Tag Archives: satirical

THE ICE by Laline Paul

I was reading this as Hurricanes Irma and Harvey struck the Americas and an estimated 40 million people were affected by flooding in South Asia. Anyone who still thinks the climate isn’t changing and that the effects are not dangerous isn’t paying attention. Paull has set her novel in a chilling and not too distant future when the Arctic sea ice has melted and multi nationals compete to exploit the new business and shipping opportunities that have opened up. It revolves around two close friends, Greenpeace campaigner Tom Harding and his university friend and global entrepreneur Sean Cawson. It opens with a cruise ship  detouring for a rare sighting of a polar bear and instead finding Tom’s frozen dead body, revealed by the melting ice of the Midgard glacier.

What ensues is a fascinating story about the pair’s different journeys and choices, a searing commentary on the corruption, lies and motivation of the corporations seeking to profit from investment in the Arctic region, and a thrilling and emotionally charged drama as the inquest into Tom’s death unfolds. Sean trades in exclusivity, discretion and powerful connections. He has created a retreat at Midgard for the world’s elites – and Tom has been persuaded to get on board to provide ethical and environmental credibility. When a visit to Midgard ends in tragedy, Sean is forced to confront his role in events and the value of the life he has created for himself.

The beating heart of THE ICE is a tension between two different takes on humankind, captured in one particular scene between Tom and Joe Kingsmith, Sean’s long term mentor and financial backer. The latter mocks Tom’s idealism: “Your beautiful idea of everyone pulling together only happens in the movies, war and sport”. Tom counters with an assertion that “People are better than you think.”  Paull uses small but perfectly chosen details to illustrate the vast gulf between Tom and Sean’s ideologies – one of my favourite is an aside about the Tom Harding Bequest, his friend has established, worth £100,000 and set to awarded in the first year to “Imperial College for the newly patented biodegradable Fruit-Fly drones, nano-tiny and with unprecedented maneuverability”. Very little could be further from the natural world that’s been the focus of Tom’s life work.

The friends share an lifelong obsession with the Arctic and each chapter is prefaced by a short passage taken from older writing and accounts about the region – including the effects of gangrene and an 1893 excerpt from an explorer’s journal which describes movement in the ice as “Nature’s giants… awakening to the battle.” The overall effect is of a moving and very gritty eulogy for the frozen region we have lost forever. “Climate change was too big to care about, too vague to talk about, and was just – unsexy” reflects Sean at one point. Paull has proven that literature has a leading role to play in challenging that perception. But THE ICE is a gripping story even without its dramatic backdrop of climate breakdown and Paull doesn’t labour her environmental subtext – she doesn’t need to when it speaks  so powerfully for itself. Lines like “Record deaths this month both sides of the Schengen Fences” seem almost throwaway.  The combination of personal conviction, politics and corporate greed really made it stand out for me though. A truly impressive book and a more than worth follow up to THE BEES. If it doesn’t touch you deeply, you aren’t paying attention.

 

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SWING TIME by Zadie Smith

Wow – this is Smith back on form and with a novel that’s apparently superficial plot about a young woman working for a Madonna inspired superstar belies its dark heart and complex sub narratives.

It opens with the unnamed narrator hiding out from the press in an upmarket London apartment block. Then it takes us on a journey of discovery about what she has done to end up there. Moving back and forth in time, we explore her childhood on a London estate, raised by a black mother, an ambitious community activist determined to chase an education for them both, and a white father, who turns his back on promotion to go back to working as a postman.

As an adult she has difficult relationships with both parents, caught up as she is in a transient life that spans every continent. They simultaneously make her feel guilty and proud, with encounters prompting both memories and soul searching about the accuracy and meaning of those memories. From a childhood with strong roots and connections she moves into an adult lifestyle where being off line for 72 hours is “among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times”.  Despite her apparent success at escaping the estate where she grew up, the replacement is not as glittering and glamorous as it appears and the lack of real connections with people and places dogs our narrator. She feels she has spent her life attaching herself to the light of other people – first Tracey her childhood friend and dance prodigy, later Aimee, singer, dancer, tyrant, benefactor, adoptive mother and one of a category of people “of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune.”

The layers beneath this story of a girl making something of her life are remarkable. Smith isn’t afraid to tackle big topics here – with a lightness and subtlety that means I often found I had to go back and re-read sections to check I had them right. Most notable is when the narrator discovers Tracey is being abused, a realisation they both treat as “absolutely true and obviously untrue”, prompting the observation “perhaps only children are able to accommodate double-faced facts like these”. The idea of children being a mix of knowing and innocence is something Smith comes back to again and again, including in the shape of a universal “girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

She cleverly picks apart notions of success and happiness, and also delivers wonderfully astute and social commentary. In common with Smith’s other novels, she mocks all her characters and the prejudices, assumptions and inconsistencies with which they go forth into and shape their worlds. So for example, the other mothers disapprove of Tracey’s mother finding a job and neglecting her children almost as much as they were critical of her being a lazy and unemployed. Everyone is trying to better themselves, to escape, to change, and yet, Smith forces us to ask, what exactly does better mean? This is starkly brought home by the contrast between what Aimee’s body guard sees when the entire entourage travel to Gambia to help build a school and what our narrotor sees:  “Where I saw deprivation, injustice, poverty, Granger saw simplicity, a lack of materialism, communal beauty…” And do we measure our own success objectively or always in relation to someone else’s?

SWINGTIME has a soundtrack to die for and language that sings. It has characters that seem familiar and at the same time intriguing. It has a story that flies of the page and says important things about race, about class and about gender. Pretty much all I could want from a novel, really.

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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.

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THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

the-girls-by-emma-cline

sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water

Evie is haunted by her past. A past in which she spent one summer at a free love commune, in thrall to the dangerously charismatic and delusional Russell Hadrick and, perhaps even more so, to the girls that hung around him. The summer ended in mass murder.

Unhappy and bored as she waits out the weeks before being dispatched to boarding school, Evie lives with her mother, cringing at the recent divorcee’s efforts to find herself, a new boyfriend, and her inner thinner more beautiful being. Best friend Connie and even her older brother are an increasingly ineffective distraction, so when Evie encounters the long haired, sullen, provocative Suzanne, stealing toilet roll from the store, she is immediately smitten by the prospect of breaking out of her dull existence.

Suzanne invites Evie to the ranch that’s home to Russell and hangers on, and it’s not long before she has her first sexual encounter with him. But it’s her encounters with the girls that really change and shape Evie and Cline has captured perfectly that time in a teenager’s life when girlfriends are your entire world and everything is viewed through the prism of how they might react. She’s also nailed the underlying cultural norms that contribute to such behaviour, along with the vulnerability, desperation and poor self esteem that makes some young girls so at risk of exploitation and abuse.

At one point Evie reflects: “I waited to be told what was good about me” and “all that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” Being noticed is a recurring theme for Evie, unable to hide her longing to be someone else. As an adult, she is hugely sensitive to the young girls she finds campaigning for their own existence, “before finally giving up”. And as a teenager, the only time she seems to notice the absence of absence inside her is when she takes drugs or fills up with hatred for her mother: “it was almost nice, how big it was, how pure and intense”.

No wonder she’s so drawn to Suzanne, the first person to really look at Evie. Whose “face answered all its own questions” and who seems the very opposite of the resignation, being overlooked and being backed into someone else’s corner that Evie assumes is her fate.  Suzanne represents a turning point, with life before “limited and expected, objects and people occupying their temperate orbits” and life afterwards “come into sharp, mysterious relief, revealing a world beyond the known world.” The other girls on the ranch are similarly drawn to Suzanne’s combination of worldliness, affection and challenge. She is a skilled prophet too, proselytizing on Russell’s behalf, delivering his judgments and girls.  When Russell incites murder, it’s Suzanne who makes it all happen, who eggs them on, and it’s Suzanne who, whether deliberately or not, ensures Evie isn’t implicated.

It’s almost impossible to read this book apart from the knowledge of the events that inspired it – the Charles Manson cult and the murder of Sharon Tate and her family. One of the Manson cult’s trademarks was to break into empty houses and disturb them a little, to mess with the occupants’ heads. The girls do the same. But Cline’s sympathy for the fictional girls, who are portrayed  as victims as much as killers, is strongly evident and is what ultimately stops this being a simple retelling of the Manson story. Rather, it’s an attempt to understand how such things can happen – even a warn that they are perhaps not so unlikely once you understand the way girls are made to feel, and the way men feel they are made to behave.

Evie says of her teenage self, “At that age I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person.” What’s striking about the sections of the book set in the present is that she seems to still be inhabiting that space – as well as projecting it onto others. This is never clearer than in the closing scene, when she’s running on the beach and expects to be confronted, if not attacked, by a man coming towards her. A man who, headphones plugged in and  lost in a world of his own, has in fact not even noticed her. It’s an ending that I found immensely frustrating at the time but seems very fitting now, with some distance. After all, being noticed only matters if you define yourself in relation to others. Or, as Cline puts it, “even at the end, the girls had always been stronger than Russell”.

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THE POWER by Naomi Alderman

the-power-by-naomi-alderman

I was in Wales for a few days over New Year and over a lovely relaxed evening meal was trying to explain to someone I was only meeting for the second time just why I loved this book – and I think I came across as rather blood thirsty and vengeful! It’s about a future reality in which the vast majority of women have developed the ability to inflict enormous amounts of pain on others by way of electric shocks delivered through their fingers – and about the anthropological impact of possessing such physical power. I loved it.

The story is about a period of immense change known as the Cataclysm and during which women’s physical power was awoken. A period of time some 5000 years or so prior to when the book is being written and which roughly equates to the early 21st century – or so we deduce thanks to the appearance of an i-pad, which that far in the future is judged to be some kind of plate like implement thanks to the apple motif.  Four different narrators are our main protagonists: Allie, abused by her foster carers as a young girl and who reinvents herself as Mother Eve. Roxy, daughter of a crime boss who sees her mother murdered and fights back, as well as her way into the top echelons of her father’s business.  Margot, an ambitious politician whose daughter doesn’t have the same levels of power as other women (and in whose narrative we get the prescience of a shock US election result courtesy of an electorate choosing lies, immorality and strength over reasoned discourse and calm authority ). And Tunde, the only man and a Nigerian journalist who documents the riots, wars and upheaval caused as different parts of the world adapt to or resist a new reality. These sections are book ended by an exchange of correspondence between the author and a colleague, sharing feedback, reflecting on the recent discovery of historical artefacts, theorising about what life was like before the Cataclysm, and discussing how their work will sit in the political and social context of the day. Alderman’s final line is a smart, sad, laugh out loud, killer than I am smiling wryly just thinking about. It’s worth reading the entire book just for that pleasure.

Let me clarify here and now what I failed to get across during my new year dinner table conversation – the reason I loved THE POWER is because I don’t want one gender to systematically humiliate, oppress, threaten, undermine, rape, abuse and  kill another, and by turning the tables so comprehensively, Naomi Alderman has laid bare the everyday reality we currently inhabit and which is just as shocking as her fictional one. In some countries post Cataclysm men are denied the right to drive and even have their genitals mutilated. Such parallels are obvious but many other extremes of this fictional dystopia are so entrenched that it would be easy to overlook the extent to which they are a powerful part of the present. In a lesser writers’ hands, the point might have been laboured a little too hard but, with a few notable exceptions and mainly in Tunde’s parts of the narrative, Alderman doesn’t do this and her restraint makes THE POWER all the more impressive.

The novel tackles religion, politics, personal relationships. It explores how girls learn to control their power and the alienation felt by those who don’t have it. It doesn’t describe or judge women based on their looks but on what they do, say and think, though Tunde is sexually objectified on a number of occasions. It examines when girls become women, how written and oral stories shape our understanding of history and herstory, whether the ability to inflict pain causes more damage to the wielder or the victim, whether matriarchal societies are kinder than patriarchal ones, the link between violence and power, and whether certain power structures, belief systems and hierarchies are likely to emerge because we are all alike or because of our differences. We get cults, conspiracy theories galore, corruption and control via opiates. In other words, Alderman’s not afraid to take on a lot and mostly she does so with skill and humour. The characters are  a little more two dimensional than I’d have liked but I can forgive this because the whole is so brilliant – energetic, angry and clever. This is how I like my sci-fi and, whilst THE POWER has just sneaked in at the end of 2016, I think it may just be one of my favourite books of the year.

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THE ESSEX SERPENT by Sarah Perry

the-essex-serpent-by-sarah-perry

“They seek out signs and find them”

There’s much to recommend this book, including some incredibly evocative and luscious descriptions of the natural world that gave me real pangs of longing to visit the saltings and Blackwater estuary where much of it is set – or just to get outside and feel moss, ferns, and cold air as a means to escape an unnaturally humid September in London. Told over the course of the year, Perry charts the seasons and the ebb and flow of life in the Essex village of Aldwinter, and has conjured a cast of colourful, sparkling characters and a narrative that is both captivating and intellectually satisfying.

The serpent of the title is a black winged leviathan that Aldwinter’s residents  are blaming for poor crops, drownings, spoilt milk, ghost ships, disappearances and a hysteria that has claimed even the rector’s daughter. Neither horseshoes hung in the branches of Traitor’s Oak nor dead animals strung up alongside skulls seem to repel the beast, whose dark presence looms on every page. It draws newly widowed Cora Seagrave,with the promise of scientific discovery – perhaps it’s even a dinosaur that may have survived extinction – and the chance to be published alongside reputable women naturalists in a Victorian era fascinated by the gothic and the scientific in equal measure.

Cora strikes up an intense friendship with Aldwinter’s rector, William Ransome, whose beautiful, sickly wife, Stella, is an obsessive collector of shades of blue and rivals Cora’s autistic son, Francis, with her collection of objects. The novel is interspersed with various letters, which veer from cordiality, via flirtation, to deeply confessional. The pair’s growing attraction for one another is soon evident to their wider circle of acquaintances and friends, including talented surgeon, Imp or Luke Garrett, who replicates human vertebra in papier mache for a fancy dress party and is himself is head over heels in love with Cora; and Luke’s friend George Spencer, who “once let Luke stitch and restitch a long cut of his own to perfect his needlework”, and holds a candle for Cora’s companion and ardent socialist, Martha. The kindly Charles and Katherine Ambrose, bring political context to the novel, which has Martha’s attempts to improve the tenements of Bethnal Green as a sub plot.

Perry forces religion and science to rub up against one another and tackles Victorian morality head on. Ransome is certain that “rumors of monsters are nothing more than evidence that we have let go of the rope that tethers us to everything that’s good and certain” yet inhabits a world in which social housing tenants are evicted if they enjoy a drink or two, and he is driven literally wild by a woman who’s not his wife. Cora, modern and with the freedom afforded to women who are financially secure, scorns religion for being just as full of blood and brimstone as the pagansim to which the villagers revert at every opportunity. She instinctively worships the natural world, imbues it with mysticism and symbolism, sees herself as no higher than an animal, yet is always grasping at new ideas. Spending time with William renders her “brimming with things to offer” and incapable of not giving them. There’s no denying the biblical undertones that cast Cora in the role of an alternative, “gleaming, gleeful”, Essex serpent who has brought sexual voracity, notions of equality and knowledge to the village.

A big book in lots of ways, including the number of pages, it is imbued with a heavy sense of mortality – as George says “sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth’s a graveyard.” Yet it also visits Gordon’s by the Embankment, “where the walls drip into the candles” – and where I have spent more than one happy evening – and teaches us that hare’s fur is the colour of almonds fresh out of their shells. For Perry has written a novel that captures both the breadth and smallness of a moment in time, and one that puts location, plot and characters in their rightful place.  It makes for both a deeply pleasurable read and one that’s simultaneously rather dissatisfying, when all’s told.

“On turns the tilted world, and the starry hunter walks the Essex sky with his old dog at his heels.”

 

 

 

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NW by Zadie Smith

nw by zadie smith

NW is North West London and, in common with many books set in the capital, I found myself far more impressed  by Smith’s depiction of the clamour, edginess and sheer relentlessness of  Willesden and its surrounds than by the characters and plot.

The novel opens with scene in which Leah, one of two women around whom NW revolves, is scammed by one of her neighbours, Shar, who claims to need money to take a taxi to the hospital. It’s a striking, lively, beginning  and the streets come alive in Smith’s assured hands. Every sense is assaulted and all this whilst also introducing many of the threads of Leah’s life that will be picked up later in the book.

These include her childhood best friend, Natalie, another of the planets that make up the NW universe, but this is more soap opera than a story with dominant protagonists or a plot with a beginning middle and end.  Both women have made success of their lives, though Natalie more so in Leah’s eyes, and NW sparkles with insight into the rivalry that exists between them, thrums with the discomfort and disparity between their middle class presents and working class pasts. Thrown into the mix is race, including white Leah’s black boyfriend, and all at once you have the ever present potential for discordance as well as harmony that marks out London and the lives of those within in it.

It’s a slightly non conventional novel, with some sections that use stream of consciousness for example, but by far and away the most enjoyable is the slightly out on a limb story of Felix Cooper, a reformed drug addict, who goes West to check out a sports car, gets asked if he has any dope to sell, then diverts to see an old lover, Annie. There’s a warmth and slowing down that makes his story accessible in a way much of NW isn’t – like stepping away from the polluted traffic jams of London’s main thoroughfares and seeking a bit of calm on a side street or a park.

Felix was at the same school as Natalie and Leah, his life starts and ends on the streets they think of as home, but other than that, there’s very little connection between their stories. It’s not an unusual literary device and underscores the jarring sense of disconnection NW awoke in me, but I am not sure that’s deliberate – it feels more like something that just didn’t work that well.

Bits of the novel are incredibly good – there’s a scene set on the Jubilee line that is almost perfect in the nuance, the glances and the unspoken rules of the underground. A dinner party at Natalie’s house is rich with observations about our class ridden society. The diversity, history, culture clashes and ebb and flow that make London such an interesting place are deeply ingrained in the fibre of Smith’s storytelling.  But the story itself just isn’t big enough for its back drop and as a whole NW a bit too much like many people’s experience of the capital – messy, unfriendly and alien.

 

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