Book Review: Smile

My copy of Smile, Roddy Doyle’s eleventh novel (for adults), came signed by the author and dated by him the day before publication date last September, and with a personal dedication, too: a marvellously thoughtful birthday gift from my sister.

Doyle remains one of my favourite authors; I have read all his novels and A Star Called Henry continues, nearly twenty years on, not only to be a masterpiece but one of my desert island book choices. In recent years, however, his work has focused less on the novel and more on short form writing. The Guts (2013) saw a revival of the Rabbitte family, while 2006 saw a revival of Paula Spencer; 2010 saw the disappointingly rather overblown conclusion to his  Last Roundup trilogy of Irish history in the 20th century given such a memorable start in A Star Called Henry. Other than these, we’ve had two collections of short stories (in 2007 and 2011) and two collections of banter-based dialogue (2012 and 2014) – light snacks and frothy coffees and witty and enjoyable enough for all that but, otherwise, there’s not been a lot new to get our teeth into in the last decade up until Smile. Indeed, somewhat half-way through this book, the (mistaken) impression I had was that Smile was, again, really two short stories struggling to get out.

Doyle himself has acknowledged that Smile is a very different book in structure and in tone than has been explored in his previous work. Of course, there are continuing threads: the boozer-inspired banter among Dublin’s working class men of a certain age; the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger, and the associated social upheaval which Ireland has experienced since the 1980s – itself a character in many of Doyle’s stories; the casual, frequently savage violence meted out to and among young boys; and the reliability of the witness provided by the narrator. The habitual stylistic quirks in Doyle’s writing are there, too, underpinning the question marks over the reliability of the narrator. Here, however, what is different to Doyle’s previous work is that the narrator himself – Victor Forde – doesn’t himself accept that his narration of his own story is not necessarily reliable but is forced to do so by the end of the novel.

Given Doyle’s assertion that what you see is, indeed, not necessarily what you might get, any synopsis of Smile has uncertain foundations. What we do know is that Forde, a lonely chap in his mid-50s and a former journalist, is seeking to re-build his life by falling in with a new group of acquaintances in the pub. In doing so, he chances upon a mysterious character called Fitzgerald, an apparent outsider who appears to know Forde very well and who, by the end of the novel, compels him to review key events in his life at a deeper level than he had hitherto been able to do.

One of those key events – Forde being bullied at his Christian Brothers School as the result of a remark by one of the teachers – is drawn from Doyle’s own personal history (see previous link to publisher’s interview with Doyle; and also here). Apart from that single detail, the book is not in any sense autobiographical and the treatment that Forde subsequently receives did not happen to Doyle: we don’t have here, therefore, a situation similar to that affecting Alice Sebold, for example, who was unable to get out the novel she wanted to write until she had worked through certain events in her personal life.

The shocking twist on which the novel spins, which brings the two stories together and which changes the tone of the novel completely, is breathtakingly audacious and unlike anything Doyle has attempted in his work before. Not all readers will enjoy having their feet swept from under them by a novelist playing with their perceptions; and some might comment that question marks remain over the execution which mean that the plot twist doesn’t quite come off for Doyle. Even so, the confidence of the attempt has to be admired. There is much else to admire in the novel, too, in terms of the telling, precise accuracy of the observations which fly unerringly home within a shattering finale which wrings the emotions of the reader and which must count among the bravest 3,000 words of any novel anywhere. Three days later, I’m still coming to terms with it.

Ultimately, this is a novel about memory and the long-term damage which schooling can do in which, perhaps, Philip Larkin missed a nuance: it’s not your parents you have to worry about so much as your schooldays. Smile is not only Doyle’s best work in years; but, given the tautness of the tale and the compelling prose, it might indeed be his best yet.

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Book review: Autumn

Just this side of Easter, Spring having sprung; and Calvin is writing about autumn. He must spend his hours wishing his life away.

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Our first 2018 daffodil (taken last Monday, 10am)… now joined by dozens more daffs and narcissus. This, of course, is ‘Spring’.

And this, of course, is ‘Autumn’. By which I mean Ali Smith‘s first in Seasonal, a series of a promised four stand-alone novels (‘Winter’ has indeed already arrived, a signed copy of which sits on my shelf) documenting life in modern Britain. It may well be the first ‘post-Brexit’ novel, although the publishers here have done little favour to a tale that, while written substantially after the 2016 referendum, is not about Brexit but one which brings to the fore the ever-constant themes of time (as befits a series of novels on the cyclical aspects of nature) and of love – mental, emotional, physical; between men and women; between mothers and daughters; of books and literature; of art; of ideas, and of the idea of vivacity; and of country, of what it was and what it is becoming – against the backdrop of the social and relationship changes in the UK brought before, and then by, the referendum itself.

The plot centres on Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-something art lecturer in an insecure, untenured world; and her relationship with Daniel Gluck, a centenarian and wordsmith who arrived in the UK from war-torn Europe, a neighbour whom she first gets to know as a young girl and from whom she learns many life lessons. Gluck is near death – a source of and explanation for the novel’s many dream sequences – and the symbolism of the key events in his life for the UK’s relationship with the rest of the continent on which it sits, so often uneasily, is clear. As, indeed, is the wise old man-enquiring young girl-in-search-of-a-(grand)father-figure symbolism; and it’s fair to wonder why Daniel Gluck could not, instead, have been Daniela: a wise old woman occupying the same role, and in charge of the same dynamic impetus, is definitely a character in search of a novel.

Ali Smith fans will know what to expect from ‘Autumn’ – endlessly, energetically and artistically inventive with both prose and punctuation, and with textual layout (half of me thinks she must be a nightmare to sub-edit; the other half, a dream because there can be no requirement for subbing), ‘Autumn’ consists of a playful rolling and tumbling of words off the page; parenthetical asides from author to reader; dialogue entirely without speech marks; a timeline that jumps around all over the place; characters who talk to themselves in realistically incomplete, sometimes coherent, sometimes incoherent sentences; and dream sequences that take the reader on apparently unconnected flights of fancy. All this plus the non-linear narrative won’t make this a book which will please everyone and neither, I suspect, will it turn unconverted Smith fans into proselytisers – by itself an interesting comment on the state of public discourse on the big issue of the day.

The way that Smith manages to thread into her novel her research and her reading – chiefly into pop-art and sixties London, again a contemporary theme, judging by one London hotel I’ve recently stayed in – is likely to subject her to criticisms that she has clumsily shoe-horned a ragbag of material into it. This, in turn, and owing to the deliberately short timescale of the novel (it seems to incorporate even a pun on the title of the novel of eventual fellow-shortlisted, and actual Booker winner, George Saunders) is likely to entrench criticism that the book was (too-)hastily written (and, in that context, over-hasty in its search for the tag ‘gifted’ it by the publisher). Rather, I would see this – in combination with the ways in which Smith has adroitly weaved her themes into the novel; her characterful vignettes of modern UK life and the absurdities of the interface of ordinary people with bureaucratic regulation; and of the juxtaposition of the profound and the mundane – as emblematic of the collages of Pauline Boty, the actress, model and pop-artist whose work underpins both the development of the plotlines in ‘Autumn’ and in its overall approach: a riot of colour and apparently abstract thematic disconnectedness but which nevertheless tends towards a statement, a position, a theme, or a development in time. Much, it would seem, like autumn itself.

I’m writing this review on the day ‘celebrating’ the one-year anniversary of the UK government’s triggering of the mechanism to leave the EU. The hope is that, like autumn gives way to winter, but then to spring, the events brought by the referendum will, perhaps eventually and after a painful period, bring new growth and new life; the fear is that, as cyclical as these things are, this may instead lead to a return of the UK to its time of Empire, a retreat into the past in an era when the problems of our time can only be resolved by coming together. Either way – and just as how ‘Autumn’ draws to an end on an unexpectedly positive note – we can take comfort in taking the long-term view: that things are never constant and subject always to change, however difficult and full of foreboding they might look in the short-term. Time is, as Smith herself might have put it, timeless.

Book Review: Adults in the Room

It is impossible for the reader not to approach the closing chapters of Yanis Varoufakis‘s memoir of his six months as Greece’s Finance Minister with anything other than increasing sadness: sadness at the sapping of the revolutionary zeal of the minority Syriza government, worn down and demoralised by the weight of pressure and expectations which its election had created, and internally divided as a result of dealing with petty party politics as well as a shameful lack of mutual trust and discipline; and sadness at the evident disappointment with which Varoufakis, an indefatigable character who bounces back from one ‘no’ to the next, convinced of the unarguability of his econometric analysis and understanding of the data it reveals, begins to relate the events and the breakdowns in human relations and in Syriza’s collective narrative which culminated in his departure from the (party) political stage.

As I reviewed previously, this is a compelling narrative containing a lucid amount of detail of Varoufakis’s attempts to represent Syriza on the international stage and in pursuit of a good agreement with Greece’s creditors re-negotiating the debt and ending self-defeating austerity, drawn both from his diary and from recordings made of key moments and meetings. Never actually a member of Syriza – an ‘outsider’ to the party’s ‘insiders’ – he may have been guilty of a certain amount of naivety, and certainly a political naivety, which contributed to his downfall but his grasp of detail (a certain amount of financial economics is required of the reader) and his ability to build an apparently cohesive and diverse international support network, containing some rather surprising members (some of whom may, of course, have had agendas of their own), commands respect for the deliverability of his ideas, at least in terms of their potential.

As a person, it is difficult not to warm to him and, as someone who has also carried in his pocket a letter of resignation into important meetings on more than one occasion (never yet deployed, by the way), I also felt an affinity. His desire to represent the voters who elected him – he polled higher than any other figure in the 2015 Greek election, perhaps as a function of the size of his Greater Athens constituency and also his high profile within Greece – is clear but there are, as a result, some doubts over his ability to compromise. Varoufakis would of course not be the first politician to founder on the EU’s ability to say ‘non’ (or, better said here, ‘nein’). In these circumstances, however, a lack of agreement is not only unsurprising (and which also, at the same time, raises questions about the ability of the creditors themselves to compromise on something other than their ‘programme’) but the counter-view – that Greece was also suffering as a result of this continuing impasse – clearly has merit. Inevitably (this is his own memoir), his view of the process may not necessarily be a fully-rounded one (the true history of this clearly requires an examination of the views of other participants in the process) but it is, nevertheless, one that is firmly dug in.

For Europe itself, Varoufakis’s book raises a recognition of how the democratic deficit which is present in the powerful Eurogroup, the informal body which exists to co-ordinate financial policies within the Eurozone yet which has no presence within the EU’s treaties, and where a large part of the events related in Adults in the Room plays out as a result of its de facto role as the Commission’s representative on the troika, can be ended. Such informality gives dominant characters like Wolfgang Schäuble, the ‘architect of austerity‘, a platform but without democratic accountability or legitimacy. It was at the Eurogroup where the EU’s policy of containing the potential damage to the Eurozone played out, and where a solution for Greece was purposively denied so as not to provoke similar demands from deeply indebted others across southern Europe, thus protecting the position of the Euro. The remoteness of that from the concerns of ordinary voters surely has to be addressed not so much in the sense that ECFIN – the formal Finance Council including all Finance Ministers, not just those in the Eurozone, and which has a foundation in the treaties – is any the closer to such concerns but in the sense that the Eurogroup not only contains an element of power without responsibility arising from its informality but also that it introduces confusion around the locus of authoritative decision-making and inevitably creates a layer of insulation around its leading authority figures. It is difficult to escape the view as a result that greater political union must also accompany economic and monetary union.

The problems raised by the Eurogroup are heightened by the power of group dynamics and peer pressure: repeatedly, Varoufakis confronts his peers and persuades them of the merits of his approach and of the logical inconsistencies of their own models only for them, back in plenary session, to fold under the heat lamps of more powerful figures and the realities of geo-political relationships. ‘Twas ever thus – but the absence of democratic legitimacy on the stages on which most of the book is set, and which have driven Varoufakis’s career subsequently (he is currently setting up his own Europe-wide political movement, including in Greece), do need to be addressed and, if Adults in the Room provides an account which convinces reformers of what needs to be done in this direction, then it will have served us, the people of Europe, as well as Varoufakis sought to fulfil his mandate on the part of the people of Greece.

We will clearly never know whether Varoufakis’s original plan on taking office would have worked had the conditions for its implementation been reached earlier than June 2015 (although there is a certain amount of evidence that direct action might have forced compromise on at least the EU side of the troika). But, for a negotiator, there is plenty in here to suggest that the broad lessons of what was in essence a failed negotiation: of using popular revolutionary zeal to drive real change in relationships with a powerful negotiatory partner, having a genuine strategy in support, and otherwise not to let time and bureaucracy first create and then embed the spectre of inertia, continue to be both time-honoured and genuine. Ultimately, constructive disobedience, without a strategy which is independent of the actions of a negotiating partner which is prepared to take its time over delivering the conditions on which that strategy is predicated, is no strategy at all. Even if it does, ultimately, leave one free to resume life as an outsider.

Book Review: Talking to My Daughter About the Economy

As someone the titles of whose blog posts feature their fair share of musical references, I was delighted to see the recent publication in English of Yanis Varoufakis’s book which seems to reveal Varoufakis as a Billy Bragg fan (and/or of Vladimir Mayakovsky, of course). Given the subject matter being dealt with both in Varoufakis’s book and on Bragg’s best LP, and Varoufakis being at the University of Essex in the 1980s researching his Economics PhD, the links between a Greek economist and my generation’s finest songwriter is not as fanciful a reference as it might appear on the surface.

Not on my current reading list, I picked Varoufakis’s book up from a well-known airport bookshop outlet as part of a BOGOHP offer, teaming it with his more weighty memoir of his tumultuous term as Greece’s Finance Minister, Adults In the Room, having forgotten to pack any other reading material for my trip.

I make it that Varoufakis’s daughter would have been nine or ten years old when the book was first written (in 2013, predating that term by two years); at that age, I was lapping up the adventures of Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog and I’m really not sure I was then capable of much greater intellectual rigour, bright enough as I then appeared to be among the rest of my classmates. Perhaps nine year olds are a little more precocious these days – or perhaps the daughters of politicians and economists are, which does have a comment or two to make in itself about social mobility. While his daughter (who lives on an entirely different continent) is certainly his muse here, I suspect that this was really Varoufakis’s attempt to ensure he remained grounded at a time of increasing political activity; and, after all, being able to explain complex things in a simple way is an important academic discipline which all of us frustrated academics need to apply from time to time.

Mostly, he succeeds, although writing a ‘brief history of capitalism’ (the book’s rather racy sub-title, which I imagine Varoufakis had little hand in) can sometimes lead to over-simplifications and an unfortunate loss of nuance. It’s also rather less such a ‘brief history’ and more an attempt to provide a clear background to the Greek debt crisis, building on a variety of disciplines – history, myths and legends, economics and philosophy, and modern film narratives (The Matrix is refreshingly well explained and applied in a context fourteen or so years later) – to explain how Greece and, more specifically, its bankers had reached the point of bankruptcy and what that meant in the development of capitalist/market society relations. Using the language of myths and legends to explain the workings of dry capitalism is indeed a form of talking to the taxman about poetry as Varoufakis, clearly a romantic, would have appreciated. And, as was clear in the case of Varoufakis’s time in office, with about as much effect and impact in practice as might be expected from as scant a meeting of minds.

An economist by training, Varoufakis certainly has polymath tendencies and his approach is, as a result, original. Whether this diversity, coupled with his own temperament, made him the best negotiator for Greece at that point is a different story, although Varoufakis’s short time in office, before the pressure to replace him told with Alexis Tsipras, suggests not although this is best reviewed in the context of his later memoir. Which, by the way, is a compelling narrative, to judge by its opening chapters.

Books-to-read shelf

Looking just about as packed as it ever has (am a pretty slow reader and don’t tend to read more than one book at once), although it’s pleasingly representative of the stuff I usually read. Readers’ recommendations as to what I should pick off the shelf next are welcome!

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Actually, at least one of these is well underway – I’m halfway through Ted Gioia’s ‘The History of Jazz‘ (2nd Ed), which was my bedside read of choice while in Perth, which accounts for why progress on this has been slower than usual. Selling the flat means that it has now managed to find its way here to the islands, and I have recently picked it up again. I’ve reached the part immediately after the rise of bop to replace big band swing, with the new modern jazz movement at the start of the 1950s looking to build on bop while building something new coincidental with the resource-instituted break-up of the big bands.

As I found before, this is a remarkably easy book to put down and pick up again, with just a casual reminder of the prevailing subject matter. Each chapter takes a look at a particular movement within jazz, looking successively at the key bands, line-ups and essential listening by each (the Third Edition should definitely include some CDs…). It’s exhaustively researched and includes plenty of colour but the writing is balanced and not judgmental in spite the strong association between jazz and substance abuse and, despite being an enthusiast, Gioia’s metre is never off-putting to the casual reader.

What continues to strike me is that, in the UK, we’re just celebrating 40 years of punk – well, 1976 was the real 40th anniversary, but this year saw the release of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’, the hook on which Marc Riley and Rob Hughes have built their hugely entertaining A to Z of Punk series, now available as a podcast. Casting back 40 years from punk and the biggest draw in popular music in 1936/37 was Benny Goodman. I’ll not hear a word against Benny Goodman – anyone building a career in popular music based on playing the clarinet and who wears glasses is alright with me, for one thing; and, for another, his band was racially integrated in an era marked by segregation: his quartet featured Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton alongside Goodman and Krupa; and his big band featured many charts, and most of the popular ones, arranged by Fletcher Henderson. Benny Goodman was not playing music for middle class cardigan wearers in their 50s; at the height of his fame, and still in his late twenties himself, he was playing for thrill-seeking teenagers.

Sonically speaking, Goodman’s is a world away from punk from which, 40 years on in turn, The Damned’s ‘New Rose‘ still sounds both fresh and vital to me (a tribute to the production of Nick Lowe, which knocked the band out at the time). Rat Scabies, fag in mouth, clattering out that rhythm on his drumkit; Brian James’s buzzsaw guitar; the whole coming together with an explosive energy – still blows me away in a heartbeat of recognition. I’m perhaps not as well placed to others to judge the worth of ‘New Rose’ (among others) in a contemporary setting (age being somewhat against me) but, sonically, I can’t hear that same great leap forwards now as there was between Goodman and the Damned. And that’s because it clearly isn’t there.

The rupture that the arrival of rock’n’roll represented is key, of course (though – arguments aside as to the real originators of rock’n’roll – there was a stylistic link between the swing era and Bill Haley and the Comets, coming eighteen years after Goodman, and thus more or less the mid-point between swing and punk). Equally important is the electrification of the guitar and its amplification; but Gioia continually points to changes in popular taste and in changing economic circumstances defining what musicians do and that’s also true. Gioia is referring more to the shifts within various parts of the jazz scene – but it’s true today too in terms of fragmentation within modern popular music into genres (where once jazz gave birth to trad, swing, bop and modern; electronic dance music gave birth to drum and bass, jungle, dubstep and grime). Equally, the ending of prohibition gave rise to the energy and the opportunity for big bands like Goodman’s to function, however briefly; today, it’s reality TV and the ubiquity of Simon Cowell which gives rise to the narrowly stylised vocal warblings and pyrotechnics on which modern wannabes build their own stardoms.

Apart from the mistaken call on many bands of the punk era to reunite – on which issue John Lydon has (still) the most appropriate comment – the longevity of many music careers today would have surprised Goodman and the Sex Pistols alike (Goodman had one triumphant tour and a major concert at Carnegie Hall (while clearly continuing for a longer while albeit much less influentially); the Pistols had a number of gigs and one album). It surprises me, too – bands were never supposed to last more than a couple of years or albums, by which time we had all moved on to something new and they should have retired; and the notion of one man (Springsteen, to pick another from my to-read shelf) in his late 60s still appealing to many people in their 20s – take a look at attendance at his gigs, and I don’t just mean Glastonbury (or the 48 year-old Dave Grohl, to pick a more contemporary example) – would have shocked (and clearly disappointed) the 14 year-old me.

To return to Gioia’s assertion of music directions being the product of changes in circumstances and in taste, the substantial lack of a new sonic direction for music in first the twenty years, and then the forty years, after 1977 – while accepting that exponential leaps in music can’t continue to keep happening – seems to indicate that punk in its energies and music form was doing something right. Bands shouldn’t last for ever and there should be a deal of turnover, but a shared, collective vision on what popular music should be about, based on a DIY mentality and an energetic assertion of the emotional power of popular music, certainly ought.

Book review: Midwinter Break

I read Cal, Bernard MacLaverty‘s second novel, when it emerged back in 1983 drawn by the title of the work and the early literary development of an understanding of what Pete McCarthy later came to describe as the philosophy of never passing a bar which has your name on it (itself a rare, but not completely abstract, event for me; the inn in the wonderfully-named Perthshire village of Calvine having passed up the opportunity, calling itself the Struan Arms instead – something missed there, I feel).

Back then, I immediately went on and picked up Lamb, MacLaverty’s similarly sparsely-titled debut work from 1980, and enjoyed the staccato, if somewhat bleak, prose. But there’s not been a lot to go on since – Midwinter Break, released in August this year, is MacLaverty’s first novel for 16 years and only his fourth in a career spanning 35 years (there have also been short stories). Both Lamb and Cal were short novels, and Midwinter Break‘s trees-cut-down-per-volume-sold ratio is also going to be pretty low.

MacLaverty’s tale follows Stella and Gerry, a retired couple from Belfast now exiled in Glasgow, taking a long weekend in Amsterdam. From the outset, the setting is clear: a couple who, while still rubbing along together pretty well, nevertheless find habits and foibles in the other grating and a source of grit in the gearbox of the relationship. For Stella, it is Gerry’s excessive whiskey drinking and his continual bantering and search for humour; for Gerry, it is Stella’s contrasting sense of propriety, organisation and orderliness, perhaps, stemming from her religious faith which plays a major part in the development of the novel and about which Gerry is also notably, and openly, sceptical. They bicker; but they also laugh and share closeness and intimacy. They talk but, substantially, only about superficial things. In short, they are absolutely normal.

As MacLaverty develops his theme, it becomes clear that this midwinter break could see a break in their relationship. Or, just perhaps, it could also see a break in the routine to which they have become accustomed and which might, alternatively, see each of them re-commit to the relationship. This is not just a novel about how people grow old together and stay together – Stella and Gerry have a shared past which gives them a strong bond and foundation – but how even long, and strong, relationships require to be refreshed if they are to remain that way.

Told alternately by following each character on their travels through Amsterdam and then extensively through dialogue in their scenes together, and with other characters being largely incidental, MacLaverty forces a relentless focus on the two protagonists. This is not implemented in a claustrophobic way but in one which heightens the reader’s awareness of the state of their relationship and maximises our sympathy for each. MacLaverty draws gentle, extremely sensitive and well-rounded portraits of both Gerry and Stella, presenting each of them in an even, non-judgmental way. To accomplish that, he needs to be able to write women characters and it is to his credit as an author that Stella in particular has real voice and resonance. The dialogue is convincingly accurate, as it needs to be given its importance to the structure of the novel, with the exception of a couple of places in which Stella’s annoyance at Gerry’s banter was less apparent than it ought to have been given her subsequent reactions.

This is a slow-paced novel and some readers will find its gentle tone and lack of action – essentially an ordinary, older couple pottering around a foreign city looking for inspiration – too gentle and too one-paced. Gerry and Stella do not seek to confront a consciously failing relationship by argumentatively thrashing things out in an anonymous hotel room; their being in Amsterdam is not to undertake a ‘fix or bust’ resolution although it is clear that at least one of them is grasping for a better outcome. This is real life, in which the minutiae of characters successfully making their way through their day are allowed to take centre stage.

In holding up successful long-term relationships as ones in which people consciously take the steps to (re-)learn to communicate properly, and with honesty, MacLaverty has done a favour to all of us still looking for that key. There might be nothing particularly new in that – but, it seems, such a lesson is in need of being continually re-learned.

Book Review: Love of Country

Read while contemplating, and then completing, my final move to South Uist, I enjoyed this quite wonderful book immensely. Madeleine Bunting has used her journalistic skills of enquiry to weave together threads of geography, history, philosophy, literature and politics, and other familiar themes of spirituality, identity and migration from her years on The Guardian, into a sharply-focused, cohesive analysis of place and home.

Bunting’s journey across the Hebrides was inspired by family holidays as a child in the north of Scotland, and then as an adult with her own family in the north-west with a perspective on the Hebrides. Never having lived here, but always having felt the pull of the north-west (I can describe a similar experience standing in Falkirk one October/November Sunday morning, weekend school delegates hard at work in groups, staring at the heather to the north in full blaze in the morning sun, and wondering just how much further north there actually was), this is, nevertheless, no superficial, dry, desk-based analysis. On her journey, with separate chapters on various stopping-off points on her trip north-west, Bunting is prepared to get her hands fully dirty: camping; staying in hostels; visiting Corryvreckan (the ferocious whirlpool off Jura in which Orwell capsized); yomping across seven miles of moorland to camp at Barnhill, where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four; and taking spray-soaked, physically uncomfortable trips on small boats to St. Kilda and the Flannan Isles. This hands-on, elemental approach has allowed Bunting to write a warm, introspective, intimate and accurate portrait of the Hebrides in which her own spirit of inquiry and empathy allows her to get into the soul of the place and feel it as home.

There are a few quibbles: the use of ‘Gaelic’, when ‘Gàidhlig’ is surely to be preferred, seems a rather odd choice in a discussion on place, especially when Bunting takes such effort to get other place names, and descriptors, right (for example using Leòdhasaich, for the inhabitants of Lewis) and when she clearly understands the vital importance of the language to convey concepts when English, as rich as it is, is simply insufficient to describing the crucial attachment between people and land. South Uist, my own home, appears rather fleetingly (though not ungenerously) which, given it is the largest community buy-out thus far, seems something of a lacuna in a book with takes a strong look at issues of land ownership. The final chapter, at journey’s end, drifts somewhat unsatisfyingly, repeating some of the themes of the journey thus far but without really drawing them home, like a boat holed up temporarily at a cliff face, the swell echoing and playing with the boat until its engines kick in and drive it on again (perhaps this was inevitable given the circumstances). Oh, and it’s definitely just Buzzcocks (without the definite article). But these are minor issues in a book whose sweep and whose themes and treatment are as important as this.

Part travelogue, part memoir and part historical narrative, this is an indispensable guide for anyone wanting to visit the Hebrides or understand the complexities of life lived here which no amount of ‘life on the edge’ toe-dipping could ever convey (or where camera crews go away and construct their own narrative!). Coming out here from 2013, on regular trips that coincided with the timetable for Bunting’s own research visits, this is the book I had started to dream of writing myself. I’m going to have to find another one, now; dammit.

Book review – The Reader on the 6.27

I have, on occasion, kept rooms in pubs ‘entertained’ by reading from a book grabbed from bookcases provided by thoughtful publicans, so this taut, short novel about a man who reads aloud to fellow passengers on his morning commute short sections of literature retrieved randomly from the throat of the book pulping machine in his workplace, had instant appeal.

A little old now (published in French in 2014, and in this English translation in 2015), Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s first novel (although the author is already an international prize-winner for his short stories and this is, in reality, a novella) is likely to be the choice of many book clubs and thus needs little by way introduction. Ultimately a romance, and which calls to mind aspects of the whimsy and the gentle good humour both of Amelie, Gregory’s Girl and Sliding Doors, The Reader on the 6.27 is likely on the surface to appeal or to repel readers on that basis.

It does, nevertheless, remain absolutely its own work and there are occasional dark elements to the theme and to the plotting which absolutely defy a categorisation of ‘romance’. Guylain and Julie, the two lead characters who are both searching for something and who fall into each other’s lives by fate, are both strongly drawn while the minor characters in the cast might be bit-part players in the story but all enjoy the luxury of Diderlaurent’s attention to detail which brings them to a fully-drawn 3D life. This includes The Thing, the massive beast which pulps the books where Guylain works and whose relationship with it is a strong feature of the development of the work. Even the goldfish – who shares a name with the author of what became La Marseillaise – also provides an interesting comment on the continuity of la Republique. The scenes – short chapters all and many of them short stories in their own right – offer colour, drama and poignancy and are also superbly sketched and located (including where Julie’s aunt gets her weekly fix of chouquettes). Diderlaurent has a very light touch and the ending is both well-judged and finely tuned to the novel’s theme of the predominance of fate and in how ordinary people lead their lives.

In the circumstances, it would be churlish to wonder how a lover of literature finds himself working in a book pulping plant, which is only making him more unhappy than he already is; and how an intelligent woman finds herself in a career as an attendant in a shopping centre lavatory but who is clearly able to overcome the unhappiness of such an existence. We know little of the backstory of either – and neither, essentially, do we need to given the theme. We may each of us find ourselves in inexplicably lonely situations or in workplaces in which choice is sometimes little evident or the product of paths created from previous decisions, and that lends reality to Diderlaurent’s wry, clever observations on modern life/work and modern (workplace) relationships. And I think it would also be churlish to criticise a slightly haphazard sense of timing with regard to the readings of the extracts.

And, in closing, a word for a generally first-rate translation by Ros Schwartz (and also Ruth Diver) which has a rhythm and a flow which allow the story’s love of words to breathe. A highly-experienced and rated translater, Schwartz has done the author a great service which is illustrative of the resources which the publisher has committed to it. A book which is, ultimately, about the love of words and whose story is so well crafted demands a great translation, as well as a print run on appropriately high-quality paper, and this one has both.

Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I picked this up in an airport bookshop fairly recently, and for the first time. It seems that it has been given a new lease of life as a result, most likely, of the re-release of the 1975 Oscar-winning film by Milos Forman. My Penguin Classics copy was printed in 2005, and contains a new introduction written in 2002 – in the book’s 40th anniversary year – but with the new edition sparked by Kesey’s death from liver cancer (in 2001).

The novel remains an excoriating drawing of the life and treatment of the residents of a hospital mental health ward, for which Kesey’s research is legendary: a night shift worker at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, he volunteered for government-sponsored research (actually: CIA) into the effects of psychoactive drugs. His research bears strong fruit in the book in terms of the processes, the approaches to treatment and the effects of institutionalisation on the residents of the ward, and it makes some dramatic points about the brutalising impact of the remorseless, ratchet-like regime of ‘Big Nurse’, the female figure in charge of the ward. As the story cranks up towards its tragic, inescapable conclusion, the end does not leave the reader without hope and it is a continuing reminder of how thin the line is which divides clarity (and sanity) from confusion (and clinical madness); and not only when clinical madness may be being faked.

The allegorical aspects of the work, with the galvanising effects of McMurphy (the Jack Nicholson character in the film) on the atomised, isolated residents of the ward, speaks clearly of the importance of working together, as a collective, and of the vulnerability of people who only learn both that, and the power of the collective, unevenly and over time. At the same time, the costs of leadership, of bringing people together to challenge the authority to which they are subject, are made clear. The story is told through the eyes of ‘Chief’ Bromden, a man of native American descent, and whose previous encounters with authority give him insight into the powers of ‘the Combine’ which he understands as the power behind the organisation of wider society replicated within the power structures of the ward.

And yet some aspects of the book have survived very, very poorly. There are (very minor) references to under-age sex within McMurphy’s backstory. More overtly, there is an astonishing amount of casual racism in the novel: Bromden himself is the stereotypical dignified Indian, apparently a mute with a deeply-buried story to tell; the African-American aides in the novel – frequently un-named and in many ways Nurse Ratched’s dogsbodies – are lazy, speak in a stylised way, like basketball and are fond of a joint. And the language in which they are addressed is frequently that of Mark Twain, although my concern here is less the choice of language in a modern-day setting than the manner of their depiction and their witless insertion as black men into low-lying roles within the prevailing power structure as servants of it.

But my biggest criticism is of the levels of sexism within the novel in which the only female characters are, with just the one exception, either mothers or sex objects; while Nurse Ratched herself is frequently depicted either in an amorphous, asexual way or, alternatively, as the target for the most appalling fantasies, including in her humiliation at the novel’s conclusion. This is not to feel pity for Ratched, which would be difficult given the brutal nature of her role in charge of the ward and in the psychological aspects of the central part she plays in its tragic conclusion, but I am seeking to highlight the shockingly sexist manner of her portrayal, as well as of that of the other female characters, throughout the novel. It would be stretching the point beyond snapping to argue that Ratched is as much a victim of the Combine as the residents – there is absolutely no evidence for this – but we do need to be aware of the misogyny which underpins the ways she is depicted and the way she is viewed by the residents. Given the theme of male panic over emasculation which is also a feature of the novel – an odd theme even now in a society which remains patriarchal – Kesey was certainly aware of some aspects of how he approached his theme.

In both its racism and sexism, the book is thus of its time, although this by itself should not excuse it. We have, thankfully, come a long way in race and gender politics since the early 1960s (as well as having still a long way to go, as Andy Murray demonstrated only this week). However, in terms of criticism, this makes the novel less of a ‘roar of protest against middlebrow society’s Rules and the Rulers who enforce them’ (in Time‘s review quoted proudly on the back cover of my copy). The role that sexism and racism play within middlebrow society’s Rules (and power structures) means that no such roar can take place within the confines of a novel unless that novel consciously seeks to overthrow them – and so much less so when it incorporates them as an integral part of its telling, as this one does. (A telling which is, extremely disappointingly, echoed within the 2002 Introduction, by the way.)

To the modern reader, then, this is a novel with sizable structural weaknesses – which, incidentally, an aware editor could address, and reasonably simply. This is a great shame since, at its best, it has a powerful story to tell and does so, in other respects than these, with great skill and realism. But, these are weaknesses that are too great to overcome when they play such a central role in how that story is told. Whatever tripping that Kesey and his Merry Prankster mates were doing on the road, this might well have inhibited an awareness of the problems of patriarchalism which, thereafter, took at least another decade to emerge.

Book review: Nutshell

It is quickly apparent that Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s 17th novel, is a re-working of the tale of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s tragedy about usurpation and revenge, extending from plot to characters to themes – but with the critical twist that the Prince of Denmark is replaced here by an unborn child, critically observing events from inside the womb. Here, the narrator, un-named and of non-determined gender, is indeed ‘bound in a nutshell’ and yet ‘king of infinite space’. As such, the child – with thought processes, critical faculties and tastes which are fully developed, informed trough the consumption and habits of Trudy, the mother – is able to observe and comment on the surrounding universe. Yet, in contrast to Hamlet, whose flaw of inaction underpins his personal tragedy, the baby is able to seek to be active and influential in the world, including via well-timed kicks and sometimes quite shocking extensions of the narrative.

McEwan’s conceit is quite remarkable – imagine the (eventual) frustrations of a baby with fully developed thought processes but unaware in the womb that s/he is unable to speak – and in our unborn narrator we have another in the author’s long line of memorable characters. The prose, as we might expect, flows freely and apparently effortlessly; the handling of plot and theme is confident and assured; and there is wit and humour in the telling as well as in the conceit. The narration itself is informed, eloquent and ultimately reliable – indeed, how could it be anything other?

Excess alcohol consumption – in Hamlet’s view, the cause of the ruination of the nation – is worked in by the continual appearance and consumption of bottles of wine (although, amusingly, the plot hinges on a juice bar’s smoothie); the portentousness of the moments in which people’s futures are shaped and directed by the sometimes hasty decisions they make is, again – this being a regular theme in McEwan’s books – stunningly realised; and the resolution is thoughtfully and aptly described.

Of course, something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark – not, in this context, in the womb of the mother but in the dilapidated state of the decaying, crumbling house in the midst of the heat of a London summer in which she lives and which is visually well-captured by McEwan. The metaphor is clear – and yet the platform it provides for well-chosen observations about the state of the world around us, akin to Hamlet’s own soliloquies, is something that McEwan doesn’t effectively take up. It is not that there are currently no targets to pick – and McEwan has done so in the past: notably, global warming in Solar; and the state of international relations in the context of the ‘war on terror’ in Saturday. Here, however, the discourse on the targets he picks – chiefly, the human condition leading to it being ‘dusk in the Age of Reason’; the struggle to escape poverty; identity politics – is lazy, occasionally somewhat illiberal and actually rather peevish. It’s not the result of having an unborn child as narrator – this is a middle-class sophisticate, advanced and articulate in thought. Perhaps it is the essential brevity of the exposition – this is a short novel and these are indeed mere soliloquies – that make it seem so. Perhaps he thinks he’s done it all before. But McEwan is of course capable of better than that; and, in these times, we do need the poets (as well as the novelists) down here to write something (at all) to help prompt us into action.

Nevertheless, the central challenge – that we all ‘do something’, whatever we can, to change the fate of the world around us – is, if it is one that may even be taken up by an unborn child, one that can also be picked up by others seemingly otherwise better placed. The conveyance, perhaps implicit, of that ultimate message is McEwan’s biggest contribution in Nutshell – and it does, of course, remain a fundamentally important one.