Sophie’s dialogue merely as means to break up the textbook speech (‘Go on,’ she urges Alberto, regularly, or the likes of ‘Tell me more about that’, if not in those exact words but with that sentiment): what would then have transpired would have been a competent enough educational offering on the main philosophical concerns, through the ages, of the likes of the Ancient Greeks, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Hegel, Kierkegaard et al. Should the author have seen it fit to then raise his own philosophical concern, it would have sat comfortably enough as a textbook chapter in its own right, at the end of this timeline: that is, following the historical analysis presented thus far, Gaarder asks, what if you were really a character in a book, who are you?

Of course, the alternative would have been to write a novel that elegantly blended the philosophical concerns of great thinkers down the ages with an ongoing storyline that included memorable depth characters, fantastic elements that were at once known as such and yet entirely believable, and an over-riding feeling that every part neatly and completely contributed to the whole. Unfortunately, none of these aspects are evident in Jostein Gaarder’s writing of Sophie’s World.

Book Review: The White Book (Han Kang)

Even after the second reading of such beautiful lament and quiet introspection as this short offering is, it is still regrettably difficult to find the words adequate enough to do it justice. The author of The Vegetarian (2015), Han Kang, has here excelled in developing an object of beauty, in follow up, that is at once aching and subtle, laden and delicate, laced with allusion and weighed with grief and a lifetime of struggling with a family burden.

The White Book (Portobello Books, 2018, translated from the original Korean by Deborah Smith) deals with its narrator’s survivor’s guilt, with the coming to terms of having been born four years after the very short life of her older sister came to an end. The older child, born two months premature in a cold winter, in a secluded country house and to a young mother, lives for just two hours. Han’s narrator is, as read, her parents’ replacement daughter. She has a younger brother who, himself, is born following a second premature birth and short-lived life, a boy this time. Her brother features little, however, and it is Han’s narrator who suffers her lifetime of guilt. (‘If only you hadn’t stopped breathing. And had therefore been granted all this life in my stead, I who would then never have been born.’)

Books truly can be objects of beauty in many ways. The publishers of The White Book have not only taken Han’s sparse poetic prose and typeset it elegantly, with plenty of white space, they have also interspersed a small collection of black and white photographs, carefully arranged at strategic points, in the text. This is a curated book. The whole effect is on a par with the beautiful object that is Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book (Sort Of Books, 2003). Beauty is more than skin deep, however. Han’s narrator has, for a lifetime, carried the story of her sister’s birth, of her then young mother’s quiet plea as she lay alone with the child on the floor (‘Don’t die. For God’s sake don’t die.’), of her sister’s quiet slipping away. The gaps in this work are as poignant as the words themselves. The writing is a series of stand-alone short and very short meditations, eulogies in white, of whitenesses. In the first section, the narrator explores matters of the self; in the second, she gives herself over to her sister; in the third there is a progression on. Towards the end of the first section, in a delicate weight of trying to come to terms, Han writes:

The twenty-two-year-old woman lies alone in the house. Saturday morning, with the first frost still clinging to the grass, her twenty-five-year-old husband goes up the mountain with a spade to bury the baby who was born yesterday. The woman’s puffy eyes will not open properly. The various hinges of her body ache, swollen knuckles smart. And then, for the first time, she feels warmth flood into her chest. She sits up, clumsily squeezes her breast. First a watery, yellowish trickle, then smooth white milk.

At a point not easily noticed, even reading slowly (as such a work must be read), Han’s writing begins to seep deeply into the reading self. There is a deft density which, at first, appears light but soon presses its fingerprints softly ever under. For a reader who habitually feels the rough grain of writers’ incomplete or grammatically misformed sentences, a transformation of forgetting such transgressions is a wonder in itself. Han (or perhaps it is Smith’s translation) chooses to omit the initial ‘as’ from some of her similes (‘Pretty little baby, [as] white as a moon-shaped rice cake.’) — though then, in time and inexplicably, her plaintive poetry renders such reader’s vexations petty. Towards the end of the second section, in a piece entitled simply Boundary, Han writes:

The baby was laid gently down on the warmest part of the heated floor, but by this point she was no longer crying, her eyes were no longer open . . . And yet, before dawn, when the first milk finally came from her mother’s breasts and she pressed her nipple between the tiny lips, she found that, despite everything, the baby was still breathing.

There is an acceptance, a giving of the narrator’s self to the spirit of the ‘older yet younger’ sister. There is a quiet psychological drama in the unfolding, a delicate interplay, a form of internal discussion, of showing and seeing, of wishing and wanting what never was. Han meditates on the war-time ghosts of a city that her narrator has travelled to: a sojourn that is a part of her internal journey. In so doing, in the fog and other whitenesses, she fuses the soft weight of her own affairs.

The White Book is steeped in cool, frost- and snow-bound lament. It has the effect of flurries of snowflakes silently landing on the skin, spinning in the hair, taking the harsh lines of an external world and burying them in a dense and deceptive softness. It is short but not at all lacking because of this: there is white space, which speaks as loudly as the words are quiet. Such beautiful object of a book as this is deserves repeated slow and thoughtful readings.

Book Review: The Glass Palace (Amitav Ghosh)

The eponymous palace of this grand sweep of history tale is in Mandalay, Burma, and it is here, in 1885, that we first meet an Indian boy whose life story, and those of his descendants and others’ families, unfolds. We are led through 550 pages and 111 years of narrative (although the author does choose to omit a large chunk of more recent decades): from the palace of the last King and Queen of Burma, Thebaw and Supayalat, following them to their exile in Ratnagiri, on the west coast of India after the arrival of the ‘English cannon’ in Mandalay, to the teak traders of the Burmese jungle, the rubber plantations of northern Malaya, the Japanese offensive in Malaya and Burma, the wartime refugee trek of thousands of Indians from Burma towards Calcutta, the post-war independence movements of India and Burma, and the subsequent political upheaval in the latter, landing in 1996 with a brief visit to the pages of Aung San Suu Kyi, giving a speech under house arrest in Yangon, formerly Rangoon (notwithstanding documentary evidence suggesting her release from house arrest the previous year).

The Glass Palace (HarperCollins Publishers, 2001) is a grand sweep of both the personal histories of its characters and also of the history of a region. Amitav Ghosh has gone to some lengths to create a cultural blending of Burmese, Indian, Malay, British colonialists, British Indians, Chinese-Malay, and American-Malay, highlighting along the way the identity and loyalty crises of Indian Nationalists who, on the one hand, must confront their historical allegiance to the British Empire and, on the other, the ever-pressing concern of the invading Japanese. In the wartime sections, characters are caught between the historical colonialists and the would-be colonialists in the thick of the jungle.

Ghosh’s initial main character is Rajkumar Raha, an orphaned Indian boy who finds himself in Mandalay, taking temporary work whilst the sampan he has been working on is in need of repair. When the ‘English cannon’ come, the royal family are sent into exile and, along with them, their young maids are caught up too. One of these girls, who tend to the royal infant princesses, is Dolly: Rajkumar meets Dolly as the treasures of the Glass Palace are ransacked by the locals, and so is set in motion the beginnings of his life story. In Mandalay we also meet Saya John, a Chinese-Malayan who becomes a form of mentor to Rajkumar and, when the latter begins to find his feet in the early adult world, Saya John supports his ventures into the teak trade in the jungles of Burma. Saya John’s descendants also feature heavily throughout, and the families have joint arcs.

Rajkumar eventually tracks down Dolly, now in exile with the King and Queen and four princesses, in a compound in Ratnagiri, India. There we are introduced to Uma Dey and her husband, the Collector: in effect, the royals’ keepers. Uma figures later in the story and her family too are blended into the joint arcs. Of the other prominent characters, Ghosh spends time in describing the military training and eventual deployment in the Second World War of a young Indian officer, Arjun Roy, the nephew of Uma Dey, and his ‘batman’, the loyal Kishan Singh. Arjun’s war deteriorates around him as he falls into self-doubt, a shadow of his former confident ego, questioning the British Empire he was trained in, by and for, in favour of a burgeoning need to fight for India. The Malay jungle is unrelenting, however, and Arjun’s mutiny causes significant ramifications. Ghosh makes occasional reference to the Sepoy mutiny of 1857, and the India that is burdened by the British Empire is never far from the surface.

Arjun’s sister, Manju, marries and has a child by Rajkumar’s eldest son, Neel. Both Neel (or Neeladhri, in full) and his brother, Dinu (Dinanath) are also given Burmese names (Sein Win and Tun Pe, respectively), their parents being Indian and Burmese by birth. Whilst Neel is thereafter known only as this, Dinu is later to be found in Rangoon having denounced this, his Indian name. Dinu/Tun Pe develops an early interest in photography and it this that sustains him throughout his life: it is through photography that his great love interest of the early war years becomes such, and it is through photography that, in his old age, he becomes a sort of mentor figure in his own right.

Ghosh’s writing takes in a wide variety of characters, countries, cultures and story arcs. Within the pages he fuses the interlacings of individuals’ lives with the significant political upheavals of both the larger region of the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia and the individual national turmoils of India and Burma themselves. As such, in the interpretation, there is the reading that some characters and their interactions are also representative of the greater whole: Uma Dey, for example, becomes embroiled in the Indian independence movement and it can be no coincidence that Rajkumar’s fathering of an illegitimate son by a Malay plantation worker, an allegory of colonialists’ treatment of subject-locals perhaps, is the cause of her ire in dual meaning.

For the most part, Ghosh’s writing is fluid and fast-paced. He leads us through Mandalay, Rangoon, Ratnagiri, the Burmese jungle or the Malay plantations for time enough for us to maintain our bearings before taking us elsewhere and flicking to the lives of other characters. Some aspects of this deep excursion into history do, however, become a little stilted: an authorial voice leaks through in places, for example, in matters of wartime military or latter-day political upheaval, and there is the journalistic hint that begins to muddy the fictive here. These sections are, however, soon subsumed back into the great, grand sweep. In such a sweep, there might be forgiveness for the occasional lapse in the writing regarding accuracy of chronology, but if the trouble has been taken to describe in detail the years of birth and deaths and significant markers of life in between, then chronology must be rigorously observed. In such a work, years of birth greatly aid the reader; yet, this also risks confusion if the writing is not sufficiently clear enough in the first instance, as transpires to be the case, on occasion. Similarly, Ghosh’s device — up until the Second World War years at least — of signifying years by describing, in sometimes stupefying detail, makes and models of cars is, at best, somewhat clumsy. Matthew, Saya John’s son, develops an early interest in cars and this device is repeated, on occasion, thereafter:

‘A motorwagon,’ Matthew pointed out the details — the small internal-combustion engine, the vertical crankshaft, the horizontal flywheel . . . It had been unveiled that very year, 1885, in Germany, by Karl Benz.

The car was Matthew’s. ‘It’s an Oldsmobile Defender,’ he announced. ‘Quite a modest car really, but mint-new, this year’s model, a genuine 1914 . . .’

Rajkumar’s grand-daughter, Neel’s daughter, Jaya, makes a late reappearance in the narrative. We meet her first as a baby during the exodus of Indians living in Burma as the Japanese troops make headway through the country. Thousands flee and Rajkumar, Dolly, Manju and the baby Jaya are part of this great trek. Even here, in the hardship of the journey, Ghosh represents Rajkumar, growing old as he is, in terms of his former businessman self: his teak empire has suffered cataclysmic damage in the bombing of Rangoon in late December 1941, but Rajkumar starts to collect firewood to barter for food. In 1996, Jaya meets her aged uncle Dinu/Tun Pe and we find ourselves in the early years of the modern Myanmar, the old Burma in a new turmoil. Ultimately, travelling in time again, in a scene which the author wishes to recount as tender, but which only just avoids mawkish, the elderly Uma and Rajkumar quietly reconcile their personal grievances: thus too, in the interpretation, is there a form of reconciliation, an embrace, of representations of India and Burma, burdened as they both are by their colonial travails.

Amitav Ghosh has drawn on a large array of sources, as credited in his author’s notes, both by research and by travel, and blended this with a personal history. Despite small criticisms, as detailed, The Glass Palace offers a doorway into a gilded room of former glories: treasures that may be viewed in various lights, depending on whose histories one holds in highest esteem.