“The Octopus Man” by Jasper Gibson: Being Mindful

The Octopus Man

Tom is given to talking out loud and offering a chair to Malamock the Octopus God, whose voice he continually hears, on whom he depends to guide him through life. Needless to say, the medical profession regards Malamock as a problem, a barrier to Tom’s well-being to be removed through medication. All previous approved drugs having failed, Tom is under pressure to take part in an experimental drugs trial. It is a controversial view, but Tom wishes to live free of drugs with their generally negative side effects, not least the rendering of his mind to a deadened and sluggish state. Tom simply wants the world to accept him as he is, with Malamock.

Once a high-achieving law student with a promising career ahead, together with a tendency to overconsume recreational drugs, Tom has been reduced to a life on benefits and medication, dogged by spells in mental hospitals and stoically supported by his hard-pressed sister, torn between him and her partner who represents the uncomprehending and intolerant “real world”. The viewpoints of these three, and the relationships between them are brilliantly captured in the final chapter.

It is a daring and original book, written from Tom’s viewpoint, with a tragi-comic blend of lunacy and lucidity, and Pinteresque exchanges between the sharp-witted if technically deluded patient and the too often rigid, imperceptive, or perhaps just overworked professionals who try to treat him. It may be too one-sided, but there are also some telling scenes to show how patients in mental institutions may be manipulated by unscrupulous staff, and how they may have negative effects on each other with their different types of condition.

The Octopus Man was apparently inspired by the death of one of the author’s close relatives, for no apparent reason other than that he had spent years on various types of medication for psychotic mental illness.

I do not know what those suffering from mental illness will make of this novel. Having experience myself of a close relative with longstanding mental illness involving psychosis, I found this novel, which is actually quite funny at times, too distressing and near the bone for me to be able to read it from cover to cover as I normally would. This is a compliment to the author’s skill. It is well worth reading for someone with little or no familiarity with the issues involved – a relatively painless way of gaining understanding.

“Summerwater” by Sarah Moss: like waiting for it to dry

“Summerwater” is like a series of short stories, each chapter a stream of consciousness for a holidaymaker whiling away yet another wet day at a rundown chalet park on the shores of a Scottish loch. Varying in age from children to pensioners, they are all ordinary, somewhat stereotyped, their thoughts in general banal yet a tad contrived, often mean, unpleasant or devious. The short passages, mostly about nature, which separate the chapters, also seem laboured. There’s a distinct lack of positive humour or joy, perhaps unsurprising, given the weather, the setting and inconsiderate noisy neighbours.

We meet in turn a midde-aged wife and mother who runs miles before breakfast to find fulfilment, a retired doctor who fights against the onset of old age, solicitous towards his wife while despising her for “giving in”, a young woman faking a simultaneous orgasm with her fiancé, being more excited by Don Draper of Mad Men fame and bacon butties. The fact that we are never given the viewpoint of the noisy neighbours, assumed to be Romanian when not Bulgarians or Poles, is a way of increasing the sense of alienation from those who do not “fit in”.

And so the narrative drifts on to the final chapter which ends in the book’s single dramatic event, perhaps most shocking in leaving one insufficiently moved. Is this because we haven’t been given enough scope to engage with any one character, or the climax is too abrupt and disconnected from the previous chapters?

It may have been relief at reaching the end, but the final poetic passage “Drums” and last chapter “Noise in his Body” were for me the best-written part, reminiscent of what impressed me in the writer’s earlier novel, “Ghost Wall”.

“Drums. …Music crosses raindrops, the air full of noises and riddled with movement…The anthill pulses. Damp trees absorb the higher frequencies, swallow the energy into wetness and wood-flesh, so it is the bass that penetrates your head and drums on the drums inside.”

I came to this book with raised expectations, only to be sadly disappointed. What reads like a collection of exercises in creative writing while waiting for inspiration to flare, seems rather bleak and pointless.


				

Rose by Tatiana de Rosnay: Warped Vision

Rose (French Edition) by [Tatiana de Rosnay, Raymond Clarinard]

It is well-known how the ambitious “beaver” Baron Haussmann implemented Emperor Napoleon III’s vision of a modernised Paris. Elegant C19 classical boulevards replaced insanitary slums and overcrowded alleys dating from medieval times. On reflection, the wide new avenues must also have required the demolition of sound buildings, some of historic interest, destroying close-knit, thriving communities in the process. Not all the 350,000 people displaced needed to be rehoused, or benefited from the upheaval.

Rose Bazelet, the heroine of this novel, is one such person. Living her entire life in central Paris, mostly in the family home of her husband in the Rue Childebert, of which photographs can still be found on the internet, she fondly imagines that her house will be protected by its proximity to the ancient Church of St Germain-des-Prés. It is a shock to the whole community when the letters arrive, bluntly announcing the planned demolition of their properties. All resign themselves to accepting the compensation offered to go and start a new life, as Rose’s own brother has already done in another district already razed for redevelopment. Unable to leave a house suffused with memories of her husband and son, Rose has other plans, so we find her hiding in the basement, reading treasured letters, revisiting her past life, and writing a few unexpected confessions to the husband to whom she still feels exceptionally close a decade after this premature death.

This novel is at its best in powerful descriptions of the vast building sites which resemble war zones, where all the old landmarks have be obliterated, leaving only gigantic holes bordered by unstable ruins with hanging strips of wallpaper, doors swinging on hinges and steps spiralling into a void – hallucinatory images. The author weaves the main points in Rose’s essentially narrow bourgeois life with actual historical events: the painful birth of the daughter Violette with whom she never manages to bond takes place against the backdrop of street riots, part of the July 1830 uprising to oust the Bourbon king Charles X. The bookseller who rents a premise on her ground floor introduces the widowed Rose to the best-selling book at first considered such an outrage to public morals and religions that its publication was blocked: Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, no less. The pervading sense of nostalgia, both for a lost community and way of life, mingled with longing for those one has loved, is very strong. We also see how Rose’s personality develops in later life, as her experiences make her both more open minded and self aware.

This may be too saccharine and mawkish at times for some tastes, although it could be argued that the tone is authentic for a C19 woman who has led an essentially sheltered, conventional, comfortable life with limited experience and education. However, a sudden switch to the shocking or macabre, perhaps when least expected, adds some depth and bite to the tale.

I was for the most past irritated by Rose’s inability to accept reality like everyone else, and move on. However, apart from the fact that the plot obviously depends on this, I have to admit that Tatiana de Rosnay succeeds in evoking empathy with Rose rather than simply regarding her as self-absorbed, even selfish. A final twist also adds to the aspects for discussion which make this a fruitful choice for a book group. I read it in French translated from English (the author is Anglo-French), which gave it a more authentic feel.

Golden Child by Claire Adams “Paying for Peter”

Growing up in Trinidad, from a poor family with a violent father, Clyde Deyalsingh learned at a young age not to rely on other people. In a community where corruption is rife, even the police take bribes, everyone knows where the drug lords live in their fortified compounds and too many men take refuge in rum, Clyde works hard, avoids trouble, and keeps rottweilers to guard against intruders. With twin sons to raise, and brothers-in-law in the habit of coming round for free meals at the weekend, despite being better off than he is, Clyde reluctantly accepts help, both cash and string-pulling to get him a better paid job, from his wife’s generous uncle Vishnu, a widely admired doctor. Caring little for material goods himself, Vishnu is keen to support those he thinks deserving, not only Clyde, but his unusually gifted son Peter, predicted to gain a place at Harvard. Vishnu casually ignores the resentment this arouses in Clyde’s brother-in-law Romesh, who has gained security by marrying into a well-off family.

Clyde is troubled by the disparity between his sons, physically alike but very different in personality and apparent ability. Unlike Peter, Paul has learning difficulties and behavioural problems believed to be due to oxygen deprivation at birth, and is accustomed to hearing himself called “retarded” and threatened with the dreaded “St. Ann’s” mental hospital. His mother Joy insists Paul must be treated as much like Peter as possible even to the point of a place being wangled for him at the prestigious secondary school to which Peter has won a place. But as they reach the age of thirteen, how long can this “equality” be maintained? When Paul disappears one day after school, Clyde is torn between irritation and disquiet.

This debut novel by an author who grew up in Trinidad has a strong sense of place, whether in downtown Port of Spain or the seashore lined with coconut palms, which feels authentic even for a reader like me who has never set foot there. In the bush, the flitting batty-mamzel dragonflies; “the dull thud of a falling mango” compared to the “sharp, knocking sound a coconut would make”; “the shushing of raindrops landing on the canopy above; just a little drizzle… spattering off at odd angles”. This is what Paul notices, revealing that he is a more complex, thoughtful individual than his father can imagine, probably suffering mainly from acute dyslexia, yet with a practical bent which as an adult might make him as successful as his brother, in his own way.

This is a well-observed psychological drama involving an Indo-Caribbean family, and the young Irish priest who tries to help Paul, enabling us to see how the main characters appear to each other, with the exception of Peter, the “golden child”, who reveals little of his personality apart from conformity and a patient acceptance of his twin.

Throughout the slow-burning tale, there are occasional incidents of sudden violence, so it should not come as a shock when, three-quarters of the way through, it shifts up into a tense thriller in which Clyde will clearly have to make a difficult decision.

I was left disappointed by the ending, not because I dislike it, but owing to the rushed, disjointed final scenes in which the characters became two-dimensional and underdeveloped with too many implausible incidents or unexplained reactions. Admittedly, this provides many talking points for a book group. It leaves the scope to fill in the gaps with one’s own interpretations. However, for me the conclusion was too abrupt, ducking the challenge of writing the hardest part of the novel.

“My Childhood” by Maxim Gorky: staying humane in a barbarous world

Gorky as a child with his father

When his young father dies of cholera, and his mother Varvara has a miscarriage, no doubt triggered by grief, five-year-old Alexei is taken back to her family home: “Angry people rushed about in all directions like passengers about to disembark from a ship, ragged children swarmed all over the place like thieving sparrows, and the whole house was filled with a strange pungent smell”. This is his introduction to the house-cum-dyeworks presided over by his grandfather, a self-made man who flogs him for minor acts of mischief, sometimes to the point of losing consciousness, through a mixture of sadism and the genuine twisted belief that it will “do him good”. Recognising his intelligence, Grandfather also teaches him to read, tells him stories, works with him companionably in the garden, yet ultimately casts him out to make his way in a harsh world when he is still a child.

By contrast, his peasant grandmother, despite showing great presence of mind in a crisis, for the most part escapes harsh reality through a mixture of snuff, vodka, veneration of bejewelled icons and folk tales which stimulate his vivid imagination, also showing him the affection he needs for emotional support.

This account of Gorky’s childhood is so bleak in some respects that I could usually only manage to read a chapter at a time. Yet I also found it compelling in his ability to capture how an observant, inquisitive child, with a rudimentary sense of justice presumably gained from his kindly father, continuously tries to make sense of the world. Often, we cannot quite grasp what is going on because he cannot do so. Only gradually does he piece together the grim backstory of the dysfunctional Kashirin family.

Yet in the midst of a childhood often made tedious and unhappy, either by poverty or the oppression of adults who have themselves been warped by hardship or a lack of love, Gorky manages to show us the moments of unexpected beauty in a grim existence: “watching the black crows circling and wheeling in the red evening sky round the golden cupolas of the Church…diving down to earth and draping the fading sky with a black net”. There is also “the new kind of life, entertaining beyond description” which comes alive in the kitchen when Grandfather has gone to the Sunday evening service: races on the table between cockroaches harnessed to paper runners, followed by the “uninhibited but strange gaiety” of the songs and dancing contrasting with guitar laments, all fuelled by vodka as the samovar “softly hummed.”

We see a future writer’s continual fascination in the variety of people he meets – the long-suffering workers who slave for Grandfather; the motley crew of lodgers in the “large, interesting house” over a tavern which the old man buys when he retires; when poverty strikes, the wily band of urchins whom Alexei eventually joins in stealing wood – “wasn’t considered a sin”, to help their families. Most of these characters are a complex mix of good and bad. The few who seem completely beyond the pale belong to his mother’s family the Kashirins, namely the two warring uncles, Mikhail and Yakov, each desperate to get one over the other in extracting enough money from Grandfather to set up an independent dyeworks, but too incompetent to succeed.

My Childhood (Illustrated) by [Maxim Gorky]

“When I try to recall those vile abominations of that barbarous life in Russia, at times I find myself asking the question: is it worth while recording them” He answers for himself in the affirmative. Firstly, it is necessary to understand and face up to the truth, in order to be able to erase it in the future. Secondly, he is confident that life will always surprise us by the creative human powers of goodness that are for ever forcing their way up through “the bestial refuse”, awakening our “indestructible faith” in a better and more humane future.

This may appear over-optimistic and undermined by the lack of corruption and democracy still all to evident in Russia as I write this. Ironically, having been proclaimed the father of Soviet Literature, Gorky died in 1936 from poisoning at the instigation of his political enemies, unlike the modern dissident Navalny who survived Novichok poisoning.

“Bury the Chains” by Alan Hochschild: Understanding the Past

Called Saint Wilberforce, even King Wilberforce by slaves in the West Indies, the man often credited with leading the British movement for the abolition of slavery is portrayed here as deeply conservative: he was against giving more British people the vote, expected women to be submissive, and argued against a cruel slave trade rather than for “too rapid” an emancipation, even at one point voting against the liberation of children born to slaves. He was mainly useful to the abolitionist cause as an MP, close friend to the Prime Minister William Pitt, and a compelling speaker.

This highly readable yet deeply researched “narrative history” focuses on the lesser known characters who in fact played a more fundamental part in the long battle to end the inhumane trade on which many people in the late C18 believed the British economy depended. Author Adam Hochsfield apparently set out with the aim of writing about John Newton who evolved from the callous captain of a slave ship to an Anglican clergyman, rueful abolitionist and writer of “Amazing Grace”. Through his research, the author came to realise that the real force behind the movement was Thomas Clarkson whose prize-winning essay in Latin on the slave trade brought him to the Damascene conversion “that if the contents of the Essay were true it was time that some person should see these calamities to their end”. This led him to travel thousands of miles on horseback to seek out and gain testimonies from those who had witnessed the horrors of the slave trade, and in many cases perpetrated or suffered them directly.

I was surprised by the amount and intensity of interest in slavery amongst workers in the industrial cities like Birmingham, prepared to attend meetings and sign petitions against slavery. Even children brought up in liberal households often gave up eating sugar. It was a different matter in the ports grown rich on the trade: on a tour to promote his autobiography, the remarkable Equiano, the former slave kidnapped from Nigeria who had bought his freedom and became a respected campaigner, asked the influential Josiah Wedgwood to come to his aid if he was seized by a press gang in the slave ship port of Bristol. White Britons were also at risk of being kidnapped and forced to join the Navy, and sailors on slave ships suffered brutal discipline and physical hardship, factors which further fed opposition to the slave trade.

Despite the mountain of evidence collected, including the infamous diagram of the slave ship in which slaves were packed with no room to move, which so shocked even the Tsar of Russia, apparently seeing no parallel between the plight of slaves and his own serfs, it proved impossible to end slavery in British territories until the reform of Parliament in 1832 created enough broadminded MPs to outweigh those whose family wealth depended on the income from plantations.

The case for change was also strengthened by the “crisis in the sugar colonies” caused by the increase in violent rebellions by the slaves in West Indian plantations, which meant they could no longer be relied upon as a source of wealth: St Domingue, now Haiti, “the jewel of the European colonies”, with its rich soil at one time producing a third of the world’s sugar and more than half its coffee, set the trend with its ultimately successful struggle for its independence from France.

Although freedom was clearly a necessity on moral and humane grounds, too often former slaves found themselves no better off in material terms. Those who fought for the British in the American War of Independence in exchange for freedom, had to take such drastic measures as escaping to a grim life in Nova Scotia to escape recapture by slave masters when the fighting was over. Others found that the Utopia of a free state in Sierra Leone was a myth, with the settlement of “Freetown” within sight of Bance Island, the notorious slave trading post for those captured inland and brought to the coast for transport to the West Indies and America.

Although apparently belittled by some academics for being too anecdotal, my sole criticism is that it does not explain with sufficient clarity the crucial 1807 Slave Trade Act which brought the slave trade to an end. Otherwise, this impressive book brings the key players alive, sets the fight for abolition in the context of the times, and encourages reflection on the issues raised.

Of the great campaigners, only Clarkson lived to see the “real victory” in 1838, when some 800,000 slaves in the British Empire became officially free, having served for six years without as “apprentices” for their former masters, who were also compensated with £20 million in government bonds, under a scheme including a Church of England plantation. Obliged to pay for rent and food, ex-slaves often remained impoverished but they were free, one of the first steps in changing the status quo and achieving greater social justice.

Où bat le cœur du monde by Philippe Hayat – Where the world’s heart beats or escaping through music

In 1930s Tunisia, still a French colony, Darius Zaken’s pious father plans to leave the Tunis ghetto to set up his bookshop in the modern French quarter where his son can attend the lycée. An appalling incident shatters his dreams, leaving Darius lame and too traumatised to speak. Against the odds, his mother Stella dedicates her life to his getting a good education which will lead to a professional job in mainland France, but a chance meeting with a spoilt rich girl called Lou gives him other ideas. Taking him under her wing, she introduces him to the louche world of jazz, and he develops a passion for the jazz clarinet, for which he has a remarkable talent. To his bewildered mother, jazz is a meaningless cacophony.

With the onset of World War Two, the arrival in Tunis of black American jazz musicians attached to the US Army gives Darius the change to slip away to the United States. Here he can realise his talent eventually, but in a harsh world of prejudice and segregation, where jazz is regarded as the preserve of the black population, and many of the most talented musicians addicted to drink, heroin and cocaine. A sensitive soul, Darius attracts the sympathy of a succession of women: his mother, Lou and ultimately Dinah, an astute black American.

Focusing on the first part of Darius’s life, when he is striving to succeed, this novel is episodic, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Philippe Hayat succeeds in conveying a sense of the appeal of jazz, even to someone like me who does not care much for it, but his descriptions tend to be too long, repetitious and overtechnical. I was prompted to look up the parts of a clarinet, the nature of a ride cymbal, the meanings of various musical terms like “anatole”, chabada or Lydian scale, together with researching the lives of celebrities who inspired Darius and in time actually played with him: Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday who proved as tragically troubled in their often too short lives as Hayat describes.

This novel has a strong sense of place, be it interwar Tunis, Sicily under the WW2 Allied invasion, or postwar New York. The complex mother-son bond between Stella and Darius is well-described and moving. There are some striking, powerful dramatic scenes.

On the downside, the narrative drive is undermined by too many passages which are overlong and frankly dull. There are a few digressions too ludicrous to ring true, like the brothel where Darius is employed to play his clarinet to clients through holes in the wall through which he can view them, or Stella’s employment at a bank where she somehow becomes a financial expert in record time. Is a loss of speech through shock likely to be permanent? It is of course symbolic in that Darius expresses his emotions through the international language of music instead.

The plot structure seems weak. The opening chapter showing Darius as an old man giving his last performance, aided by the faithful Dinah, is not an engaging start, not least because we have yet to learn their backstories, and also destroys any dramatic tension since one knows from the outset that Darius will succeed.

In short, parts of this book are excellent but one has to wade through some dull passages to find them.

“All for Nothing” by Walter Kempowski: Beyond Understanding

The Georgenhof manor house on the road to the Prussian border with Russia is falling into disrepair in the final stages of World War 2. Owner Erhard Von Globig is serving in Italy while his beautiful wife Katharina, whose dreamy vagueness, “it was all so complicated”, may be an inward escape from an unhappy marriage and the tedium of life in a rural backwater, leaves all the work to a handful of foreign servants escaped from the east, under the control of bossy spinster “Auntie”. Katharina’s inquisitive twelve-year old son Peter (probably modelled on the author himself) conveniently avoids co-option into the Hitler Youth by reason of a persistent bad throat.

With a gradual flow of refugee carts travelling from the east and rumours of a vengeful Russian invasion as Hitler loses his grip, Auntie packs a suitcase and shrewd Polish farmhand Vladimir stows items on a large cart, but that is as far as any plans get for the journey to the relative safety of “the Reich” while there is still time. A mixture of inertia, nostalgic attachment to unnecessary possessions and lack of imagination over just how bad life could become, keeps them chained to their familiar routine. And, after all, where would they go? What could they bear to leave behind?

Even when Drygalski, the bigoted deputy mayor of the local housing estate, succeeds in billeting refugee families at the Georgenhof, the Von Globigs are happy to receive them almost as a form of home entertainment. Eventually, with the refugee flight increased to a flood, sounds of gunfire and ominous lights in the eastern sky, the decision is made to leave. Yet this is too late to prevent a fateful and shameful incident. Also, despite the semblance of orderly flight with provision of soup kitchens and strict guidelines for crossing the ice on the shortcut route to safety, the imminent collapse into chaos of a defeated society seems inevitable.

An unathletic teenager during World War 2, author Walter Kempowski found it hard to accept the discipline of compulsory service under the Hitler Youth to the extent that he was transferred to a penal unit – it seems his main crime was a love of “degenerate” jazz – and later drafted as a courier into the youth branch of the Luftwaffe. His father, killed in action at the end of the war after five years of combat, owned one of the ships deployed to shuttle thousands of refugee Germans from Prussia across to Rostok where the Kempowskis lived. The teenager observed the flight in which some 300,000 people starved, froze or drowned to death or were killed by the Russians.

Found guilty by the occupying Soviets of collaboration because of his work for the American Army of Occupation, Kempowski received a 25 year sentence, but was released after 8 years and deported to the west.
His ten volume “Echolot”, “Echo Soundings” is a “collective diary” of firsthand accounts, diaries, letters, and memoirs of those who live through the war. Added to his own experiences, all this has culminated in “All For Nothing” , a wrily cynical fictionalised observation of events which shocks the reader through the unflinching objectivity which reduces both “normal daily life” and the horrors of war for civilians to the same level of banality. It was his last novel, published in 2006, sixty years after the events they describe and only a year before his death.

The author reveals human flaws in all his characters in an approach based on “personal relativism”, the theory that that there are no absolute truths, so that an individual’s morality is defined by one’s particular perspective on life, inevitably conditioned by culture, which some will blindly accept, such as, in this case, unquestioning antisemitism or conformity to “the rules”, but others kick against. Katharina Von Globig seems to rise above the enforced prejudices and regulations by swimming with the foreign maids (while exploiting them as cheap labour), listening to enemy radio channels and harbouring a Jew on the run, but does she do this out of liberal principles, or because she lives too much in a world of her own to care? Drygalski, caricature of a trumped-up Nazi bigot, exercises his petty power to make life hard for his over-privileged neighbours, yet at the end he behaves out of character in what seems like a selfless act – but is it really so?

This novel lingers in one’s thoughts, reminding me of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Française”. A bestseller in Germany where it struck a chord with a nation coming to terms with and seeking to understand a guilty past, I wonder to what extent it has suffered from translation into English. There is a repetitive, slightly “children’s storybook” turn of phrase which jarred on me, and I am unsure whether this due to choices made by Anthea Bell, the award-winning translator whose work happens to have included a good deal of children’s literature. Yet Kempowski undeniably repeats small details like a mantra – Katharina’s admirer Lothar Sarkander is rarely mentioned without his “stiff leg and duelling scars on his cheeks”. Some passages prove a bit tedious, like the initial sequence of eccentric visitors casually accepted by the family as a kind of entertainment, although there is black humour in the political economist dabbing black paint on every image of Hitler in Peter’s stamp collection – “Suppose a Russian opens the album and sees the Fuhrer grinning…?”

“The New Silk Roads” – The Present and Future of the World

The Silk Road was the network of trade routes which began as long ago as 200 BCE, linking China to Southern Europe and named after the lucrative sale of silk developed by the Han Dynasty. The Chinese also traded high value luxury goods that were easier to transport: porcelain, spices, teas, sugar and salt. In exchange they bought goods like cotton and wool, together with ivory, gold, and silver. The Silk Road was also a channel for cultural exchanges: religion, philosophy, science and technological “advances” like the use of gunpowder and papermaking.

Peter Frankopan’s book “The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World” is apparently an extended appendix to his highly praised major academic work, “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World”, inspired by the desire to broaden the outlook of a somewhat inward-looking, complacent North American and European world.

“The New Silk Roads” is designed to alert readers to the recent rapid and significant changes in the countries lying across these old trade routes, which will inevitably alter the balance of power to the disadvantage of countries like Britain and the United States, now forced to realise that their periods of world domination have proven transient. In the latest swing of the pendulum, China has since 2013 invested heavily in the “Belt and Road Initiative” involving railways and highways, power grids, construction material, vehicles, real estate, education and telecommunications.

Intended ” to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future”, the project with a target completion date of 2049 is also seen as a strategy for world domination. Trade along this new Silk Road using both land and parallel sea routes is expected to account for over 40% of world activity. In the process, in regions still torn by wars and marked by poverty and under-development, there is growing evidence of cooperation between central Asian Republics like the joint ventures between state-owned oil companies in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

My problem with Peter Frankopan’s book is that it resembles a series of hastily written newspaper articles cobbled together in a mixture of dissociated facts which are quite hard to absorb without analysis or much context, and reference to political situations at the time of writing which will soon be out-of-date, if not already, such as Brexit negotiations or the presidency of Donald Trump. A few maps would have been useful.

There is the potential for several books here. Although I appreciate the value of a book which gives an overview and appreciation of the complexity of relationships between countries, there is an art to achieving a sufficient degree of analysis without bombarding readers with examples.

Six Fourmis Blanches by Sandrine Collette – Tempting Fate

Six fourmis blanches (Sueurs froides) (French Edition) by [Sandrine Collette]

In an isolated Albanian mountain valley steeped in superstition and reputed to be cursed, Matthias is believed to have inherited the gift of keeping bad luck at bay before a wedding or suchlike, by choosing a suitable goat to hurl as a sacrifice from a high point to appease evil spirits – this is not a book for animal lovers. Despite the respect, even wary awe in which he is held, when Matthias inadvertently falls foul of the local mafia-style boss Carche, his only option is to abandon everything and go on the run.

The parallel storyline which will eventually converge with it, starts out in a much lighter vein. Lou and her partner Elias, a pair of young urban French professionals, follow an impulse to spend a long weekend trekking in the Albanian mountains in early spring in the company of four other compatriots whom they barely know, led by Vigan, a hardy-looking local guide who inspires confidence and is even fancied a bit by the two women in the group. After a day of idyllic wandering, the walkers wake to a world transformed by a freezing blizzard. The novel becomes a psychological thriller in which they are challenged beyond their capacities both physically and mentally by the forces of nature and an unrelenting sequence of mishaps. The group members prove all too human in their flaws, apart from the almost saintly Elias.

The author is skilful in creating a powerful sense of the intense cold, the mood swings between giving up and fighting on against the odds, the changed perceptions in which malign spirits and devils suddenly do not seem so preposterous, the dilemma between instinctively saving oneself and cooperating in risky efforts to save others. In a thriller which does not flinch from the macabre, it is not at all clear until the last page, and possibly even then, who will survive and how.

This novel works on two levels: both as a well-plotted page-turner thriller with a strong sense of place (admittedly frequently far-fetched, particularly the dénouement, but that is par for the course in this genre) and also a perceptive in-depth study of character in the case of the alternating narrators, Matthias and Lou.

I read this in the original French and imagine it would need a good translator to pack the same punch in English.