Friday, 26 March 2010

Andrea Levy: The Long Song

Andrea Levy's new novel, the Long Song, has just been listed for the Orange Prize for fiction and it's a compulsive read.

July is born a slave - the daughter of a sugar-cane worker and a brutal overseer. She is intelligent and resourceful and in 19th century Jamaica the Plantation owner’s sister takes her to train as a personal maid, teaching her to read and write. But soon the island is caught up in the violence and confusion that accompanied the end of slavery. The long desired Abolition brings - not prosperity and peace - but starvation and chaos.
July’s first child - her ‘pickney’ - a son Thomas, is fathered by a ‘free nigger’ who is accused of a murder he didn’t commit. July leaves her baby on the doorstep of a Baptist missionary she knows will give her child a better life than the one she is living. Her second child, fathered by a white man she had hoped to marry, is stolen from her and taken to England. It is the son, Thomas, reunited with his mother, who encourages her to write her own memoir.
July tells her story with humour and compassion. She is a wonderful character and I would happily have spent a much longer time in her company. The song wasn’t long enough. The best books are the ones you don’t want to end. This is a 5 star read.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Roopa Farooki: The Way Things Look to Me

The Way Things Look to Me is a redemptive modern fairy tale - where the Good get their just desserts and even Horribly Horrid Humans are redeemed by Love. Sounds really trite when reduced to that, but the book is much, much more profound.
There are 3 voices in the novel, Asif, the eldest brother of an orphaned family, 23, an accountant by day and a carer by night for his 19 year old, autistic sister, Yasmin, whose obsessions rule his life. Lila, his younger sibling, doesn’t live at home any more. She is an art school drop-out, who has a succession of crap jobs and sexually exploitative relationships. Where Asif is sadly resigned to his restricted life, Lila is angry and bitter that her childhood has been stolen from her by the limitations of her sister’s condition. She has often, truthfully, wished Yasmin dead so that they could all be free to lead normal lives. The guilt she suffers because of it, is destroying her.
The third voice is that of Yasmin, whose life revolves around repetitions, and the endless white noise of the compulsively remembered details of every day, every moment of her life. The way that Farooki gets inside the landscape of Yasmin’s mind, voicing her thoughts, is remarkable.
As the book opens, all their lives are about to change, as a documentary TV unit begins to make a film of Yasmin’s life.
One of the best things about the novel is its structure - the voices repeat in a musical sequence, and Farooki takes the reader expertly backwards and forwards in time, aiming everything towards a conclusion that is moving and utterly satisfying without a tinge of sentimentality.

Friday, 19 March 2010

S.J. Parris: Heresy

As a lover of detective fiction I’m always ready to read something new. Heresy ticked a lot of boxes. I’d just encountered the sixteenth century Italian Giordano Bruno in another context - the world of Florence and the Medici. He was once of the most advanced minds of his time - proposing the heretical theory that not only did the earth and other planets circulate round the sun, instead of vice versa, but that there were other planetary systems out there and other universes. Like a lot of early Einsteins he was burnt at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition while still a young man.
In S.J. Parris’s book, he is in England at the court of Queen Elizabeth - one of the known facts of his life - a friend of Sir Philip Sydney and on the payroll of Walsingham, to spy out Catholic recusants. He is also following the trail of a Forbidden Book, originally looted from a library in Alexandria and now being black-marketed around Europe. On a trip to the University of Oxford to debate his theories of the universe with more conventional minds (and look for the book) he becomes involved in solving the brutal murder of the sub-rector of Lincoln College.
This is not Umberto Eco, but it is a good read. It began a little slowly for me - 100 pages of lead-in - and some of the metaphysical conversations could have been edited down, but once the bodies began to turn up, murdered in gruesome and unlikely ways, the pace picked up and I found myself gripped by it.
I didn’t mind the real Giordano Bruno being translated into a fictional detective as much as I expected. S.J. Parris handles the mingling of fact and fiction beautifully. The historical period is rendered well too, without the intrusion of gratuitous detail.
S.J. Parris is better known as Stephanie Merritt, the deputy literary editor of the Observer, and already has two novels to her credit, Gaveston and Real. I think she has a winner on her hands here - the Elizabethan period is a very fertile source for novels of intrigue, betrayal and assassination. Giordano Bruno would be astounded by the direction that his afterlife has taken, but he makes a very interesting hero, as this interview with the author demonstrates.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Isa and May: Margaret Forster

It seems appropriate that while waiting for the birth of my granddaughter Isabela, I should have been reading a book about grandmothers.
Isamay is a young woman in her twenties, trying to make sense of the conflicting role models provided by the grandmothers she is named for - the upper class, matriarchal Isabel (known as Isa), and the working class, rather bolshy May. Isamay has high achieving parents and is struggling to find a direction for her own life. Her current project is an MA dissertation on the importance of grandmothers in society. Each chapter in the novel includes a synopsis of one particularly high-profile woman’s attitude to their grandchildren, Queen Victoria, Sarah Bernhardt , Margaret Mead etc.
The novel starts slowly with a lot of ‘telling’ and back-story in the early chapters, though the pace picks up later when Isamay begins to act on curious pieces of information she unearths about her own family history. She discovers that her grandmothers have secrets and their lives are not as respectable as family stories have led Isamay to believe.

Margaret Forster is a very accomplished novelist and biographer with more than 30 published titles (most of them still in print), since Georgy Girl caught the public’s imagination in 1965. Her ability to portray interesting elderly women was apparent in her fourth novel, The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff, whose central character is a grandmother very similar to May. Since the mid nineteen nineties, Margaret Forster has produced her very best work, including the two family memoirs Hidden Lives and Precious Lives, and a distinguished biography of Daphne du Maurier. Her most recent novel ‘Over’ was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction.
Unfortunately Isa and May is not one of Margaret’s best novels. When I finally put it down, I actually wished that she had written it as non-fiction - the research into the role of grandmothers in society was intriguing, but didn’t blend particularly well with the fictional context. I would have loved to have read Margaret’s analysis of her own personal experience, both of being a grandchild and being a grandmother. I think it would have made a much more powerful book. But the novel is still an enjoyable read.

Margaret Forster is an interesting author from the point of view of other authors. She refuses to do the literature festival circuit, rarely gives interviews and shuns the celebrity author slot. In fact she does none of the things publishers insist we should be doing in order to sell books. She is also in the age bracket where publishers often suggest voluntary euthanasia. Yet her books sell better and better. Word of mouth and readers' recommendations are obviously the best publicity an author can have.