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A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd

Part of “The Grampian Quartet,” Canongate, 1996, 120 p, plus vi p Introduction by Roderick Watson. First published in 1933.

 The Grampian Quartet cover

The village of Boggiewalls lies in the lee of the Grampians; beneath a pass through which various military commanders have travelled on their transitorily important campaigns. It is one of those deceptively sleepy communities wherein lie universal human dilemmas and dramas, hidden or otherwise.

From it the Kilgour family had spawned scholars. His three brothers had all gone off to University and made a place for themselves in the world but Andrew Kilgour had preferred to stay on the farm. The impact of two deaths, his wife’s and his son’s (in the Great War) had led his daughter Mary first to give up her ambition to follow in her uncles’ footsteps until the second provided the chance for the widow, Milly, to come, with her daughter Jenny, to tend to the house – allowing Mary to fulfil her desires, and eventually set up a typing school in London. Jenny is the apple of Andrew’s eye but, now she has grown, her friendship with elderly local shepherd, Durno, who lives with his spinster sister Alison, is seen as no longer seemly.

But now the return of well-known singer Dorabel Cassidy, the one-time Bella Cassie, whose mother Peggy had fallen to her death from a hayrick in Andrew’s farmyard and whose welfare he had seen to by taking her in as part of the family – leading to the inevitable gossip – before she took off to make her way in the wider world, her building a modern house within sight of the Kilgour farm, her unconventional behaviour, all threaten the delicate balance of the relationships in the village. Dorabel has a capacity to enthrall others. She has an artist, Barney, in tow, on a string, obedient to her every whim and Jenny, too, falls under her spell. Andrew Kilgour is less enamoured.

There is an awful lot packed into these 120 pages, a network of complications, obligations and acceptances. A whole existence of self-abnegation is summed up in a phrase relating to Milly’s “eternal grey jersey – this year’s, last year’s, sometime’s.” We all know uncomplaining women like this. And it is conveyed in just eight words.

Shepherd’s usual eye for landscape description is demonstrated and the economy with which the plot unfolds, we find the true reasons for Peggy’s death, and the real identity of Bella’s father is exemplary.

There is an aside on good Scots stories, “For salt and subtlety these ….. were unmatched, and, at their best, great art, in which, as in a perfect lyric, not a word could be altered.” You could say the same for Shepherd’s writing.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech.

Evolution by Stephen Baxter

Grafton, 2003, 766 p.

 Evolution  cover

You can’t fault Baxter for ambition. This is potentially a daunting undertaking, to tell the story of human evolution – from those first small, nocturnal mammals scrabbling about under the feet of the dinosaurs all the way through modern Homo Sapiens to its far future descendants – via incidents from the imagined lives of individuals living at possibly pivotal moments in that great chain. It wouldn’t have been an easy task for anyone.

The story is told in three sections Ancestors, Humans, and Descendants, topped and tailed by a Prologue and Epilogue and interrupted by an Interlude between sections One and Two. There is a further episode set in the same time as these three framing passages though it is included as the last chapter in Section Two.

By its nature the narrative of Evolution tends to the episodic and that, for a novel, can be a problem. The reader is no sooner taken into the lives of our various protagonists than is brought out again, hurrying onward ever onward, usually leaping millions of years, jumping from habitat to habitat. But that, of course, is evolution. Our own experience of life, of story, is not even a blink in those terms.

The early chapters – set in the days immediately before the impact of the Chicxulub meteor (Baxter has it as a comet, with its huge “Devil’s Tail” spanning across the sky in its approach) – can at times read as the transcript of a lecture on palæobiology. Baxter has clearly done a power of research (and of course without that his story would have been much the poorer) but the way he introduces some of the creatures is usually not novelistic. Then there are the information dumping paragraphs describing the geological processes altering the animals’ environments and the Earth’s climate: necessary to the overall picture, but again not novelistic.

The influence of Richard Dawkins on the author’s vision is perhaps evident in the importance Baxter gives to sex, the passing on of genes, in the motivations and actions of his ‘characters’. There is a persistent insistence on the compartmentalisation of early primates’ brains. The beginnings of religion are described as an attempt to make sense of the forces shaping the world via a new way of thinking. The importance of food scarcities on the development of certain human behaviours is noted. By contrast the effect of the beginnings of agriculture on the health of human teeth (not good, the grit in the resultant bread from the grinding of the wheat between stones wearing them away) and of nutritional health more generally (lack of dietary diversity leading to deficiency disease, stunted growth) is almost a throwaway. But ‘civilisation’ lies this way. And its fall is due to the same impersonal forces of nature as did for the dinosaurs, though with a different mechanism. (Sixteen years on such a natural cause need not necessarily be looked to. As a species many of us still seem inclined to blindness to our own possible contribution to a mass extinction event.)

So; does it work? The book is an intellectual undertaking but not on a Stapledonian scale. A lot of the scenarios while differing in detail tend to the similar in their outline; ancestors, humans, or descendants encountering some new phenomenon, species, or climatic pressure. Baxter’s strengths as a storyteller lie in this sphere rather than in characterisation. His protagonists and those with whom they come into conflict are in this case too pragmatically designed to fulfil the niches assigned to them to fully come alive. Some of the future scenes also seemed to owe more than a little to H G Wells. (Baxter has of course since written a sequel to War of the Worlds.) As an introduction to the convoluted history of human evolution, though, this is a good starting place even if more recent discoveries have rendered it slightly out of date.

Pedant’s corner:- Written with USian spellings. Otherwise; “The smoke from the volcano” (we’ve previously been told that the smoke was due to forest fires,) “like an featherless” (a featherless,) “his clan were gone: (was gone,) “forever looking over their shoulder” (shoulders,) “was a kind of primates” (a kind of primate,) a missing full stop, auroras (aurorae,) “the laellyn group were overcome” (the group was overcome.) “But Capo’s troop were responding” (Capo’s troop was responding,) “‘one group of experimenters were’”” (one group was – but this was in dialogue,) “in the shape of their backs, skulls, trunks” (in the shapes of their backs, skulls, trunks,) epicentre (centre,) “Dust had already laid down by the fire” (lain down,) fitted (despite, earlier – and later – the USian form of the preterite, fit,) “just as his spear had flow” (had flown,) tepee-style (tepee-style,) a missing full stop, “where the sun was staring to set” (starting,) “that was why there was so many of them” (there were so many of them,) “raised to shoulder, height above the ground” (no comma after shoulder.) “It took Hononus and Athalaric many weeks reach Jordan” (It took Honorius and Athalaric many weeks to reach Jordan,) Neandertal (is this a USian spelling of Neanderthal?) A sentence lacking a name – or pronoun – as its subject (on page 671,) “for these pits were mouths. These deadly maws” (maws are not mouths. They are stomachs.)

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1980, 280 p. First published in 1811.

Expectations count. When you’re told something is good – excellent even – your anticipation is heightened, but perhaps also tinged with the thought, ‘Well go on. Impress me then.’

So what do you say about an acknowledged classic of English literature? Well, the first thing is that the past was different. This was written over two hundred years ago. They did things – and wrote – differently there. There is a prolixity to the prose here also present in Walter Scott’s novels (an only slightly later vintage) – though Austen is by far the better stylist and aphorist – yet to begin with I found this more of a slog than Scott and the similarly vintaged Mary Shelley stories I have read in the past few years were a smooth read by comparison. I don’t suppose my familiarity with Sense and Sensibility’s plot due to TV series and film adaptations helped with this.

For expectations count. I had been told that Austen’s dialogue was exquisite, but what I found in the first few pages was very little in the way of dialogue but instead, screeds of exposition, a large amount of telling rather than showing; backgrounding if you like, but still.

I don’t give up on books though. Not even poor ones. And this is by no means a poor book. It just didn’t grab me overmuch.

People don’t change, but social circumstances do. The constraints Austen’s characters – and the author herself in the writing of them – were under are/were formidable. She was writing for her time and a degree of prolixity would have been welcome back then.

Sense and Sensibility demonstrates behaviours recognisable today – Mrs John Dashwood’s selfishness disguised as concern for her offspring, well-meaning but overbearing neighbours, imputations derived from the slimmest of evidence, money driving people’s motivations. The centre of the main plot, though, Marianne Dashwood, is seen through her sister, Elinor’s, eyes and is shadowy as a result, Colonel Brandon, nearly always off-stage, seemed more of an absence than an agonist in the book, Willoughby’s attempts/protests at self-exculpation, though underlining his cupidity, are an unlikely ploy.

I’m not giving up on Austen, though. My expectations tempered, my exposure to her style as a prime, I’ll need to see what I make of the rest of her œuvre in the light of those.

Pedant’s corner:- There are some 1811 spellings – ‘dropt’ ‘wrapt’ ‘farewel’ ‘stopt’ ‘befal’ ‘seisure’ sooth for soothe etc, sprung for sprang and sunk for sank, but some which may be exclusively Austen’s, ‘chuse’ (but ‘choose’ also appears,) ‘scissars’ ‘wo’nt’ (but ‘won’t elsewhere) ‘stilish’ ‘expence’ (yet expenses for the plural, and, later, expense for the singular,) ‘extatic’ (but ‘ecstasy’ and ‘ecstacy’ later.). Otherwise; the Miss Dashwoods, the Miss Careys, the Miss Steeles (the Misses Dashwood, the Misses Carey, the Misses Steele,) “carried away be her fancy” (by her fancy,) “the whole party were assembled” (was assembled,) “in whatever shop the party were engaged” (the party was engaged,) “these kind of scrutinies” (these kinds of scrutinies,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “in her way to the carriage” (on her way sounds more natural to me.)

Children of the Dead-End by Patrick MacGill

Caliban, 1983, 310 p, plus ix p Introduction. First published in 1914. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Children of the Dead End cover

In some respects this is an odd choice of book for inclusion in that 100 best Scottish Books list. MacGill was Irish and the book starts off in Ireland with the early life story of Dermod Flynn, offspring of a poor family living off potatoes and buttermilk (with the occasional variation of buttermilk and potatoes.) When Dermod takes exception to his schoolmaster picking on him and hits him back, his schooling is over and he is packed off to be an agricultural hired hand – in effect, a slave for six months – so that he can send money back to his mother and father. But the majority of the book is set in Scotland to where Flynn decamps as a member of a gang of potato-pickers and ends up as a tramp until, via a stint on the railway, he joins the workforce building the aluminium works at Kinlochleven.

In the text MacGill affects to be giving us Flynn’s unvarnished autobiography, denying any artifice, explicitly stating that he has taken incidents from his (Flynn’s) life – though the assumption is that they are from MacGill’s own as his biography is all but identical – and written them down, but there is an organisation to them, a novelistic arrangement that belies such simplicity.

The itinerant life, the characters Flynn meets, are described in detail. The brutal existence of the life of a navvy, the arbitrary dangers it involved, admirably demonstrated. The only interests of the men of the gangs at Kinlochleven – outside working hours – are drinking, gambling and fighting one another. Somehow through all that Flynn learns to read, to jot down poems and incidents which he sends to a newspaper and whose acceptance is briefly parlayed into a job as a journalist in London. But the “civilised” life does not suit him.

However, at the core of the book is Flynn’s connection with Norah Ryan, a girl from his village of Crossmoran in Donegal, who came across to Scotland as part of the potato-picking gang but to whom Flynn neglected to pay attention as he fell into gambling and, consequently, she into a relationship with a farmer’s son which will not end well.

MacGill also brings out the ungratefulness of the general public who do not care about the dangers the navvies endured, the risks they took, but after they are laid off – all but en masse – only see itinerant wasters before them.

Flynn’s bitterness towards the church – both Catholic, in Ireland and Scotland, and Presbyterian in Scotland – is no doubt a reflection of MacGill’s own. “The church soothes those who are robbed and never condemns the robber, who is usually a pillar of Christianity….. To me the industrial system is a great fraud, and the Church which does not condemn it is unfaithful and unjust to the working people….. I have never yet heard of missions for the uplifting of MPs, or for the betterment of stock exchange gamblers; and these people need saving grace a great deal more than the poor untutored working men. But it is the nature of things that piety should preach to poverty on its shortcomings, and forget that even wealth may have sins of its own.” He goes on, “In all justice the lash should be laid on the backs of the employers who pay starvation wages, and the masters who fatten on sweated labour. The slavery of the shop and the mill is responsible for the shame of the street.”

In its unalloyed description of the life of the working man Children of the Dead End is of a piece with many works of Scottish literature, so maybe its place on that 100 Best list is justified after all.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; “is, indeed, that of MacGill’s” (that of MacGill.) Otherwise; “‘His name in Jim MaCrossan’” (is Jim Macrossan,) pig-stys (pig-styes or pig-sties,) “shot the crow” is defined in a footnote as ordering and drinking whisky without intent to pay (in my experience it has always meant to leave, to leave anywhere – or anyone – without notice,) “a group of children were playing” (a group was.) “A shower of fine ashes were continuously falling” (a shower was continuously falling,) by-and-bye (by-and-by,) Lough Lomond (yes, the Irish spelling is Lough, but Loch Lomond is in Scotland; so ‘Loch’. I would never write ‘Loch’ Neagh for the loch in Northern Ireland,) “a pair of eyes were gazing at me” (strictly, a pair was,) “there were a fair sprinkling of them” (there was a fair sprinkling,) sprung (sprang,) pigmies (pygmies,) dulness (I gather it’s an alternative spelling but I’ve only ever seen it before as dullness.) “For whole long months I saw a complete mass of bruises” (I was a complete mass of bruises makes more sense,) a phenomena (a phenomenon.)

Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

47 North, 2017, 219 p.

This was on the short list for the BSFA Award last year and subsequently won the Clarke Award.

 Dreams Before the Start of Time cover

It is, however, less of a novel than a series of vignettes featuring characters with some sort of relationship to each other but unfolding over a timescale of 83 years starting in 2034. The one big change to society involved in all this is the advent of technology to nurture human fœtuses outside the womb and to tweak the genetic composition of embryos for desired traits. The slow evolution of approved standards of child gestation into outright disapproval of the natural process – how can you be so uncaring of your child’s welfare as to carry it yourself? – is well served by the form of the narrative; it comes on us gradually, as the attitude would. The choice is not, however, so easy if you lack the resources to purchase the services and provides another stick with which to beat the poor, to go along with all the traditional ones.

As a Science Fictional thought experiment this is almost text book; consequences of a change thought out and demonstrated. I can see why it has garnered the acclaim it did. As a novel it’s less so, though, coming over as bitty and too pat. Moreover I wasn’t convinced by the implied background. Even in 2120 daily life in Dreams Before the Start of Time doesn’t appear to be very different from that in the early twenty-first century. Perhaps this appears so because most of the characters are well-to-do, or at least comfortably off. Charnock writes well, though. The book is never less than readable and in places surpasses that.

Pedant’s corner:- practiced (practised.)

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Canongate, 2012, 349 p.

The Garden of Evening Mists cover

Tan Twan Eng is the first Malaysian author whom I have read, though The Garden of Evening Mists is not a translation, being written in English and on the Booker Prize short list in 2012.

Narrator Teoh Yun Ling is a prominent Malaysian judge planning to retire as she is beginning to show the first signs of memory loss. During the Japanese occupation in the Second World War she – along with her sister, Yun Hong – had been imprisoned in an internment camp where Yun Ling suffered the loss of two fingers in a punishment (and Yun Hong was forced into being one of the jugun ianfu (military comfort women.) Yun Ling was the only survivor (“I was lucky.”) Post-war she made her name in legal circles by taking part in the War Crimes Tribunal as a prosecutor.

The novel is Yun Ling’s account of her life especially during the Malayan ‘Emergency’ of the 1950s when she briefly abandoned her legal career to try to fulfil her sister’s dream – following a visit to Japan in 1938 – of building her own Japanese garden. Despite her hatred of Japanese people she agreed to become a pupil of Nakimura Aritomo, a Japanese man living locally, who had once been the Emperor’s gardener but had come to Malaya – apparently in disgrace – before the war began, built a garden called Yugiri (the garden of evening mists of the title which, among others, utilises the principle of ‘borrowed scenery’) and several times during the war interceded with the occupiers to ease the lot of local Malays. Another principle character is Magnus, a Boer, who recounts the iniquities of the British treatment of Boer civilians during the Second Boer War in the original concentration camps as if to point out the lack of difference between Japanese and British. Nevertheless the war caused a frosting of the relationship between Magnus and Aritomo. (I note here that Asian names in the book are given in the Oriental style, family name first.)

Aritomo’s designs for the garden are rendered in the style of ukiyo-e prints (think Hokusai’s “Great Wave”) and he is also skilled in the art of horimono – whole body tattoos – both of which are not incidental to the unfolding secret of the book.

Tan weaves all these ingredients together into a compelling narrative, holding back information till just the right point, introducing complicating characters to build intrigue (for example the group of Japanese saying they wish to identify graves of the fallen but clearly with a different agenda,) illustrating the exigencies of life during the Emergency (which another author might have used as the book’s focus but Tan does not) and blending them all – including Yun Ling’s internment experiences – into the plot.

A slight clumsiness with information dumping early on and the speed with which Yun Ling comes to terms with Aritomo mean the novel doesn’t quite scale the absolute highest literary peaks but it is at times exquisitely written. It was certainly worth a place on that Booker prize short list. No surprise it didn’t win though. It was up against Bring up the Bodies.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘five week’s time’” (five weeks’ time,) “‘For goodness’ sake’” (if the apostrophe is there ‘for goodness’s sake, better to leave it out.) “‘My mother died when I was a four’” (when I was four,) snuck (sneaked,) in a list of Japanese gardening tools – named in italics – their translations are given immediately after, but the first translation ‘mallet’ is still in italics. “‘Less chances of an ambush’” (‘Less chance’, or, ‘Fewer chances’, but it was in dialogue.) “‘He’s works in Bangkok’” (He works in Bangkok,) miniscule (minuscule,) “sharing them with Yun Ling and the other women in my hut” (it is Yun Ling narrating this, so ‘sharing them with Yun Hong’.) “A line of cars were parked” (strictly; a line …. was parked.) “The two men looked at each another” (‘at each other’; or, ‘at one another’,) tealeaves (tea-leaves.)

Ammonite by Nicola Griffith

Grafton, 1993, 395 p.

Ammonite cover

There is a well-established trope in children’s literature whereby the parents must be got rid of (benignly or otherwise) in order for the protagonist to have the scope for the adventure the book will describe. Ammonite has what I assume is a feminist variant on this device, which is to remove men, rather than parents, from the equation. Nothing wrong with that. This is SF after all. Thought experiments are more or less mandatory.

The newly rediscovered Grenchstom’s Planet – shortened to GP, or Jeep – has begun to be exploited by the Company only for it to find that a virus is endemic; a virus which kills all men but only a percentage of women. Jeep is thus quarantined and the surviving Company women stuck down there. Nevertheless the earlier human inhabitants, now of course all women, are able to have children and have been present on Jeep for many generations. This parthenogenetic ability is somehow linked to the virus.

Our main narrative viewpoint character Marghe (Marguerite Angelica Taishan,) has been given an experimental vaccine against the virus – which she has to take every day* – and sent to the planet’s surface, knowing if it fails she may die or would in the best case never return to Earth as the Company will most likely pull the plug on its venture and leave its employees to their fates. Other scenes are presented from the viewpoint of Commander Danner, head of the Company’s base at Port Central.

Marghe’s explorations amongst the natives lead to her capture by a particular clan. Here she learns some of the ways and beliefs of the inhabitants but realises they are slowly declining and dying out. As a result a kind of death cult begins to flourish and a tribal war breaks out. Marghe seizes the chance to escape and makes her way in the middle of a harsh winter to seek refuge at another outpost, almost dying as a result, but is rescued by another native tribe. Meanwhile Commander Danner is exercised by the problems of surviving on Jeep and the presence in her charges of those excessively loyal to the Company.

Marghe’s relationships with her rescuers lead her to develop an ability known as deepsearch which connects the natives to their pasts and, if undertaken with a companion, allows conception. Children simultaneously engendered in this way are known as soestres.

Whatever Griffiths’s intentions were on writing Ammonite the interactions between her characters are recognisably the same as in any other SF novel; indeed any other novel. We have goodies and baddies, conflicts, betrayals, loves, endurance, but the final battle is averted through dialogue.

I remember Ammonite being well received when it was first published but didn’t get round to it then. The years since may perhaps have been unkind to it as it no longer reads as being particularly distinctive. For example the planetary wanderings and the contrast between the “civilised” newcomers and older inhabitants reminded me of Avram Davidson’s Rork! which I read a few weeks ago. (There are, though, only a few variations on a theme.)

Pedant’s corner:- *I’m not sure vaccines actually work that way. An occasional booster – perhaps only once – to replenish the immune response, yes; but not a continual daily dose. “Accompanying them were a contingent” (was a contingent,) “They all wore scarves wrapped around their nose and mouth” (noses and mouths.) “Drink lots a of fluids” (‘Drink a lot of’. Or. ‘Drink lots of’. Not ‘Drink lots a of’.) Llangelli (Llanelli?) “the triple handful of riders were returning” (the triple handful …. was returning,) “perhaps she should talk to these two again some time” (this two,) Dogias’ (Dogias’s,) “a thumbs up…. That gesture had travelled to this world all the way from ancient Rome,” (true, but in ancient Rome it signified death, not approval,) “where people ate and breathed and relived themselves” (‘relieved themselves’ makes more sense.) “The less personnel risked, the better” (the fewer personnel,) Cardos’ (Cardos’s,) Huelis’ (Huelis’s,) “one less softgel than there had been” (one fewer softgel,) “another group of six were struggling” (strictly, a group was struggling,) “port Central” (otherwise always ‘Port Central’,) “to wipe the sweat from their brow” (brows,) “Fuller’s earth” (I believe it’s Fuller’s Earth.) There were a few uneasy glances” (a few is actually singular, grammatically,) “‘I nearly gave up, laid down and died’” (lay down and died.)

The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame

Duckbacks, 2001, 244 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Lantern Bearers cover

In a very short Part One we find Neil Pritchard is about to turn down a contract to write the biography of a famous musician, Euan Bone, he knew in his youth. A diagnosis of cancer persuades him to change his mind. The much longer Parts Two to Four relate his remembrances of the summer he spent living with his Aunt Nessie in the town of Auchendrennan on the Solway Coast, where he was sent while his parents worked through the problems in their marriage. His boyhood treble singing voice gained him an entry to Slezer’s Walk, the house where Bone lived with his companion (as such a relationship was publicly referred to in those days) Douglas Maitland. To test how the music sounded, Neil was to be the vocal guinea pig performer of a piece Bone was composing inspired by a Robert Louis Stevenson essay “The Lantern Bearers”. Part Five rounds off the tale of Pritchard’s entanglement in Bone’s life.

Frame’s style here is writerly but nevertheless highly readable. The author being Scottish we of course have various comments on the country’s attitudes. “The Scots have a way of cutting other Scots down to size but Bone was lucky in that respect ….. received opinion” holding that he was a leading figure in Scotland’s musical renaissance. Via Neil, Frame tells us Bone’s music has a “typical unresolved Scottish conflict of intellect and emotion, that timid repressed life of the feelings.” We also have a typically Scottish observation where Neil says of his father, “My mother shot him A Look.”

The unfolding of Neil’s relationship with Bone, the explanation for Maitland’s unease at Neil’s presence in Slezer’s Walk, the awkwardnesses of Aunt Nessie’s navigation of ‘difficult’ areas of life to do with an adolescent boy, the repression of feeling in 1950s Scotland (I might add of Scotland since the Reformation till very recently indeed) are all brilliantly and subtly depicted. Neil’s complicated response to Bone’s distress, and distancing when biology intervenes in their relationship (which lead to the actions for which Neil wishes to atone years later) are beautifully handled. The only off note I could detect was the introduction – albeit offstage – of Scottish nationalist activists, but that provided the impetus for the novel’s defining moment.

On the evidence of this novel Frame is a master, The Lantern Bearers well worth inclusion in that 100 best list. Why had I not heard of him before encountering it? I obviously read too many London-based reviews.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb “on the the Solway Firth” (only one ‘the’ required.) Otherwise: arrengements (arrangements,) “vocal chords” (x2: they are cords,) “bundling them in a boorie – every which way – ” (Frame doesn’t feel the need to explain other such Scots words in the text,) McLuskie (I’ve never seen this alternative spelling to McCluskey before,) “a prospect of canal, the Clyde and Forth” (it’s usually called the Forth and Clyde canal, I’ve never the reverse before,) “the Arts Galleries” (this is the one in Kelvingrove, Glasgow, usually designated as just ‘the Art Gallery’,) cromandel (coromandel.)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Bloomsbury, 2017, 354 p

 Lincoln in the Bardo cover

This book won the Booker Prize in 2017. While I recognise it is stylistically inventive – the tale is told through a series of short passages (none more than three pages long at most, some containing only three or so words,) apparent extracts from accounts or memoirs of the time and dialogue “spoken” by the novel’s characters, some of whom continue others’ sentences, and all appended by the source or speaker credited with their identity in a line or three whose text is aligned to the centre of the page – I confess I was a bit underwhelmed. To me it seemed as if the text layout could as easily have been presented as in a play (ie with the speaker identified in capitals on the left) without making any material difference to the content. That also would have had the advantage of signalling the speaker before the dialogue commenced, instead of having to wait for that if the passage ran on to a page which required to be turned to reveal it. I can see, though, it may well work better as a dramatic presentation on film or TV, particularly the voice-intercutting parts.

The concept, Abraham Lincoln’s dead son Willie continues an existence beyond death in a kind of limbo – the bardo of the title; a Tibetan term, though I did not notice that word in the text. Lincoln’s visits to his dead son’s body create a disturbance in the bardo (for its denizens can see and hear him and others in the corporeal world) as much as they were commented on by his contemporaries.

The bardo’s occupants, for whatever reason prevented from moving on to heaven or hell, reveal details of themselves and their lives, and make attempts to communicate with Lincoln, feeling his thoughts as he strolls through the cemetery or sits in the mausoleum where Willie’s body lies. They do not refer to coffins or caskets or tombs. Each lies in, or rises from, a “sick-box”, they still retain hope of returning to their former life and in many cases do not recognise the passing of time.

For children, lingering in the bardo is thought to be undesirable. Our two main voices, hans vollman and roger bevins iii (occupants’ names are always given in lower case italics in the text) encourage Willie Lincoln to pass through. For longer term bardo lingerers such a moving on is accompanied by “the bone-chilling firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon.” Willie’s refusal to do so and realisation through experiencing his father’s thoughts that he is in fact dead, provoke the novel’s crisis.

Though at times I found myself nodding off I doubt this was the book’s fault. (I did not read it in the most propitious circumstances.) Saunders writes well and provides plenty of incident and memoir while his prose is easy to read. But I constantly found myself wondering, what is the point of it? Which part of the human condition is this meant to illuminate? By definition dead people are dead and cannot communicate back to us – and they do not in this novel (even if they do think they influence Lincoln’s actions, and those of other corporeal characters, in a small way.) Perhaps I am more attuned to the idea of fiction set in an afterlife than those swept up in the buzz surrounding the book, less struck by the idea of it being somehow original.

Pedant’s corner:- many of the characters “speak” – or their voices are rendered in – their own particular demotic, with spelling and so on signalling such. I did not note these instances. Otherwise: “but none are saved, all are lost,” (none is saved.)

Moving Moosevan by Jane Palmer

The Women’s Press, 1990, 152 p

 Moving Moosevan cover

Perhaps it was my familiarity with the central premise and the tone, or that the setting has moved mainly to Earth in this sequel to The Planet Dweller but I found myself much less irritated with this book than that one, more willing to go with the flow. (Palmer is trying to send up the SF genre here and I generally find SF and humour don’t mix well.)

Moosevan, who it was established in the previous book lives inside planets, has taken up residence in Earth. Her adversaries The Mott have found a way to break through the barrier preventing pursuit and are intent on mayhem.

Moosevan herself is rather missing from the narrative, revealed only by her actions – of which beginning to move Britain and Ireland south towards the equator is only the most obvious. Most of the talk and action (which tends to be of the relentless sort but rather cartoonish) revolve around the human and alien characters but none of these ever really rises above caricature. Palmer’s technique is very broad brush indeed. There are occasional grace notes which might still jar (not many SF novels of the time mentioned Maggie Thatcher, Bert Kaempfert or acid house parties) but also the odd phrase grounding the narrative. “There had to be better causes for which to ladder your tights.”

Moving Moosevan is light reading. It has its place.

Pedant’s corner:- for goodness’ sake (if the apostrophe is there it ought to be followed by a further ‘s’, goodness’s, otherwise leave it out,) “for them to secure their grip” (them and their, therefore ‘grips’,) “wild creatures … must have been holding their breath” (breaths,) “tried to diffuse the argument with a hollow chuckle” (defuse, that would be,) “a network of thinking metal units were working (a network .. was working,) “‘this planet it about to sneeze’” (is about to sneeze.) “A pile of Ordnance Survey maps were stacked” (a pile … was stacked.) “‘There are a number of species’” (strictly, there is a number of species,) “that the army …. were still trying to” (that the army … was still trying to,) “none of the group were too sure” (none .. was too sure,) “Yat knew that the terrible trio were back” (the terrible trio was back.)

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