This’ll be a long one folks, have some tea ready.
This month’s novels were quite a grim bunch, so halfway through, I took a break and read Terry Pratchett’s The Last Hero on the Kindle. Although being a devoted Discworld fan for the best part of a decade, I’d never managed to read this short novella. Cohen the Barbarian and his superannuated Horde are furious with the world and the gods for allowing them to grow old while there’s still so much to smash up. So they’re on a mission to return fire back to Dunmanifestin, the city atop the Cori Celesti mountain where the deities live. Unfortunately, this will cause the apocalypse. So a delegation is sent from Ankh Morpork to stop them and, for the first time, fly over the edge of this flat world.
A lovely, short little slice of Discworld complete with moon dragons, its simplicity belies its message of railing against the dying light and the briefness of life. There’s also the graphic version, with Paul Kidby’s startling illustrations, which is something to hunt out.
I picked up The Last Hero to avoid finishing City of Bohane by Kevin Barry. Although I reported on his talk in NUI Galway in late 2011, I am ashamed to say I only read his IMPAC-award winning novel last month.
City of Bohane is a Marmite novel, and like Marmite itself, I didn’t like it. Barry writes like a dream, as his short stories have proven. There are many moments like this in City of Bohane. Take this description of a summer:
It was one of those summers you’re nostalgic for even before it passes. Pale, bled skies. Thunderstorms in the night. Sour-smelling dawns. It brought temptation, and yearning, and ache- these are the summer things.
But even these wonderful, astute descriptions can’t bring the novel into a coherent whole. The problem, as a writer of miniatures, that Barry cannot sustain the drama needed to fill a novel.
Bohane is an absolute hole of a town, the geography, surnames and industry of which seem to be largely borrowed from Limerick and a lesser extent, Cork. It’s the year 2053 and Bohane is run by opposing gangs. Without exception, its inhabitants are hooked on heroin (dream pipes), drink, sex and violence. Into this milieu, the Gant Broderick returns from exile and the whole gang hoo-haa begins again.
The power of Barry’s writing isn’t enough to save the novel from being swamped by its large cast of cardboard cut-out, unappealing characters. Even Fucker Burke’s (sorry, sensitive readers, that is actually his name) dog is painted as nasty piece of work. It’s been compared to A Clockwork Orange and Trainspotting for its use of language, the difference being that those novels both had a depth of characterisation not present here. Personally, I found the dialect wearying after a while, especially “y’check me?”, which seemed to end far too many sentences.
It’s a pity as there was potential for more here. Barry has obviously meticulously planned his alternate Ireland; we hear of the Nation Beyond (which has washed its hands of Bohane) and intriguing trade links with the Mediterranean. Something terrible happened here; there’s no more art or culture, just ancient reels of Tab Hunter films. When the camera pans away to the wider society- the sweaty councillors of the Bohane authority, the staff of the Bohane Vindicator, the inhabitants of Big Nothin’- it’s more interesting.
City of Bohane would have worked far better as a journey through a dystopian, alternate Ireland rather than a chronicle of scumbags’ adventures in stabbing.
And now for something completely different, as Monty Python used to say. Graham Greene has long been feted as one of England’s greatest 20th century novelists, and where better to start than The End of the Affair? This slim volume was reportedly written after Greene’s own dalliance with a titled lady, and it’s an intensely personal book.
London writer Maurice Bendrix has been having an affair with his neighbour’s wife, Sarah, during the Blitz. Unbewknownst to him, Sarah is struggling with her religious beliefs, and when a doodlebug slams into Bendrix’s house, Sarah swears to God that she will end the affair if Bendrix lives. He does, and she cuts off contact abruptly.
He hears nothing until after the war, when Sarah’s husband Henry asks to meet him. He thinks Sarah is having an affair and wants to ask Bendrix if he’s heard or seen anything suspicious. So Bendrix hires a private detective and discovers that Sarah’s other man isn’t a man at all, rather a God.
Greene sketches the lonely, obsessive jealousy of Bendrix brilliantly, and evokes our sympathy for the cuckolded Henry. Despite its shortness, the book is very heavy, grappling with big questions around death, love and salvation. Sarah’s constant conversations with God (“You”) begin to grate on the twenty-first century reader. The minor characters, especially the fussy detective and Sarah’s grasping mother, are the book’s saving grace, imbuing it with much needed levity.
Byron Easy, by Jude Cook, is one of the most compulsive books I’ve read this year, and I stayed up past my bedtime several times to finish it. Byron Easy is a thirty-something failed poet on the way back to Yorkshire for Christmas. It’s 1999, and all around there’s the faint suspicion that something bad will happen when the world reaches the new millennium. The worst has already happened to Byron; he’s just separated from his psychotic wife, Mandy, and constantly daydreams about shooting himself in the head.
To say any more would be to ruin the many twists and tales in Byron’s story, which he tells over the course of his train journey north from London. There’s his lovely, soft-hearted mother, his pig-headed and stubborn father, and his horrible stepfather (who Byron briefly suspected of being the Yorkshire Ripper). Then there’s Mandy, the relationship with whom Byron forensically examines. He’s the classic unreliable narrator, so we can’t always trust his version of events.
In the hands of a less-gifted writer, this could become terrible, “let-me-tell-you-about-my-bunions” stuff (much as you suspect being stuck beside someone talkative on three-hour train journey would really be like) but Cook writes beautifully. At 500 pages, it’s a doorstop, but easy to read, in turns hilarious and heartbreaking.
The Yorkshire Ripper also gets a name check in Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. Tracy Waterhouse is retired policewoman who started her career around the time of the Ripper murders; now she is the Head of Security at a Leeds shopping centre. Tracy is single and childless, but when she sees a young child, Courtney, being dragged around by local prostitute Kelly Cross, she makes a split second decision that will change her life. Tracy’s choice also affects private detective Jackson Brodie and fading actress Tilly Squires.
I’ve never read a Jackson Brodie novel before, and Atkinson gives enough clues to his colourful past (train crash, exploding flat) to ensure I’ll rectify that.
The plot is fairly convoluted, suffice to say it involves a thirty-year-old murder and a New Zealander searching for her real parents, something Tracy Waterhouse and her former colleagues might know something about. What makes Started Early, Took My Dog so enjoyable is the fact that Atkinson is clearly having a ball. While it deals with dark subjects, it’s never oppressive, and there’s several laugh-out-loud moments. Atkinson is too clever to go the typical hard-drinking, troubled cop route, and Brodie (with the dog of the title) is a breath of fresh air. Divorced, but not overly upset by the fact, he’s a wry character who almost seems to be Tracy’s soul brother. Tracy is the real star of the show, an utterly convincing character, and Atkinson handles Tilly’s increasing senility with tenderness and care.
The BBC recently made this book into a couple of episodes of the Case Histories series, so it’d be interesting to see how successful this was.
Finally, a new Neil Gaiman novel is always cause for excitement in my world, and The Ocean At The End of The Lane doesn’t disappoint. Our unnamed narrator is back in his childhood home in Sussex for a funeral. When he is there, he decides to call to the Hempstock’s farm, to see his old friend Lettie’s mother. Lettie is in America- or is it Australia?- and he hasn’t thought of her in years. Remembering Lettie opens a floodgate of memories, beginning forty years before. The family lodger is found dead by suicide by the Hempstock’s farm; something which disturbs the fabric of our narrator’s world.
Horrible events follow, and our narrator must put his faith in the Hempstocks- maiden, mother, crone- who might seem utterly mad to the rest of the world. Old Mrs Hempstock can remember the Big Bang and talks of Cromwellian times as if they were yesterday; Lettie herself has an ocean on the farm, which to everyone else is a duckpond.
It’s similar to Gaiman’s children’s books, The Graveyard Book and Coraline, in that it features a small child battling evil, mysterious elements. It’s a lot subtler than either of those, playing with the notions of childhood memory and imagination. Remember as a child, how you would avoid the cracks in the pavement, because you really believed that something bad would happen if you stepped on them? This story is all about the power of a child’s imagination. We’re never quite sure if the threats Lettie and the narrator faces are real, but that doesn’t make them any less terrifying.
There are echoes of Alice in Wonderland and cat-lovers will love the loyal kitten our hero finds in an unexpected place.
This is a gorgeous novel about the power of memory and the fears and magic of childhood. Moving and elegiac, it’s definitely one of Gaiman’s best yet, and one to treasure and re-read.