Monthly Archives: December 2014

J: A NOVEL by Howard Jacobson

j a novel by howard jacobson

Some books I keep reading because I am desperate to know what happens, some because I care about those that inhabit the pages, others out of a sense of duty, which whilst not exactly pleasure is not unpleasant. This book I kept reading because I was hoping I might eventually “get it”. That a line somewhere would somehow shed light on what’s a rather obscure love story with a context that is rich with unfulfilled potential. I reached the last page through sheer stubbornness and am still none the wiser about what Jacobson was trying to achieve.

Which is a shame because there’s something clever and important going on: the J of Jacobson’s book is supposed to refer to Jewishness, the historical what happened if it happened that shapes the book’s fictional present is genocide, and the novel is full of questions about the nature of hatred and anti-Semitism, which one of the characters argues need to exist, and indeed must be nurtured, in order to provide a point of reference for their opposites. But the writer’s handling of the subject matter feels unfocused, rambling and at times absurd.

As dystopian science fiction, there’s plenty to challenge the reader, and in many ways Jacobson’s vision is both more likely and more terrifying than the more usual corporate or technology controlled futures of other books in this genre. But, again, it’s all a bit jumbled and vague.

The main event is the growing relationship between Kevern Cohen, who makes love spoons, and  Ailinn Solomons, who makes paper flowers. They are likeable enough and Jacobson tells the story of their fragile romance with compassion, humour and delicacy. The two live on the island of Port Reuben and get tangled up in the hunt for the murderer of a local woman. This in turn leads to the reader’s discovery that they are the centrepiece of a state social experiment to breed a whole new race of people as a focus for society’s hatred and anger. It’s a chilling, compelling and above all credible concept, so it’s deeply frustrating that everything’s so oblique, that I’ve had to read other people’s reviews in order to develop anything approaching an understanding of this book.

Thankfully, J was long listed for the 2014 Booker prize so lots has been written about it. Interestingly, most of those articles offer far greater insight and are far better written than the book itself, and whilst they made me want to like J: A NOVEL, I am afraid it’s not one I’ll be recommending any time soon.

 

 

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EIGHT MONTHS ON GHAZZAH STREET by Hilary Mantel

eight months on ghazzah street

I’ll be honest, I didn’t like WOLF HALL at all, so it was with some trepidation that I approached this, despite a recommendation from a friend. I am happy to report that it’s far more enjoyable and far more accessible. Mantel was inspired to write this novel by  the 4 years she spent living in Saudi Arabia and it perfectly captures what she calls “that daily blend of flatness and fear” that seems to define life for expat women who have taken up residence there. Her main protagonist is Frances, who struggles endlessly with the sense that she is under scrutiny, to find the truth in what she is told. what she observes and what she imagines. She  arrives in Jeddah a few months after her civil engineer husband, Andrew, and he seems almost immune to her profound culture shock. Their daily experiences could not be more different and it’s not long before the secrets and suspicions that define the society  to which they’ve moved, seep into the couples’ relationship.

Frances rarely ventures out of the  block of flats where they are living – to do so involves either reliance on her husband or being cat called if she walks the streets alone. Instead she becomes increasingly obsessed with what’s happening behind her neighbours’ closed doors. An early warning that life in Saudi Arabia goes through three main phases – isolation and strangeness, followed by a sense of normality and coping, then finally a wave of paranoia that never goes – seems to define her experiences. The advice is that you need to leave before you crack up.

The details about life in Saudi Arabia really gripped me. The rain prayers that are ordered only when the forecast confirms Allah will deliver, the obstacles and corruption that must be overcome or colluded with to identify a dead body, the contrast between the aisles of frozen supermarket food and the bedlam of the souk. And for a book that revolves around the relatively mundane existence of someone who has been stripped of any purpose in life, it’s surprisingly addictive.

Perhaps because Mantel does chilling and oppressive to perfection. Black humour too – there’s a great thread about Saudiflon coated cooking pans, a number about the perils of brewing your own alcohol and a sinister scene in which the glamorous plastic people inhabiting one of Andrew’s architectural models need to be removed from their display cases with wire coat hangers because they are showing too much flesh. The women are literally disemboweled and discarded.

What Mantel doesn’t do as well is warmth and empathy – I wanted to like Frances but found her slightly irritating and self pitying. There’s a whole host of other  Western characters who are uniformly unlikable, mainly for their attitudes towards foreigners – the Indians are immigrant workers, but they themselves are professional expatriates – and their willingness to turn a blind eye as long as their business ventures turn a profit. They laugh at everything, Frances notices, as that’s the safest way to express dissent. They are always careful. When it’s reported that two Australian women have been raped in the souk, various versions of the incident do the telephone rounds, each more dramatic than the last, an outlet for the expats pent up rage, frustration and isolation that shows them in a deeply unflattering light; gossip masquerading as concern, judgement as speculation.

Those I warmed to the most were the women Frances meets behind closed doors, when they remove their veils. Women anxious to explain their society and their religion to her, the choices they make and the reasons why. It’s these encounters that are the main appeal of EIGHT MONTHS ON GHAZZAH STREET, where questions are posed and answers sought.   To what degree should Frances suspend her Western values and expectations?  Does freedom come in different shapes and sizes? Why is it that when you expect the worst, and get the worst, you are still surprised? And when you draw a bolt across the door are you keeping others out or yourself in?

Mantel wrote before her Booker double win, and there’s much evidence of the cleverness that shines through in WOLF HALL. I like her for that and I did like EIGHT MONTHS ON GHAZZAH STREET. But whilst it’s an interesting commentary on aspects of Saudi society, there’s a notable absence of any reflection on what’s wrong with the British society that’s held up as a contrast. This results in a novel that lacks much depth, and given the lack of plot that’s rather disappointing. So overall, far better than the Booker “bricks” but I still haven’t what it is that so many admire about Mantel’s writing.

 

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SHADES OF GREY: THE ROAD TO HIGH SAFFRON by Jasper Fforde

shades of grey the road to high saffron by jasper fforde

I am now just about over the disappointment of learning that although this book was published in 2009, and is the first of a trilogy, the remaining two books of the series are not yet available. So I’ll have to wait patiently to find out what becomes of Eddie Russett, the book’s hero, who by the end of this first installment has learned some disturbing secrets about the world he inhabits. His education comes courtesy of Jane, whom he meets and falls in love with when he’s sent to the village of East Carmine to do good works – a chair census – as penance for playing a practical joke on the son of one of his hometown’s prefects.

Eddie and Jane are inhabitants of a future world called Chromatacia, where status and class are determined by one’s ability to see colour, with most people only able to see one or at most two shades. Those who can see no colour are called Greys and occupy the lowest social standing. Jane is born a Grey and Eddie a Red. Towards the end of the story they take the obligatory coming of age colour perception test and the results reveal Jane to actually be a Green.  This makes her relationship with Eddie unlawful, as the powers that be have decreed red and green incompatible, so it seems he will be forced to instead marry Violet deMauve, an ambitious spoilt individual who hopes Eddie’s colour genes will help return her family to their former full purple glory.

Chromatacia is not your typical dystopian world. At first it’s more like Alice’s Wonderland, with oddball characters, a rigid social hierarchy and unexplained happenings. There are also plenty of rules, which range from the understandable, such as no murder, to the rather less so, such as a ban on the manufacture of spoons. Nor is Eddie your typical revolutionary hero. Indeed for 20 odd years he has towed the line and harboured very few ambitions beyond marrying happily and becoming an employee of National Colour. Much of SHADES OF GREY: THE ROAD TO HIGH SAFFRON is about introducing Chromatacia to us and preparing the ground for the events that allow Eddie to see what’s really happening around him.

It took me a little while to embrace the world Fforde has created “a world where the black and white of moral standpoints have been reduced to shades of grey”, but once I did I fell for it hook line and sinker. I love the references back to our present day, known as The Previous.  And there’s something almost hypnotic about the deadpan way Fforde writes – it’s compulsive but not in a fast paced thriller kind of way. It’s much gentler than that, and slower – the book spans only a few days of Eddie Russett’s time in East Carmine. Much of it is fun and light-hearted. There’s much jostling for attention between the young men and women of the village, plenty of jokes, scams and mild eccentricity. It’s only gradually that the darker elements emerge, along with mysteries such as why nobody can see in the dark.

Clever, bizarre and strangely addictive, one of the most appealing features of SHADES OF GREY: THE ROAD TO HIGH SAFFRON is that it explores universal truths and human nature with compassion and kindness. Fforde actually seems to like humankind, unlike many writers of dystopian fiction. He has invested his characters with the capacity to do good and there’s nothing cynical or misanthropic about his vision of the future. That’s refreshing and lifts this book into a whole new stratosphere. The one down side? Interviews with Fforde suggest the remaining two books may be some time coming….

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