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.
 
 

Book Review: Everything Under (Daisy Johnson)

The key bookend phrases, and central conceit of this, Daisy Johnson’s modern myth river offering, contend that ‘the places we are born come back (to us)’. If it is intended as self-evident literary truth, then the work is with watery foundations from the outset. Maintaining the theme, the entirety of the piece is convoluted, confusing, and soggily constructed: there is the definite allusion to the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel (the narrator is named Gretel, there is the undertow of characters being lost and seeking to find, there is the explicit line in Johnson’s wrapping up that is ‘Words like breadcrumbs’) and the leanings on the Oedipus myth; there is a creature, which might be real or which might be a psychological manifestation, or both (the Bonak), stalking the storyline, under the water or hidden on the banks; there are other characters who are male but female, or female but male; Johnson sways in the current of time, switching and floating, but the whole is a silted affair.

Everything Under (Jonathan Cape, 2018) concerns three main characters: Gretel, who we meet as an adult and as a somewhat feral thirteen year old who, at that time has been living on a boat on the river all her life with her unorthodox mother, Sarah; Margot, who is also Marcus, is a little older than Gretel and walks the river paths, chancing on the pair for a short while. There is very little in the way of secondary characterisation: Charlie appears briefly, a river man who once fathered Sarah’s child but who she left, taking the baby with her and who Margot/Marcus later comes across; Laura and Roger, who are not river people, but who are Margot/Marcus’s parents; Fiona, their one-time next door neighbour, a woman who was a man and whose sole purpose in the story seems to be as messenger of a prophecy that Margot/Marcus will murder her father. Margot, before she decides to identify as Marcus, is encouraged by Fiona to leave home.

There is a mirroring of this leaving theme in Gretel’s life. All she has ever known, as a teenager, is an isolated existence living on a boat moored at one spot with her mother, inventing words that only the two of them know the meanings of and trading with other boat people, living off this and whatever they can catch from the river or the banks and forest around them. Suddenly, however, Gretel is abandoned by her mother: she’s put on a bus and doesn’t see her again for another sixteen years when she goes searching for her. It is a wonder though that it takes the best part of the book for Johnson to explain that Sarah is still along the river, being a river person as she is, drawn to it and comfortable there, and how is it that a character like this could reasonably be anywhere else? So the tableau is gradually unfolded: Gretel seeks her mother in the present; in the past, Margot/Marcus has run away from home and chances on the woman and her child; Laura and Roger maintain a background seeking for the lost Margot/Marcus and, in turn, are sought by Gretel in the present because she discovers a lead to them that might point back to the past; Fiona flicks in and out of the narrative but serves no other purpose than being an extended narrative device; Charlie serves to become a plot twist. In amongst it all, the Bonak, that which is feared, perhaps, or that which is coming, maybe, lurks beneath it all. In truth, the Bonak is a frustratingly insubstantial entity. Johnson’s writing seems to settle on one resolution and then shifts into another before flowing back again.

In the flipping of time, Sarah is shown in various lights: she is initially met as the older, degenerative mother, already found by the adult Gretel and returned to the latter’s isolated cottage because she does not know what else she can really do with her, not particularly wishing to lose her again. Sarah is also written as her younger self, at the same age roughly as the adult narrator latterly is, living on the boat, independent, fiery, somewhat hewn from the riverbanks, as it were. Johnson provides Gretel with a nominal profession, an initially office-based lexicographer working on dictionary definitions. The initial hope in the reading that this might all lead to an examination of words is rather wasted, however: Johnson does not extend this link beyond the occasional reference to early isolated mother-child language. In the search for Sarah, Gretel simply decides not to attend her place of work for weeks, having a brief communication with an understanding employer, and thus the fictive suspension of disbelief begins to erode.

Apart from the fluid drift of story-telling hitherto described, the greater flaws of Everything Under lie in maddeningly ill-considered oversights and in the technical skills of writing. In the first instance, for example, Gretel takes under her wing a runaway dog while searching for her mother, and she stays in a Travelodge room, which the dog unaccountably finds its way into. Nothing is said. Gretel tracks down suburban Roger by way of a dubiously easy giving of information by a mechanic he once left an online review about. Later, she burns a car by dousing it in petrol. The spot is isolated but there is hardly a shrug in the story-telling. Small details alter the fictive flow. Of greater concern, however, is the author’s writing style. Littered throughout the entirety of the text are continually truncated sentences, thought processes chopped into pieces by unnecessary full stops. In addition to this, Johnson chooses to use no speech marks for her dialogue, which can work but not so when there are instances whereby it is not sufficiently clear on the first reading whether what has just be read is dialogue or exposition. Lastly, on a technical note, there are many instances of similes dissolving the flow by the simple omission of the initial ‘as’: for example, as in ‘Her dreams before she’d left had been [as] neat as bus timetables’. We might begin to assume, charitably, that stylistic choices are in play, but with irritating recurrence we might then begin to wonder if the writer is just not technically aware. The disruption of the fictive flow steadily erodes any concern we might have for the characters, the storyline, the undoubted attempt to imbue the whole with something that lies beneath.

Ultimately, although there is an appreciation that the author has written with the intention of examining themes of leaving, being left, seeking, relating, that which we fear, pasts and fates, myth, belonging to or being owned by places, the crumbs dropped in the waters of this tale simply sink. There is no reader’s care for the characters and for an untangling of the lines of thinking. In her final page, within her acknowledgements, Johnson writes a short section in which she relays the brief tale of a gift given to her. It is a gift with her own words written on it, words which remind her that she thinks her work in progress, this book, ‘is going to be really . . . good’. It takes a great deal of effort to write a book, it is appreciated, but a baby — such as a book is — should also be taken more care of.
 
 

Book Review: Belladonna (Daša Drndić)

It is not until seventeen pages from the end of this near four hundred page work that the author chooses to make first reference to the eponymous Belladonna, or deadly nightshade. With its hallucinogenic and, for some, fatal potential effects, it is not a plant to be taken lightly. The same can be said for a book of such ranging content as this is: the historical weaves with the fictional, the horror of past atrocities rubs up against the banality of a main character confronting retirement and disintegration of self (both in terms of intellectual standing and of physical deterioration). There is great effort imbued within the pages, in the fictional coming to terms and in the author’s sheer commitment to a vast sweep of material.

Belladonna (MacLehose Press, 2017; originally published in Croatian with the same title by Fraktura, 2015; translated by Celia Hawkesworth) is not easily placed and is not an easy read. Andreas Ban is a psychologist, a writer, an intellectual with a huge store of referenceable material in his head, which he has collected over his many professional years. Academia, however, no longer requires his services and he is unceremoniously discarded towards his impending age of retirement. Andreas must also contend with his failing body (he is diagnosed with breast cancer, has difficulty with his spine, his stomach, and a whole list of other ailments). He settles on a process of coming to terms with the life he has left.

This is, however, all merely within the cogs of Drndić’s machine: Andreas is born after the second world war but the narrative frequently draws his research and other considerations back to the machinations of the Independent State of Croatia, or the N.D.H. (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska), being the short-lived puppet regime (1941-5) of Nazi Germany following the invasion of Croatia by the Axis powers. Sewn into Drndić’s narrative, and into Andreas Ban’s considerations, seems to be a form of collective Croatian guilt. There are references to the later Balkan Wars of the 1990s and the eventual dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, and knowledge provided by Drndić about the earlier N.D.H. certainly lends new perspective on the latter.

Belladonna is not a straightforward fictive offering: Drndić sprinkles her writing with occasional footnote explanations, historical photographs, and references to other texts and authors within the narrative (even having the audacity to have Andreas Ban have knowledge of one her own previous books, albeit as published with its German title). There are two particularly poignant and disturbing interludes included within the flow: Drndić makes reference to the massacre in Zasavica in 1941, where 2100 ‘Jews and Gypsies’ were murdered in cold blood in reprisal for the killing of 21 German soldiers. Drndić proceeds to list 1055 of these people, over ten and half double-columned pages, because names must not be forgotten. Later, and equally if not more disturbing, Andreas Ban visits Amsterdam and is shown a piece of children’s playground equipment. On closer inspection, he and we discover that this equipment is covered with just some of the names of 2061 Jewish children taken from their parents ‘and from the open space in front of the school, precisely on the site of this playground’ and sent to the concentration camps. Drndić offers us the brief history of Flora Bachrach, born in 1939, who died in Sobibor camp in 1943. She was three years old. ‘People are forgotten only when we forget their names’, writes Drndić, and she lists seventeen and a half double-columned pages filled with the Amsterdam children’s names.

Very late on in the piece, Drndić writes as Andreas Ban’s adult son, Leo: friend to his father, a doctor, and follower of his father’s intellectual aptitude. Drndić references the Hungarian art theorist László Földényi by way of stating that ‘what makes [life] whole is the fact that it is made up of ‘pieces’; parts that can never be fitted together seamlessly’. It would appear to be a reasonable description of Drndić’s Belladonna: this work is a stitchwork, a great amorphous fluidity, a flow from the fictive to the historical and back again. On occasion, the reader is thrown into a deep excursion on the atrocities of the Ustasha, the Croatian fascist movement, murderers of Serbs and Jews; or we are led along lines, with illustrations, highlighting the output of The State Information and Propaganda Office; or we are shown the piles of Andreas Ban’s professional books, their authors and subject matters, extensively arrayed before us. Sometimes the excursions are immersive; sometimes they exhaust.

To sully all of the above with a single word such as shall imminently be presented would be disingenuous, but Drndić is fond of a particular formation (as many authors often are) and it is worth examination. Early on in the text, and before the word appears in any great degree of frequency, it is noted that the fluidity, the fictive-historical flow has a certain hysterical quality. This is not intended to demean. There are long, long sentences, rants and ramblings interspersed with very many italicised emphases, tautological constructs reminiscent of those employed by Ben Okri, although without the attempted poetry. Drndić is acerbic, cynical, sarcastic and seemingly in need of delivering all of her venom towards her intended targets (pulling no punches, for example, in speaking through Andreas Ban in his written address to his academic colleagues: colleagues he considers lacking in intellectual and moral rigour). Drndić explicitly returns again and again to the use of the word ‘hysterical’ or ‘hysterically’. It is evidence of a writing style, in parts, but also of a main character’s struggle to cope with his academic rejection and physical degradation, perhaps a counterpoint to the Croatian national silence regarding acknowledgement of when the N.D.H. was operationally supported by Nazi Germany and Italy.

Daša Drndić’s work is not a simple narrative, but it is a work that will educate. Where it lacks any conventional coherent structure, perhaps intentionally, it gains traction in the accumulation of its component parts. There are citations included, intermittently, as a form of additional information, but these (and sometimes the footnotes too) can stick as too much ‘info dump’. As with all written works, a reader must come to terms with the writer’s style and manner or the two, author and reader, will suffer an irreparable and premature end of relationship: Drndić must be tolerated and trusted here, and it is a long trust to accept. The end effect of Belladonna may not be an hallucinogenic affair but there is a certain knowledge and wisdom locked up in its pages.
 
 

Book Review: How to Stop Time (Matt Haig)

It should not be considered a spoiler in any shape or form to relate that the answer to inquiry inherent within the title of Matt Haig’s offering transpires to equate to the maxim that is ‘live in the present’. The way that the author reaches this statement is by way of an examination of characters who live with extreme longevity. The device allows for investigation into identity, loss, and the various rationalisations of necessarily keeping others at arm’s length or accepting them and being accepted by them. Haig’s writing is accessible, quick-paced and assured, and it is evident that he has enjoyed the process of writing. A work such as this does, therefore, embrace a grand sweep; however, in such sweep there are the inevitable trade-offs — in this case, a certain deficit of characterisation and scene setting.

How to Stop Time (Canongate, 2017) has one Estienne Thomas Ambroise Christophe Hazard (mostly known as Tom Hazard throughout) as its narrator. Tom was born in France in 1581: a Huguenot Protestant who escaped persecution in his homeland, arriving in rural Suffolk with his mother. He is still alive today, or the near-future today, at 439 years of age. Herein lies the basic set-up. We might, at first, consider this as some repeated Highlander or vampire fantasy; however, Haig sets us straight from the outset by briefly describing a medical condition he calls anageria: that is, a slow-ageing process, roughly equating to one year of Tom’s biological advancement to fifteen of everyone else’s; or, rather, everyone else but those like Tom. As the story progresses, we discover that there are a significant number of those (not so much suffering from, as such) living with the anageria condition. Chief amongst these is Hendrich Pietersen, who is centuries older than Tom himself. For over two hundred years Tom has managed to exist, following the death of his partner, Rose, in 1623. Then, in 1891, Hendrich becomes aware of him and draws him into the Albatross Society. Albatrosses (or, albas) are Hendrich’s term for those with the anageria condition (‘mayflies’ are the usual, mundane humans), and Hendrich feels it necessary to keep secret the fact that those albas exist. He has various conspiracy theories in mind that there are organisations wishing to experiment and otherwise make use of the anageric of the world.

Hendrich’s deal to those recruited to the Albatross Society is that, in exchange for all manner of shady and clandestine support in acquiring new identities, work positions and places to live, every eight years (people start to notice, after a certain short while, that albas aren’t ageing in the same way that normal people do), those recruits are expected to fulfil a mission in recruiting other, newly discovered, anagerics. Via Hendrich’s machinations, Tom lives various lives around the world (in Toronto, Iceland, Boston, and Paris, for example). In the present day, wanting a more ordinary life, Tom seeks to return to London (where he lived with Rose and, for a brief time, their young daughter, Marion). In the present day, Tom becomes a history teacher at a secondary school, a stone’s throw from where he spent his early years with Rose. Thus Haig is able to explore the notion of history being taught by someone who was actually there. The literary ruse also allows for an examination of time, social change, and the lack of societal learning, on the whole, in the cyclical repetitions of mistakes made and history not being properly learnt from.

In the background of all of Tom’s considerations is the not insignificant matter of Marion. She is known to be anageric too and Tom does not know for certain if she still lives but he is ever on the search for her. Hendrich makes full use of this, Tom’s torment, and makes promises to the latter about finding her as another means of maintaining his engagement with the Albatross Society and its purposes. Hendrich’s society is not, however, all that he purports it to be. In the course of Tom’s work at the school, he meets a French teacher, Camille, who (after four hundred years of singledom and still pining for Rose) he eventually discovers himself more and more drawn to. With Camille turns the author’s inquiry towards the present, rather than with his main character’s hitherto all-consuming preoccupation with the past.

Tom Hazard lives a long and adventurous life. In the course of his various travels and identities, he works for William Shakespeare, and he meets Captain Cook, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charlie Chaplin, amongst others. He is tormented by a witchfinder (William Manning, who is responsible for murdering his mother), he meets a Tahitian islander, Omai, who is also anageric and who he travels to Australia to meet again, in the present, Omai now being an internet-renowned surfer. At this point in review proceedings, however, it must be noted that although Tom Hazard is 439 years old and has experienced such fulsome variety, there is no great feel for someone who might conceivably be 439 years old: that is to say, Tom Hazard is Tom Hazard, albeit sometimes with a different name, wherever and whenever he is. He is Tom in 1599, with Rose, and he is Tom playing piano in Paris in 1928, as he is Tom in the South Pacific in the late 1700s.

For a story primarily focused and titled with time, Haig also commits the cardinal sin of making temporal errors, not just once but several times. For example, he states variously that, in the present day, Tom is 439 years of age, and then, early on this number is miscalculated; later, he presents the beginning of the lead character’s meeting with Omai, with the former setting sail from Plymouth in 1768, but a little over a dozen pages later, Tom is in Tahiti, being asked to set light to Omai’s house, one year earlier than he apparently set sail; we are told, directly and early on, when Tom goes to see Rose again on her death-bed in 1623 that he hasn’t seen her since 1603, yet their daughter Marion is born some years later and the family are in Canterbury in the years around 1616/7. If these temporal errors are evident to this reader, then better editing prior to publishing would surely have rectified such details. In similar fashion, Haig’s enjoyment of writing this tale has clearly escaped the editorial eye in other details: in the aforementioned scene in Plymouth, 1768, the author writes that: ‘The story of how I met Omai began on a rainy Tuesday in March on the cobbles of Plymouth harbour’; one page later, and still within the same scene, Haig writes about how two men ‘now stopped still amid the busy harbour, near crates of speckled grey freshly killed fish, shining in the June sunlight’.

Scene-setting would not appear to be the prime concern in Haig’s writing in this offering. A few locations notwithstanding (the description of Hendrich’s apartment at the Dakota, New York, in 1891, outside which, almost a century later, John Lennon was shot; the slim sense of the Australian coast where Omai lives, for example), the laying down of visual imagery is fairly sparse throughout. The reader is left to construct a personal idea of, say, late sixteenth and early seventeenth century London (even with due regard to the accepted notion that an author cannot do everything for the reader, simply stating that there are various market traders and that, on the whole, the olfactory conditions are somewhat less than desirable, is unsatisfactory).

Ultimately, however, what How to Stop Time amounts to, despite its shortcomings in some attention to detail in time, scene setting and character shift, is a readable affair, well-paced, and not without an ability to provoke thought after the last page has been finished. In and of itself, extreme longevity is not so novel a concept, but Haig leaves us with considerations on what such fantastically long-lived experience might cause to manifest in someone either afflicted, enduring or blessed by what he terms as anageria.
 
 

Book Review: Stardust (Neil Gaiman)

A cursory review of Neil Gaiman’s body of work would readily highlight the author’s penchant for all things fantastical, for oddity and for fairy tale, or Faerie. There can be no doubting his connoisseurship and undoubted prior reading in such matters. It can, therefore, come as no surprise in anticipating what might transpire in the reading of a novel entitled Stardust, accompanied by cover notes to the tune of ‘Gaiman describes the indescribable: the eerie colours, ravishing scents and dangerous laughter of Faerie.’ We should expect a tale of some such fantastical unravelling. Unfortunately, this tale is a light affair.

Stardust (Headline Review, 2005) follows the adventures of Tristan Thorn, a young man who lives in the fictional town of Wall, somewhere in England, in the early Victorian period. Tristan is out one evening, having walked home his love interest, Victoria Forester, and the incidence of a falling star causes our hero to set off on a quest: that is to say, the recovery of the fallen star to give to Victoria in exchange for his ‘heart’s desire’. This being a Gaiman story, however, the town of Wall just so happens to exist on the boundary to the Faerie realm, and it is to and within the latter that Tristan must journey. There is a gap in the wall (from which the town owes its name), guarded at all times, on the other side of which, once every nine years, various creatures of the other realm gather in a meadow for a grand fair. There they offer all manner of weird and wonderful and magical wares.

There is much to pack into a synopsis of what follows: Tristan’s search for the fallen star is aided by his ability to locate things easily on the other side of Wall. He is, it transpires early on, born to one of the Faerie folk (the result of his mortal father having attended the fair some years before and, having been a lovelorn young man himself, falling for a violet-eyed young woman enslaved to an elderly saleswoman). We can assume that Tristan’s orienteering skills are evidence of his magical parentage, but we must also assume much else. Just as in magical realist terms, where the reader and characters are asked to accept their surroundings and its occurrences without question, in Gaiman’s fantasy we and Tristan must accept that what happens in Faerie is just what happens in Faerie.

Tristan encounters all manner of strange characters (or, who might pass as strange in the usuality of our own worlds): a hobbit-type creature, fairies who steal his clothing, obligatory witches or ‘witch-queens’, half-seen ghosts, black-clad sinister lords, a unicorn, the captain of a ship that sails in the sky. None of this surprises Tristan, of course. Nor does it surprise him that he can travel great distances ‘by candlelight’, or that the star he seeks turns out, in fact, to be a young woman (or, in the language of the fairy tale, a girl). The star (who Gaiman later names as Yvaine, ‘For I was an evening star’) breaks her leg on landing. The author adds a little extra humour to his writing, here and there, and (to highlight that this book is not, in fact, a children’s fairy tale) he writes that the star exclaims ‘Ow . . . [insert expletive here!] . . . Ow’, quietly, when she lands. It raises a wry and equally quiet smile.

Tristan’s adventure includes his return to Wall, with the star, to give her to his beloved, Victoria Forester. He binds the star to him with a silver chain (magically enhanced, of course) but she will not come willingly. Tristan chances upon a unicorn, who he saves from a bloody fight with a lion, and so our hero and his captive have their means of speedier travel. It is another point of puncturing the guise of the children’s fairy tale that takes place, later, when Gaiman has his unicorn murdered, bloodily.

Despite this, all the tropes of traditional fairy tales are here: the little cottage in the woods, the triumvirate of witches seeking youth and vigour, the dark overlords, woods that are alive, poisons and spells and enchantments broken, and so on. Gaiman works all that he appears to have read and to know into his text, albeit in his own idiosyncratic style. He knows too of legend, of course, and a reference to Wayland’s Smithy does not go unnoticed. There is, however, no immediately significant reasoning for using such literary forms of fairy tales, other than they are the staple diet of previous writers (and, if deeper levels are intended and known to the author, then the whole supersedes the minutiae: it is a whole predominately of lightness and humour, with a sprinkling of darkness, rather than a more nuanced directing towards examination of detail).

There are some moments of descriptive significance (Gaiman is fond of repeating the gold-green palette of the woods, for example, and a shrinking spell on Tristan is particularly well written), but there are, equally, moments where characters seem to be lost to themselves: that is to say, there is no gentle shift between incarnations of individuals (Tristan’s true mother, early on, and her later self, for example; his father’s early naivety and his later blandness). It cannot be expected that a work such as Stardust (as fair written as it is) go any significant way towards character depth, yet even a fairy tale, perhaps, ought really to have some of it because, as the author knows well enough, it is a story after all, and stories breathe.

Stardust is, ultimately, a quick and accessible read, but it lacks any great aftertaste: that is to say, there is a lingering curiosity about ‘otherness’, about fairy tales and Faerie, about what such tales and their stock imagery and interplays really meant, but the inquiry dissipates there. Gaiman’s writing here is perfectly readable, enjoyable and engrossing in some sweeps, but somehow lacking in something more (something that might, for example, set the imagination of an early Victorian inhabitant of the fictional town of Wall tumbling, over and over: just what might be, and how, through the gap, into and beyond the meadow, in the land of Faerie, where a star can fall and land, where it can transform?).
 
 

Book Review: The Last Children of Tokyo (Yoko Tawada)

Much of Yoko Tawada’s short fictional offering reads, unfortunately, as if it were an essay or a thesis on researched findings: the author persists in her attempts at creating a strange world to slightly unsettle but the work doesn’t ever fully rise to the level of fictive fantasy. The problems arise early on with hints that what will follow may not altogether shine with any great authenticity (in the author’s connection of word choices to characters, in a fair forcing of her desire to stamp small strangeness into the pages) and they fail to resolve themselves throughout. It is almost as if Tawada has had an idea but that she forgot to tell a story.

The Last Children of Tokyo (Portobello Books, 2018; originally published as Kentoshi by Kodansha; translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani) transports us to a Japan of what can be assumed to be a near-future where the environment has been contaminated, many children are sickly, and the elderly live well past a hundred years of age. The country has adopted a self-imposed isolation from the outside world. The names of foreign cities are banned, as are foreign words. The plot, as thin and as sporadic in its appearance as it is, drifts on the premise that some research could be undertaken in conjunction with others in the world outside Japan and this might bear fruit in alleviating the sickliness of the children. The plot, however, appears to be somewhat of an afterthought in its execution.

Mumei is the great-grandson of Yoshiro. The former is, for the most part of the book, a boy of indeterminate age, such is the author’s inability or unwillingness to pinpoint this facet in her descriptions and dialogue. Yoshiro, we’re told, is over a hundred years old, and later we can deduce that for the larger part of the text he is around one hundred and eight. He is a writer but, in similar fashion to not being fully able to describe Mumei as child, Tawada does not seem to be able to fully imbue Yoshiro’s character with the essence of writer. Yoshiro takes care of the boy who, enfeebled by an unspecified disability, finds even the simplest of daily tasks exhausting. Tawada makes some diversions into fleshing out other members of the absent family (Yoshiro’s estranged wife, Marika; his daughter, Amana; his grandson, Tomo) but the overall affect is merely one of reading more about a world that she wishes to create, rather than a premise to build on or a plot to resolve.

Tawada plays with language, and it appears to be a drive for her to do so; however, the application of such drive is, at best, almost poetic in rare places, and at worst it is clumsy. There is an attempt, for example, to conflate ‘octopi’ and ‘optical’, but the outcome is awkward. Where Tawada does bring a rare gem to the offering is in a simile like ‘[as] yellow as melted dandelions’ in the very first paragraph (notwithstanding the translated omission of the first ‘as’, which is a constant reading bane). Language is a central concern in Tawada’s writing: she highlights English words and literal translations of Chinese characters, thinking how old words might transform into new phrases. It is, therefore, all the more disconcerting that (given the isolationist approach of the Japanese government of her fiction), the translator has produced an American English vernacular, especially in the internalised thoughts of Mumei, later on in the work.

There is a basic jarring in operation between the content and the presentation. A perennial issue with translated works is the concern of authorial lapse or translator’s paucity of skill with regard to word and phrase choices. Vulgar representation of one culture as another (Japanese into American, for example, with the use of ‘real’ instead of ‘really’, or ‘sure feels good’) can be placed in the hands of the translator; oddities such as ‘[Mumei] moved his head as if searching the air, trying to catch on his tympanic membrane the scraping of footsteps on gravel’ are entirely the fault of the author. This disconnect between child-character and the author’s inability to satisfactorily represent what that means prevails, mostly, throughout. Tawada has Mumei throw his hands in the air on more than one occasion, in pleasure (which is the language of child) but shouting ‘Paradise!’ (which isn’t the language of child at all).

The standard of editing must also come under scrutiny for this publication too. The keen eye, keen to read each and every word because the author has made it clear from an early stage that she wishes the reader to consider the affect of words, finds that there are several mistakes even in the first ten pages. The occasional spelling error, or a missing or repeated word, might not be so evident to many whose reading processes naturally account for and fix such oversights; however, other readers might rightly wonder how any errors at all manage to get through the various stages of the professional publishing process.

Tawada’s writing floats along in this offering without gaining enough traction to solidify into anything really tangible. She discusses the effects of the Japanese isolation policy, immigration, growing and selling fruit, but it all feels like a treatise, a world-building exercise, with no great heart. There are late forays into ‘plot’ with the telling of the Emissary Association, who wish to send Mumei abroad, but there is no heart in this either. The bulk of Tawada’s writing is under the auspices of the writerly sin that is ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, and she continues in similar vein with a degree of ‘head hopping’. A brief passage describing how a teacher observes Mumei at play, rough and tumbling, or children’s ability to groupthink without prior discussion, as accurately observed as they are, fail to lift the whole, despite their brief moments of intrigue.

The Last Children of Tokyo is, ultimately, disappointingly devoid of story, though it occasionally swells with its ideas. The writing floats, without any real base, and then it floats away without any true rise of an arc or resolution. One character speaks of ‘dead lines’, and an author might be amused with the thinking: it is apposite, in conclusion. There is creation but not enough craft.