The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

the miniaturist

Jessie Burton had a good year in 2014. I mean, she’s probably still having a good time, sure, but to publish your debut and have it shoot to Waterstones’ Book of the Year in the same twelve-month period must be pretty exciting. I got hold of the book after seeing it in pride of place in Waterstones, and what a treat it was; be warned, spoilers ahead.

The novel is set in Amsterdam in the 1600s and follows 18-year-old protagonist Nella Brandt (née Oortman) as she prepares for a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. At the start of the book she moves into his home, but, much to her displeasure, joins his cutting sister Marin and two uninterested servants, Corneila and Otto. Poor Nella’s having a bad time. She doesn’t know her husband ahead of their marriage – it was arranged for his wealth, and he’s much older – and, understandably, she is fairly miserable at first, in a house she feels unwelcome in. Johannes pays her little to no attention, with the exception giving her a grand wedding gift: an enormous miniature (or dollhouse) of their house. Nella comforts herself by ordering figurines and furniture from a miniaturist, who, as you may have worked out already, turns out to be pretty important.

As Nella makes her first order she soon discovers that the creations that arrive are not only spookily accurate – supernaturally so – but also, in some cases, prophetic. From time to time she sees a blonde woman watching her before disappearing into crowds, or often thin air, and Nella comes to the conclusion that this must be the miniaturist, with an insight on Nella’s life that is entirely unprecedented.

What holds the novel together is the writing. It’s beautiful and original, with Burton creating imagery in an effortless way. The novel is full of surprises and keeps you on your toes, though the biggest twist is rather obvious from the get-go: Johannes, despite being a fairly kind and affectionate man, won’t touch his arranged wife or consummate their marriage, which is pretty mystifying for Nella – until she walks in on him with another man. With sodomy being illegal and punishable by death at the time, she has to conceal his secret along with the others in the household, three people she warms to in spite of the setbacks they endure (something the miniaturist is constantly hinting at, if not directly causing).

A lot of the book circulates around the miniaturist; she herself is spooky, gothic and downright compelling – at least at first. Unfortunately, the pay off is poor. I had expected her to be paranormal or perhaps non-existent, but her backstory is simple and, in a word, underwhelming. I would also have liked to have seen more of her as a prophetess. There’s an eerie section of the book where a figurine of Johannes’ spurned male lover is cast out of the window and Nella retrieves it, preceding a dramatic showdown where the man himself breaks into their home and torments them. I wanted this to be a taste of what was to come; I wanted to see more of the figurines as voodoo dolls, not just bits of wood to spook Nella.

The small, well-developed cast of characters and swift plot meant I was guaranteed a pleasurable read whenever I picked it up. Still, I was disappointed it didn’t develop into something more. There was a lot of untapped potential there, but perhaps it could have easily turned into something cheesy and altogether predictable had Burton gone down that route. I’ve noticed there are a few criticisms of the novel that say Nella grew in maturity a little too easily and become much more clever (and business-savvy) than her situation would rightly allow. I can’t speak for the business side, but I didn’t find her rapid maturity unrealistic. Nella is chucked in at the deep as soon as the book opens, and that kind of thing can make or break a person. I relate to that, so while Nella’s quick ascension from miserable young bride to head of the household (protecting the family’s political and financial interests) is not as believable as it might have been, it’s not the worst flaw I’ve spotted in a novel.

A small treat for me: my sister invited me to a talk in London where two authors, two publishers and an agent were speaking about the fiction industry on the whole – with Burton on the panel. It was similar to a Hay talk, in that the authors spoke about the creations of their books respectively and how they found the overall experience. It was pretty special to greet Burton during the drinks and nibbles after the talk and to tell her how much I liked the book – plus, her advice was inspiring. Give it a few years and I hope to be on a panel like that – hopefully not there to discuss the worst ever plummet in book sales.

Goodreads review: four stars. One knokced off the full five for the way it rapidly fizzled out, but otherwise, a pretty perfect book.

[Coming next: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan]


Tagged , ,

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


So Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is kind of a big shot. I’d say there were three things that propelled her towards becoming a household name: her bestseller Half of a Yellow Sun; her famous TED talk on feminism; and the fact global superstar Beyonce chose to play out an extract from said talk in her own 2014 anthem, Flawless. I mean, a lot of people (myself included) can now quote that speech off the top of their heads thanks to the exposure from Flawless (‘we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller…’ etc) and Beyonce has been known to write it out in full behind her during her live performances, particularly the closing line of the extract: ‘feminist: a person who believe in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes’. You can’t pay for that kind of exposure. I often wonder what Adichie thinks of the rather extreme spotlight, but her publishers are surely rubbing their hands in glee; last year they released a small book of feminist essays penned by Adichie that flew off the shelves.

On reading Americanah, my initial reaction was to compare it to We Need New Names. There are clear similarities between the two novels; in both, a female protagonist is escaping from an African country rife with political tension and moving to the USA to study abroad, observing American life (and African-American life) from an outsider’s perspective. In fact, Americanah kind of filled the hole I had left from We Need New Names; in the latter I felt the book ended too soon, I wanted to know more about the protagonist’s life in the States. Americanah successfully fleshed that out for me (though, obviously, in the eyes of a different character).

Americanah follows two characters through the course of their lives: Ifemelu, the main protagonist, and her childhood sweetheart, Obinze. Both born and raised in Nigeria, they grow up together and part ways to explore separate countries – Ifemelu heading the USA, Obinze going to the UK. As a result of their background and the colour of their skin, they both face alienation in their respective countries, but have vastly different racial experiences on either side of the pond. In the US, Ifemelu is dealing with the stigma and consequences of living as a racial outsider in America, where social segregation is still very much in place, while Obinze is living in a state of paranoia as an illegal immigrant in England, struggling for money and with the constant fear of being discovered and deported back to Nigeria.

It was interesting to read that there wasn’t the same racial disapproval in the UK as there was in the USA – though I was half-expecting that, to be honest. Ifemelu has a white boyfriend for a section of the book and I found it fascinating to read how her fictional American friends reacted to an interracial couple; this is something I find interesting in real life, too (forgive me for my vast generalisation of both Americans and Brits). Take a recent, well-publicised example: Robert Pattinson got engaged to talented singer FKA Twigs, yet many of his American fans commented in disbelief that he had the audacity to marry a ‘black chick’, as if it’s something surprising or shocking; I don’t feel you see the same reaction to interracial couples in the UK, particularly speaking as a child of an interracial couple myself. I found it utterly perplexing, in Pattinson’s case.

But back to the book. By and large, it was a huge insight on how black people are treated in Western white-dominated countries, whether they are born into that country or not. As I probably implied, I enjoyed the satire of America, but felt particularly thoughtful about my own country, England. At times, the racial comments felt a little too obvious. Often they were woven into her characters’ lives, at other times the book would write out great explanatory chunks of Ifemelu’s blog about her own racial experiences, which felt a bit too stark for me. Yet Adichie addresses the idea of racial commentary always needing to be ‘subtle’, arguing (through a character who is a writer) that all too often black writers are accused of not being subtle enough in fiction, when in real life, it’s anything but. I find it hard to write about this book and comment on her messages without sounding like the kind of character she is mocking: an entitled white person making basic assumptions on race without truly experiencing it. I want to say it changed my frame of mind – I truly think it did – but I don’t know how patronising that sounds.

Alongside the general commentary, there is a very charming love story between the two characters; I often wondered if it was semi-autobiographical. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the book, but I thoroughly recommend reading it. Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar-winning star of 12 Years a Slave) supposedly obtained the rights of produce and star in an adaptation, so I look forward to that immensely. On Goodreads, it got five stars from me. Beautifully written, thoughtful and captivating – what more do you need?

[Coming next: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton]

Tagged ,

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin


Yes! I knew I’d get round to reading this one eventually. As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, when it comes to dystopian fiction, I always think of there being the big three – this one, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. People tend to be more familiar with the latter two than We, but it can take credit for both – Orwell admits he was directly inspired by We, and whilst Huxley denied his own connection with the novel, Orwell reckoned he must have been lying.

We is a fairly short book, only a little over 150 pages – more of a novella, really. As you might have guessed, it’s set in a future dystopian society where humans have been trained to work as machine-like cogs and no longer have privacy, freedom, or creative responses to anything. Our narrator, D-503, seems fairly content with his life as a mathematician who gets his own emotional fulfilment from the beauty of logic and numbers. Yes, D-503 is his name – in his world citizens are no longer granted names but are instead labelled with letters and numbers (consonants for men, vowels for women). D is the builder of a space shuttle called the INTEGRAL, a vehicle designed to spread their regime across the universe. He lives in an environment devoid of any privacy; the residents live in glass walls, only allowed to lower the blinds when they’re having pre-approved sex with pre-approved partners (like Brave New World, sex is carefully controlled and natural reproduction is prohibited). There are also figures who watch over assigned individuals who D thinks of as ‘guardian angels’ – it’s obvious that this kind of constant surveillance was the precursor to Orwell’s ode to CCTV, although Zamyatin wouldn’t have been familiar with that kind of invasive technology in 1921.

We is presented as D-503’s written records of his life, as if he is writing a journal of everything that happens to him. His fictional audience is the extraterrestial presence that the INTEGRAL might come into contact with, or future readers who might not be familiar with his society (would that be us, then?) so he explains various bits of terminology along the way. I’m not always a fan of the diary method of writing stories (do the narrators really remember that much detail, every line of dialogue, to jot down in a journal?) but it worked well enough in We.

As mentioned, D is happy with his life – until he meets I-330, a woman who seems to naturally rebel against the oppressive environment and who causes D to experience an emotion very close to love. This is a typical dystopian idea, being liberated through love – in fact I-330 reminded me very much of Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s Julia, the classic rebel below the waist. Like others from the Big Three and sci-fi works in general, it had a spooky knack of predicting future technologies and developments – in this case, space travel. I had to remind myself that it was written in the 1920s, such was the foresight behind it. It was perhaps ripe for more action, in my opinion; there’s a very tense scene when one of D’s watchers suspects him of writing about illegal exploits (which is exactly what he’s doing, of course), and he has to quickly write a fake memoir that is snatched out of his hands, while he sits on his own records to avoid them being discovered (the only way he can hide them in his glass world). I wished there were more moments like that, and perhaps more of D-503’s realisation and acceptance of his own rebellion.

Why do dystopian novels use themes like love and human connection to liberate their characters from oppressive worlds? Is it because it’s such a strong theme for readers to identify with? We connect with the characters when they want to rebel – particularly as, reading about their lives from an outsider’s perspective, we feel horrified by the world they live in. Yet other forms of love – familial love, for example – are not often touched upon. Although come to think of it, out of the Big Three it’s really only Nineteen Eighty-Four that doesn’t focus on that. Brave New World has Linda’s love for her son, John, and in turn John’s own desire to find his biological father, and We has O-90 defying the regime with her desire to conceive a child, in particular one with the man she loves (D). Yet romantic love is often given precedence as the main cause of rebellion; maybe it’s just slightly more compelling to read about.

Like Brave New World, the rigid society in We filled me with the same unsettling uncertainty whether or not this kind of society would, in fact, be more productive at protecting ourselves as a species and protecting the planet. Perhaps it wasn’t QUITE as attractive (if that’s the right word?) as Brave New World‘s society, but it was pretty close. Once again, it brings up the age-old question of freedom vs. security. You can’t have both, so which do you want? It’s this message that, again and again, draws me to dystopian fiction – and crops in real life all too often.

Goodreads: five stars. Glad to have ticked the Big Three off my list.

[Coming next: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie]

Tagged ,

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you’re missing out. Perhaps most famous for her dystopian fertility horror story The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has long since proved she’s got a grip on writing literary masterpieces – and futuristic, terrifying, dystopian worlds while we’re at it. If you come across lists of sci-fi novel recommendations, more often than not Oryx and Crake has pride of place – in fact, that’s probably how I heard of it in the first place. And, of course, the Waterstones shop worker told me she liked it. One day I’ll buy a book that one of those shop workers hasn’t read, but I’m still waiting for that day.

I knew Oryx and Crake was going to be good (shortlisted for the Booker AND Orange Prize, not bad), but going from the blurb, I was slightly worried it would be one of thsoe odd, experimental, sci-fi works that takes a while to get your teeth into. You tell me:

‘Pigs might not fly but they are strangely altered. So, for that matter, are wolves and raccoons. A man, once called Jimmy, lives in a tree, wrapped in old bedsheets, now calls himself Snowman. The voice of Oryx, the woman he loved, teasingly haunts him. And the green-eyed Children of Crake are, for some reason, his responsibility.’

Yeah, sounds pretty straightforward.

Thankfully, it was. The story was fairly clear from the start, bar the first chapter, which plunges you straight into ‘Snowman’s’ life – he’s recognisable to us, but his fellow humans seem to view him as something of a commodity, which was intriguing. The story is told through a mix of current events (so to speak) and flashbacks to Snowman’s (aka Jimmy’s) life, bringing the events to present day.

Jimmy’s the best protagonist I’ve read in a while. You despise him, love him, and, overall, pity him, all the way through his emotionally-starved childhood to the harrowing current events that unfold around him. It’s hard to tell how old he is when the book opens, but based on his life experiences I’d hazard a guess that he’s in his mid to late twenties. This is a spoilery review, but it’s a spoilery book (as are most books that open at the end).

The plot focuses on a world where gene experimentation is a common aspect of a futuristic, dystopian society, and one man – Crake – is left to run wild with his ideas. Jimmy grows up in an environment where animals are spliced together for human experimentation and, essentially, for fun. Crake (real name Glenn), his boyhood friend who matures into a genius, becomes so wrapped up in this that he eventually manufactures a new type of human – these, then, are the only ‘people’ left in the new world, who Jimmy refers to as the Crakers, or Children of Crake. The book is a Bildungsroman for Jimmy (and Crake, to a lesser extent), as we watch him grow into a world where commercialism is everything, women are prey to common and uncontrolled pornographic exploitation, and biological experimentation has been taken to the extreme. Of course, things don’t exactly improve when a plague wipes out civilisation.

You can probably guess who created the plague to (presumably) allow his self-created humans to thrive: Crake. Why he made Jimmy immune to the disease is unclear; he never properly explains it to his best friend, but his final lines to him – ‘I’m counting on you’ – seem to suggest he trusts Jimmy above everyone else to rebuild civilisation from the roots up. But why not himself? That, I hope, is something that may become clearer in the sequels. Is Crake a psychopath? It takes a certain amount of manic self-belief to believe you have the power to wipe out society and reconstruct it based on what you deem effective, and Crake shows little emotion about it (or about anything) throughout the novel. That said, the world he lives in is unpleasant. Even beyond the state interference, we are given hints as to exactly what the Earth has become. Global warming has left a huge proportion of the land underwater, and the weather seems overly freakish compared to now (there is a storm every afternoon, for example). If this is the catalyst for Crake’s Godlike plan, it’s disturbingly easy to see the logic behind it.

Considering Jimmy and Crake don’t spend that much time together after they leave high school (at least, until Jimmy goes to work for Crake), they have a remarkably captivating friendship. It’s helped, I suppose, by that uncertainty over whether or not they actually care for one another or rather are bonded by a sense of competition. This is heightened when Oryx comes into the equation; initially spotted as a child on a pornography website when the two of them were teenagers, they both develop lifelong obsessions with her until she makes an appearance in real life as Crake’s girlfriend (of a sort) and seduces Jimmy. It isn’t clear whether or not this was set up by Crake but Jimmy quickly falls in love and is desperate to prevent Crake from finding out. Of course, it’s suggested that he’s known all along (and it is part of his plan). Crake meets his own end by slitting Oryx’s throat in front of a gun-wielding Jimmy – it’s hard to believe he didn’t know what would happen as a result of that.

Oryx is not so interesting. She’s fairly non-descript in the book, and although we get a sense of her upbringing, we get no emotional depth from her; she seems virtually indifferent to what happened to her in her past. It was almost as if she didn’t need to be a fully fleshed out character but was simply there to be an object for both of the men to project their own, emotionally-stunted versions of love on to her. When a female writer writes these male-fantasy type women into novels I’m always surprised, but in this case I didn’t care too much. From what I know Atwood will focus on much more real and three-dimensional women in the sequel, so I’m looking forward to that.

Speaking of … the book is kicking off a trilogy. Oryx and Crake ends on a cliffhanger, but from what I’ve heard the next book doesn’t continue this plot but instead flashes back in time and looks at the same set of events through different characters’ eyes. This suggests that the controlled, dystopian world isn’t entirely left behind, which is intriguing – there are a few loose ends to be tied up (what happened to Jimmy’s mother, for example). I can’t wait.

This gets the full five stars from me; I could hardly put it down. Bring on The Year of the Flood.

[Coming next: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin]

Tagged , , , ,

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – Hilary Mantel


Ah, the continuing success of Hilary Mantel. No doubt desperate to capitalise on the anticipation for her third Cromwell novel, Macmillan released a book of her short stories in 2014, with a similar book cover to Wolf Hall et al. Judging by the list of the stories’ origins at the back of the book, it appears that the only original story written specifically for this collection was the eponymous piece, the controversially-titled ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’. I’m not normally the biggest fan of short story collections – Nadine Gordimer being the exception – but I had very good things about this one, and the friendly Waterstones worker (damn it! They always get me!) talked me into it at the till. I mean, I hardly expected to be disappointed.

That said … I’m not sure it lived up to the hype. In fact, in realising what I disliked about these stories, I realised what I loved the most about her Cromwell novels: that they’re not autobiographical at all. Sure, like any writer she would have poured her wisdom and emotional experience into her fictional Cromwell, but there was no possible way I could have read it and thought, ‘well, this all sounds a bit too familiar.’ I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it in this blog before (probably), but I have a particular dislike for writers whose writing is obviously autobiographical, in that it just seems unimaginative. I’m well used to studying authors at great length and making note of every tiny habit and tic in their writing so I can waffle on in essays (or, well, blog posts). I like forgetting that they’re there.

I don’t know for sure, but I felt there were many autobiographical elements in TAoMT, which weakened it slightly. Of course, Mantel is such a good writer it’s almost obscene – no argument there. Yet what puts me off short stories is that they often follow a pattern of good writing and weak plots, without sufficient time (or pages) to really lead a story to its natural end. They always seem to end too soon. Was the potentially autobiographical element obstructive, here? Perhaps. The first story – ‘Sorry to Disturb’ – follows a woman living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the 1980s – like Mantel – married but childless, and on medication for a condition – like Mantel – and obviously a talented author – like Mantel. Given that the name of the author isn’t mentioned and she is reading from and and commenting on a diary she wrote at the time, this story could be entirely based on fact. Mantel did publish memoirs about this particular time of life, so for all I know, this might have been an excerpt. Whilst the sexual and cultural politics makes for an engaging plot, the story fizzles out before it goes anywhere, exactly like it might do in real life – and perhaps exactly how it DID go down in real life. But it’s important for stories to be realistic, right? I’m not so sure, and it’s a struggle for me to justify why that is.

The second story, ‘Comma’, is the same, following two children in Derbyshire (judging by the dialect) – again, potentially autobiographical. In ‘Comma’ the children experience something so bizarre they cannot make sense of it, in the general way that children see something odd and can’t rationalise it in their heads, which was pretty frustrating for me. Mantel (or her narrator? Or Mantel?) never did make sense of the unique phenomenon but I, as a reader, needed that closure.

Some stories felt a lot more poignant than others. ‘The Heart Fails Without Warning’ was a lot stronger than ‘Offences Against the Person’. My favourite was the very small story ‘The Long QT’, where a man laments on the sudden death of his wife as a result of her stumbling in on him with another woman – it’s a lot more humorous than it sounds. I also felt close to ‘Terminus’, given my familiarity with Waterloo train station, and I can easily relate to that sickening panic of thinking you’ve seen your dead parent. The standout story is ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’, which is exactly what it says on the tin – set in the 1980s, a bystander is taken hostage in their own flat while a sniper plans an execution of Margaret Thatcher as she leaves a nearby private hospital. Perhaps not exactly what it says on the tin; this is a fictional attempt, after all, and the ending is left suitably vague. The overall book? Worth a read, but perhaps not one of the most memorable collections I’ll ever come across.

Goodreads, then: four stars. I would have given the stories themselves only three but the brilliant writing and astonishing visual detail bumped it up. Come on, Mantel, we need more Cromwell!

[Coming next: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood]

Tagged , ,

We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo


I first heard of this book at Hay Festival in 2013. As you might remember from my other Hay blog posts, the festival puts on regular talks called ‘Fictions’, where one or two authors are probed about the latest novels they are promoting. NoViolet Bulawayo was in front of a tiny audience (with Meike Ziervogel promoting Magda) talking about We Need New Names; the book sounded vaguely interesting at the time, but I didn’t really consider picking it up. Then, a few months later, the book – her debut novel – was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Up against the mammoth contender The Luminaries it’s not overly surprising she didn’t scrape the top spot, but to be shortlisted is a pretty respectable start to a literary career, it’s got to be said. It wasn’t until last year that I had a chance to read it – no spoilers below.

The book follows 10-year-old Darling, a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe before being taken to the USA and spending her teenage years stateside. There’s no doubt an autobiographical element to that; Bulawayo also grew up in Zimbabwe, though she didn’t move to Michigan until she was a litte bit older. The novel is told in the voice of Darling, written in a simplistic style that’s easy to read – I raced through it in a matter of days – which is something particularly characteristic of African fiction written in English. In fact, certain sections reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and the phrase ‘things fall apart’ was often used to describe the deteriorating state of Zimbabwe in WNNN).

At their Hay talk, Bulawayo and Ziervogel talked about writing about history from a fictional standpoint. In literature, you have to forget about facts and statistics, and instead submerge yourself into the story. Bulawayo said that writing about a crumbling society through the eyes of a child is powerful, as often children are the most vulnerable due to their ignorance and lack of control over what is happening around them. A child’s eye depoliticises a situation, meaning that the writer (and reader) must suspend their disbelief and look at the scenario through innocent eyes (even if they themselves have a lot of knowledge about it). It’s an effective technique but, personally, I’m not totally in love with it. It’s all right when you’re already familiar with a situation, but as an outsider with little or no knowledge it’s tricky to follow current affairs through the perspective of a child, considering children often have a warped understanding of what is happening or are simply uninterested in it. If I had done more research, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way about We Need New Names.

But then does that take away the point? There’s a poignant part in WNNN when the children take a local tragedy and turn it into a game, re-enacting it like a play. Darling’s voice becomes very adult at that point and we are subject to an astute description of the attackers, the victim, and the stoic faces watching the violence unfold with the knowledge that they are powerless to prevent it. When a BBC crew asks the children what game they are playing, one of her friends replies with (paraphrasing): ‘a game? No, this is real life.’ Seeing innocent children accept horrific violence as part of their normality is disturbing, to say the least.

My only criticism of the book is that it feels slightly rushed. It’s not very long, and if each character, very vivid in their own right, was given their due attention, it might feel a little more fleshed out. By the time the book ends we have only seen a brief glimpse into Darling’s life in America – I would have liked to have seen more of it, more of the trials and tribulations she faced there, as well as the generally confusing experience of growing up and going through puberty. Another thing that misled me was the timescale. When Darling was 10 and living a poverty-stricken life in Zimbabwe, her friends were talking about singing Lady Gaga, indicating that at that point in time, Gaga must have been fairly famous (to reach impoverished children in Zimbabwe, at least). However, a fair few years later (maybe 4 years?) when Darling is in America, she mentions a very recent scandal – when Rihanna was beaten up by her boyfriend Chris Brown. Lady Gaga released Just Dance (and began her climb to fame) in 2008, yet Rihanna was attacked by Chris Brown in 2009. Sure, it’s pedantic of me to point out, but given that there were very limited hints as to when the book was set, I relied on these cultural references to give it a framework. It felt a little jumbled.

Bulawayo mentioned at Hay that she was working on a collection of AIDS stories, again addressing a silence and taboo with a creative voice, on another subject that is personal to her. AIDS is touched on in WNNN, with it being described as ‘the sickness’ and presented as a real epidemic. I’m looking forward to seeing her approach to building stories around it, whenever it may appear.

Goodreads, then: four stars. It was written so well but the abruptness of the ending took it down a notch. I should be on the Booker committee at this rate.

[Coming next: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel]

Tagged , , , ,

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

anna karenina

Anna Karenina only really caught my attention after the recent (2012) film, starring Keira Knightley. It’s famous for its costumes, mainly, considered ‘fashion porn’ – as were Keira’s gorgeous dresses on the promo circuit (Valentino? Erdem? Chanel? Elie Saab – my particular favourite? Check). I need to read more Russian literature in general, and Lord knows Tolstoy’s not exactly unheard of. Still, for my first go at a Russian novel (translated into English, I might add), a book close to 1000 pages seemed like a bold place to start. Spoiler-free review!

Anna Karenina focuses on a multitude of characters. At the heart is Anna, a charismatic, beautiful woman married to the amiable but stiff Karenin. Fairly early on in the novel she meets the youthful Count Vronsky, and soon begins an affair that compromises her entire life. Another character who receives a fair amount of the plot’s attention is Levin, a semi-autobiographical landowner who lives and works in the country, struggling with his largely disregarded views on agriculture and romantic progression with Kitty, a family friend who is reeling herself from Vronsky’s rejection of her and her own struggles to find an identity.

I read it in a month, and I’ve got to say, it didn’t feel like 900+ pages when I was reading it. All right, so the plot moves slowly, but it seems natural, with every setting and event having time to breathe. Each character is given his or her due attention, and alongside the events that heavily influence the plot you see the mundane day-to-day action and the smaller elements of their lives. This detail gives you a very clear idea of who the characters are and what their natures are like; it makes you wonder what will happen later and if you can predict their reactions to future events, almost as if you knew them in real life. Anna Karenina is not the only focus – rather each character is given their own arc, whether that’s finding romance, spiritual revelation, or progression in a political career.

The novel opens with an extramarital affair, with particular attention paid to the characters’ emotions. Straight away we see what is to come – and, perhaps more crucially, we see what the appropriate reaction was to adultery at the time. We see Anna convince her sister-in-law that forgiving and staying with her husband is the more practical course to take, and that their relationship can heal. Anna’s sympathy for the wronged party defies her later actions, or at least divides her conscience when she later engages in her own adulterous relationship. Yet at the same time she is fairly forgiving to the guilty party (her own brother, admittedly). Clearly her – and society’s – attitude towards adultery is not quite what it is today (in 21st Century England, at least).

Speaking of reading it in modern times… before reading Anna Karenina, I had no idea what Russian society was like in the 1870s. The novel is a fascinating study of the classes and social distinctions in Tolstoy’s Russian society (although he admittedly only focuses on the aristocracy), and also the way social attitudes are split into two camps. On the one hand, you have the rigid structure of Anna’s world that emphasizes a social importance and dignity in everyday life, but on the other hand you have Vronsky’s world of passion and hedonism, with little regard for consequence. Even with that small description, you can sense how dangerous it is for these two worlds to collide.

Vronsky is fairly dislikeable as a character. He puts his own feelings first and seems downright naïve to the eventualities of his actions; we see that fairly early on from the way he woos and then rejects Kitty. There is a telling scene where Vronsky acts like a bit of an idiot and doesn’t prepare adequately for a horse race. He bluffs his way through on pure good luck but mucks up a bit during the crucial moment and ends up ruining his horse, as well as losing the race. As a reader, you can sense that it’s pretty metaphorical. Is Anna the horse in their later relationship? A mare he tames but ultimately ruins with his own lack of foresight?

Anna is pretty dislikeable too, to be fair. The only character I sympathised with in that storyline was Karenin, Anna’s husband, fully aware of his wife’s affair and fairly reasonable about it from the beginning. He refuses to pander to high society gossip and trusts his wife: a healthy attitude, yet sadly one that doesn’t really work out for him. It’s unfortunate that in any kind of novel about a wife’s affair, the husband always suffers. It’s an old-fashioned perspective, of course, but there is always something emasculating about a straying wife (although Karenin’s romantic shortcomings are perhaps not presented on the same level as someone like Lady Chatterley’s Lover‘s Clifford Chatterley). Karenin experiences his own share of social disgrace as a result of the adultery, although Anna (naturally) suffers more.

Much of the novel concerns the breaking of social boundaries and norms; the characters constantly move away from what they are traditionally expected to do and instead do what they feel passionate about. A good example is Levin – during one of the nicest scenes in the novel, he abandons his post of simply watching and supervising the peasants’ work on his farm and instead gets stuck into the work himself, feeling a great sense of gratification and community as a result. Of course, Anna’s affair is the better example of breaking the mould – she moves away from the requirement to maintain a solid, steady marriage, and instead turns to passion.

Yet Anna Karenina did not feel like much of a love story. The structure didn’t help; after the initial flirtations, cautious whispers and guilty feelings between Anna and Vronsky, the book lurches forward in time to when they are in the heart of their affair. It seemed to me that the novel is much more about consequence than romance – indeed, consequences are what occupies conversation between Anna and Vronsky, not to mention the details of the relationship described by the omniscient third-person narrator, which includes the characters’ internal reflections. We don’t learn that much about how they feel about each other, but rather, what will happen as a result of their doomed affair. At the point of writing this part of the blog post I haven’t seen the film yet, so I don’t know for sure, but I have a strong feeling the cinematic adaptation will create much more of a love story than what was present in the novel (not least because a friend promised it’s chock-full of sex).

In fact, I’ve got to say; I didn’t care very much about Anna and Vronsky’s romance at all. I was much more interested in the secondary characters, with a particular fondness for Levin – his own romance with Kitty was much more heart-warming and interesting to read than Anna and Vronsky’s repetitive, destructive cycle. The blurb on my copy of the book reads that ‘[the novel is] evoking a love strong enough to die for’, but I’m not sure which love they’re referring to there. Just my opinion, of course. Levin and Kitty’s romance is supposedly based on Tolstoy’s own romance with his wife Sophia Behrs, so that might explain why there was a much more genuine sense of affection and companionship there.

I also found the book a fascinating look at parenthood, particularly in regards to how Russian aristocracy treated their children (not unlike how the upper classes would treat their children today, I expect) – in that I mean children were there to be admired at small intervals, as long as they were behaving well and not actually acting like children. In the novel, each parent has a different attitude to their children; Anna’s sister-in-law Dolly sees her children as a projection of herself, which explains why she is so besotted with them when they are well-behaved and altogether present a family portrait of love and fun, but gets angry and upset if they behave badly, particularly in front of guests. Anna has an interesting relationship with her own children – as the book progresses she grows more and more fond of her son Sergei (with Karenin), a love fuelled by separation (Anna has no hope of custody over Sergei once she leaves Karenin), but becomes increasingly distant towards her daughter Annie (with Vronsky), who is lovely but, according to her, still at that age where she is uninteresting, being too young to engage with the world around her. If I was writing an essay I would probably study how the two children and Anna’s attitudes towards them represent her relationships between the two men… but it’s a bit boggling to think about for one blog post.

It’s been adapted numerous times, but I chose to watch the recent and well-publicised adaptation that drew me to the novel in the first place – Joe Wright’s 2012 production, adapted from the novel by Sir Tom Stoppard (of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead fame) and starring Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as Anna, Karenin and Vronsky respectively). The film got mixed reviews from critics and only has a 6.6 average rating on IMDb, but I thought it definitely worth a watch (er, maybe just for the outfits).

anna karenina

I’ve got to admit, it wasn’t half as bad as I was expecting (and loads more romance and sex), but I recognised why the critics didn’t like it. Wright staged the majority of the plot in a theatre; it had a rather Moulin Rouge-y feel to it, but the symbolism behind it being in a performance space didn’t sit well with what the book is actually about and the set was very distracting. At times it felt very self-aware, and one reviewer on IMDb summed it up as the director and his cronies going ‘look at us? Aren’t we clever?’ instead of creatively supporting the plot.

That said, I thought it was well-cast. Knightley was perhaps a little more flighty and youthful than the charming, dignified Anna from the book, but she was generally very good, and Jude Law made an excellent Karenin (the only role I’ve seen that makes him look unsexy – what a feat). Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky did occasionally look like a teenager with a moustache stuck on his face but I didn’t think he did as badly as the critics suggested he did. That might have been because I disliked Vronsky in the book, whereas some readers seemed to be utterly seduced by him (judging from their reviews). To be honest, the best in the cast for me was Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, who was cheeky and warm and just the kind of man you’d expect in the role. Levin and Kitty were also well-cast, though I thought it a shame Levin’s internal struggles on what kind of landowner he was to be and what kind of career he would have didn’t get more attention. Still, you can’t stick everything in in the space of two hours or so.

Goodreads: four stars. Bring on War and Peace.

[Coming next: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo]

Tagged , ,

Money – Martin Amis


Ah, Martin Amis, the marmite man of 20th Century British literature, beloved and loathed by many. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that his books are beloved and the man himself is loathed, but that seems too black and white for Amis. Regardless; he’s a very famous author not hindered by the international acclaim that surrounds his literary father, author Kingsley Amis, but boasting plenty of talent of his own. Money (full title: Money: A Suicide Note) is considered by many to be his best work, but I confess that I hadn’t heard of it or read it before. In fact, it was merely a book I found on my dad’s shelf and decided to nick from him. Not that he knows that. Woops, sorry Tez. Anywho…

If you saw 2014’s Oscar contender The Wolf of Wall Street, you’ll get the gist of Money. Parties, alcohol, drugs, luxury locations, the best food and the best prostitutes money can buy – the two have clear parallels. John Self is the focus of Money, a man who appears to have a LOT in his pocket by working as a small-time commercial director (your guess is as good as mine) who spends his days hopping between London and New York to work on his first feature-length project, a Hollywood production with some of the USA’s biggest stars. During his jaunts back and forth across the pond, he faces a problematic love life, makes tedious but frequent visits to movie stars so he can stroke their increasingly bloated egos, and – you guessed it – spends lots of money. Every now and then he receives anonymous phone calls from someone watching him closely, taunting him and apparently trying to better him, with the sinister promise that they will meet one day. Self is a fairly selfish man (funnily enough!) and a very dislikeable character, with bad health and horrible attitudes. Still, you can’t really blame him for the latter when you see who else is in his life. Spoilers below.

Like The Wolf of Wall Street, the overall message here is that money doesn’t lead to happiness. Quite the opposite, in fact, when you put hedonism and material possessions before your own emotional health. Self has few friends, no real friends it seems, and the woman he loves – loves is a strong word, perhaps I will say the woman he’s closest to – is only with him for his wealth, a fact which he embraces. He pities her, but overall he pities himself, and there’s a telling moment when he watches some degrading porn that results in a ‘facial’ and he wonders who the real loser is – the female porn star, the male, or himself (the viewer). Even when you’re in a position of power, it’s a shallow world with little dignity. Looking at it from a modern perspective is interesting; Money was published in 1984 long before the days of social media, but today the world’s richest have the power to photograph and brag about their exploits online, quite literally putting a filter over their lifestyles to show them in the best possible lights. Are their lives as glossy and beautiful as their Instagram pages, or are they emotionally drained, too? We know from the first page how little Self enjoys his life – the clue is in the full title.

Not a lot happens in the book, but it’s saved by its fantastic style. The writing is infectious; you never want to stop reading. It’s somehow both flippant and extremely detailed at the same time, with a furious pace. Amis’s observations are original, witty, and often painfully accurate – a review on the back of my copy praises his depiction of the movie star ego, which I have to agree with. When Self meets Lorne Guyland, an established Hollywood actor he’s hoping to tie into his film project, the interaction makes you squirm, as Lorne’s inflated sense of importance wrestles with his insecurity. Yet for me, one of the most astute observations about movie stars and their occasionally inflated attitudes is as follows:

‘I replaced the receiver and stared at my lap. On it lay a cellophaned wallet of Guyland press handouts – this was where I’d scribbled his number. Running my eye down the page I saw that Lorne had, in his time, on stage or screen, interpreted the roles of Genghis Khan, Al Capone, Marco Polo, Huckleberry Finn, Charlemagne, Paul Revere, Erasmus, Wyatt Earp, Voltaire, Sky Masterson, Einstein, Jack Kennedy, Rembrandt, Babe Ruth, Oliver Cromwell, Amerigo Vespucci, Zorro, Darwin, Sitting Bull, Freud, Napoleon, Spiderman, Macbeth, Melville, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Methuselah, Mozart, Merlin, Marx, Mars, Moses and Jesus Christ. I didn’t have the lowdown on every last one of these guys but presumably they were all bigshots. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t so surprising that Lorne had one or two funny ideas about himself.’

Is John Self based on Amis at all? I doubt it, but I always wonder if writing characters like these makes for a cathartic experience. Self is sleazy and misogynistic. His views are not those of reasonable men – he feebly attempts to rape his girlfriend numerous times, and points out disgusting observations about women around him – and  whilst I suspect Amis would never be so violent or demeaning (despite the odd misogynistic sound bite), I wonder if having an artistic excuse to be as vulgar as possible (while emphasising the kind of miserable, pitiful character underneath the vulgarity) is satisfying. I suspect the same of actors, when they are required to portray someone so unlike themselves, so utterly despicable they could never comprehend behaving that way… there must be a small release in that.

Amis actually inserts himself into the book as a fictional character, and it all gets very meta from there. John Self initially hates Amis – hates writers in general – but gradually warms to him and eventually brings him in to adapt the screenplay that occupies the plot of the novel. At various points, the fictional Amis goes into monologues about authors, narrators, and story structures in general, such as the sense of moral duty authors have to protect their characters’ interests – it’s obvious here that he’s speaking through his fictional self about his own creation John Self – and also what the end of the novel feels like, conveniently placed near the end of Money. It felt very odd (and almost a little self aware?) to read – something dad Kingsley agreed with, supposedly lobbing the book across the room as a result. The fictional Martin Amis was the closest thing John Self had to a real friend throughout the entire novel. You might say he was the only sane one in it, observing the destruction from an external, impartial viewpoint – not unlike the way an author would.

Oddly, Amis seems to pop up in a fictional form in a few books – in Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, McEwan’s writer character Tom Haley performs a reading at an event that Amis is also taking part in. Given the obvious parallel between McEwan and Haley, it’s likely that that entire section is based on a real encounter between Amis and McEwan (two very prominent writers, although Haley remarks how inferior he feels in the presence of the talented and charming Amis) – however, I also wonder if it’s a tongue-in-cheek nod from McEwan, as if he knew of Amis’s tendency to insert himself into fiction and wanted to pay a little tribute. Then again, I haven’t read any of Amis’s books apart from this one so I’m not sure if it’s something he does fairly often, or if this is just a one-off (that McEwan might not have even registered). Still, it struck me as an amusing coincidence. In fact, the whole novel had a McEwan-ish air about it – particularly with a twist at the end. I’m half expecting the two of them to buddy up and write a novel about themselves (that might have already happened…)

So, the aforementioned twist. Well, I guess the first twist is the fact that the full title doesn’t quite reflect the plot: Self does try to off himself at the end, but doesn’t succeed. The main twist, however, is that the movie Self has spent all his time working on wasn’t actually a real movie; rather he was being conned by his henchmen, who fed him his own money back under the pretence that this was fresh payment from a production company. Presumably this plunged him into debt, for I have no idea how a commercial director had that kind of credit to wave around in the first place. The scam and the ending itself aren’t well-explained and I closed the novel with many questions. There is a pinnacle scene where Self confronts the man who had been taunting him down the phone, but the scene is confusingly described and didn’t make a lot of sense in the grand scheme of things. I originally expected the voice at the end of the telephone to be metaphorical – Self’s own conscience berating him for his actions – but instead it was attributed to a character who wasn’t even that closely connected to him. Very odd, indeed.

It was adapted for the BBC in 2010, with Nick Frost in the lead role – partner-in-crime to Simon Pegg (my favourite ever actor) and a talented and charismatic guy in his own right. Frost said in a Reddit AMA interview that it was his favourite role to play, and indeed Amis praised his depiction of Self, which is exciting as Frost doesn’t flex his serious acting skills that often. I’m interested to see what the BBC would do with the famous text. I haven’t yet found a version I can stream or download, but I’ll be sure to check it out when the opportunity arises

So. Not an overly exciting plot but saved by its fantastic style – four stars on Goodreads from me. Good save, Amis.

[Coming next: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy]

Tagged , ,

Throwback Thursday! Dracula – Bram Stoker


Welcome to my first NON-dystopian Throwback Thursday post! Don’t worry, there will be plenty more of those to come, but for now we’re focusing on a very different kind of frightening and miserable tale – a horror story, to be exact. Arguably THE greatest horror story that’s ever been told (or one of them, at least): Bram Stoker’s chilling vampire tale, Dracula.

Dracula is possibly the only book I’ve ever read that genuinely terrified me (at least, since I outgrew Goosebumps). The creepy book cover didn’t help – I took the liberty of including it in this blog post, so you can look and shudder with me. The image is not really Count Dracula – it looks closer to the cinematic image of Nosferatu, an unauthorised adaptation of Dracula, renamed in the attempt to dodge copyright laws – but it portrays the chilling nature of the novel, so I’ll go with it.

To sum up… Dracula is told through various diary excerpts from three characters: Jonathan Harker, a young solicitor; John Seward, a doctor; and Mina Harker (née Murray), Jonathan’s wife. Each character has a different perspective on the strange, supernatural events unrolling around them: Jonathan is reeling from a visit to a castle in Transylvania to help a count purchase property in England, where he experienced some very horrible events; Dr Seward is perplexed by a patient of his acting very strangely; and Mina is watching her friend suffer from a mysterious illness that seems to drain her of blood and leaves her with tiny puncture marks on her neck. I wasn’t aware of it at the time but critics imply that this shifting of perspective is a powerful feature of horror fiction – if multiple characters experience the same terrifying phenomena, the reader immediately assumes that there’s no way one of them can be lying.

The novel opens with Jonathan’s description of his time in Transylvania, before the plot switches to England (Whitby, to be exact) where a ship has washed ashore. From there, all hell breaks loose. Soon Van Helsing, a man with knowledge of and experience with vampires, spots the signs and comes to help. With his guidance, a group band together to take down Count Dracula. Of course, Dracula isn’t too happy about this, and it soon becomes a game of riddles and psychological distress as they all go head to head.

This is a cracking novel by today’s standards, but it wasn’t a bestseller when it was published. It was no doubt appreciated at the time, but not until cheeky rip-off Nosferatu made an appearance did the novel’s popularity grow, 10 years after the author’s death. Stoker was a respected figure in society during his life, mainly owing to his work with the famous actor Henry Irving and his theatre work. He’s also tied to other famous novelists of the period, flitting around with Oscar Wilde and being distantly related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame). I was unsure whether to class this as an Irish or British novel; I settled with British owing to the fact Stoker lived in London and wrote the novel during his time here – plus, nearly all of the plot takes place in Whitby and London. Dracula defined our traditional incarnation of the vampire (big cape, pointy teeth, turns into a bat, yadda yadda), although it’s safe to say the vampires of the 21st century are playing fast and loose with this stereotype. Forms of vampire had been around for hundreds of years before Stoker, but it was only in the 18th century that the V word was bandied around; John Polidori’s The Vampyre was the main predecessor to Dracula. In recent years, it seems that vampires are having a bit of a comeback – but, as I said, they’re not quite the same creatures we saw stalking a fictional Victorian England.

So how do they compare? You might remember me directing this kind of question at two authors during Hay Festival. It’s interesting that on my copy of Dracula the blurb mentions that the book probes into ‘the dark corners of Victorian sexuality and desire’. Do I agree? Actually, I’m not sure. The Count doesn’t seem to be particularly sexualised in the novel itself; he’s certainly not described as being attractive, although he does target young women, so there’s that. He also bites the neck, which could have a sexual undertone. In fact there is only one scene where I felt as if there was some kind of sexual tension building, during a close encounter with a particular young woman, but I won’t go into that for fear of spoiling. But I am reading it with a 21st century eye – to the prude Victorian audience, happy to stifle sexual desire until their wedding nights, this kind of escapism might have been the hottest thing they’d ever laid eyes on. Did this early, sexual association carry the legend of the sexy vampire all the way to 2014?

For if it was ambigious in 1897, it certainly isn’t ambiguous now. We’ve got the tedious yet popular Twilight novels, where the lead vampire’s desire to rip apart and eat the protagonist is presented as a metaphor for wanting to rip her clothes off and ravish her, and that’s probably as tame as it gets – there’s True Blood, there’s The Vampire Diaries, there are all kinds of shoddy Twilight rip-offs where mortals (normally girls) canoodle with vampiric men. Hell, even Fifty Shades of Grey, arguably THE sexiest book of the last decade, was initially written as Twilight fanfiction. The vampire is the sexiest supernatural creature of all, if pop culture is anything to go by. Admittedly, we tend to sexualise EVERYTHING these days (angels? Check. Werewolves?? Check. Zombies?!? Check…) but vampires have a certain je ne sais quoi that keeps them in the limelight, perhaps playing into the human subconscious desire for submission. Modern incarnations of the vampire evoke him (and it’s nearly always a him) being young and dashing – even the modern adaptations of Dracula are casting young, hunky male actors in the lead role, deviating far away from Stoker’s elderly Count, complete with handlebar moustache.

Dracula infamously washes up in Whitby, which I visited for the first time last year. We went at around Christmas time on what felt like the coldest, windiest, most blustery day ever, which made it absolutely perfect. Standing in the graveyard by Whitby Abbey at the top of a great hill where the wind whistles between the tombstones, all with faded, gothic letters scratched into every grave – now that’s where you set a horror novel. Stoker must have felt the same, for it was a visit to Whitby in 1890 that partly inspired his great novel. Perhaps he caught it on a similarly brilliant day – or maybe Whitby is always like that.

There are countless film and television adaptations (cough cough, Nosferatu), but the most famous is probably the 1992 version with Gary Oldman cast as the titular vampire. Oldman was only 34 at the time – a far cry from Stoker’s description of Dracula, and in fact 2 years younger than the latest revival of the Count, an NBC series starring 36-year-old Jonathan Rhys Meyers – but given Oldman’s versatility as an actor, I was sure the character wasn’t in unsafe hands. I haven’t had a chance to catch it yet (and I’ve heard they take great liberties with the plot), but I look forward to checking it out, at some point.

So, my Goodreads review: four stars. Another great classic for my shelves.

Tagged , , , , ,

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel


I didn’t intend to read Bring Up the Bodies directly after finishing Wolf Hall, but I felt such a sense of withdrawal once Wolf Hall was over that I couldn’t help but turn to its fellow Booker-winning sequel. I forced myself to focus on finishing the latest draft of my own book first, with the reward of BUTB once it was done, but I got about halfway in before losing my head and trawling through various Waterstones around London to find Cromwell Part 2. Hey, it’s hard to write when you’re not reading anything. As I said on Twitter, trying to write a book when you’re not reading is like trying to run a marathon without drinking any water. Again, this review is spoiler-y but it’s a story that everyone knows, anyway, and it certainly shouldn’t stop you from reading it.

First of all – what a cool name for a book. It’s a shame the upcoming Cromwell Part 3 has the really naff title ‘The Mirror and the Light’, because there is something supremely awesome about an epic historical novel called ‘Bring Up the Bodies’. The term itself is used near the end of the book as an instruction to bring Anne Boleyn’s accused lovers from custody to be put on trial, yet the word ‘bodies’ instead of ‘men’, ‘accused’ or anything else is harsh and dehumanising. Something about the phrase seems support the bloodlust of the period; you don’t get the sense that these ‘bodies’ will have a fair trial when the gallows are waiting, nor do you feel they’ve had a particularly good run of things so far. Is Cromwell to blame? Very much so. Throughout the novel he is the man bringing up the bodies, finding those who are guilty or can at least be coerced into false confessions to support the king’s interests.

1536 was a big year for Cromwell, politically. After working and striving to rid King Henry VIII of Catherine of Aragon and bringing Anne Boleyn to the throne (seen throughout Wolf Hall), he now has to bin her, as well, while the king falls in love with Jane Seymour and Anne continually fails to produce a male heir. Catherine of Aragon dies fairly early on, but if her death was to result in the clear path Anne Boleyn was expecting, she is sorely disappointed. After she has a miscarriage, Cromwell, in service to the king, has to do all he can to justify an annulment.

Mantel’s Cromwell is still as endearing as ever but the darker edge to his personality that is popularised so often in other historical fiction begins to bleed into his calm demeanour throughout Bring Up the Bodies. His support and affection for Anne has slid away and now, as always, it’s the king he serves completely. He abandons his own gut instincts about Anne’s treatment and the actual crimes committed (if any) and knits together a reason to give Henry the legal right to divorce and execute Anne, as well as some of her spurned lovers. Although he is motivated by loyalty, there is an element of personal revenge to his actions. Still stung by Wolsey’s execution years ago, Cromwell incriminates four men who stood by and later made a mockery of the Cardinal’s demise – and that mockery is very much at the forefront of his mind as he persuades them to confess to sleeping with the queen and plotting the king’s death.

Of course, ‘persuasion’ is a light term – with one man, the musician Mark Smeaton, it’s clear he was tortured at Cromwell’s house, Austin Friars. The description is vague but it’s implied that he suffered at the hands of the Christmas decorations that Cromwell used to enjoy with his family (when they were still alive) – as torture is not permitted, Cromwell later reflects that he’ll have to burn the peacock feathers that were originally used for his daughter Grace’s angel outfit. Given that Austin Friars has always been a happy and vibrant home, it’s quite a shock to see this dark edge to it, the same way it’s shocking to see the edge to Cromwell’s personality that is so often hinted at but seldom explicitly revealed. The use of the Christmas decorations is particularly poignant – Cromwell is using elements of his personal life, ones associated with his own kindness and humanity, to inflict pain on to others. Indeed, he ponders at one point whether the memory of his daughters is slipping away from him, and that without it he’s become a completely different man.

Arguably every one of Mantel’s readers would know the fate of Anne Boleyn, but this doesn’t detract from the masterful sense of fright and tension in the run up to her execution. Even with history behind us, you still read it expecting there to be a catch, an escape, a moment when everything will halt and the queen will be let off the hook. It’s a tragic end for Anne and it unwillingly foreshadows the eventual end of Cromwell, revealing in a stark light what it’s like to be on the wrong side of Henry VIII. Yet another reason to be morbidly excited for The Mirror and the Light.

Was Bring Up the Bodies better or worse than Wolf Hall? I hate to make comparisons, but in a trilogy there can sometimes be a great difference of quality between one or two instalments. Considering Wolf Hall was such a success I’m sure critics were watching to see if Mantel could replicate it, but Bring Up the Bodies certainly stands on its own feet, giving Mantel her second Booker prize in three years. It doesn’t have the same sprawling story as Wolf Hall, which covered many years; in comparison, BUTB only covered a matter of months, with the single, encompassing plotline being one that revolves around the downfall of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s agency in it. It was an easier read – probably for that very reason. Mantel still had her trademark style but the writing was a little tighter, with some specification of the pronoun ‘he’ – you’ll remember in my review of Wolf Hall that I mentioned how carefully you had to concentrate to remember that ‘he’ generally always referred to Cromwell. It seems Mantel’s editors might have flagged that up with her – now you’ll spy the occasional ‘he said: he, Cromwell’. The style is still flawless, however. Critics have deemed Mantel one of our best working writers today, and even when I haven’t read much of her work (I’ve got a lot of reading ahead of me, including her brand new volume of short stories), it’s hard to disagree.

As I mentioned in my earlier review, BBC 2 continues to air its adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, while I expect the RSC are still strutting around Broadway with their famous plays. Those lucky New Yorkers.


At the time of writing this blog post, the BBC drama hasn’t yet reached the Bring Up the Bodies plot, and is still focusing on Wolf Hall. It’s difficult to predict how it will play out. Rylance is not quite the Cromwell I expected from the book – he has a kind of timidity and warmth in his small frame and likeable face that suits the affectionate encounters with his family, but doesn’t sit right in court, somehow. But, at this point in the TV drama, he is only just edging his way in. I look forward to seeing what will happen once he begins his villainous campaign to bring down Anne, and at the end of the last episode (Episode 2; Episode 3 is on this evening), it’s made very clear that revenge is in the forefront of his mind. Can’t wait to see more.

If Parts 1 and 2 are anything to go by then Cromwell Part 3 is going to be fantastic. It looks as if it’ll chronicle the last four years of Cromwell’s life, his mistakes and his downfall, with a meaty political plot running alongside it. After two novels I’ve built up quite an attachment to Cromwell so it will be heartbreaking to see his disgraced end – although who knows how his character may change over the course of the book. Presumably it will also include details of the rise of Cromwell’s beloved son, who marries, fathers children and becomes a very respectable gent from 1537 onwards (all of which is considered to be a credit to his father). That will be a great element of sweetness to the otherwise unpleasant plot – I’ve built up an attachment to Gregory, too. Will Part 3 scoop the Booker as well? Time will tell! I feel sorry for any writers up against Mantel once again (if indeed, it makes the shortlist – although it’s hard to imagine it not doing so).

So – another five-star rating from me on Goodreads. As all good historical fiction should do, it inspired me to delve back into history – not long ago I finished Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of England, which I thoroughly recommend – so there can be no higher praise than that.

[Coming next: Money by Martin Amis]

Tagged , , , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.