Monday 1 January 2018

The Casual Vacancy

So, number four of my unreviewed book backlog, not Harry Potter, but you can kind of recognise her style. I couldn't help but be curious about 'The Casual Vacancy' by J.K. Rowling having had Harry be a part of my life for so many years. She writes for grown ups pretty much like she writes for children, it's all about the plot. So councillor Barry Fairbrother drops dead in the golf club car park, and it sets the scene for some serious infighting in the village of Pagford, and a lot of long held secrets are going to get a public airing. While the characters and the presentation of social class are rather clich├ęd I found myself sucked into the drama in spite of myself, though with nobody to root for since pretty much everybody is either nasty or pathetic. In fact it is the nastiness that is her strength as a writer, because they were all nasty in different ways and the plot is driven by the behaviour of these nasty people. 

Here Howard and Maureen delight in announcing Barry's death to Parminder:

"Parminder remained quite still, with her hand in her purse. Then her eyes slid sideways to Howard.
'Collapsed and died in the golf club car park,' Howard said, 'Miles was there, saw it happen.'
More seconds passed.
'Is this a joke?' demanded Parminder, her voice  hard and high-pitched.
'Of course it's not a joke,' said Maureen, savouring her own outrage. 'Who'd make a joke like that?'
Parminder set down the oil with a bang on the glass-topped counter and walked out of the shop.
'Well!' said Maureen, in an ecstasy of disapproval. '"Is this a joke?" Charming!'
'Shock,' said Howard wisely, watching Parminder hurrying back across the Square, her trench coat flapping behind her. 'She'll be as upset as the widow, that one. Mind you, it'll be interesting,' he added, scratching idly at the overfold of his belly, which was often itchy, 'to see what she ...'
He left the sentence unfinished, but it did not matter: Maureen knew exactly what he meant. Both, as they watched the Councillor Jawanda disappear around the corner, were contemplating the casual vacancy: and they saw it, not as an empty space but as a magicians's pocket, full of possibilities." (p.41-2)

I didn't like the place because it had all the disadvantages of small village life, with snobbery and nosiness top of the list, and none of the nice community bonding that is supposed to exist there, so although I enjoyed the story and its denouement I did not care enough about anyone, not even poor Krystal and little Robbie, which meant it lacked something in the reading.

Beside the Ocean of Time

My other library find was 'Beside the Ocean of Time' by George Mackay Brown and it was another diversion from my usual reading. The author is best known as a poet and these stories certainly have the feel of viking saga and mythology, but very much rooted in the culture of the Scottish isles. The chapters follow Thorfinn Ragnarson, a young lad whose dissatisfaction with the mundanity of island living takes him away into daydreams about his own heroic past lives. It is all about the atmosphere and the picture that he paints of island life, people and history. 

Here is their neighbour, old Jacob, and his daughter Janet:

"He doesn't admit it, even to himself, but he has a dread that some young island man or other will come about Smylder, under the stars, to court her. Whatever would become of him if he were left alone?
So he speaks harshly to any young fellow who chances to linger round the planticru, or who speaks overlong to Janet at the grocery van on a Friday morning on the road outside.
But Janet seems not to be at all interested in suitors. She is quite happy with the cow, the flock of hens, the butter and cheese making, the baking and the brewing and spinning. The long grey wool flows from her fingers, taut and tough and fluent. Her white cheeses crumble at the first touch of the knife.
Even old Jacob acknowledges that Janet's broth is 'not bad' - by that he means that it is very good soup indeed. A tinker sits on the doorstep, among the first snowflakes, and drinks a mug of Janet's hot ale, and feels the glow in his toes and umbles and finger-ends.
Jacob comes in grousing from the lambing hill - everything has gone wrong - but after a plate of Janet's oatcakes spread thick with butter, he thinks things might come out all right in the end - the new lambs, though thirled to life on delicate threads, might live ..." (p.60)

The other quote is a wonderful example of the importance of myth and stories in Scottish culture, and how words bind people and their place together:

"The chief of Norday island said to the boy Thorfinn Ragnarson (you must understand, this was long before the time of the Vikings and the Norse settlers, and Thorfinn would have had a different name then, an early Celtic name long forgotten, but it was the same boy - that much is certain), 'Poet, this fort that our architect and masons are building so strong and true, it must be celebrated in a poem, or a dance of words, otherwise (though seemingly so solid) our tower can hardly be said to exist at all, all is but a shadow and a breath until the word invests it with strength and beauty. So, boy with the gift of language, you are to make the Song of the Broch. Only, you understand, boy, you must order the poem as if it issued from my mouth. I have no gift for language myself, but it carries more authority if the poem seems to come from the lord of the island. Make the poem soon, before the great ships overshadow us. Do it well, boy, and you will not be the poorer on account of it.'" (p.74)

It was a immersive journey through time, returning always to the hearth and home that, in the end, is where Thorfinn finds he belongs. Lovely, lovely writing and reading.

End of Days

Jenny Erpenbeck's 'The End of Days' was a random library find, picked up for the curious cover design, and kept for the description. It sounded a little like Kate Atkinson's 'Life After Life', a story of the different path's someone's life might take, but it could not have been more different. The book follows the generations of a completely nameless family through the decades of the 20th century. The characters are referred to as the child, younger daughter, mother, father, wife, husband, old woman, grandmother, with various other departed family members referred to in relation to those currently living. You have to pay close attention to recall who is who, since the women are all mothers and daughters. At various points in the story the daughter considers her life and where it is going and what choices she might take and we see what might have befallen. 

Here, during the war, her price is whispered by a man in the shadows:

"The man's whisperings insinuated themselves beneath the broad brim of her hat, slipping into her ear from behind. Two pounds of butter, fifty decagrams of veal, ten candles. Although the entire world lies open before her, which she thought might put an end to her hearing, she can hear what the man is offering in exchange for her person. Is she interested? Or would she rather return home, where what she called her life is taking place: her father reading his files, her little sister doing her homework, her mother calling her, her older daughter, a whore. Salome is being performed tonight. How long has it been since her parents went out together? Does she know a good reason not to accept? Or is she not so sure? When she turns around, she sees a young man, perhaps only slightly older than she is; he has no hat on, even though it's the middle of winter, so she sees his thin hair, by the time he's twenty-five he'll have a bald spot, she thinks, and she's surprised to see beads of sweat on his forehead in the middle of winter.
Two pounds of butter, he repeats, looking at her, fifty decagrams of veal, ten candles.
He says her price right to her face.
And why not twelve candles, she says and starts to laugh." (p.93-4)

As the book progresses the young woman ends up in communist Russia, where characters are referred to as 'Comrade' and she struggles to negotiate the complexities of the communist party. Here this neat parody of the catch 22 situations that are created by the bureaucracy:

"Her passport, too, has been a German passport ever since the Anschluss. Her passport, too, expired three weeks ago. Three times now the Soviet official she handed her document to for inspection took one look at it and slammed his window down in her face. Without a valid passport there's no extending her residency permit, no propusk, but she needs one in order to be allowed to go on living in her apartment. At least the building superintendent is still letting her go upstairs to her apartment at night, when no one will see, but it won't be long before the apartment is assigned to someone else. And then where will she go?
While she is writing the account of her life, she listens for the sound of the elevator. The day the elevator stops on her floor at around four or five in the morning - that will be the end. During the day, she sits in the coffeehouse Krasni Mak, red poppy, translating poems from Russian to German, for her own edification. Without a propusk, there's no getting a work permit either. The money she has left from her husband will be enough, if she spends it frugally, for the next two weeks at most. Then what?
At night, instead of sleeping, she works on the account of her life, which she is using to apply for Soviet citizenship. but what if there is no right answer on this test? Will there eventually be only a single thing left to feel for sure: that each of the comrades dying, here or in Germany, has finally reached his goal, while each who has survived all of this, here or in Germany, purchased his life with treason." (p.146-7)

The constantly changing account that she writes of her life becomes something of a symbol of the revisionist history that happened during this period. The book becomes not just a story of the women (mainly the women) but also the story of Europe and the trauma it suffered. The author is East German and the book is certainly a very avant garde European novel; though I had not heard of her she is obviously well respected and her works have been widely translated. Something very different from much of my reading, it shows how occasionally browsing the shelves can come up with interesting gems.

Days Without End

Happy New Year readers. My resolution this year should be to get my reviews done before I have forgotten why I liked the book, a very bad habit I seem to have acquired over the last few months ...

I started Sebastian Barry's 'Days Without End' months ago, abandoned it because it was a bit slow and then started taking it to work on night shift because I took a proper break and wanted to avoid having to talk to my co-workers (we did get into an unfortunate Brexit discussion which is generally not recommended at work). It is the tale told by Thomas McNulty of his chance meeting with John Cole and how, finding themselves out West in America, they begin to make their living by imitating women in a bar, dancing with the lonely men deprived of female company. As they get older they join the army and are involved in the ongoing brutal campaign against the native 'Indian' population and subsequently the Civil War. The two of them end up adopting a young Indian girl, orphaned by their own actions, and their devotion to each other, and to her, becomes the defining feature of the story. It was a terrible unstinting tale, never trying to gloss over the savagery of warfare. I kept reading through all the death and destruction because his writing just carries your through, and you long for these boys to find some peace. In some ways it is very like 'A Long Long Way', which I loved, in that it captures men in this awful place and time and makes them human despite the inhumanity of both their situation and their actions.

Too many quotes that encapsulate brutality, but this one shows the mundanity of it all:

"Caught-His-Horse-First and his band is pinned up in the barracks as the number one criminal. Sergeant pins the notice up himself. Colonel signs the order. Doesn't take the terror and the sorrow out of it but puts revenge in beside it as a brother. The Pawnee scouts come in eventually but when they can't give a good account for hightailing it the colonel reckons it's as good as desertion and they're shot. The major don't like it and says scouts ain't soldiers proper, you can't shoot them. Apart from that old and useful phrase nahwah which means howdy, no one speaks Pawnee and sign language don't cover this. Indians look puzzled, surprised and offended to be shot but they go to the wall with noble mien I must allow. You can't have nothing good in war without you punishing the guilty, the sergeant says with a savage air and no one says nothing against that. John Cole whispers to me that most times that sergeant he just wrong but just now and then he's right and he's right this time. I guess I'm thinking this is true. We get drunk then and the sergeant is clutching his belly all evening and then everything is blotted out till you awake in the bright early morning needing a piss and then it all floods back into your brain what happened and it makes your heart yelp like a dog." (p.80-1)