April wasn’t the cruellest month, but it was the busiest for quite some time. As a result I read only two books. On the plus side, both were good.
No Tomorrow, by Jake Hinkson
I read this for Emma of bookaroundthecorner’s virtual Quais de Polar, but was so busy that I didn’t finish it until long after that had ended. That’s a shame as I’d have liked to have been part of QDP, but the book was everything Emma had described it as (Emma’s post on it is here).
This is an absolutely brutal noir full of lust, murder and bad choices. It’s 1947 and Billie Dixon is hawking third-rate B-movies round the American south to tiny cinemas too remote for regular distribution channels. It’s an unusual job for a woman, but Billie is hard-nosed and hardboiled.
We get our movies out to most of them through states’ rights distributors and exchanges, but some of these theaters are so small or so out of the way we have to dispatch someone out there to peddle the stuff by hand. That’s where the field man comes in. His job is to shovel the studio shit as far into the heartland as he can get it.
Billie’s job takes her to rural Arkansas, and a town ruled by a blind preacher who hates movies and the people who peddle them both. Billie tries to talk him round, and that’s how she meets his wife Amberley. Billie and Amberley fall for each other hard, but a woman running off with a preacher’s wife faces serious jailtime. The preacher is in the way of Billie’s business, and in the way of her having a future with Amberley. If only something might happen to him…
It’s noir so it’s no spoiler to say things don’t go smoothly. It’s a tightly written tale which manages to hit the familiar noir beats while still holding some surprises. Hinkson is great on the small town atmosphere and the period feel, and Billy is a great character (and not the only one). Highly recommended.
Gun Island, by Amitav Ghosh
At this point in April I was neck-deep in work and stuck at home. I wanted something that would take me as far from North London as I could get, but I wasn’t in the mood for SF.
I’d read a while back an article by Amitav Ghosh which criticised literary fiction as a form for not addressing climate change – the biggest issue of our age. He’s written a full non-fiction book on the topic, and Gun Island is his attempt to put his money where his mouth is by showing how fiction might address it.
This is my second Ghosh, and I had mixed views on the first. Still, I thought this sounded unusual and ambitious and with much of it set in the Sundarbans swamps of India and Bangladesh it certainly met the far from London criterion.
Deenanath, Deen for short, is a middle-aged rare book dealer splitting his time between Brooklyn and Kolkata. His life is comfortable but a little sterile. The possibility of romance leads him to briefly accompany an expedition to a rare temple in the Sundarbans where he discovers wall-carvings illustrating an ancient Bengali folk-tale. The tale is of a gun merchant who fled across the world rather than serve the goddess of snakes Manasa Devi. Deen grew up with the story, but the carvings contain details he’s never seen before.
Before Deen has even left the temple he starts to find the myth seeming to reach beyond story into reality. He becomes interested in the underlying historical truth, but as he investigates he finds himself having curious and unexpected encounters with snakes and other deadly creatures. Is it chance? Or is the myth repeating in the modern day?
I forced myself to say aloud ‘This is all chance and coincidence, nothing else’ – and the words had the effect of a prayer, breaking the spell that had descended on me.
Deen’s journey takes him through mangrove swamps increasingly devastated by flood and crop failure, to a Los Angeles threatened by immense firestorms, to a sinking Venice, to rivers where desperate dolphins beach themselves in ever increasing numbers. The goddess, if she’s real, is larger than the human but then so of course is climate change. Ghosh is using the supernatural here to personalise the impersonal but equally vast forces of a changing natural order.
Ghosh is particularly good on the use of technology to challenge borders and to help shrink and navigate the world’s complexities. He explores human trafficking, the Bengali diaspora, the hows and whys of global migrations with the poor fleeing shattered territories in search of better lives, forming new communities virtual and real in seemingly unlikely places.
However, Ghosh is not a subtle writer. The characters are fine, but not particularly nuanced and some are little more than devices. One, a glamorous Italian professor, drops little Italian phrases into her dialogue and uses lots of exclamation marks and is so Italian I didn’t believe she really was (few people live up so completely to their national stereotypes). Most of the other characters fit their story roles, but with little interiority.
Still, Gosh can write plot and he can write description and I did enjoy this. As this review in the Hindu Times says, if Ghosh is heavy handed so nowadays are the headlines. Ironically given Ghosh is slightly dismissive of science fiction his strengths and weaknesses are the ones common to that genre. He’s great at portraying the big, the epic, the sweep and sudden shifts of history and culture; he’s not so good on the small, the personal, the internal.
Ultimately, the question for Gun Island is does it succeed on its own terms? Has Ghosh written a literary novel worth reading as fiction that manages to address climate change as an issue? I think yes. The ending didn’t quite land with me, but I’ve no idea how you do end such a book and overall I think Ghosh pulls it off. Worth reading.
And that’s it! May is back up to five books read which is much more like it, and who knows for June but I’m reading again. I hope you are getting some decent reading in yourselves.