Fact and fiction; fiction and fact – and ‘faction’ and ethics!
I spent the weekend reading a novel (no, not the one above, which I’ll mention later) that described a series of events with which I am personally familiar, although they happened more than ten years ago and my role at the time was very much that of bystander – I didn’t know most of the facts until some years later. I emphasise the word ‘facts’ – I’m not talking about a lookalike situation here. I didn’t know there would be any kind of personal connection when I bought the book. It is by an author whose work I have read before – mainly in the form of journalism – and I was curious to know how she had shaped up as a novelist.
As I embarked on the novel and the narrative unfolded, I was stunned to realise that this was an undisguised account of those very events. The only subterfuge the author had used was to give the main characters different names – though names very much in keeping with the originals. She didn’t, for example, rename a Charles ‘Sidney’ or a Joanna ‘Edith’.
The novel tells the story of a love triangle. The three protagonists are a married couple and the man’s colleague, with whom he embarks upon an affair. Nothing special about that – it’s one of the oldest plots in the world. Think Jacob, Leah and Rachel or Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot. Think The English Patient. This novel’s uniqueness lies in the detail: the venue and circumstances of the lovers’ first tryst, the man’s family situation, the place to which he takes his by-now mistress for a holiday, his death by suicide. Yes, indeed – the man commits suicide, unable to extricate himself from the mess which he has made of his life. And my point is: none of this is fiction.
Let me wind back to my own very tangential participation in this tale. I have never met the author, who is the mistress in the triangle. I have also never met the wife. As far as I know, neither is aware of my existence. I knew the husband as a professional acquaintance during the last months of his life – although of course neither he nor I knew that they were. I had just set up a new freelance business and I was working on a project with him. Out of the blue, his PA called me and told me he had “died suddenly”. I didn’t know it was suicide until some years later, when I worked on another project with another of his former colleagues, who had by now moved to a different company. We talked about his death and she described to me more of the details that led up to it.
As a result, and belatedly, I am much more clued up now about the course of events than I was immediately after they took place; and what strikes me very forcefully is that most of what I have just read in this ‘novel’ is not fiction at all. Except for the passages that conjecture what the main actors were feeling (including the wife, who, unsurprisingly, is not portrayed with much sympathy until the end), it is a blow-by-blow, more or less verbatim account of what actually happened. It may very well have been cathartic – and even lucrative – for the author, but what about the emotions it will have triggered in the other players in the story, particularly the wife? How could she have felt when she realised the hugely distressing events that had changed her life forever had been dragged into service as ‘fiction’? What about the two sons, now young men, who were teenagers at the time?
I have asked these questions rhetorically, but I am genuinely interested to know what others think. I am aware that authors have sometimes been taken to court for writing about characters who bear too close a resemblance – or even the same name – as someone who exists. For example, the first printing of Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (great novel if you don’t know it) was recalled after an acquaintance of his objected to his use of her name and he had to change the name. Conversely, I know some authors make fictional use of their own experiences but relate them to characters who are quite different from the originals. None of my own characters is recognisable as an individual who truly exists, though I have observed and written about unusual characteristics in people I know to make my characters more interesting.
When does something billed as fiction actually become ‘faction’ – and how much should an author be allowed to get away with, not just legally, but also morally speaking?
I have chosen not to name the title of the novel I’ve been discussing here or identify its author. I do not want to add more oxygen to the publicity it has already received. I don’t wish to sound sanctimonious, but reading this book has made me feel very uncomfortable indeed.
Love is the answer
I must confess I am not a connoisseur of ‘Young Adult’ (YA) novels. I was a student when everyone was reading Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, so they didn’t appeal, but at the time there was in any case no question of their being aimed at teenagers. They were books for adults – hip, trendy adults, the same ones who liked Monty Python. YA as a genre had yet to be invented. It still lay in the future when my son was born a decade later. And, although eventually I read to him ‘The Hobbit’ and the Narnia novels, they were not billed as belonging to the YA genre. As a bookseller, I was responsible for cataloguing fiction and the genre in which we placed them was firmly labelled ‘fantasy’. Fantasy was science fiction without the science. C.S. Lewis was considered ‘a good thing’ by the librarians who were my main customers because his novels were allegories of the Christian condition, but they bought the Narnia books for the under-twelves, not for adolescents. I’ve read Steinbeck, of course (but long before some of his works were hi-jacked from mainstream adult and appropriated as YA), and I’ve read and enjoyed some of Philip Pullman’s and Jacqueline Wilson’s books, but there my acquaintance with YA ends.
Or, ‘had ended’. This summer, I read a book called ‘Love is the answer’ which took my breath away. Its publisher, QuoScript, classifies it as YA and, although I would agree that this is the primary genre to which it belongs, I’d also say it is a ‘crossover’ book, i.e., one that holds appeal for all readers from the age of twelve onwards.
‘Love is the answer’ is the debut novel of Ben Craib. It’s about loss, grieving, going off the rails and, above all, the value of love in all its true forms – love of parents, love of friends, legitimate love of self. It distinguishes between these ‘pure’ forms of love and the false and destructive love that springs from self-doubt, spiting former partners by shacking up with a ‘rebound’ lover and using an unsatisfactory relationship to bolster self-esteem. This makes the novel sound sombre and moralistic, but in fact it is the opposite – vibrant with some of the best dialogue I have ever read, extremely funny in a sitcom kind of way and lyrical without being precious.
‘Love is the answer’ tells the story of Scarlett, whose mother has died of cancer by the time the novel begins, though she appears in some flashbacks. Scarlett, who has clearly now arrived at the angry part of the grieving process, is reluctantly (and badly) keeping house for her father, who is himself floundering in grief. Although he clearly loves Scarlett, he shows it in all the wrong ways, coming across sometimes as heavily dictatorial as a Victorian papa, sometimes ridiculously over-indulgent (because he doesn’t want to lose his daughter) and always as out of his depth emotionally as Scarlett herself.
Other important characters include Elliot and Bad Ben, Scarlett’s two college friends, whom she all but abandons when she meets Hayden, her first proper boyfriend, and Jennifer, Scarlett’s father’s new girlfriend, a slim, elegant ballet teacher who seems to hold all the cards when Scarlett herself holds none. Scarlett resents Jennifer and rejects her genuine concern. She does not recognise the deep affection in which she is held by Elliot and Bad Ben. She fights against her father’s protectiveness and instead throws in her lot with Hayden, believing that she has not only found her soul-mate, but, through nurturing their relationship, the solution to all her predicaments.
That’s certainly enough of the plot, though I’ll just highlight a few of the other riches within this poised and light-of-touch but very accomplished novel. First of all, the characters: all the leading ones are complex and self-contradictory – at times, noble and brave; at times, absurd and cowardly. Ben Craib is a master of characterisation, a gift which he extends to the minor characters, too. My favourites among these are Cenk, the thuggish Cockney/Turkish owner of Scarlett’s local convenience store, and Mikey Miles, the ageing, pathetic – but extremely wealthy – pop star whom Scarlett and the other residents of Hayden’s squat treat as a sort of demi-god. And the sub-plots are fascinating: Ben Craib wears his knowledge lightly, but he is clearly expert on contemporary music and – more originally – superheroes, the comics in which they feature and the strange fantasy world which their fans inhabit. Ironies abound, some so subtle that it takes two or three readings to recognise the nuances in the masterfully constructed narrative. As I’ve said, Craib also has a natural ear for dialogue. I won’t elaborate further – I’ve said my piece. I do encourage you to read this book, whether you identify as a YA reader or one of more mature years, especially if, like me, you have always thought the YA genre is divided between ‘Frozen’-style fantasies and gritty, if hackneyed, works about modern teenage angst. ‘Love is the answer’ has so much more to offer than this, to readers of any age. It is the novel that has persuaded me never to pass by the YA sections in my local bookshop in future. There may well be other masterpieces hiding there! And I look forward with impatience to reading Ben Craib’s next book.
The Physics of Grief
It is my privilege to have received an advance copy of The Physics of Grief, by Mickey J. Corrigan. Mickey is an author whose work I have long admired, someone who brings wisdom, humour and gracious writing to both the mundane and humdrum grind of daily life and to the truly horrific events that occasionally engulf human beings. This book is published today, April 22nd 2021, by QuoScript.
The Physics of Grief is classic Mickey. The protagonist of the book, Seymour Allan, is initially only a semi-likeable character to whom the reader is drawn – if at all – by sympathy for his situation. He is living in a retirement complex because poverty, rather than old age and infirmity, has made this a necessity. He is broke; he is lonely; he is full of self-loathing; and he lives alone, save for a stray cat he has adopted. (Note from a cat lover: few characters in novels who love cats are entirely bad.)
Seymour’s luck changes when he is accosted in a café by the mysterious and enigmatic Raymond C. Dasher. For me, Dasher is the most intriguing character in the whole novel. Is he even a real human being? There clings about him something of the supernatural, reminiscent perhaps of Hermes Diaktoros, the “fat man” of Anne Zouroudi’s crime novels set in Greece (surely intended as an earthly manifestation of Zeus?), who comes and goes like the Cheshire Cat, or of the shade of the grim reaper who lurks in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, having a voice but never a physical presence.
But Raymond C. Dasher is both corporeal and articulate. He’s not particularly likeable, either: he has a dangerous sense of humour that verges on the cruel and he treats his employees – or perhaps I should say employee, because Seymour never meets any of his colleagues, another puzzle – with casual if paternalistic contempt. Nevertheless, the poverty-stricken Seymour does agree to become an employee of Dasher, as a professional griever (apparently this is genuinely a way of making a living in several countries today – not entirely surprising, as paid mourners, or ‘mutes’, were a definitive part of the grief landscape in Victorian Britain, too).
Corrigan has great fun while portraying Seymour at work, as he uncovers the back-story behind each of the deceased who, without being able to muster a respectable number of personal mourners, has left cash to pay to plug the gap at the funeral with “extras”. And whose funerals are they? You’ll be enmeshed!
However – and with a few hiccoughs at the start – Seymour begins to take it all in his stride… with what effect on himself? And how is he personally affected? What lies in his back-story? Corrigan’s skill plays delicately with the reader’s reactions to this man.
Funny, sad, ambiguous, profoundly philosophical yet grounded in the reality of the everyday, extremely erudite about the customs of death (but wearing its erudition lightly), The Physics of Grief is a hauntingly beautiful novel about people and why they do what they do – until they die. And Corrigan also manages to suggest without any hint of religiousness, that even then – perhaps – death is not the end. This is a crime novel with a labyrinth of twists, its originality breath-taking. If you are looking for a mesmerising book to read this spring, you can hardly do better than to invest in The Physics of Grief.
Awakening of Spies: Review
This spy thriller is the impressive first novel of a series planned about Thomas Dylan, who is plunged into ‘security’ work when, shortly after his graduation, he agrees to attend an interview for an organisation that needs a linguist. It is the 1970s. The job, which Dylan accepts, means working for the Defence Intelligence Service (DIS) as a civil servant. He is warned that there is no glamour attached to being part of the DIS, which is poorly regarded by both MI5 and MI6.
A boring future seems to beckon: he is convinced he has chosen – or, rather, fallen into – the wrong career, but he is very quickly sent to Zandvoort in the Netherlands on an undercover operation in which he is set up to fail. However, despite failing as resoundingly as expected, he quickly finds himself on his way to South America on a more important mission. It is to retrieve a device called ‘The Griffin’: ‘Garble-Recognition-Interrogation-Friend-or-Foe-Inboard Nautics – Master Control Unit’. The Griffin is never explained more clearly than this, but a reader well-versed in tales of espionage might assume it to be something like a portable 1970s version of the Enigma machine. All the usual suspects are after The Griffin, from the CIA to British Intelligence to various assorted Russians, Israelis and Arabs, not to mention the South Americans on whose turf the action takes place, some of whom are not South Americans at all, but escaped Nazi war criminals.
The plot is a relatively simple one – the novel tells the story of Dylan’s adventures as he tries to track down The Griffin. Both pursuer and pursued, he is continually trying to figure out which of the people he encounters are really who they say they are and which ones can (or can’t) be trusted. Among them is the intriguing upper-class (anti-?) heroine Julia, whose uncle is (allegedly?) a bigwig in the security services. The narrative is written in the first person, which works well: during the course of the novel we see Dylan progress from a greenhorn apprentice spy to a much more mature operator whose rite of passage has included killing as a duty of his new profession.
What makes this novel stand out, apart from the fact that it is beautifully written, is that it is a spy thriller for grown-ups. The plot may be straightforward but the relationships between the various characters are intricate, their underlying rationale complex; yet despite the welter of detail and counter-detail, the author never makes the reader feel lost or, as so many spy writers do, leaves her or him feeling that the book is teetering perilously close to the edge of credibility. Landers has also accomplished the difficult trick of showing a profound understanding of the milieu which he describes without over-parading his knowledge.
There is some violence in Awakening of Spies, but it is not gratuitous or unduly sensational (I’m mentioning this because I know some of my readers don’t like too much bloodshed). Both death and sex are described in a restrained way – there are no James Bond-type shenanigans. If you’d like to try a good spy thriller without the Boys’ Own escapades, I recommend this novel. And I’m already looking forward to the next one in the series.
Awakening of Spies is published by Red Door Press. ISBN 978-1913062330
There is no Planet B: review
Written by Mike Berners-Lee, brother of the more famous Tim, this book is difficult to categorise. It is part economic text, part philosophy, part psychology; sometimes worldly-wise and sometimes quite naïve. It continually switches the spotlight from the universal to the personal, from the state to the individual. The author appeals to the latter alternately – sometimes abruptly – as sensitive planet-lover, average citizen and fellow-sinner. Thought-wise, Berners-Lee is the descendant of Sir Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Malthus and Tom Stoppard, with sprinklings of the Archangel Gabriel for good measure. The book triumphs because of Berners-Lees’ racy, informal style: he has achieved the difficult coup of turning a disquisition into a page-turner.
Mike Berners-Lee is described by Wikipedia as “an English researcher and writer on carbon foot-printing. He is a professor and fellow of the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University and director and principal consultant of Small World Consulting, based in the Lancaster Environment Centre at the university.” Berners-Lee is the mature adult’s Greta Thunberg. He tries, and mostly succeeds, not to fall into knuckle-rapping piety. The great strength of his book is the force of the scientific and statistical evidence he has amassed about the sustainability – or otherwise – of Planet Earth as we know it. A huge corpus of data has been packed into this relatively slim volume. It exposes the plight of what he memorably calls the “Anthropocene” – “the era in which human influence is the dominant source of change to the ecosystem”.
That statement immediately raises the question of the fake news peddled by those who claim that global warming isn’t happening. He repudiates this with a workmanlike definition of what truth means to a scientist:
“…there is no such thing as one person’s truth as distinct from another person’s truth. If something it true, then it is a fact. Period. There is nothing subjective or personal about it. A person’s view of the truth is a different thing altogether and always is personal.”
He provides a statistician’s bounty of lists and charts that illustrate the carbon footprints of different foodstuffs, the relative benefits of and damages caused by different kinds of fuel, the energy consumption of the rich versus the poor, etc. They certainly make you think, and there are some surprises: for example, relentless facts demonstrate that production of biofuels steals food from the starving.
The charts contain so much information that it can be difficult to absorb it all. Consequently, and because the author appeals directly to the reader so often, it is tempting to view the data through a personal prism, rather than objectively. Thus I can award myself gold stars for not consuming beef – which he proves incontrovertibly is the most carbon-expensive food on the planet (even more expensive than the asparagus flown in from Peru, so often the beef eaters’ favourite retort) – and for running a very old car. If I’m honest, I deserve no praise for either of these – I don’t like beef and cars per se have never interested me. What brings me up sharp, though, is that dairy products are also environmentally greedy. As a very occasional meat eater, I consume a lot of dairy; as a small-boned woman, I have been persuaded by my doctor that this is essential to avoid osteoporosis. Should I consider reducing my intake drastically, for the sake of the planet? Leaving fossil fuels in the ground also makes perfect sense, but I live in a place where there is currently no viable alternative for heating.
Berners-Lee is not an economist in the conventional sense. Neither am I; but, as it was my misfortune to have to teach Economics as a subsidiary subject for three years when I was MBA course director at an English university, I understand the basic principles of ‘the dismal science’. I therefore admire the chutzpah of the counter-economics feats he has pulled off. For example, when acting as consultant for the Booth’s supermarket chain, he persuaded them to offer “buy one, get one free next week” as part of a push to reduce consumer waste of food. This runs entirely against the first economic principle of retailing, which is to get people to spend at least the same – and preferably more – every time they go shopping.
Another economic principle he tries to buck, but only hypothetically and much less convincingly, is the dynamic of scarce resources. He gives the example of two charities, one of which is doing well, the other less well, and suggests that the latter will applaud the former and be glad for its success, because both are working for the greater good. I have on several occasions either taught or worked with charity officials and I can report that they are at least as cut-throat as all but the most thuggish businesspeople. Not only is their own charity – of course – very close to their hearts, but their personal prestige and, in all probability, their livelihood, depends on its success. And who is to decide which charity is most worthwhile? Enter the Archangel Gabriel?
This brings me to the nub of what’s most difficult about this book. Even the most public-spirited of us cannot comprehend, in absolute terms, of what the greater good consists. In a world of seven billion people, most of whom are, shamefully, living from hand to mouth each day, how do we decide and who makes the decision? The one per cent in whose hands most of the world’s wealth lies? And what difference can we humbler – but still by world standards very affluent – individuals make? Berners-Lee offers advice on this in almost every chapter. Much is of the ‘no-one is too small to make a difference’ Greta Thunberg sentiment. Some seems over-optimistic or impractical: for example, only vote for politicians who are in sympathy with saving the environment; if no-one meets your standards, vote for the least bad. (I should be intrigued to know how Berners-Lee voted in the 2019 UK general election.)
The least satisfactory chapter is the one in which he describes how he and colleagues have worked with clients to reduce carbon emissions. Because he must summarise, his accounts seem both arcane and too much like plugs for his mates. The systems thinking he illustrates is a bit clunky, too. (I wonder if he has come across the work of the – sadly, late – Peter Checkland, another scion of the University of Lancaster, whose subtle and flexible Soft Systems Methodology was my bible when I taught strategic management.)
These are minor quibbles, however; There is No Planet B is an astonishing achievement, a seminal work that just might change Anthropocene Man’s hell-bent pursuit of his trajectory suicidal. The lockdown offers a perfect time to read this book and reflect on the messages it sets out so eloquently. Perhaps we can emerge from the current crisis stronger, more thoughtful and kinder to both ourselves and the planet and, in the process, find ways of avoiding the much bigger crisis that is hurtling towards us.
There is No Planet B is published by Cambridge University Press. I read it in paperback format (978 1 108 43958 9; £9.99); it is also available as an audio book, read by the author – more details here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/audiobooks-from-cambridge The book is also available online to academic institutions from: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108545969.
The perfect Gentleman Jack launch!
Gentleman Jack is launched! Thank you to all those who helped.
Gentleman Jack, the seventh novel in the DI Yates series – and the first about a serial killer – was published on October 15th 2018. This is a round-up of the events and some of the reviews I’ve been lucky to have received since.
On October 15th, Bookmark in Spalding – always a staunch and much-appreciated supporter of my novels – gave me a signing session.
On the 17th, I had a very lively interview with David Harding-Price at Radio Lincoln City.
Then it was back to Spalding for an event in the library on the afternoon of the 18th and to give a talk at Bookmark that evening. Both talks featured serial killing and how I have tackled the subject. At these events, I was delighted to meet so many friendly faces, both those well known to me and some new ones. A very happy direct outcome of the Bookmark occasion was that I was able to meet an old schoolfriend whom I last saw before I was married; I was also reconnected with two other friends from Spalding High School. I was also privileged to be supported in the evening by the current owners of the real Sausage Hall and their daughter.
My sincere thanks to Sam and Sarah at Bookmark and Sharman in the library, not forgetting all their colleagues for making these events a success.
On October 19th, I was interviewed by BBC Radio Lincolnshire’s Carla Green, who was as generous as always with her time and praise. (Then I went to India for five days – the day job intervened.)
On my return, Walkers Books of Stamford provided their usual impeccable hospitality with a signing session – this has become an annual event – and, as always, I enjoyed talking to their customers, who included some of the people I met at the Stamford Academy Literary Festival last June. A big thank you, therefore, to Jenny and Linda at Walkers.
Meanwhile, Emma Dowson, Salt’s PR Manager, had organised the best blog roll I’ve ever had the good fortune to experience. I’d like to thank all the bloggers for their very generous reviews, and for publishing several articles they requested from me as guest posts on their blogs. Zoe Myall, of the Spalding Gazette, wrote a brilliant review of Gentleman Jack and I’d very much like to thank her, too.
My final event before Christmas was, if not the most ambitious, certainly the quirkiest. I am a frequent visitor to Papworth Everard, in Cambridgeshire, as I have family living there, one of whom told me that a micro-brewery had recently opened in the village and that it sold a beer called ‘Mad Jack’ – not quite ‘Gentleman Jack’, but near enough! The micro-brewery is situated outside Papworth, but its products are sold in a coffee shop there that doubles as a bar and gin palace in the evenings – it’s called ‘The Courtyard’.
(As one of my readers said – ‘Crime and gin – what more could anyone want?’) I happened to pop in for a casual gin and met Chris Jones, the proprietor of both bar/gin palace and brewery, who told me that he had been thinking of holding some events there. One gin led to another and we agreed to collaborate to provide a crime evening with a focus on the DI Yates books… and with liquid refreshment! It proved a winning combination! 😉
I made many new friends there and was also supported by several long-standing ones. Much gratitude to the captive audience of locals who’d only dropped by for a drink but nevertheless joined in, one of whom even called up his wife, a book enthusiast, to bring her down! I was also staggered that one member of the group had bought and read In the Family in advance of the session – much appreciated, Nathalie! I also particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to meet and chat to the members of the Papworth Reading Group. Huge thanks to Chris Jones and his long-suffering staff, who cheerfully waited for us to leave some time after closing time. You, Chris, will be pleased to know that Mad Jack is now being celebrated far beyond Papworth!
I do have one more piece of news, but I’ll save that for another post. For now, I’d like to thank everyone who has helped Gentleman Jack to meet the world, including the many people whose names I have not been able to mention in this short post.
And if your library, bookshop or reading group is looking for someone to talk crime, killers and bodies, you know where to come!
What really happened?
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.
Ah, bitter chill it was…
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.
In its launch week, a wonderful review of ‘The Crossing’!
“… 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.