‘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.

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‘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.

‘Possession: A Romance’ by AS Byatt

possessionMassive and complex AS Byatt’s multi-awarding novel may be, but this overwrought piece of pretentiousness left me perfervid and polysyllabically frustrated (I can do it too!).

The writing was on the wall almost 30 years ago when I first purchased the book – it has stayed on the bookshelf since then. Now a yellowed, vintage copy (appropriate – a large part of Possession: Romance is entrenched in 19thcentury poetry and letters), pages and pages of varied fonts, indented prose, academic musings incorporating footnotes into the main body of the novel alongside stereotypical characterisation and humour that falls flat results in a fetid indulgence of epic proportions.

I long gave up on the exploits of the nerdy, academic researcher, Roland Michell, wanting to make a name for himself in the world of 19thcentury English literature and the poetry of Randolph Henry Ash. Naturally his boss, James Blackadder at Prince Albert College in London, is mean spirited and threatened by all and sundry – but in particular the wealthy American, Mortimer Cropper, patron of the Newsome Foundation in Arizona. That upstart is also interested in Ash – and is purchasing all paraphernalia even vaguely related to the poet, including all research papers, original writings and letters.

So right from the off we have academic confrontation and competition – made even more profane when Roland keeps quiet about his discovery of a potential connection between Ash and Christabel LaMotte, a scorned lesbian poet long forgotten until recently championed by feminist academics. Cue more stereotypes of lesbians and feminists that can be added to brash Americans and batty, socially awkward academics as Roland heads of to the Women Studies Centre in the north of England where he meets LaMotte expert, Maud Bailey.

Professional rivalry ensues in the tedious literary detective story that unfolds from their research at the final home of Christabel LaMotte.

Possession: Romance is a series of writings and genres from different periods: epic poems, diaries, letters, lists, academic papers, contemporary prose. But it’s simply too self-consciously clever and sits alongside stereotyped characters and clichéd events and plot development. Byatt herself takes an academic approach to biography whether in fiction or semi-fiction. You may not be able to fault the research and command of language but, as a novel, this is an impenetrable, self-promoting, self-indulgent entrapment. Literary with a capital ‘L’.

Possession: Romance was awarded the 1990 Booker Prize.

‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy

satinislandAn unexpectedly accessible and engaging cerebral read, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is a state-of-the-world stream of consciousness as corporate anthropologist, U., navigates his way through contemporary life and his role in the multi-national, multi-government epoch-defining Koob Sasson Project.

Tasked by Peyman, his boss, with the writing of the book to define the age, U. spends his time in a sporadic oscillation between global and localised catastrophes (oil spills, Lagos traffic jams) and page five news about a dead parachutist – along with the occasional sexual encounter with Madison, a woman he met at a conference in Budapest. His purpose is to accumulate information from which the identification of a codex can possibly be developed – so that he can write that defining tome.

Satin Island is no domestic narrative of the mundane and the every day – it’s about airports and overseas conferences (London, New York, Paris, Seattle, Turin, Vienna), data analysis and expounding theories of human and corporate behaviour. It’s about disappearing into screens, power point presentations and decoding the world.

But what prevents Satin Island from slipping into a miasma of intellectual and theoretical inaccessibility is the wry humour and lightness of touch by Tom McCarthy. Contemplative and challenging it may be as U. scrutinises everything around him in what is essentially a novel without a plot. Madison features occasionally, as does Petr, a friend dying from cancer – but that’s the limit to the human-interest story. The remainder of the relatively short novel is about connection and events, a Chaos theory for the 21stcentury that will enable U. to write that book.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize, Tom McCarthy lost out to Marlon James, the first Jamaican author to win the award, and A Brief History of Seven Killings.

‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ by J.G.Farrell

siegeofkrishnapurTo the north of Calcutta, (the fictional) town of Krishnapur and its British garrison is laid under siege by rebelling sepoys during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Essentially the retelling of the (true) siege of Lucknow, Farrell’s engrossing novel is based partly on contemporary accounts, diaries and letters of the British residents themselves.

Imperialism is placed under the microscope as a complacent community, with the exception of our hero, Mr Hopkins (the Collector), ignore all danger signs. Hopkins is a rarity in that he is a man devoted to progress and contemporary culture. Yet even his values and ideas about civilisation, religion, community – even the essence of Englishness itself – come crashing down around his ears amidst the terrible privations, disease, inhumanity and death during the months under siege in almost unbearable heat.

As Indians encamp in their hundreds on the far banks of the dry river bed to watch the spectacle, the folly and illusions of colonialism are driven home. Cholera cares not for the British class system and, after several months of water rationing, personal hygiene may not be high on the priority list. Food is so scarce that the capture and satisfying crunch of a beetle elicits jealous rage and, of little value, silver cutlery ends up being sequestered for (effective) canon ammunition.

The Siege of Krishnapur, through humour, cutting wit and more than a little moral high ground (the now discredited phrenology, for example, looms large throughout), draws out the drama of events as the characters are subjected to changes in rules almost unfathomable to the privileged many.

Farrell himself (who died tragically at the age of 44 in a fishing accident) said that he wanted to show “yesterday reflected in today’s consciousness” – and his incisive prose and biting wit suggests that he more than achieved this. Occasionally, however, Farrell slips into preaching, particularly when it comes to the discussions and arguments about religion. But a minor caveat for a book that looks not to why the rebellion happened from the Indian perspective, but from the perspective of the ingrained, misplaced superiority of the colonialists.

JG Farrell was awarded the 1973 Booker Prize – and The Siege of Krishnapur is regarded by many critics as the best of all the winning novels.

‘Headlong’ by Michael Frayn

headlongMichael Frayn is a successful novelist and playwright equally at home with farces, comedies and profoundly serious dramas. Throughout, he explores the extreme lunacies of life and the thin dividing-line between order and chaos.

Headlong is a ‘classic’ Frayn, incorporating a farcical narrative where a young academic and wannabe art historian believes he has stumbled across a missing Bruegel masterpiece with scholarly investigation and art history. And like so many farces of wrong doors, missed opportunities, inappropriate clinches, dropped trousers and general absurdity (Frayn wrote Noises Off after all), Headlong is a frustrating, bumbling, infuriating novel.

Martin and Kate Clay, with baby Tilda in tow, head for their country home (a damp, slightly squalid cottage some three hours drive from London) for a year’s sojourn of research and writing (both are university lecturers). On arrival, they discover their neighbour, Tony Churt awaiting them. Never having spoken to any of the local residents, the part-time country folk are surprised by an invitation to dinner at Upwood, the very dreary, run-down Churt manor house. Evidently looking for quick cash, Churt introduces Martin in particular to the family Giordano in the hope of advice on an under-the-counter, avoiding-inheritance-tax deal. But among many other paintings in the freezing house, Martin is convinced he has spotted a Bruegel.

Cue initially fascinating research into the (little known) life of Pieter Bruegel and the politics of life in 16th century Protestant Netherlands under Spanish Catholic rule. Theory and counter theory abounds along with the following of historical lines that may prove the authenticity of a missing (or several) Bruegels from the series of works in The Seasons. Martin’s research also explores the ideology that, like so many paintings of the time, the works were iconographic in their messages – symbols of oppression by the ruling Spaniards. More and more convinced of his discovery, Clay looks to defraud the Churts.

But a convoluted plot evolves where Martin looks to find a ‘mysterious buyer’ for the Giordano (to the Curts, the centrepiece of their collection) and who will throw-in a few thousand pounds for three or four other works (including, of course, the Bruegel).

In the course of looking to validate his discovery and secure purchase (including hightailing it out of the mud-splattered valley to London driving an ancient Land Rover towing the Giordano wedged into a horse box before parking it illegally outside a Mayfair art gallery), Clay comes close to destroying his marriage, bankrupting the family, having an affair with Laura Churt, the glamorous wife of Tony, killing himself in a road accident and defrauding Sotheby’s.

Headlong is a story of prejudice (city culture and rustic ignorance) and miscommunication, a so-called comedy of misattribution (misunderstanding motives, whether in the English countryside or the oppressive imaginary landscapes of the 16th century) and missed opportunities (Clay constantly forgetting to check known recent auction prices for Giordano is the equivalent of the farce dramatist’s ‘wrong door’). It’s infuriating – and, after a while, a little too academic for its own good.

Favourite to win the 1999 Booker Prize, Michael Frayn lost out to J.M.Coetzee and Disgrace.

‘The Garden Book’ by Brian Castro

The-Garden-Book_Brian-Castro-510x799Literary and obscurely poetic, Brian Castro’s meditation on loneliness, addiction, abuse and racism is a perverse and unappealing narrative.

Broken into four sections with events seen from the perspective of four people, The Garden Book is the story of poet Shuang He (Swan Hay) and her sad, isolated life in the shadows of the Dandenong Hills on the outskirts of Melbourne between the wars.

Darcy Damon (section one), her husband, is a good-looking opium addict: Swan Hay herself is a third generation Chinese-Australian and university graduate: Jasper Zhalin (section three) an American architect/pilot and lover of Swan: and finally Shih, their son, looking back at events and attempting to piece together the story some 50 years later.

It’s a frustrating read. Castro has created several captivating characters, allowing him to touch upon fascinating themes that are as relevant today as they were then. The often hidden history of the Chinese in Australia and the racism simmering below the surface of everyday life is exposed – not just towards Swan and her father, but also her Jewish friend, Ruth Black. But Castro’s language, whilst rich and archly beautiful, is impenetrable and exacting in its telling of a narrative.

A progressively angry and violent Damon, former chauffeur to the notorious local gangster, Squizzy Taylor, becomes increasingly remote as he builds a large house to cater for the burgeoning tourism of the local area. Swan, writing poetry on gum leaves, slips between sanity, depression and addiction (opium and/or alcohol), made worse by the cot death of their daughter. As war inches closer and Damon spends more and more time absent from the property as a reservist, into the narrative walks Jasper Zenlin. Charming, wealthy and sophisticated, he loves Swan and her poetry, eventually having the work published by an obscure printing house in Paris on the eve of the war. Swan is a sensation – but never knows it until post-war.

Victim of malicious gossip and accusations, Swan lives intensely and painfully in her mordant solitude. She loses all – Damon, her father, Jasper, her children, even, ultimately, herself.

As a précis, with more verve and action (plane crashes, opium-fuelled orgies, bigamy, spies), The Garden Book sounds like a regular literary thriller. But it falls into an academic exercise, an emotionless gymkhana of poetic verbosity. By the end, I hated it.

The Garden Book was shortlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Roger McDonald and The Ballad of Desmond Kale.

 

‘Empire of the Sun’ by J.G. Ballard

empiresunBased on his own childhood experiences, J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical Empire of the Sun is a compelling war torn story of deprivation and starvation as teenager Jim Graham looks to survive the Japanese Lunghao Airfield internment camp south of Shanghai.

A life of chauffeur-driven privilege in the International Settlement of the Chinese city is permanently changed by the Japanese entering the Second World War with the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour. That same morning, two Japanese warships scuttle American and British gunboats in dock and seize control of the Yangtze River. Confusion reigns: Jim loses contact with his parents and is left to fend for himself.

Roaming free for several months, Jim survives by breaking into the homes of wealthy Europeans, living off water from the soda syphons and cocktail biscuits. But a sense of exhaustion and fear sets in, resulting in his surrender to the Japanese.

Interned in Lunghao, Jim is exposed to the deprivation and cruelty of the Japanese guards. In his three years at the camp, he faces hunger, disease and death. But in his determination to survive, Jim ingratiates himself with prisoners and guards alike to gain food and gifts to later barter for food.

It’s in the detail that Ballard shines. The evocation of the teenage boy’s inner thoughts and confusion, his desperation to avoid slipping into a sense of uselessness along with a sexual awakening in his attraction to Mrs Jenkins: we see Jim grow. He admires the American prisoners and, strangely, identifies (in part) with the Japanese – the pilots in particular. It’s this dislocation of ‘loyalty’ (he has little respect for fellow Brits and the homeland he has never been too) and Jim’s dawning awareness that, as the end of the war approaches, it is likely safer in the camp. Resourceful and wily, having attached himself to other ‘survivors’ (Basie, Dr Ransome), Jim sees the danger that comes with the confusion of the end of the war – starving peasants, rogue Japanese, Chinese communists, bandit camp-survivors. An extraordinary number die after the final days of the war – so many that Jim wanders if World War Three has begun. The dead piled up by the side of roads, bloated corpses floating in the nearby irrigation canals, the sounds of Chinese peasants strangled by soldiers.

A new order is already beginning and the last vestiges of the Empire of the Sun, of the European Empires, of the Chinese Nationalism of Chiang Kai-shek are slowly dying out. Survivors battle survivors for food, booty, a passage to somewhere.

Ballard’s novel is an extraordinary achievement – a semi-fictionalisation of his own personal experiences (a teenage Ballard was interned in Lunghao with his parents and sister). From the pool parties of the International Settlement to deprivation and starvation, from the disregard of local Chinese workers to imprisonment and abuse, Ballard has created a haunting sense of time and place.

The Empire of the Sun was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but, much to the dismay of the literary world, lost out to Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.