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Tim Winton is one of Australia’s best known and most acclaimed writers, having won the Miles Franklin prize for fiction four times (in 1984, 1992, 2002, 2009) as well as a number of other literary awards. Eyrie (20013) is his most recent book.

Tom Keely, at a very low point in his life, has retreated to a seedy apartment at the top of the shabby Mirador high rise block in Freemantle. His wife has thrown him out and he has lost his job as an environmental campaigner for reasons never fully disclosed. He has cut himself off from former friends and acquaintances, tries to avoid his family, and seems to be only interested in finding some sort of oblivion through pills and alcohol. One day he encounters a neighbour, Gemma, who recognises him as someone she knew when they were children. She has clearly had a hard life. She has a young boy with her, Kai, who for some reason catches Keely’s attention. Is his interest in Kai going to be enough to anchor him back in into ordinary day-to-day existence? Or is involvement with Gemma and the boy going to make his situation worse?

Some critics have described this as an ‘almost thriller’, but don’t look for page-turning action. The book is mostly about the ebbs and flows of Keely’s resolve – whether he can even make it down the street for a coffee – let alone contemplate a future. Winton’s plot development is clever, as Keely becomes unintentionally involved in a world outside his experience – and any competence he might have once had. But there is a problem to be solved, and Keely is sort of on a quest to solve it, so I guess it is sort of a thriller. But I think it is more a book about family; his relationship with his mother and sister, his memories of his dead father and his desire to protect Kai are what drive the action. He has ‘no tribe to claim him but family.’ I didn’t understand the end, though.

It’s no coincidence that Keely has been an environmental activist; Winton, though a very private figure, is deeply committed to a number of environmental projects. I suspect Keely’s dystopian vision of Western Australian is also Winton’s: its highest aims are ‘to drill, strip, fill or blast.’ It is ‘the nation’s quarry, China’s swaggering enabler. A philistine giant eager to pass off its good fortune as virtue, quick to explain its short comings as east-coast conspiracies.’ Winton writes wonderfully about landscape, often hot, arid and forbidding, but sometimes majestic, even uplifting. You have to love his description of Fremantle: ‘dazed and forsaken at the rivermouth, the addled wharfside slapper whose good bones showed through despite the ravages of age and bad living … spared only by a century of political neglect. Hunkered in the desert wind, cowering beneath the austral sun.’

Though I find Winton’s writing powerful, I nevertheless had at times to force myself to continue reading. And here I come up against a problem that I know others have had with the book. Keely is not a character I was able to care about. I’m not suggesting that readers should like the subjects of literature – far from it. Obviously we aren’t supposed to like him; he is presented as sunk in his own self-pity. ‘He lacked the gumption to set things right, he was too accustomed to the logic of defeat.’ He knows this is what his mother Doris thinks, though she doesn’t say so. ‘Her view was undoubtedly this: that by now her only son could reasonably be expected to pick himself up amidst the wreckage of his life and make something new happen.’ She thinks he is ‘shopping in despair’s boutiques.’ I’m with Doris. His continually self-destructive behaviour simply got on my nerves. Gemma, however damaged, is at least doing her best. And Keely does try sometimes; he still believes in love, the ‘one shred of faith he wouldn’t let go of.’ I can see there is black humour in some of his stuff-ups. It may be that I am blinded by my own prejudices here. But equally, it may be that Winton has created a character that is predictably feckless to point of caricature. Most reviewers don’t agree with me; this one praises the book for its ‘openness to the abject and unlovable’, and this one, concedes that Winton’s character can be ‘flawed and sometimes exasperating’, but thinks this may make readers ‘care about them more than you should’. Well, it didn’t work that way for me.

There’s a lot more richness to the book than I’ve suggested here, and it is worth reading just for the power of Winton’s writing. There is the extended metaphor of falling – ‘there’s no feeling as sweet as falling’ – the bruised innocence of Kai, the theme of birds, the exploration of the male ego and violence, Keely’s relationship with his dead father – and much more. Maybe I’m talking myself round to liking it ….

It’s probably not surprising that Winton doesn’t have a web-site. You can find some minimal information about him here.

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Stealing Picasso (2009) is Cameron’s sixth novel. It is based on a true story. In 1986, Picasso’s painting The Weeping Woman, recently acquired at great expense by the National Gallery of Victoria, was stolen. Responsibility for the theft was claimed by an unknown group calling themselves ‘the Australian Cultural Terrorists’. The painting was recovered unharmed after an anonymous phone call directed police to a locker in Spencer St railway station. No one was ever charged with the theft. Cameron’s version of the story isn’t so much an imaginative recreation – there’s not enough known about what happened for that – but rather a story about what might, if one looked at the world with the satirical eye of Anson Cameron, have happened.

Harry Broome is a student at the (then) National Gallery School of Art, located in the bowels of the NGV. He is over the moon when a beautiful but enigmatic woman who claims to be an art dealer buys all the paintings in his first exhibition. But might there be more to this than an appreciation of his talent?

We know the bones of the story from what really happened and from the prologue, but Cameron clothes them with a manic cast of characters. There is Turton Pym, a teacher at the school, whose real talent is for airbrushing ‘snarling critters and bare-breasted warrior girls’ onto the fuel tanks of bikies’ Harley Davidsons. There are the bikies themselves – the Stinking Pariahs. There is a crooked property developer who glories in being ‘ethically original’, and the bikies’ lawyer who has become wealthy by ‘keeping the underworld periodically outside jail’. ‘To turn up in court with a lesser defender smacks of carelessness and amateurism, and puts you in a class of crook that precludes you from being invited to participate in big operations around town.’ There’s a gay Michael Jackson impersonator. Then there are the Gallery director, and the Minister for the Arts who approved the purchase of the painting in the first place; he is also the Police Minister. And then of course there’s the mysterious Mireille. Cameron weaves them into a clever enough story of counterfeiting and betrayal. We know from the start what happens to the painting; the interest is in how it happens, and what becomes of these larger than life characters.

Cameron has been described as Australia’s ‘leading comic novelist’. He certainly is having a go at almost everyone, even Picasso. The art world is predictably pretentious, more interested in one-upmanship than art. They despise the general public who come to look at the painting – ‘pear-shaped old people smelling of camphor and wearing hand-knitted cardigans’. Under Turton’s pompous direction, the students strive for ‘mutinous creativity’. Harry himself may or may not have talent, but he becomes entranced by (among other things) ‘the lovely laziness of theft as a means of creating art.’ And he bridles at the fact that ‘arts administrators are gorging themselves on great scads of public cash while the artists live like welfare mothers’. Equally predictably, the bikies are over the top. Their president, Bam Hecker, looks like ‘the kind of blue-eyed Aryan that might run a gang in an American prison’. The other bikies can barely put a sentence together, but he is fully articulate. ‘I like Michael Jackson,’ he says. ‘His shame at being a nigger is righteous and his attempt to escape from that predicament has filled me with admiration.’

Whether or not this is actually funny is another matter. Sometimes it is – especially his use of language – but sometimes I just found both characters and action silly. If there is a continuum of humour, from finely tuned irony to foot-in-the-bucket slapstick comedy, this is at the foot-in-the-bucket end. Everyone in the story is a caricature, and most of what they do is over the top – though I have to admit that the original theft by the Australian Cultural Terrorists was pretty over the top too. My problem with satire is that if everyone is self-interested, gullible, stoned or stupid, how are we to regard acts of generosity and friendship, of which there are some in the story? I guess it comes down to personal preference or even mood.

As well as writing novels, Anson Cameron is a columnist for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, and writes freelance for other organisations like the ABC and Crikey. Try this – and you’ll see that his heart is in the right place. You can read a bit more about him here.

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This memoir, published in 2003, is about two ‘invented countries’: Chile, and the landscape of memory that Allende draws on for writing her fiction. These two invented countries are inextricably intermingled. Allende left Chile after the military coup that brought the dictator General Pinochet to power, and most of her memories are of Chile before the growth of the unrestrained free market capitalism that Pinochet introduced. These memories are necessarily partial and, she says, nostalgic. But along with later experiences, they served as the raw material for a good deal of her fiction. ‘I can’t separate the subject of Chile from my own life,’ she says.

Allende has spent much of her life living outside Chile. Her father was a diplomat, and she was born in Peru. Her ‘stepfather’ – her mother never married her second lover because he couldn’t get a divorce – was also a diplomat, and the family travelled with him to Bolivia and Lebanon. She then returned to live with her grandparents in Chile, but after the coup, fled to Venezuela. Her second marriage was to an American and she now lives in California. ‘It was my destiny to become a vagabond,’ she says, and ‘lacking a land to put down roots in’, she had to anchor herself through her writing.

Allende was born into an upper middle class family, and she is acutely aware of the various social distinctions that operated in Chile at the time. These were based as much on origin – European heritage being valued over local Indian birth – and family connections as on wealth. She paints Chileans as strongly family orientated, somewhat reserved, very religious and socially conservative – though one has to assume that this is a very partial view – which of course she never disputes – as such an electorate would hardly have voted for the socialist President Salvatore Allende. Allende herself was aware of the inequality and hypocrisy of her society, and says she always felt an outsider to it. But initially, she conformed to social expectations, not even thinking of going to university, marrying young and immediately starting a family. She fell into a career as a journalist more or less by accident.

Allende’s radicalisation seems to have come as much from her sense of the injustice of women’s unequal place in Chilean society as from a belief in class warfare. She was, she says, a feminist before she knew the word for it. She felt she was a prisoner in a rigid system of male machismo, the power of the Catholic Church and social convention. Soon she was using her position as a journalist and TV presenter to promote a feminist agenda – a radical stance in socially rigid Chile. Although she doesn’t talk much about her part in Chilean political life in this memoir (having done so in an earlier one), she was clearly on the left, despite the political conservatism of most of her family. The exception was, of course, her ‘uncle’ – actually her father’s cousin – Salvatore Allende. After his overthrow and suicide or murder in 1973, Isabel did not at once flee, but feeling increasingly threatened by the regime, with its secret police and use of torture, she felt by 1975 that she had no choice but to leave. ‘I remember fear as a permanent metallic taste in my mouth,’ she writes. She lived in Caracas for ten years as a refugee, and I couldn’t help but be struck by her comment that ‘Instead of making an effort to learn about the land that had so generously taken me in, and learn to love it, I was obsessed with going home to Chile … you feel like a victim who has lost half her life’. I wonder if that is true for the refugees now seeking desperately to come to Australia.

For all its interest, I found this rather a frustrating book. It has very little structure, with Allende returning again and again to the themes of memory and nostalgia, rather than presenting a chronological account. Allende is aware of this, noting at one point that she needs to pick up the main thread, ‘if there is any thread in all this meandering.’ She justifies this meandering by saying that ‘Memories don’t organise themselves chronologically, they’re like smoke, changing, ephemeral’. No doubt this is true, but it isn’t always easy to follow as a narrative. Sometimes I find her observations a bit trite, as in ‘[Chileans’] spiritual compulsion rises from the earth itself: a people who live amid mountains logically turn their eyes towards the heavens.’ Really? But she can also be very funny, as in ‘Elvis Presley was already fat by the time I learned of his existence’. Maybe the translation from Spanish also gives a slightly flat and naive tone to what in the original might have been sharper. Or maybe I’m being unreasonable here; Allende has had many tragedies in her life, and overcoming them as she has is an incredible achievement that can fairly be told with a little complaisance.

You can read more about Isabel Allende here. Her website lists her books, and also gives information about the Isabel Allende Foundation, set up after the death of her daughter from the neurological disease porphyria, to support projects promoting social and economic justice for women.

Listen to this speech Allende made in 2007 on feminism, featured on the TED website to celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8).

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The Baroque Cycle (2003-4) is a series of eight books, published for convenience in three volumes, entitled Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. In all, there’s around 2,500 pages – not an enterprise for the fainthearted. But we had a long spell of very hot weather in Adelaide, so I had plenty of time to read.

Stephenson has taken a number of characters and themes appearing in his 1999 novel Cryptonomicon and projected them back, as it were, into the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. So we have the ancestors of the modern characters: Daniel Waterhouse, a number of Shaftoes, some Comstocks, some von Hacklhebers and Enoch Root – though Stephenson says he is the same Enoch Root who appears in the twentieth century story. There are also the imagined interactions with real people, as in Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Benjamin Franklin, to say nothing of Louis XIV, William of Orange and Caroline of Hanover. The preoccupations of many of these characters are similar to those of their twentieth century physical and intellectual descendants – ie philosophy, mathematics, code breaking, technology, war and weaponry and the functioning of trade and money. I really liked this echo effect, and would suggest reading Cryptonomicon before venturing further.

Stephenson describes the Cycle as having a science fiction mindset. I think what he means is that he has created an alternative world, rather than evoking the real historical one. But it is also an historical epic, full of ‘swordplay, swashbuckling and derring-do’. It takes place between 1664 and 1714, and is set at some point in the tale in almost every part of the then known world. This was a time of seething intellectual, religious, political and economic change across Europe, a ‘quicksilver world’, where ‘power came of thrift and cleverness and industry, not of birthright, and certainly not of Divine Right’. At least this is what the author seeks to illustrate through the activities of his characters. I don’t really know how historically correct it is, and obviously Stephenson can’t ignore history. Indeed, there is a huge amount of information on show about the details of all aspects of life– too much for some reviewers, who found it could be boring, as I occasionally did. And there are a number of historical processes, especially ones associated with technology, that hold the whole complex story together. But as his comment about science fiction shows, Stephenson isn’t really interested in imaginative historical reconstruction; he is at his best telling an exciting story, and for the most part, this is what he does. There are plagues, fires, battles, espionage, sea voyages, pirates, slavery, even the Spanish Inquisition and sundry other adventures, as well as love, loyalty, friendship, cruelty and treachery.

I like the way Stephenson writes. He hasn’t tried for a complete period effect in his alternate world; there are a number of quotes from writers of the time like Bunyan, Hobbs and Defoe to remind us of the real thing. But there are many sentence constructions and some word usages which give an historical feel to the writing, such as ‘oeconomy’, or ‘lanthorn’, ‘similitude’, or my favourite, ‘phant’sy’ or ‘phant’sied’, covering any of thought, considered, fancied or believed. Along-side this is a modern sensibility expressed in modern jargon, like ‘the commodities market’, ‘it looked like a win’, or the list of ‘weaponized farm implements’, ‘viz. war-sickles, combat-flails, assault-shovels and tactical-adzes’. ‘If it is funny, or it works’, Stephenson says, he is happy to put it in. But it’s also integral to his ‘science fiction’ mindset.

Indeed Stephenson is a very ‘take it or leave it’ sort of writer. He makes no concessions; you can almost see him thinking ‘what the hell, I like this so I’ll put it in.’ This makes his books very long, and to a degree, self-indulgent. Sometimes, indeed, the action is completely over the top. I think this tendency is more apparent in the Cycle than in the other of his books I’ve read. It also perhaps arises from the episodic nature of the story; each new section has to be filled out in detail with a different setting, different circumstances and different adventures, whatever the common themes (though this is less true in the third volume). The division into books and volumes is also problematic, in that if you want to know what happens, you need to read it all. The volumes aren’t stand-alone – though I note that all of them have individually won prizes, so perhaps others wouldn’t agree with me about that. Each book, and therefore each volume (except the last one) ends on a cliff hanger note for some character, rather like a TV show that is making sure you watch the next series. I did find I overdosed a bit, and had to take some breaks from reading for a while, particularly in the third volume, which seems overburdened with detail and hype. But I was always pleased to go back to it.

Because I so much like the way Stephenson writes, I’m always going to take pleasure in his books. But if you aren’t already a fan, I wouldn’t start with these three. You can read my posts on Cryptonomicon (1999) here, Anathem (2008) here and Reamde (2011) here.

You can read more about Neal Stephenson, including interviews about the books, on his web-site.

 

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At first I thought this book wasn’t worth writing about. But then I read a favourable review in the Australian literary magazine Meanjin, which made me reconsider my response. I still don’t like it much, but concede that this may say more about me than it says about the book.

The story is told in seven chapters, one for each of the main characters.  Overall, these build a picture of the stages in a family’s life, including the breakup of a marriage, teenage angst, sibling relationships, dealing with a difficult adolescent, having a young child, getting old and dying. But each chapter could be read as a short story. This is partly because they are all set at different times over a period of more than thirty years. It is also because they are discontinuous; what happens in several of them isn’t reflected in the other chapters. This has a stop-start effect; a chapter may build interest and tension, but it is dissipated at the end of the chapter. Amsterdam offers few social markers by which to place the family; they live in an indeterminate landscape, and their lives seem bland. There’s nothing wrong with not specifying a social setting; it’s a tactic that can focus attention on individual feelings and personal relationships. But I don’t think as described here, feelings and personal relationships can carry the weight. Amsterdam writes well, but not that well.

The main character, in so far as there is one, is Alec, who plays a part in all the stories, his own coming at the end. Alec has magic powers, or perhaps rather he has the power to make other people discover powers in themselves – like becoming invisible, or flying. His aim in conferring these powers is to give his family what it needs – a chance of fulfilment. ‘Right now,’ he says, ‘we’re in the wrong version of our lives. Too much security, too little freedom … All we have to do is pick a different story, one where we get what we want.’ Really? It’s not clear that the rest of the family are necessarily better off – or better – because of their powers, which, incidentally, only seem to operate in their own chapter. Ruth, for example, feels she had ‘evidently endured some sort of accident in her brain’ when she finds she can read other people’s thoughts. Alec realises that he has to be careful about altering reality: ‘One ripple rushed into another. Without ever intending it, there could be waves, curling larger and larger, pulling all of them far from solid land.’ But this doesn’t seem to stop him.

I don’t mind stories where characters have magic powers, or where we get first one then another outcome because of some minor change in circumstances – see for example my review of Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. But here, I just found it irritating. What is the point of these magic powers? You can’t just ‘pick a different story’ – that’s the whole point of the web of relationships that make up a family. But I don’t think this is the point that Amsterdam is making. In fact I’m not sure what point he is making.

And this is where I wonder if I’m not looking for something that other readers might not find necessary, or even desirable – for some sort of rational outcome beyond the quirky view of the world offered by magic realism. The writer in Meanjin says that the central premise of the novel is that ‘sometimes it takes extraordinary power to survive the everyday’. And maybe Amsterdam is showing this by bestowing eccentric powers like flying and materialising through walls on his characters. Perhaps the absence of much colour in the lives of the family members when the magic isn’t operating is a deliberate way of contrasting the mundane with the extraordinary. Other readers might find this delightful, and not at all irritating. The Meanjin writer also says that in Amsterdam’s work, ‘as much meaning exists in what is unsaid as in the stories themselves, and bestows us with the power to fill in the blanks.’ Perhaps I’m just not good at reading what’s left unsaid.

Steven Amsterdam is an American who now lives and writes in Melbourne. He sounds like a really nice bloke. You can read more about him here. This is his second novel. His first, Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009) won The Age Book of the Year (fiction), and this one, which was published in 2011, was short listed for this, and short or long listed for several other literary prizes. So critical opinion is against me.  It’s an easy read – try it for yourself.

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When it got so hot in Adelaide recently, the only thing to do was to sit quietly and read a book. So I chose to re-read a former favourite, Gaudy Night (1936), and to see how it has stood the test of time.

Dorothy Sayers is one of the classic writers of Golden Age crime fiction, which was dominated by the sort of clever puzzle mysteries she is so good at. In the early books, her detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey reads like a bit of a parody of the upper class Englishman, complete with monocle and a repertoire of silly slang.  But in the later books, particularly those which also feature Harriet Vane, herself a writer of detective stories, he shows that under his flippant nonchalance he has uncertainties and sensitivities.  Indeed the Vane/Wimsey stories could also be thought of as love stories with a bit of detection thrown in. Gaudy Night is the third of the four Vane/Wimsey stories. If you are new to them, it’s worth starting with the first one, Strong Poison (1930) because it sets up the relationship between Vane and Wimsey – with all its problems.

In Gaudy Night, Harriet goes to the student reunion – traditionally known as a Gaudy Night – of her Oxford College, Shrewsbury (imaginary, but based on Sayers’s own women’s college, Somerville). There she is exposed to some unpleasant anonymous messages. She is distressed because one of the messages might apply to her own circumstances. But she thinks no more of it until sometime later when the Dean of the College asks her to come and investigate a spate of such messages, and other malicious damage which has occurred around the college. Harriet unwillingly agrees. The perpetrator becomes bolder, and the incidents more dangerous. It is clear that whoever is doing this must come from within the College. Could she be a student? A member of the domestic staff? Surely she couldn’t be one of the members of the Senior Common Room? And how difficult will it be for Harriet to translate her writing about mysterious crimes into solving one?

A second strand in the story is her relationship with Wimsey. He fell in love with her in Strong Poison, and saved her life when she was charged with murder. Harriet feels beholden to him, ‘the creature of his making and the mirror of his own magnanimity’; needing to be grateful to him ‘is simply damnable’. ‘The fact is,’ she thinks, ‘I have got a bad inferiority complex … I could have liked him so much if I could have met him on an equal footing …’ So here we have the classic elements of romance: a relationship that can only progress to mutual love once certain problems are overcome. It didn’t happen in the previous book (Have His Carcass, 1932); will it happen in this one? And where might Wimsey fit into Harriet’s efforts at detection?

But what really sets this book apart is what has been described as Sayers’s ‘love affair with Oxford’. Most of the action is set there, and the buildings, the landscape, the social customs and ambiance of 1930s Oxford life are affectionately conveyed – she clearly loves the place. Even more important is her depiction of the academic life that is lived there by the female dons; its values are central to the story.

How does this stand up to a modern reading? I have a somewhat mixed reaction. The puzzle Vane and Wimsey have to solve is cleverly established, especially as the clues to the solution, which are only easy to see in retrospect, are really as much about states of mind as about the physical evidence. While the denouement is quite powerful, this is not an action packed thriller, and it may move too slowly – and with a bit too much Oxford – for some readers. I am sentimental enough to enjoy the love story. Sayers writes well, and Vane and Wimsey are both well drawn and interesting characters. She writes intelligently about academic life, though her conclusions would now probably be considered simplistic. Sayers is clearly a feminist – though of course she does not use that word – and is passionate in her defence of the need for equality in education, and about the difficulty of the choice that had to be made then between marriage and paid work.

However there remains the question of whether her loving description of the life of a tiny elite – with an aristocratic detective to boot – can still evoke sympathy and interest. The characters are not unaware of the issues of class and privilege, but that doesn’t alter the reality of it in the story. Some of the female dons protest against any automatic assumption that the outrages are being committed by one of the servants. But servants they remain. Wimsey is aware that the aristocracy is becoming a back number: ‘Our kind of show is dead and done for,’ he says. ‘What the hell good does it do anybody these days?’ But he’s still rich and privileged. This could reasonably be seen as Sayers telling it like it is; readers of today may or may not find it interesting. Re-reading it, I found her veneration of Oxford and all its traditions a little difficult to appreciate unreservedly, even as an escape from the heat. But don’t let me put you off. Like I said, the love story is nice.

You can read more about Dorothy Sayers here. She says that ‘The novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland’ but I don’t believe her. Harriet Vane shares too many of her experiences with Dorothy Sayers for it all to be make believe.

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Published in 2010, this is Elizabeth Speller’s first novel. I came across her work when I read a review of her second book, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton (2012), which features the same main character, so I thought I should read the first one first. I’m not sure that was a good idea. On one hand, it certainly establishes the background and circumstances of the main character. On the other, it reads a bit like a first novel – promising, but flawed.

It is 1921. Captain Laurence Bartram has survived the cataclysm of the World War, but is now drifting and purposeless. His wife died in childbirth during the war, and his baby son soon after; now his life before 1914 is ‘a closed world he could never reach back and touch.’ He has been commissioned to write a book about London churches, but is making slow progress. Then he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of his school friend, John Emmett. He too survived service in the war, but has recently committed suicide. Mary wants Laurence to help her understand why. Though Laurence feels he is unlikely to be much help, he remembers liking Mary, and agrees to try. But what if the truth will be of no comfort to her?

This story has the form of a classic mystery, where an ordinary person undertakes some sort of quest to uncover a secret. Laurence makes a good ‘ordinary person’: he is a kind and decent man, troubled by his own memories of what he has lived through. One thing he finds out leads him to another, until the whole picture – or almost the whole picture – becomes clear. Along the way he gets help, mainly in the form of information. Quite a lot of this comes from another school friend, Charles, who has a wide range of friends and relations who together seem to know almost the entire surviving officer class from the war. I’m sure Speller is right in saying that at least in the early years of the war, getting a commission was a class thing; a question of going to the right school and having the right background. Many of them would be likely to have friends and relations in common.  Nevertheless, my problem with Charles is his role in the structure of the plot; his body of knowledge is just too convenient. There are also some fairly wild coincidences: sentences like ‘Even as he absorbed the extraordinary coincidence unfolding in front of him’ don’t really make up for the hole in the plot that necessitates them. The reader will certainly work out what is happening quicker than Laurence does. And the resolution takes a form that I think is a bit amateur.  Overall, there is too much telling and not enough showing. But this is a fault of a first time novelist, and there are other things to like about the book.

Speller has been praised for her scrupulous presentation of the early 1920s, and in general the context she provides is interesting, and sometimes thought-provoking. (There is one anachronism though – see if you can pick it.) However I found Laurence’s middle class perspective a bit limiting at times, as for example when he assumes the person he is looking for must have been an officer: it takes him several chapters to figure out that he could have been an ordinary soldier. He then at least does reflect on the class-bound basis of the army. But Charles especially reminds me of characters in the snobbish stories of the 1920s mystery writer Dornford Yates – that is, he has no character outside what is almost a parody of the English gentleman.

The book’s main strength, for me, is the issue of military discipline that is at the heart of the story. Speller has researched the area closely – she gives some references in an afterword – and it is well to be reminded what powers the British Army wielded over soldiers at that time, particularly as the centenary of the beginning of World War I approaches, with all its opportunities to romanticise the terrible sacrifice. Laurence is able to regain his emotional life by admitting to himself that during his service, he was terrified much of the time by the thought of dying. ‘We weren’t supposed to be frightened, not so that it showed,’ says one character. ‘Now when you look back, you can see that fear was the rational response to much of it’. And Speller suggests that what soldiers had to endure was essentially unendurable. This is hardly new, but highlighting the psychological as well as the physical damage caused by the war gives depth to her story.

Overall, at the better end of holiday reading. You can find out more about Elizabeth Speller here. She has just published a third book, though not featuring Laurence Bartram – there’s only so many adventures the ‘ordinary man’ can have before he makes a profession of it. The new one deals directly with the Great War. It seems like there might be a bit of an industry this year round the centenary of its outbreak. And certainly lots of controversy.

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