Monday, 1 June 2015

Book Review: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The world as we know it is flooded, drowned, and very very soggy. In Kirsty Logan’s debut novel, she gives us a future (presumably) where dry land is in short supply and those who live on it (landlockers) have the upper hand in social status.

That’s unless you’re a dampling, with the sea in your veins, fish stew on your breath, and webbed toes. The Gracekeepers partly follows the Circus Excalibur, a small crew of performers who float nomadically across the ocean, exchanging performances for food. They’re all face paint, hair dye and glitter, a gender-bending troupe constantly reinventing itself in each performance.

We learn about a number of characters in this fanciful world. There’s North, the young woman who dances with a bear in a dangerous pirouette of death and rebirth for the punters. Red Gold (Jarrow), the Circus Ringmaster and owner who is blind to some harsh truths. Avalon, his bitchy wife who wants to rise through the social ranks. And Callanish, a mysterious gracekeeper who spends her time administering rites for the dead by starving small birds in cages over the sea.

Logan’s prose is tightly controlled, dreamy and magical. To call this a dystopia doesn’t seem right somehow, instead The Gracekeepers brings to mind the magic realism of Angela Carter. But there’s not really much more beyond the descriptive language. The characters seem underwritten, with a multitude of gaps left unexplored (I’m still not really sure what happened between Callanish and her mother). Perhaps this is deliberate and I’m not saying we have to know everything, but the effect kept me oddly distanced and unengaged with the story. Threads are woven loosely and then abandoned. This effect is exacerbated by the structure; early on alternating third person chapters from North and Callanish’s perspective are established, before suddenly a hotchpotch of other views butt in, often for only one chapter. It’s disorientating.

There are some arresting passages of prose however. A scene where North dives deep into the ocean and finds a drowned city, for example, or her relationship with the bear. Logan seems indebted to Shakespearean themes, motifs and theatre too—her clowns are surely incarnations of the Shakespearean fool, inciting rebellion against the upper classes while simultaneously acting as scapegoat for society’s ills. The acrobats are male/female, brother/sister, husband/wife, and they seem to swap between all these roles, bringing to mind the gender play of Twelfth Night. The term ‘damplings’ perhaps suggests the ‘groundings’ of early modern theatre audiences. And of course, you can’t help but think Exit, pursued by a bear… 

But these motifs all seem a little bit forced and a little bit too self-aware, while the clowns’ potential is never fully realised. They just kind of slope around in the background, leaving glitter and eyeliner over the bedsheets. The ending, when it comes, feels rushed and certainly not as apocalyptic as it promised to be, although Logan does a good job of creating pathos (you’ll guess what happens).

The Gracekeepers is an odd little fairytale which is definitely worth reading, but just don’t expect a huge amount of depth. Like any good circus performance, it’s all smoke and mirrors.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Book Review: number9dream by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s second novel, number9dream has all the typical hallmarks of its writer. Interconnected stories—check. Historical pastiche—check. Blurred lines between fantasy and reality—check.

We follow teenaged Eiji Miyake in his search for his father in Tokyo, in a journey which veers wildly from one writing style to another.

So we might be thrown into Eiji’s delusional fantasies involving him storming a building with guns to steal his father’s file, or into a violent encounter with the Yakuza, which Mitchell still manages to execute with characteristic drollness. Every chapter is a new puzzle to solve. You’re disorientated as you’re chucked into some new and bizarre slant and have to work out what the hell’s going on—and on the whole, it works.

Tokyo is a vivid consumerist bubble, a Blade Runner-ish city (at one point Eiji watches Blade Runner in the video shop he lives above and works in) layered with colours and sights and smells. A twenty-four hour city which exists in stark contrast to the backwardly beautiful Hicksville in which Eiji grew up.

Eiji is a likeable character too, as his embarks on his Bildungsroman journey of origins and identity. He spends a lot of time lying in his capsule above the video shop, looking after the stray feline Cat and waging war on the pesky Cockroach. He even finds the girl of his dreams (entranced by the back of her lovely neck) in between dodging Yakuza factions, trying not to get blown up and hunting for his father. Is it all in Eiji’s head? Is some of it? Who knows?

Where number9dream falters is perhaps in the execution of its ambition. While Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks gelled together, number9dream is sometimes just a bit too sprawling and disconnected. Some of the segments don’t work as well as the others—particularly one section where Eiji goes into hiding.

He discovers an author’s manuscript about a chicken and a writing goat and suddenly we’re in the murky waters of metafiction. And I think we’d all agree, this is where we do not wish to be. Another section follows the doomed pilot of one of the manned suicide torpedoes (Kaitens) during WW2. It should be fascinating, and while the pilot’s journals pertinently talk about his family back in Nagasaki during the summer of 1944, the section still doesn’t quite ignite our interest.

Still, it’s an engrossing read and the ending is suitably Mitchell-esque in its apocalyptic doom and gloom. A flawed but vivid novel.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Reading List 2015

My reading tally has been a bit measly so far this year (various boring life things getting in the way). But here goes.

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn (quite an enjoyable read for its genre, even if you can guess the twists)

Number9dream - David Mitchell (pretty bonkers)

Wool - Hugh Howey (another dystopian story. Started off well, but lost momentum)

Veniss Underground - Jeff Vandemeer (utterly nuts, in a very good way. Loved it)

Shift - Hugh Howey (next in Wool series. Rapidly losing interest I'm afraid)

Alone in Berlin - Hans Fallada (powerful stuff. Everyone should read this)

The Gracekeepers - Kirsty Logan (whimsical and soggy fairytale)

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes (I wanted to like it...)

Monday, 15 September 2014

Theatre Review: A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic

From the moment an impeccably dressed Gillian Anderson teeters across the stage as Blanche, designer luggage in tow and giant sunglasses covering most of her face, you know you’re in safe hands. If anything, she looks even more out of place than Vivien Leigh in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film rendition.

Benedict Andrews’ A Streetcar Named Desire still channels the sultry heat of New Orleans, where the French Quarter is home to a riotous cacophony of folk. However, this new stage version at the Young Vic uses modern trappings. Eunice (Clare Burt) is pure American white trash in frayed denim mini-skirt, leggings and open toed cork mules. It’s a laidback world where people drink late and rise late, and Stella (Vanessa Kirby) slips into it easily, ditching the airs of Belle Reve for midriff baring halter tops and skin-tight jeans. But it’s a risky world too. What looks like an old bruise on Stella’s back hints at her husband’s violence (or it’s simply a bruise. As Freud didn’t say, sometimes a banana is just a banana).

Anderson brings out the contradictions in Blanche—the moth-like destructibility but also an inner hardness. I like this Blanche – and I don’t like her. She’s catty, harsh, but also needy. She deals in fantasies but also understands the world better than her sister. Blanche’s attempts to cling to her old life and money, by wearing her armour of designer labels, barely disguise her fragility – shaky ankles that look like they might snap at any moment and neurotic nervousness as she explores the cramped apartment, looking for liquor. Anderson is funny too—she cranks up the humour of Blanche’s snobbish tendencies.

Ben Foster as Stanley is a slow-burner. At first I worried he didn’t have the presence (alas – Marlon Brando has forever set the bar ridiculously high) but soon you start to see his menace. Quiet, explosive, quiet, explosive, and there are some great touches in his mounting viciousness towards Blanche. At one point he offers her the phone as she waits, teetering on the brink of insanity for a call from Mitch, before pulling it back from her. A total psych.

The weak link for me is Stella. Vanessa Kirby plays Stella as a girly, floaty young thing, caught in a permanent post-coital glow. Well, that’s okay, but her accent kept slipping out of the American south and into something distinctly British (and possibly northern) in the showing we saw.

The staging turns us all into voyeurs. As anyone familiar with Streetcar knows, the action only takes place in Stanley and Stella’s tiny apartment. Kazan famously played out the growing claustrophobia, and literal and metaphorical entrapment of Blanche by moving the walls of the set in closer and closer throughout the scenes. 

The design here is similarly effective. The whole stage is a raised rectangle with the “rooms” of the apartment, however no walls. We can see through each room and the action going on in different parts simultaneously. The stage also rotates continuously – sometimes changing direction, mirroring Blanche’s tumultuous state of mind. The effect is fascinating. You see everything from different angles—sometimes your view is obscured, sometimes you’re forced to focus on Stanley in the living space while Stella and Blanche are talking in the bathroom at the other end. You’re an outsider looking in or a rubbernecker on the sidelines, watching the car wreck play out. It reminds us there are no simple answers with this play.

Benedict Andrews’ take on Tennessee Williams is captivating. It’s edgy, stifling, and simultaneously modern and retro (we get blasts of P J Harvey and Chris Isaak). Anderson is definitely the glue holding it all together though. She’s absolutely mesmerising, right up to the tragic mess she becomes, complete with red lipstick all over her face and then finally the broken, lost woman who has always depended on the kindness of strangers. Watch it if you can—it’s being shown in a live stream in UK cinemas.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Danny Torrance, the kid in Stephen King’s The Shining, is all grown up. And, perhaps, not surprisingly, he’s a bit screwed in the head. And who could blame him? Hearing voices, seeing dead people, getting throttled by a fishy dead woman, being chased by hedge animals, having to wear those flares (sorry – onto the movie) – poor Danny’s had a rough ride. That’s not even taking his alcoholic, wife-beating, murderous father into account.

Initially it looks like the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. Danny—now Dan—has become everything he hated. A drifter addicted to booze and fights, he stumbles from one car wreck to the next, until he ends up stalling for a while in Frazier, New Hampshire – a sleepy small town where he discovers the Twelve Step Programme.

Add in a young girl, Abra who also “shines” with psychic powers, like Dan’s, and a bevy of vampiric “RV people” who spend their preternaturally long life shuffling across America in a convoy of motorhomes and feeding off kids who shine, and you can see where this novel is heading.

Doctor Sleep is typical fare in many ways. King has always been gifted at grabbing you straight away with detailed characterisation combined with increasingly spooky hints of nastiness to come. It’s generally later that things tend to fall apart (Cell anyone? 22.11.63?). And Doctor Sleep does grab you. That’s probably because King is cruising in his comfort zone. Anyone who’s read On Writing will know about his battles with addiction. Apparently at his worst the guy couldn't even remember writing Cujo, and would just wake in the morning to discover pages and pages he’d produced the night before. So Dan reads, well, very authentic. He’s engaging, you’re invested and there’s even a kind of horrific primal adult scene (no, not one of those) that you know is going to come back and bite him on the behind. Dan’s the "Doctor Sleep" of the title by the way, so called as his shining gives him the knack for ushering old folk in the hospice over the final threshold and into the great unknown.

These sections are well crafted by King, with just the right amount of sentimentality to make them moving rather than cheesy. And then there’s the True Knot--that herd of RV folk. They’re kinda creepy and certainly a bit odd. To keep young, strong and beautiful they must murder young children with the shining in the most horrific ways imaginable and then feed off their “steam”. Their leader is a nubile and alluring woman called Rose, with a freaky single long tooth (that as far as I can work out only appears when she’s feeding. Yummy). The True Knot meander to NYC in all readiness for 9/11 and hang out in Sinatra Park, feeding off the steam. Bleurgh.

I've got to be honest—I was worried when I first bought this book. And let’s face it, Doctor Sleep is a dreadful title (yes I know it refers to Dan, but it’s still abysmal. It sounds like something from the deliberately cheesy House of a 1000 Corpses). But I was pleasantly surprised (well, a little bit). It’s certainly not classic King, but it’s a reasonable length, has solid characterisation, is pacey, has some evocative passages and does tie everything up.

Okay, this ending might be a bit too neat, too tidy and too convenient – with no real sense of danger or urgency. A bit like it’s going through the motions. There’s some unconvincing later scenes with Abra’s parents and it all seems a bit like King is trying to race to the end, while some aspects of the plot that you’re just sure will develop into something, amount to nada. And I'm not sure how much you’d get out of it if you hadn't read or seen The Shining.

But on the whole, Doctor Sleep was a generally enjoyable read, even without being one of his greats. IT WAS OKAY. OKAY?

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Book Review: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro returns to what interests him most in his Booker Shortlisted When We Were Orphans: the duplicity of memory, social mores and the fusion of Asian and English culture.

It’s 1930s England and Christopher Banks is in the process of becoming a famed detective.  Suddenly he finds himself on all the best guest lists and talked about on the social scene – ironic really as Banks seems an awkward, terribly English type, horrified by public displays of affection and he’d certainly never make a scene.

But then a scene is made and it’s all due to the magnetic and ballsy high society (well sort of) Sarah.  She wants Banks to add her as his ‘plus one’ to a charity dinner, he doesn't want to (even though he clearly fancies her) as he’s already said he’s going alone (did I say he’s terribly English?).

I can sympathise with Banks.  I mean, these kind of social quandaries often plague me.  What to do when you see someone you sort of know when you’re walking through town?  Do you make eye contact?  Nod?  Pretend you didn't see them?  Duck into a shop?  Cross the road to avoid the whole sorry dilemma and hope they didn't notice you?

If Banks is reminding you of another Ishiguro character, then I'm not surprised.  Come on, he’s clearly Stevens.  Good ol’ Stevens, our awfully repressed butler from Remains of the Day, who just couldn't articulate what he really wanted.  It’s hard to read When We Were Orphans and not hear Steven’s voice channelled through the first person narrative.

Anyway back to this Sarah.  She seems kind of interesting.  I wonder what role she’ll play in Banks’ story?  The answer is not much.  She’s what we might call a red herring (and there’s a lot of those in this book).  Instead we’re drawn further and further into Banks’ crazy, hallucinatory inner life and his decidedly unique way of looking at the world.

Banks’ parents mysteriously disappeared when he was a boy living in Old Shanghai – possibly kidnapped.  His father worked for Morganrook and Byatt doing something ‘official but a bit dodgy to do with opium’ while his mother was a very vocal campaigner against the opium trade – often at odds with those around her (you can see where this might be going).  As you’d expect, this childhood event has cast a shadow over Banks, and it’s not long before he returns to Shanghai to try and solve the old case.

One of the issues I have with When We Were Orphans is I feel a bit duped.  What starts out as a Sherlock Holmes-esque detective story, interspersed with Banks’ memories of his parents and Japanese friend Akira in Shanghai, soon morphs into something else completely.

The latter sections of the novel are pretty much unbelievable.  Ridiculous plotting and contrived coincidences abound as Banks does his detective thing in Shanghai.  He returns to his childhood home and the family living there invite him for dinner and then say they’ll move out once he rescues his parents (they went missing 25 years ago) so they can all move back in together happily.  Er…yeah.  Do you want to break it to him or shall I?  

Banks also heads right into the front line of the Sino-Japanese War, darting among the troops and locals, getting soldiers and police to drop their weapons and escort him about, even bumping into his childhood friend Akira.  As you do.  I was fully expecting some kind of deus ex machina ending – you know, like the ones in Star Trek when we find out the alien who’s been tormenting the Enterprise and is about to kill its crew is just a kid and now daddy alien has ticked him off and sent him home without tea.  However I can’t believe that Ishiguro suddenly decided to go all airport fiction on us.  It seems that Banks is simply a lot more unreliable than I originally thought.

Looking back there were early signs of course.  Two old school acquaintances remember Banks as a loner weirdo, something he strenuously denies and attempts to dispute by providing some detailed ‘un-loserish’ memories.  Perhaps the biggest clue comes with the games he played as a kid with Akira, endlessly re-enacting the rescue of his parents and a welcoming home ceremony in their honour.  It’s hard not to see this motif appearing in his adult life on his return to Shanghai, and the more I think about it, the more I'm not sure what I can actually trust about the earlier sections.  I mean, why exactly don’t we see him solving any of his famous cases?  Instead, we always seem to meet him after he’s solved another one.

I know Ishiguro enjoys writing about memory – and how there’s a gap between what happened and what you remember happened.  But for me, When We Were Orphans is hard to pin down – I'm not really sure what its purpose is, apart from exposing the duplicity of memory, fantasy and unreliable narration.  There was nothing to hold me to this text, no real sense of character and the plot is far too smart for its own good.  When We Were Orphans is all about the clever and subtle manipulation of genre and reader, but it’ll leave you feeling cold.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Book Review: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

If you could live your life again, would you? If you could magically go back, would you change all the crappy things, all the things which ended up a bit, well, pear-shaped? Where would you even start? With that dodgy perm? That fish course? A spouse? Or perhaps you’d go big – really big. Why not change the course of history? Why not assassinate Hitler?

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel plays with these ideas. Its heroine, Ursula Todd, is born in 1910 to middle class parents and into a world on the cusp of change. However Ursula is stuck in some sort of Groundhog Day scenario, doomed (or gifted?) to repeat events again and again in slightly (or enormously) different permutations. So our first Ursula dies at birth, strangled by the umbilical cord. The second Ursula survives a bit longer, until the Grim Reaper once again steps in. And again. And again.

In fact the whole novel is populated by a myriad of Ursulas. Each time she dies, she’s reborn and lives her life again in a slightly different way. So one Ursula survives the Blitz only to die a sad lonely death in a squalid flat, while another is killed during the bombings. Another spends the war in Germany, hanging out with Eva Braun. One is killed by a backstreet abortion while still a teenager. Sometimes she finds it hard to work out how to avoid her fate; the influenza pandemic in 1918 takes a few goes to get through successfully. Each Ursula seems to become a little bit more aware of her past lives, if only through a strange feeling or what her mother, Sylvie, explains as déjà vu.

If this all sounds a bit like season 5 of Lost make no mistake, Life after Life is primarily a family saga. This is comfortable ground for Atkinson, it’s what she does best; 1995’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum follows its protagonist Ruby Lennox, as well as the four generations of women behind her and Life after Life has a similar feel. The minutia of everyday life jostles against the novel’s expansiveness and we’re reminded of the duplicity of time.

Atkinson’s structure will keep you flicking the pages back and forth continually to check and double check. But once you get into the rhythm the stop/start narrative feels more natural. There’s still a lot of piecing together for the reader though – you might say Life after Life is a puzzle to be solved. How will Ursula get it right?

And herein lies one of the problems. There doesn't really seem to be any point to Ursula’s varying lives. When her mother sends her to see a shrink, the doctor suggests she’s being reincarnated. But each Ursula doesn't necessarily improve things – in fact often one aspect will be made better but another is then sacrificed and worsened. And of course we have to mention Hitler. I'm honestly not plot spoiling to mention this – the very first chapter has Ursula attempting (or succeeding?) in assassinating the Fuhrer, but if this is one of the incarnations of Ursula or a flash forward to a later one is unclear (she points the gun at him, his guards point their guns at her, then ‘darkness falls’ – the code in the novel for her death/rebirth). The ending of the novel is very ambiguous too, and whilst this isn't something I’d normally complain about, in this case I was left feeling, well, unsatisfied.

It’s clever structurally – there’s no doubt about that. But Atkinson throws us a red herring. The first half of the novel has a clear rhythm and alternating timeline which goes something like this:

1.    Ursula lives her life then dies (we move through the years)
2.     We return to the day she was born and find out a little bit more about the events of this day (we move through the hours of this particular day in 1910)
1.     Ursula lives her life a bit further then dies
2.     We return to the day she was born…

Understandably I thought we were moving towards some big reveal about the family, some dark secret of Sylvie’s we’d learn on that day in 1910 (I was sure she’d been dallying with the farm boy George) but in the second half Atkinson simply abandons this structure, instead focussing on Ursula’s numerous lives, which were all starting to merge into one bleak and depressing blur of death and misery.

This really is a novel of two halves. For me, the first half was fantastic. Atkinson tells the story through a variety of characters (not just Ursula) so we learn about her parents, Sylvie and Hugh, and the family dynamic. It’s absolutely evocative in its depiction of a pre-Lapsarian England teetering on the brink of the First World War. The Todds live (aptly) in Fox Corner, a Forsterian country house where the children play outside during long hot summers and the family sip lemonade together on the lawn. Atkinson perfectly encapsulates the moment and it’s all the more poignant because of our knowledge. We know the future – we know 1914 is just around the corner and that Hitler will rise to absolute power in 1933. Fox Corner is the safe hideaway before the 20th century picks up speed, an idyllic space now lost forever. But even this sanctuary is threatened. A paedophile lurks just outside the boundaries, preying on the local children.

Later the other characters slip out of view and it’s all about Ursula, which I think is a shame as Sylvie interested me – there was so much more to learn. And then there’s the grim scenes of war torn London during the Blitz. These really are horrific. This hellish dystopia makes Fox Corner a distant rose-tinted memory and I don’t think Ursula ever really recovers from it.

Perhaps Ursula’s conversations with her shrink give us the biggest clue about how to understand Life after Life. She suggests life is a palimpsest – a series of overlays, a document erased and written over, erased and written over. In this case Ursula’s eventual idea to kill Hitler isn't the best idea or even the culmination of a series of lives and learning, it’s simply another idea, one of many. And after each life path variation there’ll be another. There’s no real closure at the end of Life after Life, no definitive Ursula and no absolute truth. Ursula’s role seems to be just to bear witness to events and history. Atkinson’s novel is intriguing, moving and somewhat flawed, but it’ll keep you hooked right up to its ambiguous ending.