‘The Gift of Speed’ by Steven Carroll

The mundane suburban lives of Vic, Rita and son, Michael, first introduced in The Art of the Engine Driver, are further explored in the second part of Carroll’s trilogy.

It’s 1960 and the West Indies cricket team has arrived to play a series against the Australian team that is destined to be regarded as one of history’s best. Michael, now 16 years old, is an obsessive cricket player, determined to be a successful fast bowler. His only interest appears to be the gift of speed and to bowl ‘the perfect ball.’

Interspersing the everyday of life in a new Melbourne suburb to the north of the city with tales of the touring cricket team (and the pressures placed upon West Indies captain, Frank Worrell, in particular – it’s the first tour by the West Indies team that is predominantly black), The Gift of Speed whilst assuredly written, is a surprisingly ordinary tale.

Michael – cricket and the innocence of his first girlfriend, Kathleen: Vic and Rita, distant with each other, irrevocably heading towards separation and lives drifted apart: Vic’s dying mother, finally forced to give up her independence and live with her only child. Little appears to evolve in The Gift of Speed – as if, in their striving for that gift, the world has slowed.

The result is a somewhat dull, ordinary narrative of a unique Australian sensibility of the early 1960s. Carroll’s novel was shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award – but lost out to Andrew McGahan and The White Earth.


‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ by James Baldwin

An intense, burning eloquence marks James Baldwin’s searing Go Tell It On the Mountain, an emotionally powerful semi-autobiographical novel first published in 1953.

Unrelenting in its rage, Baldwin’s first novel focuses on the role of the Pentecostal church in the lives of African-Americans, and the Harlem-living Grimes family in particular. Based on his own personal experiences of growing up in Harlem with a strict disciplinarian preacher as a stepfather, Baldwin speaks primarily through John, a wise, sensitive 14 year-old struggling with his sexuality, his beliefs and his faith in family.

Yet Go Tell It On the Mountain is as much a commentary on Afro-American history as it is about the repression and moral hypocrisy of the church. The novel provides the back history of John’s parents and paternal aunt – of terrible Deep South poverty, of alcoholism, deprivation, the rigid and unrelenting role and judgement of the Church and religion on the lives of the saved and the sinners, the fallen and the raised.

But while aggressively critical in places of Pentecostalism; ‘If God’s power was so great why were their lives so troubled?’ asked John of the adults around him, Baldwin has a sneaking admiration for the church’s positive source of inspiration for people – even if he’s not wholly convinced. The fact the novel ends with John’s soaring force of redemption and conversion on the night of his birthday, dust rising from the very floorboards he lies convulsing upon is some indication. But even then, not all is what it seems, his preacher father, Gabriel, himself wise to tricks of the fallen through personal experience, is not wholly convinced.

Go Tell It On the Mountain – in spite of being banned on publication in New York State and Virginia – has established itself as something of an American classic. Whilst not an easy read, it is a remarkably sincere, magisterial novel that captures an essential aspect of life in America at the time, its contradictions and seductions, that bittersweet mix of love and hate, its overt racism and prejudice.

‘American Rust’ by Philipp Meyer

Whilst occasionally slipping into seemingly aimless meanderings of thought, Philipp Meyer’s powerful debut novel is a tragic dissolution of the American dream and the waste of young lives as a consequence.

With the heavy industries of the Pennsylvanian steel belt closing down, thousands are left unemployed. Once thriving communities are thrown into economic decline and uncertainty, hulking factories lie empty, towns in the Valley virtually abandoned. With little to look forward to and a desperate need to ‘find fresh air’, 20 year-old Isaac English decides to leave the family home and head west to California. He has $4,000 in his pocket, stolen from his father, and the hope that his best friend, Billy Poe, will join him. But they do not get very far. On the outskirts of town, in a decrepit old factory, events unfold that leave one man dead along with an unreliable witness ready to tell a story for the right amount of cash.

With inevitable comparisons to John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, Meyer, with his alternating narrators unflinchingly evoking time and place, immerses the reader in the false hopes and small town secrets of restless lives. 

Isaac, his sister Lee, who has escaped to study at Yale, and the complex Billy are the voices of the aspirations of the younger generation. All three are alienated from the world they have chosen. It’s in part their story, alongside Billy’s mother, Grace, living with her son in an isolated trailer on the edge of town and that of the local police chief, Harris – Grace’s part-time lover.

American Rust is a story of loyalty, of loneliness, of love, of uncertainty: of dashed hopes, wasted lives, social decline. It effortlessly merges multiple plotlines and the complexities of the key characters. Harris ponders on the possible isolation of his ensuing retirement whilst concerning himself with alleviating Grace’s concerns about her son. Isaac is troubled by doing the right thing by Billy – and Billy is determined to keep quiet about what happened that fateful night. Lee carries her guilt for having escaped the town at the expense of lost opportunity for her brother, leaving him to care for their father, disabled in a factory accident.

The novel does occasionally become something resembling a soap opera, but American Rust is the perfect companion piece to Michael Collins earlier The Keepers of Truth, a human reality and social insight to Collins’ murder mystery set in a similar industrial landscape.

Published in 2009, American Rust was regarded by many critics as one of the best novels of the year.  

‘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 2018 Man Booker Prize (which was won by Anna Burns and Milkman). 

‘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

‘Call for the Dead’ by John le Carré

One of the greatest spy novelists of all time (some would argue the greatest spy novelist), John le Carré first introduced George Smiley in this 1961 novella.

Call for the Dead is a relatively minor work as a recently divorced Smiley investigates the death of senior civil servant, Samuel Fennan. According to the top brass, suicide is the cause, but Smiley is unconvinced. There’s just too many East German connections sniffing around.

It is the introduction of Smiley – the foil to an overly public, glamorous  James Bond – that makes Call for the Dead an important, of-its-time, read. Short, overweight, balding and wearer of thick lensed glasses, Smiley has, according to his superiors,  “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.” He is a true career intelligence officer (unlike Bond) but, in 1960 and Call for the Dead, he is working at a menial level, security-clearing civil servants.

It develops into a suspenseful conceit of espionage and deceit, a realism-based thriller that is minor in its narrative and plotting but which, of course, leads le Carré and Smiley into the classics of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme

A novel of extraordinary vitality, of beauty and cruelty, of passion and provocation, Keri Hulme’s debut is set in the harsh, isolated landscape of New Zealand’s South Island. Combining Maori myth and contemporary social attitudes, The Bone Peopleis a soaring yet relentless narrative of three unique characters and their relationship with each other.

A fiercely independent Kerewin, reclusive and virtually self-sufficient in her isolated tower, is an artist running away from her past. Joe is isolated in his recent grief with the sudden death of his wife and young son. And then there is Simon, an autistic child locked into his mute world, unofficially adopted by Joe, having been washed ashore during a terrible storm. Intelligent to the point of precociousness, Simon is a child who tries the patience of a saint: a petty thief with a fierce and almost uncontrollable anger that has landed him in trouble throughout his young life.

A reluctant bond forms between the tough-talking Kerewin and a feral Simon, leading to a gradual breakdown of the barriers she has erected to protect herself from her memories. A reliance evolves, a reliance that eventually encompasses Joe. But there are secrets of violence so shocking and distressing that a wedge pushes this alternative family unit apart.

Complex in its simplicity, The Bone People is, on the one hand, a sincere narrative of a country, a landscape, a culture, of love, death, friendship, abuse, relationships within its everyday. But it’s also a story of myth and fable, a metaphor of change as a European Simon clashes with the traditions of Maori Joe. Part Maori, part ‘Pakeha’ (a white New Zealander), it is Kerewin who represents the future, a hybrid unity of the two cultures.

For all its ambition, heightened sense of grandeur, poetic beauty and visceral, unrelenting violence, The Bone People sadly unravels towards the end as Hulme is seemingly driven by the sense of a utopian ending, a catharsis for all that has come before it and all that will follow. It all becomes a little too laboured and absurd. Which is a pity, as the first two thirds, whilst at times difficult to read, is a haunting narrative with its evocative language and deft storytelling.

Having been rejected by virtually every New Zealand publishing house, Keri Hulme was finally accepted by Spiral, the small feminist publishing house. The Bone People quickly sold its initial 2,000 print run, a pattern that continued and which led to exposure to the UK publishing world and, eventually, the Booker Prize panel. The Bone People was awarded the 1985 Booker Prize, beating such as luminaries as Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Peter Carey.

‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

What is the sequence of the journey I am on? What are its rules? Just a couple of questions asked early in Amis’ narrative by narrator Tod Friendly. The answer soon becomes apparent for the comfortable medical retiree living in the north-east of the US. 

That sequence is a life heading backwards. The narrative opens with Friendly surrounded by doctors at the moment of his death. This is the beginning of Time’s Arrowand the relatively short novel takes its reader through a disorienting reverse chronology. It’s Friendly’s consciousness or hindsight that tells the tale – unable to change the past but simply observe or occasionally comment.

That reversed version of reality sees people become younger (to the point where they return to the womb and cease to exist); relationships start with huge arguments, end with passion and are followed by a period of nothingness or cool distance; meals at restaurants begin with a payment; doctors create harm; taxi drivers are paid at the outset and provide such a service that time is spent at the end of the journey waving farewell. 

The telling of the story of Tod Friendly in such a manner is disconcerting – particularly as it soon becomes apparent that this is not his name and there’s a secret to his past to be kept just that – secret. But with its reverse chronology, Time’s Arrowsoon reveals Dr Odilo Unverdorben and his odious past in the Nazi death camps of the Third Reich.

The main problem with Time’s Arrowis that as a conceit, it simply becomes repetitive. A good-looking German doctor, having fled the concentration camps to escape to the US via Lisbon where he becomes a relatively successful medic but something of a failure in any long-term relationships with women. That’s the essential storyline. It’s surprisingly slight. But, told in reverse chronology, the cleverness, well told, the knowledge that street cleaners drop rubbish before good citizens collect it, becomes a gimmick and a clever writing exercise. And then there’s the experiments on Jews in the concentration camps that result in improvement in health prior to being sent home. Uncomfortable reading…

Time’s Arrowis Martin Amis’ only Booker Prize shortlisted novel and lost out to the 1991 winner, Ben Okri, and The Famished Road.

‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’ by Joshua Ferris

23278040Fierce, pithy, unforgiving, very funny. Ferris’s voice is unique. So stated the Mail on Sunday writ large on the cover. A whole host of other short, sharp accolades are dotted around. The problem is I somewhat struggled to agree.

Paul C O’Rourke is a successful New York dentist, avid fan of baseball and in particular the Boston Red Sox, fiercely private – and a reluctant non-believer. When he is the victim of online identity theft and jettisoned into social media limelight with comments that put him at odds with what he believes in, Paul becomes anxious to discover just who is responsible.

The phantom Paul preaches an obscure, ancient religion, a man [who] broke with reality. He took an old legend from the Bible and made a myth from it, and now he tells the myth like it’s the truth. And the phantom certainly knows a few too many personal details for the real Paul to feel comfortable. What evolves is an occasionally witty narrative that explores crackpot theology, obsession, the Internet and subsequent loneliness of contemporary life.

But the Mail on Sunday claimed a unique voice for the author. Yet To Rise Again at a Decent Hour smacked of Howard Jacobson’s Booker Prize winning The Finkler Question (but without the laugh-out-loud humour) and in particular the character of Julian Tresslove. Like O’Rourke, Tresslove has a chequered and unsuccessful record with women. Like O’Rourke, Tresslove is an obsessive with Judaism and all things Jewish (but O’Rourke is simply an obsessive – Catholicism was an earlier fixation). And middle-class state-of-the-world mournful angst is so much better when written by Philip Roth!

It’s all a little disappointing with its philosophical and religious existential complexities alongside O’Rourke’s deep-rooted loneliness and social dysfunctionality. The result is a well-written but deeply unsatisfyingly dull narrative.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour was shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize but lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.