Book Review: Pétronille (Amélie Nothomb)

Every so often there comes a slim book of sublime grace. This is quite definitely not one of those books. That accolade must go to another recent read (of which more detail in due course) and, with that connection in mind, a reader might reasonably find themselves then in search of something similarly beautiful in such scarcity of pages. Sometimes, the largely arbitrary choice of reading matter results in pleasant good luck; sometimes, however, the opposite is true. Pétronille (Europa Editions, 2015, translated from the original French by Alison Anderson) is, unfortunately, a shallow, vacuous, ego-driven and poorly executed work of little grace.

Amélie Nothomb sees it fit to name one of her two main characters as Amélie Nothomb, setting the reader on edge from early on. The eponymous Pétronille Fanto is, ostensibly, a younger fan of the former’s writing (Nothomb, the character, is also an author in the book). The character-author begins to develop a reversal of the fandom trope, following Pétronille’s attendance at one of Nothomb’s book signings. This, however, is merely a device to initiate the telling of the development of a friendship: a champagne-drinking partnership, which the author suggests she needs.

Thus begins the vacuity of sundry meet-ups over a period of almost twenty years, always swilling champagne: sometimes the focus is on the disparity of Nothomb, the acclaimed and socially accepted author, and Pétronille, the up and coming, edgy and socially unaccepted, young author; sometimes the emphasis is on apparent living life in the moment, risk-taking. Always, there is a growing sense of inauthenticity in the reader. Nothomb sprays around references to her own actual books within the text and, when read along with the links to the supposed books that Pétronille begins to churn out, and the works of other writers (along with clumsy quotations), this becomes a litany of amateurish execution.

Nothomb’s ham-fisted approach to referencing other writers, and publishers, mirrors her listings of various champagne names. She attempts, and fails dismally, to draw cogent regard towards matters of class difference. Pétronille’s parents are clumsily portrayed as communists (‘Fortunately, we still have Cuba!’ said Pierre) and Nothomb’s comments on social friction are tone-deaf and witless:

‘I was staring at her with the dumb admiration common to people of my sort when they meet a genuine proletarian.’

On description of trying to hawk one of Pétronille’s novels around publishing houses for her whilst she’s ‘travelling in the Sahara’, Nothomb writes of an editor character saying:

‘Why are you going to all this trouble for this Fanto woman? You know very well that in the literary world, people with a proletarian background don’t stand a chance.’

The suspicion then lurks that Nothomb is attempting another clumsy assault: this time on the business of being a writer. In other parts of the book, she makes use of Pétronille as foil to describe how most writers don’t get paid a great deal, or she details an uncomfortable (for her) scene in being asked to interview Vivienne Westwood for an article commissioned by a magazine. The thin ruse has no great depth within it.

Whilst in London for the interview, her first ever trip across the Channel, Nothomb adds plenty of casual xenophobia and tiresome stereotyping of the English to her growing list of writerly misdemeanours. She attempts to counter all of this with tales of eating fish and chips, disingenuously aligned, we can suspect, with an ‘eating like the common people’ thinking process. There is, in addition, the rather more suspicious claim to the idea that ‘the Nothomb family is of distant English extraction. They left Northumberland in the eleventh century and crossed the Channel . . .’ This, in short turn, leads Nothomb to the ridiculous and, one can only hope, attempted self-deprecation that is:

‘When the train pulled into Waterloo Station, I almost wept for joy. As I stepped out onto British soil at last, I felt like the queen of the ball. I was sure the earth trembled as it recognised the footstep of its distant progeny.’

Any semblance of potential character depth withers away very early on in the piece (Pétronille could have been somebody interesting) and the one-dimensionality of this aspect of Nothomb’s writing is matched only by the utterly pretentious stream of thinking on which it’s all fixed (‘And what an original way to celebrate your thirty-ninth birthday! Is it an allusion to Hitchcock’s 39 Steps?’). The only plot, in loose definition, might be seen in the shallow arc taken by Pétronille from feisty fan-girl turned writer herself to a falling apart into risk-taker (she takes experimental medicines to supplement her income and indulges in Russian Roulette). Nothomb info-dumps with flagrant disregard for the reader’s sensibilities (‘I’m looking out at Paris through the window: did you know that the Eiffel Tower is hollow?’ . . . ‘You’re confusing it with Kourou in French Guiana.’).

Before the mercifully short arrival of the denouement, a note must be made on the translation. It cannot be said often enough that there is no way of knowing whether poor word choice or syntax is the fault of the original author or the translator, but suffice is to say that examples such as the following renditions of grammar are entirely ill-conceived:

‘I would have liked to be similarly good company for someone.’

‘I would have liked to bury my face in the frozen treasure.’

Finally, then, to the denouement. Nothomb attempts a fantastic twist in the last few paragraphs. It only serves to add insult to injury, being entirely unsatisfactory, utterly flawed insofar as an integrity of internal logic is concerned, and executed with the by-now usual clumsiness expected of the author. On brief reflection, in attempting to bestow upon her work some degree of depth with her clever twist, Nothomb only succeeds in suggesting that, with such haste, she’s bored of her subject matter now, already thinking of what else she might churn out in the great litany that is her growing body of work (‘over twenty-three best-selling novels’ the sleeve notes inform, ‘a novel a year, every year’ since her debut).

Pétronille, the book, and Nothomb, as character and as author, on this evidence at least, are corked offerings best shelved or sluiced.
 
 

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Book Review: Alone in Berlin (Hans Fallada)

Despite the desperate setting that is the German capital city at the height of Second World War fear, persecution and crippling paranoia, Hans Fallada’s novel is a work threaded through with resilience and righteous fortitude in the face of futile resistance to the Nazi regime. Editorial notes on the Penguin Classics edition shed historical light on the reality of the time in which the book was written (shortly after Hitler’s defeat), and so it is that we might see with even more clarity the shimmer of a future of Soviet hope in its intermittent agricultural analogies and in its final scene. Fallada, we’re informed, had to juggle his writerly needs with those of the dominant social conditions.

Alone in Berlin (Penguin Classics, 2009, translated from the original German by Michael Hofmann; originally published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein, trans. Everyone dies alone, 1947) was written in just twenty four days in late 1946. Given that the copy under review is almost 570 pages in length, this was an undertaking of some significance on Fallada’s part. Commissioned to be written and finished earlier that year, but the author not returning to his original notes until a few months before his death in early 1947, Alone in Berlin is the fictionalised story of the real life Otto and Elise Hampel: two working class, poorly educated people who took a stand, in their own small way, against the regime by writing anti-Nazi postcards (a treasonable offence at that time, punishable by death) following the loss of a family member in the war effort. The Hampels become the fictional Otto and Anna Quangel, who lose their son in the defeat of the French in 1940. Otto Quangel, a quiet, unobtrusive carpenter, working now as a foreman in a factory requisitioned for churning out bomb crates, and later coffins, for the war machine, reacts to his wife’s grief at news of the loss of their son by insisting on his small but drawn out stand, after much consideration. Anna Quangel had told her husband that ‘his Führer’ had killed their son, and so this sets into motion Otto’s actions of extreme jeopardy, from which there is no return and only one possible outcome.

Fallada (real name Rudolf Ditzen, having chosen his pseudonym from a combination of Brothers Grimm tales) slowly unfolds the futile scheme, bringing in a variety of characters along the way, most of whom exhibit extreme caution, paranoia, anxiety and fear, constantly trying to be careful about loose talk, mistrusting neighbours, trying to survive. Frau Rosenthal is an elderly Jewess who lives upstairs from the Quangels and who suffers from the persecution of the Persickes downstairs (Party members, the sons in the SS, all reaping for themselves what the war and their contacts will let them take); a retired judge also lives in the block and offers some salvation, though he too must take great care; Enno Kluge and Emil Borkhausen are low-life, petty criminals, equally as caught up in the whims and severities of the Gestapo machinations; Trudel Baumann is the girlfriend of the fallen son of the Quangels, naively engaged as she is in a low-level and inactive resistance cell. Eva Kluge, the estranged wife of the low-life Enno, resigns her position in the Party, at great potential cost, but she is released from the glare of any retribution, becoming the catalyst for redemptive hope. Others come and go: most characters fare poorly, as might be expected. Within this construct, Fallada details some machinations of the SA (Sturmabteilung, Storm Troopers, the paramilitary also known as Brownshirts), the SS (Schutzstaffel, Hitler’s guard), and the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, the Secret Police). The hunt for the postcard writer is taken up, initially, by Inspector Escherich of the Gestapo.

Escherich is meticulous but his investigation is too long-winded for his superior, Obergruppenführer Prall of the SS. Caught by his own nefarious deed of framing Enno Kluge as the postcard writer, obtaining a false confession, and then letting him go again because he knows that Kluge is not his man, Escherich is forced by Prall to act, or to suffer consequences: Escherich had sought to assuage the attentions of his superior but the latter is a blunt instrument. Prall’s mistreatment of Escherich has the consequence of bringing in Inspector Zott to take on the case. Zott is, however, blinded by his own arrogance and fails to see that Quangel is his man, even when the facts are becoming relatively clear. Later, much later, one Inspector Laub, of the Gestapo, exacts his tortures and it is he who is the cruellest on his victims.

There is much more that can be written by way of a précis but this would rather spoil the read. That said, as has been stated previously, there is only one outcome for the Quangels, which they themselves know from the outset of their resistance, and despite a flurry of hope for them, we know too, deep down, that this is the case. Relatively early on in the work, Fallada writes:

Then he [Otto] picked up the pen, and said softly but clearly, ‘The first sentence of our first card will read: ‘Mother! The Führer has murdered my son.’’

Once again, she [Anna] shivered. There was something so bleak, so gloomy, so determined in the words Otto had just spoken. At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto’s absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse!

Later, much later, Trudel Baumann, now Hergesell, is assertive with her new husband, Karl, also once of the small but now disbanded resistance cell:

‘But what can we do, Trudel? Nothing! Think of all the power Hitler has, and the two of us are nothing at all! There’s nothing we can do!’

‘If everyone thought like that, then Hitler would stay in power for ever. Someone somewhere has to make a start.’

The resistance is, on one level, futile of course. Escherich announces that the vast majority of the postcards that Quangel has set down in the city have, almost as soon as they’ve been ‘dropped’, been reported to the Gestapo out of fear. Quangel’s hope that the postcards be subversively passed along are forlorn. On another level though, and following Trudel’s and ultimately the Quangels’ logic (Otto’s wife also having agreed to the production of the ‘offences’), a stand must be taken if, and ultimately because, it is the right thing to do. The natural progression of such thinking leads Fallada back to Eva Kluge, the mother archetype, the city-dweller who seeks a quieter life in the country, the literal and figurative baptiser and sower of fields. Eva Kluge takes in an escapee of the city, a teenager, the hope of the future, redemption.

Despite the depth of desperation inherent in the fiction, in the real life basis of the story of the Hampels, and in the real life affairs of the author at the time of writing, Alone in Berlin does find itself beset with some faults. On discovering that the whole text was written in somewhat of a creative flurry, in twenty fours days, and the editing finished just one month later, some degree of context then is provided for occasional one-dimensional characterisations, some fairly shoddy use of dialogue (perhaps, generously, we might prefer to read this in terms of colloquial authenticity), and the occasional but distracting switches between past and present tenses. Obergruppenführer Prall, for example, is portrayed as cardboard thin in his physical and psychological attacks on Inspector Escherich and in his alcoholic debauchery. That said, given that the writing was completed so soon after the downfall of the Nazi regime, Fallada having lived through this at great peril to himself as an author, and perhaps wishing to ingratiate himself with the new powers in his locale, namely the Soviets, a one-dimensional, stereotypical and almost satirical swipe at the SS might very well have been the order of the day. With regards to colloquial dialogue (be it the fault of the original or the translation, as ever with the reading of such works) conversation including such as the word ‘Oodles’, spoken by the Gestapo, strikes the reader as somewhat less than authentic. Plenty of other dialogue is presented as rendering various low-life characters as if they were the German equivalents of 1940s Londoners in chirpy, war time stereotypical patter. An attempt at earthy, gritty realism, no doubt, descends into distraction: the comedic without the comedy. The modern reader remains, alas, ill-informed as to the truth of the matter.

Ultimately, however, Alone in Berlin is a read that must be committed to. That we might become ever more desensitised to the atrocities inflicted in Europe some eighty years ago now grows with each passing year: atrocities felt not only by the foreign enemies of Hitler but by Germany too. Fallada has succeeded in drawing the reader’s attention to a time which very few now can either remember or appreciate. We take for granted all our own resistances to power abuse, but we don’t take up our causes with such jeopardy as the real life Hampels did or their fictionalised versions, the Quangels.
 
 

Book Review: The Vegetarian (Han Kang)

Despite the inner cover blurb declaring that the central character of The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye, ‘spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison . . . becoming — impossibly, ecstatically — a tree’, these words are not the precursor to some magical realist swirl, or some such similar expectation; rather, Han’s work is a depiction of a slow deterioration in mental health, brought on by Yeong-hye’s history of abuse and disregard. Slowly, as she disintegrates, do we collect and collate the pieces (referred to below).

Written in three acts and from the perspectives of three family members in a stretched out chronological order of events, The Vegetarian (Portobello Books, 2015, translated from the original Korean by Deborah Smith) was brought together as a novel from its separate connected stories. In the first, Yeong-hye’s husband (referred to later only as Mr Cheong) narrates his thoughts, feelings and actions regarding his wife’s sudden decision not to eat meat. There is a residual historical-cultural undertone in this, we suspect, and in the manner by which Cheong treats his wife in general.

In the second act, the focus switches to Yeong-hye’s video-artist brother-in-law who, when he hears of Yeong-hye’s ‘Mongolian mark’ above her buttocks, becomes both sexually and artistically excited. The sentiments blur as he seeks to paint her naked body in flowers and then film her, though his sexual intent flows through the process, the combination of which all interlinks with Yeong-hye’s assertion of eschewing all contact with meat, embracing the biota. Her brother-in-law abuses her naïve trust, though it isn’t the first of her abuses. In the first act, Mr Cheong relates the incident in which, at a family gathering, Yeong-hye’s father (a strict, former Vietnam War soldier) hits her for refusing to eat meat. She subsequently cuts herself with a knife so severely that it warrants a hurried visit to the hospital. Her father’s actions here are, also, not her first abuse.

In the third act, we discover that Yeong-hye’s father has been physically abusing her in childhood. Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, is the writing perspective of that third act. Han describes her visit to the psychiatric hospital, in the mountains outside Seoul, where Yeong-hye is obliged to reside. In-hye visits after Yeong-hye goes missing from the otherwise secure unit, later to be located alone in the hills. Yeong-hye is, by this stage, refusing to eat anything at all and her weight has dropped dramatically. She is largely catatonic, though consciously focusing on other things, we’re told. She has developed an association with the trees and wishes to be like them. This is not, however, a tale of turning into a tree.

Han’s writing is, at times, bold in its beauty of scarce description (the almost filmic descriptions of the hospital surrounds, for example) and she has a nuanced touch in the art of how things feel. She slips easily between characters, appearing to give them centre stage, yet only later does the reader comprehend the more subtle rendering of how Yeong-hye is actually, truly, at the centre of it all. She is the central character, that much is clear, and yet all the words about her are delivered a little more removed. There is a slight confusion in character names (Yeong-hye, In-hye, their brother Yeong-ho) insofar as remembering who is who for the reader unfamiliar with such similar-sounding names, but this is a minor quibble. That Han also chooses to name other passing characters as simply P., M. and J. is a curiosity which might, with positive regard, be treated as an idiosyncrasy, or with converse regard, as an irritation. Han’s choice of having some of her characters directly refer to one another, such as in telephone conversations, as Sister-in-law, or Sister, rather than by their names is, in the assumption, a cultural reference, though without full certainty.

Deborah Smith’s translation does sometimes offer up an oddness of word use (e.g. ‘pell-mell’, ‘falteringly’ or ‘confusedly’) and the final result is a mix of predominantly British English but with a scattering of American English spellings (‘favour’, ‘colour’, ‘theatre’, and then ‘realize’). This aside, as is the perennial perplexity of the regular reader of variety, the monolingual can never really know the truth of the form of a written work in its original language. As such, these critiques of the translator’s work are minor and presented more in the manner of observation.

In the final reckoning, Han Kang’s novel reflects a languid undertow of background subtleties because, ultimately, what isn’t so forcefully said is comprehended as being a part of the whole. That she chooses to slowly unfold the background of Yeong-hye’s life is testament to Han’s writing skill. She infuses her characters with introspections that fold around themselves but which don’t stultify too greatly the external actions of the characters or the descriptions of the scenes. Those characters are, initially, difficult to comprehend — not because of a complexity of writing but because Han paints them carefully but slightly. Mr Cheong’s first person attempt to extract some form of sympathy for the predicament of his unreasonable wife falls on deaf reader’s ears, but he isn’t someone we find we need to later concern ourselves with; Yeong-hye takes time to try to understand, insofar as her motivations and actions, or rather, her inactions, are concerned.

The Vegetarian earned Han Kang the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Whilst her writing style is accomplished and the content of her pages here is both carefully arranged and streaked with other depths and subtleties, there is a lingering dissatisfaction in the manner of its denouement. In an ambulance, In-hye whispers to Yeong-hye that: ‘Perhaps this is all a dream.’ Reviews here are written before any others are read, and this applies to praise by award-givers; however, the discrepancy persists in what the ordinary reader might require and what the literary establishment decrees as the most remarkable of its shortlist. The Vegetarian is entirely readable and thought-provoking but it isn’t the ‘bracing, visceral, system-shocking’ breathlessness as announced by its blurb. We should take care in discarding such hyperbole, and we should not be swayed by prize short listing cover addenda.

Simply, The Vegetarian is an interlinked three-act collection around the theme of mental deterioration, streaked with culturally specific, perhaps global, reference to gender relations, and the affects and effects of abuses: the author handles her work mostly with care and sometimes with the reality of flesh and blood.
 
 

Book Review: The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)

With a refined elegance of language consistent throughout the entirety of its pages, Kazuo Ishiguro’s inter- and post-war set novel at once cleanly embodies its main character whilst also enfolding its text around several subtle strands that unwind throughout its whole. The first person reverie of Mr Stevens, whose first name we are never in a position to discover, a butler to Lord Darlington at his grand great house in Oxfordshire, is related whilst the former engages on a motoring trip to Cornwall in 1956. It is, however, the various events both on an international and political scale and on a personal working relationship level that occur during the 1920s and 1930s that Stevens is ostensibly and primarily focused. The book’s denouement is directed, early on, towards a reunion with the former Miss Kenton, erstwhile housekeeper at Darlington Hall; there is, however, a far more subtle, somewhat elegant and endearing strand of storytelling inherent in the piece, regarding Mr Stevens and his relationship with the sometimes volatile Miss Kenton.

The Remains of the Day (published by Faber and Faber, 2005; originally published in 1989) is a slow unfolding of a love story, a story of political shenanigans, a rumination on the concepts of dignity and professionalism, of tradition and the perception of modernity, and of coming to terms. Stevens has learned his trade, has discussed it at length at gatherings of others who also perform the same duties at other great houses, and cannot, on the face of it, not encapsulate the epitome of service. His every waking moment is dedicated to his craft, his reflections on his manner and application, and his consideration of the details. Stevens is, however, somewhat of an unreliable narrator. Such is Ishiguro’s skill at writing in this offering that this epiphany only slowly begins to dawn on the reader.

Stevens has a particular worldview and his explanations of events and ideas appear rational and understandable. Gradually, however, there are hints as to how this worldview begins to unravel. Stevens is loyal to his lordship, but the latter’s political sympathies can, more and more, be perceived as either deliberate or naive in the gathering machinations of 1930s Europe. First there are references to hosting Sir Oswald Mosley, of ‘blackshirts’ infamy, then increasingly there is the suggestion that Lord Darlington’s sympathy for the defeated populace of the Great War is, in fact, a perfect canvas on which Hitler can manipulate political advantage. Darlington is capable and suitably esteemed in the gathering and hosting of conferences of important inter-war politicians and ambassadors, though he is, it transpires (or, as we’re told) being made good use of by the foreign powers. Stevens, for his part, keeps a respectful distance and will not question his lordship as it is not his place to do so.

As the political machinations slowly unfold, so too do the details of Stevens’ sometimes difficult relationship with Miss Kenton. Their staffing responsibilities are largely split between the male and the female employees and, though Miss Kenton is relatively young when we first meet her, she is a capable housekeeper. Stevens is ultimately responsible for the entire staff team. It becomes clear that she suffers much exasperation at Stevens’ manner, though Ishiguro’s writing is careful enough only to paint the finer edges of this. Miss Kenton wishes to brighten Stevens’ private working room with flowers, for example, and Stevens is brusque in his refusal. Miss Kenton adopts a petty insistence on being addressed only through written messages. Ishiguro returns at several stages throughout the book to several periods in the two main characters’ unfolding relationship during the 1920s and 1930s. At times we read a softening of the interactions, borne out of familiarity over years of working together. At other times, we read Miss Kenton’s restrained tempestuousness. There is an interplay between the telling of the death of Stevens’ father (himself a butler, brought to the house to serve in his old age) and the death of Miss Kenton’s beloved aunt: two incidents separated by a fair chunk of the book. In the former, early in the 1920s, Stevens tells the story of the passing of his father in respect of an adjunct to his claims on dignity, whilst Ishiguro affords Miss Kenton the honour of the piece in her actions; in the case of her own loss, years later, Stevens is too tied to professional restraint for him to offer condolences.

The structure of the book is nominally with regard to the motoring trip that Stevens takes, on the insistence of Darlington Hall’s new owner that he take time off. Mr Farraday is an American, someone who Stevens struggles to comprehend the ways of, but Stevens takes his Ford, heading towards the West Country following the receipt of a letter from Miss Kenton (now, in 1956, being Mrs Benn, having married and left the house some years before the war). Stevens reckons on there being some lament in the letter, reading that his former housekeeper has separated from her husband and, in need of good staff, he sees it as an ideal opportunity to ask her if she would come back to work with him. Herein lies a subtle love. Stevens is, on the face of it, aloof to anything that might be perceived as personal; yet, we gradually discover, he and Miss Kenton share an affection, albeit wrapped in professional interaction.

Ishiguro draws a neat connection in the examination of ‘professionalism’ when Stevens relays an account of the behaviour of an American delegate at the house in 1923, regarding the addressing of Lord Darlington. Mr Lewis, the somewhat amiable but ultimately conniving American at the conference brought together to discuss the injustices of the Versailles Treaty following the Great War, eventually stands at dinner to accuse his host of amateurism. Darlington is, according to Lewis, not skilled at the cold politics required, leading with his heart, as it were. Stevens’ narration of professionalism in his stance on dignity in his own role tallies with the clinical approach we read as advocated by Lewis and, in effect, with the relations between Stevens and Miss Kenton.

Ishiguro touches lightly but succinctly on concepts of democracy and aristocracy, on the relative benefits of decisions that might be made by the ill-educated in the steering of the nation’s fate and on those made by those higher up the social food chain. Only several pages later is the reader necessarily aware that a group of West Country locals gathering to meet a man they perceive as perhaps a lord or a duke (that is, Stevens himself, who does not correct their error) is, in fact, a device on which the author hangs a strand of his exposition. We are, to a certain extent, drawn in to the manner of writing that we allow ourselves to be subsumed by the content and strategy of the text. Ishiguro writes, for example, deep in to the work:

. . . but then it is perhaps in the nature of coming away on a trip such as this that one is prompted towards such surprising new perspectives on topics one imagined one had long ago thought through thoroughly.

It is clipped and consistent throughout. Stevens engages with life by the background hum of whatever it might be to make him tick. Characterisation, therefore, and to some extent, goes some way to usurping device, such as other lesser novels make far too obvious. Lord Darlington’s apparent manipulation by Nazi forces is painted as such by Stevens, and though this unravelling becomes evident to the reader, Ishiguro crafts this process through the lens of Stevens’ own naïveté and misplaced loyalty. When Darlington insists that two Jewish maids are relieved of their positions, Stevens does not protest, although there is the hint that he doesn’t agree, but he goes about the task his employer has decreed and for the good of the house, as stated to him. Miss Kenton is vehemently in disagreement and threatens to resign, but she has nowhere to go, it later transpires. We also gather, later, that she too has a loyalty, in her affection, to Stevens.

The Remains of the Day is an entanglement of fine threads, played out on an ostensibly insular backdrop which, nevertheless, has its reach into the wider affairs of inter-war Europe. In his later years, post-Second World War, Stevens embarks on a journey, part holiday, part mission to restore the order and esteem to his great house, but he encounters an epiphany that lends its essence to the book’s title. Stevens’ eventual reunion with Miss Kenton, reconciled now as she is with her husband, is delicately replete with what might have been. Later, at a seaside town, Stevens’ chance encounter with a stranger leaves him pondering on the nature of the past and the future and of what remains of his day, that is, his time. Ishiguro’s novel is clean, elegant, readable and, with its trace of visceral lament, it has the potential to remain memorable for years to come, such is the ‘feel’ that some books are prone to impress.
 
 

Book Review: The Outsider (Albert Camus)

Camus’ The Outsider is, on first impressions, a miserable affair of nihilistic detachment. With staccato regularity of dirge-like prose, he begins attempted enmeshment of the reader into the life and worldview of his first person protagonist, Meursault, by way of notification of the death of his narrator’s elderly mother at an old people’s home near Algiers. Meursault receives the message by curt telegram and is, all things considered, unperturbed. Such is his focus of attention and priority to aspects of the physical realm, rather than in the redundancy of the emotional, that this state of being, his stance in life, is ultimately to be his undoing. What we might therefore read, as the prose slowly shifts into a more flowing exposition, is a philosophical undercurrent to Camus’ intentions.

The Outsider (published by Penguin Classics, 2013, translated from the original French by Sandra Smith; originally published by Librairie Gallimard, 1942, as L’Étranger), is a short read, tightly executed. It becomes apparent, in the gradual unfolding, that Camus has deliberately planted seeds early on, and the seeds are specifically referred back to in later scenes. That said, the tightness of the writing in the crucial scene towards the end of part one of the book (about which the entire story revolves) becomes mechanical in Camus’ rendering of the exact ordering of events, the comings and goings of Meursault and his associates, Masson and Raymond, and Meursault’s girlfriend, Marie, on a beach where a terrible event unfolds. Part one concludes, some fifty or so short pages in, and part two, of similar length, is a detailing of consequences, rinsed through as they are with an almost autistic rationality.

Meursault, who we’re given no first name for, has a somewhat sociopathic detachment, devoid of any significant empathy for those around him. He takes a course of least resistance through his life. It is not until the very end of the book that Camus renders him with any degree of emotional content in association with his fellow humans. It is a reaction, in large part, to persuance by a chaplain in his attempts at bringing redemption upon Meursault by way of an acknowledgement of God for his sins. Meursault has none of it. For him, as he rationalises, life happens and it will end, some time or another, and God has nothing to do with it. That Meursault has committed murder on the beach in cold-mannered circumstances, according to his prosecutor, is the complication of the piece.

Very late on in the book, Meursault’s whole attitude can be summed up with the inclusion of a few short lines — Camus writes of his narrator’s ponderings on the cessation of contact by Marie whilst he, Meursault, is in prison:

‘It also occurred to me that she might be sick or dead. Such things happen: it was natural . . . nothing bound us to each other, nothing kept us alive to each other. Although, if I discovered that was the case, I would become indifferent to the memory of Marie. She would no longer interest me once she was dead. I found that idea normal, just as I completely understood why people would forget me after I died.’

We should read this in the context of the scenes on the beach at the end of part one of the book. Meursault has become friends, rather by default, with a neighbour, Raymond Sintès, an alleged pimp (though, in his own words, he ‘works in a warehouse’) who assaults a woman by reasoning of a lack of fidelity. Sintès embroils Meursault into a plan to exact some revenge on her and Meursault, devoid of empathy or any morality to the contrary, agrees. His is a coldly rational approach. What transpires is that offence taken by the woman’s brother, an Arab as he’s described, and his cohort, results in an altercation on the beach where Sintès, Meursault and Marie have gone to visit Sintès’ friend, Masson, and his wife for a day out. Meursault, ostensibly due to the unfortunate circumstances of finding himself in possession of Sintès’ gun and being overcome by sensory stimuli (the heat of the sun and a dazzling from the blade of the Arab’s knife), kills the latter. Meursault has walked out alone along the beach after the first altercation and chanced upon the man again, and this is viewed dimly as premeditation by the prosecutor. Meursault kills a man and there is no concern for the man, or regret, on Meursault’s part. It is, in his worldview, simply something that has happened.

The first part of the book builds a bleak character study, from Meursault’s mother’s wake and his detachment in attendance at this, to his subsequent days of interaction with Marie and his long, slow art-house-worthy observation of people passing down below his balcony and in the street, and on towards the incident at the beach. In his day-long observation of people, Meursault operates within the realms of a tiresome tirade of short dreary sentences: he smokes; he cooks eggs; he watches the trams go by; he eats a piece of chocolate; he leans against a wall; the sky changes; he watches the sky; he smokes more. The second part of the book is a study of the unfolding of Meursault’s trial. Camus writes him almost as if he, Meursault, is removed from the courtroom, studying his trial with a rational calculation, weighing things up and nodding agreement with things that appear fair enough, given the circumstances.

Meursault’s prosecutor is at pains to point out the minutiae that the reader is already aware of but which now they are also reminded of: Meursault’s actions and way of being at his mother’s wake and funeral and his quiet acceptance of the disreputable Sintès and his plans, for example, and the potential linking of these cold hard aspects to Meursault’s apparent calculated revenge out of loyalty to a friend who’s engaged in a dispute, albeit ‘petty’. His own lawyer, by contrast, attempts a mediation, of sorts, despite his admittance that Meursault did kill the man.

Meursault is not a likeable character, as such, but neither is he so dislikeable as to be repugnant: he is just what he is, despite his crime. He largely accepts his circumstances with a reasoned and analytical air. In this we might find him difficult to connect with. Perhaps Camus’ philosophical undercurrent has its affect here: for Meursault, the emotional connection to other humans is irrelevant and how might that play out in the reader? Only in aspects of the sensory affects of the natural world (the sun, the sea, the sand, for example) does Meursault seem to have any degree of internal/external association. Meursault, the outsider, is of the world, if not in the human one.

Ultimately, what Camus has left behind in the pages, if the reader can suffer the opening section beyond Meursault’s mother’s death, is a trace consideration of what it might mean to be human, in the book’s shadows of reason or emotion, detachment or connection. What, we might find ourselves pondering on, is life for?
 
 

Book Review: Things We Nearly Knew (Jim Powell)

That we do not, or cannot, know everything of those we suppose we know, or that we might be variations of ourselves when around different people, are the essential building blocks of Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew (Picador, 2018). Set in an unnamed small American town, Powell’s similarly unnamed narrator owns a bar out at the very periphery of the place: the back-drop hub to a whole plethora of gossip and amateur sleuthing on the comings and goings, by the locals, of their fellow denizens. Powell explores his themes via a handful of these characters, of various shades of depth or passings-by. His writing, as befitting the vocation of his main narrator character, is conversational in tone, easy to read, dotted with bar psychology, though nothing too profound threatens to endanger the flow of the read.

That said, Powell does manage to touch on small moments such as is the everydayness of most bar-goers’ lives: a little on politics, small diversions into loss, excursions into the meanings of things. If this is a conscious effort to relate the life of the bar to the style of the writing, then Powell has achieved this well. Not having yet read any of his other works, this reflection shall need to be returned to in due course. There is a limit to how many characters an author can reasonably expect to maintain within any given piece, and so necessarily this author only details a few (there are nods to how the bar has its flow of other trade, but mostly we see the bar as sparsely populated).

The catalyst for the narrator’s reflections and the locals’ changing lives takes place one winter when Arlene, a late thirties-something mystery woman, enters the bar. She’s looking for a man called Jack, though, as we’re told, there are plenty of those around, potentially. Arlene has no surname to go on and very little other information. No-one knows why she wants to find him because she won’t tell, and neither does she say anything to the locals about herself. They are curious to find out about her. Arlene becomes a sporadic regular and sets the narrative in motion.

Along the way, we meet other locals: Davy, who we’re told is more intelligent than his chosen work positions suggest he is, who has some anger issues, who has his secrets, and who very soon starts a relationship with Arlene; Nelson, a failed politician, a corporate crook who likes the sound of his own voice; Mike, a quiet and unassuming man who Powell does not choose to colour in in any great detail. The bar owner-narrator’s wife, Marcie, is a rational, level-headed woman, depicted as someone who encapsulates the comfortable knowledge of a thirty year marriage, who supports and is supported, but who also has her secrets. To this mix, Powell adds Franky Albertino: Franky is the Fonz character, come back to town after thirty years away, still playing the slippery wide-boy, still not totally trusted, but still exerting the same gravitational pull that he always did. In Powell’s writing here, practically everyone has their history, their skeletons in the closet, and as Arlene suggests early on (whilst she, Davy, the bar owner and his wife go on a short break to the bleak scenes of Coney Island out of season), everyone presents a different version of themselves according to who they’re with.

Before long we’re embroiled in the gossip of the handful of locals and bar owners who variously ask one another (or the reader asks of the writer) who Arlene is, where she’s from, why she’s looking for someone called Jack and who he is, why Franky’s back in town and what he wants, why Franky wants to take over the abandoned mansion next to the bar, who the reclusive Mr Hammond who purportedly lives or lived there is, what might be happening in the slow-spiralling relationship between Davy and Arlene, who the money was stolen by, what happened to Marcie thirty years ago, what the cause of sadness for Marcie and her husband is, and so on. In writing a review, it’s difficult not to accidentally create spoilers but, suffice is to say, progeny and identity and versions of presentations of characters are strongly alluded to. What was particularly pleasing to read in Powell’s writing was that he does not always go the whole way in his explanations: he leaves the reader to piece things together, giving enough clues so that the risk of too much ambiguity is reduced.

It isn’t clear where the bar owner-narrator’s town is in America, but it takes him, Marcie, Davy and Arlene the best part of a day to drive from there to Coney Island on the coast. In some respects it doesn’t matter that the author has chosen not to specify a location: this could be an everyday story of any group of locals anywhere. Powell has just chosen to set his story in Anyplace, America. He mostly succeeds in this, referencing American phraseology and cultural practices. However, the pedantic reviewer will often root out the odd slip-up. Towards the end of the book, Franky sends the narrator a cheque: Powell writes it this way (‘cheque’; in British English, rather than the American ‘check’). It is a small detail but something that causes the moment of a temporary stepping out of the fictive flow. It is a small criticism, but one that this reader feels is worth expressing.

How does an author end any given novel? That is, at what point does the wind-down begin? In some ways, endings could be seen to be even more important than beginnings. It isn’t clear at what stage Powell starts to wind down towards the final pages, and this is testament to his writing, but there is a feel in this reader’s perception that some final scenes are not given such due attention as earlier ones. In the narrator’s discussions with another bartender, in a town some fifty miles away, there is the feel of a stilted wrapping up taking place: the other bartender is depicted as distracted or uncaring (the anti-bartender, as it were, in the previously written thinking that there is a certain pastoral duty to undertake in the role), and the narrator quizzes him, receiving an unlikely staccato flow of responses. The suspicion is that such an exchange is disingenuous to the reality of people who have only just met like this, irrespective of their shared vocation.

These small criticisms aside, Powell offers a novel that flows easily with sub-plots and a little subtlety. Some characters are a little thin in the fleshing out, but other relationships depicted are graceful, caring, curious or open to debate: an interwoven gossiping, though without the negative connotation of the word. Ultimately, what we can come away with is that Things We Nearly Knew gently questions us on the various versions of ourselves.
 
 

Book Review: The Children (Carolina Sanín)

Quite what the Colombian writer Carolina Sanín’s message is in The Children (MacLehose Press, English translation, from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, 2017; originally published as Los Niños, 2014) is entirely unclear. What we are presented with is, initially, the mystery of why a six year old boy has suddenly turned up at her main character’s door, apparently without family or history. What transpires is a slow descent into a muddle of potential main character neurosis, possible allegory, and an attempted blur of realities and fantasies.

The ideas in Sanín’s work might well have proved worthy of consideration had they not been so confused by such deliberate obfuscation, such convoluted execution and, frankly, such poor technique in the writing. She briefly touches on thinking such as ‘ghosts within ghosts’ and the construct of mentally ‘keeping’ those who have been met in the past on a distant imaginary island, neither dead or alive, but overall her writing is amateurish at best: she describes her main character’s appearance as if she were writing as her secondary character himself (the six year old Elvis, who the main character Laura Romero prefers to refer to as Fidel); on the first page she writes that: ‘Laura used to leave the Renault in the car park outside the Olímpica, which was the name of the supermarket.’ The sleeve notes inform us that Sanín obtained a PhD in Hispanic Literature. This, unfortunately, does not correlate with the style of her fiction writing, as presented in The Children.

Laura Romero is a somewhat needy woman of indeterminate age, fortunate enough to receive an income from a family salt industry, but who undertakes a cleaning job three times per week nonetheless. This position changes when, after a meeting with one of the beggars who operate a protection racket at the supermarket, watching out for cars in exchange for money, Laura attributes something said to her as meaning that she is being offered a child. A child duly arrives outside her apartment, looking dishevelled and in need of care. There follows a slow descent into the possibility of magic realist terrain, Sanín being in good local company such as Márquez, for example, as she is. The frustrating, baffling and sometimes potentially bizarre but apparently ordinary machinations of bureaucratic procedures manifest in Laura’s attempts at finding the boy again after she has done the right thing in reporting the case of the unknown child to the authorities and then losing him in the system. What is more at odds though is the apparent ease with which Laura has taken to the child in the first place and the equally strange idea that the boy could be so easily given away to any fostering or adopting suitor.

Laura Romero is portrayed as a woman with a possible painful past as regards a child, of an early age, who was lost. Sanín is not specific and, presumably, this deliberate obfuscation is intended as just one of the blurrings of the piece as a whole. Blurring, as a device, is entirely acceptable; however, whatever device is in operation, a basic plausibility must also thread through the whole. Sanín’s writing suffers from just this deficit: a boy appears in the street and Laura alters her life around him, the authorities act with distant greyness but with surprising benevolence towards her claims on the child, and the boy himself does not act in the manner we might expect (by the time she traces him again) of a seven year old. There are other characters who stake claims on the child, and he duly goes along with their visits. Elvis (or Fidel, we never find out why Sanín chooses to have Laura prefer this name she has invented) is a strange child, but potentially in the construct of the story and also in the reading perception, he’s not akin to a real child. Perhaps this is a point Sanín has tried to explore; perhaps this is an entirely misconstrued interpretation.

Laura’s mental health is an undertow within the narrative, though this is never so explicit. Whether in a magic realist manner or otherwise, Sanín has her wondering if Elvis wasn’t conceived, as such, on a bus journey she takes in her home city of Bogotá, when she is also accosted by a pressuring bread selling beggar. The allusion is towards the unknown nature and appearance of the child but the execution of the ideas is clumsily overlaid. The motif of a whale recurs throughout the pages, linking to the occasional note that Laura is reading Moby Dick. What the purpose of this is, is unclear. Elvis becomes attached to Laura’s dog, Brus, equally without such explicit purpose, with the confusion at one point that Elvis is Brus.

In the final stages, Laura visits a fortune teller, with whom she has had dealings some years before and who had revealed to her that she would have a child. The pages of this short book are running out at this point and it is, with some hope and expectation, that Sanín might now present the purpose of her fictional thesis. However, after some quantity of fortune telling nonsensical rambling, Laura Romero is depicted back in her apartment again and the boy effectively vandalises his room, and the book ends. It is an entirely unsatisfactory conclusion.

In the final reckoning, a work of ideas, a story of something, should have its plausibility, even if the fantastical elements are an important strand (that is, after all, the art and the skill that should be inherent in the technique of the writer); the writing should have its internal structure, even if that structure is amorphous, and it should have an elegance that it can call its own. Sanín’s writing here, unfortunately, has little of any of these and this is a great shame because, with better application of the written word, the story of how and why Laura Romero and Elvis/Fidel came to cross life paths might well have become something more than just a few garnered snapshots of unfulfilled ideas such as ghosts within ghosts, possible children and lost lives.
 
 

Book Review: Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness (Simon Kinch)

Simon Kinch’s Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness (Salt Publishing, 2017) is described in its blurb as being a ‘daring, experimental novel’: in a sense, perhaps every novel can be described as experimental because a writer cannot hope to know exactly every eventuality of every page before they’ve sat down to write. Kinch’s writing here is, presumably, described thus because of its playing with two parallel time lines in the main character’s life. It’s an intriguing device, for sure; it’s experimental, yes maybe, but daring, no: unless this attribute of the work can be bestowed upon the author’s ability to invest little to no passion or zest, at all, into the main character.

It is difficult to know the author’s intentions in this respect. What we’re able to work with, as readers, is that his main character is given the name of Granville: a dull and dreary, old-fashioned name, not becoming of the twenty-three year old summer traveller who reaches a point of decision making following a text message from his girlfriend, Alyson — return home to Madison, Wisconsin, or ignore his European visa expiration and travel back south from the French-Spanish border, via Barcelona, and on to Sevilla. Granville throws the phone into the sea and chooses the latter. En route south he has his bag stolen (though fortuitously the author has had the foresight to ensure that Granville tucks his credit card into his shirt pocket beforehand). Small details matter, and herein lies an issue with the set up of Kinch’s novel: Granville has his bag stolen and all that it holds, including his passport. Kinch writes as much early on: ‘No satchel, no wallet, no laptop, no passport.’ (p.11). Yet, the set up of the novel relies on one version of Granville travelling back north, after this, via Paris and London to the U.S. (presumably needing his stolen passport) and the other version of him staying on in Sevilla. Small details matter, and this reader was distracted by the author’s oversight for a good portion of the rest of the book.

Kinch writes his chapters in very short form: just a few pages each. By the time we quickly reach Chapter 7, Granville has an epiphany whilst sitting at a river jetty in the district of Triana in Sevilla: he feels the sun heat the hairs on his skin and this is the moment of small rupture. From the next chapters on we settle into the knowledge that alternating chapters are going to document the parallel lives of Granville: one version of him returns home to pick up a dull life of being an office temp, sorting invoices for an accountancy firm; the other version of him takes up a position working for a local property owner, Señora Rosales, organising her diary and liaising with foreign holiday-makers for her, as a native English speaker. Both versions of Granville are administrators. Both versions of his life begin to intersect: situations that occur in one version start to mirror themselves in his other life. The construct is fine enough, but the lack of character in Granville begins to aggravate.

Along both versions of his lives, he interacts with various women he meets (whilst resisting the thought of making contact again with his erstwhile girlfriend, Alyson). Granville meets Jess, a young woman from Newcastle, in Sevilla, and drinks with her. He meets Clara, who works at the local hostel, and he drinks with her. He eats and drinks with Señora Rosales at the apartment she’s lent him. In his other life, Granville develops a relationship of sorts with Laura, who also works at the accountancy office, and with whom he has lunch, and the occasional Friday evening drinks. In one life or the other, Granville drinks plenty of coffee or beers, he smokes, he drinks more coffee, he smokes more. (Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, without the colour, briefly crosses the mind). Granville wonders why Alyson had sent him a text message implying that they were breaking up (‘. . . we need to talk’): the matter is obvious to the reader — dishwater is less boring than Granville. He fails to act on Clara’s advances, leaves Jess to herself, and doesn’t get excited by his relations with Laura. The reader is left to wonder if Granville’s dullness is intentional, or if this is a fault of the author and his technique.

On a similar note, writing as an American, Kinch sprinkles in various Americanisations of word or phrase use or of cultural reference, yet the feel of the writing is that of a British English writer: the syntax plays into this hand and there are words that are spelt this way too (e.g. centre), which would imply that either there has been an editorial slip in this respect or that the author has mixed his versions of English. Small details matter.

There is an attempt at such small detailings throughout; however, many of these are lost on this reader. For example, whilst the idea of the ‘flâneur’ is explicitly introduced (Granville observes the almost theatrical aspects of street life taking place around, and almost for, him), Kinch attaches weighty importance to Granville’s brief eye contact with a man with a moustache at the guest house he stays at in Sevilla. Later, Granville sees this man again at a street bar. The man engages in a fraught conversation with a woman and Granville is intrigued, hooked in, but he doesn’t know why and he can only really try to grasp their body language, not being proficient in Spanish. The small detail of the importance of the man with the moustache is not apparent.

Towards this last portion of the book, Kinch’s narrative begins to unravel. A few chapters earlier, his tight construct of alternating lives breaks down, as does his use of present tense for the U.S. Granville version and the past tense for his Sevilla life. The final two chapters are (somewhat pretentiously) actually just one. The idea is to blur the time lines back together again, but Kinch has attached importance to various aspects of the story where no great significance can be perceived by this reader. It is, perhaps, a question of reader engagement.

The title of Kinch’s novel suggests a form of contentedness with the lots that have been dealt to Granville and his, albeit ‘disjointed’, happinesses. However, Granville lacks sufficient wit to perceive the relationships potentially forming around him, let alone understand the potential of relations he’s engaging in himself, so it is a stretch to believe that there is some form of contentedness, albeit flavoured with existential concern, at play. Ultimately, Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness is an artistic attempt at a simple construct, weighed with importances that only the author might well see, foregoing some simple, small but important, details in the process.
 
 

Book Review: Ghost Light (Joseph O’Connor)

‘Ghost light,’ writes O’Connor, deep into the last few dozen pages of his offering of studied Irish dialect and Edwardian sensibility, is an ‘ancient superstition among people of the stage. One lamp must always be left burning when the theatre is dark, so the ghosts can perform their own plays.’ The main characters, based loosely on a historical playwright and his somewhat younger actress fiancée, are impressed here in time.

Ghost Light (Vintage, 2011) opens at a sad scene in a lonely lodging-house in London in 1952. We observe the beginnings of a day in the life of the ageing actress Molly Allgood, sometimes known as Molly O’Neill or by the stage name of Maire O’Neill. In her heyday and in her youth, Molly became the rising star, the darling of the stage. It twisted the innocence and expressionate nature of herself, in the interpretation, and Molly became drunk on it all. Three versions of Molly are recounted, though not in linear narrative, as we progress. The beginnings of Molly’s day in question, in late October 1952, see her navigate the London streets towards an appointment at the BBC: hungry and desperately in need of the work, though too proud to admit her circumstances, her journey is interspliced with reverie.

We are transported to the Dublin of 1908. Molly is an actress at a theatre company whose leading playwright is the acclaimed John Millington Synge (pronounced ‘Sing’). O’Connor documents the playwright’s sometimes difficult relationship with Molly Allgood/O’Neill: Synge struggles to explain how it is, exactly, he wishes his actors to say his lines (to which Molly bristles, earthily); the two lead characters take stilted walks in the depths of the Irish landscape together; they find themselves engaged in a deeper relationship, where the edges of both characters begin to soften; they become engaged to marry, though Synge is grievously ill, and his early death will later prove to haunt Molly.

There is a ghost light left on in her, for sure, forty years into the future, past the war years and into the shifting social landscape that ensues. In the continual toggling of time and times, Synge’s relationships are explored: with his friend, the poet, Yeats; with his patron, Lady Gregory; with his stiffly unforgiving mother, with whom he lives. Molly must also contend with these characters, as well as with the spectre of her sister, Sara/Sally’s, reputation, she also being an actress of some repute, making her way in the brave new world of America. A strand of O’Connor’s writing focuses on Irish emigration, on the matter of making new. In the final reckoning, however, it is the ghost light of the past that pervades in Molly.

In his notes, O’Connor makes reference to his study and interest in authentic Irish dialect and dialogue, and this aspect does come through in the writing very clearly. In places, the text is bright with such particularity and the reader might easily find the nuance of the accent tripping through the mind and from the pages. At other times, however, the text is thick and too opaque to fully comprehend. In a chapter entitled ‘Scene from a half-imagined stage play’ (written as if it were such a concoction of life as acted), O’Connor offers the following bewildering dialogue, for example:

A root up their holes for them and God send they get another. Ah me dear dark Erin and the bould Fenian men. I’d rain bombs on every cur and bitch of them for a pack of huer’s melts.

Thankfully, these instances are rare. Where the writing does stand out more, and favourably, is in O’Connor’s somewhat beautiful evocation of the scenescape. He writes, of Synge and Molly’s walking in County Wicklow:

Crushed butterwort and heather and the odour of mountain chives. Sheep-shit, honeysuckle, bog myrtle and rose-root; the sweetness of wet wild strawberries. In the distance, breasting the coast, the southbound train from Dublin leaves an after-thought of smoke in its wake. The trundling of its engine is borne faintly to them on a breeze that smells of the peat and the dulse. A shrieked, mournful hoot as it chugs into a tunnel gouged years ago through the groin of Eagle Mountain.

O’Connor’s literary constructions, however, sometimes only serve to frustrate or confuse: the back and forth in time is not an issue, it being a device that prompts the reflective narrative, but the author’s choice of tense and points of view switches is beyond the exactness of knowing. There may be rhyme and reason, in the analysis, but it is an unnecessary distraction which, in the greater scheme of things, must be tolerated.

What also needs entrusting to faith is the difficulty in perceiving the incarnations of Molly Allgood/O’Neill as potentially relating to the same character throughout. In her youth, in her spiky, vocal and volatile self, we meet a young woman caught up in the possibility of love in starched sensibilities of pre-First World War Edwardian tours and in Ireland. Later, after Synge’s death, and much later in the non-linear narrative, Molly has transformed into something of a diva character, touring America with her stony dresser and assistant, Moody. In between it all, Molly is her sixty-five year-old lonely self in 1952, hungry and heading for the BBC in the very twilight of her fading days. Molly does not resonate so easily throughout.

There is repeated reference to the differences between her upbringing in the poorer part (‘the slums’) of Dublin and, in contrast, to Synge’s life in the affluent suburb of Kingstown. This, and their age difference of nearly twenty years, the differences of their religious upbringings, and their initial outlooks on life and professional positions, is all sewn into the starchy socio-political complexities of early twentieth century life. This all said, Molly never really truly seems to adjust after Synge’s untimely and early death, diseased and suffering though he is. She carries his ghost light within her till the end.

The relationship between the two main characters cannot be said, by this reader, to be in any way passionate. Perhaps it is a testament to the times portrayed, but even the love letter touch of the dialogue and the physical words written (as fictionalised) by the two fail to really affect the reading senses. Where O’Connor does seem to touch a nerve of love and compassion, however, is in a scene at the BBC, late on, shortly before Molly performs in a live radio play: a young and aspiring actress, a devoted fan, is introduced to the older woman, by the younger woman’s mother, and Molly offers advice and a gift. It is simple and beautiful, in its own way.

Ghost Light has an oscillation, a never-stillness, at its heart (in its narrative devices of tenses and points of view; in the author’s predilection for name shifts — which can cause confusion: Sara/Sally, Allgood/O’Neill; in time and times). It has beauty in its descriptions and it has a certain authority, as assumed, albeit sometimes bewildering, in its dialects portrayed. Despite its occasional difficulties in the connections of characters and the correlation of the present to the past, Joseph O’Connor has created a work that may prove to shine a light through the sheets of future time.
 
 

Book Review: The Prophets of Eternal Fjord (Kim Leine)

Opening with a character — fallaciously known as ‘the widow’ — being kicked from a cliff at a remote Danish colony in western Greenland in 1793, The Prophets of Eternal Fjord (Atlantic Books, 2016, translated from the original Danish by Martin Aitken; originally published by Gyldendal as Profeterne i Evighedsfjorden, 2012) proceeds to become as immersive as such a fall might be. The lead character, the Norwegian-born Magister Morten Falck, missionary and would-be physician, is steadily drawn downwards, run down and weighed upon by the claustrophobic relations of the colony at Sukkertoppen, by the misfortunes that befall him, and by the vagaries of his own decisions, faith and morality. The author, Kim Leine, spins the chronicles of Falck’s mission in Greenland, and his studies, formative years and his later more worldly-weary self in Copenhagen, in a to and fro of time.

At well over 500 pages in length, Leine has given himself plenty of space in which to explore the deeds and further demise of Morten Falck. The Magister-to-be does not begin his journey entirely in innocence. From his home in Lier, Norway, Falck travels to Copenhagen, for theological study, in the early 1780s and Leine soon has him indulging in sexual debauchery in the most squalid parts of town, as well as undertaking the liberation of corpses from the canals for the purpose of the medical enquiry he also partakes of. Leine does not shy away from the stench of the place. Indeed, it is this attention to the very many sensory affectors in the late 18th century urbanscape, at sea, and on the harsh, hostile coast of Greenland that is a particular strength of the writing. Leine has no qualms in rendering the sensory seediness of subversive sexual encounter, of Falck’s defecations over the long drop of a cliff, of his attempted abortion of the unwanted pregnancy of the colony master’s wife by way of oil soaked rags and gunpowder.

A recurring motif is reference to a quote by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, namely: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’. It is to this concept of liberation that Leine draws attention, not only in terms of the itinerant Falck and his seemingly unplanned-out life but also in terms of Greenland itself and its natives. Under the Danish crown, the Greenlanders are subjects obliged towards Christianity from their native ‘heathenism’, obliged towards the commerce and ‘civilisation’ of European ways. The events in Paris during the late 18th century French Revolution coincide neatly in terms of the idea of liberty and the ruling classes.

Agreeing to a position replacing the previous unfortunate incumbent in Sukkertoppen, Greenland, offered by the Mission, Morten Falck must do political battle with the colony master, otherwise known as the Trader Kragstedt. He finds himself necessarily obsequient to the officious Overseer Dahl. He must sidestep the dangerous and brusque smith who rapes Madame Kragstedt, and he must maintain the sullen relationship with his catechist Bertel Jensen. These are, in some respects, the least of his problems: he has his missionary work to fulfil amongst the natives, some of whom live in what he sees as hot, naked squalor in an encampment on the edges of the settlement. Falck is drawn to the Greenlanders, some of whom are euphemistically referred to as ‘mixtures’: half native and half Dane. The vile Missionary Oxbøl, up the coast at Holsteinsborg, is father of many such progeny. He is also not beyond spawning grandchildren via his own children.

So it is we come to Lydia, incongruously named, who is known for the most part as ‘the widow’. It is she who occupies Falck’s thinking processes: first in life, as she nurses him in his convalescence following his farcical destruction of the colony house in his attempts at stealing provisions, and in marriage as they escape the settlement and go to join the eponymous prophets up coast, and then in death as she trails his travels as a ghost. Her latter presence seems to persuade Falck to return to the colony from the ruins of the great fire of Copenhagen in 1795, some years after her death and after his unseemly departure from Greenland. There is a reading that can be made into this: that is, regarding the Rousseau motif, and regarding Leine’s explicit attention towards the conjunction that is ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ (Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains), Lydia, the widow, the ghost, necessarily enchains Falck in his freedom.

The prophets at Eternal Fjord are merely bit players in the set of the novel. It is true that they represent the liberation of the native Greenlanders in their attempts at eschewing the Danish mission, and thus largely the European culture, but it is rendered as a cult, albeit subtly so, and Falck falls into this for a while. Leine portrays Maria Magdalene, who dreams her visions and relays them to Habakuk, her husband, who preaches to their assembled followers, as charismatic enough, but their presence does not last long (neither directly on the page or in the background light of the book). Habakuk is a philanderer, as seems to be tolerated in the isolated fjord settlement of Igdlut, and he runs off with Lydia, the fallacious widow, Falck’s wife. When the Trader Kragstedt attacks the settlement, no doubt concerned more about the effects of congregations of people on the economic viability of his whaling plans than on those people’s spiritual well-being, Falck is obliged to return to Sukkertoppen.

It is the widow Lydia’s dis-ease and desire for salvation that drives her to seek her own death. With her young daughter dead and with a need to atone for atrocious but justifiable sins, she knows suicide will not deliver her. She seeks collusion. It is this act with which Leine begins his narrative before delving back and then forwards again in time. There is a thread of forgiveness that the author follows throughout the novel’s pages: Falck seeks forgiveness for leaving the woman he was about to marry in his early stint in Copenhagen, Abelone Schultz, departing to take up post for the Mission as he does; there is the tone of forgiveness desired in Falck’s acceptance of the ghost’s occasional appearances in the latter pages; the smith is briefly seen as trying to atone for his sins. The author seems to need to tie up the loose ends of his writing as he goes: we’re told that Bertel, the catechist, leaves the colony on the death of his son (under the medically naive stewardship of Falck and his attempted surgery) and the departure of his pregnant wife — Leine writes several pages of digression to explain Bertel’s months away; Falck takes a long trek by foot across Norway, from Bergen to Lier, so that he may speak to his father again; the Magister seeks out Abelone in Copenhagen, during his second stint, in search of her forgiveness. The author chooses to close with an account of forgiveness-seeking at graves on the fells above Igdlut.

So it is that The Prophets of Eternal Fjord starts and ends on the heights of western Greenland’s sparsely populated, harsh terrain. Kim Leine has produced a narrative that weaves historical events with the fictional intensity of his characters, in sensory landscapes of coasts and urban squalor, in the religious and socio-political claustrophobia of the late 18th century Danish crown. Its occasional digressions sometimes fail to drive the narrative onwards and, as such, it is overly long, but the whole is represented by an immersion, nonetheless, leaving the reader with an after-image of significant depth, sense, and consideration on time, place, journey, and liberty.