Category Archives: novels

Wolf Tide

The latest novel discussed in our book club was an accomplished first foray into fantasy fiction from established author Catherine Fox.

Anabara Nolio is a young private investigator in the city of Larrity trying to make her way in business, life and love. The world she inhabits is one filled with sub-species of humans each with their own attributes and traditions. Anabara is half Gull, half-Galen which means she can fly, although she isn’t supposed to within the confines of the city. It is also a world filled with charms, magic, faith and fairies – only these fairies are not ones you’ve ever dreamed of. Less Tinkerbell and a little more vampire.

When Anabara is appointed to investigate the disappearance of books from the university library and to report on the broken charms in the stained glass windows, she makes a solid start. But as she delves deeper she discovers layers of deception, corruption and injustice, even by those she loves.

I’ll not say any more as that would give the plot away.

This is a new style of fiction for Catherine Fox. I first was alerted to her when I was an undergraduate at Durham, and I was told that there was this new author, a former student, who had written a novel about theological students in Durham, and if you knew the place you could actually pinpoint where in the colleges the characters were. I didn’t really read novels at the time, but I gave Angels and Men a go and loved it. Her next two novels were in the same style mixing keen observations of faith, strong characters, humour and love together  – this time following female vicars as they took their first steps into ministry. Wolf Tide is quite different but doesn’t disappoint. Anabara is a well rounded female lead character. She is good at her job, she obviously is looking for love but is not overly obsessed with make-up or appearance, yet there is enough that is vulnerable or uncertain about her 17-year old self which makes her quite believable. She relies day to day on St. Pelago, who is key to the organised religion of the town, and he usually comes through for her.

This is certainly a good addition to this genre. I was able to imagine the world quite well and I liked the central characters – always important to keep you reading. And in the plot Fox keeps the pages turning too. If I was being really picky, i might have liked a little more distinction between the human sub-species – Gull, Galen, Tressy, Zaarzuk. Their difference in character between the groups were described well but I had a little difficulty imagining their general differences in appearance. But that is being picky. Despite, I think, not being the intended demographic of readership, I enjoyed it a lot. I hope there is a sequel and I will certainly read it if there is.

On it’s release Catherine Fox told the Greenbelt Blog a little about how she came us with the idea.

 

(Photo from Greenbelt)

 

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The Magus

greek island viewAs this 1966 novel was chosen as the latest offering in our book club, one of our members exclaimed, “I’ll talk about it but I’m not reading that again!”. This didn’t bode well for the The Magus, by John Fowles. But I was willing to give it a go and to get to the end. It isn’t often I don’t finish books and this one was no exception, but 656 pages later I was more than a little frustrated.

It follows the story of Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford educated public school teacher in his early twenties. After a year teaching at an English public school and a short but intense affair with a young Australian air hostess in London, he decides to travel to Greece to take up the post of English Master at an exclusive boarding school on the tiny island of Phraxos. Initially bored, due to the lack of company of his own age, he soon finds himself in the company of a wealthy elderly gentleman, Conchis, one of the few English speaking people on the island. He is invited to visit most weekends, during which he begins to hear the story of Conchis’ own personal history. Soon though, he realises that he is caught in an intricate psychological, mythological, and emotionally perverse game – the godgame. Over the course of the year, he is introduced to a bizarre cast of characters, including beautiful English twins, also in their early twenties. He begins to fall for one of them. Questioning everything he is told and experiences, caught inside an ever increasingly bizarre situation, he is overcome with curiosity, anger and the search for truth and cannot bring himself simply to walk away and has to see this macabre game out until the end.

Immediately after finishing the book I tweeted this:

Some spoilers follow from this point

That is the level of frustration that this book left me with. Whilst it is undoubtedly well-written, and the description of the Greek island is beautiful and idyllic, at no point do we get a reason or explanation for the weird sequence of events that Urfe endures. There is a meanness to the game that his played. Urfe’s letters are intercepted. Things are made up and evidence fabricated to make him believe that certain things are happening outside of the island in order to guarantee his participation in the game on it. Conchis and his friends even, somehow, persuade the Australian ex-girlfriend to be a part of it (although we are never told how they persuade her) and they convince him that she has committed suicide, just at the moment that he realises his true and deep feelings for her. He is distraught but the effect of this is simply to entice him further into the trap.

The final straw for me was the ending. Urfe returns to London to try and piece together parts of the story he has been told, and finds even more people who are in on it. When he eventually discovers that his Australian friend is alive, he realises he simply has to wait. He will not find her until they allow him to. The last section is written very well and, in the spirit of a detective novel, leaves you wanting to turn to pages to find out the resolution. you want Urfe and the air hostess to get back together. Sadly you never find out. The book ends with them meeting and arguing, both quite justified in the hurt and confusion that has preceded. Both want answers, as does the reader, but Fowles doesn’t give them. He simple ends the book before it is really finished.

I imagine this is the type of book that lots of people start but never finish. One of those that looks intelligent but sits on lots of bookshelves unread. Six hundred pages, albeit of well-written prose, but culminating in no clear ending or message is severely disappointing. I can’t say I understood it, but it seems that Fowles doesn’t really want us to, and no other reviews I’ve seen can shed much more light than that.

I did come across this letter, reportedly from the author himself shortly after the novel was first published. It seems that he is being deliberately baffling, trying to deconstruct freedom which, he says, results in the rejection of everything except human reason.

fowles letter

Whilst I cannot disagree with the conclusion of the letter – acting humanely to all humans is simple a rephrasing of Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves – however, “reason alone” is an argument that the new atheists still try to peddle today, and it is flawed. I think that modernism has shown that reason alone cannot help us in everything, and leaves vast areas of life untouched. The Christian would argue that true freedom is only found in God – growing into the people that he has created us to be.

Credit to Fowles for his writing – The Magus certainly leaves plenty to ponder on, but I can’t say I recommend this. It is simple too random, unexplained, and frustrating. And it doesn’t have a proper ending.

 

The Les Miserables Movie

Les Miserables Jean ValjeanThis movie is amazing. My wife and I were lucky enough to get a baby sitter and go out to see it last night, and we both came back with the same reaction – a profound story, wonderfully told, fabulous cinematography, and for me a reminder that for all of the ‘Miserables’ in the world, God’s grace and mercy can shine through. I had seen the musical a couple of times, but not for about ten years, and we’ve both read the book. I was quickly sucked into the story in a way that didn’t happen with the other recent Les Mis movies, and it never once lost my attention.

My immediate reaction was that so many of the scenes were better able to convey the complexity of the story on the big screen, than in the theatre. There are things you can do with a camera, and a close up of an actors face that cannot be done on the stage. The addition of the song ‘Suddenly’ was one such part. Taking place in the back of the carriage, Valjean realises the effects the act of loving another selflessly (Cosette) can do for you.

We were very impressed with the acting. So many of the shot had the camera right up in the actors’ faces as they poured out their hearts. For the performers, there was nowhere to hide. They managed to act and sing and cry and portray the real anguish of the situations. In Anna Hathaway’s case, she had her (real) hair cut at the same time. Anne Hathaway will surely get an oscar for her portrayal of Fantine. In my opinion, Hugh Jackman has a good shot too (although he has tough competition from Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln).

We learnt here that Jackman can really act, and he can really sing. There is always a worry when people known for acting start singing – and we knew that Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia) could sing, as could Samantha Barks who also played Eponine on stage, but Jackman, Crowe and Redmayne were unknown quantities. Crowe’s voice is not the best of the bunch, but he did the role justice, and he did a good job of his solo pieces, especially ‘Stars’. The range of emotion and role that Jackman had to play was enormous. The scene where he is searching his soul over whether to submit to God and accept the bishops act of grace is raw and eloquent. And when he wasn’t on screen, Hathaway and Barks were not far away. Barks will surely have a great future as her portrayal of eponine was a nuanced as any established movie actor (see below). The trio of  ‘A Heart Full of Love’ in which Eponine was feeling dejected as Cosette and Marius got to know one another was exquisite.

The story is well-known with deep resonance of grace, love and compassion set against the rather uncompromising law-based faith of the inspector Javert. Life for the poor – the Miserables – was hard to endure. The movie adds flesh where the stage production could not. Fantine’s descent into despair, from her factory job to prostitution seemed all too real. I’m sure many today are trapped in a place where work only just feeds the family. In writing the book Victor Hugo wanted to shine a lens on their plight and show that simple acts of kindness and grace make a difference. He certainly did that. Acts of kindness can change people as it did Valjean, and the effects of that overflowed to Fantine, Cosette and Marius and numerous others too. As the sing in the finale “to love another person is to see the face of God’.

I was struck by the hope-filled ending. Whatever they faced in their miserable lives, there is a song that points beyond. “Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?”. Well yes, there is. For “the wretched of the earth” there is hope that they will be met in “the garden of the Lord”. That is surely hope, but God’s, and Hugo’s, vision of a transformed world doesn’t start after death. Those who take the message of love, mercy and compassion and share it in acts towards others – allowing others to live in freedom – are working toward this world that I long to see. It’s called God’s kingdom.

But as another blogger wrote, we must not forget that “crying at a performance is not the same as having changed something”. Where do we see the modern-day equivalents of the ‘miserables’ around us? And what can we do to be like Valjean, or even Jesus, to them?

UPDATE: 19/01/2013. Overnight my wife and I were wondering why the musical, and in particular the movie, has been so much more successful than the previous movies made of Les Miserables. Specifically I think of the 1998 film with Liam Neeson and Uma thurman, and the BBC offering from the early 1980s. Both these films lacked something of the power of the novel. I think the reason for this is that these movies did their best to squash a complicated plot into a 2 1/2 hour movie format. They were concentrating on telling the story of what happened. My contrast, the novel not only tells you the plot but shows the motivations and meaning behind the actions of the characters. The musical film keeps this important aspect from the novel, as the music and lyrics is able to show a depth of purpose, the internal struggle of the characters as well as advancing the story (combines with far superior acting). The songs serve as soliloquies and windows into the souls of the characters. There is an extra layer that combination of music and film together can provide that the earlier movies missed. Consequently the themes of grace and hope are so much stronger in the recent movie than in the earlier ones.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Imagine the human race starting again on another planet, from two people, in a very different world. Dark Eden is about exactly that. Two people, Tommy and Angela, were stranded on Eden after a discovery mission from Earth went wrong sometime in our future. Three others attempted to take a damaged landing vehicle back to the main ship in order to return to earth to get help, but they hadn’t been heard of since leaving. Now it is five generations later, and the two have multiplied into 580, and trouble is brewing in their hunter-gatherer civilisation.

The planet is not like earth. There is no sun giving light from above, and consequently no day and night, and no heat from above. All the light comes from trees and is borne deep underground, where life on Eden begins. The trees flower and the flowers produce heat and light as they pump up their boiling sap from below. As a result, forests are warm and permanently light; everything else is dark, cold and snowy. Animals have evolved to either develop their own source of light from a part of their body, or they can see in the dark.

Five generations later, the human inhabitants of Eden are starting to get too large for the small patch of forest that they happen to have been placed in. Food is getting scarce and space is becoming cramped. They are surrounded on three sides by dark, snowy, impassable mountains, and on the other the stream makes its escape through a narrow gorge and huge waterfall.

The novel picks up the story as a young man, John Redlantern, merely a teenager, starts to challenge his community, known as ‘the family’ into leaving their little forest. His actions are not popular and threaten the unity and identity of Eden.

At this point I should say that I don’t usually read Science fiction. But here, Chris Beckett has written a marvellous book, which I urge you to read. His writing is lucid and brilliantly opens up this other world to your imagination. I’m going to write about the themes of identity which evolved from a common story, and the issues of leadership from a headstrong and impulsive young man. If you plan to read the book (and you should) you might want to stop reading here and come back afterwards as there are spoilers coming.

The Writing

Firstly though, about Chris’ writing. Eden is a world that has to be completely reimagined, and he has thought through it brilliantly. What would a world be like where you have to start again? There is no technology, materials are new and different. The memories of things remains and is passed down, but the ability to build them has been lost. What would we do if future education began with only what a couple of people know and can remember? Tommy’s advice to their descendants is to ‘keep building boats and eventually you will work out how to build a boat that is capable of flying home to earth’. This is true, and this is how the process of innovation can happen provided people push at the edges. For the people of Eden, five generations later they were still building very basic boats.

What would a world be like where there is no rising and setting up the sun? We mark our time through the passing of days, weeks and years. We can tell when a day is over because it gets dark. But in a world which never gets dark and thus, ‘a day’, ‘a week’ and ‘a year’ have no meaning, how do you count? What unit of measurement would you use? The one that Beckett picked as readily available was the human gestation period, known in the book as a ‘wombtime’. John Redlantern, at the beginning of the book, is about 20 wombtimes old. He is known as a newhair, not a teenager. (I’ll let you work that one out).

Beckett has also thought through the implications on a society that would have emerged from just two people. Tommy and Angela, the first father, had four children. With no other humans around the third generation was a product of the second. As you can imagine, relationships, which are not monogamous, quickly become incestuous with the expected effects on the subsequent generations. There is a high number of people with cleft palates, club feet, and infant mortality is high.

The main story is about John and a group of his followers who take matters into their own hands, destroy the sacred places of the family and set of over the snowy dark mountains in search of another place. In doing this, they find answers to the story handed down through the generations.

Story as identity
The story of Tommy and Angela and how they came to be on Eden is the thing that drives the identity of all people, even five generations later. They are wedded to the belief that eventually Tommy and Angela’s three companions would have somehow got the message back to earth so that eventually earth would come and rescue them. The possibility that the message didn’t reach earth does not bear thinking about. Consequently, the family are a people in waiting, waiting for rescue, and people who feel they do not belong in their land but yearn for another place, the place with the big light in the sky. They do not move far from where Tommy and Angela originally got stranded, So that, they think, earth will be able to find them when they come.

Of this story is one they repeat, tell each other, and re-enact at each anniversary. But it is a story without an end. They are the people in waiting.

That situation led me to think of the nation of Israel in its early days. They were people with a very strong identity based on historical story – the calling of Abraham, their subsequent slavery in Egypt, and their rescue by God, led by Moses out of Egypt, across the Red Sea and through the wilderness to the promised land of Israel. This story is a key identity marker in the formation of the people of Israel, and the old Testament is littered with references to it. Look back, they are told, to what God has done for you and for your ancestors. Look back and remember who God is and therefore who God will be to you in the present and future.

Israel was a nation Governed by this story and therefore believed, for the most part, in the hope that this story promised. And eventually, in their next hour of darkness, God rescued them again.

I believe all of us live by a story even today which shapes our beliefs, hopes, and actions. However, that story isn’t one that pervades all society like Eden or Israel. We each have our own, as society is more individualistic. In both Eden and Israel the story was one of national identity as well as individual. In Eden, as the story cuts to the heart of who they were, any alternative stories were vehemently opposed. Dark Eden Explores the outworkings of this as John Redlantern takes a group over the dark cold mountains to another place, and in doing so begins to explore alternative stories and therefore threatens the family’s unity and identity.

Loss of story

So, what happens when this story is threatened? (Some major spoilers here) Firstly, the group is split. A small group goes with John, most of the others stay with the main group. But what was previously an easy, consensual unity in the main group now feels oppressive.

Second, right at the end of the book, after John’s group have made it over the mountains and found a vast, vast forest, easily enough to provide ample hunting ground for a population many times the size, the group make a dramatic discovery – one that affects the whole way they think about themselves, and which justifies John’s actions. Their story is dead.

Here, I started to wonder that happens to a society that loses the story by which it defines itself. The book doesn’t really explore this as the discovery comes in the final few chapters. But what about in history? The USA has a story that it is ‘A Christian Nation’, which sprang up from the fact that it was mostly Puritans who set up the country by escaping persecution in Europe. They also cling to the notion of a ‘Spirit of Adventure’ which came from the pioneers going West. How true are they now? Perhaps not as much as they were. In the UK, I feel we have lost our story, part of which was defined by the English Reformation and the state church, and as the Olympics Opening ceremony so wonderfully reminded us, the Industrial Revolution. But how relevant are they to the story by which we live our lives now? For most people, not so much. Our society has lost it’s story and, perhaps, is sucked into the secular default of self-improvement.

When the nation of Israel wandered away from their story in the Old Testament, it was characterised by moral decline and distance from God. Only when it was obvious that going on their own wasn’t working for them, and the exile happened, did they return to their original story of ‘God as rescuer’. With the loss of the ‘wait for rescue’ story on Eden, it remains to be seem what story they may turn to.

Leadership

Dark Eden also makes you ponder about the nature of leadership. John Redlantern is a natural leader. He sees a problem, has a vision and is relentless in pursuing it. Only, he is young, impulsive and immature. His actions cause him to be exiled from the rest of the group, and is later joined by others. He doesn’t mind facing opposition in pursuit of his goals.

However, he needs to be the leader. There is one moment during the climb over the dark mountains when it seems that everything is lost. They have lost their source of light and are under attack from an unseen monster. The others start to turn on him and he has no ideas as to how to get out of the situation. Suddenly, one character, a young boy called with a claw foot, who had been separated from the group in the monster attack manages to come back and save the day. Initially, this was a cause for rejoicing, but John begins to see the boy as a threat to his authority. Actually, the boy had no desires to lead the group. But John is still worries, and his reaction is to keep him close as a number two. This is an act genius as the boy turns out to be one of the most intelligent of the group who can turn his mind to solving problems.

But the reality of leadership in John is highlighted throughout the book – negotiating the opposition, grumbling, possible threats whilst keeping as many of the group together to press son towards the goal.

This is probably the best example of contemporary fiction I have read for a long time. Please read it. I am very much looking forward to the sequel!

A personal reflection on the novel ‘Jubilee’, by Shelly Harris

Another novel picked for our book club, and this one is the best so far.

Jubilee, a first novel by British/South African author Shelly Harris, is the story of two photographs. The first, taken during a street party for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. A seemingly idyllic picture which represents the growing multiculturalism of the UK at the time. The residents of Cherry gardens, adults and children, sit each side of a long table adorned with patriotic tablecloths, Union Flags, coronation chicken, and all sorts of other goodies. Satish is from an Indian descent family, recently displaced from Uganda by Idi Amin, the first non-white family on that street. He is joined in the photo by  the other 8-14 year-olds who live on this middle class street, with a few of the parents further in the background. One moment which looked so idyllic snapped in a photo which quickly went viral and became famous (in the pre-internet sense), but a moment which hid the true realities of the day. This was a day in which the racism that had sat hidden under the surface suddenly burst into the open, and scarred Satish and some of the others for life.

Fast forward 30 years and one of the children in the photo is trying to organise a reunion photo, in the same place, in similar positions, and by the same photographer. the problem is that Satish, now a successful cardiologist, really doesn’t want to remember that day, and the photo really won’t work without him.

I had expected to find this novel interesting, given it’s subject matter, but I hadn’t expected it to touch some aspects of my childhood too. I am mixed race, brought up in a very non-ethnically diverse middle class town in the north-east in the 1980s. My father is from London, and is white (pink in the sun); my mother is from Mauritius. Ethnically, Mauritius is very diverse and, with the island having no native population, comprises almost every skin tone there is. My mother is French-Mauritian, descended from some of the earliest European settlers but who have mixed in with everyone else from India, Africa and Madagascar, so her skin tone is Indian but her bone structure is more European. That makes me olive-skinned in the winter, and nicely tanned in the summer. I don’t really burn in the sun. So, not very ethnically different, but different enough.

That said,  thinking back to my primary school, I can only think of one other none white person in my class. She was Sun-Ye, and her parents owned the first Chinese take-away in the town. I didn’t really know her well so I can’t comment on how she found the experience of being in a minority, but I found my first and middle school years quite difficult with similar taunts that Satish had to endure in the book. Thankfully I never got it as bad as him and by the time I moved to secondary school – a different one to those in my primary and middle schools, all of these stopped.  Here are a couple of passages that really struck me:

Firstly, one about friendship. Cai is Satish’s best friend on the street and the Chandlers are older boys who live a few doors down.

The Chandlers were an anomaly in Cherry Gardens: looks cannons, lads who edged just the wrong side of all the indulgent terms which make bearable the behaviour of children. They were not mischievous, or quite a handful, they even surpassed that merry catch-all, boys will be boys… Of Satish himself, they were contemptuous, not because of the things he did – there was nothing he could learn here, nothing he could modify which would change their attitude, but because of what he was. He tried not to be around much when they were present. Yet Cai adored the Chandlers, braving their quixotic moods, thrilled just to be in their presence. He didn’t seem overly concerned about their attitude to Satish either. ‘They’re just having a laugh,’ Cai would tell thin. ‘Don’t take it so seriously’. (p120)

Cai was not a true friend. Ditching him at school or in front of the older boys he wanted to impress. What would they think if he was seen with Satish? I remember quite clearly being aware of one friend at school, Nicholas, who would never join in with the taunting. He was a good kid and sometimes he got the teasing with me. Sadly he moved away to a different school at about the age of eight and I didn’t see him again. There was another friend who I used to hang around with too, but his attitude was much like Cai’s, happy to spend time with the different-coloured boy when there was no-one much around, but who joined in with the others so that he wouldn’t be targeted too. At middle school, Nick’s place was taken by Richard, who lived round the corner and who was in another class. Again a thoroughly good friend.

Although it remained unpleasant, after a while I became a bit numb to the use of the term ‘Paki’ against me. It was the nickname that I didn’t like. A few times my parents had been on at the teachers to stop it, but nothing had really come of it and that had just put the name back on the map for some of the kids. Here’s a passage from earlier in the book, again about the Chandler brothers.

At first, Paul [Chandler] had called him ‘Diarrhoea’ –  a little skid mark on the whiteness of Bourne Heath. they Stephen, the younger and brighter of the two, came up with ‘Splatish’, and the pun had stuck for a long white, lingering until it was finally neutralised. In that since it was like ‘Paki’, a term used so frequently in the daily hustle of the playground that Satish had been mystified when his casual mention of the term had seen his dad barrelling in to the Head’s office to complain. This tactless intervention, which threatened so much of the painstaking work Satish had done to shore himself up socially, would not be allowed to happen again. His job was to parry the blows, or absorb them. He didn’t need a protector. (p57-8)

Age 10, middle school, I had become completely used to the term ‘Paki’ as a nickname and was just biding my time before leaving to go to an independent senior school elsewhere. One break time whilst playing football on the school field, a female teacher who was the form tutor for a different class heard some of the kids calling me that and decided to do something about it. My first reaction was ‘Oh no, it’s ok’ whilst internally thinking ‘please don’t rock the boat’. Fortunately, she thought it wasn’t ok and she managed to stop it. I don’t know what she did and I can’t even remember her name. I can remember which classroom she taught in but that’s about it. Somehow, in the space of a week or so, people had stopped calling me ‘Paki’. I am very grateful to her, whoever she is. About six months later I moved to a new school, and not once did anyone use a racist term against me.

So, reading this book has taken me on a personal recollection of aspects of my early years. These are some things that I hadn’t thought about for ages and which, in some ways, are still a little painful. It’s made me appreciate the good people who were around at the time – the friendship of Nick and Richard, and the efforts of the nameless teacher. Having also grown up and become a Christian, my identity is no longer based on what others think of me or my abilities. In this regard, I’m content and now very happy to have a skin tone that tans!

Shelly Harris clearly understands what it is to grow up in a very small minority, and she has been very astute in observing and recording the details in her novel. She is clearly a great people-watcher as well and manages to get inside the thoughts, emotions and irrationalities of a character. Jubilee is very well written to boot. She takes the main character back to face that horrendous day, and in a round about route to face up to them and move on. The book ends with a staging of the new photo and a regrinding of the central character.

Thoroughly recommended. 9/10

What’s the best book you’ve read this year?

Novels – I spent a lot of the year reading Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s long, in-depth epic set in the days of revolutionary France. His description of how the French lost at Waterloo reminded me of Tolstoy’s description of the battle of Borodino, another Napoleonic battle just outside Moscow. Hugo suggested that in addition to the intelligence of the British commanders, the influential factors were a French general who turned up late, leaving Napoleon short-handed, and a sunken road which was not on the maps and which ended up swallowing a whole legion of french cavalry. Besides this, Les Miserables is of course wonderful and uplifting tale of faith, forgiveness, redemption, law and grace. It’s central character is unexpectedly given a second chance and uses the rest of his life making up for his past mistakes and showing the same grace to others that was shown to him.

I elso enjoyed a few more John Grisham novels – the Chamber, the Rainmaker – but the highlight being his debut, the Firm, which is excellently written and which keeps the suspense going all the way through. It’s quite different from the film so is well worth reading.

I would also highly recommend Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – an explosive beginning giving way to a tense tale of obsession – all the characters demonstrate their own obsessive behaviour with the ultimate being against the main character. The movie, which stars Daniel Craig and Rhys Ifans, maintains the same degree of tension but changes some of the circumstances to better fit the movie format.

Non-fiction, I’ve enjoyed getting into Donald Miller’s insights into Christian Spirituality. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years is about his search for a narrative out of the chaos of his life. I then read his earlier book, Blue Like Jazz: Non-religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality, which is about as accessible an overview of Christian living as you might find (although he comes at it from a different angle to most).

I did read Love Wins, the book that made all the fuss for Rob Bell back in March. I read it in August (but have not blogged about it since I read it!). It’s worth reading, if only to find out what the fuss is about. I think he only really steps outside the bounds to orthodox Christian belief in one chapter, but alludes to it is several others. The trouble with Rob is that he doesn’t like to be pinned down to any precise viewpoint in order to bring the most people into the conversation.

That’s about it. Check out my books tag for what else I’ve been reading this year.

So Much For That, Lionel Schriver

The most recent novel in our book club is from Lionel Schriver, the bestselling author of We Need to Talk about Kevin. I haven’t read that one, and after So Much for That! I don’t think I will.

Shep Knacker is the unlikely hero, who always dreamed of an early retirement with his wife Glynis to a cheaper part of the world. Taking the $800,000 he got from the sale of his Handyman business in New York, he planned to spend his last years in a hot climate where $800,000 is a fortune and he could live very comfortably for the rest of his days. This, he called the Afterlife.

After years of procrastinating, he finally books two one-way tickets to Pemba, Zanzibar, on an island off the coast of Tanzania. Only they can’t go. Shep’s wife Glynis has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.

The back cover of the book shows a quote from the Literary Review which says ‘British readers will close this excellent novel feeling grateful for the NHS’. They are right. throughout the novel Shep and Glynis’ nest egg is gradually eaten up. Despite them having a comprehensive medical insurance policy from his job (Shep still works for the company he sold), there are fees for co-pays (insurance excesses) and out-of-coverage care. It turns out that to get an expert in Glynis’ rare cancer they have to turn to a doctor who is not one of the recommended care providers of the insurance company. I could rant on here about the absurdity of the American health insurance system, where doctors views of over-ruled by profit-making corporates and how, despite it’s deficiencies, the British NHS is far superior, but I won’t. I think that, as the author is an American living in London, she already knows this. As the main character laments:

For the sale of [my company] Knack alone I paid two hundred and eight thousand dollars in capital gains. Add up all I’ve shoveled those sons of bitches since high school, and it has to be somewhere between one and two million bucks. And that’s the same government who, when my wife has cancer, won’t buy her a single Tylenol.

The money is a backdrop to the story, but most of it deals with the gradual decline in the health of Glynis and of their nest egg. But there are also more medical issues. Shep’s father, Gabe, is slowly fading out. His best friend, Jackson, has a daughter with a rare genetic disease and another daughter on antidepressants (from years of being the ‘left out’ member of the family, as she has no such condition). Added to that, Jackson has taken an ill-advised course of cosmetic surgery which, when his wife finds out, adds strain to their marriage and finances.

It is good that  a bestselling novel has decided to deal in depth with cancer and dying. It is not something that people like to engage with and the  author has, I think, captured the reactions of friends and family. At first there is genuine compassion and offers to help, but after a while, as Glynis becomes more housebound and fades from public view, the visits become more infrequent. There is general awkwardness in some of the interactions as family members of the afflicted don’t know what to say. It is a more in-depth treatment than Jenny Downham’s Before I Die, but unsurprisingly, not as good as Tolstoy’s first person narrative in The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Like, Downham, but unlike Tolstoy, there is no thought given to what might happen after death (she makes her thoughts on religion clear in the loss of faith of Shep’s father (p429)) or even on the fear of the process itself – the focus of Schriver is on what the life is like before it and in particular, a description from a carer’s point of view.

Schriver is also very perceptive in the language that is used in the treatment of cancer and, whether this is helpful or not. In the book, as in the UK, we fight against cancer, battle it, struggle against it. Whist the doctors think this is important to keep up the patients resolve, this shows through in Glynis being unable to face up to her own death. While she is continually battling it, there is always a chance, however tiny, that she will recover. The doctors always want to try the next new drug (which, incidentally, is very costly) regardless of the side-effects or the probability of success. Near the end of the book (and at the end of his resources), Shep has a showdown with the doctor over what her struggles and his money has bought them. The response is that she has lived ‘a good two or three months longer than expected’. Shep questions whether, with so much medial intrusion, they have in fact been a good three months at all. They merely served to displace Glynis’ attention so she didn’t actually face up to the fact that she was dying.

Whilst it raised some interesting points, I would not recommend this book, primarily because it drags. At 530 pages it is a good 200 pages too long. I do not say this because I’m against long books – I’ve read War and Peace and Les Miserables among others, however Lionel Shriver could have got her point across in fewer words. She was over indulgent in her own writing.

Not a writer I immediately connect with, but I can see that the book has been written with thought, especially for those caring for others with illnesses. I’ll give it 6/10 but suggest you spend your time reading something else instead.