EVEN in its very last paragraph on page 926 there is a titbit that throws back to page 10 by way of bonus for getting so far. Probably this whole saga is going to be just too big for little screen TV and too long for a one-off film, so maybe the Strike agency will have to become a series, a Netflix blockbuster, Hawaii 50 for 2020, if it is to transfer at all.
The who, what, where, why, when are probably just too much to condense. The various sub plots, red herrings plus the rest of the agency agenda and the personal innuendoes are not going to fit. It is the kind of story telling where the novel as a format is supreme. This is a defence of The Novel, as art.
Is it too long? Other crime dramas rarely have been given this level of depth and texture, the characters, major and minor, are not paid the respect they get here, the story telling is metronomically on message. Complex, yes but you are always confident that you know where you are and who you are with and why.
Clerkenwell, London in the 1970s smells like this. It is old London before it was gentrified, investigated by modern people who are internet and text savvy but not without their own cares, modern day worries. Much of the geography survives but the social classes and people who inhabit them have changed. The office in Denmark Street was the original tin pan alley, it still has music shops but not sheet music which was once its mainstay. And in a similar way it feels like Strike and Robin’s old relationships are also from a previous era, their comradeship feels like they are feeling their way into a new modernity. There is cultural generational heft.
A fabulous read, barn storming detection, even some pithy social commentary and (whisper it carefully) a suspicion of a love story perhaps, even, maybe, possibly…definite implications anyway. Must read. Lockdown essential.
UNILKE the fantasy of Harry Potter, here Joanne Kathleen takes a random group of seemingly respectable ordinary Londoners connected mainly by a doctor’s surgery circa 1973. It is real enough commentary. Each new lead becomes a horse on a carousel bobbing up and down, round and round…
The nanny did it? The cleaner? The ex-boyfriend? The Hannibal Lecter style serial killer? Maybe it was an accident? We have a gaggle of possibilities. A swarm of deceits. Everyone has a past.
Perhaps this might have been better titled as the Disappearance of Margot Bamborough, although there must be a clue in the title of Troubled Blood, but I am on page 639, and no, not a clue. Except maybe…
In classic who-dunnit/crimo detective yarns, the identity of the villain becomes secondary to the wiles, the cunning, the unravelling of the truth along the way. To use the Cluedo example it matters less that it was Professor Plum in the drawing room with a blunt instrument, than the whole party game ritual in arriving at such conclusion. Typically we are not invested in the victim. We don’t know them. We never meet them. They have no currency. They are symbolic.
The only person with currency is the detective(s). Only they can get it right and protect us all. He or she is imbued with all the humanity going. That is back story. In better than usual fiction there is a bonus of a time, a place, an era, a smell of another time. That is an extra, the more so if the minor characters become believable commentators on their own time, morals. That is front story, parable.
So why is this better than, say, Batman? Comics can work as film because the actors bring their own humanity to the part, but they cannot have the depth or texture of a novel as it is here. You can make a comic of a novel but not the other way around.
Strike has his own back story – reckless hippy mother, sage step mother. He has his own Robin. She has a broken marriage. Even their names have subconscious overload. Strike is comic book-esque. We wait for the bell to toll. A moment of clarity. Even go further and add a t to Cormoran and you have an image of a bird that can swallow all the evil and make it disappear. Strike is obviously JK’s hero knight from the extensively quoted Faerie Queen, even to the point that his endless chain smoking seems designed to protect him from others. His shield. But there is also something homely to him, like his fondness for a piece of cake. But he is human:
“It suddenly came back to him, after those long days of guilt, why he’d avoided coming back to the little town for so long: because he’d found himself slowly stifling under the weight of tea cups and doilies, and carefully curated conversations, and Joan’s suffocating pride, and the neighbours’ curiosity, and the sidelong glances at his false leg when nobody thought he could see them looking.”
That is actually the end of an 85 word sentence. Not bad for so called popular fiction.
Each scene is carefully depicted, as if in the legend of JK Rowling, she has visited each venue herself to paint around the action in the scarlet carpeted Fortnum & Mason’s, in the National Portrait Gallery, in the Totes café. Here is a quick description from later on in Cornwall.
“There was a brief break in the cloud and the sea was suddenly a carpet of diamonds and the bobbing seagull, a paper white piece of origami.”
You don’t write such stuff from imagination.
The depth of the story across 40 years allows JK to develop different sides of her witnesses through gentle probing cross examination. There are quite a few well-I-nevers. As if..it turns out our missing doctor was a former Playboy bunny. Turns out the original investigating officer had to be relieved of duties.
Everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. try this for a portrait:
“Betty Fuller looked as though she had been subject to heavier gravity than the rest of humankind. Everything about her had sagged and drooped:….it appeared that the flesh had been sucked down out of her upper body into her lower: Betty had almost no bust, but her hips were broad and her poor bare legs immensely swollen..”
Someone else looked like a grand piano piano had fallen on his head.
Ladled into the mix is a goodly suggestion of the supernatural, the tarot, the zodiac which opens the door for another tier of speculative forecasting, as Talbot discovered…add to this the symbolism of the quotes from the Faerie Queen that open each chapter and the two knights Redcrosse, the knight of holiness who gets himself into unexpected scrapes and Britomart, knight of chastity who can resist lust but is not ready for love, the pair out to slay the dragon of all evils. Remind you of anyone?
There is perhaps more than one piece of villainy here…
One mystery remains: how does Robin manage to park that Land Rover so easily?
A BOOK for lockdown. Tier 3. At 927 pages it is a blockbuster that blows out those other contemporary fat books like Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch at 881 pages and Eleanor Catton’s Luminaries at 848. But this being a conventional detective story full of red herrings, of interviews of suspicions, it is a challenge to keep up if you are not reading everyday or at least regularly. It will for sure make great TV spread out over six or more parts but you may need to take notes.
The master storyteller aka Galbraith aka JK Rowling aka Joanne Kathleen. Strike is back in Cornwall drinking with his old school chum. His foster mother has cancer. A woman in the pub recognizes him. She stops him and asks if he might take on her case. Her mother went missing, 40 years ago. A medium, told her she might find a lead soon…the internet reveals she may have been victim to a serial killer.
Robin is on the trail of a bigamist. A year on Mathew is playing hardball over the divorce. The agency has taken on staff. The nicknames allocated to their case studies like Shifty add an extra dimension of intrigue, subterfuge. The jargon of the hunter.
I love JK. We used to read the Harry Potter stories out loud in the car. I love the way she has shown up her contemporaries, and especially the kind of popular publishing that has come to be dominated by forms of pornography, tribal manifestos, violent crime, schmaltz romance and stuttering creative writing.
JK tells a story. That is important which might seem obvious but too few books these days don’t. She has characters that are believable and not self obsessed. There is sprightly dialogue. There is plot and subplot. There is texture in the background. We are fed little tidbits about Strike’s childhood. Suddenly a dachshund dog has appeared at Robin’s feet. And at each chapter curiously there is a quote from the Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser, which you sort of know is a hint, it also was one of the longest poems, and tantalizingly aspired to define in stories and allegory the virtues of a gentleman. Perfume is a hint too but why? Umm.
JK. gives herself a good chunky paragraph to describe her characters. Tom Burke might have got the part for looking just how JK describes him…”a large man with a slightly crooked nose, dense curly hair”. Oh, and an overcoat.
The more mercurial Robin, always seems a little too nice to be part of this circus. Strike is a little too tough and wizened, ex boxer, ex Afghanistan amuputee, ex, ex his broad shoulders hide a closet of skeletons. But, and this is an important technical point, the villains are real villains, real evil, real nasty…evil depicts better as fiction than does good. Interestingly Hermoine in Harry Potter was voted best female character by a poll for the Holluywood Reporter.
JK’s other strength is she does not get distracted. There may be red herrings in her yarns but the main characters pivot on their relationship. They stand apart. When they are not together or directly interacting via the story, there is little detail, days pass, weeks pass, nothing gets in the way…If Strike and Robin were ever to get married it would be a Diana moment, of course even leading up to a kiss might take another 500 pages in itself. Poor Robin may have a job getting that overcoat off him. It is the knight’s armor.
So we could read these little moments as in the Spenser allegory. Strike has such a heart of gold that he will take a lost cause of a case for a stranger who stops him in the pub. With the bigamist he will be ruthless. Gentlemanly virtues?
Great entertainment, again, although all the fuss about cross dressing seems pretty wide of the mark for my money. The TV series are still on iplayer if you want to catch up. More follows later…
“I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first – among all the things that have vanished from the island.”
THE original Japanese version was titled Secret Crystalisation which also marries with the snow falling across the island and perhaps the fate of some of the characters, but the more menacing Memory Police (and an equally graphically intimidating cover) seems more topical, more on message, for our times. Although first published in 1994 this is a very Orwellian, Kafka-esque vision. A dystopian world without memory, without voices, without compassion, a passive acceptance of the unmentionable. A communal Alzheimer’s descends.
Probably Ogawa may also have read Margaret Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale which first appeared a decade earlier. This is a standout book of similar calibre. Stephen Snyder’s neat translation earned it a place on the International Booker shortlist.
“It always snows when the onions’ skins are deep brown, like these, and thin as butterfly wings.”
It feels contemporary, rather worryingly so. There are twin plots. Our heroine is a writer. Her latest novel edges closer and closer to her own main story. You might not say it is totally believable but it is not unbelievable either.
What gets vanished? It starts with rose petals, ribbons, and hats and later calendars, domestic ideological trinkets but also more vital things like birds. All this is enforced by the smartly overcoated, fur collared, heavy booted, inscrutable interlocutors of the title who could have marched out of Peking or Red Square or for that matter the National Guard. The common vocabulary is being shaved away. Memory is not allowed. Was this a first prediction of fake news? The process has begun before we have arrived, our narrator is anonymous, her parents disappeared, her friend is the Old Man, her editor is R. Names might be dangerous.
But even our heroine is succumbing to the general malaise, the acceptance, the idea that the fading memories are for the best. In her novel the heroine is mute. She communicates by writing and typing. She is in the sway of her typewriting teacher. She frets:
“Does he gently move her finger to the correct spot, as he used to do for me?” she wonders. We have a double life within a double life.
Both heroines are incarcerated, held by invisible forces, their freewill removed, but perhaps that may equally be true of their brusque inquisitors. They have a vague sense of a need to fight back. Ogawa nurses them nervelessly through to the bizarre, fateful but faithful climax.
SO, we have the younger genius brother from hell, the father’s mistress who is struck dumb. This is the fourth in the quartet (I presume) and like the other volumes the opening salvo takes no prisoners. “As in, so what?” Smith’s present tense is catastrophe, get over it.
The cover illustration from the David Hockney series of changing seasons reinforce the point that this is writing firstly about time. As in Time. And memory. A record for the future.
It is a brave tradition. Hamish Hamilton first published writers such as Chandler, Capote, Salinger in Britain, then in translation Camus, Sartre, Simenon. A sparkling intellectual heritage is upheld.
Smith toys with the story telling dropping through different episodes of the family saga stretching back beyond world war two. But she plays free and easy with the narrative so, she said, may mean Grace said, may mean mother said…as her characters assume their different roles and perspectives…in Grace’s case as a once aspiring actress made famous by a TV advert…stay awake, children.
Superficially it is an obituary to the Brexit fracture in history, although to label her a Brexit author/protester as the Sunday Times suggested in a pretty awful spoiling review rather dismisses her grander ideas of compassionate internationalism, her perspective through society and her stiletto humour. I was thinking how would a project like this have been for the 1960s or 1930s or even earlier – which all get a mention although here we are grounded in what we know, the now, but what is that? What was it then? And if the characters veer on the side of dotty they are still likeably (mostly) of their time, our time.
Thoughts and memories move between generations: “So here’s another fragment of moving image from across time”.
And so there is a connection being Einstein, being brother and evangelical sister, of truths erased, of messages not delivered, of old violins in the attic, of art that passes, of memories and their value…of distorted realities. And Smith’s bubbling playfulness with language and surreal imagery. It is a dance of ideas. Summer is also an old term for the large beam that holds up a ceiling.
Here the literary references are to Winter’s Tale where in Winter it was to Cymbeline, the social conscience returns to the detention centres of Spring, we meet Charlotte and Art again, in Cornwall again, and a finale that is quite unexpectedly soft and touching.
What to make of the whole quartet? Any one can stand alone because in that sense it is their themes and styles that connect them not the story. Their time. I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s first novel Blue Eyes which is also divided by seasons but it is not as joined up or as focused as that, its interests and enthusiasm are more varied and abstract notions about writing, art, here also film and popular culture. There is life in old causes like Greenham Common. And the despair of being locked up by real and imaginary predators, which extend painfully in this volume as far as the old people’s home.
Smith is a bit of an old hippy, but no harm in being reminded of days when young people did wish each other peace and love. I have a sense that I have been invited into some front parlor with floral wall paper and a large comfortable armchair and offered a cup of tea. So, Ali, tell me how it was, for you…what’s really troubling you?
“In 1971, the American writer Richard Brautigan published a quirky love story about a male librarian and a young woman with a spectacular body.”
A PROPER mystery of the kind that perhaps might not have even been translated into English had Walter not chosen it as the first of his book endorsements following on from his TV tie-ins for foreign films at Channel 4. If you have a tricky to pronounce surname like Foekinos, Walter is a bit of a boon. Walter himself has a slightly tricky last name too by way of Luzzolino while Foekinos, who has 14 novels and films of note to his name in France, enjoys the more familiar David.
This is a literary mystery but plays out more like a board game, much of the pleasure is in considering each twist and turn, not so much a page turner as page contemplater.
In brief, star editor falls for favourite author. They decamp to Brittany and discover a lost masterpiece, written apparently in the local pizzeria. The Henri Pick of the title will be their Vivian Maier, the French nanny in Chicago whose brilliant photography only came to light after her death in 2009.
“Pick’s novel…echoes the fantasy of being somebody else, the unsuspected superhero, the ordinary seeming man whose secret is that he possesses an imperceptible literary sensibility”.
It is a light touch rom com – the back cover tells me it is sparkling, mischievous, satirical. Walter says briefly it contains: Paris, Intrigue and Desire, none of which arrive in the first 200 pages. It is laced with literary references, so even the Pushkin Press publishers get a name check via Pushkin the writer appearing in the said lost masterpiece…. And yes there really was a Richard Brautigan, who did publish a story in 1971…and quite a character he was too. There is some hat tipping to the Brautigan style of black comedy in Foenkinos’s approach. He says:
“Readers always find themselves in a good book, in one way or another. Reading is a complete egotistical pleasure. Unconsciously we expect books to speak to us.”
I am not sure egotistical is quite the correct word in translation here. Solitary, meditative, singular?
Perhaps only a Frenchman would write a sentence like: “She dressed the way he wanted, so that he would undress her in the way she wanted.” But then “normally a very elegant man with almost British self control…”
I cannot see this as television, it would be more of a publishing soap opera, an Emmerdale/Chesapeake set in Brittany/Paris but Delphine is the kind of editor many in publishing might aspire to and Pick’s daughter Josephine fairly sparkles through her unhappinesses. In fact all the women are very well drawn. And it is a snapshot of a bookish era which is passing quickly.
You might park it around the house and return to it at different times, more rhombic than a rumbustious romp – a game of chess – skillfully assembled, the mystery carefully dissembled, and with a pleasing touch in the manner of the story telling. And also it riffs on the notions of reality and fiction and what we believe. And nobody gets killed. Thank you, Walter, good start.
“He was sitting alone at the end of a bench on a deserted railway station.”
I REALLY like the way Passcal Garnier writes. Setting aside the surrealist crimo plotlines, his characters breathe. They are in the moment. We are with them. They think. The atmosphere is gangster-ish in that the women are molls and the men have secrets. The plot unfolds carefully like a piece of origami. Everyone is going here, there, there is motion and development… Joe’s wife is in hospital. Rita’s boyfriend needs money, Madelene wants to go back to Guadaloupe, Gabriel wins a giant panda at the funfair shooting gallery…
Each short chapter opens slightly off-message. Things have moved on. Like his last book How Is the Pain which Gallic are re-releasing this month, we open with a hotel scene, we are in provincial France, this time Brittany, food and drink are notable assets, Gabriel our central figure likes to cook for other people and asks the reception desk to look after the liver he just bought at the butchers. There are some wonderful not necessarily complimentary descriptions of the women. “She resembled a cake that been left too long in the shop window”. Or this one
“Francoise stood on her doorstep flanked by two small children. Had they been replaced by weapons she would have made a magnificent war memorial.”
Humour is not easy, especially in translation, but each of these reprobates manages to elicit a wry smile. Technically you might say the ending is a bit form-over-substance, the poor old panda does not get a look in, but what leads up to it is classy and mesmerizing.
I liked this other cover, which I think is from Croatia:
IT is scandalous to suggest that this blog is in some way in the pay of the James Joyce Jolly bursary to promote writers of Irish descent. It is true that I took a drink (an obscure poteen derivation) from the Irish chef Richard Corrigan. And I was recently in receipt of an email from one Joseph O’Connor who was having trouble with his Proust. I protest my innocence. But here is yet more corroboration of Irish literacy.
The once great (and in this regard perhaps still great) Sunday Times of London awards its Audible Short Story Award worth £30,000 to Niamh Campbell of Dublin. And blow me down if last year’s winner was not Danielle McLaughlin from Cork who became the third Irish writer in four years to also win the most lucrative literary award of our times in the Windham-Campbell Prize being worth £165,000. Her Art of Falling is already being talked up as the novel of 2021.
But as of Niamh, you don’t really need to read/or listen very far into her winning story Love Many to be convinced that her economy of phrase, her directness, her confidence in this semi fiction – because it is an autobiographical, ongoing romance, so in that sense she has played a trump card – gallops along. Recovering from a broken heart she embarks on a series of encounters via Tinder.
“I was wearing my passive-aggressive first date ensemble of plain blouse and faded jeans, with no jewellery and a plaque lipstick, pillar box red”. And stiletto heels. She meets a boy in combat boots….
In interview Campbell suggests Irish writing is resurgent because of shared social upheavals in divorce, contraception, abortion plus of course the troubles and the economic extremes so there is something topical, meaningful and fresh to be transcribed. “A commonality of experience” she says. Also in 1996 university fees were abolished so these are a highly educated generation. She has a novel This Happy (W&N which is brand speak for Weidenfeld and Nicolson , after George and Nigel, founded 1949) which I will get to soon.
Her name Niamh, is old Irish equivalent of Neve meaning radiance.
“All night long he would walk the ship, from bow to stern, from dusk until quarterlight, that stick-like limping man from Connemara with the drooping shoulders and ash-coloured clothes”.
I HAD to re-read Joseph O’Connor’s towering fiction on the Irish famine for an upcoming review for Literary Journeys (Modern Books, this autumn). I am struck at how little credit has been bestowed on this tome or indeed the likes of the mendacious and menacing Pius Mulvey – introduced above – as one of the iconic anti-heroes of 21st century writing.
This is drama on a grand Victorian scale that spans continents and the best part of a century. O’Connor reduces it into believable bite size chunks of drama, of letters, of fragments so at no point does it lurch into ponderousness. To give it its full due, it is an Irish Grapes of Wrath. It first appeared in 2002 when another seafaring epic – the more psychological Life of Pi by Yann Martel – won the Booker. This is a tougher read but from a writing point of view much more interesting, both populist but also psycho-intellectual. For all its anchoring in the miseries of the famine, the individuals rise up through their poverty and never lose sight of their own humanity, for better or worse, for sin or sinner or sinned against. 2002 also saw another vintage journey in Tim Winton’s Dirt Music, a bit of a classic year, then.
There are more decks to this story of an iconic transatlantic crossing than there are on the good ship of the title itself. Buried in the bulwarks could be a chest of treasures by way of letters, etchings, memories, log entries, poems, songs. You might read this as a murder mystery where there are many motivations. Or for a rich history of the Irish famine that has forced all these different people to make the perilous journey to New York in stormy mid November. Or as a political novel. Or for their individual stories told across 26 days like an oceanic Canterbury Tales. Or just an upstairs downstairs shanty of Anglo Irish social sparring circa 1847. It probably manages to be a bit of all of them.
O’Connor squeezes many elements on board. Hold on Captain, I have a couple more bags here…But it rattles along with a good wind in its sails, a purposeful sense of its own direction and masterly, wonderful use of language throughout.
There are some memorable, extended dialogues especially between rivals the liberal American writer Grantley Dixon and Lord Kinscourt; a jousting tournament of Olympian linguistics.
“Caressed your little nerve, have I, Grantley, old thing?”
Plus a few small, delicious literary asides creep in with mention of bumping into Charles Dickens and the real story behind Oliver Twist, of the unmasking of Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte’s pseudonym; Wuthering Heights first edition was indeed published in that year; Bronte’s Yorkshire moors, here replaced by Connemara and/or even the Atlantic itself), of an eloquent literary agent and printer in Thomas Newby, who did indeed publish Bronte. The above Grantley has an ulterior, desperate motive for needing to be published quickly.
Before any other words are on the page we have met our monster Mulvey. He is the title of the prologue. His left foot drags, he is in a tattered military overcoat, his arms are very long. His destitution is more manifest but perhaps no less real than the others on board. He stalks this ship. Intertwined journeys, our monster moving along the galleys and guardrails checking cargo and crew, our chip heading out to sea. And other journeys back into Ireland to explain how these people came to set sail in the first place.
To add an extra layer of drama, this ship of their salvation is itself “absurdly out of its element, a creaking, leaking, incompetent concoction of oak and pitch and nails and faith bobbing on a wilderness of black water.”
There are so many holes, widgets and new weldings needed to patch it up over the years that it whistles and sings when the wind gets up in the right direction.
Within a few paragraphs O’Connor has set up his stall. His ship, his Star, is of the same ilk and literary provenance as the Melville’s Pequot in Moby Dick, his voyage as important as Conrad’s up the Congo in Heart of Darkness, a thought underlined by the Gothic conceit of opening each chapter with an encouraging explanation of its own, in which we learn etc… (in order) the Leave Taking, The Victim, The Cause….
“In which the captain makes note of a disturbing event (which shall have the most severe repercussions).”
The subtitle is a Farewell to Old Ireland and there are quotes from the time that pitch us into the heart of the potato famine. The prologue is from the above Grantley of a New York newspaper recollecting events of decades previous . But much of this is just decoration, almost distraction, from the elegance of the prose, of the way the narratives emerge out of a fog of perceptions. Like the sailors on board, we get a sense of a presence before we actually see it. We get a sense of one story, when there are more. We do not get one hero, heroine or villain but a choice of five or six.
Faced with all this, a camaraderie emerges, “a republic of the night time” that encompasses all ranks, and also draws us in, as readers, to be spectators at ringside of a fracture in history. We are on that boat, hopefully not in second class.
We move quickly from fear of this monster to curiosity, to wonder if perhaps this man who shares the features of many men may not be so evil after all? Maybe the monstrousness is what has been done to him? One of O’Connor’s notable skills is to create characters who can change, evolve, develop through plot and dialogue and morph into something else. They are indelible but not cartoons, they emerge graciously. They want things. If it is the men who are the cause here, it will be the women who are the effect.
The scene setting is guilefully cinematic: the overview, the log, a peek below stairs, an argument at the top table, letters from across the Atlantic, an old newspaper opinion piece where the author goes wonderfully, scandalously and libelously over the top in defaming his targets.
Beneath all this there is mission. There is rhyme and reason among these characters where seemingly the rest of the world has been abandoned.
“The reasons why things are the way they are could be ferociously complicated, Mulvey knew, but in this corner of the empire they worked themselves out into cadences of mathematical inevitability.”
The blank sea, the big weather, severe showers, sleet since dawn, a growler of an iceberg; the Master Lockwood reports to his employers in his log which helps anchor the multiple strands.
It is more than a polemic against the English in Ireland, other well worked subtleties interweave and taunt established covenants. The occasional use of Gaelic is a reminder of the heritage people are leaving behind and a pointer that neither side could really talk to each other.
O’Connor reveals something of his own methods when describing the love the same Mulvey suddenly finds hearing the music coming out of the local inns.
“The songs intersected like springs through the lowland. You saw the shadows of some flit across others: lines borrowed, phrases improved, verses polished and moved around, events edited…as though once there had been only one great song from which the song makers kept drawing, a hidden holy well”.
We are presented with Mary Duane, whose story might have furnished more than one ballad herself as it does here in a Penny Dreadful sort of way. And as with travelling people on a journey, O’Connor’s characters often arrive to find things have also changed in the time they have been away.
Of course we have the sea too, which is allotted aristocratic prose:
“Rolling. Foaming. Rushing. Surging. Beginning to thicken and swell in strength. Now it was a battlement of ink black water, almost crumpling under its own weight, but still rising, and now roaring. It smashed into the side of the bucking Star…”
The oceanic wrath and power is matched, even surpassed, by the emotional turmoil of everyone onboard, caught in a purgatory between eras and civilizations.
“I am Winona. In early times I was Ojinjintka, which means rose.”
SO we are back with those McNulty’s again are we, Sebastian? Another tome in the family history? More about naughty uncle Thomas in Tennessee?
Barry’s prose can read like he is polishing the family silver. Try this:
“The wide river seemed fattened with temperature. Brightly it pushed along, singing that pebble song of rivers.”
There are some memorable individual passages, a couple with fire and one with a storm that stand out like poems in themselves erupting out of the narrative. The scene in the blacksmiths is a furnace of emotion. These almost push you up against a wall and ask: Are you following this? Are you paying proper attention?
I am surprised reading the credits that Barry has written more plays – 14 including Blueberry Hill which was to have premiered in London this month – where this is only his seventh novel (he is also, by the way, the current Laureate for Irish Fiction). But the opening pages are a monologue that might have captivated a theatre audience, held them in thrall, scared them, taken their breath away, sprinkled water on their curiosity, set up a bravura stage performance, rehearsing the forging of deep mental metal prejudice. We are fearful for Winona. We know what happened in the book before this Days Without End. Henry County, Tennessee is no place for an orphan injun.
There is a hierarchy of post civil war, post Indian war oppressions that swing uncertainly back and forth between white immigrant, black draftee, half cast, ex slave, former Indian, girl…militia patrol the straggle of ex soldiers along the road outside the town of Paris. Exceptionally Winona is the only one among this bunch of reprobates that has learned her numbers and gets to work for the lawyer Briscoe who is almost as totemic as she is. On one level Winona is the American story, things happen to her.
The opening has a familiar western style plot lurking …it is a crime and revenge piece, only the usual actors have been moved around a little, like chess, if you will, with different, altered pieces. Our values have been smelted in the ferocious furnace of wars. He mother taught her that time is not a straight line, but a loop. Suddenly Winona will affirm:
“How was I so lucky to have those good-as-women men? Only a woman knows how to live…but in my men I found fierce womanliness living. What fortune…”
Not such good fortune, maybe…Barry fills out his characters in the old shack with such elegant detail that they are believable even when they are a bit unbelievable…You can hear them spit. Aurelius “was as trim as a boat”
Where Days Without End was a travelogue, this is a singular Indian fable, one you might like to believe you would find on the bookshelf of an old log cabin, next to the jug of moonshine.
One of the joys of a new book from an established figure, is the publishers, here Faber, get out their full toolbox of typographics, of leading, of white space, of a frontispiece, of thick recyclable paper, of a mysterious 10 pages at the back of the book left luxuriously blank as if someone miscalculated. It is a pleasing 250 pages to hold in the hands. As is the idiom, an oral story telling given a Victorian accent:
“No kindness or cruelty in whiteeye America was ever done without a piece of paper…” Unless, of course it was with a gun.