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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.)

A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

faber and faber, 2015, 613 p including v p Contents, ii p Aktaş and Karataş family tree, v p Index of characters and vii p Chronology. Translated from the Turkish Kafamda bir tuhaflik by Ekin Orlap.

 A Strangeness in my Mind cover

This is the story of Mevlut Karataş who wanders the streets of Istanbul at night selling boza – a kind of fermented drink concocted so as Turks could believe they were not actually drinking alcohol even though they were – from the panniers hung from the pole across his shoulders. While the narrative is mainly carried by a third person account of Mevlut’s life and thoughts, the viewpoints of many of the individuals connected to Mevlut are interpolated into the text. All of these are written in the first person and introduced by that narrator’s name. Though all the details of Mevlut’s life from his arrival in Istanbul to help his father on his boza rounds, through his prolonged and ultimately unfruitful sojourn at the Atatürk Secondary School for Boys, his years conscripted in the army, the attempts to sell yoghurt, ice cream and cooked rice, the other ventures into employment, cashier in a café, car park guard, electricity inspector – residents of Istanbul seem to have been very creative in the ways they could steal electricity from the supply company – it is his love life which provides the book’s main thrust.

The first chapter depicts the defining incident in Mevlut’s life, and it is as magic realist as you could wish – only not magical at all. For three years Mevlut had been writing letters to Rayiha, a girl whose eyes he had stared into at the wedding of his cousin Korkut. Korkut’s brother Süleyman agrees to help Mevlut elope with Rayiha and arranges the deed. When Mevlut glimpses the girl in the back of Süleyman’s van that night he is bewildered to discover she is not the one he thought he had been writing to. Nevertheless, he marries her, comes to love her and have two daughters with her. Süleyman’s deception, of course, (he had designs on the girl with the eyes, Rayiha’s sister, Sadiha, himself,) has ramifications throughout the book.

Many observations about love are made within the text. Hadji Hamit Vural avows, “‘if you’re going to love a girl as deeply as your brother here … you’ve got to make sure to start loving her after you’re married …… but if you fall in love before that .. and you sit down to discuss the bride price with the girl’s father, then those cunning, crafty fathers will ask you for the moon … Most couples would not fall in love if they got to know each other even just a little bit before getting married …. There is also the kind that happens when two people get married and fall in love after that … and that can only happen when you marry someone you don’t know.’” Süleyman’s later lover Melahat (a stage performer under the name Mahinur Mehrem) lets us know that, “‘I could write a book about all the men I’ve known, and then I would also end up on trial for insulting Turkishness.’”

The changing face of the city into whose nooks and crannies Mevlut wanders plying his wares and the evolution of Turkish life become major themes, with the political ups and downs a background never fully occupying Mevlut’s mind; but a sense of the role played by emphasising the nation is never far away, “in this night, pure and everlasting, like an old fairy tale, being Turkish felt infinitely better than being poor.”

The more you read Pamuk the more it becomes clear that his real subject, his true love, is Istanbul; though Turkishness in the wider sense is also important and affairs of the heart never far away. Here Mevlut’s friend Ferhat tells us that, “What makes city life so meaningful is the things we hide.” Pamuk’s œuvre has probed into those hidden places – more so in A Strangeness in my Mind as his previous books have tended to concentrate more on middle class Istanbul, whereas here our hero (as Pamuk refers to Mevlut several times, this is a knowing type of narration) is one of those for whom getting on in the world has always been difficult, he does not know enough of the right people, never accumulates sufficient capital to become affluent.

Again in a Pamuk novel set in modern times there is an acute consciousness of football, but here no hint of anyone called Orhan Pamuk. If Istanbul itself were not enough, allusions to a journalist character from The Black Book would tie this novel in with previous works.

Through all his modern novels – and arguably in those set in historical times – Pamuk has been picking away at the threads of Turkish life, the tensions between religion and the secular sphere, the restrictions set on the people by political, societal and religious dictats. It is almost possible having read enough Pamuk to feel you know something about Turkey, and especially about Istanbul. This may be a delusion but it’s closer to the truth than those without that experience can ever have.

Pedant’s corner:- no start quotation mark when a chapter begins with a piece of dialogue, shopwindows (shop windows. Is it one word in Turkish?) “enormous billboards that look up one whole side of a six- or seven story [sic] building” (took up makes more sense,) “thirty two liras” (isn’t the plural of lira just ‘lira’? Many instances of liras,) “he would open at random to a page” (‘he would open a page at random’ sounds a more natural construction,) the text refers to Argentina and England being at war, and to ‘English’ ships (that of course should be Britain and British respectively,) occasional omitted commas before and after direct speech, “provide the overhead” (in British English it’s ‘overheads’,) “the lay of all the neighbourhoods” (the lie.)

The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison

Collins, 1968, 190 p. Illustrated by Brian Alleridge.

The Land the Ravens Found cover

This is what may nowadays be called a YA novel. In a long-ago Caithness, still forested, Anlaf, the son of Thorstan the Red, himself son of Anlaf the White, longs to become an adult and go on raids with his father against the indigenous Scots. His future is unutterably altered when, perhaps due to information given to a Scot by one of his family’s thralls his father is killed on an expedition. Wise to the possibility of their new-forged vulnerability being exploited they build a boat and set sail for Iceland, the land the ravens found, where Anlaf’s grandmother, Aud, has kin.

Mitchison builds her story well, the obvious research required being well disguised. Reading this would be a relatively painless way for anyone to learn some history of the Dark Age period and the earliest settlement of Iceland. Particularly well-handled are the tensions between those adherents of the Old Faith and the New (Christianity,) the conventions of Viking society and the relative power women held, but the language is tailored to a young audience. Embedded within it is a prophecy that two of the characters are forebears of the first Europeans to have a child born in the Americas.

On the face of it this would seem to be Anlaf’s story but it is really more that of Aud, Cetil’s daughter. It is her family connections that bring the group to Iceland and her influence that pervades the book.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Doesn’t he knew?’” (know,) prophecying (prophesying,) a missing full stop. In the Postscript; “There are any amount of stories” (There is any amount.)

Shiloh by Shelby Foote

Vintage, 1991, 235 p.

 Shiloh cover

I first became aware of Shelby Foote through Ken Burns’s TV documentary on the US Civil War where his knowledge of the conflict in all its aspects seemed encyclopædic, his recall of incidents from it almost as if he had been there to witness the events himself. Then I found his three-volume narrative history of the war gracing the shelves of bookshops. I hadn’t really realised till I picked this book up that Foote had been a novelist before embarking on that historical venture. Five others of his fictional works are listed herein. It may indeed be fiction but this book could be read as a historical account of the battle of Shiloh with added humanising narrative touches giving personal perspectives on the battle. The tale is told via six points of view (three Confederate, three Yankee) spread over seven chapters, topped and tailed by the account of Lieutenant Palmer Metcalfe, aide de camp to General Sidney Johnston at the start of the battle.
One of the characters quotes an acquaintance as saying, “He said books about war were written to be read by God Almighty, because no one but God ever saw it that way. A book about war, to be read by men, ought to tell what each of the twelve of us saw in our own little corner. Then it would be the way it was – not to God but to us.
I saw what he meant but it was useless talking. Nobody would do it that way. It would be too jumbled. People when they read, and people when they write, want to be looking out of that big Eye in the sky, playing God.”

Foote does do it that way though, and it isn’t too jumbled.

He also brings out the contrast between how the Confederate soldiers thought about the war – as a crusade to build a new country – and the Yankee, simply doing what had to be done, fighting against something rather than for something.

Metcalfe tells us his father, a one-armed veteran of the Mexican War, was of the opinion the South always bore within itself the seeds of defeat, the Confederacy being conceived already moribund, sick from an old malady, incurable romanticism and misplaced chivalry, in love with the past, in love with death and also once told him, ‘War is more shovelry than chivalry.’

Foote voiced a similar sentiment in the Civil War series saying the South could never have won as the North always fought with one hand behind its back. He does, however, show Metcalfe thinking that pluck, élan, sheer force of will, as exemplified here, and in reality, in the person of Nathan Bedford Forrest can weigh more in the balance of fighting. Well, perhaps in one battle but not in a long war.

As far as Shiloh itself goes Metcalfe realizes the battle was lost through its orderly plan which he was so proud of helping create, that the way the Confederate lines were fed into each other resulted in their hopeless intermingling.

This is a superb book, bringing to life a time past and an experience of war which those of us who never had can appreciate and give thanks for missing.

Pedant’s corner:- verbal contractions are routinely given without apostrophes, wouldnt, couldnt, theyd, Ive, thats, its, youd, weren’t, etc, no matter who the narrator is. Exceptions are ‘I’m’, ‘We’ll’ and ‘I’d’. Prentiss’ (Prentiss’s,) Amighty (Almighty.)

The Courilof Affair by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2008, 174 p. Translated from the French L’Affaire Courilof, (Éditions Grasset, 1933,) by Sandra Smith.

The Courilof Affair cover

The narrative here has a prologue set in Nice in the 1920s which acts as a framing device but the subsequent chapters are delivered to us in the form of Léon M’s memoirs. The son of would-be Russian revolutionaries, Léon was brought up in exile, and assigned by the Revolutionary Committee to kill the Russian Education Secretary, Courilof, a notoriously harsh man, known as the Killer Whale. To enable this and to worm himself into Courilof’s household he takes up a position, under the name Marcel Legrand, as Courilof’s physician. At once warming to his charge and disgusted by him, “Legrand” has a ringside seat at the ins and outs of the higher echelons of the pre-revolutionary system, watching Courilof fall from favour as a result of his marriage to his second wife (who has a past) before his restoration following a scandal involving his successor.

Despite Courilof’s elevated position he nevertheless has the capacity to observe, “‘An ordinary man has the right to be greedy, because he knows that otherwise he would starve to death. But these people who have everything – money, friends in high places, property – they never have enough! I just don’t understand it.’” Plus ça change.

This is the only one of Némirovsky’s novels to be set more or less entirely in her native Russia – and (almost certainly non-coincidentally) it is the most concerned with politics and the usage of power. Affairs of the heart are incidental here as it is the wielding of, and manœvring to maintain, influence, and the single-mindedness of those opposing the regime which are the book’s main themes. Léon’s subsequent acts as an instrument of the revolutionary government – a far more implacable proposition than Courilof ever was – are related briefly and quite off-handedly, simply as things that had to be done. Léon’s fall from grace is glossed over, we never quite find out why he ends up living in exile – though we can guess.

This isn’t Némirovsky at the peak of her powers but it is an interesting examination of the mind-set of would-be revolutionaries eager to be seen to be activists (the assassination requires as big an audience as possible) but more in thrall to the idea than the action – as well as, in Courilof, the exigencies of assiduous service to a monarch who doesn’t warrant devotion.

Pedant’s Corner:- “the Pierre and Paul Fortress” (usually Peter and Paul Fortress in English,) hung (hanged, x3, though there was a ‘hanged’ and one of the ‘hung’s on page 168,) Nevsky river, (it’s the Neva river that flows through St Petersburg,) “fishermen ….must have the same feeling as they contemplate their dazzling catch” (catches, surely, since its fishermen, plural,) sterling (as a fish. Is there such a creature?) “A great crowd of people were silently listening to music” (a crowd was silently listening,) Léon as Legrand is referred to in speech as ‘Monsieur Legrand’ (the English would be Mister Legrand, but then back in the day educated Russians spoke French and the speaker thought ‘Legrand’ knew no Russian so would be addressing him in that language,) hiccoughs (hiccups, it’s not – and never has been – a cough of any sort,) “I wanted to lay down right there” (lie down.) In the translator’s Afterword: Camus’ (Camus’s, x2.)

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