Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

Titan Books, 2019, p. Published in Interzone 285, Jan-Feb 2020.

Skein Island cover

As readers of Interzone already know, Whitley writes impressively. Here she takes a modern domestic setting and gradually blends it with strange happenings and figures from Ancient Greek myth to make a tale that is always readable and looks at sexual politics from an oblique angle.

On the day she receives an invitation from a dead woman, Marianne Spence has an encounter with a pervert at closing time at the library where she works in Wootton Bassett. The incident prompts Marianne to accept that invitation to the Skein Island of this novel’s title; a retreat for women only, set up after the Second World War by the adventurer Lady Amelia Worthington. The only requirement for beneficiaries is to make a written Declaration of their reasons for visiting, to be kept in the island’s library. Marianne’s mother Vanessa had herself gone to the island seventeen years before – and never returned; prompting Marianne’s father, Arnie, himself to retreat, into moroseness, spending his evenings at The Cornerhouse, a pub with a dubious reputation – and odd goings on in its back room. The ramifications of Marianne’s decision rumble through the novel as husband Dave takes to lying in wait for the pervert to prevent him offending again. Here his path crosses that of Police Community Support Officer, Samantha, who also hopes to catch the offender. The narrative is delivered in two strands which for the most part alternate; a present tense first person chronicle from Marianne’s viewpoint and a third person past tense account focusing on Dave.

Threaded through the initial stages of the novel is the appearance in the narrative of either squares or cubes coloured red, blue, yellow and green and an emphasis on a quote from Homer’s Odyssey, “Each man delights in the work that suits him best.”

The dead woman is a bit of a tease on Whiteley’s part as the invitation was not in fact written by her but by Marianne’s mother to whom Lady Amelia bequeathed the operation on Skein Island. Vanessa tells her the cubes represent the four types of men in the world, heroes, villains, sidekicks and wise men, corresponding to the four colours. In the library Marianne reads Lady Amelia’s Declaration in which she described looking for the Throne of Zeus in a cave on Crete and instead found a monstrosity which caused her male companions to rip each other to pieces. Amelia tamed it by telling it her life story, turning it into a statue which she took back to the island and locked underground to keep it away from men, naming it Moira after the Greek fates. Its appetite for the stories which bind it is fed by reading the Declarations to it. Marianne encounters Moira in the basement and recognises its strangeness. Her roommates remain unconvinced, but the possibility it was all illusion is not supported by the rest of the narrative. Things go awry when in his attempts to find Marianne, Dave finally gets to the island and his presence there leads to a demolition and Moira’s disappearance.

Thereafter, in the wider world, men’s behaviour, already somewhat overbearing, changes; their tendencies towards being heroes, villains, sidekicks and wise men, to “protect” women, becoming exaggerated. Marianne reasons that Moira’s constraint seems to be necessary for equable relations between the sexes so Marianne’s task becomes to find Moira and restore “her” to captivity on the island.

On the face of it Skein Island has an explicitly feminist perspective but Marianne’s thought that Moira’s existence means men are meant to be more important than women sits oddly with that. However, “When a hero walks into a story, he doesn’t do as he’s told,” is an entirely consistent proposition. In this context the relationship between Dave and policewoman Samantha also struck a discordant note.

As to Moira: it may be a rather well-worn trope but for supernatural beings to exert influence on human behaviour is a problematic feature of a fantasy since that automatically removes agency – and responsibility – from its characters. Characters’ behaviours should not be exculpated in this way. They can also be perceived as dancing too much to the author’s tune rather than behaving as if independently.

I should add that, completely unheralded, either in the blurb or the title page, and taking up 35 pages here, is the inclusion in the book of a novelette, The Cold Smoke Declaration, a ghost story partly set on Skein Island. Value for money then.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:-“the physical cracks that lead to emotional ones” (context suggests ‘led’ rather than ‘lead’,) zipper (zip,) “to not have to field questions,” (not to have to; many instances of ‘to not’ rather than ‘not to’,) “a chemical brand that irritates my nostrils” (this is of a washing powder, what does Whiteley think any other brands of washing powder contain apart from chemicals? The phrase ‘chemical free’ is a nonsense.) “There are a number of caves in Crete” (strictly, there is a number,) Zeus’ (Zeus’s,) sunk (sank,) fit (fitted – used on the next line!) smoothes (smooths,) “the eldest girl had thrown back her shoulders and sang to the vaulted ceiling” (that ‘had’ carries on so the next verb ought to be ‘sung’,) “it would be impossible to spit it into sentences” (split, I think,) “exclamation points” (exclamation marks,) “the lay of the island” (it wasn’t a tune; lie of the island.) In the novelette, “a strong draft” (draught.)

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1981, 459 p. First published 1814.

 Mansfield Park cover

Well, this started out well enough: with one of those pithy Austenisms on page one, “But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them,” but I think it is safe to say that had Austen’s literary reputation rested on Mansfield Park alone it would not be so high as is usually asserted. The main man of large fortune here is Sir Thomas Bertram (owner of a plantation in Antigua) who married a Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon. Her two sisters married less well, one to Rev Mr Norris, who then was able to secure the living in the gift of his brother-in-law and was therefore reasonably situated financially, but the other “disobliged” her family by marrying a Lieutenant of Marines without education, fortune or connections and so ensured a breach with her sisters.

The Rev Norris having died, his wife moved into Mansfield Park – and fancied herself as running the place. She took it into her head one day to relieve her poorer sister of the care of one of her children and, with the assent of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, Fanny Price came to stay at Mansfield Park. There she is treated very much as the poor relation, receiving her cousins’ cast-off toys, the room she is given to use having no fire laid, and treated as a dogsbody by Mrs Norris – though less so by Lady Bertram – a dogsbody who should nevertheless be grateful for her condition. Sir Thomas she finds scary and aloof. The only one of the family who treats her with any consideration is the younger Bertram son, Edmond. The older son, Tom, is a bit of a wastrel (as was the wont of older sons with the prospect of inheritance.) Mrs Norris is always complaining about Fanny’s habits and supposed deficiencies and similarly misguidedly sagacious-seeming about what is right and proper. We all know a Mrs Norris. The local clerical living has been taken over by a Rev Grant whose wife’s sister and brother, Henry and Mary Crawford, come to stay and so enter the social circle of Mansfield Park.

Sir Thomas’s fortunes go up and down and he is forced to make a voyage to Antigua. In his absence the Bertram children and their friends hit on the idea of putting on a play. There follow several utterly tedious chapters on which play should be chosen (one called Lovers’ Vows is eventually selected,) who should play whom, and what alterations to the house are required to stage it. Fanny is mostly a bystander in all this but agrees to help with rehearsals.

Okay, this all has a plot function since it illustrates Henry Crawford as not to be trusted – he uses his part to try to suborn Fanny’s elder female cousin, by now engaged to the wealthy (but dull) Mr Rushworth, away from her fiancé – and so forms Fanny’s opinion of him. At the same time she has become friends of a sort to Mary Crawford. In one of their conversations there appears another Austenism as Mary tells her, “there is not one in a hundred of either sex, who is not taken in when they marry …… it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.”

The play is destined never to be performed as Sir Thomas’s early return – and high disapproval – puts an end to it. Henry Crawford later sets his sights on Fanny, whose refusal of his proposal mystifies all and sundry. A return to her family in Portsmouth for a period of reflection is settled on and while she is there the later unfoldings of the plot take place, off-stage in London.

As a novel this has severe limitations. Fanny is not a very active protagonist, almost an absence in fact. She has to be self-effacing due to her station in life but as a result becomes all but invisible as a character. The omniscient third person narrator (who only twice interpolates an “I” into the text as a sort of commentary on what we are being told) more often relates events and characteristics rather than illustrating them. This may though be to attribute twenty-first century expectations of a novel on to one two hundred years old. The whole is of course as long-winded and circumlocutious as any other early nineteenth century novel but that cannot really be held against it.

From a modern perspective it is signal that the text directly mentions slavery only once, but that institution was of course the foundation of all that the denizens of houses like Mansfield Park, and their frivolous pursuits, depended on. It was not Austen’s main focus in any case, which as is customary were the vagaries of the marriage market and the gradations of social class. The sections set in Portsmouth do bring out the contrast between the hustle and bustle of life in more constrained circumstances and that in a supposedly sedate house like Mansfield Park.

Pedant’s corner:- Some Austenish spellings – everybody, everywhere, everything, anybody, nowhere, anywhere, background, akin, are all written as two words – staid (stayed,) stopt (stopped,) stampt (stamped,) chuse (choose, but ‘choose’ itself did appear once,) headach (headache; though ache itself was spelled in the usual manner, as was heart-ache, albeit with the hyphen,) buz (buzz,) cruize (cruise,) birth (berth,) or early nineteenth century usages, fulness (fullness,) intreat (entreat,) cloathe (clothe,) sunk (sank,) sprung (sprang,) shrunk (shrank,) etc. Otherwise; “the Miss Bertrams” (the Misses Bertram,) “the Miss Bertrams’” (the Misses Bertram’s,) “the Mr Bertrams (the Mrs Bertrams would be misconstrued; so ‘the Misters Bertram,’ or ‘the Messrs Bertram,’) “the two Miss Sneyds” (the two Misses Sneyd,) “the Miss Maddoxes” (the Misses Maddox.) “‘How many Miss Owens are there?’” (Misses Owen.) “Mrs Grant has has been” (only one ‘has’.) Mr Yates’ (Mr Yates’s,) Beachey Head (Beachy Head,) “a last look at the five or six determined couple” (couples,) some commas missing before pieces of direct speech. “‘- So many months acquaintance’” (months’ acquaintance,) “to stay dinner” (to stay to dinner,) similies (similes,) “by the bye” (later expressed as ‘by the by’, which I prefer anyway,) “‘I did not use to think’” (did not used to think,) “better that Maria” ( better than,) “heir apparents” (heirs apparent.)

The Book of Fathers by Miklós Vámos

Abacus, 2009, 476 p. Translated from the Hungarian, Apák könyve, by Peter Sherwood

 The Book of Fathers cover

Tinged with a dash of magic realism and told episodically this is a chronicle of the first born sons of the Csillag family (later Sternovszky, later still Stern and then Csillag once more,) beginning with Kornél Csillag in 1705, who starts writing down his experiences in a notebook which his descendants refer to as the Book of Fathers and to which each makes his own additions in due time. More uncommonly, since Kornél took possession of a small globe which enclosed a watch, each of them – bar the penultimate Csillag, after the device has been discarded in a latrine – has access to the memories of his forebears and can seem preternaturally mature and knowledgeable. The title is a slight misnomer – the novel could be entitled “The Book of Sons” after all – as there is not just one notebook since the first becomes filled relatively quickly and others are purchased to continue the tradition.

Each descendant has his own chapter in The Book of Fathers we are reading, relating the significant events of the life of its subject, but too often we are told of them more than shown them. Sometimes too we see the same event from a different viewpoint in succeeding chapters – the father’s (sometimes the grandfather’s) and the son’s. It would be unkind to call the novel a family saga but it shares that enterprise’s lineaments. However, while the bulk of a chapter may be full of incident it sometimes seems as if Vámos lost interest in that particular life as there can be what seems an unseemly rush to its finish and the character is dispatched within a sentence or three.

All of life is here, though; along with those perennial concerns of the novel as a form – love, sex and death – but love is never a main focus here (and relationships between the generations are frequently strained) while there is no emphasis on sex. Death, though, is a necessary component of a book with this one’s premise. One of the family line converts to Judaism in order to marry (thereby upsetting both families involved) but the lives of his descendants allow Vámos to throw light on the status of middle-European Jewry as the years unfold. Then of course, as it approaches the mid-point of the twentieth century, the reader’s sense of foreboding heightens, but arbitrary deaths were no stranger earlier and occur later too.

That early convert is taught by Rabbi Ben Loew of Prague and expresses his confusion about Jewish teachings and his new co-religionists’ place in the world. “‘Everyone is a stranger in this world,’ said the Rabbi. ‘Above all the Jews. The pharaohs drove them from their ancient homeland,* they dispersed to all points of the compass. They are to this day not allowed to buy land in many places.’” Yet for most of the time the family members live lives undisturbed by prejudiced undercurrents, only subject to those political incidents endemic to any country’s history. As such the book is a kind of primer on Hungarian identity and the country’s struggle for independence.

The peculiar nature of the Csillag/Sternovszky/Stern/Csillag line is alluded to when one reflects, “He to whom is given the gift of seeing into the past does not choose what he sees.” As well as the past, some of them can see into the future – but only indistinctly, on occasion Delphically, often with tragical outcomes. A later thought that “whatever happens in this world it all ends in the crying of women” is of universal resonance.

The writing has a similar sensibility to that evident in Czech literature or from the former Yugoslavia: an exercise of imagination, a kind of heightened realism or exaggeration largely absent from Anglophone literature.

Pedant’s corner:- caftan (usually kaftan.) *It was the Romans, not the pharaohs, who were the dominant power when the Jewish diaspora began, “the Book of the Fathers” (usually written as ‘the Book of Fathers’, three times that extra ‘the’ is inserted,) “horses’ hoofs” (in my time they were always hooves,) extra points for ‘stanch’, “only his father’s and grandfather’s exact moment of birth was known to him” (…. moments of birth were known to him.) “‘In Budapest the best streets have had electric light since 1873’” (electricity first came to Humgary in 1884.) “The Csillag side of the family were not in the least happy with Ilse” (the … side …. was not in the least,) churns (churns,) sunk (sank,) “he had simply sawed a hole” (sawn a hole,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “preserved on the black and white snapshots” (‘preserved in’ sounds more natural,) Csilla (Csillag,) “suspecting nought” (nought = the number 0; ‘suspecting naught’.)

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Vintage, 1997, 436 p, plus i p Foreword by the Author, ip Contents, iv p list of Characters, ii p map of France.

 Queens’ Play cover

This is the second in the author’s “legendary” (according to the cover) Lymond Chronicles, of which I read the first, The Game of Kings, in 2017. In this instalment our hero is engaged by Mary of Guise to travel incognito to the court of Henri II of France – where her seven-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, is being brought up and educated to be a wife for the Dauphin (and hence to unite the crowns of France, Scotland – and, in the fullness of time Ireland) – in order to keep her informed of any intrigue she might otherwise miss. Lymond travels disguised as Thady Boy Ballagh, ollave (a kind of high-grade factotum of learning, “professor, singer, poet, all in the one”) to Irishman, Phelim O’LiamRoe, Prince of Barrow and lord of the Slieve Bloom.

From the outset things do not go smoothly, the ship they are sailing in is rammed – apparently by accident but in reality not so – just before landfall. Someone has mistaken O’LiamRoe for Lymond and trying to kill him. O’LiamRoe’s first meeting with Henri is also blighted by him being given the misinformation he is actually to meet a look-alike.

As Thady Boy, Lymond makes his impression on the court; not least in a roof-running race similar to parkour (but obviously centuries before that became a well-known thing.) There is as much of the said intrigue – not to mention skulduggery – as you could wish, with numerous attempts on the young Queen Mary’s life thwarted in various ways. Lymond’s clever-dickery is not quite as to the fore as in The Game of Kings but Dunnett’s fondness for unusual words – habromaniac, hispid, branle, cangs, gregale – is again in evidence.

It’s all readable enough but at times a little too convoluted.

Pedant’s corner:- focussed (focused,) hiccough (several times. That spelling is a misattribution; the word is spelled hiccup,) Callimachus’ (Callimachus’s,) unfocussed (x 3, unfocused,) O’Li mRoe (O’LiamRoe,) StAndre (St André,) span (spun, used later,) “hearking back” (harking,) a comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, Empedocles’ (Empedocles’s,) paradisaical, (paradisiacal?) serendade (serenade?) sunk (sank,) “that closed the back of this throat” (of his throat,) appalls (appals,) shrunk (shrank,) “‘Thinking death the only division. I could not imagine …. ever so insulting you’” (no full stop after division.) “She studdied him” (studied,) “knees akimbo” (it is very difficult indeed to rest a leg upon its own hip, never mind both of them. Okay, I know people use it to mean limbs splayed out but bent inward,) “black cloth of gold” (if it’s cloth of gold it can’t be black,) “no on touched him” (no one, better still, no-one.)

Palestine + 100, stories from a century after the Nakba. Edited by Basma Ghalayini

Comma Press, 2019, 235 p, including viii p Introduction by Basma Ghalayini, v p About the Authors, ii p About the Translators. Published in Interzone 283, Sep-Oct 2019.

 Palestine + 100 cover

It is over seventy years since what Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe) and this collection was inspired by the notion of what Palestine might look like 100 years after it. (Not so long now, really.)
In the Introduction,1 Basma Ghalayini describes the Nakba as an ethnic cleansing. Some may disagree with this but it is an understandable Palestinian perspective. She also says Palestinians write about their past knowingly or unknowingly (this can also be true of other peoples who feel themselves to be suppressed) but for Palestinian writers the past is everything. SF, then, does not look to be fertile ground, a luxury to which they cannot afford to escape. But one of the defining features of Palestinian fiction is absence, and SF is well equipped to deal with isolation and detachment as well as to interrogate the present by reframing it.
In Song of the Birds by Saleem Haddad2 an adolescent girl whose brother has committed suicide finds herself slipping between two realities, one where the Israeli occupation has been overthrown and a harsher one where it hasn’t and in which the first is a simulation.
The Dr Eyal Schott of Sleep it Off, Dr Schott3 by Selma Dabbagh is a scientist thrown out of Israel for being less than 50% Jewish, now working in Gaza but under surveillance in case he is forming an inappropriate relationship with his co-worker Professor Mona Kamal.
N* by Majad Kayal4 posits a novel two-state solution. Palestinians and Israelis occupy the same land but in parallel worlds. Only those born after The Agreement are allowed to travel between the two. VR ‘realities’ are still a source of isolation, though.
Anwar Hamed5 sets The Key* in an Israel which restricts entry by constructing a gravity wall through which only people with the right chip (keyed to a person’s genome and embedded in newborns at birth) can pass. Psychological problems connected to this begin to manifest themselves in the narrator’s family.
Digital Nation by Emad El-Din Aysha6 is also set in Israel, where a bemused head of the cybercrime unit finds his worst imaginings of hacking and Palestinian take-over of the digital realm coming true.
Abdalmuti Maqboul’s7 Personal Hero* also features a virtual reality theme as a Palestinian hero is resurrected by a simulation in which time is reversed.
Vengeance by Tasnim Abutabikh8 suffers from being told rather than narrated. Set against a background where CO2 in the atmosphere has ballooned and lifemasks for safe breathing are in effect rationed, Ahmed plans revenge on the descendant of a man who supposedly stole his family’s land generations ago.
A Palestine broken up into a series of independent city states connected only by tunnels is the premise for Application 39 by Ahmed Masoud9 which chronicles the aftermath of a surprisingly successful application to hold the 39th Summer Olympics made by pranksters from the IT Department of the Republic of Gaza City.
Samir El-Youssef’s10 The Association* is set twenty years after the Agreement (to forget all about it) ended the Eighty Years War. The story is set in train by the murder of an obscure historian.
In Commonplace by Rawan Yaghi11, Adam’s sister, Rahaf, was all but killed in an ill-advised trip into the Eastern Lands. He has been planning his revenge ever since.
In Final Warning* by Talal Abu Shawish,12 the sun fails to rise, every electronic device has failed and cars won’t start. Isaam, a film buff, correctly predicts the form the alien intervention causing all this will take.
In The Curse of the Mud Ball Kid* by Mazen Maarouf,13 Palestinians have been wiped out by a biological weapon. All save the narrator, who somehow stores the pure energy of these dead within him and is thus kept in a glass cube designed to absorb it when released on death. Some of it is leaking out, though.
Whether the brief, or the allotted word count, was somehow too restricting or the authors are uncomfortable with the form, many of the stories have a tendency to be overloaded with information dumping and often resort to telling rather than showing. Striking too, is the preoccupation with sisters, usually dead or comatose, shown by several of the authors. Overall, the collection is notable for the way in which Israeli domination of Palestinian life is still manifesting itself in these futures, or has only been overthrown by frankly unlikely means. Perhaps even imaginative fiction has its bounds.

The following did not appear in the published review.
*Translated works. I assume the authors of the other stories wrote them in English.
Pedant’s corner:- 1“is a kind of a dystopia” (is a kind of dystopia,) ‘are issued ID cards … that keeps track” (that keep track.) 2“The string of hotels and restaurants were replaced by” (the string was replaced by, “inside of:” (inside; just ‘inside’,) “ ‘I should probably take a small sleep’” (‘I should probably take a nap’,) sunk (sank,) snuck (sneaked,) faucet (tap,) “‘You know how us Arabs are’” (‘You know how we Arabs are’, but it was in dialogue,) baby carriages (prams,) “is it a cynicism borne out of loss?” (born out of loss, ‘borne means ‘carried’.) “The sea and her are like two cats” (She and the sea are like two cats.) 3“since I was a young” (since I was young,) “to only recognise Ethocoin as an international currency (to recognise only Ethocoin as….,) “The General Assembly weren’t just nosey” (I prefer ‘nosy’,) “how many canons were used in the battle of Waterloo” (cannons, a canon is a clergyman.) 4Has some USian but then, manoeuvre; “he was in secretly love with” (he was secretly in love with,) “it was old café” (it was an old café,) “with it’s blinding light” (its blinding light.) 5“she was sat” (sitting.) 6“His aid continued to stand there” (aide, several more instances,) “a woman to lay on top of” (to lie on top of,) “hit singles from 1948” (hit songs, maybe, but there were no hit ‘singles’ in 1948, it was mostly sheet music which people bought,) “humous fests” (hummus; humous or humus is a component of soil) “The county was in no position to go on the offensive” (The country,) “‘You must have me mistaken for someone else’” (You must have mistaken me for someone else’,) “‘Me, are you kidding.’” (requires a question mark not a full stop.) 7“In a house in al-Qastal sit the Army of the Holy War” (in a house … sits the Army.) 8“a group of children were plying” (a group was playing,) “his boss’ design” (boss’s.) 9“seemed to only contain a long series” (seemed to contain only a long series,) “had not be possible” (been,) “36th Summer Olympics” (previously given as 39th Summer Olympics,) “‘Look its one of’” (it’s,) “to hold the such a” (no ‘the’,) antennas (antennae,) “it’s left leg” (its,) ditto “It’s cheek screens” (Its,) “outside of” (outside, no ‘of’,) sprung (sprang,) “spilled it’s guts” (its,) northern-most but then southernmost (use the hyphen both times or neither time,) “its shoulder-antenna and crossed them” (if them, then shoulder-antennae.) 10“snuck in” (sneaked in,) “the Jozoor’s” (the Jozoor, it was a plural for an organisation known as the Jozoor. Perhaps Jozoors, but certainly no apostrophe,) “ditto the Jidar’s” (the Jidar,) “it was too was obvious” (it was too obvious,) publically (publicly,) “‘just one group that knows their rights’” (that knows its rights.) 11“seven hundred hours” “twenty-one hundred hours” (military usage usually written as 0700 hours and 2100 hours and seemingly out of place here,) “a group of young men…. were caught” (a group …. was caught,) “she went in day light” (daylight.) 12 “in Rahel’s flat” (I’ve no idea why that apostrophised ‘s’ is in italics,) “take the edge of the darkness” (off the darkness,) Michael Renie (Rennie, spelled as such later,) “and reviewing them a film critic” (as a film critic.) “Everyone started shielding their eyes from the sun” (the sun hasn’t risen, an alien spaceship has, though,) “and bellowing commands to soldiers outside, insisting they join him” (insisted they join him.) 13“look forwards to” (look forward to.)
In ‘About the authors’; “He was …. and currently based in Lisbon” (and is currently based,) “is a Palestinian novelist, poet and literary critic born. With a master’s degree..” (born where? When? And it’s Master’s degree,) “for whom he has written wrote and directed” (omit ‘wrote’.)

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Naomi Mitchison

The Traveller’s Library, 1928, 348 p.

Cloud Cuckoo Land cover

This contains a dedication which I would have thought to be quite daring for the 1920s, “To my lover.”

The book is set during the Pelopponesian War, starting off on the island of Poieëssa in the Aegean Sea. Here young Alxenor is caught between the wishes of his brother, Euripaides, to support Sparta against the island’s overlord Athens, and those of Chromon, the brother of the girl he likes, Moiro, in favour of the democrats. When the revolt aganist Athens comes, Alxenor is only able to save Moiro with the help of a Spartan, Leon and find she ha smade an enemy of Chromon. He and Moiro flee to Athens where he is taken in by Theramenes, a trader, and marries Moiro. He is only able to make money by enlisting as a rower on one of Theramenes’s triremes but it is never enough and he and Moiro live more or less hand-to-mouth, even when they have a son, Timas. Moiro is pregnant again when Alxenor has to make another sailing trip and he advises her to keep the new child if it’s a boy or else expose it (in the Greek way) if it is a girl. It’s a girl and his wishes are followed by the household. Thereafter things between Moiro and Alxenor are broken and he takes care not to make her pregnant again.

On one of Alxenor’s trips he receives news that Sparta’s navy has defeated that of Athens at Aegospotami and the fall of the city becomes a foregone conclusion. Thus it is that Alxenor and his family end up in Sparta at the household of Leon’s cousin where Moiro has an affair with Leon and the inevitable happens. Her loyal slave attempts to get rid of the child but it goes wrong and Moiro dies. Here the Spartans offer to bring up Timas as one of their own. Alxenor is willing at first but another non-Spartan who is undergoing the same training as intended for Timas secretly warns him not to allow it. He and Timas make their escape and head for Poieëssa.

This is another illustration of Mitchison’s clear love for ancient times as in The Corn King and the Spring Queen and Travel Light (and also Blood of the Martyrs.) Her knowledge of the times and customs shines through but I would perhaps have enjoyed this more if I’d had a wider knowledge of the Pelopponesian war than merely that it was a contest between Athens and Sparta.

As a novel, though, this has a peculiar ending in that it doesn’t seem to have a conclusion. It just stops. And I still can’t quite see in what context the title Cloud Cuckoo Land is apposite.

Pedant’s corner:- Theramenes’ (Theramenes’s. All names ending in ‘s’ in this book are treated similarly, though,) shrunk (x 2, shrank,) “he dare not” (past tense, dared not,) “none of the Spartans were back” (none … was back,) slipt (archaic spelling of slipped – or is it Scots?) “two fellow-servants of Isadas’ went” (doesn’t need that apostrophe after Isadas,) “wouldn’t leave go” (wouldn’t let go.) “None of them were …” (None of them was… .) mistress’ (mistress’s,) sunk (sank.) T S Elliot (in a chapter epigraph. T S Eliot.) “‘Aren’t I ever going back’” (Please. ‘Amn’t I ever going back?’)

The Pure Land by Alan Spence

Canongate, 2006, 428 p.

 The Pure Land cover

Ipponmatsu is a house still left standing, albeit with every window shattered, after the A-bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Two GIs break in to find its Japanese occupant, Samurai sword in hand, about to commit seppuku. They are surprised to find he speaks English. He tells them his father was Scottish.

The Pure Land is the fictionalised life story of that Scot, Aberdonian Tom Glover, taken on by Jardine Matheson to work for them in a Japan newly opened up to trade after Commodore Perry’s Black Ships had forced the Shogun to end Japan’s isolation.

Spence paints a compelling picture; first of the life, and love, Glover left behind, of his arrival in Japan as Guraba-San and a first encounter with the Samurai Takashi, the strangeness he found there, the mistrust, the Samurai striding about, casually disembowelling and beheading any who displeased them (and not just foreigners,) the tensions and strains within Japanese society, the disagreements of the Choshu and Satsuma clans, those wishing Japan to modernise, others fiercely resistant to foreign influence corrupting their unsullied country, the consolations he found after crossing the hesitation- and mind-made-up bridges to the flower quarter, his acumen in business and the risks he took when striking out on his own, his taking a Japanese wife, Sono, the loss of their child and relationship, his introduction of a railway to the country (a development not built on for decades.)

An instance of arrogance and carelessness on the part of an Englishman leads to his death. In the retaliation by British gun-boat diplomacy at Kagoshima, Sono was killed. Undaunted, Glover indulges in gun-running to both sides in Japan’s internal conflict, amassing a paper fortune but incurring debt, and is instrumental in sending representatives, first of the Satsuma, then later of the hitherto reluctant to modernise Choshu clan, to Britain, where they see the future. Through his contacts with a shipyard in Aberdeen he provides for the foundation of Japan’s shipbuilding industry via dry dock construction, and acts as middle-man for the purchase of ships for Japan’s first modern navy.

This is all wondeful stuff. I would have rated this book very highly on its execution up to its midsections and, in retrospect, there is a subtly handled recurrring motif of bridges being both safe pathways yet also dangerous. However, when the Japanese crisis comes Glover is not involved personally and the text has to resort to telling, giving us a short history lesson in which the Tokugawa Shogunate is finally overthrown and the Meiji Emperor restored to ultimate power. In the ensuing uncertain times the currency collapses as do Glover’s finances and he has to sell his coal mine, the first in Japan, but remains to manage it. His friendship with the rising politician Ito Hirubumi lets him in on the ground floor of a company whose symbol will be three diamonds, Mitsu-bishi, and he also finds time to found Kirin beer. At one point he regales a drinking companion with the words, “‘The Scotch, however, is from home. There are some things even the Japanese shouldn’t be trusted to copy!’”

All this is background though. The book is at its finest when dealing with Glover’s relationships with women (first love Annie, where the Brig o’ Balgownie over the River Don features prominently, first wife Sono, the courtesan Maki Kaga – an affair said to have been the inspiration for the opera Madame Butterfly – his housekeeper Tsuru, who falls for him, and whom he marries) and on personal thoughts and feelings, the perennial novelistic concerns of love, sex and death, here with the fate of a nation thrown in, the astonishing transformation of Japan from a mediæval feudocracy to a Twentieth Century world power in less than forty years. Unknown to Glover Maki bears him a son while he is temporarily back in Aberdeen, a son whom he later adopts, the book’s central human source of unease.

At times Spence can’t resist the opportunity for his story to comment on itself. One of Glover’s accomplices keeps asking him, “And then?” when he outlines developments in Japan’s future. The latter part of Glover’s life is somewhat skimmed over, though. The reflection on his life represented by his interview by an American reporter in 1911, questioning Japan’s expansion into Manchuria and Korea, is probably justified but the underlining of the irony of Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki shipyards being a target of the second atomic bomb attack in the 2005 chapter really isn’t. In that same section one of the characters wants to know what happened to the woman in the story. We find out in the last.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “a leather football” (in 1862? Not impossible.) Queensberry rules (these weren’t drawn up till 1865,) rowboat (rowing boat,) sprung (sprang,) a missing opening quotation mark (x2,) Shinsasburo (previously Shinsaburo,) sunk (sank,) payed (paid,) “‘I said For God’s sake why?’” is missing quote marks around ‘For God’s sake why?’; ditto with the ‘I said Why not?’ in “I said Why not?” “blew her nose hard” (this was a Japanese woman in Nagasaki in 2005. I remember reading once that to a Japanese, to blow your nose in public is extremely rude,) Ryonen (later, always rendered as Ryonan.)

Snakeskins by Tim Major

Titan Books, 2019, 407 p.

The supposed genesis of the conceit of this novel could have been lifted from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. In an event called the Fall, one day in 1808 green lights fell through the sky near the village of Ilam in Derbyshire. Unlike in Wyndham’s classic though, nobody was blinded. Instead a change was effected on the people living near where the lights fell. From that point on those few, since dubbed Charmers, on achieving adulthood shed a version of themselves every seven years. These sloughings-off are the Snakeskins of the title, which are identical to the original in every respect including memory, but last only a few minutes before turning to ashes; leaving the Charmer unblemished, younger, and longer lived as a result. Despite being a minority of the population, Charmers, in the guise of the Greater Britain Party, have been in charge of the Government for almost a century. Non-Charmers are second-class citizens at best, resentful of the advantages Charmers have, not least wealth and influence, though they still live and, in the case of one of our viewpoint characters, are schooled, side-by-side. She is Caitlin Hext, at sixteen soon to experience her first shedding. We also see this society through the eyes of Russell Handling, an aide to Government member, Ellis Blackwood, and of Gerry Shafik, an investigative journalist. Handling and Shafik are both non-Charmers.

This Charmers’ Britain is deliberately cut off from the outside world, technically backward. Hence references to Commodore 64s, an Acorn computer, VHS tapes and floppy discs. Yet one character sends a text message. And there is also a comment about an affected American accent. I’d have thought that was not likely to have been heard by the general public if the country’s isolation was as complete as suggested. (While reading it struck me that this book could have been written many years ago as a contemporary piece and only changed slightly for modern consumption after having been dug out of the metaphorical writer’s drawer.)

Caitlin’s Uncle Tobe’s latest shedding (like all such, attended by a Government employee) passes without incident. Caitlin’s, when it comes, provides a surprise. Her Snakeskin does not ‘ash,’ but stays alive. Only days later Uncle Tobe is found dead, a supposed suicide. Russell is contacted by the mysterious Ixion and asked to spy on Blackwood. Gerry begins to investigate the funding of the January care home.

It turns out that not only Caitlin’s but many Snakeskins do not ash, those in Government employ their surviving ones as substitutes in order to function twenty-four hours a day, but others’ – like Caitlin’s offshoot, soon calling herself Kit – are confined to the January care home until they do ash. (Though since the home is to all intents and purposes unregulated, that fate may not be as natural as the authorities pretend it to be.) A thriller plot then ensues with Caitlin helping Kit to escape the home with the aid of unregistered Snakeskins, and Gerry and Russell uncovering the designs Blackwood’s associates have to replace the Prime Minister and anticipate another Fall. The importance of the Hext family to goings-on are also revealed.

The setting-up of the situation is fine and the inter-personal dynamics are reasonably well-handled, those of a character named Dodie’s Snakeskins particularly so, but the text never really convinces as a conspiracy thriller. Moreover, Handling’s amour fou for Blackwood’s wife, Nell, is at best adolescent.

Pedant’s corner:- I read an ARC so some of these may have been changed in the final book. Time interval later count; seven. Otherwise; snuck (too many instances to count; sneaked,) focussed (x2, focused,) “off the edge off the bench” (of the bench,) “the catering company were scheduled” (was scheduled.) “‘What’s kind of trouble is Nell Blackwood in?’” (What kind of trouble.) “She nibbled at a corner of a sandwich” (the sandwich had been mentioned before, there was only one; ‘a corner of the sandwich’, then,) “on the world ‘your’” (on the word ‘your’,) fit (x2, fitted,) focussing (focusing,) sunk (sank.) “‘It was you that I met you in the…’” (It was you that I met in the,) staunch (stanch,) “none of them were experts” (none of them was an expert,) “none of the words were audible” (none … was audible,) “‘I’d be grateful it if you’d answer’” (no ‘it’.)

Jelly Roll by Luke Sutherland

Anchor, 1998, 411 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Jelly Roll cover

When a book’s epigraph is the passage from Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus which ends in, “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it,” as uttered by Mephistopheles, you know its contents will not be an unalloyed bundle of laughs. Jelly Roll has its lighter moments but the subject matter is indeed serious.

The novel starts when Glasgow jazz band The Sunny Sunday Sextet’s saxophonist, Malc, who is a bit of a psychopath, decides, for domestic reasons, to stop playing with them. The ensuing discussions among the band’s members – in uncompromising Glasgow dialect – relate to whether to give up altogether or find a replacement, and even if doing the latter would be a wise move given Malc’s likely reaction. The prospect of a tour of the Highlands and Islands has the potential to sway things. The group’s drummer Paddy introduces narrator Roddy Burns (whose tipple is the unlikely Bailey’s) to his sister’s boyfriend Liam; who plays like a dream. He seems the perfect answer, young, gifted and ……. black. Embarrassments ensue when he comes along to the next band practice as Roddy has somehow neglected to mention that last fact to the other members. He thinks they are being racist and they think he is, precisely because he didn’t mention it. Liam’s response is to ignore any tension. It turns out this is his strategy to cope with the harassments he habitually has to endure because of his skin colour.

The novel then jumps forward in time to describe incidents occurring during the tour, taking in a roll-call of Scottish towns – Blairgowrie, Dunkeld, Crieff, Fort William, Inverness, Portree, Ullapool – which are usually described by an italicised gazetteer entry. (Ullapool’s is a touch harsh. It merely says herring 1788.) It is obvious we have missed something in the interim. A later return to events which occurred after Malc rejoined the band, with Liam as a supposed backing saxophonist, fills in the gaps. Malc is an unreconstructed racist, as his dubbing of Liam as ‘Banana’ emphasises. His tendency to violence and to pick fights is displayed in several scenes, including the plot’s fulcrum. Not that Malc is alone in his racism or indeed his violence. The band’s reception at one of the venues develops into a rammy due to elements of the audience taking exception to Liam’s appearance.

I assume the book gains its title from Roddy’s penchant for “jellies” (diazepam.) When I first read the blurb on the back I declined to buy it thinking it would not be for me but given my wish to complete that “100 Best Scottish Books” list (at least all the fiction on it) I subsequently could not ignore a charity shop copy at a very reasonable price. I was pleasantly surprised – depictions of violence notwithstanding: there is a lot more going on in Jelly Roll than I have commented on. Its appearance on the list may be due to its highlighting of racism (in his youth Sutherland was the only Scots-African in Orkney) but it is certainly better written than some others which are on it.

Pedant’s corner:- the speaker grill (grille,) sunk (x3, sank,) sprung (sprang,) peninsular (peninsula,) “another thing comin” (another think,) whinging (to me ‘whingeing’ is the better spelling,) duffelcoat (duffel coat,) “to fall back onto” (fall back on to,) span (spun,) the watersedge (the water’s edge,) lungeing (conversely, lunging,) “seemlessly into the cultural fabric” (seamlessly,) twinging (twingeing,) Hawkins’ (Hawkins’s,) doppleganger (doppelganger,) “‘Ah’m ah fuck?’” (‘Am ah fuck.’) “fob us of” (off,) windowledge (window ledge,) Dunkin Doughnuts (I believe the company spells it Donuts,) “a hand held short” (hand held shot,) snuck (sneaked.)

The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner

Jonathan Cape, 2010, 398 p.

The Stars in the Bright Sky cover

This is a sequel of sorts to Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos where a group of girls from the school Our Lady of Perpetual Succour went on a trip to Edinburgh from their town – known in Warner’s novels as ‘the Port’ – for a choir competition, but they saw it instead as an opportunity for a night on the razz in the big city.

Now adults, Kylah, Chell, Manda, Kay, Finn and Finn’s friend from university, Ava, are planning a holiday abroad. They meet up on a Friday evening at a hotel near Gatwick Airport preparatory to utilising a last minute booking for taking off to Europe, settling on Magaluf as a destination.

Much has changed since The Sopranos. In the interim one of them has had an abortion, another a baby – always referred to by mother Manda as ‘wee Sean’ – by a waster of a father, and Finn’s studies at Oxford have created a distance between them. She has, for instance, never been to Rascals, the Port’s newest night venue, which Manda in particular regards as the height of sophistication. (I use that last word in its modern sense rather than the original of world-weariness.) Despite, though, Ava’s upper middle class background they begin to settle down together and forge – or re-forge – bonds. Manda is something of a force of nature, overbearing and scornful, but also vulnerable. It is through her mislaid passport that the group’s plans go awry and they are forced to forfeit the already outlaid money and to spend the weekend in or around the airport and its hotels waiting for a cheap flight to Las Vegas. The interlude provides time for an eventful trip to Hever Castle and back plus copious drinking opportunities.

Incidental comments and snippets underline the contrast between those who stayed in the Port and those who left and Warner’s focus on the girls’ relationships lends a creeping claustrophobia to the situation. Their knowledge of and regard for each other, though, remain the central core of the book. Yet there are still revelations. In one break away from the others Finn describes Ava to Kay as “a legendary, awful cokehead” who, she hopes, has given it up.

Perhaps a not-so-subtle note of class consciousness on Warner’s part occurs when Ava says, “‘When you’ve plenty money there’s no such thing as a drug problem,’” because your parents can get a lawyer to get you off on a first offence. Yet if you live on a council estate the authorities will throw the book at you. Ava continues, “‘It’s all semantics. What problem? You have a supply, you have no drug problem.’”

As befits his characters the dialogue tends to the earthy but Warner’s ability to get inside the heads of young women eager for a bit of hedonism (some of whom are customarily given small chance of that) is impressive.

I did not much take to The Sopranos when I read it, nor to the rest of Warner’s early work, as I said here on his later novel The Deadman’s Pedal. However I found both that and his The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven more congenial. The Stars in the Bright Sky was published between those two books. Does it say something about me or Warner’s later writing that I had less of an aversion to it than to The Sopranos? (I’m not in a hurry to go back to that book and check, though. Too much else to read.)

Pedant’s corner:- ballisters (balusters,) a missing end quote mark, “‘you credit card’” (your credit card,) ass (it’s ‘arse’ – which is employed later,) “the swinging toilets door” (toilets’ or toilet’s.) “Hanging from … were a gang of” (was a gang of.) “A moody pocket of lads were stepping out” (strictly, a pocket .. was stepping out.) “A babble of excited voices were …” (strictly, a babble … was,) “a vast mass of …were visible” (a vast mass … was visible,) “high jinx” (high jinks,) sprung (sprang.) “The vast bulk of … were back” (the vast bulk …. was back.) “‘That a sweet thing ..’” (That’s a sweet thing,) “the camera was a snugged, tight lump was in the skirt pocket” (no second ‘was’ needed,) “laying in the lap” (lying,) shrunk (shrank,) “she was laying out long upon her bed” (she was lying out,) sunk (sank,) “with a curled lips” (no ‘a’.) “‘You don’t seems nervous.’” (seem,) “a dossal attached to their sides” (dorsal?)

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