Uprooted

You can find my review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik in Issue 6 of Shiny New Books! today so do check it out. I am now very tempted to try her Temeraire series. Have you read them?

In other news, there’s been a bounty of interesting books on my bedside table including Mrs. Engels by Gavin McCrea, The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas, The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter, The Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare, The First Bad Man by Miranda July and The House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy.

I seem to have caught a bit of Sagan fever after finishing Sagan, Paris 1954 by Anne Berest about the day Françoise Sagan’s life changed with the publication of Bonjour Tristesse. And of course, I went straight out to buy a copy of that controversial debut novel to re-read. Seems like Sagan is still a pretty controversial figure. I’ve always had a soft spot for her since I frst read Bonjour Tristesse as a teenager. What’s your stance on her?

And I am finally reading Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow after meaning to delve into his work for so many years. My mother says his writing is beautiful and I should really read it in Japanese but that’s not going to happen. So far, he’s been surprising me.

Master and Margarita 2

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is one of the books I purchased from what used to be Dillons on Gower Street, now Waterstone’s, when I was an earnest student trying to broaden my knowledge of literature. As a science undergrad, I spent hours in the bookshop perusing books to read rather than face my sums. With one aborted attempt many years ago, I assumed it would be one of those novels I would get to at some point, even though so many of you have told me how much you loved it. So I was really happy when Polly decided it’ll be our next choice for our book group. It seems many of us had it tucked away on our shelves too.

At the beginning of the novel when the writers Berlioz and Bezdomny meet Woland, a suspicious individual claiming to be a magician, little do they know that this will throw Moscow into an upheaval leading up to Easter. Having been subjected to a vision of Pontius Pilate, they are naturally spooked and escape but this sets off a series of unfortunate events from Berlioz’s death to the sectioning of Bezdomny, the disappearance of his flatmate, the seizure of his prized Moscow flat and so on until everyone connected to each other has been randomly traumatised in some way. All orchestrated by Woland, who may or may not be the Devil, and his familiars, Azazel, the witch, the choirmaster and a humongous cat named Behemoth, they wreak havoc all over the city beginning with a huge magic show which throws the audience into hysteria when wads of cash appear and all the ladies are left disrobed. Bulgakov leads us on a merry chase through the absurdities of Moscow life from the privileged status of the literati to the paranoia aimed at foreigners, the shortage of good housing and food to the forbidden love that springs from unhappiness and ennui.

At the psychiatric hospital, Bezdomny meets the Master who has had his novel rejected and in his despair succumbed to madness and abandoned his lover. The Master had written about Pilate, the very same tale told by Woland, where we are again transported two thousand years back when the flawed Roman procurator of Yershalaim meets the one man who will change him but isn’t strong enough to save him.

In the second half of the book, we meet the Master’s lover Margarita, desperate to find him and wreak revenge on his critics. When Woland promises her whatever she wants, she agrees to do his bidding and becomes a witch, presiding over a spectacular ball where all the evil characters throughout history file through and are given their just desserts. But will she get what she deserves?

Reading the book, it struck me, as I am sure it did others, on the odd choice of the title. Both the Master and Margarita don’t appear in the novel until several chapters in, and even then, I’m not even sure whether they are the main protagonists, perhaps just vehicles to push through Bulgakov’s agenda. It’s a curiously difficult novel to characterise; from one angle, it is a comedy so like many Russian and European novels of the period with its nod to romanticism and artistic angst. And yet, there is always the spectre of violence which you cannot escape, Bulgakov’s present seeping into the fiction. Written between 1929 and 1940, The Master and Margarita was meant to be Bulgakov’s magnum opus even though he didn’t expect it to be published, what with his experiences with censorship and the tightening of freedom of expression which characterised Stalin’s rise to power. It’s at once a novel bridging the gap between the pre- and mid-Soviet eras, the former using only allusions to the present political state while maintaining some of the frivolity of an earlier age and the latter, the violence and paranoia revealed in full in the Master’s tale of Pontius Pilate.

The first half is much more sombre and complex than the second, possibly because it was more heavily edited. Bulgakov passed away soon after he finished his manuscript but without completing the editing. The Picador edition I read had notes and a detailed afterword which set the novel in context and gave a richer understanding of the novel. There is so much symbolism in The Master and Margarita and anyone who has read Goethe’s Faust would be in no doubt of the similarity although Bulgakov has made it his own and set it in the world he knows best. There are allusions to literary and musical figures throughout the novel and I particularly enjoyed Satan’s Grand Ball where Bulgakov introduces a slew of evil characters from history. However, what is with all the women being naked and men in tails? I just found it increasingly annoying that the female characters were either hags or witches, who are naked, naturally, although none of the men were drawn sympathetically either.

Bulgakov’s style is light and deft, his prose vibrant, colourful and visual. Woland’s visit to Moscow is just like a little break where they thoroughly enjoy themselves. And I really loved the bit at the end when Woland and his troupe return to their original forms, much more sombre and darker than what they exhibited on their holiday.

Although The Master and Margarita would benefit from a second reading once you realise the political and social implications of what Bulgakov is trying to convey, I really enjoyed reading this brilliantly bonkers novel. That satire is taken so seriously preventing publication for 26 years says much about the political regime. Even though the chapters set in Moscow may not come across as heavily Stalinesque, his reign of terror had already begun with arrests and disappearances and we see this in the increasingly crazy turn the novel takes as Bulgakov’s tale spins out of control.

Poirot

Last week I attended the Guardian Book Club where author Sophie Hannah and literary critic John Mullan discussed Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.

You may not know this already but I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. I discovered her mysteries when I stumbled upon a copy of Murder on the Links hidden away on a bookshelf in my grandfather’s house in Sri Lanka one hot summer. It probably belonged to one of my aunts and uncles but I took it with me when I left. I never learnt who it belonged to but I still have my well-thumbed copy and it still remains my favourite mystery to this day.

What is it about Christie’s novels that has ensnared millions of readers? For me, it was the sheer shock of finding the murderer was not who I expected. Stunned, I can still remember wondering how she managed to fool me. And with each novel, I would make a guess and get it wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t handle the tension and would take a furtive peek at the final pages which would inevitably spoil the rest of the novel for me but I just couldn’t help myself. And so my love affair with Christie began when I was nine and I went through her entire crime oeuvre, spending hours in English bookshops in far flung Asian cities counting the titles I had and hadn’t read, waiting for the special days when I was allowed to buy a book. Admittedly I did get better at guessing the murderer as I went through her novels but it was more a gut feeling. And once I got over that, I really began to enjoy her cast of characters and unraveling her fiendish plots.

So I was excited to hear Hannah’s views on Christie. Most of you will know by now that Hannah was chosen by Christie’s estate to write the new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, which was published last year . I, like many, was nervous about reading it but was completely won over by her intricate plotting and handling of Poirot. And I wasn’t surprised to learn that Hannah is on her third re-reading of Christie’s crime novels. Impressive stuff. She has a great love for Christie and her work, although she admits she is not as knowledgeable as John Curran, Christie’s archivist and author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making, whom she would phone with questions when writing The Monogram Murders for which he would have instant answers.

For the Guardian Book Club, Hannah chose to discuss Death on the Nile partly because she wanted something different to the usual choice which is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, probably one of Christie’s most infamous novels, but also because it is one of the few that is successful in all mediums – book, tv and film. It is also one where you meet the characters going about their daily business before the actual murder occurs.

As much as they were bestsellers, I recall most notably in an English literature class at school that Christie’s novels were considered derivative and her characters two-dimensional, criticisms which still echo in genre fiction today. As young as I was, I did wonder why books you could race through weren’t considered serious literature however well written. It didn’t stop me reading or loving her novels, and when I re-read Elephants Can Remember a few years ago, I was surprised at how dark the plot was and how tightly written the prose. Hannah does point this out saying it’s an unfair label. She believes the characters need to appear to be two dimensional at first before the unveiling of the third dimension by the detective.

Christie’s strength lies in her interest in the psychology of crime especially how we assess others. She lets the readers mislead themselves and only at the unmasking do you realise your error in judgement. And one of the devices she uses in her novels is that a large proportion of her subjects are hiding something, all are guilty of something but perhaps not the murder. No one is perfect, everyone has a flaw. Christie is unparalleled in her understanding of character, human nature and psychology.

On accusations of stereotyping and stylised settings, Hannah does acknowledge that Christie recycles setting and plot devices but her tales are so interesting that readers don’t mind. A reader pointed out that The Murder on the Nile was somewhat similar to Endless Night and Mullan clocked on to a similar echo of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove which brought about a discussion on the limitations of plot. In some contemporary crime novels, the mystery isn’t enough to sustain the reader’s interest and so they pile on the bodies, but Christie doesn’t need to do this. However Hannah pointed out that Christie was fascinated by the possibilities of the crime novel and tried every possible permutation. She instinctively understood what every novel needed and was in total control. Christie is famous for being a meticulous planner before she put pen to paper and this can be seen in the very intricate way in which Christie manipulates her novels’ timelines. This was one aspect of the crime novel with which Hannah had difficulty and is also probably one of the reasons why she finds it so difficult to pinpoint Christie’s culprit.

For the serious mystery reader, the inability to guess the murderer is crucial. Christie overtly draws your attention to the clues, she is never sly or frugal in this, but still manages to fool you. You don’t know until the second Poirot or Miss Marple starts explaining who the murderer is. And she does this all the while increasing the tension bit by bit until you just have to know who did it.

The event ended with Hannah describing Miss Marple as a bit of a misanthrope and Poirot a romantic who liked to play cupid, often directing the attentions of a young lady away from a handsome rake to a slightly boring but more suitable man. Her favourite secondary character is Jane, Lady Edgware, in Lord Edgware Dies and one of her top ten favourite novels is After the Funeral as well as The Body in the Library which she says is flawless.

It was just a lovely evening to hear someone who loves Christie as much as I do talk about various aspects of her work and it has reawakened my urge to re-read some of Christie’s novels again as well as dip into John Curran’s books.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for Agatha Christie’s novels. If you have read them, which is your favourite mystery? And if you haven’t read any yet, which one would you like to start with?

Station Eleven

Longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction and winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award this year, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven seems to have blown through the literary world garnering praise from readers across genres. A dystopian novel featuring a travelling band of Shakespearean actors, what is it that made so many fall in love with this novel?

Set 20 years after a flu pandemic originating in Georgia and carried via air travel from the from the Caucasus decimated almost all life, there are still pockets of areas where people have survived and are adjusting to a new world without ready energy, access to communication or any of the mod cons that bolster modern life. It’s recent enough for many to have memories of what life was life before the pandemic but increasing numbers of the survivors are forgetting or have no memories at all.

Station Eleven goes back and forth from the dystopian present to the period just before the pandemic breaks out in the States and follows a cast of characters beginning with the tough as nails actress Kirsten who remembers her last night as a child actress working with the legendary Arthur Leander before he collapsed on stage and who treasures the copy of the comic book, Station Eleven, which he gave to her shortly beforehand. Having lost her family in the aftermath, she is picked up by The Travelling Symphony a few years later and never looked back. Then there is Jeevan, a trainee paramedic who was the first to realise Arthur was dying and tried to help him, the first also to get a call from his best friend, a doctor in A&E, who told him of the people coming in sick and who warned him to get out of town. And then there is Arthur and his three wives, Miranda who dreamt of creating a comic book, superseded by Elizabeth, an actress who went to live in Israel with their son and a third he was in the middle of divorcing. And Arthur’s best friend Clark who is on a flight when the pandemic breaks and becomes stranded in an airport in the middle of nowhere. All these characters play a part in this tale, strangers to each other but connected in the most spectacular way. And then there is the mysterious Prophet who emerges many years later, going from town to town, offering salvation through submission and violence. The Travelling Symphony must avoid him to survive yet this is becoming increasingly difficult, especially since it is almost inevitable that the small number of survivors will run into each other.

I’m still in two minds about this novel. In one, I feel that perhaps the dystopian elements in the novel weren’t as cleverly rendered as in David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and felt a little simplistic. And yet, the spare manner in which the different parts of Mandel’s tale coalesce produce something that is remarkable. I can’t seem to get Station Eleven out of my mind. I’m not sure whether the fact that The Travelling Symphony puts on Shakespearean plays makes it more acceptable than a genre novel or whether genre is becoming mainstream, but somehow, the Shakespearean aspect of the book seems negligable just like the fictional comic book, Station Eleven. What remains is the horror and despair that won’t subside even after twenty years. The pandemic remains alive in the characters’ minds and they are still numb, surviving on autopilot. Station Eleven ultimately is a book about community, how you cannot survive without others. That even if you do survive, you will seek out others, just to know you aren’t going mad.

One of the things I loved about the book is the community that sprung up in the airport. It happened organically, naturally, as though there was no other way except to keep going. And even though you know that you can survive and adapt pretty quickly, the idea itself that power, electricity and all mod cons can just disappear so quickly is terrifying. More than the violence people can do to each other. That if you lose those things, the world is irrevocably changed.

Station Eleven turned out to be a haunting novel, although in ways I didn’t expect. Mandel’s imagery is vivid and remains branded in my mind, especially the hulks of the ships off Singapore where Miranda is sent on a business trip just as the pandemic breaks, ships built during the financial bubble but with nowhere to go, lit up to avoid collision, huge ghostly hulks in the sea. They reminded me very much of the prison ships in Dickens’ Great Expectations, vast and lonely. It’s such images that tug you suddenly back into the story.

Mandel doesn’t directly address the dissolute nature of modern society and yet the individual stories and crises that her characters face point to a modern world collapsing in on itself, as though the pandemic was a washing away of accumulated sin. It’s certainly the outlook the Prophet took.

Everything I Never Told You

Our book group choice for February was one I’d heard a lot of buzz about in the year past, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. I didn’t know much about the premise before I started but it’s one of those books that as soon as you start, you get that feeling, you know that it’s one that is going to stay with you. And I was right.

Everything I Never Told You is a tale of an ordinary family with just one difference; theirs is a mixed-race Chinese American family, the only one in their town. In a small college town in middle America, this one difference will simultaneously change and shape everyone and everything that happens to them. It is 1977 and 16 year old Lydia Lee has gone missing from her bed. Her parents James and Marilyn are trying to piece together the events of the days just before her disappearance, while her brother and sister, Nathan and Hannah, are not sure whether they should share the secrets so sacrosanct amongst siblings. When Lydia’s body is found in the nearby lake, their family life splinters as all they have believed in for so long is torn apart. Who was Lydia? And what happened to her?

What Ng is so adept at doing is teasing out the secrets and hidden yearnings of her characters. Like any family that looks outwardly normal, there will always be dreams that have been crushed and silenced, the reality often harsh and unforgiving. And it is no different here. James Lee is a tenured professor at a small college after his dreams of staying on at Harvard is so easily taken away from him. The son of Chinese immigrants who took jobs as a gardener and cook at a prestigious school to give their son the opportunity to secure a place to study there if he is bright enough, James only yearns for a normal American life and to fit in. And he finds this in Marilyn, who has never wanted to be pedestrian but who puts on hold her dream of becoming a doctor, to marry the man she unexpectedly falls in love with. They are so in love with each other, yearning to leave behind their unhappy childhoods that they do not see their past shaping the future of their three children, heavy with so much expectation and stifling with love. When Marilyn, unable to let go of her dream of becoming a doctor, runs away to finish her degree, this acts as a catalyst and irrevocably changes the family dynamic.

Ng’s subtle manipulation of the shifting dynamics within the Lee family is so masterfully done that it is only as you read on that it slowly dawns on you what has happened. The silent pressure on Lydia to achieve high grades in science so that she can fulfill her mother’s dream of becoming a doctor. The silent fear she has that if she doesn’t comply, her mother will leave her again. How Nath’s heart breaks a little every time his father sees a bit of himself in his son and looks disappointed. And Hannah, the youngest, always forgotten, learning not to be in the way. As the children grow and begin to chafe under the yoke of their parents expectations, their usually strong sibling ties fracture and they rebel. Nath will apply to Harvard, the only way to get his father to acknowledge his worth and as Lydia’s grades decline, she starts spending more time with Jack, their neighbour and Nath’s childhood enemy, to punish him. Each character deals with their hurt, humiliation and anger in such different ways, trying to push away and yet always returning because they are family. It is difficult to imagine the isolation and the segregation James and his children experience, the racism that is never fully overt and yet of which they are hyper-aware but Ng does this gently but with devastating effect. The disapproval of Marilyn’s mother which Marilyn so casually brushes aside but which pierces James’ heart at their wedding. The swallowed dreams, the claustrophobia of a small homogenous town, a child’s future that has been mapped out in concrete. It’s all there.

Ng manages to weave all the different strands of each character’s story, in and out from the past to the present without leaving the current nightmare of Lydia’s demise. And as each layer is peeled back, and you glimpse the anger, regret and hurt that has been experienced and suppressed, it is almost a miracle that each of them can survive the fallout of a loved one’s death.

However sad Everything I Never Told You is, Ng has created a novel of such tenderness. Her writing is gorgeous and yet spare but it reaches an emotional depth and complexity that you rarely find. It’s a beautiful book and probably one of the best I’ve read so far this year.

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.

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