“Ghost Wall” – warped time

 

This is my review of  Ghost Wall  by Sarah Moss

This novella packs a more powerful punch than many a longer novel, with never a word wasted as it grips us with the sense of menace building beneath its wry humour, the strong sense of place on the moors and beach below Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, the characters and situations revealed through the observation of the narrator Sylvie, named by her father Bill after Sulevia, the Ancient British goddess of springs and pools.

A bus driver to earn a living, Bill is a self-taught expert on Iron Age life and survival skills. He is also a working-class racist, male chauvinist bigot, a control freak who dominates his downtrodden wife and teenage daughter with verbal sarcasm which tips into physical abuse, often as a means of releasing his own frustration when he feels criticised or undervalued by other people. “He didn’t always like it when people laughed”.

This and more becomes slowly apparent as Sylvie describes their family “holiday” taking part in an exercise to re-enact Iron Age life, alongside three students of the ebullient Professor Slade who drops by each day to see how they are getting on as self-sufficient hunter-gatherers, spending hours foraging for bilberries, burdock root, garlic “greens” and mussels at low tide, skinning rabbits for “mum” to stew in a cauldron over an open fire, when not washing a student’s filthy smock after he has slipped into a bog.

Dressed in a coarse, shapeless tunic and thin skin moccasins rather than what would seem like essential hiking boots, Sylvie can “feel the texture, the warmth, of different kinds of reed and grass in your muscles and your skin. The edges of the wooden steps over the stile touch your bones, an unseen pebble catches your breath. You can imagine how a person might learn a landscape with her feet”.

Having delegated the drudgery, the Professor and Bill have time to turn their minds from mundane to mystical matters, and get carried away planning the Iron Age-style “ghost wall” of the title, a palisade of willow lattice and skins, decorated with animals’ skulls in the absence of human ones. When dusk falls, the desire to drum on the skins and chant proves irresistible, and from this it may be only a short step to the “play-acting” of some darker ritual.
Silvie is shrewd enough to recognise that her father is “a show-off given to brutality” and has not had too much spirit beaten out of her to argue. Yet she seems tied to him in their appreciation of a natural world free from the false pressures and values of modern commercialisation. She appears trapped in childhood, frightened of venturing out into independence – even her attraction to the student Molly seems like a kind of adolescent crush, perhaps the dawning of an awareness of how she might become a liberated young woman, perhaps a rejection of the maleness which has so far crushed her, rather than an indication of lesbianism.

Apart from the sheer enjoyment of reading this book for the quality of the writing and the tight, entertaining plot, many issues arise for consideration: prevailing class differences, the north-south divide, male versus female relationships, how we have lost touch with nature, how values have changed over time in some ways, and in others perhaps essentially remarkably little.
My only slight reservations are over the formulaic, over-used device of a prologue with a dramatic, violent hook to catch the reader and the very abrupt, anti-climactic ending. Yet I can see that there is strength in leaving matters open for the reader to decide what happens next.

“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth – How accidentally a destiny is made.

 

This is my review of The Human Stain  by Philip Roth

Original and astonishingly articulate, “The Human Stain” forms the third part of Philip Roth’s trilogy of novels exploring major social issues in late 1990s USA.

After a distinguished career as a former Dean and Classics Professor who has chosen to return to classroom teaching at small-town New England Athena College, Coleman Silk falls foul of “political correctness” by describing two black students as “spooks”. He is referring to their ghost-like nature in appearing on his class register but never in person: the powers that be construe his words as racist. The irony of this situation, and the reasons for Coleman’s furious reaction to the charge are gradually revealed.

Proud and impulsive, he storms out rather than wait for the outrage to die down. His anger and isolation only fed by the sudden death of his wife Iris, which he attributes to stress over his treatment, he further scandalises the community by taking up with Faunia, an uneducated college cleaner and farm worker less than half his age. Their common bond seems to be that she too has been society’s victim, although in a very different way.

The narrator is Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s favourite alter ego who reappears in other novels, but Roth makes the maximum play with artistic licence, digressing into events and inner thoughts (as when Faunia thinks about why she likes crows so much) which Zuckerman could not possibly know. The device for getting round this is that Silk’s story inspires Zuckerman to go on to research, expand upon and dramatise his whole life in the “The Human Stain” which we are actually reading. This goes far beyond Coleman’s emotional demand that, as a professional writer, Zuckerman should write about the monumental injustice which has been done to him.

Roth makes much of the parallel between Coleman’s plight and what he sees as the inordinate and hypocritical uproar over Clinton’s dalliance with Monika Lewinsky. An additional apparent inspiration was the experience of an academic friend, Melvin Tumin, who was subject to a “witch hunt” but was ultimately found blameless for the alleged use of racial language as regards two African American students. The plot is also a vehicle for exploring practical difficulties of gaining racial equality. An ambitious individual bent on achieving “The American Dream” may choose the controversial path of “passing himself off” as white, but this may be at the price of cutting oneself off from blood relatives and denying one’s children a sense of their true heritage.

Meanwhile, Faunia’s violent, vengeful stalker ex-husband Les Farley serves to reveal the problem of the traumatised veterans unable to adapt to “normal” life after the living nightmare of Vietnam. Roth shows his skill in arousing a sense of sympathy for almost everyone in this book, even the French academic troublemaker Delphine Roux who pays lip service to what Coleman (and probably Roth) sees as phoney literary “deconstructionism”. Perhaps, though, there is just a tinge of the flaw of subjective anti-feminism and academic conservatism in Roth when it comes to writing about Delphine.

Roth’s writing sometimes reaches such a peak of broiling intensity, that one has to take a pause to recover, and his tendency to examine causes and motives from every conceivable angle sometimes seems obsessive. Some of the quieter passages have the deepest impact, as when Zuckermann, who has taken refuge from the “entanglement” with his “turbulent” past life in a two-room cabin by a small pond with a patient blue heron in the Madamska mountains, meditates on how hard it has proved to adapt to “radical seclusion” and how easily he has made a friend of Coleman and let “all the world’s malice” come back “rushing in”.

Sadly, watching the film of the book years ago deterred me from reading it, because I could not get over the problem that actor Anthony Hopkins did not “look the part” of Coleman Silk. Having at last read it for a book group, I shall now make a point of going back to the first two parts of the trilogy involving a different set of characters and dilemmas: American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998).

The Diary of a Nobody – Finding out exactly what led to Pooterism

 

This is my review of George Grossmith’s  The Diary of a Nobody

“Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting.” So begins Charles Pooter’s diary, which started as an intermittent serial in “Punch” from 1888. At first it was belittled by critics – proving incomprehensible to a “New York Times” reviewer – because it was based on the banal life of an ordinary office worker. Gradually, it became appreciated as an early form of satire, with “Pooterish” coined as a word to describe a ludicrous sense of self-importance and narrow-mindedness. Despite his excessive concern with conventions, delusion over his authority at work and complacency over his state of “domestic bliss”, not to mention his appalling puns, Charles Pooter has been regarded with affection by generations of readers, a household name even for people like me who have never bothered to read the book until now.

When obliged to do so for a book group, I expected to find the “diary” very dated with its gently slapstick humour. In fact, it provides a fascinating insight into daily life in late Victorian London. On a clerk’s pay, Pooter was able to rent a six-roomed house which, judging by the original illustration, would require a hefty mortgage nowadays. His wife did not need to go out to work and he could afford to employ a live-in maid. Although often proving unreliable, tradesmen seemed readily available when something needed to be fixed. If the meat went off in the pantry because of hot weather, the maid could be sent out in the evening to buy chops from the butcher. When Pooter’s brash son Lupin got the sack, he could easily get another job through word-of-mouth: no formal applications required. The family always seemed to have the money for a holiday, buying new clothes for the purpose, or go out for some entertainment. In the absence of television, they made their own daft yet touchingly innocent entertainment, like “put the tail on the donkey”, which modern children would find rather tame for a party, or scared themselves with séances, wilfully gullible in turning a blind eye to patent cheating.

As typified by the contrast between Pooter’s resistance to change and his son’s determination to get away from Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, (“There’s no money in it, and I am not going to rot away my life in the suburbs”), this short novel happens to capture a stable, conventional society on the brink of dramatic change. The ending was so abrupt, I thought there was a fault on my Kindle. It was as if the author had tired of his creation, and although I am glad to have read this, I had had enough as well when it came to a halt.

“Welcome to Lagos” – when it’s all right to be a thief “as long as one is a thief who shares”


This is my review of “Welcome to Lagos”  by Chibundu Onuzo

This wry satirical take on life in Nigeria introduces us to a Lagos of remarkable humour and resilience in a setting of vibrancy and squalor, extremes of wealth and poverty, violence and corruption. Still in her early twenties at the time of writing this second novel, after spending much of her life in England in what one senses is a relatively privileged position, the author seems to have done her research into “the strange chaotic order” of communal living under city bridges, or the wooden shanty settlement built on stilts over the lagoon.

Chibundu Onuzo has chosen to write what she calls “an ensemble piece” involving a disparate group of characters who may not be developed in depth for lack of space, but the benefit is that they serve to convey the diversity of Nigerian society. The five migrants from the Niger Delta include the thoughtful army officer Chiku and Nemu, “the lowest-ranking member of his platoon”, who are no longer prepared to carry out their maverick Colonel’s illegal instructions to shoot defenceless civilians. The neat, house-proud Oma is abandoning a life of material comfort to escape a different type of violence in the form of her abusive husband.

By chance, they become involved with Chief Sandayo, perhaps once an idealist but now corrupted by power, although its fragility is demonstrated by the threatened sacking from his post as Minister of Education, which has prompted him to steal ten million dollars from site coffers. The prospect of his “bean-spilling” testimony proves irresistible for Ahmed, who dreams of a scoop for what he would like to be the ground-breaking, socially conscious “Nigerian Journal” he founded five years previously. He has rejected a life of privilege in the higher echelons of Nigerian society or abroad, made possible by his father’s willingness to compromise his principles in the pursuit of wealth and connections.

Despite some loss of momentum at times, the overall plot is well-crafted. I liked the presumably made-up extracts from “Nigerian Journal” which introduce some chapters, and was impressed by the atmospheric opening chapter in the “barren army base” with the evening sky turning from mauve ….bruised to black” and the militants stealing out into the creeks, “sucking our oil, insects drawing on the lifeblood of the country”.

There are many humorous scenes, alternating with occasional bursts of the unpredictable, savage violence which is never far away if it cannot be deflected by bribery, and perhaps not even then. Some scenes are very well-observed, such as the rivalry between the condescending white BBC journalist with the black team he has not met before landing in Nigeria, since they travelled economy class, and the laid back Lagos-based white correspondent who can run rings round him since he knows the ropes. It is startling to realise that at least two of the main characters have never before seen a white man close up in the flesh.

I could accept my inability to understand fully or even at all much of the Nigerian-English patois which could be said to give an authentic touch, and there are some telling observations, but too often the narrative seems unnatural, even unclear, and in need of more editing.

This novel seems mostly designed to entertain, it is rarely moving, yet insight is often revealed through such humour.

Ulysse from Bagdad: Rendez-vous with nowhere

 

This is my review of  Ulysse from Bagdad by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.

When a relative is tortured for no reason by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, teenager Saad Saad decides to become a rebel on the basis that if he is to be punished one day, it might as well be for a cause. On learning this, his eccentric librarian father introduces him to the store of “subversive” banned books he has hidden away rather than destroy as instructed. Following the violent deaths of his father and three brothers-in-law, Saad Saad abandons his law studies to support his family, until his mother orders him to travel abroad to earn enough money to keep them. So begins his Odyssey of trials and tribulations from Baghdad to his goal of London, loosely modelled on the voyage of Odysseus or Ulysses, with heroin-guzzling companions in the role of “Lotus eaters”, a one-eyed jailor for a Cyclops, a deafening heavy metal girl pop band for Sirens, the blonde Sicilian who, Circe-like, might just deflect and so on, the difference being that Ulysses was travelling away from war to reach home, whereas Saad Saad is obliged to leave his war-torn country to build a new life in an alien land.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is one of the most widely read French writers in the world. A graduate in philosophy, he has a talent for applying this in popular terms to a variety of moral themes of current concern. I admire Schmitt’s skill as a wordsmith, no pun intended, and the quirky originality of his short stories in “Concerto à la mémoire d’un ange”, but here, in employing black farce to ease the bleakness of the theme of illegal migration into Europe, he has strayed too far into absurdity for my taste. An example of this is the dead father’s tendency to pop up at odd moments to deliver jocular homilies and wisecracks to his son. When the two hydrophobic natives of landlocked Iraq have to cross the Red Sea, the father relies on the spirit world to get him across, while Saad Saad resorts to demanding a massive dose of the heroin he has previously rejected to get himself to the far shore.

The author is apparently widely used for teaching texts in schools and colleges, and I agree that this novel could be an effective way of introducing teenagers to the moral dilemmas posed by the pressures for modern mass migration. Even what Schmitt fails to cover could be brought into the analysis. As it is, his focus seems to be on the artificial nature of current boundaries, the dangers of the nationalism they tend to create, the debt which the wealthy West owes the poorer countries it has exploited. The over-arching case for migration is found in the prologue and repeated continually, namely “the lottery of birth” which dictates whether one is born into peace, prosperity and opportunity or the reverse. At no point does the author consider the conundrum of how to implement controls on migration to prevent the destruction of the stable culture which draws people in the first place. The nearest he gets to questioning migration is the portrayal of the kind of London district in which a migrant is likely to end up: an overcrowded room with a view of wet, black chimneys coated in greasy pollution , surrounded by sex shops, smelly dustbins and vomit outside pubs.

The book strikes me as somewhat formulaic and contrived, in that it strings together, admittedly with some imaginative flair, widely known facts about the state of Iraq or the ruses and perils migration. So we have the toppling of Saddam’s statue, the attempt to escape from the country via a fundamentalist band or shipping stolen artifacts, the ploy of losing one’s papers, the frustrating limbo of the refugee camps and ordeal of overloaded boats in stormy seas.
Most of the characters are caricatures, implausible, like the father, or two-dimensional as in Saad’s sketchily drawn relationship with Leila. Too often, the players express their ideas in a kind of condensed rant. Saad appears to be a vehicle for the author’s ideas and wit: his “voice” is too westernised and objective in lines of thought and observations , perhaps because Saad has read so many “subversive” foreign books.“Ulysse from Bagdad

Chanson Douce or Lullaby by Leila Slimani – nanny state


This is my review of   Chanson Douce“Lullaby” in its English translation) by Leila Slimani Ground down by motherhood, despite loving her two small children, Myriam eagerly accepts a former colleague’s offer of a high-flying position in his law form. The problem of finding a suitable nanny is easily resolved in the form of Louise, who not only forms an immediate bond with the children but proves a superb cook, even producing delicious dinner parties for the envious friends of Myriam and her husband Paul,  also bringing order to their Paris apartment with her efficient juggling of laundry, cleaning and tidying up.

We know that this C21 Mary Poppins is too good to be true, since it is no “spoiler” to reveal the opening chapter, in which the two children are found dead or dying, having been stabbed by  Louise before turning the knife on herself.  If one can get past this harrowing debut, the novel is an absorbing psychological “whydunnit”, which explores the chain of events leading to Louise’s mental disintegration,  even enabling us to feel some sympathy for her in the process.

This gruesome theme is apparently triggered by real events: a Dominican nanny’s brutal murder of her charges in New York plus the author’s own memories of her parents worrying that a nanny had insinuated herself into their family to an alarming degree. As a former journalist, Leila Slimani clearly likes to base her novels on real events, and the comparisons made between Chanson Douce  (meaning Lullaby) and Gone Girl in terms of a shocking, drip-feed page-turner suggest that she has an eye for a money-spinning yarn.

Yet, this novel also has deeper underlying themes which I found of greater interest than the perhaps stereotyped portrait of a growing psychosis. There is  the examination of the tensions involved in how many couples with children find themselves living now. The nightmarish scenario is rooted in the guilt felt by many professional women over their attempts to combine a career with a family, in the face of the disapproval  often expressed by older women – parents and school teachers, who  perhaps having stifled their own aspirations to devote themselves to their offspring suggest that being raised by a string of nannies, subjected to after-school clubs and channelled into “quality time” may damage a child’s emotional development.

Another thought-provoking  aspect of the book is the plight of the nannies themselves,  effectively working class servants in a middle class home, often young immigrants coping with an unfamiliar culture. The relationships exist in a precarious balance which may  be upset by too much playing at friendly equality on the part of the employers, to be clumsily retracted if the nanny’s  care suddenly conflicts with their attitudes and values  – as in the case of Louise inadvertently enraging Paul by making up his little daughter to look like a tart in his estimation. Often, the nannies’ personal problems are of no interest to their employers, frankly an irritation if these get in the way of their work. Only when it is  too late does an unexpected sighting of Louise arouse in Myriam for the first time an intense curiosity as to what she does when she is not with the family.

Although I understand why this is a best-seller, the failure to portray the parents’ reactions following the tragedy seems an omission.  I was disappointed by the weak, abrupt ending, as if the author did not know how to conclude it.

“Les Sauvages” – The Savages

This is my review of      by Sabri Louatah.“Les Sauvages” (The Savages in Translation)

Fatherless cousins Krim and Slim are off the rails in Book 1 of Sabri Louatah’s black farce, a four part saga of the French Algerian Nerrouche family of Kabyle origin – be prepared to look things up to get the most out of this novel. The focus is on Slim’s traditionally flamboyant wedding into a somewhat contemptuous Arab family. It is not explained how this union came about, although I may have missed this, and a good deal more, through reading it in French. In scenes peppered with untranslated Kabyle phrases, Wollah! Allouar!, the family members seem blind to the plight of gay Slim, plagued by a transvestite Romanian gypsy lover.

Krim, who is the main character if one is to be found in the meandering plot as it deviates down apparent cul-de-sacs, which may of course become relevant in a future sequel, is permanently stoned, a casual thief, who has fallen under the control of a sinister fundamentalist cousin, Nazir. His menace is perhaps strengthened because he remains an obscure figure throughout, but the narrative would be more coherent if we were gradually fed more about him and the reasons for the break-down in relations with his charming, westernised brother Fouad.

In a blend of real-life characters with fiction, the wedding takes place against the background of a ground-breaking election which is gripping the public, for Nicolas Sarkozy seems likely to be beaten by the first Arab to become President of France, namely the charismatic Chaouch. Native French voters are not the only ones to be apprehensive or aghast. Although wildly popular with those of Arab origin, Chaouch is clearly anathema to some Islamic groups.

The decision to have the book’s action take place over the course of the wedding seems an unnecessary straitjacket. It could be argued to increase the tension, but in fact makes for a sense of disjointed confusion, with chapters digressing into unlikely, even ludicrous interludes as characters leave the ceremony, or indulge in lengthy contrived conversations to “set the scene”.

The author’s first-hand knowledge of Kabyle culture creates a sense of authenticity and his love of American series like ER gives a filmic, televisual feel to “Les Sauvages” which some may enjoy. However, I was initially worn down by the tedium of indigestible exposition and the plethora of stereotyped rather than three dimensional characters, often with confusingly similar names (Farid, Farés, Fouad etcetera).

Krim comes the closest to arousing some sense of engagement and empathy, despite his actions: he is clearly musical, appreciates the traditional singing of Lounis Ait Menguellet (which can be heard on YouTube) and has genuine feeling for his extended family. But perhaps the sense that he has been “driven mad” by some yet-to-be explained situation, rather than “become bad”, could have been implied more clearly yet subtly. When genuine feeling is shown between characters, it is too often sentimental and corny, as in the affectionate scene between Chaouch and his glamorous wife.

The plot gathers momentum if not plausibility towards the end, but for the most part seems out of kilter, with too much time spent on “minor” characters and events for which the circumstances are unclear. The novel has a raw energy, but I wonder how much time the author spent on refining it. There are plenty of ingredients for an impressive novel, but that would have been much harder to craft. I find Houellebecq’s novel about an Arab French President superior, partly because it is better written, but am I being a literary snob and does it lack the vitality of “Les Sauvages”?

Television-series style, the ending leaves multiple loose threads for the sequel which I may read, if only because it appears to have a tauter structure.