Thursday, 25 July 2013

Blindness, by Jose Saramago

This book has been on my TR list for a while- and after two separate recommendations at the Book Club that I go to, I ordered it there and then, sat in the lounge at Broadway Cinema. So glad I did, easily one of the best books I have read in recent years- powerful, some might say far fetched, but I would say absolutely believable, well characterised whilst remaining quite mysterious too. It's a well plotted and very poetically written novel that looks at how humanity reacts to adversity, disaster, incarceration, injustice and how valuable companionship and resilience is in difficult times.

Blindness is set in an unnamed but sunny and densely populated city, presumably some time in the 1990s. One day, whilst sitting in his car at a red light, a man goes blind. A good Samaritan escorts him home, stealing his car on an impulse. The thief goes blind, standing at the side of the road beside his stolen car. The doctor that examines the first man can find no reason for his sudden blindness and during his research that evening, the Doctor goes blind. As do all the patients that he has seen that day. And the policeman who attended to the car thief. Blindness is spreading, eye to eye, like a contagion- however inexplicable that may be. The story is told by an all-seeing narrator, seeing enough for the whole city, and told mostly from the perspective of the Doctor's wife. She has miraculously retained her sight, but must hide it or become a slave to the hordes of blind people.

Firstly, a comment on the style.  Though I found it to be effective, it's not a writing style that is going to win over the unconvinced or the fussy. Saramago takes a very McCarthy-ist approach to punctuation and to dialogue signposts. If you're a fan of the conventional "Bla bla bla," Said character X, I'd advise against this novel. Saramago has, I think, made a deliberate attempt to anonymise the characters in this book- it's hard to work out who's talking and to whom (as it would be if both parties were blind). None of the characters are named, as the blind point out throughout- what's the point of a name when there's no face to attach to it? I loved the nicknames that the author chose to identify the characters: the Doctor, the Doctor's wife, the first blind man, the thief, the girl with dark glasses, the old man with the eye patch, the boy with the squint, even "the dog of tears" which was a personal favourite of mine. I loved how descriptive the 'names' were and how people can end up being defined by the slightest characteristic or habit. It's surprising what sticks when it's just memory that's working.

What I love the most about Catastrophe/End of the World novels is the collapse of society and the depiction of what emerges out of the collapse. Blindness does an excellent job of showing the sheer panic that inevitably descends on governments, individuals and societies when faced with disaster or danger in the beginning, followed by the absolute abandonment of Human Rights, democracy and any sort of ethical consideration in producing a solution and the social car crash that results. In this book, the initial blind are rounded up and Quarantined in an unused mental hospital, provided with supplies and guarded day and night by the army. As more and more blind arrive in truckloads at the asylum, along with those that have had contact with the blind, power struggles emerge- no space, no food- democracies become dictatorships, deadly conflicts break out and the blind fight amongst themselves for dignity and survival- some of the asylum chapters are absolutely horrific and show the most animalistic side of human nature. But it proves that if a person is treated like an animal, they will become one. The book shows how quickly civilisation and civility can break down when it's pretty evident that nobody is watching. Once the narrative dramatically shifts to the outside world, it's interesting to see how the characters that have been confined react and adapt to a blind world, where they're no longer part of the feared infected but part of the blind mass.

Blindness is such a brilliant book; thought provoking, tragic, funny in places and uplifting in a weird way. Like the narrator points out, all children play at being blind but it is completely impossible to imagine how blind people function independently on a daily basis. It's such a scary way for society to come to an end, to be suddenly blind and having to exist in small herds of strangers, sleeping in shops because you were not at home when you went blind, depending on memory to move around and never being able to locate your loved ones or your now useless belongings. Absolutely brilliant, I'm sure I'll remember it for a long time.

If you've enjoyed catastrophic-rebuilding-civilisation books such as The Day of the Triffids, the Death of Grass or Fugue for a Darkening Island then this is an absolutely brilliant addition to that bunch.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, Illustrated by Jim Kay

The deserving winner of the double award last year (the CILIP Carnegie and the Kate Greenaway) A Monster Calls is a beautifully tragic fairytale about the worst thing in the world.  It's about loss and strength and coming to terms with tragedy, being allowed to make bad decisions and dealing with life's trials in your own time and in you own way.

Conor lives in the house that he has always lived in with his mother, who is suffering from quite advanced Cancer. This is made clear quite early on. She has tried lots of different treatments but so far none have been very effective. Conor's dad lives in America with his new wife and new baby and the only other family mentioned is Conor's formidable and very un-Granny-ish Grandmother.

One night Conor is visited by a monster, but it's not the monster that he's been expecting- the one that haunts him at night in his recurring nightmare.  This monster that's appeared in the garden (who spends most of his time being an ancient Yew Tree) thinks he can help him with his stories, but Conor's not so sure.  There's not really anything that can help him with what he's going through- bullying, loneliness, his mother's horrible illness, the sympathetic looks, his dad's apparent disinterest in him...

A beautiful story that emphasises the fact that sometimes it's harder than anything else in the world to tell yourself the truth.  It's easier to bury your head in the sand and hum than it is to face up to reality.  Conor, learning this lesson at a horribly young age, needs to accept what's happening to his family before he can even start to understand and get over it- he's a bottler and the monster needs to teach him not to be.

The illustrations in this novel are incredible and add a huge amount to the story- more inky shades of black and grey than anybody knew existed and  textures that add so much menace and atmosphere to the story.  They communicate so well the simultaneous vagueness and the pointless detail that people remember about rooms and locations in which they have horrible news broken to them.  The reader can understand the anger and the fear that is beginning to drown Conor through the changing tone of the artwork.  I can't even begin to imagine how much labour went into the artwork- absolutely stunning.

I think it's fairly well established what an excellent book this is- it is absolutely impossible to dislike it. It's affecting, sensitive without being sentimental and it's incredibly realistic- the ending is devastating and is absolutely brutal in its realism,.  Whether you believe that the Monster is real or is part of Conor's dazed and dreamlike existence, his message cannot be disputed- there's only so long you can lie to yourself. 

You can hear author Partick Ness talking about A Monster Calls on this Podcast from the Guardian.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Radleys, by Matt Haig

There are several versions of the cover of this novel- this one appears to be the only one that makes no references to Vampires.  Normally the cover wouldn't be that big of a deal to me, but I feel like I should point out that the other covers have bats, bleeding necks and the like, but this cover focuses more on the suburban setting, rather than the Vampiric tendencies of the characters. To be honest, if it was the bats/neck cover that I'd seen in a shop I wouldn't have ever bought it. Unless it's Neil Gaiman, vampires and bats are a no, I'm afraid.

Well. The Radleys. It's an interesting take on the recent vampire boom- a family of Abstaining Vampires attempt to blend into an idyllic British village by ignoring their every instinct and doing their best to blend in with the neighbours as much as possible. Mum and Dad (Helen and Peter) have been fighting every day for 20 years to suppress their instincts by having normal jobs, cooking Sunday dinners, making chit chat, attending book group meetings, hosting dinner parties and mowing the lawn. Teenagers Clara and Rowan- pasty, sickly, meek- don't know what they are. They don't like sunlight and they scare animals, but they don't think anything of it.

Haig's writing is at its strongest when he's describing the humdrum mundaneness of life. The routines, the crushing expectations, the keeping up appearances. One part at the beginning really stood out to me- describing the village as a giant costume shop that people must either leave as soon as they can, or buy a costume and pretend to like it for the rest of their lives. He has a real talent for exposing the unseen tragedy in everyday life and for really getting under the skin of his characters- I thought Peter, the upstanding village doctor was done especially well. The way that he struggles to keep his desires under control is brilliantly written and the constant, crushing strain that's placed on his marriage is developed well. The author obviously understands the absurdity of people and their bizarre relationships with each other very well.

However, as skilfully as the novel is written, I'm afraid the story itself was somewhat predictable and a little unappealing. Whilst Haig withheld the fact that the Radleys were vampires the story seemed promising- the mystery and unease that is built up around the house and its inhabitants was very intriguing and very competently written. Once the hedonistic uncle was introduced to the suburban equation and we find out that the family are vampires and everyone decides how they feel about it, it kind of went down hill and got a tad soap-ish. Although as a picture of absurd suburbia that might have been completely intentional, I really don't know.

In summary, I think it's fair to say that as a novel, I did not enjoy this a great deal, but I can't really work out why. I found the plot to be predictable and a concept that was intriguing when it was a mystery, but fell a bit flat when revealed- but that can't be the only reason. I don't think it's written badly though, which is unusual. In fact quite the opposite- the author writes in a way that is easy to relate to and instantly evokes real life, even in the most surreal of scenarios. The characters are well developed; I just found that I didn't really care about any of them. I always think that good writing can conceal a weak plot and no amount of bad writing can do even the world's best plot justice- so even by obeying my own rule I should probably have liked this more. It's by no means a bad novel, in fact it's probably quite a good one, it just isn't the sort of thing that I enjoy reading. That probably doesn't make the best 'review' really, but there's no other way of saying it- A good novel that I see the merits of, but didn't enjoy. I'd recommend it to someone who's a fan of the vampire genre, someone who wants an unusual summer read, to people who like happy endings and dramatic family narratives.

Really looking forward to reading The Humans though.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

There are two things that nobody can deny about Cormac McCarthy.

1) His novels are not known for their breakneck pace.

2) He is capable of creating the most incredible sense of place.

NCFOM conforms to both of these universally acknowledged facts. The sense of place is so strong you're practically pouring sand out of your own shoes. It's a very sensory novel- the metallic blood, the dry, acrid desert heat, the smell of a dingy motel rooms and the constant sense of pursuit. The world belonging to McCarthy's characters has slowed down and it's only then that they can notice these details. He's the Steinbeck of the 21st century, no doubt about that.

The pace of the novel is intentionally slow- characters take time to think things through, to make the decisions that will end their lives and seem to be killing time until their own inevitable deaths- eating, pacing, driving. All along the reader and the character know what's coming. The novel's super-antagonist Chigurh is the master of glacially paced menace. There's no need to rush when you know what the inevitable conclusion of every job is going to be. He doesn't talk much, he has no loyalties. His eyes are described as Lapis blue, but apart from that he is unremarkable in appearance. However, people instantly acknowledge that he is not somebody that they want to provoke.

The plot is fairly simple- an underemployed Vietnam Veteran stumbles across a drug transaction gone wrong during an evening hunting trip in the desert. $2.5 million and a truckload of Heroine for the taking. Bodies. Bullet holes. His decision sets in motion (or continues an already existing movement, when you think about it) a chain of events that he simply cannot escape. Meanwhile another Vietnam Veteran, Sherriff Lee, is looking for one of the most evidently psychopathic serial killers, possibly a contract killer, that his relatively quiet county has ever known. The reader feels like they are plonked into the middle of a story that has been unravelling for an undisclosed amount of time, and then yanked out of it before its conclusion. But that's life I guess.

It's essentially a very traditional Western, set on the modern day California/Texas/Mexico border. The writing is compelling and unsentimental. His style is uncomfortably sparse in places but the writing feels complex- it's taken me three novels to really learn to appreciate McCarthy and his hypnotic style of prose. Incredible.

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

15 year old Daisy is sent from New York to rural England to go and live with her mystery Aunt and four Cousins, who are pretty much complete strangers to her. Daisy's Dad and his horrible wife are having a new baby and they don't want the problematic Daisy in the way, with her attitude and her problems. Elsewhere, speculation about A War is rife- will there or won't there be one?

Daisy settles in to rural life quickly, considering her urban background- swimming in streams, playing with the collies, sleeping in barns and drinking All The Tea. It's all very idyllic, almost Famous Five type wholesomeness for a while. The bonds that she develops with her cousins are incredibly strong very quickly, particularly with the enigmatic Edmond, with whom she begins a brief and particularly intense affair. Daisy's aware he's a blood relative and is in her words "a bit too related", but in such turbulent times there's very few people around to disapprove. I was surprised at how not gross their technically incestuous relationship was. Reading it, Edmond felt so detached from normality, sort of otherworldly, that it's hard to imagine him being related to anyone. After a few short weeks living in glorious adult-free rustic bliss, The War breaks out, shattering Daisy's new family and changing the way that everybody lives forever.

What is most striking about this particular book is the strength of the Voice of 15 year old narrator Daisy. So many authors have tried to capture the thought and speech of teenage characters and the result often feels strangely lacking. Not here. Rosoff really has a knack for making the reader see this unusual albeit mysterious war through the eyes of teenagers. The way the characters live in partial ignorance of the war I think is accurate- they carry on as normal, knowing that This is happening somewhere far away-ish and knowing it's killing a lot of people, but it's always possible to sort of ignore something until it lands on your own doorstep and explodes into your own life. The collapse of the adult world seen through the eyes of teenagers was very believable- they're unaware of the political and social causes of The War, so the reader never finds out either.

Personally, I always love narratives that depict the crumbling of a civilisation. I love to see how long it takes for all social structures to disintegrate completely- The Death of Grass and Day of the Triffids are two of my all time favourite books for this reason. Rosoff does an excellent job of describing the panic and the fear that would certainly take hold of rural communities and the vain efforts of certain social groups to hold reality together, or deny the collapse of life as they know it. It's not The Road, this makes up only a small part of the overall narrative, but the descent into lawlessness is handled convincingly, full of suspense and trauma.

The reader can infer from Daisy's narrative that she suffers from some sort of eating disorder, presumably Anorexia, though she never refers to it explicitly. She explains to her cousin that the feeling of hunger to her represents a type of control and a way of irritating her father and the army of psychiatrists and therapists that he throws at her. It doesn't feel tacked on, like so many 'issue' driven novels, but forms an integral part of Daisy's character- it's just there and she deals with it daily. It's probably part of the reason she got sent to England, and it's certainly the reason she gets out.

Overall, a brilliant example of excellent writing for Young Adult audiences- the Voice of Daisy pitched just right for a 15 year old girl, dry humour, resignation to her predicament, spirit, stubbornness. It asks questions, it's thought provoking, there's love, loss, War, tragedy, there's enough suspense and drama to drive the plot and the sheer strength of the link that's evident between Edmond and Daisy make this novel so, so engaging. Loved it.