Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

This book recently won the Costa Book of the Year and I reckoned it had to be something as it won over McBride's Girl is a Half-formed Thing.   It is.

Simply, it's the story of a nineteen year old young man, Matthew, suffering from schizophrenia caused by his guilt and grief as a result of an accident which killed his older brother, Simon, some ten years previously.   At the end of the book, Matt - who is writing the book  - says 'writing about the past is a way of reliving it ... but this story has never been a keepsake - it's finding a way to let go'.   In some ways it recalls The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but more poignant and, at the same time, funny.  

At the very beginning of the book, he says 'I'll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother ... I think you're going to like him... but in a couple of pages he'll be dead.   And he was never the same after that'.   And that is in fact the nub of it.   Simon has Down's Syndrome and is five years older than Matt who adores him.   It is apparent that Matt had something to do with his death but we are kept guessing for a long time.   As the years pass, Filer through Matt's own account chronicles his disintegration mentally with great skill.   For Matt, Simon is constantly present, calling on him to come out and play, hiding under his bed and talking to him until his reality and dreams become confused.   Matt writes that 'we each have a wall that separates our dreams from reality, but mine has cracks in it.  The dreams can wriggle and squeeze their way through, until it's hard to know the difference'.   Sometimes, then, the wall collapses and life becomes a nightmare.

Filer is himself a registered mental health nurse and uses his knowledge here to good effect.   Matt spends one chapter charting the progress of one day in a psychiatric hospital hour by hour where the over-riding problem is sheer boredom with nothing to do.   The day is punctuated by meals, medication and cigarettes and at one point he is urged by a nurse to distract himself by getting dressed!   Becoming acquainted with the mind of a schizophrenic through Matt's writing is fascinating.   It is curious how astute and aware he is while at the same time, his delusions and imaginings blend seamlessly into his life.   To emphasise various episodes, Filer makes use of postmodern gambits by varying typefaces, playing with layout, incorporating some charming sketches and even the page numbering appears to be done by hand.   In some novels, this can grate on one but here it is peculiarly apt and effective.

The other people in Matt's life are beautifully drawn.   There are his loving parents, gentle and caring of him despite their own overwhelming grief.   And his indefatigable Granny, Nanny Noo, who is remarkably in tune with him and does her best to help him avoid being sectioned.  And his old school friend, Jacob, who tries to share a flat with him but eventually cannot hack it.   Throughout it all, though, is Matt's growing inability to maintain relationships as he slips from reality.

This is a moving novel, more than worthy of the Costa award and well worth reading.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson began her literary career by winning the Costa award for Behind the Scenes at the Museum and once again, with this novel, she has triumphed by winning the Costa Novel Award in 2013 [the Costa Book of the Year was won by Nathan Filer with Shock of the Fall].

This novel is essentially a family saga, starting in 1910, ending in 1967, but one with a difference.  The author announces this difference by quoting Nietzsche in the front of the book - and I am a sucker for Nietzsche quotes and so got lured in - 'what if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you:  this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more... And so Atkinson takes up this challenge with her chief character and gives her innumerable chances at life, allowing her to die and begin again, though always as the same person.  

This 'person' is Ursula Todd, the third child of a well-to-do Home Counties family living in a leafy suburb of London.   Her father Hugh is a successful banker and her mother, Sylvie, successful at producing children - three girls and two boys.   Apart from dying several times, Ursula grows up in a typical, middle class protected environment, not, however, without coming to grief with the opposite sex.   She goes on to serve as a fire warden in London during WW2 and this part is both the most interesting and best written part of the novel.   Though Ursula does have one or two close friends, a lot of the novel is taken up with her relationship with her parents and siblings, particularly with Pammy, her elder sister, and Teddy her younger brother.   Curiously, they seem unaffected by Ursula's frequent demises and relive scenes quite happily as Ursula has a 'second go' at surviving them.

Does this kind of Groundhog Day approach work?   Sometimes, it is a little frustrating in that I wanted her to survive a particular incident.   Sometimes, too, it is a little too clever. Atkinson, rather than re-inventing Ursula, uses sleight of hand or little twists of fate to permit her to survive.   This is in contrast to her aunt, Sylvie's sister, Isabel or Izzie as she is known who is a delightful character, totally unpredictable and constantly reinventing herself.   Ursula, for obvious reasons, suffers from deja vu but seems to consider this a normal human affliction.   There are interesting interludes such as when Ursula becomes best friends with Eva Braun and Atkinson paints a convincing picture of life in the Berghof with Hitler and his cronies.   Then there are some not so good pieces such as when, in the first three pages of the book, there is a what-if moment when Ursula shoots Hitler in 1930 in a bierkeller in Munich.   Not original.

Overall, I think this is a beach read - undemanding, funny in places, and skillful - though at 600 pages plus, it can get tiring.  The concept of playing with time is challenging but the novel doesn't quite live up to it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Awards

The longlist of the newly named Bailey's women's prize for fiction has been announced and our Eimear McBride [Girl is a Half-formed Thing] is up there again!   This used to be the Orange prize and is a very prestigious award.   There are twenty on the longlist including also Audrey Magee whose novel, The Undertaking, I reviewed on 21 February.  There are seven US authors and in fact, the prize has been won by a US novelist for the past five years.   Let's hear it however for McBride!   For full details on the long list, see http://tinyurl.com/pham9zn.

This week, the inaugural winner of the Folio prize was announced and sadly McBride didn't make it.   It was won by George Saunders for his novel, Tenth of December.   According to Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles, "Saunders is one of the mercurial masters of the short story that Britain's disinterest in short-form fiction has prevented us from championing.  These stories are satire at its most brutal, fiercely funny but also bitter about a dystopian future that already seems to be coming to pass. He's a deserved recipient, up there with [Kurt] Vonnegut."

I'll let  you know what I think shortly!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Circle by Dave Eggers

I was going to write that this is an apocalyptic 'fairy tale' but, in the light of the recent revelations of  GCH's interception and storage of Yahoo webcam images, it is no fairy tale but rather a dystopian orwellian tale of the near future .... or now?

Eggers writes with a light hand and in satirical mode but even as you grin as you read it, there is an uncomfortable feeling that maybe this is not the future - or the future is no longer what it used to be!

The very first line of the book, uttered by the main protagonist, Mae Holland, says it all:  'My God, Mae thought.   It's heaven.'   'Heaven' is the Circle, a vast corporation, an amalgam of Google, Microsoft, Facebook, YouTube, which effectively rules the digital universe.  Bright young minds have been employed by the dozen on the 'campus' which also incorporates every social activity they might desire and Mae quickly learns by default that activity outside the campus is frowned on.  The Circle was founded by Ty Gospodinov, a Mark Zuckerberg who flits enigmatically through the novel, and who together with two other Wise Men, now runs it.   He invented their system, TruYou, a single integrated user interface unifying every internet interaction that crushed all meaningful opposition - ending  anonymity on line together with the era of false identities, identity theft, multiple user names, complicated passwords and payment  systems.  Transparency in all things is the watchword of The Circle.

Mae is quickly sucked in and rises rapidly working all hours - and nights - to raise her profile and loving it all.  But no global corporation that is successful stands still and Dave Eggers brings us into nightmare territory with The Circle's invention of a little camera worn around the neck, with a two year battery, that transmits on line, non-stop, the activities and conversation of the wearer.   Wearing it is called 'going clear' and starts with a local congresswoman signing up - as indeed does Mae.   The implication is that one has nothing to hide, no corruption, no backhanders from lobbyists, all is transparent, 'secrets are lies' is the catch phrase.   Of course, it spreads and now we are definitely in the world of Big Brother.

Eggers does give us - and Mae - warnings through her ex-boyfriend who is appalled at Mae's utter devotion to The Circle and its expanding power.   Any misgivings she has are quickly brushed aside to the extent that she even advocates that the Government should require every citizen to have a Circle account, the better to create higher turnouts at elections.  

Dave Eggers is still one of the lions of American literature and this is his tenth novel.   It is hard to tell if it really represents a warning or is just a light satirical look at life today with a barely plausible novel fighting back at the even younger lions and their obsession with the internet.  This is not a deep book and lacks the majesty of 1984 or Brave New World but is an enjoyable read for all that.