The Western Wind – If time or the wind could be reversed…….


This is my review of  “The Western Wind”  by Samantha Harvey.

It is Shrovetide 1491, the year presumably chosen to mark the end of the long medieval period of Catholic monopoly of belief mixed with intense superstition held by those at all levels of society.

John Reve, priest for the isolated and impoverished Somerset village of Oakham, is woken from his troubled sleep by the young neighbour Carter who has found the body of a man thought to have drowned three days earlier. The missing man is Newman, a charismatic, wealthy relative newcomer seen as the only hope for improving the fortunes of Oakham, largely by financing the construction of a bridge which will establish trading links with the wider world. His largescale purchase of local land, his novel religious ideas picked up from travels in Europe (“Newman wanted to find his own way to God”), perhaps illicit relationships with local women, suggest a number of potential enemies, although having lost his wife and child to “the sweating sickness” he may of course have taken his own life. Since he died “unshriven”, his tortured soul will cast a further blight on the village. His loss will also increase the likelihood of the village lands being acquired by the greedy monks of nearby Bruton, and it is unclear whether the dean from Wells, so keen to investigate the death, is really on the side of Reve and his flock.

This theme has the potential for an intriguing medieval mystery, which proves to be psychological drama and atmospheric portray of imagined life in a C15 village rather than a Cadfael type detective story. It is highly original in both style (poetic and using medieval or possibly “made up” words) and unusual structure, a very literary historical murder mystery, ambitious in its device of moving us back in time from Day 4 to Day 1 of a crisis. This plays on the idea of reversing time, and therefore altering the possible course of events.

To what extent does Reve remain an unreliable narrator, even when he discovers or reveals more evidence? The modern tone of the language (“Oakham is a low-hanging cherry waiting to be picked”) helps us to relate to the characters but sits oddly with the deep superstition over, say, “night air” contaminated by the evil spirits allowed by God to test us. The possible anachronisms which have bothered some reviewer did not trouble me unduly. Would John Reve have preached as he did in English, when I thought medieval services were rituals conducted in Latin? Would people really be putting sugar in the tea which would not be introduced to England for decades? Would Reve use an admittedly very makeshift confessional box, when this device is said to have been invented by Saint Charles Borromeo in the sixteenth century? The idea of revealing the background to a murder through the confessional is fundamental to the story, but perhaps historical inaccuracy does not matter too much, if the author needed to show a community in the very precise year of 1491, the year before Columbus discovered the New World and the concept of a round earth orbiting the sun began to crack apart the stranglehold of the Church on exploration of ideas and pursuit of fact-based knowledge.

I understand that the slow revelation of facts, the preoccupation with waterlogged mud, bodily dirt and the general misery of hard, poverty-stricken lives are necessary to the novel’s ambience, cues for what many will regard as a brilliant work of sustained creative writing. However, despite the thread of wry humour, I found the continual repetition and wordiness quite tedious, calling for more ruthless editing. I would have liked more development of Newman as a “Renaissance, Reformation” man, whose mind has been opened by in his European travels, in contrast to Reve, a perceptive man but limited by his narrow experience.

It was only in the last section “Day 1”, possibly because the end was in sight, that I felt fully engaged. I then felt the need to return and read Day 4 again, to check that the plot “stacked up” and to appreciate the impact of the true conclusion, which one could easily miss noting at the end of Day 4. This seems to be to be ambiguous in an interesting way, but I am not sure it is satisfactory for it to be so “buried” in the text and would like to hear the views of others on what they made of the “true” ending.

On Chesil Beach – The road not taken

This is a review of “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan

I watched this film without having read the book on which it is based, although the fact it was adapted for the screen by the author suggests that the film is true to what he aimed to convey in the novella.
It starts and ends on the stony Dorset spit of Chesil Beach, where Tom and Florence choose to spend their honeymoon in 1962. On the evening after the wedding, the tensions between them are obvious, in marked contrast to the intense friendship, easy exchange of ideas and affection they display in the many flashbacks which show the course of their relationship from their first meeting when Tom gatecrashes a CND meeting, desperate to share with someone the fact he has just graduated with a First. The differences between them are also obvious from the outset. Tom is impulsive, scruffy, has trouble controlling his feelings, yet is clearly thoughtful and compassionate. His childhood has been blighted by the terrible accident suffered by his artist mother, which has left her unable to care for herself, let alone her children, and prone to erratic, uninhibited behaviour. Florence comes from a privileged middle-class background. Whereas Tom’s father is head of a rural primary school, hers runs a successful engineering business, while her dominating and insensitive, snobbish mother is a colleague of Iris Murdoch. Yet there are hints of possible concealed abuse. Always beautifully dressed and fastidious, despite her apparently sheltered life, Florence shows a steely determination in her ambition for the string quintet to which she belongs to perform at the Wigmore Hall to widespread acclaim.
Although these differences might be expected to prove the cause of a painful realisation of their incompatibility, in fact the problem lies elsewhere. The year was 1962, before the explosion of the “Swinging Sixties” and ready availability of the pill, when a bright, highly educated girl with no brothers could remain painfully ignorant of sex, while her male partner, although not so uptight, might well prove completely unable to handle the situation. This is a very poignant scenario for demonstrating how a failure to act at a critical moment, or an ill-judged reaction may change the course of one’s life for ever, and even close friends or relatives may feel unable to intervene.
Since the original novella was criticised by some as being too short to justify consideration for the Booker Prize, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ian McEwan felt compelled to add two scenes at the end. I agree with those who felt that these seem a clumsy and superfluous over-explanation of what might have motivated the two main characters, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for problem of conveying on screen the thoughts and impressions more subtly revealed in the written word. Although the film has been very well received, I found some of the scenes too abrupt and disconnected, many of the dialogues quite stilted, and was unconvinced by the sudden dramatic change in the relationship between Tom and Florence when it came to their wedding night.
The film has some beautiful photography, the two main characters are well-acted, there are moments of humour amid the anguish, like the ghastly hotel dinner served to the newly weds in their room by suggestively obsequious waiters, but watching “On Chesil Beach” fully engaged me. On reflection, my sense of disappointment at the end lifted somewhat, and I began to see interesting angles to the film, like the visual metaphor of the long spit on which one half of the couple could walk away to follow a different path in life, while the other stood rooted fatefully to the spot.

Le Chapeau de Mitterrand – The power of suggestion or something more?

This is a review of “Le Chapeau de Mitterrand” by Antoine Laurain

When President Mitterrand leaves his distinctive hat in an upmarket Parisian restaurant, the mesmerised diner at the next table cannot resist the temptation to steal it. In a “La Ronde” type occurence chance events, the hat falls into the possession of a sequence of very different characters: a line-toeing manager who is bullied by his boss, a would-be writer who has drifted into being the mistress of a man eternally promising to leave his wife, a famous creator of perfumes who has lost his capacity to recognise scents, let alone create a best-selling new one, and so on. Despite having so little in common, thanks to the hat, each experiences the same sudden burst of confidence and creative impetus to act differently which radically alters the course of their lives.

The end, although essentially predictable, has enough ingenious twists to leave the reader satisfied. Despite a loss of momentum at times, as if it could just go on adding temporary owners of the hat until the author tires of the device, the plot is saved by the sheer pleasure of reading his polished, gently ironic prose. Even if one dislikes oysters, his description of eating one is so vivid that one can see and taste it. He also introduced me to some interesting buildings which can be looked up online, such as the courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris with its “Colonnes de Buren”, the controversial installation of black-and white striped, columns resembling liquorice allsorts. Another example is the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo with its stiking multi-arched spiral staircase, which sounds worth visiting on a trip to Venice.

Set in the 1980s, before the world of mobile phones, the internet and social media, the novel risks being dated by the reference to celebrities now long gone or forgotten, which may limit its appeal to younger readers. The cultural references sometimes feel a little contrived as if culled from a checklist of items researched to give the story an authentic setting. Antoine Laurain has said that he avoids reading modern novels, being depressed by their focus on violence and suffering. This novel, which flits like a butterfly over deep The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain and real problems, dripping nostalgia for a more innocent, less fraught era which never quite existed, can be enjoyed as an ingenious, entertaining piece of escapism from grim reality.

The final sentence may provide the key to the novel, or the idea that inspired it, namely François Mitterrand’s intriguing conclusion of his last address to the public: “Je crois aux forces de l’esprit et the ne vous quitterai pas”. C’est-à-dire: I believe in the strength of the spirit, and will never leave you”

The President’s Hat – The power of suggestion, or something more?

This is a review of “The President’s Hat” by Antoine Laurain

When President Mitterrand leaves his distinctive hat in an upmarket Parisian restaurant, the mesmerised diner at the next table cannot resist the temptation to steal it. In a “La Ronde” type occurence chance events, the hat falls into the possession of a sequence of very different characters: a line-toeing manager who is bullied by his boss, a would-be writer who has drifted into being the mistress of a man eternally promising to leave his wife, a famous creator of perfumes who has lost his capacity to recognise scents, let alone create a best-selling new one, and so on. Despite having so little in common, thanks to the hat, each experiences the same sudden burst of confidence and creative impetus to act differently which radically alters the course of their lives.

The end, although essentially predictable, has enough ingenious twists to leave the reader satisfied. Despite a loss of momentum at times, as if it could just go on adding temporary owners of the hat until the author tires of the device, the plot is saved by the sheer pleasure of reading his polished, gently ironic prose. Even if one dislikes oysters, his description of eating one is so vivid that one can see and taste it. He also introduced me to some interesting buildings which can be looked up online, such as the courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris with its “Colonnes de Buren”, the controversial installation of black-and white striped, columns resembling liquorice allsorts. Another example is the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo with its stiking multi-arched spiral staircase, which sounds worth visiting on a trip to Venice.

Set in the 1980s, before the world of mobile phones, the internet and social media, the novel risks being dated by the reference to celebrities now long gone or forgotten, which may limit its appeal to younger readers. The cultural references sometimes feel a little contrived as if culled from a checklist of items researched to give the story an authentic setting. Antoine Laurain has said that he avoids reading modern novels, being depressed by their focus on violence and suffering. This novel, which flits like a butterfly over deep The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain and real problems, dripping nostalgia for a more innocent, less fraught era which never quite existed, can be enjoyed as an ingenious, entertaining piece of escapism from grim reality.

The final sentence may provide the key to the novel, or the idea that inspired it, namely François Mitterrand’s intriguing conclusion of his last address to the public: “Je crois aux forces de l’esprit et the ne vous quitterai pas”. C’est-à-dire: I believe in the strength of the spirit, and will never leave you”

“The Lie of the Land” – “Who least hath some; who most hath never all”

This is a review of The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig


Unable to accept her journalist husband Quentin’s philandering, architect Lottie’s desire for a divorce are scuppered by the financial crisis which leaves them both unemployed, and the value of their London home falling fast. Her solution is to rent it out, and uproot her three children to a surprisingly cheap house in the depths of rural Devon for a year, with the penniless Quentin in tow, tolerated only for his strong bond with their two daughters, precocious Stella and Rosie, and for his culinary skills.

It is of course much more plausible that Lottie would move into in her mother’s large six million pound London house, where she lived for years as the single mother of Xan before falling for Quentin, that she would get some kind of employment, and boot Quentin out. The relocation in Devon is simply a device for an exploration of family relationships and of our fractured society in C21, with a slow-burn murder mystery flickering away in the background. The pampered Xan begins to learn how the other half lives through his night shifts at Humbles pie factory, which will seriously make me think twice about ever buying a ready-made meat pie again. Quentin is brought to reconsider his attitude to life by the slow and painful death of his father – a gifted but underestimated poet and brilliant teacher, but also vicious-tongued and a flagrant, serial adulterer, to provide a life-time excuse for Quentin to follow suit.

Although the family members are quite well-developed as personalities, I agree with reviewers who describe the characters in general as stereotyped. Despite the carefully revealed plot, I found aspects of the denouement quite unconvincing or flawed, not to mention a point which bothered me more – a kind of ethical double standard in which it seems that men should be punished for lying, but women should be allowed their secrets.

I liked the wry humour, was impressed by the amount of wide-ranging topical social comment the author managed to shoe-horn in without sounding too contrived, and was continually struck by the vivid visual descriptions of a rural Devon through the changing seasons which she clearly knows well. “Frosts turn long grass the colour of old hair,”….”A veil of rain hangs in the west”…..at one point “flocculent clouds” are even “herded by the moon”. I also have to thank the author for introducing me to Robert Southwell’s wonderful C16 poem “Times Go by Turns” which begins, “The loppèd tree in time will grow again” ending, “Who least, hath some; who most, hath never all”.

Occasionally, paragraphs seem disconnected from the text, as if there has been a lack of editing after removing or altering a previous passage. The novel also sometimes feels a little too wordily repetitive and over-long.

Despite some reservations and disappointment at the end, I found this tragi-comedy a page-turner, likely to prove an absorbing yarn for a long journey or a wet week-end.

The Sheltering Sky – The point when there is no longer any turning back



This is my review of  The Sheltering Sky  by Paul Bowles.

In post-war North Africa, three young Americans, Port Moresby and his wife Kit with friend Tunner playing gooseberry, travel somewhat aimlessly to remote towns in the Algerian desert. Port is introspective, self-absorbed, fascinated by the desert, holding himself distant from others even in his promiscuity, whereas Kit is frightened by insecurity, dislikes being made too think too hard, rejects Port’s quest for meaning in the world and is passive and needy in her sexual adventures.

Although closely tied by a bond which is hard to understand, the marriage is clearly in trouble. The two occupy separate rooms, are casually unfaithful to each other, and have incompatible views. As Kit reflects, it “made her sad to realise that in spite of their so often having the same reactions, the same feelings, they never would reach the same conclusions, because their respective aims in life were almost diametrically opposed”.

It is only some way into the book that background details are provided on, for instance, how Port manages to support himself during his lengthy travels. I am not sure we are ever told how or why the couple left their social circle in New York to end up in Africa for an unlimited period. I concluded that it was the author’s intention to pare details down to focus on the remote beauty of the desert, and the isolation, disorientation and exposure to danger of westerners who leave their own culture to enter it. The fragility and irrelevance of a civilisation they have taken for granted as superior is suddenly revealed. Perhaps at a deeper level the aim is to show how to understand the true nature of our existence we have to be uprooted from familiar territory. As Port tells Kit, “The sky hides the night behind it and shelters the people beneath from the horror that lies above.” Bowles aims to fracture the protective sky to reveal the loneliness of living, and the delusory nature of our preoccupation with time – from which Kit is released eventually by the loss of her watch.

Paul Bowles was apparently a gifted composer, and there is a kind of poetic musicality in his writing: “the ereg with its sea of motionless waves”; at night “the brightness was intense; each grain of sand sent out a fragment from the polar light shed from above”; “the pale infected light of daybreak”, “the insistent wind”; the “sun-drugged stupor” of the towns with their “haphazard design of towers”; how the “angry lamps of the stallholders gutter and flare; the detritus of “fish skeletons and dust”.

For Bowles, speaking through Port, “the desert symbolises freedom, but it is also savage and arouses savagery in the characters who must choose their own bleak fate”. The author also has a gift for getting us inside the minds of his characters at critical points in their lives, however little we may engage with them.

A strong illustration of the author’s skill is in the following description of approaching an oasis , which reminded me of a striking scene in Lawrence of Arabia:

“Soon a solitary thing detached itself from the undecided mass of the horizon, rising suddenly like a djinn into the air. A moment later is subsided, shortened, was merely a distant palm standing quite still on the edge of the oasis. Quietly they continued for another hour or so, and presently they were among trees. The well was enclosed by a low wall. There were no people, no signs of people. The palms grew sparsely; their branches, still more grey than green, shone with a metallic glister and gave almost no shade.”

I understood the book better when I read that the author Paul Bowles and his wife Jane provide the models for Port and Kit. He wrote: “I wanted to tell the story of what the desert can do to us. . . . The desert is the protagonist. . . . It is an adventure story in which the adventures take place on two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert and in the inner desert of the spirit. The occasional oasis provides a relief from the natural desert, but the sexual adventures fail to provide relief”.

Paul, who spent year living in Tangier and wandering in North Africa was charming, self-controlled but essentially somewhat aloof, remaining discreet about his sexual adventures and regarding the use of hashish as essential to his creative writing, which may account for some of the more mind-bending passages, such as impressions at the point if death, or the experience of madness. Mainly homosexual, he amazed friends by marrying the extrovert, childish, attention-seeking, overtly promiscuous and heavy-drinking, essentially lesbian Jane. A close friend “was absolutely dumbfounded by the intimacy and closeness between them, more so than any two people I’ve ever known. They had remarkable, unique rapport”. This helps to explain why the marital relationship between Port and Kit is so outside the norm, and hard for the reader to empathise with and understand.

Overall, this is a bleak yet original novel, which Inspires admiration for its descriptions and insightful observations rather than a true liking or enjoyment.

Universal harvester: chaffing over the grain

This is my review of  Universal Harvester  by John Darnielle

I never came to understand why this novel is called “Universal Harvester”. It is well-written and original, but with its unresolved ambiguities, lack of development of the key characters apart from motherless Jeremy Heldt and his bereaved father, and rather limp conclusion, it left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied.

Part One of this short novel is very promising, a page-turning psychological drama  which subtly develops a sense of unease, even menace in a small Iowa town where nothing much happens and men pass the time of day talking about fishing. In danger of sinking into a rut at the local video rental store (VHS tapes because it’s the end of the 1990s),  Jeremy Heldt begins  to receive complaints about videos with “something” on them, and then becomes obsessed himself by  the unsettling shots someone has managed to insert into certain films.  The spare prose is effective not only in its vivid evocation of rural/ small-town life, creating a strong sense of place, but also in the portrayal of the relationship between Jeremy and his father as they try to provide mutual support and respect each other’s grief.

The second part dispels  the illusion that this is  working up to being a tale of horror or detective thriller, rupturing the narrative drive with an abrupt switch back to the 1960s with the focus on a different set of characters. The style become more “exposition” rather than reveal what goes on in Irene Sample’s mind to cause a dramatic  and life-changing action on her part.

Although it seemed clear who was responsible for altering the tapes, in the last two sections, my frustration grew over  the unresolved ambiguities as to why and exactly how this was being done, including what induced, even forced, others to take part as  “actors”.  The author begins the acknowledgements with:  “This is a book  largely about mothers”.  The only reason I can see for inclusion in Part Four of  the Pratts, who come to rent the house where the tapes were altered  some years previously,  is to introduce a “normal happy family” of comfortably off Californians to provide a contrast with those rendered dysfunctional by the loss of a mother. With perhaps rather thoughtless complacency, the Pratts display the confidence and resilience borne of good fortune that is only mildly or temporarily thrown off course by a troubling sense of other people’s distress. They also demonstrate how differently, partially and inaccurately strangers may view a place compared with previous occupiers unknown to them.

Having just read William Faulkner’s “As I lay dying”, I noted some similarities in the frequent focus on small details rather than the main issues, which one often has to deduce,  in the switches in viewpoint and in the idea that mystery of the altered tapes, even the effects of losing one’s mother, are not the essence of the story.  This seems to lie in the nature of being, in which, for instance, people may cease to exist for us when they move out of our lives,  or the difficulty of knowing what went on in a house or place before one lived there.

“She wondered what had gone missing from Iowa before she ever got there. There is no way of knowing. That’s what pictures are for, after all: to stand in place of the things that weren’t left behind, to bear witness to people and places and things that might otherwise go unnoticed”.