The Jub Jub Bird

A literary blog with fantasy tendencies

The Children’s Book – A S Byatt

The Booker shortlist for 2009 featured an unusually large quota of historical fiction.  While this caused consternation in some quarters, it was fine by me and I’ll be working my way through The Little Stranger (Sarah Waters), The Quickening Maze (Adam Foulds) and Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel) in months to come.  It was The Children’s Book by A S Byatt though, which caught me eye; partly because I thoroughly enjoyed Byatt’s previous Booker winner – Possession – but mostly because the fairy tale / children’s lit angle piqued my interest, suggesting the possibility of overlap with more speculative works.  Could Byatt – one of our foremost living authors – have written a nominated book which falls right into the Jub Jub’s literary fantasy niche?

The beautiful cover art (see diagram) depicts an ornament – supposedly on display at the Great Exhibition in Paris in 1900 – ‘in the form of a turquoise woman’s bust rising out of the mouth of a long, long dragonfly, it’s narrowing gold body studded with shimmering blue and green jewels’. Intricate and delicate, it is appropriately representative of the Victorian artistic age, where every-day items were still painstakingly hand-produced, with the emphasis on decorative abundance and attention to detail.  Byatt, it seems, set out to write the Children’s Book with the same ethos: 600 plus pages of diligently researched, finely wrought prose, embossed with a wealth of period flourishes.

So this isn’t a light read and the commitment requirement is leveraged by the absence of any real plot or lead character to drive the narrative.  The Children’s Book is more of an ensemble piece, charting the lives of various extended families across a few decades, spanning the end of the nineteenth century.  The families in question are loosely related by political and social convictions – an assortment of fabians, socialists and anarchists – by libertarian lifestyles and a shared passion for artistic pursuits.  These pursuits take a number of forms: pottery, jewellery, antique collections, theatre (writing and performing) and literature.  Gatherings usually involve informal performances – of live actors or puppets – group creative sessions, topical lectures and philosophical discussions.

The pastoral setting – family homes are predominantly rambling country houses in the Kent downs and marshes – and inspiring pass-times, combine to create seemingly idyllic conditions for the up-bringing of the children, who together form the focus of the book: Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis and Hedda Wellwood, who’s mother Olive is a successful children’s writer and who’s father Humphry works in the Bank of England; their cousins Charles and Griselda Wellwood; Julian and Florence Cain, who’s father Prosper is the Special Keeper of Precious Metals at the South Kensington Museum; Gerraint, Imogen and Pomona Fludd, who’s father Benedict is an eminent, if rather eccentric, potter; and Phillip and Elsie Warren, who’ve left their native Staffordshire to work as apprentice and house-keeper for Benedict.

It turns out that life is far from perfect for these privileged youngsters.  Byatt has said that she wanted to explore the noted phenomenon of miserable childhoods for the real offspring of children’s authors; how the writer’s innate immaturity and devotion to work, can lead to damaged relationships with their own progeny, who won’t stay true to their parent’s generalised, projected image of a child.  A large early section of The Children’s Book, sub-titled The Golden Age, recounts the children’s early formative years, before the turn of the century.  Kenneth Graham’s book of that name is famous for its depiction of children at odds with adults, who have grown-up, assumed responsibilities and forgotten what it was like to be young.  Byatt’s golden age turns this idea on its head: the adults are portrayed as ‘grown-ups who don’t want to grow up’; while the children rebel against this, by taking on responsibilities and setting themselves goals, be they educational or work related.  From the start, it’s clear that the children in the Children’s Book aren’t simply those under the age of 16.

At the same time, children’s books – fairy stories, as read by the youngsters, written by Olive and performed by everyone – permeate the text.  Olive writes a private, never-ending tale for each of her children, which draw heavily on classic precedents: Andersen, the brothers Grimm, Shakespeare.  Some of these tales are reproduced in full in the text, an echo of Byatt’s approach in Possession, albeit less prolifically and without the narrative-driving significance.  Children’s literature of a more contemporary – to the period – nature, is also prevalent: Kenneth Graham, J M Barrie, Hope Mirrlees, Lewis Carroll (hurrah!) and E Nesbitt (on whom Olive is loosely based) all make an appearance of one form or another.  Less explicitly, fairy story themes and tropes abound in the protagonists themselves.  Theses will be written about the parallels between these characters and children’s archetypes.  No doubt I haven’t picked up on half of the allusions but I did spot a Peter Pan, two Cinderella’s (depending on whether you prefer the English or German version), a Dick Whittington, some Babes in the Wood and most of the characters from a Midsummer Night’s Dream (or at least a large pot of love potion).  There’s also a multitude of less specific fairytale refrains: changelings, suicides, wicked step-parents, run-aways.  The list goes on and the combined effect is to turn an already dense text into a super-rich blend of historical, social and literary themes; some referred to explicitly but many more buried in the subtext, for the inquisitive (and knowledgeable) reader to unearth.

To give just one example Tom Wellwood, Olive’s favourite and the subject of her lengthiest private work – Tom Underground, a story in which the protagonist loses his shadow and must descend into the underworld to recover it; itself a reflection on childhood lost – rejects his peers’ desire to get on in the world.  Tom’s early experiences of boarding school are far from pleasant and he soon drops out, setting the tone for the rest of his life as increasingly, he withdraws into himself and the natural world he loves; ‘there just – simply – to take all this in, and know it.’  Tom of course is the Peter Pan of the book but he becomes more like a Lost Boy as the book progresses, unwilling to engage with the adult world but unable to hold on to that nostalgic life as a carefree youngster.  His mother’s inability to see beyond her glorified image of Tom and the story she is writing for him, alienates him further. ‘She could not, and did not, imagine any of the inhabitants of this walled garden wanting to leave it, or change it, though her stories knew better.’

This phase of later childhood – adolescence loosely – is documented in the second section of the book, sub-titled The Silver Age.  While Tom’s story takes an exceptional turn, the underlying theme: youngsters growing up, following their own path and becoming ever more remote from their parents, recurs throughout the book.  Byatt makes the link explicit by reproducing in full, one of Olive’s short stories – The Shrubbery – in which an errant child – Pig – finds a whole world of little people in his back-garden and chooses to stay rather than return to his old life.  Pig promises to visit his mother from time-to-time but his mother knows that she has lost the child she once knew.  This is an inversion of conventional fairytale narrative, where for instance, Dorothy seeks desperately for a way back to Kansas. For me though, the inversion speaks a greater truth: that each new step a child takes in life, pulls them further away from their parents and their past, however much both parties attempt to resist.

I’ve focussed on the children’s angle but there are many more facets to The Children’s Book; from interpreting the golden age as referring to nostalgic yearnings for a simpler, more bucolic life, to recording the birth of many of the concepts and ideologies which dominate the world we live in today. Electricity is the great new wonder at the Paris exhibition; there is debate, between Humphry and his brother, about the success of the gold standard, the introduction of the silver standard and the workings of capital and high finance in an increasingly globalised world (gold and silver, another recurring motif); we also witness some of the earliest stirrings of the Labour and women’s suffrage movements.  Byatt recounts all this, as the narrative demands, in passing and from a period perspective, the reader is left to make the modern day associations.  Near the end of the book, many of these thematic strands are thrown into sharp relief, by the advent of the First World War.

Byatt has said that she didn’t write the Children’s Book with the war in mind, instead she created the characters and their lives and eventually, war arrived.  For the reader however, it’s clear that this is where the characters are heading – history dictates – and there is an increasing sense of events-overshadowed-by-impending-hostilities, as the novel progresses.  When the war does arrive, as the book reaches its conclusion, it is all the more shocking because we have spent so much time with these characters and come to know them so well.  Its impact is of course immediately sobering, to children and adult-children alike, obliterating any lingering attempts to keep the real-world at bay.  This section of the book – The Lead Age – in contrast to the rest, is told in short percussive bursts and in a very matter-of fact style, which brings to mind the way in which fairy stories are told: grandmothers are eaten, true mothers die, children are left to fend for themselves but no emotion is attached to the events as the tale is told.  To paraphrase Byatt herself from a recent interview: this happens, then this happens, then this.

This surely reflects the sense of numbness and emotional detachment that individuals must feel when confronted by such horrific and over-powering events; perhaps fairy tale language ultimately derives from a time when life was considerably more harsh, violent and short.  From a narrative perspective it makes for a fittingly climactic, if dreadful, denouement to a book about childhoods lost and adult attempts to hide from the real world. But a part of me felt that the subtle complexity of the book’s message was overpowered by the extreme events at the very end.  After all, lives lived in comparatively peaceable times still entail facing up to the consequences of birth, growth, loss and death; whether these come through extraordinarily violent means or otherwise.  Either way though, it’s profound and thought provoking stuff.

Has Byatt written a book for the Jub Jub’s niche?  Well, in the most obvious sense, no.  Literary and fairy-tale elements remain off-screen; either in books and imaginations, or on stage.  There’s no cross-over between the worlds – Alice In Wonderland style – no moments of magic realism or suspended disbelief.  That said, the Children’s Book exudes classical literature and story-telling from every pore; multilayered and multifaceted, there’s plenty to keep the thoughtful reader occupied, making links and spotting themes, well beyond the turn of the final page.  It is also a richly detailed, thoroughly researched and lovingly embroidered evocation of life in the decades leading up to the First World War.  It meanders at times and gives away few clues en-route, regarding its destination but by the end, I felt almost overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of ideas, in plain view and below the surface.  Undoubtedly a great work of literature – Wolf Hall has some way to go to justify its superior claim to the 2009 Booker prize – but also a work about literature of a speculative nature: myths and stories told for generations to keep the dark at bay, but still surprisingly relevant to lives lived a century ago and ultimately to our lives today.  If that’s not literary fantasy, I don’t know what is.

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February 9, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | 1 Comment

Guardian Books Podcast – SF Edition

China Mieville, Mark Charan Newton and George R R Martin all get a mention in this SF edition of the Guardian Books Podcast.

– An interview with Mieville;
– Damien G Walter selects some ones to watch for 2010; and
– some discussion – particularly pertinent to this blog – about the overlap between genre and literary fiction.

January 22, 2010 Posted by | Podcasts | Leave a comment

Podcast Update

Being the proud father of a beautiful three-month old daughter, while at the same time not being a man of independent means (which is to say: I have to work for a living), I haven’t had much time to read works of speculative fiction recently.  Never mind blog about them.

I do get time to listen to stuff though, when driving, shopping and generally making myself useful around the house.  So I’ve been experimenting with a few sci-fi / fantasy podcasts.  It’s taking me an age to read the Children’s Book so in the meantime here’s the first in an occasional series of podcast updates, just to show that I’m not slacking off entirely…

Clarkesworld – This is probably my favourite podcast right now and not just because of Kate Baker’s hypnotic voice.  Clarkesworld post a short-story every two weeks, generally more sci-fi than fantasy but with a good roster of regular contributors including Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne M Valente, Kij Johnson and Kat Rambo.  I’ve only been following for a few weeks but there hasn’t been a dud yet.  I particularly enjoyed The Things, by Peter Watts, which is an inversion of the classic 80’s horror film The Thing, this time told from the alien’s perspective (as an aside, I’ve often thought there should be more of this sort of thing – telling well-worn tales from a different character’s point of view).  Just high quality stories on a regular basis.

Starship Sofa – Tony C Smith’s monthly Aural Delights, a magazine style recording which can last up to a couple of hours, including at least one short story, along with various topical articles about speculative themes, upcoming releases and recommendations.  Quite a time-commitment this and I find myself skipping sections I’m not so interested in but generally a good mixed-bag for those of us who can’t get enough sci-fi and fantasy.  Again the emphasis is on Sci fi.

Sofanauts – Tony C Smith’s other monthly recording, recently cancelled to allow Tony to focus on Starship Sofa. This took the form of a panel show with regular contributors including Jeff Vandermeer, Damien G Walter, Amy H Sturgis and Jeremy Tolbert from Escape Pod (see below).  Tony hosted and introduced various topics of conversation for the panel.  It was always interesting to hear the panel’s views on a wide-range of genre related subjects but in some ways I can see why it’s fallen by the wayside, it did ramble on sometimes into areas which are perhaps of only passing interest to those of us not in the publishing trade (I’m thinking here for instance about the challenges facing the publishing industry and niche publishing particularly – interesting but you don’t want to hear too much of it on an SF podcast).

Science Fiction Book Review Podcast – Exactly what it says on the tin, as Luke Burrage releases a podcast review of every book he reads.  Luke is an engaging speaker and the discursive format enables him to explore and explain particular points much more fully than is generally possible in a written review.  As a budding reviewer myself I’m interest in both the similarities and differences between the written / verbal approach.  In many ways, this is the blueprint for the Jub Jub Bird: in-depth reviews about books I read, rather than a multitude of posts about news / activity on other blogs.

Podcastle and Escape Pod – I haven’t listened to these enough to have an opinion, though I’m quietly optimistic that Podcastle will fill the fantasy niche, where those listed above tend to focus on Sci-fi.

January 20, 2010 Posted by | Podcasts | Leave a comment

The Time Traveler’s Wife – By Audrey Niffenegger

I stayed away from this book for a long time, despite hearing good things about it.  In part I was put off by the title, which sounded too much like The Kitchen God’s Wife (a book I haven’t read but which, in turn, reminded me of The God of Small Things (a book I have read but didn’t enjoy)).  Both titles sound interesting to readers of a speculative nature but come over as a tad portentous, when the subject matters turn out to be fairly mundane.  The time-travel subject was the other reason I was put-off;  done well, and as a strand of a larger story, there’s still a place for time-travel of course, despite the fact that it’s been done to death already.  I just had my doubts that it was possible to make it the central theme of a book, while offering anything new.  I was wrong on both counts.

Henry De Tamble suffers from a very rare genetic disease which causes his internal time clock to reset itself unpredictably, generally during moments of high stress.  So Henry jumps backwards and forwards in time, usually to times or events which have had or will have a profound effect on his life.  Henry doesn’t know where he’s going, or how long he’ll be gone and his clothes don’t time-travel with him so wherever he ends up, he has to live off his wits to avoid getting into scrapes with the police.  This small but significant change to the everyday world as we know it, allows Niffenegger to have serious fun, as she shuffles the order of events throughout Henry’s life.  So for instance, Clare – the time traveler’s wife – meets her future husband when she’s still a child and knows for certain that she will marry Henry because he has come from the future (where they are already married) and tells her.  Meanwhile Henry doesn’t meet the older version of Clare until he’s in his late twenties; up to that point he has no idea that Clare exists, even though Clare has known for many years that Henry is out there somewhere.  There are also occasions when Henry’s present-day self meets a time travelling Henry and the two exchange important information, or help themselves out with particular problems.  This happens most memorably, when present-day Henry time-travels from stress on his wedding day and a future Henry finds himself in the right place at the right time to stand in for himself at the altar, albeit looking slightly older and more bedraggled.

Once you start to play with time in this way, there’s a multitude of set-pieces and clever plot twists to employ.  Niffenegger writes in an episodic way, which allows her to exploit these ideas to the full.  Events aren’t told in chronological order, or indeed any order, they are simply related in such a way as to first introduce us to Henry and his life-style and later, once we’ve got the hang of the mechanics, to relate how this life plays out.  Helpfully, we are told at the start of each episode, the date and the ages of Henry(s) and Clare, avoiding the need for drawn-out exposition during the narrative.

The overall approach reminds me of that used by Charlie Kaufman in Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two brilliant films which play out in a world exactly the same as our own, with the exception of one critical change to everyday physical laws (a portal into John Malkovich’s mind and the ability to wipe sections of your memory to forget a nasty relationship, respectively).  No serious attempt is made to explain how this can really happen scientifically but that’s not the point, it’s more of a thought experiment about how life would be different in such a world; the subtly altered reality is a given and the logic is pursued to interesting conclusions.  In this case Niffenegger tells an alternative love story; one where the conventional narratives of boy-meets-girl are fractured, spliced and turned on their head by the time travel element (more like man-meets-little-girl-who-grows-up-to-meet-younger-version-of-man-again).

There’s no denying the originality of this approach and the focus on the love story – the way Clare’s life is entirely contingent upon Henry’s condition (affecting as it does her past, her present and her future) – is the key to its popular appeal. It’s not an easy ride by any means, Niffenegger takes an unflinching approach to the random and impassive nature of life, especially when you know what’s going to happen but can’t do anything to stop it, because it already has.  The novel has a dark edginess to it, from the way Henry hones his petty burglary and pick-pocketing skills to survive on his travels, to the time spent watching punk bands in local dives (Henry has an impeccable taste in late 70’s / early 80’s guitar music), to Clare’s numerous and soul-destroying failed attempts to have a baby.  It’s a compelling and at times heart-breaking story, convincingly told, with time travel as the underlying plot device.  Something for everyone then.

And yet, and yet…. I found myself admiring this book more than loving it.  I’m struggling to pin-point exactly why but I think it’s mostly because of the focus on the relationship between Henry and Clare.  The time travel element is present throughout and crucial to the plot but leaving that to one side, each episode becomes just another contemporary tale about love and life in the late 20th century.  The protagonists, hang out in bars, socialise with a clique of friends, have relationship problems, try for a baby (in an interminably drawn-out section of the book) and have complicated family histories.  In short, while the concept is interesting, most of the actual pages are filled with the dull day-to-day stuff about life; precicely what I read speculative fiction to escape from. If it weren’t for the consistently dark tone, I’d almost describe it as high-end chic-lit.  This isn’t Niffenegger’s fault, she’s conceived and written a love story with an interesting twist and it’s been very successful.  For me though, all the really interesting things about time travel are the extra-ordinary possibilities – journeys to a remote past or to a far flung dystopian future – and these bases have all been covered before.  So I’m left with an unfulfilled feeling and the knowledge that this book was only ever likely to be of passing interest to me.

I wish someone had told me that before I read it.  If I could time travel, I would go back and save myself the bother; only that wouldn’t work because by then I’d have read it already!  I hope this review saves others like me, from the same temporally-challenged fate.

January 5, 2010 Posted by | Reviews | | Leave a comment

The Alchemy of Stone – Ekaterina Sedia

The implications of advances in artificial intelligence have long been a source of inspiration for science fiction writers and film makers.  In recent times rock bands – Radiohead and Grandaddy to name two of my favourites – have been getting in on the act; Radiohead in particular have peddled a brand of alienated electronica which encapsulates a sense of humanity left behind or subjugated by machines.  This is an inversion of the usual Sci Fi approach, which is to look for the humanity in robots.  With the Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia has taken the more traditional approach but breathes new life into the trope, by giving her central character female attributes.

Mattie is a sentient automaton, built by Loharri – an esteemed Engineer – to resemble a woman, or at least an abstract view of one; Mattie’s casing is shaped like a dress and her replaceable face-mask has female features.  Superficially, these may seem like very small indicators of gender but to Mattie they are the basis for her identity and the jumping off point for a wider exploration of a range of related themes, more of which later.  At first Loharri built Mattie to act as his home-help but the sentient part of her mind pushed for ever greater sophistication and ultimately emancipation; pain and pleasure sensors were needed to help Mattie protect herself from everyday accidents, feeling and emotion circuits developed an increasing desire for self-determination.  At the start of the book, Mattie lives and works as a practicing Alchemist (arch rivals to the Engineers), having first been set free by Loharri to take on an apprenticeship and later having branched out on her own, (when her skills surpassed that of her tutor in true fantasy tradition).

Loharri though, has not been passive during the course of these events and it is clear that while Mattie may appear to have her own freedom, Loharri has a lingering hold over her; emotionally she feels she owes a debt to her creator but more crucially tangibly: Loharri still holds Mattie’s key, the one she needs to wind her up and give her life.  The relationship between these two protagonists – essentially that of a domineering and abusive father and his daughter – is at the heart of the novel, as Mattie seeks to find and define herself, in the confusing tangle of where she comes from and who she wants to be.  Being different from everyone else, she thinks these contradictions are unique to her robot nature but in doing so of course, she reveals herself to be just as human as everyone else.

Loharri’s abuse extends to the physical.  In an unsettlingly original passage, we learn how Mattie lost her virginity to Loharri, once she was able to experience pleasure. ‘The almost hungry caress of the fingertips as they traced the outline of the keyhole on her chest, and made her heart tick faster.  The taste of human skin on her lip sensors, salty and precipitous, and the feeling in her abdomen that some great misfortune was about to befall her mixed with light headed giddiness’.  The concept of automaton sex is disturbing-yet-fascinating, asking questions about pleasure, intimacy and the difference between genuine experience and vicarious sensation.  These formative events have become indelibly printed on Mattie’s being; as her resentment builds, so does her determination to break free from Loharri’s thrall, whatever the cost to her creator.

It doesn’t take searing insight to spot the feminist strand running throughout the piece but it would be wrong to consider the book purely from a gender perspective; identity, self discovery and what it means to be human in a mechanized world, are thematically just as prominent.  Sedia is skillful at layering her tale with these metaphoric strands without hectoring, the reader is left to make the connections, draw the analogies and come to their own conclusions. It’s during these passages that Sedia is at her strongest, taking genre writing into new territory, bringing a genuinely literary element to the steampunk tradition.

Indeed up to this point in the review, I’ve barely mentioned the fantastical aspects of the book; given the stated aim of this blog, that’s very promising.  Genre fans can rest assured that there is a secondary world here, with steampunk and fantasy elements.  All the action takes place in one large – part Victorian, part magical and part mechanized – city.  I particularly liked the gargoyles, who roam the city’s rooftops in packs and speak with one voice, in italicized segments distinct from the rest of the text.  The gargoyles are part of the very fabric of the city; they made the buildings out of the rock from which they too are made.  One by one they return to stone as they age, calcifying permanently on roof-tops when their time comes.  It is the gargoyles who set the narrative running at the start of the book, by entrusting Mattie with the task of stopping their eventual petrification, if she can.  Mattie’s investigations lead her to seek out the Soul-Smoker, a sad character feared throughout the city because he involuntarily sucks the souls from the bodies of all living creatures nearby.  Mattie the automaton is immune but her contact with the Soul Smoker leads to revelations which are just as life threatening, to Mattie and to the city itself.

The author’s prose is deceptively rich, given her economy of style; a style which contributes to the fantasy feel of the book.   Sedia originally hails from Russia and I suspect that her writing reflects a non-typical outlook, while some phrases feel like they’ve been lost in translation.  It would be pushing it too far to say that there’s a Russian feel to the book but there’s certainly something other-wordly – to this western reader – about the city and its inhabitants, beyond the mere descriptions of the things themselves.

The book is relatively short, some 300 pages of big type, and there are so many ideas inside, it doesn’t leave much room for serious world-building.  With the focus on the characters – what they say and don’t say – it seems harsh to complain about the lack of attention to detail in the wider world.  Even so, I wanted these strong characters and compelling themes to be grounded in a world which was much more fully realized.  The plot too is a little thin, or rather it starts off well but then resolves itself in a slightly clumsy rush, with interesting characters from the first half, referred to fleetingly or forgotten by the end.  Perhaps this is the trade-off where literary fantasy is concerned, plot and world-building vs. allusion and metaphor; though Iain M Banks proves that it’s possible to do both, well.  I found myself thinking around the book itself, pursuing themes and making links way beyond the requirements of the plot, which is the acid test for me.  Perhaps a little underdone in parts then but The Alchemy of Stone is proper literary fantasy and Ekaterina Sedia is definitely one to watch.

December 15, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | 2 Comments

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

graveyard-bookFirst off, congratulations to Mr. Gaiman for his (second, long-form) Hugo award for The Graveyard Book.  A quick look at my Hall of Fame will leave the reader in no doubt about my regard for Neil’s work but, if pressed, I’d have to concede that his output since the brilliance of the Sandman has been uneven at best.  I’ve read it all religiously of course and though each piece of work has something to remind us of Gaiman’s virtuosity, there’s always a flicker of disappointment that he hasn’t been able to repeat in prose, the god-like genius of his graphic novels.  American Gods is about as close as he’s come and that, of course, won his first Hugo.

So I approached the Graveyard Book with mixed emotions: it’s Neil Gaiman, it won the Hugo, it was going to be good; but would it be good enough to convert the heathens?  To tanscend the ghetto and find wider appeal across the literary world?  To inspire others to discard their comic book preconceptions and actually read the Sandman?  Given the Young Adult tag, the answer was probably: no, but even so, a treat in store surely for the observant faithful.

Aged two, Nobody Owens (Bod) narrowly escapes being murdered with the rest of his family, by the man Jack – a tall dark stranger with a long knife.  At the critical moment, Bod wanders innocently into a nearby graveyard cum nature-reserve, where Mr and Mrs Owens (RIP) remove him from harm’s way.  With the help of another tall dark stranger – a mysterious graveyard interloper called Silas, who’s neither alive nor dead – Mr and Mrs Owens persuade the rest of the graveyard’s inhabitants to allow them to adopt Bod.  This presents immediate practical problems, as none of those souls buried in the graveyard can leave it, yet someone must provide regular food supplies.  Silas offers to act as Bod’s guardian, as he can come and go as he pleases, and uses the graveyard as a base for his frequent visits into the wider world.  With that settled, the stage is set for Bod’s unconventional upbringing; no proper school but plenty of time to explore the extensive grounds and befriend the eccentric residents, some of whom date back to Roman times and beyond.  It goes without saying that on no account must Bod leave the safety of the graveyard, the man Jack is still out there and, it turns out, anxious to finish the job.

We are now deep in Gaiman territory: idiosyncratic but heart-in-the-right-place characters, a niave but determined protagonist and a Burton-esque gothic theme.  Bod meets ghosts, ghouls, vampires, a witch, a werewolf, the mysterious Sleer who live in a crypt buried deep in the heart of the hill, and a real-live friend called Scarlett.   Their influence on the story appears to be passing but the long-time Gaiman devotee just knows that they’ll play some clever and critical part later on, as the book reaches its conclusion.  Gaiman is adept at breathing new life into gothic archetypes and folklore; I particularly liked the dance macabre, an irregular festival eagerly anticipated by the ghosts, as they are for one night, allowed to leave the graveyard and descend into town.  Though the townsfolk don’t know why, they have made their own preparations for a night they will spend, literally, dancing with death, communing with their ancestors in a celebration of lives past and lives still being lived

The importance of living and celebrating life is the central theme of the Graveyard Book.  To young Bod, the unchanging, predictable and safe lives of the dead – after all, what’s the worst that can happen? – must seem very attractive compared to living in constant fear of the man Jack and his big knife.  But the dead don’t see it that way: being alive means you can change, not just yourself but the world around you;  Bod can grow and learn and meet new friends.  It’s a message to us all: in the midst of life we are in death, but it is this very knowledge which defines the lives we lead and gives us the reason to live them to their fullest.  Silas in particular, goes to great lengths to protect Bod, as he understands this essential truth: while Bod lives, he can still bring about change; in the context of the story, the change will have implications for every man Jack of them.

As it turns out, Silas needn’t have worried.  Bod has no intention of skulking in fear behind the safety of the cemetry gates and in one memorable passage explains that when it comes to the man Jack: ‘the question isn’t, “who’ll keep me safe from him?”… it’s “who will keep him safe from me?”‘  This takes us to the heart of Gaiman’s sucess as a teller of (fairy)tales, he finds fresh and radical ways to retell the archetypal stories; his protagonists aren’t impotent dolls, unquestioningly buffeted by events and stronger characters, they’re emancipated and unafraid to take control of their destinies.  Another one of Gaiman’s divine powers is alchemy, his potions turn base elements into literary gold, bringing together themes, characters and traditional stories, adding a few secret ingredients of his own, cooking up a lyrical brew that is so much more than the sum of its parts.  One puts the book down feeling enriched and uplifted, infused with a new sense of joie de vive.

The Graveyard Book has been marketed – rightly in my view – as a Young Adult title and while I would unhesitatingly recommend it to any young adults who ask, it’s a little linear, simplistic and short for me (a not so young adult).  We learn little of Silas and the organisation to which he belongs, or indeed of any of the other characters beyond what is required by the plot.  Whole worlds and themes are glimpsed tantalisingly on the peripherary but left undeveloped as we stay close to Bod.  The objective reviewer in me can see that this is probably as it should be for a young adult novel, and judged on its own terms, it’s difficult to disagree with the Hugo award.  But the highly subjective Gaiman fan in me, wishes greedily for more.  And more. 

Prophets have long foretold the second coming of Neil Gaiman as a writer of multi-layered prose novels as intriate, rich and rewarding as the Sandman.  There are many latter-day nay-sayers, not least I suspect Neil Gaiman himself, who has said that he was a borderline workaholic during the late eighties / early nineties.  The Graveyard Book has much to recommend it, particularly to its target audience, but it isn’t the holy book some of us have been anticipating all these years.  True believer that I am though, I’ll continue to keep the faith.

October 1, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | Leave a comment

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

david_mitchell_cloud_atlas

Where do I start?  An 18th Century lawyer, returning home to America having picked up a nasty tropical disease on Chatham Island?  An inter-war musician and scoundrel, down to trouser-change, prevailing upon an ailing Belgian composer in a desperate last bid to make his reputation?  A 1970’s junior hack, drawn into a political conspiracy following a chance meeting with a scientist in a broken-down elevator?  A failed contemporary publisher who strikes it lucky following the imprisonment for murder of one of his authors?  A sensually deprived worker-drone, bred for a human cloning program, in a near future dominated by mega corporations?  Or a Hawaiian tribesman from a post-apocalyptic far-future, visited by technologically advanced foreigners who harness the power of ‘smart’ that they themselves have inherited from an earlier age?

Although superficially Cloud Atlas – Mitchell’s third novel – starts chronologically with the first of these tales and works forward, we should really start with the last, which has all the other narratives nested in it, like Russian dolls.  The Hawaiian tribesman is shown a holographic recording of the testimony of the drone-worker, who watches a film about the failed publisher, who has been sent a draft novel about the junior hack, who finds the letters of the musician, who reads the diary of the lawyer.  The reader can only grasp this retrospectively though, as the book’s physical structure works the other way: the last post-apocalyptic story is told in full (the tiny whole doll at the centre), cushioned between two halves of the tale of the drone, which is itself nested in the two halves of the story of the publisher and so on.

This rather baroque structure serves as a showcase for Mitchell’s narrative skill as he draws us into one fully realised world and genre after another, leaving each abruptly; just as we’re hooked and don’t want to be dragged away.  The design also serves as a metaphor for one of the themes of the book itself: echoes in time; projected futures and historical facts, emenating outwards in virtual waves of ever-increasing speculation from the firm reality of the present-day.  The further we travel in either direction, the more that accepted ‘fact’ becomes the propoganda of those powerful enough to control the flow of information.  As one character postulates: ‘he who pays the historian calls the tune’ .  The book’s scaffolding allows the author to demonstrate this and other themes by having them recur, in mutated forms, across all the narratives and timescales.  It’s clever stuff.

At this point, I should declare an interest:  I read and enjoyed Ghostwritten (Mitchell’s debut) and, though it was a straight-up non-genre novel about life in a Worcestershire village in the 1980’s, Black Swan Green (the successor to Cloud Atlas) was one of my favourite reads of recent years.  Mitchell has a knack for imbuing a readable and engaging narrative, with insight and depth and his flair for inhabiting established genres with unique voices is in full-effect here.  Each story is intricately realised in a style appropriate to the timeline and, while the characters are not always sympathetic, their world-views, expressed in colourful phrases, rich similies and time-specific colloquialisms are convincing, always engrossing and occasionally very funny.  Confronted by a wilfully bureaucratic platform ticket-office, the failed publisher recounts: ‘Sometimes the fluffy bunny of credulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.’

Cloud Atlas itself is a musical score, written by the failed composer, to a structure which closely resembles the layout of the book.  In keeping with the metaphor of the book as a musical symphony, motifs and repeating refrains run throughout the individual narratives like clouds across the sky.  As we traverse time, sun-like, from a victorian past to the zenith of a post-apocalyptic future, before descending back through the years again, Mitchell covers some big themes: the human will to power, the exploitation of people and resources which has fuelled our technological advance and how our natural instincts, evolved to enable us to survive, lead to moral values which now trail hopelessly behind our god-like ability to shape the world in which we live.   This last point is particularly pertinent at a time when our rampant individualism threatens to deplete the planet and degrade the environment which sustains us.  But Mitchell does not preach to us, on the whole; he shows us lives lived centuries apart, throws in some common strands and allows us to join the dots.

I did not buy the idea of souls crossing generations ‘like clouds’ in a form of secular reincarnation and, Mitchell wisely steers clear of any overt exposition of this concept, despite the blurb on the back of my copy pushing this angle.  On the other hand, I really like the inherent contradiction contained in the idea of an atlas of clouds.  This plays a more personal role in characters’ lives, as, deprived of the long view granted the reader, they try to make sense of the random chaos of their own lives and times: ‘what wouldn’t I give now’ says one ‘for a never changing map of the ever-constant ineffable?’  It would be all too easy for this combination of short and long-term powerlessness to become overwhelming but Mitchell’s message is one of hope ultimately.  In the face of immutable laws, it turns out that life and human nature is our best chance; each story ends with an individual victory of one form or another: ‘courage grows anywhere, like weeds.’  Going against the grain of the rest of the book, the concluding pages are perhaps a little explicit in making the case for the real change, which can be achieved by large groups of individuals working, not out of short-term self-interest, but for the common good.  We must hope Mitchell is right though, and we need novels of this quality and writers with this vision and insight to continually remind us that though the obstacles may seem insurmountable, there are some things about humanity which are worth the effort to save.

September 15, 2009 Posted by | Reviews | | 3 Comments

Iain Banks Interview and Podcast News

Always an interesting interviewee but this one also has news of a free podcast containing excerpts from his new book: Transition.

September 10, 2009 Posted by | Interviews | | Leave a comment

Literary Fantasy Recommendations

This list and the related comments, gives me plenty to be going on with.

August 26, 2009 Posted by | General | Leave a comment

Shoggoths in Bloom – Elizabeth Bear

I’ve always been fascinated by H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, so was pleased to see that this short by Elizabeth Bear, won the Hugo novelette.

August 20, 2009 Posted by | Short Stories | | Leave a comment