Man Booker Prize

A Break in the Clouds

I travelled to France last month with a story in my heart. It's a story I've carried around for years—one I chronicled here: The Prisoner's Hands—and I spent time gathering details of place and researching the region's history during WWII. I thought, having seen through the writing of two novels, I was ready to undertake something nearly bigger than me. This story reaches far beyond the realm of alternative history I created in Refuge of Doves. There, my goal was to invoke a sense of place and time, but not to mire the narrative in medieval depths or lose a sense of playful speculation.  

But I'm wasn't looking to retouch history here. Not with this story.

 

A book reviewer commented recently that the WWII literary idiom has been done ad nauseam. In the words of Love and Rockets, It's all the same thing; No new tale to tell. The world doesn't need any more stories from WWII.

 

As a reader fascinated by literature and research emanating from and inspired by WWI through the end of the Second World War, I couldn't disagree more. There will always be room and readers for stories from these eras, as long as the stories are well told.

 

In the past week I've read two extraordinary novels that take place during WWII: Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, set in France and Germany; and Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, set in southeast Asia and Australia. Doerr's novel was just nominated for the National Book Award; Flanagan's won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Both are beloved by professional critics and every day readers like myself. So yes, there is room for more WWII stories.

 

But one night, deep in jet lag insomnia, as I read All The Light We Cannot See, I realized I had to set aside my story. I came to accept that I am not yet the writer I need to be to tell a story deeply layered with sociopolitical nuance. Nor am I yet the researcher who could create the authenticity readers would rightly expect. 

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Tony Doerr spent ten years researching, crafting, and writing All The Light We Cannot See. Richard Flanagan wrote a novel steeped in so much historical detail and personal history (his father survived the Burma Death Railway—the subject of The Narrow Road to the Deep North), I can only guess he spent years carefully choosing each detail.

 

The understanding came laden with sadness and relief and not a small measure of anxiety for this writer. Setting aside a story I'd been thinking about for so long, that I spent time in France researching, meant I'd opened a yawning chasm of "Now what do I do?" My post-holiday plan, when I knew I would need to work on something new as I began the agent query process for Refuge of Doves and sought beta readers for Crows of Beara, had been to dive straight into a new novel.

 

Suddenly, I was without a story. I had no plan.

 

But if I've learned anything along this writer's journey, it's to trust that the next story is always there, shimmering at the edges of my peripheral vision, just within earshot. If I let go of trying to capture it and wait quietly, it will settle on my shoulder like a rare and fragile butterfly, or beam out like a piercing ray of sun from a rent in a storm cloud.

 

And come it did, during the middle of a writing workshop the week after our return. The story idea isn't new—in fact, its themes and some its characters have appeared in at least one of my short stories—but the Eureka moment came only after I'd let go of the search. Suddenly, quite suddenly, at 2:45 on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late October, I had my premise, my protagonist, and the quivering butterfly of a plot.

 

Let the writing begin.

 

 

 

 

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The LuminariesThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Wild, Wild West, a frontier filled with dreamers, convicts, schemers and entrepreneurs. Some hope to make that lucky strike, others attach themselves like parasites to stars on the rise and the canniest let the eager do the dirty work while they provide the booze, drugs and women for which all men—regardless of their luck—will lay down cash money. This is the Gold Rush, the West Coast, the late 1860’s—but we’re not in California, Toto. This is the South Island of New Zealand, circa 1866, in the wet, green folds of the Southern Alps where they tumble into the Tasman Sea.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is also the frontier of storytelling—a no-holds-barred, raucous flight of imagination that I devoured with Epicurean pleasure. Jumping into its alphabet-soup cast of characters with chewy names like Emery Staines (an angelic young man, popular, rich and missing), Cowell Devlin (a man of God), George Shepard (whose flocks live in the town jail) and Anna Wetherell (a prostitute~ingenue who weathers all kinds of storms) is like tumbling in a dryer with towels and tennis shoes. You never know when you’ll get smacked upside the head with a plot twist.

This is a Gold Rush-era version of The Usual Suspects: Everyone’s got a story and no one is telling the truth. In this case, a hermitic prospector is dead, the town’s richest man is missing, a prostitute is senseless and wearing a dress lined with gold, a politician is being blackmailed, a body rises from its makeshift coffin in a doomed ship’s cargo hold and a beautiful redhead has just sashayed into town, claiming to be a widow and seeking what remains of her husband’s estate. Spinning all around this stage are twelve Luminaries: a constellation of men whose points of view we dip into throughout the novel, trying to unravel a mystery that is woven more tightly with each page.

Much has been made of Catton’s clever structure: The Luminaries is a set piece held aloft by an astrological chart that divides each part into smaller and smaller sections (Part One is 358 pages long; Part Twelve, two), according to celestial logic. But don’t be deterred by this ornamentation. I didn’t pay a whit of attention to the charts that precede each section—I couldn’t be distracted from carrying on with the story. Yet, there is something to be said for Catton’s conceit. The novel begins with a crowded, opulent jumble of characters and detail, like a sky full of dazzling stars. As its 832 pages turn, black space is allowed in, the focus narrows and individual details begin to sharpen.

The tale is told first from outside-in, then inside-out, from high to low, back-to-front, by the dead and the living, in court, in bed and in confession. Mystery is added to adventure and star-crossed love eventually conquers all.

I can’t remember when I’ve taken such delight in reading, when I felt the author’s sheer joy in writing. I've seen a handful of gripes that Catton’s story and style lack warmth and her characters are shallow. I dunno. I didn’t get a sense that she intended to write epic historical fiction in which the characters’ characters rise and fall and rise again and we feel morally lifted from the lessons learned. Sometimes it’s perfectly all right for the reading experience to be sheer pleasure. When it’s not only pleasurable, but intellectually stimulating, laugh-out-loud surprising and historically illuminating, you’ve got a five-star read.

Eleanor Catton has crafted a rollicking, unexpected and deeply satisfying carnival ride that ends all too soon. I doff my top hat and bow. Brava.

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Book Review: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

The Sisters BrothersThe Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Poor Eli Sisters, forced to muddle through his existential crisis, navel-gazing about the direction of his life generations before “What Color Is Your Parachute?” He is as melancholy as a single gal approaching the cutoff point where it’s more likely she’ll get killed by a terrorist than receive a marriage proposal and he’s just as self-conscious about his weight. He does pick up the unusual yet refreshing habit of cleaning his teeth, so perhaps his own prospects for love late in life will markedly improve. If he lives past forty.

Eli Sisters is a hired gun capable of deep reflection and the occasional moment of rueful tenderness, joining a cinematic line of thugs we shudder to admit we cheer for. Eli would fit right into a group therapy session with Samuel L. Jackson’s Ezekial 25:17-bellowing Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction or the enigmatic gunslinger William Munny, portrayed by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven.

Little Bill Daggett: “You'd be William Munny out of Missouri. Killer of women and children.” Will Munny: “That's right. I've killed women and children. I've killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I'm here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.”

But Eli isn’t alone. His companion in pistol-whipping and whorehouse penetration is none other than his mighty brother, one Charlie Sisters. Charlie is a dark horse – mean, rarely sober, and unlike his pneumatic younger brother, lean, hard and utterly void of morality.

The year is 1851. Eli and Charlie are headed to Sacramento from Oregon City to kill the deliciously-named Hermann Kermit Warm. They have been contracted by the Commodore – a Wild West Master of the Universe - yet they aren’t certain why they are exacting revenge on the Commodore’s behalf. It hardly matters; Warm is a job. And as the brothers travel south, Eli comes to the conclusion that this job will be his last. He wants a simpler life: a sweet woman by his side, a general goods store to manage, his mother to kiss that soft place on his cheek, just above his beard.

The Sisters Brothers riffs on literature’s classic Odyssey theme – subjecting its principals to all manner of trials, seductions and diversions before delivering them to the final crucible.

It is also a literary tribute to a cinematic genre that began in the 70s with Blaxploitation films, continued into the 80s with the classic Repo Man and renewed with particular vigor, dark humor and star power by Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill) and the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country For Old Men). Films in which every aspect of violence is explored with satirical glee and never found lacking. Like the films which so obviously inspired his narrative, DeWitt provides vivid detail, unusual surroundings and kookoo for Cocoa Puffs characters – imbuing the story with a surreal vibe. He succeeds fantastically in transporting the reader to the sounds, smells, sights, grit and gore of his settings.

The Sisters Brothers is very fine entertainment. Instead of adapting a Wild West vernacular, where the characters drop their ‘g’s and call each other “pard’” DeWitt’s characters speak with an elegant cadence that would make ol’ Jane A. herself stand at attention. It feels rather affected at first, but then becomes endearing. You’ll hear your own thoughts nattering away in Western Gothic long after you close the book.

But this is a book whose parts are greater than its whole. It leaves plot threads dangling like reins on a riderless horse. DeWitt tosses in silly “Intermissions” that slow the pace of the story, he wastes space on one long, boring journal entry, and Eli moped about like a chaps-wearing Eeyore. You got hand the character transformation props to his brother, Charlie. Heh. Heh. Heh.

The Sisters Brothers is a series of brilliantly written, strange, violent and hilarious events, but in the end I was left asking “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

Three.Five Stars, were that an option.

What's it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live? What's it all about when you sort it out, Alfie? Are we meant to take more than we give Or are we meant to be kind? And if only fools are kind, Alfie, Then I guess it's wise to be cruel. And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie, What will you lend on an old golden rule? As sure as I believe there's a heaven above, Alfie, I know there's something much more, Something even non-believers can believe in. I believe in love, Alfie. Without true love we just exist, Alfie. Until you find the love you've missed you're nothing, Alfie. When you walk let your heart lead the way And you'll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie.

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Book Review: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies (Wolf Hall, #2)Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admit to having a bit of a crush on Thomas Cromwell. All right, he's a bit long in the tooth for me, a perhaps a bit round from the life at court that fills his plate and goblet with rich food and drink. And more than a bit too cruel, as he neatly dispatches obstacles to the nearest hangman's noose or executioner's blade.

But there is so much to admire in the man who sits at the right hand of Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who escaped his father's fists at the age of fifteen, claims his fortune abroad and uses his cleverness and charisma to rise past sycophantic noblemen. He earns the trust of those who make the seats of power until the King claims him as his chief minister. Cromwell, as interpreted by Hilary Mantel, is sardonic with the fools who surround the king, vying for his attention. He is tender with his family - what remains of them after disease robs him of his wife and daughters. He is generous with his household, kind to the poor. And with himself he is circumspect, modest, resigned to his flaws. Irreverent, intelligent, kind, earthy - just a little bit sexy, you know? What's not to like?

Unless, of course, you are Anne Boleyn.

Hilary Mantel's brilliant, impossible-to-put-down Bring Up The Bodies is her lively follow-up to the Man Booker winning Wolf Hall. Which really, you've got to read first. It's not that you don't know what happens in Bring Up The Bodies (if you didn't sleep through that day in your European History survey course). We know Anne's head remains not long attached to her "little neck." But Mantel is such a master of character and of the subtlest of details upon which the globe of history spins - you'd be doing yourself a huge disservice not to soak up the first of her (anticipated many) volumes of the life and times of Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up the Bodies makes references to the recent past of Wolf Hall and its now-deceased characters, so just read it. It's as least as astonishing.

And I admit to having a writerly crush on Hilary Mantel. She upends the notion of historical fiction, smashes it to bits and puts it back together in her crazy-unique way of writing. This is Tudor England, but presented in an entirely new way. No over-wrought 16th century language, no bodice-ripping trysts in candlelit corridors (oh, maybe just a few). Mantel writes in standard English, with cryptic Cromwell as her narrator. Her story, rooted in iconic history, feels as fresh and relevant as the headlines of today's morning paper. It is history such as you have never considered before; meticulously researched - to the point that Mantel need only drop in a few key details to create a setting, then she lets the action carry the rest of the scene.

I love Mantel's use of language. It is modern but never anachronistic, never ironic. The joke is not on the reader, it is on common interpretations of history. Cromwell narrates in present tense, setting the reader in the middle of the action, rather than as an observer, several centuries removed. Mantel gives me such a different way to think about presenting history - what we know becomes the outline, the foundation. The shadowy, the obscure, become the story.

I know what happens next - my history books tell me the facts. What I don't know is how Hilary Mantel will tell the story. I can hardly wait.

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Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can think of few novels as aptly titled as The Sense Of An Ending. For that's all the ending of this particular novel is- just a notion, a nuance, a perception. Or perhaps Barnes had another idea in mind: perhaps he is questioning the sense, logic, purpose to the idea of endings. For indeed there are no endings, only discrete moments in time that exist in our perception; as soon as a moment occurs, it become a memory, shifting in tone, color and meaning according to our unique perspective.

The delicious irony of Barnes's conceit is that the ending isn't the point. It is merely the point at which Barnes put down his pen and declared this story finished on the page. His timing is astute, to be sure. There is a natural climax that leads the central character to a philosophical perigee of universal truths, but it's hardly an end to the story of the characters' lives.

So, don't be in a rush to solve the mystery of the £500 legacy or discover the whereabouts of Adrian's diary or discern the reasons for Veronica's inscrutability. You have only 163 pages to read- you'll get to the ending soon enough. Savor the shrewd in-between, the paragraphs you must reread to understand, the pages you mark with Post-It notes to be reminded that you are not alone in thinking weird thoughts:

I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbors, companions? And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admit the damage and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless and the ones to be careful of.

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation

...when we are young we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

Barnes may be the anti-Thich Nhat Hanh; reading this book forces a certain despair for one's present - which is predicated on delusions of the past - and hopelessness for the future - which will be wasted on nostalgia, since the past didn't unfold the way we think.

Acerbic and strange, tight and disturbing, with brilliantly-paced, crisp writing, this is an unforgettable read.

One passage made a particular impression on me: Margaret used to say that women often made the mistake of keeping their hair in the style they adopted when they were at their most attractive. They hung on long after it became inappropriate, all because they were afraid of the big cut..

The day after I finished reading The Sense Of An Ending, I had 8" cut from my hair. At least I think that's what happened. My reflection tells me so. But perhaps that's only my imperfect interpretation of my dubious reality...

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