I had no memory any more, only a puzzle of images

A Spell of Winter

A Spell of Winter
by Helen Dunmore

Dunmore is one of those authors I’ve been hearing good things about for years but hadn’t got round to reading, despite her being local and exactly suited to my taste. Which perhaps gives away what I feel about this book!

The story is narrated by Cathy and in a slightly dreamlike nonlinear fashion she tells us how she went from happy child playing endlessly with her brother Rob, to depressed 20-something seemingly living alone in a big old house that’s falling apart. The setting is the early 20th century (in fact, the First World War acts as a big dividing line in the narrative) and a country house estate owned by Cathy’s grandfather. The facts of her life come together slowly, so although we learn early on that her grandfather, parents and brother are no longer around, the when and why take some time to be revealed. And because she, especially at first, jumps around in time, sometimes I missed whopping great clues to something that happened later and it was only with hindsight I realised I should have seen it coming.

“I had no memory any more, only a puzzle of images, each one so bright I had to believe it as it burnt up in my mind.”

The slow reveal is a recurring trope in this novel. But it never gets annoying, even when I realised after finishing the book how many mysteries are actually never resolved. The basic facts, of a small family living largely in isolation from the world and everything falling apart, are recognisable as a classic storyline, and rightly so. But Dunmore does bring something new to it, and I don’t just mean the inappropriate closeness of Cathy and Rob (after all, that’s been done before too).

“My winter excitement quickened each year with the approach of darkness. I wanted the temperature to drop lower and lower until not even a trace of mercury showed against the figures. I wanted us to wake to a kingdom of ice where our breath would turn to icicles as it left our lips and we would walk through tunnels of snow to the outhouses and find birds fallen dead from the air. I willed the snow to lie for ever, and buried my head under the pillow so as not to hear the chuckle and drip of thaw.”

For a start, the writing is beautiful. Dunmore somehow combines really vivid descriptions and gripping story with an ethereal quality, with the first chapter and epilogue feeling particularly trance-like. This, along with the first-person narrative, plants the question of how much of what we are told is real, or how much is solely in Cathy’s imagination. It certainly seems at times that she is not told things – she is after all the younger child of a (relatively) well-off family with guilty secrets at a time when women were far from equal. But this means she snatches at servant gossip or inferences to build her own ideas, not all of which are wholly proved or disproved. For instance, her grandfather is “the man from another place” and she at one point refers to herself as “half English”, but this is never fully explained.

“I ought to have made sure I knew more. He’d had a past, a geography of silence. None of us had ever mapped it.”

I feel I would be doing a disservice to the book if I didn’t say something about the big unavoidable subject at its centre but for readers like me who don’t read blurbs it will count as a spoiler so…don’t read on unless you’ve read the book or don’t mind!

*** SPOILERS BEGIN ***

So – incest. This is a tough subject for a lot of people and I was both disturbed and impressed by Dunmore that she doesn’t just imply it and leave it oblique. She has Cathy describe fully and sensually her teenage sexual awakening and it is completely sympathetic and in many ways inevitable. Cathy and Rob are entirely each other’s world, rarely seeing others their own age. But they are also both completely aware of what they are doing and both the social implications and the moral position of it.

This very much ties in to another major subject in the book – mental health. There are two occasions when characters have breakdowns in their mental health following something traumatic happening, and the story poses the question of whether this is a natural reaction to what has happened, or something that was always lingering inside them, perhaps something hereditary. Cathy wonders if her unhealthy relationship with her brother proves right all those whispers about how she is so like her mother, who ran away.

I did start to worry that Cathy’s situation had got too dark and that there was no good way out for her, but bizarrely the First World War came at just the right time for her. She has complained all along that she is too sturdily built to be a beauty but with all the men gone and a farm to run she discovers how capable she is. I loved this transformation. Though it doesn’t make her happy, it made me like her again as a person, which isn’t necessary for me to like a book but usually makes it a more pleasant read.

*** SPOILERS END ***

I really enjoyed this book. The writing style and the story, with its period setting and sensationalist angle, reminded me a lot of Daphne du Maurier, which is high praise indeed! I will definitely have to read more by Dunmore. Anyone have any recommendations?

Published in 1995 by Viking.
Winner of the 1996 Orange Prize.

Source: Topping Bookshop, Bath.

We seem to have strayed into a timeless moral vortex

Bullet Park

Bullet Park
by John Cheever

I wasn’t much aware of John Cheever until a year or two ago. And even then I lumped him together with the great big male American 20th-century greats, which made me feel that I should read him, but didn’t really feel much inclination to. So I might never have read this novel if my book club hadn’t chosen it. And I’m glad they did, as it was a more enjoyable read than I expected.

This is a comedy, poking fun at suburbia, but it’s a dark, subtle kind of comedy. I certainly didn’t laugh out loud. The story is that of Eliot Nailles, sensible middle-class long-term resident of Bullet Park, a New York suburb, and his recently arrived neighbour Paul Hammer. At first glance Nailles is hard working, happily married, blessed with a perfect teenage son and admired by all around him, while Hammer is somehow mysterious, with a wife who says things she shouldn’t after a few drinks.

The first half of the book, perhaps predictably, cuts through that façade of suburbia and looks behind the closed doors at the details of Nailles’ life. His love for his wife Nellie borders on obsession but does she feel anything like the same loyalty for him? And his son Tony seems to have been struck down suddenly with some form of bedridden depression, which Nailles is trying desperately to both understand and find a cure for.

What I found interesting was that Cheever doesn’t entirely subvert the prevalent view of suburbia, because overall the picture painted is one of dreariness and predictability. Not that the writing is at all dreary, but if this section had gone on much longer I think I would soon have become bored.

“There seemed to be some metric regulation to the pace of the talk. It was emotional, intimate, evocative and as random as poetry. They had come from other places and would go to other places but sitting against the light at four in the afternoon they seemed as permanent as the beer pulls.”

What saves this book is the switch at the start of part two to Hammer’s story. This part is narrated by Hammer and fills in his backstory, and I was immediately grinning and enjoying the ride that he takes you on. He has a wonderful turn of phrase and a calculated assessment of which facts to give. He is an archetypal unreliable narrator, which makes it all the harder to figure out what is coming in part three, when the narrative switches back to the two men in Bullet Park.

“We traditionally associate nakedness with judgments and eternity and so on those beaches where we are mostly naked the scene seems apocalyptic. Standing at the surf line we seem, quite innocently, to have strayed into a timeless moral vortex.”

Hammer and Nailles are very different people, both full of ambiguity, but neither came 100% to life for me. I think this comes down to the style of writing. We talked at book club about how this might be related to Cheever being for the most part a short-story writer, and how this novel in many ways feels like a long short story. This is a slight criticism, but only a slight one. And certainly I would be interested to read Cheever’s short fiction and see if his style is better suited to that.

The writing is often beautiful and the story includes some wonderful quirks, that completely thrilled me. For instance, Hammer has an obsession with yellow rooms – they have to be a specific shade of yellow and he has to find them already painted that colour. Hammer’s mother (a fairly minor character but an absolutely brilliant one) decides that her therapist is too expensive so she takes to analysing herself, aloud.

“Three times a week, I lie down on my bed and talk to myself for an hour. I’m very frank. I don’t spare myself any unpleasantness. The therapy seems to be quite effective and, of course, it doesn’t cost me a cent.”

In the end, I liked this book but I didn’t love it. This is partly related to the ending, which I won’t discuss here and I wasn’t necessarily disappointed by, but I did feel a certain…deflation at. But I also wonder if it’s related to the comedy not being that funny but also not that biting. Another thing we mentioned at book club was that this book reads like a satire without a clear target. Bullet Park is both a safe, happy place and a dull or even sinister place. But New York City gets lots of mentions and it isn’t painted as particularly better or worse than suburbia. And society itself is similarly both lampooned and forgiven. I think ultimately I would have enjoyed it more if it was either more sharp and biting, or if it had more relatable characters.

First published 1969 by Knopf.

Source: I bought this from Topping Books in Bath.

C is for…?

C
by Tom McCarthy

This is another book club read that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise and I’m a little annoyed that in the end I missed the book club meeting about it due to illness, as I think I would have got a lot more from the book by discussing it. As it was, I must admit that it fell a little flat for me.

One of the many review quotes on the book’s cover calls it “admirable for an unashamed literary ambition” and, well, it certainly does scream its literariness but I’m not sure how admirable that is. Although the narration is third person, it follows quite closely the thought processes of its main character Serge, frequently combining stream of consciousness with mechanical or scientific detail in a manner that I found hard to follow and frankly dull. There were so many allusions to science, myth or literature that you could create a very long reading list to interpret the nuances of C.

The novel follows the story of Serge’s life, starting with his birth, and it’s a reasonably interesting life. Born in 1898 to a deaf mother and a father who is both an inventor and principal of a school for the deaf (in which sign language is banned), in the early section there is a certain amount of comedy, sadly lacking later on. Serge’s name itself is pronounced in the French manner by his mother (“sairj”, which he prefers) and the English way by his father (“surge”, like electricity, a running theme) who is a brusque, difficult but enthusiastic and highly animated man. Serge has an older sister, Sophie, who he is devoted to, though as they get older he worries that she is so much cleverer than he. She performs chemistry experiments from an early age, is generously indulged by her father and cannily uses her little brother without him realising he is being manipulated.

From well-to-do English countryside, the action moves to a spa town near Dresden, where Serge has been sent to be healed of a digestive disorder; then to the First World War, during which Serge serves as a frontline aeroplane radio operator; then to post-war London, where Serge half-heartedly studies architecture while becoming increasingly embroiled in drug culture and addiction; then finally to Egypt, where Serge is sent without him ever really being clear what he is supposed to be doing. They’re very different locations and situations but what ties it all together is radio and Serge’s obsession with it.

Serge’s father, at the start of the novel, is building one of the first wireless stations. It becomes the favourite hobby of teenage Serge to listen in on conversations in Morse code and this feeds directly into his wartime employment. Between injury, illness and drug-taking he is often delirious or otherwise in an altered state of mind and at those times his thought patterns become electricity- or Morse-like, rearranging the world he sees into waves and patterns.

Serge is a very believable, multi-faceted character, but he is a little cold for my liking, though there are reasons for him being that way. I thought the depiction of him as a soldier and just after the war was particularly well done, the stand out moment being when someone begins to sympathise with what he must have been through in the war and how hard that must have been and he replies, “But I liked the war.” It’s actually an ambiguous statement, because Serge spent much of the war and a lot of the time since so drug-addled he has no handle on reality, but he thinks he really means it.

It’s not a book to read if you’re easily annoyed by little rich boys getting out of scrapes through a combination of money and knowing the right people. Or indeed if you want to know exactly what is happening and have every question answered (there are a few recurring details that I expected to come to something but never did, plus there’s all the need for interpretation). But neither of those applies to me usually, so I can only conclude that it was the writing style itself that put me off. It was certainly at times beautiful and evocative, but far too often I found myself skimming long passages through boredom, and I definitely wasn’t engrossed.

First published in 2010 by Jonathan Cape. Paperback published 2011 by Vintage.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010.

Under the skin

Norwegian Wood
by Haruki Murakami
translated by Jay Rubin

This is the book that turned Murakami from successful author to superstar and sent him running into hiding in the US. It’s certainly a more “straightforward”, accessible narrative than he is generally known for, but it is still undeniably, brilliantly him.

Toru tells us the story of his student days in Tokyo, from 1968 to 1970, and the friends and lovers who mattered to him and even changed him in those formative years. Against a backdrop of free love, student protests and Beatles songs, we learn how Toru’s best friend Kizuki killed himself when they were 17. A year later, completely by chance, Toru bumps into Naoko who had been Kizuki’s girlfriend since they were small children. Unsure of what to say to each other but united by their grief that holds them apart from the rest of the world, they start spending time together. Toru falls headlong in love with Naoko even while he knows she can never love him.

While Naoko’s difficulty in dealing with life gets worse and worse, Toru meets another woman, one who could not be more different. Where Naoko is delicate, feminine and non-communicative, Midori is a blaze of talkative modernity, with short hair and a tendency to get way-too-open about sex. She also has a boyfriend, albeit one Toru never meets, just as she never meets Naoko.

A large chunk of the start of this novel was a short story in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, which I read quite recently, and this threw me at first. The language is beautiful, the characters so very detailed and real, the setting vividly alive but as Naoko and Toru held themselves apart, so I found myself at arm’s length from the story – observing rather than drawn in. It was really only with the introduction of Midori that this book came to life for me. I really loved her character. She is no more “ordinary” or run-of-the-mill than Toru or Naoko, but she has a joy and spirit that uplifted the story, even when terrible things were happening.

While there’s no surrealism or magical story twists here, what there is plenty of is Murakami’s uncanny ability to get under the skin of people and everyday life. Even when nothing much is happening, I was thoroughly enjoying every word. A simple description of daily life in a student dorm could have me laughing out loud, a casual conversation over a noodle lunch have me grinning in recognition. But there is also a lot of pain – the ordinary pain of growing up and facing adulthood plus the added pain of death, loss, unrequited love, psychological trauma. It’s a beautiful and moving story.

First published as Noruwei no mori in 1987 by Kodansha Ltd, Tokyo.
This translation published 2000 by the Harvill Press.

Back to the classics

The Time Machine
by H G Wells

The Time Machine

This is one of those greatly revered classics that made people look on with admiration while I was reading it, but actually isn’t a particularly hard read. It’s also not the most engaging, but it is full of Big Ideas.

And that’s both its strength and its weakness: this is an intellectual exercise more than it is a piece of entertainment. Wells was a scientist and drew on new exciting ideas in science to create a vision of the future that in its time would have been shocking, provocative, beyond credible and startlingly different from anything else, whereas now the science is widely known and accepted, what is left is a slightly bald political parable.

Somehow I came to this without really knowing the story. I mean, I’ve seen and read references to it (both Family Guy and Futurama have episodes devoted to this story) but I hadn’t seen any of the film versions or read a synopsis so some of it was a surprise to me.

The Time Traveller (as he is known throughout the book) has gathered together a meeting of London intellectuals to tell them about his new invention, the Time Machine. When they don’t believe him, he tells them to come back a week later when he will have seen the future, and it is his account of this trip to the future that forms the bulk of the novella. The format is slightly odd, in that an unnamed (indeed, un-anything) first person narrator attends these two meetings and records them in a manner somewhere between a journalist and a scientist, so that it’s fairly dry but with the occasional interjection of emotion.

The first thing that struck me was that this isn’t that familiar narrative of jumping a few years at a time into humanity’s future, finishing with a quick trip to the end of the world. The Time Traveller jumps straight beyond the human race as we know it, to the year 802,701 AD, and most of the story is set in that one time (though there are a couple of further jumps forward). In this future, human beings have evolved into two distinct species – the gentle, childlike, darkness-fearing Eloi and the ominous, monstrous-looking, light-fearing Morlocks. The Time Traveller can only conjecture how these races came to be and recounts more than one theory that he subsequently rejected upon further observation.

This means that we cannot necessarily trust the Time Traveller’s interpretation, and indeed his descriptions are a little sparse. Can we be sure that these creatures are all that human-like? When he acquires a female Eloi companion he tells us that she is called Weena and she is really the only character to have a name, almost as if he is trying a little too hard to humanise her.

Without being shocked by the conceit of suggesting that mankind might one day evolve, the political allegory seems a little heavy-handed. Wells paints an extreme end to the widening gap between rich and poor, with the idle rich becoming the Eloi and the industrial working class becoming the Morlocks. There is also an interesting point about both having lost the need for intellectual capacity, because “Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

I will admit I was more scientifically interested in the descriptions of the further future, with geological timescales having passed, where Wells describes not only an ice age but also changes to the Sun, the Earth’s orbit, various stars, the Moon, tides, even other planets in our solar system. He was building on recent discoveries in physics and this description was no doubt just as revolutionary (and possibly just as provocative) as his evolved humanoids, but it is also beautiful. The story of the Eloi and the Morlocks is essentially a sad one but the continuation of Earth through immense changes in the solar system is somehow uplifting and inspirational.

As a story, I was a little disappointed in The Time Machine – I didn’t find it engaging, the characters are deliberately insubstantial and many of the ideas no longer appear original or daring. However, it is still a clever, inventive take on the travellers’ accounts that it is built on.

First published 1895.

Future terrors

The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood

My immediate reaction on finishing this book was “Oh wow” (in fact, I think I tweeted exactly that). I am so grateful to my book club for getting me to read it and suspect it will be a book to come back to, time and again.

This is an amazing, intense, important story that is also gripping and immensely readable. Atwood cleverly dripfeeds information about what exactly is going on, which makes it a little difficult to describe without any plot spoilers, and because of this I’m extra glad I was able to have a book club discussion about it.

The book’s title and the Bible quote at the start of it (Genesis 30:1–3) make reasonably clear at least one element of the story, even if the details are only slowly filled in. The society in which this book is set, the Republic of Gilead, designates certain women as handmaids and their sole purpose is to bear children. A handmaid is assigned to a married couple who have been unable, for whatever reason, to have children themselves. The handmaid is stripped of her former name and must wear a uniform that immediately identifies her role and hides her body and face, as well as obscuring her view of the world. It is a curiously old-fashioned situation in what appears to be a near-future North American setting. But it is of course far more complicated than just this and has its reasons for being as it is.

One other thing that is clear from the start is that there is a great fear of the state, via hidden spies or cameras or just loyal citizens willing to speak up about any trangressions of the many rules. One of these rules is that handmaids may not read or write at all, a rule so strictly enforced that the heroine obsesses over one written word that she sees every day. This society places a lot of emphasis on role and status, with the privileged as well as the less so immediately marked out by their clothing. It is a terrifying vision of a totalitarian state (and not just because of the reading and writing thing) partly because as you trace the steps that were taken to create it, it is conceivable that it or something similar could happen. As the narrator says in a prayer:

“If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.”

But it’s not at all a difficult or even challenging read because its narrator is so engaging and real. The handmaid of the title never reveals her former name, but between documenting her life as a handmaid she reminisces about life before and through that we learn about the background of the current regime as well as about her. It is her job, as a handmaid, to be a vessel and no more and as a narrator she is also a vessel for revealing an exercise in science fiction, but she is also an ordinary, relatable human facing extraordinary circumstances (to us, anyway). She vacillates between embarrassment of and admiration for her mother. She is trying desperately to survive, no matter what it takes, and yet contemplates methods of suicide. She has a fondness for flowers and word games.

Though by no means a comedy, there is a certain wit to Atwood’s writing. Even in the loneliest moments when the world is cold, a small detail seen or heard or remembered will be warm, familiar even.

****Spoiler warning – you might want to skip this paragraph if you’ve not read the book ****

This book was first published in 1985 and to an extent it reveals the fears and preoccupations of its time. Gilead might be described as a fundamentalist state, making it a crime to follow any other than the state religion. The world has suffered as a result of chemicals in the water supply and nuclear reactor meltdowns. There has been an AIDS epidemic and there have been riots over abortion. The same book written now might choose slightly different background events than these, though they are all, of course, still relevant.

****End of spoiler****

At book club we discussed how this future vision is not only possible but could almost be said to be happening in certain strict Islamic states. Indeed, in the decade before this book’s publication Iran suddenly went from being a modern, egalitarian place to a totalitarian, fundamentalist country with women suddenly driven out of higher education and most jobs, suddenly forced to dress and behave differently.

“Women” really is the key word. Though not militantly so, this is a feminist text. It is the story of men either choosing to or being complicit in the subjugation of women. Because we see the world through the handmaid’s eyes, we never really learn much about the lives of men in the Republic of Gilead, but from what we do see their lives are not nearly so bad as for women.

This is not the first Atwood I have read but it is probably the best. It definitely makes me want to read more of her work, particularly any that fall into the speculative/science fiction category.

First published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985.
Winner of the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize and the 1987 Prometheus Award.

See also: review by Connie at The Blue Bookcase.

Still funny after all these years

The Diary of a Nobody
by George and Weedon Grossmith

I first heard of this book a few years back when the BBC dramatised it as a mini-series. The way it was scripted was essentially reading the whole book aloud, so you might say I had read the book before, but it was still funny second time around.

The book was originally a series in Punch magazine, complete with comic illustrations. It is what it says on the tin: the diary of a middle class man living in a London suburb, which he hopes, after his death, will provide some small comfort to his wife and son and perhaps even be published. Even after more than 100 years it remains fresh and funny and accessible.

I have no idea if this was the first comic “diary” to be published but I can certainly see its influence on, for example, Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series. The everyday life of Charles Pooter is pretty mundane and he is not even the most likeable character, but his observations and preoccupations are funny and cleverly observed. Pooter is a city clerk and a complete snob, though he has no aspiration to be fashionable or even original. Aside from a few minor bumps on the way he takes the sensible, non-adventurous route and frets that his grown son Lupin is more daring.

A lot of the comedy comes from the writers cleverly using Pooter’s own po-faced words to poke fun at him. He is a largely old-fashioned man, fretting over colourful language in the presence of ladies when clearly he is the only one offended on most occasions. He has a fondness for writing letters of complaint, whether to the laundry or a friend, and this has a tendency to go wrong for him.

Unlike Adrian Mole, though Pooter’s antics occasionally land him in hot water, for the most part he gets by very well. He has a loving wife, forgiving friends and an appreciative boss. In return Pooter speaks highly of all those people, particularly his wife Carrie. He does, however, jump to pre-emptively judge anyone else he meets and is often obliged to change his mind.

This was a book club read and it went down well. It was interesting that all us Brits felt a certain affection for Pooter while the non-Brit in the group didn’t (though she did enjoy the book). Apparently we have a national fondness for the underdog. What we did all agree was that Pooter seems to attract people who take advantage of him, and while he may be a bit of a fool, the rest of the characters are little better.

First published in Punch in 1888–1889. First published in book form in 1892.

Not my cup of tea

The Fifth Mountain
by Paulo Coelho
translated from Portuguese by Clifford E Landers

Usually disliking a book isn’t a barrier to having plenty to say about it; in fact the opposite is often true. But even though this was a book club choice and I’ve therefore spent an evening down the pub discussing it, I still don’t feel I have very much to say.

I must admit I wasn’t enthusiastic when this book was suggested. Like many avid readers, I had my Coelho phase and quickly discovered that his books can be a bit samey and preachy and that’s not really my thing. (Though I will say that I enjoyed Veronkia Decides to Die and Eleven Minutes.) But a retelling of the story of Elijah from an author who gets oh-so-spiritual and life-lesson-y didn’t get me excited.

And sadly it turns out I know myself well. I have nothing against using religion as the backdrop or even the foreground of a novel, in fact it worked very well for our previous book club read, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, but it still needs to be well written and have a storyline and engaging characters and all the rest. I think you can guess where this is going.

I didn’t know the story of Elijah well but I’m pretty sure I could tell you which bits of this book were biblical and which were added by Coelho. Elijah is a bit of a wishy washy hero who should have been so much more. At a surprisingly young age he abandons his career as a carpenter because he is called by God to be a prophet. But prophets are being slaughtered in his homeland of Israel so he flees to neighbouring Lebanon, where they don’t believe in his God and only let him live because he could be a useful bargaining tool. And there’s a little bit of a love story. And a foreign army is threatening to attack Elijah’s adopted city.

So there’s plenty going on. And yet I was frequently bored by this book. It’s not long or complex, the writing is light and simple, there aren’t too many characters, so why was it a bit of a slog? First of all, almost nothing is described – people, places, anything, nothing is visualised for you. In fact few of the characters, including main ones, even have names. Second, the majority of the narrative is Elijah whining and philosophising and whining some more. He doesn’t do anything unless God tells him to, resulting in one of the wimpiest, dullest characters I’ve ever come across. And third (though certainly not finally) Coelho injects it all (somehow) with an isn’t-this-meaningful self-help vibe.

One thing that I did enjoy and that could have been made more of, was the story of the spread of the alphabet. I have no idea how historically accurate the coverage of this was, but I was interested in how it was resisted and the reasons for that. Sadly Coelho did not dwell on this as much as I’d have liked. Maybe I’ll search out a better written book on the subject.

First published by Harper Collins 1998.

Don’t be put off by the title

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
by José Saramago
translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero

This month’s book club pick sounded a tad intimidating and I certainly would never have picked it up if not for the group. What I discovered was a complex, at times difficult, but also beautiful and funny book that I’m glad to have read.

Much could be made of the heretical aspects of this book. It was written by an atheist shortly after the publication of The Satanic Verses and definitely attracted the attention of the Church. But what struck me the most was that it seemed to be at least partly an attempt to answer some genuine questions – if Jesus experienced life as a real human man (whether or not he was the son of God) what would that life have been like? Saramago answers this in depth, from the landscape and food to the people, ways of speaking and acting, and the historical context – Jesus’s part of the world was under Roman occupation, which had its effect on everyday life. Saramago also explores how Jesus might have been treated when he started talking about his relationship with God, the reactions of those close to him and those of strangers.

Of course, it’s about more than that because it also takes some small but significant deviations from the accepted Biblical story. Mary and Joseph conceive Jesus in the usual way, with God only later claiming to have had some part in the union. God is indifferent toward his people but then decides he wants more followers so starts to pay attention and make demands of Jesus. Jesus and Mary Magdalene are lovers. Satan is a friendly, approachable, “human” character. And Jesus is perhaps a little too human even before Mary Magdalene comes along:

“…such is youth, selfish and thoughtless, and there is nothing to suggest that Jesus was any different from other boys his age.”

So yes, it’s certainly heretical. It suggests God only wants to expand his leadership, to have more followers, but is unhelpful in terms of how and tricks Jesus into accepting his fate. It also says that God and Satan are equal, or rather balance each other out. This is certainly not a cuddly, loving God.

The style is a little difficult to start with, written in Biblical rhetoric, sometimes reverent sometimes very not. It can be very detailed and descriptive, even beautiful (OT-like, perhaps), especially near the start. But in other places it is bareboned, more like reading the New Testament. There are no paragraph breaks (a Portuguese thing?) and speech is not marked out by speech marks. But I got used to those things quite quickly and found I was reading at a faster pace than I had expected considering how demanding the prose is in terms of references and allusions. There is a lot of pathos. These characters are so human, with hopes and fears and guilt and temptation and the little niggles of everyday life. It could have been a very serious book, so thank goodness for the wonderful sense of humour:

“…this revelation did not escape Mary despite the angel’s obscure speech, and, much surprised, she asked him, So Jesus is my son and the son of the Lord, Woman, what are you saying, show some respect for rank and precedence, what you must say is the son of the Lord and me, Of the Lord and you, No, of the Lord and you, You’re confusing me, just answer my question, is Jesus our son, You mean to say the Lord’s son because you only served to bear the child, So the Lord didn’t choose me, Don’t be absurd…”

Clearly a lot of research went into it. It directly references not only passages from the Bible but also other religious writings and historical/archaeological knowledge of what life would have been like in that time and place. To a certain extent it fills in the gaps left by the Biblical gospels, therefore there’s lots of detail about Mary and Joseph, and Jesus’ childhood, but it skips quite quickly through the evangelism and miracle-working of Jesus’s last few years.

I was never clear about who the narrator is. The title suggests that it’s Jesus but it doesn’t read like that, it reads like one of his followers. But no-one could know all of this except an omniscient narrator so is it God? Or Satan? Or Jesus but much later from his seat in Heaven talking about “Jesus” in third-person because he’s now Michael?

Whoever it is, the narrator sometimes interjects in a manner that drags you out of the beautifully and believably constructed world of 2000 years ago to the present day, whether by directly referencing something modern or by applying a modern perspective. For instance, the narrator is often at great pains to point out the misogyny of life back then.

Joseph takes centre stage for the first half or so of the book and is therefore fully fleshed out, despite his brief appearance and disappearance in the Bible. He is a good man who, in contrast with the thinking of the time, is tormented by guilt for his own personal wrongdoing, which lays the groundwork for the major difference between Judaism and Christianity, according to this text – that Jews say prayers and give thanks and make sacrifices as part of the collective guilt of mankind, wheras Christianity is about acknowledging and asking forgiveness for personal sins.

At book club we discussed how, because the reader already knows the story, or thinks they do, Saramago plays with this. There’s a sense when reading this book of “when’s it going to get to the part when xyz” and xyz either happens later than expected or in an underwhelming sort-of way or even doesn’t happen at all. But some scenes are taken almost word for word from scripture, cleverly woven in.

There was some symbolism that I noticed but didn’t get, and I suspect it would help to have some solid theological knowledge when reading this rather than just a semi-deliberately forgotten memory of Sunday School and acting out Bible stories for Girls Brigade. I did find myself looking up some passages because they either rang a bell or rang false and the result varied from discovering they were surprisingly similar to the Bible (e.g. the wedding at Cana) to being a combination of different gospels put together in a new way (Jesus’ birth) to being a twist or slightly skewed take on the Biblical telling (Judas betraying Jesus to the Romans). Sometimes the narrator gives us a clue as to how this “true” account might become altered, for instance when Jesus spends 40 days and 40 nights talking to God and Satan he is not in the desert, but almost immediately on his return his followers are talking about it as his time in the desert.

There is so much to say about this book (clearly), and it was definitely a good one to have a roundtable discussion of.

O Evangello segundo Jesus Cristo first published 1991 by Editorial Caminho, Lisbon.
This translation first published 1993 by Harcourt Brace.
José Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature 1998

Sometimes you shouldn’t probe too deep

Rupture
by Simon Lelic

This was another book club read and it certainly generated a lot of discussion, even if part of that was our cynical reaction to the marketing surrounding this book – a lot of review copies were sent out and the book includes “book club” style questions at the back. I mean, it worked, we all read it!

I really enjoyed this book but I didn’t note down my thoughts on finishing it, as I usually would, because I suspected it wouldn’t stand up to intense criticism. Turns out I was right. The more questions asked around the table, the more I realised that this was a guilty pleasure rather than a class act.

The story follows policewoman Lucia May’s investigation into a school shooting. It seems to be a cut-and-dried case – teacher walked into assembly, shot and killed five people including himself – and May’s superiors urge her to wind up the investigation quickly so that the community can move on. But May wants to know not just what happened but also why, and that’s a complex question.

Lelic certainly has some skill. I was gripped by the story even though most of the facts are revealed early on. Every other chapter is a transcript of an interview from shortly after the shooting, allowing a lot of characters’ voices to be heard. Certain details are revealed in these chapters that you realise Lucia has known all along (because she conducted all the interviews) while we as readers had to wait to get to that interview, which is the opposite way round to how information in a novel usually works, and I liked that.

Without wanting to give too much away, the key theme of this book is bullying, and it wears its mission statement so plainly that the message can get heavy handed at times. Yes, bullying happens among adults as well as children and I think it’s important to acknowledge that, but I’m not sure that this book gave the most accurate portrayal. I’m also not sure how accurate Lelic’s portrayal of the police is (I’m guessing not very) though I did find the school convincing. Our discussion revealed a number of plot holes, many more than I would ever have spotted alone.

I was glad to find I was not alone in considering the killer, Samuel Szajkowski, to be the most compelling character in this book. Even though he is dead before the book begins, and there are no flashbacks, we get to know a little of him through other people and what emerges is a believable, complex man. It’s a shame that no other characters are quite so fully rounded, but then you could argue that the book is really about Szajkowski even though it follows Lucia’s daily life.

It was suggested that there is a certain element of doggedly following writing guidelines evident in this book, which is Lelic’s first novel. But while reading it I was able to completely suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. Which is no bad thing, let’s face it.

First published 2010 by Picador.
Finalist for the Crime Writers Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award 2010.