20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Charlotte Grimshaw, Fiction, literary fiction, New Zealand, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40, Vintage

‘The Night Book’ by Charlotte Grimshaw

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 320 pages; 2010.

Before I left London to move to Western Australia last month, I watched a New Zealand crime series called Bad Seed on TV.

The storyline in this five-part series felt vaguely familiar to me and later on I realised it was a weird amalgamation of two books by Charlotte Grimshaw: her 2013 novel Soon, which I had read and loved (it made my top 10 the following year); and her 2010 novel, The Night Book, which had been lurking in my TBR for about five years.

I promptly packed The Night Book in my suitcase and read it a couple of weeks ago as part of the #20BooksOfSummer challenge.

New Zealand literary fiction

Unlike the TV series, this isn’t a crime novel. It’s literary fiction focused on New Zealand’s “elites”, showing how all their money and power and career success doesn’t stop them from messing up their personal lives.

Set in Auckland, it is framed around two families whose paths cross in an unexpected way.

First there is the Hallwright family. David Hallwright, a right wing politician, is on track to become the next Prime Minister of New Zealand. He has two children by his late wife and has remarried a young woman, Roza, who is struggling with the idea of being a famous man’s wife. She’s trying to stay out of the limelight by working a regular job in publishing, all the while trying to keep her demons at bay — she is a recovering alcoholic, once had a cocaine problem and, unbeknownst to David, gave up her first child for adoption.

Then there is the wealthy, middle class Lampton family. Simon is an obstetrician and Karen is a housewife. They have three children, one of whom they fostered then adopted. Her name is Elke; she’s beautiful and intriguing and very close to Simon, who treats her more favourably than he does his natural daughter Claire.

These two families are brought together through Karen Lampton’s fundraising activities. She’s heavily involved in the (unnamed) political party that David Hallwright heads up and, together with (a reluctant) Simon, often attends political dinners and fundraising occasions. It is at these events that Simon meets Roza and the pair develop a mutual attraction — but for wildly different reasons.

Deeply flawed characters

As the novel’s richly layered narrative unfolds, we come to understand the personal struggles of all the characters but, in particular, those of Roza and Simon, who are both deeply flawed and nursing past hurts. Their strange and twisted relationship potentially threatens to not only ruin David Hallwright’s shot at being PM but could also tear apart the Lampton’s already rocky marriage.

Despite the fact most of the characters in this book are not especially likeable, it’s a compelling read, perhaps because Grimshaw treats everyone with great empathy — these are people that feel flesh and blood real. All their mistakes are entirely human.

The author is also very good at skewering contemporary life, of all the nonsense around social climbing and consumerism and conservatism, and she’s brilliant at showing how personal lives are often at odds with public personas.

The Night Book is an eye-opening insight into power and politics and how the choices people make can have long-lasting repercussions. I ate this one up in a matter of days; it’s definitely worth a read if you can track down a copy.

This is my 4th book for #20BooksOfSummer and my 23rd book for #TBR40. I bought this copy at the (now defunct) Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts, held in London in 2014, after I saw the author at one of the sessions. 

Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Deon Meyer, Fiction, Hodder, Publisher, Setting, South Africa

‘Blood Safari’ by Deon Meyer

Blood-safari

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 384 pages; 2009. Translated from the Afrikaans by K. L. Seegers.

I seem to have been going through an (unplanned) mini South African fiction phase lately — I recently read and reviewed both Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and Damon Galmut’s The Good Doctor — so when I was casting about for something easy to read when on holiday in Australia earlier this month, Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari was a good fit.

In many ways Blood Safari, the author’s fifth book, is an unconventional thriller — the protagonist, Lemmer,  is a bodyguard with a shady past, rather than a policeman or a journalist, for instance — and it’s imbued with a real sense of what it is like to live in modern South Africa, where the past and the present have an uneasy relationship, and where black and white tensions still remain despite the birth of a new nation.

But it also features some typical (or should I say lazy?) clichés: there’s a budding romance between Lemmer and his client, a beautiful young businesswoman, and there’s plenty of gun action, car chases and the like. But, to be honest, those things don’t really matter when you’re in the throes of a master storyteller — and Meyer is, indeed, one of those.

Mistaken identity?

The story, which is a heady mix of politics, environmental activism, corruption and greed, centres on a rich young woman, Emma Le Roux, who believes she has seen her long-dead brother on TV, the prime suspect in a murder case in which four poachers were killed. However, the suspect and her brother have different names, so is Emma merely mistaken or has her sibling been “reborn” under a new identity?

Not long after she contacts the police to tell them of her suspicions, her house is burgled and it seems Emma’s life may be in danger. She hires Lemmer as her bodyguard and then begins her own investigation into her brother’s disappearance, but her probing questions ruffle feathers and she’s thwarted at almost every turn.  When she is put out of action by a serious accident, Lemmer picks up the mantle and finds his own life  is suddenly on the line…

That’s when things really begin to heat up — and when the tone of the story changes from seemingly innocent “detective” work to one of pure vengeance.

Lowveld setting

Aside from the obvious drama and adrenalin-fuelled narrative, which twists and turns so you’re never quite sure who to trust or who to believe, the book’s unique selling point is its setting: the Lowveld province of Limpopo, where Kruger National Park is located, a region plagued by political unease and ongoing land claims. One character describes it as follows:

This is still the old South Africa. No, that’s not entirely true. The mindset of everyone, black and white, is in the old regime, but all the problems are New South Africa. And that makes for an ugly combination. Racism and progress, hate and cooperation, suspicion and reconciliation . . . those things do not lie well together. And then there’s the money and the poverty, the greed.

The social commentary that runs throughout the story brings to mind the likes of Australia’s Peter Temple, for Meyer is very good at painting a portrait of the deep unease between the Afrikaners and the English speakers, between the police and civilians, between black and white, between the various different black tribes keen to advance economically. He shows how corruption affects almost every level of society and he reveals how tourism —  “the lifeblood of our country, a bigger industry than our gold mines” — has become a monster growing out of control, pitting development against nature in a way that threatens to destroy the very thing the tourists pay good money to see.

Similarly, he also highlights the dangers of “the new wealth”, which is changing attitudes and behaviour, and creating a population — “white, black and brown” — frenzied by consumerism but marked by a deep unhappiness:

I couldn’t understand it. The Russians and the Romanians and the Bosnians would collect their children after the evening karate class and they would say, “This is a wonderful country. This is the land of milk and honey.” But the South Africans complained. They drove smart cars, lived in big houses and seafront flats, they ate in restaurants and bought big flat-screen TVs and designer clothes, yet no one was happy and it was always someone else’s fault. The whites complained about affirmative action and corruption, but they forget that they had benefited from the same for fifty or sixty years. The blacks blamed apartheid for everything. But it was already six years since it had been abolished.

Blood Safari isn’t the perfect thriller, but its mix of social commentary, politics and action gives it an edge over the usual run-of-the-mill fare you might expect in this genre. It kept me entertained on the road for a week or more (at a time when I didn’t want anything too challenging to read) and piqued my interest enough to make me want to explore more of this writer’s back catalogue.

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.

Book review, Legend Press, London, Publisher, Setting, William Thacker

‘Charm Offensive’ by William Thacker

Charm-Offensive

Fiction – Kindle edition; Legend Press; 256 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

William Thacker’s debut novel, Charm Offensive, is about a fallen left-wing British politician trying to redeem himself after several years in the wilderness. It is set in London in the months prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

When the book opens we meet Joe Street, a retired Labour Party MP, whose name has been dragged through the papers once again. The media had previously ruined his career when his affair with Margaret Eccles, a Conservative Party politician — the Shadow Home Secretary at the time — was publicised in 1999. He was forced to resign as education secretary, and now, several years later, the papers are claiming that he has disowned their “love child” — a disabled girl called Helen.

Joe denies any knowledge of the girl and has called in his spin doctor, Barry, to make the story go away.

Black comedy

Charm Offensive is part comedy, part morality tale. It features some humorous set pieces — particularly between the conniving Barry and the hapless Joe as they plan how to clear his name — but the story is largely a poignant one as Joe grapples with a series of different personal issues, including re-establishing contact with his estranged adult daughter, Rosalind, an artist in the throes of breaking up with her husband.

When Joe hits upon the idea of transforming Rosalind’s home into a guest house, a kind of commune and artists’ co-operative, where the homeless can work and find shelter and paying guests can come to stay, he realises this might be the very thing that proves he still has a shred of respectability — he had, after all, built his political reputation on helping the less fortunate.

And he knows just the person to help with the task: a young chap called George, who has recently set up a homeless shelter in Hammersmith, funded by his father, which has received a lot of positive press.

‘What would you call it?’ [asks Rosalind].
‘Bevan House.’
‘Why?’
‘After Nye Bevan.’
‘Who?’
‘He founded the National Health Service.’
‘Bevan Breakfast,’ Rosalind says.

Rebuilding his reputation

In terms of plot, there’s not much more to the story than following the ups and downs of setting up the commune and seeing whether it will, in fact, help Joe reinvent himself in the eyes of the public — and the press.

The strength of the novel, which is written in beautifully restrained pared back prose, is the characterisation. Joe is not your average politician — he’s clearly flawed, heartbroken (he hasn’t seen his wife, Muriel, in months and she refuses to speak to him on the phone) and a bit lost. I also suspect he’s clinically depressed — he locks himself away in his bedroom at the top of the house, goes days without bathing, sleeps an inordinate amount of time away — and clearly in need of some moral support that goes beyond just keeping his name out of the papers.

Occasionally, the pace is a bit slow — I found some of the bits about Bevan Breakfast a little overworked — and some of the journalistic details off-key (a journalist would never reveal his or her source, for instance), but on the whole Charm Offensive is a thoughtful, sincere and witty tale about one man’s quest for redemption.

Alejandro Zambra, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Chile, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, postmodern literature, Publisher, Setting, South America

‘Ways of Going Home’ by Alejandro Zambra

Ways of Going Home

Fiction- paperback; Granta; 139 pages; 2013. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

Alejandro Zambra has been described as the most important Chilean author since Roberto Bolaño. He was named on the Bogotá39 list (39 of the most promising Latin American writers under the age of 39) in 2007 and selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists in 2010.

I read his second novella, The Private Life of Trees, in 2011 and was intrigued enough to want to read his latest, Ways of Going Home, which won the 2013 English PEN Award for outstanding writing in translation.

But reviewing this short work of fiction is not a straightforward task. There’s an ephemeral quality to it, like waking from a pleasant dream knowing you will never be able to recapture the feeling of it. It’s difficult to try to figure out the shape of the narrative, but it’s written in such eloquent, stripped-back prose, the story slips down as easy as hot chocolate — though the themes are far from sweet.

Set in the author’s native Chile, it uses the devices of metafiction to explore memory, love, truth, deception, guilt, family life and political responsibility. It particularly focuses on the generation born after Pinochet came to power in 1973 and how, in young adulthood, they have had to come to terms with uncomfortable truths: that their parents were either victims or accomplices in the murderous dictatorship that lasted for 17 years.

Freedom under a dictatorship

The book opens with an unnamed nine-year-old boy, living in suburban Santiago in 1985, musing on the fact his parents haven’t always known best. Indeed, this turns out to be a metaphor for the entire book:

Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought that they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t. “You went a different way,” my mother said later, angry, her eyes still swollen. You were the ones that went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.

We get a feel for the suspicious nature of life during the dictatorship when the boy’s parents refuse to have anything to do with their neighbour Raúl — a single man who lives alone — for fear he comes from a different political class. The boy cannot escape this sense that the man is dangerous, for he is enlisted by Raúl’s 12-year-old niece, Claudia, to spy on him — “to keep an eye on his activities and make notes about anything that seemed suspicious”.

But despite the political troubles, life for the boy, his parents and their friends is relatively contented and free.

We lived under a dictatorship; people talked about crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home. Weren’t the streets of Maipú dangerous then? At night they were, and during the day as well, but the adults played, arrogantly or innocently — or with a mixture of arrogance and innocence  — at ignoring the danger. They played at thinking that discontent was a thing of the poor and power the domain of the rich, and in those streets no one was poor or rich, at least not yet.

It’s not until the book switches tack in the second part that we can begin to understand the “disease” of the middle classes who preferred to keep their heads down rather than confront the wrongs (mainly unexplained “disappearances”) happening around them. Zambra does this by turning the narrative on its head: he makes the unhappy protagonist in the second part the writer of the novel begun in the first part. Through this we learn that he has suspicions that his own father sympathised with the Pinochet regime, all the while claiming he was apolitical.

While he continues working on his novel about an unnamed boy and his childhood friend Claudia, the protagonist tries to patch up the relationship with his estranged wife, Eme. Their vexed lives strangely mirror events that later appear in his novel when the “boy”, now in his 30s, starts a sexual relationship with Claudia. It blurs the lines between writer, narrator and character, so that the reader begins to question what is real and what is not.

If you haven’t guessed already, this is not a straightforward easy-to-follow narrative. But Ways of Going Home is one of those clever books that shines a light on the gaps between fiction and reality. By setting it in the context of Chile’s troubled past, it also explores the thin line between complicity and innocence. The way in which it weaves the personal with the political makes it a complex but sophisticated read. Even if you know nothing about Chilean history, it will make you think about childhood, the different ways we “go home”, understanding your parents’ decisions and beliefs, and the importance of finding your own truth to live by.