Amanda Prantera and I go back a long way. I’ve had a good deal of pleasure from her novels – she’s written 16, most of which I’ve read – and a certain amount of frustration that she never seems to have had the recognition she deserves. Perhaps this is because her style is often, as The Times put it, “so delicate, so light to the touch that it belies the weight of the substantial talent that produced it.” Perhaps, too, it’s because she – like Brian Moore – is so varied in her subject matter that she hasn’t built up a big readership. When I say varied, among her books are: stories about werewolves and vampires (Strangeloop, 1984; Sabine, 2005; Wolfsong, 2012); historical fiction (The Side of the Moon, 1991) and science fiction (The Kingdom of Fanes, 1995); terrorist thrillers (Letter to Lorenzo, 1999) and conspiracy thrillers (the smartly titled Spoiler (2003), which one reviewer called ‘A Da Vinci Code for grown-ups’); and a barkingly-titled novel about artificial intelligence (Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years After His Lordship’s Death, 1987). If you’re looking for a place to start, I’d suggest Capri File, which in 2001 must have been one of the first novels-in-emails, or Proto Zoë (1992), which comprises perfect little vignettes from a child’s life (and which, if you like it, has a sequel, Zoë Trope, 1996). More recently, Prantera has given us brilliant translations of two books by Marlen Haushofer: The Loft and Nowhere Ending Sky. I was delighted to discover, out of the deep blue air, that she has a new novel just out.
Mohawk’s Brood shows Prantera stretching her interests into the family saga. Typically, it is done in an unusual way: despite covering over a century and a dozen characters, it is no epic – 250 pages top to tail – and it is written in what the blurb calls ‘flashlight mode’. Fortunately the blurb then goes on to define this neologism: “illuminating different events from different perspectives.” I suspect this has been done before (answers in the comments, please), but Prantera goes a little further by also making most of the action happen off-stage, or off-page. It is a book of recollection and anticipation, starting with the cover image, a real photograph which appears to have inspired the book, and which gets a fictional caption before the action starts, summarising everyone in it.
Characters in the book take turns to speak to the reader, so this is a sort of oral history of the family. We never learn their name but they are led by Mohawk, nicknamed after his childhood horse, and retiring from his career when the book opens in 1906. He has returned to England and passed the family business in Shanghai to his eldest son Harry. Mohawk is acutely aware of the struggle his life has been, and wants his children to float effortlessly at life’s upper stratum: “The summit is not for climbers … this is as far as I can go.” We find what they make of this – of where Mohawk has left them, with his dubious business interests (“a ban on importation of opium from India has, paradoxically, boosted consumption”) – in their own words, mostly. There is Little Ida, who feels frustrated when back in England (she feels as though she has been “pressed like a flower between the pages of a Jane Austen novel”) and wants to find love. “There’s the vet, I suppose, he’s young and very nice looking, but these dogs of ours are so dratted healthy…” There is Edwin, suffering from some kind of mental health problem, and who misses the movies in Shanghai: “it is the only time my head is fully at rest, when the living image on the screen invades it and blots out all the others.” There’s Tom, committed to social change for the benefit of the common man: “I’m awake. And half the world is waking up with me.” There’s Ernest, who fights in the Great War but is captured by the Germans when running an errand to fetch his commanding officer some cigarettes.
Most of the family members have something interesting happen to them during the course of the book, though we rarely hear about it directly. One of the curiosities of the telling is that most of the events are recalled by the characters as they speak to the reader, or even just hinted at: we are almost never in the thick of the action. (“I may count a hussy and a pervert among my progeny,” reflects Mohawk in response to revelations.) There’s a risk to this, and in the combination of satisfaction and frustration that results from the narrative approach. It’s satisfying because we get a dozen novels in one, and although it starts off slowly, by halfway through I was fairly gripped, but it’s frustrating because sometimes we want to hear more from a character but never do. (Donal Ryan’s well-received debut, The Spinning Heart, had twenty-one narrators, each of whom speaks to the reader only once, though that book was an exercise in comic ventriloquism as much as a story or investigation into character.) Interestingly, the character at the heart of the book, Mohawk’s eldest son Harry, never speaks to the reader at all, yet I felt I knew him so well that I had to flick back to check that this was really so. Prantera’s trick is that Harry’s wife Rebecca and son Sasha speak to us instead, and what we get from them is not just a family tale but an economic history of east and west. Harry’s wife Rebecca feels their life in Shanghai to be precarious – “the inhabitants of this city with all their roads and buildings and vehicles are only here on tolerance … at any moment the land could tire of its human clutter and shrug it all off.” But they are privileged, and the story is reflective of modern times as the wealthy float above the economic turmoil – the crashes, the revolutions – that convulse the world. Rebecca reflects, on sending Sasha to “the best” school, that “it is essential that from his earliest years he meet the sort of boys whom he can continue to befriend to his advantage in later life.” On a human level, however, they don’t escape, and Harry and Rebecca’s family happiness is under significant threat from harboured secrets.
The family members continue to take turns before our eyes – letters from Neville, surprising appearances from an ageing Mohawk, and a much-sought-after prime number from Edwin*. We also hear from non-family members, and often we don’t understand their connection or significance until the second or third time they’ve spoken to us. We work, though, to join the pieces, and this is one of the greatest delights in this enjoyable novel. Then, when we get to 1939, suddenly we jump to the present day, and there is a 40-page appendix which I wasn’t sure about at all. I’ll say nothing about it except that it simultaneously robs the previous 200+ pages of authenticity, but paradoxically adds plausibility. It seems also to resist the open-endedness, the uncertainty, which was one of the things I enjoyed most about this elusive book. Of course it also more or less requires you to reread it, which is probably a good idea anyway given the slippery telling of the story throughout, and Prantera’s slinky lightness of touch, which makes each character distinctive and memorable. As the final narrator points out, “I am not without my agenda.” What storyteller is?