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The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell

BCA, 1974, 331 p.

This book, an imagination of a siege during what became known as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (Krishnapur being an amalgamation of several besieged British Residencies,) is the second in the author’s loose trilogy examining the legacy of British imperial power. Troubles looked at the Irish independence struggle, The Siege of Krishnapur India, and The Singapore Grip the harbinger of that power unravelling in the Japanese invasion of Malaya. Troubles won the Booker prize in 1970 and The Siege of Krishnapur in 1973.

The main viewpoint character is the man in charge of the Residency in Krishnapur, Mr Hopkins. He is known as the Collector because of his interest in the Great Exhibition, a then recent historical event which is mentioned many times in the book. Others include George Fleury, who has just arrived in Krishnapur with his recently widowed sister Miriam; the local medic, Dr Dunstaple, whose children Louise and Harry, an army officer, are living there; Dunstaple’s more modern minded colleague Dr McNab; the Magistrate, a devotee of phrenology; and Lucy Hughes, a dishonoured Englishwoman who when the siege starts is living in town on her own in a house called the dak bungalow.

The early chapters are devoted to laying out the course of the lives of the European inhabitants of the town, poetry readings for the ladies and so on, manifested in the petty jealousies and rivalries of both the men and the women. A hint of the impending revolt arrives when piles of chapatis begin to be left on people’s desks or doorsteps. The Collector realises this is an indicator of trouble but is at first much mocked for instructing earth barriers be erected round the Residency and the banqueting hall. Lives carry on almost as normal until the neighbouring cantonment of Captainganj falls and its survivors straggle into Krishnapur.

Some of the Collector’s thoughts are of the time, “Speaking a great deal in company is not an attractive quality in a young lady. A young lady with strong opinions is even worse,” but then again on the feelings Miriam expresses towards Lucy Hughes when she thinks Lucy is trying to entrap her brother, “in an attractive woman even faults and weaknesses are endearing.” On his rounds one day during the siege he reflects on women and the ‘natives’ as being alike, “It’s true,” he mused, “they’re just like children,” and, “Women are weak. We shall always have to take care of them, just as we shall always have to take care of the natives.”

A hint of the twentieth century is present in some later thoughts. “Perhaps it is our fault that we keep them so much in idleness? Perhaps we should educate them more in the ways of the world. Perhaps it is us who have made them what they are?” Then the Victorian age resurrects itself. “But no. It’s their nature. Even a fine woman like Miriam is often malicious to others of her sex.”

Once the siege becomes prolonged the aura of complacency regarding British occupancy in India has been deflated. “India itself was now a different place; the fiction of happy natives being led forward along the road to civilisation could no longer be sustained.”

Over time there is a gradual decline of standards as hunger and sickness takes hold, the women sit about in their chemises and bodices, the two doctors quarrel in public over the correct treatment of cholera. Dr McNab’s demeanour does not help his cause, “Scots very often appear bleak in the eyes of the English,” but Dr Dunstaple’s attempt to disprove his colleague’s modern theory leads directly to him contracting the disease.

Despite it being serviceable enough there is something to the text that is unsatisfying, almost plodding. Too much is told, not shown. The characters, too, seem like types, rather than individuals. And (though perhaps this was the point,) there is not much of India here.

As to that Booker Prize, it was nigh on fifty years ago. I doubt The Siege of Krishnapur would win it in the present day.

Pedant’s corner:- Plus points for ‘seated’, “attah of roses” (attar of roses) “the military wre being made to look ridiculous” (the military was being made,) “‘if that attack us here’” (if they attack us here,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) “there were a number of windows” (there was a number,) one “Eurasions” (elsewhere Eurasians,) “to staunch wounds” (stanch,) “a taciturn man from the Salt Agency called Barlow” (the Salt Agency is called Barlow?) ecstacy (ecstasy,) “rose to a crescendo” (to a climax, the crescendo is the rise,) “so many of the garrison was already dead” (were already dead,) “A handful of confident zemindars were standing” (a handful … was standing.) “There were a number of Brahmin priests” (there was a number,) “the dining room was to spacious” (too spacious.)

Hold up the Sky by Cixin Liu

Head of Zeus, 2020, 333 p.

撑起天空, variously translated from Chinese by John Chu, Carmen Yiling Yan, Joel Martinsen, and Adam Lamphier. Reviewed for Interzone 289, Nov-Dec 2020.

 Hold up the Sky cover

In his foreword to this collection Liu says that until recently SF had been foreign to China, peripheral to the sweep of its history but the changes in the country have made the future ever more apparent and pressing, thereby creating more interest in the genre. The question he is most asked is what makes Chinese SF Chinese in nature, but he does not consider his writing to be about anything other than humanity as a whole. Which would be, of course, what makes it widely readable.

Liu’s stories here (spanning publication from 1985 to 2014) usually have echoes of Wells and Stapledon in displaying temporal or cosmological grandeur. He has no lack of ambition in his speculative ideas but sometimes that detracts from the capacity for emotional engagement with them. He has a fondness for portraying big (though not necessarily dumb) objects, but also a tendency (see *) to inelegant nomenclature – which may be a problem of translation of course – and a slight awkwardness with structure. Almost without exception, though, his stories deal with mind-expanding concepts.

Still, the leading one, The Village Teacher, (乡村教师,) appears strangely old-fashioned to Anglophone eyes and the contrast between the tale of the dying title character inculcating Newton’s three laws in his pupils and its intersection with a millenia-old galactic war between the forces of the Federation of Carbon-Based Life* and those of the Silicon-Based Empire* is fairly stark.

To alleviate environmental and population pressures The Time Migration, (时间移民,) is carried out using cryogenics. Stops at 120, 620 and 1,000 years hence proving unsuitable for various reasons, sights are set for 11,000.

In 2018-04-01, (2018年4月1日, – a future date when Liu wrote it) Gene Extension – which actually cuts out the bits that cause ageing rather than inserting anything – is possible but expensive. Our narrator is triggered by an April Fool joke involving digital nations to commit the fraud that will ensure he has the means to benefit.

Fire in the Earth, (地火,) is about the first project to gasify coal underground for use as an oil substitute and the disaster attendant on that endeavour. The story would work without its coda but arguably that’s the only thing that makes it SF.

In Contraction, ( 西洋,) Professor Ding Yi has constructed a unified field theory which predicts the imminent moment when the universe’s expansion will stop and its collapse begin, but only he truly understands the implications. The premise is far from new (Philip K Dick’s Counterclock World springs to mind) but the story ends with a neat, if obvious, typographical way to illustrate it.

Mirror, (镜子,) postulates the invention of the superstring computer – of infinite capacity. This has allowed simulations of evolutions of universes from different Big Bangs to take place, including of course our own. Liu lays out the implications of such knowledge for human relationships.

Despite its subtitle (An alternate history of the sophon,) Ode To Joy, (欢乐颂 ,) does not mention that concept, familiar from Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, at all. Instead a huge ultra-thin mirror appears in Earth’s sky on the day the UN is to be closed for good: a mirror that can turn radiation from nearby novae into music.

Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming, (全频带阻塞干扰,) is set during a war between a Russia newly returned to Communism and NATO (a war whose cause seems relatively trifling but has to be accepted for story purposes.) NATO’s electronic warfare capability outmatches the Russians who have to resort to the full-spectrum barrage jamming of the title. Depletion of the jamming network leads to a desperate measure in response.

Sea of Dreams, (梦之海,) is almost emblematic of Liu’s style. An ice-ball dubbed the low-temperature artist* arrives on Earth professing interest only in art and proceeds to convert the planet’s oceans into ice-cubes, which it suspends in a ring surrounding the planet (the titular Sea) before leaving humans to deal with their altered world.

Cloud of Poems, (诗云,) has faint echoes of Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God in its account of a human telling what is effectively a god that its poetry will never surpass that of the human Li Bai. Its attempt to do so involves programming every possible permutation of the formal rules of Chinese poetry composition and constructing them in a 100 AU diameter model of the Milky Way.

The last story, The Thinker, (思想者,) is the most successful here at integrating the science and speculation behind it with the experiences of its characters and making the reader feel them. A male brain surgeon and a female astronomer meet by chance at an observatory where she is studying the energy fluctuations from stars. Over the years that follow they, almost by accident, make a discovery about interstellar communication.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- “in a pinch” (at a pinch,) “smoking sulfuric acid,” (the technical term is ‘fuming’ sulphuric acid, Liu also describes the smoke as yellow; that sounds more like fuming nitric acid,) “Order of Victories are worth the most” (should be “Orders of Victory are worth the most” but that was in dialogue,) however ‘Order of Suvorovs’ wasn’t, (Orders of Suvorov,) “gunpowder smoke” (gunpowder? From modern munitions?) “lakes of mercury” (on Mercury the planet. Yet the surface temperature is stated to be 1,800 degrees Celsius. The element mercury evaporates at 0C at 1 atmosphere pressure. In a vacuum – or near vacuum such as exists on the planet Mercury’s surface – and specifically mentioned in the text – that would occur at a much lower temperature,) Comanches (is the helicopter’s name spelled differently to the First Nation tribe’s? Commanche,) “1.0 gees” (1.0 gee, or, better, 1.0 G. It would still be ‘gee’ even if its value was greater than 1, since a measurement’s abbreviation subsumes its plural, eg 6 A, or 20 N or 3 m,) “changing from the dark red to orange” (no need for that ‘the’.)

Ruin’s Wake by Patrick Edwards

Titan Books, 2019, 413 p.

It is the year of the Quincentennnial of the Hegemony, an authoritarian state set up by The Seeker after a civilisational collapse known as the Ruin, a society where everyone knows the sun (called Ras) orbits the Earth as the true cosmology of the heavens has been lost even the word ‘planet’ has been lost; but some tech is still left over from the old time.

In the wintry wilds of the north Professor Sulara Song is investigating an archaeological site that may contain an artefact from before the Ruin; at a strip mine on a frozen steppe a man called Cale receives bad news about his son, Bowden; in the city, Kelbee, sold by her father to be the wife of a defender of the Hegemony known to the reader only as the Major (but after a promotion as the Lance-Colonel,) is little but a drudge and sex-slave, allowed outside the house only to work at the lowest grade in a garment factory.

Song’s experiences are given us in the form of journal she writes – and hers is a voice that is wry and compelling – Cale’s and Kelbee’s stories are told in the third person and their personalities therefore come across less sharply. All are actual or potential foes of the Hegemony; Song since the artefact threatens to undermine its foundation myth, Cale as a former comrade of the revolutionary known as Brennev, Kelbee through her growing connection with Nebn who befriends her one day when he comes to the factory to repair a piece of equipment.

The revelation of the underground artefact’s capabilities reads, though, like an interpolation from a different book. (Then again, after regression followed by five hundred years of stagnation any sufficiently advanced technology would seem like magic.) Even knowledge of its facilities represents a threat to the Hegemony’s belief systems and therefore its control of the populace. For unlike the citizens of the Hegemony, kept separate, individualised yet subject to group orthodoxy (as is the ideal for all dictatorships,) “Our ancestors had tinkered with themselves, with the brain itself, back before the Ruin. Every new-born child inherited its parents’ ability to connect with the data corpus, not limited by proximity.”

Perhaps because it was his first novel Edwards is not quite as in control of his prose as he is in his second book, the excellent Echo Cycle, which I reviewed for Interzone, nor is his focus as tight. There is a sense here – especially in the hierarchy of the Hegemony (its head Fulvia arc Borunmer, though the first woman in that post “since… well, ever” is a typical vengeful dictator,) even the existence of the ‘Free City,’ Aspedair, supposedly the only entity on the planet that is not under the Hegemony’s sway, is not an entirely original concept – that he is feeling his way into writing, exploring other people’s scenarios than his own, conforming to a template, that he has not yet found his own voice.

Ruin’s Wake is still very readable though, and Edwards’s portrayal of human relationships and interactions is convincing.

Pedant’s corner:- Time interval later/within time interval count: 17. Otherwise; maw (it’s not a mouth,) sprung (sprang,) “the situation appeared to be diffused” (the situation was not spread out, it was resolved; defused,) “the thick pile of blankets that served as a bed” (earlier on there had been a mattress in the room,) “the light coming under the jamb” (this use of ‘jamb’ appears twice; a door’s jamb is at its side, not its bottom-most part,) snuck under the door jambs (sneaked, and see previous comment,) “the volume of the whole chamber 1,985 metres cubed and the surface area 947 metres squared” (1,985 cubic metres and the surface area 947 square metres. I didn’t bother checking the figures,) “Syn grabbed length of rope” (a length of rope,) sat (x2, sitting,) “the music swelled to a crescendo” (no it didn’t; it swelled [crescendoed] to a climax.) “Which was the truth she wondered” (is a question, so needs a question mark.) “Where would those boys would be now” (remove the second ‘would’,) dove (dived,) “a deep sob wracked her body” (racked.) “None of the people … were armed” (none … was armed,) “darkened by oxidisation” (the verb is ‘oxidise’ the noun is ‘oxidation’,) “it fit snug” (it fitted snugly,) “What struck her most were the looks on the aces” (what struck her most was …..) “He was stood in the wrong place” (standing in the wrong place.) “None of the guns were trained on him” (None … was.) “He was stood in front of her” (standing.)

The Sorrow of War by Bảo Ninh

Secker & Warburg, 1994, 218 p. Translated from the Vietnamese Thân Phân Cua Tinh Yêu, (originally published by Nhà Xuät Ban Hoi Nha Van [Writers’ Association Publishing House], Hanoi, 1991. English version by Frank Palmos based on the translations from the Vietnamese by Vo Bang Thanh and Phan Thanh Hao, with Katherine Pierce.

The vast majority of writing about the Vietnam War published in the West has been from a US perspective. This book acts as a kind of corrective as, here, the US, along with the South Vietnamese ARVN, is the enemy. The novel’s viewpoint character is a North Vietnamese soldier, Kien, whom we first meet in his post-war duty of collecting for burial the remains of corpses left over from the war. This is in an eerie place the soldiers named the Jungle of Screaming Souls. One corpse is discovered in a colourless plastic bag and the body seems immaculate. Then it discolours, something seems to escape, and it deflates. The platoon takes this apparition to be a soul departing. This scene is emblematic as, while the memories of combat are no doubt authentic, so much of what Binh describes here is surreal. Many descriptions of war are.

The novel is disjointed, fragmented, as if reflecting the uncanny nature of such experiences. Ninh tells us the sorrow of war is like the sorrow of love, “a kind of nostalgia,” a “sadness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past.” The novel is a patchwork of such pain, of things unforgettable, surfacing unbidden from memory. “His fighting life was being revived in flashbacks, or in slowly unfolding scenes as heart-rending as a funeral march.” War as an experience is perhaps best encapsulated when Kien remembers trying to dissuade his comrade Can from deserting as it would be shameful. Can replied, “‘In all my time as a soldier I’ve yet to see anything honourable.’”

While combat and its horrors – the blood and entrails carried on the tracks of tanks so that they have to be driven through a river to clean them, Kien’s friend killed when his tank is all-but vapourised by a shell, the dreamlike quality of being on the receiving end of a US air-raid, the self-sacrifice of an inexperienced female guide named Hua who distracted a platoon of US soldiers away from a group of wounded NVA personnel whom she had put in danger of discovery – The Sorrow of War is not merely a story of firefights and military life. The story flits between those and his pre-Army life in Hanoi with Kien’s golden memories of his girlfriend Phuong and of life after the war where it is not only Kien who has been changed utterly but also Phuong, forever scarred by her travails when she accompanied him south to his first posting and her subsequent struggles to subsist in Hanoi.

The end of the war brought to the soldiers no soaring, brilliant happiness such as Kien saw later on film, only memories and nightmares. “Those who had died and those who lived on shared a common fate in this war.” As to the future, “Losses can be made good, damage can be repaired and wounds will heal in time. But the psychological scars of the war will remain forever.” The survivors “had lost not only the capacity to live happily with others but also the capacity to be in love.”

Since Kien later sets out to write about his impressions of the war the novel also contains observations on writing. Binh tells us the author wrote “because he had to write, not because he had to publish.” This is of course the way round the process ought to be.

Despite all its gruesome content and incident, its record of man’s inhumanity to man – and woman – The Sorrow of War is not difficult to read, a testament to both Binh and his translators.

Pedant’s corner:- mosquito repellant (repellent,) “his beard was well shaven and tidy” (if it was shaven it wasn’t a beard, well trimmed perhaps?) “Who’s to know.” (is a question; therefore ‘Who’s to know?’) “All that remained of his mother were some photographs.” (‘All’ is singular, hence ‘was,’) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, “Sue repeated eagerly” (she repeated eagerly,) curriculum vitae (there was more than one; curriculum vitae means ‘course of life’ so its plural – courses of life – is ‘curricula vitae’ in Latin and English – but in English some might say ‘curriculums vitae’. If interpreted as ‘courses of lives’ the Latin plural would be ‘curricula vitarum’, which is a step too far in English.)

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Corsair, 2019, 376 p.

People like stories. That is why the novel as a form exists after all. So I can see why this struck a chord with so many readers. It is the tale of Catherine Danielle Clark (Kya,) growing up living in a shack in a North Carolina marsh. And it is a compelling one. Kya is abandoned first by her elder siblings, then her mother (too many blows from her wastrel drunken sot of a husband, Kya’s father) then her brother nearest in age, Jodie, and finally her father; left to bring herself up alone, with only the marsh wildlife and plants to engage her interest. Subject to prejudice, vilified as dirty and ‘trash’, she has only the local, black, seller of bait, supplies and motor-boat fuel, Jumpin’ Jackson, and his wife Mabel, to look out for her, plus later, of course, Tate Walker, a few years older, a friend of the family in the (mildly) better times when her mother was still around. It is a tale of betrayal, loneliness, love, (a bit of) sex and, since we start with the discovery of a body, death. It has things going for it then.

And yet. Perhaps I’m seeing this from a reviewing perspective or even of that of a novelist myself but as a novel I found it deeply flawed.

The body is that of Chase Andrews, quondam local quarterback and lad about town (or whatever the US equivalent is) but pillar of the establishment. He has fallen – or been pushed – from a deserted building known as the fire tower. The absence of footprints round the body (his included) make the local sheriff suspicious. Revelations of Kya’s involvement with Chase mean she becomes the prime suspect.

Given Kya is the focal character our sympathies naturally lean to her side and if she has committed murder, there is not much in Owens’s portrayal of her to lead us to believe she could have carried out the elaborate deception necessary for that. She certainly has motive, a woman scorned always has motive, but her reclusive nature as the Marsh Girl, out where the crawdads sing (Tate tells her the phrase means “Far in the bush where the critters are wild, still behaving like critters”) and her reticence as regards contact with other humans, act as counterweights.

Despite only one day of schooling – humiliated by being unable to spell ‘dog’ she never went back – she becomes a self-taught expert on the marsh fauna and flora and paints exquisite representations of its wildlife. Her friendship with Tate, the only one who understands her deep connection with the marsh, the person who taught her to read – remarkably quickly it has to be said – and encouraged her to send her paintings to a publisher and so responsible for her later financial security, is her anchor until he too leaves her behind to go to College and her loneliness eventually leads her to succumb to the doomed attraction of Chase.

This tale of early 1960s North Carolina has echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird what with the racial prejudice (there is a Colored [sic] Town separate from Barkley Cove,) the class divisions and the courtroom scenes.However, it is anything but as well written. It relies too often on coincidence and has problems with structure and sequencing along with individual sections morphing from past to present tense for no good reason. Witnesses come forward at convenient times for the narrative rather than organically as they would have done. For two of these Owens lets the reader know their testimony exists and is potentially damning but does not reveal it then and there, instead waiting a few chapters to let us see the scene concerned from Kya’s viewpoint. I suppose you could call it backshadowing (in essence the whole book from the body’s discovery in the prologue till Kya’s arrest is backshadowing) but it is really an artificial creation of tension not fair on the reader. Then there are the frequent passages of poetry, especially that of Amanda Hamilton, which strike an off-note. Ownes has her reasons for these but only unfurls them at the end as a deus ex machina.

Some minor characters are less than convincing. Chase’s mother Patti Love Andrews is supposed to have thought she had a strong bond with her son but is said to be shocked to discover he had intimate dealings with Kya. This does not ring at all true. A woman like her would know exactly how a son brought up with his privileges would behave towards those he thought beneath him – especially to women, even more especially to ‘trash’.

Extracts from Kya’s reading on biological topics – for example “one article on reproductive strategies was titled ‘Sneaky Fuckers’” – feel as if they are an interpolation from a different novel entirely but ensure Kya is conversant with the varied tactics of the animal mating game. She tells Jodie, finally returned to see how she is faring, “Most men go from one female to the next. The unworthy ones strut about, pulling you in with falsehoods,” but this comes across as Owens speaking, not Kya. Often in sections relating to Kya’s state of mind, human behaviour is described in terms of biological reductionism – even in the hierarchy of the courtroom.

Some aspects of the contributions to her personality are outlined when Kya says to Jodie, “I never hated people. They hated me. They laughed at me. They left me. They harrassed me. They attacked me.”

As a defendant in her trial Kya is all but a blank to us, though. Yet the narration is from an omniscient third person, we ought to have access to her deepest thoughts. This is not unreliable as such but is profoundly disingenuous (and there are times too when Owens is a bit too eager to tell the reader how to interpret what has been read.)

Perhaps it was with an eye to the film rights (or even thoughts of To Kill a Mockingbird) that Owens chose to make the trial her focus. A trial after all has jeopardy (Owens emphasises the jeopardy,) conflict and drama. But that focus imbalances the novel. The story here is not the trial. Instead it is that of a lonely girl struggling to keep herself alive and make her way in a world to which she is ill-suited and for which she is ill-prepared. And of humans’ capacity for denigrating and despising the other. The murder aspect is incidental to this but is the hook on which Owens hangs the book. And in its dénouement I could not escape the impression that Owens was so determined to have a revelation/tying up of loose ends in her final chapter that it warped all that came before it.

There are things to appreciate in this novel but its central metaphor is laboured, almost trite. Yes, humans are the expressions of their genes. But humans are more than that. And it is the more than that that the novel, at its best, illumines and portrays. Where the Crawdads Sing does that peripherally at best.

It is by no means a bad book. In some respects it is a very good book, though without ever touching the heights. It will probably make a good film though.

Pedant’s corner:- ‘Time interval’ later/within ‘time interval’ count: 17. Otherwise; “Her overalls pockets” (that’s a possessive, hence, ‘her overalls’ pockets’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, indentions (indentations,) “Kya wondered who started using the word cell instead of cage. There must have been a moment in time when humanity demanded this shift.” (Well, no. The word cell does not necessarily mean a place of incarceration. It is a single, repeatable unit, found among others of its kind, as in prisons, but also in batteries and in living things; a cage is never anything other than a place of confinement,) “the sheriff itn’t so sure” (‘itn’t?’Is that North Carolinan dialect; or a misprint for ‘isn’t?’) “bused to Barkley” (bussed.)

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Hamish Hamilton, 2018, 331 p.

The epigraph quotes a character from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain about the urtext of Western literature. “All of European literature springs from a fight.” And what is the quarrel about? “A woman. A girl really.”

That woman, that girl, is not Helen, proximate cause of the Trojan War as she was. Instead, the object of the fight and so that well-spring of Western letters is Briseis, narrator of this novel (most of it anyway,) torn from the life and comfort she knew as wife to Mynes, king of Lyrnessus, to a reduced existence as slave to Achilles and the unwitting pivot on which the outcome of the Trojan War hinged. This novel is an attempt by Barker to retrieve the memory and experience not just of Briseis, who, after all, like Achilles, Hector, Ajax et al, may be no more than a myth, but of all the women whom myth and history have traditionally made incidental.

The novel is made up of Briseis’s recollections and thoughts with occasional interpolations as if from a reader asking her questions. There are some sections which initially seem like missteps on the author’s part when we shift to a third person focus on Achilles at times when Briseis is not present to observe him but they are there to nudge us in the direction of whose story this really is.

The book starts with Briseis and the women of Lyrnessus waiting for their city to fall to the Greeks, the great war cry of Achilles ringing in their ears. They know what is to come, their men and boys killed, visibly pregnant women speared in the belly on the off-chance they are carrying a son, their futures cut off, any semblance of autonomy erased, taken over as chattels at best and in any case degraded to sexual playthings.

Possibly to bring myth down to Earth Barker occasionally deploys anachronisms. The Greek soldiers sing rugby songs around their tables. When the captured women are paraded before them Briseis hears one of them say, “‘Look at the knockers on that.’” Achilles greets his award of Briseis with the words, “‘Cheers, lads. She’ll do.’” From then her life becomes one of service, and she a thing, not a person; a drudge and object of sexual release. Her only solace is to immerse herself in the sea every evening but she finds the smell of seaweed on her skin and hair arouses Achilles. (His mother was a sea-goddess after all.) There and back, she wanders through the Greek camp in all its rat-infested squalor.

Though Briseis doubts the efficacy of prayers she nevertheless implores Apollo to bring down pestilence on the camp. Whether this is an attempt by Barker to give Briseis some agency is left open but one day a priest of Apollo arrives to plead for the release of his daughter, Chryseis, now Agamemnon’s slave. He refuses. A subsequent outbreak of plague in the camp leads the superstitious sodiers to believe it is Apollo’s revenge for his refusal and Achilles is forced to demand Agamemnon give Chryseis up. He will do so only if Achilles yields Briseis to him. This is the source of their quarrel. An enraged Achilles says to his closest friend Patroclus, “He hasn’t earnt it.” Briseis focuses on that one word: “it. It doesn’t belong to him, he hasn’t earnt it.” Achilles is talking about the honour he’d gained by fighting but she experiences the phrase as being about her. And of course it was. She was the embodiment of that ‘honour’, its symbol, a prize – however unwilling – won for being able to kill people. Achilles cries as she is taken away – but it isn’t for her.

Briseis frequently reflects on the lot of women. “There was a legend – it tells you everything really – that whenever Helen cut a thread in her weaving, a man died on the battlefield. She was responsible for every death.” A slave called Tecmessa relays to Briseis what Ajax said to her when he won’t speak about what’s causing his recurring nightmare, “Silence becomes a woman,” and Briseis tells us, “Every woman I’d ever known was brought up on that saying.” A few days after Achilles kills Hector on the battlefield, the Trojan King, Priam, secretly makes his way into the Greek camp to plead for his son’s body for burial. Kneeling before Achilles he says, “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” Briseis can only think, “I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.” She realises though that Trojan songs and stories would survive since their Greek sons would remember what their Trojan mothers had sung to them. (Curiously daughters are not mentioned here, yet they would surely also pass on those tales and songs.)

For this story, however, the pull of myth is too powerful, the legend of Achilles too strong, “make no mistake, this was his story, his anger, his grief, his story…. I was still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.”

As for posterity, “They won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No. They’ll go for something altogether softer.”

This is not a book I’m likely to forget.

Aside: I suppose this is all moot if we’re dealing with myth but I have mentioned before the problems I have with the concept of a ten year long siege of a Bronze Age city. Here they are compounded by the fact that the men go off to fight during the day – seemingly with mayhem occurring, certainly lots of bloodshed (so where do the reinforcements come from?) – leaving a few behind to guard the ships. But the soldiers return to their huts in the evening to eat, to drink, to argue and to do the other things soldiers do. The text does imply the use of sentries but no consideration seems to be given to the possibility of a concerted night attack.

Pedant’s corner:- Time interval/within minutes count: at least ten. Otherwise; Mynes’ (Mynes’s; all names ending in ‘s’ – Patroclus, Achilles, Odysseus, Chryseus, Alcimus, Peleus etc, have their possessives rendered as s’ rather than s’s,) “around out feet” (our feet,) ceasefire (x2. It’s an odd word to describe an agreed temporary interruption to a war in the Bronze Age, carried out in the main by hand-to-hand combat, ‘truce’ would have jarred less.) “The sound rose to a crescendo” (no it didn’t; it rose – crescendoed – to a climax.)

Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes

4th Estate, 2020, 395 p.

Like the best murder mysteries, we start with a body. But this isn’t a crime story. (Not in the conventional sense anyway – and the crimes it touches on are, or were, not usually considered as such.) It is, instead, a mosaic of a life, that of Cliodhna Jean Campbell (known as Clio,) who in January 2018 has committed suicide at her friend Ruth’s house in Kilbarchan, leaving no note in the house, and left Ruth to find her body. It is a novel about its times, our times, political commitment and hope.

Except we don’t actually start with the body. First there is a newspaper article from June 1990, a profile of Clio as her first album is about to be released following her successful but unconventional appearance on Top of the Pops the previous March, where she pointedly refused to mime while promoting her anti-Poll Tax single ‘Rise Up’ and ‘provocatively’ revealed an anti-poll tax T-shirt. Newspaper extracts like these appear intermittently between chapters (the next is a heartfelt but subsequently misconstrued obituary) and chart her swift rise, slower fall and occasional re-emergence to the public eye. One of these is a particularly barbed review of her album of Burns songs, The Northern Lass by a reviewer totally unsympathetic to its subject matter. The meat of the novel however, is in the unfolding of Clio’s life revealed, in non-linear order, by chapters dealing with incidents or stages in her life.

Astutely on the author’s part, we never see events from Clio’s perspective, only from people whose paths she crossed, was affected by, or affected, in one way or another: fourteen different viewpoint characters helpfully noted on a page labelled Some People inserted between the epigraph and page one. Listed in alphabetical order of their given names these are: Adele, a nurse; Danny Mansfield, a tour manager, a husband; Donald Bain, a godfather (unofficial;) Eileen Johnstone, a mother; Hamza Hussain, a boyfriend; Ida Edwards, a woman on a train; Jess Blake, a comrade; Malcolm Campbell, a father; Neil Munro, a journalist; Ruth Jones, a friend; Sammi Smith, a girl who lives in a squat; Shiv West, a popular musician; Simon Carruthers, a man at a wedding; Xanthe Christos, a former comrade. Taken in all they present a picture of a caring individual, who is at times blinkered to the ripples of her wake but is more sinned against than sinning.

Clio was brought up in an Ayrshire mining village by her mother and stepfather. (Her less than adequate father, also a musician, kicked out by Clio’s mother, had left to make a career in the US.) The 1980s miners’ strike left its legacy on Clio and through her life she remained a tireless advocate for the working-class cause, leading to not only that one hit song, but involvement in various political causes including a squat in Brixton, and devastation at the result of the Scottish Independence Referendum.

The journalist, Neil Munro, carries an unrequited torch for her and reflects somewhat jealously on her relationship with Danny Mansfield, “Beautiful women take lovers. He’d just never worked out why the lovers they took had to be such total arseholes.” One chapter set in the squat gives us Xanthe’s scathing verdict on lefties, “all of them so sure that their rollies, their pouches and their papers were another way of sticking it to corporate culture.” Another includes an explanation of the card game Scabby Queen, where there is only one queen in the deck. The card gets passed around as quickly as possible since the person left with her at the end loses and suffers a forfeit. (If this is supposed to be a metaphor for Clio’s life it doesn’t quite work.)

In the squat a man called Mark Carr had sex with most of the female activists. Clio later discovers he was an undercover policeman and therefore they had been “raped by the state”. The exposure of Carr, seeking justice against him and his superiors for his actions, becomes one of Clio’s causes, one she single-mindedly follows to the hilt despite the potential wreckage this pursuit could cause to the lives of others who were in the squat.

Ruth remembers her outlining all the good that could have flowed from an independent Scotland, including “amazing Scandinavian education” plus “an oil fund underpinning a citizen’s income and putting money into green energy programmes and all those beautiful things we were going to do,” how that would have confounded the sceptics. She hoped, “That they’d see then.”

But, given the ‘No’ vote, she laments, “Nothing I do or you do will ever make the slightest bit of difference …. They knew most of the country was fearty little boys like them, making snidey jokes because they’re afraid to believe in anything …. It’s why anyone from here who goes away and does well, we start laughing at them when they come back again …. There’s always some wee Scottish gremlin sitting there on yer shoulder, whispering its mantra. Naw. Naw. Naw.”

The suicide was Clio’s last act of political theatre, her final grab for attention and validation. In a note released to the press days after her death she says, “The codes that this modern world was built on are breaking down, allowing the worst bits of ourselves to rampage.”

Neil’s anguish over writing Clio’s obituary, “How did you use words, black on white with a finite limit, slotting into a pre-designed space on a page, to describe what a person’s life had been?” are belied by the story we are reading. This novel shows exactly how you use words to describe a life.

Scabby Queen is brilliant. A superb portrait not only of a complicated, contrary character, an embodiment of Caledonian anti-syzygy, but also of the society she lived in and the times she passed through.

Pedant’s corner:- snuck (sneaked, but snuck may have been in character,) “one wee Fife village” (it was Clackmannan which is not in Fife, and actually it was not the village but Clackmannanshire as a whole.)

Luna: Moon Rising by Ian McDonald

Gollancz, 2019, 446 p.

This is the third (and final?) in the author’s Luna series (see here and here) and McDonald’s characteristic prose style is again in evidence, his ear for a telling phrase, the almost lyrical descriptions, but straightforwardly down to earth (down to Moon?) when necessary.

Once more we are shown ongoing events in the present tense, a device which imparts a sense of urgency – and contingency – to the narrative. The main plot here relates to who is to assume the guardianship of Lucasinho Corta who suffered catastrophic anoxia on the lunar surface in the previous book and now has to have his memories rebuilt from the recollections of others, but this is counterpointed with the ongoing conflict between the powerful lunar companies collectively called Dragons.

Since Corta Hélio has fallen, only four of the Dragons remain, Taiyang of the Suns, the Asamoahs’ AKA, the Vorontsovs’ VTO and the Mackenzies of Mackenzie Metals and MacKenzie Helium, but Lucas Corta is determined to make the most of the position as Eagle of the Moon he levered himself into in the last book. An introduction here is the University of Farside – fiercely independent of the Dragons – to where Lucasinho is taken for the memory restoration treatment and whose employees eschew former family connections.

As in Luna: Wolf Moon the defining feature of lunar life, the Four Elementals of air, water, carbon and data, rights to which are monitored by the chib in every inhabitant’s interactive contact lens, are not lingered on but this reflects the chib’s everyday nature for lunar citizens. Unless those rights run low they would not be a concern. They do, though, come into play at the dénouement.

The Dragons and their jostling for power – here joined by the incipient threat from Earth to eliminate the Moon as a competitor – is an exaggerated metaphor for unbridled capitalism, red in tooth and claw. The level of bloodshed is a warning about the consequences of the absence of legal restraints – though doubtless some readers will greet those scenes with approval. But McDonald raises the question of whether such a mode of living could be sustainable (and given the high body count here a certain degree of doubt is justified.) While their means of pursuing their interests had been indistinguishable from the other Dragons’ the Cortas’ collective insistence that family is everything suggests a different set of values is possible. It’s certainly desirable.

The scenes involving Marina Calzaghe (returned to Earth and finding herself regretting it,) though highlighting prejudice as they do, are something of a distraction from, and ultimately unrelated to, happenings on the Moon. But they illustrate McDonald’s wider vision.

Among those I no doubt missed there are embedded reference to Flanders and Swann, to Casablanca (in the film Bogart never actually said, “Play it again,” but of course Woody Allen used the phrase as the title of a play which later became a film,) and to Candide. There is a bar named The Flashing Blade, an adaptation of the Scottish (and Northern Irish?) term of approbation ‘Ya dancer’ to the US audience, a pun on ‘take the heat off them,’ another on ‘The Eagle has landed’ – this last’s setting up waiting almost three books for its payoff.

Few who read this could be disappointed with the experience.

Pedant’s corner:- “the lay of her belly” (the lie of her belly,) “a housand dins” (a thousand dins,) “in every cell her body” (cell of her body.) “The position rotate every two years” (rotates,) “blown four million years in the eruptions” (blown four million years ago,) “the size of size of her torso” (only one ‘size of’ required.) “Lucas’s hand tighten on the knurl of his cane” (tightens,) bola (the throwing weapon referred to is a bolas.) “Waiting in the corridor are AKA employee to lift and store…” (employees,) “smashed every rule the road” (of the road,) “looking down in to the” (down into,) sub-regolithis (sub-regolith.) “He strokes Lucasinho cheek” (Lucasinho’s,) “darker even that the dark basalt” (than the dark basalt,) “systems runs checks” (systems run checks,) Alexis (Alexia,) “puts out medical alert to his blades” (puts out a medical alert,) zeros (used to be spelled zeroes,) “‘there’s be’” (‘there’ll be’,) prospket (x2, prospekt,) “catches it, throw it on to another” (throws it on,) “and how she used to them” (how she used them,) “when the Earth-light in hot in him” (is hot in him,) open maws (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) staunch (stanch,) “the thunder of carnival give way to” (gives way to,) “loathe to involve itself” (loath, or, loth. Loathe is to despise/hate/abhor,) ambiance (ambience,) “none are as small and compact” (none is as small,) “When the Gularte’s left Caio for dead” (Gulartes.) “Wagner heart turns over” (Wagner’s heart,) “none of them are worthy of” (none of them is worthy of.)

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Tinder Press, 2020, 384 p.

 Hamnet cover

Is there anyone who reads who does not know that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet, who died as a boy, a name immortalised a few years later in the play titled Hamlet? This is not a spoiler in any case as in a short preface O’Farrell tells us as much, and that Hamnet and Hamlet were the same name, entirely interchangeable in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

In its writing this novel has echoes of Wolf Hall, whether that be because of the Tudor setting, or that Hamnet’s grandfather is quick with his fists, or a kind of linguistic obscurantism. In Hilary Mantel’s novel Thomas Cromwell was often denoted cryptically as “he,” Here characters are sometimes described simply as “a boy” or “a woman” and Hamnet’s father is never referred to by name, only as, variously, “the Latin Tutor,” “the husband,” or “the father.”

This distancing is quite deliberate on O’Farrell’s part as the novel’s focus is not on the son, (who dies two thirds of the way in anyway,) nor indeed is it on the husband and father. This is the story of the wife and mother, Agnes, pronounced Ann’yes and so liable to be misheard as Anne. It is a beautiful piece of imagining on O’Farrell’s part, evoking life in Tudor England utterly convincingly, illustrating the fluctuating balances of power within families, rescuing Agnes from the sidelines of history, revealing her as a vibrant, complex character in her own right. In it she also manages to provide a better explanation than the usual one for the playwright’s famous bequest – as an act of love.

In part I the chapters mostly alternate between the goings-on in Henley Street, Stratford, in the run-up to Hamnet contracting his fatal illness (where there is actually a fair degree of attention paid to Hamnet,) and the earlier life of his mother and father, how they met, got together, married and had three children. Despite Agnes having the gift of (second) sight, Hamnet’s twin Judith comes as a surprise, is then given up for dead on arrival after him, but subject to Agnes’s frantic efforts to keep her alive and her constant worry thereafter. Agnes is also a dispenser of herbal remedies. There is a passage written from the point of view of a hooded kestrel in an apple store which is quite beautifully done and also a diversionary chapter on the mechanism of how Hamnet may have caught bubonic plague, beginning with a flea in Alexandria, the plague bacillus eventually transferring to England via a glassmaker in Venice. Though never emphasised as such, interplay between the characters suggest the seeds for what was to come in the plays. Part II by contrast deals with the aftermath of Hamnet’s death and its chapters follow the story linearly. Grief is a difficult sense to communicate in fiction but we see its expression in all of the family and feel it through them.

Use of the present tense can be alienating but O’Farrell’s deployment of the device is superb, keeping the action contingent, reminding us that to the characters the events she shows us were happening in the here and now, there was still the possibility of an alternative outcome. It brilliantly conveys Hamnet’s distracted state of mind as he scurries about the empty house (usually so full of people) seeking help when his twin falls ill. O’Farrell is tremendous too on Agnes’s experience of childbirth. I doubt a man could ever have transmitted the sensations, feelings and worries so effectively. Throughout, the author is totally in control and the final scenes, as Agnes hurries off to London to ask her husband why he dared to use his dead son’s name in a play, are magnificent. The play, after all, has kept that name alive.

Hamnet is a wonderful novel. How it was left off the Booker Prize long- and shortlist last year is beyond me. It did, though, win the Women’s Fiction Prize and the Dalkey Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.

Pedant’s corner:- epicentre (used, wrongly, in the sense of absolute centre,) “the dark maw of the ground” (it was the opening of a grave; not a stomach, then, therefore not a maw,) stoved in (stove in, or, staved in,) “that all is not as it should be” (that not all is as it should be.) “She sits up nights” (she sits up at night,) hoofs (in my youth the plural was always ‘hooves’.)

Glister by John Burnside

Jonathan Cape, 2008, 263 p.

Begin with a warning. In a prefatory chapter, someone, who has passed through the Glister, is remembering the story of his life, again. In that story his name is Leonard and he remembers John the librarian saying to him, “When it comes to reliability, it’s not the narrator we should be worried about, it’s the author,” but Leonard himself tells us it’s not the author either; it’s the story that is unreliable.

Be that as it may, it is Leonard’s recollections which take up the bulk of the book. He grew up in a coastal town somewhat cut off from the rest of the world – outside influences do intrude, there is a Spar shop and references to television (curiously to Dr Kildare and Richard Chamberlain, which seems a bit out of time with the rest of the narrative) – a town once home to a chemical plant, whose contamination blights the lives of those who worked there, and perhaps even those who stray or rummage onto its former grounds or into the so-called poisoned wood, but people stay and put up with it all. (Not Leonard’s mum, though, who, unable to cope with her situation, pissed off when his father took ill leaving Leonard to take care of his dad.) But the town has a bigger problem. There have been disappearances of children, teenage boys, over the years, unexplained disappearances which cast a pall over everyday life.

Leonard lived in the Innertown, the most deprived and blighted area, distinguished from the Outertown where the big houses are. The Innertown has the same claustrophobic feel as the village in Burnside’s earlier novel The Devil’s Footprints and the hellish residue of the plant bears echoes of the Corby he described in Living Nowhere. Leonard’s story is given in the first person but other sections are written in the third and describe incidents to which he was not a witness. (These may still be him writing from an omniscient viewpoint, however; remember the unreliability of story.) They include Morrison, the local policeman, who seems to have got his position without in any way training for it, the local big man Bryan Smith (who levered Morrison into his job so as to have a hold over him,) Morrison’s alcoholic wife, Alice, recluse Andrew Rivers, and Leonard’s girlfriend, the precociously sexually adventurous Elspeth.

Morrison is conflicted by his knowledge of finding the dead body of the first boy to disappear, his enthralment to Bryan Smith (who got his henchman Jenner to deal with it) and his duty as a policeman. Towards the end he reflects that “the soul is wet and dark, a creature that takes up residence in the human body and feeds on it …. possessed of an unhuman joy that cares nothing for its host, but lives, as it must live, in perpetual, disfigured longing.” Alice senses her husband’s confusion but is mired in her own difficulties. Rivers has kept all the reminders of his dead father and is alert to the possibilities his behaviour has of being misunderstood. Elspeth is a spark of life but seems to be perpetually randy. The mysterious outsider Leonard calls the Moth Man, supposedly conducting a survey of the flying insect population of the contaminated area but also taking the opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of the disused chemical plant and possibly with a darker involvement in events, with a hint of the supernatural, flits in and out of Leonard’s story while occasionally providing him with brews of a strange tea. Of his non-exclusive, on both sides, relationship with Elspeth, Leonard muses that romance is for older people, not adolescents.

Despite the realistic depiction of Leonard’s encounters with John, Elspeth, the Moth Man and the members of the small teenage gang led by Elspeth’s ex-boyfriend Jimmy van Doren, there is an overhanging feel of Science Fiction or fantasy to proceedings. This prefigures the ending, the manifestation of the Glister, which, while possibly explaining the disappearances does not do so fully but is nonetheless satisfactory.

At one point Leonard tells us of “the sense I have of a story all disjointed and out of sequence.” The novel is not like this at all. Burnside writes supremely well. I wasn’t overly satisfied by the ending even though it is in accord with what preceded it, but in all other respects Glister is gold.

Pedant’s corner:- “maybe ony a few minutes” (maybe only a few,) cargos (this plural used to be spelled ‘cargoes’,) unimagin-able (not at a line break, unimaginable,) ditto “separ-ate” (separate.) “It has to with Leonard” (It has to do with Leonard.) None of the others see me go (sees me go,), Rivers’ (Rivers’s,) “when she come across” (comes across,) a missing start quotation mark.

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