Sunday, 13 November 2016


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You get through a lot of reading lying on a hospital bed. Four big books this week:

BLACK NIGHT FALLING [By Rod Reynolds]. Not for me.

Reynolds is a young-ish Brit Crime Thriller author who sets his books in forties America: I think he is trying for a Chandleresque effect. His research is immaculate and although I like almost anything by Chandler/Ross McDonald this isn’t anywhere near the quality of these masters. I was persuaded to buy it by Laura Wilson’s rave review in The Guardian and a review by book blogger Liz Barnsley, who liked my Riccarton Junction thriller so much that she awarded it 4*.
Of Rod Reynolds she said something like: ‘Charlie is an engaging and sympathetic protagonist that readers will warm to and the narrative grips from the start and carries you along to the very last page.’ But it didn’t.

THE YEAR OF THE RUNAWAYS [By Sunjeev Sahota]. God, I loved this. It was shortlisted for the Booker in 2015, beaten by Marlon James and it is easily one of the best things I have read this year, up there with The Book of Strange New Things.

It is kind of a web of interconnected short stories of four people of Indian descent, one upper-class Brahmin, one Sikh, sorry two Sikhs and a lower-class Chamaar. The Brahmin arrives in England on a fake marriage certificate; the Sikh on a fake student visa, the Chamaar [an untouchable] via plane and truck across Europe and the other Sikh, a girl, already lives here. The narrative is about their struggles to survive in England; the constant fear of the being caught by the authorities and imprisoned or sent home; the pressure to take a job, any job at slave wages; the need to send money back home . . . the whole purpose of the exercise . . . or repay the debts incurred for the fake marriage certificate or the student visa. And the immense consequences for both themselves and their families back home, if they don’t make the payments. What makes it so great are the back stories of each protagonist: the Chamaar in particular the lowest of the low castes in Indian society, living in a hovel working the land, persecuted at every possible level. Stuff here I didn’t know anything about. I spent a month in India in the seventies and I am not totally ignorant of or about the caste system but reading it here I was just staggered by the level of racism.
Narinder, the devout Anglo-Indian who already lives here is a wonderful creation and adds real depth. Living the Sikh life of religious and family obligation, curtained away from British society at large, when she is thrown into the furnace of the real world lived by these illegal immigrants, the novel becomes quite unputdownable.
There is racism but interestingly for me, Sanota never at any point invokes white on brown racism: almost every character of white/European origin is fair if not kindly. Mostly, the racism is inter-caste; inter-religious; inter shade-of-black/brown. In fact it is the smaller moments of injustice that wear them down rather than encounters with UKIP and fascists. I found the women remarkable: every mother, sister, auntie deeply prejudiced toward the new arrivals, the freshies as though they wanted no reminding of their Indian heritage.

It’s long . . . 450+ pages but this is because the writer doesn’t want to oversimplify: he needs to tell their story in full, not in shorthand. Certainly worked for me.

I loved the what-might-of-been ending by the way: beautifully done.

THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS [By Edna O’Brien]. The adverb queen.

Hated this. I read it, all of it didn’t skim it: worst thing I have read since the bloody White Crocodile a few years ago. It has very patchy reviews on Amazon: a lot of people taking it down. Completely baffled by Eimear McBride’s  ’. . . proves once again how inimitably she can place a woman’s soul on the page’. This book Eimear? Or Country Girls or one of her other classics?

Do you know the story? It’s a take on Radovan Karadzic and his later wanderings when the whole world was trying to bring him to trial for war crimes and he was living in plain sight as a healer in I think it was Spain, except she has him here in rural Ireland charming the womenfolk. It is gruesome and as a reviewer on Amazon says unequivocally, ethically dubious. Actually, I found it a cold-hearted book: research, research, research does not a readable novel make.

What I think she was trying to do was write about lost children and used the Balkan wars as a kind of platform for her opinions. Her heroine is childless; another character has a miscarriage and can’t ever get over it; another character leaves her child behind when she emigrates to the USA; yet another is running from parental abuse in an African village. And so on. The red chairs themselves a symbol of the murdered children of Sarajevo. Story after story unearthed to fill the plot-holes and hammer home her message about the way the world treats women. And to me at least, her writing is not great: adverb after adverb. Why can’t a tree be a tree? Why does it always have to be a blackened tree or a gnarled tree? Awful really.

Just a postscript to these two novels: an observation. Apart from one very minor exception, all of the male characters in this novel are weak, spineless, uncaring and ultimately hold little if any respect for their womenfolk. The book was written by a woman. In The Runaways, all the women with the exception of the heroine, Narinder are grasping and mean spirited . . . everyone loves a martyr . . . and most of the men seem to cower in fear of incurring their displeasure. This novel is written by a man. 

THE WAKE [By Paul Kingsnorth]. Liked this a lot. Long-listed for the Booker in 2014 it isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, written as it is in Old English or more precisely, Paul Kingsnorth’s version of it and it took me fifty pages of hard slog to engage with it but overall I thought the month I spent reading, absorbing and comprehending it well worth the effort. Some things don’t come easy: why should they.

It’s about 1066 and the aftermath of the Norman invasion and focuses on the life and times of Buccmaster of Holland, a Socman a free tenant farmer in the Lincolnshire Fens and owner of a large timber-framed house, three Oxgangs and two indentured servants. The Normans burn his village, his home and rape and kill his wife on a day when he is out in the Fens fishing for eels. He tries to avenge them and gathers around him a small war-party, a Werod armed with knives and scythes and an ancient handcrafted sword which Buccmaster has come to believe was gifted to him for this very task. The narrative follows the Werod as they waylay the Normans on the roads, attempt a an attack on a castle in the early stages of construction and along the way we get a sense of how the invasion has impacted upon the population, many of them now widows reduced to penury by the avarice of the French for Geld.
I liked it. I learned a lot and like you hope any good book will, it opened my eyes to history I for one was quite unaware of. I think the use of Old English is an interesting device: it makes it hard at first anyway to get to grip with the story but on the other hand greatly and authentically enhances the inner workings of Buccmaster’s mind. You should give it a go.

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