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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Run was published in 2007, following the success of Bel Canto (2001), which won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and which I reviewed with some reservations here. I have a few reservations about this book too, but overall found it enjoyable and quite moving.

The action is decidedly domestic. It takes place over twenty-four hours, with background about the characters and their lives filled in along the way, and a sort of epilogue at the end. As one character reflects, ‘he didn’t think the entire story could possibly take more than ten minutes start to finish’. The book begins with background: the story of a statue of the Virgin Mary that has been in the Doyle family for several generations. It then moves to the present day Doyle family. Bernard Doyle and his wife Bernadette had one child, Sullivan, and then adopted two black baby brothers, Tip and Teddy. They were still very young when Bernadette died of cancer, leaving Doyle to bring up the boys. He is a successful lawyer and sometime Mayor of Boston, and hopes that either or both of his two younger sons will take up the political career he never achieved. Sullivan, who is older, has not lived at home for some time and has most recently been working in Africa. Neither of the younger boys is much interested in politics; they feel they have heard it all before. Tip wants to be an ichthyologist and Teddy seems drawn to the Church through his closeness to his uncle, who is a retired priest. One snowy night outside a political lecture, Tip argues with his father, and not looking where he is going, only avoids being hit by a car because a woman, Tennessee Moser, pushes him out of the way, though she herself is seriously injured. Her young daughter Kenya is distraught, but she knows why her mother wanted to save Tip from harm. The rest of the book draws out the connections between the characters, including Sullivan who has unexpectedly returned, and reaches a resolution which establishes new patterns between them.

Family relationships are at the heart of the story; these are teased out through both actions and dialogue. ‘Tip knew how to put words to things while Teddy knew how to follow what was in his heart’. Sullivan can be charming, but so far has been essentially selfish. Doyle is the reasonable parent who is nevertheless unreasonable. Kenya is loyal and honest – a bit unrealistically so. It is from her ability – and desire – to run that the book takes its title, and there is a great description of how she is truly herself while running. The title might also be taken to imply that everyone is running – either to or from something. Sullivan certainly is.

The structure of the story works quite well except for what I think is an extremely clunky way of introducing the backstory of Kenya’s mother, Tennessee. But it reveals information that is known only to the reader; the characters form their relationships without knowledge of it. I think this is a strength of the story because it reinforces the theme that families form in many ways. However I am less sure about the role of the uncle, Father Sullivan, who has attracted an unwanted and, he thinks, unwarranted fame as a faith healer. A series of incidents related to touch suggest Patchett is close to endorsing faith healing. Even if it is allowable in fiction, I don’t think faith healing is necessary to the structure of the story. Father Sullivan is necessary to the book because of Teddy’s attachment to him, but I don’t think he adds much else. Patchett has been praised for her warmth at a time when more cynical writing is the norm. The danger is that warmth can spill over into sentimentality, and I think this is a trap she has fallen into here. If she actually believes in faith healing, does that make it any the less sentimental?

As well as the theme of family, there is reference to both race and class. As black sons of a white father, Tip and Teddy are unusual in their social circle, but they scarcely notice it because they are from a socially and economically privileged elite. Patchett makes us aware of this through Kenya’s eyes; the daughter of a poor, black single mother, she can scarcely believe the comfort in which the Doyles live. Waking in a bright bedroom in the Doyles’ house, ‘she wondered if there wasn’t a way that light was divided and somehow … more of it wound up in better neighbourhoods’. Tennessee has no medical insurance, but Doyle, a Democrat, isn’t interested. ‘The uninsured poor are such a compelling political issue until you actually meet one,’ Sullivan taunts him. Despite this dig, Patchett, who supported Democrat Hillary Clinton for President, makes it clear that Doyle’s insistence that his sons take an interest in politics arises from a hope that they might improve the lives of others, rather than just living out his unfulfilled dream. But though she points out the Doyles’ privilege, Patchett doesn’t really criticise it; indeed there is a Cinderella-like quality to the final resolution. Sums up the Democrats, maybe.

You can read more about Ann Patchett here. Her most recent book, Commonwealth (2016), has been widely praised – see here, for example.

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‘If David Mitchell isn’t the most talented novelist of his generation, is there any doubt that he is the most multi-talented?’ This is one critic’s assessment, and I can only agree with it. David Mitchell is one of the best prose writers I have ever read. He’s pitch perfect whatever voice he is using. I wondered in my earlier review of his Cloud Atlas (2004) whether he was anything more than a very clever mimic. But reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) – reviewed here – convinced me that he actually has that rare ability to make all the voices the novelist uses sound utterly authentic.  This capacity is again on show in The Bone Clocks (2014). And while I thought the convoluted structure of Cloud Atlas might be a bit over-clever, I accept that the episodic structure of Bone Clocks works perfectly. I really am a convert!

But aside from how he writes, I still have some hesitation about some of what he writes about. The book consists of six sections – almost short stories – set over a period beginning in 1984 and ending in 2043. The first and the last concern Holly Sykes; the other four have different narrators, though Holly is in all of them, and several other characters recur. And although each is completely different in time, tone and content, there is another aspect linking them all which I’ll come to in a moment; it is this aspect I’m not entirely comfortable with.

In 1984, Holly is a teenager completely smitten with slightly older man. She fights with her mother over it and runs away to live with him, only to find his declarations of love are false; she keeps on running – or rather walking. Over the next couple of days she has some strange experiences but returns home after hearing that her younger brother is missing. In 1991, Hugo Lamb, a postgraduate student at Oxford, is clever and charming. But it soon becomes clear that he is an also accomplished con man. On a visit to Switzerland for the skiing he meets Holly Sykes. Can she redeem him? In 2004, Ed Brubeck is a foreign correspondent just back from Iraq to attend the wedding of Holly’s sister; he is Holly’s partner and they have a daughter, Aoife. He denies being a war junkie, but he can’t get what he’s seen in Iraq out of his head. The next section covers the years 2015-19 in the life of an aging novelist named Crispin Hershey. He at first despises Holly, who has written an unusual and popular book, but comes to love her. In 2025 Iris Fenby is a psychiatrist, but I can’t summarise this section without giving away much else in the book. And then in 2043, Holly is an old woman living in the west of Ireland with her granddaughter and a Moroccan refugee she has adopted. It is the time of the Endarkenment. The economy, electronic communications and transport are breaking down. Her small community is threatened by the meltdown of a nuclear power plant, and civil order is collapsing. She and the children live precariously on what she can grow or barter. This is the section of the book that stays most in my mind, though it could be seen as a coda to the action. Its power derives from the sense that this is what the future will be if we continue to destroy the environment and fail to take steps to curb the growing inequality of wealth across the world. But there is fine writing in all of the sections, mixing grim reality with psychological insight and even a bit of humour.

But there is something else altogether going on in this book. In each section, but particularly in the fifth one, there is a perpetual war being waged between tiny groups of Atemporals, the Horologists, and Anchorites, the former being entities that can enter people’s minds, and who enjoy a form of immortality through transference to new bodies, the latter being humans that are able to defer death, though only through taking another human’s life. (I’ve oversimplified that a bit, but then these entities are oversimplified into good v evil.) In addition, a few people have the gift of precognition. Humans, being mortal, are ‘bone clocks.’

At times Mitchell appears to make fun of both himself and the idea of magic powers. Hugo Lamb for example says that ‘the paranormal is always, always a hoax.’ ‘The mind-walking theory’ is only plausible ‘if you live in a fantasy novel’ – which of course he does. A critic in the story says of Crispin Hershey’s novel that ‘the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s state of the wold pretentions, I cannot bear to look.’ And critics have said much the same about this book. But other less compromised characters defend the idea. Holly says ‘Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.’ And another character says that some magic is ‘normality you’re not yet used to’. So I guess Mitchell at least wants readers to take the paranormal elements of the book seriously. And this is a problem for me, not so much in accepting what I perceive as fantasy – there are many great fantasy stories, not least two of my all-time favourites Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials – but because of the mixture of fantasy and reality. As one critic put it, ‘The fantastical elements can … appear overblown and absurd when placed against some of the beautifully realised human moments.’

There is a lot more complexity to this book than I have covered here, and I haven’t even begun to comment on the way that some characters, and major themes like the precariousness of civilisation, appear in most if not all of Mitchell’s books; all Mitchell’s novels form a unified, if extraordinarily complex, whole, an ‘uber novel’. You can read more assessments of his work, as well as the place of The Bone Clocks in it, in two great reviews, one from the Sydney Review of Books (from which the quote above comes), and one from the Atlantic Monthly, entitled ‘David Mitchell’s Almost-Perfect Masterpiece’. And this one, from which the quote which opens this post comes, even has a connection guide. And here’s another one, where Mitchell discussed The Bone Clocks.

Overall, despite any reservations, The Bone Clocks is a rewarding, challenging – if at times frustrating – and memorable novel. I highly recommend it.

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Reading The Snow Queen, which was published in 2003, made me realise that it really does help if you have a particular interest in the subject matter that is central to a story. I recently wrote that I wasn’t interested in the haute couture described in Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker, and didn’t enjoy the book as much as friends who did have an interest in it. It probably doesn’t work like that for great books, but maybe it does for rather more ordinary books like this one. This time the focus is on ballet and Adelaide, and I’m very interested to read about both these topics. Be warned if you aren’t.

Set in the 1970s, the story is shared by two main characters. Edward Larwood has returned to Adelaide to take charge of the nascent state ballet company, Ballet South, after a successful career as a dancer and choreographer overseas. Galina Koslova is a retired ballerina who trained in Russia and briefly ran her own ballet company as well as a ballet school in Adelaide before marrying and settling down there. Teddy and Galina have unfinished business; she feels he betrayed her when they were younger. She writes and account of her life which includes her view of him; she hopes to turn Adelaide’s arts community against him. From this memoir we learn of her training at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, the impact of the Russian revolution, joining the Ballet Russes, and being stranded in Australia at the outbreak of war. Larwood returned to Adelaide briefly after the war, and danced in her ballet company until their falling-out. The Snow Queen is a ballet created for Galina’s company.

McConnochie is a very competent writer, and she’s been quite clever with Galina’s voice. ‘You think my English is not good enough,’ she says to her husband, who replies ‘you’re not really a word person, are you?’ So it reads realistically that Galina’s memoir is a bit stilted. She is also quite clearly an unreliable narrator; Teddy recollects the same events quite differently, so we know that any truth lies somewhere outside their version of events. Galina and Teddy personify different approaches to ballet, and to life. Galina has fully imbibed the rigorous discipline of the Russian system, where technique is everything; self-expression comes a poor second. ‘Before you ever get to dance, to leap about, to express yourself (there is such an emphasis these days on expressing yourself), you must learn the basics,’ she writes. Teddy, on the other hand, has presence and charisma to cover his dislike of hard work. Galina wants to be the best. Teddy wants to be loved. McConnochie presents a thoughtful psychological picture of the clash that arises when these two world views collide. Can they ever be reconciled?

Combining the present, the memoir, and the characters’ own recollections of the past, makes for a rather untidy story, but I guess it works well enough. There are clunky bits, like Teddy’s relations with his family, which are very two dimensional. A homosexual encounter by the River Torrens is probably only there because of a notorious homosexual drowning in that river in 1972. I think the section dealing with Galina’s company is a bit too sketchy; where, for example, could she possibly have got all those dancers from in Adelaide? It’s true that a number of the Ballet Russes dancers chose to remain in Australia after the outbreak of war, but I doubt there were enough ballet schools of sufficient standing – certainly not in Adelaide – to make up even a part-time company like the one McConnocnie describes. (In fact the history of Galina’s company is rather like that of the Borovansky Ballet Company which began in Melbourne in 1939 as a part-time company and grew into the major ballet company in Australia before its closure and the foundation of the Australian Ballet in 1962. McConnochie seems to suggest that the Borovansky company formed well after Galina’s company.) But this is just me being pedantic; the story is ultimately quite satisfying.

So did I enjoy the ballet? Yes, there are some interesting reflections on the practice of ballet, on choreography, and on the role of ballet as a part of the national consciousness. Teddy thinks dance can help ‘uncover the real Australia’, a fairly trite insight perhaps, but the book would be weaker without the discussion, particularly as the 1970s were a time of burgeoning national consciousness in the arts. And what about her treatment of Adelaide? McConnochie was brought up in Adelaide, but was only just born at the time she is writing about. Her view is fairly stereotypical: the boring provincial city, the arts-supporting community largely made up of philistine society ladies, the ballet-going public preferring the old standard classical ballets to anything more modern. It’s a pity she didn’t populate her Adelaide with more interesting characters, particularly as the Galina she describes would never have fitted into that society in the way she has her do after she finishes her dancing career. And don’t sneer at audiences who loved Swan Lake; I remember queuing for hours to get tickets. And there was a embryonic avant garde in Adelaide; I also remember the ballet school I attended putting on a production of L’enfant et les sortilèges, set to Ravel’s spikey music. McConnochie could have done a bit more with Adelaide. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

There’s not much about McConnochie on the internet; here’s her Wikipedia entry. She was named one of the Best Young Australian Novelists by The Sydney Morning Herald on the strength of this book.

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Back in 2014 I reviewed Some Hope, published in a volume consisting of the first three of St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992) and Some Hope (1994). Mother’s Milk, was published in 2005 and short-listed for the Booker Prize. I said at the time that I was looking forward to reading it. But now that I’ve got round to it, I found I didn’t enjoy it much at all. I think this is partly the book, and partly me.

The novel begins in August 2000. By this time Patrick is practising as a barrister – though he doesn’t seem to do much actual work – and is married to Mary; they have two small children. (OK, I know August is holiday time.) The first section of the story is told through the eyes of Patrick’s son Robert, who is far more insightful and introspective than any five year old I’ve ever met. Can the birth of his little brother Thomas really cause him to remember what it felt like in the first days of his life? The second section, set in August 2001, is told through Patrick’s eyes. On holiday at his mother’s house in France, he is horrified to see the hold Seamus, clearly a fake healer and genuine con man, has over his mother Eleanor – and her property. But at the same time he is board, listless and self-pitying, and ready for an extra marital affair. The third section is Mary’s story; she devotes herself to motherhood and tries to find ways of dealing with Patrick’s infidelity. The fourth section, set in August 2003 has no particular protagonist; the family travel to America.

The book continues in the style set in the first three books; it is a clever diatribe against the fatuousness, snobbery and malice of the English upper class. St Aubyn’s ear for dialogue and his biting wit are as sharp as ever, as you can see in one of my favourite exchanges. A child has been bullying Robert; his mother offers a kind of apology. ‘I’m sorry about that … Eliot is so competitive, just like his dad, and I hate to repress all that drive and energy.’ ‘You’re relying on the penal system for that,’ Patrick replies. Gold. There is also the continuing theme of the harm parents can do to their children. Both Patrick and Mary fear to pass on to their children the deplorable traits they think their parents gave them, but is there not a danger that in avoiding those, they are passing on others?

So what’s not to like? I found Patrick too self-pitying, too much given to what one reviewer calls ‘spoiled-brat whininess’. Another reviewer, who found the book ‘enjoyable and entertaining’ wrote that ‘we are very much on his side’. But I didn’t feel that way. It’s true he is highly self-aware; consider the following exchange: ‘Oh, darling,’ said Julia, resting her hands on Patrick’s shoulders, ‘are you your own worst enemy?’ ‘I certainly hope so,’ said Patrick. ‘I dread to think what would happen if somebody else turned out to be better at it than me.’ This can be perversely amusing, but it’s highly artificial and makes me want to shake him. Ultimately I don’t care what happens to him. Obviously the reader doesn’t have to like a character, but being indifferent to them is fatal to engagement with the story.

My reaction to Patrick is perhaps symptomatic of my reaction to the whole book. When I read Some Hope back in 2014 I was still in to mood for acerbic social commentary directed at the English upper classes. Now I don’t find the whole genre funny. After dislocation arising from Brexit in England and disaster of the election of Donald Trump as President in the USA, the worsening effects of climate change and the threat of recession, the boorishness of the upper class doesn’t seem worth wasting time on. St Aubyn doesn’t see it in class terms; he sees ‘a democracy of entrapment. Everyone is trapped in their personality’. True, no doubt, but those people who aren’t the English upper class – that is most of us – are also trapped in an economic system likely to leave us much worse off than the already rich and powerful. Knowing that some upper class people are unpleasant and probably unhappy doesn’t help much. I guess I won’t be reading At Last (2012), the final novel in the set, even if it does resolve some of the issues raised in Mother’s Milk.

St Aubyn doesn’t appear to have a web-site, and has only a very brief Wikipedia entry. But you can find out much more about him, and how his fiction mirrors his life, in any of these three interviews, here, here or here.

 

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Published in 2000, my book club’s most recent choice has achieved a wide audience – well, a wider audience – through its recreation as a film of the same name (2015). It stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth, and the cast and film won five awards at the 2015 AACTAs: Best Lead Actress (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Hugo Weaving), Best Costumes (Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson) and the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film. But the book began life as a project for a creative writing class, and it shows. You can just imagine them workshopping the blurb: ‘an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture’. It’s true, though, that I saw the film before I read the book; this inevitably changed the way I read it.

Tilly Dunnage arrives back in her small home town of Dungatar with a suitcase and a sewing machine, and incredible skills as a dressmaker (and yes, I think I mean incredible, but that’s maybe because I don’t have any skills at all in the area myself). She has returned to care for her mother who lives in squalid seclusion in a house at the top of the only hill in town. We learn that Tilly was banished from Dungatar after being involved, in some initially unspecified way, in the death of another child; she has in the meantime learnt dressmaking in the leading European design houses. The residents of the town are initially almost uniformly hostile. The two main exceptions are the town’s only policeman, Sergeant Farrat, who himself loves making outrageous outfits to wear in the privacy of his house, and Teddy McSwiney, who comes from a family of outcasts himself, but has won popularity as the local football team’s star full forward. He finds Tilly the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Gradually the women of the town warm to Tilly when they find she can make clothes that make them look attractive and stylish, and gradually Tilly warms to Teddy. But then tragedy strikes. Can anything be saved from the ruins? Quick answer: no.

I bet that when they were workshopping that blurb, they thought about including ‘revenge’ and ‘magic realism’ in the list. And I’m not sure why ‘gothic’ made the cut, because it’s not a horror story, though of course horrible things happen. But it is a tale of revenge, initially satisfying, but then rather over the top. I’m not sure if revenge was always what Tilly intended; I didn’t get that impression, though others have suggested it. And perhaps the magic realism is rather more cinematic than inherent in the story, though Sergeant Farrat certainly defies ordinary credibility. The town’s entry into the eisteddfod is pretty surreal too.

Tilly’s story is the main one, but there are a number of sub plots involving the town residents. This is one of the areas that sounds to me a bit like a creative writing class exercise. Have lots of characters and tell us something interesting about them all. There were so many I had to keep going back to work out which was which, whose story belonged to whom. Most of these sub plots show people in a poor light that is sometimes funny, but often just rather nasty and rather two dimensional. One of the sub plots is actually part of Tilly’s story; it’s just a bit hard to pick it out from amongst all the others – though maybe this is intentional to add an element of mystery. The way the relationship between Tilly and her mother Molly develops doesn’t ring true to me either; I thought it was handled better in the film. (The overall plot was sharpened up a bit in the film. The beginning of the book drags a bit.)

So what of the other tag words in the blurb? Australian the book certainly is; the landscape is beautifully evoked, and the dialogue has an Aussie ring to it. The small town pettiness could probably be found anywhere, but seems to take on a particularly Australian character. And the haute couture is interesting for those with an interest in such things – whether, for example, Tilly used ‘Paris stitch for the lace trim … when she knew she should have used whip stitch.’ I’m assured by those who are interested that the haute couture is the highlight of the book. But is it enough to hang the story on? It’s perfectly legitimate to have an exotic or highly specialised craft that is central to the story, but too often it is clearly a device that doesn’t sit quite comfortably – think The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato, reviewed here, or A Cup of Light, by Nicole Mones, reviewed here. There is only one point at which the author poses the question of the human value of Tilly’s dressmaking. Teddy asks Tilly why she makes clothes for the nasty women of the town; she replied it’s what she does. ‘They’ve grown airs, they think they’re classy,’ says her mother. ‘You’re not doing them any good.’ But Molly is painted as contrary by nature (or illness and neglect), and so this can’t really be taken as the author’s view. Indeed Tilly replies ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ I was left completely unsure whether Tilly is from the beginning using her dressmaking skills to build the women up only to tear them down, whether she uses them to get the town to accept her, or whether at least initially she just likes dressmaking. Certainly her revenge is ultimately complete.  But is the haute couture part of it? Or does it lead the town to destroy itself?

You can read more about Rosalie Ham here, and more about the film version here. It’s described as ‘a revenge comedy-drama’. Unusually, most of my book group preferred it to the book.

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Published in 1988, this is Kingsolver’s first novel. Having read several of her later ones and enjoyed them very much – Prodigal Summer (2000)  is reviewed here, The Lacuna (2009) is reviewed here, and Flight Behaviour (2012) here – I was interested to see where all this started. The Bean Trees is a short book, in contrast to the much longer ones she later wrote, but she introduces some of the same themes she later develops about families and friendships, and you can see in her writing something of what she later achieves much more fully.

Marietta – Missy Greer – she later changes the Marietta to Taylor – is born and brought up by her single mother in poor, rural Kentucky. But she clings to the idea that she doesn’t have to do what most of the local girls do – get pregnant, get married and stay there for the rest of their lives; as her mother says, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen isn’t her style. Her life is changed when a new teacher arrives at the high school, not in the usual way in stories of opening her mind to education, but by the fact that his wife, a nurse at the local hospital, needs someone to work there part-time, and he gives Missy the job. She saves enough that, after graduating from high school – an achievement in itself – she can change her name to Taylor, buy an old car and head west in search of adventure. But in Oklahoma her car breaks down. She stops at a garage and restaurant near a Cherokee Indian reservation, and is literally left holding a baby when a Native American woman thrusts it into her hands and drives away.  What should she do?

The plot is relatively slight; as I said, it’s a short book. It also seems to me a little unrealistic. However It turns on the fact that the child Taylor is given is Native American, and maybe what happens is possible in such a scenario. The story also has some interesting present-day relevance, one strand being about illegal immigration into the United States. But plot isn’t everything. Kingsolver also delights in set piece descriptions which add warmth and colour, but aren’t really about advancing the action. Examples are scattered through the book; they include the results Missy sees of an accident when working at the hospital, the fast food restaurant she works at, a dinner, and a picnic. These all give her the opportunity to draw a cast of sympathetic characters; there is no one with any significant part in the plot who is cruel or unpleasant, though cruelty and misery lurk on its borders.

I find it interesting to compare this book with Flight Behaviour, which is also about a woman, Dellarobia, from a poor white community, this time in Tennessee. Both Taylor and Dellarobia are struggling to take control of their lives. Like Missy, Dellarobia dreams of flight, though unlike her, she did get pregnant, married, and stayed in her community. Like Taylor, her life is changed by a stranger (though he is a product of strange events, not chance). Like Taylor, her main concerns are her children, and family relationships. But in the later book, these issues are treated with much greater sophistication and maturity. Though The Bean Trees is told primarily in the first person, and Flight Behaviour in the third person, Dellarobia comes alive much more vividly for me than Missy/Talyor. And the great social and environmental issue addressed in Flight Behaviour, the impact of climate change, is much more fully developed, and more integral to the story than the illegal immigration strand in The Bean Trees. I say this not as a criticism of the earlier book, but to note how brilliantly Kingsolver’s work has matured.

One of the attractions for me of Kingsolver’s work is the deep commitment to social justice that runs through all of her books that I have read. In 2000, she established the Bellwether Prize, a literary prize is intended to support writers whose unpublished works support positive social change and human justice. Given her support for feminism, environmentalism and human rights, it not perhaps surprising in today’s America that she has her critics. Writing in the New Republic, (not, to be fair, a conservative publication) one commentator responded to The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by calling her a master of “Calamity Writing” and wrote that she offers “the mere appearance of goodness as a substitute for honest art”. He also characterized her as an “easy, humorous, competent, syrupy writer [who] has been elevated to the ranks of the greatest political novelists of our time”. I certainly don’t agree; I think she is a great political novelist. For example, I find it interesting that Kingsolver gives us a detailed and sympathetic, yet acute picture of the poor white communities to whom Donald Trump, now the President elect, appeals, and who are often demonized by liberal Americans. And I find her writing masterful. You can, however, read her opinion of Donald Trump here. I can scarcely imagine what she must be feeling about the outcome of the election.

You can read more about Barbara Kingsolver here. Pigs in Heaven (1993) is a sequel to The Bean Trees.

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Like many of Ian McEwan’s books, Sweet Tooth (2012) is a story with a twist. For better or worse, before reading it I saw a review which unconscionably gave away that twist. This means I didn’t read the book in the way the writer intended; I already had knowledge that put a different slant on things. I’m not going to reveal the twist, but it may be that my reading is a bit perverse because of knowing it. I did wonder if the reviewer gave away the twist because it made the book more interesting to write about. If so, I can see there may be some excuse for this; the twist means there are a whole series of double meanings which give a sardonic humour to the story. Yet you can’t pick up on the double meanings unless you know the twist, read the book twice, or have far better recall than I do. But even though these double meanings are clever, knowing what’s to come meant I didn’t find the story compelling.

Sweet Tooth is billed as a spy story, but even trying to think about it without foreknowledge of the twist, it lacked for me the interest, let alone the high tension of good spy novels like Le Carré’s. In the late 1960s, beautiful young Serena Frome goes to Cambridge to study mathematics because her mother wants her to. She spends most of her time reading fiction and doesn’t get a good degree, but enjoys various affairs, the most important being with a History tutor, who is much older than she is. He gets her an interview with MI5, who take her on. Most of the work she (and other female graduates with much better degrees) gets to do is purely clerical. But because of her knowledge of fiction, she is given the task of vetting an author who MI5 think might fit into an operation they have named Sweet Tooth. Believing that much of the literature and commentary of the time is left-leaning, they want to subsidise, through a compliant Foundation, authors that might be critical of communism and the Eastern bloc – rather similar to the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. She is sent as a representative of the Foundation to interview the writer, a university lecturer named Tom Haley. He is pleased to accept the stipend offered because he wants to write without having to spend most of his time teaching. But Serena and Tom find they are mutually attracted. Furthermore, one of her colleagues is also jealously attracted to her. What could possible go wrong? The story is helped along by a minor twist concerning her Cambridge lover, with the major twist coming at the end.

Of course even without the twist – though the novel is inconceivable without it – there is much more to the book than a genre-style spy story. (I was amused to note that McEwan has adopted some of Le Carré’s spy jargon, with ‘the watchers’, a ‘honey trap’ and the ‘fifth floor’. I’m sure he’s being deliberately referential.) There is the usual clever if somewhat facile characterisation, achieved with minimum fuss; you can for example perfectly visualise Serena’s parents, though is there a resort to stereotypes involved? I found Serena rather shallow. And then there is the interesting setting of London in the bleak years of the early 70’s, the coal strike, the three day week and the Irish troubles; people wore dressing gowns at work over coats to try and keep warm in unheated buildings. Even if the suspense isn’t as developed as in a Le Carré’ spy story, there is some tension as Serena is increasingly embroiled in lies which threaten both her personal and professional life. There are also some dead-ish ends which feel a bit like padding.

Because Serena reads lots of fiction, and because she is involved personally and professionally with a writer, McEwan has lots of opportunity to comment on literature. Serena tells us – the story is presented in the first person – that she doesn’t like post- modern writers who were ‘determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions … I believed writers were paid to pretend … So no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in books I liked for the double agent.’ She believes in ‘mutual trust’ between reader and writer, and dislikes the ‘fictional trick’. Haley, on the other hand, admires post-modern novelists – though he isn’t really given much scope to explain why. And of course McEwan’s work is the height of ‘tricksy’, the novel depends on a fictional trick. And what would a spy story be without a double agent? In terms of her relationship with Tom, Serena is her own double agent. The point of all this cleverness is only made clear at the end.

Some reviewers have suggested that there is a large measure of autobiography in McEwan’s presentation of Haley. Serena reads and summarises – at boring and surely unnecessary length – several of Haley’s short stories and his short dystopian novel; the stories in particular apparently sound very like some of McEwan’s early short stories, given their bleak or ‘noir’ character. (The short novel actually sounds like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only worse.) Haley’s agent and publisher are, or were, actually McEwan’s. Haley teaches at the University of Sussex, where McEwan did his undergraduate degree; he is clearly satirising Selena’s snobbish approach to the place. And Haley reflects McEwan’s literary tastes, as you can see from the final twist.

The novel has generally been favourably reviewed, for example here, and here, so my rather lukewarm response may indeed arise from knowing the twist. But I don’t think so; indeed its cleverness, which lies in its ‘tricksy’ nature, is not evident on a first read (though maybe the reviewers knew the twist …)  McEwan is generally considered to be an excellent story teller, but I just can’t get excited about this one. It’s too clever by half. You can see from my reviews that I didn’t much like Solar (2010), reviewed here, or even his Booker Prize winning Amsterdam (1998) reviewed here. So best read the book. Twice.  If you can be bothered.

You can find out more about Ian McEwan and his work here.

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