Big ideas for a big story

The Magus
by John Fowles

This is a crazy book that plays with concepts of humanity, deceipt, morality, psychology and storytelling, all wound up in a thoroughly enjoyable adventure that is packed full of suspense, action, beautiful scenery and romance. It’s full of big ideas but it’s also a great fun rollercoaster of a story with so many twists and turns that I often felt as confused as the hero.

Said hero is Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who doesn’t know what to do with his life and is generally miserable. He narrates the story and makes for a very interesting perspective on events. He is shallow, naive and quick to change his mind. On many a page he says “I knew for sure…” or “I understood now…” only to be proved wrong a few lines later.

Not that he can be entirely blamed for changing his mind about certain things. The central premise is that Nicholas goes to teach English on a remote Greek island and there meets an old man, Conchis, who lures him into a bizarre game in which nothing and no-one can be trusted. There were times when the situation got so dark or confusing that I found it far-fetched that Nicholas would continue going back for more, but on the other hand he’s a selfish young man who’s been placed at the centre of a millionaire’s play – that’s got to be good for the ego – and, of course, there’s a young lady involved. Actually, more than one. It’s
complicated.

There are so many layers of lies or potential truths that I constantly reached passages that read like a conclusion was about to come and at first I’d think “But hang on, there’s 400/300/200 pages left” but by the end you’re not ready to trust anything, even the last sentence.

And of course there’s the element of belief – what is real and what is imagined? Nicholas is in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language before he arrived, the weather is relentlessly hot, the people are very different from those he’s used to spending time with, the landscape is obviously foreign – nothing is familiar. That must take a toll on the way a person reacts to events they are confronted with. Not to mention the question of what and who we trust and why. As a middle class intellectual, Nicholas is pre-conditioned to believe obviously educated, well read, well spoken people. As a womaniser he’s inclined to believe anything a woman who flirts with him says. And this is clear and obvious to anyone who wishes to take advantage of his gullibility.

The morality of the story is the thing I found hardest to get on with. This was written in the 1960s but set in the 50s and, though in some ways it’s surprisingly modern (yes, women can separate sex from love and use their bodies accordingly) it’s also harshly judgmental of Nicholas, who is really just a bit of a drifter and a womaniser who never pretended to be anything else. He is put through the mill to perportedly make him a better person and yet, with all of the questions that this long book asks, it is never suggested that maybe Nicholas doesn’t need to be changed, that he’s basically decent from the start. In fact I think I liked the original Nicholas who was sure of what he was and good enough to be honest about it, though he was generally unhappy with his life, more than the Nicholas at the end of the book who has been frightened into doing nothing, trusting no-one, fearing everything.

Despite my standing up for him, there were times – many of them – when I wanted to shout at Nicholas. He is so obviously wrong at times and just plain stupid at others. I even figured out a perfect line of work for him so he woudn’t need to drift/teach any more (if you’ve read this give your ideas in the comments below and we can compare!). But where with some books that would be frustrating, with this one it felt good to engage so fully, to get emotionally involved in bits that weren’t a love story (though it is one of those as well).

And yet, though I was fully engaged and the story is definitely eventful, I found this was a slow read. I read every day, often far later into the night than I should and it still took me weeks to get through. It is a long book but I think it’s also one that requires you to pay attention to every detail. There’s so much talk of clues and hints that I often re-read passages in case I’d missed something important. I found that I even read the descriptive passages closely where I would often skim the lengthier ones in other novels. Fowles’ descriptions of Greece are spellbinding and more than once I found myself looking up holidays to Greece when I put the book down.

Many a long essay has been written about this book and I can see why, but from a personal point of view I will conclude with: this is a good read, an extremely good read, that makes you think and yet doesn’t feel at all ‘worthy’. Highly recommended.

First published 1966 by Jonathon Cape. Revised by the author 1977.

He wishes for the cloths of Heaven

Thought I’d share my favourite poem with you, as the lovely weather has put me in a poetic sort of mood.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Written by William Butler Yeats (1865–1939).
First published in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

Maybe I’m just too squeamish

Kick-ass
by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr

As with all novels, I prefer graphic novels that have a complex storyline and meaty (though not necessarily likeable) main character. I don’t necessarily need multiple layers of meaning, but I am a sucker for an unreliable narrator or a bit of ambiguity. In terms of graphic novels, I greatly enjoyed The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and We3 but Kick-ass didn’t cut it. It’s simple, colourful fun and it’s also very brutal.

The thing is, you can usually get away with more violence in books than, say, film because you’re not depicting it – it’s left to the reader’s imagination. But here, the violence is drawn for you and, while it may not be photorealistic it’s real enough to make me squirm.

The story is pretty basic. Loser kid gets so fed up with life he decides to don a superhero costume and beat up bad guys. He researches in comics first and creates an online fanbase. But he has no real training and his only “ability” is a willingness to be beaten up to within an inch of his life over and over. Still, he enjoys being an internet sensation and it gives him something to get him through his “normal” life. But then copycats spring up all over and start to become as famous, or maybe more famous, than him. With better weapons. And who on earth are these people Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, who shy away from publicity and seem like they might have some actual training?

If you’re not bothered by violence and gore then this is great fun and I’m sure the film will be too. I may check it out, but I’ll admit that I’m in no hurry.

Published 2010 by Titan Books
ISBN 978-1-8485-6535-7

To sleep, perchance to dream

Girlfriend in a Coma
by Douglas Coupland

This is a strange novel in many ways. It’s about the end of the world, and this is made clear from the start, and yet it doesn’t feel like a story of apocalypse. The story starts with a group of teenagers and, though it spans 20 years, the characters don’t progress much. Which is the point of the whole story.

Jared died when he was 16 years old. He was a football star with more sexual experience than all of his friends combined, then he died of leukaemia. He narrates the story of his friends’ lives. It is a story of middle-of-the-road ordinariness. Its characters exist on the brink of failure. They don’t fulfill their dreams or achieve greatness. And yet these people are somehow important in the story of the end of the world.

It’s an interesting concept, that the people who have an important role to play aren’t the statesmen or the philosphers or the rich and famous. Instead, they are the lost, lonely people who need some persuasion to see that they are lost and lonely. But it’s also frustrating because you feel that they don’t deserve to be chosen, that they should be handling the survival of the human race better. Or at least I did.

It’s well written and the characters are very very real. For most of the middle section I would recommend not reading this last thing before you go to sleep (you’ll understand when you get to that part). It’s gripping and enjoyable. However, my frustration with the emptiness of the characters overtook my enjoyment of the story at times.

Published 1998 by Flamingo
ISBN: 978-0-0065-5127-0

10 May is World Lupus Day

I have lupus and it sucks. It really does. But I don’t have it nearly as bad as most lupus patients. I am a mild case. I manage to have a full-time job, a social life and fantastic support from my family and friends. Today I urge you to find out more about lupus. Read about it at The Lupus Site, Web MD, Lupus UK, St Thomas’ Lupus Trust and London Lupus Centre. Pass on those links. Talk about it. Stop this from being the disease that no-one knows or understands.

I was diagnosed with lupus three years ago. The blood tests were conclusive (something that is not always the case) and the huge relief at finally having a name for the mysterious ailment that had been troubling me for over a year soon gave way to nervousness at being diagnosed with something I knew nothing about. At the rheumatology clinic I was handed a slim leaflet produced by Arthritis Research (the two diseases share a lot of symptoms and, indeed, patients) and told not to worry, I appeared to be a mild case. But a mild case of what exactly?

The leaflet was essentially a list of symptoms and medications. As lupus symptoms vary from fatigue and headaches to organ failure and death, this was not very comforting. So I turned to Google. The Wikipedia entry was even more worrying. It talked a lot about the more serious symptoms and some unattractive related ailments. One of the doctors I had spoken to had warned me to be wary of looking lupus up on the internet because outside of the UK it does tend to be a much more serious disease. However, a scan through some lupus chat boards proved that there are British lupus patients having a really bad time of it too.

The problem with a disease like lupus is that the symptoms are so many and varied that it can be hard to pin down what is the disease and what isn’t. For those first couple of years, every ache and pain caused worry as well as, you know, pain, because I was concerned that I might have developed a new symptom and if that was true then it might never go away.

Because here’s the thing: lupus is chronic, systemic and there is no known cure. Although my rheumatologist says that the symptoms I first presented with are likely to be the ones I always have, there’s no guarantee I won’t develop new ones. And I can learn ways to limit or cope with the symptoms I do have, but they will never completely go away.

I have learned to cope most of the time. My fatigue specialist has gone from handing me tissues for the inevitable tears to commending me on my healthy appearance. But it comes at a price. My life had to change. In my mid-20s I suddenly had to cut my social life down to almost none. I have to carefully space out what activity I do, but at the same time do enough exercise to stay fit (because fatigue is a big problem for me and the less fit you are, the quicker you tire). It’s a real balancing act that is best explained by the frankly brilliant Spoon Theory. I have to be über prepared for any trip out of the house – in winter, I must take extra care to keep my hands and feet warm and for the rest of the year I have to wear high-factor suncream and cover my head at the merest hint of sunshine. I have learned to love TV in a way I never used to because all-too-often I am incapable of doing more than staring at that screen.

What I haven’t yet dealt with is the guilt. I am constantly letting people down. It’s not my fault and I don’t want to do it, but I am always cancelling plans with a friend or taking time off work on sick leave. I hate that I have to be that person. I am so so grateful to my friends and, most especially, Tim for accepting and caring for the new lupus-fettered me.

It could be worse. I know that. I have a good life, by any standards. I’m happy. But there are bad days. There are days when I am thoroughly fed up with being too tired to do the things I want to do. There are days when I desperately want to read a book or plan a fun trip but my brain is not functioning well enough. And the frequent pain and blood tests are no barrel of laughs either.

So, yeah: lupus sucks. But it gets easier to deal with when more of the people you know understand what you’re going through every day, when your GP has read up about it and can advise you on the little things like flu shots and dry hands. So spread the word. And if you’re feeling generous, a donation to Lupus UK will always be welcome!

Immersed in darkness

The Angel’s Game
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
translated by Lucia Graves

This is a dark, brooding, action-packed thrill of a gothic mystery. All of the essential ingredients are in place. There’s the unreliable narrator, the setting that’s at once beautiful and dangerous and absolutely a character itself, a host of potential good guy/bad guy switchovers and more than one beautiful woman who life has not treated kindly.

The main character, David Martín, is, appropriately enough, a writer of cheap crime fiction, a writer who has made a name for himself but feels that he can produce something better, worthier of his talent. He describes his home city of Barcelona the way he knows best – as a romantic place filled with dark, crime-filled back streets and a suffocating atmosphere that holds him there against his better judgement. His judgement is of course highly questionable – more so as the story progresses. It can be hard at times to understand the decisions he makes but to truly enjoy this story you have to give in to the almost cheesy gothic craziness of it all.

It would be a shame to reveal too much of the story but, essentially, Martín has always scraped a living, being helped out by kind benefactors more often than his pride would like, so when he is offered a fortune by a stranger (the angel of the title) to write a book it is too good an offer to turn down. Unfortunately the commission and the stranger are both strange forces that Martín underestimates the power of.

This is a very enjoyable, fast-paced read but it does have some down sides. There is some extreme violence that I found off-putting and the lead female character is very weak and feeble. However, there are other stronger females in here and the violence certainly has its place in this type of story. Because the mystery is that of an over-arching evil it is easily maintained even as secrets are revealed, though not all secrets do get revealed in the end. Ambiguity is something I tend to enjoy, particularly when, as here, it is quite subtle to begin with. The broody gothic atmosphere is very effective; many’s the time I had chills run down my spine while reading a scene.

The story is set mainly in the 1930s, adding a certain something to the ambience. Though it is only occasionally mentioned, the political turmoil is somehow part of the darkness of the story. It certainly helps with the feeling that this a film noir on paper.

And that might just be the reason why I didn’t like this quite as much as I had hoped to (having rated Zafón’s previous book, The Shadow of the Wind, extremely highly) – there were too many scenes that felt like they’d been written with film in mind, rather than fiction. Don’t get me wrong – Zafón is not spare in his descriptions. On the contrary, his language is beautiful, evocative, atospheric. But some scenes felt false, with writing akin to stage directions. It’s a feeling I last got when reading Dan Brown, much as I hate to compare these otherwise very different authors.

Published 2009 by Phoenix
ISBN: 978-0-7538-2644-7

UPDATE: For another viewpoint, check out this review on And the Plot Thickens.

Democracy rules

If you do nothing else today

I believe in democracy. I believe in using my vote. I believe in you using your vote, even if I don’t agree with your political views. I am very excited about tomorrow’s election and the possibilities that it holds. Whatever else you do tomorrow, if you are eligible to vote in the UK then use your vote.

Stephen Fry, of course, said all this more eloquently than I could. But I will try to explain briefly. Politics is important because it’s not just boring old men bickering about complicated stuff in London. Politics is everyday life, your life. It’s everything from how much tax you pay to how and when your rubbish gets collected, from the number of nurses staffing a hospital ward to how quickly potholes get fixed. Your biggest opportunity to have your say in all those things is to use your vote.

If you don’t yet know which way to vote there are some great websites to help you make up your mind – VoteMatch, VoteForPolicies, and of course the manifesto of each party is on their website. More specific to your local area, you can read about your MP candidates at TheyWorkForYou.

More chills than Hitchcock

We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

I can only imagine that everyone who has read this novel came away with the same dumbstruck combination of awe and horror. It is an absolutely terrifying book. The twists in the story rarely manage to surprise but they do keep it interesting and the narrative remains believable and human at all times.

For the three people in the world who don’t know, the story is told in the form of letters from a woman, Eva, to her husband, all talking about their son Kevin; a son who took a gun to school and killed several of his classmates, a son who was always chillingly distant, detached and unreachable, a son who manipulated his parents from a very young age. Eva always felt that he was evil, or at least capable of evil things, but was desperate for that not to be true and tries hard to rationalise Kevin’s actions as a consequence of her parenting.

The details of the horrific homicidal rampage are gradually eked out inbetween tales of Kevin as a baby, about Eva’s life before him; but most of all about her feelings as a mother who cannot connect with her child.

I am not always a fan of books that are quite this introspective and self-examining, but this book is utterly brilliant. I am torn between thinking that everyone should read this to understand a little more about how hard parenting can be and how huge an effect the tiniest decisions can have, and wanting to protect everyone I love from the awfulness of the book’s events and conclusions.

Published 2006 by Serpent’s Tail.
Winner of the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction.

UPDATE: I can highly recommend listening to the episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Lionel Shriver discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to July 2009.