Damon Galgut, The promise (#BookReview)

Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize winning novel, The promise, is one of those novels that grabbed me intellectually and emotionally from its opening pages. The plot, itself, is straighforward. It concerns a White South African family’s promise to give a house on their property to their Black maid, whom their grandfather had acquired “along with the land”. The narrative tracks just how hard it is for the family to honour this promise. What makes the novel a Booker-Prize winner is the quality of the writing and how Galgut uses his story to create a potted history of South African life and politics in the post-Apartheid decades.

The novel is set between 1986 and 2018, and centres on the family, and their farm outside Pretoria. The family comprises Ma, Pa, and their three children, Astrid, Anton and Amor. In the opening pages, the youngest family member, Amor, overhears her dying Jewish mother extract the aforementioned promise from her Afrikaner father to give the house to Salome. Amor wants this promise honoured but achieving it turns out to be much harder than she expected.

The promise was my reading group’s May read and, somewhat unusually for us, it was universally enjoyed. Our ex-South African member used words like sharp, clever, funny, vicious, and said that Galgut nails the South Africa she knew and had experienced.

“something out of true at its centre”

There is so much to say about this book, that it’s hard to know where to start, but the writing is an excellent place, because it truly carries the novel. Particularly effective is the slippery voice (or point-of-view) which shifts perspective and person, sometimes mid-sentence. The effect, among other things, is to implicate us readers in the narrative. It prevents us distancing ourselves from the choices, decisions and behaviours we see. Here, for example, we shift from third to first in a paragraph:

For there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family  … We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in. Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.

And here is a mid-sentence shift from third to second person:

But in truth he’s bored by this man, by his ordinary life and his ordinary wife, just as he’s bored by almost everything these days, all significance leaked away by now, and it doesn’t feel wrong to wait till he’s gone, then get up and wander out into the night, as if you’ve been drinking on your own. You probably have.

Alongside the voice is Galgut’s wordplay, his recognition of the power of words to clarify or obfuscate. Take the irony of the white family’s name, Swart, which means black. But it doesn’t stop there because it is also an archaic word for “baneful, malignant”. Take also the narrator’s frequent self-corrections that always nail home a point, like:

“So Salome has gone back to her own house instead, beg your pardon, to the Lombard place.” (Which reminds us that the promise has not been enacted.)

“He no longer calls himself dominee, he’s a pastoor these days, peddling a softer line in salvation to his customers, ahem, that is to say, his flock, so that everyone benefits.” (Which tells us something about this man of the church’s real motivations.)

Then there’s the idea of promise itself. What a loaded word that is. While this is the story of a family, The promise is ultimately a political novel, so Galgut deftly plays with the idea of “promise” in more ways than one. The novel opens and closes with false promises, related to the historical realities of 1986 and 2018, as well as to the family’s inaction. It also teases us with the idea that the end of Apartheid would bring the promise of a new South Africa, but it shows that ideal foundering. The failure of the country to live up to its promise is paralleled in the character of Anton who, at the beginning of the novel, is “full of promise”, as he describes himself in his unfinished autobiographical novel, but who, by the end, admits that he has not lived up to it:

He’s still stunned by the simple realisation that’s just struck. It’s true, I’ve wasted my life. Fifty years old, half a century, and he’s never going to do any of the things he was once certain he would do … Not ever going to do much of anything.

(Note the slip from third to first to third person, here!) There are many failed promises in the novel, including a minister’s failure to keep a confession.

Other motifs threading through the novel include the four funerals in four different religions/belief systems that shape the narrative’s four parts, and the fact that the Swart’s family business is a (failing) Reptile Park. How telling is that! Just think of all the allusions.

The characters are another compelling aspect of the novel. As an epigraph-lover, I can’t resist sharing Galgut’s from Frederico Fellini:

This morning I met a woman with a golden nose. She was riding in a Cadillac with a monkey in her arms. Her driver stopped and she asked me, ‘Are you Fellini?’ With this metallic voice she continued, ‘Why is it that in your movies, there is not even one normal person?’

What a hoot, and what a great epigraph choice. It immediately challenges us to consider what is “normal”, if such exists, and puts us on the alert about notions of normality. Galgut’s characters – even the minor ones like Lexington the driver (who “brings the Triumph to the front steps”), the homeless man (“as he keeps obsessively singing the first line to Blowin’ in the wind, let’s call him Bob”), and the various funeral workers – are carefully differentiated, and add depth to the picture being painted of a family and country in crisis. The irony is, I think, that each is disconcertingly normal – in their own way!

Early in the novel, the narrator describes the recently departed Ma’s spirit lingering around the house:

She looks real, which is to say, ordinary. How would you know she is a ghost? Many of the living are vague and adrift too, it’s not a failing unique to the departed.

“Vague and adrift” perfectly describes Astrid, Anton and Amor, none of whom have it together. The “quiet and attentive” Amor, however, is at least empathetic, and therefore the most sympathetic. She constantly shows heart, but, having little power in the family, her solution is to disappear at every opportunity, and live a spartan life, working as a nurse among the most needy. Could she have done more sooner?, is the question worth asking.

So, what is the takeaway from this novel? My reading group was unanimous in feeling that the novel is underpinned by the idea that when one group has an unhealthy position of power over another, both are diminished, if not destroyed. It is to Galgut’s credit, however, that he explores this without didacticism. We are never told what to think. Instead, he presents his characters’ thoughts, actions and decisions, and leaves us to consider what it all means.

We are also given this:

No truthful answers without cold questions. And no knowledge without truth.

The wonder of this book is that such a strong and serious story can be so exciting to read.

Lisa also loved it.

Damon Galgut
The promise
Vintage, 2021
ISBN: 9781473584464 (Kindle ed.)

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain (#BookReview)

How to write about a book that has made such a big splash that it has already been extensively reviewed. What more can one say? This is what I’m facing with Douglas Stuart’s debut and Booker Prize-winning novel, Shuggie Bain.

I haven’t, in fact, read much about it, because I prefer to come to books fresh, but I have heard an interview with Stuart, and I can imagine what has been written about his book. I have also discussed it with my reading group. All I can do is just launch in, and write what I would normally write, but I fear it won’t add anything fresh to the discussion. It will, however, record, for me, my thoughts and feelings.

The story

For those of you who haven’t yet read Shuggie Bain, it tells the story of its eponymous protagonist growing up in public housing in 1980s industrial Glasgow. This was the time of Thatcher, a time when mines, shipyards, railyards closed, resulting in significant unemployment and the usual fallout when men can’t work and women and children end up on welfare:

Whole housing estates of young men who were promised the working trades of their fathers had no future now. Men were losing their very masculinity.

This is important, but it is also just the backdrop for the personal story of Shuggie and his mother Agnes. There are other characters, but these two are the book’s core.

The story starts in 1992 with Shuggie, nearly 16, living on his own in a boarding house in Southside Glasgow. He is clearly pitied by the people around him, so the question for us is why is he there alone, how did he get there? We then go back to 1981, where we meet Shuggie’s family, thirty-nine-year-old Agnes, her second husband Shug, and Shuggie’s two older siblings, Catherine and Leek, who were born to Agnes’ first husband. It is not a happy situation. They are all living in a flat with Agnes’ parents, Wullie and Lizzie, and Agnes feels a failure.

When Shug does take his family away, it’s a cruel action, and Agnes and her three children soon find themselves alone, living on welfare payments in the desolate Pithead – a housing scheme which had “the plainest, unhappiest-looking homes Agnes had ever seen”. She knew Shug was “a selfish animal”, but she wasn’t expecting this. From here, their lives are a struggle, though Agnes – now drinking heavily – tries her darnedest to maintain appearances amongst women who reject her and her airs.

The characters

Agnes’ airs! Stuart has an impressive ability to create vivid, real characters. Even the villains of the piece – like Shug – are recognisable as people beyond the “type”, in his case a macho, violent, womaniser, they represent. This is no mean feat. However, it’s Agnes, Shuggie and, to a degree, Leek, who are our focus.

Agnes is a woman with aspirations. She’s resourceful, when sober, and wants more than the life she’s been dealt. But, she is unable to find a way out, largely because, for women of her time and place, it seems that a man is the answer. Her first husband Brendan tries to buy her happiness, but he’s boring. Then the flashy Shug comes along. For all his failings, and they abound, he too tries to buy her happiness, but tires of all her “wanting”.

Unfortunately, one of the things Agnes wants is “to take a good drink”. Her drinking, which was already evident when they lived at her “mammy’s”, becomes a serious problem at Pithead. Life, for her children, becomes insufferable. Catherine skedaddles into an early marriage as soon as she can, while the sensitive, artistic Leek withdraws into himself, leaving the young Shuggie to be the main watcher over his mother. And this is where this novel’s credentials as autofiction come into play, because the evocation of the child-addict parent relationship reads so authentically. We can’t help admiring Agnes’ gallus, while also despairing for her and her children.

So, it’s a heartbreaking story. Not only does Shuggie struggle with his addicted mother – loving her, caring for her in ways that a child should never have to – but he must cope with his own outsiderness that he doesn’t understand. From a very young age his way of talking, dressing and walking, not to mention his disinterest in typical boy things, are ridiculed. He’s called names, beaten up, ostracised, and he doesn’t know why. At 10 years old, aware he’s “no right”, he asks his mother, “What’s wrong with me, Mammy?” If she knows, she doesn’t tell him, but a few years later, he realises that Leek, who had tried to teach him to toughen up, had known all along.

Leek is the support act, figuratively and literally, to Shuggie and his mother. He quietly provides support in the background, even after he eventually leaves home. He’s resentful of the impact on his own ambitions to become an artist, but he sticks around, taking labouring work, because he is needed. In many ways, he’s the hero of the novel, and my heart went out to him as much as to Shuggie. This, I think, says it all:

he looked like a half-shut penknife, a thing that should be sharp and useful, that was instead closed and waiting and rusting.

The writing

It also gives you a flavour of the book’s expressive writing. One of the first things you might notice is that Stuart loves a simile. The book is full of them, but they are so good, like

“The auld man’s face crumpled like a dropped towel.”


“The unwelcome presence of a man was like a school bell.”

and so many of Agnes, such this when Shug leaves her

“Agnes, sparkling and fluffy, was lying like a party dress that had been dropped on the floor”.

The book is also well structured, opening in 1992, which immediately tells us that whatever happens Shuggie is going to survive, and ending back in 1992, this time on a note of hope, albeit a tentative one.

Stuart uses vernacular extensively, resulting in much unfamiliar-to-me vocabulary – boak, hauch, gallus, to name a few – but they are understandable from the context, and essential to setting the scene. The novel is not at all hard to read. Indeed it’s beautiful – and easier to understand than some spoken Scottish can be!

Moreover, for all its bleakness, the novel has a good smattering of humour. Here’s Shuggie defending his mother, drunk and over-dressed, marching into the hospital to see her dying father,

Shuggie heard the nurse say to a male attendant that she thought for sure Agnes was a working girl.

“She is not,” said Shuggie, quite proudly. “My mother has never worked a day in her life. She’s far too good-looking for that.” 

What it all means

The novel is, as I’ve said, autobiographical, but that doesn’t mean that Stuart simply sat down and wrote his life. Shuggie Bain reads as a considered piece of fiction that has some things to tell – about dashed dreams, the powerlessness of women in a male-dominated world, poverty, addiction and outsiderness. It’s both political and personal about what happens to lives when the ground beneath is taken away. And yet, for all that, it’s also about love – child-to-mother, brother-to-brother, friend-to-friend – that survives in places you barely expect it to. No-one in my reading group was sorry we scheduled it.

Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain
London: Picador, 2020 (2021 eBook)
ISBN: 9781529019308

Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, woman, other (#BookReview)

If ever there was a “zeitgeist” book, Bernadine Evaristo’s 2019 Booker Prize winning novel, Girl, woman, other is it. It might be an English-set novel about black British women, “the embodiment of Otherness”, but its concerns, ranging from ingrained inequality, racism and sexism to newer issues such as globalisation, are contemporary – and relevant far beyond its setting.

Take, for example, sexual violence. One young woman, after being raped, is not sure exactly what happened:

    wondering if he’d done anything wrong or was it her fault
    she should have stayed and talked to him about it
    he might have said he hadn’t heard her saying no

(Chapter 2: LaTisha)

This could have been set in Australia, given discussions happening here right now. It is truly troubling how many young women apparently feel uncertain about what they’ve experienced, and turn it back on themselves. But now, having leapt in to make my “zeitgeist” point, I’ll start again, properly!

Girl, woman, other is an astonishing book, as most of my reading group agreed. It’s fresh and exuberant, but oh so biting too. As much poetry as prose, it has minimal punctuation and yet it just flows. It’s a risky book – what great art isn’t? – because, in addition to its idiosyncratic style, it comprises multiple points-of-view that move back-and-forth in time. There are four main chapters, each divided into three parts with each part in the voice of a different character. This makes 12 voices in all! The voices within each chapter are closely related in some way – mothers, daughters, friends – but the links between the four chapters are more subtle. This demands much of the reader.

Fortunately, the voices are captivating. Spanning over a century, they range from the ultra-confident 19-year-old Yazz, daughter of a lesbian mother, to 93-year-old Hattie, a strong-minded farmer and great-grandmother. All are women, and all have some genetic links with African or Caribbean cultures, some from a few generations back, others being themselves migrants. Through them, Evaristo interrogates a diversity of experiences and responses to colour, in particular, in contemporary England. Hattie’s mother, for example, had an Abyssinian father, and she herself had married an African-American GI. However, with the colour fading amongst her descendants, the family is less than happy when it is reintroduced by Julie who “saw not the darkness of his skin but the lightness of his spirit”. Hattie reflects

    none of them identifies as black and she suspects they pass as white, which would sadden Slim if he was still around 
    she doesn’t mind, whatever works for them and if they can get away with it, good luck to them, why wear the burden of colour to hold you back?
    the only thing she objects to is when they objected to Chimango when he arrived on the scene, a fellow nurse at the hospital where Julie worked, from Malawi
    Hattie was sickened by their behaviour, they should’ve been more enlightened 
    but the family was becoming whiter with every generation 
    and they didn’t want any backsliding

(Chapter 4: Hattie)

You can see how well the language flows, and how accessible it is. It’s experimental but unforced. You can also see the author’s approach to her subject matter, which is to show, through her characters, different behaviours, values and attitudes. With 12 characters telling of their interactions with even more people, the breadth of humanity Evaristo encompasses is breathtaking – and it is all done without judgement. Some characters might, and do, judge each other, but Evaristo doesn’t. She lets them speak for themselves, which requires us to read attentively.

So, when Dominique’s female lover increasingly restricts her life, we see abusive control long before she does. And, when 93-year-old Hattie’s mother, Grace, experiences postpartum depression in the early 20th century, it is not named. Who talked about that then? But we recognise it immediately.

Issues come and go in this novel, whether they are up-to-the-minute topics, such as Brexit or transgender rights, or ongoing issues in women’s lives such as violence or ageing. Underpinning it all, however, is race and inequality. Being “othered” is common to Evaristo’s characters, and they all deal with it differently, but we see very clearly its debilitating, devastating impact.

    oh to be one of the privileged of this world who take it for granted that it’s their right to surf the globe unhindered, unsuspected, respected

(Chapter 2: Carole)

By now you might be thinking a few things – that the novel is heavy-going, perhaps, or that it’s chaotic. But nothing doing. For all its seriousness – and there are definitely grim moments – the novel has a light touch, frequently bitingly satiric, sometimes simply funny, always human. Nineteen-year-old Yazz, for example, is a hoot with her teenage know-it-all confidence. Many recognise their failings, as they grow older, such as Amma appreciating her father too late or Carole realising her supportive teacher had feelings. Transgender Morgan, the epitome of the modern activist, speaks many truths:

    Megan was part Ethiopian, part African-American, part Malawian, and part English
    which felt weird when you broke it down like that because essentially she was just a complete human being

Chapter 4: Megan/Morgan

And, although the novel may sound chaotic, it does have an overarching structure. It starts hours before Amma’s play – the one she hopes will finally make her name – is to premiere at the National Theatre, and it ends with the After Party and an Epilogue, which, combined, bring most of the characters together. The ending, in fact, is clever. The After Party is political, drawing together the threads and reminding us that there’s a long way to go before black people in white societies are not defined by their colour. The Epilogue, on the other hand, is personal, showing us that there’s always human connection and that that, really, is the stuff of life – if only we could all see it.

Girl, woman, other is such a read. Uncompromising in its politics, but also warm and cheeky, it offers heart and intelligence in equal measure.

Bernadine Evaristo
Girl, woman, other
Hamish Hamilton, 2019
ISBN: 9780241985007 (ebook)

Richard Flanagan, the Booker Prize, and Books

Lisa at ANZLitlovers has posted on Richard Flanagan’s (exciting-to-us) Booker Prize win for The narrow road to the deep north, and has provided links to reviews by several bloggers. So, I thought I’d do something different. In my review and follow-up post, I discussed the role of poetry in the novel. Reviewer (and novelist) Romy Ash suggests that there are two love stories in the book, the second one being a “love letter to literature”.

And certainly, there are many references to literature and books, besides the specific references to poetry that I’ve previously discussed. Early in the novel, on what we later realise was Dorrigo’s last sentient night, he’s in bed with his lover:

On the night he lay there with Lynette Maison, he had beside their bed, as he always did, no matter where he was, a book, having returned to the habit of reading in his middle age. A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare and, as he aged, rarer. Still he searched, one more Ithaca for which he was forever bound. He read late of an afternoon. He almost never looked at what the book was of a night, for it existed as a talisman or a lucky object — as some familiar god that watched over him and saw him safely through the world of dreams.

I was intrigued by the distinction he makes between a “good” book and a “great” one. There are many reasons why I want to reread books. Most of them, I’d say, have to do with the “joy” those books bring me. I don’t mean “joy” in terms of “happiness” but in terms of “inspiration”. This inspiration can take many forms – spiritual, intellectual, emotional, cultural, linguistic. And it usually springs from the two things I mostly read for – insights into human behaviour and great prose. Jane Austen is a good example of this. I’m not sure that I think about it in terms of my soul. Have you thought about why you reread?

Anyhow, there’s one other quote I wanted to share regarding books. This one occurs before the war, in the bookshop where Dorrigo meets Amy, the love of his life:

It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books — an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone.

And this sense, this feeling of communion, would at moments overwhelm him. At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work — an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end.

What I particularly like about this quote is the idea that books can make you feel you are not alone. I love it when I read a book and think “I know that feeling” or “That’s me”. Of course, I also love it when I gain insight into how others think or feel too, but it can be reassuring to feel that someone else understands your particular neuroses or dark thoughts or sense of the ridiculous or whatever it is that sometimes makes you feel alone. Books can be such cheap therapy can’t they? I also like the second part of this quote, and its suggestion that there is only one book, one story that encompasses all stories. If only we could all see the world that way …

Eleanor Catton, The luminaries (Review)

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Now here’s the thing … I don’t make a practice of reading mysteries. I really don’t care about who dunnit. When Mr Gums and I watch television crime shows, I rarely concentrate enough to work out the plot intricacies, but I do watch the characters. I’m always interested in the detectives and their relationships. I want to know who they are and what makes them tick. And so, I must say that I got a little tired of the plot machinations in Eleanor Catton’s Booker prize-winning novel, The luminaries. I didn’t really want to expend effort to keep track of the complexities of whose gold went where, who told whom what, and so on. But, I did find the book an interesting read, nonetheless.

Why? Well, first and foremost because of the characters. In the first half of the novel, as the characters were being introduced, I was impressed by Catton’s understanding of human nature.  Her characters, most of them anyhow, are nuanced – if that’s not too clichéd a term. Here for example is Thomas Balfour:

When a restless spirit is commissioned, under influence, to solve a riddle for another man, his energies are, at first, readily and faithfully applied. But Thomas Balfour’s energies tended to span a very short duration, if the project to which he was assigned was not a project of his own devising. His imagination gave way to impatience, and his optimism to an extravagant breed of neglect. He seized an idea only to discard it immediately, if only for the reason that it was no longer novel to him; he started in all directions at once. This was not at all the mark of a fickle temper, but rather, of a temper that is accustomed to enthusiasm of the most genuine and curious sort, and so will accept no form of counterfeit – but it was nevertheless, something of an impediment to progress.

This made me laugh. Not all descriptions did of course, but most are insightful of humanity.

There is also humour in the book – some funny scenes, and wry asides. Since we’re on Thomas Balfour, let’s stay with him. Here he is meeting the chaplain Cowell Devlin:

‘Good morning’, returned the reverend man, and from his accent Balfour knew at once that he was Irish; he relaxed, and allowed himself to be rude.

Thomas, as you might have guessed, is English – and this of course tells us more about him than about Devlin.

Perhaps at this point I should mention the plot, though as a Booker Prize Winner, its basic premise is probably known to most of you. The novel is set in the New Zealand goldfields, Hokitika mainly, over 1865 to 1866. The plot concerns the death of one man, the disappearance of another, an apparent suicide attempt, and the provenance of a gold fortune. There are 20 main characters – 12 described as stellar, representing the 12 astrological star signs; 7 described as planetary, representing, of course, the planets; and one, the dead man, described as terra firma. It’s a lot to keep in your head but Catton does provide a character chart at the front to help.

There is a lot to enjoy while reading this book, in addition to the characterisation and humour. The plot is intricate and fun to unravel if you enjoy mysteries. The goldfields setting is realistic, with its businessmen, publicans, politicians, prospectors, whores, opium dealers and tricksters, not to mention the salting and the duffers. The writing is sure. I enjoyed her use of imagery. Grey and yellow feature throughout as do references to spirits (ethereal, emotional, and alcoholic), ghosts, apparitions, phantoms, fog and mist. These all helped convey a sense of murkiness, and of things shifting before our eyes.

The main themes are to do with truth, lies and fraud, with love, loyalty and betrayal. It’s quite a cynical world that our characters find themselves in. As the not-yet dead man, Crosbie Wells, says to the whore, Anna Wetherell:

There’s no charity in a gold town. If it looks like charity, look again.

There is, of course, but it’s rare – and, as Wells advises, you have to be darned careful about who you trust, because, human nature being what it is, where there’s gold, there’s always greed.

The big challenge of this novel is its structure. I’ve already mentioned the structure of the characters. The astrological theme is carried through into the structure of the narrative. The book is divided into 12 parts which, I learnt at my reading group, are meant to align with the lunar cycle, each part being exactly half the length of the previous part. This didn’t feel artificial, because the increasingly shorter parts provided a rhythm to the unravelling of the plot. The other point to make about the structure is that the novel commences on 27 January 1866, 13 days after 14 January when the critical plot events take place. The novel then moves forward, through the trial and its aftermath, to 27 April 1866 (Part 4). In this part, we also jump back, in alternating chapters, to 27 April 1865, when the major players in the plot start, shall we say, “orbiting” each other, if not downright colliding. The novel then progresses forward again, ending on 14 January 1866, not quite back at the beginning, but on the day that precipitates the narrative.

There is, then, a certain circularity to it all, but what does it mean? Does this structure do anything for we readers? I’m not sure. There are intricate astrological charts at the beginning of each part showing where the 12 characters are positioned, astronomically speaking, on that date. I don’t have the astrological knowledge to know whether these charts added meaning or not. The circularity does, however, suggest another potential theme – which is, as chaplain Devlin says, that:

Some things are never done.

Devlin says something else too, which is reinforced by the way the narrative progresses via the stories of the various players:

never underestimate how extraordinarily difficult it is to understand a situation from another person’s point of view.

So, in the end, where did it all leave me? Wondering, in fact, whether it was just a little too clever for itself or, maybe, too clever for me. Either way, I did enjoy the read, and was impressed by the skill with which Catton executed her tale and the insight she has into human nature. Beyond that, I think it’s best if you decide for yourselves.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) wasn’t enamoured, nor was the Resident Judge, but John (Musings of a Literary Dilettante) liked it very much.

Eleanor Catton
The luminaries
London: Granta, 2013
ISBN: 9781847088765

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the bodies (Review)

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the bodies

Courtesy: HarperCollins Australia

In her author’s note at the end of her second Thomas Cromwell novel, Bring up the bodies, Hilary Mantel writes that:

In this book I try to show how a few crucial weeks might have looked from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view. I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer.

And what an offer it is! In my review of the first novel, Wolf Hall, I quote Cromwell’s statement that “…homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man”. This was related to the theme of the book – the machinations behind the scenes that change the world, something that we Australians are more familiar with right now than we’d like to be. (This is, in fact, a very modern book.) Anyhow, Bring up the bodies continues this theme but with a difference …

That difference is Thomas Cromwell’s motivations, but more on that anon. The plot concerns Henry’s desire to replace Anne Boleyn with Jane Seymour as his wife – and we all know where that led! It’s a much tighter plot – and a somewhat shorter book – than Wolf Hall. It takes place over about 9 months, from September 1535 to Summer 1536, and while the political climate is still evident – the continuing struggle to entrench the Church of England over the Roman Catholic Church and attempts at social welfare reform – politics and political change are not so much to the forefront in this second novel. Why? Well, because ….

Mantel wants to propose a motivation for Master Secretary Cromwell’s engineering of Anne’s downfall: revenge. Now, the word “revenge” is not, at least I don’t recollect it, actually used in the novel, though the softer word “grudge” appears a couple of times. But this is the motivation that Mantel proposes. It’s all to do with which men were and weren’t tried for treason (adultery with Anne) and their role in the downfall of Cromwell’s much-loved mentor, Cardinal Wolsey. Why, for example, was Thomas Wyatt never tried despite his professed attraction to Anne, while Henry Norris was? You’ll have to read the book – although you probably already have, given how late I am coming to it – to see Mantel’s proposition.

It is this revenge “take” on Cromwell that unifies Bring up the bodies in the way that the story of the separation of England from Rome and the Acts of Supremacy unified Wolf Hall even though both are ostensibly about the downfall of a queen. However, I don’t want to write a lot more about the plot and subject matter because I’m guessing many of the reviews before me have done that. What I want to write about is her writing. It’s breathtaking – the way she gets us into Cromwell’s head, the way she makes us feel the times, and particularly the way she uses language to drive the plot and themes.

Appealing to the subconscious, being almost subliminal, is common in fiction, I suppose, but Mantel does it with such aplomb. It’s the dropping of words and ideas that you barely notice or first notice and think they mean one thing only to find they are pointing to another. Take Wolsey for example. When he is first mentioned in the novel, it’s logical, it’s part of filling in the backstory that is common in sequels. But, the thing is, he is dead, long dead before this novel starts, and yet his name keeps cropping up. It’s always logical, but it starts to carry some larger weight – which becomes apparent as the denouement draws near. There are other words too – phantoms, spoils, truth, angels – which start to convey more than their literal meaning or which, through repetition, point us to larger meanings or themes. None of this is heavy-handed. You could almost miss it, but it’s there – drip, drip, drip.

If people had one criticism of Wolf Hall, it was Mantel’s use of the third person “he” for Thomas Cromwell. It seems Mantel took this to heart, so in Bring up the bodies she frequently qualifies the pronoun, using “he, Cromwell”. It does the job, though for one who didn’t find Wolf Hall a problem, it did feel a little clumsy to me at times – but I forgave her that. There’s so much to love.

Towards the end, during the process dissolving Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, the Lord Chancellor says

The truth is so rare and precious that sometimes it must be kept under lock and key.

This is deeply cynical (and ironic). The “council” of men has decided to grant the decree annulling the marriage but to keep the reason secret. Why? Because they really couldn’t agree on a valid one – they just knew it had to be done.

Bring up the bodies is a beautifully constructed but chilling novel in which Cromwell’s character becomes murkier and murkier. What’s to admire and what’s not is the question that confronts us every step of the way. Like many, I can’t wait for The mirror and the light, the next instalment of Cromwell’s story – and would love it if Mantel continued with the Tudors after that. What a fascinating time it was – and what a spin Mantel puts on it.

Hilary Mantel
Bring up the bodies
London: Fourth Estate, 2013
ISBN: 9780007315109

Julian Barnes, The sense of an ending (Review)

I should have known I wouldn’t be the first to think of it, but during my reading Julian Barnes‘ Booker Prize winning novel, The sense of an ending, I was suddenly reminded of TS Eliot‘s The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It was the melancholic tone, the sense of life having passed one by, that did it:

What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him?

Doesn’t that remind you of “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”? I don’t usually read reviews before I write my own, but I wondered if my thought had come to anyone else. Of course it had. I googled “julian barnes sense of an ending prufrock” and up came several hits. Oh well, I thought, at least I’m not going to sound totally foolish. There is safety in numbers, after all, which brings me back to Tony, the novel’s protagonist, who says, at another point in the novel:

I’m not odd enough not to have done the things I’ve ended up doing with my life.

I admit to having a certain fellow feeling with Tony, a self-confessed “average” person who’s led an average life “of some achievements and some disappointments”. But, enough self-revelation, let’s get on with the review.

I’ll start by saying that this book is right up my alley. Firstly, it’s a novella and regular readers here know how I love a good novella. Secondly, it’s a good novella, by which I mean it’s tightly constructed and sparely written. And thirdly, plot is not the main point; character and life are Barnes’ focus.

Nonetheless, while there’s not a strong plot, there is of course a story, and it concerns the aforesaid Tony. He’s the first person narrator and is a reliably unreliable one. He tells us this on the second page, while at the same giving away the novel’s essential form:

But school is where it all began, so I need to return to a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty. If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.

This tight little para tells us a few things about what’s to come. The word “deformed” combined with the idea that he “can’t be sure of the actual events” tells us to beware, that imperfect (for whatever reason) memory is at play. The mention of returning “to a few incidents” describes the basic structure of the novel, as it does indeed focus on and tease out the ramifications of a “few incidents”.  And the reference to school hints that there might be something of the bildungsroman about it.

I still haven’t told you anything about the story, though, have I? It’s divided into two parts. In Part One, Tony is in his teens and twenties and focuses on his three male friends and his first serious girlfriend, Veronica. This part is less than 60 pages and, as Tony promises at the beginning, primarily comprises a few scenes from his life, linked by some running commentary. There are classroom scenes and a particularly memorable one involving his first  (and only) weekend visit to his girlfriend’s home. We come back to this scene in the second part. I loved how, after spending some 50 pages on his youth, Tony wraps up around 40 years of his adult life in two pages. Impressive writing.

In Part Two, Tony is confronted again with some of the major incidents from his youth and is forced to reconsider his sense of self. The most important of these incidents concerns the suicide of one of his friends … and gradually we get a whiff of a mystery, albeit one just hovering around the edges. This is because the mystery is not the main point.

Tony, in this part, is bequeathed, out of the blue, the diary of the friend who had committed suicide 40 years previously. Now, Tony believes that it is the witnesses to your life, those you spent time with, who “corroborate” who you are. As these people drop away, there is, he says “less corroboration, and therefore less certainty to what you are or have been”. He therefore sees this diary as potentially significant:

The diary was evidence; it was – it might be – corroboration. It might disrupt the banal reiterations of memory. It might jump start something – though I had no idea what.

The bequest does “jump start something” but to what purpose is the moot point. An issue that occupies Tony is that of change. “Does character develop over time?” he asks and then continues, in one of those little postmodern touches we’ve become used to, “In novels of course it does, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story”. You said it, Tony/Julian, we are tempted to respond, except that by this time Tony had so captured my attention that the minimal story was neither here nor there.

And this is where I’ll leave the story … and return to an issue I raised earlier in the post, that regarding its being something of a bildungsroman. It’s not a traditional coming-of-age novel because only the first part of the novel chronicles his development as a young man. But, something is jump started for Tony in his 60s that forces him to rethink who he had been and who he had become. Memory, he says, can lock you into

the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions. I press the button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs and the usual stuff spins out. The events reconfirm the emotions – resentment,  sense of injustice, relief – and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed.

Occasionally, however, something happens to break the loop, as it does for Tony. He is suddenly confronted with new (or, different) memories which bring new emotions. He looks at “the chain of responsibility” and sees “my initial there”. He learns that the things he’d thought fixed or certain can be dissolved, that memory cannot be relied upon and can, in fact, come back to bite you. Time and memory, Barnes shows us, are malleable, suggesting, to me at least, that perhaps we never really do come of age.

Julian Barnes
The sense of an ending
London: Vintage, 2011
ISBN: 9780099564973

Howard Jacobson, The Finkler question

Howard Jacobson's The Finkler question

Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler question (Courtesy: Bloomsbury Publishing)

Whispering Gums, as you would expect, writes erudite marginalia and so you’d be in for a treat if you ever obtained my copy of Howard Jacobson‘s 2010 Booker award winning novel, The Finkler question. The margins are peppered with my reactions, like, you know, “Ha!” and “Oh dear”. Riveting stuff … and yet, what comments would you make in this book? Ah yes, “stereotyping” is another one, because that, really, is the springboard from which this rather funny book is written.

Do I need to summarise the plot? I feel that I’m about the last blogger to read this book, but just in case I’m not, here goes …  It concerns three longstanding friends: Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler who have been friends since schooldays, and Libor Sevcik who was their teacher at school. At the beginning of the book, Finkler and Libor, both Jews, have been recently widowed. Treslove, the non-Jew, is the “honorary third” widower because he is single (yet again). The novel’s premise is that Treslove would like to be a Jew …

Why, you might ask, would Treslove want to be a Jew (or, a Finkler, as he privately calls them – and hence the title)? It is not an accident that Treslove’s occupation when the novel opens is to be a paid double (or “lookalike”) of famous people at parties, conferences, corporate events:

Treslove didn’t look like anybody famous in particular, but looked like many famous people in general, and so was in demand if not by virtue of verisimilitude, at least by virtue of versatility.

And that’s pretty much how his Jewishness goes too. He might look and play the part but, deep down, can a non-Jew ever really be Jewish? Treslove is about to find out.

Jacobson has a way with words. It was this, together with the endless discussion, using every Jewish stereotype going, of what makes a Finkler (a Jew, remember!) a Finkler, that kept me going through a book that I wasn’t really sure was going anywhere. I laughed at Treslove’s incomprehension of Finkler (the character, this time):

“Do you know anyone called Juno?” Treslove asked.
“J’you know Juno?” Finkler replied, making inexplicable J noises between his teeth.
Treslove didn’t get it.
“J’you know Juno? Is that what you’re asking me?”
Treslove still didn’t get it. So Finkler wrote it down. D’Jew know Jewno?
Treslove shrugged. “Is that supposed to be funny?”

Oh dear! “Julian Treslove knew he’d never be clever in a Finklerish way” but, despite this, he continues with his goal to be Jewish. Meanwhile, Finkler, grieving for his wife and a marriage he still doesn’t understand, tries to dissociate himself from Jews (particularly Zionists) through membership of the ASHamed Jews. And Libor, grieving heavily for his true love, tries to dissuade Treslove from his ambition.

The book chronicles a year or so in the life of these three as each confronts his particular challenge. Treslove falls in love with Libor’s (Jewish) great-niece, Hephzibah, furthering, he hopes, his path to Jewishness; Finkler starts to fall out with the ASHamed Jews though not with their anti-Zionist principles; and Libor starts to fall out of life itself. All of this is told with both warmth and humour. The humour is always there, and yet is never pushed so far that the humanity of the characters is lost. You feel for them, despite their flaws and foibles. You want Julian, the hopeless father and failed lover, to make a go of it this time. You want Finkler to make peace with his Jewishness. And you want old Libor to get over his grief and join the world again. But through all this, you wonder, why? Why is Jacobson writing this story?

I have a few ideas. One may simply be to capture the diversity of Jewishness. Through all the stereotypes that made me laugh (Jews are musical, brokenhearted, rich, clever, comic, and so on), Jacobson shows that Jews, like any other group, are not all the same, cannot all be put in the one basket. Another  reason, though it’s depressing to think it’s needed, may be to defend Jews in an anti-Semitic world, to show their humanity. You care for these characters whose troubles with identity, love and loss are universal. And another may be to explore Zionism, safely. Can Zionism be defended? Has it changed into something more ugly, something that undermines its original conception?

In the end I did like this book because, while I was contemplating the “why”, I was engaged by the characters and their stories. The novel commences with Treslove, the would-be Jew, but it concludes with Finkler, the troubled Jew. Here he is, towards the end:

He was a thinker who didn’t know what he thought, except that he had loved and failed and now missed his wife, and that he hadn’t escaped what was oppressive about Judaism by joining a Jewish group that gathered to talk feverishly about the oppressiveness of being Jewish. Talking feverishly about being Jewish was being Jewish.

Ha! You said it, Mr Jacobson, I’m tempted to say. But that would be too smart-alecky of me because the book is, in fact, as much about humanity as it is about being Jewish.

Howard Jacobson
The Finkler question
London: Bloomsbury, 2011
ISBN: 9781408818466

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

An interesting question to ponder when thinking about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is the significance of the title. While the place Wolf Hall, the family seat of the Seymour family, does get a few mentions it does not really function as a location. Wolves, however, are one of the subtle motifs running through the novel. As its protagonist remembers late in the book:

…homo homini lupus, man is wolf to man.

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Cover image (Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

And, after reading the novel, it would be hard to refute this notion! Wolf Hall is set in England between 1500 and 1535, with most of the action taking place between 1527 and 1535. It deals primarily with the lead up to and first years of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, but as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Its plot centres on the machinations involved in dissolving Henry’s marriage to Katherine (Catherine) of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, so he could legally marry Anne Boleyn; its real subject matter, though, is far wider than that. Its time period – the early years of the English Reformation – and its plot mean that it deals with the major issues of the time, including England’s separation from Rome, the translation of the Bible into English and the relaxing of rules regarding access to the Bible, the Act of Supremacy, and succession to the throne. Running through this are the jostlings for power, the skullduggery, and the betrayals (and suprising acts of loyalty) that are the hallmarks of the Tudor Court. Man was indeed wolf to man then (and I sometimes wonder how much has changed?).

This is an exquisite – though large! – novel. It won the 2009 Booker Prize: I can’t compare it with the others because I haven’t read them, but I did enjoy this immensely. In my recent review of The enchantress of Florence – and what fascinating synchronicity to read these two in sequence – I said that the one word I would use to describe it was “paradoxical”. The word I would use for Wolf Hall is “subtle”. It is subtle in so many ways – in its narrative style, its humour, its irony, its symbolism, its descriptions, its juxtapositions. Nothing here is heavy-handed or overdone.

But first, its narrative style. I was forewarned about Mantel’s use of “he” in this novel and perhaps this helped, because I rarely found it difficult or confusing. In fact, I rather liked the style. It’s a bit like a first-person novel told in third person – third person subjective (limited) point of view, I guess – and so the use of “he” reminds us that it is HIS perspective we are getting. Everything we know we know through him, through his thoughts and through his interactions with others. I found this approach intriguing – it gave immediacy and distance at the same time. And this brings me to the man himself.

Thomas Cromwell, for those who don’t know their English history, rose from very humble beginnings to being Henry’s trusted chief minister. He did this by dint of his character and the timely beneficial patronage of Cardinal Wolsey. He became street-smart in his youth but he also educated himself in the culture (literature and art) of the times. He could speak Latin, Italian and French. He was an accountant and lawyer.  He knew about trade. He was no slouch in the kitchen either. He was, indeed, a jack-of-all-trades. Here is a description early in the book (1527):

Thomas Cromwell is now a little over forty years old. He is a man of strong build, not tall. Various expressions are available to his face, and one is readable: an expression of stifled amusement … It is said he knows by heart the entire New Testamant in Latin … He is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcom, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury…

A man, that is, not to be trifled with – and yet he is a man who develops a large and loving household full of loyal children, relatives and “wards”. Some of the loveliest sections of the book are set in his home, Austin Friars. He is also loyal – sticking by Wolsey, for example, in his decline – and firm, hard even, but not cruel.

However, I don’t want this review to be as long as the book and so shall move on. I loved Mantel’s descriptions – they are always short but highly evocative. Here is the Duke of Norfolk:

The duke is now approaching sixty years old but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and cold as an axe-head;  his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics…

And here is another telling description (after charges against Wolsey have been written):

It is a wan morning, low unbroken cloud; the light filtering sparely through the glass, is the colour of tarnished pewter. How brightly coloured the king is, like the king in a new pack of cards: how small his flat blue eye.

Delicious aren’t they?

The novel ends at an intriguing point – but I won’t give that away here except to say that it does not conclude with the end of Cromwell’s life. That, we believe, is the subject of a sequel.

I would love to keep writing about the characters, the language, the way Mantel puts it all together – such as the way she drops hints then explores them later – but that could become boring. Better for you to read the book (if you haven’t already). Instead, I will end with what is probably the book’s overarching theme – that of “how the world works”, and that is through machinations behind the scenes:

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater…

It was ever thus, eh?

Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall
London: Fourth Estate, 2009
ISBN: 9870007292417

POSTSCRIPT: Steven, at A Momentary Taste of Being, posted a link to this fascinating article by Hilary Mantel on Thomas Cromwell. It is well worth a read.

Booker Prize 2009

I received a voucher a couple of weeks ago for 25% off a 2009 Booker Prize shortlist book. What to buy? Hard choice as I hadn’t read any of them – I know, I know, how can I call myself a reader but, really, I am not driven to read shortlists per se. Awards are great – love them – but they don’t drive my reading. They simply provide one of the useful imprimaturs that inform my choices. Anyhow, back to the Booker, I settled on Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Prescience perhaps? More like just good luck. Whatever it was, I would now be in the money had I been a betting woman because a few hours ago it was announced the winner and the bookmakers towards the end had her the favourite. Now I will have to read it eh? Don’t hold your breath as there are a few ahead of it, but I will try!