Monthly Archives: May 2016

THE BRAVE by Nicholas Evans

the brave by nicholas evans

Not long ago I was gripped by the opening episode of a BBC drama called Undercover, and in particular a scene which took place on death row. THE BRAVE starts in a very similar way and, equally, got under my skin. The unfolding plots are ostensibly very different yet share some interesting parallels in the questions they ask about cruelty, the value of life and  the impact of lies on both the deceived and the one doing the misleading.

In common with Evans other novels, THE BRAVE is packed full of high drama balanced with, in my view, much more successful, moments of quiet, during which the complex moral subjects he’s grappling with can more easily be heard. Here the plot revolves around a writer, Tom Bedford, whose estrnaged son, Danny, is facing a military court for his role in the killing of civilians during the Iraq war. Told via a narrative that moves between past and present, we learn that Tom has had a traumatic childhood involving physical bullying, shocking revelations about his parents, domestic violence and the death of his mother. It’s perhaps little wonder that the relationships he’s forged as an adult have been difficult, a problem compounded by shame about his past and a refusal to disclose important facts about it. But a deep yearning to give support to Danny makes Tom confront both the truth and the guilt that’s been destroying him.

Evans is at pains to show us how the past shapes the future. As a child, Tom, looked to the larger than life fictional cowboys that graced his TV set for a way of escaping reality. But the glamour and excitement of moving to Hollywood and meeting  the actor who plays one of his childhood heroes is shortlived compared to the long lasting impact of being taught how to ride, and about the majesty of nature, by an “Indian”. As an adult, Tom is an expert on the Native American Blackfleet tribe and lives an isolated life in the West. It can feel contrived at times – and the Hollywood setting that’s the backdrop for Tom’s adolescence only serves to underscore Evan’s obvious eye half being on the movie of his book. But a fast moving plot, some good characterisation and the knotty ethical questions it poses, prove fairly forgiving and THE BRAVE is a highly successful page turner.

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STATION ELEVEN by Emily St John Mandel

station eleven by emily st john mandel

STATION ELEVEN opens with a performance of King Lear and is rich with reminders that, whilst we may live in a more technologically advanced world, humankind has not changed much since 1616, nor does it look set to change much in the future. In this year, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, we are still programmed to survive, to strive and to build connections with others.

Playing King Lear is Arthur Leander and his story holds together the various plot lines that make up STATION ELEVEN. Set partly in a present on the verge of being destroyed by a deadly flu virus, and partly in a post Apocalyptic future, it is unexpectedly gentle, beautiful and uplifting. Kirsten, a young girl on stage with Leander, survives the epidemic and joins with a band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony, who traverse a sparsely populated landscape performing for the inhabitants of far flung pockets of new settlements. She carries with her a sci-fi comic containing exquisite drawings of a new planet that’s hiding in a black hole in space. The planet is called Station Eleven and the artist is Miranda, Leander’s ex-wife, who succumbs to the flu lying on a beach watching the sunset blaze and reflecting on her assumptions about what the world would always be like. The only other copy of her comic ever made also survives the apocalypse in tact, given by Leander to his son and left by the boy in an airport terminal where one survivor has set up a museum of relics from the pre-collapse world. The drawings immortalise Leander, fulfilling his desire as an actor not just to be seen but to be remembered albeit not in the way he imagined when comparing himself to the old movie stars whose films are watched over and over

Memory is a theme that Mandel comes back to time and again throughout the novel. It’s the lens through which survival is viewed and elevates STATION ELEVEN  above your typical book about societal collapse. It references all we know – or think we know – about what happens in these situations: one character stockpiles bottled water and food, admitting he’s seen enough disaster movies to know how the script plays out. And there’s the obligatory lawlessness, feral gangs and the horror of clogged up highways and bodies rotting behind every closed door. Many survivors bear tattoos of arrows on their bodies to mark the number of people they have killed. But by setting the sections that concern the future in Year Twenty, where cars have been reduced to rusted exoskeletons on flat tires, Mandel can concentrate far more on the process of rebuilding and remembering. In STATION ELEVEN hell is no longer other people, it’s  the absence of the people you long for. It explores the notion that memories can be both a blessing and a burden –  on whether those who were too little to remember life before have it easier or worse –  and reflects on what longing for the past does to our ability to build a future.

Purpose, and the role it plays in what we know as civilisation, is also a key theme – both as in human endeavour and as in the sort that often manifests itself in religion. So there are some who believe they have been spared death from the flu because they are the chosen ones – they form a cult, led my a ranting, raving Lear tribute act,  that lives by a set of rules that are just about as far distant from the notion of civilisation as it’s possible to be. In contrast, collective purpose and responsibility create the conditions in which art and beauty can be appreciated once again – a new culture emerges, forged from what was best about the old world and important in the new. A culture that rejects the frivolity and dream like unreality of sending rockets into space and pressing a button to talk to someone hundreds of thousands of miles away, opting instead, at least in the short term, to value the more immediate satisfactions of being fed, loved and able to think about a future with possibilities.

With just the right balance between profundity and the every day, between drama and reflection, and between the stories of individual characters and the wider implications of their behaviour, Mandel has written a thought provoking and unforgettable novel. One that forces us to consider what really matters – are we really so busy that there’s no time to write the full version of thx? – and to confront the human condition head on, in all it’s glorious complexity, as something worth inhabiting with every fibre of our being. Scrawled on one of the Travelling Symphony’s caravans are the words survival is insufficient. When (not if) society as we know it collapses, I hope someone remembers that and, if I am still around, I hereby declare my intention to set up a band of players that creates something beautiful and moving that will help banish the dark.

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for helping and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons, whole or broken, plans to meet up later, please, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading an commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.

 

 

 

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LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN by Alice Munro

lives of girls and women by alice munro

I read the first few chapters of this book months ago but couldn’t really get into it. I was determined to try again and this time I did find myself drawn in much more. But I also found large sections of it didn’t hold my interest and, on finishing it, I am left feeling rather untouched by the experience. It’s a shame because I desperately wanted to love it, and I know Munro’s writing is lovely, but something is definitely lacking here. Partly to blame, I think is that it felt much more like a series of connected short stories than a coherent novel.

LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN is a coming of age story that centres around Del Jordan, resident of the small rural Canadian town of Jubilee, daughter of a silver fox pelt farmer and an encyclopedia saleswoman. As she navigates her way through adolescence in the 1940s, Del seeks to balance the expectations of her mother, who wants her to use her brain and make something of herself, with those of Jubilee, which generally frowns on standing out from the crowd for your achievements, and those of her peers, who are mainly just interested in sex, whether that’s talking about it, having it or negotiating how to have it and remain respectable. Through all of this Del must find out what she wants, which we learn some way in, is to be like a man: “able to go out and take on all kinds of experiences and shuck of what they didn’t want and come back proud”. This, Del determines is far preferable to the life of a woman, which she observes as being “damageable” and calling for “a certain amount of carefulness and solemn fuss and self protection.”

I might have enjoyed it more, if this decision prompted some kind of plot or action. It didn’t. It just meant she took a few risks like going to a Baptist revival and having sex before marriage, like every other girl in town. That’s  part of the problem, I think – nothing much happens. This is a book of emotional landscapes and every day minutiae, which is all very well but not for over 300 pages and not without anything much else as relief.

To be fair, there’s some great characters – Del’s mother in particular, a self styled progressive, who preaches the importance of contraception but fails to even talk to her daughter about getting fitted with a diaphragm. Munro delivers some brilliant one liners too, my favourite being “”Love is not for the underpilated”.  And she’s tackling an important subject too, with some interesting observations about the changing role of women and the gap between what society will acknowledge and the reality that lies beneath. But other writers do all this and grab my attention too. Munro didn’t and, for that reason, whilst I am glad I gave it another go, this is not a book I’ll be in a hurry to read again or recommend.

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