DIFFERENT CLASS by Joanne Harris

“There is no risk assessment for Life. And Life is what we are teaching.”

Joanne Harris once again mines the same rich seams of St Oswald’s School for Boys as she’s done in BLUE EYED BOY and GENTLEMAN & PLAYERS. This time it’s 2005 and the school governors have appointed a new crisis management team, who come bearing such dubious gifts as rebranding advice, paperless workplace policies and joint classes with sixth formers from the nearby Mulberry Girls School. Latin master Roy Straitley is up in arms, especially when the identity of the new superhead is revealed as Jonny Harrington, one of his least favourite ex pupils and who is now “double-dipped in a toxic brew of arrogance and sanctity.”

Straitley’s narrative is interspersed with one from the 1980s, when the school was rocked by a scandal involving his close friend, English teacher Richard Clarke. As each layer unfolds we learn about a web of disturbing secrets. Unifying past and present is the question of reputation – how far we might go to protect it, what it’s based on, whether it’s deserved and how much it shapes how we respond to people or events.

Harris’ trademark ability to mix unreliable voices and dark humour with a glorious grasp of human nature is evident throughout. So too is her alertness to hypocrisy and apparent admiration for values such as loyalty and friendship. And, as in previous St Oswald’s novels, she displays her ongoing fascination with class, pitting the grammar school boys against those from the Sunnybank Estate where “there’s a whole language of spitting…It’s got its own grammar, and everything.”

I especially enjoyed the tension between the old school and would be modernisers at St Oswald’s – and Harris’ sympathy for the way things have always been done, for the compassionate neglect that seems under attack. “In my experience, pastoral care and paperwork exist in inverse proportion to each other, like common sense and training” declares Straitley, who rebels against the use of email, health and safety, the fast tracking of his younger colleagues up the career ladder and all advice about smoking less, exercising more and laying off the saturated fat. DIFFERENT CLASS allows Straitley to celebrate a number of small victories – reminders that not all progress is necessarily better than the past it replaces. His days are numbered though and Harris clearly thinks that’s a tragedy, for all he’s gently mocked.

A seductive novel, adorned with blackmail, murder, licquorice all sorts, homophobia and chalk dust, DIFFERENT CLASS plays out cleverly like the game of chess to which Harris herself deliberately invites comparisons. As a whole though it feels less like a homage to life as a series of winning moves to gain the upper hand,  and more as celebration of turning up and taking part. 

Leave a comment

Filed under comedy, drama

 HEROES OF THE FRONTIER by Dave Eggers

This is not a patch on Dave Eggers other novels and particularly not THE CIRCLE. It tells the story of a dentist called Josie who runs to Alaska and away from a law suit, guilt over a dead soldier and the end of he marriage. Her two children Ana and Paul in tow, she hires an campervan and goes in search of a simpler life “centred around work and trees and sky”.

It’s herself she really hopes to escape though and, as the three lurch from one disappointment to the next, I found Josie’s lack of self awareness deeply irritating, as I did her flightiness, self pity and general all round flakiness. Torn between trying to appreciate the present moment and a tendency towards thinking the grass is always greener on the other side, Josie’s choices left me expecting all kinds of drama like her family being engulfed by a forest fire or her kids being abducted. Nothing happened though and Eggers seems to be suggesting there’s no drama in life other than that which me make ourselves.

I think the book is supposed to be uplifting but lines such as “Love and goodness was an ice cream cone and treachery was a tank” didn’t do it for me. Despite the occasional moment of light abd insight, such as a riff on the source of parents’ right to pay for schooling that’s provided for free, this book left me as cold as an Alaskan winter.

Leave a comment

Filed under drama

THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue

the-wonder-by-emma-donoghue

I loved Donoghue’s last novel, ROOM, but wasn’t sure I’d like this as much because its setting is historical – 19th century Ireland to be precise. In fact it’s almost as good and her story telling abilities drew me in from the offset.

The plot is quite simple: Lib, a Nightingale nurse trained in the Crimea, is contracted to watch over eleven year old, Anna, who appears to have survived 4 months of self imposed fasting with no ill effects. The local community think Anna is a holy miracle in their midst, and a committee made up of the local priest, doctor, publican and baronet want independent verification that all is as it seems, not least so they might fully benefit from her potential as a religious tourist attraction. Lib is joined in her task by a local nun and the pair take turns to watch over Anna, monitor her condition and observe whether she is indeed faith personified or in fact a fraud.

Lib is convinced Anna is getting food from somewhere and that she will find her out immediately. So when her thorough searches of the family’s most basic of homes reveals no evidence the girl is eg sneaking into the kitchen at night, she turns her attention elsewhere and variously suspects the doctor, the priest, her nursing colleague the nun and both parents. Hitting related brick walls it’s only as Anna’s condition deteriorates rapidly severely, that Lib is forced to change tack. In doing so she confronts the difficult truth that it is her own presence making Anna sick – that the very act of being observed has changed the subject of the investigation. Buoyed by the words of a passionate journalist she meets at her lodgings, and her growing attachment to the young girl, Lib determines that the matter of miracles must take a backseat to persuading Anna to eat to stay alive. To do that she must better understand why Anna stopped in the first place and that discovery makes Lib wonder whether the girl will ever be safe.

One of the most striking things about WONDER is Lib’s scorn for Ireland and everyone she meets there. She rails at the poverty, ignorance, superstitions and religious fervour. And her fury at the damp and the peat smoke that permeate everything is palpable. Lib stands for progress, for science, yet this is sorely tested as the story unfolds, and she finds herself having to draw on aspects of  the very same faith and folklore she despises in order to save Anna from the inevitable consequences of starvation.

The other most striking thing is the same sense of claustrophobia and oppression that marked out ROOM. But Lib isn’t really in a contained physical space – just one of her own making – and one of the downsides of this novel is that she has the freedom to act sooner and more actively challenge what is so obviously going on, so her refusal to do so is both frustrating and calls her moral superiority into question. We know her reaction to Anna is complicated by a backstory that contains loss and grief, but that doesn’t quite excuse her failure to see what’s staring her in the face, or the way her assumptions about Ireland lead her to wrongly assume all sorts of things about the situation in which she finds herself. Donoghue has given as a flawed protagonist and that’s OK, but she’s also given us one who doesn’t quite measure up to her own self or experiences and that’s less forgivable. Nonetheless, this is a good book, with strong, interesting characters and a compelling narrative – definitely worth the read.

Leave a comment

Filed under drama, historical

A GOD IN RUNS by Kate Atkinson

a-god-in-ruins-by-kate-atkinson

This book picks up the story of Teddy Todd, from LIFE AFTER LIFE,  granted a reprieve at the end of that novel and and who survives a bombing mission and a prisoner of war camp to return home. Whilst flying a record number of missions and repeatedly unsure if he has a future, Teddy vows that if he survives he will just be kind. A GOD IN RUINS tells how he tries to keep that promise, living a life, that, after the war, is unremarkable in many ways, with Teddy the very definition of stoic. It could make for a very dull read but this is Atkinson, so it’s quite the opposite.

In LIFE AFTER LIFE Atkinson’s narrative thread turned on the alternative paths that might be followed if seemingly small events turned out differently. In A GOD IN RUINS she picks a similarly unusual structure, this time based around memories. The novel moves around a great deal in time, between Teddy’s childhood, the war, his marriage to Nancy (whose family lived next door to the house at Fox Corner where he grew up), the arrival of his own daughter and then of grandchildren, and old age and his final days in a nursing home. It often segues between these not in any apparent order but because what happens in one thread prompts recollection of an earlier episode – that might be the sight of a girl on a bicycle, finding a much treasured clock whilst packing to move house, or lines from poetry. Oft repeated refrains tie things together, as they do in our own lives, whether it’s Nancy’s exhortation “Let’s talk about something more interesting than the mechanics of bombing”, the appearance of a skylark, or the way in which all the Todd family conjure an idealised past with their litany of the flowers that grew near Fox Corner, “flax and larkspur, buttercups, corn poppies, red campion, the ox-eye daisies”.

The overall effect is of feeling we have truly shared someone’s life with them – both the every day mundane and the stand out highlights. What’s very special about this book is that, although essentially a catalogue of events, we nonetheless experience Teddy’s life more as the relationships that hold him together.  Most of us tend to look back and forward in time by way of specific moments, whether they are quiet or of heightened drama, yet Atkinson’s novel celebrates these moments more for their  long and short term consequences on how we interact with our fellow human beings, and in Teddy she gives us a character whom she clearly admires for embodying awareness that it is the point of it all. In turn, his daughter, Viola, is mocked relentlessly for her obliviousness to this universal truth and it’s striking that Atkinson’s trademark satire, of which Viola is the most common victim, is far harsher here than in her other novels.

One of the most moving aspects of A GOD IN RUINS is the sense we have of life being wasted, whether it’s viscerally in the horrific sixty million dead overall from the Second World War or more indirectly from the way in which the past infects the present – at one point Teddy’s grandson reflects that he has no idea “how to get a life” and resents his grandfather’s generation, “They’d been given history.” Atkinson’s book is peppered with various utopias, about which she’s largely rather impatient – make the most of what you have, here and now, she seems to be telling us. You get one shot and this it is. Like Teddy, just be kind and appreciate being given a future. The totally unexpected twist at the end of the novel, and that I am still resisting – hard – but, which I have to hand to Atkinson, is perfect in almost every way, underscores her theme. And after all, as Teddy remarks when he finds out his sister is having an affair,  nothing should really surprise us, because, “The whole edifice of civilisation turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.”

Teddy’s existence encompasses horrors beyond belief (“people were boiled in fountains and baked in cellars”) and small lies (the stain on an old photo is blood not tea), it is part of history and crosses centuries, there’s unbridled passion and the safety of an altogether less demanding kind of love,  it is vast and at the same time no bigger than his predilection for saving rubber bands. And at the end, a beautiful end, there’s no prize for having endured “its never ending grinding labour”, no “afterward after all“, just “time tilting” and, if you are lucky, having someone by your side who can make you feel loved.

Breathtaking, magnificent, dazzling and heartbreaking, according to the reviews printed on the front cover, A GOD IN RUINS is all these things and more. But crucially, it’s truthful and it’s real, and I think therein lies the incredible impact it had on me.

Leave a comment

Filed under comedy, drama

BREXIT – WHAT THE HELL HAPPENS NOW? by Ian Dunt

brexit-what-the-hell-happens-next-by-ian-dunt

Everyone should read this book – leavers, remainers, regreters and still undecideds. It’s informative, thorough and very accessible. It’s also terrifying. From the fiendishly difficult process of negotiating with the WTO to the real scale of unpreparedness, and even ignorance, in the Government’s Department for Exiting the EU, Dunt sets out how many obstacles and challenges we must overcome. A reluctant remainer himself, Dunt gives us the good with the bad – there’s just far less good to write home about. And some things, he admits, could go either way, depending on how the Government plays its hand. His assessment of their performance to date, doesn’t inspire confidence though and there’s enough behind the scenes insight that chimes with what’s already in the public domain, to back up his conclusion, that in all probability, things are not going to be pretty. Honest, direct and, I’ll say it again, terrifying, this book kept me awake at night.

Leave a comment

Filed under factual

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman

the-ocean-at-the-end-of-the-lane-by-neil-gaiman

I was in Brighton last week and unexpectedly given a copy of this book by someone who had come across my blog and was amazed that I’d made it to this point in my life without reading any Neil Gaiman. I didn’t have time to explain that this blog only covers the books I’ve read since turning 40, especially as he was correct – there has been a Neil Gaiman shaped hole in my life until now. He comes highly recommended and not just by my friend. Of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Joanne Harris declares “Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. But some books just swallow you up, heart and soul” and the novel won Book of the Year at the National Book Awards in 2013. So what’s all the fuss about?

A fairy take of the dark and dangerous kind, rather than the saccharine reinvention of the genre, Gaiman’s book captures the powerlessness, fear, beauty and trust of childhood. At it’s centre is an unhappy, lonely boy (nobody came to his 7th birthday party), whose name we never learn and who lives in the Sussex countryside next door to the remarkable Hempstock family, consisting of 3 generations of women. Lettie Hempstock, a few years older than him, offers to help out when an opal miner, who was lodging with the boy’s family, ends up dead, his kitten disappears and he has nightmare about a coin getting stuck in his throat that turns out to be real. Lettie explains these odd things are happening because a supernatural being has found its way into the world. But when the pair try to find the spirit and bind it, another force sneaks through the tear between two worlds via a worm hole that lodges itself in the narrator’s foot.

Enter Ursula Monkton, who takes up residence in the boy’s home as the new housekeeper. She seduces his father, deceives his mother and indulges his sister. It’s only our narrator who sees Ursula for the evil, destructive being she really is. Alienated from his family and locked in the attic by a vengeful Ursula, the boy flees to his neighbour’s one night, escaping via a window and down a drain pipe, surely what many a child dreams of doing though few wish for the horrors that require it. The Hempstocks come to the rescue and it involves some powerful magic. They remove the fragment of Ursula’s escape route that’s buried in his foot, confront Ursula and, when she refuses to leave voluntarily, call on “hunger birds” to devour her. These scavengers are ruthlessly efficient and once they’ve seen off Ursula, they turn their attention to the tiny bit of her that lives on in the boy’s heart, and will not return to their world unless they can fully complete their task. The Hempstocks try to keep him safe but the birds are angry at being thwarted and  start to destroy the surrounding world instead, devouring trees, sky and, our narrator fears, his own family and everything else besides. Unable to bear the weight of such responsibility, he runs out from the safety of the Hempstock’s farmhouse to offer himself up, but Lettie is on his heels and as the birds swoop in, she tries to protect him. Lettie’s grandmother finally sees the birds off but not before her granddaughter is badly hurt.

Gaiman’s story starts and ends in the present when our narrator is a grown man who occasionally visits his childhood home. When he’s there he recalls what happened to him as a boy, but those memories don’t get carried into his future, and nor does he tend to remember that he’s made previous visits. On each occasion he sees the Hempstock family, who feed him the wonderful meals that nourished him as a child, let him gaze upon the two moons that appear on different sides of their house, and reassure him that Lettie is safe and well, travelling in Australia. They also let him sit by the ocean at the end of the lane, which may only look like a small pond but which contains universe upon universe and whose waters contain knowledge about the nature of everything.

This is a beautifully written book in which the monsters and horrors of magical realism are nothing like as frightening as those the boy encounters in the real world. I was especially struck by how he tackles the idea that damage done to our hearts as children translates into emptiness and loneliness when we reach adulthood; by how big everything is, and how small we are in comparison, doesn’t have to be frightening and can be quite comforting; and by how a childhood where you realise adults are not invincible can feel like the most terrifying place on earth. Mythical, poignant and utterly convincing, Gaiman’s tale did indeed swallow me up.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under fantasy, Uncategorized

CRASH LAND by Doug Johnstone

crash-land-by-doug-johnstone

There’s been a BBC series I enjoyed recently called Shetland and this book’s only saving grace was that I could picture events happening in the beautiful location I’d seen on the TV (and that was stretching it a bit to be honest, as the book is set in Orkney but you get the idea…)

Finn is an art student that gets chatting to a glamorous older woman as they both wait for the delayed last flight off the island before Christmas. He’s been visiting his grandmother and is headed home to Dundee and his girlfriend, Amy. The temptress at the airport is called Maddie and, as their half empty flight eventually takes off, she’s being hassled by one of the other passengers, an oil worker. Finn goes her to defence, starts a fight, and it all ends in the plane crashing. Maddie walks away unharmed and disappears, only to later make contact with a badly injured, deeply ashamed Finn, who is tormented by the loss of life he has caused. Turns out Maddie has a big bag full of bank notes and an abusive husband. The husband later turns up dead. Despite his instincts telling him to stay well clear, Finn is besotted by Maddie and helps her escape the island, embroiling his grandmother and girlfriend in the increasingly messy events surrounding the crash.

The opening premise of CRASH LAND seemed like a good one but things went rapidly downhill from thereon in, and most of the time I was mentally berating most of the characters in the book for their stupid decisions. The scenes in which Finn consults the skulls at the island’s Tomb of the Eagles are more comedic than atmospheric, and whilst I did keep turning the pages, it was more out of incredulity than anything else. Utterly ridiculous, unconvincing and infuriating.

Leave a comment

Filed under thriller