Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, dystopian, Fiction, Italy, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Anna’ by Niccolò Ammaniti

Cover image of Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate; 273 pages; 2017. Translated from the Italian by Johnathan Hunt. Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

A deadly virus has killed every adult in Italy and the world has irrevocably changed. There’s no electricity, no transport, no food. The cities are empty, the roads quiet. The world is run by children, who fight among themselves for survival, and feral dogs roam the countryside. The date? October 2020!

Reading Niccolò Ammaniti’s post-apocalyptic novel Anna right now was quite a freaky experience. When I found it lurking on my Kindle I had no idea about its contents. There was no blurb, I just knew that I liked the author’s work having previously read his novels I’m Not Scared (published in 2003) and Me and You (2012). So when I realised it was about a deadly pandemic I wondered what the universe was telling me! The whole book felt scarily prescient.

Set in Sicily

Set in Sicily, the story follows 13-year-old Anna, who lives on Mulberry Farm with her nine-year-old brother, Astor. The siblings have been living alone for four years following the death of their mother from a flu-like virus.

The virus, which has killed every adult in the world, lies dormant in children, appearing only when they reach puberty.

When you reach maturity, red blotches start to appear on your skin. Sometimes they appear straight away, sometimes it takes longer. When the virus grows in your body you start to cough, you find it hard to breathe, all your muscles ache, and scabs form in your nostrils and your hands. Then you die.

Much of the book’s plot centres on two kinds of jeopardy. The first is the threat posed by Anna and Astor wandering the now lawless land in search of food, where every stranger is a danger and wild dogs have the potential to eat them alive; the second is Anna’s countdown to puberty because as soon as she gets her first period it’s likely she’ll also develop the illness that will kill her.

Girls’ own adventure story

It reads very much like a girls’ own adventure story as Anna leaves Mulberry Farm to not only look for supplies but to follow the instructions left by her mother: head for the mainland in case there are adult survivors living there.

Along the way she loses Astor, finds him again, meets up with other children, some of whom are violent and dangerous, others who are helpful and friendly, and chases a rumour that there’s an old lady living in a hotel who has a cure for the virus. She also finds a wild dog who becomes a loyal companion.

I can’t say I loved this book; I think I found it a little too close to the bone given the current covid-19 pandemic. But the writing is beautiful in places, the storytelling is masterful, the characters are well-drawn and the atmosphere is suitably dark and menacing. It’s a heartfelt portrait of sibling loyalty and ends on a hopeful note.

This is my 13th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I actually requested this as a review copy from NetGalley when it first came out, but never got around to reading it — until now. Timing is everything, right?

Allen Lane, Author, Book review, Emma Jane Kirby, Italy, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Optician of Lampedusa’ by Emma Jane Kirby

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

Non-fiction – hardcover; Allen Lane; 128 pages; 2016.

I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw as our boat approached the source of that terrible noise. I hardly want to. You won’t understand because you weren’t there. You can’t understand. You see, I thought I’d heard seagulls screeching. Seagulls fighting over a lucky catch. Birds. Just birds.

So begins Emma Jane Kirby’s The Optician of Lampedusa, which tells the true story of an optician, his wife and six of their friends who rescued 47 migrants off the coast of Sicily late in the summer of 2013.

The migrants had been fleeing Africa and were on a seriously overcrowded boat that capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, the largest island of the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. At least 300 people drowned. (You can read a detailed account of the incident on Wikipedia.)

Short but powerful

In this short, but undeniably powerful book, Kirby brings to life the sheer tragedy of what has become an all-too familiar news story in recent years: the death by drowning of people sailing across the Mediterranean in search of a better life. It puts a very human face on those migrants and asylum seekers who are often depicted as nothing more than statistics, as people undeserving of our care and compassion because they’re “only” economic migrants.

It also puts a very human face on those caught up in rescue efforts and shows the psychological impacts on them. In this case, the optician and his wife were so traumatised by what had occurred they had difficulty sleeping, became demotivated at work and had trouble coming to terms with the fact that they were unable to save everyone on that fateful day.

Everywhere he looked, there were more of them! They seemed to multiply in the water, hands breeding hands. The optician looked at his watch and felt panic rise up in his throat — he knew they were working against the clock, here. Where the hell was the coastguard? All this time he was being taunted by the nagging doubt that they weren’t doing this right, that a professional crew would be doing things differently, more efficiently, and would be saving more people. If only they could work faster.

While Kirby does a brilliant job of putting you in the shoes of the optician, showing how his rather staid and ordinary life was turned upside down on that one fateful day and depicting the long-lasting shock and trauma he experienced, it occasionally labours under its own weight. At time it feels forced, almost as if Kirby doesn’t trust that her audience will be able to understand the plight of migrants or the dastardly things that people traffickers do.

That said, The Optician of Lampedusa is a compelling narrative and a heartfelt story full of drama and intrigue. It’s exactly the kind of story that needed to be told, to help put into context what is a terrible ongoing human tragedy.

It’s harrowing and horrifying, but it’s also perversely life-affirming, because in writing about so much pain and death, it shows how wonderfully resilient, compassionate and caring many people can be. It’s a story that shows two sides of the one coin: the worst of humanity, and the best of it, too.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, W. Somerset Maugham

‘Up at the Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 120 pages;  2004.

First published in 1941, Up at the Villa is a quick-to-read novella by W. Somerset Maugham.

It tells the tale of Mary Panton, a beautiful young Englishwoman, who is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life following the untimely death of her beloved husband, who was a philanderer, gambler and drunkard.

Given the loan of an attractive villa in the hills above Florence, she spends her days sitting on the terrace admiring the view and her evenings in the company of a select group of aristocratic friends, including the wayward rotter and playboy Rowley Flint.

When an old family friend, Sir Edgar Swift, who has been in love with her since she was a girl, asks for her hand in marriage, she requests a few days to think about it. While she knows that she does not love Sir Edgar — he’s 24 years older than her and was a contemporary of her late father’s — she trusts him and believes his new position as the Viceroy of Bengal will elevate her social standing and provide her with a degree of financial security.

But during those three days, Mary makes a fateful decision, seemingly on a whim, that plunges her into enormous danger.

A morality tale 

I’ve read enough Maugham now to realise he’s obsessed with marriages (particularly unhappy ones), adultery, sexual restraint and class. And this book, a thinly disguised morality tale, is no different.

Mary’s kindness, compassion and desire embroils her in a scandal from which there appears to be no escape. The morally dubious way in which she then behaves when things go wrong does not make the reader warm to her.

Similarly, Rowley, who is painted as a bad character right from the start, behaves with great chivalry, but you soon come to realise his honourable actions are compromised by rather dark motivations. It’s hard to know who to cheer on and who to condemn.

In fact Up at the Villa is the sort of book that asks more questions than it answers. Its characters, all deeply flawed but terribly human, are well drawn even if some of their dialogue, especially the romantic bits, are a little unconvincing.

Despite the lightness of touch of Maugham’s sometimes silky prose, this is a story dealing with some very big themes — about beauty, the human heart and how the decisions we make can have lifelong repercussions, for both good and bad. I read it in one sitting and found it a thoroughly engaging, if slight, tale.

I believe the book has been adapted into a film starring Sean Penn and Kristin Scott-Thomas, but having read the synopsis on IMDb lots of liberties appear to have been taken with the characters and the plot. I probably won’t bother hunting it out — unless anyone can convince me otherwise.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Granta, Italy, Leonardo Sciascia, Publisher, Setting

‘The Day of the Owl’ by Leonardo Sciascia

Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 122 pages; 2014. Translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver.

Short. Sharp. Powerful. That’s the best way to describe Leonardo Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl.

First published in 1961 and set in the early 1940s, this novella looks at the difficulty one policeman faces when he tries to investigate a crime. The setting is Sicily, where the mafia has infiltrated almost every aspect of society. Even the average citizen on the street closes ranks when the Carabinieri start asking questions.

Dramatic opening

The book opens in rather dramatic fashion. A man in a dark suit is running for a bus when he is gunned down in broad daylight. He is only metres away from a fritter-seller and there are dozens of passengers on the bus, yet no one sees a thing.

What follows is a complicated narrative tracing the investigation into the man’s murder led by Captain Bellodi, an outsider and “mainlander” who heads up the Carabinieri. His quiet pursuit of the truth is intertwined with the voices of those who want to obfuscate his work, and yet he never gives up or takes short cuts to reach his desired outcome.

Captain Bellodi […] was by family tradition and personal conviction a republican, a soldier who followed what used to be called ‘the career of arms’ in a police force, with the dedication of a man who has played his part in a revolution and seen law created by it. This law, the law of the Republic, which safeguarded liberty and justice, he served and enforced.

But while this book might have the look and feel of a crime novel, it doesn’t follow the conventions of the genre. There’s no neat ending, no redemption. What it offers is an honest and authentic look at a society that has been subjugated by a small band of powerful and immoral men, who have rewritten the rules of engagement and live by their own code of honour. It is particularly good at showing what happens  when bystanders turn a blind eye to crime, violence and corruption.

Tautly written

This tautly written story, which has been pared back to its most basic elements, is an incredibly nuanced piece of work (the dialogue is exceptionally good) and is a wonderful portrait of Sicilian society at a particular moment in time. But it’s also difficult to follow. We are introduced to an endless cast of characters — informers, criminals, politicians, shopkeepers et al — and there’s a disturbing lack of place names (everything is referred to by initial), which makes for a sometimes confusing and frustrating read.

Furthermore, for anyone new to Italian history, it’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on politically without doing some research first. (It was thanks to this Wikipedia entry on the Sicilian Mafia that I discovered that the mafia was suppressed under Fascism, which helps put the whole of The Day of the Owl into context.)

Yet for all the difficulties I had with this book, I’d like to return to it at a later date. It’s short, yes, but it’s so dense with ideas and ethical issues that it would take multiple readings to come to grips with them all.

Finally, the author’s afterword — or “tailpiece” as it is called here — adds a fascinating insight into his fear of being charged with libel and slander for skating too close to the truth. He shortened the story — he calls it “pruning” — to protect himself from the reactions of “any who might consider themselves more or less directly attacked in it”, adding: “I was unable to write it with that complete freedom to which every writer is entitled.”

I can only imagine how explosive the book might have been had it included everything he really wanted to write!

Author, Books in translation, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Von Arnim, England, essays, Europa Editions, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, Helen Macdonald, Italy, Japan, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Verso, Vintage, Yukio Mishima

Five Fast Reviews: Franco Berardi, Elena Ferrante, Helen Macdonald, Yukio Mishima and Elizabeth Von Arnim

Five-fast-reviews-300pix

‘Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide’ by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Non-fiction – paperback; Verso; 232 pages; 2015.

Mass-murder-and-suicideAs you may gather by the title, I like my non-fiction as dark as my fiction — and Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, written by an Italian Marxist whose work mainly focuses on communication theories within post-industrial capitalism, plumbs some pretty black depths. But what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has to say about society and, in particular, capitalism rang a lot of bells with me.

There’s a lot of hard-hitting political, economic and psychological commentary and analysis running throughout this book — produced as part of Verso Futures, which is a new series of essays by leading thinkers and writers — and not all of it is easy to understand. Some of the arguments occasionally feel a little uneven and there are sections written in a clunky academic style, but the ideas outweigh the writing style. Berardi’s main argument is that many young men — and yes, he says they are always men — commit mass shootings before turning the gun on themselves, because this new age of hyper-connectivity and relentless competition in which we live, where neo-liberal politics has stamped out egalitarianism, has divided the world into winners and losers. If you’re a disaffected young man who hasn’t achieved much it’s very easy to become a winner in a short space of time: you take a gun to school (or another public place) and kill everyone in a violent rampage. You’re in charge for 30 minutes or however long it takes and before long the whole world knows your name, even though it’s unlikely you’ll live to see the fame you’ve achieved.

Admittedly not for everyone, this book posits some interesting ideas and is recommended for those who like to explore complex moral and social issues.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

Fiction – Kindle edition; 336 pages; Europa Editions; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

My-brilliant-friendIt seems the whole world has fallen in love with My Brilliant Friend, the first in a four-part series by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, but I have to admit that I didn’t really warm to it, perhaps because it was too slow and gentle for me.

The story is a simple one: two girls growing up in 1950s Naples — at a time when women stayed at home and looked after their husbands and children, and girls received only a minimal education — become firm friends. But like many close relationships between teenagers, their relationship is fraught with jealousies and rivalries and they begin to grow apart as they enter the complex world of young womanhood. Elena, the narrator, is bright and does so well at school she’s encouraged to continue her education, while Lina, perhaps more intelligent than her friend, leaves school to pursue work in her family’s shoe-making business.

As well as an authentic look at female friendship, the story is an intriguing portrait of a machismo culture — there’s a lot of violence, domestic and otherwise in this tale — and an impoverished neighbourhood on the brink of political and social change. But while I admired the author’s restraint in telling the story in such simple, stripped back prose, My Brilliant Friend didn’t grip me and I probably won’t bother reading the rest in the series.

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

Non-fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 284 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

H-is-for-hawkIn a previous life I was the editor of a bird magazine and often commissioned articles about falconry, so I was keen to read H is for Hawk, which explores Helen Macdonald’s attempt to train a goshawk following the death of her photojournalist father. The book is actually three books in one: it’s an entertaining account of the ups and downs of training a bird of prey; it’s a moving portrait of a woman’s grief; and it’s a detailed biography of T. H. White, a troubled man who wrote a controversial book about training a goshawk in the early 1950s. These three threads are interwoven into a seamless narrative that is both compelling and illuminating.

The story is infused with a bare and sometimes confronting honesty as Macdonald comes to grips with her own failings and frustrations brought about via the clash of wills between her and Mabel, the £800 goshawk she bought especially for this project. At times it is quite an emotional book, but it’s lightened by moments of humour and it’s hard to feel anything but admiration for the dedication that Macdonald devotes to the task of taming a wild creature. H is for Hawk is probably one of the most unusual non-fiction books I’ve read, but it’s also, happily, one of the most heartfelt and intriguing ones.

‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 389 pages; 2000. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher

Spring-snowFirst published in 1968 but set in 1912, Spring Snow is the first in Yukio Mishima’s acclaimed The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. It’s a rather beautiful and austere tale about a teenage boy, Kiyoaki, who falls in love with an attractive and spirited girl, Satoko, two years his senior, but he plays hard to get and views their “romance” as a bit of a game. It is only when Satoko becomes engaged to a royal prince that Kiyoaki begins to understand his depths of feeling for her — and the enormous loss he looks likely to face unless he takes drastic action to change the course of events.

As well as being a deeply moving love story — think a Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet — the book is a brilliant portrait of Japanese society at a time when the aristocracy was waning and rich provincial families were becoming a powerful elite. Through the complex and troubled character of Kiyoaki, it vividly portrays the clash between a rigid militaristic tradition and a less restrained, Westernised way of life.

Written in lush, languid prose, filled with beautiful sentences and turns of phrase, this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. It’s a dense and complex work, but is imbued with such pitch-perfect sentiment it’s difficult not to get caught up in this rather angst-ridden romance. And the ending is a stunner. I definitely want to explore the rest of the books in this series.

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The-enchanted-aprilThe Enchanted April is appropriately named for it is, indeed, one of the most enchanting books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners — quite a daring proposition in itself at that time in history; even more daring when you realise that none of them know each other before the month-long trip.

The holiday is first mooted by an unhappy Mrs Wilkins who sees an advertisement in The Times which captures her eye — and her imagination— looking for “Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” to rent a “small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April. She advertises for companions, which is how she is joined by Mrs Arbuthnot, who is fleeing an unappreciative husband; the elderly, fusty, set-in-her-ways Mrs Fisher; and the beautiful Lady Caroline, who is not yet ready to settle down but is sick of being chased by marriage-hungry young men.

In the delightful confines of the castle and its heavenly garden, the four women seek rest, recreation and respite with mixed, and often humorous, results as clashes between personalities and numerous misunderstandings ensue. A  brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and delightful book. It’s uplifting, fun and the perfect summer read.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Domenico Starnone, Europa Editions, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting

‘First Execution’ by Domenico Starnone

First-execution

Fiction – paperback; Europa Editions; 173 pages; 2009. Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar.

Domenico Starnone is an Italian writer, rumoured, at one stage, as being Elena Ferrante, the writer of the Neapolitan series of four novels — My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New NameThose Who Leave And Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child — whose identity has remained secret. Having read My Brilliant Friend (yet to be reviewed) I can see how that theory might have come about.

Starnone’s novel, First Execution, posits the idea that education shapes our world view, just as Ferrante does in My Brilliant Friend. He also depicts a relatively violent world, where emotional restraint is in short supply, one that is deeply divided between the rich and the poor. This is something Ferrante does, too. Are they one and the same author? Who knows? To be honest, it doesn’t matter.

The Execution is a brilliant novel brimful of ideas and theories about politics, education, terrorism, war and justice — among others — and I came away from it feeling as if my mind was slightly blown. This is a good thing.

Mild-mannered man caught up in bigger events

The book opens with a retired teacher, 67-year-old Domenico Stasi (note the similarity to the author’s own name) finding out that Nina, a former pupil, has been charged with “armed conspiracy”. Stasi, who taught his students to fight for what they believed in, feels partially responsible — did he contribute to Nina’s desire to become a terrorist?

To appease his own sense of (misguided) guilt, he visits her — they have coffee together in a cafe — but then finds himself caught up in Nina’s world:

She asked me to go to the apartment of a friend of hers. The apartment had been empty for some time, her friend was overseas, she handed me the keys. On the bookshelves in the living room I would find a copy of The Death of Virgil, by Hermann Broch. On page 46 a few words had been underlined. I was to transcribe those words and place the sheet of paper in an envelope. Soon, someone would show up and ask for the envelope. That was all.

This puts Stasi in a difficult position: should he do it, or say no?  Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a story if he declined, but the narrative that unfurls from this one decision is quite unexpected, for the author inserts himself into the story — Paul Auster style — and we learn how he struggles to write the very pages we are reading. It’s slightly disconcerting and disorienting to suddenly have Domenico Starnone tell us about his creation Domenico Stasi, but it’s a clever device for exploring the lines between fiction and reality and how the two can sometimes mix.

As the narrative slips backwards and forward between the two voices of the two Domenicos — sometimes this is seamless, at other times it’s quite a jolt — we are taken on an electrifying ride that feels like a psychological thriller on one level and a deeply philosophical mediation about the state of the world on another. Indeed, it’s a weird kind of page turner in the sense that you want to find out what happens next — will Domenico get himself arrested or badly hurt or perhaps even killed? — but at the same time you’re forced to contemplate all kinds of issues, including war, violence, capitalism, socialism, religion, education, what it is to get old and the lines between guilt and innocence.

Personal responsibility

A constant refrain is to what extent we bear personality responsibility for the state of the society we live in. If we are unhappy about the divide between the rich and the poor, or the injustices that go on around us, do we become complicit if we do nothing about the situation? And if we do decide to do something, is it ever okay to be violent, to rise up against the powers that be and perhaps take innocent people’s lives to make a point?

Stasi, in particular, often muses about the need to make a decision, because indifference simply breeds more problems down the line — in other words, the past always catches up with the future.

I spent a lot of time underlining lengthy paragraphs in this book because they so eloquently captured my own thoughts about justice and poverty, for instance, and I came away from this rather clever novel feeling a slightly richer person for having read it.

Finally, I should add that if you liked Laurent Binet’s HHhH, then you may well enjoy this one too.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Bausch, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press, war

‘Peace’ by Richard Bausch

Peace

Fiction – hardcover; Tuskar Rock; 171 pages; 2009.

There’s a lot to be said for short, succinct books, especially if they deliver punches that feel more powerful — and more targeted — than might be achieved by novels of much longer length. It takes a particular skill to craft stories that have been honed to the bare minimum without losing the essence of what makes them special.

Richard Bausch, an American writer, has that rare talent to convey meaning and emotion in a tightly written narrative in which every word has to justify its existence. No surprise, then, that he’s largely known as a short story writer.

Peace, first published in 2009 — in the then new Atlantic imprint Tuskar Rock started by Colm Toibin — proves that in the right hands a story doesn’t have to be 500 pages long to have an impact. I came away from this one reeling not only with the drama of it, but also the beauty of Bausch’s lyrical, stripped-back prose hugely reminiscent at times of all those Irish writers I’ve come to know and love. On more than one occasion I was reminded of John McGahern — which is high praise indeed.

Dying days of war

The story is set in Italy at the tail end of the Second World War. A group of American soldiers on foot patrol are trying to locate the enemy, which is on the retreat.

The weather is atrocious, the soldiers are exhausted (some are ill with dysentery) and morale is low. When their sergeant commits a war crime — he deliberately shoots an unarmed woman because “she would have shot us all if she could” — those who witness it are too foot-sore and weary to report it. But this one act hangs over all who saw it, haunting their days and their nights.

Three of those witnesses — Marson, Asch and Joyner — are sent on a reconnaissance mission, up a steep mountain with an old Italian man as a guide. What ensues is a difficult journey that is fraught with danger, not only from treacherous terrain and freezing rain and snow, but German snipers hidden in the woods.

Stress and fear

Under these stressful and challenging conditions the soldiers’ fears are heightened and yet they cannot forget what they saw the day before, discussing it over and over amongst themselves — was the act justified? should they forget it or report it? are they complicit in the crime? — which only serves to deepen the ructions and tensions between them.

This is a useful device for Bausch to examine each man’s character, to fill in their back stories and to explore their own individual morals and beliefs. What emerges is a carefully drawn portrait of a trio of soldiers, fighting on the same side, but all with different prejudices, opinions, fears and foibles.

“You guys are Christians,” Asch said. “You believe in an angry God who’s interested in payback. Right? ‘Vengeance is mine’ — all that. Well, we’re gonna pay for yesterday. I think we might be paying for it now.”
“You’re so full of shit,” Joyner said. “Let go of it, will you? It’s our religion so we’re the ones who’ll go to hell, not you.”
“I’m not even going to answer that,” Asch said. “Jesus, Joyner. The way your mind works.”
“It’s stupid to argue about it here,” Marson said.

Creeping sense of unease

As the narrative progresses, the reader begins to share the soldiers’ growing sense of unease and paranoia: will they be ambushed by the enemy? Is the Italian man as innocent as he purports to be? Is their mission a complete waste of time?

Peace explores all kinds of issues assorted with war, not least the fine line between courage and fear, and the temptation to behave in ways that would be out of keeping under normal, peace-time circumstances. It highlights the immense task that young, largely immature, men had to endure: Asch and Joyner are barely out of their teens, and Marson, who is their corporal, is only in his mid-20s and yet here they are confronting death — the likelihood of theirs, the prospect of killing others — on a daily basis. Bausch never makes them heroic, but instead shows their innermost struggles to make sense of a world gone mad. There is fear, foreboding and anger on almost every page, but there is also tenderness and heartbreak as each man determines what it is to be good in the face of so much horror.

Despite being less than 180 pages, this is an emotionally intelligent book dealing with weighty themes. It brims with tension and moral complexity but is dotted with lovely moments of quiet reflection that make it an astonishing, curiously gripping and heartfelt read.

Australia, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Martin Boyd, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘The Cardboard Crown’ by Martin Boyd

Cardboard-crown

Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Classics; 288 pages; 2012.

Martin Boyd’s The Cardboard Crown is the first part of a quartet exploring the secret history of an  upper-class Anglo-Australian family.

It’s an amazingly vivid and absorbing saga supposedly based on Boyd’s own family —  in his author’s note he claims the plot is factual, but “the characters and certain episodes are fictitious”.

Unsurprisingly, for a book that is so gripping and entertaining, it became a bestseller in the UK when it was first published in 1952. But Australian audiences didn’t agree. It wasn’t until it was reprinted almost 20 years later, in 1971, that it garnered critical acclaim in Boyd’s homeland. Now it has been reissued again, this time by Text Classics, for a whole new generation of readers to enjoy.

A story set in England and Australia

The story revolves around the independently wealthy Alice Verso, whose marriage to Austin Langton forges a dynasty that spans two continents. But at the heart of this alliance lies a shocking secret kept hidden from the world for three generations.

The secret is discovered by Alice’s grandson, Guy Langton, some 50 years after her death. Guy, who narrates the novel, finds her diaries in the Melbourne home he has inherited. By going through the diaries and talking to his uncle and a cousin about the family’s history and mythology, he is able to piece together his grandmother’s amazingly privileged if somewhat tragic life.

The tale he tells swings between England and Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where the Langton family leads two very different lives depending on which country they happen to be living in.

A rootless existence

In Australia, the Langtons are well regarded and socially pre-eminent with connections in all the right places, and their newly built home, in native bushland 30 miles outside of Melbourne, becomes a home away from home for a vast array of family and friends.  In England, they have less social standing, but life is gentler and more cultured, and their surroundings at Waterpark, the traditional family home, are far more pleasant with grand gardens and plenty of land upon which to go hunting. England also has the benefit of being much closer to continental Europe, specifically France and Italy, where the family can experience high culture, art and travel. (I should point out that quite a bit of this novel is set in Rome.)

But despite having the good fortune to be able to reside on either side of the world as and when they feel like it, there is a downside to this inability to put down permanent roots. Alice, for instance, never feels truly at home in either country and a restlessness develops that can not be cast aside. This is how Guy describes the dilemma:

A Cornishman once told me that when he was a boy he caught a seagull, and clipped its wing so that it could not fly away. After a while the feathers grew and he forgot to clip them again. It flew back to its companions who killed it. In its captivity it had acquired some human taint which they sensed was hostile. My family were captive seagulls, both at Waterpark, and even more, as time went on, in Australia.

A story about love, money and class

I will admit that it took me a little time to get into this story. I think that’s largely because it starts off in a kind of meta-fiction type of way, with Guy Langton recalling a conversation in which he was encouraged to write his grandmother’s story. And following on from this, there’s a lot of ground-setting to be done and what appears to be a complicated cast list to get your head around. But once I got into the nub of the story — Alice’s marriage to Austen — things really took off and I found myself completely hooked on this story about love and money and class on two sides of the world.

It’s quite witty in places and terribly sad in others. Indeed, the narrative is full of light and shade, a reflection, perhaps, of the two very different countries in which the book is set.

But what I liked and appreciated most was the way in which Boyd portrays Alice as a woman before her time — a matriarch with plenty of money who did not flaunt her riches but used her wealth to keep family and friends in comfortable circumstances. And while she seemed to always put others before herself, she was not afraid to do her own thing and to forge her own path even if that meant upsetting social conventions of the time.

As an exploration of Melbourne’s colonial past and Australia’s early history, The Cardboard Crown is a fascinating read. But what this book really excels at is capturing that terrible sense of dislocation when you’re never quite sure which country to call home.

Note that the three other books in the Langton Quartet are A Difficult Young Man, Outbreak of Love and When Blackbirds Sing. All but the latter have been republished by Text Classics. Do visit the publisher’s website for ordering information.

To read about the author’s extraordinary life (and family) check out the entry on Wikipedia.

1001 books, Author, Book review, E.M. Forster, England, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Manybooks.net, Publisher, Setting

‘A Room with a View’ by E.M. Forster

A-room-wth-a-view

Fiction – Kindle edition; ManyBooks.net; 191 pages; 1908.

A Room with a View was E.M. Forster’s third novel. It is set during the Edwardian era and is about a young woman trying to escape the social conventions of the time to lead the kind of life she wants to lead.

An Italian setting

It opens in Florence, where Lucy Honeychurch is on vacation with her older cousin Charlotte Bartlett. (I have to say that the names in this novel are wonderful.)

Both women are disappointed that their rooms in the Pension Bertolini do not have views over the river. But when a fellow called Mr Emerson, who is staying at the hotel with his son George, offers to swap rooms, instead of thanking him for the kind offer, the women consider him impudent and ill-bred. (Those silly Edwardian manners, eh?)

This one act of generosity by Mr Emerson sets off a whole chain of events — including a murder — in which Lucy (and Charlotte) are ever-entwined with both the father and son, not only in Italy, but back in England, too.

When the action shifts to Lucy’s childhood home — Windy Corner in Surrey, England — the reader must forgive one or two grating coincidences, because the Emersons move into a local cottage and suddenly there they are, just as they were in Florence, continually putting their foot in it and upsetting everyone’s sense of propriety.

Travel versus marriage

For most of the novel, Lucy struggles with working out what she wants from her rather cosseted life. Should she continue to travel and seek out adventure, or should she settle down and get married? When she finally accepts Cecil Vyse’s proposal of marriage (she refuses twice), her future looks mapped out for her. But it’s clear the match is not a good one.

Cecil, for a start, is probably the most pompous and snobbish character I have ever come across in a novel. (Honestly, he’s vile.) He’s described as “the sort who are all right so long as they keep to things — books, pictures — but kill when they come to people”. And his views on women suggest that he is going to have trouble keeping Lucy’s independent streak in check:

He daren’t let a woman decide. He’s the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he’s forming you, telling you what’s charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly; and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of to your own.

Lucy might not be educated but she has an enquiring mind broadened by travel — and she is set on being “a rebel who desired, not a wider dwelling-room, but equality beside the man she loved”.

By contrasting the repression of Edwardian society with the apparent freedom — and sunshine — of Italy, Forster gives Lucy a striking dilemma, because whichever path she chooses to follow will have negative consequences.

While A Room with a View is a kind of treatise about a woman’s right to be independent, it’s actually quite a light-hearted book filled with comic moments. Forster seems particularly scathing of tourists and there’s some delicious references to the writing profession — ” ‘All modern books are bad,’ said Cecil, who was annoyed at her inattention, and vented his annoyance on literature. ‘Everyone writes for money these days.’ ”

Charm, wit and intelligence

As much as I appreciated the charm, wit and intelligence of this novel, I struggled to enjoy it.

I don’t think it helped that all the characters come across as frightful snobs (yes, I know that’s the point). Every time Cecil appeared on the page I just wanted to smack him (I’m not a violent person, honestly), and even Lucy, whom we’re supposed to cheer on, annoyed me because she failed to recognise that she was lucky to have the choice to either marry or travel — most women of that time would have had to succumb to the traditional route.

My views, however, are by the by: this book has been made into countless films, including an award-winning one by Merchant Ivory in 1985 which I’ve not seen, and constantly makes the cut in all those “1001 books you must read before you die” type lists. I suspect there are loads of you out there that absolutely love it, but for me, it was a lukewarm read…

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Setting

‘Me and You’ by Niccolò Ammaniti

Me-and-you

Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 155 pages; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Kylee Doust. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes it is the shortest books which pack the biggest punch — and this is especially true for Italian author Niccolò Ammanitis latest novel Me and You. In just 155 pages, Ammaniti takes us into the world of a teenage boy, who deceives his parents into thinking he is going on a skiing trip with friends, only to have his world turned upside down by the discovery of a family secret.

A tale of deception

When the book opens Lorenzo Cuni is 24 years old and staying at a hotel in Cividale del Friuli, in northern Italy. He has a piece of paper with him that was written by his sister Olivia ten years earlier, when she was 23.

The story then backtracks to February 2000, when Lorenzo was 14 and a bit of a loner. His wealthy parents, deeply troubled by his behaviour, have sent him to a psychologist, who has diagnosed him with “an inflated sense of self-importance”. But it’s clear that Lorenzo doesn’t have any social skills and finds it difficult to make friends — not without want of trying.

One morning I was at home with a fake headache and I saw a documentary on television about insects that mimic other insects. […]
I had been going about it the wrong way.
Here’s what I had to do.
Imitate the dangerous ones.
I wore the same things they wore. Adidas trainers, jeans with holes in them, a black hoodie. I messed up the parting in my hair and let it grow long. I even wanted to get my ear pierced but my mother forbade me. […]
I walked like them, with my legs wide apart. I threw my backpack on the ground and kicked it around.
I mimicked them discreetly. There’s a fine line between imitation and caricature.

When he hears a group of teenagers he longs to be friends with talk about a ski trip they are going on, he goes home and tells his mother he has been invited to go with them. He then sets up an elaborate scam in which he spends the week hidden in the never-used basement of the family home with his computer games, a copy of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and plenty of food and drink.

But when his much older half-sister, whom he barely knows, unexpectedly unlocks the door to the basement, Lorenzo’s secret looks set to be exposed. What he doesn’t realise is that Olivia, whom is estranged from the family, has secrets of her own to keep…

The book’s biggest punch, however, comes at the very end, when we discover exactly why Lorenzo is in northern Italy ten years after his week in the basement.

A simple prose style

I’ll admit that the faux naive writing style initially grated, but once I realised that it is deliberately written as if by an immature 14-year-old, I got swept away by the story. By maintaining a certain level of tension throughout, Ammaniti has crafted quite a page turner — for instance, I kept waiting for Lorenzo’s mother, who checked up on him via mobile phone almost every day, to find out his secret.

But the story’s real strength lies more in what is not said: why is Olivia estranged from the family? Why is Lorenzo so (sickeningly) sentimental about his mother? Why does he have so much trouble fitting in at school? These allow room for the reader to figure things out — to read between the lines, so to speak — and to join the dots without Ammaniti having to spell every single little thing out.

This might be a highly condensed story, but it deals with big themes — family, shame, deception, and our need to be accepted by our peers and loved by those closest to us. And it beautifully captures that time on the cusp of adulthood when our childish view of the world is changed forever.

Me and You — which reminded me somewhat of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, one of my favourite reads from last year — is Ammaniti’s fourth novel. His first, I’m Not Scared, has also been reviewed on this site.