All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness is one of those books so famous that actually reading it seems almost unnecessary. The journey up the river; Mr Kurtz; “‘The horror! The horror!’”. It’s well known material.

Perhaps that’s why it took me so long to get round to reading it myself. It felt like I already had.


That’s not the cover I have, but it is an absolutely brilliant one that for me captures the book better than any other I’ve seen. My copy was a Penguin Classics edition that also came with the short story Youth, featuring the same protagonist and an essentially identical framing device. They make interesting comparison pieces, and if you can read them together I’d recommend doing so.

Heart opens with Marlow and his friends sitting on a boat on the Thames. They’re all aging ex-seamen with most having long moved on to other more illustrious careers. As the sun sets Marlow begins to tell the others a tale of his seafaring days. Youth opens almost exactly the same way.

As the sun sets on the Thames the narrator (an unnamed member of Marlow’s audience) reflects on its glory:

The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. […] Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

It’s a beautiful and sentimental scene, but then:

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

Note the use of past tense there. With that remark everyone settles down and Marlow starts to talk of the Romans and their Empire, and its then-modern British equivalent. Marlow reflects:

It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

True enough, though many in Britain today would still find it objectionable. Whenever I’ve seen the British Empire come up in conversation (which isn’t actually that often, it ended a while back now) you can generally count on at least one or two people arguing that overall it was for the benefit of everyone involved, even if a few mistakes were made along the way.

Perhaps though Conrad’s contemporaries would have recognised the truth of his statement. It isn’t after all arguing that colonialism is wrong, just that the practicalities of it are often ugly. Those who’d been there might well agree.

The stage set Marlow sets off on his anecdote, which takes him to the offices of a European trading house and from there to a great river in an unnamed African nation. It’s never stated, but contemporary readers would have known just as much as modern ones do that it’s King Leopold’s Congo.

Marlow makes his way slowly upriver, stopping along the way at a trading station where he sees a ravine filled with corpses and dying men, all black. It’s the first real sign of the human cost of Leopold’s exploitation. The trading house itself has two white men within it, one the perfectly groomed chief accountant and the other a company agent lost to fever while returning home. The contrasts are surreal, as is the attitude of the accountant who casually remarks that the agent isn’t dead “yet” and comments on how when one has to keep accurate books “one comes to hate those savages”.  On his surface the accountant is the epitome of European civilisation but he has hardened inside.

“He turned to his work. The noise outside had ceased, and presently in going out I stopped at the door. In the steady buzz of flies the homeward-bound agent was lying flushed and insensible; the other, bent over his books, was making correct entries of perfectly correct transactions; and fifty feet below the doorstep I could see the still tree-tops of the grove of death.

That accountant is the first to speak of Mr Kurtz, a legendary company agent who brings in more ivory than the rest put together. As Marlow heads deeper inland his misgivings grow, and so did mine.

The problem with Heart of Darkness that soon became apparent is that it is extraordinarily racist. The local population rarely get to speak (even in their own language) and when they do it’s mostly the savage cries of a frenzied mob. Marlow is appalled by the “grove of death”, but in the same way a modern person might be appalled by seeing chickens packed into a factory farm. There’s no sense he sees the blacks as being of the same nature as the whites. instead he refers to them as having a “taint of imbecile rapacity”.

Marlow encounters a company manager who is both untrustworthy and stupid; a man who only has his position because his exceptional good health preserves him from the fevers that strike down most of the whites. He’s an unlikable character, but he’s white which means he at least gets dialogue and he’s clearly the same kind of being as Marlow, just an inferior specimen of Marlow’s breed.

The blacks by contrast are portrayed as barely human. Marlow’s steamship crew are a group of primitive cannibals, one of whom works on the ship’s bridge:

He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a  vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.

On Marlow’s account this “savage” understands that if the water in the steam-gauge runs low “the evil spirit inside the boiler would get angry through the greatness of his thirst, and take a terrible vengeance.” Later the fireman takes a spear to the chest and as he lies dying he gives Marlow a look “like a claim of distant kinship”. Marlow misses him as a shepherd might miss a sheep dog (perhaps not quite that much), even though he notes in an aside to his audience that he understands they may find it “passing strange this regret for a savage who was of no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara.”

That description of an “improved specimen” who even so is like “a dog in a parody of breeches” is as close to human as anyone black gets in this novel. Mostly the Africans are an undifferentiated mass of limbs and torsos, interchangeable savages. Marlow’s language, Conrad’s language, is riddled with hostility and contempt for the locals and much of it I can’t really repeat here without risking causing some fairly serious offence to those reading this.

I don’t have a problem with an 1899 novel about colonialist administrators consistently using horrifyingly racist language. It would be absurd in a way if it didn’t. I don’t believe these Europeans would have spoken kindly of the Africans they controlled and I’m quite certain they wouldn’t have regarded them as equals. I had however expected Conrad to be slightly more enlightened.

As it is however, the tragedy that comes across in Heart of Darkness is not the tragedy of the human cost to the Congolese of their occupation and exploitation. That’s just breaking eggs while making an omelette. The tragedy is that having to do terrible things hardens and brutalises the Europeans who do them.

Kurtz is a noble figure undone by his isolation in the heart of darkness. That darkness, that savagery, for Conrad/Marlow remains within us even in 1899 when Europe has long since climbed into the light. By descending back into it we risk reawakening the darkness in our own hearts, and becoming lost in it.

In the end I found this an ugly novel. Not ugly for the reasons I expected, but because it isn’t so much a searing indictment of colonialism as it’s an adventure yarn with a level of racism I’ve rarely seen in any fiction (and I’ve read a fair bit from this period). I’ll link below to an essay by Chinua Achebe with which I largely agree and which addresses the racism of the text far better than I ever could, but here’s one final quote to show how it crops up not just in the characters’ language but in the very descriptions of the local people:

Suddenly the manager’s boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt –

“‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead.’

His “insolent black head”. The familiar language of prejudice and disdain.

The reason I recommend reading Youth with this is partly that it’s a fun story but more importantly that I think it undermines Heart’s status. Youth and Heart both consist of Marlow telling a story of dangerous and memorable adventure. The foreword notes that Youth is far less psychologically complex, and that’s true, but I wondered if for Conrad these were broadly similar nautical tales of adventure. Heart includes powerful elements of reportage and a degree of stylistic improvement, but it’s not a fundamentally different animal to Youth..

Heart’s critical acclaim came decades after its publication. It’s now an accepted part of the canon, but I question that. It’s a good book, well written and powerful in its depiction of one of colonialism’s greatest horrors. It’s also one of the most dehumanising and racist texts I’ve read, and its lack of empathy for anyone in the narrative who isn’t white is why for me it fails to be a great book.

Other reviews

None I know on the blogosphere, though I’m sure I’ve missed some. Achebe’s essay for those interested is here. It’s worth reading even if you don’t agree, and as I say above goes into much more detail on the racist aspects of the novel (for example the contrast between Kurtz’ black mistress and his white wife left at home, one an unspeaking savage and the other noble and even spiritual).


Filed under Conrad, Joseph

Rick was a marked man, a lifelong sucker for syncopation.

Young Man With A Horn, by Dorothy Baker

Most people like music. They like it to dance to; they like it in the background at a restaurant; they like something to listen to while at the gym. Most people will have a few favourite acts and some favourite tunes; songs that spark memories of important moments or that years after adolescence still get them jumping up to throw some ageing shapes on the dance floor.

All of that’s important, but it’s not the whole story. For some of us saying we like music isn’t right because like is too mild a word. Music is integral, essential, part of who we are. If I can feel that even though I can’t play a note, how much stronger must it be for those who can create sounds nobody’s ever heard before?


Young Man with a Horn is the story of the life of Rick Martin, a fictional jazz trumpeter who died at the age of thirty burnt out by a talent greater than his life could contain. It’s about that tension between just liking music and living it, made vastly more acute by a gift that allows no compromise and yet which is so advanced most people can hardly recognise it.

While still a schoolkid Rick Martin wanders one day into an empty church. He looks at a hymn book and sings a couple of the hymns, then he notices a piano and decides to see if he can work out how to play them on it.

It worked out, all right. It started to work itself out that very day. Rick stood there, head on one side, forehead in pleats, figuring it out. And after a while he dragged up one of the benches vertical to the piano, and sat on the end of it. He stayed there until dark, and I can scarcely believe it myself, but the story goes that he could play the piano by dark; he could play number 14 on the piano by dark. He couldn’t find the light switch, then, and so he went home and went right to bed, so that he could think about just how it was that he had done it, and how maybe it might sound better if he made a change or two here and there.

Rick’s a poor white kid. He lives with his aunt and uncle neither of whom is much home and he’s about as low on the social scale as you can get without being black. Race matters here. That little lack of melanin is the only status Rick and his people have. These are racist times and even the lowliest white is still viewed as superior to any black.

Music though, music doesn’t recognise those distinctions. Musicians may, but the music doesn’t. Rick falls in with Smoke Jordan, a kid who sweeps up at the bowling alley where Rick works and Smoke is friend to Jeff Williams who plays piano and leads one of the best jazz bands in town. Smoke and Jeff are black, the whole band are, but all Rick can hear is the music and the music’s too good to be ignored. This quote captures jazz for me as well as anything I’ve ever read:

Jeff led them to it with four bars in the key, and then the three horns came in together, held lightly to a slim melody by three separate leashes. Then Jeff left the rhythm to the drums, and the piano became the fourth voice, and from then on harmony prevailed in strange coherence, each man improvising wildly on his own and the four of them managing to fit it together and tightly. Feeling ran high, and happy inspiration followed happy inspiration to produce counterpoint that you’d swear somebody had sat down and worked out note by note on nice clean manuscript paper. But nobody had; it came into the heads of four men and out again by way of three horns and one piano.

At first Rick and Smoke just hang out outside, listening through the window. It isn’t long though before they’re invited in and Jeff learns that Rick can play a little piano himself. He recognises Rick’s innate talent, and while it would have happened somehow anyway from there Rick’s path is set.

Jazz music is born from black American talent and experience. It came from a fusion of the emotion of the blues with the precision of the New Orleans classically trained Creole bands put out of work by the Jim Crow laws. The history of jazz is inseparable from the history of race in the US.

When Rick first meets Smoke, Jeff and the others in the band he’s the only white kid there. His language, his interior monologue, is profoundly racist but that’s a function of vocabulary and upbringing rather than true feeling. He can’t hide from himself the talent of these men or the friendship and guidance they offer him and Smoke goes on to be the only true friend he’ll ever have.

A few years later Rick’s working the coast playing trumpet in a white jazz band, Jack Stuart and his Collegians. The Collegians have taken that music of black origin and now play it for white crowds, cleaned up and not too challenging. They’re good, but nothing great.

Rick turns up for the job bearing a box of LPs featuring Jeff Williams and his band. He can’t leave that music, the true music, behind. He plays them for Jack and his boys who’ve heard of Jeff Williams but assumed because he was good that he was white. I was reminded of Nick LaRocca’s (I believe all white) Original Dixieland Jass Band who were the first to popularise jazz with a mass white audience and who helped kickstart the craze for jazz music as dance music.

Jeff Williams starts with similar base tunes to LaRocca’s crew, but he builds on them and his music is too deep, too complex to be just something to dance to:

Inseparable as music and dancing fundamentally must be, it is only the layman who prefers to dance to, rather than listen to, really good jazz. Good jazz has so much going on inside it than dancing to it, for anybody who likes the music, is a kind of dissipation. Bach’s Brandenburgs would make good dance music, but nobody dances to them; they make too-good dance music. The improvisations of Jeff Williams and his band weren’t anybody’s Brandenburgs, but they had something in common with them, a kind of hard, finished brilliance.

For Rick jazz is much more than something fun to pass an evening with. The musicians he plays with recognise his talent, but the crowds only see that he’s good and while he’s a definite commercial draw at the end of the day most of what he’s doing soars right over their heads. It raises a question as to what his talent’s for. It eats his life – hours of practice every day; playing all evening for the crowd then all night with the other musicians for fun after the gig’s done. He doesn’t take holidays, he barely spends the money he earns. Rick Martin just plays, practices, and then plays some more.

A few years later and Rick’s hit the big time, or as big as jazz allows. He’s now with Phil Morrison’s orchestra, another white band because while it’s largely blacks who’re advancing the form it’s whites who’re packing in the big audiences.

[Phil’s] orchestra held the established first place among society orchestras for years and years. And for a big orchestra, and a society orchestra, it was good. The way Rick Martin’s trumpet used to spring up above the rest of their heads would make you think it was a great orchestra, and Rick wasn’t the only good man in it, either; there was a fiddler who made you think twice, and a man who blew as good a trombone as you’ll hear anywhere in public. But it wouldn’t do to call it a great orchestra because it pandered to all tastes and there was always that grandiose ending. It was just a good big orchestra, playing out its nightly schedule at one big hotel or another, working for money, drawing a crowd, getting people out on the floor. But when that thin blond boy stood up in his place and tore off sixteen bars in his own free style, filling in the blank that was allotted to him on the score, it was a surprise forever, like seeing an airplane take off from the deck of a good solid ship. To hell, please, with the law of gravity.

It can’t last. Rick finally meets a girl who’s more than just a casual fling and has a short lived and disastrous marriage. “When she came into a room, Rick felt it and his knees went cold. When she bent her head to light a cigarette from the match he held, he was lost until the flame burned his finger.” His drinking gets worse and worse, until after a while nobody can tell anymore how much he’s had as it’s always too much. His talent outgrows his audience, his desire to do more getting to the point where his horn can’t make the sounds he wants it to and if it did hardly anyone would even recognise them as music any more.

What do we know except that he had a way of doing a thing, and that he had a love of the thing so strong that he never in his life compromised it, or let it down, or forgot it?

This is a novel about music, about race, and about having a talent so great that it eclipses the life that carries it. Rick Martin’s talent isn’t so much a gift as a demand. By the end of the novel he’s dead (the novel opens with this so it’s not a spoiler) leaving behind a few recordings and only a handful of musicians who understood quite how good he was.

Young Man With A Horn is a novel inspired by the music, but not the life, of Bix Beiderbecke. As the afterword makes clear, Beiderbecke’s life didn’t have much in common with Martin’s save too much alcohol, too much talent and too early an end. This is a novel about the music rather than the man. Because that music is jazz music it’s also a novel about race, and because jazz at its best is truth with a trumpet it’s a novel about truth in art and in life and the price you pay for it.

Other reviews

YMWAH was published in 1938 and so falls into Kaggsy’s rather good 1938 club. As a result Kaggsy has reviewed it here and Vulpes Libres here (and me here for that matter) and others are reading it and their reviews should be linked to from Kaggsy’s 1938 club page. There’s also a review by Jacqui of JacquiWine’sblog here. I’m sure I’m missing some so please let me know in the comments.

Edit: Tom of Amateur Reader’s rather good post is here, with some nice quotes showing quite how well Baker writes about the actual practice of playing music.

On a related note, I reviewed Dorothy Baker’s marvellous Cassandra at the Wedding here.

The best Bix Beiderbecke recordings I know of are on the four disc Bix and Tram box set featuring Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer. There’s a Discogs description here and I highly recommend it. I also listened while reading this to Bix Beiderbecke with Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra which (despite a somewhat glitchy initial track) is very, very good. There’s an Allmusic description of that album here.


Filed under Baker, Dorothy

Desolation tries to colonize you.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

I grew up on horror. My early loves were (of course) HP Lovecraft; the now underappreciated James Herbert; Stephen King; Peter Straub; Brian Lumley; William Hope Hodgson; M. R. James; Robert R. McCammon; Guy N. Smith with his series of novels about giant man-eating crabs invading Britain; the magnificent Ramsey Campbell. There were many others, now largely lost to me.

The contemporary horror authors shared some characteristics. Their stories were generally set in locations familiar to their readers. They contained healthy dollops of sex and lovingly detailed acts of appalling violence.

The threats were rarely personal to an individual but more often involved entire towns or countries facing madness or atrocity. Particularly with the British authors body counts tended to be high.

Hodgson and James offered more classically supernatural ghost stories (though Hodgson’s The Night Land was a much more curious beast). Enjoyable, but lacking the visceral thrills offered by the contemporaries. Both had a nice sense of how fear could come from the mere presence of the uncanny.

Lovecraft though, and to an extent Campbell, they were different; their horrors stranger. Instead of conjuring fear with ghosts or hostile creatures or scenes of pain and death they instead went existential. The terror here was that the world no longer made sense; that it never had.


Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is the first of a trilogy, published in full during 2014. It’s not a long novel, but it is a resonant one. It’s very, very good.

The biologist is part of a team of four sent into Area X, together with the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist. The linguist didn’t make it through processing. They’re all women, the thought being that perhaps that will somehow help in Area X. They’re not the first expedition.

What is Area X? That’s not quite clear. It’s a zone where the world isn’t as it should be. There were previous expeditions, the last one including the biologist’s husband. People who enter either don’t come back at all or come back changed. Whatever is in Area X is alien and dangerous.

Names are left behind. Crossing over to Area X involves passing through some kind of boundary and the effects are psychologically devastating, so the expedition members pass through under hypnosis waking on the other side armed with post-hypnotic commands and considerable uncertainty as to their own mission.

Almost immediately they discover something the biologist names a tower and the others a tunnel. It’s a large disc with steps penetrating deep into the earth. It’s not on their maps. Within they find cryptic and ominous writing growing in fungal form from the walls, written by who knows what. It’s so close to their camp that it must have been known about, so why wasn’t it mentioned?

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

The expedition begins to break down. The biologist finds she’s become immune to the psychologist’s post-hypnotic suggestions after inhaling some spores, but does that mean that her experiences are more real than the others or less? Is she escaping programming or hallucinating?

This is a strange and slippery novel. The reader is rapidly as unmoored as the biologist and the other expedition members. The characters here have lost their names, can no longer be certain of their past, can’t even agree on what they’re seeing and hearing. The psychologist tries to control them with her hypnotic trigger-phrases, but there’s no control to be had either for her or the reader.

As the biologist realises she can’t trust her team-mates or, after inhaling those spores, herself she comes to realise that she also can’t trust the people who sent them in. The expedition’s goals don’t make sense given what must have been known about the tower, and the hypnosis seems to have left none of them with any clear idea of how they’re supposed to leave once they’re done.

The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?

Perhaps the best thing to say about Annihilation is that I genuinely don’t know how to describe it. It’s an insidious and disquieting novel. It evokes a sense of dread, but of what isn’t always entirely clear. As the biologist delves deeper into Area X she encounters signs of what may have happened to those who went before, but the uncertainty is the true horror here.

At times VanderMeer does seem to be making quite deliberate homage to other works. The whole concept is clearly in part at least inspired by Roadside Picnic, though you could easily read this without having read that. Similarly, the following passage where the biologist visits an abandoned village contains imagery strongly (and I suspect intentionally) reminiscent of William Hope Hodgson‘s famous horror short The Voice in the Night:

But in what had been kitchens or living rooms or bedrooms, I also saw a few peculiar eruptions of moss or lichen, rising four, five, feet tall, misshapen, the vegetative matter forming an approximation of limbs and heads and torsos. As if there had been runoff from the material, too heavy for gravity, that had congregated at the foot of these objects. Or perhaps I imagined this effect.

One particular tableau struck me in an almost emotional way. Four such eruptions, one “standing” and three decomposed to the point of “sitting” in what once must have been a living room with a coffee table and a couch—all facing some point at the far end of the room where lay only the crumbling soft brick remains of a fireplace and chimney. The smell of lime and mint unexpectedly arose, cutting through the must, the loam.

If you’ve read the Hodgson it resonates with that, but if you haven’t it still works and in any event it’s certainly not mere pastiche. VanderMeer is master of the disconcerting detail – here that smell of lime and mint which in a way is more horrifying than just the suggestion that something terrible happened here and to the people in these houses.

In the end it becomes evident that horror isn’t intrinsic to Area X and nor is it restricted to it. The world is worse than inimical, it’s unknowable. As the biologist concludes:

Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish.

Annihilation is a rare example of genre fiction that I’d potentially recommend to non-genre readers. It’s well written and its effects linger uncomfortably long after you’ve closed the final page. I’m looking forward to reading the second and third in the trilogy.

Other reviews

None in the blogs I normally follow that I’m aware of, but please feel free to alert me to any in the comments.

Edit: Kaggsy alerted me in the comments to a very good review by Annabel Gaskella which is here. Lee also alerted me to this review by Trevor, which I thought I’d read and commented on but looking back I think I may have missed entirely.


Filed under Horror Fiction, Science Fiction, VanderMeer, Jeff

It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things.

Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera and translated by Lisa Dillman

Some books just blaze off the page. Signs is one of them. I’ll be amazed if this doesn’t make my end of year list.

Signs Preceding

At one level Signs is a novel about a young woman illegally crossing over from Mexico to the US. It opens with a literal descent into the underworld:

I’m dead, Makina said to herself when everything lurched: a man with a cane was crossing the street, a dull groan suddenly surged through the asphalt, the man stood still as if waiting for someone to repeat the question and then the earth opened up beneath his feet: it swallowed the man, and with him a car and a dog, all the oxygen around and even the screams of passersby. I’m dead, Makina said to herself, and hardly had she said it than her whole body began to contest that verdict and she failed her feet frantically backward, each step mere inches from the sinkhole, until the precipice settled into a perfect circle and Makina was saved.

It’s a deservedly confident opening. Already in just that paragraph Makina is scrambling for survival, constantly and instinctively in motion. As the narrative broadens out it becomes a metaphor for her life. She’s an intermediary who survives by speaking several languages and acting as both a messenger and as operator of the town’s switchboard (they don’t have a local cell tower).

Makina needs to cross over to look for her brother who left pursuing some fruitless land claim and never returned. To go she needs permissions from the town’s big men and, of course, has to do one of them (a man “who couldn’t see a mule without wanting a ride”) a favour in return by making a delivery for him.

So far so naturalistic, but the journey quickly takes on mythic dimensions. The literal descent becomes a metaphorical one as Makina crosses a fierce river to reach an otherworld that you risk becoming part of if you linger too long, after which you will never return. Her brother was lost there and now like Orpheus before her she risks losing herself to bring him back.

What dazzles here is the use of language. Herrera creates new meanings for words reflecting both Makina’s use of slang and the linguistic melting-pot she personally represents (a particularly common example is Herrera’s use of “verse” to mean travel, as in “She versed to the street”.) It’s never confusing, but creates a sense of language that like Makina herself is constantly in motion.

The crossing over is sharply captured both in terms of its challenges and particular horrors (a pregnant woman resting under a tree, soon discovered in fact to be a corpse bloated with gas). The US itself proves an alien and unfamiliar landscape filled with parallel populations of noisy anglos and “homegrown” like her who she realises are omnipresent but curiously muted.

The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing. They flourished in supermarkets, cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s. Makina just dented cans and sniffed bottles and thought it best to verse, and it was when she saw the anglogaggle at the self-checkouts that she noticed how miserable they looked in front of those little digital screens, and the way they nearly-nearly jumped every time the machine went bleep! at each item. And how on versing out to the street they sought to make amends for their momentary one-up by becoming wooden again so as not to offend anyone.

Out on the concrete and steel-girder plain, though, she sensed another presence straight off, scattered about like bolts fallen from a window: on street corners, on scaffolding, on sidewalks; fleeting looks of recognition quickly concealed and then evasive. These were her compatriots, her homegrown, armed with work: builders, florists, loaders, drivers; playing it sly so as not to let on to any shared objective, and instead just, just, just: just there to take orders. They were the same as back home but with less whistling, and no begging.

There’s some wonderful language in that quote: “salt of the only earth worth knowing”; “anglogaggle”; but also a nice juxtaposition of the two populations co-dependent but seemingly immiscible.

As Makina verses through the city following clues leading to her brother and making her promised delivery she comes to realise that there is something more there than just alienation and subjugation. The anglos and homegrown may seem to coexist without overlapping, but the reality is more fluid and the act of transition between places is transformative. There’s a reason people don’t go home again, and partly it’s because what they’ve left is no longer home.

They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rabid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link.

More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born. … In it brims nostalgia for the land they left or never knew when they use the words with which they name objects; while actions are alluded to with an anglo verb conjugated latin-style, pinning on a sonorous tail from back there.

There is an end of the world here. It’s an end to Makina’s world and perhaps too an end to the Anglo’s assumed world which they built on the homegrown’s labour while pretending they didn’t need to adapt to the people they’d invited into their very homes. Language creates reality and as people create new words for their new shared experiences they create a new world with them.

This is a book filled with signs preceding the end of the world, but recognising too that the world must end for new worlds to be born. It’s a book rooted squarely in the particular: the journey across the Rio Bravo; ethnic and income divides; racist police and opportunistic gangmasters; but beyond all that it’s a book that raises all this to the status of myth or dream. It is an exceptional work, quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently and genuinely exciting to encounter.

Other reviews

This has been very widely reviewed, so apologies to those I miss here. Please do feel free to link to your reviews in the comments if I’ve missed them. Ones I had noted included Stu of Winston’s Dad’s Blog here; Shigekuni here; David Hebblethwaite at his blog here but more fully at Words Without Borders here; and Grant at 1streading’s blog here. I know I read more but I lost note of where.


Filed under Herrera, Yuri, Mexican Literature

The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.

Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers on a Train is one of my favourite Hitchcock movies. Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley is one of the finest psychological thrillers I’ve read. Patricia Highsmith’s original Strangers on a Train novel seemed then an absolute certainty for an entertaining read.


Guy Haines is a gifted young architect travelling by train to see his ex-wife Miriam. I say ex, but they’re just separated and Guy needs a divorce so he can marry his new love Anne. The problem is that Miriam’s a schemer and Guy doesn’t expect to get free of her without paying some kind of price.

A tall blond young man in a rust-brown suit dropped into the empty seat opposite Guy and, smiling with a vague friendliness, slid over into the corner. Guy glanced at his pallid, undersized face. There was a huge pimple in the exact centre of his forehead.

That tall young man is the idly rich Charles Anthony Bruno. Guy is serious and hard-working; a responsible fellow with a bright future ahead of him who’s earned his many achievements to date. Bruno (as he’s mostly referred to) is Guy’s opposite; diffident and drunk and born to privilege.

Bruno engages Guy in reluctant conversation. He’s one of those people you run into on a long train journey or flight who won’t shut up, but Guy finds himself drawn in and eventually the conversation turns to murder. Bruno you see hates his father and likes to dream perfect plans for killing without getting caught.

Despite the warning signs Guy ends up having dinner with Bruno and then drinks in Bruno’s cabin. Bruno needs to vent, but so in his own way does Guy who has his own problems and who finds himself telling this “stranger on the train who would listen, commiserate, and forget” about the grasping Miriam.

By the end of the evening Bruno has suggested his latest scheme for a perfect murder – that two strangers swap victims each killing the other’s. Since in each case the actual murderer would have no motive for their crime the police would surely be lost trying to work out who was responsible. Naturally Guy doesn’t bite, but when a few weeks later he hears that Miriam has been strangled to death he begins to wonder…

The narrative shifts between Guy and Bruno’s perspectives, so the reader knows for certain what Guy only suspects – Bruno murdered Miriam. However, initially at least Bruno’s motive isn’t the murder-swap that he proposed. He just wants to help Guy. Bruno is like a feral puppy, desperately seeking Guy’s friendship and approval but capable at any moment of turning on those around him. Bruno expects Guy’s gratitude, but when Guy works out what’s happened he reacts only in horror and Bruno finds himself spurned. Bruno doesn’t take rejection well.

Guy finds himself in an impossible position. He has an alibi for Miriam’s murder, but he also has a clear motive and Bruno keeps showing up. Worse it turns out that Bruno and Anne are in the same social circles making it ever easier for Bruno to make himself part of Guy’s life. The more Guy pushes back the more Bruno gets upset, and Bruno decides that if Guy won’t be his friend the least he can do is fulfil his part of the bargain and kill Bruno’s father.

Bruno clearly is a narcissistic psychopath. He’s fixated on Guy and there’s a strong implication of sublimated attraction. What about Guy himself though? Why didn’t he break off that initial conversation? Why does he let Bruno get under his skin so easily? Guy’s successful and brilliant in his profession but he’s also weak, easily dominated first by Miriam and now by Bruno. Even with the sensible and loving Anne he finds himself the junior partner, with her driving their relationship and helping push forward his career.

The ugly truth here is that for all the revulsion he feels Guy likes Bruno, and something about Bruno resonates with him. They’re both part-men, each completed by the other. That cover image above isn’t from the edition I have, but I liked it and its byline does capture a truth of the book: an evil man, but also a weak one.

Later, as their plans inevitably start to unravel, Bruno asks a private investigator sniffing into the links between him and Guy whether he understands the calibre of man that Guy is. The PI replies “‘The only calibre ever worth considering is the gun’s’”. When they first met Bruno said something similar telling Guy that anyone, given the right circumstance, could find themselves capable of murder.

Guy Haines has a glittering career, a beautiful and rich new wife, good character and a clear path into the establishment. The PI was right though, and so was Bruno on that fateful first meeting. The only calibre that matters is the gun’s.

Other reviews

Guy Savage reviewed this at his, here.


Filed under Crime Fiction, Highsmith, Patricia

Sometimes the biggest disasters aren’t noticed at all – no one’s around to write horror stories.

A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge

Every now and then I like to dip my toe back into the waters of pure science fiction. If you don’t share that interest, and almost nobody who reads this blog does, this review probably isn’t for you.

Vernor Vinge is one of the greats of recent(ish) science fiction, responsible among other things for the real world concept of the singularity (later popularised by futurologist Ray Kurzweil). Vinge’s claim to fame however doesn’t rest on coining a vaguely useful word, but on writing one of the all time classics of the space opera genre.


This is big-ticket big concept SF. Vinge postulates a dense and complex future in which the galaxy (and beyond) is home to a vast number of intelligences of varying technological development. Unusually for SF, humanity here has no particular importance in galactic affairs – we’re one species among a great many.

Librarian Ravna Bergsndot is the first human ever to get to work at Relay, an immensely wealthy and advanced interstellar communications hub. That makes her suddenly important when back home some other humans accidentally let loose an ancient artificial intelligence which develops so swiftly and with such aggression that it threatens to annihilate entire species and civilisations.

On the wider galactic stage where history is measured in billions of years, that’s not necessarily actually that big a deal. On the other hand, if you live in the vicinity it’s quite important.

The galaxy in Vinge’s novel is separated, possibly artificially, into “zones of thought” – layers of space in which technology and cognition are increasingly limited the closer you get to the galactic core. Earth lies (lay, it doesn’t feature in the novel) in the Slow Zone where faster than light travel is impossible and AI incredibly limited. Civilisation largely exists in the zone above and further out where these things are possible. Beyond that is, well, the Beyond where intelligences we cannot even comprehend do whatever it is they do.

‘The Beyond and below are like a deep of ocean, and we the creatures that swim in the abyss. We’re so far down that the beings on the surface – superior though they are – can’t effectively reach us. Oh, they fish, and they sometimes blight the upper levels with poisons we don’t even understand. But the abyss remains a relatively safe place.’ She paused. There was more to the analogy. ‘And just as with an ocean, there is a constant drift of flotsam from the top.

Go too close to the centre and you hit the Unthinking Depths, where advanced technology simply fails and intelligence becomes impossible.


When the Blight starts to metastasize, any attempt to stop it becomes worth pursuing no matter how desperate. It’s known that a single human ship from the group who initially triggered the Blight’s release escaped and that they possibly have something with them that could damage it. Ravna is given a ship and sent to find and rescue that other human crew. All she has to help her is an ancient resurrected astronaut who carries a fragment of AI superintelligence within his brain and two alien traders each of whom looks “like a small ornamental tree sitting in a six-wheeled cart”.

Meanwhile, the human ship who escaped the Blight have crash landed on a medieval world with no knowledge of the wider galaxy or the attention that’s now being focused on it. That world is occupied by the Tines, pack-sentients where three to six individual members make up a single personality.

The west edge of their landing area was swarming with … things. Like wolves or dogs, but with long necks, they moved quickly forward, darting from hummock to hummock. Their pelts were the same gray green of the hillside, except near their haunches where she saw white and black. No, the green was clothing, jackets. Johanna was in shock, the pressure of the bolt through her chest not yet registering as pain. She had been thrown back against uptilted turf and for the moment had a view of the whole attack. She saw more arrows rise up, dark lines floating in the sky. She could see the archers now. More dogs! They moved in packs. It took two of them to use a bow – one to hold it and one to draw. The third and fourth carried quivers of arrows and just seemed to watch.

It sounds like a confused and unlikely mess, but Vinge absolutely pulls it off. He conjures up a vast, complicated and ancient web of civilisations of which we form just a tiny part and then focuses in on a handful of characters – human and alien – because he never forgets that however large the canvas it’s the small lives upon it which actually matter.

On the Tines’ planet the arrival of the aliens is both opportunity and potential disaster. It turns a cold war between two feudal powers hot, as each tries to capitalise on their access to the crashed aliens and their technology. Much of the pleasure of the book comes from exploring the nature of the Tines, with the peculiarities of their psychology and the advantages and limitations of their pack nature all being convincing and well explored.

The human survivors on the Tines’ world find themselves enmeshed in medieval power-politics of a type utterly unfamiliar to them, struggling both to adapt to a species never before encountered and to the precarious nature of their own position. Their rescuers have their own internal issues, none of them really being suited to a task of the magnitude that’s fallen to them, and come to find themselves the McGuffin in a competition between rival fleets each capable of annihilating planets. It’s the small scale and the large again, the epic giving that sense of wonder but the personal giving it all a point.

Vinge combines all this with a nice (though now a bit dated) satirical edge in that due to bandwidth issues the various aliens of the galaxy communicate via something suspiciously similar to Usenet. Like any social media it’s full of inaccuracies, errors and downright lies. The story is interspersed with posts on the galactic net – some well informed, some malicious, some downright clueless.

In the end though if you read this sort of novel it’s for the sheer imaginative splendour of it all. That feeling of a universe that is deeper and richer and older than we can imagine. A universe where there is wonder. It’s basically escapist, but there’s nothing wrong with the occasional escape.

Our current understanding, which looks extremely unlikely to be overturned, is that faster than light travel is in fact impossible. Coupled with that is the fact that we’ve been staring out into the dark for a while now and the universe is notable primarily for its utter silence. If there’s anybody out there they seem to be very far away and not particularly chatty.

Still, if we can take pleasure from multi-generational Irish family sagas with abusive uncles and judgemental priests; from Brooklyn authors struggling with the meaning of their very comfortable lives; from tales of failing marriages, mid-life crises and murders; why not too from aliens and civilisations as unlikely as they are splendid? If you’ve no love for SF this book won’t change your mind, but if you do it’s a lot of fun.


Filed under Science Fiction, Vinge, Vernor

London had a hint of yellow to it today, she decided, a septic glare.

A Lovely Way to Burn, by Louise Welsh

The true test for any novel which is part of a series is whether the reader goes on to read the next in sequence. If they do then the novel succeeded. If they don’t then for that reader at least the novel failed.

A Lovely Way to Burn is the first of three thrillers each set against the backdrop of a pandemic laying waste to the UK and much of the world. The sequel’s already out and I plan to read it, so Burn succeeded for me. That’s worth bearing in mind given some of the criticisms of the novel I’m going to make below.


Stevie Flint is a presenter on a UK TV shopping channel. She’s the pretty and glamorous one, paired with an older woman named Joanie who adds a homely character to their show. Between them they flog tat to daytime TV viewers most of whom likely watch more for the company than the goods they buy.

Stevie’s boyfriend is attractive paediatric surgeon Simon Sharkey (he’s referred to as Dr Sharkey in the book, which is a minor error as in the UK surgeons are called Mr or Miss as appropriate). Simon’s handsome, rich and lives a fast-moving and high spending lifestyle. Stevie’s not sure if she’s in love with him, but she’s quite certain he’s fun to be around.

Before all that though the novel opens with for me a really misjudged prologue recounting three high-profile shootings that take place in London before the plot proper starts. Each of them is so dramatic that I genuinely think we’d still be discussing them decades later. An MP on a spree shooting; a hedge fund manager who goes berserk on the tube; a vicar who slaughters his congregation. Any of them would make international news.

The prologue doesn’t work because it’s incredible (unless of course an underlying connection gets explained in some later novel, but it’s still incredible now). I can buy a pandemic and I can buy a spree murder, but I struggle a bit with being asked to buy three spree murders and then a pandemic. Obviously the goal is to create a mood of tension and impending chaos, but it just flatly didn’t work for me and I think the novel would be better if the prologue were entirely deleted and the few subsequent references to it taken out.

After the prologue misfire we get into the plot proper. Stevie goes round to visit Simon only to discover him dead in bed, a victim of what she’s later told is sudden adult death syndrome. He died for no obvious reason but with no sign of foul play. Sometimes healthy people just die and however tragic it might be it’s not a police matter.

At about the same time a new disease nicknamed the Sweats has started going round and so far most people don’t realise quite how serious it is. Stevie goes down with it and her next few days are spent in a brutal and debilitating fever. She recovers, after which she’s visited by Simon’s sister who found a hidden letter at Simon’s flat addressed to Stevie. The letter leads to the discovery of a password-protected laptop hidden in his attic crawlspace and an instruction to take it to one of his colleagues and to trust nobody, absolutely nobody, else.

Here starts the mystery. If Simon’s death was natural, why did he leave hidden notes, stashed-away laptops and cryptic instructions just before it happened? Stevie goes to the colleague Simon named, but discovers that he’s come down with the Sweats too and unlike her he didn’t recover. Now Stevie has a dead boyfriend, a laptop that very quickly starts sparking interest from others at the hospital, and the disquieting possibility that Simon was murdered and that whoever was responsible might come after her next.

So far nothing so unusual, except that the Sweats continue to spread. At first most people assume it’s like having a bad cold and society continues on much as it ever has, just with more people off sick.

The Underground carriage’s fluorescence drained the passengers’ complexions of any lustre. The dark skin of the business-suited man beside her had turned grey, and the woman leaning against the pole by the door had taken on a jaded sheen that reminded Stevie of the print of Tretchikoff’s green lady that had hung in her grandmother’s hallway.

Soon however it becomes apparent that almost everyone who catches it dies. Stevie’s immunity isn’t unique, but it is unusual. She still wants to find out why Simon died, but now her investigation is taking place in the midst of a new Great Plague.

‘What’s wrong with Joanie?’
‘The same thing that’s wrong with the rest of them, only more so, sickness, vomiting, diarrhoea, high fever, hot and cold sweats. Don’t you watch the news?’
‘I told you, I was sick. I thought it was the shock of finding Simon.’
‘The great washed and unwashed of London are going down with the lurgy, as are a good portion of Paris, New York and anywhere else you care to mention. People have died. That’s why I was going to send someone round to check on you. I was worried you might have shuffled off this mortal coil.’
For the first time Stevie thought she could detect a note of panic beneath Rachel’s posh bonhomie. She walked to the window. The parade of shops in the street below looked as busy as ever. Rachel had a reputation for exaggerating, but she wouldn’t lie about Joanie being in hospital.

Welsh says in her afterword that the book is in part inspired by classic TV dramas Threads and Survivors, both from the 1970s (the decade that optimism forgot). It shows because the best of the book is easily her portrait of London’s unravelling, slow for much of the book but then suddenly accelerating as the seriousness of the situation dawns and more and more people fall ill.

Less successful is the characterisation. Leaving aside that Stevie Flint and Simon Sharkey both seem to me very much names out of a thriller rather than real life, the characters here are pretty two-dimensional. Stevie is regularly asked why she’s risking her life investigating the death of a man she isn’t even sure she loved during what could potentially be the apocalypse and there’s never really a good reason for that. Nobody else is hugely developed either; people are largely what they seem and they’re painted in fairly broad brush strokes.

The flipside to that characterisation complaint is to ask what else I’d actually want. This is a conspiracy thriller. Subtle and nuanced characterisation would be rather beside the point. As a reader I need it to be clear who everyone is, what their role is in the plot and to be able to easily picture them and Welsh effortlessly meets every one of those criteria (save that I never quite worked out how old Simon was supposed to be, but he was dead so it didn’t much matter).

The trick to thrillers is cutting back on anything which gets in the way of pulling the reader on, to the next page and the next revelation. If character is too deep the reader will stop to explore it; if the prose is too beautiful the reader will slow down to parse and admire it; plot and atmosphere are key and language and character are there to efficiently carry the reader forward.

It’s true that I found the characters here a bit superficial and the language plain and it’s true that the plot didn’t hold too many surprises, but it’s also true that I enjoyed the book. I read though all 369 or so pages of Burn in a single day and as I said at the outset I plan to read both sequels (the first of which is already out). I just hope Welsh doesn’t take too long to finish the final book of the series.

Other reviews

Grant at 1streading put me on to this with his review here. I don’t normally link to newspaper reviews but this one from Leslie McDowell at The Scotsman picks up a brilliant point on the gender issues of the book which I missed. The key quote from the review is:

“As Stevie lurches from one dangerous situation to another, the image that is conjured up reminds one of US artist Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Stills, where a young woman is portrayed in various poses against a hostile city-scape. There are no women in Welsh’s dystopian world, apart from dead or dying ones. Technology is useless against the plague that is spreading and women have lost the power that technology once gave them. Simon’s medical colleagues are all male; one of them, Alexander Buchanan, even offers to send his son to collect Simon’s laptop from her. There are no daughters, no sisters, no mothers in this darkening world; as the city turns to chaos, men roam the streets and women become invisible.

By the end of the novel, Stevie has almost rid herself of her feminine look, marked at the beginning by her painted nails; she is wearing Simon’s clothes, has shaved her hair. The feminine has no place in a dangerous dystopian landscape. Perhaps that is what we should really fear.”

I think that’s a really impressive (and spot-on) analysis and I encourage anyone with any interest in this book at all to follow the link and read the full review. McDowell has her own blog, here, on blogspot unfortunately which makes it harder to subscribe for new posts and comments. Still, given her review in The Scotsman I suspect her blog would be well worth taking a look at.


Filed under Welsh, Louise

a front of emphatic respectability

Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor

Every now and then a book or an author gets recommended to me by almost everyone I know. When it happens, I pay attention.

If it weren’t for blogging I wouldn’t have known that Elizabeth Taylor even existed as a novelist (the name doesn’t help, when this was first recommended to me I assumed it had been written by the film star). She’s one of that great contingent of 20th Century novelists who used to be highly regarded but who’ve somehow slipped out of view.


The cover to the left I love, and I think captures something of the book. The cover to the right I have, and I think is bland and generic. I can see however in today’s market that a painting of an old woman sitting on her own might not entirely help generate mass sales.

Mrs Palfrey is one of that great number of women who find themselves cast adrift in old age. Her husband of many years died some while back and her daughter has moved up to Scotland where she’s become more Scottish than any of the locals. Mrs Palfrey has a grandson who like her lives in London, but she sees little of him.

The book opens as Mrs Palfrey’s “taxi sloshed along the almost deserted Cromwell Road”. She’s looking nervously out for the Claremont Hotel, the place she’s chosen sight unseen to live in during the years she has left before she finally has to enter a nursing home or hospital, never to emerge again. She consoles herself that if she doesn’t like it she doesn’t have to stay but it’s evident her options are extremely limited.

The Cromwell Road for those who don’t know it is a rather drab street near Earl’s Court, in London’s Kensington. I grew up in Kensington and know it well. It forms part of the A4 motorway and so has constant heavy traffic. It features a lengthy series of indifferent looking hotels and as a kid I wondered who stayed in them. Nowadays I think it’s mostly temporarily housed asylum seekers.

Mrs Palfrey is an unsentimental Englishwoman of a very traditional type. She knew her role when she supported her husband’s colonial service, and as a wife and a mother. Now she has no role, just a modest capital sum she has to make sure lasts the years she has left.

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.

The Claremont is not quite as billed; these places never are. The food is indifferent and the management resentful. The elderly long-term residents pay less than the short-stay commercial travellers and occasional tourists. Most of the year there isn’t enough short-stay traffic to fill the hotel which makes the pensioners essential, but in peak season they sit there taking up rooms that could be making more.

The residents have made their own little world. Almost all of them are women, left abandoned by the shorter longevity of their men. The one remaining man, Mr Osmond, doesn’t enjoy the company of women and sits isolated telling dirty stories to the waiters who don’t want to hear them. “‘It is three thousand days ago today that my wife died,’ Mr Osmond said, to no one in particular.”

Status at the Claremont is driven in part by not being forgotten by the outside world. Mrs Palfrey’s grandson, Desmond, pays her no mind at all and she has no visitors, leaving her dangerously exposed to the pity of the other residents. Then however she takes a fall in the street and is aided by a young man named Ludo, a writer. She thanks him with dinner at the Claremont, but in a moment of folly or inspiration they agree he’ll pose as Desmond. Now Mrs Palfrey has a visitor and a youthful friend, but she also has lies to keep straight.

Days at the Claremont linger in their passing. “Time went by. It could be proved that it did, although so little happened.” Taylor captures perfectly the small trials of life lived without purpose or occupation. The residents are frail and easily tired. They arrive planning to enjoy London’s galleries and entertainments, but they have little money and less energy.

As she waited for prunes, Mrs Palfrey considered the day ahead. The morning was to be filled in quite nicely; but the afternoon and evening made a long stretch. I must not wish my life away, she told herself; but she knew that, as she got older, she looked at her watch more often, and that it was always earlier than she had thought it would be. When she was young, it had always been later.

Each of the residents is well drawn and while Taylor’s eye is unsparing she’s not unkind. A particular highlight is Mrs Arbuthnot, who moves with the aid of twin walking sticks giving her the appearance of an arthritic spider. She rules the Claremont, despatching one resident to get her books from the library (a welcome outing which makes it as much a favour as chore) and quietly judging others. She’s alert to any lapse or weakness around her.

With a lesser writer Mrs Arbuthnot would be a two-dimensional hotel bully. Mrs Palfrey is careful of her, not least as Mrs Arbuthnot catches some inconsistencies in Ludo and Mrs Palfrey’s conversations which don’t fit his being a grandson, but Mrs Palfrey also remembers that Mrs Arbuthnot was the first person at the Claremont to show her any kindness.

The tragedy of Mrs Arbuthnot is that ruling the Claremont is all she has, and she knows how small a thing it is and how temporary:

The time was coming, [Mrs Arbuthnot] knew, when she would no longer be able to manage for herself, with her locked and swollen joints, and so much pain. The Claremont was the last freedom she had left, and she wanted it for as long as she could have it. She knew the sequence, had foreseen it. Her total incapacity: a nursing-home then, at more expense than the Claremont, and being kept in bed all the time for the convenience of the nursing staff. Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her. Or – in the end – the geriatric ward of some hospital.

Can’t die here, she thought, in the middle of this night. And there might be years and years until that. Arthritis did not kill. One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices. For her, the Claremont was only just achieved. Down the ladder she obviously would have to go.

I’ve made it all sound rather bleak and serious, and that undercurrent is never far away, but Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is also a gentle and affectionate comedy. Ludo is a likable young man who isn’t perfect, at least some of his interest in Mrs Palfrey is as a potential subject for the novel he’s trying to write, but he also honestly likes her and does more for her than any of her family. He gives Mrs Palfrey a fresh moment of real living, and the shy negotiations between them of differences of age and background are rather touching.

In a strange way this is almost a romantic comedy, even though there’s nothing of that sort between Ludo (who meets a new girlfriend in one slightly unnecessary subplot) and Mrs Palfrey (who finds herself the unwelcome object of Mr Osmond’s ill-judged affections). Still, two mismatched people meet and carve-out a little bubble of alliance against an indifferent world somehow managing to bridge the gaps between them with genuine affection.

All the people who recommended this book to me were right. It’s a warm and enjoyable and funny and desperately sad novel. It’s lives lived as best they can be in the face of obsolescence and irrelevance and the indignities of age. It’s what awaits many of us, as much now as in 1971 when it was written.

Other reviews

Guy Savage who highly recommended this I think read it pre-blog. Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal reviewed it here; Caroline of Beautiy is a Sleeping Cat reviewed it here; Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Booking Ramblings wrote a particularly fine review of it here; Heavenali reviews it here and makes an interesting comparison to Brookner which I hadn’t thought of but which resonated with me; and a different Caroline at Bookword reviewed it here and makes the point that the residents aren’t eccentrics but rather are captured with precision as to their mannerisms which is a point I strongly agree with.

Finally, John Self reviewed it at The Asylum here and was a little less glowing than most, enjoying it and wanting to read more by her but criticising it in part as a bit of a comfort read and wishing for a slightly harder edge in the book’s later parts. John is clearly made of sterner stuff than me since I found the later parts bruisingly hard-edged.


Filed under Taylor, Elizabeth

What we won’t do to hang on to a relationship that’s slipping away from us, an image of fading love.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara and translated by Jill Foulston

Back in 2009 the director Carol Morley made a documentary about Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who lay dead in her apartment for a month before anyone discovered her. Morley explored how a woman who had had friends, a good job, a life, could somehow slip through the cracks and at less than forty years of age find themselves dying without anyone noticing they were gone.

There’s nothing in the plot or characters of The Disappearance of Signora Giulia that brings Joyce Vincent’s story to mind, and referencing Joyce Vincent is in no way a spoiler for anything in this book. The connection is of mood: a haunting sense that something important has happened but without knowing exactly what or how; of having questions to which there may never be an answer.


It’s 1955, Northern Italy. Giulia is a beautiful woman married to a much older man, the respected lawyer Esengrini. Every Thursday morning she takes the train to Milan to visit their daughter. One Thursday she doesn’t arrive. Back at home there are signs of a robbery, and there’s no evidence she ever even got on the train. She’s vanished.

Esengrini asks Commissario Sciancalepre to look into the case. Both men suspect the visits to the daughter may have been cover to an affair, but did Giulia run away or did something happen to her?

‘Sciancalepre, you’re a southerner and can understand certain things better than I can. I can’t say that I’m not up to it, but I’m definitely getting there. In recent years, our twenty-year age difference has really created a gap between my wife and me. Did you notice that even though our rooms are next to each other, they’re separate? It’s been like that for more than a year. Signora Giulia wants nothing more to do with me in bed. She says that for me, bed is a branch of the office: I read trial proceedings, take notes and look through legal journals until late. I’m sixty, you know, and I’m like any other sixty-year-old man. But my wife is only thirty-eight, to be exact…’

It doesn’t take long for Sciancalepre to find evidence of adultery, a possibly criminal matter in post-Fascist Italy. The clues however soon dry up and the case becomes unsolved. Years pass, with the question of what happened to Signora Giulia nagging at Sciancalepre. Eventually Esengrini and Giulia’s daughter grows up and comes into her trust fund and possession of the house where Giulia was last seen, which brings new evidence into light and means Sciancalepre may be able to solve the greatest mystery of his career after all.

Sciancalepre makes a likable protagonist. He’s intelligent and sympathetic, but professionally sceptical and he’s quite aware that Esengrini might only have initiated the investigation in order to divert suspicion from the possibility of his own guilt. Better yet however, Sciancalepre is thoroughly Italian:

They started their search in the office. At twelve-thirty the operation was suspended for lunch. Sciancalepre couldn’t do without his pasta,

This is a slim novel, just 120 pages or so, and yet it has enough twists for a book easily twice its size. I guessed around the three-quarters mark who must have done it, and sure enough Sciancalepre duly arrested them, but the novel doesn’t stop there and more complex questions of proof and guilt arrive undermining both my and his certainty. The novel becomes slippery and truth elusive.

Disappearance partly draws on the cosy crime and locked room mystery genres (there’s no locked room here, but there is a puzzle about how exactly Signora Giulia disappeared on that otherwise ordinary Thursday morning). Neither are genres I care for, and I’m not therefore a particularly good reader for this book. Even so, I enjoyed it and I think it makes an interesting addition to the Pushkin Vertigo lineup as it’s ultimately a disquieting and unexpected read.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say much without spoiling it for others (which hopefully the small discussion I’ve had here won’t do). It’s short and cleanly written and translated and if you’re anything at all like me it’ll still trouble you after you’ve turned the final page. What more could one really ask for?

Other reviews

I was sold this by reviews from David Hebblethwaite at David’s Book Blog, here; and from Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations, here.


Filed under Chiara, Piero, Crime Fiction, Italian Literature, Italy, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

The monks loved to rile him by asking him about the nature, essence and intrinsic reality of Jesus Christ

Azazeel, by  Youssef Ziedan and translated by Jonathan Wright

The problem I generally have with historical fiction is that too often it captures the physical trappings of history but fails to recreate the psychology of the past. It’s genuinely hard to make a 14th or 18th or 6th Century perspective both accurate and yet accessible to a modern reader.

I’ve no interest in fiction where an essentially modern character is transposed into a historic setting as a form of living anachronism. Good historical fiction should make the concerns of the past vivid and important, even if to us now they seem ludicrous or even offensive.

All of which takes me to Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel where he manages the tricky balancing act of showing the relevance of 5th Century Middle-eastern politics to the present while at the same time grounding the characters’ passions and differences firmly in their historical context.


Azazeel opens with a “Translator’s Introduction” which is in fact a framing device within the fiction. Ostensibly the text is the fifth century memoirs of a Coptic monk named Hypa writing in Aramaic – memoirs he buried because they were too controversial to be published in his lifetime. Some 1,500 years later the modern translator (within the fiction) makes the same decision and leaves instructions that his translation only be published after his own death.

What follows is 31 chapters (each supposedly an individual scroll) in which Hypa the monk talks about his life, explores his struggles with his faith, and tells of how he came to be involved in the defining conflict of his era – the battle between Bishop Cyril of Alexandria and Bishop Nestorius regarding the true nature of Christ’s divinity. To most today that question likely sounds obscure and academic. For fifth Century Christians it was a question worth killing over.

Given the density of some of the material Azazeel’s success rests heavily on how the reader takes to Hypa. Fortunately he’s a very likable narrator. He’s devout, but not unquestioningly so. He’s a little naive at times but friendly and good hearted. He’s a skilled physician, is exceptionally well read and has an inquiring mind. In the course of the novel he has two major love affairs, both of which cause him no small guilt given monks aren’t really supposed to do that sort of thing. He’s human.

He writes prompted by Azazeel – the enemy and tempter of mankind. Hypa likes to blame Azazeel for his own doubts and unmonkly desires, but those are born of his intelligence and humanity and not from any supernatural source. Faced with questions he can’t answer Hypa finds it easier to blame the devil than to look too hard into himself.

Why has everything gone dark? The light of faith which used to shine inside me, the peace of mind which kept me company in my loneliness, like a candle in the night, my serenity within the walls of this gentle room, even the daylight sun, I see them today extinguished and abandoned.

Hypa’s faith has partly been damaged by his scholarship, which has led to him seeing parallels between some Christian teachings and the pre-Christian pagan beliefs of his ancestors, but more by what he’s seen. Hypa witnessed the rise of Bishop Cyril in Alexandria. He was there for the brutal death of the philosopher Hypatia, flayed to death by a mob fuelled with religious hysteria. He’s seen how issues of doctrinal difference can be blown up and exploited for temporal power.

Bishop Cyril here is a character all too familiar to us today. He uses religion as a weapon to increase his own authority and to destroy his chosen enemies. He comes from a religion of love, but preaches only hate. Here Hypa speaks with him and Cyril explains his absolutist philosophy:

Then, in a moment of courage or stupidity, lowering my voice, I asked him in all politeness, ‘And what, your Holiness, are the sciences which are of no benefit, that I might know them and make sure I avoid them?’
‘Good monk, they are the absurdities of the heretics and the delusions of those who devote themselves to astronomy, mathematics and magic. Understand that and stay away from such things, that you may follow in the ways of the Lord and the paths of salvation. If you seek history, then you have the Pentateuch and the Book of Kings. If you seek rhetoric, you have the books of the prophets. If you seek poetry, then you have the psalms. If you seek astronomy, law and ethics, you have the glorious law of the Lord. Arise now, monk, and join the prayers, and perhaps our Lord the living Christ will grace you with a kindly glance.’

Today’s Cyrils are blowing up statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan, banning or burning books, enraging their followers to acts of barbarism in the name of protecting faiths which hardly seem endangered. The Cyrils of this world are always with us. As Nestorius says (arguably a little unsubtly) “‘Killing people in the name of religion does not make it religious. […] Don’t confuse matters, my son, for those are people of power, not people of faith, people of profane cruelty, not of divine love.’”

For Hypa Alexandria is “the capital of salt and cruelty.” When he first arrived there he found himself through mischance in a relationship with a local woman who turns out to be pagan, and who disturbs him with her hatred of Christians (it takes him a while to get up the courage to mention that he’s a monk).

He studies briefly with Hypatia, then joins Cyril’s flock and learns that the Christians hate the pagans just as fiercely as the pagans hate them. Once Cyril’s Christians have destroyed the pagans, however, they easily turn their fury on those who worship the same god as them but in slightly different fashion.

The core question of the age is the nature of Christ; his “hypostasis”. Is Christ a mortal man born of woman through whom we perceive god, or is he god taken physical form? Here are Nestorius’ and Cyril’s respective takes on the issue:

I asked Nestorius, ‘Master, do you believe that Jesus is God, or is He the messenger of God?’
‘The Messiah, Hypa, was born of man, and humans do not give birth to gods. How can we say that the Virgin gave birth to a god and how can we worship a child a few months old, just because the Magi bowed down and worshipped him? The Messiah is a divine miracle, a man through whom God appeared to us. God became incarnate in Him to make of Him a harbinger of salvation and a sign of the new age of mankind, as Bishop Theodore explained to us yesterday…


He wiped his brow with the palm of his hand, and said, ‘Look at Bishop Cyril’s power of expression when he says “God is made one with the flesh hypostatically, for He is the God of all and He is neither His own slave nor His own master. Like us, He came to be under the law, while at the same time Himself speaking the law and being a lawgiver like God. He is one hypostasis, one person, one nature, son and Lord, and since the holy Virgin brought forth corporeally God made one with flesh according to nature, for this reason we call her Mother of God.” Bishop Cyril is very eloquent, Hypa, and he knows what he is saying, and he will never go back on what he has said, and Bishop Nestorius will never retract his belief that God adopted Jesus as a manifestation of Himself, and for the sake of God the unseen we worship the visible Jesus, aware that they are two persons, that is, according to Nestorius, Christ the Assumer, or the Logos of God, and Christ the Assumed Man who is called by the name which he adopted.’

It takes no small skill firstly just to make a modern atheist like myself even understand the issue they’re discussing and secondly to make me care about it. I cared though because they do, because to Nestorius and Hypa and Cyril and others this is a vitally important issue.

After the atrocities in Alexandria Hypa moves to a small and remote monastery where he finds himself much happier. Even there though the world cannot be escaped, and he finds himself in love with the widow Martha who comes to sing in the local church choir. The very first chapter refers to Martha and we know she’s Hypa’s greatest temptation, one that perhaps most of us today would urge him to give in to just as his Azazeel does. I’m not religious, but if I’m wrong and there is a god they would I hope forgive love.

The conceit that everything we read is Hypa’s written record of his life doesn’t always quite work. Occasionally Hypa and Azazeel argue, and I found it slightly incredible that as Hypa wrestled with his externalised conscience he dutifully wrote down their exchanges:

The velvet folds and the train of the dress with the gilt stitching rippled with each graceful step that brought her floating towards me. ‘I see you like description, but that’s enough. Carry on with your account of what happened. Your description of Martha excites me.’ ‘Get thee hence, Azazeel.’

Ironically then the weakest part of this otherwise fascinating and surprisingly engaging novel is the character it’s named after, Azazeel. Every time Hypa argues with Azazeel/himself I remembered I was reading a novel. Fortunately it doesn’t happen that often and it certainly isn’t a fatal flaw. It’s a consequence of Ziedan’s chosen structure at times clashing with some of the points he wishes to make.

I’ve intentionally included some fairly dense quotes here as I wanted to bring out the nature of the debates the characters are having within the fiction, but I don’t want to make this sound like a dry book. It’s dense with life. The tragedy of it is that while the details of why and how we kill each other change over time, the death and the cruelty remain all too familiar. Fortunately, Ziedan also reminds us that while the Cyrils remain with us so too do the Hypas.

Other reviews

The review which first put me on to this novel was Stu’s at Winston’s Dad’s Blog, here. Although this isn’t remotely a fantasy novel and contains absolutely no fantastic elements, there’s a good (but spoiler-rich) review at the Fantasy Book Review site here. If you know of others please let me know. Azazeel won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction so I’m a little surprised it’s not received more attention than I’m aware of.


Filed under Arabic Literature, Ziedan, Youssef