Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Desmond Elliott Prize 2012

The Desmond Elliott Prize is awarded for a first novel written in English published in the UK.  This isits fifth year and the longlist has just been announced.  Three of the four previous winners have featured as my book of the week, so I was interested to see how things would go this year.  Of the ten longlisted books this year, I have previously featured The Bellwether Revivals (Benjamin Wood), The Land of Decoration (Grace McCleen) and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce).  Watch out for Absolution by Patrick Flanery coming soon, as it is a book I have been having a look at.  The shortlist will be announced in one month's time.

Update - The Land of Decoration has won.  A very fine book which I liked a lot - interesting to see if Grace McCleen can sustain it in the future.  I suspect that this was a book from the heart.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Book of the Week - Timothy Mo, Pure

Pure is Timothy Mo’s first novel since 2000, and a small number of signed copies are currently available after he paid a brief visit to the UK. His last two books were self-published, but on this occasion Pure is published by Turnaround Books.   Mo has had a great deal of critical success in the past – three of his first four books were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and he has also won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (for his first novel) and the James Tait Prize (for his 2000 novel, Renegade).

Mo was born in 1950 to a Welsh-Yorkshire mother and a Hong Kong Chinese father, and lived in Hong Kong until the age of 10 before he moved to Britain, studying at St John's College, Oxford. He worked as a journalist for both New Statesman and Boxing News before falling out with publishers in general and moving to the world of self-publishing.

Releasing a novel called Pure so shortly after another author’s Pure won the Costa Prize with all the confusion that might cause is a typically idiosyncratic act. Luckily the themes of the two books are completely different – medieval Parisian cemetery vs. contemporary Thai Ladyboy Jihadist. Mo’s Pure has had some very good reviews and also one or two stinkers, maybe not surprising given his writing style. Despite being self-published it may do well in the prize lists (assuming it is submitted). A signed copy is well worth adding to any collection and should be an interesting read.

"Timothy Mo's first novel in a decade is set within the battle for secession in the Muslim regions of southern Thailand. Pure covers epic expanses of time and is told through narrators who range from fanatical zealots to decorated Oxbridge dons. Everything that Mo's readers expect abound in this long-awaited novel: versatile style, memorable characters, insight into those tormented by dual loyalties and the ability to handle the weightiest of themes with a light touch. By examining the cultural wars of the past and present, Pure's themes are among the most important of the day."

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Book Review - Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

One woman; two men.  Which will she chose?  The core of many a Victorian Novel, and also the underlying premise of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  Eugenides  is not a prolific author - the Marriage Plot is his first book for a decade, but his novels are generally worth waiting for and this is no exception.   It is an intelligent and humorous book, with many unexpected twists and turns as he sets out to make a Victorian novel for our age.

Madeleine is the central female character.  We meet her as she prepares to graduate, uncertain as to what to do with her life.  She is from a privileged WASP background, passionate about the Victorian novel in an era when semiotics and deconstructionism are in fashion (the early 80’s).  The novel moves back and forwards to cover Madeleine’s time at college and the couple of years afterwards, focusing on her relationships with Leonard and Mitchell, the two men in her life.  The novel switches its narrative voice between these three characters, sometimes recounting the same events from two (or even three) perspectives.

Leonard is brash, confident, super-intelligent and popular – a science major apparently destined for great things.  Mitchell is sensitive, reflective and generally nice, prepared to be treated by Madeleine as a bit of a door mat – no less intelligent that Leonard, but less conspicuously so. While Leonard struggles with science and mental illness, Mitchell struggles with religious belief, which plays an analogous role in his life. Both love and want Madeleine – she has given herself to Leonard and he offers much in return, but for most of the novel it is clear that her heart lies with Mitchell.   Until the final few pages the denouement of these tangled relationships remains unclear; don’t expect a neat Victorian ending!

The Marriage Plot contains a good story with memorable and convincing characters.   All of the characters love books and knowledge; there are a lot of references to other books and literary theory, which some readers may find challenging.  There are convincing sections dealing with college life in the US in the early 80s, working in an unsympathetic research biology laboratory and working for Mother Theresa.  There are  very strong first and third person descriptions of the effects of both mania and depression.  This is a book which ranges widely both in themes and geography.  At over 400 pages it is a large book, but it never lags and I would happily have read more.  Excellent literary fiction. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Review - The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen

The Land of Decoration is a first novel told in the voice of a young girl who has been brought up as a member of a religious sect; Grace McCleen is a young writer who was herself brought up in a similar environment.  Of course, most authors draw deeply on personal life experiences as they write, not surprising since writing about events and circumstances you know is likely to be easier and more realistic.  However, sometimes the parallels between events and a novel and the author’s own life seem particularly close – Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence being a good example – and perhaps that is also the case here.  Certainly, the setting of the novel is completely convincing, even if the events are at least partly imagined.

There have been a number of successful recent novels told in the voice of a young child, so the approach is by no means completely original.  However, for it to succeed requires significant technical skill as a writer as well as considerable imagination, and in The Land of Decoration Judith (the narrator) convinces completely as a somewhat precocious young girl.  The book is a little slow to get going, but ultimately the story and the world it creates is engrossing and I found difficulty putting the book down at some points.

Judith lives with her father, and it is clear from the outset that her mother is dead.  She has been brought up as a committed member of a small Church which operates under strict rules and is clearly closely modelled on the Jehovah’s Witness movement.  Judith stands out from her schoolmates, both for her intelligence and for her religious differences.  As a result, she is isolated and bullied, and retreats to an imaginary world which she makes in her bedroom.  Judith comes to believe that she has been given the power to perform miracles, and that when something happens in her model world it will be paralleled in the real world.  At first it seems to her that this will provide a rapid solution to her problems, but she quickly comes to realise that the consequences of our wishes coming true can be hard to predict, and that perhaps the adults in her life do not truly believe all that they say. 

There are many strong aspects to this novel – the voice and personality of Judith, her relationship with her father, the portrayal of the Church and its congregation and the reality of bullying in the school.  There are also some unexpected aspects – the unseen social factors which turn a child into a bully, the impact of isolation on the development of an intelligent child, the impact of a strike in a closed community.  The portrayal of the Church is not particularly sympathetic, and some readers have objected to this, but neither is it unreasonably harsh.   Above all my memory will be of Judith and her imaginary world, and how imagination can equip a child with the resilience to deal with incredibly difficult circumstances.  

Finally, I should comment on The Land of Decoration as an object.  As e-books become ever more popular, publishers need to work harder to make us buy their books.  I read the first edition hardcover from Chatto & Windus, and it is a truly beautiful book.  Coloured page edges (maroon, like an old-fashioned Bible), pictorial endpapers and a superb dustwrapper.  Who would choose an e-book over an object like this? 

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Book of the Week and Bibliography - Peter Carey, The Chemistry of Tears

Peter Carey is Australia’s preeminent author of literary fiction, and this week sees the publication in the UK of his most recent novel, The Chemistry of Tears. I have written about Carey previously, and a new Carey novel is always something of an event – he has twice won the Booker Prize along with many other awards. Like many of Carey’s novels, The Chemistry of Tears is partly historical; in this case a contemporary narrative in London is coupled with the Englishman Henry Brandling's journey into a 19th-century Germany redolent of the Brothers Grimm. Automata provide the link between the two time periods; Carey originally qualified as a scientist and science as a belief system is a significant theme in this novel. Not surprisingly, the reviewers seem to like it and I am looking forward to reading it.

As well as the standard Faber and Faber hardcover, there is a signed limited edition from the London Review of Books bookshop, published in association with Faber & Faber, comprising 75 copies, forty-five of which have been quarter-bound in Gray 31 Harmatam fine leather and Atlantic Calm cloth sides, numbered 1 to 45, and thirty copies fully bound in the same leather, numbered i to xxx. All books have coloured tops, blue and white head and tail bands, Fedrigoni Merida Indigo endpapers, and are housed in a slipcase.

 “An automaton, a man and a woman who can never meet, a secret love story, and the fate of the world are all brought to life in this hauntingly moving novel from one of the finest writers of our time. London 2010, Catherine Gehrig, conservator at the Swinburne museum, learns of the unexpected death of her colleague and lover of thirteen years. As the mistress of a married man she has to grieve in private. One other person knows their secret, the director of the museum, who arranges for Catherine to be given a special project away from prying eyes. Mad with grief, the usually controlled and rational Catherine discovers a series of handwritten notebooks telling the story of the man who originally commissioned the extraordinary and eerie automata she has been asked to bring back to life. With a precocious new assistant, Amanda, at her side, she starts to piece together both the clockwork puzzle and the story of the mechanical creature which was commissioned in 19th century Germany by an English man, Henry Brandling, as a 'magical amusement' for his consumptive son. Having been asked to leave his home by his wife, Henry turns his hurtful departure into an adventure that he records for his young child. But it is Catherine Gehrig, in a strangely stormy and overheated London nearly two hundred years later, who will find comfort and wonder in reading Henry's story. And it is the automata, in its beautiful, uncanny imitation of life, that will link two strangers confronted with the mysteries of life and death, the miracle and catastrophe of human invention and the body's astonishing chemistry of love and feeling.”


1979 War Crimes, University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Queensland)
1980 The Fat Man in History, Faber and Faber 1981 Bliss, Faber and Faber
1985 Illywhacker, Faber and Faber
1988 Oscar and Lucinda, Faber and Faber
1991 The Tax Inspector, Faber and Faber
1994 The Unusual Life of Tristran Smith, Faber and Faber
1995 Collected Stories, Faber and Faber
1995 The Big Bazoohley, Faber and Faber
1997 Jack Maggs, Faber and Faber
2001 30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account, Bloomsbury
2001 True History of the Kelly Gang, Faber and Faber
2002 Four Easy Pieces, Belmont Press
2003 My Life as a Fake, Faber and Faber
 2005 Wrong about Japan, Faber and Faber
2006 Theft: A Love Story, Faber and Faber
2008 His Illegal Self, Faber and Faber
2010 Parrot and Olivier in America, Faber and Faber
2012 The Chemistry of Tears,  Faber and Faber

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Review - The Bellwether Revivals, Benjamin Wood

“There is no great genius without some note of madness” runs the strap line for The Bellwether Revivals, an entertaining first novel with some dark undertones by Benjamin Wood.   The story is told mainly from the perspective of Oscar Lowe, a clever but uneducated young man working as a nursing home assistant in Cambridge.  Oscar falls in with a close knit group of privileged students which includes Eden Bellwether and his sister Iris, and gradually becomes part of their circle. Oscar forms a relationship with Iris and Eden provides the genius with a note of madness; from the beginning it is clear that things are not going to end well.

Eden is an extraordinarily talented musician, and believes in the power of music to manipulate emotions, something that most people would ascribe to.  However, his belief has gradually extended beyond that so that he now believes that through music he can physically heal people who are unwell and is looking for opportunities to demonstrate this.  Oscar enters Eden’s world at a key moment, and becomes inadvertently an element in Eden’s experiments.  Oscar becomes increasingly convinced that Eden is unstable and in turn tries to understand what underpins his behaviour and beliefs, roping in American psychologist Herbert Crest who just happens to have an incurable brain tumour.  There is much talk of narcissistic personality disorder (readers can judge themselves against the diagnostic criteria!), but for most of the novel it is unclear whether or not Eden has some supernatural or magical ability – “The irrationality of a thing is no argument against its existence”, to quote Nietzsche.  

Overall I enjoyed this book, without being completely engrossed.  The behaviour of some of the characters appeared unconvincing to me and the way in which they spoke jarred a little, Eden’s father Theo (a surgeon) being a key example.  Nonetheless, The Bellwether Revivals provides an interesting portrayal of a dysfunctional family and kept my attention well as the plot moved along with good momentum.  The origins of Eden’s behaviour were hinted at (a childhood experience of a religious revivalist meeting in Florida, and an experience with a blackbird), but never really explained.  I would have liked this to be developed a little more.  However, I think that Benjamin Wood is a young writer who is well worth watching and I will look forward to his future books. 

Friday, 6 April 2012

Book of the Week - John Lanchester, Capital

I have been on holiday recently, so have some catching up to do with recently released fiction. Capital is John Lanchester’s fourth novel and has been out for a while – however, it is quickly into its fifth or sixth printing (unusual for literary fiction nowadays) and addresses some important themes in the midst of the current economic crisis. Reviews have been positive (with a few less enthusiastic) - some have referred to Capital as a “state of the nation” novel. The author is well established and respected in the literary world, though not prolific, and this is the sort of book which could do well in this year’s Booker Prize. Time to pick up a first edition then – signed copies of the Faber hardcover are still available at around £20-25.

Lanchester was born in Hamburg in 1962 and was brought up in the far east. He has worked as a football reporter, obituary writer, book editor, restaurant critic, and deputy editor of the London Review of Books, where his pieces still appear. He is a regular contributor to the New Yorker. He has written three novels, The Debt to Pleasure, Mr Phillips and Fragrant Harbour, and two works of non-fiction: Family Romance, a memoir; and Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, a book about the global financial crisis. The Debt to Pleasure (1996) is the fictional autobiography of sinister gourmet Tarquin Winot. It won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Betty Trask Prize, the Hawthornden Prize, and an American prize, the Julia Child Award for 'literary food writing'. Mr Phillips (2000) relates the inner thoughts and fantasies of a redundant 50-year-old accountant, while Fragrant Harbour (2002) is set in Hong Kong and was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His more recent non-fiction includes Family Romance (2007), a memoir recountingthe story of his mother, a nun who walked out of the convent, changed her name, falsified her age, and concealed these facts from her husband and son until her death. Whoops!: why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay (2008), contains an analysis of contemporary finance and the current economic crisis, themes which feature strongly in Capital as well.

“Pepys Road: an ordinary street in the Capital. Each house has seen its fair share of first steps and last breaths, and plenty of laughter in between. Today, through each letterbox along this ordinary street drops a card with a simple message: We Want What You Have. At forty, Roger Yount is blessed with an expensively groomed wife, two small sons and a powerful job in the City. An annual bonus of a million might seem excessive, but with second homes and nannies to maintain, he's not sure he can get by without it. Elsewhere in the Capital, Zbigniew has come from Warsaw to indulge the super-rich in their interior decoration whims. Freddy Kano, teenage football sensation, has left a two-room shack in Senegal to follow his dream. Traffic warden Quentina has exchanged the violence of the police in Zimbabwe for the violence of the enraged middle classes. For them all, this city offers the chance of a different kind of life. Capital is a post-crash state-of-the nation novel told with compassion and humour, featuring a cast of characters that you will be sad to leave behind.”