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 . . . Fuck . . . 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.

Book Review: Territory of Light (Yuko Tsushima)

The meaning of light is far from clear in Yuko Tsushima’s slim though year-long telling of the unfolding of a young mother. The narrowness of a book’s spine can sometimes belie its depths (this offering certainly aims towards the literary entanglements of being and becoming), but every author ought also to bear in mind the potential of a reader’s state of mind: that is to say, a few faults of character written into a narrative may be excused but a continuance risks alienating the reader for the duration. Tsushima’s unnamed lead character is, for the most part, selfish and unsympathetic. Her situation is made difficult by being suddenly left by her husband of just a few years; she is obliged to rent somewhere to live and chooses a fourth floor flat in a narrow office block for her and her almost three year old daughter; her husband is without regret or concern. One might well expect to encounter such a character who, under these circumstances, may struggle to adapt; however, save for a few fleeting moments of kindness displayed, the young mother is, to an alienated reader, regarded without any great sympathy.

Originally published in 1978/9, in twelve monthly instalments in Gunzō, the Japanese literary magazine, Tsushima’s Territory of Light (Penguin Classics, 2017; translated from the original Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt) is a read whose possible weight is clouded by its disagreeable characters. Both lead character and her daughter are unnamed, though the child’s father is referred to as Fujino throughout. Names add dimensions. That the author can engender an emotion in a reader is commendable; however, that emotion being a steadily developing vexation is perhaps lamentable. The young mother is initially meek, but then also self-centred, unable to fully appreciate her daughter, frustrated at her husband but also, in parts, wanting to be back together with him, and then at other times drunkard, slovenly and irresponsible. She wants to just stand and look at the trees in the park, to her daughter’s irritation, and when the latter runs off, the former is in no great pains to go running after her. The child is not yet three years old. The author has the mother wandering, sitting in the park, ruminating on matters not appropriate when faced with a missing young daughter. She finds her, by chance, and nothing sits easily in the reading in this whole episode.

Early on in the piece, Tsushima explains that the new flat that the young mother has rented is bathed in light. It is a prime reason for taking the rental (though the author does not satisfactorily play with this motif, as one might expect, given the title of the book). The flat is also four storeys up, but the mother leaves all the windows open in the summer and the child drops things out of them when the mother goes off to sleep. She seems none too concerned that the child might fall from the open windows. That is to say, there is a vague notion that this might happen, and then there are unsettling dreams, and a horrible accident elsewhere in the city, but even these are not enough to cause any great depth of reality to spread through this irresponsible character. She goes to a bar when the child is asleep, alone in the flat, and she drinks herself into a stupor with a female stranger. The lead character becomes more and more unlikeable. When she finally shows a little semblance of kindness towards others, it is already too late to bring her back to the realms of sympathy (she and her daughter, for example, encounter a drunk on the street and, carefully and gingerly, awkwardly they rub his back to try to soothe him).

Her husband does not appear a great deal, but when he does he is, by turns, misogynistic, also irresponsible (with regard to his financial obligations), and preferring to devote his attentions more to his vague creative projects than to his family. We can have no sympathy for him either. The young mother proceeds to practically cut her own mother out of her life, and she unsuccessfully tries to illicit more attention from a former student of her husband’s, now twenty three, but he — Sugiyama — wants nothing more of this. There is a slow spiralling of the lead character’s ways of being, downwards, as she tries to retain whatever it is of herself that she needs to retain, to look after her daughter but also to keep the child’s father away from her (though this is no noble aim), and to hold on to her job at the library archives. Tsushima succeeds in a slow unspinning, but she forgets to instil enough compassion into her young mother character. The only person who lifts from the page in any bright way is the child. She is rendered as real in her wonder and in her tantrums, in her urgency and in the affect on her that her parents’ actions have caused.

As with perhaps all translated works, it is difficult to ascertain where criticism should lie with regards to selections of words and syntax: the author or the translator? Spelling choices, however, are more of an editorial consideration when, as with this publication, no clear distinction between British and American English has been made. That is to say, spellings specific to both versions of the language are mixed here throughout. Where constructive criticism might be conferred upon the translator, matters of word choice and syntax are apposite fare. Harcourt has, for the most part, delivered a text that flows but occasionally it jolts and jars: ‘She nodded laughingly’; ‘I was afraid, and would have liked to bolt’. The coarseness of the words here only compound the reader’s agitation at the characters.

Where there is light there must be beauty. This is the case in fleeting moments in Tsushima’s writing (for example, the description of reflected red light in the child’s tears up on the roof terrace, from what at first could be fireworks but are actually from the explosions of a chemical factory; the subtle delicacy of almost love for a stranger who lets the lead character sleep on his shoulder on a train and who then, without a word, alights at his stop; the equally gentle weight of the young mother as a child herself, in dream, as she presses herself to the back of her unseen and long deceased father). These moments of light and beauty, however, are few and far between. In the final reckoning, eventually, and after the unspinning and attempted spinning back together of her main character, Tsushima abruptly has her up-sticks and leave the flat that is the territory of her transitional year from married woman to almost divorcee. The young mother finds a new flat for her and her daughter: one that is almost devoid of light altogether. The story ends without colour, fanfare or fireworks.

Book Review: Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

There is a suspicion that all is not as it seems in Kazuo Ishiguro’s tale, which is set just the slightest plausibility removed from our present reality. That is to say, as we are carefully nurtured through the unfolding narrative by the author’s first person and very occasional second person exposition, and as we — like the characters themselves — begin to form our ideas, discarding them here and there, adding new theories, piecing together the greater puzzle, something ‘other’ in the writing may be seen to linger. It is, of course, dependent on our worldview and, in the reading a conspiracy of thinking ensues: what lies beneath this author’s words? On a more accessible level, Ishiguro presents us with a weave of ethical consideration, borne out via the interactions of a group of close friends: firstly charting their insular and protected days at Hailsham (what appears to be a secluded boarding school), then into adolescent student days, in the transition into adulthood, at another site (The Cottages), and finally in what are described as ‘carer’ roles, and beyond.

The difficulty in reviewing Never Let Me Go (Faber and Faber, 2006), for those not yet having read the work, primarily lies in not describing too closely, lest the spoiled construct become worthless. Ishiguro has woven a naivety into the art of telling: his characters, as we first meet them in any great depth, are children not fully aware of what is transpiring around them in their sheltered existences at Hailsham. As we read, Ishiguro drops in enough clues for us to suspect what might be happening, but he doesn’t fully declare this at such an early stage. The child characters, likewise, seem to have an inkling of ‘something’ beyond the bounds of what they have been told and learned to trust, but they are not entirely sure. As with children’s culture everywhere, they form bonds, test out their ideas, invent stories, engage with long-standing mythologies, circulate rumours. We feel drawn into the web, suspicious and looking for a reveal.

Ishiguro duly obliges, to a small degree, some one third way through the book. However, we know and we suspect there must be more to it all. Our narrator is Kathy H., who leads us through the pages as her early thirties adult self, at first reminiscing on, and giving due consideration to, events that took place at Hailsham. Her closest friends are Ruth, a somewhat difficult character who struggles with her relationships with others, who is forthright and often demanding, and Tommy, uncreative, not so sharp on the uptake, quick to anger, but who inspires varying degrees of care from both Kathy and Ruth. It is this creativity, this need to be creative, so strongly encouraged by the staff at Hailsham, that provides a thread from which Ishiguro hangs one of his ethical hooks. Suffice is to say that the author wishes us to consider, in the fullness of time, and by way of this thread, what makes us who we are.

In three distinct sections, we are offered the progression of a close-knit group of friends who, from the earliest times, have been subtly told (or ‘told but not told’, as one character — Miss Lucy — has it) how their lots have been marked out for them. The children accept this, diligently, throughout. They may later come as close as they can get to questioning it, but they still accept it. In the first section, the lives of the children are variously portrayed, jumping around in time: they are thirteen, then there are scenes with them as much younger, then as eight or nine, and finally the early teenage years. In the second section, certain members of the close group (Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and a few others) are moved on from their closeted existence, all they have ever known at Hailsham, to some farm buildings where slightly older students, the ‘veterans’, are already living. It is a transitional arrangement. The main characters know they must, at some point in the not-too-distant future, move on again: they must become ‘carers’. By now we know what this means. We are enmeshed in the still unfolding puzzle.

At Hailsham, Ishiguro introduces the occasional presence of the somewhat sinister Madame. She arrives for unspoken business, something to do with the children’s artworks, and the children’s world is rife with rumour. Madame seems repulsed at the sight and proximity of the children. It is a further drip in the narrative on our quest to unravel all the minutiae of the mystery. The institution is staffed by a variety of mostly thinly sketched adults (Miss Emily, who we might assume to be the head; Miss Geraldine, a favourite; Miss Lucy, and others, both male and female). Miss Lucy is the spanner in the works, as far as Miss Emily and Madame are concerned. The children, now young teenagers, sense an uneasiness in her, and in time she obliges by telling them what she feels they need to hear, what has been eating away at her. Still, some of them don’t fully acknowledge this, such is the level of their indoctrination.

It is this background concern, this low-level back-lighting, that permeates throughout: the children have been ‘told but not told’ the important matters of their existences. The indoctrination feels a little disconcerting, but in a shift (which, relayed here, would not create a disturbance too far, a spoilage), Ishiguro later creates a virtuous perspective regarding Miss Emily and Madame’s ethical slant or stance on the treatment of the children. It is throughout this particular thread of thinking, woven into the whole as it is, that the reader might find their own worldview parallels of particular aspects of the reality of society which he or she calls their own.

Never Let Me Go is written, for the most part, cleanly and carefully. Kathy’s character is gentle, caring, considerate but sometimes conflicted too. Her concerns are often minor, at face value, but Ishiguro digs deeper into the moments she relays: such is the layered delicacy of many of the interactions of her and her friends. There are some minor quibbles with the writing, however, not least of which being Ishiguro’s opening. In context, in the beginning of a mysterious affair, we are rightly struck a little confused by his opening passages, but we must read through these with faith. The author does also have the predilection for the occasional distressing of syntax (for example, ‘I was all the time afraid she’d turn and look at us . . .’) and this does have the potential for temporary dislodgement of the fictive flow. Also, on this note, his several-times-too-often use of the possessive gerund (‘Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do.’) becomes a little distracting. Finally, in criticism, although we are treated to reveals throughout (reveals that don’t altogether feel like reveals because, like the characters discovering things for themselves, deep down we kind of knew things all along), the author’s last reveal does feel a little clumsy: like the villain telling all to the hero of a stereotypical film we’ve seen the likes of many times before. It is, however, perhaps inevitable that he would eventually have to tell us, and his main characters, everything, somehow and in some more concrete way.

Minor quibbles aside, Ishiguro’s writing in this offering is at once and for the most part clean, disarming, quietly portentous, delicately prodding something beneath the surface, potentially poking at something hidden in plain sight. Never Let Me Go is an ethical thinkpiece, a love story, or love stories, a reverie, a tale of friendships and losing them but of trying to keep them close. We might read at a variety of levels. What lies beneath the author’s words? Allegory springs to mind, though we never can be sure. Ishiguro writes: ‘. . . the odd rumour will go round sometimes about what Hailsham’s become these days — a hotel, a school, a ruin.’

This work is, ultimately though, a story of something other, but it is also a story of something much too close for comfort.

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.

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.