NW by Zadie Smith

20 April, 2015

NW

It’s been almost 15 years since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth blew her onto the literary scene as a major star-in-making. I’ve only read her debut and some of her short stories and essays, her observations and detailed commentary belying her tender years but there’s something so assured and sassy about her point of view and style, a mixture of the postmodern with traditional literature which just works. Reading NW, a grittier take on her depiction of northwest London, a dampening of youthful hope reminded me a lot of her peer, David Mitchell. Both have easy styles which belie their literary mastery. You know you are in the hands of true writer.

NW follows the almost mid-life crises of two best friends from the Caldwell Estate in Willesden, Leah Hanwell of Irish and Keisha Blake of Jamaican descent. It is a strong female friendship bound by memories and an understanding both don’t fully comprehend, surviving different ideologies, work ethic and interests. And like all friendships, it weathers choosing different career paths, lovers, marriage and babies.

We start with Leah, working for a charity, married to the man she loves but not wanting his babies. She sees her life drifting by, aimless, living just metres away from Caldwell Estate from which her mother Pauline so desperately tried to get away. They have escaped but not quite. And so she compares herself to Keisha, or Natalie, as she’s now known, a successful barrister married to an investment banker with two beautiful kids. She has penetrated far enough into the upper middle classes from Caldwell for even Leah to feel she no longer knows her friend. And yet there is a terrible ennui from which the two just can’t seem to escape. For Natalie, Leah is the one tumbling from one adventure into another, from her friends spouting philosophy to activism and the ubiquitous dreads. For Leah, Natalie has always focused on moving forward and making something of herself, stoic and resolute. And then there is Felix, thirty-something and finally taking the first steps towards turning his life around: a new relationship, the ‘One’. And poor Nathan, unable to claw his way out of the sink estate, destined to be the one lurking around the same old streets, his acquaintances keeping a wary distance.

Smith’s rendering of northwest London with its multicultural mix of peoples and lives is deftly done. Not much happens, what does is a slow lurch, seemingly unstoppable, of the fracturing of these thirty-somethings’ lives. Is this what it’s all about, seems to be the refrain running through this novel. It seems as though all the characters are caught by surprise at what life has in store for them, unable to grasp the happiness which is supposed to be within their reach. For both Leah and Keisha, their imposter syndrome is drowning out their current happiness, their families unable to understand them.

Overall, one wouldn’t label this a feelgood novel. There is a bittersweet inevitability to what happens to the characters even though you want to shake them by the shoulders and desperately slap them back to reality. But Smith subtly inserts moments of comedy and ordinariness which remind you of the absurdities of childhood and adolescence, the innocence and simplicity which we all seem to lose along the way. I can’t say I sympathised or even understood what these characters are going through, especially Keisha, and yet there is something about Smith’s writing that keeps you glued to the page. She writes beautifully and there is an immediacy, a relevance to her work that is rooted in the present. It’s a portrait of modern urban Britain, one that isn’t often portrayed in a lot of contemporary fiction, and because of this, it is refreshing.

Many in my reading group had issues with NW and I can see why. The novel is described as being about four friends but it’s really about Leah and Keisha. Felix and Nathan’s stories seem incidental although it does tie together a pretty loose arc. And it’s not a particularly easy read. However, I really enjoyed it, especially the scenes with Felix’ much older ex-lover in what reminded me of a Soho championed by Rupert Everett. And Smith’s writing is also a delight. So I now want to read The Autograph Book and On Beauty.

Do also check out out Kim’s review.

True Grit

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.

One of the main reasons I wanted to read True Grit by Charles Portis is that Donna Tartt has written an introduction about how much she loves the book. That alone would have pushed me to read a book in a genre I don’t normally reach out for but also serendipitously I found out my 8 year old nephew had borrowed the book off his best friend and now wanted to lend it to me. How could I say no?

Frank Ross, on a trip to buy horses, is shot by his employee Tom Chaney and robbed. When his daughter Mattie travels across Arkansas to claim her father’s body, she makes it her business to find Chaney and get justice for her father’s murder. For a fourteen year old, she has determination and savvy that reluctantly, and grudgingly, earns her respect. For she has set her sights on Rooster Cogburn, the meanest Federal marshal there is, to accompany her to find the fugitive who has fled into dangerous Indian territory. Mattie’s pursuit of a man with true grit who will help her find her father’s killer and the rough terrain and desperate men she must subdue in order to get her justice is recounted in a gloriously stark way by Portis who eschews sentimentality for an honest, gritty portrayal of the Wild West and the characters who populate it.

Portis’ novel surprised me in many ways. As well as the plot, which is a rather straightforward tale chronicling the hunt for justice, Portis throws in some fine characters and it is these people that Mattie encounters and her interactions with them that really bring out her character. Mattie and Rooster are brilliantly portrayed through their actions and dialogue. The latter, a grizzled bear of a man who spent his whole life amongst desperate men with nothing to lose and who is one himself. And yet there is a touching honesty to Rooster’s approach to life and others.

In negotiations with Mattie, he is matter of fact yet surprisingly playful,

‘If I’m going up against Ned Pepper I will need a hundred dollars. I have figured out that much. I will want fifty dollars in advance.’
‘You are trying to take advantage of me.’
‘I am giving you my children’s rate,’ he said.

It is exchanges like this that lifts what could be a grim tale into something a little more nuanced.

This is also in contrast to the Texas Ranger, Sergeant LaBoef (pronounced LaBeef) who is handsome and vain and who is also on the hunt for Chaney. He quickly colludes with Rooster, trying hard to prevent Mattie from joining them but Mattie is resolute and her doggedness wins her their grudging approval and soon the trio make their way across hostile Indian territory.

Mattie herself is a conservative, sober character, older than her years and yet with a naive view of the world where justice prevails and good and evil exist in stark contrast. It is her encounter with Rooster that gradually changes her perception of moral complexity. She is pedantic and often quotes from the Bible and yet she isn’t bound by conventional social rules, defying her mother and family lawyer’s wish that she return immediately for fear of her safety. In some ways, Portis’ portrayal of Mattie’s adventure resembles what we would probably expect in a conventional boy’s adventure. It’s certainly not what I expected for a girl of fourteen who is on the cusp of adulthood. The usual dangers one would expect didn’t really manifest or weren’t overtly stated. But it’s also one of the reasons why I loved True Grit. How rare is it to find such a strong character and one that is female?

Mattie went in search of Rooster Cogburn with the words,

They tell me you are a man with true grit.

But we end the story realising that it is Mattie herself who has true grit. The ending itself is not what I expected and perhaps that is also another reason why the story remains so vivid in my mind. True Grit is indeed a special book, something altogether quite rare. Although it’s been adapted onto the big screen a couple of times, I do urge you to read the book. The writing is stark but it brings Mattie alive.

I wanted to know what it was about True Grit that captivated Tartt and I think I found it. There is a semblance of Mattie Ross in Harriet Dufresnes, the protagonist of Tartt’s The Little Friend. Mattie is, of course, older and much stronger. But it has made me itch to re-read The Little Friend again and, perhaps, see it with new eyes. I’ll leave you with a quote from Tartt which beautifully captures what at some point we all feel when we encounter that special book.

It’s a commonplace to say that we ‘love’ a book, but when we say it, we really mean all sorts of things. Sometimes we mean only that we have read a book once and enjoyed it; sometimes we mean that a book was important to us in our youth, though we haven’t picked it up in years; sometimes what we ‘love’ is an impressionistic idea glimpsed from afar (Combray … madeleines …Tante Leonie …) as opposed to the experience of wallowing and plowing through an actual text, and all too often people claim to love books they haven’t read at all. Then there are the books we love so much that we read them every year or two, and know passages of them by heart; that cheer us when we are sick or sad and never fail to amuse us when we take them up at random; that we press on all our friends and acquaintances; and to which we return again and again with undimmed enthusiasm over the course of a lifetime. I think it goes without saying that most books that engage readers on this very high level are masterpieces; and this is why I believe that True Grit by Charles Portis is a masterpiece.

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith

30 March, 2015

Agent 6

From the perspective of the secret police concealing a diary was a crime regardless of its content. It was an attempt to separate a citizen’s public and private life, when no such gap existed.

And so we come to the concluding volume in Tom Rob Smith’s Soviet trilogy featuring ex-MGB operative Leo Demidov which began with Child 44 and continued in The Secret Speech. Agent 6 takes up the tale several years after The Secret Speech. It is 1965 and Raisa, now a headmistress and on the government’s education board has been given the task of taking a select group of pupils to the United States as a gesture of dialogue between the two conflicting countries. But she is under strict orders to maintain all proper guidelines as anything untoward will affect the world’s view of the USSR. Naturally Leo is unhappy with this, afraid that once Raisa and their daughters, who are accompanying her, leave Russia something will go wrong and he’ll never see them again. And even more so when he discovers his younger daughter Elena’s diary which has been secreted away in their flat. He has a bad feeling about all of this and his instincts are never wrong.

And so Leo is once again caught in history’s talons, his destiny controlled by others. When the trip to the States ends in catastrophe, Leo once again finds himself on the wrong side of the State but this time he is out for revenge. No matter what happens, he is determined to get to the bottom of the events which tore apart his family and the people who orchestrated them.

It is several years before Leo comes even close to finding out what happened in the States, but he never gives up. He re-enlists in the army and goes to Afghanistan, trying to forget his pain all the while planning on his next move while trying to keep his family safe. Smith interweaves Leo’s present barren predicament with short, sharp vignettes from his past. From his early career as an MGB agent to his first meeting with Raisa and later life in Kabul in the 1980s, Agent 6 presents a wide sweep of Soviet history and the shifting political landscape including the prevalence of McCarthyism in the States. Even in two such ideologically different countries, Smith skillfully shows how the methods of intimidation and relentless persecution don’t differ that much. Leo is a child of Stalinist Russia and his inherent paranoia and instinct for survival will never disappear. As much as Agent 6 is a novel of betrayal and revenge, it is also one of love and loss.

Introducing the character of Jesse Austin, a famous black American jazz singer who is a vocal supporter of Communism, gives Smith an opportunity to show how Communism was perceived in the States and the ways in which the Soviets tried to exploit their most loyal overseas supporters. The scenes in which a young Leo is ordered to look after Austin on his visit to Moscow in the 1950s, how everything from his meeting with workers to a visit to the grocery store is orchestrated is almost comical if you can dismiss the consequences of anything going wrong. Austin’s subsequent persecution back in his own country is heartbreaking but is also a testament to the many victims of McCarthyism in the 1960s.

I wasn’t sure how Smith was going to top Child 44 and The Secret Speech, having crammed so much into both novels from politics to human nature. In Agent 6, he takes Leo’s story outside the USSR to New York and Kabul and the rise of the Taliban, although in hindsight, the career trajectory of an ex-Soviet agent is probably pretty limited. However, I’m not sure how successful this novel is compared to the previous two and how overall satisfying the ending is, although it’s probably the most realistic which, contrarily, is something I really liked about the novel. Perhaps Smith’s strength lies in his depiction of Soviet Russia, which he brings to life in all its frosty glory and paranoia.

But the characters of Leo and Raisa are firmly entrenched and you can only continue reading to find out what happens to them and their family. The trilogy, although slightly uneven, is a triumph.

Secret Speech

She’d justified teaching such falsehoods since it was necessary that her students learn the language of adulation, the vocabulary of State worship without which they’d be vulnerable to suspicion.

Tom Rob Smith’s The Secret Speech follows on from his searing debut Child 44 and is set seven years after the life-changing events that sent former MGB agent Leo Demidov and his wife Raisa on the run and to the brink of death and back. Leo now oversees the newly minted Homicide Department together with his partner Timur, who previously helped Leo as a fugitive, and Raisa is back teaching. Together with two traumatised orphan sisters whom Leo and Raisa have adopted, they are slowly rebuilding their fractured lives.

But once again Leo is thrust into the glare of the Soviet government when ex-members of the MGB start turning up dead, all found with a page of a supposedly secret speech Khruschev is rumoured to be giving, a speech so explosive it will overturn the USSR as they know it and the lives of all of its loyal citizens. Retribution is coming and people are afraid. Without having access to this speech and when they do get a copy, tainted, both Leo and Raisa must navigate the treacherous path that binds their lives to that of the State. For the State knows everything and will do anything to control you. Even if it means you must renounce your previous beliefs.

Smith is a master at cranking up the tension and paranoia as he did in Child 44. The happiness Leo and Raisa have finally attained is brief before they are thrust into danger once again. And this time, they have two young, vulnerable girls to protect. As both Leo’s and Raisa’s pasts come back to haunt them, they increasingly risk losing the love of their elder daughter Zoya, who cannot forgive Leo for her parents’ deaths. With a teenager bent on anarchism to control, Leo needs to once again rely on his skills as well as those of his family to protect them all. Because he has also been sent a page from the secret speech signalling that whoever is behind the lynching is after him too.

This time, Smith delves into the underground world of the Soviet gangs forged in the Siberian Gulags, the vory, and their wrathful leader bent on revenge. As well as terrifying descriptions of the huge prison ships transporting prisoners to the Gulags, he is also adept at bringing to life the fervour and naïveté of young revolutionaries, brainwashed and who want to overthrow the USSR in the annexed states on the edges of Russia. With enemies all around him who would do anything to hurt his family, can Leo save them?

I loved this as much as I loved Child 44. Leo is still a very interesting character, trying so hard to change and earn the love of Raisa who he knows is prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their children, even if it means letting go of him. But the one thing you know about Leo is that he never gives up. He’s like a Soviet era Jason Bourne but with a little more feeling. And what can I say about Raisa? I love her character. She’s strong, resilient and is as much of a survivor as Leo. Smith has created a truly independent and intelligent character in Raisa who would do anything to protect her loved ones. Leo is led by instinct but it is Raisa who uses her brain. And no one character is easy or one dimensional in this novel, especially Zoya, Leo and Raisa’s eldest daughter, so full of anger and grief that she cannot see through the choices she makes, only it’s immediacy, how it would hurt Leo. And she does this admirably. It seems Leo is destined to be surrounded by strong women he cannot control.

There is a lot of history and politics packed into The Secret Speech but the engaging and immediacy of Smith’s prose will keep you turning the pages. Read it! But only after you’ve read Child 44.

Child 44

Fear was cultivated. Fear was part of his job. And for this level of fear to be sustained it needed a constant supply of people fed to it.

Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 was all over the internet when I first started reading book blogs in 2008 and just before I started blogging myself. Reading about it everywhere made me very curious and every year I’d been meaning to give it a go but other books got in the way. But I’ve finally done it and in some ways I’m glad I waited because sometimes too much hype kills a book for me and Child 44 is one that fits perfectly into my perpetual fascination with all things Russian and Soviet era which began all those years ago with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and even further back with my father’s love of Marxism as a student with a political conscience.

What is it about Soviet Russia that still draws readers to novels set in that historical era? Shrouded in layers of secrecy, it’s only now that we are getting a clearer picture of how the Russians and their neighbours survived in such harsh times. Tom Rob Smith sets his tale in the 1950s just as Stalin’s power is waning with his health although the entrenched paranoia and cruelty is already an established force in Soviet political and daily life.

Terror was necessary. Terror protected the Revolution.

Leo Demidov is a proud believer in the Soviet State and a senior MGB officer at the Lubyanka, rooting out dissidence and upholding the reputation of the Soviet Union. A decorated officer, he lives a comfortable life with a beautiful wife, a nice apartment, access to food and goods and has been able to elevate his parents’ lives too. When he is ordered to pacify a colleague’s family after the death of their son, little does he know that this will start a chain of events which will lead to his career downfall and an epiphany so momentous that he will emerge a new man. A man with a conscience. As he ponders his past actions, he must confront the monster he has become just as he slowly realises that the death of his colleague’s son is not an accident but that there are more mutilated children’s corpses dotted around Russia which have been officially overlooked and swept aside. As he tries to salvage his soul, Leo begins to look into the murders and realises there is a serial killer on the loose. But in a State where the crime rate is supposed to be 0%, acknowledging a crime has happened is itself a crime. As Leo goes on the run with his wife, Raisa, time is running out as his rival, Vasili, who is determined to bring Leo down, closes in on him. Will Leo and Raisa catch the serial killer and, more importantly, can they survive in their own country? Because everyone has secrets, even Leo and Raisa.

Child 44 is indeed a tour de force, fast-paced and relentless and yet it dwells more on the state of Leo’s repentance and redemption that on the killings themselves based on the real-life serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. This is a welcome change to all the gore and violence so prevalent in today’s crime fiction which seem unnecessary when you realise that the real fear lies in the whispers of punishment and retribution that all Soviet citizens face if they put one foot wrong. Smith is masterful in showing the underlying fear and what people needed to do for survival in Stalin’s Russia. That you can trust no one is hammered into you from childhood, to have affection and sentimentality may mean your death. That you have choice in your life is also another. It’s a culture so close to ours and yet so alien.

Smith’s characters are full-bodied and in Leo, he has created someone who is not perfect and in some ways very naïve considering the kind of work he does. Outwardly, he is perfect, strong, trained in all the survival skills required as a soldier and operative. But emotionally, it is Raisa who is the stronger and who changes their relationship with each other. I love Raisa’s character, she is as strong as Leo, maybe not physically, but definitely mentally. And I can’t wait to read more about them in The Secret Speech and Agent 6, which complete the trilogy.

There’s a film based on the book coming out soon but I urge you to read the book first!

Blackout

After racing through both Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, I was keen to return to Connie Willis’ world, Oxford circa 2065, mixed with time travel back to the Blitz. As much as I enjoyed the light tone of To Say Nothing of the Dog, I was hoping that Blackout and All Clear would be closer to the darker, sombre and menacing mood in Doomsday Book. And it was and so much more.

Blackout and All Clear are two parts of one grand novel and so I will discuss them together. Set seven years after Doomsday book, we are once again reunited with Dr. Dunworthy, his team at Balliol College and Colin Templar who was just a boy in the earlier novel. Colin is now in his final year at school and preparing to get into Oxford to study under Dunworthy, his dream of time-traveling still unabated and perhaps stoked a little by his crush on Dunworthy’s student Polly who is sent back to 1940s London together with fellow history students Merope and Michael in order to complete their finals. All are armed with their required survival skills and knowledge including a list of crisis points and bombing schedules to keep them safe. Polly will be arriving in London to work as a shop girl, Merope as a maid in a country house to study evacuees and Michael, armed with an American accent to pass muster as a journalist, to study local heroes.

Everything goes smoothly for Merope who has been working for a couple of months looking after children from the East End, but as soon as Polly and Michael appear, things start to go wrong. Due to the build up of slippage, they arrive at different coordinates and time which means they are stranded. But confident in the information they possess, they try to get to where they are meant to be, looking for work and their contacts. And so begins their quest for survival as they slowly realise that their team in Oxford have no idea where or when they are when they fail to rendezvous and report back to their lab. There is no way back except to pray that Dunworthy will come to save them in time. For the clock is ticking and the list of expected bombing dates is only as long as their carefully planned stay. In the meantime, Merope finds herself in charge of two East End tearaways, Michael finds himself in Dunkirk, the last place he expected to be and one which should have been impossible as it is a major crisis point, and Polly finds herself drawn into an amateur acting troupe in her local shelter.

Both Blackout and All Clear are all about the race against time. Will Merope, Polly and Michael manage to find each other? And even if they do, will they be able to send messages back into the future for Mr. Dunworthy to mount a rescue operation? As the days pass and the dangers increase, Polly can only pray that Colin will do as he has promised; that he will come and find her wherever she is.

Willis has really outdone herself here. Apart from conjuring up how it must have felt like to be alive during this time, the constant fear, unexpected camaraderie and kindnesses, the resilience of the common people which broke through the class barrier which is reminiscent of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch in its depiction of London, she has also built this into an intricate plot with time travel, parallel timelines and history assignments. For the one cardinal rule of time-travel is that you can go back as many times as you like except you can’t inhabit the same time and place twice. There is a deadline and one of the students is in danger unless they can get out in time.

I keep saying this again and again; Willis has created a credible and vibrant universe, not so different from our own in which time-travel exists with all its paradoxes and problems of slippage. Her time-travel theories are in themselves fascinating but it is her story-telling and characters which will remain with you long after you finish reading her novels. It’s difficult to do her novels justice when trying to describe them, her plots are intricate and she really brings alive the historical periods into which she delves. And it’s not surprising that Blackout and All Clear have won the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2011 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novel. So I do urge you, go and read them!

All Clear

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Because around a crisis point, even the tiniest action can assume importance all out of proportion to its size. Consequences multiply and cascade, and anything – a missed telephone call, a match struck during a blackout, a dropped piece of paper, a single moment – can have empire-tottering effects.

Following on from Doomsday Book which saw one of the Oxford historians sent back in time to a plague-ridden Middle Ages, Connie Willis returns with To Say Nothing of the Dog (or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last) set in 2057 in Oxford but this time with a different set of students to probe Victorian England.

History student Ned Henry has been sent on several trips to the 1940s and even further back by the formidable Lady Schrapnell, who has hijacked all time-traveling personnel in Oxford, to search for the legendary bishop’s bird stump, a hideous ornament lost in the bombing of Coventry Cathedral during the Blitz. Trying to escape the tedium of combing through Edwardian jumble sales looking for clues as to the whereabouts of the bishop’s bird stump, Ned jumps at the chance to travel to the Victorian period on a job for Mr. Dunworthy of Balliol College. Unfortunately, due to severe time-lag, he falls asleep just as Mr. Dunworthy is prepping him on his mission and consequently arrives in Victorian Oxford without a clue as to what he must actually accomplish carrying only a covered basket. This sets in motion a number of unforeseen events. All he knows is that his mission has to do with a place called Muching’s End and a boat.

Looking for his contact, he falls in with a student named Terence St Trewes with a dog named Cyril who hires a boat to Muching’s End to chase after Tossie Mering who turns out to be Lady Shrapnell’s ancestor. Tossie is looking for her cat Princess Arjumand who has gone missing and, it later transpires, has been rescued from drowning by Ned’s fellow student Verity Kindle, thereby possibly altering time.

Verity returns to Muching’s End to ensure she hasn’t changed anything and to ensure Tossie gets to Coventry where she will meet her destiny and to enlist Ned to make sure history happens as it’s written. As both Verity and Ned navigate the social etiquette of Victorian Britain, trying to make sure they evade suspicion while completing their mission, it becomes increasingly clear that Mr. Dunworthy has plans of his own. Can Verity manage to evade the problems caused by her actions? And can Ned prevent Tossie and Terence from getting together? And will they find the blasted bishop’s bird stump?

Throw a dodgy spiritual medium into the mix and Willis has created a comedy of errors whilst also addressing the paradoxical nature of time travel. Discussions about slippage and consequences of actions are well thought out and once again Willis’ fascinating portrayal of time travel is a winner. However, To Say Nothing of the Dog is very different in tone to its predecessor Doomsday Book. We are once again reunited with Mr. Dunworthy and his team, but this novel is much more light-hearted; a comedy of manners with lots of missed chances, misunderstanding and unexpected twists.

It took me a while to get used to this new style but in the end Willis managed to hook my interest with her intricate plotting, a nice mixture of Austen and Christie with a conscious homage to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!). As I haven’t read the novel, I doubtless missed any references which may have added to my pleasure however this didn’t in any way detract from my enjoyment. Winner of the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1999, To Say Nothing of the Dog is a difficult novel to summarise, so intricate is the plotting, but I urge you to try Willis’ work – it’ll be like nothing else you’ve read before.

Next stop: Blackout/All Clear.

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