Month: January 2008

Hanif Kureishi: Something to Tell You

Hanif Kureishi has been on the literary scene for about twenty years, but I’ve never felt the urge to read one of his books.  Maybe it’s because no one loves a renaissance man: novels, plays, screenwriting, memoirs – make your mind up, will you?  But his new novel Something to Tell You has already had some good advance word in the papers – hype, you say? – so I couldn’t resist when the opportunity arose.

Something to Tell You

The cover shows a multitude of couples in various entwinements (but nothing troubling: and I did look), which pretty well sums up the book.  Kureishi courted controversy with his novella Intimacy, which some claimed was a self-serving account of his failed marriage; Something to Tell You makes its narrator, Jamal Khan, a psychotherapist (“an autobiographer’s assistant, midwife to my patients’ fantasies”), so the relationships, failed at worst and at best straining, fill the pages to bursting.  As to whether there is more author than character in observations like “The founding myth of heterosexuality: completion, the ultimate fulfilment,” I will not speculate (although in saying so, I kind of have).

Jamal – I find myself thinking of him in first name terms – was a youth in the sixties, and still acts that way, even though now the only sixties he’s proximate to are his own.  Even now, separated from his wife and on occasional terms with his son, he’s not averse to a little light prostitution:

Then she secured me to the bed with handcuffs.  In a corner of the room was a cross to which you could also be tied, but I preferred the bed.  I was keen to try most perversions, provided you could sit down for them.

Even then, his libido cannot quite subdue his inner analyst:

I felt as mystified as ever about the multiplicity and importance of human desire, and of how destructive and fulfilling it could be, with, often, the destructiveness sponsoring the achievement.

This is a central issue for the book, along with that of “[responsibility] for our selves.  But what are our selves?  Where do they begin and how far do they extend?”  Responsibility for themselves often seems to be the last thing on the minds of Jamal and his contemporaries, though destructive desire is pretty high up the agenda.  Many, indeed, will find their middle-class London-centric self-indulgence maddening, and Kureishi acknowledges this too:

Most nights his crowd went to drinks parties and then to dinner.  It was expensive: the clothes, food, drugs, drink, taxis.  Not that money was an issue for them.  ‘But it’s like an Evelyn Waugh novel!’ Lisa said, going to some trouble never to see any of them again.  ‘He’s one of my favourite writers,’ Henry replied.

Henry is one of the grandest characters in the book, a theatre director with a gourmand’s appetite for everything, who “carried his own atmosphere with him” and has a splendid line in self-involved speeches (“I don’t want to be loved.  I want to be desired.  Love is safety, but desire is foul.  ‘Give me excess of it…'”).  He is in love with Jamal’s sister, Miriam.  This is the least in a circuit of relationships past and present which haunt Jamal first- and second-hand.  He is still in love with his first girlfriend Ajita.  He can’t quite divorce his wife, and his son often hates him.  Oh, and did he tell you he was once involved in a murder?  Guilt gets a look-in too.  Therapist: heal thyself.

The murder story, and its long-term consequences, keeps the plot going at otherwise quiet moments – though there is little quiet in this teeming novel of lifelike messiness – and one of the incidental pleasures are the asides into the history and practice of psychotherapy.  As well as this, Something to Tell You acts as a scattergun social history of Britain in the last forty years, touching on race relations, celebrity culture (“That was how, until recently, we examined the Other, through the imagination and intelligence of an artist like Ibsen or Proust.  Now everyone revealed everything but no one understood anything”) and (as inevitably as American novels ‘dealing with’ September 11) the London Tube bombings of July 2005.

The structure of the book seems shapeless, but in fact is better described as roomy, giving space for Kureishi to try to fit everything in – even if some of the elements stick out obtrusively as a result, and there are sags and gaps here and there.  Any sufficiently messy performance has a charm of its own, particularly when so many of the players are so consumed with themselves.  Jamal identifies two of them as “madmen … their craziness not making an increase of life but, rather, consternation, despair, isolation.”  He should take a look at himself.

Andrew Crumey: Sputnik Caledonia

Andrew Crumey is one of those writers – it seems an endless family – whose books I’ve been boring everyone about ever since … ooh, his last one. Mobius Dick (2004) was a masterpiece, a dazzling contraption made of multiple worlds interlocking like clockwork. Furiously clever in both scientific and artistic realms, it was also wonderfully entertaining. Probably I was only so delighted by it because I had scratched my head a little over his previous novel, Mr Mee (2000), though I know I’ll love it next time around, and on reflection what’s not to like about a book which opens with the line It’s said of the Xanthic sect that they believed fire to be a form of life, since it has the ability to reproduce itself”?

More amazing still is that Crumey wrote these sparklers while holding down a job as literary editor of Scotland on Sunday. Then after Mobius Dick, he was awarded the Northern Rock Foundation writer’s award, which enabled him to give up the day job and concentrate full time on his next one. He said, “With all my other novels I would write bits and pieces and they would connect together and usually have several threads. With this one I wanted something which was a bit simpler but with more complex ideas going on.” More complex ideas! Is the man mad?

And here we have it, Sputnik Caledonia, and a whopper at 550 pages; he sure is giving Northern Rock value for money. And despite the length it is “a bit simpler:” I wouldn’t say linear exactly, but where the earlier books cycled regularly between different characters, centuries and worlds, this has three separate (but not quite discrete) sections. In the good-natured first part, Robbie Coyle is a twelve-year-old boy in the Scotland of the 1970s, brought up by a whimsical and uncomplaining mother, and an avidly socialist father (“Even if I’m wrong I never go back on my word”), who longs for the revolution:

His own experiences as a child, he told his offspring, had been enough to convince him that the Catholic Church in which he was raised was only another way of controlling people’s minds, along with capitalism, television and golf, the latter being one of Mr Coyle’s pet hates. … ‘At least he was a good socialist, I’ll say that for Jesus. It’s these people who want to bow down and worship him that I can’t abide.’

Robbie, fascinated by space flight but inculcated into hating America, decides to learn Russian and astrophysics and become a cosmonaut. All this, in case I have failed to get across the tone, is done with one eyebrow raised. He also falls in love, and it’s at a moment of consummation (“their lips touched and he was blasted into space”) that everything changes.

The central chunk of the book – 300 pages – sees Mr Coyle get his revolution (“The Coyles’ next door neighbours were the Dunbars, who had a telephone, a car, took package holidays in Spain, and would face summary execution come the uprising”). We are in the British Democratic Republic, the same alternate present which Crumey has used before in his first novel Music, in a Foreign Language, and in parts of Mobius Dick. Robbie – now called Robert – Coyle is a soldier at The Installation:

‘The Installation was created over thirty years ago, right at the end of the Patriotic War, when the invading Nazi scum who terrorized this land of ours for five dark years were defeated by the People’s Army. The Central Committee knew that if such horrors were to be prevented from ever happening again, then Britain needed to have its own nuclear deterrent alongside that of our Soviet allies.’

To go into more detail would definitely be spoilerish, but Crumey creates a world which at first appears to have occasional parallels with the first part, and gradually is shown to have threads of light peeking out and linking the worlds in a complex matrix of equivalence, and even characters who balance others in the alternate world (and yes, The Wizard of Oz is acknowledged, before you put your hand up). “Everything is deliberate. Nothing is accidental.” Crumey has fun with the language of ideology, such as when the Installation’s recruits are being lectured on a heavenly body:

‘In the capitalist world, such hypothetical objects are referred to as black holes. Of course we reject the term, with its colonialist implications, its unsavoury air of medieval clericalism, its sheer inaccuracy. … We follow the Soviet nomenclature and call it a frozen star. What to capitalists symbolizes a fate worse than death represents for us the highest form of astrophysical evolution. Our visitor is not a monster – it is a unique opportunity for socialist exploration.’

At the same time, a little mirroring goes a long way, and Crumey plots out the story in this central section in too painstaking detail. As a result the book appears less complex and rich than the much shorter Mobius Dick and Mr Mee. I missed too the literary intelligence of those books, which by reference and parallel lit up whole ranks of European authors from Hoffmann and Mann to Proust and Rousseau: here, we have just a little Goethe. The central notion – “Everything in the universe both determines and is determined by everything else” – is hammered out repeatedly. Did the freedom of writing full time soften Crumey’s sharp edge?

But it is foolish to feel disappointment that Sputnik Caledonia is not more like Crumey’s earlier books. We should not want such gifted writers to repeat themselves (though weakly, I often do). Fortunately then, the third part of the book gives a new dimension to Crumey’s writing: this master of making our heads spin has found out how to hit the heart. Again, little more can be said without ruining it, and the new voices he adopts take time to bed in, but it neatly undermines any, well, neatness in our assumptions of how Part 2 can be explained. It also provides a moving portrait of decline and loss, which is not bad going for a book which started out on a cleverly comic note.

Sputnik Caledonia is a long but approachable book; it takes time to read, but remarkably, it forces your brain to carry on finishing it even after the end. Must be some scientific trickery hidden in the pages. In Part 1 Robbie, while ‘training’ for space travel, reads textbooks which become “his Bible: sacred, encyclopaedically authoritative, open to infinite interpretation, and almost entirely unreadable.” A couple of these epithets, very definitely excluding the last, could be applied to the works of Andrew Crumey.

Charles Lambert: Little Monsters

Apologies to anyone who has spotted that some recent posts here have been about books not yet released. I’ve been lucky to pick up advance copies of a few titles, and if – surely we are agreed – a newly acquired book is much more enticing as a potential read than an old book, then a book which is so new it hasn’t even been published yet, must have double enticement, enticement squared. Anyway, I hope any frustration about not being able to buy these titles yet will be outweighed by the interest piqued in treats to come. I have only a couple left anyway, so normal service will be resumed. Plus, if I waited the month or so till publication before writing about them, I’d be scratching my head trying to remember what they were about again.

Little Monsters

Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters is a first novel which is more than just a ‘promising debut’; it breaks through promise and into solid achievement. Admittedly the author is not your traditional debutante, and when a new kid on the block is not a kick in the arse off Paul Torday’s late-starter age, we might expect good things. I was not disappointed. The book rings with an impressive assurance, and the aplomb with which Lambert handles his explicit themes put me in mind of Peter Ho Davies’s The Welsh Girl, one of my favourites of last year. It’s a traditional novel but knotty enough for modern sensibilities; and like Davies’s novel, it takes a girl as its central character and creates an affecting parable of belonging and escape.

Carol opens her story with an attention-grabbing line:

When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother.

and if that seems a touch showy, then be warned that Lambert does at times prefer to depict clearly what the reader might prefer to work out for themselves. Within these limitations, however, the characters are strongly drawn and smoothly defined. Carol goes to stay with her aunt Margot, who appears not to have felt any particular loss, to say the least, with the murder of her sister (“your mother was a whore”). She has a son, Nicholas, who is not much more welcoming than Margot is, and then there is Uncle Joey, who is not aunt Margot’s partner or lover but a Polish refugee called Jozef. They run a pub:

None of us had a home. We lived and ate and slept around the borders of a public space that influenced everything we did; our lives were peripheral to its needs, its hours. It always puzzles me to read about pubs or hotels with a family atmosphere. How do they manage it? What do they know what we didn’t? What we had was the opposite: a family with the atmosphere of a pub.

All this is being recalled in retrospect by Carol: now, fortysomething years later, she has made a life with Jozef, who is twenty years her senior. The frisson this knowledge gives us – what happened there exactly? – adds greatly to the atmosphere of darkness under the surface of the story. In the present day, Carol and Jozef are living in Italy and become involved with an Albanian refugee girl called Kakuna: her sullen violence seems to Carol a cry for help, she remembers her own difficulty in fitting in, and so the parallels between past and present are established.

This neatness and completeness is something which runs through Little Monsters: the title is echoed in several aspects, the themes of flight and family secrets, bullying and belonging, precisely set out on the page. Secondary characters like Carol’s schoolfriend Patricia are well drawn, and there are dramatic endings to both concurrent storylines. Only a last-page revelation by Jozef seemed to upset this, and to leave much more to be said. By then, however, I was satisfied, and looking forward to what Lambert does next. Just don’t wait another 54 years for us to find out, Mr L.

Sean O’Brien: The Drowned Book

A change of pace for me, with – of all things! – a book of poetry.  I was going to say modern poetry, but that has fogeyish hints of modern art, doesn’t it, with an implication of chastisement for anyone daring to try to drive cultural achievement onward when everybody knows that nobody alive can write/paint/video-install as well as anyone dead.  Anyway, my extremely limited experience of m…- contemporary poetry tends toward the down-to-earth, the accessible, partly for want of schooling in the damn art, and partly for a woeful lack of ambition.  This means I do have experience of Sean O’Brien, mainly through his earlier collection Ghost Train, which ranged from subversive homage to MacNeice’s Autumn Journal in ‘Somebody Else,’ (“You live here on the city’s edge / Among back lanes and stable blocks / From which you glimpse the allegations / Of the gardening bourgeoisie that all is well”) to a sensitive, sharp portrayal of football (a subject in which I thought I had no interest) in ‘Autumn Begins at St James’s Park, Newcastle.’

Ghost Train won the Forward Poetry Prize in 1995 when it was published; his next collection, Downriver (2001) repeated the feat; and in a hat-trick the “Toon Army tsunami” would be proud of, his latest The Drowned Book (2007) took both the Forward Prize and, this week, the T.S. Eliot prize.  Pretty soon, when the presses crank up for a new O’Brien collection, all the other poets in the land will keep their powder dry till next year.

Sean O'Brien: The Drowned Book

The T.S. Eliot prize panel called The Drowned Book “fierce, funny and deeply melancholy,” and the Forward judges described it as “a sustained elegy for lost friends, landscapes and a decaying culture.”  Well, one of the people featured I am pretty sure O’Brien would not consider a lost friend.  In ‘Valedictory’, words like Orgreave and Belgrano might just ring a few bells; or if not, how about this?

Branch libraries and playing fields
Deliver rather lower yields
Than asset-stripping mountebanks
Can rake in flogging dope and tanks:
Great Britain!

Strange: no one nowadays admits
To voting in the gang of shits
Who staffed her army of the night:
Our history, it seems, is quite

And if digs at Margaret Thatcher seem twenty years late (and toward the end of the book, there’s a doubly painful account of Dupuytren’s contracture, the hand condition which O’Brien seems to share with Baroness T), the ‘fierce and witty’ destructive elements are balanced by a melancholy but defiant urge: as the legacy of the 1980s lives on, O’Brien ends the poem by declaring that “The task is always to rebuild / Our city.”

So this is political poetry, and the essences of what the country has lost since Thatcherism came to town is revisited in ‘Fantasia on a Theme of James Wright,’ which O’Brien takes the case of the coal miners and gives “an elegy for the pitmen, but also a celebration of their life and labour.”  (“The singing of the dead inside the earth / Is like the friction of great stones, or like the rush / Of water into newly opened darkness.”)  He also brings us up to date, with present government policy on terrorism laws, in ‘Song: Habeas Corpus’:

Forget about due process,
The evidence, the court:
The evil I’ve committed
Is as secretive as thought.

Just think, if I’m not found in time,
Then I might perpetrate
An absolutely novel crime
Known only to the state –

An act more terrible because
It hasn’t happened yet –
For in our time the future tense
Will be the major threat.

Ditties like this may tread a line between simple and simplistic, but O’Brien is capable of more complex things.  The theme of water drives through the book, as rivers, drains and sewers illustrate the forgotten past and the unwelcome present, from police and politicians “whose only energy / Is fear” to lost friends (“The River Road”):

For afterlife, only beginning, beginning,
Wide, dark waters that grow in the telling,
Where the river road carries us now.

Toward the end, the moving waterways are brought overground and replaced by railways – a manmade development which O’Brien can endorse – and the feeling is carefully optimistic; allowing, of course, for the odd journey to hell.  This is done both with artful solemnity (“Arcadia”) and playfully, where “Timor Mortis” finds O’Brien at his funniest on the indivisibility of humankind when it comes to condemnation:

The wonks who work the cutting edge,
Immanuel Kant and Percy Sledge,
With Peter Pan, the Golden Horde,
All travellers not yet on board
Plus those who think it don’t apply,
Who witter, witter, “I’m, like, why?”
Join Zeno, Zog and Baudelaire
As conscripts of le grand nowhere
Some on ice and some on fire,
Some with slow piano wire,
Screaming, weeping, brave as fuck
And absolutely out of luck.

Chin up, Sean, even if you do join “Captain Nemo, Guildenstern / And suchlike planks booked in to burn,” at least you’ve cleaned up at the poetry awards.  And it’s not just through luck either.

Adam Mars-Jones: Pilcrow

Adam Mars-Jones is such a tease. First he made us wait ten years after being named one of the best young British novelists before actually publishing his superb first novel, The Waters of Thirst, in 1993. Then his next book of fiction, twin novellas under the title Hypo Vanilla, has been coming and going from Faber’s catalogue since 1995, without ever actually appearing (Amazon presently has it listed as published in June 2007, but ‘currently unavailable’). So, Mr Mars-Jones, with this 500-page novel springing unexpectedly up after all this time, you are really spoiling us: at last.

Adam Mars-Jones: Pilcrow

A pilcrow is a punctuation symbol – ¶ – used to indicate a paragraph break. The hero of Pilcrow, John Cromer, identifies himself with it because

I’m not sure I can claim to have taken my place in the human alphabet… I’m more like an optional accent or specialised piece of punctuation, a cedilla, umlaut or pilcrow, hard to track down on the keyboard of computer or typewriter. Pilcrow is the prettiest of the bunch, assessed purely as a word. And at least it stands on its own. It doesn’t perch or dangle. Pilcrow it is.

In fact John Cromer doesn’t stand on his own; he doesn’t stand at all really, or sit very well either, due to a childhood disease which has left most of his bones fused. As a result he spends most of his childhood in bed, and Mars-Jones’s achievement is to make these opening hundred-odd pages of immobility among the most interesting the book. We spend all our time in John’s head, but his parents are generously painted, if not flatteringly: his mother carries down a hysterical caution (particularly with regard to John’s health) from her relationship with her own mother, and his father is a traditional type (“in the 1950s, men didn’t touch their children except to smack them, ruffle their hair or carry them from burning buildings”). Their relationship has ghosts of its own:

There were no bad marriages in those days, none so bad they couldn’t be endured. … Marriage was the rest-cure then, for relationships between men and women. Marriage was bed rest for couples. Lie down as man and wife and wait to feel better. If after a while it doesn’t seem to be working, then keep trying for another few years. As long as it takes, in fact.

Pilcrow is an odd book, an extraordinary one in many ways, because it eschews the pared-down, pixel-perfection of The Waters of Thirst and instead leaves nothing out for the period it covers: John’s childhood up to the age of about sixteen. The prose is less highly evolved, and at times I would have liked more Adam Mars-Jones in the narrative and not so much John Cromer. Yet there are peaks of brilliant wit, such as a tour de force scene where John’s mother explains the facts of life to him while he is still a young child, and using family euphemisms:

‘But that’s rude. Why do mummies and daddies have to be rude to make a baby?’

‘Well when they do it, it’s nice. So if it’s nice, it’s not rude.’

‘Nice? Nice? What’s nice about putting your taily in a hole between a lady’s legs? I bet it hurts!’

‘No, it doesn’t. The lady likes it.’

I DIDN’T MEAN THE LADY! I meant, I bet it hurts the man!’ My concern was all for him, in this desperate transaction. The poor man! ‘He must love the baby terribly to do that with his taily.’

‘Oh no, the man likes it!’

‘How do you know? You’re not a man!’

‘No, but I told you – Daddy says it’s nice.’

This was where her lying was blatant and I became incredulous with anger. ‘Daddy would never say it was nice to stick his taily in a hole between a lady’s legs.’

‘He says it’s nice.’

‘Bring him here. I have to hear him say it.’ I was almost in tears. ‘He won’t say it, he can’t say it because it’s not true. You’re fibbing.’

This raises the same objections of unrealistic precociousness in childhood dialogue that Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk did, but telling his own version of the truth is the prerogative of the first person narrator. There are other curious elements in Pilcrow which made me doubt the whole-truthness of John’s account. On the opening page he tells us that the first car he drove was a 1960s Mini, a curious choice for a young man whose hips are fused straight so he can’t even sit properly in a chair: how could he drive at all? Could John’s story, unremarkable in many elements even as it is, in fact be the fantasies of a completely immobile man, trapped in his own head? (“I was told not to move, and I was a good boy. I had to move something, and if it wasn’t my body then it would have to be my mind.”)

In time John goes to school – or almost. “I would be going to a hospital, and the school was tucked away somewhere inside it. The hospital would be there all the time. The school would put in an appearance now and then, as and when.” His two schools take up the last two-thirds of the book, which is most interesting in its convincing and heartfelt depiction of a disabled gay boy’s exploration of his sexuality: when all your physical activities are desperate fumbles, then sexual expression becomes particularly hazardous.

At the same time there are holes in John’s story: he makes references throughout his memoir of his spiritual explorations – Hinduism seems to be his path of choice – but we get nothing of this in the main story. Is this a pointer that the things which loom largest in our lives are those which we deal with subconsciously, and sweep under the surface? Or is it evidence of an unreliable narrator, along with little comments like “I’m not interested in family history, not really believing in either family or history,” or reminders of how, at school, John was especially gifted at “story-telling”?

The alternative is that Pilcrow is not a complete story at all: it stops rather than ends, and later volumes might fill us in on the elements hinted at but not detailed here (when so very many things are detailed here). Indeed, one website describes Pilcrow as “the first book in the John Cromer series.” That would explain a lot. Oh Mr Mars-Jones! I told you he was a tease.

Paul Torday: The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce

If you were living under a rock last year, you might have missed the phenomenal success of Paul Torday’s debut novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.  It won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing; it was serialised on Radio 4; oh, and the small matter of featuring on the Richard & Judy list of summer reads didn’t hurt.  Torday, who was 60 when the book was published, hasn’t sat back and polished his gong, but instead next month gives us his second novel, The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce.  The whimsical title and jaunty cover promise more light comic satire: and any reader expecting that might be disappointed.  Me?  I was pleasantly surprised.

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce

Wilberforce is a 37-year-old former software engineer, who has sold his business to pursue a life of, well, drinking.  Or as he sees it, to safeguard the inheritance of his great friend Francis Black, whose house and underground wine cellar (“the undercroft”) he bought for a million pounds.  Not bad for a hundred thousand bottles of priceless wine.

‘As he sees it’ is the key here.  We join the story in 2006 when Wilberforce is in full denial:

With, I admit, trembling hands I found the last bottle of Château Carbonnieux and opened it.  An alcoholic, which I am not and never have been, would not have sat and let it breathe for half an hour, and let it come up towards room temperature.  He would not have poured it lovingly into the large bowl of a tasting glass, to ensure the bouquet could develop properly.  Nor would he have checked the glass first for any mustiness.

No, Wilberforce is certainly not an alcoholic, it’s just that “I have made up for the woeful ignorance of the first thirty years of my life by the passion and intensity of my relationship with wine ever since.”  The scene is set for the eternal struggle:  the bottle v everything else, everything else v the bottle.  It’s such a tough one to call, isn’t it?

Torday has cleverly used the same structure as Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, so the narrative presents periods of Wilberforce’s life in reverse order: first 2006, then 2004, 2003 and 2002.  We know the ending from one quarter of the way through the book, but the beauty is in what happens next – or before.  Things we thought we knew are subtly undermined, characters’ relationships are brought into focus (and smashed apart), and layer upon layer of cruel dramatic irony is applied.  Only one coincidence hinted strongly at toward the end was a step too far for me.

The success of The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce – and why it is a bold move as Torday’s follow-up to Salmon Fishing – is to make such a readable story out of pretty bleak ingredients, and from a hero who is, if not an out-and-out thoroughgoing bastard, certainly selfish for much of the time.  (Of course all these are excellent factors for any book to exhibit, in my view.)  There is some sympathy to be had though, as we see the reason for Wilberforce’s drive and position, as a boy and now a man who belongs nowhere, when “everyone else in the world was in on the secret and had a key to its iron door.”

Torday may not be a great stylist, and some of the research both on wine and the medical consequences of wine could have been a little more lightly worn, but I suspect few will care about such niceties when the pages practically turn themselves and the closing lines of the book, after such a heady brew, are so deliciously sobering.

Nell Leyshon: Black Dirt

Nell Leyshon’s debut novel Black Dirt (2004) is a salutary indicator of just how many good books are published each year that completely pass us by. I’d never heard of it before book blogger extraordinaire dovegreyreader named it her favourite among all the novels she read last year (and that’s a lot of novels). This, I hope, is a validation of the purpose of all the frantic scribblers in the book blogging community, sharing our enthusiasm for titles we think others might have missed (what do you mean, you haven’t read The Waters of Thirst yet!).

Black Dirt

Black Dirt is one of those books which fits an awful lot into a very small space: 186 pages, mostly dialogue.  The story is divided into three frames: the first is the present day, where elderly Frank has been taken home from hospital to die, pumped full of morphine on demand (“Silver water in his veins”), and surrounded by his children, including the childlike, mentally restricted George.  As the morphine causes him to drift in and out of consciousness (and reality), Frank recalls his childhood where his sister Iris began to behave strangely: we feel sure no good can come of this.  He also remembers the stories his father told him, histories of England from Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of the Holy Grail, through Kings Arthur and Alfred to the dissolution of the monasteries.  These stories, some less well known to me than they should be, are given vivid life by Leyshon’s use of down-to-earth language and wit: oh, and talking birds:

The robin reached out and touched Joseph’s beard with its beak.  ‘That’d make nice nesting material.’

‘You’re not having it,’ Joseph said.

‘All right.  Keep your hair on.  I’m only saying.’

The setting, of Glastonbury and surrounding area, is central to the book.  The land is frequently flooded, and the waterlogged sensation gets into the reader’s skin and helps amplify the mythic feeling of the stories.  This is all the more remarkable given the limited conversations the characters have – well, they are family, after all – exchanges often so banal as to be (deliberately, I think) comic, and which put me in mind of Magnus Mills.  Leyshon, a playwright by day, has nothing to learn in the realm of dialogue.

The middle storyline, of Frank’s childhood and What Iris Did, builds to a suffocating climax, and the final revelation loses no power for being foreseeable.  The temptation with such an smoothly written and readable book must be to rush through it, though taking it slowly fits in better with the sultry pace of the characters’ lives, and is in the end more rewarding.

Black Dirt is a book I would never have heard of, let alone read, without the recommendation of dovegreyreader, and for that I salute her.  It’s a creepy but addictive tale, faithful to its particular setting, and benefiting greatly from that faith, but never excluding.  The symbolism of water is mesmerising, and comparisons to Graham Swift’s Waterland (such as one critic makes on the cover) are for me wide of the mark, as I’ve tried three times to read that damn book and never managed it yet.  No such fear with Black Dirt, which I had to hold myself back from rushing through too quickly.  Now, who’s next for the Black Dirt blog relay?