‘The Dark Room’ by Rachel Seiffert

The stories of three ordinary Germans and how war – and World War II in particular – impacts on their lives forms the basis of Rachel Seiffert’s debut novel.

Born with a non-serious congenital condition – a missing muscle in his chest – Helmut is a boy who is sidelined by sport-playing schoolfriends and, as a young adult, is unable to join the German army at the outbreak of war. Instead, an embarrassment to his working-class, Nazi party member parents, Helmut stalks the streets as a photographer, documenting the slow depopulation of Berlin.

Lore is a young teenage girl given the responsibility of taking her siblings across a Germany decimated by war and zoned by the Allies. With parents arrested as senior members of the Nazi party, Lore needs to keep heads low and find a way from Bavaria to the northern port of Hamburg and the home of her grandmother.

The longest story is that of Micha who, in 1997, researches the role his beloved grandfather, Opa, played as a Waffen SS member stationed in a small Belorussian village. Alienating his family in the process, travelling alone to the village on three separate occasions, Micha becomes obsessed with the need to identify and face the truths of the past.

The Dark Room is a fascinating, if somewhat uneven, exploration of guilt, innocence, truth and morality. He never fires a shot, but how culpable is the patriotic Helmut? Micha meets Jozef in Belarus, a collaborator who did not believe the anti-Semitic propaganda even as he murdered Jews – it was simply ‘a lie that made sense.’ For him, 40 years later, there is no point where apologising can bring redemption, such is the gravity of his actions. In the strongest narrative, as Lore finally arrives with her siblings in an almost unrecognisable Hamburg, it is the grandmother who asks her young charges not to judge their parents. ‘They are good people. They did nothing wrong.’ Micha would strongly disagree with such a comment 40 years later.

Deceptively simple in style, The Dark Room is a provocative read that was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize – but which lost out to Peter Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang.

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‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders is based loosely on the true story of the remote Derbyshire village of Eyam. In 1665, as plague swept the country, the villagers, persuaded by their young minister, Michael Mompesson, chose to isolate themselves. But this was not fear of the plague reaching them. An infected bolt of cloth sent from London had already seen to that. The villagers voluntarily cut themselves off to prevent the disease being carried further. It’s an astonishing story of a community, of survival, of death, of faith, of sacrifice packed with historical detail.

Brooks chooses to tell her tale through the voice of Anna Frith, a young widow and housemaid to Mompellion (the fictional minister). Right from the off, we know some great tragedy has occurred.

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and signs and sounds that said this year it would be all alright: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came….This year the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

Anna is a survivor from, it is revealed, a disease that wiped out more than half of the village in less than a year. It is her lodger, a young Mr Viccars, who, as a travelling tailor, is the first victim. It is he who has ordered the death-carrying cloth. Anna’s two young sons soon join him. The plague seeds spread quickly, regardless of age, gender and wealth. Every household is affected. Whole families are wiped out: parents die, their children survive: parents survive, their children die. As the community diminishes, faith frays, blame apportioned.

A relatively peaceful homogenous village disintegrates: the self-sufficiency of rural life is decimated. It is Anna and Elinor Mompellion who look to maintain the spirits of the locals – and help care for those stuck down by the virulent disease. But they are also the voice of reason – commentators on the small minority who take advantage of the situation, including Anna’s own father, for personal gain.

In spite of the knowledge from the very beginning that tragedy strikes and a vast percentage of the village will be wiped out, Brooks still manages to create a surprising level of suspense in Year of Wonders. It’s a deeply moving and affecting story as seen through the young Anna’s eyes. Knowing she survives to recount the story allows the reader to grow with her as she moves from a tongue-tied housemaid to a vocal critic of Mompellion and other men of the village. She is a woman who takes charge in cases of need.

It’s only the somewhat contrived ending of Brooks novel that denies its classic status. When the plague seems to be finally dying out, events unfold and secrets revealed that are wholly unexpected and, in reality, unnecessary. The result, to my mind, is that the last 20 pages or so undermine all that has gone before it. Which is a pity, as Year of Wonders is an eminently readable and laudable debut novel.

‘J’ by Howard Jacobson

A momentous catastrophe from the past shrouds an unconventional love story between two people, neither of whom ultimately knows who they actually are and where they came from. What Happened, If It Happened is of such dystopian magnitude that both Kevern and Ailinn survive in the small seaside town of Port Reuben where questions are rarely asked (and answers even rarer) and the past is just that – in the past. It’s a landscape where family histories have been erased, names changed, travel almost non-existent and undesirable art, music and books “not banned – nothing was banned exactly – simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude. Popular taste did what edict and proscription could never have done…” Art is therefore landscape painting, books predominantly romances and cookbooks whilst jazz has almost disappeared.

Meeting and falling in love with Ailinn opens Kevern’s world to increasing scrutiny. But it also results in the pair increasingly scrutinised. In spite of being born in Port Reuben, Kevern remains an outsider where immediate histories are remembered; it’s a place where his father would never say the letter j, choosing to place two fingers to his lips; it’s a place where the two lovers find their lives more and more intolerable.

That’s essentially the linear plot of J. But J is anything but linear. Complex, non-linear, Orwellian, theoretical, philosophical interjected with Jacobson’s wit and exploration of Jewish identity slowly reveals the depth of What Happened, If It Happened. J may be the first letter of jazz. But it’s also the first letter of a word never mentioned in the novel. Yet the symbolism of What Happened, If It Happened is unavoidable.Whilst never discussed in detail and clouded in mystery, with a large number of the population doubting that it actually happened – it’s strongly implied that it was a massive pogrom, a second (or in the scope of Jacobson’s novel, first) Holocaust.

Although interspersed with humour, J is bleak and disquieting. And it’s no easy read – there’s more than a hint of Jacobson exploring the idea (perverse though it may sound) of the need for anti-Semitism: What Happened, If It Happened is a cyclical “equipoise of hate”. The deeply hidden sense of ‘other’ needs to be rooted out and allowed to flourish in order for it to start all over again.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize, Howard Jacobson lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

‘The Northern Clemency’ by Philip Hensher

An epic tale of northern England in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Philip Hensher’s 700+ pages is a state-of-the-nation narrative with very little input by the very events determining that state of the nation. 

Opening in 1974 in a white-collar street in a white-collar suburb in the industrial city of Sheffield, The Northern Clemency primarily looks to the Glover family to drive its narrative, assisted by the newly arrived Sellers family, who have upped sticks from London and taken the unusual step of heading north. We follow these two families over the next 20 years.

It’s the time of massive social upheaval in Britain, the years of Thatcherism, privatisation, the yearlong miner’s strike. Yet, so little makes it to the pages of Hensher’s novel: and there’s even less analysis. Admittedly, Daniel (the eldest Glover child) eventually partners Helen, daughter of a miner: Tim (youngest Glover) is a Trotskyite activist who baits management-level Mr Glover (building society) and Mr Sellers (electricity board). But it’s all so extraordinarily superficial – even Helen’s father is a non-supporter of the strike, a very small minority of the National Union of Miners. What makes the lack of any commentary even more puzzling is the fact that the novel is set in Sheffield, one of the most politically militant anti-Thatcher cities at the time.

The result is that the disappointing The Northern Clemency reads like a script for a television soap opera made in the 1970s. There’s the occasional melodrama (Mrs Glover working part-time at a new, fancy florist that turns out to be laundering drug money and the subsequent court appearance years after she quit work: the stroke that poleaxes Mrs Sellers only a few months after her husband takes early retirement) and lots of minor, neighbourly events – births, deaths (but surprisingly no marriages) alongside friendships developed. And, as the northern industrial cities decline, so the kids mostly move out – London calls, as does Sydney for Sandra Glover. 

Adroit it may be (to keep the attention for 700+ pages, it must have something going for it) but it left me yearning for more and less at the same time. Less about fish pies, coronation chicken and mushroom vol au vents, more about the city of Sheffield, the people who lived there and the political machinations that led to the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. 

Like all good soap operas, The Northern Clemencygrabs superficial interest. But the reality is that, like soap operas, it ultimately has little value. Hensher has chosen to tell it as it is (or at least how he remembers it – he was bought up in Sheffield from the age of nine having moved there from London) but with no depth of analysis. Everything just is. The Glovers and the Sellers simply move through their lives, whether it’s the 1970s, the 80s or the 90s (Hensher chooses to place his narrative in the 70s and the 90s, with the back story of the 80s told retrospectively).

The Northern Clemencywas shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize but lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.


Booker Prize Shortlist: 2017

2017 represents only the third occasion whereby I have read all shortlisted novels for the Booker Prize. And, as with 2016 and 1996, the question remains – from my perspective, did the judges get it right with George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo?

Controversy had (as usual) reigned supreme when the longlist of 13 was whittled down to six. Where was Sebastian Barry and Days Without End? What – no Jon McGregor and Reservoir 13? What happened to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway and Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones? Instead, according to many critics, what was a powerful long list became something of a diluted shortlist.

The books that did make the cut were
Paul Auster 4, 3, 2 1
Emily Fridlund History of Wolves
Mohsin Hamid Exit West
Fiona Mosley Elmet
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
Ali Smith Autumn

Sadly, to my mind, there were only two novels that stood out on the list, both extremely powerful and both deserved winners of the prize in this year – and in many other years. But the other four were generally forgettable.

Her fourth appearance on the Booker shortlist, Ali Smith and her Autumn is, to my mind, the least enjoyable of the six. Expansive and inventive it may be, capturing the zeitgeist of current British world of uncertainty and inwardness, this short novel is beautifully written and deeply profound, yet, too often, deliberately obscure and pretentious. (50%)

Emily Fridlund’s debut novel History of Wolves is also beautifully written with haunting prose and a vivid sense of place, but its meandering narrative failed to ultimately engage. (50%)

I loved his The Reluctant Fundamentalist – but Mohsin Hamid’s ruminations on refugees and Exit West, whilst salient, engrossing, at times quite magical, is also somewhat odd – a flight-of-fancy that actually needed a little more grounding. The teasingly well written first third sadly becomes a pedestrian, off-kilter place (as opposed to time) travel narrative. (58%)

Elmet is a powerful debut novel set in Yorkshire – a dark tale sublimely wrought, a British gothic simultaneously pastoral and fraught with a sense of foreboding. But it trails off into the land of melodrama in its narrative as Fiona Mosley tries a little too hard to tie up all loose ends. (64%)

The final two on the list are streets ahead of the other on the shortlist – and are neck and neck in the running. Paul Auster’s sprawling 4,3,2,1 is a magnificent thousand plus pages of four versions of the early life/lives of Archie Ferguson. It’s an engrossing celebration of liberal ideology and a reflection on a generation that sexually, politically and culturally defined the end of the twentieth century. (80%)

But it’s pipped to the post by George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo , an ethereal symphony in its intimacy of grief and familial love. Structurally experimental, Saunders’ novel is a polyphonic narrative interspersed with short quotes from newspaper articles and biographies of the day as President Abraham Lincoln is struck politically inert on the death of his 12 year-old son. (81%)

A very hard call – but to my mind, the judges of the 2017 Booker Prize got it right as far as the winning novel was concerned. Not convinced about the shortlist itself, though.

‘Poor Cow’ by Nell Dunn

Set in the south London working class suburb of Fulham in the 1960s, Poor Cowis the story of Joy, a young woman with plenty of dreams but few opportunities (Whole lot of longing what never comes true.). A reluctant mother at 21, a husband in prison and, following a short period of luxury on the proceeds of one of Tom’s jobs, is now back living with her Aunt Em in a one-bedroomed flat in Fulham.

It’s a poignant story of a train-wreck of a life, a life determined predominantly by the choices of others (Tom; his mate, Dave, with whom Joy finds some happiness until he too is put away in the nick) and the system. But Joy herself also makes some pretty ripe choices.

Yet, somehow, Joy seems to muddle through it all – modelling (nude), as a barmaid or taking money for sexual favours (but never on the game). Her ambitions are limited – she hated the life of luxury with Tom in the soulless suburb of Ruislip –and she’s determined to wait for the release of Dave (12 years). Only trouble is that Dave introduced Joy to the joys of sex… 

But her biggest (unexpected) love is her son, Jonny. No matter what, Joy tries to be there for him (by today’s standards, her efforts would be far from enough) and many of her decisions are made with Jonny in mind. Even agreeing to live with Tom on his release is based to some extent on a level of security for both her and her son.

Semi-autobiographical (author Nell Dunn lived in Battersea – the next suburb along from Fulham – throughout the 60s), Poor Cow is a knee-length boots and mini-skirted tale of life, love, survival and young motherhood in the 1960s. Dunn captures the sense of place and time through the use of language and a real sense of Joy’s personality is achieved through her letters to Dave (a naïve innocence mixed with a steely resolve written in a terribly spelt south London vernacular). It’s a fascinating slice of life from a very different perspective to that of Swingin’ London and its youth-driven cultural revolution. And at 141 pages, it’s short!

‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins

Commonly regarded as one of the first ‘mystery novels’ and an early example of detective fiction, Collins’ The Woman in White is a true nineteenth century literary classic.

First published in serial form in 1859 and set in Victorian England, the story examines the twisted circumstances surrounding the arranged marriage between young, innocent heiress, Laura Fairlie, and the older Sir Percival Glyde.

It’s the tale of social mores, class, gender inequality, love, treachery, mental illness, fraud – and a murder conspiracy investigation that made it so popular in its day. And it being written by Wilkie Collins, it’s also a prime gothic melodrama!

A young, handsome art teacher, Walter Hartright, is appointed tutor to Laura and takes up residence at the isolated Cumbrian estate of Limmeridge. A ward of her invalid (hypochondriac) uncle, Frederick, Laura lives a sheltered life with her half-sister, Marian Halcombe. Unencumbered with wealth, looks or social expectations, Marian is intelligent and feisty – and almost immediately befriends Hartright. 

Love develops between teacher and Laura – socially unacceptable in Victorian England – and he is forced to curtail his three-month appointment. His departure is made more crucial by the imminent arrival of Sir Percival Glyde, a man betrothed to Laura at the wishes of her beloved father on his deathbed. A charming aristocrat who wins over the Limmeridge household, he is, of course, not what he seems. A dastardly, short-tempered older man in severe financial trouble is his reality, with creditors queuing for their monies – and a grand conspiracy unfolds with Laura, now Lady Glyde, the innocent victim and Marian, by her position as a woman in Victorian England, almost equally powerless. It’s only on the return of Hartright from self-imposed overseas exile that justice can move forward. 

Told by a series of narrators central to the events as they unfold, The Woman in White stands out from novels of the time in that Collins has written complex, spirited and believable female characters. Whilst Marian Halcombe herself may talk of her limitations as a ‘mere woman’, it is unquestionably ironic, as Collins has created a woman of action who is not afraid to say what she thinks. 

True to its time (and the fact it was published in serial form), The Woman in White is drawn out, verbose and occasionally pompous. It takes more than 600 pages to tell its tale as Hartright, Halcombe, family lawyers, doctors, housekeepers, maids all have their say and contribution to the narrative. Interestingly, the fraudulent conspiracy and its reveal take up only a little over half the novel: the social unmasking of the complexities of the dastardly deed take up a great deal of planning and careful scrutiny in the latter part of the novel.

It’s an entertaining and involving read, if occasionally long-winded. And whilst gender politics may grate by today’s standards, for it’s time The Woman in White is remarkably forward thinking (as well as an insight into English attitudes towards foreigners! Judging by comments proliferating social media today regarding Brexit, little has changed in more than 150 years…).


‘A Murder of Quality’ by John le Carré

The second novel from le Carré; the second featuring George Smiley. Only having resigned from the Secret Service at the end of Call for the Dead, Smiley finds himself on this occasion involved in murder most foul.

The violent murder of Stella Rode, the wife of a junior master at the redoubtable Carne School, educator of royalty for centuries, upsets the privileged veneer of the ancient establishment. Grammar school educated, the Rodes were not readily accepted by the staff of a school imbued with protocol and social place. Class snobbery in extremis was the norm.

As with his first book, le Carré explores this British post-Second World War class system through Smiley, a man who can as readily dress for dinner as have a pint in the local pub with a police detective.

A Murder of Quality is somewhat pedestrian, its dated narrative and obvious constructs flat. But there are flashes of the le Carré to come that lifts his second novel out of the Agatha Christie mould. It’s an easy enough diversion, an old-fashioned detective mystery that owes most of its interest to the fact it’s the second George Smiley novel: a curio that would have otherwise slipped into insignificance.

‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor

A young teenage girl, on holiday with her parents, disappears and the villagers are called upon to join the search. ‘They gathered in the car park in the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do. It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked. The missing girl’s name was Rebecca Shaw… A mist hung low across the moor and the ground was frozen hard.’ 

So begins Jon McGregor’s haunting novel of grace and beauty as time passes, the girl remains missing and the village returns to its everyday. Reservoir 13 charts that everyday, a portrait of the life in the village and its surrounds – a farming community struggling with change as the kids look to leave and families are hit hard by the impact of supermarkets and big business in the next valley. 

But McGregor’s magical novel is not an episodic soap opera. Yes – characters in the village come and go; plans for the Christmas pantomime and New Year’s fireworks are discussed; the foxes and badgers in the coppice mate and raise their young. But in his fluid prose and long, unbroken paragraphs full of life and detail, McGregor gives voice to an array of moments, a sequencing of narrative events that merge into magical and evocative storytelling. ‘Nelson’s barking shifted up a pitch and the door shook as he clattered against it, and then Mr Wilson opened up with a smile. By the packhorse bridge a heron paced through the mud at the river’s edge, head bobbing, feet lifted awkwardly high. The weather on the hills was fine for September, and the scoured stacks of gritstone that made up Black Bull Rocks were warm to the touch. In a hollow deep between the stones, James and Lynsey had found a comfortable spot and were making up for lost time.’

But always, never very far away, is the enigma of the missing girl and the expectation of her discovery. The rhythms of village life and nature beyond unfold – the cows need milking, the sheep lost on the moors found, the Harvest Festival display arranged. Time is invested: babies are born, the butcher loses first his business quickly followed by his wife, the primary school Principal retires, the female vicar leaves to take up a position in Manchester and is not replaced. But around every corner and through every closed doorway (or off-limits cave), the expectation is the discovery of Rebecca’s body.

Reservoir 13 is not a murder mystery; it is a meditation on time and a reflection on the art of storytelling and narrative traditions. Ingenious.

Whilst the winner of the 2017 Costa Book Award, Reservoir 13 inexplicably failed to make the shortlist of the 2017 Man Booker Prize (which was won by George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo). 

‘Restoration’ by Rose Tremain

‘Erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful and sad’ – so is the self-description at the beginning of Restoration by our seventeenth century hero, Robert Merivel. But Tremain herself admits that Merivel is as much a product of the 1980s (when the novel was written) as it is of the 1660s (when the novel is set).

Tremain talks of the climate of selfishness and material greed that began to prevail in the UK in the Thatcher years (and which has such contemporary currency with the ongoing Brexit saga). Restoration was her fictional response – set in the time of King Charles II and the frippery of the court, where personal gain and excess was positively encouraged (and generally rewarded) whilst the vast majority of the population continued their lives in penury and drudgery.

Robert Merivel is a dissolute medical student when an accident of fate leads him to the court. His sense of fun and humour wins favour with the king – to the point Charles bestows upon him a title (Sir Robert) and a house (Bidnold) in the county of Norfolk. But there’s a catch. Robert must not only marry Celia, the king’s favourite (and youngest) mistress, but he must never touch her. With the luxuries of a generous stipend, Bidnold itself and a preference for experienced, Rubenesque women (and the fact Celia will continue to live closer to London than Norfolk), Merivel readily accepts the conditional gift – and so begins a year of pure, unadulterated, indulgent luxury, ‘to hang the walls [of Bichnold] with ruched vermilion taffeta and Peking scrolls, to upholster my chairs in scarlet and carmine and gold’ and dress in the excess style of court – colour, flounces, wigs, facepowder. 

But reliant on favours and whims, it cannot last and Merivel finds himself cast out, without income, without home: and, as his marriage arrangements are public knowledge, something of a fool. But he is determined to win back the King’s favour.

To do so requires Merivel to dig deep, to attach himself to the dour Quaker livelihood of Pearce, his friend from Cambridge days, and the mental hospital deep in the windswept Fens. Pearce has undertaken his commitment to the patients in ‘despair at the greed and selfishness of our age which he believed was like a disease or plague, to which hardly any were immune.’

Sounds familiar. 

Considering Rose Tremain is regarded as one of the UK’s most significant authors, Restoration is, surprisingly, her only book to make a Booker Prize shortlist (in 1989). She lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day