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Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1982, 233 p. First published 1817.

 Northanger Abbey cover

This is Austen’s first novel in order of writing, but the sixth to be published. It is certainly a lighter read than Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice but it is refreshing too in that its content is not over-familiar, not having been adapted to death for film and television in the way others of her works have.

From the outset it adopts a more satirical tone than those two books, seems to have a more acid eye to cast on polite society. It was Austen’s commentary on the sort of gothic novel which was seen as trifling, probably thought to be fit only for women to read.

It could even be said to be meta-fictional in that it addresses the reader directly, comments on itself (and on the attitudes of characters in novels to the reading of novels as somehow being unworthy,) while the narrator castigates her fellow novelists for their disparagement of their craft and enumerates the iniquities of reviewers but the overall story arc follows the pattern of romantic fiction.

Heroine Catherine Morland’s mother “had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on.” Catherine herself is said to be as plain as any – no one “would have supposed her born to be a heroine” – seemingly with no outstanding qualities at all. Catherine’s fairly restricted life is opened up when she is asked to accompany the Allens on a trip to Bath for a few weeks’ stay. Here we have the vacuousness of trips to the Pump Room, the tedium of balls where the attendee knows no-one, either to converse or to dance with but soon enough Catherine falls into the orbit of Isabella Thorpe, the object of Catherine’s brother James’s affections, and Isabella’s brother, John, one of those men who insist on their own plans being followed, and who quickly takes it into his head that he and Catherine have formed an attachment. However, Catherine’s attentions soon lock onto Henry Tilney, via his sister Eleanor, and she is at pains to disabuse Isabella of any attraction to John.

It is past, though, the middle of the book before we come to Northanger Abbey, the Tilney’s residence, to where Henry and Eleanor’s father, the Colonel, invites Catherine. Her fascination with old architecture, coloured as it is by her slightly lurid imaginings (derived from gothic novels, naturally) ensures she is almost as delighted at the prospect of seeing Northanger Abbey as she is at prolonged contact with the Tilney siblings.

As fits Austen’s satirical intent, elements from the gothic (there are frequent references to the novel referred to as Udolpho) intrude at various points but while she has Catherine wondering about the appearance and contents of the room she is given at Northanger Abbey, what secrets it might conceal, and having all sorts of unworthy thoughts about Colonel Tilney related to the death of his wife or the possibility that she remains alive and sequestered, Austen draws back from excess. Given the milieu it is of course necessary that the path of true love does not run smooth – not for James as Isabella’s inconstancy is revealed, nor for Catherine when the Colonel is informed that she is not as ideal a match for his son as he had been led to believe.

There are Austenisms such as, “A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can,” to please the aficionados and an aside on men’s indifference to a new gown (or indeed any new clothing) on a woman. What the book demonstrates beyond anything else though, is the importance of money and prospects to the society Austen portrays.

Modern sensibilities might be offended by John Thorpe’s observation that the Colonel is, “as rich as a Jew.”

Pedant’s corner:- “the Miss Thorpes” (x 2, the Misses Thorpe,) “Miss Thorpe’s, progress” (no comma needed,) by the bye (I prefer ‘by the by’,) “her acquaintance with the Tilney’s” (with the Tilneys,) a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, another before the start of one, “in the general” (in the General, several instances of General with a lower case ‘g’,) “the Lady Frasers” (strictly, the Ladies Fraser,) “the whole family were immediately at the window” (the whole family was immediately at the window,)

The Rector and The Doctor’s Family by Mrs Oliphant

Chronicles of Carlingford. Virago, 1993, 196 p, plus xii p Introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald.

 The Rector and The Doctor’s Family  cover

Being two shorter works The Rector, not even novella length, and the more substantial The Doctor’s Family.

In The Rector, the old Rector (profoundly Low Church, “lost in the deepest abysses of Evangelicalism”) has died. Mr Proctor – Fellow of All-Souls Oxford – has come to replace him but finds the practice of ministry very different from the academic life he has left. When his aged mother joins him she divines instantly that at least one of the churchwarden’s two daughters will be “intended” for him. He is terrified and reflects, “But have not women been incomprehensible since ever there was in this world a pen with sufficient command of words to call them so? …. And is it not certain that …. every soul of them is plotting to marry somebody? …. Who could fathom the motives of a woman?” Meanwhile his mother, “watched him as women do often watch men, waiting till the creature should come to itself again and might be spoken to.” That fear, combined with Mr Proctor’s total inability to cope with the needs of a dying parishioner and the demands of sociability lead him to reconsider his position.

The Doctor’s Family.
Dr Edward Rider, not the pre-eminent physician in Carlingford – that would be Dr Marjoribanks – has the medical care of the less well-off of Carlingford society. His only burden is that of his waster of a brother Fred, back from the colonies under a cloud, indolent to a fault and an almost permanent resident in an easy-chair. Two ladies arrive at the door one day and Edward is astonished to find that Fred has a wife, Susan – and three more or less uncontrolled children – come over from Australia with Susan’s sister Nettie, who in turn has just about the means to support them. Nettie is the practical one, arranging lodgings for the ensemble in St Roques’s cottage, and undertaking all the work of the household. Edward becomes enamoured of Nettie, but her sense of duty to her sister’s family is so strong that she will not contemplate leaving them for anything.

It is reasonably clear from Edward’s first encounter with Nettie where all this will be going. There are of course minor complications to the narrative, a potential rival for Nettie’s affections in the person of the permanent curate of St Roques’s church, a tentative leaning towards Miss Marjoribanks while Edward works through his irritation at Nettie’s refusal of his own, but even when Fred dies, drowned in a canal after a night in the pub, Nettie will not abandon her duty. Only the entrance of Richard Chatham, another Australian, (un)distinguished by a luxuriant beard – not common in Carlingford in those days, only Mr Lake has such an affectation and his is very much subdued by comparison – changes the dyamic.

Oliphant’s style is wordy, she was a nineteenth century novelist after all, but her eye for the human heart, for its predicaments, is sure.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction, a missing comma before a quote of direct speech, and one missing at the end of such a quote, Freddie (x 2; the text has Freddy,) “between man and women” (men and women.) Otherwise; “the two Miss Woodhouses” (several times; the two Misses Woodhouse,) “‘It did not use to be’” (used to be,) St Roques’ (St Roques’s.)

Adrift on the Nile by Naguib Mahfouz

Anchor Books, 1994, 172 p. Translated from the Arabic, Thartharah Fawq al Nīl, by Frances Liardet.

 Adrift on the Nile cover

This novel features a group of friends who regularly meet in the evening on a houseboat on the River Nile to talk about the issues of the day but mainly to smoke kif through a water-pipe.

The viewpoint starts off as that of Anis Zaki, a civil servant with troubles at work and whose wife and daughter died many years previously. Anis’s mind can wander and he has occasional illusions – of the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid, of a whale in the Nile, of conversing with the pharaoh Thutmose III. Sometimes, however, the narrative focus shifts to something more objective.

Others of the company are Ahmad Nasr, notoriously faithful to his wife; Mustafa Rashid, a well-known lawyer; Ali al-Sayid, a famous art critic; Khalid Azzuz, a writer; Ragab al-Qadi, the group’s womaniser in chief. Women are not excluded; Layla Zaydan, a translator, is introduced to new members as “beautiful and cultured” not least in that her golden hair is real, not a wig, while Saniya Kamil turns up whenever her husband has committed an indiscretion. The houseboat is looked after by general factotum Amm Abduh, huge in stature, who mostly keeps himself to himself but when summoned will refresh the water-pipe. As well as making the call-to-prayer at the local mosque he will procure street girls for the members. The group’s female members, despite occasionally spending the night in rooms on the boat, are contrasted to the street girls in that, “‘they are respectable ladies,’” the rationale being, “‘They don’t sell themselves. They give and take, just like men.’”

The text is mostly dialogue, there is not much of a plot here. There is some disquiet one evening when Ragab appears with the teenage Sana al-Rashidi, a student; even more when journalist Samara Barghat arrives, the object of suspicion due to her calling (possibly not unjustified suspicion, revealed when Anis takes the opportunity to rummage in her handbag one evening and filches a notebook which contains a scenario and characters for a play – all based on the houseboat’s habituees.) The only incident occurs on a car journey out of the city, to which Anis had only reluctantly acceded, when, travelling too fast on their return, they hit a pedestrian. But all agree to keep quiet about it.

By showing us a slice of middle-class Egyptian life in the 1960s (when the book was first published in Arabic,) Adrift on the Nile reveals the uneasy connection between Egypt’s past and its then present by subtle indirection.

Pedant’s corner:- Translated into USian (except handbag and purse are used in the British sense.) Anis’ (Anis’s, many instances,) “is a that any description” (no ‘a’,) protozoan (protozoon,) “‘people who will praise you work’” (your work.)

The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker

Virago, 1986, 286 p. (This novel is also known as Liza’s England.)

The Century's Daughter cover

Stephen is a social worker, troubled by the youths down at what passes for the local centre, and also by his parents who are uncomfortable with (or in his mother’s case unaware of) his homosexuality. He is assigned to Liza Jarrett, an old woman living with a parrott called Nelson (whom she inherited from a pub landlord when the pub closed down) in a terraced house scheduled for demolition but which she is unwilling to give up. Liza was born on the stroke of midnight at 1899’s turn into 1900 and dubbed ‘Daughter of the Century’ by the local newspaper, a clipping of which her father was very proud. This made her one of that generation who lost brothers in one war and sons in the next. The novel is, though, more a tale of female resilience in and around that century’s defining landmarks (which it deals with only tangentially, even if their repercussions impact mightily on Liza’s life.) It intersperses Liza’s memories with Stephen’s experiences in the present as he comes to appreciate her and her determination to make the best of things, to fend for herself, to depend on nobody, and, with its present being the 1980s, illuminates the passing of a sense of community, of worth, “‘that’s where it all went wrong you know. It was all money. You’d’ve thought we had nowt else to offer. But we did. We had a way of life, a way of treating people.’”

There is some ground here to which Barker would return in her Regeneration trilogy (in particular the Great War and its munitions workers known as canaries.) While it tends to the bleak there are some moments of wry humour. At Stephen’s dad’s funeral, “‘It’s like a wedding in there,’ Stephen said. ‘No it isn’t,’ said Christine. Weddings aren’t that cheerful.’”

This was Barker’s third novel and while the characterisation is good her writing had not quite yet attained the maturity it would display later. The story is engaging though and Liza’s life reflects the stoicism of the women of her generation and class not often exhibited in fiction with the novel overall a threnody for a lost solidarity.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) wrack and ruin (OK, it’s a legitimate alternative but to me wrack is a seaweed, so, rack and ruin), minaly (mainly,) “from his dying from his dying body” (only one ‘from his dying’ needed.) “Most of the crowd were young” (Most of the crowd was young.)

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Naomi Mitchison

The Traveller’s Library, 1928, 348 p.

Cloud Cuckoo Land cover

This contains a dedication which I would have thought to be quite daring for the 1920s, “To my lover.”

The book is set during the Pelopponesian War, starting off on the island of Poieëssa in the Aegean Sea. Here young Alxenor is caught between the wishes of his brother, Euripaides, to support Sparta against the island’s overlord Athens, and those of Chromon, the brother of the girl he likes, Moiro, in favour of the democrats. When the revolt aganist Athens comes, Alxenor is only able to save Moiro with the help of a Spartan, Leon and find she ha smade an enemy of Chromon. He and Moiro flee to Athens where he is taken in by Theramenes, a trader, and marries Moiro. He is only able to make money by enlisting as a rower on one of Theramenes’s triremes but it is never enough and he and Moiro live more or less hand-to-mouth, even when they have a son, Timas. Moiro is pregnant again when Alxenor has to make another sailing trip and he advises her to keep the new child if it’s a boy or else expose it (in the Greek way) if it is a girl. It’s a girl and his wishes are followed by the household. Thereafter things between Moiro and Alxenor are broken and he takes care not to make her pregnant again.

On one of Alxenor’s trips he receives news that Sparta’s navy has defeated that of Athens at Aegospotami and the fall of the city becomes a foregone conclusion. Thus it is that Alxenor and his family end up in Sparta at the household of Leon’s cousin where Moiro has an affair with Leon and the inevitable happens. Her loyal slave attempts to get rid of the child but it goes wrong and Moiro dies. Here the Spartans offer to bring up Timas as one of their own. Alxenor is willing at first but another non-Spartan who is undergoing the same training as intended for Timas secretly warns him not to allow it. He and Timas make their escape and head for Poieëssa.

This is another illustration of Mitchison’s clear love for ancient times as in The Corn King and the Spring Queen and Travel Light (and also Blood of the Martyrs.) Her knowledge of the times and customs shines through but I would perhaps have enjoyed this more if I’d had a wider knowledge of the Pelopponesian war than merely that it was a contest between Athens and Sparta.

As a novel, though, this has a peculiar ending in that it doesn’t seem to have a conclusion. It just stops. And I still can’t quite see in what context the title Cloud Cuckoo Land is apposite.

Pedant’s corner:- Theramenes’ (Theramenes’s. All names ending in ‘s’ in this book are treated similarly, though,) shrunk (x 2, shrank,) “he dare not” (past tense, dared not,) “none of the Spartans were back” (none … was back,) slipt (archaic spelling of slipped – or is it Scots?) “two fellow-servants of Isadas’ went” (doesn’t need that apostrophe after Isadas,) “wouldn’t leave go” (wouldn’t let go.) “None of them were …” (None of them was… .) mistress’ (mistress’s,) sunk (sank.) T S Elliot (in a chapter epigraph. T S Eliot.) “‘Aren’t I ever going back’” (Please. ‘Amn’t I ever going back?’)

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin, 1991, 236 p, plus xviii p Introductory essay by Mary McCarthy and 12 p Index.

 Pale Fire   cover

On the face of it an exploration of the last work of a recently murdered US poet, John Shade of Wordsmith College, New Wye, Appalachia, with a foreword by the narrator, Charles Kinbote, the poem itself and the narrator’s commentary on it, Pale Fire (that poem’s title as well as this novel’s) is actually something else again. Or several things again.

The foreword gives the narrator’s account of how the poem was written (on eighty index cards) and how he came to be in charge of both its editing and publication but also provides hints of the shifting ground the text in front of the reader embodies. Kinbote’s relationship with Shade and his wife Sybil (names here tend to the symbolic,) is not particularly friendly; Kinbote comes across as something of a stalker and voyeur. Other academics’ doubts about the poem or its significance are dismissed as nonsense. Kinbote slips in references to his origins in the country of Zembla and his translations of previous Shade poems into Zemblan. That Kinbote lives in a house rented from a Professor Goldsworth – also of Wordsmith College – rings bells to a Spoonerist (compare Wordsworth and Goldsmith, noted poets.) In this section Kinbote suggests his commentary ought to be read before Shade’s poem. Perhaps I should have taken that advice but I doubt it makes much difference. The book seemed to read perfectly well in the printed order and the poem is comprehensible enough on its own in any case.

The poem itself, in four Cantos of two different lengths but symmetrical overall, amounting to 999 lines – each an iambic pentameter – is comprised of rhyming couplets but never at any time reduces to doggerel. Kinbote asserts the poem is actually 1000 lines long, as its first was also to be its last but was never written down. (For the symmetry, it would have to be.)

The meat of the book is in the commentary, though, where Kinbote’s conviction that he supplied Shade with the idea for his poem with his reminiscences of Zembla becomes increasingly hard to credit, mixed up as it is with his potted history of Zembla and its last king, Charles the Beloved, its revolution and the king’s unlikely escape though an underground passage used by his grandfather for illicit liaisons with an actress in the theatre where she performed. Kinbote parallels the writing of the poem to and with the journey from Zembla to the US of Jakob Gradus, a gunman hired by the new Zemblan regime’s secret police to kill the king. Gradus is also known as Jacques d’Argus, Jacques Derges and Jack Grey. This last is the name Shade’s killer, an escapee from a lunatic asylum, gave to the police. Through it all Kinbote, whose name is more likely Botkin, a refugee from Zembla teaching in the Russian Department at Wordsmith’s, gradually reveals his true identity as that last king (or, at least, of his belief in that identity) and that he was the intended target of the gunman. But even his account of the shooting is suspect, as the two witnesses, Gradus and a gardener who intervened to restrain him, recall things differently in later statements to the police. Nabokov is not only presenting us with an unreliable narrator but also an unreliable commentator.

Perhaps I ought to mention that at one point Kinbote relays to us Shade’s disquisition on the use of the word “coloured” to refer to “negroes.”

Mary McCarthy’s essay calls the book, “a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé egg, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat and mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit.” It is all of these and more. Pale Fire is an astonishing feat of construction. An intellectual maze, a hall of distorting mirrors, but still utterly readable. A portrait of an unhinged mind convinced it is entirely rational, a fillip to those who delight in the use of such words as pudibundity, fatidic and inenubilable (even if they have to look them up.) Food for the mind, if not quite the heart.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introductory essay; Gradus’ (Gradus’s.) For some of the others I wasn’t sure these were real typos or indications that Kinbote was deranged: sleezy (sleazy,) “another boy, another boy” (why the repetition?) “the harmonies hiving in the man” (hiving?) Keats’ (Keats’s,) momento (memento,) demolishment (demolition, but this was in dialogue,) John Slade (Shade,) sprung (sprang,) “harebreath escapes” (hairsbreadth escapes,) confusely (confusedly,) hoplessness (hopelessness,) Ukranian (Ukrainian,) remindful (reminiscent,) ginko (ginkgo.)

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Leather-bound. Collins Clear-Type Press, 1953? (No date was given but the book contains stills from the 1939 film starring Laurence Olivier,) 373 p. Originally published in 1847.

 Wuthering Heights cover

Approaching a classic like this is an odd experience, as it trails a cloud of expectations. I was led to believe it to be a great love story. It isn’t. There is very little evidence in the text of a grand passion between Catherine (Earnshaw as was) and Heathcliff, only a close mutual regard through childhood companionship. She marries someone else, Edgar Linton, apparently quite happily. So does Heathcliff, of course, but that is purely to spite Edgar (who never made any secret of his disregard for Heathcliff) by ensnaring his sister.

The book’s reputation also carries something of the uncanny and indeed it starts with a Gothic touch as Mr Lockwood stops for the night at Wuthering Heights with its strange occupants and we look to be set for a ghost story with Lockwood sleeping in a room where he hears the voice and feels the presence of the long-dead Catherine outside the window. Yet apart from Edgar Linton’s propensity for sitting by Catherine’s grave for hours on end this aspect of the weird is dropped for the entirety of the novel until the last few pages where Heathcliff says he believes spirits live on after death. (And then we have the last line about “unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”)

I was troubled early on by the unexamined – and class-ridden – assumption that because Heathcliff was a foundling and as a child brutish in appearance, he must therefore be brutish in fact. (Another writer once reminded us, “there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” after all.) True, Heathcliff’s later behaviour is abhorrent beyond belief but, apart from Edgar Linton’s dislike, Brontë makes little or none of the case that others’ attitudes to him might have conspired to make his character so. After all, Catherine sees something in him. Then again, without his dark character there would have been no story.

In common with many nineteenth century novels the book is to modern eyes wordy and over-written. Also, its structure is overly convoluted. Supposedly narrated by Mr Lockwood, much of the story is relayed to us second-hand through servant Nelly Dean’s recounting (and sometimes even third hand as she tells Lockwood what Catherine Linton has said to her.)

The resolution is rather sudden and, it might be said, convenient. In addition, Catherine Linton’s accommodation with Hareton Earnshaw appears too quick. Even the title is something of a misnomer. Many of the scenes of the story take place in Thrushcross Grange. But that name does not have the Gothic attraction of the gloomy, allusive, adjective “wuthering”.

Pedant’s corner:- “pushed passed” (past,) an occasional missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “‘if I wished any blessing in the world, is was to find him’” (in the world, it was to find him,) “she learned also than her secret visits were to end” (also that her secret visits,) skurrying (scurrying,) “what inmates their were” (there were.)

The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne

A Tale of the Pacific Ocean.

EriK Publishing, 2017, 239 p. First published 1858. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Coral Island cover

When I first saw this on the list of 100 best Scottish books I wondered if I had read it in my youth. Reading it now (which I would not have done were it not on the list) its contents struck absolutely no bells in my memory.

This is a tale narrated by Ralph Rover of three cheery lads; himself, the older Jack Martin and the younger Peterkin Gay, and their life after shipwreck on the coral island of the title, a place with bountiful food, not only cocoa-nuts, bread-fruit, yams, taro, plums and potatoes, but also pigs and ducks and of course fish. Their ingenuity and resourcefulness (not, what with all that bounty, do they really need them much) allow them to lead a happy life until it is disrupted first by the descent on their shores by South Sea natives at war with each other (one side whom our heroes naturally get the better of, the other side then becoming free to return to their home) then by pirates. Ralph falls into the latter’s hands and is transported across and around the Pacific islands before eventually finding his way back to rescue Mark and Peterkin.

The book is of course riddled with the cultural assumptions of the time in which it was written. A flavour of this is given when Peterkin asserts of potential black inhabitants, very early on when the three don’t know what exactly they will find, “‘Of course we’ll rise, naturally, to the top of affairs: white men always do in savage countries.’” (Those sensitively disposed should note the text contains one instance of the word “niggers” and that is put into the mouth of a pirate.)

Much play is made of this “savagery” and of the cannibalism of the region’s as yet unconverted natives as contrasted with Ralph’s intermittent piety (after he lost his Bible in the shipwreck.) To a man – and woman – the natives are redeemed, civilised and instantly ennobled by the adoption of Christianity. The more, though, that the text insisted that those tales of cannibalism and savagery are true the more I came to resist the thought. In any case, the savagery displayed was no more than the pirates are shown to be capable of.

Reunited, the three set off to aid one of the native women of the freed warring party whose chief Ralph had become aware was refusing to allow her to marry whom she pleased and now threatened to kill her. That chief is much displeased when they turn up and soon imprisons them. The book ends with an almost literal deus ex machina as the three are saved by the conversion of their captor by a missionary.

The Coral Island is not the shipwreck on a deserted island ur-text – that would be Robinson Crusoe – but with its depiction of pirates it clearly had an influence on Treasure Island and Peter Pan and its suffocating certainties apparently festered in William Golding’s head and led to its antithesis in Lord of the Flies. That it holds such a position is the only possible reason to include it in a list of 100 best books. In terms of literary merit or insight into the human condition it belongs nowhere near one.

Pedant’s corner:- Both the cover and the title page bear the words “with illustrations by the author.” None were to be found inside. Otherwise; contains mid-nineteenth century spellings – cocoa-nuts, sewed, etc. Otherwise; occasional omissions of commas before pieces of direct speech, ricochetting, (ricocheting,) maw (it’s not a mouth,) “signed to several of attendants” (of his attendants,) “seized Jack and Peterkin and violently by the collars” (doesn’t need that second ‘and’.)

Slade House by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2016, 236 p, plus 32 p of the Bombadil Tweets.

 Slade House cover

Slade House, accessed from Slade Alley (itself dank and narrow, with a bend, and easy to miss from its connecting streets) through a small iron door in the wall, which appears only once every nine years. Slade House, bombed to rubble in 1940 and its grounds built over since, yet still able to effect the disappearance of Rita and Nathan Sharp in 1979, Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds in 1988, Sally Timms along with her paranormal investigation group in 1997 and then her sister Freya in 2006. Slade House, on whose walls certain visitors will find portraits of themselves and whose stairs lead only back to whence you came. Slade House, inhabited by Norah and Jonah Grayer (who can both take up all sorts of appearances, inhabit others’ bodies,) adepts of the Shaded Way from whom they wish to keep themselves hidden. Slade House, wrapped in an orison. (The word means prayer but the Grayers have adopted it to describe a bubble out of time.) The later sections tend to invoke Fred Pink, who saw both the Sharps outside Slade Alley just before he was hit by a car and went into a coma. Trying to fill in the gaps in his life years later he recognised the Sharps in newspaper photos from the time.

Mitchell’s story – an off-cut of his previous novel The Bone Clocks – is narrated in five sections by Nathan, Gordon, Sally and Freya as they make their visits, with the final section (set in 2015) from the viewpoint of someone calling himself Bombadil (whose uploads to Twitter from Monday 7th September to Saturday 31st October, 2015, act as an appendix to the book) but whose body has been taken over by Norah. Five different narrative styles, six if you include the tweets. Each internally consistent and – until the strange stuff begins to happen – realistic in tone.

In the guise of Pink and much to Norah’s dismay Jonah Grayer reveals to Freya they were Victorian twins with telepathic ability, taken under the wing of a medium called Cantillon who hustled them off to the Atlas Mountains for tutoring in the Shaded Way by the Albino Sayyid of Aït Arif, toured them round the world, then went too far by proposing to reveal their secrets in a book. Their longevity has been ensured by enticing ‘Engifted’ to Slade House and stealing their souls, a process which needs topping up every nine years. Mitchell’s facility with fantasy and SF is underscored by reference to the Midwich Cockoos among others.

As ever Mitchell is totally in command of his material and the read is never less than entertaining. There is a sense, though, of marking time, of promise unfulfilled. Perhaps it’s unreasonable, though, to expect another The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Pedant’s corner:- “Wolverhampton Wanderers play in black and orange” (black and gold in fact. Orange and black, though, recur as a motif in the book,) occasional missing commas before pieces of direct speech, liquified (liquefied,) lasagna (lasagne,) Tinker Bell (x4, Tinkerbell,) smidgeon (smidgin or smidgen,) Timms’ (x2, Timms’s.)

The Use of Man by Aleksandar Tišma

faber and faber, 1990, 346 p. Translated from the Serbo-Croat Употреба човека (Upotreba čoveka) (Nolit Belgrade, 1980) by Bernard Johnson.

The Use of Man cover

At first this book appears to have an odd structure, starting as it does with a description of Fräulein Anna Drentvenšek’s diary, as if this is to be her tale, but she is soon dead following a gall-bladder operation. Then Chapter 2 is devoted solely to descriptions of various habitations. In addition there are later chapters which deal only with descriptions of characters, or their nightly preoccupations, or their deaths – whether natural or violent.

Fräulein Drentvenšek, however, was a teacher of German and her services were much sought after in the then Yugoslavian city of Novi Sad. In her final hospital days she entrusted her diary to her Jewish pupil Vera Kroner, with instructions to burn it after she died but instead Vera inscribed it with the details of Anna’s death before replacing it on Anna’s shelves. The book is thereafter mainly concerned with the lives of four of Anna’s pupils, Vera, Milinko Božić, Sredoje Lazukić and Sep Lehnart. As these events occurred in 1940 the book becomes an exploration of the Yugoslavian experience during the Second World War. There is obvious scope here for a novelistic focus on love, sex and death. The first of those is in short supply here (perhaps it’s a luxury in a time of war and the breaking of nations) but there is plenty of the latter. Whether due to the filter of translation or the author’s own intentions sex, though, is observed in a somewhat detached manner in the book – it’s something people do (or have done to them, in Vera’s case) but never described in any detail nor as a means to joy.

Being Jewish, Vera is of course predestined to the concentration camps, which she survives in the only way one could, by endurance and luck, Sep, her cousin on her non-Jewish mother’s side, joined the SS, Milinko became a partisan, Sredoje a sexual predator. All are changed, after the war unable to settle to a life at odds with dark memories and broken minds or bodies. The utter disorientation which camp survivors must have felt is summed up by Vera’s thought on returning to her childhood home after her experiences, “It was not home at which she arrived, though it was Novi Sad.” And the war’s end is not the story’s, the idiosyncrasies of the new communist regime also have to be negotiated.

The Use of Man is both easy to read (since Tišma writes well,) yet not an easy read. The countries of central Europe and the Balkans have unenviable histories. For readers to explore those histories in fiction might be one of the best ways to prevent their repeat.

Pedant’s corner:- “he like luxury” (liked.) “In their, furnished room” (no need for the comma,) “mount of Venus” (this may be a literal translation but in English it’s ‘mound of Venus’,) heavey (heavy, unless ‘heavey’ is a word meaning ‘having to be dragged’,) a missing comma before, or at the end of, a piece of direct speech (several instances, with more of the former,) teen-agers’ (teenager’s,) “came to nought” (naught,) cozy (cosy,) willd (wild,) “she lost her husband from a bullet” (the English idiom is ‘to a bullet’,) dumfounding (dumbfounding.)

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