Friday, 31 May 2013

Conjuring Trix

Every novel which features characters who vocalise (internally or externally) is an act of literary ventriloquism.  As readers, we expect such inhabitants of books to project a sense of credibility (whether as 'realistic' people or creatures, or as fabulous ones) through their mental and vocal utterances, unless a novel is striving for effects created by deliberate deviation from such an approach. As has often been observed, this does not mean that fictional monologue or dialogue can be mined directly from the real world, as most transcripts of real-life conversations would neither be replete with literary merit nor hold a reader's attention.  Fiction writers who choose to populate their pages with 'real' historical characters (I hear there's a certain Ms Mantel who shows promise in this regard) must face the additional discipline of securing a secondary level of plausibility within their particular framework, which involves considerable challenges in terms of vocabulary and register as well as in describing their characters' psychologies and thoughts.  Even if an author does not attempt to replicate historically authentic speech patterns and vocabulary, the system of utterances employed by each character still must convey an appropriate identity, and bear an accurate relationship to those of the other characters.  The test of how successfully all this is done is, I suppose, whether we can see the author's lips moving.  Mary Hamer hurdles these obstacles beautifully in the Virginia Prize-winning Kipling & Trix, which is based on the lives of, and relationship between the creator of 'If', Mowgli, etc. and his sister.

One of the joys of the book lies in being reintroduced to a life and body of work (Kipling's) from unusual perspectives, especially that of his familial concerns and his complex, rich and troubled relationship with Trix.  Another source of pleasure is the skilful portrayal of characters who, although relatively minor in the book, have left a significant footprint in history. Edward Burne-Jones, for example, produces a pleasurable frisson as he walks these pages, grappling not so much with weighty matters of Art and Culture as how to keep his family healthy and happy (Kipling was his nephew by marriage).  Another very successful aspect of the book for me was the rendering of the kaleidoscope of locations through which the characters' lives are twirled, including India, Britain, America and a richly-recreated South Africa.

The character and story of Trix are engagingly-drawn, especially in the observation of how her psychology and development are warped as her fierce, instinctive desire to write (the book is very good on writing) is confronted by the conventions and restrictions of her culture and society.  Hamer handles this minefield of cliche with deftness and ingenuity, producing a convincing but never sentimental portrait of a beleaguered, intelligent woman, and vividly conjuring the atmosphere and preoccupations of the time.  Hamer uses her embodiment of Trix to examine the conflict, jealousy and guilt that characterise families, as well as to celebrate the profound, transfiguring joy that family relationships can bring.  If, as was the case for me, Kipling, his world and his family are little more than indistinct cliches, Kipling & Trix will provide very absorbing education.

I should not neglect to praise the quality of Hamer's writing.  An expertise with dialogue is obviously a prerequisite for this kind of novel, but Hamer supplements this skill with some fine turns of phrase:

'Alice spoke from the wooden embrace of the old Windsor chair'

and some excellent comic observation, such as of:

'A dark tower of a town house where, Trix suspected, the air was haunted by the steam of suet puddings'

and there are some very well-wrought set pieces.

In conclusion, I ought to say that (a) I am working part-time for the publisher, but that I wrote this post while intimately connected to a lie-detector and (b) on finishing the book I reserved Kipling's complete verse from the library.  On seeing the size of this tome, I realised that the world prolific needs upgrading.  Whatever negative epithets you feel may justly adorn the work and character of 'Ruddy', slothfulness cannot be among them.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Arable parables

I had reason to thank anew the tiny electronic post-person who delivers the Bookseller's e-bulletin recently.  The May 20th edition carried a link to a feature in The Atlantic on the surge in popularity of what to me was a newly-defined genre, namely Farm Lit., which is raking in sheaves of female readers, to the detriment of Chick and other varieties.  This school of writing substitutes brawny farm workers and rural female entrepreneurs for silk-suited city slickers.

Regular visitors to this blog will fail to swoon with surprise when I say that this news had me reaching immediately for my literary toolbox, from which I deployed my Genre Torque Spanner (with ergonomic grip design and flange swivel plate) and applied it to a few well-known literary works, so that they could claim their place in the ranks of this mode of fiction.  The results are as follows:

Silage Marner
Farms and the Man
Fifty Shades of Grazing
Kane and Stable
The Rape of the Flock
Hay wain and the Green Knight
Goats from a Small Island
Born Friesian
Udder Milk Wood

These works and similar others would, of course, be feted at the annual Hay Festival.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

A few news musings

In a packed blog tonight, a crop of current bookish news stories is presented for your edutainment.


I was amused to read a snippet, in one of the free papers that decorate our train carriages, concerning the flood of 'Fifty Shades' volumes into charity shops.  This is, of course, due to their former owners having realised that they had not in fact purchased the definitive treatise on minimalist interior decor. If this influx grows too voluminous, i suppose we may see one of our best-known charity chains altering its name to (Bond)age UK. 

I have striven mightily, but failed, to resist observing that the proud new owners of these tomes will be literally paying money for old rope.


Inspired by the phenomenal success of the fasting diet book which took Christmas by surprise and shows no signs of loosening its grip on the population, I have conducted some modest private research to transfer the concepts involved into the literary arena.  It transpires that, given a properly and finely calculated regime, it is perfectly possible to read any number of populist, superficial novels containing no grain of improving content nor any challenge to traditional narrative structures and not suffer any decrease in aesthetic or intellectual trimness, provided that, for two days in each week only, you adhere strictly to ingesting the approved canon of Difficult, Serious (and preferably Foreign) Books. This may seem counter-intuitive, but, with the aid of my new series of books and related products, including my patent Literary Calorie Counter © (which will, once fed some basic information about a novel's tone, protagonists and vocabulary, assess it's Literary Purity) remarkable results will be in your grasp.  Pre-order now for my special introductory offer.


The annual Bookseller Industry Awards were announced recently, and congratulations are due to Sainsbury's for having come away from the event with the children's bookseller of the year prize in their basket.  This set me to thinking about some possible supermarket-oriented reworkings of literary classics, and to inflict the following upon you:

Morrison's and Lovers

Tesco of the D'Urbervilles

Asda You Like it

The Lidls of the King


Saturday, 11 May 2013

A jolly good Falla

Powerfully-evoked locations are often said to function as characters in their own right within works of fiction.  This being the case, Patagonia in Jonathan Falla's remarkable novel The Physician of Sanlucar is not one you would wish to invite round for dinner.  The Patagonian landscape and environment, and the lives of those dwelling therein during the second decade of the twentieth century, as described with unflinching accuracy by Falla, are grim and precarious.  The novel opens, in fact, with a forensic description of both the 'astonishing' venereal diseases to which the farming colonists are prey, and the ingenious device which the titular character has developed to treat them.  It is a highly arresting first chapter, and typical of the author's lack of inhibition to be bold with content and imagery.

The initially disclosed reason for Matthieu Macanan's having secreted himself in this obscure part of the world is to minister medicinally to the immigrant farmers and the indigenous population, and he comes to espouse the cause of the latter more forcefully and dramatically as the novel progresses.  But there is clearly something deeper and darker in his personal history, the revelation of which is cleverly interwoven into his contretemps with a particularly amoral and loathsome representative of insensitive colonialism, Lovell.  Into Macanan's world come a married Austrian couple (Silke and Theo) who hope to bring the new miracle of aeronautic transport to the region by establishing a flying postal service. There is an immediate and obvious attraction between the physician and the wife, which becomes one of the main engines of the plot.

The subsequent love affair functions, (as does the aircraft which sits awaiting repair in a stockade as the husband sails off to find spare parts) as a beacon of redemption and hope in the physical and moral gloom of the setting.  Without wishing to divulge too much of the plot, however, it is safe to say that there is no unalloyed escape from the toxic effects of the Patagonian environment, and the situations of those caught up in this period and place.  Falla particularly excels in describing how Patagonia invades the souls and bodies of its inhabitants.  At one point, during a dramatic and life-threatening journey to a new location, a character's head wobbles 'with what might have been agreement, or hypothermia', demonstrating that his identity and volition have become indistinguishable from the effects of the extreme climate.  The aeroplane (which is called a dove by its creator and also described in angelic terms) is observed late in the novel to have accumulated 'a lot of dust; it was filling with Patagonia'. 

This is not to say that the book's overall effect is gloomy or depressing - there is a pervasive and effective wry humour at play and, decorating the elegant and efficient prose which propels the plot, passages of very fine, lyrical descriptive writing:  Macanan, for example, hauling a mess of wet canvas, is said to be

'dragging it behind him like a bride with an impossibly heavy train'

and Silke's hair being

'like cobwebs tied back by an orderly spider'.

Additionally, the book's handling of the colonial issues is deft and never sentimental; Falla makes good play of symbols and motifs (the plane being angelic and dove-like, it's creator being called after the prefix for divinity), and there are absorbing insights into and descriptions of human character and behaviour.

All the elements of the plot and setting, including a crucial guest appearance by a German naval crew smuggling gold for the war effort, swirl into a dramatic kaleidoscope of a denouement that brings a satisfying and surprising ending to a riveting book which excavates one of the murkier periods of modern colonialism and in which, most often, the characters' best intentions are warped into tragedy by circumstance and fate.

Monday, 6 May 2013


Another imaginary poetry anthology (see Write to Reply) comprises a series of definitions of literary genres and themes in limerick form.  This is a similar but humbler path to that already lain by the frighteningly talented Martin Rowson in his Limerickiad books.  For some reason, the only two entries I have so far constructed pertain to crime, but more may follow later.  If so, the Land of Blog will be among the first to know.  Watch this space, by the way for a Proper Grown-up Book Review of the excellent Physician of Sanlucar, a tale of colonialism, love, flight and sexual disease in Patagonia.  I think this has also been a prog rock concept album.

The Traditional English Village Murder

The scene is quite bloody and grim,
And clues are confusing and slim;
That apparently meek
And retiring geek
Who won't hurt a fly? It was him!

Crime Noir (Nordic and otherwise)

The hero's divorce is a bitch
And his cravings are making him itch.
In a plotline whose forking
Would stump Stephen Hawking,
The shot and garroted will twitch.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Balancing the books

There is a widespread assumption that the world of Letters and Arts is exclusively populated by raving, left-of-centre liberal progressives who will launch into a polemic about neo-fascist government policies at the drop of a stylish beret, probably because they are insulated from the harsh realities of the world by not having to do proper jobs.  As a counterblast to this view, and to prove that we in Bookland are as capable as any decent Briton of recognising the need for frugality and economic good sense during a period when the economy (thanks to a few Bolshevite ne'er do wells having snuck into government while no-one was looking) is taking more dips than a swimming addict, I present my Reduced Classics Canon, in which the previous extravagances of some literary products are suitably curtailed.  Without further ado, may I recommend:

The Reasonably Tolerable Lightness of Being

The Kitten, the Conjuror and the Bedside Table

A History of Neasden in 10 and a half Chapters

More than a few of the President's Men

The Acting Assistant Administrator of the Flies


....and anything by Paul Austerity, naturally.