Wednesday, 29 April 2009

A Whistling Woman by A S Byatt

The final part of the Frederica Quartet. The title is from the old saying: A Whistling Woman and a Crowing Hen are neither good for God or Man. It sets the tone for much of the book as numerous characters feel unable or unwilling to fulfil their traditional roles expected by society. Frederica shuns domesticity (although she is obviously a very good mother), Daniel is an unconventional priest and Marcus continues to be something of a lost soul. Lots of the earlier characters feature and storylines are referred to and continued. There are even some new people to get to know – including the charismatic Joshua Ramsden who has a major role. Frederica has become a fairly successful (Joan Bakewell-type) television personality. Her parents are in fairly contented retirement but caring for the children of Daniel and Stephanie (Frederica’s dead sister). Daniel still works on his suicide listening service in London but spends more and more time in the north. Marcus works at the university and is a talented mathematician. But this is the late 1960s and new ideas and ideologies abound. A religious community is set up near to the family home which attracts some eccentric folk. As this cult develops it becomes darker and more sinister. (One false note here is the way in which Gideon was prepared to work alongside Joshua – I am sure that in real life someone as egotistical as Gideon would have wanted to be at the head of any community) There are nice parallels here with Babbletower in Babel Tower – both seem to be established with benign motives but disintegrate in something awful. The university is planning a conference on Body and Mind and invites many eminent scholars to give papers. But an Anti-University has been set up which decides to disrupt proceedings. As with the others in the quartet this book contains lots of science (much of it incomprehensible to me) and mythology. But the characterisations and the story both carry the reader along to a satisfying conclusion. (I felt a bit cheated that virtually no mention was made of Nigel, Frederica’s ex-husband. I would have liked something really bad to happen to him!)

So I have, at last, completed the Frederica Quartet - some 2,000 pages brimming with ideas. Do I get a medal?

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: April 2009 NOTES: This could be viewed as two discrete novellas but there are (just) enough references and reflections to make the two parts hang together as a unit. Both stories are also travelogues and full of wry observations about hotels, transport, other tourists and the local people. In Jeff in Venice Jeff is a jaded journalist who views everything with a cynical eye – until he meets the lovely Laura. The art exhibits and his attitude to them are done really well (as is his ongoing angst about which parties he has and hasn’t been invited to). In Death in Varanasi he becomes much more in tune with his surroundings as he sinks into a life of cheap beer, sunshine, cremations and dope - hoping all the time to find spirituality. Both parts have the shadow of Death in Venice looming over them. The writing is superb and both Venice and Varanisa were brought alive for the reader. However I found the device of the two halves a little unsatisfactory – both stories could have been expanded to be novels in their own right. Nonetheless this was an intriguing and enjoyable read.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Babel Tower by A S Byatt

DATE PUBLISHED: 1996 DATE READ: April 2009 NOTES: This is the third novel in the Frederica Quartet. It is now the 1960s and Frederica is married with a child and already missing her world of books, work and intelligent friends. When I wrote about The Virgin In The Garden I referred to Frederica as “obnoxious” and after Still Life I said she was “clever but irritating”. But now she has become a much more attractive character – likeable, questioning, thoughtful and passionately devoted to her son. The violent breakdown of her marriage and the subsequent divorce are both shockingly documented. But Babel Tower is much more than the story of one woman – it is a splendid evocation of the sixties. Byatt draws on things we remember so well – the music, clothes, furnishings, education and food of the time – but it also reminds us of the abusive divorce laws of the time and the ludicrous obscenity trials. There are many layers within the book including another novel Babbletower which is an Orwellian fantasy about a community seeking happiness but instead creating a cruel and wicked dystopia. I don’t usually warm to fantasy but Babbletower was gripping – as was the subsequent trial of its author for obscenity. There are observations on the meaning of words and text, on freedom and liberalism, on love and passion – and so much more….. Although challenging in parts it is a wonderful read. Although (I think) it would be better to read the earlier two books first Babel Tower can be seen as a stand alone novel. I look forward to A Whistling Woman and am already wondering if Agatha’s wonderful children’s story will be continued in it?

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Into the Blue by Robert Goddard

I expected this to be a high-class thriller but was sadly disappointed. It began off well with the disappearance of a woman while on a walk in Rhodes. Harry Barnett, a down-at-heel caretaker on Rhodes doggedly searches for her and in the process uncovers layer after layer of lies and subterfuge. A Government Minister turns out to have been involved in a long term love affair with an IRA activist. A secretary who (appears to) help Harry is threatened with expulsion when her work permit expires. But she says she doesn’t want to leave as her brother is a known Tamil separatist in Sri Lanka. Suicides and accidents from the past are revealed as murder. Several women throw themselves at Harry in a most unlikely and unbelievable way. The characterisations were weak and most of the narrative and explanations were done in a series of long dialogues. I realise that Goddard is a very popular writer – just not my cup of tea.

Friday, 10 April 2009

The Ruby In Her Navel by Barry Unsworth

DATE PUBLISHED: 2006 DATE READ: April 2009 NOTES: This novel is set in twelfth century Sicily which is ruled by a Catholic king but the inhabitants include Muslims, Jews and Byzantine Christians. The kingdom of Sicily is gripped in religious and political intrigue as differing factions vie for supremacy. At the same time King Roger is having problems with the Pope and has worries about possible invasion or treason from within. Thurstan Beauchamp had dreams of becoming a knight but has failed in his ambition as a result of his father giving away all his land and money. So he has ended up as a valued member of the king’s finance office which is run by a Yusuf, a clever and principled Muslim who is well aware that plots and intrigues abound. Thurstan, the narrator, is very much an innocent who tries to distance himself from politics. He has naively absorbed the prevailing propaganda of the glory and brilliance of the king and of the natural superiority of Christianity. He is drawn both to Nesrin, the dancer that he introduces to the court, and to Alicia his childhood sweetheart. He genuinely loves Alicia and believes she can be the key to his eventual knighthood whereby he will regain his rightful place in society. But his innocence is his undoing….. The time and place very much come alive in Unsworth’s book. He manages to put over a fairly complex set-up in a believable and accessible way. As in The Songs of the Kings there are some definite (but not overdone) references to modern day politics such as the introduction of the Office of the King’s Fame – a twelfth century Public Relations department! An excellent historical tale which gets better as the pace picks up in the latter half.

Monday, 6 April 2009

John The Revelator by Peter Murphy

DATE PUBLISHED: 2009 DATE READ: March 2009 NOTES: This is a “coming of age” novel set in small town Ireland. John (who has a worm fetish!) lives with his eccentric mother Lily who quotes from the bible and says John is named after the writer of Revelations. He becomes enamoured with Jamey Corboy – a middleclass but rebellious older boy who is sent to a young offenders’ institute following an escapade with John. But John continues to hear from him via his letters, his stories and newspaper reports. The narrative moves quickly and the 250 pages are soon read. Much of the language is quirky and vivid and the characters jump off the page. Mrs Nagle, the gothic greedy neighbour, was brilliant. Unfortunately most of the humour was the sort liked by teenage boys and depended very much on bodily functions. Each chapter is preceded by a reflective prologue – which tend to be either irrelevant or pretentious. The suffocating atmosphere of small town Ireland was well evoked, as was the obvious affection between mother and son. An interesting debut novel but not as good as the rave reviews. Colm Tóibín said: “…it’s an absolutely wonderful book.” No, it’s not - it's good but not great.