Saturday, 27 December 2008

The Paradise Trail by Duncan Campbell

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: December 2008 NOTES: This debut novel is a blend of murder mystery and a memoir to a lost era. It begins in the Lux Hotel – a backpackers’ insect-ridden hostel in Calcutta in 1971 where the usual odd bunch of hippy characters have ended up after time spent in Goa, Delhi, Nepal, Kabul etc. There is weird Freddie who communicates in Bob Dylan lyrics, Larry, an American who makes a little on the side by drug smuggling and Gordon, an ex-advertising executive who has “dropped out” and two oddball Australians, Karen and Keiran. The hotel is run by young Anand, a kindly and liberal Indian. The Bengali war of independence is just beginning so into this mix come Hugh, a British would-be war correspondent and Britt, a beautiful and ambitious American photographer. Some nasty murders happen and it is believed that there could be a serial killer who is after hippies….. But in the chaos of the end of the Indian-Pakistan fighting no culprit is found. The members of the group go their own ways and over the next thirty years have little contact with each other. But the daughter of one of the victims determines to find out how her father met his death and so the mystery of what actually happened in Calcutta is gradually unravelled. This is a brilliant read. The description of the drug-fuelled hippy trail seems very real and the main characters are three dimensional and believable. There are no real heroes – just a series of flawed characters like in real life. The thirty year gap in the narrative is covered by a series of news reports, letters, postcards, press announcements and emails. There is a great piece of writing when Gordon agrees to take part in a cricket match in Calcutta even though he hasn’t played in years. He uses various strands of eastern philosophy that he has learned on the road to help him to bowl. Very comical (but it works!)
This is a fun book but with some dark undertones of cultural imperialism, racism and egotism. One of the blurbs on the cover says: “A great beach read”. Yes, OK, The Paradise Trail would make a super beach read – but it’s better than that so don’t wait to be on holiday to read it! Highly recommended. (And if you want to know more about the Bengali War of Independence read A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam)

Monday, 22 December 2008

Crusaders by Richard T Kelly

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: December 2008 NOTES: A sprawling “state of the nation” novel that takes a great sweep over two decades up to the election of New Labour. It is set mostly in the north-east of England and takes in lots of the issues of the 1970s – 1990s including steroid abuse, drug culture, gangs, political corruption, prostitution and the emergence of New Labour politics. Much of the book was enjoyable but it was spoiled for me by the weakness of the central character. John Gore is a Labour supporting Anglican minister who is sent to Newcastle to start a new church in a run-down council estate. His motivations are never made very clear and his relationship with a somewhat slovenly single mother did not ring true. The gangster Steve Coulson was a much stronger character, as was Martin Pallister (the New Labour MP who is prepared to accept any policies as long as they have something to offer him personally). The way in which religious faith insidiously became almost a necessity for Blair supporters is well documented. Some reviewers criticised the way in which the writer put so much of the dialogue in the local accent. I thought this was done well and the various “voices” were very believable. An ambitious first novel – but I really think it did not need to be over five hundred pages long. Some judicious editing was needed!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The White Tiger by Arivand Adiga

DATE PUBLISHED: 2008 DATE READ: December 2008 NOTES: Balram Halwai is a poor low-caste Indian, the son of a rickshaw-puller who somehow manages to crawl his way up to be an entrepreneur in Bangalore. He tells his story via a series of letters written to Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier who is about to visit Bangalore. The poor parts of India are referred to as the Darkness which is a world filled with hunger, servitude and life-long debt. Modern Delhi is referred to as the Light. This is a world where men and women grow fat, have air-conditioned cars, mobile phones and guarded apartments with large TVs and computer games. But the Light has some very murky aspects to it – bribery, corruption and murder. The story is told at a blazing pace. Balram is ambitious and astute. He does well to become a driver for a local landlord’s family – but he wants more….. The dilemma for him is whether he can shake off his chains by honest means or whether some blood will have to flow. (I was reminded of A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam in which a widow’s only way of keeping her children safe is to commit a crime.) This is not a comfortable read – it is an angry and subversive book about the new India where any notion of the “trickle-down” theory of wealth creation is well and truly quashed. I am not surprised it won the Booker Prize. As a work of literature it is not as good a piece of work as, say, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (also about poverty in India) but it is funny, satirical and a blistering exposé of globalisation.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

DATE PUBLISHED: 2005 DATE READ: December 2008 NOTES: Willie Dunne is an innocent young Dubliner who sets off for the excitement of war in Flanders in 1914. He leaves behind a loving family and a girl he hopes one day to marry. But by 1918 everything in his life has changed. The war has progressed and become more and more bloody and futile and Willie becomes confused and ambivalent about his own patriotism and about Irish nationalist aspirations. He seems to lose everything that he knows and loves. This is a heart-wrenching read. Sebastian Barry creates a haunting world of smells, filth, fear and humour. The Irish dimension to the story make it particularly interesting as this is not an aspect of WWI that is much dwelt on in fiction. This book will surely rank alongside the very best of World War One literature. It is beautifully written and many of the characters and scenes remained with me long after I finished reading. A Long Long Way well deserved to be on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize in 2005.