Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick Flanery, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Fallen Land’ by Patrick Flanery

Fallen-Land

Fiction – Kindle edition; 432 pages; Atlantic Books; 2013.

Without wishing to turn this blog into a political one, one of the things that increasingly worries me about living in 21st century Britain is how more and more public services are being outsourced and privatised. This means that the Government has absolved itself of any responsibility to provide services that are essential to the functioning of society — such as prisons, basic education, health care, security, rail travel and energy, to name but a few — and handed them over to companies which supply these services purely to make a profit. So, if you can’t pay the (inflated) price for your winter fuel or your commute, bad luck. And even if the services remain free of charge at point of use, the quality can be dubious because the firm supplying the service is more interested in cutting costs than hiring the best (and usually more expensive) people for the job.

This theme is central to Patrick Flanery’s novel Fallen Land, which reads like a dire warning about what happens when you let corporations run the world. It is a rather alarming and yet entirely prescient novel, and one that often had me nodding my head in recognition.

Set in an unspecified state of America in the aftermath of the 2008 credit crunch, this is a novel which is very much about dreams — pursuing them, believing in them and dealing with them when they fail — and the outfall of our twisted value system in which everything — and I mean everything — has a price.

Three main characters

Fallen Land largely focuses on three characters: the property developer who goes bust, the woman who is duped into selling her farm for development and the young family man who buys his dream home on that land.

Much of the novel hinges around property developer Paul Krovik, who loses his business in the wake of the financial collapse. When his ultra-modern house on a “ghost estate” is repossessed, he doesn’t follow his wife and children back to Florida. Instead, he builds a hidden bunker underneath the house, moves in to it and lives there secretly, becoming increasingly more feral and more unhinged as time goes on.

Meanwhile, Julia and Nathaniel Noaielles and their young son, Copley, move from Boston to Paul Krovik’s repossessed house — unaware that the developer is living beneath them. Julia, who is an ambitious scientist, is excited about the chance to have a home of their own, but from the get-go Nathaniel dreads the move — it never feels “right” for him — and his job at security firm NKK (modelled, I dare say, on G4S) fills him with unease (his special project is to find a way to make a profit out of prison labour). Similarly, Copley never settles into his strict, regimented private school and develops behavioural problems, which result in him seeing a psychiatrist.

A third character, Louise, has been thrown off the land which she once owned before she sold it to Paul for development. She befriends Copley and later becomes his nanny.

Unusual structure

As you can probably guess, the plot is fairly straightforward. When strange things start happening in the house — furniture is moved, items go missing, windows are opened and slogans are daubed on the walls — it is only a matter of time before Paul’s secret den is discovered instead of Copley being blamed for the mischief making. Yet the novel’s structure is a little more complicated. It opens with Louise visiting Paul in prison, but the reader does not know who Paul is or why he is in prison. But you do know that Louise does not like him, which begs the question,  why visit him?

The story then spools back to explain how these two characters came to be thrown together and how each, in turn, became involved with the Noaielles family. Each character’s story unfolds in alternate chapters, all written in the third person except for Louise’s version of events, which are told  in the first person.

Despite the opening chapter, which is brooding and tense and written with an eye for dramatic flair, I found the narrative tension waxed and waned and I occasionally became bored by certain elements — Nathaniel’s reluctance to stand up to his wife, and Paul’s slow descent into madness, for instance — but am glad I persevered. The ending, when it comes, is rather brutal and shocking — and not at all what I expected (though clearly the signs where there all along).

I think my main problem with the novel was this: it didn’t know if it was a psychological suspense novel or a domestic-drama-come-state-of-the-nation satire. In falling between the two, it didn’t truly succeed in marrying the heightened narrative tension with all the (very well done) character development and social commentary.

Nonetheless, Fallen Land is an intriguing read, packed with ideas, themes and plenty of discussion points — and will no doubt have you scurrying to check the basement and lock the doors before you go to bed each night.

As an aside, if you’ve read Tana French’s Broken Harbour — which is also set on a ghost estate with the owner of the house convinced someone or something is living among them — will find plenty to like here.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Corsair, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Yan Lianke

‘Dream of Ding Village’ by Yan Lianke

Dream-of-ding-village

Fiction – Kindle edition; Corsair; 352 pages; 2011. Translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter.

I read Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village while lying by a pool on the Greek island of Rhodes and I have to say this did not make for a good holiday read — it was far too grim and oppressive to truly enjoy while soaking up the sunshine.

Nevertheless, it’s an important story — and one that needs to be told if we are to learn anything about the value of our health, prevention of disease and the importance of proper regulated medical care.

It is set in a village in rural China devastated by the AIDS virus, which has been spread by the unfettered and wholly unregulated business of blood banks. These banks, which are run by blood merchants, pay poor peasants meagre sums for any blood they donate. Sadly, they reuse needles and other equipment, and thereby contaminate donors so that, before too long, an entire village is suffering from “the fever”.

This book, which is narrated by the ghost of a dead boy, reminded me of Ma Jian’s rather brilliant Beijing Coma, especially in its depiction of a crude and corrupt health care system in which access is dependent not on need but on the ability to pay. It also reveals much about the modern Chinese value system in which everything — including blood — has been commodified in order to make profit.

This is quite an eye-opening, confronting and gruelling read, and definitely not one for the faint-hearted. It was longlisted for the 2011 MAN Asian Literary Prize and shortlisted for the 2011 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Lilliput Press, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, William King

‘Leaving Ardglass’ by William King

Leaving-Ardglass

Fiction – paperback; Lilliput Press; 272 pages; 2008.

Sometimes you pick up a book and before you’ve even finished the first page you immediately know there’s something very special about it. That’s exactly how I felt when I began reading William King‘s Leaving Ardglass, a saga that spans 40 years and follows the lives of two Irish brothers.

What I didn’t know when I began reading the book was the way in which the fates of both MJ Galvin, a building constructor turned property magnate, and his younger sibling, Tom, would mirror the fate of Ireland itself.

Consumerism and the Celtic Tiger

Just as Ireland broke free of its Catholic stronghold, adopted consumerism and enjoyed the booming Celtic tiger years before cracks began appearing in the facade, the two Galvin brothers follow a similar trajectory. Although they come from opposite ends of the moral compass, as it were, both become successful in their chosen fields — construction and property development for MJ, the priesthood for Tom — and yet they also succumb to temptations in one form or another, leaving them bitter and downtrodden older men.

The story is narrated by Tom, a parish priest, looking back on his life. Much of the initial focus is on a “summer in London which had changed me”. He was one of thousands of Irish who went to “John Bull” (England) in search of a job at a time when there was little work at home. It’s 1961 and his older brother MJ is already running a successful construction business in north London, where he employs dozens of down-at-heel Irish workers.

It’s a tough, knockabout life. Workers are taken advantage of, subject to brutality, paid a pittance and put in dangerous life-or-death situations. What Tom witnesses that first summer challenges his value system and the ways in which he views his brother. But it also opens his eyes to the ways of the world — the joy of Saturday night dances in the Galtymore, the camaraderie of men in the pub (before the alcohol-fuelled brawls), gambling and women.

But most of all it adds to his sense of dislocation, as his sacristan sums up perfectly 40 years down the line:

‘We were neither fish nor flesh. Branded as letting down this ould country by going across to John Bull. Sure we’d have starved to death if we’d stayed.’ He flings another log on the pile. ‘And not wanted there because we were the drunken Irish.’

It is this dislocation, this feeling of never belonging and of realising that MJ’s behaviour, professionally and personally, is morally bankrupt that makes Tom reconsider his future. Instead of joining MJ’s firm, where he would effectively become second-in-charge and be set for life, he decides to enter the priesthood.

The Catholic Church

There are religious elements to the book — it may be useful to know that the author himself is a practising priest in Drumcondra, Ireland — but it does not shy away from the issues that have damaged the Church in recent times. Indeed, it raises many talking points — about celibacy, about the ways in which suspected pedophiles within the priesthood should be dealt with and about the role of the Church in the 21st century.

It’s also a fascinating account of life lived within the Church, of what one must do — and give up — to become a priest and how, even among those pious men, lives can be scarred by thwarted ambition, political rivalries and bitter in-fighting.

But what I particularly enjoyed was the portrait of north London — Cricklewood, Camden Town, Kilburn, the Holloway Road — during the 1960s that King paints. He has a special talent for bringing the building sites to life, of describing the back-breaking toil thousands of Irish emigrants undertook through necessity, not choice.

And the way in which he writes about the workers, queuing up each morning on Mornington Crescent, waiting to be selected as part of the construction crews to be trucked to individual sites, is especially vivid. You can practically smell the sense of desperation from the labourers and the little Hitler mentality of the bosses.

One or two, wearing creased shirts and loose ties, shout to get into the fucken trucks, that they have to go out to Leighton Buzzard. The men have a ruffled look: dried clay on their turned-down wellingtons or hobnailed boots. A thickset man is walking up and down inspecting a queue of men; he looks mostly at their shoes; every now and then, he lifts his cap and wipes his bald crown with a piece of navy cloth. […] Down the road, boys are jumping in the air and kicking around a paper football, jostling each other for possession.
‘Come on here,’ MJ shouts, ‘I’ll give you plenty to tire you out behind the mixer.’
They desert the ball like schoolboys and climb into one of the trucks. Above the thud of their boots, a big red-faced man with a head of black hair shouts abuse at them. Did they think they had all the fucken day? Such a crowd of lazy fuckers he’d never met in all his life.

And Tom, despite his flaws and his occasional lack of backbone (he never stands up to his elder brother, despite seeing some horrendous things), is hugely likable. I love that he spends his first few days in London trawling the bookshops on Charing Cross Road looking for “books that are banned at home: Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Catcher in the Rye“.

Shocking expose of Irish life in London

The story is shocking in places — there’s at least one death on a building site that hammers home the point that life was cheap — and there are endless examples of racism against the Irish (“Another Paddy. Filthy lot. I should never ‘ave taken them in,” Tom overhears a landlady say at one point). Mostly, there’s an all-pervasive sense of wasted lives, that these men will spend their lives “digging and drinking, and finish up at the doss-house”.

But the book does not make excuses for behaviours or decisions or the moral cowardice that lies at its heart. What it does, through evocative detail, a cleverly paced narrative and a lightness of touch, is showcase the human condition, with all its tensions and foibles and flaws. If anything Leaving Ardglass is about human greed — and how we can all be corrupted by it if we are not careful.

I loved this book so much it’s a genuine contender for my number one book of the year. And it’s encouraged me to source King’s previous novels — The Strangled Impulse (1997) and Swansong (2001) — both of which are out of print. Watch this space.

Author, Book review, Michael Lewis, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, true crime, USA

‘The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine’ by Michael Lewis

The-Big-Short

Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 288 pages; 2011.

Back in February I bought The Big Short for Mr Reading Matters, because I knew he had loved Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker many moons ago. Then, a few days later, I saw a review of the book on Material Witness, and decided I might like to read the book myself.

First things first. I am not a numbers person. I am not a finance person. I do not understand the inner-workings, or even the outer-workings, of Wall Street. But back in October 2005, Mr Reading Matters and I had a personal tour of the New York Stock Exchange, and I remember coming out of the building feeling slightly dizzy: I couldn’t get my head around the fact that we’d just been given an inside glimpse of the beating heart of capitalism.

Fast forward three years, and that beating heart seemed to be in cardiac arrest.

And it wasn’t just in New York; the financial crisis swept through other places around the globe, including London, Iceland, Ireland, Greece and Portugal.

Michael Lewis’s book is not about the crisis per se. It’s not an academic analysis of what happened. Instead, he takes three people working within the financial system in the USA at the time, and tells their stories, namely of how they “predicted” the events that unfolded and set out to make money from it by betting against the market falling when everyone else seemed completely oblivious to the risks up ahead.

Along the way, these people — hedge-fund manager Steve Eisman, Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann and former neurologist turned capitalist Dr Michael Burry — tried to warn Wall Street of what looked like the imminent collapse of the market, but no one listened: they were too busy making money.

It’s a compelling read, because Lewis turns what could have been a rather dull story about economics into an edge-of-the-seat drama about humans: their greed, their arrogance, their immorality and their intelligence (or lack thereof). And he paints particularly interesting portraits of the naysayers — Eisman, Lippmann and Burry — who were all clearly “outsiders” and non-conformists and had particular anti-social “quirks” that ultimately worked to their advantage.

Lewis writes in an engaging straightforward style, using plain English and simple analogies to cut through the jargon, so that even the most non-financially minded of us can understand concepts like “sub-prime mortgages” and “credit default swaps”.

I read the book in the space of a weekend, getting more and more angry at the collusion between the hedge-fund managers, the ratings agencies, the big banks and the bankers to rip-off ordinary people, in particular, poor immigrant workers who were given access to huge mortgages they could never possibly pay off.  Meanwhile, those “working the system” walked away with millions. The Big Short is a book about fraud — and subterfuge — of the highest order.

As an aside, I watched the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job a few days after finishing Lewis’s book. It’s another take on the crisis, but compliments The Big Short very nicely. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough for anyone wanting to understand the corruption at the heart of the financial services industry in the USA.


The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine was shortlisted for the 2010 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

Alan Glynn, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, Publisher, Setting

‘Winterland’ by Alan Glynn

Winterland

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 480 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I love Irish literary fiction and I’m quite partial to the odd crime novel, so when I first heard that Alan Glynn’s Winterland was described as “Dublin noir” I knew I’d probably enjoy it. I was right. This is a cracking story, brilliantly told and incredibly entertaining, and I bet it won’t take long before the film rights are sold and we see it on the big, or possibly little, screen some time soon.

The real strength of this story is its wholly contemporary feel. Anyone who knows anything about the Irish economy will love this book, because it so beautifully captures the murky machinations of the property bubble (before it went “pop” earlier this year), planning policy and politics. Throw in a gangland murder, a dash of violence, a smidgen of retribution and you’ve got all the right ingredients for a dark and thrilling read.

The book opens with a young thug, Noel Rafferty, being gunned down in the beer garden of a local pub. Police figure it’s a gangland murder, because the victim is a small-time drug dealer. But later that same night Noel’s uncle, also called Noel Rafferty, is killed in a mysterious car accident. Why have two members of the same family, sharing the same name, died on the same night? Coincidence? Or something more sinister?

Enter Gina Rafferty, aunt of the first Noel, sister of the second, who doesn’t believe the official explanation that the car accident was exactly that — an accident.

She begins some detective work of her own, and before long she finds herself thrust into a world of dodgy dealings involving property and politics. She learns that her brother, an engineer, was working on a huge skyscraper, the tallest of its kind in Europe, known as Richmond Plaza. He had a close working relationship with the property’s developer, Paddy Norton, a greedy man intent on turning the Dublin skyline into a mini-Manhattan. Norton, in turn, has connections with Larry Bolger, a power-hungry politician with an eye on the country’s top job. There’s obviously some shadowy goings on between these three men, but proving it takes Gina into dangerous and uncertain territory.

To complicate the story further, enter Mark Griffin, the sole survivor of a car accident that left him an orphan more than 20 years earlier. Is he connected to the Rafferty deaths and, if so, how?

All these characters, including the lone female heroine whom everyone in authority dismisses as an airhead, might sound slightly clichéd but in Glynn’s capable hands they become very real people, with foibles and flaws. He really gets into the heads of each individual character and presents their motivations and desires so intricately it’s easy to feel empathy for even the most loathsome of the bunch.

The dialogue, smart and snappy (and riddled with Dublinese and obligatory swearing), moves things along at a crisp pace. There’s plenty of unexpected twists and turns along the way, but apart from one over-the-top scene towards the end of the book, the whole of Winterland feels authentic and prescient. Highly recommended.