Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Books Read in May

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew, by Susan Fletcher

Set in the baking heat of the Provence summer of May 1889 Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a beautiful story of age and loneliness and the steady beat of the rhythm of life. Love features prominently as a theme- the love of mothers for children, husbands and wives, how love and happiness are not always the same. The book examines how feelings evolve over time, how marriages develop and age.

The novel takes place around the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole. Once a monastery, it's now a home for the mentally ill. Presided over by the Warden Trabuc, a kindly ex military man, the hospital's future is uncertain. Trabuc has his loyal nuns and an assistant, Peron, both men (ageing as they are) work too hard and too many hours to sustain- and they have not received a new patient in years.

Trabuc's lonely wife Jeanne spends her days in their white cottage at the edge of the hospital's grounds. Her hours are filled with washing, cleaning, picking the fruits of her vegetable garden, avoiding the gossip of the other wives in the market town and cooking for her husband. She wonders what her three grown boys are doing in their far flung corners of the world. Jeanne has an adventurer's spirit- she knew her boys would travel and wishes that she could've seen more of the world herself. Her husband's horizons are and have always been small, limited to his hospital and the olive groves around it. The wheat fields, herbs and groves, framed against the Les Alpilles have been her only views in the 30 years since her marriage. Beautiful no doubt, but unchanging. She might be one of the loneliest, most isolated characters I have read in any recent novel, and it's impossible not to grieve for the young Jeanne's hopes and ambitions as she slogs her quiet middle age away as a dutiful wife.

In May 1889, the hospital receives a new admission- a Dutchman, a painter. Rumours and tales of his fiery personality, his mania and savagery and his self mutilation find their way to Jeanne before she lays eyes on him. Burning with curiosity and desperate for companionship, she sets about befriending the red-haired painter, disobeying most of her husband's rules in the process.

I liked how Vincent became a catalyst for Jeanne's second happiness. Though Vincent excites and interests her, her feelings for him are totally maternal. He simply enters her life, enriches it through friendship and through offering a new perspective. He makes her feel valued. I really liked Jeanne's transformation throughout the book, and how being seen was so crucial to how she perceived herself. Even the familiar scenery around her became more beautiful when she felt visible. She didn't haunt the groves any more, she occupied them. When she was seen, she could see the things around her too. There is no romance between them, no illicit love- but through Vincent's attentions and conversation she is able to find a greater happiness with her husband- one of communication and openness rather than stifled formality and stiff reserve. The novel is definitely a love story, but its an unconventional one.

One of the things that impressed me most about this book is the beautiful influence of Van Gogh's art- the brilliant colours, the thick swirls of paint. The waywardness of his style, his refusal to be tamed by convention is subtly threaded through the story not in Vincent's character, but in his art. We learn more about him through what he creates than by how he behaves or what he says. Which is appropriate really, as we can so rarely piece together a proper picture of the lives of our most beloved artists.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a wonderfully evocative, uplifting read about two loyal but disconnected characters and the mysterious, unlikely force that brings them together. The baked, ochre earth of Provincial France, the dusty heat are conjured brilliantly, and the soul destroying drudgery of routine (however accidental) is very relatable. It's a scary thought, to see a character put her broom down and wonder where the last 20 years went. I think that's something a lot of readers will respond to.

Books about art and artists is one of my absolute favourite not-quite-genres, so to celebrate the release of Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew, and to point all the readers that loved it (or will love it if they liked these) towards more beautiful books that explore similar themes, here are some more novels that I've also loved that have an artist/the creative process/a painting/inspiration as its core. I particularly like the recurring conundrum of creativity and mania. Is creativity born of mania? Or is the creative soul more prone to it? Is inspiration inherent, or must it be sought? Does the art come from the void or is the void caused by the art? I will never get bored of reading about that struggle.
So, in order of publication, newest to oldest. There are probably many more, but some of my favourites;

The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild
A re-discovered Watteau masterpiece tells the story of its creation to its discovery in a London junk shop by a destitute chef. I loved the idea of giving the painting its own voice- she tells her own story, her life experiences of hanging on the walls of Madame de Pompadour, Hitler, Louis XIV and Queen Victoria. The book also talks about the subjective value of art- the monetary/cultural/personal/aesthetic/historical value of a piece of canvas covered with oil.

The Ecliptic, by Ben Wood
Set in an artist's retreat, this beautifully written novel centres around the artist and their inspiration and the curse of the creative; to be torn between a need to produce, and a need to produce with integrity and vision. It's almost like creativity is an elusive but powerful animal, capable of great violence and beauty.

How To Be Both, by Ali Smith
An interesting exploration of the connection between a painting and a viewer. Again, the 400 year old painting gets to speak (or the painter himself, as represented through a painting). Smith asks but never really answers a lot of questions about art and its importance. How art affects people differently, the strength of connection that can (rarely, but still) occur between a person and an image from centuries ago and how alien this connection can seem to others. It explores the legacy of the creative, the duty of some to tell stories to pass on, and the duty of others to understand them later.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
The titular painting by Carel Fabritius is rescued from a gallery explosion by 13 year old Theo Decker. Dazed and disoriented, he stumbles out of the ruined gallery to discover that his mother has been killed in the explosion, and the artworks all assumed to be destroyed. For the next 14 years, Theo is the unofficial custodian of a masterpiece- it is both the millstone around his neck and his most precious possession. The Goldfinch is essentially a complicated coming of age story about dealing with loss, betrayal and about the weird adventure that friendship can be. It also has beautiful themes of the importance of cultural history and the preservation of beautiful, important things.

The Grl With a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier
A similar situation to the #ManIKnew that uses Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring to explore the relationship of the portrait's subject to the artist. The book was apparently inspired by the intensity of the sitter's gaze upon the viewer/artist and the untold story that Chevalier read in her face.

Cat's Eye, by Margaret Atwood
An accidental feminist icon artist returns to her home town of Toronto for a retrospective of her work. Interesting themes about childhood trauma, being haunted by past tormentors and difficulties forming relationships and how that comes out in the creative process.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew, by Susan Fletcher is released in Hardback and ebook on June 2nd, from Virago books. Thanks to Susan de Soissons for the review copy, it was brilliant.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Ruby, by Cynthia Bond

This is certainly not an easy novel to read- the ritual animal sacrifices, lynching, suffering, sex trafficking, child abuse, incest and misery. The novel’s two main characters, Ephram Jennings and Ruby Bell meet once, right at the beginning, when they are about seven and six. It’s a memorable but traumatic meeting- Ephram is beaten to a pulp, Ruby is subjected to a sort of rustic exorcism behind the closed door of a witch-like forest dwelling voodoo woman, Ma Tante. Bruised and bloodied by the boyish Margaret, Ruby’s cousin and sole protector, Eprham will never forget Ruby’s beauty or her braids, and will carry this image of her for the rest of his life. Ephram catches one or two glimpses of Ruby over the next decade in church and in the town, but their paths do not cross again until Ruby returns from New York after 13 years away.

Raised by his sister after his mother went crazy and his preacher father was lynched by white men, Ephram begins as a pious, routine abiding character. Bagging groceries at the market, handing all his wages over to his domineering, coddling and manipulative sister, Celia his ‘mama’ since he was 14. Her only aspiration in life is to become the Church Mother, something that was almost a given until Ephram took the notion to spoil everything.

Ruby escapes Liberty to New York in an attempt to re-invent herself and for a chance to find the light-skinned mother who abandoned her as a baby. It’s unclear initially just what horrors Ruby is truly escaping; her childhood will be revealed to Ephram via flashbacks as the novel progresses. New York seems exciting, glamorous, seedy. It’s the closest thing to equality available to “coloured” folks in 1950s America. It’s not much different for Ruby though- she resorts to the same skillset as she’s always used to survive, detaching her mind from her body whilst it does not belong to her.
Upon her return, accent slightly lost, her first lost spirit in tow, judgemental stares from the townspeople redoubled, Ruby spends another 11 years slowly going crazy. Avoided and derided by the community, she talks to spirits, lives alone on her family’s land, filthy and detached, just wandering the woods and wailing. We later learn that the spirits she obsesses over, hundreds of them, are the lost souls of the murdered children that wander the Piney Woods. One of the worst part of Ruby’s story is that she is by no means the only person to have been used in such a way. She soothes their pain and gives them shelter in her battered body.

The people of Liberty Township, the devout, church-going community, seem to view Ruby’s troubled mind as inevitable recompense for what they see as waywardness, her sinfulness, her unusually pretty face. She’s brought it on herself. What the township chooses to turn its blind eyes away from is incredible. The injustice of it is so frustrating- the men and boys that have abused her and taken advantage for decades condemn her for her wickedness. The book’s most powerful point is the things that happen under our noses that we choose to ignore.

If the reader’s heart breaks for Ruby from the beginning; they are thoroughly ruined by the end. As Ruby becomes more lucid, as Ephram diligently coaxes her back from her spirits and her torment, she fills in the gaps of her life with horrific details. We learn that the ‘boarding school’ that Ruby was sent to work at is nothing more than a brothel, that she has been passed from pillar to post ever since that first meeting in the woods. Various lynchings, escapes and desertions within her family left her without an adequate carer and she fell into the evil, horrific hands of the very people that would be expected to save her. The author makes a powerful point about evil being something that can occur anywhere- literally anywhere without exception. Evil is a powerful and uncontrollable thing, which is made all the more surprising by the ease with which it can be hidden.

Ruby is a beautifully written book, full of a kind of old, trickster magic, evil spirits and the horrific weight of history. But it’s also about patience and kindness, and about tackling injustice, no matter how insurmountable it seems, or how ill-equipped one is to do it. I loved the quiet diligence of Ephram, as he acts on the feelings he has harboured for decades. He cleans Ruby’s house, washes her clothes. Painstakingly and lovingly washes her hair. He listens to things that she has lived, things that she has bottled up all her life. He treats her like a person again, and Ruby doesn't know how to act. Her behaviour is so divorced from her feelings, she has literally no idea how to be act when shown kindness. I liked that there are still good people, who will still do selfless things, even if it is years overdue.

I know I haven’t really done justice to this book- I could never get across the depth of its effect on me. It’s a haunting book that tells the story of a life of such unimaginable cruelty and dehumanisation. It’s shocking and raw and brutal, told in a style of prose that is disarmingly beautiful. I can see this willing the Bailey’s Prize this year (and it would be a well deserved victory)
for its honesty, its lyrical prose and its brilliantly crafted mysticism. It would be easy, with a plot so laden with misery and trauma to become melodrama, but the characters are so balanced and so well realised that this never happens. An incredible novel.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Asking For It, by Louise O'Neill

Last year's YA Book Prize winner Louise O'Neill returns to take another well-aimed whack at the patriarchy and to bring the conversation about rape, consent and victim blaming into the social arena.

Asking for It is the story of Emma O'Donovan, a beautiful Irish 18 year old school girl; popular, clever, head-turningly gorgeous, Emma is torn between life staying the same forever, enjoying being the biggest, prettiest fish in the pond of Ballinatoom, versus getting out into the big wide world and making her mark. For the first part of the novel she enjoys a fairly normal social life; shopping, hanging out at the park, parties, drinking and casual, almost competitive sex.

We see Emma manipulating her friends, constantly trying to draw attention away from their genuine crises onto herself. She basks in attention; feels that she deserves it due to her undeniable beauty. She expects whistles and compliments from men and boys; then feigns annoyance that them, stung when they aren't forthcoming. Sometimes Emma's thoughts in parentheses save her, you think- if these are her real thoughts I feel bad for the effort and exhaustion it must cost her playing the beautiful ice queen. Other times the parentages just make me think, yeah, she's an absolutely horrible person. It's incredibly clever, what author Louise O'Neill has done. By putting the reader in the position of judge and jury, we take on the role of society and see how easy it is to pass judgement on people. She's the worst type of frenemy, the one that belittles everything that you're excited about and steals your boyfriend just to see if she can. Emma could easily be the bullying, poisonous antagonist in so many other YA coming-of-age novels. She's cruel and spiteful and we the readers want her to receive her comeuppance. We want something to happen to her that makes her change her ways and be nicer to the people around her, the people that she calls friends. But not that.

O'Neill has really seized hold of the idea that it's easy to judge, and it's easy to dismiss until the shoe is on the other foot. Emma is incredibly dismissive of her friend Jamie, herself a "yes actually that does count as rape" victim, and we see Emma in the earlier chapters actually laughing about it with the rapist himself- he makes a crack about girls' tendency to deny things they regret in the morning. We know Jamie has confided in Emma. We suspect it's the reason for her mood swings and drinking- yet it's not until Emma finds herself in the same position that it actually occurs to her that rape is a prevalent, essential issue and consent is very much a binary situation. At a weekend party a drunken pseudo-celebrity conquest spirals out of control- a consensual but unpleasant sexual experience becomes something completely different and much more criminal- and there are Facebook groups and Snapchat stories to preserve it for ever. Nothing is secret in the digital age, and even the most irrefutable evidence does not seem evidence enough.

I loved how the book deliberately and aggressively (and rightly so) challenges society's expectations, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of rape victims. Society, the Daily Mail, everyone would be quick to demand prison time for a male that attacked an innocent young girl on her way home- all the more so if it were a pretty, private school girl from a good family. What if she was wearing a dress cut to the bellybutton? What if she'd previously shown interest? made the first move, even? What if she was over 18? What if she was drunk? Would we then say that the girl was asking for it? That she got what she deserved? The whole novel is a brilliantly packaged way in to an incredibly crucial problem- a critical issue that we as a society are so disgustingly guilty of and that is victim blaming. It shows so clearly the reality of gendered expectations, and how the powerful aren't subject to the same rules as the rest. The town's heroes, good boys really, promising football stars, aspirational teens- can't possibly be rapists.

The second half of the book deals with Emma, a changed Emma, no longer Emma O'Donnelly, but the anonymously notorious "Ballinatoom Girl". Her case has exploded nationally. Everybody has an opinion, a judgement. Emma is torn apart by guilt- for all the lives she thinks she's ruined. For everyone she's tainted. For all the things she did and didn't do. She's a friendless, unsupported ghost in her own house. The lads in the videos- her 'friends' are enjoying life as usual, safe in the knowledge that everybody believes them- that Emma was Asking for It. They're good boys.

This is an angry, venomous book that demands that the reader listens to what it has to say. It dares you to confront your own behaviour and that of everyone around you. The more a person looks out for the victim blaming rhetoric, the more ubiquitous it seems. There are many chunks of this book that will stay with me for a long time. It's unexpectedly disturbed the way I view all justice. ALL justice. If our whole criminal system depends on the axiom of " Innocent until proven guilty", then the victim of a crime is automatically a liar until proven honest. I've never thought about that before. The whole book has made me question my own behaviour- I judge. Everybody judges to some extent. I'm going to try and do that less.

I urge everybody to read this book. Buy it for yourself, your kids. Buy it for you friends' kids. The more people that read this book, the better and more unavoidable the conversation around consent will be,

Friday, 20 May 2016

A-Z of Reading, definitely not stolen

I stole this from Nat Marshall, who blogs at The Owl on the Bookshelf

Author you've read the most books from…
Probably Enid Blyton- I read all 21 Famous Five books and all of the Adventure series...that's probably more than any other author.

Best sequel ever…
The Year of the Flood. by Margaret Atwood. SUCH A GOOD BOOK. I know now it's technically a series, which makes it not really a sequel, but at the time I read it, there were just the 2. And it was that way for ages. Also, I haven't read Madaddam, so it's easy to forget that it exists.

Currently reading…
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney because it's on the Bailey's Prize and the Desmond Elliott shortlist...and Asking for It by Louise O'Neill

Drink of choice whilst reading…
Tea. Always tea. Tea till the end.

E-Reader or physical book…
Physical book definitely. I've never, ever got into e-readers. I like books. I like to look at them and take photos of them and feel the weight of them. I can see why a long holiday would require economic book solutions- but I say take fewer pairs of uncomfortable shoes and 3 extra books. I regularly come back home with more books than I left with.

Fictional character you probably would have actually dated in high school…
Neville Longbottom. Without a shadow of a doubt.

Hidden gem book…

I still think about The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber. It's a novel written in verse about how Christopher Marlow might have faked his own death, lived in exile writing under the pseudonym of William Shakespeare and employed a not-very-intelligent bald headed glovemaker from Stratford to be the face of his operation. Did I mention that it's written in verse? Cos it's written in verse.

Important moment in your reading life…
I remember being all on track to do an art degree at the age of about 17- then reading the (then new) Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince for the first time. The bit where someone kills someone at the top of the somewhere (look, some people still might not know and it turns out the internet wishes death on all spoilers) just totally floored me. I remember actually reeling from the realisation that everything I was feeling was the result of words. Just letters on a page, black on white. I guess that changed my course, sent me spiralling off in to literature more seriously and I've never recovered. I guess that marked the point where I stopped reading for fun and read because it was the only thing I wanted to do,

Just finished…
The Dead Zone, by Stephen King

Kind of books you won’t read…
Anything about Anne Bolyn and her bodice-entombed contemporaries.
Predictable serial killer police procedurals.
Crime fiction that isn't Raymond Chandler or Agatha Christie.
Anything that's core plot is about marriage, having kids, finding love.
Anything with an overly loopy title font.

Longest book you've ever read…
Under the Dome, by Stephen King. Incredible book weighing in at a whopping 1074 pages.
It's also answered a question that's bugged me for years. "Can you love a book, but hate the ending? Or will a disliked ending always taint the preceding plot?" I've swung between Yes and No for years, never quite sure. The answer is yes; you can love a book and completely hate the ending.

Major book hangover…
The Lunimaries by Eleanor Catton. I remember just looking mournfully out of the window when I finished it, sad that it could never be undone. I tried to find other things that were similar but never managed to relive that luminous high.

Number of bookcases you own…

2 Young Adult (overflowing) and additional pile of same...
3 Non Fiction (floor to ceiling)
4 Fiction (3 floor to ceiling, one waist high)

One book you've read multiple times…
Ohmygod Harry Potter. I have read that so many times. My first set fell to pieces. I can tell you whole chunks word for word. I'd finish whichever book was most recent and then start Philosopher's Stone the second after. Waiting years in between releases? Modern fans will never know the pain.

Preferred place to read…
On trains. Definitely. The train environment just the right amount of boring, necessary and removed from all other things. You can't just get up and put the kettle on or whatever- you're in for the long haul on a train.

Quote that inspired you from a book you've read…
"Well, maybe it's like Casy says. A fellow ain't got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…Then it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark– I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look– wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build – I'll be there, too." Tom Joad's speech to his Ma, from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

Reading regret…
Not liking Terry Pratchett. I feel like I'm betraying so many people when I shrug my shoulders and deliver a juicy, apathetic "Meh" as my verdict on the late, apparently great man himself.

Series you started and need to finish…
I've still got The End, the last of Charlie Higson's The Enemy series to read...but it's such a complex and intricate series I feel I should re-read the other 6 so I've got it all fresh in my mind. I'll only get to finish it for the first time once- and you don't want to be thinking "What? Who's this guy? Was he the one that whatever..." so I'm going to need to carve a chunk of time out to do that!

Three of your all time favourite books…
See this is really hard. I have a constantly morphing top 20 that I can launch into fangirl spiel about...but favourite three...
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Unapologetic fangirl for…
In case it's gone unnoticed, I am a card-carrying Potter nut. Me and my sister are going to the studio tour for the fourth time next month, almost certainly inspiring our annual Potter film-a-thon and reading race. HP is the frame through which I view the world.

Very excited for this release more than all others…
Errm- I'm pretty excited about the paperback releases of Sarah Crossan's One and Katherine Rundell's The Wolf Wilder. Normally when I wait for the paperback, it turns out to be dead ugly- these are two beautiful exceptions to that rule.

Worst bookish habit…
Obviously buying more books when I'm going to need 3 or 4 extra lifetimes to read all of the ones I have already.

X marks the spot- start on the top left of your bookshelf and pick the 27th book…

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood

Your latest purchase…
Duma Key, by Stephen King (hi Stephen, 3rd mention for you my friend) Lumberjanes and my preorder of We Stand on Guard finally showed up

Zzzzz snatcher book (the book that kept you up to late)…
I've not stayed up reading late into the night since my Harry Potter days. I get up at 6.20!

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney

I had been waiting for this book to come out in paperback for ages, and was delighted to see it make the Bailey's Prize shortlist, as that made it much more likely that I'd actually manage to read it. In short, I had greatly looked forwards to reading this début novel from Irish blogger and all round Sweary Lady Lisa McInerney. But now having finished it, I really don't know what to think.

The story follows various figures of Cork City's criminal underworld. Seedy and grim, TGH paints a picture of a decaying Ireland very different from the Emerald Isle depicted in the tourist literature. This is a damp and resentful Ireland, wounded by its religion, betrayed by its lawmakers and crippled by financial collapse. The book opens with Maureen, the recently retrieved, butter-wouldn't-melt estranged mother of Cork's leading gangster Jimmy Phelan. Maureen harbours her own grudge against her country; forced to relinquish her born out of wedlock son 40 years ago and exiled to London, she's bitter about the disproportionate amount time paid versus the sin committed. She's owed some bad behaviour really, paid on credit. Son Jimmy, raised a pillar of the community by his grandparents, has recently retrieved her from London and had installed her unceremoniously in an empty brothel.

Maureen has just accidentally killed a trespasser in her dingy flat, conking the intruder on the head with a garish religious trinket. Jimmy, called in to make the deceased disappear subcontracts the job to one of his men- one time pal Tony Cusack, a violent drunk, distraught widower and father of 6. This accidental, almost farcical murder has repercussions for all the novel's characters that span the next five years. The deceased is Robbie O'Donovan, half arsed pimp, waster, junkie and general layabout. He will be vaguely sought by his junkie, prostitute girlfriend Georgie for the next couple of years. Tara Duane, the Cusack's next door neighbour is a grotty gossip monger there to poke the embers when it looks like the flames of implication might be dying down and the shabby glue that holds the characters' fates together.

Our main protagonist is Ryan Cusack, 15 years old at the beginning of the book, he is the son of a violent drunk and desperate to avoid turning into one himself. He graduates from small time dealer, to juvenile prison, to more illustrious networks of criminals, swapping the piano for decks along the way. It's his descent from resentful punchbag to actual angry criminal that is perhaps the most arresting of the book's plots. We see the decisions he makes and the lack of real options open to him. His relationship with his girlfriend (from the age of 15-21) is interesting, quite sweet really, that they stay together through prison sentences and various assorted infidelities, but they seem to swing between genuine, affectionate love and blind seething hatred. They show quite nicely how toxic influences will poison even the most stable, loving (if slightly unlikely) relationships. As the years go on, Ryan's field of vision begins to narrow and his options, never exactly myriad to begin with, seem to decrease in quite an alarming, suffocating way.

Though well written and full of sharp wit and head turning turns of phrase, I never really got my eye in for this book, never hit my stride with it properly. I've really struggled to identify what it was that didn't chime. I was determined to plough through, as I'd heard such promising things and been looking forward it reading it for so long! I guess it just didn't work for me. One thing I will say is that I did struggle with the jumbled chronology- perhaps if I'd felt more immersed this would've come more naturally and presented less of a problem. I know the out of sequence narrative is not an especially complex or new idea, but in this case I just found it made the novel that little bit tougher. I guess I just got a bit left behind- McInerney I found be kind of of prone to hyperbole and a couple of times I'd get to the end of a paragraph and realise that I had no idea what I'd just read...

I honestly don't think this is a bad book, not by any means. It's funny, smart and a really fascinating study of the grotty criminal networks that exist in the festering decay of small, neglected cities. I liked the unsympathetic but recognisable cast of characters, I liked that none of them were really looking for redemption- that none of then would recognise redemption if they should see it. I liked seeing a depressing, seedy city filled with grotty characters that know there's no getting out of rock bottom. I'm sure this is a very recognisable world to many readers, and not just to the Irish.

It just didn't work for me and I'm kind of sad about that.

Monday, 9 May 2016

'Salem's Lot, by Stephen King

In search of inspiration and a chance to exorcise some personal demons, moderately successful writer Ben Mears returns to his childhood home town of Jerusalem's Lot, or 'Salem's Lot for short. His life has been haunted by vivid, terrifying memories of the time he entered the deserted Marsten house on the hill as a dare- the house where depression-era gangster and all-but-confirmed Devil-worshipper Hewbie Marsten had brutally murdered his wife and then hung himself in an upstairs room. Ben recalls his terrified childhood self  catching a horrified glimpse of Marsten's hanging corpse, 30 years after the fact, decayed and staring right at his child self- but he isn't sure if it was a hallucination, an over-active imagination or real. If that doesn't get his author juices flowing then nothing will.

Ben is initially delighted to find 'Salem's Lot mostly unchanged, though the Marsten house that he had hoped to rent has been sold to a mysterious Austrian man that nobody has ever seen- it was handled by the charming, snappily dressed Mr Barlow, his associate. A few of the residents recognise Ben as an author and are familiar with his work, but none recognise him as a former resident. Within hours of getting into town he has secured a comfortable room in the local boarding house, met a nice local girl (Susan) and arranged an evening out with her. So far so small town.

It's when unusual, gruesome things start to happen that normality in 'Salem's Lot begins to fracture. Ben is one of the first people to conclude that this epidemic of flu-like illness, the disappearances and the mysterious, sudden deaths are the result of a vampire, and his suspicions turn immediately to the elusive Austrian gent and his dapper assistant. He begins to form the idea that the Marsten house is inherently evil, like a battery ready to act through whichever person takes up residence there. Perhaps it's his outsider's eye, perhaps he is just more open minded than most. Either way, it's up to Ben to firstly convince and then assemble a team of Vampire Slayers to take on the threat before it turns the whole town. 

Ben's Buffy's squad demonstrates another great strength of King's is his ability to apparently pull funny, likeable, well crafted characters out of thin air. With a few well chosen habits or descriptions, the reader feels like they've known these people forever and are immediately invested in their survival. There's Mark Petrie, a pre-teen hammer horror fan who is so deadpan and practical, so prepared for vampire activity that he needs no convincing of the danger. They are joined by elderly school teacher, academic lore-buff Matt Burke (a total modern day Van Helsing, as pointed out by Ben) and his doctor, Jimmy Cody (useful, even if he's the least memorable of the bunch) Susan, who takes some convincing but gets there in the end and the colourful local priest, Father Callahan who has been waiting for a reason to get out and do something his whole life.

I absolutely loved this book and read it in two days. It's divided into two chunks- Pre-Vamp and Post-Vamp. I'm not going to count the mention of Vampires as a spoiler, cos it says on the cover that it's Vampires...Anyway, I loved how much the first section takes its time- it really lets the reader stew in the unease and the slowly mounting fear of the town. First we get to know 'Salem's Lot and its inhabitants, the normal rhythm of life in out-if-the-way Maine. A couple of odd things start to happen; A dog is found mutilated. A child disappears. Then another dies of extreme anaemia. King is not scared to invest time in laying the groundwork early on and takes his sweet time in doing so; but you are never bored. The wealth of minor characters gives the town such vibrancy and an authentic reality- the diner, the boarding house, the origin of the name...it all adds colour. Whenever the reader is directed towards a minor character that gets some solo screen time, we know they're enjoying their last moments on Earth and because the reader *knows* what's going on long before anybody else, the length and the pace of the Pre-Vampire section becomes unbearably tense.

The post vampire section is a brutal, violent unleashing of horror and fear on the town and its remaining population. Where the first half is a slow, gradual build up, this is the apex of the roller coaster's track and the mad, frantic descent into the unknown. It's an interesting exploration of people's unwillingness to believe in something that can't be real- half the town knows something is amiss, but they cannot concede to the crazy solutions that the evidence points to. It's their refusal to be convinced that gets them killed most of the time- they will not see what's in front of them, and so they become part of the problem.

It's part Dracula, with the charming, magnetic evil of the traditional turn-of-the-century vampire, and part The Bodysnatchers, with the horror of the small-town realisation that the people that you live and work alongside could be facsimiles of some kind. While they may look like themselves, they could well have been in some way corrupted. These are timeless, endlessly relevant fears- the idea of infiltration, the altering of a way of life, the idea that those closest to you are not the people they once were, the ease with which illness, ideas, badness can spread. Through the Marsten house too King introduces the theme of inherent, geographical evil, the idea of a malevolent space that sits patiently and dormant, waiting for inhabitants to corrupt with its evil influence. It's a theme he will explore further in The Shining, which would be his next novel. Which, incidentally, is also excellent.

There are so few things in the world that deserve the hype and admiration that is bestowed upon them, but I'm more and more convinced with every book that Stephen King is one of them.