We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole (Head of Zeus)

“My parents’ wedding photograph always reminds me of a frontier town in an old western.”

FOR anyone with a passing curiosity as to the unfolding events in Ireland over the last 60 years, this will be a rewarding, insightful, enjoyable and intelligent narrative. As the counsel for the defence might say: the facts in this matter are well known. But our witness here was born there, lived, there, worked there and as a reporter knew and covered the antics of many of the protagonists, large and small. He was the man who stayed behind, while many emigrated.

I was reading this at the bus stop in Clerkenwell, London when a nun, from her accent Irish, who was passing noticed and stopped to say: Good on yer.  In parts this is also a testament. O’Toole is yer man.

It might be hard to write a similar chronicle of say Britain, say England, say even Wales, but Ireland has its own shared story, if only on the level of language and to an extent politics. And Ireland has things in capital letters like Sin, like Social, like Crack, like Shame and most obviously the Troubles. O’Toole unpacks each of them like so many stories you might tell in the pub.

One striking element is just how much has changed over the span of time, notably the waning of the powers of the Catholic church and the arrival of what we might call modernity. It is a long story told in eloquent short journalistic snap shots from when he was born right up to the Now. O’Toole is knowingly informed from a life of what used to be called letters, to watching from the journalistic sidelines, of maintaining his neutrality where everything around seems to have become tribal. But it is also a history from someone who has read the Beano, who sits/sat at the apex and who has a ribald sense of humour, even as he uncovers some of the country’s darkest secrets. In that sense he is more akin to Hunter S Thompson (without the drugs) or Thomas Wolfe or a renegade newsreader.

There is a lovely anecdote about the time when the pill was still banned in southern Ireland and a group of women crossed the border to get supplies from the north. On arrival, the chemist informed them they needed a prescription. Undeterred, they bought aspirins instead and brought their protest back with them brandishing the pills, with no one the wiser, their point well made.

O’Toole’s long experience of writing around the local polemics has allowed him to burnish the arguments here to masterly effect.

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The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa (Pan Macmillan)

“First things first. Granpa’s gone.”

THERE is a fair amount of readerly, philosophy here, virtually a fairy story. Schoolboy inherits bookshop from grandfather. Meets talking cat. On a mission. Drops out of school to chagrin of down to earth class president. He is hikikomori, the Japanese term for an insulated, shy loner, here who has developed remarkable knowledge of the geography of the bookshop and the books in it. From where we enter a world of updated Grecian myths through different labyrinths, journeys of discovery, guided by the magic cat who cutely refers to him as Mr Proprietor.

Sosuke Natsukawa is a doctor by day but his debut in Japan Kamisama no Kanute – which translates as God’s medical records – has sold more than a million copies in his home country and gone on to be made into TV.

It is all a bit YA but as a sub theme about reading itself, no bad thing. Charming.

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The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly (Orion)

Bosch didn’t mind the wait. The view was spectacular.”

THERE is quite a large canon of Michael Connelly books these days, thirty one in all, he was first published in 1992 and this one came out in 2016.  I picked it up in a hotel room by chance and finished it in two days. It is one of his best, perhaps comparable to Elmore Leonard. The city of LA is both victim and perpetrator here, the characters becoming manifestations of the place itself. Over this backdrop Harry Bosch lays his detailed, methodical procedural detecto manuals. Bosch in this context is the last vigilante, the sheriff in a lawless city, the gun fight at OK coral updated. “Murder knows no bounds, or city limits”.

He is waiting to meet the man, who knows another man, who has an assignment. Meanwhile a rapist is loose. There is a back story about Vietnam. There is a back story about the time Bosch threw someone through a window. You start to fear for anyone who gets more than a few pages of description, they are highly likely to be implicated. It is fast moving, gripping, intelligent, supreme example of the genre, which is, of course, the Connelly genre. Recommended.

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Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann (Vintage)

“In April, millions of tiny flowers spread over the blackjack hills and vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma“.

THE opening paragraphs are an exemplar set up for any work of fiction/faction/reportage. The film version is slated for 2023 and will for sure be a blockbuster success. Such is the story. The film for sure will pick out the glorious visuals available of the 1920s frontier bonanza and a score that can jangle with the mendacity and duplicity afoot. The book on which it is based though allows a little more room to tease out elements of the history of migration, of the politics, of the customs of the native tribes and the formation of law making which would evolve into the establishment of the FBI.

The Osage were distinct from other native tribes in that they negotiated to purchase their own reservation lands, and kept for themselves the mineral rights attached. And they allocated the benefits of all these equally to all the members of the tribe, women included. Then it was discovered that these lands sat over some of the biggest oil fields discovered proved to be hugely lucrative. The 66 emblem of the Frank Phillips company gas stations still line the highways of the interstate today. And so the tiny hick capital of Pawhuska became one of the richest cities in the world. Rolls Royce sold cars. Rolex sold watches. It was boom boom time, even morse so than perhaps the 1849 gold Rush.

So far so good, but this is the story of what happens next…when Molly finds her sister Anna goes missing, just after her other sister Minnie has mysteriously wasted away with some strange disease, aged 27. And then the shootings start. This is the interface between white man and Indian, old world and new, frontier and state and at the same time was at the time the stuff of tabloid headlines, sensational reportage, a national fascination, you might even say celebrity culture writ large of an audience of both lawyers, law makers and public.

Gann even seems to surprise himself with the evidence he is unearthing, not really one story but many intertwined, even if they share a single theme, some well known, some not known, some rumour, some true but who knows…Some of this history is still very much in evidence in Pawhuska itself and in the nearby memorable museum set up with the Frank Phillips proceeds at Woolaroc – where some of the desparadoes that feature here hung out. It is all a bit subtler than a Wild West shoot out…a good yarn wrapped up in a bigger shawl…

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Spring Cannot Be Cancelled by David Hockney with Martin Gayford (Thames and Hudson)

“I have known David Hockney for a quarter of a century now…”

WHEN you look at the fabulous new paintings from David Hockney in a Normandy farmhouse, there is often a tiny detail – a ladder, a bird, a van, a chair – somewhere in there that reminds you that these are not simplistic daubs but the work of the master craftsman. They are static, but perhaps you could view them for as long as a film, maybe longer.

This is not so much a biography as an audience with, the artist transcribed through conversations and emails with the critic Martin Gayford. Contemplative, inspirational, inquiring, even the reference works included from other known artists take second place to the new works. A last great spurt of creative energy from Hockney, now aged 82, determined that he still has something to say, a legacy to be fulfilled from a lifetime literally of scratching on paper.

This is a refreshingly intelligent book, a visual existentialism transferred to the easel, a living in the present, enjoying moments the better for seeing them through Hockney’s eye, an art junkies dream. Van Gogh in Arles. Gaugin in the south seas, Hockney in Normandy with the freedom (and money) to paint plus lunch with a bottle of wine and a slice of pate. A garden re-ordered in his own style like Monet and Giverny.

Hockney is up at six each morning for the dawn light. The works he is doing are his last great statement. That the apparent abstractness is steeped in the work of other artists, secret homages to a lineage of art back to the Middle Ages. That Hockney is not just the draughtsman, but also in awe of the joy of colour. However much some of the paintings may seem to be just fantastical from the imagination, they are all drawn from life.

There are elegant arguments such as why seeing the original canvas can have more value than a photograph, the meditative power of the craft, how opera and writers can be explained in oils, or how what we see is constantly shifting and changing.

There is an argument that art has always sought to capture life in a moment. The decisive moment the photographer Cartier Bresson said. Hockney is busy reminding us that that moment is an illusion, in reality landscapes are always in motion, changing hour to hour as the light changes, nature is not still, life is not a still life.

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Heritage by Miguel Bonnefoy (Gallic)

“Lazare Lonsonier was reading in the bath when news of the outbreak of the First World War reached Chile.”

A NEW novel from Bonnefoy! A treat. We are in Chile, imagine a large wood table, the aviary next door, tropical leaves shading the room, a whiff of engine oil, a discarded trumpet or two, the smell of freshly baked communion wafers, a magnum of uncle’s wine, Bonnefoy is regaling us with a family history, pulling strands together from the French vineyards being decimated by phylorexa, from conscription in the first world war, fighter planes in the second, a French world history in miniature. The humour is not quite Gallic, not quite quite south Atlantic. Even in translation the descriptions dance lightly:

“His eyebrows were as wild as caper bushes, his hair smooth and very black, and his lips so wide that when he smiled, his mouth stretched as wide as a concertina.”

The witch doctor Aukun apart, we are all arriviste in the new world like the rather lovely umbrella salesman who disembarks to find himself blessed in the rainiest city in the world.

Bonnefoy has that rare gift of being able to roll through new imaginations, his plots going off like firework displays of the unexpected, his family being people you might want to spend more time with. But this is a tale with a dark message, the more abrasive when it arrives for being wrapped in such rich tapestries. He tends his tell his story backwards, so it is effect before cause. Any other writer might have told this saga rather differently.

His hero Ilario is also a writer whose zeal is manifest. “Characters began to throng in to the cathedral of his mind, as if arriving for a party, forming an entire land of fables and battles.” There is a very writerly touch where the paragraph on page 11 repeats itself in page 149, to complete a cycle.

His revenge is in his pen, mightier than the electric wrack. The shock is detonated. You might almost say it is so perfectly formed that when the fable runs into reality, it hurts.

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Silverview by John Le Carre (Penguin/Viking)

“At ten o’clock of a rainswept morning in London’s West End, a young woman in a baggy anorak, a wooden scarf pulled up around her head, strode resolutely into the storm that was roaring down South Audley street”.

THE imagery is already set. The woman might be a Russian doll. We know the territory. The great JLC leaves us with this small mystery masterpiece, an intrigue told with an exact, easy rolling grin. The plot is so carefully assembled that any clues might give too much away, suffice we are in London, that we are in East Anglia, shades of the Middle East, of Bosnia. What is amiss now?

Some of it is delightfully bonkers. The secret green phone. The war medal, also green, which must never be worn. The secret letter from a man who can only speak in riddles, the whole family models of the British stiff upper lip. Yet this letter runs to six pages? And the 60 odd folks who appear at a funeral for someone supposedly so supposedly secret herself that you wonder how any of them knew her at all. And all these chaps who seem so modest, so self effacing, so dedicated are also quite well heeled, quietly affluent thank you very much, familiar with expensive burgundies, safe jobs for dangerous territories.

The Waterstone’s edition includes a sign off from JLC’s son Nick Cornwall aka a writer himself as Nick Harkaway which set off rumours that Cornwall finished off the book. Not so, but he does offer an explanation as to why this might have been the great man’s final missive.


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The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed (Penguin/Viking)

“The King is dead. Long live the Queen. The announcer’s voice crackles from the wireless and winds around the rapt patrons of Berlin’s Milk Bar, as sinuously as the fog curls around the mournful street lamps, their wan glow barely illuminating the cobblestones.”

I let the opening sentence here run longer than usual because the quality of Nadifa’s prose is so rewarding. A writer’s writer perhaps. Here is the next sentence:

“The noise settles as milkshakes and colas click against Irish coffees, and chairs scrape against the black and white tiled floor.”

Three drinks, not one, the colour of the floor a hint at divisions. This is the sequel to her admirable first book Black Mamba Boy, not exactly but atmospherically. We have disembarked from East Africa at the traders and military front door of colonial empire, Cardiff. The book was short listed for the Booker Prize and you might think not so dissimilar to the winner The Promise, but perhaps less in tune with middle class sensibilities, not apartheid in South Africa, but discriminations from less remarked Somalia.

Spoiler alert: the New Yorker review gave away the punchline, which is a pity because not many people, I suspect, know the back story, but also the real irony here, in a glorious pathos on which the story pivots, is tossed off in a single short sentence just before the final denouement.

The Fortune Men have gambled their lives for a better world just as they gamble on the poker, the dogs, the horses, their own existences just a stake and a hope. Their arrival in Tiger Bay is as random as any ship’s crew new into a city shattered by war and influxes of generations. There is a stark image of Somali sailors wearing placards around their necks with the address of their lodging house so they can ask their way home at hight.

Nadifa’s great triumph is to somehow bring her great themes down into the characters themselves, to normalise the travails of circumventing the globe, of a black man marrying a white woman. To deal with the intersections of race, of generations and of continents (we know from Black Mamba Boy, her father was in fact very pro British, albeit for pecuniary reasons). She does this with painterly, unpolemic description:

“Violet…wears a simple navy calf-length dress and her father’s silver war badge pinned to her brassiere for courage.”

Courage because Violet also escaped to the sanctity of Cardiff, but her flight was from the Nazis. All round it feels an uncannily accurate portrayal of time and place, of people caught up in things they can hardly conceive…Nadifa may not be as fashionable as others, her subject less populist, but she is surely among the foremost women currently being published.

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Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet (Saraband)

“Before the end of 2019, I received an email from a Mr Martin Grey of Clacton-on-Sea.”

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s published books split into two – on the one hand we have the quasi French detecto entertainments of M. Gorski, here and here, and then we have the deeper psychology of his acclaimed Bloody Project and now this: We have moved south from Scotland to Primrose Hill, we have shuffled a century onwards to the 1960s, not quite so swinging as it turns out, here the cafe‘s sole customer is “a young woman in a pillbox hat gazing sadly at a half eaten chocolate éclair”.

There are lovely opposites and contradictions here.

As in the other books Burnet has distanced himself from the usual position of author, he tells us his proposal to write a profile of the extraordinary, disgraced, mad psychologist has been knocked back by his agent, but then he receives a cache of private papers. In a quiz show sense, you the reader have to decide whether they are worth publishing, or whether the mystery is worth the telling. His primary confidant quickly admits that she has “little talent for composition” which is, of course, inaccurate because she is being ghost written by Burnet, the composition here is as finely finished as a Wedgewood chest of drawers, not so much a whodunit as a wasitdunnit? and if it was whyonearth? or whatoneearth??

Little touches – mentions of familiar figures of the time like teh actor Dirk Bogarde showing up at a party, the mother with her Woolworth’s moment, the children who read Biggles – make it feel very real and particular.  

Even if you didn’t believe, you do because it is so precise – “the library is on Crown Street… he is reading in the Denes, an area of parkland adjoining Cocker Beck…a few minutes walk from Westlands Road”. Got it? You might hop on a train and find that spot.

As with Project we are dealing with the notion of sanity. Or not. The imagery is very much of growing up or growing old. The plot is secondary to the characters who bloom in their own way, so you might want to stop and spend some more time with them, each in turn has a slight query hanging over them, they are incomplete in the same way as the story is as messed up as a jigsaw puzzle.

As carefully described as are the rest of the cast, even the victim and raison d’etre, even the grand inquisitor, even the loving father, the would be boyfriend, the mysterious housekeeper etc, there is only one diva emerging out of a chrysalis here…

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The Sleeping Car Murders by Sebastien Japrisot (Gallic)

IN translation we get a cottage garden style of English not the sprawling, homogenizing white sauce of the ruined mansions of quasi English language. The cathedral once constructed by Dickens is reduced to a semi in suburbia, a bungalow on a beach, a portakabin.

And yet translation has the one advantage: it is foreign; to us English speakers, English readers. We are travellers. We explore.  Part of the charm of this French crimo is just simply the being in France, the glass of beer in a café, the waiter who wants paying so he can go home, the fading film star eyeing up the young policeman, the ugly man with a conscience, the girl anxious to monogram her own clothes like she is at boarding school, the young detective who believes everyone is guilty. Small Gallic traits, definably French or rather NOT English NOT British NOT even politically correct. Abroad. It feels like writing without boundaries but local rules do apply: there is a story to tell, an entertainment, there is a certain back to basics. This story is told by someone, by a witness, by a policeman, a suspect, a guilty conscience, a record of an overheard conversation on the stairs of a hotel. We slip into the consciousness of the time, not just Paris, but France pre 1962, when this was first published, and in fact set a little earlier yet in an era where policemen could not afford their own phones.

The Saturday night event is a boxing bill, sometimes the women too move like boxers…A woman is strangled on the night train…enter the cast of the local precinct…

The world freezes for a moment in search of justice and truth.  In the pantheon of euro-detectives Japrisot is closer to Simenon, this is Maigret without the vindictive ego, in this case a loose canon…this was a first crime novel, apparently written to pay off a tax bill. In fact his first book, published under his real name Jean-Baptiste Rossi – an anagram for his later pseudonym – The Awakening about a 14 old boy at a Jesuit school who has a passionate affair with a 26 year old nun – sold nearly a million copies in America. He translated among other things Hopalong Cassidy westerns and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye into French, then moved into advertising and film (where his credits also include The Story of O, although he said he preferred to write his novels to make his own films). This new edition may go some way way to resurrecting an interesting reputation.

He is a rare beast having won across 50 years of writing a Golden Dagger for crime writing, a Prix d’Honneur, the prix des Deux Magots and four Cesars for a film version, the French equivalent of the Oscars. I plan to read him some more….

Here is the poster for the movie starring two other French stalwarts Simone Signoret and Yves Montand…

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