Category Archives: British

Us – David Nicholls

us

David Nicholls is perhaps best known for soppy fiction (or at least, soppier than the style I normally read). A good writer he is, but with funny, rom-com novels like Starter for Ten and smash hit One Day under his belt, I don’t think he ever had any pretence of implying he’s an author of literary fiction. Out of the two books I mentioned there it’s worth pointing out that I hated the latter – hate is a strong word, perhaps, but the way the plot zooms into a pair of people one day a year is clever in principle, but madly frustrating in practice. The highly anticipated film adaptation turned out to be a bit of a disaster, too, although this may be explained by the director casting American beauty Anne Hathaway as the dowdy, Yorkshire-born Emma (Hathaway can master a fairly RP English accent, but even the best British actresses have trouble with the Yorkshire drawl – it’s hardly a surprise Hathaway disappointed).

With that in mind, when the Man Booker longlist was announced and Nicholls’s funny, marriage-focused Us was on it, critics were surprised. But the judges were firm – the book was highly deserving, in their opinion. Still, I never planned to read it. In fact, it came to me as a result of rather contrived circumstances – I had an hour to kill in Starbucks and I’d just finished a book. Terrified of spending an hour with nothing to pass the time, I realised it was 6.59pm and Waterstones closed at 7, so I rushed in in a panic and picked up the first book I came across (Us was strategically placed by the door). I remember lamenting it a bit at the time because the hardback is absolutely massive, but the literary snob inside me thought, hey, it made the Booker longlist, it’s got to be some cop.

Wow – sometimes it feels like things happen for a reason.

Us is one of my favourite novels that I read in 2015. Told in first person narration from a man named Douglas Peterson, the book opens when his wife, Connie, wakes him up and announces she wants to leave him. With their only son about to depart off to university, the plot then flips between the present day, when Douglas desperately organises and drags his despairing wife and reluctant son on a tour around all the major European cities, and the past, when Douglas (a relatively dull, intellectual biochemist) meets and slowly falls in love with Connie (an artistic free spirit), as well as the way their marriage and parenthood progress. Spoilers ahead.

It had the typical, easy writing style I was expecting, but the mundanity of everyday life juxtaposed with the vivid description of European landmarks (and some tight artistic observations) made it captivating. I particularly felt very emotionally invested in Douglas’s relationship with his son, Albie, a rebellious 18-year-old who is struggling to connect his creative aspirations with who he feels his father expects him to be (intellectual and straight-laced, to say the least). This is given a whole other poignant level when we as readers eventually find out he was struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality, too. Some of Douglas’s interactions with Albie made me cry quite openly, and Nicholls writes in such a real, hard-hitting way about the struggle of parenthood (and the tragic emotion surrounding ‘cot deaths’) that immediately after finishing I felt a desperate desire to call my dad and tell him how much I love him.

Reviews were favourable. The only thing I noticed is that the Telegraph picked up on the slight implausibility of the Connie/Douglas relationship – even though she seems set on leaving him after the trip ends, in all aspects she still seems very much in love with him. The plot rather cruelly highlights the idea that some people are meant to be together, and others simply get in the way – Connie reconnects with an old boyfriend after splitting with Douglas, and Douglas wonders if he was just a blip in her lifetime, standing in the way of her destined love. The Telegraph review mentions how difficult it is to understand her mentality of wanting to leave Douglas when she so seems so loving and emotionally close with him, and I agreed to an extent, but I wonder if it’s because I haven’t been married and might be a bit too emotionally immature to understand it properly. I can certainly relate to (and observe constantly) the way two people bond, a bond that transcends a break-up – it’s difficult to let go of the intimacy and seems almost unnatural to cut off the familiarity when you’re forced to ‘break up’ with a person so bluntly.

Goodreads review: five stars, of course. This is a book that will stay with me for a while, and one I’d recommend to anyone.

[Coming next: Hyperion by Dan Simmons]

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The Rachel Papers – Martin Amis

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God, I’m a sucker for Martin Amis’s writing. I’ve only read three of his books, admittedly, but each one is packed full of a humour and easy wit that seems utterly effortless; The Rachel Papers immediately brought back memories of Money, though with a much more likeable protagonist this time around (well, in the sense that it’s easy to admire his youthful naivety – he’s a bit less tragic than Money‘s John Self). I bought this book for my sister initially as it looked like a good, tight read, and it went down well (naturally, she read it in about a day – if you can find a quicker reader than my sister Lou I’ll eat my hat). Spoilers below!

The Rachel Papers is the junior Amis’s debut, published when he was 24. It’s a young age to begin a literary career, but I’m sure his surname helped to open a few doors. I don’t want to imply that nepotism had too much of a hand, mind – Amis Jr. is an extremely talented writer in his own right. It’s interesting that the older Martin now deplores the style of his debut, though he admires the writing, and it’s easy to see why.

The plot follows 19-year-old Charles Highway, a man who is cultured, intelligent, and a bit of a prick, obsessed with women and sex. As the title might suggest, he is rereading his diary as the book progresses – a diary that documents the time in his life when he was about to turn 20 and pursuing a woman named Rachel. It’s supposedly autobiographical, which is an interesting way of reading it, as I couldn’t help reading Charles’s description of his relationship with his dad as Martin’s relationship with Kingsley (not that it was particularly descriptive). It seemed typical of one of those ‘privileged white boy’ autobiographical plots you see in a lot of modern literature, following the trials and tribulations of how a bright but lazy man can get into Oxford. Oh, first world problems…

It’s not really told in a chronological order but rather by way of the diary entries, with Charles commenting and reflecting on the particular excerpts he’s reading. There isn’t a lot of plot, either, with the story choosing to focus on the way Charles’s and Rachel’s relationship begins, then ends. Charles very naturally loses interest in Rachel, not for any particular reason – my sister Lou was fond of this realism, but I found it almost painful to read (in that it’s all too characteristic of how young, flaky men behave, I suppose). The compact nature of the novel suits the lack of plot – you don’t leave it wanting, nor does it feel dragged out, so it’s commendable for that alone (and maybe has a one-up on Money for that).

The blurb was obviously written by someone who’s never read it. Take a look:

Charles Highway, a precociously intelligent and highly sexed teenager, is determined to sleep with an older woman before he turns twenty. Rachel fits the bill perfectly and Charles plans his seduction meticulously, sets the scene with infinite care – but it doesn’t come off quite as Charles expects…

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Charles Highway, a precociously intelligent and highly sexed teenager, is determined to sleep with an older woman before he turns twenty.

Well, no. He’s not particularly interested in sleeping with someone older. He does mention it in passing to a friend, at one point, and is quickly discouraged.

Rachel fits the bill perfectly

Eh? Does she? Even if he DID have particular interest in sleeping with someone older, Rachel has only got one month on him, and his reasons for pursuing her are far from how old she is – though again, once she turns 20, he does note, internally, very casually, that he got his older conquest after all. But again, this is hardly a plot point – you might as well put on the blurb that he looked at a blue teapot once, for all the narrative attention it gets.

Charles plans his seduction meticulously, sets the scene with infinite care – but it doesn’t come off quite as Charles expects…

What scene is carefully planned and doesn’t come off as he expects? He manages to sleep with her successfully time and time again; indeed she pretty much falls in love with him and HE ditches HER well before he turns 20. I feel like this blurb is suggesting there’s some kind of comedy scenario in the pipeline, but pushing aside any bullshitty metaphorical ‘scene’ you could argue for, this blurb is total nonsense. It reminds me a little bit of clickbait. What’s the literary version? Litbait? I can see the headline now: ‘Charles wants to seduce Rachel – you won’t BELIEVE what happened next!’

So – a respectable four stars on the old Goodreads. Disregard the blurb and check it out for what it is – it doesn’t disappoint.

[Coming next – Us by David Nicholls]

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The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

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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 knocked 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]

 

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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – Hilary Mantel

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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]

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Money – Martin Amis

money

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]

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Throwback Thursday! Dracula – Bram Stoker

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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.

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Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

BUTB

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.

First_look_at_Mark_Rylance_as_Thomas_Cromwell_in_new_pictures_for_Wolf_Hall

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]

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Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

Hilary-Mantel-Wolf-Hall

Oh crikey, I need to read more Booker winners.

I’m not an historian, nor was I ever particularly good at History at school. My memory of learning about Henry VIII et al. was when I was 12 and we learnt a bit about his reign; I also remember a little rhyme I learnt at primary school:

Henry the Eighth, he had six wives
All of them lived in fear of their lives
Two were beheaded and one of them died
Two were divorced and one survived!

That’s about it. Really intelligent stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Of course, I know who Thomas Cromwell is, as an historical figure. I have no doubt that I probably studied him in depth at some point during my school years but before reading Wolf Hall I couldn’t remember much about his life and career. I know he’s generally villainised in popular culture, and some of the reviews of Wolf Hall that I heard before reading the book praised Mantel’s portrayal of the man as someone who is a little more well-rounded and fleshed out than your average two-dimensional scoundrel. I particularly enjoyed a soundbite from Rachel Cooke from the Observer who was so unsettled by this depiction that she was led to remark: ‘I have my suspicions that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell’.

Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy about Cromwell’s life, won the Man Booker prize in 2009; the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, scooped the prize in 2012 – making Mantel the first woman to win the award twice and perhaps the first sequel to win when its predecessor also won, but I’d have to fact-check that before making any bold claims. The final instalment The Mirror and the Light is due this year, and whether that will give Mantel a Booker hat-trick remains to be seen. It seems absurd to talk about winning the Booker three times in a row as if it’s comparable to potting a ball of paper in a wastepaper basket; I mean, this is the sodding BOOKER, arguably THE most prestigious literary prize in the world. It’s no easy task to win it once, let alone twice. Of course she’ll face stiff competition this year now that they’ve opened the doors to American writers, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. Either way, I knew this book was going to be brilliant. With that reputation hovering behind it, how could it not be?

Hard to know if I’m giving you spoilers here as you probably learnt it all at school, but I’ll give you the gist. Wolf Hall follows Cromwell from around 1500 – 1530, with a brief opening chapter about his life as a teenager before it skips forward to his life at Austin Friars in 1527, married and with children, and in service to the Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Very little is known about Cromwell’s early life and this is echoed in the book; he reminisces occasionally about his past and his escape abroad from a violent father but he doesn’t know his own birth date, nor is he completely sure of his age. Fairly early on we see the downfall of the Cardinal who wouldn’t agree with annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Queen Katherine, as she is referred to in the book) so he could marry Anne Boleyn – Mantel seems to be relying on her readers’ own historical knowledge here, as the reason for his downfall is never explicitly stated in the book. From then on we see the ‘rise and rise’ of Thomas Cromwell, who did indeed rise above the potentially damaging association with the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and, using his wit and political know-how, became the king’s right hand man.

Mantel paints a vivid picture of 16th Century England – or rather, a decent picture through the eyes of someone who lives in it and hasn’t seen it any other way. That is a triumph; there is no modern hand hovering over this novel, nor is there any sense of hindsight, which helps keep the reader absorbed in the characters’ immediate stories. I’m no real judge myself but critics have praised Mantel’s dedication to historical accuracy, particularly with such a huge cast of characters – so big that it requires its own list at the beginning of the book that takes up pages and pages, which I had to refer back to continually while I read. Of course, there are certain elements that seem ridiculous to the 21st Century eye. One of the main being the sexual politics at play, and how much worth a woman’s virginity has, even to someone as high up the social ladder as the king. The entire political tension revolves around the idea that Queen Katherine MIGHT not have been a virgin when they wed, and Anne Boleyn definitely is (though you’re never sure). There is, of course, an obscene amount of pressure placed on Henry’s wife – whoever she is at the time – to produce a son, and therefore an heir, for him. Knowing as we do that Henry had no legitimate sons that lived to reach adulthood, it’s particularly wince-inducing to see him despair over and over again.

The sexual politics may seem old fashioned but, echoing the words of another Observer reviewer (‘[the book is] a dark mirror held up to our own world’), they aren’t entirely out of place to a modern reader. At one point, Mary Shelton comments to Cromwell that when a woman produces a son, the man takes the praise, but when she fails or it is evident that one of the party is infertile, it is the woman’s fault. This kind of one-sided parenthood still rings hollow in the modern age, with all kinds of pressure placed on women as mothers, whether it’s raising a child as a single parent when the parents have split or having to deal with the stigma and consequences of abortion. All of this because of the simple biological fact that the baby happens to grow inside the woman, not the man. We’ve moved on from the Tudor times but we’re not out of the woods yet.

Despite the sheer amount of characters (I counted the list – there are 96), the characterisation is strong. Obviously we get the best picture of Cromwell, who is an incredible literary protagonist simply because of the amount of depth he has. My copy of Wolf Hall included an interesting interview with Mantel at the back, in which she said she chose to focus on Cromwell because of pure curiosity as to how a blacksmith’s son could rise up to such prestige, and also from a letter he’d penned that revealed he had a strong sense of humour. She mentions that biographers don’t touch on his personal life at all, and while he can be seen as something of a wolf in court, letters from the time suggest his household was pleasant and his children had happy upbringings. One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Cromwell has his famous painting done, which you can find easily on Google but I’ve included it here:

Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01

What impression do we get from the man in this image? Cold, regal, unemotive, perhaps. But Mantel’s fictional Cromwell doesn’t see himself like that – in fact, he is taken aback by the painting, as are his family and loved ones. I feel these quotes from two of the members of his household sum it up well:

‘”I don’t think you look like that,” Helen Barre says. “I see that your features are true enough. But that is not the expression on your face.”
Rafe says, “No, Helen, he saves it for men.”‘

I have to constantly remind myself that throughout the novel, this isn’t really Cromwell speaking, that this is just a fictional version – for all I know the painting might have been a faithful representation of his face and character – but it does make a fair point about how much emphasis we place on portraiture from certain periods when we have little else to go on. We make our own assumptions of character based on a person’s image, but we forget how staged the whole process is. Mantel details a little bit about the procedure: how Cromwell was asked to sit, what he should be holding, how he should place his hands, his clothes. For royalty, this is even more of an orchestrated process. How much about a person’s real personality can we glean from these images?

The other characters are similarly complex; you don’t get the sense that there is one wholly good or one wholly bad person in it. Henry VIII is particularly fascinating, portrayed as almost childlike and flaky with his own emotions and decisions – a familiar sight to historians, I’m sure, but it was far from the grand figure I expected him to be (based on, well, his portraiture). In other ways, he is exactly the kind of character you WOULD expect, what with the way he moved through wives and his own mood swings (though Mantel attributed those partly to the numerous health conditions he suffered with). Anne Boleyn is also an interesting character, portrayed as fairly cunning and unsympathetic but, by the end and particularly when her long-awaited son turns out to be a daughter, as much a victim of the oppressive monarchy as Henry is. Keep track of the characters if you can, as Mantel’s style means 9 times out of 10 when you see the word ‘he’, the pronoun is referring to Cromwell – even if it follows on directly from the mention of another male character. It takes a little getting used to but it’s another individual facet to Mantel’s style that makes it so enjoyable, and increases the overall suspicion that Cromwell is actually narrating the story, referring to himself in third person.

This was a few years post-Wolf Hall (closer to Bring Up the Bodies, I think) but it seems prudent to highlight that Mantel herself was villainised to the general public when she wrote a perceptive essay about Kate Middleton and her place in the modern monarchy. Kate is the nation’s darling, as beloved as Diana was, although seemingly having a much better time with the royal family than her would-be mother-in-law did. Mantel said that modern expectations of Kate only require her to exist and look pretty, making sure to keep any personality or quirk under the rug. This wasn’t an attack on Kate herself as it was an attack on the system and the media – it’s a fascinating essay, you can read it here – but the press turned on Mantel and even David Cameron said her comments were unjust. The problem is, I suppose, is that there’s an unspoken agreement to adore and never criticise or question our royal family. We assume from a few smiles and snatched whispers that Kate and William have simply the perfect relationship; that Kate is flawless, and that no doubt Prince George will grow up and fit right into the cookie-cutter mould he needs to be the future monarch. Things are slowly moving on from the stiff, traditional monarchy – George is the first heir who would succeed to the throne regardless of whether he was born male or female, for example – but if you dare to imply that Kate is having to hide her personality from the media (which of COURSE she is, come on now) you’re the enemy. At any rate, I saw Mantel’s comments in a new light once I’d read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and observed the kind of measures the Boleyns would resort to in order to have access to the throne. Could that irresistible Tudor power be comparable to anything our modern royal family has? Definitely not. Although, for what it’s worth, I’m not sure I agree with Mantel entirely. She might have implied that Kate is as much a victim to her public image as Marie Antoinette was, but you can bet Antoinette didn’t have Hello magazine and the obsessive celebrity culture of the 21st century stalking her footsteps.

The Royal Shakespeare Company created two plays based on Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies which I hear they often stage back-to-back – a hefty experience for all involved, but no doubt a fantastic one. I was desperate to snag tickets, but they were just too expensive, which is a real shame. My friend Misha’s mum saw the Wolf Hall play with a hardcore theatre buddy who came out remarking that it was a perfect play: perfectly cast, perfectly staged, perfectly acted, and so on. They’ve now taken the productions to Broadway. On the small screen, the BBC created a six-part TV adaptation of the two books, with the first episode airing on Wednesday night. It’s got a pretty amazing cast – Mark Rylance takes the lead as Thomas Cromwell, with Damian Lewis as Henry VIII (yes!), Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, and Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey. I suspect they’ll carry it on once The Mirror and the Light is published, but we’ll have to wait and see. Spoilers below.

wolf hall 1

Like the early pages of the book, I thought the first episode of Wolf Hall was particularly confusing – I have no idea how those who hadn’t read the book were able to keep track of the plot and immense cast of characters, or even appreciate the finer touches in the script. For example: there’s a scene where Cromwell looks over his dead wife Liz and is told she spoke on her deathbed about a time she held a snake in Italy. As Cromwell is told about this, his eyes widen, as readers will know that that was his own anecdote to tell, not Liz’s – but beyond that brief flicker on his face, it is never mentioned again. Generally speaking, the critics adored it, with some calling it ‘close to perfect television’, and Mantel herself, who wasn’t involved in the drama (unlike the RSC play, which she oversaw), supposedly gave it the thumbs up. Good enough for me!

So, Goodreads! Five stars. I won’t say this was the best book I read in 2014 because I remember The Luminaries only too fondly, but it’s in the top three. Now to sink my teeth into Bring Up the Bodies

[Coming next: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel]

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The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

wasp-factory 1

Cripes – it’s been a while! Things have been nuts over the last couple of months, and only now am I getting a chance to catch up with this blog – which is bad, because I’ve done a LOT of reading since my last post. You’ll notice that in my schedule I had Catch-22 and The Road down to blog about before this one, but I’ve shifted those back a bit. They both have famous films I’m dying to watch and analyse in their respective blog posts, but I haven’t had a chance or the means to watch either (yet) so for now, we’ll look at The Wasp Factory.

Ah, Iain Banks. Or Iain M. Banks, as you might know him, depending on your preference of fiction. Banks went by two pen-names to differentiate between his styles of fiction – mainstream literature as Iain Banks (which includes The Wasp Factory) and science-fiction as Iain M. Banks. Handy for when you spot his name on a dust jacket in a bookshop and are wondering what type of book it is. My dad in particular is a big fan of Iain M. Banks (not so much Iain Banks) and was disheartened to learn of his passing last year, at the relatively young age of 59. Let this review be written as something of a tribute, then, as we turn to the very start of Banks’ literary career.

The Wasp Factory was the first novel he wrote, published in 1984 (Banks was 30 at the time). One of the things that drew me to the book was the mention of an anti-hero – a particular love of mine, which I’ll go into later – but also the bizarre mix of reviews that featured in the paperback copy I found on my dad’s shelf. Alongside the usual glowing praise, there were reviews from critics that told readers to stay away from the book at all costs. Clever move from the marketing team: sell controversy and the novel is likely to fly off the shelves. If you bear in mind that my favourite book is A Clockwork Orange, you can see why this might have appealed to me. Spoilers ahead.

The story follows Frank, a dysfunctional teenager living on a tiny Scottish island. He’s a 16-year-old with an obsessive personality, someone who murdered for recreation in the past and has a habit of mutilating animals for what he believes are supernatural reasons. It’s a short novel and there isn’t a lot of plot, per se, but much of the story revolves around the return of Eric, Frank’s older brother who is completely mad and has escaped from a psychiatric hospital. Every now and then Eric will phone Frank, who lives with his father, to taunt him with this whereabouts and imply he is getting closer to home while Frank desperately tries to keep his father from suspecting anything. Frank kills time by killing animals, getting drunk with his friend Jamie, or catching wasps for his ‘Wasp Factory’, a strange death-trap he has set up for the insects that he believes will predict the future, depending on the wasps’ manner of death. As the book progresses, Eric draws closer, culminating in his (rather anti-climactic) arrival.

Eric is perhaps the most intriguing character in the novel. The highlights of the book are when he phones Frank, and Banks gets to demonstrate his witty dialogue and convey the overall disastrous experience of trying to talk to someone who is teasing you, is completely mad, and who you are afraid of aggravating, all at the same time. Eric’s backstory and descent into madness is explained and you get a sense that this character is quite tragic, particularly with the breakdown of the relationship between the two brothers. It’s a shame that his arrival isn’t quite the tense showdown you expect, mainly because a lot of Eric’s character revolves around his wordplay, and instead all we see of him at the end is a failed attempt to burn the house down with almost no dialogue whatsoever. There’s also another event that happens that detracts from the Eric storyline entirely – but I’ll explain that in a bit.

Why do I love an anti-hero? Part of what drew me to this book was the mention of a character who murders for fun, and I worry that makes me come across as pretty disturbed. I like to think this attraction is because I’m so far removed from that kind of character that I find them fascinating in fiction, and you get to see all sides of their personalities. Murderers and criminals are presented as classic villains in the media, men and women you expect were simply born out of the devil himself who are incapable of love, remorse, and affection for anything; in contrast, it’s interesting to see them in literature with outside interests and a level of emotion we simply don’t find elsewhere. Alex in A Clockwork Orange has his love of Beethoven. Pinkie in Brighton Rock has a confusing time with his love life. Frank here at least has some friends and some interests. It builds a slightly bigger picture of people who we expect to be completely one-dimensional, and I like that. But continuing with The Wasp Factory… it gets weird from here.

I intended for this review to be spoiler-free but there is such a big, bizarre twist at the end that I have to discuss it. Throughout the novel we learn that early in Frank’s life, he was mutilated by a dog who, er, bit off his genitals. I thought this seemed like a very odd character trait to be given, and indeed Frank seemed to live a remarkably normal life despite this rather severe setback, although he does lament how much he dislikes having to sit down to use the toilet, ‘like a woman’. Frank despises women and female traits, which makes his discovery at the end of the book all the more shocking. Right at the end, he inadvertently stumbles across male hormones, a pack of tampons, and his own minuscule genitals in his dad’s study – which end up to be made of plasticine. Frank was attacked by a dog when he was young, or rather FRANCES was – for Frank is in fact a girl, who has been tricked and secretly fed male hormones for his entire life as an ‘experiment’. Frank reflects that this might be why he murdered family members in the past and the cause of his fixation on destruction, but this isn’t delved into too much. Instead you, the reader, are left with a blank page and the overwhelming desire to shout ‘what the FU – ??’

I’m not sure how I feel about this novel on the whole. On the one hand, it feels slightly underdeveloped, almost what I think of as a Creative Writing project, which is when we (at university, myself and the fellow Creative Writing undergrads) would stumble around writing the kind of fiction that could evolve into some very good stuff, but we hadn’t yet learned how to structure a plot and create a satisfying experience for the reader. True, this was often because we’d written our class projects horribly hungover ten minutes before the seminar began (er, just me?) but you do get that kind of impression with The Wasp Factory, which seems quite self-aware, as if Banks was more focused on writing powerful description and proving himself as a talented writer than actually thinking about the emotional reactions of his readers. I think of that as an amateur quality.

On the other hand, the novel is rich with symbolism and a very good depiction of an obsessive, murderous personality. I could easily envision writing an essay about this book, going through and examining Frank’s character and how he has been nurtured to become the rather violent man (or woman?) he has become. It could even be a very good study for a feminist essay. Banks is undoubtedly a phenomenal writer and indeed, became very famous after (although not necessarily as a result of) this debut. The dialogue is sharp and the writing is witty, and some of the imagery is the most powerful I’ve ever read. On my search for a good book cover to include in this post, I stumbled across this one, and I can’t help thinking this is an inspired bit of symbolism:

wasp factory 2

There’s no adaptation as far as I’m aware, and I cannot imagine one ever being made. The descriptions are so gruesome in places that it would not be very enjoyable on screen, and I don’t know how the camera would be able to capture Frank’s internal conflict from an external viewpoint. But then, that’s why I’m not a filmmaker. Perhaps one day someone will take it on and do a very good job of it, but I won’t put any bets on it happening.

Goodreads, then: I gave this novel three stars. I think if it was slightly longer and we had a chance really explore the mentality of each character, it might get bumped up a notch, but as a short novel it’s a solid three. Still, as a debut, it’s not bad at all – and it certainly didn’t dent the career of a great writer.

[Coming next: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller]

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Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan

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When I unwrapped this book on Christmas Day (another one! It was a good year), I was initially a bit hesitant. It was another present from my dad, and I know he was always keen for me to read Ian McEwan (I have The Innocent tucked away on my bookshelf for a reading session at some point in the near future) so I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, but really, the book’s marketing team needs to be sacked. The cover is horrible, resembling some awful, trashy, Mills & Boon-style fiction, and I’ve now learnt it’s fairly unrepresentative of the plot. For one, Serena (the novel’s protagonist) is beautiful but not, to the best of my knowledge, blonde, glamorous, or prone to wearing red dresses. The woman on the cover is casting her eye down at a man walking below her, but she doesn’t have that kind of relationship with any character. The entire image is bloody awful and it deserves to be on a different kind of book entirely, and coupled with the sickly name Sweet Tooth, I was actually a little embarrassed reading it on the tube, hoping people would look at the author’s name instead of the cover (apparently, being a book snob myself, I assume I am surrounded by literary fanatics at all times).

The blurb is just as bad. Here’s the lower excerpt, the description of the general direction that the plot is going to go in:

Serena is sent on a secret mission – Operation Sweet Tooth – which brings her into the world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life? And who is inventing whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one.’

Putting aside the rhetorical questions (yuck), this description is horrifyingly close to a book I read when I was about 16, in which a character (a literary editor) meets a ‘promising young writer’ and falls in love with him. That particular book was so bad I wanted to gouge my own eyes out after reading it, and the memory of it made me feel wary when turning to Sweet Tooth. Woman meets tortured and arrogant writer, happens to be both a creative genius and male model in looks: it’s a pretty awful cliché and it pops up time to time in the lowest calibre of erotic novels. But still, my mind kept whispering ‘Ian McEwan’ and I felt confident that in the hands of a good writer, this might have a little more substance to it.

Did my opinion change once I read it? To some extent, yes. It definitely wasn’t the predictable, embarrassing tripe the blurb suggests it will be, thankfully free of agonising sexual tension coupled with an unrealistic life of espionage. McEwan is a great writer and the book moved along swiftly; it was an easy read and one I was happy to turn to during my commute (despite the awful cover). I’ll summarise it here – and be aware that this review does contain spoilers.

The book is narrated by Serena Frome (rhymes with plume, as we are told again and again), a Cambridge graduate struggling to make her way up the ranks of MI5 in the midst of the Cold War. That’s right, more Cold War espionage! Thankfully this was a little easier to understand than Tinker Tailor, but Serena is a bit lower down the ranks than George Smiley, so that’s probably why. We learn a little about her childhood and her university days – including a fling with a university professor who cruelly dumped her at the end of a summer tryst – before the book goes into more detail about her life in London. At one point she is summoned by the higher ranks of MI5 to join Operation Sweet Tooth – I have no idea why it was called that, but there you go – which is a plan to recruit up and coming writers who can promote the values of the agency. It’s supposedly a method that has worked before (Orwell is name-dropped). Serena is assigned to recruit a man called Thomas Haley under the pretence of being part of an arts foundation offering him a grant.

So recruit him she does, and pretty quickly they become a couple. The rest of the book details his rise to literary accomplishment while she struggles with the fact she is hiding the true source of his money, and the truth messily comes out once he was won a prestigious literary prize. Whilst she accepts that he will want to end their relationship, he actually writes her a letter (the end of the book) which suggests he knew the truth for a long time and was building up information, and is now going to write it all down in a book called Sweet Tooth – he goes on to directly quote parts of the McEwan book as suggestions to what he will write – and he plans to use this letter as the ending chapter. So we, as readers, learn that the book was not narrated by Serena after all, instead Tom Haley’s first-person depiction of Serena.

From what I know, McEwan loves this kind of twist ending. I haven’t read Atonement but I’ve seen the film (spoilers here! Look away now) and I remember at the end it’s revealed that the latter part of the film never actually happened, and in fact was fabricated by the protagonist who felt guilty about the way real life played out and wanted to make an act of, well, atonement by fictionalising a kind of happy ending. The ending of Sweet Tooth divided critics, although many considered it a stroke of genius. Personally, I found it pretty frustrating. We’d spent a whole novel learning and empathising with a certain character, only to find it wasn’t her narrating at all, but a character in the novel instead writing his depiction of her. How much did it bear ‘true’? Was that really what happened in the fictional confines of the story? These are questions that made me want to chuck the book away (although I expect others might reread it with joy), kind of like, as Brian from Family Guy describes this kind of twist ending, a ‘giant middle finger to the audience’.

McEwan writes a great female protagonist, it must be said. Serena is not necessarily the most wonderful or sympathetic character, but she is realistic – and it’s sad how often you don’t see that in a book by a male author. She is not prone to the girlish whims or predictable clichés you often find in female characters – and that, I believe, is the key to writing a good protagonist. Write her as a person, not a woman (or at least, not what you expect a woman to be). It sounds so obvious but it is something that must be stressed over and over again; men and women are not actually that different. (I feel particularly aware of this after finishing various drafts of my own book, which is narrated in first person by a young man. My dad, having read it, said he was surprised I would write from a male perspective – but all I thought was, why wouldn’t I? My male protagonist is a person, and I am a person, so I think I do an OK job of seeing the world through his eyes. I also think my dad forgot that he himself wrote a book following the thoughts and emotions of a 12-year-old girl, the cheek.) The only obvious male-written trope was that Serena was beautiful – a cliché that McEwan himself picks up when he has Serena read one of Tom Haley’s stories with a character in it who, as a woman, is beautiful – ‘of course’.

I’m not sure how much I liked the book. Whilst it kept me entertained, it’s one of those books that you put down without that comforting sense of satisfaction at the end, like the end of a hot meal. I expected there to be more drama, more tension, more storytelling in general, but instead the plot went along simply and ended rather simply, too. In fact, the blurb was more accurate than it initially seemed, summarising the entire book, and apart from the stupid dramatic reveal at the end, there was nothing in it that surprised me as a reader. I also have a real dislike for writers who write about writers (which I might have expressed before), simply because it’s so easy to do. McEwan’s depiction of Tom Haley seemed particularly smug and self-indulgent given that he was semi-autobiographical – the character had the same academic background as McEwan, and also wrote stories that McEwan himself wrote. In the book he was lauded as a genius wherever he went. A pet peeve in any form of literature for me (despite the ‘write what you know’ rule); this will always put me off a book.

I suppose it might make a nice TV drama, maybe an ITV two-parter, but so far it hasn’t been put on screen and I really don’t expect there’s enough substance for it to work as a film. I could be wrong, but we will see. It was only published in 2012, I believe, so there’s still room for it to make the jump – but judging by the poor marketing and the relatively bland storyline, I’d be surprised if a very good adaptation appeared any time soon.

Sorry Ian, you get three stars from me this time. But I have high hopes for your other works, and rest assured I’ll be visiting them soon.

[Coming next: The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter]

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