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The Smoke by Simon Ings

Gollancz, 2018, 300 p

 The Smoke cover

We start on a space vehicle on which the brother of protagonist Stuart Lanyon is about to take off from Woomera – powered by successive explosions of atom bombs underneath it blasting it into space. This is something of a distraction however, though a signifier of an altered history where Yellowstone erupted in 1874, immolating North America, and a Great War was ended in 1916 after the atomic bombing of Berlin.

The main meat of the story is the ramifications of the discovery of the Gurwitsch ray – biophotonic weak ultraviolet pulses passing from cell to cell in living things, each creature with its own characteristic emissions, orchestrating development, leading to the ability of humanity to sculpt organic forms at will. Hence we are in the age of speciation of mankind. The dead of the Great War battlefields were subjected to Gurwitsch’s ray, producing strange organisms known as chickies which are able to exert sexual allure among other abilities, a technocratic intellectually superior elite called the Bund has arisen in Eastern Europe and dominates world affairs.

The weird aspects of all this are underlined by Ings’s story-telling, part of the novel being narrated in the second person, though the down to Earth sections are more traditional first person and some interludes are in third. Though the background details seem to sit oddly with one another – a thoroughly industrial Yorkshire can feel more like the 1930s, a television series more signifies the early 1960s, parts of London are dominated by ultra-modern architecture – Ings manages to hold them together. The setting is occasionally reminiscent of Andrew Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia with the merest hint of Ballard thrown in for extra alienation.

At the novel’s heart is the love story between Stuart and Bund citizen Fel, aka Felicine Chernoy, daughter of Georgy, inventor of the Chernoy Process which utilises Gurwitsch’s ray to enable rebirth. Stuart’s mother, dying of cancer, undergoes this treatment and is reconstituted as an infant. A curious phenomenon to behold, this, a child with an adult’s memories, behaving in unchild-like ways – and subject to unthinking prejudice. Stuart and Fel’s different backgrounds lend their affair the attributes of all star-crossed lover stories.

The characters are well drawn but despite their supposedly greater intellects the two members of the Bund shown here – Fel and her father – do not seem significantly different from humans as we know them. Stuart does though in his narration refer to his father as Bob and mother as Betty, which is a touch unusual.

Ings’s vision here is a particular one, at once curiously fantastic and yet also recognisable, a flight of fancy (several flights if you like) but utterly grounded.in human emotions. The Smoke goes to show that Science Fiction continues to produce work of which those detractors who dismiss it without ever sampling it assume it to be incapable.

Pedant’s corner:- “the Bund” is treated as plural throughout, but ought to be singular, “And since no one wants to meet each other’s eye, it makes logical sense that the entire audience repair en masse to the bar” (others’ I think, plus make that no-one, and, the entire audience repairs,) Lutyens’ (Lutyens’s,) potshard (potsherd, please,) Picasso is referred to as a Parisian artist (he was Spanish, but this is an altered history,) “the family were meant to cheer Jim off to Woomera” (the family was meant to,) “it would be the most natural thing in the world for me to stove this thing’s head in” (the verb is to stave in, stove is the past tense form.) “The odds against there being no set now increases” (the odds …. increase.) “‘According your friend’” (According to your friend,) “till it run out of” (runs out,) a parenthetical sentence not started with a capital letter as it ought to have been, “for goodness’ sake” (this ought to be written “goodness’s” even if it’s pronounced “goodness”.)

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Penguin, 2005, 296 p

The Jane Austen Book Club cover

This book does what it says on the tin. Six people are brought together by co-ordinator Jocelyn to read the novels of Jane Austen and meet – or not depending on circumstances (a hospitalisation for example) – to discuss them, one each per month.

The novel therefore consists of six chapters, one per month but they are more about the characters’ lives than any book discussions. We are also granted a prologue and an epilogue. Six pages devoted to synopses of Austen’s novels follow the epilogue and these give in turn to 25 pages of responses to Austen’s work – 2 pages of comments by her family and friends, the rest by critics, writers and literary figures – all accompanied by 61 bibliographical Notes. (Then we have 3 pages of those naff “Questions for discussion” sometimes appended to modern books. But I suppose that is what book groups do.)

There are some parallels between the lives of the group’s members and incidents in Austen’s novels, Jocelyn’s attempts at match-making notable among them, but they are really just grace notes.

In effect, what Fowler has done here is conceived a way to collect six short novellas – or six longish short stories – under the umbrella of a novel. Yes, there is some character development – Jocelyn’s initial dismissal of only male group member Grigg’s enthusiasm for Science Fiction (“She didn’t actually have to read science fiction to know what she thought of it. She’d seen Star Wars”) overcome by his introduction to her of the works of Ursula Le Guin being a case in point.

The book is clearly targetted at readers familiar with Austen’s œuvre as there is frequent mention of incidents/dilemmas/characters from the books plus an update of her most famous aphorism in the form of “‘Everyone knows,’ Prudie said, ‘that a rich man is eventually going to want a new wife,’” but even those unfamiliar with the works will find it readable enough. I somehow doubt, though, that any aficionados will come away from this enthusing about it. It’s not a patch on We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves or even Sarah Canary.

Pedant’s corner:- Whenever a section starts with a piece of dialogue the opening quotation mark is missing (this is one of those publishing habits with which I disagree,) teepees – also teepeed (tepees – tepeed,) “the lay of the land” (it’s “lie” of the land,) “playing the bagpipe” (bagpipes,) the occasional missed comma before a quote, L.A. at the end of a sentence not followed by the full stop. In the Responses: “there would be more genuine rejoicing at the discovery of a complete new novel by Jane Austen than any other literary discovery, short of a new major play by Shakespeare, that one could imagine” (than one could imagine.)

After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain

night shade books, 2015, 240 p

 After the Saucers Landed cover

As the title suggests this book is set in a time after aliens have come to Earth. Things, however, are not as dedicated Ufologists would have wished. They came down in a mundane manner – exactly as expected, setting down on the White House lawn as if they were an incarnation of Klaatu, the alien from The Day the Earth Stood Still. (That was also the name of the band which first recorded the song Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, which is referenced in the text.) The time these aliens landed though was not in the future but in the 1990s – making this an Altered History – but this allows Lain to saturate the book with cultural references from then and the immediately preceding decades. The aliens, called Pleidiens, do not seem to be concerned with conquest but wander around in sequined jumpsuits, hovering their disc-shaped “saucers” over the streets of the US (no wider perspective of their impact on the world is afforded to the reader) offering redemption of a wishy-washy sort. There is some discussion of a phenomenon called Missing Time and of time travel to a second before things happen but this is never developed and the aliens are more like an absence in the book rather than a driving force. This may be the point, though. New dispensations, what might once have been wonders, tend to become accepted relatively quickly and soon settle down to normality. Still, bits of this reminded me vaguely – very vaguely – of Philip K Dick’s mainstream fiction.

The novel’s main protagonist is Brian Johnson, once an author of UFO books, who encounters an alien capable of morphing into – in effect becoming – people, specifically Johnson’s wife Virginia (though Johnson is able to perceive slight differences. (Others are also impersonated in like fashion.) The Pleidien, Asket, wants Johnson to investigate the aliens and write another UFO book. However, there is very little resembling a plot here. Lain presents us with a metafictional construct, frequently addressing the reader and discussing events to come later in a matter of fact way.

What meat there is in this may be contained in the revelation vouchsafed to Johnson by the chief Pliedien, Ralph Reality, “The Pleidien doctrine was simple but absurd. The universe was imaginary….. your head was imaginary too.”

Pedant’s corner:- Pleides, Pleidien (Is this a misreading of Pleiades? [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleiades] Therefore Pleidean?) loud speakers (loudspeakers,) “when a man in a sequined jumpsuit steps comes around the corner” (either “steps” or “comes”, not both,) “and then zips away toward our solar system. The saucer zips toward a three dimensional rendering of our solar system” (I suspect there’s been a revision there and the original text has not been removed from it.) “For Flint this was this difference that mattered.” (Either, “For Flint it was this difference that mattered,” or, “For Flint this difference mattered,”) “as the light from street lamps and neon signs illuminate the back seat” (illuminates,) “lets it fall from their” (from there,) “because her parents forbid it” (forbade it.) “None of the locals were very interested” (none was interested.) “It more of a modernist sculpture hanging over us” (It’s more.) “What my wives imagined was that that they” (only one “that” needed,) “how they ended up climbing onto our kitchen table” (the text implies “how we ended up climbing” as a better word choice.) “This time I don’t stay anything” (This time I don’t say anything,) Charles’ (Charles’s.) “These things weren’t distinct but one.” (?????) shined (shone,) “squiggles and gestures that Patricia knew was something like a language” (were something like a language.) “Back in in 1957.” (only one “in” required.) “The agents pull up a plastic stool for me and then pushes down on my shoulders” (either “the agent” or “push”,) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech in a continuing sentence, cotiliion (cotillion,) “The Rascals’ “Groovin’” (when “Groovin’” was released they were The Young Rascals,) a regress (a regression?) “as she lays back” (lies back,) “her explanations, her story, drifts away” (drift away,) Pledien (Pleidien,) kids game (kids’.)

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley

William Morrow, 2005, 472 p

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land

Lord Byron, of course, never wrote a novel – except perhaps the beginnings of one. Or, if he did, it is lost to the mists of time. Crowley’s conceit here is that Byron completed it, and that his daughter, Ada Lovelace, “the first computer programmer,” burned it due to her batty mother’s insistence, but, before she did so, encrypted it in a series of numbers. Those numbers have turned up in papers belonging to Viscount Ockham, Ada’s son. A website called strongwomanstory has gained access to these and sent a reporter to look them over. This aspect of Crowley’s novel is related in a series of emails and letters between the reporter “Smith” and her mother “Thea” but expands to include her father. Smith’s relationship with her father is much the same as Ada Lovelace’s with hers – sexual indiscretions resulting in estrangement – except the modern story holds the promise of reconciliation. Included in these exchanges is the observation that Ada’s story contains ‘a monster parent, but it’s not her father-it’s her mother’ and the observation about Byron’s notorious lack of punctuation “Printers in those days could punctuate. Imagine. Now hardly anybody can.”

It would of course be impossible to proceed with this scenario were the “novel” by Lord Byron not to appear in these pages and it does take up by far the largest part of the book. Crowley has done an impressive job in ventriloquising the poet’s voice even if at one point he does have Byron pre-echo Tolstoy with the thought, “Happy endings are all alike; disasters may be unique.” Its protagonist, Ali, born in Albania as the result of a liaison with a wandering British aristocrat, Lord Sane, is in young adulthood sought out by his father to become heir to the Sane estate, somewhere in Scotland. This tale, The Evening Land, is as Gothic as you could wish, involving a gruesome death, misplaced accusations, possible amnesia, an impersonator, a clandestine seduction – everything you would expect from a book with such supposed origins and complete with the verisimilitudinal inclusion of archaic spellings such as dropt for dropped, segar for cigar and soar’d for saored. We are also given Ada’s commentary on the text of The Evening Land, in the form of “her” notes on each chapter, wherein she wonders if her father could ever have imagined a family not riven by disputes. (There is, too, a respect in which, notwithstanding the fact that The Evening Land’s contents bear resemblances to incidents in Byron’s life, this overall endeavour might be said to be more about Ada than Byron.)

Then we have the wonderful cover illustration featuring Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,) and the rough-cut page edges making the book resemble one from the early 19th century show a pleasing attention to detail.

Crowley came to my attention back in the 1970s with books such as Little, Big, Aegypt (I note here the appearance in the text of The Evening Land of the spelling Æschylus,) and Engine Summer but dropped off my reading register till I noticed this book. I’ll be looking for more of him now though.

Pedant’s corner:-
In the back cover flap blurb: “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” (Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.) Otherwise: “‘into whose recognizance’” (recognisance – I doubt Byron would have used USian spellings, others, such as honour, are rendered in the British way. Plus recognizance is a US legal formulation rather than a Scottish one,) “‘these lands and goods was truly yours’” (were,) “Kendals drops” (Kendal drops,) Bachus’ (Bachus’s.)

Winter by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2017, 328 p

 Winter cover

The novel starts with a reference to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, “God was dead: to begin with,” but is set around a curious Christmas visit to his mother Sophia’s home by Arthur just after his girlfriend Charlotte has left him but he wishes to disguise that fact. Accordingly he hires a woman he sees at a bus-stop to pretend to be Charlotte. His mother has been neglecting herself, and has no food in the house so Arthur summons his aunt Iris to rescue the situation. Since Iris, a lefty, and Sophia, a staunch Tory, have been at loggerheads – indeed not speaking to each other – for years this leads to some strained conversations, not least when Charlotte’s impersonator rather lets the cat out of the bag and reveals her name is Lux – and that she hails from Croatia.

In the incidents from the sisters’ lives we are regaled with a short history of the Greenham Common protests – what happened at Greenham changed the world Iris says. She is also less than pleased with the prevailing climate in the country, “‘The furious grumpy faces, like caricatures on some terrible sitcom on TV. England’s green unpleasant land,’ and complains of the Prime Minister’s background, “what kind of vicar, what kind of church, brings up a child to think that words like very and hostile and environment and refugees can ever go together in any response to what happens to people in the real world.’” The there is, “Google. Not so long ago it was only the mentally deranged , the unworldly pedants, the imperialists and the naivest of schoolchildren who believed that encyclopaediae gave you any equivalence for the actual real world, or any real understanding of it. ….. But now the world trusts search engines without a thought.”

Lux compares modern life to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline “it’s like the people in the play are living in the same world but separate from each other, like their worlds have somehow become disjointed or broken off each other’s worlds.” Later we find, “She is explaining to him how it is that she can be from somewhere else, and have been brought up somewhere else again, but still sound so like she grew up here. ‘It takes hard work. Real graft and subtlety. It’s a full-on education being from somewhere else in your country right now.’” Smith is also careful to give Sophia’s points of view but for some reason they didn’t strike much of a chord with me. Maybe it didn’t really with Smith either. In a coda, reflecting on Trump’s “Merry Christmas again” speech she tells us, “in the middle of summer it’s winter,” and adds, “God help us, every one.”

Like most of Smith’s novels there seems a sort of – I can only say coldness – at Winter’s centre. Her Seasons sequence (I reviewed Autumn here) was supposedly conceived as a response to the EU referendum result. The relevance of that to the content of Autumn was muted but here, while it is not the main preoccupation of the characters (Charlotte’s social media trolling of Arthur is a sort of running joke in the narrative,) it is undeniably the sea-swell under their surface interactions. And it is all presented with that unjustified right margin Smith’s books always seem to have.

Pedant’s corner:- “Oh for Christ sake” (Christ’s,) “each other’s worlds” (strictly, each others’ worlds.)

Romanno Bridge by Andrew Greig

Quercus, 2008, 316 p

 Romanno Bridge cover

Set in the mid 1990s – someone “says there’s going to be an election soon and things can only get better” – this novel reunites the reader with all the main characters from Greig’s earlier book The Return of John Macnab and throws in two more here for good measure in the shape of Maori rugby player Leo Ngatara and Norwegian musician Inga Johanssen.

The plot has more of a thriller touch this time, centring round the genuineness of the Stone of Destiny. In her job as a journalist in Dumfries Kirsty Fowler meets Billy Mackay, an old man in his last days, who tells of his participation in the making of two replacement stones during the time the “original” was missing in 1950. This leads to designations such as fake fake as opposed to the real fake foisted on England’s Edward I and kept at Westminster ever since (until recently at least.) It is the whereabouts of Columba’s Pillow, the real crowning stone, hidden from Edward at the time and kept in the care of Moon Runners – whose guardianship is embodied in rings inscribed with runes (Moon rune-ers, you see, with only ever three extant at one time) – ever since that drives the plot. Mackay gifts Kirsty one such ring and thus unwittingly places her in danger at the hands of a ruthless intermediary calling himself Adamson who came to know of their existence via Inga’s brother Colin – and has a buyer for the real stone. The goings-on in uncovering the hiding places of the two fake fake stones and the original fake itself, take the characters to various parts of Scotland and even on an excursion to Norway.

All this gives Greig an opportunity to display his familiarity with the art of rock climbing and the music scene and to comment about Scots’ habit of revering their homeland, “‘Ye’d hae thought Scotland was Helen of Troy the way some folk sighed over her,’” even as seen through the eyes of foreigner Inga, “Strange place to inspire such belonging.” There are wider ruminations too. We are told an ancient Sumerian manuscript bemoans the times as violent, chaotic and strange, the young don’t speak properly, the gods are unrespected, etc, etc. – which only means the writer was elderly. And Leo Ngatara comes to reflect bleakly that, “None of us will be all right. Mountains, sunsets, good times, bad times, mates, children – nothing endures. Nothing. No exceptions.”

Greig is never less than an insightful novelist but here the thriller plot sits a little uneasily with his gifts for illuminating character, describing landscape and revealing the complexities of human affairs.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “The last thing he saw were the three stones” (The last thing he saw was… ,) Burns’ (Burns’s,) “George V was dying” (George VI,) bonzer (is that NZ speak or only Aussie? Only Aussie if you check this though it seems “rack off” and strewth are used in NZ,) midgies (midges,) medieval (we had had mediaeval before,) “‘Hey Johnny Cope are ye wakin’ yet?’” (more usually ‘Hey Johnnie Cope are ye waukin’ yet’,) reorted (retorted,) “the passage way” (passageway,) bonzer Scone? (bonzer stone makes more sense,) rowboat (rowing boat,) “only the remnant” (the only remnant makes more sense,) the Irish bazouki, bazouki, (both bouzouki,) Merkdal (was Myrdal earlier,) snuck in (sneaked in.) “The crowd were spellbound.” (The crowd was spellbound.) “‘Yes, but we didn’t know that.’” (Yes, but he didn’t know that,) Dundas’ (Dundas’s,) Taynult (Taynuilt, spelled correctly a few pages later,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth,) Firth of Lorn (more usually Lorne,) iron grill (grille.)

Interzone 277

Sep-Oct, 2018. TTA Press

In her guest editorial Aliya Whiteley wonders who owns a story as influences can colour story telling as if by osmosis. Andy Hedgecock’s Future Interrupted notes a new approach to doorbell ringing by those under 25 in his consideration of the changes wrought by the internet and the false sense of agency fostered by advertisers and data brokers. Nina Allan’s last Time Pieces muses on what a difference four years can make, in politics, in Doctor Who, in the inclusiveness of SF as a whole. In Book Zonea Duncan Lawie welcomes the wide perspective in the anthology Twelve Tomorrows edited by Wade Roush, Ian Sales appreciates Hannu Rajaniemi’s latest novel Summerland despite its lack of SF bells and whistles but is slightly more critical of Liminal by Bee Lewis, I wax lyrical over Francesco Dimitri’s The Book of Hidden Things but less so with Supercute Futures by Martin Millar, John Howard approves of the anthology Infinity’s End edited by Jonathan Strahan, Andy Hedgecock describes Literature® by Guillermo Stitch as a promising debut and Julie C Day’s first collection Uncommon Miracles (can there be common miracles?) as not merely promising but astonishing while Stephen Theaker enjoyed Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s Secret Passages in a Hillside Town.

In the fiction:-
Inscribed on Dark Waters by Gregor Hartmann has a student on a work experience programme on an ocean world at a factory producing liquid hydrocarbons biochemically being befriended by an inspector who has her own agenda. The student has an idea to improve the processing.
The Sea-Maker of Diarmid Bay1 by Shauna O’Meara is another sea-based tale. Four boys on a fishing expedition on a global-warmed, polluted planet come across a mythical creature, a sea-maker.
The narrator of Joanna Berry’s The Analogue of Empathy2 is a robot, a Cognitive Intelligence Personhood Emulating Robot to be precise. Doctor Harris is developing its – her – consciousness in an attempt to save humanity from itself. Since its structure, form and feel so closely resemble Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon I would be amazed if this story did not take its inspiration from that source.
Territory: Blank3 by Aliya Whiteley is a journal based story but the entries are presented to us out of order. Narrator Saffron enters one of the domes; simulated environments designed as entertainment for the masses. Either she goes mad or the domes generate inimical entities by themselves. The third explanation – that Saffron is the experimental subject – is vitiated by the manner of her second dome excursion.
Samantha Murray’s Singles’ Day4 – Singles’ Day is like Black Friday but only for the partnerless – is a multi-viewpoint tale of four winners of a Singles’ Day lottery (via Smile to Pay) for passage aboard a starship intended to travel through The Rift to the planet of Zorya to escape an overcrowded Earth. The story does not need the info-dump of its preamble.

Pedant’s corner:- aStokes’ (Stokes’s,) one book title is given as Infintiy’s End (the book’s cover has Infinity’s End,) Watts’ (Watts’s,) Dickens’ (Dickens’s,) “reflections on these parallel projects show remind us” (either show or remind, not both.)
1a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, vortexes (vortices,) miniscule (minuscule.) 2Harris’ (Harris’s,) terphthalate (terephthalate,) chassis’ (chassis’s.) 3“Each has their own way” (Each has its own way,) maw (it’s a stomach! Not a mouth.) 4“to not live,” “to not be,” (not to live, not to be,) “there were even a couple of birds” (there was even a couple,) fit (fitted.) “The latest crop were blooming” (the latest crop was blooming,) wracked with pain” (racked.) “The team of seven photographers were” (the team was.)

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Polygon, 2018, 93 p, plus iv p Foreword (common to the edition?) and xi p Introduction by Andrew O’Hagan. First published in 1970.

The Driver's Seat cover

Polygon seems to have published all Muriel Spark’s works in a uniform edition to mark the 100th anniversary of her birth. As I have others of hers on my bookshelves I might not have read this particular one had the good lady not picked it up at a local library.

The novel starts with Lise buying some clothes in absurdly clashing colours after she left a previous shop in high dudgeon when the saleswoman informed her the fabric was stain resistant. Lise clearly wants to draw attention to herself. The clothes are for wearing during the holiday she is about to embark on.

She spends her time on the plane looking for a man who is her type, thinks she has settled on him but he is frightened off. On the ground she engages with random people she meets, constantly looking for her “type” and dismissing men who don’t fit the bill, taking up with Mrs Fiedke, having unusual encounters in shops and (deliberately) leaving her passport in a taxi.

About the only flash of humour is the sentiment spoken by one character, “I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife.”

As the – very short – book hastens to its denouement it becomes obvious that Lise is the one in control of her own destiny. She, a woman, is in the driver’s seat, unlike in most fictions covering dark subject matter. Spoiler alert. Responsibility for the crime, when it occurs does not lie with its perpetrator.

This is another odd one. Like in others of Spark’s books I found her style unengaging. It’s as if you’re observing her characters through a layer of glass. Lise’s psychology may be sound but since we only observe her obliquely it comes across as just weird.

Pedant’s corner:- “Lise and Bill pull down the table in front of their seats” (tables,) “moving quickly away and away” (away and away?) “a charging head of buffalo …. cross the two patches” (a … herd of buffalo … crosses the two patches,) curb (kerb,) “another pair appears” (strictly, another pair appears.) “I was away out” (I was a way out makes more sense.)

A Concussed History of Scotland by Frank Kuppner

Polygon, 1990, 195 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 A Concussed History of Scotland cover

Any novel which starts, “Go away – I wish to have nothing to do with you. I insist on it. Go away!” signals immediately it is not going to be a straightforward read. To follow that in the second paragraph with, “the Universe is merely something which I created as an illustration of my own non-existence,” only compounds that impression.

Then too, the cover bears the sub-title a novel of another sort. Flick to the back cover and there appear the author’s name, a title “A Concise History of Scotland” and a sub-title another novel of sorts – all in mirror writing – framing a black and white montage of the moon in various phases, an ear and a clothed female torso. Clearly literary games are being played.

The text contains 500 chapters none of which stretch to two pages; the shortest contains only two words. It is a fractured mosaic of the narrator’s personal recollections and observations, possibly describable as a stream-of-consciousness, except a stream flows. It is more like a successively dammed river, or cataracts of consciousness, if you will. Is this how a concussed person thinks?

The book is certainly no history. Various places in Scotland receive a mention. (For example, “Ah, will I ever forget Vienna? It reminds me so powerfully of Paisley.”) But there is no apparent connection between them other than their Scottishness.

None of the usual consolations of the novel apply. There is really only one character (the narrator,) and all but no dialogue to go along with a complete absence of plot.

There are some phrases which arouse admiration. There really ought to be a wine called Chateau Calvinblanc. (It would have to be grown in Scotland and taste sweet and bitter at one and the same time.)

The lines, “all families bar one were assembled by pure chance… all families are the same in different ways … That is to say all happy families are unhappy in one of two ways,” put a spin on Tolstoy, and while “males and females probably exist so that each sex has another one to blame,” may be there to provoke, “what does prayer most commonly consist of, but in begging the non-existent to do that which he could not do even if he were to exist?” certainly is; as is, “Man invents fears, and then invents gods to allay those fears.” And what can one do but concur with this attribution, “a private joke – or life as it is sometimes called,” while, “You would not deny that certainty is almost certainly the opposite of wisdom, I hope,” is a sentiment that applies to our divided times with more force than when it was written.

A Concussed History of Scotland would be no easy starting point to that 100 Best books list. Its entry there underlines that. There are far more accessible books with which to test the Scottish literary waters but, take the plunge, and you may find yourself rewarded. Expect to stray to the limit of your depth though.

Pedant’s corner:- “a flock of lame birds hobble past” (a flock hobbles,) “I sometimes think think this would explain” (only one “think” needed,) “all those artists mothers” (artists’ mothers,) an unindented chapter heading (all the rest are centred on the page,) negociate (negotiate,) “than than than than” (possibly to indicate the narrator’s state of mind,) back vertebrae (there was only one, so vertebra,) ungainlyly (yes, it’s an ungainly word but surely its spelling is ‘ungainlily?) arachnoepterate? (I can find no instance of this word. elsewhere.)

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif

Bloomsbury, 2000, 540 p (including xii p Glossary of Arabic terms.)

The Map of Love cover

This novel is set in two time lines, the Egypt of its present day, the late 1990s, and of the same country in the 1900s. The present day sections are told from the viewpoint of Amal al-Gamrawi whose brother, ‘Omar, a famous musician, has fallen into a relationship with US citizen Isabel Parkman, but its main thrust comes via the letters and journal of Isabel’s great grandmother, Lady Anna Winterbourne, which relate to her experiences in Egypt almost a century before. Isabel’s discovery of a trunk containing her grandmother’s letters was recognized by ‘Omar as a family connection and he encouraged Isabel to take them to his sister in Egypt for transcription. While in Egypt Lady Anna had formed a mutual attachment to Amal’s great uncle, Sharif Basha al-Baroudi, an Egyptian patriot, and married him; much to the dismay of all but two of the English contingent in Egypt at the time. Anna’s letters and journal track the course of that love affair and marriage. Isabel is their descendant and so related to Amal and ‘Omar. Some sections of the narrative are Amal’s imaginings of incidents from the past, others are seen via the viewpoint of Layla, Sharif’s sister.

Soueif wrote this in English but in some respects the novel feels like a translation as its immersion in Egyptian culture is total, though the Western perspective is acknowledged. But it is Egyptian concerns and history that dominate. “Egypt, mother of civilisation, dreaming herself through the centuries. Dreaming us all, her children: those who stay and work for her and complain of her, and those who leave and yearn for her and blame her with bitterness for driving them away.” (Yet, barring ‘the mother of civilisation’ and with just the name changed, that quote could apply to almost any country. It certainly does to Scotland.)

There are multiple resonances between the two times. The trouble with contemporary Israelis in Palestine – “putting things on the ground that will be impossible to dismantle,” ….. “It’s either Israeli domination – backed by America – or the Islamic radicals. Take your pick,” is mirrored by events in the 1900s when 50,000 Russian Jews escaping from persecution wanted to settle in the Holy Land. “Europe simply does not see the people of the countries it wishes to annex – and when it does , it sees them in accordance with its own old and accepted definitions: backward people , lacking rational abilities and subject to religious fanaticism.” At one point Layla says of the de facto ruler of Egypt, “‘Lord Cromer is a patriot and he serves his country well. We understand that. Only he should not pretend that he is serving Egypt.’” Cromer’s attitude ignores that, “We in Egypt have been proud of our history; proud to belong to the land that was the first mother of civilization. In time she passed the banner of leadership to Greece and then Rome, and from there it reverted to the lands of Islam until in the seventeenth century it was taken hold of by Europe.” As one Egyptian says to Isabel, in a phrase that perhaps prefigures and goes some way to explain the attack on the twin towers only a year after the novel was published, “all the Americans I meet are good people, but your government’s foreign policy is so bad. It’s not good, you know, for a country to be hated by so many people.”

The politics may be an essential background but it is not the focus. That is the love story between Anna and Sharif and the ever fascinating nature of human interactions. Soueif’s ability as a novelist to portray these is not in doubt. The tapestry triptych which Anna weaved on the loom Sharif bought for her and of which one part had disappeared in the intervening years is perhaps a little too obvious a metaphor, though, and I did have a reservation at the introduction of a further possible twist in the net of relationships here, a thread picked at but not truly resolved.

Nevertheless this is a very well written, engaging novel, shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, which, while not, quite, in the absolutely highest class is certainly not far off.

Pedant’s corner:- Abd el-Nasser (in the epigraph it was ‘Abd el-Nasser,) hostess’ (hostess’s,) occasional unnecessary spaces after quotation marks, the odd missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “more that an eccentric Englishwoman” (more than,) Selfridges’ foodhall (I know the shop is now named Selfridges but it was founded by a Harry Gordon Selfridge as Selfridge & Co so its possessive should always have been Selfridge’s, therefore Selfridge’s foodhall,) staunched (stanched.)

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