Ho Hum Friday, Aug 31 2007 

Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl

[some spoilers]

Given the hype and prestige surrounding the Booker Prize, I suppose it’s only inevitable that we should see the advent of the Booker Prize Book. Not a book that wins the prize, you understand, but a book that seems to have been written for the prize, just as some movies seem made for the Oscars. You know the type – usually set in or around World War II and featuring a bleak countryside, a family (often missing at least one parent) scratching out a barren existence on a farm, a general air of sexual frustration, a main protagonist dreaming of escape from his / her small town existence, a colorful cast of villagers, some form of sexual assault or entanglement, guilt, shame, nationalism and / or faith, an unlikely friendship / love affair, partial redemption, epiphany, a sense of loss.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the finest novels of the last fifty years have been written around precisely these themes. Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl, however, reads like nothing so much as a haphazard amalgam of these stock elements, welded together with considerable skill but very little inspiration, to create a novel that is not so much bad as plain dull. It feels unfair to use the word formulaic for a book so painstakingly written, so rich in prose, but it’s the word that, reading the novel, comes most often to mind. (more…)


A Real Find Tuesday, Aug 21 2007 

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost

When I was nine years old a couple of friends and I formed our own detective agency and set out to solve crime. The fact that we didn’t actually have a crime to solve didn’t deter us; the way we saw it, there were thousands of crimes that went undetected everyday, so all we had to do was find one. That way, not only would we get the glory from actually solving the mystery, we would also get the credit for discovering the crime in the first place.

Armed with this philosophy and nurtured on a steady diet of Enid Blyton’s and Three Investigators, we proceeded to scour our neighborhood for ‘clues’. We searched systematically through the local rubbish dump, and were genuinely surprised to find no severed body parts. We spent hours tailing unsuspecting strangers, right up to the point when they turned suspicious. We climbed over a neighbor’s wall into the one vacant house on the street, convinced that it was a den for drug-runners and / or smugglers, and proceeded to dust the windows with talcum powder in search of fingerprints. Our adventures lasted three months – by the end of which time our locality’s obstinate law-abidingness coupled with growing parental concerns about what we were up to put an end to our sleuthing. In the years since, I’ve lost touch with my fellow detectives (to the point where I don’t even remember their names) and had almost forgotten about the whole project.

Until, that is, I was reminded of it by Catherine O’Flynn’s marvellous debut novel What Was Lost. Here at last is the kind of book that makes reading through the Booker long list worth it – a novel that is at once heartbreaking and hilarious, a scathing critique of our consumer society married to a bittersweet meditation on loss and regret. Part Office Space, part To Kill a Mockingbird, What Was Lost is a delicious treat of a book; one that suggests that O’Flynn is someone we’re going to be reading for a long time to come.

A life in fragments Thursday, Aug 16 2007 

Anne Enright’s The Gathering

“This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family – a whole fucking country – drowning in shame.”

Anne Enright, The Gathering

Another day, another Booker prize long list book, another novel about a family mourning for the loss of a loved one. Sigh.

This time around the deceased is one Liam Hegarty, and the person mourning him, or at least the person whose mourning we are witness to, is his younger sister Veronica. Liam, a long time alcoholic and quintessential black sheep, has drowned himself in the sea off Brighton, and his death shatters his younger sister, who has always been close to him (they are less than a year apart in age). What follows is 250 pages of fractured, hysterical narrative as Veronica tries to make sense of Liam’s death and the life that preceded it. There are many things to confront here: a murky secret from their childhood together, from a time when, abandoned by their parents, they lived for a while in their grandmother’s house; the myriad jealousies and rivalries of a family of twelve children; Veronica’s growing recognition that her own life, though perfectly pleasant and successful by every conventional standard, has somehow turned out to be unsatisfying and false. (more…)

Time it was, oh what a time it was Tuesday, Aug 14 2007 

Michael Redhill’s Consolation

They die – the dead return not – Misery
Sits near an open grave and calls them over,
A Youth with hoary hair and haggard eye –
They are the names of kindred, friend and lover
Which he so feebly called – they all are gone!

– Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Preserve your memories”, the song says, “they’re all that’s left you”. Michael Redhill’s Consolation is about precisely that struggle: the fight to redeem the past, hold on to the dead, keep the image of our loved ones fresh in our minds. It is a novel about the terrible tug-of-war between human memory and the forgetful earth, about the extremes to which our hunger for what has been lost will take us, how it will make us scratch about in the dirt for the smallest crumb of what once was.