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The Raven’s Eye (2013) is the twelfth in Maitland’s series featuring Detectives Brock and Kolla – now risen through the ranks to Chief Inspector and Inspector. It is a textbook British police procedural – despite the fact that Maitland, a retired professor of architecture, now lives in Australia. Unlike most of the earlier books, architecture doesn’t play a part in this one, except, perhaps, by way of an analogy.

The story begins with the death of a young woman on a canal boat. It appears to be the result of an accident, but to Inspector Kathy Kolla, there was ‘something troubling about this death, something that didn’t smell quite right.’ But why are senior police so unwilling to pursue it further? The action then shifts to another, much more high profile case: Jack Bragg, a vicious criminal, is bent on revenge against his ex-wife and former business associates.  Kathy has a crucial role in the plans to capture him, but what is it that neither she nor Brock is being told?

Readers of crime stories know that where there are two cases, however disparate, in one book, they are likely to be in some way connected. You could argue that this is artificial; in real police work, very few crimes of such different natures would ever be connected. But the genre has certain conventions, and this is one of them. While each case has its own trajectory, establishing the connection between them is central to the plot. ‘What the hell,’ wonders Brock, ‘did those things have to do with one another?’ Maitland uses failures in personal and organisational communication to build tension – what are Brock and Kolla not being told? Will this lead to disaster? And they don’t always communicate properly with each other – just tell him where you’re going, I wanted to shout. Maitland is a very competent writer, so the connections are cleverly woven, and if at the end I did think this is a bit over the top, well, it’s no more so than in most police procedurals.

Furthermore, the connections relate not just to events, but to a major theme of the book – technology and the nature of police work.

It seems that as well as dealing with a crime or crimes, most police procedurals flesh out the story with reference to material not directly related to the crime itself. Often it’s details from the detectives’ private lives: they are loners, with shattered family relationships, eating badly and listening to a lot of jazz. In this book, Maitland doesn’t spend much time on private lives. His ‘extra’ element here is the police force itself, and how it copes with restricted resources. And it’s an interesting study. The path he suggests policing is taking is in direction of stringent control of spending and greater reliance on technology. Chief Inspector Brock is uneasy about this. He feels that police on the ground – not police bureaucrats – have the best sense of what’s necessary. ‘More computers?’ he thinks. ‘Nothing to compare with a smart detective with a smart eye.’ Is he, as his boss suggests, being ‘stubborn and intransigent’, not being ‘a team player’?

But technology is pervasive. Bragg is tracked not by informers or whispers on the grapevine, but using technology to collate ‘information from social networking sites, financial transactions, IP network logs, satellite navigation equipment and mobile phone traffic’. Kathy makes extensive use of the internet and aerial photography. Clearly the police must make effective use of the available technology. But the question asked in this book is how far should they go? What is the boundary between public safety and abuse of civil liberties? This is surely a very relevant question for today. One of the senior police officers has an architectural drawing on her wall of the Panopticon, a prison dreamed up by Jeremy Betham in the late eighteenth century, in which a single watchman observes all inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly. Is creation of a modern Panopticon a legitimate aim for modern police surveillance? Maitland seems to be acknowledging that technology is vital, but that there are boundaries that shouldn’t be overstepped.

I’ve previously reviewed Maitland’s Chelsea Mansions (2011); you can read the post here. I had reservations about the end of that one, and thought some of his earlier books were better. This one is a fast-paced and engaging read, and the ending, if not perfect, does work better. I see that Maitland has now published Crucifixion Creek (2014), the first of what promises to be a series of three books set in Australia, featuring Sydney homicide detective Harry Belltree. I’m looking forward to it. You can read more about Maitland and his work here.

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It took me a while to get into this book, but when I did I found it packed a real punch. On one level that is a terrible pun, because as you can tell from the title, it’s about domestic violence. On another level, the casual violence of that metaphor is entirely appropriate to a subject too often hidden or ignored – even language condones brutality.  It is nearly twenty years since Doyle wrote this book, and I fear that little has improved for victims of such violence. But hopefully change is at least being discussed. There’s currently a petition doing the rounds against letting the repeat domestic violence offender and millionaire boxer, Floyd Mayweather, into the country; so far, he hasn’t been given a visa. The Australian of the Year for 2015, Rosie Batty, is a campaigner against domestic violence. The new Victorian Labor government has announced that a Royal Commission on Family Violence will begin in February, though the Federal Liberal government is still refusing to establish a national enquiry. I am grateful that my book club chose to consider this book at this time.

Paula Spencer lives in Dublin with three of her four children. John Paul, the eldest boy, is doing drugs in a squat somewhere. Paula begins telling her story at the point, a year ago, when the police came to her door to tell her that her husband Charlo was dead. Although she had thrown him out a year before that, she is still married to him. The story then goes back to Paula’s childhood, her meeting with Charlo, their marriage and her subsequent tendency to walk into doors. It is not told chronologically, but as a reflection on her life, told as the memories arise. And memory is unreliable and selective. ‘It’s all a mess – there’s no order or sequence,’ she says.  ‘Listen,’ says her sister, ‘I’ll tell my version and then you can tell your pack of lies.’  Paula wants to find happy memories where there aren’t many, to rework her past to show there were good times. But she can’t. ‘That’s the thing about my memories. I can’t pick and choose them. I can’t pretend. There were no good times.’ The reader is forced to conclude she’s largely right.

Paula doesn’t say so, but looking at her life, the reader can’t help but see the ways in which she is doomed to domestic violence. From a young age, girls are either ‘sluts or tight bitches’. Her confidence in herself as being any good at anything is undermined by her terrible secondary schooling; getting boys attracted to her is her only way of gaining status. She comes to believe that she is ‘a dirty slut in some way that I didn’t understand and couldn’t control’ – though at the same time, she’s proud of her sexual encounters. Her parents offer her nothing by way of support or advice – indeed it seems likely her father hit her mother, though she pushes this thought away. All her hope for the future rests with Charlo, the man she has fallen in love with and married. At first things go well, and he seems to love her equally, but soon enough – when she is pregnant with their first child – her starts hitting her. She blames herself; it is all her fault. She still loves him. ‘There was nothing wrong. He’d be fine. He’d get a job and everything would go back to normal.’  And he continues to hit her for seventeen years. ‘He beat me brainless and I felt guilty. He left me without money and I was guilty …The kids … went wild, they went hungry and it was my fault.’ No one offered her help. No wonder she becomes an alcoholic.  ‘That was my life. Getting hit, waiting to get hit, recovering; forgetting.’ But she is a survivor. One day she finds the strength to throw him out.

Doyle is a great story teller, in a style Terry Eagleton has characterised as ‘laconic Dublin-Northside realism’. He has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and tells quite a bit of the story through conversation. He eases the reader into the narrative; there are hints of what is to come, but Paula begins by recalling the more ordinary details of her life – though as I’ve said, they are in retrospect what prepares the way what happens later. Her memories become more and more explicit until violence erupts on two fronts; Charlo is shot by the police and Paula describes his treatment of her. This makes for traumatic reading. Does Doyle overdo it? I don’t think so. Furthermore, the double nature of domestic violence – the love/fear relationship, the dependence built up on the perpetrator by the victim now sound commonplace, but must have been much less understood twenty years ago, in Ireland of all places. The way the book is written doesn’t give a voice to Charlo; we only know that he comes from a brutal and dysfunctional family. (The Spencer family first appeared in the RTÉ/BBC miniseries Family in 1994.) But I don’t miss insights into his motivation.

One of the boldest things about this book is the way Doyle writes from a woman’s perspective. He is no stranger to taking on the voices of others; his Booker Prize winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) tells the story from the perspective of a ten year old boy. He has also honed his dialogue skills though writing a number of plays, and the screenplays for the films of several of his books.  This book has also been turned into an opera. In 2006, Paula Spencer, a sequel to this one, was published, picking up Paula’s life ten years on from the death of her husband.  I do hope, without much foundation, that things have improved for her.

You can read more about Roddy Doyle and his work here.

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Subtitled A true Australian love story of the 1920s, told mostly through letters (2014), this modest book is Nancy Sarre’s tribute to her parents, Cherry and Horace, and to the families of her mother and father. Letters between the young couple and other family members tell mostly of personal circumstances but also touch on some of the broader social issues shaping Australia at the time.

The book starts dramatically with a letter recounting the death of Cherry’s mother in childbirth in 1893. ‘”Behold thy house is left unto thee desolate” is a quotation which might be applied with awful truthful literalness to one today,’ writes William, the bereaved husband. Cherry was their second child, and it was William’s second marriage, his first wife having died leaving one child (two others having died in infancy). We follow the story partly through letters, and partly through Sarre’s commentary. William married again quite quickly – hardly surprising since he had two babies to deal with – and fathered five more children. They lived in Coolah, as small town in central NSW, where William worked as a saddle and boot maker, among other things. Sarre suggests that the family was a happy one, but the prospects in Coolah must have been limited, and when she was 17, Cherry left to work in Sydney, living there with an aunt. She worked at first at David Jones, but in her twenties, trained as a nurse, and worked at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. She said she expected to be an ‘old maid’.

She met Horace in 1926 when visiting a friend – a former fellow nurse – in Albury, a town on the NSW bank of the River Murray. Horace’s family were partners in a hardware store, where he worked. Cherry’s and Horace’s story is something of a classic romance: boy meets girl, there are obstacles, but these are eventually overcome. The obstacles are partly the good old tyranny of distance, and partly, it seems, hesitation on Cherry’s part.  Horace begins their correspondence correctly enough – ‘Dear Miss Cole’ – but moves quickly from ‘Your humble admirer’ to “My dear Cherry’ … ‘Your ardent swain’. Cherry isn’t comfortable with this. ‘Horace,’ she writes, ‘we don’t know each other, and we should not discuss, anything other than friendship, now.’ Horace bows to the inevitable. ‘I must possess my soul with patience, and be happy with the privilege of exchanging thoughts with you’. So over the next six months they write about work in the hospital, friends in common, the weather, gardening, birds, poetry and music. Horace plays the piano and the organ; he likes Schubert and reads Joseph Conrad and Robert Browning. Cherry likes the Messiah – though neither has much time for reading or listening. They write about friendship – ‘it depends a lot on the number of things two people have in common’ – but nothing more profound. Cherry even wonders whether she might join the Bush Church Aid Society – an evangelical organisation providing pastoral and spiritual services in the outback. ‘It is the work I’m most interested in,’ she writes – but such a project wouldn’t have included a role for Horace. Then just before Christmas, Cherry changes. Suddenly it’s ‘Horace dear’, and ‘my Dear one’. Horace is delighted, and in a couple of weeks they are engaged – though for the time being Cherry is still at the hospital. ‘It is a beautiful letter,’ she writes in response to one of Horace’s, ‘and you are very wonderful to love me so and to tell me so.’ Sarre, who unfortunately can’t say what brought about Cherry’s change of heart, writes that her parents’ love affair continued for the rest of their lives; she was his ‘sunshine from the North’.

Amidst the family concerns, there are some letters that shed an interesting light on wider concerns. There is, for example, a letter from Roy, Cherry’s brother, from a hospital in London to which he has been repatriated after being wounded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. ‘It cannot go on for long at the awful cost we suffered in the Somme. The Australian public will get an awful shock when the particulars & casualty lists are published in full’. But he goes on to praise his comrades: ‘we, as a whole, did our jobs without thought of the reckoning.’ Just out of the front line and undergoing a series of painful operations, his comments seem frank, and without any over-blown patriotism. Then there is Cherry’s endorsement of prohibition: ‘I have always been keen for prohibition,’ she writes. Poor Horace prevaricates: ‘There are arguments on both sides, of course’.  But he inevitably comes down on Cherry’s side …

The letters of Cherry, Horace and their families have a further historical importance in showing just how impossible it is to generalise about life in rural Australia in the early decades of the twentieth century. They are not the bush workers of the Australian legend – itinerant, unionised, disrespectful of authority. Nor are they the inhabitants of Don Watson’s The Bush (2014), who ‘battle to drive back nature and eke a living from the land.’ Cherry and Horace and their family were distinctly of the middle class of their country towns. Their letters show them as reflective, literate people who appreciated and participated in ‘high’ culture. They were beginning to engage with new technologies like wireless and motor cars. They loved the Australian bush, and noted with approval moves to preserve it. They moved freely between city and country – though increasingly the opportunities for work outside the home for women lay in the city, as shop assistant, nurse or teacher. I find it interesting that Cherry was thirty-three when she married; this challenges the idea that before World War II, marriage was the only acceptable role for women. They worked hard, and enjoyed the company of family and friends. They were certainly not rich, but could afford travel to visit relatives and for holidays. If public affairs or politics were important to them, they didn’t write about it.

Collections of letters like these are immensely valuable for teasing out such nuances in the social history of rural Australia. If you’d like to read more about country towns, try Struggle country: the rural ideal in twentieth century Australia, edited by Graeme Davison and Marc Brodie (2005). And here’s Professor Davison’s summary of the history of country life in Australia. If you like family letters, you could also try Growing Together. Letters Between Frederick John Cato and Frances Bethune, 1881 to 1884, edited by  Una B Porter.

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Holiday Reading

Here’s a couple of good reads for a hot summer afternoon. Both are crime fiction, from different countries and different subgenres, but with significant similarities.

I picked up Michael Koryta’s A Welcome Grave (2009) because of the glowing endorsement by Michael Connelly on the cover. According to him, Koryta is ‘one of the best of the best’. I know endorsements don’t mean much, but I respect Connelly – here’s my review of one of his recent crime stories – and he’s right that Koryta is good. Despite the fact that he is only 32, there’s a lot Connelly can judge him on. This is his third book about private investigator Lincoln Perry – all of which were nominated for various awards – and there is one other in this series, plus six other books from a range of genres including crime, adventure and ghost stories. I’m breaking into his Lincoln Perry series – but it doesn’t matter, as the book is essentially self-contained.

Perry is a private detective operating in Cleveland Ohio. He was previously a cop, but was thrown out of the force for assaulting a prominent attorney who just happened to be having an affair with Perry’s fiancé Karen. Now that same attorney has been found murdered, and Karen wants Perry to find his estranged son. What could possibly go wrong? The story follows a structure reasonably common in crime stories where things get worse and worse for the hero as events beyond his (usually) control stack up against him until he eventually finds a way of fighting back. Koryta is slightly better at setting the conspiracy up than he is at producing a convincing resolution, but overall the story works well. I like the way he writes; Perry is a bit of a laid-back, wise-cracking Phillip Marlow sort of character. But he’s not quite the white knight that Marlow is; I like Perry’s admission at the end that he had made judgements and assumptions that he wanted to be true, and has to deal with the fact that they turned out to be wrong. I also like that Koryta’s preparation for writing private detective stories was to work as a private detective himself for a time.

The second book is The Tower (2009) by Michael Duffy, a police procedural set in Sydney. It is the first of two books featuring Senior Constable Detective Nicholas Troy. Duffy is no stranger to crime writing, having been a crime reporter (among other things, including publisher and contrarian broadcaster), and author of two ‘true crime’ books and a fictionalised representation of a Lebanese crime family in Sydney.

A young woman falls from a floor high up in the unfinished Tower building in Sydney. Is it suicide or murder? Detectives Troy and McIver are searching the unfinished top floors when the more senior of them, McIver is wounded by a gunman who flees the building. The Homicide section of the NSW police force is undermanned, and Troy has to take a leading role in the investigation. The case is complicated enough, but soon Troy finds he has to deal not only with police politics but with external power and influence. ‘Troy was not used to politics, had rarely felt its breath on his cheek. But he knew it was out there, waiting for him like everyone else.’ How well can he deal with it?

The narrative moves at a good pace, but at times I got quite confused about who was doing what to whom. Duffy says that when he writes a story, he doesn’t know how it’s going to end. Along the way in this one he introduces people smuggling, union corruption and dodgy business dealings as well as sex and drugs. Some of these are central to the plot, but others seem just there to confuse, as if the author wasn’t quite sure which bits he’d use. He says in an interview that he likes TV series such as The Wire, where ‘at first you feel a bit lost but it makes you pay attention. You have to become a detective and help solve the crime.’ So maybe he applies this to his work, and I’m just not paying enough attention. And it’s probably true that there is a deal of confusion in police work, as they strive to create a clear understanding of what actually happened. So I probably shouldn’t worry too much about loose ends. Troy is an interesting character, and I did enjoy the book – I’m just not entirely sure how it all fits together.

The differences between these books are obvious. Apart from the different settings, it is the difference between the private detective story, which seems to be the dominant detective subgenre in America, and the police procedural, which flourishes in the UK and Australia. (Connelly’s police detective Harry Bosch is an exception, but I’m not aware of very many others.) Private and police detectives work in different ways, their motivations are different, and very often the structure of the story has to be different to accommodate the private detective’s inability to arrest anyone. But these two books share a similarity I hadn’t expected. The heroes of both are not just baffled by events; they become the subject of a conspiracy. They become entangled because of the sort of people they are, and both writers have succeeded in creating heroes whose behaviour is a convincing response to their circumstances.

You can read more about Michael Koryta here, and Michael Duffy here.

PS I’m surprised by one thing in The Tower, and it’s that a Detective Constable would be given so much responsibility in a case. In most British TV police procedurals, constables seem very much the lower orders (though admittedly that isn’t true of Detective Constable Rachel Bailey in Scott and Bailey).  Maybe it’s different in Australia. Having been a crime reporter, Duffy would presumably get such details right.

 

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In my last post on Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, I was wondering about the differences between science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy. This book falls squarely into the fantasy category, exhibiting what I think could be considered its defining characteristics: an imagined society where some element of magic, or paranormal power, is at work in everyday life.

Though by no means Robin Hobb’s first book, this is the first she wrote under that name, and published in 1995, is the first in the Farseer Trilogy. Since then, much of her extensive further writing has been set in the ‘Realm of the Elderlings’ which she first created in this book, with many of the same characters, including the hero of this one.  Fitz is the illegitimate son of Chivalry, a prince of the house of Farseer, rulers of the Six Duchies. This is a realm somewhere in the North, a bit reminiscent perhaps of Scotland, or Alaska, where Hobb lived for a time (and may still live). The society is quasi mediaeval, with a ruler, nobles and commoners, built around trade and crafts, but with an emphasis on defence against the Outislanders known as the Red-Ship Raiders. The ‘Elderlings’ are little discussed in this book, but seem to occupy a space above humans but below gods – some kind of mythic ancestors.

The story is about Fitz’s coming of age. It is a first person account, told from the perspective of a much older, more damaged Fitz – I was reminded of Merlin, though Fitz is not precisely a wizard. At the age of six he is left at a castle by his grandfather, who no longer wants to be responsible for Prince Chivalry’s bastard. From there he moves to the court of King Shrewd, where he begins his training – as an assassin – which seems to be a conventional – if secret – role in this society. Fitz is to learn ‘the fine art of diplomatic assassination’, or in other words, ‘the nasty, furtive, polite ways to kill people’. This training has nothing to do with the two sorts of paranormal power that exist in this society. Fitz clearly has the first – known as ‘the Wit’, an ancient and now discredited form of telepathy with animals. Such communication is an enormous comfort to a lonely boy, but is dangerous because the mind of the person exercising it can become one with the animal. The second power is ‘the Skill’. Skilling is a process whereby people can transfer thoughts. This capacity is usually inherited, but can be acquired by training, and the skilled practitioner can get inside anyone’s head, given the right conditions. (Think occlumency in Harry Potter.) Fitz clearly has some power of mind, but is it the Skill, and can he be taught to use it?

Hobb is a very good story teller and the tale of Fitz’s attempt to find a place in the world is interesting in itself. The court is full of intrigue; Fitz finds he has powerful enemies and few friends, and he faces the psychological dangers of loneliness and depression as well as physical ones. The Six Duchies are troubled by the Red Raiders, particularly after they have found a way to draw the humanity out of those they capture in their raids. Stripped of what makes them human, these people are left to terrorise the countryside. Then there are court politics, and Fitz’s role in them, making for a surprisingly exciting story. Why surprising? I guess it’s partly a dissonance between the rather courtly language and the level of ruthlessness and violence. It’s not exactly Game of Thrones, but it’s a bit closer than I expected it to be.

I’m sure Hobb wrote this book with the intention of making it the first in a series, and that may account for all the loose ends – they will be taken up in later books. The main loose end I was concerned about was the nature of the dehumanising power of the Red Raiders, which isn’t addressed at all until near the end of the book, and then inconclusively. I found the power of bonding with animals was well handled, but can see the potential, only just avoided, for sentimentality. Who can resist being friends with a puppy?

One measure of the success or otherwise of the first book of a trilogy is whether the reader wants to go on to the second one. I think I will, but not for a while. Hobb is considered one of the best fantasy writers around, and her achievement can only be assessed if the scope of her work is taken into account.

You can read more about Robin Hobb – born Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden – here. She initially published under the name Megan Lindholm, and these books seem to be more science fiction than fantasy. However since 1995, under the Robin Hobb pseudonym, she seems to have stuck exclusively to fantasy. But I noticed that she was Guest of Honour at a recent World Science Fiction Convention; maybe I should just give up on the distinctions.

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I might as well say straight up that I’m not suggesting that anyone else reads this. After a discussion with friends about what constitutes science fiction, as opposed to speculative fiction and to fantasy fiction, I remembered A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). It was one of the first of what I then called ‘science fiction’ stories that I had read, and, I thought, an impressive one. So I read it again. And it is impressive. It’s also a heavily Roman Catholic treatise on original sin. What was I thinking? And the re-reading didn’t really help with the science/speculative/fantasy fiction distinction either.

The book is in three sections. It is set somewhere that is just recognisable as North America in 3000 and something, the second section coming some hundreds of years after the first, and the third more hundreds after the second. In the first section, the world is barely surviving after a nuclear holocaust sometime in the past, the great ‘simplification’ that followed it – ie a purge of scientists and intellectuals – and the destruction of all but the most basic technology. An abbey in the desert founded by Father Leibowitz, a former technician, has a mission to preserve and propagate what little scientific knowledge remains; it has a meagre store of scraps of unrelated technical information, blueprints and manuals that no one now understands. An apparently chance meeting with a pilgrim leads Brother Francis to a buried fallout shelter, where further documents are found. Will this help or hinder the case for the canonisation of Leibowitz?

In the second section, small independent waring states have emerged, with a vestige of civil society. There are now a few secular scholars, and one of them wants to examine the memorabilia held in the abbey. Thon – a title a bit like Dr – Taddeo is a brilliant young natural philosopher. The abbey’s mission has been the preservation of literacy and learning. What possible danger could there be in his examining the abbey’s holdings? Taddeo says that he seeks ‘truth’, but he clearly represents technology designed to serve the power of the secular state. We get a hint of the incompatibility of church and state beliefs, more strongly developed later, when Taddeo looks at a peasant and sees a man who is ‘illiterate, superstitious, murderous.’ The cleric with him sees the ‘image of Christ’. Back at the abbey, the monks have deduced the idea of electricity from the fragments of information they hold, and have built a dynamo; they are apparently not opposed to technology as such. But for them, secular might and power count as nothing in the face of religious truth. The abbot welcomes Taddeo to the abbey, hoping a bridge can be built between the secular and the religious vision of knowledge. But is this possible?

In the third section, major powers have arisen capable of space travel, and again armed with nuclear weapons, this time located in space. But surely they have learnt the lessons of the past?

For all that the subject matter of this book is grim, Miller mostly writes with a light, even humorous touch. Readers are invited to smile at the superstitions of the monks, and to sympathise with the dilemmas of the abbots. We are given both sides of the debate, as in the rightness or otherwise of euthanasia in the third section. But the secular view is never allowed to win and underneath, there is a hard line Roman Catholicism at work. The themes of the rise of technology, the meaning of Christianity and the lust for secular power – the result of unrestrained original sin – tie the sections together. The mysterious pilgrim also plays a part in all three sections.

The book needs to be read in the context of Miller’s conversion to Roman Catholicism in the late 1940s and the ramping up of the Cold War in the 1950s. His war service also left him traumatised, particularly his part in bombing the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, as a result of which he embraced pacifism. The possibility of nuclear annihilation now seems less urgent than other threats to the world and its environment, but in the 1950s the crazy danger of the MAD policy – Mutually Assured Destruction – practised by both the Soviet Union and the West was a daily threat. Talk of fallout shelters and how they could be used was commonplace. Miller’s diatribe against the horrors of nuclear war may appear a bit over the top now, but would have seemed perfectly rational when the book was written, and when I first read it.

So is this science fiction? As I’ve noted before, Margaret Atwood makes a distinction between science fiction and speculative fiction where the latter is an extension of existing technical capabilities taken to their logical extreme. This leaves ‘science fiction’ as fiction dealing with wholly imagined physics and/or technologies. But what might have been only imagined in 1959, like the possibility of wholesale space travel, is merely ‘speculative’ now. (The Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, so it wasn’t entirely ‘new’, even then.) And where does the ‘dystopian’ label come in? I think perhaps that labels aren’t much use after all, and certainly not in books like this where the genres meet.

You can read a little more about Walter Miller here.

PS. Comparisons are probably as futile as labels, but I can’t help myself. Where else do we find monastic communities preserving learning after ‘sackings’ (read simplifications), while secular societies rise and fall around them? These same elements, and others I won’t give away, also appear in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (2008) – reviewed here. I’d love to know whether Stephenson ever read A Canticle for Leibowitz.

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Cutting for Stone (2009) isn’t directly autobiographical, but it has a bit of a documentary feel to it. This is because Verghese did have some of the Ethiopian and American experiences he writes about, and also because his career, other than being a writer, is as a doctor. The extensive medical detail in the book reflects his lived experience. It took a while for me to get into this book, but then I found it hard to put down.

The story begins with Marion Stone at the age of fifty looking back at his life in order to understand his relationship with his brother, and his father. Marion– named after the famous gynaecologist Marion Sims – and his conjoined twin Shiva were born in the ‘Missing’ hospital – a corruption of ‘Mission’- in Addis Ababa in 1954. Their mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, an Indian nun, died at their birth, and their father, Thomas Stone, a surgeon at the hospital, fled the country for reasons that seem heartless, but become clearer as the story unfolds. The boys are brought up at the hospital by Hemlatha (Hema) and Ghosh, the doctors who separated them at birth. They grow up with an expatriate perspective on the richness and colour, but also the poverty and political instability of Ethiopia. Each goes on to pursue a career in medicine, but of completely different kinds. And then there is Genet, the Eritrean girl they have grown up with. Where does it all go wrong?

The book is divided into four parts, though parts one and two only make up a third of the book. We know from the prelude that Marion is trying to reconstruct his past, and most of the book is narrated by him in the first person. However there is only so much that he can recount from personal knowledge, so the story in the shorter parts one and two is carried by others, such as Hema and Ghosh. These sections of the story, including that relating to his mother, are told in the third person. Later is the book, Verghese relies on having another important character tell his story to Marion. I find this mixing of first and third party accounts to be an annoying device, and it probably accounts for my initial difficulty in getting into the story. Once Marion takes over in part three, I felt much more comfortable with it. (Part three is his growing up in Addis Ababa, part four his time in America.)  However there are some events which are crucial to the story – two in particular – which happen, as it were, off-stage. Marion doesn’t take part in them, so can’t possibly describe them but Verghese hasn’t chosen to give the relevant characters – Shiva and Genet – voices of their own. So we are left with only Marion’s perceptions, and the effects of others’ actions on him, rather than an understanding of why they acted as they did. I’m probably being a bit harsh here; both Shiva and Genet are fully developed characters whose behaviour is consistent with the picture Verghese has drawn of them. But their actions are ultimately a function of plot more than character; they do what they must do for the working out of the mechanics of the story. And these mechanics are to my mind just a bit artificial. I was completely convinced by Marion, Hema and Ghosh, but not quite fully convinced by Sava and Genet.

The book is very long, largely because Verghese loves detail. And much of it is fascinating. You may or may not like the attention given to surgical procedures – it got a bit much for me sometimes – but it certainly gives a strong sense of reality to the book. Attitudes to medicine and its practice are central to the story, summed up when Marion thinks ‘Surely you couldn’t be a good doctor and a terrible human being’. Verghese’s own surgical practice has been very patient orientated – in the sense that you can learn more about patients’ needs by talking to them then you can by looking at data about their condition. The question ‘what treatment in an emergency room is administered by ear’ and its answer ‘words of comfort’ is important in the story. Verghese turns naturally to medical metaphors; speaking of a rift with his twin, Marion says: ‘If there were filaments and cords of yoke or flesh that kept our divided egg sticking together, I was taking a scalpel to them.’

The title, Cutting for Stone, is taken from a version of the Hippocratic oath which enjoins doctors not to operate to remove bladder (presumably?) stones, but to leave it to ‘surgeons’. This slightly enigmatic – and no longer used – formulation sounds more like an ancient demarcation dispute than a useful piece of advice, and I’m not sure of its application to the story. Certainly there are many references, or allusions, to cutting in relation to people called Stone; Thomas Stone fails to perform a caesarean section on the twins’ mother, the conjoined twins are cut apart, Marion could be said to be cutting for Stone in looking for his father, and there is other cutting which I won’t mention because it gives away the story. There is also division and conflict in Ethiopia. Perhaps the point is that cutting is one side of the coin and healing is the other – just as Marion is the mirror image of Shiva.  Both of the twins, Hema, Ghosh and Thomas Stone all seek to heal, which is what I guess this book is ultimately about. Marion cannot heal the rifts in Ethiopian society, but he does what he can to heal its inhabitants.

You can read more about Abraham Verghese here, and note the places where his experiences, and those he gives to Marion, coincide. And here is an interesting TED video in which he talks about the need for the human touch in medicine.

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