Archives » Other fiction

The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

Corsair, 2012, 381 p. First published in 1963.

 The New Moon with the Old cover

In Book One we meet Jane Minton on her way to take up a post as secretary at Dome House, owned by Rupert Carrington to whom Jane had taken a slight fancy at her interview. Her encounter with Carrington’s children Drew, an aspiring writer, Richard, a composer, Clare, whose only ambition is to be a king’s mistress, and the fourteen-year old Merry who wishes to be an actress (this was first published in 1963; it was how female thespians were referred to in those days) plus their two live-in servants is entirely convivial and Jane settles in.

Her idyll is soon shattered, though, by the arrival at dead of night of Carrington, who informs her he is wanted by the police on suspicion of fraud and must flee the country, enjoining her to tell his family of this new circumstance. The five hundred pounds he has given her to tide the family over will not last long and all will have to fetch for themselves.

Here is where the novel’s structure begins to break down as the next four Books follow each of Carrington’s children in turn, first Merry, then Drew, then Clare and finally Richard, as all (except the last) set off into the wider world ,meet people only too willing to think the best of them, and manage to fall on their feet; Merry (in an actress’s alias disguising her true age) with an aristocratic family, Drew as an old lady’s companion, and Clare with an eccentric old gentleman with a secret. These “Books” are interluded by single chapters back “under the Dome.” They are in effect separate novellas having little to do with each other cobbled together under one umbrella.

As in Smith’s I Capture the Castle we have an upper-middle class family down on its luck being saved by happenstantial meetings. There, the narrative voice, being that of a young woman with not much experience of the world, was fresh and lively. Here, extended over five third person viewpoints, it became more wearing. There was also a relentless focus on matters of domestic detail, too much telling rather than showing, and a deal of introspection from the viewpoint characters.

It all felt very cosy. Too cosy.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing end quotation mark (x 3.) “Drew and Merry were in the hail” (in the hall,) ‘‘’One should think of it’ (has an errant apostrophe,) “‘you”re going to’” (you’re,) Glare (x 2, Clare,) grills (grilles,) “‘I wish I’d time for a test before dinner’” (a rest before dinner,) wisteria (wisteria,) “of the Whitecliff’ songs” (what that apostrophe is doing there goodness only knows,) Mr Sevem (Severn,) “three old ladles” (old ladies,) forgotren (forgotten,) doubifully (doubtfully,) a missing full stop, “‘but saintly no. l assure you.’” (‘but saintly no. I assure you’,) Aunt Winlfred (Winifred,) “all dosed” (all closed,) sudduely (suddenly.) “‘Is it a nervous trick’” (nervous tic?) “ their spines and comers bound” (their spines and corners,) “who had waked Mr Charles” (woken,) inlayed (inlaid,) “the ftont door” (front.) Mt Charles (Mr Charles,) cracking (crackling,) linancial (financial,) ex-girl friend (this makes her seem an ex-girl; ex-girlfriend,) “‘and I I’ll kiss you’” (doesn’t need that ‘I’,) “meant it as regard Lord Crestover” (as regards,) “the fall truth” (full truth,) presenfly (presently,) “he sat in the ball all morning” (in the hall,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, Rasouniovsky (elsewhere always Rasoumovsky.)

Spring by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 346 p.

When a novel starts with a diatribe containing, among other like things, the words,“What we don’t want is facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth … we want muslim women a joke in a newspaper column we the laugh we want the sound of that laugh behind them wherever they go,” and we recognise them as an accurate reflection of the times then we know the body politic has gone to a deep, dark, unpleasant place – and we also know that literature is probably not up to the task of ameliorating it. This is the first of a series of interludes which separate the “story” elements of Ali Smith’s third instalment in dissecting post EU referendum Britain. Not all these interludes articulate an anti-Brexit viewpoint. The opposite attitude is also given a voice as is the hidden data-mining agenda of social media platform providers.

There’s more in that first diatribe though. “We need to suggest the enemy within… we need enemies of the people we want their judges called enemies of the people we want their journalists called enemies of the people we want the people we decide are enemies of the people called enemies of the people we want to say loudly over and over again on as many tv and radio shows as possible how they’re silencing us … we need news to be what we say it is. We need words to mean what we say they mean. We need to deny what we’re saying while we’re saying it.”

And it’s chilling when set down all at once. Against that, what chance has a mere novel of gaining traction?

The plot is bifold. Richard Lease, an old producer of TV plays (which is to say a producer of TV plays in the past, not that he’s not knocking on a bit) who speaks to an imaginary child, a version of the daughter he no longer speaks to in the real world, has been invited to produce a new programme – an adaptation of a literary novel about Kathleen Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke – who happened to live in the same hotel in Switzerland in 1922 but didn’t meet – and in which nothing much happens. The TV script is appalling though, having the two embark on an affair even though Mansfield at the time was on her death bed. Richard goes to his old script-writer friend Paddy (Patricia Heal) for advice. She is ill and her children desire as little disturbance to her as possible. Her eventual death hits Richard hard and he decides to take a trip north on a train, and he tries to commit suicide when he disembarks.

The second strand involves Brit (Brittany Hall) an officer in a detention centre who finds her humanity being ground down by the system; soul crushing for detainees and officers both. Here a young girl has somehow walked into the centre and got to talk to its governor, persuading him to have the toilets cleaned properly. It is also rumoured that the same girl had managed to infiltrate a brothel to dissuade punters from their intentions and emerged unscathed. Even if it is a riff on Shakespeare’s Pericles this magic realist style intrusion is troubling. That literary form emerged from societies where freedom of expression suffered certain constraints. Is this where we are now? Is this our salvation? Our only hope of some humanity in public services is through magical interventions? Where truth is not the first casualty of war but a hostage to whoever can shout loudest? Where to assert something is to demand that thing’s validity be unquestioned? Against Twitter and Facebook, literature is a lumbering sloth.

A further comment on the times is given when a dying Paddy says, “‘I’m that thing nobody out there thinks is relevant any more. Books. Knowledge. Years of reading. All of which means? I know stuff,’” and another reflects, “She’s, what’s the word? Another old word from history and songs that nobody uses in real life anymore. She is good.”

The two strands come together when the young girl speaks to Richard as he is lying on the railway line and says she needs him to stop that. Thereafter all three travel on to Culloden Moor for a dénouement of sorts.

Given what has gone before, the hint of regeneration – of the month of April being characterised as a harbinger of better times to come, of spring as when the old gods are about to be reborn is perhaps a little optimistic.

Pedant’s corner:- This book has that unjustified right margin which is a feature of all Smith’s publications. Otherwise; “she walked passed” (past,) an uncapitalised beginning to a sentence.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2018, 346 p.

 Transcription cover

This once again, as in Life After Life and A God in Ruins, finds Atkinson turning to the Second World War for inspiration. Her focus here is not the RAF’s Bomber Command, though, but the intelligence service – to which Juliet Armstrong was recruited by Miles Merton in early 1940. The novel is bookended, however, by sections set in 1981 and flits between the war and Juliet’s subsequent experiences at the BBC in 1950 as a radio producer of children’s programmes.

In her war work Juliet typed up the voice recordings for an MI5 sting operation on German sympathisers who believed they were conspiring with a Gestapo officer, and also, in the guise of one Iris Carter-Jenkins, infiltrated the circle of a Mrs Scaife. The 1950s part of the novel sees Juliet receive an anonymous note saying, You will pay for what you did, which she believes must be from one of those sympathisers setting her on a path to investigate those who are left.

Marvellously readable, the narration is in a kind of joky, referential style reflecting Juliet’s thoughts. The MI5 code phrase, ‘Can I tempt you?’ seems to be said to her by everyone she meets; and in fact many whom she does, also work for MI5. This is a novel inhabiting spy territory; nothing may be what it seems. Towards the end, reflecting on the identities she had adopted she thinks, “then there was Juliet Armstrong … who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then, what constituted real. Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?” Well before this there are faint echoes of le Carré. In particular MI5 operative Oliver Alleyne’s name seems to allude to that author’s Percy Alleline. There are many subtleties though and Juliet’s transparent naivety is a cunning authorial device – the reader knows long before Juliet that her immediate MI5 boss, Perry, is a homosexual – but that naivety, approaching levity at times, is a surface phenomenon. It serves to hide as well as expose, though the injunction, ‘Never trust a coincidence,’ might just be good spycraft.

Paranoia strikes deep. Once a spy it’s hard to rid yourself of a spy’s habits. Sitting in the National Gallery in front of Lundens’s copy of Rembrandt’s painting, Miles Merton tells Juliet that, since the original was pruned to fit a space in Amsterdam’s Town Hall, “‘The counterfeit is in some ways truer than the real Night Watch.’” This is after all, MI5 in the mid-twentieth century.

The source of the note turns out to be less menacing than Juliet assumed, but at the same time more dangerous. Juliet’s service did not finish with the war. She reflects that, “She would never escape from any of them, would she? She would never be finished.”

I suspect Atkinson enjoyed writing this. There is a lot to admire in it and the dénouement, as in A God in Ruins leads to the reader reassessing what has gone before, if not quite to the remarkable extent of that book. But having a character say to Juliet, “‘Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong,’” when the reader is doing just that, is over-egging it a bit, even as an authorial nod and wink.

Pedant’s corner:- “there were a number of files” (there was a number,) maw (it’s a stomach, it can’t swallow anything,) “from whence” (whence means ‘from where’ so ‘from whence’ means ‘from from where’,) “foraged from War Office” (from the War Office,) prime minister (Prime Minister,) imposter (I prefer the spelling impostor,) “the air fields” (airfields,) “MI5 were always bringing fifth-columnists in, questioning them..” (MI5 was always… .)

Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant

Virago, 1986, 461 p plus ix p Introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald. First published

 Salem Chapel cover

Salem Chapel is the only dissenting place of worship in Carlingford. New Minister Arthur Vincent has come from Lonsdale to take over from old Mr Tufton. The congregation has been largely approving. One day, though, Vincent sees Lady Western – a dowager who is younger than her step-daughter-in-law – on a visit to Mrs Hilyard, and his head is turned, despite her being an adherent of the Church of England. His parishioners would much prefer he has nothing to do with such people, though the Chapel’s senior deacon’s daughter, Phoebe Tozer, is also thought to be a bit above herself in setting her cap at him.

Mrs Hilyard is living in reduced circumstances and on a pastoral visit to her Vincent finds her background convoluted, not to mention melodramatic. She prevails on him to put her daughter into the care of Vincent’s mother and sister in Lonsdale, without quite explaining the need. In the meantime Vincent’s sister, Susan, is being wooed by a Mr Fordham. The reader senses immediately there is something awry about the relationship. This gentleman is indeed the villain of the piece, and has used Fordham’s name to disguise himself. His connection to Mrs Hilyard and abduction of her daughter from Lonsdale when Vincent’s mother is visiting her son in Carlingford provide the motor for a rather lurid sub-plot.

Oliphant was obviously a keen observer of the politics of a parish and congregation. Vincent’s lack of enthusiasm for visiting and cups of tea had already been looked on askance but his distraction by the plight of his sister (which has to be kept as secret as possible) and the necessity of seeking her whereabouts lead to dissatisfaction in his congregation at his regular absences and eventually a call for his resignation. A resounding speech by Mr Tozer at the meeting to decide on this rouses all but a few in his defence.

It’s a perfectly respectable example of the nineteenth century novelist’s art but, overall, has that era’s tendency to wordiness, exacerbated here by descriptions like “the Nonconformist,” “the young Dowager” and “the worthy deacon” instead of the character’s name, not to mention a tendency to end a clause – or even a sentence – with a preposition. It might make a decent televisual alternative to the usual Austen remakes, however.

Pedant’s corner:- the Miss Hemmings (the Misses Hemming,) the Miss Wodehouses (the Misses Wodehouse,) “and stanch to her chapel” (staunch,) syren (siren,) stupified (stupefied,) “if there are Squire Thornhills” (strictly, Squires Thornhill,) sen- sations (in the middle of a line? sensations,) “were worthy the occasion” (usually ‘were worthy of the occasion,) “ a mistake unworthy a philosophic observer” (usually ‘unworthy of a’,) “in his behalf” (usually ‘on his behalf’,) villany (usually villainy,) “when the gray morning began to drawn” (dawn.) “‘Where you not afraid, Susan?’” (Were you not,) “‘These sort of people’” (ought to be ‘sorts of people’ but it was in dialogue,) rung the bell (rang,) a missing quotation mark at the resumption of a piece of direct speech. “‘The doctor is is very good.’” (only one ‘is’ required.) “Vincent had rising hurriedly” (had risen hurriedly,) hooping-cough (whooping cough.)

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Fourth Estate, 2011, 442 p.

Half of a Yellow Sun  cover

This won the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 2007. It perhaps had a head start in the judges’ deliberations dealing, as it does, with those perennial literary biggies, love, sex and death. I suppose, if you treat them at all carefully and with facility, as Adichie does, you can’t go far wrong. Add in the fact this also has central to its background the Nigerian-Biafran War then a degree of attention was almost guaranteed. But Adichie was of course exploring her country’s history, what is still a raw wound to her parents’ generation and her own. That too is a time-honoured literary preoccupation.

Sensitivity is an essential condition of worthiness, however, and what elevates Half of a Yellow Sun to the status of a worthy prize winner is the writing and characterisation. Any gory scenes are not gratuitous – indeed most of the deaths here occur off the page, though their aftermaths do not.

Narration duties are divided between Ugwu, houseboy to academic mathematician Odenigbo, Olanna Ozobia (Odenigbo’s lover,) and Richard Churchill, an Englishman who fell in love with Igbo-Ukwu art and then with Olanna’s non-identical twin sister Kainene.

The structure is unusual, two parts set in the early sixties and two late in the decade, but they are not sequential as they appear in the order early, late, early, late, so that we have the unusual literary device of the opposite of foreshadowing (aftshadowing?) when in the first ‘late’ part it is obvious something has occurred to cause a rift between the two couples – we can guess what but it is not actually shown to us until the second of the ‘early’ parts. (In that sense, since it is revealed to us later in our reading experience, it was a kind of foreshadowing after all.)

Richard learns Igbo and comes to identify himself with the people and with Biafra: so much so that he sends back despatches to editors in London explaining the Biafran view and the nature of Britain’s responsibility for the Igbos’ plight and complicity in Biafra’s isolation. (Only six countries ever recognised the republic.) Richard’s message is, of course, ignored and he is asked to provide pieces about how feckless Africans are. A running theme of the novel is the Biafran characters’ blaming Britain for its part in the genesis of the war (divide and conquer policies in colonial times exacerbating differences) and its continuation (via arms sales to Nigeria.) It seems the kwashiorkor which blighted starving children in Biafra was dubbed Harold Wilson disease.

The war for the most part is offstage – apart from the necessity of Odenigbo and Olanna to move house to grimmer and grimmer locations – but when it does impinge it is shocking in its suddenness and arbitrariness. Even through all their peregrinations Olanna still tries to teach children in her surroundings. It is in these scenes we (re?)learn the symbology of the Biafran flag; red for the blood of Igbo massacred in the north, black for mourning them, green for the prosperity Biafra would have and the half of a yellow sun for the glorious future. The descent into brutality of soldiers ill-equipped to fulfil their military function but still with the means to exert their will is seen through the eyes of Ugwu, conscripted simply by dint of being out on the street. There is the odd glint of humour in that Nigerian soldiers are always referred to as vandals. The effects of Nigerian bombing and blockade are brought home when condensed milk, a slender tin of Ovaltine and a packet of salt from a Red Cross package seem luxurious. The mounds of food available in the markets when the war ends seem to have fallen from the sky. The bitterness of defeat after so many years of assured victory is conveyed when, “she … realized how odd it felt to say they won, to voice a defeat she did not believe. Hers was not a feeling of having been defeated; it was one of having been cheated.”

Occasional very short extracts from a book written after the war and titled “The World Was Silent When We Died,” comment on Biafra’s situation. Richard reflects on the selfishness of writers, “He had read somewhere that, for true writers, nothing was more important than their art, not even love.”

Their art, though. That’s a precious thing.

Pedant’s corner:- spit (spat, there were the other odd USianisms and US spellings scattered through the book, like ‘shit’ as a past tense; it should be ‘shat’,) a missing comma before a quote, Wentnor (Ventnor? But it is repeated so Adichie clearly intended it,) “for goodness’ sake” (either ‘for goodness’s sake’ or ‘for goodness sake’, please,) Jesus’ name (Jesus’s name.) “‘I flew in relief to the Warsaw Ghetto’” (were there any relief flights by Swedish aristocrats to the Warsaw Ghetto? I doubt the Germans would have looked on that with favour and would also have made it far too dangerous. To Berlin in the airlift, perhaps?) “Some women who ,had been walking along the road ran too, ” (‘Some women, who had been walking along the road, ran too’,) “all Biafran University staff was to report” (all staff were to report. Staff here is plural.)

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children of the Dead-End by Patrick MacGill

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

Children of the Dead End cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Canongate, 2012, 349 p.

The Garden of Evening Mists cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame

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

 The Lantern Bearers cover

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

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

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

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

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

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Bloomsbury, 2017, 354 p

 Lincoln in the Bardo cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

free hit counter script