Sacred Hunger

by Barry Unsworth

I wonder why I had never heard of this book until recently, although it shared the 1992 Booker prize with The English Patient, which I read at the time?

Many critics and reviewers have commented on the way the second ‘book’ is slower than the first.  I certainly felt this, and I also found the copious use of pidgin rather annoying at times.  The author seems to be playing with the language, making his characters try to express complex ideas and emotions in pidgin.  Maybe this works – but it is not essential to the story.  Neither is the description of the customs and practices that the ‘paradise’ community has established.

Much more interesting, for me, was the story of the slave traders’ progress along the Guinea coast of Africa, their various transactions with different dealers at different times resulting in a community of former slaves from widely varying African geographic and cultural backgrounds.  So too were the individually-told stories of the men who are more or less ‘pressed’ to join the ship’s crew.  Matthew Paris is well developed as a character, and his ‘back story’ serves to illuminate not only his reason for joining as ship’s doctor, but also his intellectual and emotional responses to the behaviour of the captain and crew.  Not all the characters are as well-rounded.  Thurso (the captain) seems to be a caricature of a crazed bully.  My mental image of him is of the deranged sea captain in the second season of the BBC’s Blackadder series, and this image refuses to budge.  The painter and idealist Delblanc who joins the ship in Africa and is the architect of the Florida community is hazy, and almost superfluous. Would the community have been so very different if he had not been around to help shape it intellectually?

Violence, misery, deception – all these things are to be expected in a story that deals with the minutiae of the slave trade as experienced by merchants, seamen and slaves.  The detailed physical description of the south Florida environment is captivating, and so too are the characters who retain some hope and even humour, as well as humanity, through all their ordeals.  This is not a bleak tale, though the lives of its characters are far from easy or enviable.


Three others of Unsworth’s books have been short- or long-listed for the Booker at various times.  And yet I have never heard of the author or his work.  His writing is superb: clean, clear, well-rounded prose.  Maybe I will try another of his books one day.

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Good as Dead

by Mark Billingham

What an opening chapter!  A young woman goes into a newsagent’s on her way to work, as she does every morning.  Three young men swagger in and start hassling the shopkeeper, while the young woman – who, we learn, is a police officer – watches nervously alongside another customer.  The shopkeeper chases the youths from the shop … and then … turns a gun on his two customers.

That’s as far as I have got, having only started to read this book this morning.  I’ll come back to this review.

__________

The book was just as good as its opening chapter promised. Although I had cottoned onto who the arch-villain was as soon as DI Thorne did, the way the plot would work itself out was still hard to second-guess.

Under-age sex rings involving people in high positions; more than one police officer taking huge risks; murders got up to look like suicides … and all through the book, the tension and ticking clock of the hostage drama.

Definitely an author worth returning to.

East West Street

by Philippe Sands

I don’t recall who recommended this book. It must have been some months ago.  I made a note of it, and ordered it from the library.  When it finally arrived, three weeks ago, I had forgotten why I’d ordered it!  I read this quite quickly, as it had to go back to the library.

Sands, himself a lawyer, has researched the lives of four men: his grandfather, Leon Buchholz; a professor of international law, Hersch Lauterpacht, who put the term “crimes against humanity” as an indictment used at the Nuremberg trials; Raphael Lemkin, another lawyer, who introduced the crime of genocide to the international consciousness; and Hans Frank, the “butcher of Poland”.  Each of these men has a connection with the city of Lviv, now in the Ukraine and variously known as Lemberg, Lvov, Lwów under successive regimes.

The author is clearly interested in, and explains very well, the legal arguments around the two different crimes and the distinctions between them.  The legal issues are very accessible to a non-legal reader.  Sands gives a vivid picture of the Nuremberg trials but does not dwell on this aspect of the story.  We also get a glimpse into life in Eastern Poland / Western Russia in the early years of the twentieth century, when the first three protagonists were variously living, growing up and studying there.

Notable is the fact that it was Jewish lawyers who laid the foundations of human rights law.  Though Frank himself was a lawyer and legal adviser to Hitler, he was appointed head of the government of occupied Poland.  His son, Niklas, becomes a friend of the author and shows nothing but contempt for the actions of his father.

This book moves at a good pace – and I read it quickly, though would be happy to re-read it and understand the stories and their connections better.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 


Sands was appearing at the Cheltenham Literature Festival just after I finished reading his book.  I contemplated attending his talk, but then decided that this might diminish my appreciation of the book.

I Saw a Man

by Owen Sheers

I know Owen Sheers as a contemporary Welsh poet.  I had not appreciated that he has also written a couple of novels, until I read a review of this book on the Bookertalk blog about a week ago.  So I picked out his book on my next visit to our local library in Bishops Cleeve.

I admit to being a little apprehensive; I have read novels by other poets* and found the language too ‘poetic’ and disruptive to the narrative flow.  The first few pages of this book were beginning to confirm my prejudices – but I quickly realised that any descriptive flourishes served the story and the characters, rather than the other way around.  It captured my imagination from the start.

The story unfolds gradually, as we get to know each of the three main characters (Michael, Josh and Samantha) and something of their ‘back story’.  In the case of Michael, his recent past defines him, as he grieves for his wife.  We learn about this death in the first few pages, but the details of her death unfold slowly, and it is not until another character, Daniel, is introduced – about a third of the way into the book – that we learn the circumstances of Caroline’s death.  Another event, another accident, no less cataclysmic in Michael’s life, takes place as the action of this story unfolds.  There is a huge build-up, with Michael at first innocuously and then questionably exploring his neighbours’ house.  The reader knows something is going to happen (and would know this, even if the book’s cover hadn’t warned us of an “event that changed all their lives”).  It does happen, but not until halfway through the novel.  The author keeps the reader in suspense as Michael enters each room of his neighbours’ house in turn.  Is there someone else in the house?  Will Michael be surprised by someone returning, or an intruder?  Is something going to happen to Michael?  What actually happens was a surprise to me.

That Sheers manages to keep the story together, and keep us interested in the characters, in the lead-up to this event as well as in its aftermath in the second half of the book, is a great credit to him as a writer.  I found myself wanting to keep reading, feeling the experiences of each of the main characters as they come to terms with their choices, their actions and the unpleasant and unexpected but to some extent ‘accidental’ consequences.

This book reminded me in many ways of Ian McEwan’s Saturday – but don’t let this put you off if you are not a McEwan fan.  It has made me want to go back and read that book again, to see how close the two stories and the author’s treatment of them really are.  I suspect that the similarities will be less obvious than my memory suggests.  I haven’t read other reviews (apart from the one mentioned at the start of this one) and so don’t know whether other readers have drawn the same parallel.

I Saw a Man was a satisfying read.  I will look out for more of Sheers’ writing – and take a closer look at his poetry too.

 


*In the Wolf’s Mouth and The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds fall into this trap, in my view

The Disappearance of Emile Zola

by Michael Rosen

Well, I haven’t finished reading this book, but have stalled somewhat and started reading other things.  So I think I had better review it anyway.

I bought this when it caught me eye in Blandford Books in Broadway – a nice little bookshop that I pop into on my frequent visits to Broadway in the Cotswolds (about 20 minutes from my home).  The bookseller reduced the price of the hardback, as the book was about to appear in paperback.  How could I refuse?

I am not sorry that I bought this book, despite struggling to finish it.  Rosen’s style is engaging, his comments affectionate and entertaining, and it is an aspect of Zola’s life that I had been completely ignorant about.  But there just doesn’t seem to be enough material in this brief episode in Zola’s life to warrant a whole book.  Much of the narrative reads like a list of the contents of letters to and from the great writer, as well as excerpts from diaries, in strict chronological order.  “On 16 February ….  On 18 February ….”.  Which, of course, reflects Rosen’s sources.  But he doesn’t seem to build on the material or even reflect on it very much.  Having recently read Claire Tomalin’s biography of a near-contemporary of Zola’s, Thomas Hardy, I felt that the Zola coming out of these pages is much less accessible than the Hardy portrayed in Tomalin’s book.  Of course, that was a whole life story (of a long life) whereas this book just depicts one year.

I have read only one of Zola’s works, Germinal, which I studied for A level.  I was also aware of Zola’s passionate involvement in the Dreyfus case.  Of the consequences – Zola’s decision to leave France after being convicted of libel – I had been completely ignorant, as I was of the fact that he chose to live his ‘exile’ in Britain.  Germinal left a lasting impression, but I suspect that this mini-biography will not.

Addendum – 8 September 2017

Well, I have finished the book and I have to admit, it gets better.  The last few chapters, and the postscript, made for fascinating reading, as Rosen examines Zola’s reception in Britain and the fallout from the Dreyfus case.  Shockingly, he has never yet been found innocent by a military court, though he was pardoned by the French president in December 1899.  Rosen convincingly makes the case that the Dreyfus affair has influenced the course of anti-semitism through the 20th century.  Zola’s response to it must also have influenced the engagement of other artists with current affairs in the succeeding years.

And finally, some 45 years after I first learned of it in a history lesson, I have read the text of the famous Zola article J’accuse, given in English translation as an Appendix to this book.  It is powerful and deliberately provocative, and fills me with a much greater admiration for Zola.

Swing Time

by Zadie Smith

Seen in am independent bookshop in Sherborne, where I bought a couple of children’s books and gave myself more time to consider whether to buy this.

It caught my eye again, a couple of weeks later, in Crediton Community Bookshop and I decided to buy it this time.  (On the rare occasions when I buy a new hardcopy book, rather than borrowing from the library, buying secondhand or downloading an electronic version, I always try to patronise small local bookshops rather than the big stores or online sellers.)

I had read the first three of Smith’s novels soon after they were published.  I enjoyed the freshness of White Teeth; didn’t make much of The Autograph Man; absolutely loved On Beauty.  Her fourth, NW, somehow passed me by.  So it was a treat to return to this author after a twelve-year absence.  Her writing style is super-confident and much more mature – unsurprisingly – than in her earlier novels.  The protagonists hail from a similar North London background to Smith’s own, and are born in 1975, as she was.  The narrator’s mother was born in Jamaica, as was the author’s.

But the story is imaginative and intricate.  Smith blends memories of a childhood immersed in learning dancing and watching old dance movies with the career of a personal assistant to a superstar in the music world, interweaving experiences in a West African village.  Perhaps it is a bit too much.  Would the story stand without the West African element?  Probably yes, but it is so much more exciting with this strand of the story.

The narrator is never given a name.  Through her eyes, we get to know her slightly unstable friend Tracey intimately, as well as the music star Aimee and her various acolytes.  I feel sad for the narrator, whose own life and needs seem to be entirely buried beneath the demanding and much more flamboyant people she associates with.  That said, she does not seem to be the most likeable person.  She floats on the surface of life, rather than engaging with it, and at the end of the novel she seems to have nothing to show for her life so far.

I think this is a book that will live with me for a while.  I read it quickly but quite intensely.  Maybe I will even read it again.  Or perhaps revisit White Teeth or On Beauty, which I think are still on my bookshelves (a sign that I appreciate them!).

Sleepyhead

by Mark Billingham

Recommended and lent to me by Pay Ranson, who has read several of the series of books featuring DI Tom Thorne.

This is an intelligent and well-written detective thriller, with a somewhat far-fetched but nevertheless engaging plot.  One of the characters, Alison Willetts, has locked-in syndrome, and her ‘speech’ punctuates the story. (Her role in identifying the killer is also highly relevant.)

I was reading this at the time a new baby granddaughter arrived, and had to put the book down for 24 hours, so unwilling was I to read about murder and torture while revelling in a new life.

Never keen to read any genre, but especially thrillers, back to back, I will probably wait a while before reading another novel in this series.