SLEEPER WAKES – By Alistair Morgan

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SLEEPER WAKES

By Alistair Morgan

The blurb on the back of Sleeper’s Wake reads “In the aftermath of the car crash that killed his wife and daughter, John Wraith travels to a remote resort on the South African coast. There he meets Jackie, a disturbed young woman of seventeen, and is immediately and dangerously drawn to her.” The word wraith means ghost or spirit, and for someone who has recently lost his family, John is a kind of walking ghost, shocked and puzzled, detached from the processes of everyday life. Yet for all our sympathy, there is something odd and unappealing about the protagonist. Morgan draws a very fine line between suggestion and definition, the effect of which is to create a ghost-like narrator whose comments and subsequent behaviour do not add up. Wraith’s journey to the South African coast takes us to a landscape uncomfortably mixing human civilization and the forces of nature and it is here that John re-engages with life, though in doing so further ambiguities and dangers are revealed. Perhaps the excellent parts of the book – the style, atmosphere, characters – do not quite add up to a satisfying whole; personally I felt a little disappointed and wondered whether it would have been better as a long short story, but it is an interesting read by a new talent.

SLEEPER WAKES

 

A FIRST-RATE MADNESS – By Hassir Ghaemi

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A FIRST-RATE MADNESS

By Hassir Ghaemi

 

A FIRST-RATE MADNESS

It seems one of the problems shared by President Obama, Tony Blair and George Bush might be that they are, well, sane – normal, at least according to this book by Nassir Ghaemi. The question of which characteristics or qualities make leaders is a fascinating one, especially when it touches on the theme of mental health. Whereas it is easy and something of a relief to determine that Hitler, Amin or Pol Pot were mad (if theirs were the actions of sane people what does that say about human kind?) it is a little discomforting, but fascinating, to think that great leaders such as Churchill, Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Ghandi suffered from clinically recognized conditions, or that their pathologies might have been central to their success. In this respect, the topic is as much about the cultural perception of mental illness as its relation to power and leadership and Ghaemi has made a valuable contribution to both questions in this book.

 

 

A TOUCH OF LOVE – By Jonathan Coe

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A TOUCH OF LOVE

By Jonathan Coe

I should begin by saying that I am a great fan of Jonathan Coe and am fascinated by his evolution as a writer. Traditionally, writers whose style changes significantly as they get older, tend to move from a more to less traditional format as they experiment and push the boundaries of narrative and fiction. Recently, this seems to be reversed in the work of David Mitchell or Jonathan Franzen and is certainly the case with Jonathan Coe. Perhaps this is a post-modernist phenomenon – what looks like experimentation is actually the dominant aesthetic and is thus a natural choice for narrative. Returning to a classical format of an all-seeing narrator and characters whose lives and action can be presented to us in authoritative detail has become the radical departure. Coe’s more recent writing reflects this change – his earlier work contains several inventive and original explorations of narrative, the more recent work, using a less inventive structure, is probably more satisfying. Yet I have a great affection for the early work. For this reason, the book I would recommend is A Touch of Love. The tragic-comic tone, the satirical evocation of failed academic ambition and the terrible sense of loss that seems to haunt much of Coe’s writing, combine in a truly skillful narrative. It is made more effective by the introduction of a series of short stories written by the main protagonist, Robin, which have the effect of both illuminating and clouding our understanding of their author. The change of style and the way we become engaged by these fictions within fictions are central to the novel. I’ve commented on how the narrative form has changed in Coe’s writing but what have not changed are his concerns – the decisions and moments that define our lives, the social and political pressures that impinge on our ability to realize ourselves, the nature of love and loss. You will find these in A Touch of Love as well as in his most recent work.

 a touch of love

RIDDLEY WALKER – By Russell Hoban

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RIDDLEY WALKER

By Russell Hoban

Dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction ha become a specific genre of fiction, producing a number of exceptional book in recent years – The Pesthouse, by Jim Crace, and The Book of Dave by Will Self are two impressive examples. The latter is not alone in recognizing its debt to a lesser-known novel published in 1980 by Russell Hoban entitled Riddley Walker. As summarized in Wikipedia, the book

“…is set about two thousand years after a nuclear war has devastated world civilizations. The main action of the story begins when the young narrator, Riddley, stumbles upon efforts to recreate a weapon of the ancient world. The novel’s characters live a harsh life in a small area which is presently the English county of Kent, and know nothing of the world outside of “Inland” (England). Their level of civilization is similar to England’s prehistoric Iron Age, although they do not produce their own iron but salvage it from ancient machinery. Church and state have combined into one secretive institution, whose mythology, based on misinterpreted stories of the war and an old Catholic saint (Eustace), is enacted in puppet shows.”

Apart from the interest of the story, the most engaging aspect of the book is Hoban’s creation of a debased, “non-standard” English that has replaced the standard English of today. Thus the very language of the text reflects the distance in time and of civilization the world of the novel explores. The geographical setting happens to be the area of Kent where I grew up and the wit and inventiveness of Hoban’s language is evident the changes of place names – Monk’s Horton becomes Monkey’s Whore Town, the River Stour becomes the Sour, and Wye becomes How. A few years ago, when presenting her novel Pigtopia at a British Council event in Madrid, Kitty Fitzgerald told me how important Riddley Walker had been to her own writing. I am sure she is not alone. There may be better novels dealing with similar subject material but I doubt there is one as inventive and original.

THEN – By Julie Myerson

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THEN

By Julie Myerson

 

I feel uneasy with books that create the worst possible, most desperate situations and then imagine the appalling ways people in those situations might behave. THEN is a book of this kind, written by someone who has achieved a certain notoriety for having converted her teenage son’s drug addiction into material for a book. I haven’t looked into this in much detail because, frankly, I’m not interested and I suspect this blending of what is written and the context around it would only confuse and interfere with one’s reading of THEN. The novel is, stylistically, a great achievement – a narrative that blurs the characters awareness of fantasy and reality, something which becomes more disturbing as the story evolves. There is a spare, icy quality to the prose – evocative of the frozen, post-apocalyptic world in which the novel is set. The rendering of atmosphere and suffering is skillful – but also the source of my reservations. There seems to me something too easy about a text where despair and suffering are so extreme that the reader is only able to be a voyeur. We are not in a position to engage at any ethical level, the decisions taken and the behaviour of the main character are a product of such violence that we can only really feel dismay. I question the value of this experience as something reached through reading.

then by MyersonMoreover, I suspect it is dangerous – one of the greatest illusions we can harbour is that being able to experience emotion when reading is the equivalent of knowing feelings in real life (‘theory of mind’ tells us that empathy is a frequent response to fiction, but empathy is not the same as  knowledge.) Perhaps there are certain dark journeys of the soul that resist fictional treatment and feel wrong when neatly packaged for an audience. If so, THEN is probably such a novel.