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Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2021, 567 p.

Mitchell has form with unusual novelistic structures. In Cloud Atlas he embedded several stories physically one within another. Here, in a book about the history of a briefly flaring sixties band (the Utopia Avenue of the title,) he doesn’t go as far but has set his novel out as if its sections were tracks on their three LPs. Each of its six main sections is prefaced by an image of the supposed label of one side of an album and its chapters focus on the lives of the writers of its songs, bassist Dean Moss, ex folk singer Elf Holloway and virtuoso guitarist Jasper de Zoet. The group’s drummer, Peter ‘Griff’ Griffin, didn’t compose but gets one writing credit for devising a drum pattern for one of Elf’s songs. Occasional scenes are seen from other viewpoints but these are rare.

All three main viewpoint characters are beautifully inhabited, living, breathing creatures, each replete with flaws and doubts. Dean had a troubled upbringing and his connections with old friends from Gravesend add complications he could do without, Elf’s family background was safe and secure but she harbours questions about her sexuality (incidentally her initial boyfriend here, the Australian, Bruce – perhaps a little too programmatically named – is a perfect evocation of the selfish misogynist,) Jasper’s connection to the de Zoets comes from a wrong side of the blanket liaison during World War 2. The relatively minor characters are agreeably nuanced.

Mitchell also has a habit of incorporating in his work cross-references to previous novels. Among others here Jasper’s surname is a nod to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and indeed he turns out to be descended from that gentleman. There is a mention of The Cloud Atlas Sextet, a musical piece which featured in Mitchell’s third novel and once again we encounter the enigmatic Dr Marinus, a character whose absence from a Mitchell book would now be more noteworthy than his appearance.

It is a trifle odd to say it for someone who lived through the times depicted but since Mitchell was born in 1969 this is technically a historical novel. The text is peppered with encounters with sixties names – Sandy Denny, a pre-fame David Bowie, Steve Marriot, Syd Barrett, Joohn Lennon, Francis Bacon, Steve Winwood, Kaith Moon, Marc Bolan, Brian Jones, Rick Wakeman, Jerry Garcia, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Allen Ginsberg, Frank Zappa, Cass Elliott, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, not to mention a certain peroxide-haired Top of the Pops presenter. However, the dialogues these real people engage in with the novel’s characters are sometimes not entirely convincing. The way Mitchell ties it in to his wider œuvre means the book can also be classified as a fantasy.

Jasper’s mental peculiarity (he hears knocking no-one else can and experiences another mind within his) is explicitly linked to his de Zoet history as in that previous book and provides the fantastical and speculative elements of this one – Marinus carries out psychosurgery on him – but could be read simply as psychotic episodes if fantastical speculation is not to your taste. Then again, readers of Mitchell ought to be used by now to his flights of fancy.

The band’s adventures include a brush with Italian police corruption followed by a tad unlikely UK tabloid support and eventually taking the US by storm. Their USian promoter sounds off about the violent history of the United States, “We need war like the French need cheese. If there’s no war we’ll concoct one,” and adds a warning, “Here in the land of the free, you’ll meet some of the gentlest, smartest, wisest people who ever lived. But when violence comes it’s merciless. Without warning.” All too true, then and now.

In Utopia Avenue Mitchell has worked his magic again. It is by degrees warm, tragic and affirmative: like all the best of literature, capturing the human condition.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “Eric Burden’s intro on the Animals’ version” (it was Hilton Valentine who played the intro on the Animals’ recording of House of the Rising Sun,) “Sergeant Pepper’s” (no-one in Britain in the sixties – and for about fifty years afterwards – ever said Sergeant Pepper’s, that LP’s title was always abbreviated to just Sergeant Pepper.) “A producer told them that Elf’s the first woman ever to ‘play’ an instrument on Top of the Pops” (so had he – or is it perhaps Mitchell – never heard of Honey Lantree? Or do drums not count as an instrument?) “the hairdressers” (the hairdresser’s,) “the audience are clapping out the rhythm” (the audience is clapping out,) “Andy Williams’ company” (Williams’s,) “the callous on his hand” (callus,) “or he would have thrown Jasper arranged in a list the SS Arnhem on the crossing from Harwich.” (I can’t make any sense of this at all,) “the band drop away” (the band drops away,) “on his next LP.A coloured model” (needs a space between the full stop and the ‘A’ – LP. A coloured.) “The tennis players’ skin turns first albino-milky” (the tennis players’ skins turn first.)

Singin’ and Swingin’ & Getting’ Merry Like Christmas by Maya Angelou

Virago, 2008, 316 p.

This is the third volume of Angelou’s autobiography. For my reviews of the first two see here and here. In this one her story carries on through her ongoing attempts to keep herself and her son solvent. She even marries (when her mother asked her why she had agreed to it she replied simply, “He asked.”) Eventually, though, her husband gets bored of marriage and leaves.

She gets a job dancing in a bar and hustling drinks, but salves her conscience by letting her customers know the ones she is served are not alcoholic. Her life is transformed by seeing a performance of Porgy and Bess – the first time she had seen black performers of a high standard – and she gets to know the cast when they come to the bar. This eventually leads to her joining the cast on a European tour.

I must admit that until I read this I had not known Angelou came to fame as a singer and dancer rather than a poet.

In Italy she feels wonder to be in Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet, and finds Italians welcoming but adds, “I hadn’t been in Europe long enough to know that Europeans often made as clear a distinction between black and white Americans as did the most confirmed Southern bigot. The difference, I was to discover, was that more often than not, blacks were liked, whereas white Americans were not.”

She has a facility with languages, going so far as to learn Serbo-Croat for the visit to Yugoslavia, picking up some Arabic for the trip to Egypt. On the ship taking the company there an encounter with a Greek doctor lets her know that black females from the US were attractive to European men as they represented a chance to become a US citizen by marriage.

Through it all though she is haunted by the fact that she had to leave her son behind in the US. The book ends with her return to the States and taking up family life again.

Pedant’s corner:- Chris-tian (is that hyphen a hangover from a line change in the manuscript?) “My only applause for the first three performances were the desultory claps from Eddie” (My only applause … was the..,) hiccoughing (hiccupping,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, crafts (it was a gondola – a sailing vessel – so the plural is craft.) “From my third-floor (which the French perversely called second-floor) room” (perversely?) Cheops’ (Cheops’s,) “even their approach to the common musical scales are as different as odds and evens” (their approach … is as different,) Smallens’ (Smallens’s,) “an entire cast of Negro singers were nervously rehearsing” (an entire cast was nervously rehearsing.) A commendation, though, for ‘culs-de-sac’.

Hunt the Space Witch! by Robert Silverberg

Seven Adventures in Time and Space. Paizo, 2011, 255 p.

These are reprints of early Silverberg stories from the 1950s which first appeared in Science Fiction Adventures. As the stories’ titles (not to mention the book’s cover illustration) suggest they are firmly in the pulp tradition and bear most of that era’s faults and suppositions. Planet Stories as a publishing venture was set up precisely in order to resurrect them.

This volume has seven of Silverberg’s stories from that time plus an introduction from the author remembering those early days of his as a writer.

Slaves of the Star Giants. Lloyd Harkins wakes up in a future where giant creatures (whose descriptions are a bit like dinosaurs) have taken over Earth and its humans have degenerated into pre-civilisation mode while giant robots plough back and forth. He has been summoned there by someone called the Watcher who primes him to enter a place called the Tunnel City and use to overthrow the aliens. This story is typical of those where humans – especially those of the twentieth century US variety, and, naturally, males – are superior creatures.

Spawn of the Deadly Sea is set on a far future Earth which was conquered by aliens known as Dhuchay’y who flooded the planet and left its human inhabitants to live on floating cities (each of which specialises in one product with which it can trade,) and then disappeared. Dovirr is a youngster in one of these cities, Vythain, who wishes, despite the chances of being killed on sight) to join the crew of Gowyn, the local Thalassarch (one of the human rulers who go around the cities collecting tribute; apparently in return for protection from pirates.) There are also undersea creatures known as Sea-Lords who will eat anything organic thrown into the water. These are descended from humans genetically altered to fight the Dhuchay’y but who were produced too late to make any difference. Dovirr vows to Gowyn to destroy the Dhuchay’y should they ever return.

The whole scenario falls completely to pieces if you give it a moment’s thought – what use would tribute in gold be to a Thalassarch who spends all his time plying the seas? – even while reading it. However, these stories were never designed to be anything but mere entertainment.

The Flame and the Hammer. The decaying Galactic Empire is threatened with revolt. Legend has it that a device known as the Hammer of Aldryne will end the Empire by killing the Emperor. Duyair, son of the High Priest on Aldryne is interrogated by the priesthood when his father is killed by Imperial torturers seeking the Hammer. He has no knowledge of its existence or whereabouts. The rebellion starts with the new High Priest Lugaur Holsp claiming to have the Hammer but he plans to collude with the Emperor to enrich himself. It falls to Duyair to thwart this.

Valley Beyond Time. A selection of humans, several men and two women, plus three aliens, find themselves in a valley from which they seem unable to escape. They have been plucked from their normal lives by a being named the Watcher presumably to see how they react and interact. The usual jealousies and conflicts arise before they begin to test the valley’s boundaries.

In Hunt the Space Witch! Barsac seeks his friend, Zigmunn, who had been left behind on the planet Glaurus when he failed to get back to his spaceship on time. He finds Zigmunn has recently fallen under the sway of the Cult of the Witch and was taken to the planet Azonda.  Barsac has to be inducted into the cult, a process involving a kind of conditioning, in order to follow him. Barsac has to overcome the conditioning to succeed.

The Silent Invaders. The people of the planet Darruu are in conflict with Medlin. In surgically enhanced disguise as a human named Harris, Aar Khiilom of Darruu has been sent to Earth to thwart the efforts of Medlin to enlist Earth as an ally. His encounter with Beth Baldwin – who turns out to be a similarly disguised Medlin spy – leads Harris to a reassessment of his loyalties.

Spacerogue. Barr Herndon is the spacerogue of the title. He has sworn revenge on Seigneur Krellig after his family had been killed during a looting raid by some of Krellig’s henchmen. Recruitment into a smuggling operation gives him the chance to achieve this.

These stories have the faults of the time they were written and the outlets to which they were sold. The protagonist is always stronger or more forceful than his opponents, there is an awful lot of casual, unthinking violence, women are generally treated as little more than sex objects, not many are given any kind of agency. The prose is barely workmanlike. They do not bear comparison with the author’s later works. This collection is only for the Silverberg completist.

I also have to say the book’s cover is execrable.

Pedant’s corner:- Harkins’ (several times; Harkins’s,) “unable to get at this throat” (at his throat,) focussed (focused,) “in an old age” (in old age; no need for the ‘an’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, a missing start quote mark at the beginning of another, “‘but there was no organisation on Aldrynel’” (that ‘l’ ought to be an exclamation mark,) “‘the throne of his father distinguished’” (has very odd syntax,) mind-wracking (mind-racking,) “shrugged and shagged a mass as it hung before him” (not shagged I should think; snagged makes more sense,) Vellers’ (x 4, Vellers’s,) (like a faroff musical chord” (a far off musical chord,) vender (vendor,) Glaurus’ (x 2, Glaurus’s,) “as if in each of the masks a witch shined” (shone,) Harris’ (x 3, Harris’s,) “the music reached an ear-splitting crescendo” (sigh; the music crescendoed to an ear-splitting climax,) a missing close-quote mark at the end of a piece of direct speech, “the proteus’ body” (proteus’s,) Morais’ (x 2, Morais’s.) “The Lady Moaris could not have been more than twenty-three or twenty-five” (well, which is it then? If she was twenty-five she was more than twenty-three.)

The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N McIntyre

Pocket Books, 1997, 422 p, plus ii p Major Characters and v p Afterword

I’m not quite sure how to categorise this. I’ve seen it described as Alternate/Alternative History (what I prefer to call Altered History) but I can’t see any change in actual history in it. It has no discernible Jonbar Point, no ramifications for its future. Yes, it’s set in the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, but it’s not a purely historical novel either, though that aspect of the novel is very well executed. What it does have – and what tends to make it more of a fantasy than anything else – is a “sea monster,” a mermaid-like creature which turns out to be near human, brought to Louis’s court to provide him with immortality by eating a part of its flesh. (The first part of this premise – the human-like sea creature – is not really too far-fetched. There has been scientific speculation that humans spent part of their evolutionary history as aquatic creatures.)

Our viewpoint character is Marie-Josèphe de la Croix, lady in waiting to Mademoiselle Elisabeth Charlotte d’Orleans, Louis XIV’s niece. Marie-Josèphe was brought up in Martinique and her relationship to the court is, to begin with, opaque. She is an innocent, (she has not heard the word ‘whore,’ has never drunk wine, nor encountered the idea of homosexuality,) sent to a convent when her parents died and subjected to its repressive strictures. Her brother Yves is the Jesuit priest and enthusiast for scientific enquiry who was instrumental in capturing two sea-monsters and bringing them to Versailles. One of the monsters is dead and Yves is to carry out an autopsy on it. Questions of protocol and the need for the king’s presence tend to delay this though.

Marie-Josèphe finds herself sensitive to the creature. She can hear it sing, feel its pain, discern its meaning, and ends up relating its stories of persecution by humans to the court.

Coincidentally, Pope Innocent XII is on a diplomatic mission to Versailles (as a kind of rapprochement with the King) but he is keen for the live sea creature – which due to its tale-telling soon comes to be called Sherzad – to be taken back to Rome for study.

Other historical notables to appear in the text include Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, (Louis’s brother and Mademoiselle’s father,) Charlotte (Philippe’s Duchess,) the Chevalier de Lorraine (Philippe’s male lover,) James VII (II of England) and his wife Mary of Modena (in exile due to the so-called “Glorious Revolution.”)

Marie-Josèphe is talented, not only does she sketch the dissection of the dead sea-creature, she also composes music. This latter outrages the Pope, who insists – using Biblical references – that women ought to be silent. She is not short of enemies at the court but also forms friendships. Her relationship with her slave Odolette is complicated and develops in a way more attuned to modern sensibilities than those of the seventeenth century.

The writing is accomplished throughout and the interpersonal relationships depicted tend to strike true.

Pedant’s corner:- Yves’ (Yves’s. Since the ‘s’ of Yves is not pronounced then without an ‘s’ after the apostrophe then the possessive’s sound is not signalled by the spelling. All the possessives of names ending in ‘s’ are treated like this, Chartres’, Louis’, etc) “the duke and duchess d’Orleans” (these are specific titled people, not merely an unspecified member of a class. Their titles are proper nouns. So, “the Duke and Duchess d’Orleans. McIntyre generally tended to adopt a similar practice of using lower case whenever specific titles were used, even for mademoiselle de la Croix. Note in English she would be Miss de la Croix, not miss de la Croix,) perruke (innumerable times, peruke,) “His Holiness’ route” (His Holiness is singular, so, ‘His Holiness’s route’,) “she kept her own council” (counsel, is council a US usage in this context?) “her royal mistress’ ridicule” (mistress’s,) “Father de la Croix’ medal” (again, no ‘s’ is sounded at the end of Croix, it needs an ‘s’ to render the possessive accurately, ‘de la Croix’s medal’,) “her left aureole” (areola,) “and has sense of humour failed him” (and his sense of humour,) “a hareem” (x 2, usually spelled ‘harem’.)

Beyond the Burn Line by Paul McAuley

Gollancz, 2022, 459 p. Reviewed for ParSec 6.

The burn line is a geological stratum of scorched remains marking where a catastrophe – partly of their own making – befell what the inhabitants of a far future Earth remember as ogres. After the ogres’ demise a civilisation of intelligent bears developed, bears who enslaved Pilgrim Saltmire’s people before the bears in turn lost sway and regressed to feral habits. But the people’s memories of enslavement are long and bitter. The society in which Pilgrim lives is at a more or less agrarian level, transport is typically by four-legged animal known as a mara, though a slow growth is occurring of techne inspired by artefacts dug up from archaeological sites, for example messages are being sent by tapcode. The prevailing religion’s deity is referred to as Mother, a mother who could at first be interpreted as Mother Earth but turns out not to be.

Saltmire has a gammy leg, is an albino and a pure – a person who doesn’t feel the effect of the yearly Season, and is pitied for it. We follow his story after the death of his mentor, the scholar Master Able, who spent his time trying to elucidate whether accounts of strange visitors accompanied by lights in the sky had any truth to them. Saltmire’s wish is to carry on Able’s work but all his writings were returned to Able’s family on his death and Saltmire is forced to go back to his own tribe to try to obtain funding to carry on the work. It does not go well and he is exiled for a year for a violent, though in self-defence, attack. In exile, he is charged with setting to rights a neglected library. One day he discovers a map which appears to show a visitor beside a hitherto unknown bear city. Unfortunately, he falls foul of the local law enforcement officer and loses the map to him. Thereafter, the remainder of Part One of the book, Archaeologies of Memory, lies in his attempts, along with members of The Invisible College, a group of female activists, to regain the map via a prophet, Foeless Landwalker, who claims the coming of the visitors is imminent and has gathered a cohort of adherents to call them down. Like all such, Landwalker’s connection to the object of his obsessions is negligible. When the visitors reveal themselves, it is not to him.

There is then a sudden jump to Part Two, The Other Mother. Pilgrim Saltmire is fourteen years dead, the visitors, descendants of ogres – humans sent out in seedships in a failed attempt to colonise other planets but now returned – live openly with, but separate from, the people (who are much smaller in stature, being descended from racoons) with treaties regulating their interactions. The controlling intelligence of the returned seedship, an AI, is referred to as Mother and has an array of advanced technologies at her disposal.

Human Ysbel Moonsdaughter of the Bureau of Indigenous Affairs is sent to investigate the deaths of two of the people as a result of a speedboat race between two humans, Trina Mersdaughter and Joyous Hightower. The local bailiff she is dealing with, Goodwill Saltmire, is Pilgrim’s nephew and he realises that the map, the prize Mersdaughter and Hightower were racing for, is the same one his uncle had lost. Its hint of a possible connection between humans and bears long before the recent supposed First Contact combined with a possible re-emergence of intelligent bears has potentially threatening consequences for relations between humans and the people. Ysbel’s investigations delve into the map’s background, unfold the history and antagonisms of both Mothers – and the possible existence of a third. During them she meets numerous setbacks, betrayals and agents acting in bad faith. At one point her commlink to the Mother’s network is memorably described by one of the people as a “telephone in her head.”

It is not often that a work of Science Fiction has as its central focus, its plot driver, a historical artefact. (Of course, to us readers in 2022 it is in effect a contingent future one.) The blending of far future SF with a quest for a defiantly mundane document works well here and the notion of a reverse First Contact is a neat twist to that trope. The main characters are depicted acting in recognisable ways (sometimes all too recognisable) but nevertheless have individuality.

Some may complain this is all too narrowly drawn, that the First Contact is witnessed but its immediate ramifications are not. That the climactic battle between the two Mothers occurs off-stage. But the stories of individuals caught up in larger events are as, if not more, worthy of depiction as those events themselves. It is, after all, as individuals that we live our lives.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘where you’re planning to go, someone like you is you’re going to need someone like me’” (doesn’t need the ‘you’re’,)  “reached a brief crescendo” (brief climax,) “jutting at at different levels and angles” (either no first [or second] ‘at’, or, ‘jutting out at’.) “ ‘So far no one will tell me who am I supposed to be co-operating with’” (who I am supposed to be co-operating with,) “when it came of matters of trust” (when it came to matters of trust,) “the map had once been belonged to his tribe” (no need for that ‘been’,) “‘and return it my tribe’” (return it to my tribe,) make sure that that neither the humans nor native authorities” (no second ‘that’,) accidently “accidentally,) oughten’t (oughtn’t.)


The Professor by Charlotte Brontë

Hesperus Press, 2014, 280 p, including ii p Preface by A B Nicholls, iii p Notes and ii p Biographical Notes. First published 1857.

This was Brontë’s last published novel, indeed it was posthumous, but its writing predated her other novels. There are signs of that lack of experience here. Its early chapters are pretty standard fare, (at times reminiscent of those passages of Mrs Oliphant which lean to the humdrum,) not really anything to do with what comes after but not quite as tedious as the beginning to Shirley.  Later incidents, though, reflect events in Brontë’s last novel, Villette.

William Crimsworth is distanced from his wider family whom his late mother had offended by marrying into trade. He rejected their offer of a living as a parson and instead took a position in his haughty brother Edward’s business but only as a lowly clerk, a job he performed more than adequately. There he was noticed by one of Edward’s customers, Mr Hunsden, and through him obtained a post as a teacher at a boys’ school in Belgium. Through its proprietor, M Pelet’s, acquaintance with the directress of the neighbouring girls’ school, Mlle Zoraïde Reuter, he also began to teach there. Mlle Reuter affects to find him attractive but he is soon disabused of that notion by discovering her engagement to M Pelet.

A teacher of sewing to the girls, Mlle Frances Evans Henri, a Swiss national of English descent, is brought to attend his classes and he soon begins to find her, and her English intonations, interesting. Mlle Reuter is less than pleased and tries to obstruct any further developments by dismissing Frances but the final course of the book is now set.

The setting of the pensionnat in Brussels and its next-door establishment were to recur in Villette, and of course were inspired by Brontë’s own experiences teaching in the city. As in that book but much more prominently here, the author’s upbringing in an English parsonage lead to comparisons of the rightness of Anglicanism as opposed to Roman Catholicism, its supposed superiority in inculcating character and upright moral behaviour.

That the viewpoint character is a man sets The Professor apart from Brontë’s other books and that may be a flaw since William as a person seems a bit distant, not quite fully realised. Brontë was on surer ground with her female protagonists.

The Professor is by no means without merit but without her later books and the reputation of her family would, I doubt, still be read widely today.

Pedant’s corner:- the occasional Victorian spelling such as recompence (recompense) and ecstacy (ecstasy.) Otherwise; sprung (sprang,) encomiums (I prefer the Latin plural, encomia,) Moses’ (Moses’s,) Frances’ (x 2, Frances’s,) “‘cannot be considered as a concurrent’” (as concurrent?) “closing behind end around us” (behind and around,) Evans’ (Evans’s,) “having eaten …. and drank several bottles” (having eaten … and drunk several,) “I had not been brought up at Eton and boated and bathed and swam there” (and swum there,) “it would be vain to seek the Rue Notre Dame” (would be in vain,) “my bark hung on the topmost curl of a wave of fate,” (my barque,) “her hand shrunk away” (shrank,) “Rosalie the portress’ area” (the portress’s.)


Night Boat by Alan Spence

Canongate, 2013, 456 p

Spence’s previous novel The Pure Land  in retrospect represents a pivot in his writing. Its novelisation of the life of Thomas Blake Glover, who helped the industrialisation of Japan in the nineteenth century, signalled his fascination with that country and a departure from writing prose using Scottish settings. A poet as well as a novelist, his interest in and composition of haiku are well suited to this present endeavour, an exploration of the life of the Zen Buddhist master who invented the koan “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” That monk was Hakuin Ekaku, who was born Nagasawa Iwajiro but was given – or took – the names Ekaku (Wise Crane) and Hakuin (Hidden-in-Whiteness) later in life. Spence’s latest novel Mister Timeless Blyth also deals with someone deeply involved with Japanese culture.

Night Boat is necessarily steeped in the Zen Buddhism practice of seeking enlightenment. We learn that Hakuin was initially inspired by his mother’s religious devotion but also that he was not immune to the attractions of the temporal world, only chose to ignore them. To that end he travelled through Japan seeking the most insightful teachers.

The ascetic lifestyle of a Zen Buddhist monk is a constant theme. Their frugality and distaste for waste even leads them to rinse their bowls and drink the liquid. That it also requires a form of begging, or at least reliance on charity, means it is actually a kind of parasitism. (Mind you, the same could be said of all religions and the ways they sustain themselves.)

Hakuin’s composure is illustrated by the incident when a young pregnant woman claimed he was the father of her child. Despite the loss to his reputation this represents he merely responded by saying “Is that so?” and took the child into his care. (The woman later relented and named the real father whereupon Hakuin relinquished the child and said he was glad the child now had a father.)

At a gathering of monks Hakuin relates the story of a country bumpkin who boasted about his visit to Kyoto before someone asked him about the Shirakawa River (which is nothing but a small stream) and he said it was night time when his boat sailed on it and he couldn’t really see it. In other words, his visit was a fabrication, a tale he’d made up. In that sense, all novels are night boats and it highlights the question of how much of this Night Boat is based on known facts about Hakuin and how much due to Spence’s novelistic imagination. This, of course, can be asked of any biographical novel but it is perhaps unwise of an author to draw attention to it as it tends to undermine the artifice, subvert the suspension of disbelief.

The text is sprinkled with haiku. As someone with no knowledge of the life and works of Hakuin, (he was also an artist, several references are made to his paintings, especially of Mount Fuji,) I have to assume that these haiku are translations of originals written by Hakuin rather than invented by Spence. Most of these depend for their effect on sparseness or else embody enigmas.

We also have the posing of several koans of which perhaps the most resonant is “What now?”

Spence’s writing here is always well more than adequate to the task and his research has obviously been formidable but there is something almost pointless about Hakuin’s search for meaning, something akin to considering the number of angels capable of dancing on the head of a pin. Beyond informing about his life and thought those of us who had little prior knowledge regarding Hakuin what utility does it have? Granted, it does illustrate a small part of the human condition but I doubt there are many larger lessons to be drawn from it.

The cover illustration’s a cracker though. (Fuji from the Ford at Kanaya, by Hokusai, Katsushika.)

Pedant’s corner:- “There was story” (there was a story,) Shotestu (elsewhere Shotatsu.) “‘You have showed one-pointed determination’” (You have shown,) sunk (sank,) can‘t (can’t.)

Companion Piece by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2022, 235 p

As its title suggests this is a novel related to Smith’s Seasons quartet, conceived to be written in more or less real time and published as soon as possible thereafter to help capture the zeitgeist. In it Smith once more examines the state of Britain.

Under lockdown, with her father in hospital (non-Covid related,) our first narrator, Sandy Gray, (at University nicknamed Shifting Sand since she dated both sexes) receives a phone call from Martina, a bare acquaintance of that time who has recently had a run in with the UK immigration authorities after proferring them her other passport – the entirely legal one she is entitled to under dual nationality – and then being detained incommunicado for half a day. Martina thinks Sand will be able to help her since she always had a way with things. Later, having found Sand’s number on Martina’s mobile phone her daughters crash into Sand’s life demanding to know why she has persuaded Martina to leave her home. (Which of course she hasn’t.)

Sand’s thoughts tend to what might now be regarded as left-wing but which were once unexceptional. She bemoans government spokespeople “telling me …. how this country was number one … how the thousand or so people dying in this country every week was something we just had to chum along with now and how generous our government was being to everybody in the country by paying out so much public money to government friends and donors” that “Black people were terrorists for organizing themselves into a protest movement that demanded equality and an end to racism,” how “environmental protesters were terrorists for organizing themselves into a movement that demanded we attend to the ruination of the planet” how laws would be passed to make these protests illegal, to stop anyone who asked for refuge in this country from getting here or getting help and to stop travelling people from living their traditional way of life. Not to mention rivers being entirely legally filled with sewage, how women were to flag down a bus if stopped by a policeman whom they thought might be dodgy. And so on.

Another strand of the book relates the experiences of a female blacksmith from back in time who manufactured the exquisite lock Martina was (again legally) bringing into the country. It’s odd how this aspect of the book chimed with Naomi Mitchison’s Sarah Werden, another woman from history who took up a traditionally male occupation.

Companion Piece is exactly what its title says, a novel that stands alongside the Seasons quartet. There is in fact any number of comparable stories Smith could tell about the condition of the UK and fit them into this over-arching schema. The trouble with such an endeavour is that at any time events could surpass the novelist’s imagination. Indeed, how is she to keep up?

Pedant’s corner:- inside of (no ‘of’, just ‘inside’.) “The warrior is called Pyrrhus, as in Pyrrhic victory” (Smith is describing the Pyrrhus in the so-called Trojan Horse. The one who won the victory at huge cost was a different Pyrrhus.)

Double Vision by Pat Barker

Hamish Hamilton, 2003, 314 p

Artist Kate Frobisher, whose war photographer husband, Ben, was not long ago shot in Afghanistan, is driving home one winter’s night when her car skids on black ice and comes off the road. Her injuries mean she will need help to complete the commission of a sculpture of Jesus for the local church. The vicar suggests Peter Wingrave, a handyman currently unemployed. Meanwhile foreign correspondent Stephen Sharkey, Ben’s colleague, has split up with his wife and comes to live in a cottage owned by his brother in the same village.

The set-up reminded me a bit of J L Carr’s A Month in the Country, which featured an incomer haunted by war experiences (in his case The Great War) uncovering a mural in a rural church. Barker’s book is longer, though, and a trifle more complicated.

Wingrave turns out to have a peculiar interest in the sculpture and a past which includes something dark plus a relationship with the vicar’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Justine. Stephen and Justine, who is having a pre-University gap year enforced by illness and looks after his autistic nephew when the parents are at work, soon start seeing each other despite their age difference.

Stephen is haunted by his memories – especially that of a dead woman in Sarajevo – yet he is intent on writing a book about them using Ben’s photographs as illustrations. He reflects on the responsibility of being a witness, “There’s always this tension between wanting to show the truth, and yet being sceptical about what the effects of showing it are going to be,” a tension which the artist Goya also felt. Goya, he knows, “visited circuses, fiestas, fairs, freak shows, street markets, acrobatic displays, lunatic asylums, bear fights, public executions, any spectacle strong enough to still the shouting of the demons in his ears.”

The background of the aftermath of the foot and mouth epidemic is well drawn but despite seeming foreshadowings like that, events do not take the course they would normally imply. Barker handles her characters well enough, these people feel individual (even if the affair between Stephen and Justine is problematic. Is taking up with a much younger woman really a suitable salve for a troubled mind?) The connections between the lives of the protagonists of the two main strands, Kate and Stephen, are not really present, though. Only Wingrave provides any overlap between them, and that is tangential – not to mention a little forced what with his being Justine’s former lover.

Pedant’s corner:- “iced-covered” (‘iced-over’ or ‘ice-covered’ not ‘iced-covered’,) a north-east of England local refers to ‘the haar’ being what a ‘cartload of southern poofs’ would call a sea-fret (haar is in fact the word used in Scotland – especially east Scotland – for that meteorological phenomenon.)

Flood by Stephen Baxter

Gollancz, 2008, 478 p.

This could be seen as a revival of the British SF tradition of the disaster novel (sometimes dubbed the cosy catastrophe as there were always survivors just about coping) in the manner of the Johns, Wyndham and Christopher. There are resonances in Flood of The Kraken Wakes, but also of J G Ballard’s The Drowned World. Baxter’s take on it is his own, though.

Sea levels are rising – and not slowly. Very rapidly coastal cities are inundated and the rise continues, indeed progresses faster as time goes on. It is not mere global warming, then, and Baxter has come up with a scenario involving huge reservoirs of subterranean water brought to the surface through thermal vents at tectonic plate boundaries.

His treatment of the tale is episodic – much like that of his novel Evolution – but the time scale here is not that of millions of years but at most decades, and the ongoing scenes feature recurring characters, principally one Lily Brooke.

Just before the floods began she and three others, plus the baby one of them had had during their incarceration, had been freed from five years’ captivity at the hands of terrorists in Barcelona by agents of a corporation known as AxysCorp. Its head, Nathan Lamockson, takes an interest in the welfare of these five survivors (a sixth was killed just as the rest were being liberated) and their lives from then on. Baxter relies on the survivors’ concern for each other as a driver for the reader’s interest. However, in their actions they seem to be relatively unaffected by those experiences and show little sign of psychological trauma. The baby, Grace, the result of the rape in captivity of Helen Gray by a Saudi prince, becomes the subject of diplomatic dispute when she is relinquished by AxysCorps to the Saudis and spirited off to the Arabian peninsula. Only much later is she returned from there.

The main focus of the narrative is on the relentless sea rise, the efforts of humans to flee to higher ground and of the various characters involved to protect themselves and their families. In particular Lamockson manifests his megalomaniac tendencies in a series of ever more elaborate schemes, the last of which is to build a full-scale replica of the Queen Mary,  which he calls Ark Three, to house those of his friends, associates and employees which it can carry. Ark One is a starship onto which Grace is inveigled not long before its launch when what remains of humanity is reduced to living on huge rafts. That leaves Ark Two’s existence or whereabouts unrevealed at the book’s end. (There is a sequel titled Ark.)

Pedant’s corner:- mentions the projected 2018 World Cup in England (this shows the dangers of authorial short term projection of the future,) and regarding that same tournament’s later abandonment says the US team was among the favourites (no comment required,) “peering at streets signs” (usually rendered as street signs, if not it should be streets’ signs,) Himelayas (Himalayas – as in a later appearance,) “the wetsuits were one item that were wearing out fast” (one item that was wearing out.)

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