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Buddha Da by Anne Donovan

Canongate 2009, 346 p.

This is one from the 100 Best Scottish Books list which I wrote about here. I picked it up from one of my local libraries.

 Buddha Da cover

The book starts with a section narrated by ten-year-old Anne Marie, whose father Jimmy has just turned into a Buddhist. Hence the Buddha Da of the title. But the novel isn’t solely rendered from Anne Marie’s point of view. Her mother Liz and father Jimmy also have sections narrated by their personae. In fact overall the novel is more Liz’s story than either Anne Marie’s or Jimmy’s as the ramifications of Jimmy’s decision sequentially embarrass Anne Marie then alter the marriage and the relationships within the family.

The narration in all three voices is in a modern Glaswegian Scots, which some might find off-putting but expresses emotions and the human condition as well as any other mode. Along the way we are treated to several bons mots. Jimmy muses on his relationship with his brother, “There we are pissed oot wer heids sayin how much we love each other and we cannae dae it when we’re sober.” Anne Marie worries about the tensions the situation has created, “Everybody’s speakin tae me but naebdy’s tellin me anything. Happy faimlies.” Liz says of a woman overheard in the Botanic Gardens, “Confident they voices, they English voices. Mibbae she wasnae English right enough. Loads of times you thought they were English and they turned oot tae be Scottish but went tae private schools,” and she reflects on the central event of the novel, the one that prompts the resolution, “At the time it was the last thing on ma mind. But then whit has yer mind got tae dae wi it?” There is also a sly reference in one of Anne Marie’s sections to the similarities between Scotland and Tibet, “Nae flag on the map. Or languages of wer ain.” Is this a comment by Donovan on the comparative neglect of the voices she has chosen for her story? If so she has remedied that defect admirably. These feel like real people with lives as worth documenting as any others.

The CD Anne Marie makes with her friend Nisha places Buddha Da firmly in time though, just after the turn of the century before online videos became the medium of choice for self-promotion.

Buddha Da’s first few sentences perhaps try too hard and the one-liner at the end is really more suited to a short story than a novel so is it one of the best 100 Scottish books? Well, the themes and emotions it explores are not particular to Scots, the characters’ situations could occur almost anywhere but it is written in that uncompromising urban Scots vernacular, emphasising that the people’s language has expressive power equal to anything else.

Pedant’s corner:- The language Buddha Da is written in pretty much makes any criticism of the grammar otiose as it reflects usage but I still had an aversion to the likes of “ahd of” and “could of” and I’ve always hated the use of “mines” as a possessive form for the first person. Donovan could very well reply that that makes me a literary snob.
There was vist for visit, and I’ve never heard of anyone having a holiday for the Queen’s birthday.

Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre

Little, Brown 2007, 343 p.

 Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks cover

The fifth in Brookmyre’s series of novels featuring journalist Jack Parlabane and it’s the mixture as usual, flashes of mordant humour in amongst investigation of nefarious goings on. In this one though, Brookmyre’s target is a rather easy one, spiritualists/mediums/psychics – whom Brookmyre characterises, no doubt wholly justifiably, as interested only in the money their activities bring in. The set-up is that Parlabane, as a newly installed Rector of Kelvin University, has been called in as an observer of a trial of psychic phenomena at the University (a fiction which is a very thinly disguised version of my alma mater, The University, Glasgow.) The catch is that in order to receive the money to fund a Chair of Spiritual Sciences the University has to accept that it be set up under the Science faculty, as is the trial.

The level of mayhem here, and the body count, is lower than in the typical Brookmyre novel. Most of the murders occur offstage. It’s all good readable stuff; though the early musings of rival journalist Jillian Noble are a bit tedious.

Along the way we learn about the history of psychic faking and the various ruses its practitioners employ to gull the suggestible. Appropriately given this subject matter there is a certain amount of authorial misdirection going on. But we are warned by the text that nothing here is what it seems.

We are also treated to Parlabane’s observation apropos the Scottish male psyche, “Anything that gets us off discussing our emotions can only be applauded; it drives us forward, away from petty distractions, in our never-ending quest to understand everything except ourselves.”

I did notice the occurrence of phrases which Brookmyre would later use as book titles – when the devil drives; where the bodies are buried.

This isn’t pretending to be great literature but once past the Jillian Noble bits it is entertaining enough.

And the unsinkable rubber ducks? This is the term used for those who cling stubbornly to belief in psychic phenomena no matter how often or completely they are debunked or shown to be fraudulent.

Pedant’s corner:- At one point reference is made to a Kelvin Avenue. Its counterpart in the real world could be Kelvin Way (unlikely) or, more realistically, University Avenue. It is unfortunate then that, later, Brookmyre refers to University Avenue. The trial is named Project Lamda: the Greek letter is spelled lambda. Some of these following irritations may charitably be attributed to being in the narrating character’s voice. Homeopathy (whatever happened to œ or even oe?) medieval (ditto æ or ae,) “served to maximise the crescendo,” (a crescendo is a steady build-up, can you maximise a build-up?) the mean time (meantime,) a “he said” for a “she said,” off of, snuck (sneaked,) “pan breid” the usual phrase is “brown breid.”

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Tor, 2012, 416 p.

 Boneshaker cover

In 1863 Dr Leviticus Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine undermined Seattle and let loose an invisible gas dubbed the Blight, whose effects are (slowly) deadly. As a result Seattle’s old city centre has had a two hundred feet high wall built around it. Sixteen years later (and incidentally with the War between the States still raging back east – which makes this an altered history: then again I suppose all steampunk is) his son, Zeke, convinced his father is innocent, sets off into the forbidden area to prove it. His mother, daughter of hero Maynard Wilkes, goes after him, scrounging a ride on an airship. (Ah, the glories of steampunk.) Inside the city various adventures befall them both before they (separately) encounter the mysterious technical wizard who effectively rules the walled city, Dr Minnericht.

Despite the Blight being described as invisible Priest has the air inside Seattle’s walls as brownish-yellow in colour. Some of the people who succumb to the Blight come back to animation as zombie-like things called rotters which roam the streets of the walled city in search of live human flesh which apparently they like to feed on. (I gather this is typical of zombies more generally.) The logic of this escapes me. Granted, Priest’s rotters will need an energy source, but why would this need to be meat and how, given that their own flesh has decayed, would they digest it anyway?

The scenes inside the walled city ought to conjure up a feeling of claustrophobia but somehow, despite constant references to the discomfort of facemasks and the necessity to replace their filters, doesn’t. The chapters featuring Zeke understandably read like a YA novel as does the pace of events. At times the atmosphere is reminiscent of Phillip Pulman’s His Dark Materials but these characters are much less memorable. I’m glad I’ve sampled Priest’s work but I don’t think I’ll seek out more.

Pedant’s corner:- amuck (I prefer amok,) if you had mask (a mask,) from whence (whence already means from where,) off of, sprung for sprang, but least they weren’t bleeding (at least.) stunk for stank (x 2,) shined for shone (x 2,) who was seemed on the verge, wadded it into ball, lay of the land.

Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

The latest from the BSFA Awards list – 6 out of 8 read now – but probably the last.

Solaris, 2014, 384 p.

 Europe in Autumn cover

For a long time there was a dearth of detective stories in SF. This may have been because of the necessity that such a story work as both SF and crime novel, creating a gap which writers couldn’t seem to bridge. However any such lack has long since been filled. I don’t recall, though, many outright spy story/SF crossovers. Thrillers, yes (but they are a different beast again.) Yet here we have Europe in Autumn, reminiscent of nothing so much as a Cold War era spy story. This may be due to the fact that, a brief excursion to London apart, it is set mainly in Eastern Europe, areas which were formerly in Warsaw Pact countries. There is too a constant hint of menace, of surveillance, of people with hidden agendas, pervading it. All of which Hutchinson handles with aplomb.

After the devastation of the Xian Flu Europe has fissured into innumerable small statelets, “Sanjaks. Margravates. Principalities. Länder.” One of these polities is a trans-European railway line running from Portugal to Siberia, but never more than ten kilometres wide. In this Europe borders, razor wire, visas and bureaucracy abound; travelling is not simple. Rudi is an Estonian chef working in Kraków who is one day “invited” to join Les Coureurs des Bois, an organisation dedicated to smuggling mail, packages and sometimes people across the numerous borders. His training ends in a disastrous foray into the railway’s territory. Later “situations” also turn out less than well and he begins to wonder why.

This set-up is intriguing. A Europe returned to a pre-Napoleonic patchwork – only much worse; some of the polities extend to no more than a couple of blocks of flats. It’s certainly surprising. One thing I never expected to read was a piece of SF explicitly discussing the merits or otherwise of the Schengen Agreement. How all this sticks together, plus the relevance of maps of non-existent places, is all revealed in a tightly plotted, highly readable thriller style narrative. In parts Europe in Autumn reminded me of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – was there something in the air the year before last? – there are extremely faint echoes, growing stronger towards the book’s end, of Transition, plus parallels with The City and the City and similarities with PƒITZ.

Europe in Autumn is a good book – even a very good book – but I’m not entirely sure about its place on the BSFA Award ballot. It has SF trappings to be sure, invisibility suits amongst them, but, in essence, it’s a spy novel.

The phrase “he wardrove around the city” was a new one on me but I’m grateful for it.

Pedant’s corner:- Hutchinson has too much of a fondness for the phrase “tipped his/her/my head to one side,” to indicate a character’s desire for more information, clarification or knowledge of evasion. Also: we had “a raise” (but elsewhere Hutchison also uses the British formulation a pay “rise,”) “I don’t think anybody understands the offside trap any more,” (OK this was a piece of spy speak but shouldn’t it still have been offside law? The offside trap is an effort to employ the law in a team’s favour,) tokomaks (tokamaks,) “for the first time in many years feeling anything approaching sympathy for his father,” (shouldn’t that be something rather than anything?) watched them them go, “Here he was, sitting here quite comfortably,” Minster for Minister.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Picador, 2015, 339 p, including 2 p Acknowledgements and 3 p Questions for Discussion.

 Station Eleven cover

Well, it’s a long time since I’ve read a good disaster novel. (Or any disaster novel at all really.) Not that this is a disaster novel per se as it spends a good bit of time on pre-apocalypse matters. The third person narrative varies between the viewpoints of actor Arthur Leander, his first wife Miranda, his friend Clark, former paparazzo turned paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary and Kirsten Raymonde, a child, then later an adult, actor.

Arthur Leander collapses on stage of a heart attack on the night the Georgian Flu comes to Toronto. Jeevan Chaudhary is in the audience and tries to aid him but fails to prevent his death. Before the performance Leander had given Kirsten two “issues” of a sumptuously produced limited edition comic book, the Station Eleven of the title. Kirsten values these through the years of travail ahead; for the Georgian Flu turns out to be particularly virulent, causing death within hours, hence civilisation swiftly falls apart. The few survivors eke out their existence as best they can.

The narration flits between pre- and post-apocalypse detailing Leander’s life story; Kirsten’s wanderings in Year Twenty with The Travelling Symphony – despite the name they perform Shakespeare plays as well as music – with its slogan (derived from Star Trek: Voyager) Because survival is insufficient; Clark’s pre-disaster memories of Leander and his post-apocalypse life in Severn City Airport, Michigan, where he sets up a Museum of Civilisation; Miranda’s experiences with Leander; along with Jeevan’s memories of his life. (There is no reason to suppose that Mandel has ever read it – in all probability she hasn’t – but the Travelling Symphony elements reminded me a bit of Larry Niven’s Destiny’s Road. Mandel is a much better writer than Niven, though, and her story more complex.)

This is a very good book indeed, suffused with sadness but still affirming life. The characters all ring true to life – plus of course the inevitable death(s) – and there is a glimmer of hope for the future at the end. A curiosity was that only the odd pages are numbered and that only if they didn’t coincide with a chapter heading. Even though it has more of a mainstream feel had I read this before the cut-off date I would certainly have nominated it for the BSFA Award – the book was first published in 2014 – but sadly I was a month late.

Yet, even in a book as good as this there are entries for Pedant’s Corner:-
“The line of jets, streaked now with rust.” (Only iron – or steel – can form rust. Aeroplanes aren’t made from iron. If they were they’d not get off the ground. Iron is much more dense than the aluminium jets are made from.) “He’d laid awake” (lain.) In one chapter – a supposed transcription of an interview with Kirsten by the editor of the New Petoskey News – King Lear and New York Times are underlined. Is this due to the pre-word processing convention that submitted manuscripts contained underlining where italics were to be used in the final copy – italics being beyond normal manual typewriters – and these instances were missed in the transcription?

Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea

Titan, 2014, 336 p. Reviewed for Interzone 253, Jul-Aug 2014.

Koko Takes a Holiday cover

Koko Martstellar, a former mercenary for big corporations, is now running a brothel and bar on the artificially constructed pleasure archipelago the Sixty Islands, a complex under the auspices of the Custom Pleasure Bureau. When she kills two customers who have stepped out of line it triggers her former superior, Portia Delacompte, Vice President of the Bureau, who has undergone Selective Memory Treatment to allow her to attain membership of that organisation’s board, to seek her arrest, which Koko violently resists. Koko had assumed Delacompte’s patronage would protect her but she now has to flee to the Second Free Zone, a collection of sky barges and arks in low Earth orbit. There follows a pretty standard tale of flight, pursuit by bounty hunters and indiscriminate mayhem.

Crucially, to this reader at any rate, Koko’s predicament was not enough to justify her actions hence from the outset her outlook on life does not engage sympathy.

On the barge Alaungpaya in the Zone Koko meets and teams up with Jedidiah Flynn, an ex-cop, who has been forced to resign as he is suffering from a disease known as Depressus, whose victims, supposedly to avoid them disrupting daily life by random acts of suicide, are required to immolate themselves in a ritual known as Embrace. On Alaungpaya, they throw themselves off the ship to death. All other activities on the ship stop for the process. (Logan’s Run anyone?)

An authorial interjection after the info dump on Depressus gives a flavour of the overall narrative tone, “Ah Depressus. Quite the bitch but it sure does thin the herd.” This is only one example of many off-key notes scattered throughout the book beginning with the infantilised “boywhores” of Koko’s brothel who – for no good reason, except perhaps authorial contempt – speak in pidgin.

The story is set in the 2500s but Shea’s imagined future doesn’t really feel all that futuristic. It does though resemble what might be imagined as a gun-lover’s ideal universe. Flynn reflects on “the added benefit of having a gun on you is people tend to give you a wide berth and show you some respect.” (Of that contention only the wide berth bit might be true.) Delacompte has “nearly forgotten the sublime buoyancy of taking a human life – the confident rush of power,” and in this unpleasant vision of a future shorn of anything akin to politeness or consideration for others, the mercenaries and the bounty hunters drawn from their former ranks take trophies from their victims in a particularly vile manner.

The story is mostly told in short chapters in the present tense. This ought to impart a sense of immediacy but in Shea’s hands falls curiously flat. The one incident which is rendered in past tense is narrated in third person despite supposedly being told by Koko to Flynn. Koko’s expressed revulsion at the crime Delacompte committed is unbelievable here, being totally contrary to the attitudes she has shown up to the point that crime is revealed to the reader.
Most of the info dumping is expressed through supposed newsfeed extracts or adverts for the Sixty Islands and elsewhere is crudely executed. Lazy or unconvincing passages abound. “Luckily for Koko, the building’s architectural design included great bulging bars on each terrace, presenting her with easy leaps between floors.” “Frantically, Delacompte windmills her arms in an effort to forward the last of her momentum. It seems almost to the very last second that she has completely miscalculated her impromptu gymnastics and she’ll now plummet backwards to an ungracious and stupid death. However, her balance steadies and her weight shifts forward. Her hands reach out and grab hold of a coarse edge of sectioned seam in front of her eyes. Delacompte lets out a titter of relief.” (The discerning reader might just titter.) Not one, but two chapters begin, redundantly, with “meanwhile”. And Flynn’s Depressus evaporates rather easily.

Quite what is the purpose of this story is obscure. It fails to illustrate human nature, beyond revelling in that of the conscienceless, murderous psychopath, and seems designed to bolster the thesis that the only means to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But our putative heroine Koko is not one of the good guys; violence is her first resort, not her last. If it is meant as entertainment Koko ought to have a more cogent reason for her actions than merely that she has the means to achieve them. Nor can it be taken as satire. Shea’s tone is too approving for that. This whole farrago reads as nothing but an extended piece of weapons porn.

The following entries for Pedant’s Corner did not appear in the published review:-
“lay low” for lie low x 2, “sublimal” for subliminal, “coporate” for corporate, “sizzle” for fizz, “smoothes” for smooths, “caloric” for calorific, “hocks” instead of hawks phlegm, meaningless for meaninglessness, legs akimbo – legs can not be akimbo – “copasetic” for copacetic, veritable.

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Hodder, 2014, 310 p, including 4 p Glossary of Nigerian pidgin, 1 p Acknowledgements and 3 p Reading Group Questions.

Another from the BSFA Awards list. 5 out of 8 read now.

 Lagoon cover

A sonic boom sounds out over Lagos lagoon. Very shortly thereafter three people whose names begin with “A” are taken up by a fist of sea-water and submerged. Some time later they are returned to the beach, as is a creature with the appearance of a woman but who is in fact an alien; an alien who can shift shape. One of our “A”s, Adaora, is a biologist with a lab in her basement and examines the alien, whom she names Ayodele. “Her” cellular structure is totally unlike that of life on Earth, mainly in that it doesn’t have cells, only very small, apparently metal-like, spheres “not fixed together as our cells are.” But Okorafor isn’t interested in this. Her focus is on the effect of the intrusion on Lagos and on its people and on manifestations of Nigerian folk tales/myths. We find out not much more about the aliens than that, apart from being able to read minds and having healing powers, as Ayodele tells the President, “We are technology,” and “we just want a home.”

The other two “A”s, the soldier Agu and the Ghanaian rapper Anthony Dey Craze, and Adaora turn out to have special powers, Agu has extreme strength in his punch, Dey Craze can project sound and Adaora a force field. Adaora’s husband, Chris, who is under the influence of the (nominally) Christian bishop who calls himself Father Oke, already thought Adaora was a witch. In light of this to my mind it undermines the implied criticism of self-serving “charismatic” preachers embedded in Okorafor’s treatment of Oke to have any hint of the supernatural attaching to Adaora.

Ayodele tells Adaora’s two children, “Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them. It’s your greatest flaw.”

The Lagos setting is welcome (too often stories of alien invasion focus on the US or Britain) but the move deep into fantasy territory broke my suspension of disbelief. Okorafor’s descriptions are effective but the action scenes can be cursory. By and large the characters are well differentiated, though a few are drawn from the stock cabinet, and we do see a cross-section of Lagos society, some of whom speak in pidgin. This can be understood easily enough (SF readers are used to unfamiliar words and phrases) but the appended glossary will help anyone who struggles.

Lagoon is written in USian (Okorafor is a professor of creative writing at the University of Buffalo, SUNY) so we get dove for dived, upside the head, if worse came to worst, most everyone, asses; which all seemed to me odd usages for a former British colony only 55 years from independence.

Pedant’s corner:- “even before he’d sunken his claws into Chris” (sunk,) “also a bad sign were the two army trucks” (a sign is singular,) “low and behold” (lo,) “to not turn away”. This last is not quite cancelled out by knowing where “not” ought to be placed in “not all was well.”

Wolves by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2014, 295 p.

This is the first in my attempt to catch up with this year’s BSFA Awards nominations for best novel. I’ve now read half of them. With two more at hand I’m on track for 6 out of the 8.

 Wolves cover

Wolves is a strange beast, part SF, part mystery, part love story, but never really completely any one of them. Conrad is working in advertising when school friend Michel’s phone call to him to come to meet his girlfriend and view their pet project – building a boat to see them safe through what they divine as the impending apocalypse – throws him into their orbit. How this is all linked to Conrad’s past, his mother’s death and dysfunctional relationship with his father, Ben, is worked out in stages and flashbacks to Conrad’s teenage years. Ben was involved in devising a system of artificial sight for blinded soldiers. Later, Conrad’s company develops augmented reality technology – “with tricks of mathematics and optics, we augment reality, smothering surfaces in warm, spicy notes of brand belonging” – eventually to the point where it can overlay the real world, without its experiencer even carrying/wearing a processing device. As Conrad tells us later, in another context, “the mind cannot retain vanished geographies, and we find ourselves adapting to this new terrain.”

In perhaps the crucial sentences in the book Ralf, the ideas man behind the AR technology, says to his financial backer when queried about what he calls the model, the brain’s importance in perception, “Your model, my model, of what the world is like. We only have models, Mr Vaux. From the little data granted us, we extrapolate a model of the world. This, we call ‘reality’.”

I’m very dubious about Conrad’s contentions that, “When we fall in love with someone, we fall in love first with their world,” and, “Falling in love with a person is hard. Falling in love with a world is easy,” but less so with, “Confusing the two loves is easier still.” He also says, “Stupidity isn’t a lack of knowledge, or a lack of intelligence. Stupidity is a force. It’s an energy.”

Despite the trappings – and the nomination – the book doesn’t really feel at all like SF. The novel’s sensibility throughout is mainstream. Augmented Reality isn’t truly embedded in the story and reads more like an add-on. The book could actually be stripped of its futuristic components and the plot still work as well. The text also mentions Science Fiction, generally thought to be unwise in a work within the genre. However, one thing that can be taken from Wolves is that whatever happens, human relationships will still be as muddled and messy as ever.

Pedant’s corner:- clitoriclectomy (clitoridectomy or clitorectomy,) pretentions (pretensions – though the latter spelling is used later,) queuing (queueing?) populous (populace,) “I rack my head for anecdotes,” (wrack?) stoved in (staved in surely?)
Plus points, though, for “lie of the land.”

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

B & W, 2009, 153 p. First published in 1958.

 The White Bird Passes cover

Janie MacVean lives with her mother Liza in a tenement in “the Lane,” a thoroughfare in an unnamed Scottish town just after the Great War. Watched over by Poll Pyke, Battleaxe and the Duchess, the Lane is a friendly enough place with folks more or less looking out for each other. Despite their poverty stricken circumstances, Janie loves her mother and the Lane. The occasional (finance dependent) trip to see her grandmother, who lives in a much more salubrious house in the country, only serves to highlight Janie’s contentment with her lot. It is on the one such trip in the narrative that darkness intrudes into the book. Janie’s grandmother is friendly enough but her grandfather disapproves. For in the Lane, Janie has no father – and Liza no husband – to protect her.

Through a series of vignettes the details of Janie’s life are slowly revealed, perennial nits being only one of her burdens. Her attachment to it, her ease with it, are both manifest, the web of her relationships beautifully rendered. But things come to a head when the “Cruelty Man” intervenes and Janie is removed from the Lane as being a neglected child. Between Chapters Eight and Nine eight years have passed and we then see Janie, by now adapted to life in the Aberdeenshire orphanage in the shadow of the Cairngorms to which she has been sent, getting ready for adult life.

In an echo of a phrase in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song we are told, “Everybody believed in God on Sundays, then laid Him carefully away with their best clothes for the rest of the week.”

The White Bird Passes gives more of an indication into the realities of life in poor areas of Scotland than did the recently read The Guinea Stamp.

Pedant’s corner:- remarkably – even if it is such a short book – I found only a single typo; the lights lit up she street (the.)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2011, 564 p.

The Thousand Autumns of Jocab de Zoet cover

This novel has been described in a quote on the back cover as a tour de force and I must say it is likely to remain in my mind for a long time. It will certainly figure in my best of the year even if this is still only February.

The Jacob de Zoet of the title is a Dutchman who, in order to prove his worthiness to marry his sweetheart Anna, is out to make his fortune in the Dutch trading mission on the island of Dejima off Nagasaki at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (CE) – during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when all other European contacts were banned, as was travel abroad for Japanese. The present tense narration is in the third person, save for a single chapter in first person from the point of view of a slave in the Dutch trading post. Woven into the tale is the history of relations between Japan and the outside world up to that point. While the novel is roughly based on incidents that took place on Dejima around that time I would hazard that the part of the plot involving the Lord Abbot Enomoto is not.

The first part of the novel outlines de Zoet’s endeavours in exposing the various corruptions of previous Chiefs of the post and his interactions with Japanese translators. Reading about the difficulties of translation between Japanese and Dutch in a third language – English – is a bit surreal. The very first chapter, however, introduces us to Aibagawa Orito, the disfigured daughter of a samurai, who is learning to be a midwife under the tutelage of the Dutch doctor at Dejima. Her path and de Zoet’s cross and, despite feelings of guilt at betraying Anna, Jacob becomes attracted to Orito. His hopes in affairs of the heart and commerce are both soon dashed. In the second section, where Aibagawa Orito has been taken away to the religious institution run by the Lord Abbot, the novel takes a sudden left turn as this middle part of the book deals solely with her plight and the efforts of her Japanese admirer, the interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, to free her. The third and concluding part of the novel returns us to Dejima as well as on to the British frigate which arrives to attempt to take advantage of the fall of the Netherlands to Napoleon’s armies.

The book is unusual in that it contains a number of illustrations, mostly anatomical but also two townscapes – well, one townscape and a shrinescape – plus some of “de Zoet’s” sketches of Origo.

While reading I was struck by certain parallels with Science Fiction. There is a type of SF story which also has an isolated trading/diplomatic post many months (or years) travel from home, dealing with and trying to understand a different culture. In Origo’s captivity we have different SF parallels but they are even more marked, as the Sheranui Shrine is a closed society with its own rules and a menace at its heart.

The characters, especially the Japanese, impress. Care and detail is lavished both on them and on the background. Even the minor ones have the ring of truth. That short first person chapter includes a meditation on the internal autonomy of slaves. One member of the Dutch mission tells de Zoet, “Tain’t good intentions that pave the road to hell; it’s self-justifyin’s.” There is also towards the end a very rhythmic paragraph listing the lives/occupations of the inhabitants of Nagasaki which is reminiscent of Auden’s The Night Mail in its metre and rhyming. Then there was the almost impenetrable phrase, “A smoke-dried Dane makes Finn’s Cock of a tangled Vang,” which seems to entangle nautical terms with the history of the times.

A tour de force? It was certainly fascinating and absorbing throughout, likely to remain with me for a long time.

Pedant’s corner:- “A well-travelled round of Edam and sour apples are divided,” (a round is singular;) snonky appears to be a coinage by Mitchell; wistaria (apparently a variant of the more usual wisteria) was repeated several times; “the pair enjoys,” (again; a pair is singular) guarding this natural revile (revile here is in the sense of ravine but I can’t find such a definition anywhere.)

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