A Gap in Time

by Jeanette Winterson

This book was recommended to me by an assistant in Waterstones in Cheltenham.  I don’t often go into this bookshop, and on this occasion I was browsing and ‘tut-tutting’ at the Christmas frippery on sale.  I must have given a sigh, because the young assistant came over to ask if I would like any help.  “No – I’m just hoping no one buys me any of this stuff for Christmas!”  That sounded rather bad, so I tried to make up for it but saying that I was sure they were nice things, and some people would appreciate them.  I still felt I had been rather rude.  I noticed the girl and her colleague making a stack of copies of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins on top of a bookcase.  “That’s a fantastic book”, I said.  The assistant seemed interested, as I enthused about this book and encouraged her to read it.  A moment later she brought me a copy of the book that is the subject of this review.  Of course I bought it there and then.

The story is that of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a play I know quite well, having studied it for A level.  It is a fairly silly story, and I was intrigued to see how a present-day writer, faced with this plot, could come up with a convincing storyline.  The characters are recognisable from Shakespeare’s play, and indeed their names are either identical (Perdita) or easily defined (Zel for Florizel, Xeno for Polixenes, Leo for Leontes, Mimi for Hermione, Shep and Clo for Shepherd and Clown).

The story is set in a somewhat dystopian version of the present day, where unwanted babies can be left in a ‘baby-hatch’ attached to a hospital.  This device handles the issue of Perdita’s abandonment and subsequent rescue quite neatly.  The characters of Pauline and Leo are very well defined: Leo the successful businessman who has a falling-out with his long-time partner and childhood friend, Xeno, when he becomes irrationally jealous of a suspected relationship between Xeno and Mimi.  Pauline the long-term PA cum advisor, who takes in the abandoned Mimi and tried to get Leo to see reason.  Leo and entourage live in some style what can be assumed to be London. Nobo (New Bohemia) is another unstated place which the reader gradually learns is probably somewhere in the USA.  The fate of Tony Gonzales (aka Antigonus) is not to “exit, pursued by a bear”, but to die in a road accident which is unwittingly witnessed by Shep and his sone Clo, who also remove and subsequently raise the baby from the baby-hatch.

Even the roguish Autolycus appears in this story – as a used car dealer (what else?).  And his character, who pops up everywhere and is always on the lookout to perpetrate a con, is at the same time somewhat endearing.

As in Shakespeare’s play – one of his last – there is a happy ending, and a strong feeling of reconciliation and forgiveness.

In summary: this is a well-written book that was enjoyable to read, if not memorable.  I have not read Jeanette Winterson’s best-known book and the one that made her name, Oranges are not the only fruit.  But perhaps I will try that at some stage.

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The Pigeon Tunnel

by John le Carré

A highly readable memoir, composed of short anecdotes from le Carré’s life – some of them already published, others not.  I have never read any of le Carré’s work, and the only ones I have seen on TV or film are The Spy who came in from the Cold and the 2015 BBC version of The Night Manager.  This book has made me consider reading more by this author – but in general I find spy stories too hard to understand!

Finders Keepers

The second book in the ‘Mr Mercedes’ series.  The arch-villain Brady Hartsfield, aka Mr Mercedes, has only a minor role in this book, though his ominous presence suggests he will have a more significant part in the next book.  Retired detective Bill Hodges and his unlikely sidekicks Holly and Jerome make a reappearance, and together the three eventually bring the horrific story to a satisfactory dramatic conclusion.

There is an important theme running through the book, which deals with various aspects of fiction and the writer’s life.  Two of the characters – the villain Morris Bellamy and a teenager, Peter Saubers, who finds his cache of stolen notebooks and cash – are to a greater or lesser extent obsessed with the work of a great American novelist.  The fictional John Rothstein seems to hint at the real-life authors John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, though all three are also mentioned in the text.  Pete comes to realise that real people are more important than fiction.  This is a distinction that Morris, throughout his life, fails to make.

This theme is explored, convincingly if superficially, through the face-off that eventually and inevitably comes about between these two.  Aside from this, King also sheds light on various aspects of the reader’s life, most notably in a passage where he describes the huge impact that an English literature teacher has on Pete’s approach to reading, when he first meets the students in their sophomore year (age 15).

One  passage stands out for me, and although it is not significant to the story, it seems to me that it is very important to King.  Perhaps he had a teacher like Mr Ricker; or perhaps Mr Ricker is the teacher that King himself tried to be, before he became a full-time writer.  The passage (starting on p.83 in my Kindle edition) begins like this:

On the first day of sophomore English, he blew in like a cool breeze, welcomed them, and then printed something on the board that Pete Saubers never forgot:

This is stupid

“What do you make of this, ladies and gentlemen?” he asked.  “What on earth can it mean?”

He goes on to explain that this is a verdict often given by young readers obliged to read material they are not yet mature enough to understand or appreciate.  He goes on to tell them:

“Even some of the antiquities to which you feel you cannot relate now or ever will, have deep resonance that will eventually reveal itself…. Time is the answer.  Time mercilessly culls away the is-stupid from the not-stupid.”

He goes on to quote from Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et decorum est, and urges his pupils to consider that even if they think the poem is stupid now, they will most probably come back to it.

“For some of you it will recur. And recur. And recur.  Each time it does, the steady march of your maturity will deepen its resonance.  Each time that poem steals back into your mind, it will seem a little less stupid and a little more vital.  A little more important. Until it shines, young ladies and gentlemen.  Until it shines.”

I don’t believe I had a teacher like Mr Ricker; but I have found though my own experience that reading is a journey and an adventure.  This is probably why I enjoy it so much!

Dissolution

by C J Sansom

I’ve read several of Sansom’s books already: Revelation, another in the Shardlake series, which was selected by my book group a few years ago; Dominion, a spy story set in the London smog of 1952 in a version of the UK where Halifax succeeded Neville Chamberlain in 1940 and appeased with Germany; and Winter in Madrid, set in the Spanish Civil War and another book group choice.

Though Shardlake, a lawyer-cum-detective living in Tudor England and working around the edges of the court, is an interesting character and a great device for developing a thriller in a historical setting, I had no burning desire to read another book in the series.  But on a visit to Whitby Abbey last weekend with our friends Janette and Alan, Janette mentioned this book and I felt moved to read it.  I downloaded the first few chapters as a ‘sample’ to my phone that same evening. The next day I found a copy of £1 at a market stall in York.

The story is gripping.  There are a lot of characters, most of them monks and many of them suspects in a murder mystery which becomes more involved as the tale develops.  Like Shardlake himself, I began to take an interest in the personalities of the monks – though Shardlake is too much of a ‘reformer’ to feel any sympathy with their disappearing lifestyles.

The story shows clearly how much was at stake for the religious houses during the dissolution; and how lax and corrupt many of the monasteries were.  The story, through the character of Shardlake, is not uncritical of Cromwell’s actions.  As the story unfolds, Shardlake – at first a loyal servant of Cromwell – becomes disillusioned with the political situation and the ways in which reform is carried out, and – especially – the way that Anne Boleyn’s downfall was orchestrated by Cromwell, and innocent people manipulated and ultimately sent to their deaths.

I will probably read the other Shardlake books at some stage.

 

By the way – here is a link to a map of the fictional monastery of St Donates at Scarnsea (which I have only just found!).

The Girl on the Train

by Paula Hawkins

I read this book rather quickly over the past three days.  Our book group is not due to discuss it until January.  So I had better make some notes!

Wasn’t really looking forward to this book.  I generally feel a little cheated when our book group selects a much-hyped book on the bestseller lists.  I feel that if it was a book I particularly wanted to read, I would do so anyway.  And if I have seen and rejected it on the bookstalls, it’s probably because I don’t much fancy reading it.  This book, as well as The Miniaturist and Elizabeth is Missing, falls into the latter category.  These last two did not score well at book group, though they generated plenty of discussion.

Well, here goes…

The female characters in this book are, on the whole, troubled people for whom the reader develops some sympathy.  The men are less sympathetically drawn.  Scott is emotionally abusive; Tom is philanderer and also abusive; Mac (whom we don’t actually meet) is a junkie who is quite ready to let his girlfriend take full responsibility for the tragedy for which he is an least half responsible; even Kamal takes advantage of a therapist/patient situation and divulges information given to him in confidence.

The story is told through the thoughts or diaries (we are never quite sure whether the words are actually written down) of Rachel, Megan and Anna – allowing the reader to get inside the head of each of these women.

The real achievement of this book is in the unfolding of the plot, which keeps the reader guessing whodunnit (and what they did) until almost the end of the story.  As a thriller, it is masterful. The tension builds in the last half of the book after a sluggish start.  Perhaps the slow start is necessary in order for the reader to understand the problematic ‘back stories’ of both Rachel and Megan, and to being to see them both as victims, rather than just as troubled women or ‘nutcases’.

I recommend this book and give it a score of 6 or 7 out of 10.  Better than I had expected.  But I wouldn’t rush out to read the next book by this author.