Reviews: books

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Rapscallion Magazine Book Review: drugs, crime and prostitution (how travelling with his amoral aunt changed dahlia loving Henry forever)

Travels with My Aunt  by Graham Greene

Henry’s travels with his Aunt Augusta begin at his mother’s funeral and end at his Aunt’s house warming party. Between the two – the one in a municipal Crematorium in Surrey and the other in Asunción in Paraguay. In between Henry and his aunt visit Brighton, Istanbul, Paris and South America meeting a string of eccentric characters and only just escaping the law due to his amoral aunt’s liking or risky business deals that involve smuggling.

Written in the first person by Henry Pulling a retired bank manager whose main interest in tending his dahlias Greene sets up some brilliantly funny scenes as Henry describes in his understated way some extraordinary events and even more extraordinary people.

In conversation with the Chief of Police at a party in Asuncion Henry comments on the old fashioned dances. The Chief of Police replies: “The Polka and the Gallop. They are out national dances.”

“The names sound very Victorian,” I said. I had meant it as a compliment but he moved away abruptly.

One reoccurring Greene theme is that of the Catholic faith.

“Are you a Roman Catholic?” I asked my aunt with interest. She replied promptly and seriously, “Yes, my dear, only I just don’ believe in all the things they believe in.”

And Greene’s descriptions are beautiful if unlikely in the words of Henry. ‘As Chapter 13 opens: When a train pulls into a great city I am reminded of the closing moments of an overture.’ And perhaps more convincingly for Henry in chapter 16: ‘I was back home, in the late afternoon, as the long shadows were falling: a boy whistled a Beatle tune and motor cycle revved far away un Norman Lane.’

Rather like the travels themselves the story meanders from one incident to another eventually bringing together the quartet of characters who dominate the travels: Wordsworth (who is a sort of unconvincing doomed caricature), the dodgy Mr Visconti and her lover Aunt Augusta who reconciles her colourful past with Henry who eventually finds himself in the intoxicatingly exotic and illegal world of his aunt in South America.

Harry Mottram

* Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene was first published by Bodley Head in 1969.

* A film version was made in 1972 with Maggie Smith as Aunt Augusta and Alec McCowen as Henry (see below)

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Rapscallion Magazine Book Review: it’s Dellarobia against the world in a story of butterflies, scientists and sheep farmers

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Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
One part environmental lecture and one part rural domestic drama, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour gets stuck in the mud of Cub’s Appalachian sheep farm. In the opening pages the main protagonist Dellarobia appears to be about to start an affair as she runs away from her life as a mother and farmer’s wife. However the arrival of millions of Monarch butterflies In the woods above her home changes all that and she finds herself first as a sort of Butterfly saint in her local church and then as a proto scientist.
The story seeks to expose the fragility of the planet with global warming as part of the backdrop. It also centres on a series of set piece bust ups and confrontations which although entertaining in their own chapter don’t always take the story on.
It’s Dellarobia versus Cub; Dellarobia versus her mother in law Hester; Dellarobia versus Pete the scientist. In fact it’s Dellarobia versus the world as she rages at her life, for getting married so young, of not having any qualifications or a career, or simply living such a low down and humble life.
Apart from her good looks the one thing she has got is a sense of humour which she uses in a series of lively, witty and sparky conversations as she bats against a long list of humourless characters. And that’s where the novel is at its best. It’s no contest against dullard hubby Cub as he declares, “Weather is the Lord’s business.” In reply Dellarobia fires back: “People used to say the same thing whenever some disease came along and killed all the children. ‘It’s part of God’s plan.’ Now we give them vaccinations. Is that defying God?” Cub made no reply.
She may be poor but she is grounded which helps her in her exchanges with the scientist Ovid, Pete and the rich kid students who descend on the farm to study the mystery of the migrating Monarch butterflies who give the novel its title.
Focalising through Dellarobia we see the world through her eyes and her sense of humour which makes it a conversational and entertaining read if excessively long and at times repetitive. If only she could have had that affair at the beginning of the story we might have been spared the lengthy church scenes, the Christmas shopping trip and the painfully educational conversations with well-heeled scientists.
Harry Mottram
Flight Behaviour was shortlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013 and published in 2012.

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Rapscallion Magazine Book Review: surviving World War Two in St Malo

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Dealing with the shattered lives of those caught up in the Second World War Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is to some extent 523 pages of misery.
Written in short titled chapters and even shorter sentences the novel unravels the lives of the blind French girl Marie-Laure and the impoverished but talented Werner who is brought up in a children’s home in Nazi Germany. Eventually their lives collide in this well constructed and neatly plotted story encompassing the war and its aftermath with the main focus on the hero Marie-Laure as she battles to stay alive in besieged St Malo.
We get to know Marie-Laure well but less so Werner who encounters a wider circle of characters, friends and enemies in his career as radio operator in the army. Werner’s role seems to be one of illustrating how ordinary decent Germans managed to survive in Hitler’s Third Reich. And of how they could justify going along with the horrors and injustices of the regime.
His meeting and his friendship with the doomed Frederick and the tough guy Frank Volkheimer or the military bully Bastian only partly explain the silence of the German populace during the war. As for Reinhold von Rumpel and his obsession with the diamond The Sea of Flames – well he seemed to be from another novel.
In Paris and in St Malo Doerr creates a believable world where desperate survival is tempered with a humanity through characters like Madame Manec and Marie-Laure’s dad Daniel and uncle Etienne who quietly go about resisting the occupying German army despite traitors like Claude Levitte who also want to survive.
In fact there are so many characters in the novel you need to make a list as you go along.
Some are just there briefly while others remain throughout until their final fate is revealed in the last few chapters as they fall into two categories: those that survived the war and those that didn’t.
The period detail and descriptions are brilliant, the story engrossing and immediate with it being written in the present tense but at 523 pages it seems overlong.
Harry Mottram
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is available in paperback from 4thEstate online for £8.99, or second hand, your local library and all good bookshops.

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Rapscallion Magazine Book Review: A story of children in Nazi Germany framed by the character of Death

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Take one part The Diary of Anne Frank, one part The Hunger Games, one part Jane Eyre and one part the Catcher in the Rye and you’ve got the ingredients required for the perfect teenage angst novel. Death, Nazis, persecution and injustice – Markus Zusak’s 2005 young adult novel has it all and spends more than 500 pages of dreams and nightmares, self-reflection and self-loathing and of friendship and loving. It’s a brutal, truthful, philosophical and an intensive hormonally charged coming of age read.

The Book Thief follows the protagonist nine year old Liesel’s struggle to survive in wartime Germany beginning with the trauma of her brother’s death, her adoption and her battle to fit in and discover herself. The strong anti-Nazi theme is slightly undermined by an implication that Hitler partly comes to power through the written word rather than the more accepted one of economic depression, unresolved issues of the 14-18 war and the weakness of Germany’s fledgling democracy failing to prevent the Third Reich.

The story is focalised and framed by the character of death whose omniscient sympathetic view of Liesel’s life and times also includes Max, Rudy and Hans amongst others. Death is also changed by the events of the war turning from dark humour to near despair at the savagery. And Himmel Street is another character that is also deeply affected by the war with its gangs of children, bickering residents and Nazi sympathisers. And there’s the Mayor’s wife who is condemned but redeemed by Liesel in her book stealing and anger at the wealth and privilege of the town’s middle classes.

The Holocaust is the dark shadow behind the novel with the characters just one false move away from the Concentration Camps and certain death. Liesel is originally Jewish. Max is a Jew on the run who is hidden by Liesel’s adoptive parents Rosa and Hans Hubermann while Rudy is only a goose step away from liquidation due to his adoration of Jesse Owen.

Complex plotting allows connections to be made from the Great War to the aftermath of the Second World War while at times the fantasies and dreams of the protagonist and her friends diverts the reader away from the core story. At times I felt there was a much tighter and stronger novel within the book. Its strengths lie in the raw agony of injustice to children and of the realism of the settings – especially the scenes at school and when children are left to their own devices.

And amongst the darkness there’s plenty of humour such as when Hans gets drunk at the Nazi Party and knocks on the wrong door on the way home and is confined to the cellar to snore his way to morning.

Death keeps injecting facts at various stages like bullet points in a study guide – just so the reader doesn’t misunderstand anything. As a way of introducing children and young adults to the horrors of the Nazi era through literature The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a perfect read. It’s a conversational read for much of the time doing at it does teetering on the brink of disaster all the way through until the bombshell ending – which felt like Zusak couldn’t decide how to complete his novel. Overly long perhaps and padded with too many diversions it is nevertheless an insightful and creative look at a recent chapter of German social history.

Harry Mottram

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is available in paperback online for £8.99, or second hand, your local library and all good bookshops.

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Autumn Ali Smith

Rapscallion Magazine Book Review: season of mists and mellow remainers – a post Brexit novel inspired by Keats but with overtones of comedy sketches by Victoria Wood

Autumn, by Ali Smith

A novel that seems to drift through a series of thoughts and scenes as though in a dream that it’s hard at times to realise where it is going. Autumn by Ali Smith’s Autumn is not an easy read as it stops and starts. There’s no overall plot other than to contrast overlapping visions of autumn and to slowly peel back the lives of the handful of characters. There are references to nature and John Keat’s poem on autumn while there’s the echoes of the novel’s role as a post Brexit novel.

Smith’s take is also on the autumn of Britain’s collective mentality in the months immediately after the referendum on membership of the European Community in June 2016. There’s a clear element of despair at the result in Smith’s prose as, “there was misery and rejoicing… …all across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”

We meet Daniel Gluck who is unfeasibly old and a friend of the much younger Elisabeth Demand who has terrible problems at the Post Office when trying to get a passport. And there’s Pauline Boty a female pop artist that Elisabeth is studying and who was known to Daniel who seems to have got about a lot in his life.

Autumn’s most John Keats’ moments come in passages such as this at the end of part one: “A Minute ago it was June. Now the weather is September. The crops are high, about to be cut, bright, golden. November? Unimaginable. Just a month away.” It’s a beautiful if succinct chapter midway through. The chapter’s prose concludes: “The birds are on the powerlines. The swifts left weeks ago. They’re hundreds of miles from here by now, somewhere over the ocean.”

The novel references numerous writers and books from Charles Dickens in the opening line “it was the worst of times” to William Blake’s poem about the “grains of sand,” and even Huxley’s Brave New World and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

In a reflective, poetic and at times confusingly dream like novel there are several extremely funny moments such as the Post Office scene that has the feeling of a sketch by Victoria Wood about it. It’s an experience most can have sympathy with as Elisabeth attempts to have her application for a passport put through the Check and Send service. As the cashier measures her passport photo he says: “Your face is the wrong size.” And “Is your surname really Demand?” As the Post Office employee continues to play God and tick her off for being sarcastic when she doesn’t say where she plans to travel with her new passport.

In another sequence later on Elisabeth is in the kitchen with her mother when she recalls a one hit wonder from 1962, Summer Brother, Autumn Sister, written by Mr Gluck. The dialogue between her mum and Zoe her flatmate sparkles with authenticity and wit. “I’ve had a substantial career in maudlin, her mother says taking the computer. Has her mother been this witty all these years and Elisabeth just hasn’t realised?”

And there’s the story of Boty in these overlapping narratives, a model who has overtones of the Christine Keeler affair in the 1960s. These stories seem timeless and yet contemporary as they are linked together in a book which is very 2016 which seems to be the whole point of the the novel I eventually realised. A sort of poetic prose statement about Britain during the time of the referendum seen through the eyes of a mellow remainer.

Harry Mottram

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Goddess: Anouk Aimee played the lead in the 1969 movie of Lawrence Durrell's novel

Goddess: Anouk Aimee played the lead in the 1969 movie of Lawrence Durrell’s novel

Drunk, dazed and in love with Justine in 1930s Alexandria

Justine. By Lawrence Durrell.

Feeling guilty, disillusioned and emotionally drained you leave a boozy chaotic party where couples are having sex, drinking too much and being ill. It’s getting dark, you’re a little bit drunk and you’ve taken the wrong turning through the back streets of Alexandria on the way back to your home where the baby sitter is waiting to be relieved. Around each corner is an extraordinary scene: a camel butchered whilst still alive in the road, an old woman herb seller selling her body in the street, and an ancient money lender asleep in an open window – his snores echoing down the road. You double back and try again, mixing up the crescents and the crossroads, the people and places, never quite sure how you somehow managed to get home.

At every turn Durrell presents Justine’s meandering narrative with exotic images, strange characters and vivid descriptions of a long lost pre-war Alexandria described by the over educated, under-employed, pretentious and unreliable narrator Darley. His memories of the time seamlessly overlap, flip backwards and forwards and leaving a sense of confusion and dazed impressions from the chaotic party you have just left. Is Nessim a seedy playboy and a murderer rather than a wealthy, sophisticate? Is Melissa a door mat and Justine a two timing flirt?

If the events and plot are hard to pin down the descriptions delight. Here’s Darley’s view of the comedic character Scobie who, “is a sort of protozoic profile in fog and rain, for he carries with him a sort of English weather.” And of Podre: “…a whim rather than a man. He was born to be a cartoonist’s butt.” And of Alexandria itself – main character in the novel – the first in Lawrence’s Alexandrian Quartet – a city that holds the Cecil Hotel, the Café Al Aktar and “the clearing house of information” Mnemjian’s barber shop. A city of the poetry of C P Cavafy, the Rue Nebi Daniel and the Atelier des Beaux Arts. Or as Darley puts it: “A city that becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.”

Harry Mottram

Four stars

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Love like salt

Helen’s frustrations with the French school system and the Catholic church over her daughter’s cystic fibrosis

Love Like Salt. Helen Stevenson.

About half way through Helen Stevenson’s Love Like Salt I thought I had missed something. What was is it? Ah… it was the voices of other people. Nico, Sabine, Piere Daniel, Helen’s cousin for starters. There are a lot of people in the book but we really only see them through Helen’s eyes. But then all memoirs and biographies are partial acts of self-censorship and remembrance as it is only the voice of one person despite their attempts to be balanced.

Her memoir of her struggle to bring up her daughter Clara who has cystic fibrosis is quite an ordeal. It moves from diagnosis in England to settling down in France and then back to England to find a settled lifestyle away from prejudice and the French education system. Not exactly a veil of tears but it was clearly not easy for the family.

There was the lack of empathy from some adults – especially in France – the bullying French children, unsympathetic teachers and patronising priests clearly hurt as she recalls in a series of incidents and detailed conversations.

But as you read there are questions that arise over the difficulties of life in France compared to the near paradise Stevenson finds for her daughter and family when they move to Somerset. Could the French really be so awful when her youngest daughter clearly likes it so much compared to Clara? Are French schools so dreadful? Isn’t bullying and name calling a universal problem? And apart from the music, why is the sceptic drawn to the church and then is surprised by the archaic attitudes of its believers and in particular the less than helpful opinion of the Roman Catholic priests?

These concerns aside, the memoir is rich in thought and observation; it is both philosophical and enlightening, and above all beautifully crafted. It is a very easy and interesting read in part due to the candid thoughts of the writer which at times feels more like a series of magazine features. There is an intimacy as she confides in the reader her inner most thoughts which is a real strength.

The one tone that flows through every page are the insights that Stevenson gives into cystic fibrosis. Its affects, its history and the symptoms – and how living with a disabled child transforms the lives of everyone in the family. It is impossible to underestimate the consequences on the parents, siblings and friends such a condition can have.

The strengths of the meandering narrative also include the stylish prose and of the many back stories woven into the 284 page memoir. There’s the black comedy of her mother’s dementia as they drive back from Auntie Dorothy’s. Her mum is difficult, cantankerous and sanctimonious and is in denial Clara is ill which irritates Helen.

“You’re saying she has an illness that’s unspeakable, that people shouldn’t have to know about. In case it’s too painful for them. For them!”

“Don’t shout, dear, you’ll wake the baby.”
“Clara, her name’s Clara!”

“That’s as maybe, but she’s only a baby.”

“What do you mean, ‘That’s as maybe?’ What kind of an expression is that? It’s her name?”

And it is this conversation that is repeated in different forms and with different people throughout the story with varying scenarios. There is always the misunderstood and frustrated mother, and always the adult who tries to dismiss or downplay Clara’s illness. Clara’s life expectancy is not good – and there is no cure yet and perhaps this is at the root of the writer’s soul searching and a feeling the world has played her daughter a terrible hand.

Back in England and her ear for the negative continues: “When Clara ran five kilometres recently in aid of the Cyctic Fibrosis Trust, one boy in her year said his father had told him not to sponsor her, because he paid his taxes to fund a health service, and that charities shouldn’t be fund-raising for medical care.”

Coping is a constant battle which chews away at Stevenson as she battles the negatives. But there are positive moments when people say things which help her to see life a little more clearly.

She writes of one incident when a Swiss woman mentions her own daughter died of cot death on Christmas Eve. She says: “People said to me, ‘You must think all the time, why me?’ but I don’t ever think that,’ she said. ‘I think, ‘Why not me?’”

Harry Mottram

Four stars

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Bitter sweet stories from middle America that are universal in their ordinariness

A Spool of Blue Thread, By Anne Tyler

Meet the family. There’s Abby and Red in their extended domesticity, Junior Whitshank a carpenter from back in the day, the family’s ‘orphans’ like Atta, and the uncommunicative Denny who disappears, gets hitched and has a baby. We see the unfolding stories through anecdotes and flashbacks with the characters unwrapped in all their ordinariness and all their complexity.

There’s a certain universal depth to her characterisations that allow the ready to recognise people from their own lives despite the American setting with its cultural differences. She also adds a deal of humour which prevents the stories having a sugary gloss along with sharp but subtle social divides that are the property of a good observer. Well-paced, conversational and accessible A Spool of Blue Thread takes you into the living rooms of middle America in the last few decades of the 20th century.

Harry Mottram. 4 stars

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Apparently, fat Americans are nice – that’s about the extent of the theme in McCall Smith’s novel – it makes you want to go on a diet in protest

Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party, By Alexander McCall Smith

Not so much a comic novel more the defense of fat folk. Alexander McCall Smith must have some friends from America who have over indulged themselves over the years. He’s also keen on the Anglo Irish aristocracy and the slightly eccentric way of life in rural Ireland but has it in for literary critics and airline staff.

The 174 page novelette was the winner of the 2015 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize beating off rivals authors including Caitlin Moran, Irvine Welsh and Joseph O’Neill to scoop the prize.
PG Wodehouse it is not. Instead what seems at first to be a comedy of errors turns into a rather disappointing and simplistic story of the wronged American.
The story hinges on a series of misunderstandings when Betty and Fatty visit Ireland in search of their Irish roots. At every turn they are wronged and insulted but keep smiling in the hope all will be well. There’s some comic moments including the stuck-in-the-bath incident and the visit to a pub where a quick witted local fleeces them for free drinks.

They are plagued by the pretentious Rupert O’Brien who makes fun of their lack of knowledge about the arts but are charmed by Lord Balnerry who appears to be a con man. Constructed in three ‘courses’ or chapters the novel is like a poor quality ready meal rather than a dinner party.

To pick up the title dedicated to PG Wodehouse one would hope for more laughs from its leading character. Fatty is no Bertie Wooster.
Harry Mottram.  Two stars.
Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party is published by Polygon in hardback. 2014. £9.99.

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Housekeeping

Brrr. The rags to rags not coming of age story of Ruthie in freezing Fingerbone

Housekeeping. by Marilynne Robinson

You need to wear a warm coat to read Marilynne’s novel set in the freezing town of Fingerbone in Idaho as the narrator Ruthie describes the chill climate and its effects on its inhabitants, her, her sister Lucille and Sylvie their aunt in numbing detail. It’s a melancholy read but also rich in reflection and insight as Ruthie ponders on the connections between the elements, emotions and her attitudes to life and people. It’s filled with symbolism suggesting collapsed houses, floods, heavy snow decaying towns all reflect the potential for human failings in the face of life’s struggles. But cheer up as there’s dark humour as well when the sisters bunk off school and the sheriff attempts to adopt Ruthie.

The reviews concentrate on describing the story as “haunting” and “poetic” and using “Biblical language” and of the transient nature of the relationships between the female characters. All true, but at the core of Housekeeping is mental health and its effects on a family.

As Helen fails to cope with the disappearance of Reginald who deserts her she ends up struggling to make things work and finally commits suicide leaving her two daughters Ruthie and Lucille at the mercy of their grandmother and a succession of relatives including Sylvie who are all incapable of looking after them. Society also fails them although Lucille manages to extract herself from the chaotic life that Sylvie constructs and leaves her sister and aunt for a more normal family in Fingerbone.

Things we learn from Housekeeping: it’s not about housekeeping but rather how not to keep a house as Sylvie’s hoarding instincts eventually result in the house being burnt to the ground.

Housekeeping magazine can be used to swat out a small fire and you can feed a family of 17 on a broth made from fir needles, bits of hair and finger nails and shoe leather.

Illegally jumping on railcars will bring the wrath of your local community on you, and dress making is very frustrating and when it won’t work chuck your attempt in the fire. Plus sitting by the edge of a lake all day is preferable to going to school. Brrr. So put on a coat, or sit by a fire and prepare for Robinson’s enjoyable and vividly atmospheric journey into Ruthie’s rags to rags not-coming-of-age story.
Harry Mottram. Four stars

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Classic novel for all teenage angst-ridden, idealist visionary, fucked-up school drop outs (and try saying that after half a bottle of vodka)

The Catcher in the Rye. J D Salinger
You either get Holden Caulfield or you don’t. If you don’t then it’s possible you’ve never been a teenage angst-ridden, fucked-up, idealist-visionary, school drop-out with a view of the world that doesn’t fit with the one you are presented with.
The novel can be criticised for its rambling construction, it’s strange and enigmatic ending and for feeling dated. But that happens to any novel eventually.
J D Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye still hits the spot. It remains popular with English teachers keen to engage young people with literature as well as teenagers who like reading anyway – just as it did when it was published in 1951. A killer book with killer lines, true to the spirit and personality of Holden Caulfield, who is the original teenage dirtbag baby – with apologies to Wheatus.
The opening line spells out his character: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap…”
Catcher in the Rye is not Great Expectations.
Instead he’s going to tell us about his three day breakdown with various flashbacks and reminiscences and how he came to be unwell. What he doesn’t tell you is how traumatised he is by his brother’s death and his inability to bond with his parents when only his sister is his true soul mate. His brother’s baseball glove remains a motif, representing loss, catching, brotherly love, and a reminder of childhood.
It’s funny, it’s dead pan, it’s sad. It’s about how families don’t communicate, about 1940s American white middle class society and about an author looking to move literature into a new era where feelings, disconnected emotions and teenage angst are relevant. The novel is written in the first person through the eyes and thoughts of Holden.
He’s intelligent: “I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.”
Holden’s funny: “All morons hate it when you call them a moron.”
He wants to be loved: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
And he’s learning to cope with the adult world: “I am always saying “Glad to’ve met you” to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.”
Plus he’s a romantic: “That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.”
He’s enigmatic: “I don’t exactly know what I mean by that, but I mean it.”
Self-deprecating: “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.”
And there’s this quote which has us all guessing as to its meaning: “I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”
This dream-like image is about his late brother. He’s convinced he can somehow stop others from dying by stopping them stepping off a cliff. Holden is in mourning for Hallie, but he also feels guilt. He cannot define his feelings but instead relates his experiences and his ideas through the events of the long weekend. He doesn’t want change, he can’t concentrate on his school work, and he can’t help screwing up life in general.
He finds the world of adults filled with phonies, liars and hypocrits and spends much of his time trying to define who is a victim of which trait. Holden is inconsistent and lives in a fantasy world in which he perpetuates ideas which are unrealistic. He’s a teenager trying to come to terms with life and loss, relationships and women, the adult world and his own feelings towards it. The one thing he craves is love and understanding, something he fails to get from his parents and various adults.
If you have been a teenage angst-ridden, fucked-up, idealist-visionary, school drop-out then Holden Caulfield makes sense. I should know as I was one.

Harry Mottram

Harry in 1976 leaving home in West Lambrook in Somerset for Scotland

Harry Mottram in 1975 leaving home in West Lambrook in Somerset for Scotland

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Lots of really well written deaths (but hardly any sex) in epic story of farming brothers set in Wales

On the Black Hill. By Bruce Chatwin

We love a good death and Bruce Chatwin does them so well. As soon as Old Sam “had complained of ‘gatherings’ down his left side” we knew he was not long for this world. The old man puts on his best suit and patent leather pumps and after going outside into the farmyard to see the “high windy sky” for the last time goes up to his bedroom and after playing a final jig on his fiddle lies down on his quilt and dies.

Chatwin’s poetry for Old Sam’s demise (a character we admire) is in contrast to the description of grumpy, nasty and violent old git Amos’s death. But still, neatly done. The belligerent farmer and father of the twins whose story is the theme of the novel gets in the way of the horses. Merlin Evans shouts: “ ‘Watch it yer old fool!’ It was too late. Olwen had kicked. The hoof caught him under the chin, and the sparrows went on chattering.”

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His economy of language and ability to neatly hop from one narrative to the next using deaths, births and sudden comings and goings as turning points takes the story of the twins Lewis and Benjamin from Victorian times to the appearance in the pub of Space Invaders in the 1980s. There’s no formal plot as such apart from the twins’ relationship and their relationships with the villagers, strangers and fellow farmers over the decades. This was the one factor missing from the novel which has so many diversions and sub-stories concerning the lives of those who live in the countryside of the Welsh-English borders. Only when a story such as the appearance of their niece Mrs Redpath or Lewis leaving home after losing his virginity or the turf war with the neighbouring farmer do the pages turn at speed. For the rest of the novel it was a leisurely wander through the Radnorshire countryside taking in the story of Kevin, Theo, Nancy and a host of others where death is just around the corner but where farmers might only have sex once in their lives.

The novel’s strength is its style. During a recruiting drive for the First World War the Colonel offers volunteers a ride in his car with his beautiful daughter. Jim the Rock jumps at the chance and as Chatwin notes this was how Jim the Rock went to war: “…for the sake of leaving home, and for a lady with moist red lips and moist hazel-coloured eyes.”

It’s other power is Chatwin’s use of the landscape, the seasons and nature to act as an ever present character, baring witness to the comings and goings, births and deaths and the march of progress in a world where change is slow. And of course the lyrical relationship between the brothers from the birth to their declining years – all charted in the landscape dominated by the black hill.

Harry Mottram

On The Black Hill is published by Picador in paperback. First published by Jonathan Cape in 1982.

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A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing. By Eimear McBride

Difficult to read, but at times breathtakingly sharp, and sometimes amusing, Eimear McBride’s bleak coming of age novel is at once refreshingly honest and darkly disturbing. She challenges the reader to concentrate on every line and every half sentence. Skipping isn’t an option.

Set in a socially conservative and repressive late 20th century Ireland the story is written in short punchy sentences often mixing dialogue with thoughts in a stream of consciousness style and incorporating descriptions and sensual sensations such as smell and touch. The story moves from the unnamed writer’s childhood through to her teens and onto early adulthood changing its language to more finished prose but still retaining the angry visceral sentences that constantly jar and sometimes shock.

In one sense it’s the archetypal Irish novel in the runny nosed, alcoholic, backward, poverty handicapped, sexually repressed, religiously dominated Republic haunted by the characters in Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and James Joyce’s Ulysses with its priests, absence fathers and broken families.

It was at its best when at its most hormonally charged when we all flood our minds with images and words in a traffic jam of information such as this section in Chapter 4 of Part 2 when she’s at school. “And out of my throat comes a voice I don’t know that says in words my thoughts out loud. The lads in your year are fucking scum and bastards and thicko picg-ignorant culchies. What? They stick of hair gel on too thick and biactol that doesn’t even work.”

Did I enjoy it? It wasn’t an easy read and I kept wishing McBride would use more conventional description, punctuation and dialogue from time to time. Some of it was intensely powerful such as the sex scenes, when her abusive mother hit her and in particular the moments with her brother. The teen diary notes were so evocative like this when she describes a friend at the beginning of Chapter 4: “She smells like biscuits. Crisps. Old fags in her oil and in her hair. I think her knickers must stink down there. It wafts up when she crossed her legs.”

There are also sections where we hear the voices of the other characters, including her mother, the ghastly uncle, the priest and the “holy joes”. While the tenderest moments are with her brother who has suffered brain damage and eventually dies leaving her, “Your face that eyes are open wide. See the land and all above mine. Your eyes are where are. They look. When and a tinge of purple on your cheeks choke purple blue. Across your mouth. Across your lips. I see your suffocated eye. Please don’t go.”

With a rape, with violence, with bullying, and a suicide attempt it’s pretty grim stuff and although I found some of the content compulsive, in the end it was too bleak to enjoy. Full marks for originality but it was a tough read.

Harry Mottram
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Dear Life. By Alice Munro.

Subtle with a light touch and minimum of words and fully fleshed, Alice Munro’s characters appear as bit parts but leave as well drawn as people in a thousand word novel. Her short stories in at times a semi-autobiographical collection in Dear Life blow in the sharp icy winds of Canada, and fight against the suffocating social conformities of a post war priggish society. Buttoned up, churchy, and full of lopsided morals, the world the characters inhabit often sets the confines for the dramas.

To Reach Japan is a universal story of the perils and the hurts of infidelity. A woman has an affair – but has her daughter in tow who despite her young age knows what’s happening and reacts as only a child can by going missing when her mum is having a quickie – on a train. The theme of wronged or not always loved or even slightly neglected innocents reoccurs in Amundsen where precocious Mary is ignored and insulted by the charmless doctor who dumps the narrator on her wedding day.

Wronged innocents is certainly the feature of Gravel where a child feels lifelong guilt over the accidental death of a sibling while in Haven a childhood grudge dictates long held feelings into adult hood spoiling the haven of a marriage. Like slow burning fuses Munro allows the potential dynamic of childhood incidents to await an explosion late in life – sometimes more of a pop than a bang – but emotionally restorative just the same. If the innocents are not wronged then they can be keen observers of the foibles, hypocrisies and shortcomings of the grown-ups as in Haven, a story of a sibling grudge carried through to middle-age but born out of a perceived childhood injustice.

We all carry the rights and wrongs meted out to us in our formative years, and will regale without prompting how our mother did or didn’t do this or that, or a brother who borrowed without asking, or a teacher punishing without justice. Munro’s economy of words and ability to surprise with plot twists or just the brutal reality of events seen by a child, keep these snapshots of life in stayed, stuffy and often freezing post war Canada as sharp as the day they happened.

In the last four stories Munro reveals even more of her life with semi-autobiographical accounts of telling moments from her past. The visit to see her child-minder Sadie in her coffin is preceded by this telling exchange:

“You and Sadie talk together a lot,” my mother said.

I knew something was coming that I should watch for but didn’t know what.

“You like her, don’t you?”

I said yes.

“Well of course you do. I do too.”

I hoped that was going to be all and for a moment I thought it was.

Munro’s keen observations of how adults behave and talk to children, failing to recognise their in-built awareness of what is happened alongside their lack of understanding of the wider impact are what compels and what makes these stories universal.

Harry Mottram

Dear Life, by Alice Munro is published in paperback by Vintage. First published in 2012.

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Sword of Honour

The agony and the irony: Guy wanted to be a hero and very nearly did in Evelyn Waugh’s comic World War II triology

Sword of Honour. By Evelyn Waugh. Penguin Classics (1965)

The characters simply swagger off the page. Trimmer with his undeserved but irresistible rise through the ranks, one minute a Scottish soldier, the next a French hair dresser and then a national hero.

Tragic but sensuous Virginia in her two year’s out of date clothes from a grand couturier sitting in a hotel lounge sipping gin and surrounded by tattered copies of fashion magazines.

The doomed Apthorpe with his obsession about his thunderbox and his protracted struggle to keep it from the hands (and bottom) of Brigadier Ritchie-Hook whose only other concern is to get in a spot of biffing.

Evelyn Waugh drew on his own uneven wartime experiences to fashion the tragi-comic military career of the main character Guy Crouchback and his confused and convoluted relationship with his ex-wife Virginia. Waugh is positively cruel to his protagonist Guy, dealing him a series of rotten hands that he heroically does his best with. Trimmer trouncing him at every turn, his disaster in Dakar, and his blundering non-seduction of Virginia; plus the mishandled intervention in Croatia. It’s a miracle we won World War II. But with Crouchback’s good will and his eternal optimism somehow all the cock-ups seem worthwhile.

The trio of novels read better as three separate books but there is a more uniform structure to the combined read. Waugh’s light and ironic touch gives a chuckle to every page and some golden moments of pure comedy and pure farce.

Sword of Honour combines three volumes: Officers and Gentlemen (1952), Men at Arms (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961). They were published as a revised single novel in 1965.

Channel 4 made a film adaptation in 2001 of the trio of novels. It’s available on websites like Amazon for less than a pint of beer and gives a big screen gloss to the humour and period detail of the World War II story with Daniel Craig as Guy and Megan Dodds as Virginia. However if you only read 20 pages anywhere in the novel you’ll be rewarded with Waugh’s beautiful and always ironic prose.

Harry Mottram. Five stars

Below is the trailer to the Channel 4 series:

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The Rosie Project. By Graeme Simsion

A kind of coming-of-age story for forty-year-old male virgins

It’s an old adage: don’t look for love, let love find you. It’s the underlying truth behind the success of former IT consultant Graeme Simsion’s debut novel The Rosie Project.

The self-confessed geek has also stuck to that equally old piece of advice: write about what you know. In an interview with Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme, Simsion said he had based the character of Don (the main protagonist) on men he worked with. He said they made lists, judged women in unrealistic ways and were emotionally and socially challenged. And there lies the humour.

The unlikely object of Don’s desire is the complete anti-thesis of his mission. In fact he writes her off immediately as being unsuitable. For Rosie is the opposite of what he wants. She is open, demonstrative, swears, is a smoker, a barmaid, a non-list maker and emotionally spontaneous.

Geneticist Don is a premier division nerd who treats the dating of women and the search for a life-long partner in the way a Which Guide ascertains the qualities of the perfect washing machine. His list of what is desirable is as unrealistic as that of most men’s criteria of what they see as the perfect woman. It’s a fantasy. Except for one thing: most men don’t write down their requirements, and then hand them out to prospective girlfriends in the form of a survey. How much do they weigh, what qualifications do they have, and are they fertile?

The novel’s construction is classical in its adherence to the principals of Pride and Prejudice. Boy meets girl. Boy rejects girl. Boy then finds girl attractive. Girl rejects boy. Girl finds boy attractive. Complex sub-plots and a mutual mission in life: Don helps Rosie discover her real father.

We know what is going to happen or the book would be called The Rosie Project Aborted. But it’s the constant humour and clash of ideas and opinions which create numerous laugh-out-loud moments. It locks into the basic truth that men and women come from different planets. Some of the funniest moments come from Don’s misunderstandings of what is happening. Written in the first person we see the world through Don’s eyes and quickly see what he doesn’t see.

Beautifully paced, it’s a page turner from the start as we witness the evolution of Don’s character, in a kind of coming-of-age story for forty-year-old male virgins. A love story furnished with smelly trainers, frozen lobsters and lots and lots of lists.

Harry Mottram

What the book club members thought:

The novel was given a thumbs up from everyone with only one reader saying he thought the novel was “formulaic”. It was generally thought a comic novel with its setting not particularly Australian but rather Western academia with the main aspect the disconnect between male and female thinking.

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American Jazz Age novel

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Tender is the Night. F Scott Fitzgerald. (Original 1934 version.)

Rosemary fancies Dick, Dick loves Nicole, Nicole’s got the hots for Tommy, Tommy fights Albert, and Albert’s wife is a stupid snob. With his neat descriptions of people and places and an ability to give a subtle sense of emotion amid the changing relationships of a group of high fliers, F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night paints a vivid picture of enmeshed life amongst the wealthy fast set. Their paths are interwoven with a shifting viewpoint – sometimes it’s the author and sometimes we see the world through the eyes of the main characters. So entangled are the relationships it is not immediately obvious who the story is really about at first. It reflects the author’s own unsettled life with his schizophrenic wife Zelda, his restlessness, his financial worries and his addiction to alcohol partly portrayed through the life of Dr Richard Diver and Nichole Warren. Dick is initially the main protagonist but Dick’s role dissolves into anonymity as the story unfolds and we follow the unfolding development of Nicole’s character as she emerges from her traumatic childhood of her mother’s early death and her father’s incestuous relationship with her.

The novel charts the shifting balance in Dick and Nicole’s relationship over the course of several years beginning in the period of the Great War to the late 1920s. Initially Dick acts as Nicole Warren’s psychiatrist – but by the end the patient appears to be the more confident personality shaking off the legacy of her damaged childhood.

The original novel published in 1934 lays out the narrative in three books, beginning in the middle of the story with the vibrant social life of the Divers in France seen through the eyes of actress Rosemary – and then flips back a decade to when Dick met Nicole. The final book in both versions continues the story following the trajectory of the lives of the characters towards the early 1930s as crash and burn or live and thrive.

Is it an easy read? Well, there’s no strong plot line which grips you from the off – you simply follow the impressions of the lives of those involved in a timeless world of the privileged. It’s a posh place where part of the attraction of the setting is the setting. Luxury, money and privilege – and yet the characters are no more complex than you and me. It’s a bright colour photo of a novel of the Jazz era written by someone who was there.

Descriptions imprint themselves on the reader. This is the conventionally romantic description of the attraction of Dick Diver for Rosemary: “His voice, with some faint Irish melody running through it, wooed the world…” While Nicole’s shopping trip moves to a social and political comment on consumerism: “Nicole was the product of much ingenuity and toil. For her sake trains began their run at Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent to California, chicle factories fumed and link belts grew link by link in factories; men mixed toothpaste in vats and drew mouthwadh out of copper hogsheads; girls canned tomatoes in August or rudely at the Five-and-Tens on Christmas Eve.”

There are the descriptions of nature merged with the feelings of the characters: “…she returned to the road of arched pines and the atmosphere changed – with a squirrel’s flight on a branch, a wind nudging the leaves, a cock splitting distant air, with a creep of sunlight transpiring through the immobility, then the voice of the beach receded – Nicole relaxed and felt new and happy…”

And then there are just the descriptions that ignite the reader’s imagination: “In the Square, as they came out, a suspended mass of gasoline exhaust cooked slowly in the July sun.”

It’s a satire of life for the idol and the not so idol rich in post World War One Europe. It’s a critique of consumerism, of class, of social structures and of behaviour in a moral vacuum. It’s a story of people behaving badly – because they can – in a world not yet ready for the obscenities of the Nazis and of the Second World War. But at its heart is the story of Nicole as she shakes off the sexual abuse of her father and emerges as an adult with the help of her one-time partner Dick Diver.

Poor old Dick – he had it all and threw it all away.

Harry Mottram

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Sun 7 July. Book Club: Our take on Africa’s “greatest novel” – Things Fall Apart

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Things Fall Apart. By Chinua Achebe.

For the first few pages I was slightly mystified by Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. Was this a Utopian view of Africa before it was corrupted by colonialism written in a simplistic yet affective style in the mode of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise - a narrative describing how tribal life was subverted by Imperialism – or a love letter to a lost bucolic paradise populated by the children of Eden as in Camara Laye’s 1953 autobiography, The Dark Child?

Achebe’s story of protagonist Ibo strong man Okonkwo is a classic tragedy of the rise and fall of a powerful but flawed character in the tradition of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar or even Eddie Carbone in Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge. The economically written story is not an African novel – it’s written in English by an English educated African writer who uses the cadences of West African Ibo speech and traditions of Nigerian storytelling to convey the story of a last days of a an archaic tribal society. Indeed according to Achebe the natural language of the tribes in question does not translate easily and so much of the tone of their language would be lost. It’s a neatly plotted novel with an upside and a downside – the pivotal point being Okonkwo’s banishment for accidently killing a young boy at a tribal celebration. It is a partly a morality story and partly a story of Africa’s recent past.

Told in a simplistic but lyrical third person narrative the story follows the warrior Okonkwo who personifies many of the good and much of the negative side of this culture. He is positive, hardworking and loyal to the tribal traditions of his clan. And yet he is intolerant, misogynistic and blind to society’s changes. Wives are seen as status symbols, twins to be killed, hostages to be murdered, children as economic resources and the tribe’s traditions and religious as to be upheld at all costs. In that he is at one with all tribal societies (including our own) in history. With a chip on his shoulder caused by his lazy and disappointing father Unoka, Okonkwo is determined to become top man in his West African village of Umuofia. He has “a brusqueness in dealing with less successful men” and is burdened with a son Nwoye who he sees as a personification of his father and who later betrays him in his eyes by becoming a Christian convert.

Achebe keeps the story of the rise and fall of a tribal leader set against the rise and rise of colonialism in African in proportion. Traditional tribal life is a male dominated demi democracy based on a consensus of tribal elders who dispense justice, uphold the laws of the land and maintain the status quo. This last aspect is inevitably the tribe’s downfall as the arrival of the white man, his religion and laws heralds a dramatic change in their world.

Failure to communicate and to understand differing points of view and ideas is at the core of the story. Okonkwo can’t understand his son who he sees as soft and feminine. He rejects the arrival of the white man and his religion of Christianity and he cannot come to terms with anything he considers to be unmanly. He is signed up to his tribe’s values however wrong they seem to us. He is complicit in the murder of the captured slave Ikemefuna because “he was afraid of being thought weak,” even though the boy sees him as a father.

The white intruders fail to understand the democratic nature of the tribes they encounter and reject all their religious traditions rendering the ruling structure of the tribes redundant.

It’s a brutal yet refreshingly honest portrayal of how aboriginal tribes are overcome by new superior civilisations – from the American Indians to the Ancient Britons the story is much the same. And one of seeds of an older and archaic society’s demise is the willingness of some of its rejected members to see the advantages of siding with the new force. His son Nwoye and the efulefu (or rejected men) sign up to Mr Brown’s Christianised and Europeanised vision of their future. They see it as the future – just as Protestants rejected Roman Catholism in the 17th century in some European nations – the new religion was seen as a loosening of social ties and an opening up of the economy by overthrowing the old order.

In a series of mesmerising and vidid stories we also learn about the extraordinary world of the people of Umofia in south eastern Nigeria in the 1890s. There’s the masked Gods in village ceremonies, the feasts, the marriage ceremonies, the yam harvest, the death cult, the sacred python and stories which constantly link the natural world with the living world and with the world of the living with the world of the dead.

Published in 1958 the novel is considered to be one of the best narratives of modern Africa due to its honest portrayal of the dramatic change from the high status of independent tribal society to colonial subservient. It portrays the struggle of change and of those who wish to keep things as they are, of the strength of communities, of the overbearing status of masculine dominated society, of the importance of tradition and of the need to understand those with differing views and cultures. But it also falls into the style of the Western novel. In terms of the construction there’s an inevitability in the eventual demise of the central character akin to the priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory or Evelyn Waugh’s Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall. But first the protagonist must be set a sequence of events to test his metal and to open a window into his world

Thus each step of Okonkwo’s story is sketched with great skill to reveal more about his personality and to balance the narrative with aspects of life and culture in West Africa. We learn about the importance of growing yams and how Okonkwo values the crop and of growing them successfully in the difficult climate when the rains may be delayed. And we also discover more about Okonkwo’s personality – his deplorable attitude to his wives – he beats regularly and even takes a gun to his wife Ojiugo for a misdemeanour during the so-called week of peace.

There is the wrestling match in chapter six on the ilo – a sort of arena cleared for sporting occasions in the village – where we discover the warrior core at the heart of village life. Men and youths fight to reveal their masculinity and dominance within the clan “their muscles on their arms and thighs and on their backs stood out and twitched” which also provided mass entertainment as it does in all cultures: “…the really exciting moments were when a man was thrown. The huge voice of the crowd then rose to the sky…”

If his acts of violence towards his children and his wives is bad we see the extremes of his violence in his role as executioner of the hostage Ikemefuna. Despite a guarded warning from Ogbuefi Ezeudu – a village elder he should not be involved in the crime – he still persists in the murder – despite his affection for the boy. He dislikes his oldest son Nwoye who he feels is womanly and even worse lazy like his grandfather Unoka – and of course his son is one of the first to transfer his loyalties to the missionaries.

His softer side is revealed through his affection for the hostage Ikemefuna who (symbolically) is more like his idea of a man – and for his daughter Ezinma – who understands him and supports him after his return from exile despite his inability to see how his clan has changed. She is in some ways the son he wished he had had – and admits he wishes Ezinma was a man. Ezinma is the only person who brings out Okonkwo’s more personal side due to her understanding of his persona.

We see two sides of the encroaching missionaries and white colonists through the characters of Mr Brown and the Reverend James Smith and later The District Commissioner. Mr Brown reasons with the tribes and opens a dialogue with the natives – but is seen as a fool and as weak by most of them. He successfully recruits converts through this more enlightened policy but when he dies it is the uncompromising side of white rule which takes hold.

Again Achebe gives a balanced feel to the story of colonialism – demonstrating the mutual incompatibility of two contrasting cultures. This failure of dialogue and of understanding is at the heart of the story when by the end things really do fall apart.

Harry Mottram

Notes:

Things Fall Apart is an English-language novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) published in 1958. Wikipedia says “It is a staple book in schools throughout Africa and widely read and studied in English-speaking countries around the world.”

It is published in paperback by Penguin.

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Sun 2 June. Book Club: Our take on the Howard Jacobson’s Jewish comedy novel

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The Finkler Question. By Howard Jacobson.

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall when he appears to show a sort of paranoia about being a Jew. Everywhere he goes he’s convinced people are picking on him as one the Children of Israel. It’s kind of funny – and is the same theme used as the thread to link together the characters in The Finkler Question. We join Julian Treslove’s journey into the world of Jewishness through a plate glass window and bloodied nose when he’s assaulted after a night out. A half heard comment by the female mugger “you ju” stirs Howard Jacobson’s mild mannered protagonist into searching for the Jewishness in himself via his Jewish friends – that despite the fact he’s not kosher himself. The friends: Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik provide the other two main characters along with their (now dead) wives Tyler and Malkie and Julian’s estranged wives and two sons.

Essentially the comic novel is a triangular series of thoughts and conversations between Julian and the other characters as he tries to convince himself of his potential Jewishness. It’s set partly in the present and recent past – as well as a number of memory flashbacks that seek to enlighten Julian’s identity crisis. It’s very funny in places with lots of brilliant punchlines and lots of comic insights into Judaism. Every aspect of the religion is turned over from circumcision, the place of rabbis, Jewish mothers and of course Israel and the debate about the conduct of the country founded after the Holocaust. It’s a sort of everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-Jews but were afraid to ask sort of book.

The structure aside the novel is also Howard Jacobson’s way to examine the lives of the trio of men in the story and how they relate to each other. Their friendship, their loves, families, self-examination, their betrayal and kinship. It’s gentle, chuckle inducing and an insight into metro-jewish life.

Published in 2010 the novel won the Man Booker prize that year and is available in paperback and hardback at all good book shops or online.

Harry Mottram