The violence behind the beauty: The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James & Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
Emma and her friend Teddy are Americans visiting a forest reserve in southern India, to make a wildlife documentary about an innovative method of reuniting lost or injured baby elephants with their mothers. Manu, the younger son of a rice farmer, is drawn into the alluring world of ivory hunting following the death of his cousin by a rogue elephant. After being orphaned by poachers and kept in captivity and worked as a temple elephant, the Gravedigger has escaped his chains and is causing havoc in the villages on the edge of the forest. Through these three strands, Tania James tells an engaging and moving story of the conflicting interests in nature conservation. It’s testament to her talent as a writer that it is possible to feel sympathy for each of the flawed characters in this novel, even when none of them come out particularly well – except maybe the elephant who is, after all, just being an elephant.
A severe cold has meant very little writing in the last few days, but a copious amount of reading (completing my reading “challenge” of 100 books in the year), albeit with not a great amount of depth. These three short reviews of novels about three very different women’s quests for a life, and a mind, of their own is part of the result.
As one of those who nagged Geoff LePard to give his second novel a proper launch, I’m delighted to be a calling-off point on his blog tour. By a strange quirk of fate, I find myself opening proceedings on the very day I’m over on Terry Tyler’s Zodiac Files explaining how I lack the leadership qualities said to typify a Leo. Whatever the ironies of that, I’m honoured to be able to return the favour of when Geoff welcomed me to his blog last month with an introduction that made me laugh. I can’t match Geoff’s talent for comedy, but I can give another side to the story of our original meeting at an Arvon course six years ago.
Although the course was on second drafts, he and I were in the minority in having actually completed our first. Lugging my box-file of assorted papers down to the classroom/diningroom on the first morning, I found Geoff thumbing through a spiral-bound A5 book, I gormlessly asked if that was his novel, trying to keep the envy out of my voice. One of them, he quipped. I’m not sure how I coped with the discovery that he had four first drafts completed at that point, but I did get to read each of them in those early stages, so it’s wonderful to witness their gradual emergence into the world as bone fide books.
Given my own interest in fictional research, I was curious to learn more about Geoff’s experience of writing a thriller about the controversial issue of embryo research. I hope you enjoy his account as much as I do.
Sarah is seventeen in 1255 when she chooses to be enclosed in a cell, seven paces by nine, at the side of the village church. Fleeing the grief of losing her mother and her younger sister in childbirth, and the unwelcome attentions of the lord of the manor, she renounces the world and all its dangers and disappointments to a living death dedicated to God. With guidance from The Rule, a book copied without flourishes by her reluctant confessor, Father Ranaulf, she’s also responsible for the moral welfare of her two servant women and, indirectly through her prayers, the well-being of the village, proud to have an anchoress in their midst, even if they cannot see her.
It takes great skill to compose an engaging narrative about a woman who never leaves her room, but Sarah is an intriguing character. We wonder about her motivation for being there, the impact of her incarceration on her body and mind and, when we discover along with her that one of the previous inhabitants of her cell left in disgrace, whether she will stay. And, much as Sarah would prefer to renounce the world, she cannot be completely isolated, as she hears the church services through a slit in the adjoining wall and the rhythms of village life on the other side, and as women from the village come to solicit her prayers.
I’m featuring two award-winning short debut novels in translation, the first from Algeria and the second from Brazil, both published in the UK today, that would appeal to those who enjoy philosophical fiction.
An elderly man, weary with life, sits in a bar in Oran telling a stranger how the random murder of his brother seventy years before has rendered him an outsider in his own country. Only seven when Musa was killed, his mother’s grief made her neglectful of his needs, binding him to her side and making him the object of her revenge. Spurned by his neighbours for his failure to join the resistance in the 1950s fight for Algerian independence, he’s now aghast at what his country’s become, especially the surge in religiosity (p65-66):
As far as I’m concerned, religion is public transportation I never use. This God – I like travelling in his direction, on foot if necessary, but I don’t want to take an organised trip.
Kate Hamer’s debut novel reminds me of a conversation a friend had with her pre-teen daughter after a relative’s baby had died. “It’s the worst thing imaginable to lose a child,” said my friend. “No,” insisted her daughter. “It’s much much worse to lose a parent.” The Girl in the Red Coat doesn’t ask us to choose: it explores the nightmare scenario of a child going missing from the perspectives of both the mother and the girl.
Carmel Wakeford is eight when she becomes separated from her mother at a children’s storytelling festival (at which I think I detected a cameo role for the doyenne of children’s fiction, Jacqueline Wilson). A man who claims to be her estranged grandfather tells her her mother has been taken to hospital after an accident and that he’ll look after her now. A few days later, he gives her the devastating news that her mother is dead and her father wants her to remain with her grandfather. She’s taken to America to a new life on the fringes of society, moving between evangelical churches, where Carmel’s supposed “healing hands” are much in demand.
Ah for feck’s sake altogether. Another religious mother. You’d have to ask yourself what’s wrong with this country at all that it can’t stop birthing virtuous ould bags.
We know about the darkness of Catholic Ireland here on Annecdotal from our discussion of John Boyne’s dissection of cover-ups in the priesthood in his novel, A History of Loneliness, last year. But interestingly, rampant paedophilia is the one vice Lisa McInerney doesn’t address in her audacious debut novel exploring the murky underbelly of Ireland’s post-crash society. The Glorious Heresies kicks off with a murder in the ground floor apartment of the decommissioned brothel in which the gangster, Jimmy Phelan, has installed his long-lost mother. But this is no police procedural – the reader knows early on whodunnit to whom – but the murder of Robbie O’Donovan is the device through which Lisa McInerney weaves the lives of her misfit characters over the ensuing five years.
Arthur Friedland, unpublished novelist and general layabout, has three sons from his two marriages: Martin, the eldest by two years, and identical twins, Eric and Ivan, who even themselves aren’t always sure where one ends and the other begins. One afternoon, after taking the three teenagers to a hypnotist stage show, Arthur drives right out of their lives. He doesn’t see them again until about twenty years later, when he has achieved fame as the author of My Name Is No One, a novel so nihilistic it drives its readers to suicide.
The core of the novel consists of separate sections following the three brothers across a single swelteringly hot day, the pleasingly palindromic August 8th, 2008. Eric is a pill-popping stockbroker, paranoid and intermittently hallucinating, he’s juggling marriage with a torrid affair with his some-time therapist, on the verge of financial collapse, and perhaps prison, for dodgy dealings. Ivan is an art dealer, expert on the popular but middle-of-the-road Eulenboeck, who is at his most contented when painting canvases which he passes off as the famous artist’s work. But my favourite of the three troubled brothers has to be Martin, a morbidly obese Rubik’s cube expert and Catholic priest who has not yet been blessed with faith. (I’ve admired the depiction of the conflicted priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and the deluded and inadequate priest in John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness but the man who has entered the priesthood despite his absence of religious faith is sheer genius, in my opinion.) The circular logic and mysticism through which he tries to respond to his parishioners’ moral and liturgical dilemmas is hilarious, and parallels the positions taken by his brothers in their attempts to justify their own occupation, as well as the hypnotist’s instructions to their father in the opening section:
America at the end of the twenty-first century: a world of droughts; advanced technology; and boys identified with the gene for criminality compulsorily enrolled in corrective institutions from the age of three. James is one such child: a Level 1 student with the prospect of a decent life on graduation in under a year’s time. That’s if he can abide by the school’s strict regulations to avoid accumulating any “demerits” and prevent the memories of a vicious arson attack on his previous school from disturbing his calm. Yet, brutal as the school may be, James is anxious about venturing into the civilian world with its confusing freedoms and potential encounters with the hostile Zeros, religious fundamentalists intent on purifying the world by fire. When, on his first Community Day outing, he steals a girl’s barrette hair slide, a set of progressively harsher punishments is set in train which sees James, not only losing his relatively protected status, but uncovering a network of corruption within the school far deadlier than he could have imagined.
I was a little disturbed by this novel, not so much in respect of the unsettling subject matter, but in the way that subject was handled. I’ve wondered how much of that is me, and how much the writer, and have come to the unbiased or sitting-on-the-fence conclusion (depending on the way you choose to look at it) that it’s a bit of both. It raises a question I’ve considered before on Annecdotal, especially in my review of Jemma Wayne’s After Before, as to whether a novel is weakened by drawing parallels between extreme and milder transgressions or acts of injustice. It also forces me to confront the limits of my openness as a reader to alternative treatments of controversial issues.
Bernadine Bishop, who died in 2013, has an interesting history: the youngest witness in the Lady Chatterley trial, she published two novels in her twenties, taught for ten years in a London comprehensive, before retraining as a psychotherapist. On retirement in 2010, she returned to writing fiction, with her first later novel, Unexpected Lessons in Love, which drew on her experience as a mother undergoing cancer treatment, shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2013. If you’ve followed my series on fictional therapists, you’ll appreciate that I was intrigued when I read that Hidden Knowledge stems from her experience as a therapist.
Beatrice and Peter are united in their love for each other, their church and God, but when only he is selected as missionary to a faraway planet, they accept their separation with goodwill. Rocketing trillions of miles in a drug-induced coma, Peter is too excited by the challenge to question the motives of USIC, the organisation that has recruited him.
His first hours on the base are a catalogue of strange new things: the green water that tastes of melon; the humid atmosphere that twirls and creeps like prying fingers beneath his clothes; the community of loners quietly engrossed in their various roles in establishing the colony. But Peter has not been recruited to attend to the spiritual needs of his fellow humans; his job is to satisfy the indigenous population’s thirst for what he calls the Bible and they “the book of strange new things”.
To the earthlings, the Oasans are disturbing creatures, despite their small and frail stature, shrouded in hooded robes of a fabric “disconcertingly like a bath towel” that intermittently reveal faces like twin foetuses “nestled head-to-head, knee to knee”. But, trusting in God and humbled by their openness to Christian the message, Peter easily overcomes his initial revulsion.
Blogs, e-books and print-on-demand technology are heralding a new era in publishing, a democratisation in which anyone with access to the Internet may become a publisher or book reviewer. It’s perhaps too soon to tell whether this will be a curse or blessing for readers and writers, but there’s no doubt that we readers and writers live in interesting times. But this is nothing new: revolution and reinvention lie at the foundation of publishing, which makes a novel set in mid-fifteenth century Germany particularly pertinent today.
Peter is unhappy to be called home from Paris to corrupt and feuding Mainz, wrenched by his father from his vocation as a scribe copying sacred texts. He’s unhappier still when apprenticed to the blunt and ambitious Hans Gutenberg in a fetid workshop of hellish furnaces and tedious tasks. His introduction to his master’s mission is unsettling:
Each of those lines ended with an utter, chilling harmony, at precisely the same distance from the edge. What hand could write a line that straight, and end exactly underneath the one above? What human hand could possibly achieve a thing so strange? He felt his heart squeeze and his soul flood with an overwhelming dread. (p16-17)
The best part of Jemma Wayne’s debut novel is the part the reader might feel tempted to skim over. We know what’s coming – Emily/Emilienne is a traumatised Rwandan refugee – but, even so, when it comes, the account of her family’s massacre is so harrowing we might prefer to look away. In a previous post, I asked how does one write about the feeling of terror? Jemma Wayne has produced a credible account of terror both in the here and now and its longer term repercussions via Emily’s panic attacks and episodes of disassociation.
This novel addresses various other serious topics I’ve foisted on my blog readers. A diagnosis of terminal illness leads Lynn to confront her lack of fulfilment in the traditional women’s role of mother and homemaker:
new priorities constructed themselves around her. Their foundations rested robustly upon that single new word, wife, shooting taller with each passing month so that it became harder and harder to peer over them as they arched into a protective dome above her, their oculus, that ever-present possibility of another word, mother. (p90)
as she struggles to remain active in the process of her own death:
They talked about themselves. All three of them seemed united in this end, though the lunch had been, Lynn knew, a symptom of their guilt at the fact she was dying […] She should humour them, act the grateful parent, but she couldn’t help the surge of bitterness inside her […] Every now and then one of them […] made an inquiry into her health: was she experiencing any of those dizzy spells she’d been warned about yet, any sickness, any lethargy? This was the topic on which she was consulted, her illness, though even this was not something they considered her to be an expert in. They knew better it seemed. They were young, they’d been on the Internet, Googled it, had a better grip on these things (p198)
I’d come across John Boyne’s writing in the form of his bestselling novel for younger readers, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a clever tale of friendship across the concentration-camp barbed-wire, but I’d never read any of his novels for adults. Like another Irish writer whose novel I reviewed recently, his most recent book is his fifteenth. But A History of Loneliness doesn’t read like the work of someone who’s exhausted their creativity. This is a powerful, thought-provoking and deeply disturbing novel about human limitations and the disastrous institutions we limited humans create.
Odran Yates is an ordinary well-meaning young man of no great ambition, who believes he is dedicating his life to the good when he enters a Dublin seminary to train for the priesthood. While some of his peers struggle to adapt to a life of sexual denial he, apart from one brief interlude, feels he is well suited to his role. But, as Irish culture evolves over the following four decades, and the extent of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is eventually revealed, his moral courage is put to the test. How far Odran, and others like him, is guilty by association, by turning a blind eye to the clues that speak volumes to the informed reader, is one of the central questions of the novel. The quote attributed to fellow Irishman, Edmund Burke, a good two centuries previously, comes readily to mind: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
One of the signifiers of good fiction is the early clarification of what the main characters want and sending them on a journey where they will be continually thwarted in their search to get it, right? With each of the seventeen chapter titles flagging up something the characters either want or don’t want, Alison Moore, in her second novel, seems on the surface to have taken this to heart. Lewis, doesn’t want soup or sausages but, when he was a child, he wanted to go to the moon. Sydney wanted to live in Australia. Lawrence wants a CD of The Messiah.
But Alison Moore is too sophisticated a writer to churn out a formulaic quest story. He Wants is populated by people who singularly fail to pursue their desires, or even to know what they are. Lawrence, an elderly resident of a nursing home, eagerly accepts the staff’s offers of tea, even when he already has one going cold on his lap. Lewis, his son, a retired RE teacher, eats the soup he does not want that is delivered each day by his daughter. Sydney, the childhood friend who mysteriously disappeared, wants to meet Lewis’s daughter but Barry Bolton gets in the way. Yet, despite their passivity, the reader can’t help rooting for these characters as it gradually dawns on us how, for most of his adult life, Lewis has wanted something he could never bear to acknowledge.
If fiction thrives on strong emotion and conflict, Carys Bray’s debut novel, about what happens to a Mormon family after their youngest member dies, has all the right ingredients. Grief, while painful to experience, is a powerful launching pad for fiction and, as Derbhile Dromey commented in response to my post on religion and the right to die debate, religion channels conflict in believer and unbeliever alike.
Review of A Song For Issy Bradley
While four-year-old Issy Bradley is languishing in bed with undiagnosed meningitis, her mother, Claire, is shopping in Asda for affordable party food. Issy’s father, Ian, bishop of the local congregation, is out doing good works for the community and her big sister, Zippy, is lost in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Of her two brothers, seven-year-old Jacob, is swallowing his disappointment that his dad won’t be able to attend his birthday party and teenager Alma is looking for an escape route so he can go off and play football. When Issy dies, the family’s religious faith proves to be both a source of consolation and pain. The future focus, with the belief that the family will be reunited in eternity, is reassuring for Ian, as he keeps up his church duties, unaware of how much he is neglecting his family and exhausting himself. Claire, who, unlike the other Bradleys, did not grow up as a Mormon but converted when she met Ian, has always found comfort in the sense of order and obedience to a higher power, now feels deserted by God:
I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that to blog about religion is a sure-fire way of losing half your followers. But what the hell! Geoff LePard has done it and seems to have survived. Paula Reed Nancarrow does it too. And, while I shy away from too much personal disclosure, I did touch on my Catholic childhood in my first bite-sized memoir.
How the belief in the Divine shapes people’s lives can make for engrossing fiction. In a later post, I hope to review Carys Bray’s debut novel, A Song for Issy Bradley about the impact on a Mormon family of the death of a child. My short stories, The Invention of Harmony, What Time It Sunset? and Four Hail Marys (unfortunately the link is no longer working for this one, unless you’d like to read it in Hungarian), all touch on religion to a greater or lesser degree. But none of these are the main reason I’m daring to post about religion today.
Voluntary euthanasia is a highly emotive topic which pits those concerned with the relief of end-of-life suffering against those who fear the vulnerable might be coerced into a premature death. It’s one type of compassion versus another; a painful debate but, in my opinion, an important one given that, with medical advances over the last century, many of us risk facing a long drawn-out death. I know where I stand, but I have sympathy for those who take a different position. What I find difficult to tolerate is when this important debate is hijacked by religion, as if the faithful are assumed to lead more moral lives than the faithless, as with the recent attempt by The Church Of England to prevent the debate on assisted suicide in the House of Lords later this week. (Apologies to readers outside the UK for the parochialism here.)
finding truth through fiction
Annecdotal is where real life brushes up against the fictional.
Annecdotist is the blogging persona of Anne Goodwin:
slug-slayer, tramper of moors,
author of three fiction books.
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