Mar 27

Book Review: 10:04 by Ben Lerner

What’s It About

10:04 is Ben Lerner’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed Leaving the Atocha Station (I bought a copy of his début back in 2013 when it was nominated for a Believer Magazine Award.  Though, like many other books that linger and loiter in my garage, I haven’t read it).

In 10:04 the unnamed narrator, who may or may not be based on Ben Lerner, is dealing with the success of his first novel.  With New York publishes throwing money at him, the pressure is on to write a second book that meets theirs and the critics expectations.

Should I Read It?

Probably not.  I found a good chunk of the novel to be a struggle.  Part of that had to do with Lerner’s choice of words and the rhythm of his sentences (more of that in the commentary).  And part of it was related to Lerner’s unnamed narrator, with all his neuroses and doubts.  (I’m struggling here not describe him as Woody Allen-esque).

Having said that, Part Three of the novel is fantastic.  This is where he meets graduate student Noor and hears her fascinating story, gives a brilliant speech at Columbia University dealing with collective communication and off-color jokes about the Challenger disaster and then has dinner with another writer where they discuss the ideas behind his new novel (a scene which should be dull but is really engaging).  So while I’d normally never recommend that someone skip whole sections of a book, due to its fragmentary nature in this instance you won’t be missing much if you just read the middle and forget the rest.

Representative Paragraph

As a commentary on the business of publishing, this seems all too cynical and accurate:

I asked my agent to explain to me once more why anybody would pay such a sum for a book of mine, especially an unwritten one, given that my previous novel, despite an alarming level of critical acclaim, had only sold around ten thousand copies. Since my first book was published by a small press, my agent said, the larger houses were optimistic that their superior distribution and promotion could help a second book do much better than the first. Moreover, she explained, publishers pay for prestige. Even if I wrote a book that didn’t sell, these presses wanted a potential darling of the critics or someone who might win prizes; it was symbolic capital that helped maintain the reputation of the house even if most of their money was being made by teen vampire sagas or one of the handful of mainstream “literary novelists” who actually sold a ton of books. This would have made sense to me in the eighties or nineties, when the novel was more or less still a viable commodity form, but why would publishers, all of whom seemed to be perpetually reorganizing, downsizing, scrambling to survive in the postcodex world, be willing to convert real capital into the merely symbolic? “Keep in mind that your book proposal…” my agent said, and then paused thoughtfully, indicating that she was preparing to put something delicately, “your book proposal might generate more excitement among the houses than the book itself.”

Commentary

10:04 has clearly resonated with a number of people, including critics, the New York Times (who ranked it as one of their top five books of 2014) and the Folio Prize judges.  In particular both Alex Preston and Hari Kunzru, in their respective reviews of the book, compare Lerner to WG Sebald and praise the novel for its fragmentary nature, it’s ability to “dissolve” or “deform” the novel into something that’s compelling and heartbreaking.  I, on the other hand, was less than impressed.  Whereas Preston and Kunzru saw Lerner’s stylistic flourishes as playful and bold, I struggled to deal with the narrator’s choice of words and the rhythm and structure of the sentences.  For me, they created this impression of a narrator so far up his own arse that the only time he ever saw light was when he opened his mouth.  Or to put it more diplomatically – a tad pretentious.

Take this chunk of text as an example

I was alarmed by the thoroughness of what I experienced as Alena’s dissimulation felt almost gaslighted, as if our encounter on the apartment floor had never happened. Here I was, still flush from our coition, my senses and the city vibrating at one frequency, wanting nothing so much as to possess and be possessed by her again, while she looked at me with a detachment so total I felt as if I were the jealous ex she’d wanted to avoid, a bourgeois prude incapable of conceiving of the erotic outside the lexicon of property.   Maybe she’d separated from me only so she could reencounter me coolly, asserting her capacity to establish insuperable distances no matter our physical proximity.

I know that some will look at that passage and say, “what’s your problem, that reads fine to me and it’s so very clever.”  But my eyes couldn’t help but stumble over words and phrases like “coition”, “dissimulation” and my personal favourite, “lexicon of property”.  What makes it all the more irritating is that the novel is packed with these neurotic moments where the unnamed narrator can’t help but over analyse the motivation of others.  Added to this, he agonises over his health, whether he’d be a good father and his struggles with the second novel.  It should surprise no-one that he lives in New York.

Thankfully, the novel does improve immeasurably when Lerner’s narrator takes a step back and starts to engage with the world around him.  There’s a brilliant moment where he meets a graduate student named Noor while volunteering at the Park Slope Food Co-op.  Noor starts to tell the narrator her story, how her father was from Lebanon, how mother was Jewish and how she became involved in Boston University’s Arab Student Association.  It’s a genuinely moving tale that is so markedly different to what’s come before that it feels like Lerner has cut and pasted this scene from another book.  Also wonderful is the speech he gives at Columbia University.  In an exploration on collective language and experience the narrator uses the Challenger disaster as a springboard, effortlessly marrying together Ronald Reagans’ televised address about the tragedy, his quoting… or misquoting… of John Gillespie Magee’s High Flight and the off-colour jokes that people started sharing hours after the disaster.

The last third of the book, however, returns to the narrators anxieties about the subject matter of his novel.  It’s not as annoying as the first third, and some of the poetry is nice, but it culminates in the revelation… or awful joke… that the book you’re reading is the very novel he’s been kvetching about.  It’s this sort of obnoxious self-awareness that stopped me from engaging with the book.  Which is a shame, because there are moments of brilliance hidden among all the second-book anxieties and post-modern flourishes.

Mar 24

And the Winner of the Folio Prize is…

… Family Life by Akhil Sharma.

While I have yet to write-up my reviews of three of the eight finalists, I have read all the nominees and Family Life is definitely a deserving winner.  It’s a powerful novel about the immigrant experience, assimilation and dealing with disability.  A review is forthcoming.

In the meantime I draw your attention to this review of two of the Folio finalists All My Puny Sorrows and the Dept. of Speculation – on the @Number 71 blog.  The post makes some salient points that I’m going to refer back to when I do a round-up of the Folio finalists.

Mar 23

Book Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

What’s It About

Elf is a brilliant pianist who performs internationally in front of sellout crowds.  She has a wonderful marriage with a husband who loves her deeply. And she also desperately wants to die.

Yoli is Elf’s younger sister, recently divorced, who is living off her savings and is struggling to finish her first literary novel.  When Elf tries again to take her own life, Yoli is the first one there to support her.

And then one day Elf asks Yoli if she’d like to accompany her to Switzerland. A country famous for its armed neutrality, its watches, its chocolate and its legalisation of assisted suicide.

Should I Read It?

It’s very hard to describe All My Puny Sorrows without making it sounds like the sort of book that will darken a sunny day and put a frown on a clown.  While it’s absolutely about mental illness, about the right to live and the right to die, it’s also one of the most life affirming novel’s I’ve read.  This is because Miriam Toews understands that the line between soul shredding grief and laugh out loud comedy is incredibly thin.

All My Puny Sorrows is an astonishing novel.  And you should most definitely read it.

Representative Paragraph

Elf’s description of her depression to her sister (and first person narrator) Yolanada (AKA Yoli):

Then Elf tells me that she has a glass piano inside her. She’s terrified that it will break. She can’t let it break. She tells me that it’s squeezed right up against the lower right side of her stomach, that sometimes she can feel the hard edges of it pushing at her skin, that she’s afraid it will push through and she’ll bleed to death. But mostly she’s terrified that it will break inside her. I ask her what kind of piano it is and she tells me that it’s an old upright Heintzman that used to be a player piano but that the player mechanism has been removed and the whole thing has been turned into glass, even the keys. Everything. When she hears bottles being thrown into the back of a garbage truck or wind chimes or even a certain type of bird singing she immediately thinks it’s the piano breaking.

Commentary

When as a society we debate the merits of assisted suicide, we generally envisage it applying to someone who no longer has any quality of life due to terminal illness or some other sort of disability such as a brain injury.  We rarely consider those with a mental illness because we believe that a person’s state of mind is treatable with therapy and drugs.  And generally that’s the case.  I’m an example of someone who suffers anxiety and depression and treats it with medication (and therapy a couple of years back),  But Miriam Toews’ asks us to consider those who, for whatever reason, no longer see the traditional approaches, the drugs and the counselling sessions, as useful.  People like Elfrieda, a world renowned pianist, who can no longer accept the darkness in her life.  Does someone like Elf, Toews’ asks, deserve the right to take her life in a controlled, pain free and legal manner?

When Elf asks her sister Yoli to accompany her to Switzerland where euthanasia is legal (not that Elf is that explicit but her sister reads between the lines) Yoli is faced with that very question.  Should assisted suicide apply to people with an extreme forms of mental illness?  To the credit of both Yoli and Toews, the novel doesn’t become bogged down in ethical questions on euthanasia and the right die.  In fact Yoli makes the decision to help her sister relatively quickly even if early on she ruminates that:

[Elf] wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.

But in spite of her desire to fulfill her sister’s wishes, Yoli spends most of the novel trying to save her sister’s life.  While there’s a comedic / fanciful element to some of her ideas (dropping Elf into North Korea where she’d be forced to survive on her own, thus ultimately cherishing each day), mostly her efforts are marked with frustration and anger. She berates Elf for her selfishness —

Has it occurred to you ever in your life that I’m the one that’s colossally fucked up and could use some sisterly support every once in a while?…  Has it ever occurred to you that I’m not okay, that everything in my life is embarrassing, that I got knocked up twice by two different guys and had two divorces and two affairs that were—are—not only a nightmare but also a cliché and that I’m broke and writing a shitty little book about boats that nobody wants to publish and sleeping around with men who … fucking ooze nicotine into their sheets from their entire bodies…

— and blasts Elf’s Doctor for his lack of care —

After just one visit with her you’re refusing to help? I said. You’re some kind of esteemed psychiatrist. You’re just fucking dismissing her out of hand right in front of her? My sister is vulnerable. She’s tortured. She’s your patient! She’s begging for help but wants to assert one small vestige of individual power over her life. Surely even a first-year psych student would understand the significance of that stance. Are you not … do you not have any professional curiosity, even? Are you alive or what the fuck?

It’s these angry, raw outburst that bring home the message of this novel, that as a society we still struggle to deal with those who suffer from mental illness.  Yes, there’s greater awareness with more treatments and resources available to help those who are sick, but they’re all directed at keeping the patient alive, at making them recognise the value of life.  Even Yoli’s attempt to have Elf acknowledge that she isn’t the only one suffering is just another way of avoiding the elephant in the room – that Elf’s urge to die isn’t a whim or a phase, but a real and tangible thing.

As uncomfortable and confronting as this might all sound Toews has written a book that’s not only very funny – even if it’s a laugh tinged with sadness – but life affirming.  Much of this has to do with Yoli, our point of view character, who faces a mounting level of shit and yet muddles her way through it, though not always successfully.  I could describe her as engaging or believable, clichéd descriptors that I often fall back on, but what I really want to say is that I loved Yoli because there was something genuine and real about her frustrated anger, her fears and her deep unquestionable love for her family.

Yoli’s love for her family – in particular her mother and father – remains strong and steadfast even though both Yoli and Elf rejected the Mennonite faith they were brought up with.  Toews could have very easily put the sisters at odds with their parents while using the tragedy of mental illness as a springboard for discussions about the soul and extreme forms of religion.  But other than one scene where a Church elder comes unannounced to Elf’s hospital bed in an attempt to save her, Yoli looks back fondly on her quirky upbringing.  Her mother also happens to be a delight, a religious woman who takes very little shit from anyone, including and especially her daughters.  The final third of the novel – which I won’t spoil here – has some lovely mother / daughter moments.

I know it’s been a long review.  I’ve gone well over my nominal word limit of about 900 words.  But sometimes I need to explain – even if it’s mostly a ramble – why I loved a book so much.  Or to put it another way: Miriam Toews has written a beautiful novel dealing with an uncomfortable and tough subject with great humour and humanity.

Mar 19

Book Review: Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

What’s It About

Short answer: The story of colonial and post colonial Kenya.

Long answer: The death of Odidi Oganda, gunned down in the streets of Nairobi, forces his family to face secrets from their past, secrets intertwined with the colonial and post colonial history of Kenya.

Should I Read It?

Absolutely you should.  Dust is not a happy book, it’s steeped in the violence that Kenya and its people have faced during British rule and after the Mau Mau rebellion in 1963.  But it’s not a “worthy” book either, the sort you feel obligated to read so you can dredge up sympathy for those poor black-people struggling to enjoy the freedoms we white people apparently take for granted.  Rather, Dust is a gorgeous novel with dense, beautiful writing and flawed, believable characters.

Representative Paragraph

Ajany’s – Odidi Oganda’s sister – first impression of Isaiah, an Englishman abroad looking for his father:

The light of the land emphasizes the jagged outline of his face, prominent jaw, symmetry of bones, shape of hazel-tinted eyes, and broad forehead. Gray-and-black hair flecks on powerful arms. He does not look like one who had come hunting for meaning among large East African creatures, nor does he have the messianic glint-in-eyes of “Love Africa” types. Does his haversack contain a problem—the “Mission Statement”? Was he a borehole builder? A poverty eradicator? Yet his look was desolate and distant, with a slight twist of distaste around his mouth. As if he would rather be elsewhere. Enshrouded in the mood of that day, she wants to paint him: movement of space around and about him, presence, hard restlessness, shades of sadness. The man and Odidi share height, broad-chested, muscled, towering maleness framed by a hauteur that is detached from and laughing at the world. Ajany squelches a fleeting urge to tug at the stranger’s face muscles. An old habit: it is how she built her knowledge of the shape and texture of faces, which she used to color in shadows that were the frame of a half-finished sculpture now abandoned in her Brazilian studio.

Commentary

Ron Charles’ review of Dust for the Washington Post provides a perfect summation of the novel –  it’s a book that gradually teaches you how to read it.  Rather than feel the need to explain the numerous political and historical references, Owuor patiently leads us through the complex environment that is Kenya.  As each character is introduced, whether it’s Odidi’s sister, Ajany, returning from Brazil to bury her brother, or Isaiah Bolton, arriving in Kenya from England to meet Odidi and hopefully find his father, you gain a little more context, a little more perspective about the country, its people, culture and politics.  Each character is a puzzle piece and it’s genuinely satisfying to see how they all interrelate, how these relationships further shine a light on Kenya’s past and present.

Unfortunately, though it’s a history that’s overwhelmed by regular upheavals, tragedy and death.  Owuor doesn’t shy away from the fact that violence and political power have always walked hand in hand post Kenya’s independence in 1963.  The 2013 elections resulted in the deaths of at least 13 people in Mombasa, but overall it was seen as peaceful when compared to the 2007-8 elections that saw the death of over 1,300 people.  While Dust doesn’t specifically deal with the 2007-8 crisis, it does point to the ethnic issues that the country has faced since its independence.  For Nyipir Oganda, Odidi’s father, the pivotal moment was the assassination of Tom Mboya, a nationalist leader and Minister who, allegedly, was perceived as a potential threat by those in power:

After Mboya [died], everything that could die in Kenya did, even schoolchildren standing in front of a hospital that the Leader of the Nation had come to open. A central province was emptied of a people who were renamed cockroaches and “beasts from the west.” But nobody would acknowledge the exiles or citizens who did not make it out of the province before they were destroyed. Oaths of profound silences—secret shots in a slithering civil war. In time. A train would stop at a lakeside town and offload men, women, and children. Displaced ghosts, now-in-between people. No words. Then one night a government man drove into town from Nairobi. He carried petri dishes of vibrio cholerae. He washed these in a water-supplying dam. Days later cholera danced violently across the landscape, dragging souls from that earth, pressing desiccated bodies deep under the earth. No words.

However, I don’t want you to think that this is the sort of depressing, yet worthy novel that plays into white man’s guilt.  Because for all the darkness and death that has plagued Kenya, there’s something remarkably hopeful about the story that Owuor is telling.  With its intricate plotting and deft reveals, this is novel about a family who is finally able, with different degrees of success, to face their flaws and their darkest secrets.  The moment where mother and daughter reconcile after many years of being apart both geographically and emotionally, is not only touching and beautiful —

With a rapid movement Akai-ma gathers Ajany to her and presses her head to her daughter’s.  Lips to skin.  Husky-voiced.  ‘Tell the crying one that she has a mother.  She belong to life.  She has a mother and the mother holds her.  The mother forever holds her.’

but it also feels aspirational, the hope that Kenya will eventually come together without the need for more violence and pain.

Dust does teach you how to read it, and it’s a rewarding experience.

Mar 16

Who should win the inaugural James Herbert Award?

Here is a chilling reminder of the finalists (and a link to my frightening reviews):

So what can you conclude from an award where two of the books are outstanding, where three of the novels are not very good and where one is middling?  Maybe that horror fiction, as a genre, has always been a bit hit and miss and that the James Herbert Award is simply reflective of that.  Or maybe that my tastes have changed and the novels I would have loved as a twenty year old – especially the gore and violence of The Girl With All The Gifts and The Troop – no longer sizzle my synapses.  Whatever the reason, what I can say is that in spite of the duds any award that introduces me to a novel as complex and textured and mature as The Loney and one as imaginative and daring and engaging as Cuckoo Song gets my tick of approval.

Obviously I believe one of those two books should win the inaugural James Herbert Award.  There’s bugger all between them but if you put a knife to my throat and whispered sweet, sweet horrors into my half chewed and bloody ear, I would probably go with The Loney.  But I’d be happy with either one.  And if I had to predict the eventual winner my money would be on Cuckoo Song.

We will find out sometime… soon.

Mar 15

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

What’s It About

It’s another post apocalyptic novel.  (Including Bird Box I’ve now read six of the buggers this year).  On this occasion the cause of humanity’s mass destruction is a phenomena that when seen drives a person into a suicidal rage.

Malorie is a survivor and the mother of two four-year old kids, both of whom have been trained with the ability to “see” with their ears.  The three of them are about to set off on a journey into the outside world, where the act of opening your eyes is a death sentence.

Should I Read It?

A reserved yes.  Of the six James Herbert award finalists, it’s by far the most chilling.  Malerman’s sparse, blunt prose is very effective at describing those claustrophobic moments when characters are forced outside – whether it’s to search for food or get water from the well – with their eyes closed.

At its most interesting Bird Box is a novel about motherhood and responsibility and guilt.  However, for the most part the book follows the same well trodden ground as most post-apocalyptic narratives.

Still, if you want to read a short novel that’s competently written with some genuine scares than Bird Box is recommended.

Representative Paragraph

An example of what happens when you see the phenomena (as related by Tom):

‘It started with George gasping. Like he had something lodged in his throat. He’d been up there two hours and hadn’t made a sound. Then he starting calling to us.

‘Tom! You piece of shit. Get up here. Get up here.’

He would giggle, then scream, then howl. He sounded like a dog. We heard the chair bang hard against the floor. He was screaming profanities. Jules rose to go help him and I grabbed his arm to stop him. There was nothing we could do except listen. And we heard the entire thing. All the way until the crashing of the chair and the screaming stopped. Then we waited. We waited for a long time. Eventually, we went upstairs together. Blindfolded, we turned the VCR off, then opened our eyes. We saw what George had done to himself. He’d pressed so hard against the ropes that they had gone through his muscles all the way to the bone. His entire body looked like cake frosting, blood and skin folded over the ropes in his chest, his belly, his neck, his wrists, his legs. Felix threw up. Don and I knelt beside George and began cleaning. When we were finished, Don insisted we burn the tape. So we did. And while it was burning I couldn’t stop thinking that with it went our first real theory. It seems that no matter what prism you view them through, they’ll hurt you.’

Commentary

The intriguing idea at the core of Bird Box is what if you lived in a post apocalyptic world where walking outside with your eyes open was a death sentence.  Not only is this the sort of high concept, thirty-second elevator pitch that has formed the bedrock of Hollywood for the last century – Universal, recognising this, optioned the book in 2013 – but at a story level it’s an idea that promises all sorts of possibilities.  It’s a shame then that Malerman takes, for the most part, a meat and potatoes approach.

The book is split into two distinct plot threads.  Story number one is set four years post the apocalypse where Malorie and her two four-year old children – a boy and a girl named… “boy” and “girl” – are preparing to go outside for the first time since the children were born.  The second story is essentially an extended flashback set four years in the past where Malorie has just discovered she’s pregnant and the first reports are coming in about a phenomena driving people to suicidal rage.  It’s the flashback story-line, which dominates the novel, where the meat and potato approach is evident.  If you’ve read a post apocalypse novel (and I’ve now read six of the buggers) you’ll be very familiar with the journey Malorie takes after her sister dies from seeing… well.. whatever it is that’s driving people to cut their own throats.  That story goes something like this:

  • Malorie leaves her own home…
  • Finds a small group of survivors living in a house nearby…
  • Malorie and the survivors consider their options…
  • Much paranoia, claustrophobia and the fear of dwindling supplies ensues.

And in among all that you get visitors to the house, banging on the door and asking to be let in which sets the residents off on the usual clichéd discussions about “can we trust them” and “how do we know they’re not already crazy” etc.

Fortunately, all this predictability is broken up by Malorie’s river journey with her two children – all of them blindfolded.  Not only are these scenes tense and gripping, but Malerman uses this part of the novel to draw out themes on motherhood, responsibility and guilt.  Malorie is weighed down by how she has treated these children over the last four years, training them to see with their ears while refusing them the beauty of the outside world.  And the guilt, at times, overwhelms her:

You’re a bad mother, she thinks. For not finding a way to let them know the vastness of the sky. For not finding a way to let them run free in the yard, the street, the neighborhood of empty homes and weathered parked cars. Or granting them a single peek, just once, into space, when the sky turns black and is suddenly, beautifully, spotted with stars. You are saving their lives for a life not worth living.

Thankfully, the novel makes no judgement whether Malorie’s actions as a mother and a survivor are warranted, avoiding a dull debate about the ends justifying the means.  As a result, these scenes have a depth to them that’s absent from the rest of the novel.

Having said that, I did struggle to get my head around how Malorie kept two infants / toddlers alive for four years with no help.  The house they are living in was well stocked, but there would still have been a need to forage and hunt outside.  Malerman glosses over this, making vague references to Malorie learning how to fish with her eyes shut.  There’s also the neat coincidence that the house is situated right next to a well that’s supplied with fresh water.  I suppose in a post apocalyptic nightmare everyone needs a break.

Bird Box should be the benchmark for contemporary horror.  The yardstick that determines whether it’s worth bothering to publish the next zombie apocalypse, mutant tapeworm or vampire-with-a-twist novel.  Because while Bird Box isn’t a great book, it does get the basics right.  The writing is competent, the characters are believable, the novels themes are well handled and the book maintains a level of tension (and the odd scare) throughout.

Mar 14

And the Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award is…

… Marilynne Robinson for Lila.

Back in late February I predicted this might be the case saying,

However, if I had to pick who was going to win the NBCC, my money would be on Marilynne Robinson’s Lila.  It’s not a book that I particularly liked, but it continues to generate much praise and love.  I’m surprised it hasn’t been showered with prizes.

I can’t pat myself on the back about this, the impression I get was that Lila was the favourite given how many critics lavished praise on the novel.

If you’ve been reading this blog you’ll know it wasn’t my preferred choice of winner, I would have given the prize to Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings.  Still, my reservations aside, Lila is a beautiful written novel, more  than deserving of the award.  So congratulation to Marilynne Robinson.

 

Mar 12

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

What’s It About

Set mostly in 1976, congregants from Saint Jude’s Church in London are heading to the Loney, a small village on the Lancashire coast, for Easter pilgrimage.  Among them are two brothers, Smith and his mute brother Hanny.  What follows over the Easter period will change the lives of everyone on the pilgrimage and test the bond between two brothers.

Should I Read It?

Yes.  In my experience it’s rare for any novel – whether genre or literary – to treat faith in a sensitive manner.  But with great subtlety, intelligence and maturity, Hurley provides us with an astonishing book that looks deeply at faith by never mocking the believer or admonishing the non believer.  For a novel that invokes an uneasy, slightly claustrophobic atmosphere, unexpected warmth comes from the relationship between the brothers and Smith’s friendship with Reverend Bernard.

Representative Paragraph

I’ve thought about that look quite often as I’ve been getting all this down. What it meant. What Father Bernard had let slip just at that moment. What he really thought of Mummer. A line of dominos, spinning plates, a house of cards. Pick a cliché. He had realised what I’d known about Mummer for a long time—that if one thing gave way, if one ritual was missed or a method abridged for convenience, then her faith would collapse and shatter. I think it was then that he began to pity her.

Commentary

On the surface, there’s nothing particularly ambitious or original about The Loney.  The genre elements appear to draw heavily on a long tradition of UK and US horror novels dealing with isolated towns, often by the sea, where the residents are suspicious of outsiders, where the Old Gods still hold prominence.

For Hurley though, the familiar setting gives the books its unsettling atmosphere and tone, resulting in vivid, perfectly pitched imagery:

The night crept in at The Loney, in a way that I’ve never known anywhere else. At home in London, it kept its distance from us, skulking behind the streetlights and the office blocks and could be easily knocked aside in a second by the rush of light and metal from the Metropolitan Line trains that flashed past the end of our garden. But here it was different. There was nothing to keep it away. The moon was cold and distant and the stars were as feeble as the tiny specks of light from the fishing boats way out at sea.

But beyond the genre trappings, Hurley is engaging the reader in a discussion about faith, without the sensationalism or point scoring you might find in other novels.  I may no longer be religious, but I still appreciate a novel that doesn’t dismiss religion or ritual out of hand and doesn’t feature a cast of straw-people, whether it’s the narrow minded true believer or the Priest who turns out to be a pedophile.  Hurley avoids these cliches by not appearing to push a specific agenda.  If he does have a message it’s that rigid adherence to faith can be damaging. This is typified by the stout and conservative Father Wilfred who, we discover, loses his faith after a previous Easter trip to the Loney.  And as the representative paragraph above hints at, Smith and Hanny’s mother is facing a similar crisis, hiding it from herself and others through obedience to ritual.  Hurley could have left things there, made this a book about how strict faith can be psychologically damaging, but instead he gives us Father Bernard, Father Wilfred’s replacement, who is not only younger than his predecessor but also has a much broader view of the world.  He’s an engaging and warm character, but most of all he believes in God.  For Father Bernard faith is less about the rituals – a fact that annoys Smith’s mother – and more about love and care for his parishioners.  His relationship with Smith, whom he calls Tonto, is delightful precisely because, amongst other things, they discuss the vagaries of God.

Talking about relationships, Smith’s bond with his mute brother is beautifully realised and one of the highlights of the novel.  While he’s the younger of the two, Smith is unsurprisingly protective of his older brother whose inability to communicate has stunted his intellectual development.  But more than that, Smith is the only person in the family or the Church was has found a way to speak with Hanny.  It makes the miracle that occurs later in the novel all the more affecting and disturbing.

As important as the “miracle” is to the novel’s framing story and resolution, the supernatural is pushed so far into the background – really only emerging at the very end of the book – that I did wonder why Hurley had bothered, why he hadn’t just written a novel about faith and brotherhood.  But on reflection I realise that the ambiguity of those final pages – it’s not exactly clear what happens in the cellar… what Hanny sees… what Smith does… what ritual is taking place – slots neatly into Hurley’s exploration of faith.  It’s interesting to contrast Smith’s reaction to Hanny’s miracle – the dread and horror of a non believer – to his mother’s utter certainty that what has happened is a gift from God – the ecstasy of a faith.

If I do have a concern it’s that more people aren’t discussing The Loney.  Tartarus Press is increasingly raising its profile with the publication of fantastic and intelligent work like Angela Slatter’s marvellous The Bitterwood Bible and Nike Sulway’s award winning Rupetta.  And yet an astonishing good novel like the The Loney has been missed by the major genre websites.  As Jonathan Strahan points out it’s impossible to cover all the novels that are published within the genre.  But based on their past and current record you would think that a collection or novel by Tartarus Press would feature, without hesitation, on these sites.  Thank God then for the James Herbert Awards.   While I may not have been impressed with all the finalists, the awards existence is justified by simply recognising The Loney.

P.S.  I can’t be the only person who saw the title of this book and started humming the chorus of this Roy Orbison classic.

Mar 08

Book Review: An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman

What’s It About

It’s a haunted house story featuring a dysfunctional family set in Somerset in the late 90s.

Should I Read It?

Unfortunately no.

I’ve always been a big fan of Newman’s work.  Everyone talks about Anno Dracula and the subsequent novels, which are good, but in my mind can’t compare to the anarchic madness that is Jago.  And since then I’ve loved the playfulness, wry humour and subversiveness of novels like The Quorum, the Diogenes Club series and the choose your own adventure brilliance of Life’s Lottery.

An English Ghost Story has moments, Newman is incapable of writing a bad sentence and his wry sense of humour is present.  However, the novel never gets out of second gear.  The book follows all the usual and expected conventions of the haunted house story as reality is blurred and the house plays on the fears and paranoia of the family.  And the ending – well, I won’t spoil it here – but it’s deeply unsatisfying.

Representative Paragraph

If you look dysfunctional up in the dictionary you’ll find these guys:

The family was wrong. As individuals, they were acceptable, even decent. Potentially good people. But they were mismatched. Like kippers and custard, Stravinsky and Sinatra. If ever a man and woman shouldn’t have married each other, it was Mum and Dad. If ever a marriage shouldn’t have had children, it was theirs. And if ever children could make a bad situation worse, they were Jordan and Tim. Each of the four was incompatible with the other three. Cross-currents of tension were doomed to grow and grow until there was an explosion. Yet, they stayed together. As a family, they were so inner-directed that splitting up, even for the sake of sanity, was never an option. You couldn’t divorce parents or children. If those ties remained, severing others wouldn’t make much difference.

Commentary

An English Ghost Story is Kim Newman’s first stand alone novel – discounting Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles – since Life’s Lottery which came out late last century.  Having adored his earlier novels I was excited that Newman was again writing stand alone fiction and was fascinated to see how he would approach the haunted house / ghost story genre.

But if I was expecting a playful, subversive novel that deconstructs the haunted house, what I got instead was a very familiar story.  To be fair, Kim Newman sets up this expectation before you start reading the book with its prescriptive title – An English Ghost Story.  The fact that I thought that this would be part of the joke, that the traditional title would play off against a non-traditional narrative, is more my problem with having unmet expectations than an issue with the book itself.

Having said that, the book does play against type in one way with the Naremores, the dysfunctional family who move into the Hollow, quickly accepting that the house is haunted. This self awareness means we don’t, thankfully, get pages of boring self doubt as the family wonder whether they might be going insane. Instead the Naremores not only welcome the visitations but view it as part of their own self-healing.  There’s also some cute window dressing involving the previous owner of the Hollow, Louise Teazle, a famous author of children’s chapter books that would often use the house as the main setting.  This results in some mildly amusing scenes where Teazle’s adoring fans come to visit (or invade) the Hollow hoping that the Naremores will remake the place so it reflects the novels. Also, interspersed between the main narrative, are snippets and excerpts – a chapter from a book on haunted houses, diary entries from a previous resident – that provide further detail about the Hollow.

But when you look past all that, An English Ghost Story sticks to a well trodden route.  The gore and violence is kept to a minimum. The Hollow works on the insecurities of its dysfunctional residents, playing them against each other. And there’s the sort of temporal and geographic anomalies that often feature prominently in haunted house tales (and was done best by Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves).

But other than doing very little that’s new, the novel has other problems.  Less significant is the artificiality of setting the book around the time he wrote his last stand-alone novel, the late 90s.  Rather than wanting to capture the quirks of that decade, this decision seems more motivated by a need to limit the technology the Naremores have at their disposal, so no social media etc.  It’s not a deal breaker but it’s an odd and distracting narrative choice.  (I also wondered whether the book was written shortly after Life’s Lottery but only published now.  I can’t find any evidence of this though).

However, the novel’s biggest stumble is the ending where, after surviving a terrible night with the house as its worst, all the anger and hate and frustration seems to have vanished, the family and their dysfunctionality seems to have been cured.  It’s deeply unsatisfying given that the Naremores had suffered a number of major concerns ranging from anorexia, a deep lack of self worth and borderline child abuse.  And the fact that the family unit is still together after the physical and verbal violence that was hurled between them isn’t inspirational or moving but an example of an ill fitting happy ending.

As I said above, Newman is incapable of writing a bad sentence. His wry sense of humour, especially in regard to the Teazle anoraks, is more than evident.  But a predictable and familiar last third culminating in a poor ending, meant that for the first time I was less than impressed with a Kim Newman novel.

Mar 05

The Kitschies announce their winners

Before I’ve had time to read the finalists, the winners of the Kitschies have been announced.  This is an award that doesn’t muck around given that the shortlist was published less than a month ago.  Not that I’m complaining (well. not much anyway) as the year wears on I’m expecting that this will occur more often.  In anycase, the full list of winners can be found here.  Specifically, the winners of the categories I’ll be reading are below:

The Red Tentacle (Novel), judged by Kate Griffin, Adam Roberts, Frances Hardinge, Kim Curran, and Glen Mehn:

The Golden Tentacle (Debut), also judged by the above panel:

Congratulations to both Andrew Smith and Hermione Eyre.

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