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Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2016, 430 p.

 Radiance cover

Radiance is set in a fantastical universe where the Moon and the planets have all been colonised and are unrecognisably exotic places. At times the appearance of the text mirrors this exuberance. There is a variety of typefaces, some offset on the page to the right, others to the left and some laid out as a film or play script – or even transcript.

We are first invited to “Come inside and meet the prologue.” In a comment on literary affectation she (the prologue) tells us she has been told often that she is wholly unnecessary, a growth upon the story the wise doctor must cut off.

Below each chapter’s title is a representation of a film strip with an astrological symbol in it relating to the planet or moon on which it is set. The meat of the novel deals with the life of Severin Unck, an actress since a very young child, her father a film director, her mother a camera (he was always pointing one at her) but herself in her film-making resolutely wedded to documentary, “Any story is a lie cunningly told to hide the real world from the bastards who can’t live in it.” Severin cannot tell that lie. “We think of ourselves as being in … not just a story, but a good story.” It turns out film in this universe occurred early but when talkies evolved Edison subsequently sat on the patent so that only silent movies acquired the cachet of being art.

The story is told through personal reminiscences, transcripts of both Severin’s own – now fragmentary – archive and her father’s. Her origins are shrouded in mystery, her real mother is unknown to her – and to the world except for her mother (who wishes to remain anonymous) and her father who keeps his counsel. Severin was delivered to his doorstep and he took her in and raised her without demur, casting her in his films from an early age. She had a succession of stepmothers all of whom seem to have treated her well enough, the most long-lasting being Mary Pellam. The timeline (helpfully given in a Chronology on pages 7-9) goes from 1858 to 1962.

Creatures known as callowhales feature heavily. They are massive denizens of the deeps of a water-covered Venus. Their nature is unknown except for being able to produce a universal food called callowmilk, which gets turned into ice-cream among other things.

Anchises St John grew up with Severin and has a strange disfigurement, an unhealing “mouth” on his hand procured due to him inadvertently touching a callowhale. At one point the novel threatens to turn into a detective story as Anchises is manœuvred into trying to ascertain what happened to Severin after she dropped out of the public eye. This does give Valente the opportunity to regale us with the aside, “In detective stories, women are usually dead before the curtain goes up. In fairy tales, they’re usually alive. Fairy tales are about survival. That’s all they’re about. The detective solves the woman, the knight saves her.”

There is something very odd about the celestial mechanics of the Solar System described in the text. In ours, Earth is not incommunicado for years when the sun passes between it and Pluto – or Neptune (stated in the text to be out of radio contact with Earth for 72 years.) Our Earth scoots completely round the Sun in only one year after all; so it will be on the same side as those planets again within six months at maximum (and in practice probably only obscured for a few days.) Arguably, though, this discrepancy is in agreement with the fantastical nature of the solar system of the book. When there is a bridge between Pluto and Charon and people can stroll about in the open air under the moons of Uranus what’s a little radio blackout?

In its settings Radiance is a whirling round of invention but these flourishes do make it difficult to read as Science Fiction – though as outright fantasy not a problem – and it is not until the very last pages that the genesis of this strange solar system is addressed in the text. (Even so those orbital mechanics are a bit hard to take.) Severin explains, “‘Because I am a nexus point connecting all possible realities and unrealities…. I exist in innumerable forms throughout the liquid structure of space/time, and neither self nor causality have any meaning for me.'” The significance of the callowhales is that they “exist throughout everything that has ever existed or will exist.” For, “There are a million million frames,” (in a movie) “each one of them only a little different, and callowhales move through those frames like a cigarette burn in the corner of the image. Each frame is a world, a universe.” These glosses were too late for me as by the time they came I had lost patience with the idea of the book as anything but a fantasy.

As an adjunct to the living in a good story theme we also have a character say, “‘I think we’re all Graeae… We all share one eye between us, the big, black camera iris. We wait for our turn to see what someone else saw on a screen. And then we pass it on.'”

In an aside on hiding in plain sight Mary Pellam tells another, “‘If you’ve married men twice, nobody asks what you think about when the night breeze comes sidling in.'”

The penultimate chapter, Goodbye, echoes the prologue – “There is no such thing as an ending. There are no answers.” And of course in another piece of comment on the art of fiction it is not the end of the book.

Despite Valente being from the US we have “arse”, “knitted” and “bum” used in the British sense – and even maths! – but hood for the bonnet of a vehicle. Odd. Her intention for the book may be that “the story of the Grail is one of failure and always has been.”

Radiance is pyrotechnic and contains some fine writing but its fantastical trappings distract more than a little from the human story it portrays.

Pedant’s corner:- parenthetical hyphens are not spaced from their content-as a result this reads oddly-put in the space please. Otherwise; sprung (sprang,) lay down (lie down,) ice flow (floe,) off of (off, just off, no of,) assaying a Charleston (essaying,) outside of (outside, just outside, no of,) “partnered in own his dance” (in his own dance?) Hades’ (Hades’s,) “Nous vous attendons pour vous” (if I remember my schoolboy French aright either the “vous” or the “pour vous” is superfluous – Nous vous attendons = we will await you; nous attendons pour vous = we will wait for you,) “‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan his stately pleasure dome decree.’” (A stately pleasure dome, ) “and, and” (the first “and” is superfluous,) “a throng stampede” (earlier throng had been accorded a verb agreeing with its singular nature – so; a throng stampedes,) Franklyn Edison (elsewhere referred to as Freddy,) octopi (octopuses, at a pinch octopodes.)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Headline Review, 2006, 352 p. First published in 1892. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes cover

Being not much of a fan of crime novels I would not normally have picked this up but it is on that list – it even made the top ten – of Scotland’s favourite books (see link above) of which, having recently ticked off Willa Muir’s Imagined Corners – which is separately among the 100 best Scottish books while this is not – I have worked through all but four now. But it was available at a local Library.

So: how to account for the perennial attraction of these Sherlock Holmes stories? While they are easy to read they are not particularly well-written, being prone to exposition and, taken as a whole, remarkably repetitive in form. Nor are they particularly diverse. Not less than three of the ones here hinge on attempts to thwart possible inheritances. Moreover, our narrator, Dr Watson, is usually not present at the crucial points of an investigation, only for the reveal. And quite often the criminal – or malfeasant, there is not always a crime involved – ends up not being punished.

As to the stories themselves: A Scandal in Bohemia isn’t; either a scandal or set in Bohemia. The Red-headed League is an invented body whose advert is intended to attract applicants for the purposes of diversion from a crime. The perpetrator of the misdemeanour in A Case of Identity is obvious from the moment of its description by the victim. So too from early on is the murderer in The Boscombe Valley Mystery. The Five Orange Pips are the Ku Klux Klan’s equivalent of Treasure Island’s black spot while The Man with the Twisted Lip turns on an ingenious way to make a comfortable living. The Blue Carbuncle is a stolen diamond that ends up in the crop of a Christmas goose. The Speckled Band is a tale of murder by unusual means. The Engineer’s Thumb is barely a mystery at all. The Noble Bachelor’s bride does a bunk almost as soon as the wedding ceremony is over but Holmes soon divines why. The Beryl Coronet is a piece of jewellery entrusted to a banker as security for a loan and part of which is subsequently stolen while in his care. The banker’s dissolute son is given the blame until Holmes gets on the case. Once again the true perpetrator (or at least one of them) is not hard to pick out. The Copper Beeches is the house to which a governess is invited to work but there are odd conditions attached to the post.

Well, I can now say I’ve read Doyle’s Holmes (two years ago I reviewed for Interzone one of James Lovegrove’s homages) but I can’t say I’m keen to repeat the experience. The Hound of the Baskervilles, though, is on that 100 best list. I suppose I can always hope Doyle is better at novel length.

Pedant’s corner:- hurrah for encyclopædias! Otherwise – The King of Scandinavia (there is no such person; but I suppose Conan Doyle did not wish to name actual royalty.) “‘The form do so when the security is good,’” (ought to be “does so” but it was in direct speech,) shrunk (shrank.)

The Magic Flute by Alan Spence

Black Swan, 1991, 410 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Magic Flute cover

Starting from the point at which their destinies are about to diverge The Magic Flute chronicles the lives of four pupils from the same Glasgow Primary School, Tam, Brian, George and Eddie, from when they are about to move on to Secondary School at the turn of 1950s/60s up till just after John Lennon’s death in 1980. When the book starts two are shortly to sit the bursary exam for the fee-paying High School, two to progress to the local Junior Secondary. They all make their way to audition for the Orange Flute Band but only one of them manages to get a sound out of the instrument they are given to try and he gets to take it home. (The next week though it is the Mason’s son who has that privilege.) Inspired by music and especially Mozart’s The Magic Flute Tam becomes a musician, Brian sticks to his studies and ends up as a teacher of English, George drifts even after he is inducted into the Masons following his father, and Eddie escapes a life of crime by joining the Army only to be sent to Northern Ireland.

A possible different path for most of them is signposted by an improvised show in which they perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but only Tam breaks free (set partly on his way by LSD) and even he cannot quite escape the drag such an upbringing imposes. Brian’s aspirations to being a novelist are stunted by that Scottish sense of knowing your place. “Part of him always stood back…. a wee Scottish gremlin that narked in his head. Ach away ye go. I know fine what you really are. He supposed it was a variant of the old put-down. Him? A writer? He couldnae be. I kent his faither. Only this was more insidious, was the end result of such programming, and the form it took was Me? Ach, naw, no me. I couldnae.

Life in the West of Scotland at that time is conveyed well enough, the setting of paths and narrowing of opportunities caused by educational apartheid (long since gone in the main,) the background of sectarianism and the strains it causes (not gone – at least in certain spheres,) the hidebound nature of the older generation, the attraction for some of radical politics.

The initial prose is a touch diagrammatic and the characterisation a little perfunctory so that the boys are not sufficiently distinguished from one another. Also, too many of the scenes in the book start in the middle before flashing back. Spence’s jokes are more intrusive and less integrated than in Way to Go and that signalling of the story’s thrust by the initial scenes is something of a misdirection. For those of sensitive dispositions I note use of the “n” word plus the “d” word and the “P” word.

It’s a good enough read. One of the 100 best, though?

Pedant’s corner:- recordplayer (record player,) the tune from That was the week that was (That Was the Week That Was – very often in this book where Spence quotes a title he only capitalises its first word, which is against the usual convention and looks downright odd at times,) threedimensional (three-dimensional,) had showed (shown, x 2,) “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind in life unkind” (I believe Spence has misheard these lines from Ruby Tuesday which are, “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind. Ain’t life unkind?”) workingclass (working class,) beat-up (beaten up,) tryng (trying,) “‘it had it’s moments’” (its,) CSE class (a big blooper: CSEs were a qualification in the rest of the UK but not in Scotland, where we had Standard Grades, so there would not have been a CSE class. Maybe Black Swan made the change in order not to confuse English readers,) alsation (alsatian – used later,) hung (hanged, okay it was in dialogue, but it was uttered by an English teacher, who should know better….) hotching (hoaching.)

This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan

An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986

Faber and Faber, 2017, 302 p.

 This Is Memorial Device cover

To say this is an imaginary history of the music scene in the Airdrie area in the post-Punk era would be true. It would also be a bit like saying War and Peace is about domestic affairs in Moscow during the Napoleonic era. It is a picture of Airdrie and its music at the time but is also much more. The line on the back cover (also found in the text) “It’s not easy being Iggy Pop in Airdrie,” stands in for all those towns in the West of Scotland – and I dare say beyond – where expectations were/are crabbed, hopes frustrated, ambitions crushed – and all before the attempts to overcome that deficit were made. “… back then anything seemed possible, … back then being … the glory years. ….But really that would be untrue because back then everything seemed impossible.”

The text is made up of twenty-six different reminiscences, interviews, letters, conversations, emails, transcripts of telephone calls (in other words various forms of device encapsulating memory) from people either involved in or connected, however tangentially, to the legendary band around which the novel revolves, a band which captured the sound of Airdrie. But, “The thing about Memorial Device was that you always had the feeling that it was their last gig ever, like they could fall apart at any moment.”

Keenan’s tale builds up as a mosaic of all these contributions. (Among them is a wonderful rant about the extreme shortcomings of Kilmarnock as a town which is all the funnier for being written by someone from Airdrie.) Keenan is himself using the mosaic as a device for chronicling life in a Scottish industrial town in the mid-1980s. In the book’s first line the supposed assembler of these testimonials – one Ross Raymond – tells us that in compiling the book he “did it for Airdrie.” He “did it because later on everyone went off and became social workers and did courses on how to teach English as a foreign language or got a job in Greggs.” Because then, of those crushed hopes, those impossible dreams, because of the compromises people make with their younger selves as they grow older. If you like, this is Albert Hammond’s Free Electric Band in reverse. But what a glorious reversal it is. The line, “I would talk about the new groups and encourage people to drop out and go see the world, all the while living at my mum’s house in Airdrie,” sums up the contrast between the aspiration and the reality.

The conceit that this is an actual set of true reminiscences is bolstered by no less than four Appendices: A; a Memorial Device Discography (- self explanatory,) B; A Necessarily Incomplete Attempt to Map the Extent of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986 – relating the interconnections between the various bands mentioned in the book (the names of the wheelchair bound members of the group calling themselves The Spazzers are brilliant,) C; This is Memorial Device (- short descriptions of the characters in the book,) and D; A Navigational Aid (ie an index.)

There are some longueurs but Keenan ventriloquises the voices of his “contributors” well; each of the twenty-six chapters is internally consistent. (One is excessively fond of brackets.) Another, in a vigorous West of Scotland demotic – the only piece that isn’t rendered in a kind of “standard” English – explores philosophy, “ma existence wus closer tae a state o suspended animation, a series a frozen gestures caught between the impossibility uv the future and the improbability uv the past,” creativity, “Ah became obsessed wae the idea o automating, o inventing a form o music that wid play itsel and wid form its inspiration fae itsel … a form o spontaneous birth that held within itsel the DNA that wid facilitate endless versions and restatements o itsel,” and a disquisition on the amniotic night, “wur just seeing things the wrang way roon, the fervent dream that we ur, but then I began to see the dream as a computation, the specifics o the dream as distinct variables what could be slotted intae reality, as intae a circuit board that would then send the whole thing aff on a different trajectory althegether.” A third asks of The Who, “Has there ever been a more depressing vaudeville take on rock n roll to this day?” The personal interests the contributions reveal are many and varied. I particularly enjoyed the aside on the lack of merit of a certain translation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (Michael Karpelson’s) as compared to another (that of Diana Burgin and Katherine O’Connor.) Others celebrate their existence, “thank God we have many headcases in Scotland, many headcases in Airdrie,” others their universality, “We all live out our unhappiness on different scales,” a metaphor which manages to be both dimensional and musical.

Then we have, “I had grown up in the sternest, most backwards, illiterate, repressed motherfucking viper pit in the west of Scotland.” (There’s competition for that title I can assure you.) “I fell in with the music scene. The art scene was up itself. The fashion scene was vacuous. The book scene was going on behind closed doors.” (The book scene always does.) “You have to understand that when you’re talking about a local scene you’re talking about an international scene in microcosm….It fostered belief. It encouraged you to take the music and lifestyle at its word.” An invitation to disappointment.

Though there is not really much about music in it (music and its emotional effects are of course notoriously difficult to describe in prose) This is Memorial Device is by turns funny, mordant, poignant, profound and elegiac; an attempt to convey the elusive. It is a hymn to music and youth, a threnody for the passing of time, a celebration of a spirit as relevant to the world as it is to Airdrie – and Scotland.

Pedant’s corner:- burglarising (the book is not set in the US. The word is burgling,) ass (ditto, the British usage is arse,) lip-syncers (lip-synchers surely?) “the first summer after I graduated from high school” (there is no graduation ceremony in Scottish schools and therefore no graduating; if they are old enough and wish to leave pupils just get their teachers to sign their leavers’ forms – and go,) a wee tin solider (soldier methinks,) no siree (sirree,) ambiances (ambiences.)

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

Windmill, 2016, 314 p.

 The Sunlight Pilgrims cover

Though I have some caveats about it this is a beautifully written, engaging novel touching on those three novelistic perennials love, sex and death, and peopled with sympathetic, rounded characters.

Dylan MacRae’s inheritance, an art-house cinema in London, has been forced to close with heavy debts. With his mother’s – and grandmother’s – ashes he retreats to a caravan his mother had bought in the area of Clachan Fells in Scotland. Once there he finds himself attracted to his next door neighbour, Constance, whose twelve-year old daughter, Stella, is in the process of transitioning from a boy and is the object of local curiosity and sometime bullying from her classmates. All this is occurring as the ice-caps melt, the seas in the northern hemisphere are being diluted by fresh water run-off, the North Atlantic Drift is switching off and Europe is being plunged into a deep winter. The book’s four parts are headed “November 2020, -6 degrees”; “8th December 2020, -19 degrees”; “31st January 2021, -38 degrees”; “The End Has Almost Come 19th March 2021, -56 degrees”. (I have no idea why, in the text, that last date is italicised.)

Those dates might suggest this is a work of Science Fiction but it is hard to sustain that reading. If it is actually a metaphor, which I doubt, the increasing temperatures are not literalised in the way Science Fiction deals with such things and are not manifested in the characters’ interactions.

Fagan’s story is told through Dylan’s and Stella’s viewpoints and it is in effect one of relationships and family, one that could be told without any reference to external factors of climate or setting. There is a hint of fantasy in the appearances of Dylan’s grandmother to Stella but one of these was in a dream. In addition, Clachan Fells is described as if it is a remote location yet it is near a motorway and there is an IKEA within easy travelling distance, both of which would place it near a city. The deep freeze extends as far as North Africa – a touch unlikely I’d have thought. The metal door of a caravan is mentioned frequently. If anyone touched it at those temperatures their fingers would stick fast to it.

These are cavils and do not reflect on Fagan’s ability to conjure character. Dylan, his mother and grandmother, Constance, Stella, even local vagrant Barnacle, felt like living, breathing people. If the circumstances of, and reasons for, Dylan’s mother’s purchase of the caravan strain credulity a little it does not detract from the depiction of the characters and their relationships.

Constance mentions trick-or-treating to Dylan. The Scottish (and Northern Irish) term is guising. Fagan may have placed the USianism in Constance’s mouth when speaking to him since he grew up in London and she might have assumed he wouldn’t be familiar with it. In Stella’s thoughts, though, the activity is described as guising. This is a very subtle piece of writing by Fagan which would go over the heads of those unfamiliar with the original term.

It is somewhat ironic that the woman who has for years had ongoing relationships with the same two men, adds Dylan to the list, and has had other liaisons, is named Constance. I’ll presume Fagan intended this though.

The Sunlight Pilgrims contains excellent writing and utterly believable characters. Stella’s voice in particular is a joy. In The Panopticon Fagan has previously shown ability to get inside the head of a troubled teenager. In that book the adults were slightly less to the fore. Here all are wonderfully realised.

Pedant’s corner :- morgue (mainly USian, the British term is mortuary,) and later, mortician (the British usage is undertaker,) “a trail of empty wine glasses lead to” (a trail leads to,) “a pile of unpaid bills are stacked” (a pile is stacked,) “a stack of records have still not been put back in their sleeves” (a stack has not,) “none of these things are going to happen” (none is going to happen – after a while I gave up counting these failures of verbs to agree with their subjects,) “the wind farm’s nacelle rotate” (I doubt the plural of nacelle is irregular as in “sheep” or “aircraft”, so nacelles,) Ikea (it’s IKEA,) in the corner of her eyes (corners,) then they gone (they’re,) bended heads (I know “bent heads” would have meant something different but so does bended [compare bended knee,] bowed heads conveys the sense, though bowed is used on the next line,) a quoted news report says “there have barely been any bird sightings for weeks now. Those that are in nests have just frozen,” (no birds would have been nesting as late as November, when the freeze is said to have started.)

Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

Corvus, 2012, 521 p.

 Hide Me Among the Graves cover

Powers has form with poetry and poets, especially those of the nineteenth century. In The Anubis Gates he even, in the form of William Ashbless, deployed one of his own (and that of James Blaylock) invention. Fantastic Fiction even lists some of “Ashbless”’s works.

Here Powers concentrates on the Rossetti family, Christina and her brother Dante Gabriel, but Algernon Swinburne also features as a character as does Edward Trelawny.

In Hide me Among the Graves sublime poetry is an expression of a kind of demonic possession by (or more accurately a close association to) the Nephilim, a semi-vampiric type of creature. The affliction is partly hereditary but can be transmitted by biting. Two of these creatures (one is Byron’s friend John Polidori, the Rosettis’ maternal uncle, the other embodies the spirit of Boudicca – though the characters of course call her Boadicea) are the background drivers of the plot. Uniting their two strands in one body by the union of the two bloodlines will awaken such power that Boadicea will again be able (as she did in Roman times) to destroy London in an earthquake. Byron, Shelley and Keats are said to have shared the nephilitic tendency, Tennyson and Ashbless not. The loved ones, especially the children, of those close to the Nephilim are in danger of death, or – worse – a lingering half life as a diminished ghost. The prologue involves the awakening of the spirit of Polidori, by Christina rubbing her blood into a small statue belonging to her father. (There it is, blood again.)

The lesser known (ie totally fictional) protagonists of the book are Adelaide McKee and John Crawford who unknown to each other (at first) are host to the relevant spirits. When they are passing by chance on a London bridge at night they are attacked by an avatar of Boadicea. Only Crawford’s quick thinking in hurling them both into the water saves them. (For some reason both salt water and almost drowning repel the vampires, exposure to the open air increases the danger.) The same night though they conceive a child. Since McKee had earlier been trapped into prostitution they do not meet again for seven years, by which time McKee thinks Johanna, their daughter, may be dead. She is not, but has fallen into the clutches of Polidori and they and she spend the rest of the book trying to evade a forced union of Johanna with one of Boadicea’s creatures.

Powers is good with characters. McKee, Crawford and Johanna are very well drawn and their story is much the most compelling in the book. I was less taken with the doings of the Rosettis though. This is perhaps due to my distaste for the incorporation (it might as well be traducing) of real people in such a distortion of history. It is only the fantastical elements which disturb me here, however; I have no quarrel with the practice in a straightforward altered history. In this context, in Hide me Among the Graves, Powers purports to give us the real reason why Gabriel’s wife Lizzie Siddal’s grave was exhumed.

While Powers does write like a dream bits of this are ridiculous. Like vampires, the Nephilim – or their agents – can be deflected by garlic, killed by silver bullets, and their reflections trapped by mirrors. (I know it’s a staple of vampire stories but …. garlic? Really?) It is a measure of Powers’s facility that despite my reservations I continued reading. He can certainly spin a yarn and people it with apparently living, breathing characters. The book is too long though. I could quite happily have stopped reading at the end of Part One and still felt satisfied; but there was still over half the book to go.

Pedant’s corner:- remarkably few instances for a book this long. And the copy I read was an ARC (or proof as they used to be known.) It shows it can be done.
Nevertheless we still had “to lay low” (lie – but it was in direct speech,) missing opening quote marks when direct speech started a chapter, “had strode” (stridden, surely?) “‘the effect requires parents from two continents’” (Powers’s geography is off here. A Roman, no matter how consecrated to an Alpine Goddess, who raped one of Boadicea’s daughters – similarly consecrated to the old British Goddess known as Andraste, Magna Mater or Gogmagog – was not from a different continent to that of his victim.) An electric doorbell (in 1869?) Octopi (the plural is octopodes or octopuses,) “in front of one in the long row of houses” (it does make sense but “one of the long row of houses” is a more natural construction.)

Imagined Corners by Willa Muir

Canongate Classics, 1987, 285 p plus iv p Introduction by J B Pick.

 Imagined Corners cover

Through its own Calvinistic lens the Scottish novel treats as much of the three novelistic perennials love, sex and death as any other. In this, Imagined Corners, the first book Canongate published in its Classics series, is no exception. It contains, however, not much of a preoccupation with death but a more unusual emphasis on love – and (I would have thought for 1931) a quite startling discussion of sex in its philosophical aspects; though Muir somewhat euphemistically refers to “embraces” when alluding to such relations between her characters.

The book is set in the seaside town of Calderwick, on the Edinburgh to Aberdeen railway line north of Dundee, and starts off in the household of William Murray, the local United Free Church Minister, where his sister Sarah is worried about their brother Ned’s mental wellbeing. Even though they are returned to at several points affairs at the Murrays are something of a red herring as the bulk of the book is concerned with the doings of the Shand family. Black sheep Hector, who had had to sojourn in Canada for a few years after an unfortunate incident involving a local girl, Bell Duncan, has returned to the town with his bride Elizabeth, a University graduate. His elder half-brother John owns a mill in the town in which he has placed Hector in a job. John’s wife Mabel, very mindful of the proprieties of life in a small town, has managed to “hook” him, marrying him for his money. Aunt Janet Shand is a prime example of the upright old school. In the first two parts of the novel the claustrophobia of small town life is well-established as are the accommodations (or lack of them) newly married couples have to make to one another. The third part brings into the equations the return of the Shand brothers’ sister Lizzie, who many years ago ran off with a married man, and a foreigner to boot. She quickly dumped him but is now a respectable widow. However, such scandalous behaviour runs in the Shand family. Their father Charles in his day was a notorious womaniser and drunkard, Hector a chip off the old block.

The strands of the novel are not particularly woven together. The dilemmas of characters from the different families do not really illuminate each other. They relate only in so much as they come into contact because they live in the same town. William Murray’s crisis of conscience in relation to the degree of his responsibility for his brother Ned’s mental instability is not germane to the marital difficulties of the younger Shands nor Mabel’s lack of excitement in her own marriage.

It could never have been described as such in its day but Imagined Corners is in fact a feminist novel avant la lettre. Such thoughts as, “All men were queer and unaccountable,” and, “‘It’s damnable the way a girl’s self-confidence is slugged on the head from the beginning,’” illustrate the point, while, “all men… accepted unthinkingly the suggestion that women were the guardians of decorum – good women, that is to say, women who could not be referred to as ‘skirts’. Good women existed to keep in check men’s sexual passions,” depicts the curious – and still prevalent – notion that women are the necessary gatekeepers to men’s sexuality.

Muir applies this curious bind to Elizabeth who, “had been subjected to the subtle pressure of the suggestion that a husband is the sole justification of a woman’s existence, that a woman who cannot attract and keep a husband is a failure,” and then explores its ramifications in the conclusion, “That some such theory should emerge in a society which regarded the sexual act as sinful was inevitable; one cannot train women in chastity and then expect them to people the world unless the sinfulness of sex is counterbalanced by the desirability of marriage.”

At a time when, “In Scotland man’s chief end was to glorify God and woman’s to see that he did it,” women’s responsibilities were strict. “The perfect wife was not only selfless and loving – she was sympathetic, understanding, tactful, and above all, charming…. she must always look ‘nice’,” and demanding, “The perfect wife is bound to assume that without her” her husband “would be ‘lost’. This …. fits loosely over the real problem, of one individual’s relationship to another.”

The manifestations of this include, “The sexual instinct has such complicated emotional effects on men and women that its masquerade as a simple appetite ought not to be condoned. Mankind has an inkling of this fact, and much ingenuity is applied to shielding the young and inexperienced from the bewildering effects of sex,” which is an approach that still holds true.

When such thoughts pervade society, innuendo and gossip are never far away, and the slightest deviations pounced upon. But there is a counterbalance, “an undercurrent of kindly sentiment that runs strong and full beneath many Scots characters, a sort of family feeling for mankind. … It is a vaguely egalitarian sentiment, and it enables the Scot to handle all sorts as if they were his blood relations.” Yet that too has its darker side, “Consequently in Scotland there is a social order of rigid severity, for if people did not hold each other off who knows what might happen? The so-called individualism of the Scots is merely an attempt on the part of every Scot to keep every other Scot from exercising the privileges of a brother.” Heaven forfend!

Elizabeth’s confusion over her role, Mabel’s susceptibility to flattering attention, Aunt Janet’s rigidity, John’s stolidity, all bear the stamp of authority. In this small world Lizzie is almost an alien, a pointer to another way of living. Hector as a roué is close to being a type, though. William Murray’s crisis over being his brother’s keeper can only be resolved one way, Sarah’s frustration an expression of constrained life but Ned edges towards being a device to highlight his siblings’ natures.

Among the grace notes Muir deploys that wonderful Scottish phrase black affronted, ‘Oh, no, John, no John, no!’ reminded me of a song while there is a wonderful aside in the thought, “Surely? People who defend an indefensible position always begin with ‘surely’.”

Imagined Corners is a vivid slice of early Twentieth Century Scottish life, a life still lived in the shadow of the Reformation.

Pedant’s corner:- someting (something,) “laid a paw on on Ned’s knee” (only one “on” needed,) againt (against,) a closing quote mark with no preceding opening one, recoverd (recovered,) powered (powdered,) gong (going,) grandiose (grandiose,) “‘so far I know’” (so far as I know,) extentions (is this a 1930s spelling of extensions?) “in another world that this” (than this,) “‘I’d throw up the sponge’” (nowadays it’s “throw in the sponge”,) discovered (discovered,) tranquillity (tranquillity,) Mains’ (Mains’s,) “we’re all John Tamson’s bairns” (more usually rendered as “we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns”.)

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Vintage, 2016, 296 p. Reviewed for Interzone 265, Jul-Aug 2016.

 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights cover

The title is an indicator, clearly alluding to a famous collection of tales of wonder, promising (as it then does) exotic happenings, digressions, meanderings and stories within stories. Yet it is also somehow unmistakably Rushdian. Exotic but recognisable, aslant but accessible. In any case, I doubt any other present day author would invite comparison to such a well-known set of stories as the Arabian Nights. But the conceit doesn’t come from nowhere. If he perhaps hasn’t addressed the supernatural quite as directly in most of his previous novels there has nearly always been more than a hint of the strange, brushes with the uncanny, in Rushdie’s work. So here we have jinn (not genies, no, we don’t use that word any more) the Grand Ifrits, Zumurrud the Great, Zabardast the Sorcerer, Shining Ruby the Possessor of Souls – so slender he disappears when he turns sideways – Ra’im the Blood-Drinker, the source of all the world’s vampire stories, and the jinnia Dunia, otherwise known as Aasmaan Peri, aka the Sky Fairy and the Lightning Princess of Mount Qâf.

The narrative is couched as a looking back at the legendary time when the seals between the worlds eroded, a great storm struck the Earth and the Strangenesses began. Yet the story begins over 800 years earlier, in 1195, with the arrival at the house of the philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) of a young homeless girl. This was Dunia, indulging her fascination with human men and her capacity for love. For two years eight months and twenty-eight nights they lived as man and wife and produced numerous offspring, whose descendants, all characterised by their lobeless ears, became the Duniazát. Not named after him as, “To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.” Ibn Rushd’s dispute with the philosophy of a predecessor, Ghazali, “Only fear will move sinful man towards God,” and who stated that things happen only because God wills them, provides us with disquisitions on God’s nature, “God is a creation of human beings; the clap-hands-if-you-believe-in-fairies principle.” These differences are played out on a grander scale during the war between the worlds that followed the Strangenesses.

During that time rationality crumbled. Some found their feet didn’t touch the ground and might float away so high that they died, others were weighed down so that they became crushed. A baby born during the storm caused outbreaks of sores on anyone corrupt or dishonest into whose vicinity she came. The irrational became commonplace. The Duniazát had inherited some of Dunia’s jinn powers and were invaluable in the final confrontations with the Grand Ifrits. The whole time of Strangeness lasted, of course, two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights.

Lines like, “If I get hurt in this putative affray of yours then I’m not an innocent bystander?” to a policeman from a musician at risk from the incitements of a rabid preacher show that the events of Rushdie’s life so far have contributed mightily to this – as, I assume, theirs must necessarily do for all but hack authors. Yet while the novel contains all Rushdie’s strengths, it also manifests and perhaps magnifies his faults. There is not much restraint here, there is a lot of telling, the treatment is, as ever, consciously literary and full of word play (Lebanonymous; “all the gold, men, in your sacks will not save you.”) Yet the retrospective narrator defuses any tension in the reader as to the eventual outcome. Rushdie also feels it necessary to define FTL despite name-checking eleven masters of the golden age of science fiction.

However, the book is mainly a meditation on the nature of story. “All our stories contain the stories of others and are themselves contained within larger, grander narratives.” “The first thing to know about made-up stories is that they are all untrue in the same way,” (which feels Tolstoyan but is certainly debatable.) “To tell a story about the past is to tell a story about the present.” That stories tell us what we are; we tell them in order to understand ourselves. Quite where the incursion of the supernatural leaves us with that one is rather problematic. “To recount a fantasy is to tell a tale about the actual.” Well, maybe. “If good and evil were external to Man, it became impossible to define what an ethical man might be,” is closer to the mark.

In general Rushdie is at his best when his flights of fancy are tethered more firmly to earthly events, more centred on his human characters which here are too thinly delineated. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is pyrotechnic, impressive even, undoubtedly worth reading, but, ultimately, curiously lacking in heart.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- St Sebestian (Sebastian?) Nietzche (later rendered correctly as Nietzsche,) “when the princes’ attention was elsewhere” (yes it was princes, plural, ergo it should be attentions were,) bsattling (battling,) Rossonero, (Rossoneri.) In name (In the name,) one less sad angel face (one fewer – but it was narrated in tight third person,) waitstaff (that’s just a horrible conflation, waiting staff is entirely adequate,) knobkerry (I’ve only ever seen the spelling knobkerrie before,) scent to the lower world (sent.)

Superposition by David Walton

Pyr, 2015, 302 p.

 Superposition cover

Told in alternating chapters headed Up-Spin and Down-Spin – until the text’s narration merges in Chapter 40 – Superposition is an exploration of quantum theory and how it might manifest in the macroscopic world if its effects were to apply there. At the same time it is a crime story with a murder at its heart. The victim, Brian Vanderhall, was a physicist who has managed to find a way to interact with creatures from the quantum world, using their knowledge to build a Higgs projector, which can locally alter the Higgs field, thus allowing bullets, for example, to be fired at an object and pass around it, plus various other might-as-well-be-magic occurrences.

The Up-Spin chapters see Jacob Kelley relating the events surrounding the crime and its aftermath, the Down-Spin ones depict Kelley’s trial for the murder. At first the chapters are set at different times but they eventually become contemporaneous. Irruptions from the quantum world have meant that two sets of Kelley – and some other characters – can exist at one time, their probability functions supposedly spread out (superposed) in the manner of sub-atomic particles. Quite how this squares with there only being two – or at most three – versions of each is left unexplained, or, more charitably, a form of artistic licence.

As might be imagined there is a plethora of information dumping and explanation. For this, handy non-Physics-knowledgeable characters provide useful sounding boards. While necessary, these explanations do tend to the obtrusive and there are occasional other narrative infelicities.

The back-cover blurb from William Hertling, “Walton’s captivating writing will draw you in, the murder mystery will keep you reading and you’ll finish with a better understanding of quantum physics,” is wrong on all three counts. Walton’s writing is up to the task but rarely more than workmanlike, the murder mystery is the least of the attractions and the last will only apply if you didn’t know anything about it already. (Arguably even if you do. As Niels Bohr said, anyone who isn’t profoundly shocked by quantum physics hasn’t understood it.) The text also betrays some unreconstructed ideas about both the triggering of female sexual arousal and maternal instinct. The plot depends for its continuation on the lack of collapse of the probability functions of both Kelley and his daughter Alex/Alessandra yet other characters not so necessary to it revert to the one form relatively quickly.

In addition Walton represents the “split” characters as mirror images of each other. Down-Spin Kelley – and one version of daughter Alex – have been active throughout. They will require to have eaten during this time. Like most other biological molecules carbohydrates, fats and proteins are compounds which are chiral (ie exhibit handedness – all in the same sense.) A mirror image body would not be able to metabolise food molecules inverse to it (the only ones available) since its relevant processing enzymes work only with the correct handedness, and hence it would starve. This is not a problem Roger Zelazny avoided in his novel Doorways in the Sand: he addressed it straight on. Walton doesn’t even seem to be aware of it.

Superposition is an entertaining enough tale – the courtroom scenes are well realised, if familiar from countless screen dramas. And it does fulfil the function of the detective novel. If you want a primer on quantum Physics dressed up as crime fiction this is the book for you.

Pedant’s corner:- “firmly established liver mortis” (liver mortis? Not rigor mortis?) “It wasn’t until I walked around one of the card tables that I saw him.” (saw the body, rather than “him” would have had more impact,) “‘What it doing?’” (What’s,) “the stream was still projecting, a show about the real-life exploits of…” (no comma,) “like an auctioneer valuating items for sale” (USian can be so ugly at times; the word is valuing,) “and a hanging model of the super collider hanging above our heads” (well, a hanging model can only hang, can’t it?) imposter (impostor,) “each of them wavered between themselves and their double” (their doubles.) “But hadn’t Elena and Claire and Sean had already resolved…?” (omit “had”.)

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Serpent’s Tail, 2016, 430 p.

 The Essex Serpent cover

To all intents and purposes this is a nineteenth century novel but it is one written with a modern sensibility. The text is divided into a prologue set on (an unspecified) New Year’s Eve followed by four parts split into unevenly distributed sections which are titled consecutively January to September and then finally November, all interspersed with letters written between the characters.

In it the recently (happily) widowed Cora Seaborne with her son Frankie – who seems to have OCD or at the least autistic traits – and his childhood nurse Martha travel to Colchester to get away from London. The doctor who attended her husband’s death bed, Luke Garrett, has meanwhile formed an unreciprocated attraction to her. An earthquake eight years before the book starts has, according to rumour, let loose again the Essex Serpent which for a short time in 1669 roamed the waters of the Essex coast. Every local mishap or disappearance is now blamed on it. In the Blackwater estuary village of Aldwinter, there is a representation of the serpent carved onto a pew in All Saints Church. Through a mutual acquaintance an introduction is arranged between its vicar, William Ransome, and Cora, who has an interest in ancient creatures inspired by Mary Anning. Both Cora and Ransome erroneously imagine the other to be a stereotype of their respective statuses. They first meet by accident while rescuing a sheep from the muddy river bank but on further introduction strike up an intellectual, if verbally combative, friendship. Ransome is at odds with his congregation in being unwilling to address or assuage their belief in the creature. Ransome’s wife, Stella, is a consumptive, who is pleased by, even encourages, the friendship between her husband and Cora, and herself befriends Frankie.

The ingredients are here for a tale of forbidden love (or two eternal triangles even) set against a backdrop of supernatural horror but Perry does not play that game. She is more subtle – and too good a writer. Yet something about the enterprise nevertheless misses the mark.

The prologue mentions the banks of the River Blackwater in its first sentence. Having once lived by that river’s banks myself – but way upstream not near the estuary – I was therefore disposed to like the book, but as time went by I grew increasingly frustrated by it. It is not that it is not accomplished in its way or fails to provide memorable characters – even the relatively minor ones are rounded and all too human. There was just something about it that felt askew. About halfway through the thought crystallised.

Perry has yet to learn economy. Accumulation of detail normally lends verisimilitude, but she overdoes it. Descriptions frequently contain at least one observation too many. There is too much telling, too many extended ruminations by the various characters. And is Cora just a little too modern in her attitudes? In this regard the sub-theme of the problem of social housing and high rents also seemed to be straining for contemporary relevance. And – this last was actually a grace note, so not infelicitous as such – I did wonder if Martha had been named solely so as that another character might say to her, “‘Martha, my dear.’”

A pointer to Perry’s intentions for the novel may be found when she puts into the mouth of Will Ransome the thought, “‘far from being one truth alone there may be several truths,’” but we are never in any doubt that there is only one reality here. In that regard the putative fantasy element of the serpent promises more than it delivers.

While Perry has a facility with character and behaviour and The Essex Serpent has much to recommend it, it is more than a touch overwritten.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a speech quote (x 3,) fit (fitted, x 2,) “no sooner had she grown accustomed to one Cora, another would emerge” (than another would emerge,) “‘Still gadding about with hookers, is he?” (hookers was not a British usage in Victorian times I’d have thought. It still isn’t,) “he’d showed her” (shown,) “that of a minor royal greeting dignitaries at the opening of a library” (did minor royals perform such functions in the nineteenth century?) “Fifty miles south as the swallow flies and London’s at her best” (London? South of the Blackwater estuary as the swallow flies?) “Think of the set to when Galileo sent the earth spinning round the sun” (that was Copernicus, not Galileo, but it was in a character’s musings. He may have been intended to be mistaken but he was otherwise presented as scientifically literate,) imposter (impostor,) curb (kerb – which was used only seven pages later!)
Greetings to the word croat (meaning a cross) which was a new one on me.

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