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.

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”… 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”.

The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

This is my review of The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

With the chilling downward spiral back into Cold War politics, it seems more vital than ever to understand why the Putin regime operates as it does and most Russians accept it.

This impressively clear and insightful analysis gains authenticity from the journalist author’s fluent grasp of Russian, his study of the country’s history, and time spent living and travelling widely in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). He has sought a fresh perspective in his focus on “the ghosts of the past”, which in various ways cripple and distort the current state of society.

As a student, Shaun Walker saw first-hand the “poverty, widespread squalor and rampant exploitation” in Moscow a decade after the collapse of communism, which left many Russians feeling disoriented and rootless. In the vacuum created by the sudden break-up of the USSR, Putin was resolved not merely to stabilise the economy but to establish Russia in what he saw as its rightful place as a “first rank” global power.

Shaun Walker repeatedly returns to the “memory politics” which Putin has used to raise morale and forge a sense of unity: at the heart of this is the continued celebration of Russian victory in “saving the world from fascism” in World War Two, without any admission of Stalin’s tyranny, such as the mass deportation to remote labour camps of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority villagers for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Walker cites the headteacher in a rundown Irkutsk suburb where some families have had to cut back on food recently. “Patriotism is the most important thing” she declares, having reintroduced the old Soviet uniform for her pupils, to improve morale. The parents approve of Putin’s efforts to fight corruption, probably unaware of the extent of his own unreported wealth together with that of his cronies.

As suggested by these examples, Shaun Walker proceeds through a series of case studies mainly based on peripheral regions closer to Western Europe where there is more history and risk of uprisings: Georgia, the Ukraine and Chechnya. In the latter, generous investment for the reconstruction of places like Grozny combined with the desire for stability, have encouraged people to treat as “an inconvenient and ignored detail” the fact that their leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s father led Chechens to fight the Russians in the 1990s. Grozny’s central avenue has been renamed from “Victory Avenue” to “Putin Avenue”. The author writes of how Chechens “build walls around certain events in their lives, so that they can often only speak in half-memories and platitudes” and quotes Koestler: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways”.

We are shown how Putin’s attitudes have evolved. Initially wishing to be a respected and reliable ally of the west, even suggesting that Russia might join the EU or NATO, he began to feel cold-shouldered and threatened by western support for rebels in Georgia and Ukraine. This pushed him towards a kind of continuation of the old tsarist empire, supported by a mixture of renewed religious Orthodoxy, political autocracy with a “window-dressing” of democracy and pride in nationality. A “natural state of confrontation” with external powers has now “won the day” as illustrated by the annexation of the Crimea, justified by the need to “right the wrong” of Krushchev’s relinquishment to Ukraine of an area which was historically Russian until 1954.

There is passing reference to the distorted reporting of foreign affairs and failure to investigate and bring to convincing justice the murderers of journalists who threaten to “rock the boat” by probing the system too deeply, but this grim legacy of a ruthless authoritarian past is not explored in great depth. Although fascinating, the analysis seems incomplete in its neglect of other major relevant aspects, like Putin’s suppression of true democracy in the form of Alexei Navalny, a potentially major opponent denied from standing for election on what sound like bogus charges of embezzlement. The same applies to the implications of the suspicious death in custody of the tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, alleged moves to undermine western democracy by influencing elections, and renewed assertiveness in bombing Syria.To be fair, Putin’s recent vaunting of “new weaponry he claims will render NATO defences completely useless” and the bizarre poisoning of the Skripals in Britain came too late for this book.

As I lay dying – challenging read after which “ordinary” novels seems lacking

This is my review of As I lay dying by William Faulkner.

In the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, based on Faulkner’s deep knowledge of Mississippi in the Great Depression, wife and mother Addie Bundren lies dying for only the first fifth of this modern classic, to the hypnotic mantra of sawing as her son Cash painstakingly constructs a coffin within sight and sound of her bed . The rest of this short but dense novel is taken up with the fateful Odyssey borne of Anse Bundren’s stubborn to the point of foolish insistence on taking his wife’s body on a ramshackle cart over routes where road bridges have been swept away in the floods, to “lie with her own people” in the town of Jefferson. As it turns out, both he and his daughter Dewey Dell have an ulterior motive for getting there at all costs.

To achieve this, Anse needs the assistance of his children, in particular his three very different adult sons. It is a continual puzzle as to how this pathetic, incompetent man manages to use his wheedling guile to hold them to their thankless task, which brings each of them long-term suffering of a different kind. Only Anse comes out of the situation with any advantage – clearly, the cynical Faulkner did not believe that people get their just desserts. Yet there is a bond between the often hostile brothers, as shown by the risks taken to salvage Cash’s precious carpentry tools from the river-bed.

The unrelenting, macabre and bleak theme is rendered tolerable, even gripping by the remarkable style, the wry black humour and quirky Southern speech. The book requires intense concentration with its multiple points of view, each chapter representing by turns the thoughts of a different character, expressed in a stream of consciousness that is part literary, even poetical, part pithy, part convoluted colloquial dialogue. On occasion Faulkner even invents words for want of an existing one that suits – “uninferant”, “uncurried”.

It helps to know that Faulkner disliked the “normal” style of straightforward explanation, preferring to leave major events merely implied or hinted at, rather in the style of the film scripts which he took to writing in later life. He enraged Ernest Hemingway by observing that he “lacked courage”, by which he meant, not in a physical sense, but as regards being prepared to “get out on a limb…risk bad taste…overwriting….dullness.” Faulkner himself took all these risks in spades in this novel. Apparently written in only six weeks, it has a raw, unedited feel at times, as may have been his intention. It is debatable whether this is a strength or weakness. I found myself rereading some passages because they are so stunning, others in a vain and tantalising attempt to make sense of them. Sometimes, the brilliance seems to slip into pretentiousness or tedium.

Some of the most powerful passages describe Jewel Bundren’s sadistic passion for his “pusset-gutted bastard” of a horse. “Enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings”, Jewel “moves with the flashing limberness of a snake….for an instant… whole body earth-free, horizontal, whipping snake-limber….Then Jewel is on the horse’s back. He flows upward in a stooping swirl like the lash of a whip, his body midair shaped to the horse” and so on. Later we see the horse “dancing and swirling like the shape of its mane and tail and the splotches of its coat had nothing whatever to do with the flesh-and-bone inside them”.

There is humour in Darl Bundren’s acutely droll assessment of his father. “He got sick once from working in the sun when he was twenty-two years old, and he tells people that if ever he sweats, he will die. I suppose he believes it.”

Irony marks the portrayal of the preacher who rushes to Addie’s bedside in an attempt to pre-empt any deathbed confession with one of his own, complacently concludes that his efforts in battling through the floodwaters are sufficient to obtain God’s mercy, “He will accept the will for the deed” and enters the “house of bereavement” with a mere sanctimonious “God’s grace upon this house”.

There is menace, not to mention an indictment of Anse’s inappropriate behaviour, in the continual references to the ever-present vultures which obsess Addie’s youngest son Vardaman: “Now there are seven of them, on little tall black circles”.

At one extreme, Vardaman and his teen-age sister Dewey Dell seem handicapped in their ability to communicate by their limited speech. At the other, the sensitive, perceptive Darl is often used as the mouthpiece for the author’s most sophisticated verbal pyrothechnics. Yet even the tortuous southern speech can be surprisingly telling as when bemused neighbour Tull observes, “The Lord aimed for…a fellow… to do and not to spend too much time thinking, because his brain is like a piece of machinery: it won’t stand a whole lot of racking”. Likewise, Cash’s final observation, “ But I ain’t so sho that ere a man has the right to say what is crazy and what aint. It’s like there was a fellow in every man that done a-past the sanity or insanity, that watches the sane and the insane doings of that man with the same horror and the same astonishment”.

There are also deeper levels of meaning to this book about, say, Addie role as a wife and mother, or the language of religion used to as a form of social control in a deferential rural community which defy inclusion in a short review without “spoilers”.