Saturday, 29 April 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

A multi-generational, continent spanning epic of two families bound together by music, dictatorship and political turmoil; beginning with the Chinese cultural revolution, the destruction of the Shanghai Conservatory and the denunciation of its musicians, the brutal machine of Mao’s communist china and the violent repercussions of the Tiananmen square demonstrations.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing begins with 10 year old Marie living with her mother in Vancouver, Canada. The arresting first line tells of the year that her father, Jiang Kai, leaves his wife and child behind- the next news they hear is of his suicide in Hong Kong. Broken, left with few memories other than her father’s favourite music, Marie begins to gain perspective on her Father’s mysterious earlier life through the presence and the stories of Ai-Ming, a Chinese refugee that has been sent to live with them. Marie begins to unknot the stands of her father’s life before he was a father-the people he loved and was deeply connected to, among them, Ai-ming's father, the gifted composer and musician Sparrow.

Marie acts as a kind of anchor for the story, bridging the past and present. We check in with her at 10, during her brief connection with Ai-Ming, then regularly as she ages, always seeking the friend that became like a sister to her. Ai-ming brought with her to Canada a set of hand-lettered notebooks, the Book Of Records, an adopted, ever evolving narrative that seems to be constructed of the past, the present and the fantastical all at once. The Book of Records and its creation, survival and legacy is another constant throughout the novel- across the continents, decades and generations.  It is in this book that messages, locations and meanings are hidden via the double-meanings of Chinese lettering and calligraphy.

Throughout the historical sections, three young musicians are central to the story: Jiang Kai, the successful pianist, Zhuli, the incredibly young, gifted violinist and perhaps most importantly, her cousin Sparrow, the quiet and sensitive, highly respected composer. These are the second generation of characters, Zhuli being the only daughter of convicted rightists Wen the Dreamer and Swirl, Sparrow being the son of Ba Lute and Big Mother Knife. The trio of musicians are colleagues and close personal friends, two of them are cousins and the third, an orphan is practically family. Their relationships grow more complex with time, with the intensity of their pursuit of music, their implicit mutual understanding of one another and, unforgettably, the relentless march of communism. We follow Sparrow most closely, who seems to have everything to give and everything to lose- he is the one most broken by the difficult times that he must try to survive through.

I loved the characters in this- I saw them so clearly. Sparrow’s potential and pain, the injustice of his assignment to the radio factory. He was so accepting of everything his life threw at him- so good at hiding who he really was. Ba Lute and Big Mother Knife were incredible characters too- a whole generation of invisible people for whom second guessing every thought and feeling became second nature. Big Mother Knife especially was a brilliant creation- indestructible, apparently immortal and the utter embodiment of a solid, fearsome woman that you Would Not Mess With.

I loved the gorgeous, lyrical language, the sensory nature of the prose and how the author integrated music into the story- again, another thing I am so horribly ignorant of. Though I have no schooling in classical music myself, the characters’ adoration of music is palpable- their dedication and commitment to music was instantly and consistently evident; their talents so obvious, so beautiful and so dangerous. I actually listened to Bach's Goldberg Variations just to try and understand Sparrow’s dedication to it.

The novel reminded me frequently of Julian Barnes’s fictionalised biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, which also was beautifully written and littered with musical liberation and political oppression and extremism. Shostakovich gets namechecked frequently, along with Bach and other non-revolutionary musical powerhouses. 

I soldiered on through this book despite my slow progress and my lack of familiarity with the time and issues; as usual it was my dire knowledge of world history that let me down. I know nothing about Chinese history, the rise or fall of Communism, the Cultural Revolution or any of it. This book was a horrifying education. It’s hard to believe the scale of suffering, oppression, starvation, displacement, fear and absolute dismantling of the individual that this book depicts. The ruthlessness of a government, the disastrous chasing of a political ideology that turns the whole country into a production machine, making components of its citizens.

I would absolutely recommend this book, though it is a commitment and a bit of an ordeal to read. It’s harrowing and beautiful, incredibly brutal and haunting too. The characters and the music get under the readers’ skin, and the injustice and trauma of the Mao administration, the identity theft of a whole nation is shocking and truly thought provoking. I would never have normally read this had it not been for the Bailey’s prize, but I am immensely glad that I did as I think it will stay with me for a long time.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Broadway Book Club discussion of His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

2016 Booker Prize shortlisted His Bloody Project was our April choice- just a quick summery of our discussion.

Reception of the book was mostly positive, though it was commented that it was a tough book to read for several reasons- the grimness of the plot, various bloody murders and its unhappy ending for one, but also the dense, jargon-filled legal proceedings, the somewhat dry court case, the technical reports from psychologists and doctors. Whilst it was varied and cleverly done, many of us struggled to plough through at least part of it. One person also commented that though they thought it interesting, they weren’t sure if they would recommend it, definitely not sure who to. We agreed that the format was definitely unique, that a unique novel in such a popular, established genre such as crime fiction was an achievement in and of itself. We agreed that the “found documents” style of the book definitely added to the reader’s experience as it placed them in the detective’s chair and allowed them to draw their own conclusions after reviewing the collected evidence.

As you might expect, we talked at length about Roddy Macrae and the type of person that he is. In his own account he is a somewhat naïve dreamer of a boy- a disappointment to his father, a conflicted and unhappy person that seems to get everything wrong and suffers from enormous stretches of bad luck. There are inconsistencies with how he perceives himself and how others perceive him. He is described variously as a gifted student, the village idiot, a dangerous miscreant, a harmless if odd teenager. Some accounts tally with what Roddy himself claims. Some most definitely do not. We talked about how hard it was to wade through the conflicting accounts, how quick we were (or how long it took) to realise that Roddy’s story was merely a version and not the truth, how subjective first-hand accounts can be and how flexible things like truth and innocence can be. His Bloody Project was compared at this point to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, as that too has a main character on trial for murder, scrutinised by professionals that make declarations about her sanity, motivations and personality, while the narrator too tries to work out who she is and what she has done. Read it if you haven’t, because it’s excellent.

We talked about how damning the coroner’s report was as a piece of evidence. Until the report is read in court, it’s easy to write off other villagers’ opinions of Roddy as prejudice or malice. When the Coroner describes the mutilated, ruined corpse of Flora, Roddy’s crush and supposedly unintentional victim, he claims no knowledge or memory of performing such actions. In his version he simply kills her in a daze and wanders off. We discussed how, in a narrative so dependent on impressions, recollections and perceptions, a coroner’s report describing Flora’s injuries just feels too conclusive to ignore. It proves Roddy as a liar and forces the reader to re-think everything else- the raising of fledgling birds, the startling of the deer to save its life…we decided it cast it all in a new, sceptical light.

We talked about how good and evocative the setting was, how dark, gloomy places seem to evoke a desire to murder. We talked about how the rigid class structure and firm social views regarding aspirations and knowing your place might have contributed to Roddy’s motives. The other crofters seemed fairly unanimous that though Lachlan Broad was an unpleasant bully, the Macraes’ issues with him were minor. WE talked about Calvinism and predeterminism and the idea of fate and prophecy. Roddy’s sister had predicted Lachlan’s death, so Roddy felt compelled to bring it to pass. Very Macbeth.

We talked briefly about the minor characters and how utterly miserable their lives were- how Jetta was driven to suicide by her father’s rage and the fact she was pregnant. Jetta and Flora seemed particularly endangered- there was a nasty whiff of incest about their relationships with their respective fathers- both girls seemed trapped and deeply unhappy. If Lachlan was able to abuse his neighbour’s daughter in the way that he did, we didn’t doubt he’d do it to his own. We talked too about how Roddy’s half siblings might have been Lachlan’s.

I’ve probably missed out quite a lot, but it was an interesting discussion about a unique novel that made a big impression- full of contradictions and mysteries and unfathomable people that see more than they let on and know more than what they say.

Our book for May is Sarah Perry’s bestseller The Essex Serpent, which is luckily on the 2 for £7 in Tesco (and probably other stores). Future choices were discussed; we thought we’ve read a lot of new releases recently, so something a bit more vintage would be welcome. Thanks to everyone that suggested these J

June- Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh
July -The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

August- The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Monday, 24 April 2017

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheatle

The first Crongton tale, Liccle Bit was narrated by the Lemar 'Liccle Bit' Jackson- we were introduced to the tapestry of life on his estate, and to his mates Leon and McKay. The sequel, Crongton Knights is narrated by McKay, so we get a fresh perspective on the Crongton housing estate- a place that is impoverished and struggling, tormented by blood feuds and turf wars but that is joined by community.

His mum has died, and McKay, his brother Nesta and their dad muddle along, trying to cope in their own ways. Nesta is struggling to keep his nose clean and has become caught up in some kind of feud with a local bigman over the theft of his beloved bike. McKay's dad works nights, struggles to make ends meet and his youngest son suspects there might be something his dad and brother are keeping hidden from him.

Crongton Knights focuses on the three amigos being talked into embarking on a mission for V, the apple of Liccle Bit's eye. She's had her phone stolen by an ex boyfriend with compromising pictures on it. Together with V, her friend Saira, and a hanger on nicknamed The Boy From the Hills they brave riots and looting and the world's most awkward bus ride to the Notre Dame estate way over the other side of the city. Things, naturally, get out of hand and there are decisions made, consequences suffered and lessons learned by all.

I love the characters in this series; they are all so complex. McKay especially is the one we get the clearest insight into in this instance. He's a talented chef but sensitive about his weight, so we understand his insecurities and his ambitions. He's really sweet to Saira and Valencia- interested in what they've got to say, defensive of them when in danger, he loves his brother and his dad and just wants to stay out of trouble and for his brother to be safe. The dynamics within the friendship group are believable, often hilarious and just so warm and affectionate. They're so loyal to each other and obviously all highly value their friends.

I particularly liked the introduction of The Boy From the Hills in this book-  a sad, lonely kid that McKay defended once and now can't get rid of. He's desperate for company and friendship and follows them around like a lost pup- quietly rich but definitely unhappy who covertly tags along but ends up earning the respect of the group and finding a place for himself in their circle. His burgeoning friendship with the 2 girls and 3 boys is beautiful to read, and so well deserved. I'd love for him to be in Straight Outta Crongton.

I love Alex Wheatle's books. Though the plots are often straight forward (Hide a knife, retrieve a phone) they're about more than just these little quests; his books are about bad decisions, the consequences of poverty and struggle, family, friendship, loyalty, the limited options that are available to estate kids. His use of language is masterful, there really is nobody in YA who writes like Wheatle- his words have a rhythm and a lilt all their own. It's not that his language and dialogue are particularly believable or gritty or reminiscent of American gang culture, it's like he's created this whole new world that has its own slang and voice totally apart. It's a self contained world that lives and breathes all by itself.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Seeing, by José Saramago

Despite the heavy rain, the presiding officer at Polling Station 14 finds it odd that by midday on National Election day, only a handful of voters have turned out.
Puzzlement swiftly escalates to shock when eventually, after an extension, the final count reveals seventy per cent of the votes are blank - not spoiled, simply blank. National law decrees the election should be repeated eight days later. The result is worse; eighty-three per cent of the votes are blank. The incumbent government receives eight per cent and the opposition even less. The authorities, seized with panic, decamp from the capital and place it under a state of emergency.
In his new novel, José Saramago has deftly created the politician's ultimate nightmare: disillusionment not with one party, but with all, thereby rendering the entire democratic system useless. Seeing explores how simply this could be achieved and how devastating the results might be.
I read Blindness, Saramago's most famous (and also amazing) novel in 2013 and did not realise until half way through that this is the sequel. Perhaps a closer look at the titles would've illuminated me. Anyhow.

Seeing takes place in the same nameless city of the same nameless country (Portugal in mentioned, purely as an example). Only this time, the epidemic that seems to be sweeping across the nameless capital is political apathy. Political apathy which is confusing, unexplained and dangerous. Therefore it is swiftly upgraded to domestic terrorism; the city evacuated by the authorities and placed in a state of siege to sweat it out. The remorseless, treacherous inhabitants will stew until they are sorry.

The first part of the book is back and forth squabbling between the interior minister, the prime minister, the president and the exterior minister. All are, initially, aware that casting a blank vote is not an illegal act- what is and is not illegal is conveniently irrelevant during a state of siege. Good idea. After much discussion, observation of the chain of command, faffing about what should and should not be done and generally demonstrating perfectly why powerful men are essentially useless, the government seems to conclude that the people trapped within the city, 83% of whom cast blank votes, are enemies of the republic, miscreant anarchists with no respect for democracy or civilization. They declare them to have brought this all on themselves, with their savage, conspiratorial ways and the chaos and villainy that befalls them is their fault alone. Logic is the first casualty of this particular position. Truth swiftly follows. They have no plan. They have no sense. They have no courage or morality. They are politicians. They retreat, set up a border and see what happens.

After a period of siege, during which the besieged go about their business in a bemused, non violent and positively collaborative way, the government receive a letter. It it a letter from the first blind man, who four years ago fell in with a woman who retained her sight through the blindness epidemic. He tells of her leadership, her bravery, the fact that she did not go blind. Seizing this non existent connection between the previous and the current epidemic, the increasingly paranoid Governments gets a bee in its bonnet about bringing to justice the person that they believe to be the ringleader of this corrupting war on democracy- the doctor's wife. There is nobody else it could be; they will find the evidence to prove her guilt and expose her as the cold hearted criminal kingpin that she is.

The second part of the novel is three police officers, a superintendent, an inspector and a sergeant conducting an investigation into the supposedly suspicious activities of the doctor, the doctor's wife, the girl with dark glasses and the man with an eye patch, the first blind man's ex wife and the dog of tears. The first blind man, he that wrote the letter, is not under suspicion, being a patriotic informer. He probably cast a valid vote. The boy with the squint cannot be traced.

Personally, I found this second section much easier to read. The internal struggle of the superintendent is kind of heart breaking to witness. He has been explicitly ordered to conduct an investigation, and implicitly (though no less clearly) told what its outcome is expected to be. To see a man wrestle with what is obviously a very finely tuned conscience is grim; to see him still try to stick to his moral code and be good at his job. I got quite attached to the superintend ant and his fatherly stewardship of his subordinates. I liked that he was occasionally insecure about his decisions, endearingly methodical and occasionally quite grumpy, but he's the novel's hero really. He sees the goodness in the doctor's wife from the first moment and his quest for evidence against her dies quickly.

Written in Saramago's margin to margin text, disregarding most punctuation and dialogue conventions, Seeing is a slow burner. The squabbling politicians, though deplorable and eye-rollingly, infuriatingly familiar, are never exactly exciting and are (I think) intentionally interchangeable. The novels is a fascinating and depressingly accurate satire on the ineptitude of politicians and their obsessive need to point the finger, to be seen to be solving things. To get their bravado on and be Big Men. Their hell-bent determination to pursue a pointless, destructive, impossible plan and to expect demand, the pie-in-the-sky outcomes that they dreamed up is bitterly recognisable.

The end of this book is just so horrifyingly unjust. So abrupt and unsatisfying. Not in a badly written, structural way, but in a "That's life, what's now?" kind of way. I'd love to know what the government did next. Their master plan- so expensive, so ill thought out, so destructive and morally bankrupt, has demonstrably failed. Now what? How are they going to manipulate their populace, now the crowds and even the papers have failed to back their crazy movement? It's that spiral of increasing desperation on the part of the powerful, decreasing influence on the part of the 99%.

If you have not read Blindness, definitely do that first. Then feel the impotent rage after you finish Seeing.

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Call, by Peadar O'Guilin

Ireland has been cut off from the rest of the UK and the rest of the world, trapping every person on the island, Irish or not within its borders. Nobody in, nobody out. No internet, no new technology- nothing. For decades, every adolescent Irish citizen has been ‘Called’, an ordeal that can happen at any moment of the day or night and last for 3 minutes 4 seconds Earth time, but a whole day in The Grey Land- a sulfurous hellscape, a pain ravaged world straight out of a Bosch painting. The survival rate is about 1 in 10, and those that come back are usually traumatized wrecks, psychologically and physically bent and stretched beyond recognition. Each Irish teen must fight for their life against the torturing, flesh sculpting Sídhe, a beautiful, deadly hill-dwelling creature of folklore, banished beneath the Earth by the Irish countless generations ago.

Our protagonist is Donegal girl Nessa, a fifth year student at a college that trains teens to battle the Sídhe. They learn hand to hand combat, hunting skills, how to hide, bushcraft, folklore and study the testimonies of those that survived their Call. It’s almost easy to forget sometimes that this isn’t a normal boarding school, with the usual teen dramas and friendships and teacher-dodging going on- but there’s those little reminders that Ireland is not a thriving nation; the terrible food, the lack of resources, harsh punishment and the fact that adolescents will disappear regularly leaving behind a pile of clothes until they return dead or alive three minutes and 4 seconds later. There's a decent cast of supporting characters, ever dwindling as they are Called, that populate the school. Conor, a swaggering, treacherous 'Elite' has assembled a round table of followers, ego strokers and minions to parade himself in front of. His story arc is an interesting  study of the power hungry types blessed with physical strength, confidence and charisma, and how sometimes it can be their undoing.
Detail from The Last Judgment, by Hieronymus Bosch, 
I really liked Nessa as a character; she was resourceful, focused and had just the right amount of sass. Nobody expects her to survive because she has weakened, malformed legs and feet from Polio- so cannot run fast or walk without crutches. This just makes her more determined to survive, and she has upper body strength that puts the rest of her school to shame. Nessa comes across as cold and aloof, but it’s only because she knows that as the weakest combatant in the college, she cannot afford to be weakened by personal relationships, attachments and worrying about others’ welfare. Having said that, best friend Megan and would-be-more-than-friends-but what’s-the-point Anto have found a chink in her armour.

I loved the questions the book asked about conflict, colonialism and conquest. It asks; what are the consequences of war? What is the cost of victory? Who pays that cost? How do we determine who is responsible for actions of the past? What does it mean to be guilty or innocent? Who inherits that guilt? It’s so insightful and so subtle. The book refrains from taking a stance on the matter mostly, but it’s made clear that the Sídhe are not mindless destroyers of nations; they are trying to claim back what was stolen from them. Their vengeance is a consequence of displacement. They are a conquered people desperate to be restored to land they consider their birth right.

I really, really liked this and read it in one sitting. I really had to force myself to not skip ahead to see who died- an unusual show of self-restraint from me there. As with the best speculative fiction, The Call delivers us metaphors that force us to examine our world and question our actions, perspectives and opinions. In Britain, now especially, we have a tendency to romanticize our horrendous colonial, genocidal, tyrannous history- erase whole periods in some cases. I loved that this novel used a combination of Irish legend and mythology, poetry and language to create this tapestry of history that was kept alive at a horrible cost. And wrapped it up in a haunting, heart-pounding, breathless action narrative of death, trauma and merciless continuation.