Modern Gods by Nick Laird

modern gods

Alison is getting married for the second time. After an abusive first marriage to an alcoholic, she is confident that quiet, thoughtful Stephen will be a good dad to her two kids. She knows he has a difficult past but has resisted enquiring about it, happier to let sleeping dogs lie. She worries about what her older sister Liz will make of him, and of her: Alison has never left the small town she grew up in and still works at her father’s estate agency. She worries what her sister will make of Stephen and this dull life she’s made for herself.

Liz’s family had downsized their role in her life since she left home, of course, but not in the way she’d expected. They were like a village she had once lived in that had been shrunk down to miniature. The relationships didn’t loosen to old friendships; they contracted over the years, but retained all the same angles and shapes, the same functions of shame and despair and joy. It was like a scale model she lived in – and it still functioned. The little train ran, the signs swung outside the little shops, tiny people went from room to room, turning on and off the lights. Interacting with her family was like entering the village as an adult – outsized, and trying to crawl under the arches and bridges and flyovers, trying not to put one’s size-fives in the miniscule flowerbeds.

Liz is in her thirties, independent, a college professor teaching in New York City. The very day she’s supposed to fly home for Alison’s wedding, she walks in on her live-in boyfriend in bed with another man. Single and in her thirties, she feels as though her life is stalling. The offer to present a BBC documentary on a new religion that has sprung up in Papua New Guinea, on an island called New Ulster, is a welcome lifeline.

The two sisters form the heart of this novel, which throws up a lot of interesting ideas on religion, Over in New Ulster, Liz is torn between the New Truth Mission, represented by Josh Werner and his family, and the Story’s new movement led by the Werner’s former nanny, Belef. On the face of it, Belef is a grieving woman who feels lied to by the church, but Liz is shaken by several things she hears while in the village. The Werners are also far from sympathetic, Josh so desperate to quash Belef’s influence that he uses her daughter’s grave as a battleground. There is always a subtle threat of violence, both in Liz’s expectations of what PNG is, and in the actions and words of the people she meets.

Back in Northern Ireland, Alison is forced to confront the real identity of her new husband. The man who is so patient with her children has a darker past than she could have imagined. Even as she berates herself for sticking her head in the sand, she carries on, going through with a honeymoon where they are pleasantly civil to one another. It is only when she overhears Stephen telling his side of the story, to a neutral observer, that she begins to understand exactly what it is that he’s done.

This scene, with Alison in the next room and Stephen recounting his upbringing, is perhaps a little clumsy though I understand why it was easier to put his story across in this way. It’s a matter of fact retelling that attempts to explain Stephen’s actions as a younger man, a man who he says no longer exists. Elsewhere I felt that the clashing of religion was done in a more subtle way, events in PNG coming to a head after a strange hallucination scene that leads to Liz’s expulsion from the New Truth’s trust and forces their hand. The tragedy here was more simply drawn, though no less brutal.

In some ways, having the two locations interspersed kept the pace going. I did find the PNG section more vibrant but perhaps that is mainly because of the contrast with the more low-key scenes as Alison and Stephen try to move on while refusing to confront their main issue. I also felt that both Alison and Liz changed for the better during the course of the novel and there was a satisfying resolution. This book looks at difficult topics and yet remains an enjoyable read that kept me interested throughout. There are light moments as well as dark. Perhaps at times I would have liked a little more of the darker side, especially when it came to Stephen, but overall I think the balance was well-judged.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

elmet

It’s been a while since my last review but I’m finally getting a chance to get caught up! In my defence I’ve been trying to finish a draft of my novel which is finally complete (hallelujah!). My Man Booker shortlist reading fell by the wayside but there were a couple of the novels that I had still to read including this one: Elmet.

Daniel lives with his sister Cathy and his Daddy in a house built by his father by a copse two fields over from the east coast main line. The book opens with Daniel heading north along the tracks, looking for someone, before going back to the beginning of his story: their arrival at the copse as Daniel turns fourteen and Cathy turns fifteen. This life we see immediately is unconventional. Prior to their arrival on the outskirts of the village, the children lived with their grandmother, both parents fading in and out of their lives. They went to school. Now that Granny Morley has passed away their father has come back to care for them but in his own way. Both still minors, he doesn’t send them to school but instead to neighbour Vivien. She teaches Daniel from what books she keeps in her house; Cathy refuses and spends her time outside, exploring the countryside. Daddy teaches both children how to hunt and use the countryside for survival, living outside of the wider society.

I enjoyed the attention to the surroundings and reading about this different way of living. I was drawn completely with Mozley’s language resulting in vivid imagery. One of my favourite scenes was the Christmas Tree that Daddy makes, covering a pine tree in the copse with oil lanterns that are carefully designed so that they glow and dance in the darkness. So beautiful.  The characters were well-rounded and the dynamic between the family and the villagers, an element of distrust always visible, worked to keep them close but always slightly outside of the regular society.

Where I became a little less sure of the novel was when the plot suddenly becomes evident, quite late on. It almost felt as though the book had originally been one thing and, perhaps in order to make it sell, had been changed into something else that was more plot-driven. Something felt disjointed anyway, at least for me. I was alright with this until the very end when events take such a dramatic turn that I didn’t buy it at all. This is, up to a certain point, a slow-moving book. I was fine with that. I even quite liked the arrival of an antagonist and thought he was used very well. I can’t be more specific without spoilers but I think that the Biblical level finale had an issue because I didn’t understand the motivation for that level of violence, beginning with the catalyst, an event that occurs completely off the page and seemed too extreme. A Tarantino-esque ending to what had been quite a gentle literary novel. I feel like the paragraph that starts at the bottom of p298 of my copy is a literal representation for what was done to this book.

Overall, I thought this was a great debut, and I’m glad that getting shortlisted for the Man Booker will have brought it to more people’s attention. Compared to some of the heavyweights on that list, it didn’t really stand a chance but it was just the small issues with pacing that really threw me off. I’m excited to see what comes next from Fiona Mozley.

 

 

 

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire

Home Fire is a modern retelling of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. Told from five points of view, Shamsie aims to give a holistic overview of the events that lead the characters to their inevitable conclusion. You don’t need to know the source material to read this novel but knowing its a Greek tragedy is enough to work out that things are not going to go well.

The novel begins with Isma, a Muslim woman, missing her flight to Boston as she gets interrogated at Heathrow airport. After sacrificing years to looking after her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, she finally has the opportunity to recommence her academic life having won a scholarship to an American university. Responsibility fell upon Isma’s shoulders after her mother died. Her father, absent for most of her childhood, left the family to become a jihadist, a legacy that has recently caught up with Isma’s family since Parvaiz has chosen to follow  in his father’s footsteps.

While in the US, Isma meets Eamonn in a coffee shop. The handsome mixed race son of a British Muslim politician who has divided opinion through his hardline comments, seen by many Muslims as pandering to the anti-Islamists, Eamonn is directionless, unsure what to do with his life. He doesn’t realise that Isma already has a reason to despise his father and she keeps this knowledge to herself, surprised to find that she enjoys his company. She starts to hope that their relationship might develop but when Eamonn visits her at home and sees a photograph of sister Aneeka on a shelf, his reaction shows her that as far as he is concerned Isma will only be a friend.

What I loved about this book is the way Shamsie tackles a difficult subject matter. Rather than viewing Parvaiz the jihadi from afar, she shows us (albeit it briefly – one of the slight flaws of the novel) his radicalisation. From being approached in London by a recruiter, we see flashes of life in Syria and his growing realisation that he was an easy mark, his father’s past used to reel him in. Meanwhile back in London, his actions have split his family. Aneeka refuses to speak to Isma once she discovers that Isma was the one who alerted the police to their brother’s departure. Even when Isma points out that she did it to save Aneeka’s future career in the law, her sister cannot forgive her.

Each character in the novel has a specific role to play and this is where a few flaws creep in, at least in my opinion. Because their fate was already mapped out and the story is draped over a pre-existing plot, not all of their actions felt honest. Because we moved amongst the viewpoints of five different people, it also felt that there wasn’t enough time spent with each. I enjoyed reading each section but fifty or so pages doesn’t give great insight into a person’s actions. I felt this perhaps the most in the last section, following Eamonn’s father, Karamat Lone.

What I found quite interesting, and only noticed afterwards, is the power that each woman has compared to the men. Aneeka seduces Eamonn in an attempt to save her brother, Parvaiz, whose emotional weakness was exploited by the IS recruiters. Both Eamonn and Parvaiz are in limbo, young men with no clear career path. Even Karamat Lone, Home Secretary, is in a precarious position. Having turned his back on his religion he realises too late that even with that sacrifice he will always be considered as ‘other’. His wife is a successful businesswoman in her own right; his treatment of Eamonn when he discovers the relationship with Aneeka drives her away.

For me, this is easily a ‘one-sitting’ book. Pacy and thrilling, there were few standout sentences but the storytelling is sublime. I just wish the last few pages hadn’t gone a tad Homeland. 

 

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

broken homes

Book Four in the PC Grant series continues where the previous left off in terms of the plot concerning the Faceless Man, the dark magician who has already tried to kill Peter Grant. A car crash just outside of Crawley turns up a suspect, Robert Weil, already on Grant’s list of FM’s suspected associates, known as the Little Crocodiles. Human blood found in Weil’s car lead the local police, Grant and Nightingale in tow, to a dumping ground where they find the body of a woman, her face mutilated to avoid identification.

To add to PC Grant’s workload, another potential Little Crocodile goes under a train at Baker Street and the CCTV shows him acting decidedly dodgy just before: almost as though he were under a glamour that forced him to jump. The investigation leads him to a housing estate in Elephant and Castle, designed by eccentric German architect Erik Stromberg, and the sensible decision seems to be for Peter and Lesley May to move in…

For some reason, Stromberg had designed a hexagonal central shaft that ran up the middle of the tower so that for the first few years you could lean over and stare all the way down to the basement level. Since it didn’t function as a light-well and it was ten times wider than needed for the building’s tuned mass damper, it was a bizarre bit of architectural whimsy even for the late 1960s. The tenants soon put it to good use as a combination waste disposal area and emergency urinal and after two suicides and a notorious murder case, the council installed heavy duty wire mesh to seal it off from the walkways.

As well as the strange architectural quirks of the building, there are strange goings on amongst the residents, those who are left after the council have enticed many of them to leave. Becoming more reminiscent of the tower block in JG Ballard’s High-Rise, the reason for the Faceless Man’s interest only becomes clear at the climax of the novel as, for once, it seems that Peter is one step ahead for once.

I enjoyed the return to the main storyline with the Faceless Man, and Aaronovitch has a great cast of characters now. There are frequent ‘cameos’ throughout this book, not all of them important to the overall story but adding to the enjoyment of the reader. There is an interesting twist at the end which has me keen to get onto the next book asap and I finally feel like Peter is getting to grips both with magic and the ordinary policing side – at least he seemed less reckless in this instalment, though he still managed to get into plenty of hairy situations. It will be interesting to see how he moves on from the final events of this novel…

 

 

 

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

reservoir 13

It is winter and a teenage girl has gone missing while on holiday in the Peak District. The whole village turns out to search the hills and the moors, the police hold a press conference and journalists descend on the village. This could be your everyday crime novel, focused on finding out what happened to Rebecca Shaw: did she fall and hurt herself; did someone harm her. Reservoir 13 is not your everyday novel. The structure is unique, the prose poetic. McGregor is more concerned with the life of the village itself.

The last days of August were heavy with heat and anything that had to move moved slow. At the allotments the beds were bursting with beans and courgettes, the plants sprawling over the pathways. The bees stumbled fatly between the flowers and the slugs gorged. The first lambs were ready to sell and Jackson’s boys were busy making selections and loading them into the trailer. At the cricket ground the annual game against Cardwell was lost. The girl’s mother came to the church from time to time. She arrived just before the service began, escorted by the vicar to a set in the side aisle which was kept free for her, and left during the closing hymn. 

The novel is not particularly concerned with what actually happened to Rebecca Shaw but at the fall out. The cast is made up of the villagers, their lives as they grow older over the course of thirteen years. Kids who knew Rebecca before she vanished talk about what they remember, grow up and go to uni, their lives occasionally haunted by her memory. We see babies born, marriage end and new relationships begin as time ticks on. There are some stalwarts that crop up in each chapter: the turning of the year; the annual cricket game against Cardwell. Every so often there is a ‘sighting’ of the missing girl, or her father is seen around the village, reminding the residents. Otherwise, life goes on as usual but with a few adjustments – no fireworks on new year, parents more worried when their children stay out late, a suspicious eye cast upon the neighbours.

What struck me about this book is its commitment to the village as a whole. The local wildlife is as important as the humans who live in the houses. Fox cubs and badgers, the fieldfares – we see them born and move on and die as well. With such a large number of characters, it is tricky to care about all of them. We watch over them from afar, as though skimming over the surface of the village in one of those police helicopters that is occasionally dispatched to search for Rebecca. It is an interesting technique, along with the decision to have this crime (or is it?) in the background without every really moving it to the forefront of the narrative.

For a novel in which, it could be said, not a lot happens, or not a lot happens very quickly, it is surprisingly engrossing. Each chapter encapsulates a year in the village and I read on wanting to revisit certain characters – would Su cope with juggling her twins and her BBC job; would Richard convince childhood sweetheart Cathy to give things another go; which lucky lady would end up in bed with Gordon Jackson that year. It’s a bittersweet sort of book – as with all life there are ups and downs. A book I will remember having read without necessarily remembering much about. I wouldn’t be surprised if it made the Man Booker shortlist. But neither would I surprised if it didn’t. In a way it reminded me of Wyl Menmuir’s longlisted The Many from last year – there is no resolution but the journey itself seems enough.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster

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This is a hefty book at 866 pages in the hardback edition. Not the longest book out there but a decent time commitment indeed. If I hadn’t had a week off work and three decent length train journeys, I may have waited to see if Auster made the Man Booker shortlist before deciding to invest.

I was also a little put off by the premise – one character but in four different versions. It brought Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us to mind and I found that book to be quite flawed and lacking in depth because of the constant flipping between strands. Auster’s version is far more successful, partly because of course he has taken so much more space to tell his story, but because he keeps to one protagonist and gives each strand time to bed in. The first chapter shades in the relevant family history that applies to each Ferguson incarnation:

According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, traveled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century. While waiting to be interviewed by an immigration official at Ellis Island, he struck up a conversation with a fellow Russian Jew. The man said to him: Forget the name Reznikoff. It won’t do you any good here… Tell them you’re Rockefeller, the man said. You can’t go wrong with that. An hour passed, then another hour, and by the time the nineteen-year-old Reznikoff sat down to be questioned by the immigration official, he had forgotten the name the man had told him to give. Your name? the official asked. Slapping his head in frustration, the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargesssen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson. 

Archibald Isaac Ferguson is born on March 3, 1947, only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson. From that point, his life takes four different paths – the same boy but living four different lives. Each strand takes Ferguson to live in a different location which means different friends, different schools. The family’s fortunes vary as Ferguson’s father decides whether or not to stay loyal to his brothers and the homeware store they own together. Some characters appear in all strands, family members and close family friends, but their impact upon Ferguson is less in one life than another, depending on who else is around him.

The reason this works is that each chapter is of a decent length. Spending thirty or so pages immersed in one Ferguson helps each individual story fix in the memory. Also, having each Ferguson grow up in a different town made it incredibly easy to pick back up (the four strands go round in turn).  I also had the benefit of a four hour train journey which enabled me to read large amounts in one go – I think that, as with most books of this length, you can’t dip in and out, ten or so pages at a time.

The first five hundred or so pages were sublime. There were shocks, heartbreak, tragedy. Not all the characters survive and so you have the shock of mourning a death only to have that person reincarnated in the next Ferguson. Where I began to lose interest, and this is perhaps a personal issue, is that once Ferguson reaches college age the novel became quite bogged down in both politics (Vietnam war etc) and also in Ferguson’s attempts to become a serious writer. Reading about avoiding the draft and the college sit-ins is incredibly interesting the first time around, but multiple versions of the same became a little more tedious. And perhaps it was really that easy to get published in the late 60s/early 70s for someone with talent, but there is no struggle for Ferguson. People rave about his stories and rush to publish him. People rush to help Ferguson in all his incarnations and I sort of wanted him to fall on harder times, even just once.

All in all, this work is epic. It held my attention throughout, and I didn’t mind the ending, even though it was a little contrived. But to me that fit with the way this novel is constructed. I felt satisfied by the way Auster concludes Ferguson’s story and I almost think he deserves to make the Man Booker shortlist for his daring. This is a novel that could so easily not have worked, and yet it does.

Augustown by Kei Miller

augustown

Augustown first came to my attention when it was longlisted for the inaugural Jhalak Prize earlier this year. Since then, Miller has won the OCM BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Literature and been shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Green Carnation Prize for this, his third novel.

The Augustown of the novel is a fictional place, according to the author’s note, but one that shares a history and ‘bears an uncanny resemblance to’ a real place: August Town, Jamaica. In a way, this is the first clue that this is a story built around real events but becoming more of a fable.

The story begins with Ma Taffy, a blind old woman who lives with her niece Gina and her son Kaia. When Kaia walks home from school one day, she can smell that something has happened to him, something wrong. Kaia’s school teacher has taken umbrage with his dreadlocked hair and cut it off. Ma Taffy tells Kaia the story of the flying preacherman, the true story of Alexander Bedward who prophesied that he would one day fly but instead ended up in an institution. She can sense that something bad is about to happen.

And Ma Taffy wondered why they made it mean so much, this Nazirite vow she herself had taken: No blade shall ever touch my head. It was just hair, after all. It was just hair. It could grow back. It was nothing for a big, big man to lose his life over. But in her heart, Ma Taffy knew it was more than enough to die for. She knew that for people to be people, they had to believe in something. They had to believe that something was worth believing in. And they had to carry that thing in their hearts and guard it, for once you believed in something, in anything at all, Babylon would try its damnedest to find out what that thing was, and they would try to take it from you.

From Ma Taffy’s premonition arises a sense of impending doom. As she predicts the autoclaps to come, so the reader waits with baited breath to find out what will happen. Weaving the old neighbourhood stories amongst these few hours in the present (or the present as far as Ma Taffy is concerned, which is 1982), as we see the teacher wait in his schoolroom, knowing that judgment is on its way, there is a gentle tension building. While Ma Taffy is telling Kaia the story of Bedward, his mother Gina, or Miss G to her employer (who happens also to be the principal at Kaia’s school) is deciding whether to share her great secret. Miller weaves all of these strands together until the novel reaches its climax, its catastrophe.

There are various elements of magic realism at work in this novel. The way Ma Taffy tells the story it seems that Bedward really could fly and it was the local authorities who brought him crashing down; the very conclusion of the novel seems impossible. The way she senses danger, and can smell it, goes far beyond any expected heightening of her senses following her blinding. There is much to be discussed around the issue of race; those with wealth and power in Kingston are invariably white or light skinned, living above the Augustown valley so that, as Gina says to one young white man, ‘people like you can just stay up here and watch, like gods.’ And this for me is the strength of the book: its discussion around Jamaican society and the damaging impact of British empire that still scars it.