I’ve finished reading John Le Carré: the biography, by Adam Sisman, a hugely enjoyable tour de force which has been justly praised by everyone who’s reviewed it. My only reservation is that it’s ‘official’, meaning that Le Carré co-operated with Sisman throughout – a huge advantage, but tempered by the fact that Sisman is therefore not always able to explore certain aspects of Le Carré’s life fully. For example, I’d like to know more about his relationships with women (the book goes into detail about his first wife only, now deceased); more about what other people – siblings, children, friends, publishers – thought or think about him; and, of course, more about his life as a spy. Sisman himself is not entirely convinced by Le Carré’s stated reasons for his reticence about the last of these.
However, Sisman makes it clear in his introduction that, although he and Le Carré enjoyed a mutually respectful professional relationship while the research for the biography was in progress, he didn’t allow himself to be tucked into Le Carré’s pocket. His version of what took place during certain key events in the author’s life (based on painstaking assembly of the facts) often differs markedly from Le Carré’s. This is fascinating, because usually these are also events that have been fictionalised to create important scenes in the novels. Sisman suggests that, over time, Le Carré has conflated his recollection of the actual event with the fictionalised account – which is even more likely in the many instances when he’s created different versions of the same event in several different novels.
This made me think about the constant overlap, and inevitable tension, between fact and fiction. We do always want to know ‘what really happened’: it’s a fundamental trait, part of the curiosity that makes humans the most adventurous and experimental of all primates. But can we ever achieve this knowledge? Does it even exist? It’s the continuing quest of the historian, his or her holy grail, and one that’s bound, however meticulous the research, to result ultimately in failure. The many versions of the Battle of the Somme that have been published this year offer a vivid example.
As a crime writer, I’ve often been intrigued by the different versions of the truth that are presented in courts of law. For example, based on exactly the same set of evidence, Oscar Pistorius was convicted of ‘culpable manslaughter’ by one judge and homicide by another. O.J. Simpson made a histrionic display of not being able to fit on to his hand a bloodstained leather glove left at the scene of his wife’s murder. It was pure courtroom theatre, but enough to introduce ‘reasonable doubt’ into the minds of the jury at his criminal trial, so they found him not guilty; however, he lost a civil court case in which he was accused of the same crime.
Even trickier than facts that rely on interpretation are ‘facts’ that may or may not be the result of distorted memory or belief. Recently, I’ve read several accounts of the Jeremy Bamber murders that took place thirty years ago. Bamber, who is one of a handful of convicted murderers serving a whole-life tariff and who has been told that for him life imprisonment literally means staying in prison until he dies, was accused and found guilty of murdering his adoptive parents and sister and her two twin sons in order to inherit the family wealth. Bamber has always protested his innocence; he’s set up a website that gives his version of events and has quite a large number of supporters who believe him. Having studied these accounts, written from all possible points of view, my own conclusion is that it’s the balance of probability that Bamber did commit the murders. What’s less clear is whether he himself knows this, or whether he either killed his relatives while experiencing a ‘fugue’ and has no recollection of their murders, or perhaps has been proclaiming his innocence for so long that he now believes it himself. This may sound far-fetched, but there is something very odd about his case.
Points of view are slippery things. As a child, I looked up to my paternal grandmother, a petite and elegant lady who kept house for my great-uncle, the youngest of her four brothers. Unlike my other grandmother, she was very up-to-date and well-informed, not just about current affairs, but about the fashions and music of the sixties that interested me. She went out to work, she dressed in smart clothes and she was always ready with good advice, but only when asked. I thought she was just about the perfect role model. However, I noticed that her brothers often spoke to her quite condescendingly. There seemed never to have been any question that she would take the entire responsibility of caring for, first of all, her elderly mother and then her youngest brother, who was physically disabled. At the time, I thought this was just another example of the male chauvinism that was rife in my family, but much later I discovered that she’d been ‘a bit of a goer’ in her youth. They’d given her ‘respectability’, but it seems the debt was not one that could ever be repaid. Their view of her was totally at variance with my own. Similarly, when my parents’ marriage disintegrated, I thought I understood chapter and verse exactly why, having been the reluctant occupier of a ringside seat, but over the many years that have since passed I’ve come to realise that I saw those events entirely from my mother’s point of view: I had and still have no idea what my father thought or suffered.
What did really happen? It’s a constant but almost always unanswerable question. In my latest novel, Rooted in Dishonour, mistaken points of view cost dear. The most skilful novelists are those who can assemble a kaleidoscope of viewpoints and still keep the reader onside, still maintaining that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that is the essential ingredient of all successful fiction. A few, like Le Carré, have the rare capability of achieving this while shifting the reader’s perception of the characters over time: thus, if you read all of the Smiley novels in sequence, you begin by thinking that Karla is the devil incarnate and end by realising that he is ‘just’ a man, with all the depth as well as the imperfections that entails. And it begs the question, what really happened? If we didn’t have to ponder that, there’d be no reason for reading any novel and, therefore, no reason for writing it.
I’ve admired Sue Gee for a long time and was a fan of her work long before she became a Salt author. When I received my copy of Trio, her latest novel, I therefore knew I was in for a treat, though even I could not have predicted how magnificent a treat it would be!
Trio covers the lives of three generations, but asymmetrically. Its central characters are Steven Coulter and Margot, his second wife, whom he meets and falls in love with eighteen months after his first wife, Margaret, has died of tuberculosis. The Steven / Margaret / Margot story is set mainly in the latter half of the 1930s, when the Second World War is looming and the Spanish Civil War has already begun, but it isn’t one of the myriad novels whose subject is primarily how the war and its aftermath affected ordinary lives: there is a little of that, but mainly in the context of how engaging in warfare may be a choice, a buffer used by one of those ordinary lives against personal distress. The childhood and young adulthood of the middle generation, that of Steven and Margot’s children, is not described directly: the final part of the novel is devoted to Steven’s son’s first lonely Christmas after his wife’s death, and his feelings for his sister, children and grandchildren. This is set more or less in the present.
The real subjects of Trio are love, sex, grief and death: huge, primeval topics, and ones which most authors struggle to write about convincingly, let alone eloquently. ‘Bad’ sex scenes in fiction are, of course, notorious and even otherwise very accomplished authors are sometimes guilty of inadvertently creating scenes that are memorable only for their risibility. But Gee is more than equal to this task: the love scenes between both Steven and Margaret and Steven and Margot are tender and moving. Gee really comes into her own, however, when she is conveying grief: the sharpness of Steven’s terrible, raw young man’s grief when Margaret dies; the more muted, sad and resigned sorrow of Geoffrey Coulter, Steven’s son, when he is widowed as an old man.
Threading its way through each of the big themes of the novel, music is an ever-present force. On one level, the trio referred to in the title are Margot and the other two musicians with whom she regularly plays in concerts and recitals. Gee’s accounts of music and the effect that it has on its listeners are magnificent: Steven comes from a totally non-musical family, and his awakening upon listening to the trio to the power and pleasures of music are masterfully evoked. In Gee’s hands, music promotes love, awakens desire, assuages grief and dignifies death – even a shocking and violent death. Music sustains Geoffrey in his sadness, and he is proud that his granddaughter, Evie, also shows signs of musical talent.
I could write more about Trio, but I’m aware of the dangers of slipping into ‘spoiler’ territory. One last observation: I’m too young to remember the 1930s or the 1940s, but I’m sure that Gee’s portrayal of them is as authentic as I know her depiction of the present to be. And I love her evocation of the Northumberland landscape, which acts as both a beautiful and a terrible presence in this novel.
I’ve just had the privilege of reading Dead of Winter, by Gerri Brightwell, the most recent addition to Salt Publishing’s crime list. Gerri Brightwell is an English academic who works in Canada. The novel is set in Alaska and I’m certain it draws on her experiences of Canadian winters for some of its local colour.
The story is told in the third person, but through the eyes of Fisher, the (anti-) hero of Dead of Winter, a divorced taxi driver and born loser who is estranged from his only child, a teenage girl called Bree (short for Breehan); he has a barely-speaking relationship with his former wife Jan, who, years before the story begins, has tired of her drab and grubby life with Fisher, smartened herself up, turned estate agent and met and married the obnoxious but successful Brian. Even the cab company (‘Bear Cabs’) that Fisher works for is second-rate and his life is filled with shifty characters who continually exploit him. Two of these, Fisher’s step-mother Ada and Grisby, his on-off friend, are rare jewels of characterisation. Both introduce black humour into the novel. Ada manages to cheat him and make him feel guilty for not running her errands at the same time. The depiction of Grisby is a compelling addition to the great tradition of literary scroungers: he could happily rub shoulders with Joxer Daly and hold his own. Fisher knows that Grisby takes advantage of him, but he also recognises that the man is pathetically inadequate, even more of a loser than he is himself, and therefore feels unable to abandon him. Grisby, for his part, turns to dross everything that he touches: to call him accident-prone would be a gross understatement. He is motivated by a low cunning that attempts to be devious but doesn’t fool Fisher. The only solid-gold creature in Fisher’s life is Pax the dog, and he is growing old and incontinent.
It is because of the actions of Breehan, Jan and Brian and Grisby and Ada that Fisher not only stumbles upon the aftermath of a murder, but is in danger of being wrongly accused as the killer. To protect his estranged family, he enlists Grisby’s aid to remove the corpse from the crime scene. From this point, event piles on event to immerse Fisher ever deeper in lies and apparent guilt, a vicious circle from which he cannot break free because of his love for Bree and Jan.
The tense and fast-moving action is played out over a period of a few days. The setting is a small Alaskan town in the grip of a vicious winter. The winter itself becomes one of the villains of the novel, alternately endangering and thwarting Fisher as he pursues his desperate mission. Fisher himself is by turns philosophical, funny, annoyed and depressed. His is a complex character: he charms the reader, despite his shabby frowsiness, lack of self-respect and fatalistic approach to how his life has turned out, because fundamentally he is honest, showing an integrity that no-one else in the novel can match.
The plot of Dead of Winter is ingenious: I thoroughly recommend this novel if what you’re looking for is a page-turner. What appeals to me even more is Gerri Brightwell’s clear prose and the deftly-observed characters that she creates. If you decide to read it, you won’t be disappointed.
“… when we’re pretty sure we have the whole picture and are reflecting on the roller coaster nail biter of a journey as the end approaches, the author punches us in the stomach. Once again we’re treated to a big last minute shock in the same way she shook us in Sausage Hall.”
May I express here my sincere thanks to @TheBookbag’s Ani Johnson. The review may be found in full here.
I first encountered the work of Catherine Eisner in 2008, when I read Sister Morphine (also published by Salt) and it absolutely blew me away. I was convinced at the time that it was a major, very important novel and the comparatively modest success that it has enjoyed since then has not caused me to change my mind. I still believe that it will be ‘discovered’ by a much larger audience, including some discerning and influential critics, much in the same way as John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces finally achieved the (sadly posthumous) attention it deserved.
A Bad Case has strong links to Sister Morphine, picking up on some of the same themes and even exploring further the lives of some of the same characters. Both works consist of a series of discrete but linked short stories, a format which I find very appealing. It enables the author to expand the sometimes constricting form of the short story whilst taking advantage of the fine discipline that it imposes, simultaneously giving the characters more depth by setting them in a shared context.
I have to confess that, although I by no means belong to the school of thought that opines that an author’s biography and his or her work are inextricably linked (i.e., you can’t understand the one without the other, a wonderful excuse for prying), Eisner herself intrigues me almost as much as her work. This is because she is profoundly knowledgeable in so many different fields: she understands the pop scene of the 1960s; she obviously knows a lot about the publishing industry; she exhibits more than a passing acquaintance with a wide range of ‘mind-altering substances’; she is erudite, although she wears her learning lightly, pronouncing telling mots justes upon the giants (and some of the minnows) of Western civilisation’s authors, artists and musicians across many centuries; she understands Latin and several European languages besides English; she has an acute ear for dialect (in A Bad Case, southern Irish, especially) as well as the varying cadences of speech that derive from differences in social standing; and, if she has not lived among the British aristocracy, she has clearly had opportunities to observe it at first hand. Wow!
But it is not Eisner’s accomplishments as a polymath that most fascinate me. I am hooked on her work because she writes with a vigour that both contributes to and has pushed the boundaries of an outstanding literary tradition. I don’t have a single word that encapsulates what this tradition stands for, but I can list some of its luminaries. They are Jonathan Swift (though Eisner’s indignatio is more of the jocosa than the saeva variety); Somerville & Ross and Samuel Beckett. Elements of A Bad Case also remind me of Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour. It is not lost on me that all of these writers are Irish, but although Eisner is clearly interested in Ireland and Irish characters, I doubt that it is because she has Irish blood herself. I think it is because her strong sense of the inescapable absurdity of fate, her ability to communicate the disgusting terribleness of the human condition, her knack of pulling off some elements of the supernatural while staying just this side of credibility and her wonderful power with words, all interlaced with robust black humour, happily also epitomise the best of Anglo-Irish writing.
So to the writing itself. Eisner may often be tongue-in-cheek, but the subjects she chooses are harsh. They include false imprisonment (I found A Room to the End of Fall, the first story in the volume, of particular interest, because my next novel, The Crossing, also explores false imprisonment, though in quite a different way.), paedophilia, treason, espionage, adultery, suicide and madness. The cover of A Bad Case quotes Kate Clanchy, who says that Eisner’s writing is ‘slightly, scarily deranged’. Although I understand perfectly what Clanchy means, this is not my reading of Eisner’s work. The characters may be deranged, but not the author. She pays them the compliment of presenting their world through the prism of their own outlook and sentiments, which have been conditioned by their often adverse experiences. If the reader can’t keep up, that is too bad: if there is one thing Eisner never does, it is patronise her readers by pandering to some notion of sparing their refined sensibilities. If the reader feels unsettled, that is good. If, despite understanding the richly conflicting, occasionally brutal and always uncompromising world that Eisner paints, the reader also laughs out loud, that is perfect. I have no better words to express my admiration than to say again: Wow!
Over the past few years I have played an Eisner guessing game with a friend. (I do hope that if Catherine Eisner reads this, she won’t be offended!) It’s only half serious and has its roots in our first reading of Sister Morphine, when we were each convinced that ‘Catherine Eisner’ was a pseudonym for someone much better known in the world of literature. If we’d taken bets on it, he would have lost, because his preferred candidate has since died. I’m still half-convinced that my own prospect is the correct one: I may never find out the truth. However, if you are also intrigued, I know that there is only one way for you to get closer to it: by reading Sister Morphine and A Bad Case, if possible in that order. I heartily recommend both of them to you, as I am certain you will not be faint-hearted.
It’s some time since I wrote a book review. I’ve recently read several books that I’ve meant to write about, yet somehow events have overtaken me. But this book is so brilliant that I don’t want to try to offer excuses!
Set in the Belfast Troubles, The Good Son tells the story of Mickey Donnelly’s last summer holiday before he goes to ‘Big School’. McVeigh cleverly captures the texture of the Ardoyne by presenting the tale entirely through Mickey’s eyes, but in such a way that the reader gets glimpses of the sinister adult world that exists in a kind of parallel universe to the squabbles, make-believe and silly but cruel playground fights that are lived with such intensity by the children of the neighbourhood. Mickey’s narrative is at once extremely funny and full of pathos. He tries to be brave and to help his mother and little sister and is often wise beyond his years, but the ten-year-old that he is reasserts himself when he least expects it, often at the most inconvenient moments.
McVeigh’s portrayal of a poor Irish Catholic family is a modern take on the classic Irish story. It belongs to a literary tradition that includes the work of James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and Frank O’Connor, yet McVeigh speaks with a strikingly original voice of his own. Mickey’s Mam isn’t Stephen Dedalus’s sainted martyr of a mother or Sean O’ Casey’s dignified but tragic Juno, though her character shares elements displayed by both, but she’s also a boisterous daughter of the slums, not above slapping her small son ‘because she feels like it’ or giving him a good tongue-lashing, yet also full of love and care for all her four children, including Mickey’s detestable elder brother Paddy. She even shows some kind of residue of affection for the ne’er-do-well husband and father who flits in and out of their lives, a masterful depiction of the classic Irish drunkard. She holds down several dead-end jobs that just about provide her family with subsistence, but she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. Secretly, she is also helping the paramilitaries, though whether she is being coerced into this is never quite clear.
Above all, it is the dialogue in this novel that holds the reader spellbound. McVeigh manages to convey the lilt and dynamic cut-and-thrust of the Belfast dialect without overdoing it with too much local fussiness (his judicious repetitive deployment of a handful of words, such as ‘scundered’ and ‘lumber’ is extremely effective). Also brilliant is his use of nicknames to show the child’s universe that Mickey inhabits: Ma’s-a-Whore, Measles, Fartin’ Martin, Glue Boy and Glue Girl, Wee Maggie. Mickey’s world is fragmented, a large dollop of drab reality mixed with small sips from the many forms of popular culture that he drinks in indiscriminately to nourish his imagination: Doris Day, John Wayne, Darth Vader and Yogi Bear all make unexpected appearances in The Good Son.
I can’t write any more without giving too much away. I’ve read The Good Son during the course of this weekend. I can’t claim to have completed it at one sitting, but I did resent every moment that I had to put it down to get on with the more mundane realities of my existence. ‘You must read it’ is what I really want to say!
How does one write a review of an anthology of poetry that will do justice to all its poets and encourage readers to want to taste its fruit? Let me dangle that last word, tantalisingly close, on one of the boughs of Salt Publishing’s latest collection of compressed experience and knowledge, The Best British Poetry 2014. Ah, the temptation of the succulent flavours of sixty-six authors, when insinuated into the conscious and the sub-conscious by Guest Editor Mark Ford, whose introductory blandishments would out-Satan Satan (‘What would Milton or Tennyson make of this poem?’ he asks.). He doesn’t, however, sell the fruit individually, but tells us, to make such a selection as this, that he goes on his ‘nerve: a poem rings one’s bell, or it doesn’t.’
So here I am, already reaching out to taste and try, knowing that not all Ford’s choices will ring my bell, for an anthology is a single collection to appeal to many and, as editor, he can’t please everyone all of the time. And, in a sense, I have the same problem; if I single out individual poets, then those omitted may well feel slighted, even if I explain patiently that my preferences are the ones which chimed with me.
What’s my solution? To say that I’m delighted with the range of poems here and I’m going to highlight one, purely because it sums up for me what the whole is all about. It’s ‘Girl to Snake’, which didn’t just ring out at me; it waved its clapper in my face!
Apart, of course, from the poems themselves, one of the best features of the Salt ‘Best Poetry’ selections is the section of potted bio.s, which include comments about each of the poems by their respective authors. Abigail Parry didn’t need to say much about ‘Girl to Snake’, which speaks plentifully all on its own, though she admits to an ‘attraction’ to poems about ‘transgression, particularly when they feature smooth-talking animals and particularly when the poem’s on the side of the transgression.’ Tantalising, indeed.
Since the poem consists entirely of a girl talking to a snake, the creature itself does no smooth talking, but ‘Ropey Joe’ is seductive, nevertheless, and insinuates himself into the household; he’s ‘thin enough
To slip beneath the door and spill [his] wicked do-si-do
In curlicues and hoops across the floor.’
There is an unmistakeable sense of naughty fun in this, though Abigail Parry says quite clearly that she didn’t intend it to be an ‘overtly sexual poem’. And she’s correct: the sexual symbolism and some gorgeous double-entendres are there all right (and, in slang terms, equally relevant to drug-taking!), but what she captures is the desire for knowledge that overwhelms a girl on the cusp of adulthood; she is desperate to make sense of the things that she has heard of, that appeal because they are forbidden, that constitute a ‘wicked line of dominoes’ in our post-lapsarian world. And she will taste… and she will find out… and the knowledge, however dangerous, will be preferable to the ignorance of innocence.
Parry’s inclusion of the colloquial appellation ‘pal’, her choice of a monologue, her use of those lists to which I’ve recently referred, her deft handling of monosyllables for pace, her command of metre and her deliberate play to the ear all cohere to make the poem ring true and capture that moment in a girl’s life when she simply must step away from the tediously tame reality of the domestic safety her parents have created.
And that’s what you get with this anthology: a tantalising verse crop of fruit on the tree of knowledge, dangled by Mark Ford for our delectation and designed to appeal to our taste and our sense of adventure in a poetic world that has darkness and sadness and pain and disease and war and death and destruction and sex and drugs and vice… and delight. Of course, Milton and Tennyson (and, especially, Blake) knew perfectly well that the things on the knowledge side of the world make much more interesting subjects for poetry than innocence.
Is anything beginning to chime with you yet?
The Best British Poetry 2014, available from Salt Publishing here.