Friday, 19 February 2016


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WHITE CROCODILE [By K T Medina] A few years ago, I fell out of a tree; about six or seven meters. In the nano-second I had in which to react, I had the presence of mind to twist my body so that I landed on my side, not on my head [which would have probably killed me] or on to my back [because a broken spine would mean a wheelchair for life]. I smashed my right shoulder so badly that even today I have limited use of my right arm. The surgeons couldn’t put the damaged bones and tissue back together but thanks to our fantastic NHS, they gave me a new steel joint and shoulder plate. But the muscle has gone.

This novel is divided into chapter headings in terms of days: DAY 1; DAY 2 &tc up to and including DAY 8. It is about many things but early on, on DAY 2 someone has his leg blown off by a concealed anti-personnel  land-mine. The author, K T Medina doesn’t make much of the incident but the level of pain visceral, physical and mental that he must have suffered can only be imagined.

On DAY 5 he is back home, ‘screwing Keav’, his live-in private prostitute.

Let me tell you, I couldn’t so much as butter a slice of toast on the third day after smashing my shoulder.

Big mistake buying this. Its her debut novel and has reviews to die for on Amazon and by and large I do trust the Amazon reviewers but reading it, I felt I had landed on another planet. Badly written and poorly edited . . . was it edited? . . . it has no redeeming features. At times it feels like a creative writing test to see how many plot-holes you can cram into one book. And it is tell, tell, tell; it’s like that bloody Place Called Winter I forced down over Christmas, don’t they teach show not tell at these creative writing courses? The subject matter is mine-clearance in contemporary Cambodia, very laudable and quite commendable that she can skilfully bring this to our attention without being morbid or overly pessimistic about the awful situation there. Most reviewers mention this and I am sure that Ms Medina and her publishers and Agents would make the case that the subject matter is deserving of our attention, but she has decided it isn’t dismal enough. She introduces other harrowing miseries; sex trafficking; extreme child cruelty; murder; domestic abuse; corruption; forced prostitution; Bosnia; wretched third-world orphanages. No barrel is left unscraped. And all this is served up to entertain us? My objection to these novels is that using violence and hysteria as a way of combating violence and hysteria plays into the enemy’s hands. Greets one form of excess with another.

There is clearly a constituency for misery-fiction but I am not amongst them.

There is a school of thought that we need to read about these horrors so that as individuals, we can process the terrors of the world: the beheadings; the crucifixions; people being burned alive in cages; the fear, the dismay at man’s cruelty to man. The only way we can sleep at night is by processing them in crime fiction or a thriller like White Crocodile or a cinema experience like The Revenant.

But she employs such monumental effort for so little return.  

EIGHT MONTHS ON GHAZZAH STREET [By Hilary Mantel]. Never lived in the Middle East. Spent six months traversing it; Iraq; Iran; Afghanistan plus Turkey but I have never lived there. I only know one person who actually lived in Saudi and he lived by himself on an expat compound. I don’t think he liked it much but he learned his trade there and made enough money to buy a house when he returned. My friend Susan has spent most of her adult life working in the Middle East . . . but never Saudi . . .

This book is a tour de force. Hilary Mantel lived in Jeddah for four years and wrote Eight Months on Ghazzah Street only when she got home to London. She is quoted in an interview in the Guardian as saying that the day she flew out of Saudi was the happiest day of her life.

The novel is about a young English couple who move to Saudi to work and make more money than they could realistically make anywhere else. Frances and her husband, Andrew, are not able to get into one of the foreigners' compounds when he goes to work on a new ministry building in Jeddah and instead are installed in a company flat in an apartment block along one of the main roads. On her very first day Andrew, who had arrived three months earlier, locks her into the apartment when he goes out to the site in the morning for her own protection. Her sense of isolation and alienation become palpable with the description of her endless days of nothingness. Her choices seem to be between staying in a blank apartment watching Saudi religious television or venturing outside into the blazing heat where she has to fend off the unreconstructed attitudes, leers and menacing catcalls of men driving by who consider unveiled Western women to be ‘available’.

Out of desperation, Frances becomes friends of sorts with Yasmin, the young Pakistani woman across the hall and the Arab woman living upstairs, each of whom explains the dismaying restrictions of being a woman in this puritanical society. The flat directly above Frances and Andrew is supposedly empty, but Frances hears sounds of life there. The development of this mystery and its denouement are effectively the narrative arc of the novel. This isn’t a spoiler but if you are thinking of reading it, you must read page 1 carefully.

Though nothing seems to be happening, events are forming up in the shadows.

It is beautifully and ferociously well written. She is at her peak at this point [1988] with a detailed eye that summons up the place and the people to perfection. Here is Yasmin’s mother- in- law:

When Frances went across the hall, and rang Yasmin’s doorbell, a huge yellow sari opened the door; and Raji’s mother looked down at her, in silence. She did not speak any English, or if she did, she didn’t speak it now; and she folded her arms across her matron’s bosom, seeming to squash it into overlapping layers and yellow folds. Her face was jowly, her eyes direct; her body was slow, deliberate, pachydermatous; soon she might bellow. There was a fringe of hair on her upper lip; and her arms were bare to the elbow, as if for combat.

‘I’ll call later,’ Frances said.

Does it stand the test of time? Well, does Kafka stand the test of time? . . . because that is what this is; Kafka in the 20thC but in a real place with real horrors. Written in 1986 before mobile phones and email and DVD’s and video streaming reviewers are queuing up on Amazon to testify either that, ‘it is not like that now’ or, ‘it is worse now’.  We were kidnapped by a taxi driver in Iran once but people say it is more liberal now.

Last time I was in Istanbul about five years ago, I thought it was marginally better though I couldn’t comment on the situation in Jeddah. Susan has told me many times that she never mixed with the local population and no matter how westernised they appeared to be, it was always only a veneer. You go into their soulless homes and the television is on all day; but it isn’t showing CNN or the BBC or Call the Midwife; it is a mullah preaching from the Koran. All day.

Whether or not it reflects the situation today is bordering on irrelevant; this novel tells of how she found things; more compellingly evoked through action and interaction than via musing and anecdotal recollection.

Forty out of fifty reviews on Amazon give it 5*.

I cannot recommend it highly enough.

THE DEVILS MAKING [By Sean Haldane] Someone has given this one star on Amazon. I don’t think I have ever given anything one star; I mean, you have to take some responsibility when reviewing a book, you can’t indulge yourself. I hated A Place Called Winter but giving it one star would be a reflection on my stupidity in buying/reading the bloody thing. Patrick Gale must have spent at least a solid year writing it and dissing his efforts with a one star review would be completely unreasonable.

This won the Arthur Ellis award in 2015, Canada’s highest literary award. It is set in Canada in the late nineteen hundreds but the author, Sean Haldane is English.

So, coincidentally it covers similar ground to A Place Called Winter; immigrants from England with preconceived ideas roughing it in Canada. Similar in many ways to The Revenant [see recent cinema reviews]. Tempted to say flavour of the month but of course that doesn’t take account of my own reading choices.

It’s a kind of Agatha Christie mystery: someone is brutally murdered and as we meet the inhabitants of the town we hear their backstories and learn their dark secrets and try to work out in our minds whodunit. The author, Haldane is or was until recently professor of neuropsychology somewhere in the NHS and all the while regales us with information about psychology and the primitive ideas of that time [about neuropsychology]. All jolly interesting. It’s a bit clunky however and he does an awful lot of telling when he should be showing.  But it isn’t bad, a lot better than A Place Called Winter.

We learn a lot about early settlers and the tribal Indians and the role of women and the power balances they hold; the approach yields a wealth of illuminating detail about colonial times but, running to almost 400 pages the author sacrifices momentum I think. It is simply too long.

At the heart of it and for sure the reason it won such a prestigious award, is a lovely tender love story between the protagonist, Chad [still a virgin when he lands in Victoria] and a wild and beautiful  Indian princess, Lukswaas. It really worked for me and elicits some terrific writing, like here:

. . . Lukswaas was impossible to resist at this moment. Or more truthfully since she was doing nothing, I could not resist what I wanted to do. I pulled her toward me so that we were face to face and began touching her all over. I moved my face to hers and brushed her lips with mine . . .  I did not feel like doing more. I caressed her hair, her back, her legs. She began doing the same to me. I had some vague idea of spreading her legs apart with my hands and plunging masterfully into her, the way I had always supposed men did with women, but my main impulse was tenderness, and instead she ended up rolling over and astride me, then crouching down  . . . her body clasped to mine.

Don’t often get that from the male point of view.

And you can guess who the main murder suspect is. Starts with an L.

I would recommend it; good for these freezing February nights.

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