Monday, February 20, 2012

Why Writers really need to watch their weight

I have unashamedly pinched Robert McCrum's header from his column on books in yesterday's Observer Review [19 February] in which he laments the increasing rarity of the 'slim volume' as this was exactly our moan at the last book group meeting. As McCrum says, 'the covers of books are too far apart'!

The moan arose because everyone had so enjoyed Barnes' Sense of an Ending remarking particularly how much he could say in 150 pages and other similarly brief titles came to mind such as Monsieur Linh and His Child, Saramago's Death at Intervals, Marani's New Finnish Grammar and, of course, the incomparable Point Omega by DeLillo.   All titles that are brief in terms of pages but far more complex in emotion, thought and characterization than so many of the block busters one has to wade through nowadays where the lack of the editor's blue pencil is so obvious.   Beckett of course was the master of a few words.  

Of course, I do not deny that their are some mighty tomes worthy of their length and depth such as War and Peace or A la recherche de temps perdu or Ulysses - one could go on - but then, there is also The Strangers Child and Freedom and, more recently, The Art of Fielding whose lengths are baffling and tedious.  

Thank you Robert McCrum for drawing attention to this issue!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Waterline by Ross Raisin

Raisin's first book, God's Own Country, was a triumph and a delight, full of humour and acute observations of his compatriots and won him among other awards, the Guardian First Book Award.  I was therefore excited to see a second book by him in the lists but wary also as second books often disappoint.   Not in this case.   Waterline is a challenge, a deep study of a man dealing in an extraordinary way with loss.   But it is not depressing because Raisin, just when you think you can bear no more, makes you laugh - not just smile but an acknowledgement that to live in this world at all you must have a sense of humour.

The narrative is about Mick, a Glasgow minicab driver, a job he had turned to after the closure of the shipyards where he had been a skilled worker fiercely proud of each ship launched.   After a spell in Australia, he, his wife Cathy and their son, Craig, return to Glasgow and rebuild their lives.  Robbie the eldest son married and stayed in Australia. The novel opens with the death of Cathy from asbestosis for which Mick blames himself with the grim reminder of the asbestos dust that used to cover his work clothes laundered by Cathy.  After the funeral, when all the family have left and Mick is alone, he becomes obsessed by the fact that he cannot picture his wife's face and soon cannot bring himself even to enter the house, preferring to spend his days and nights in the garden shed with increasing amounts of alcohol until finally he ups sticks and takes a bus to London where he changes his name and takes up a job as a pot washer in a hotel in Heathrow.   After a short time he is fired and finds himself on the streets, homeless and penniless but too proud to seek help from the 'social'.   He meets up with another Glaswegian in a similar predicament, Beans, and together they lurch from night shelters to soup kitchens to park benches in an odyssey told by Raisin with such compassion and love that we can never again look a homeless person in the eye without guilt.

Raisin has a skill in writing about the overlooked in society.   He is a Yorkshireman and set his first novel in Yorkshire but this time has moved to Glasgow where he has never lived and yet he handles the colourful Weegie slang with ease.   His description of and insights into the relationships Mick has with his sons, Craig and Robbie, and with Beans are profound and moving.   Mick's feelings are  deep but like many men from his background, he is not articulate in voicing them.   Craig resents his father and blames him for his mother's death and, in an effort to improve their relationship, Mick goes for a pint with Craig and in the pub, the pair sit in silence with desultory glances at a football match on TV but nevertheless, afterwards, Mick feels closer to his son.   Here Raisin is dealing with those on the 'waterline' of society, just barely keeping their heads afloat.   In one of his recollections, Mick remembers the painters of the great ships he help build and how they used to leave their nicknames scrawled along the waterline, just barely visible.  And Mick becomes, for a time, one of those on the margins of society, just barely visible.

Without wanting to introduce a spoiler, the ending might be thought, as Anthony Cummins from the Observer did, 'schmaltzy' and  'sun-kissed' but it has a certain inevitability and in no way detracts from the impact and poignancy of the story.   In an interview, Ross Raisin, on commenting about the level of society that he writes about, said 'I'm interested in how responsible society is for someone like Mick, and  how much someone like Mick chooses to detach themselves from society like that, and how a person might become, bit by bit, day by day, a bit detached from the world, to the point where the world no longer recognises  that person as an individual.’

Read it and weep!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley

Out book club last night discussed The Sense of an Ending and in the course of the discussion, P.D. James' new title, Pemberley came up.   James, one of our members - none of whom are ever stuck for the mot juste - delivered the most pithy and conclusive review of a book I have ever heard, viz;
If you like Jane Austen and enjoy detective novels, you will hate this.
What more can one say?