Knitting, not reading (pace Stevie Smith)

Typical, nothing for weeks then three come along at once! I have been on a long knitting jag, with jerseys, blankets and cardigans flying off the needles, it becomes compulsive after a while, but impedes the reading, AudioBooks become the order of the day (& night)…

So what have we in mind today. Two books about World War II, a non-fiction treatment and a semi-fiction treatment and one book about the “Indian Wars”, that is to say the European Americans and what they then called Red Indians, now spoken of as Native Americans.

So I shall start with that one. Paulette Jiles has written many books about this period of American history, that is to say the Civil War and the Indian Wars.

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It was while writing a previous book, Enemy Women, that she came across the story of Britt Johnson. Moses Johnson with fifteen white women and  five black including children left the war torn areas and moved to North Texas. Britt Johnson was a manumitted African American (called negro, black or nigger at the time depending on the speaker), he took the family and settled in North Texas. Britt had a wife and three children. The Colour of Lightning is their story. How the Comanche and Kiowa descended on the settlement, killed one child and captured Mary and the remaining two children, went on to capture another woman, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, and her two grandchildren.

None of this was written down at the time, 1865-1870s or thereabouts, and was only recorded after Britt Johnson’s death by people who knew him, or had heard about him, in 1900. So Paulette Jiles has pieced together the myth and the historical facts as known and created a story that brings all the characters to life, most of the people in this book are real, one or two are like people that existed, like the Indian Agent, a pacifist Quaker named Samuel Hammond, sent for purposes that only God knew, to control and negotiate with the most war-like tribes: the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Kiowa-Apache.

Britt Johnson is real, he was away when his family were attacked, he determined to recover his family, and other captives and having accomplished that to set up as a freight-driver. This is the story of how this ambition was realised.

Samuel Hammond, however, is based, but lightly, upon a real Indian Agent called Lawrie Tatum and Samuel is in the novel in order to explore the dilemma facing the Quaker settlers from Philadelphia, who took no part in the Civil War (though Samuel drove an ambulance), and therefore were little regarded by many European (white) Americans, and were now part of the great re-settlement (in reservations) of the Native (Reds, as they were known) Americans. How does a pacifist deal with a tribal custom that includes killing, raping and mutilating victims, taking of captives and a nomadic life that cannot be contained in a reservation, no matter how big?
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This map shows the territory as it was in 1864-65.

The other two books are rather different. Hemingway at War by Terry Mort, rather speaks for itself. Much has been written, not least by Ernest Hemingway himself, about his escapades, much has been exaggerated, mostly by EH and much has been denigrated by others. Moonglow, on the other hand, is a fictionalised account of a grandfather’s experience in Europe, principally Germany, towards the end of World War II. In this book, Michael Chabon recounts the stories told him by his grandfather towards the end of his life, while in a hospital and dying, suddenly and for the first time, he began to describe incidents in his past life, especially those dealing with his experiences in Germany. The novel is an amalgam of things that Michael knew about his grandfather and also these revelations made almost when it was too late to press for details.

Both books in their own ways give us an account of that cataclysm which cannot but broaden our view of the conflict.

Hemingway, though a non-combatant, saw quite a lot of fighting at first hand as he attached himself to the American 22nd Regiment and went with them from Normandy right through to the liberation of Paris and on to Germany, until they were decimated at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, this small but intense part of the war was the bloodiest, most deadly encounter that the 22nd had experienced. Not unlike the Battle of the Bulge, it was fought in dense forest, with little or no room for deep trench defenses, and splinters of wood from blasted trees inflicting as many casualties and fatalities as ordinary shrapnel.PhotoScan (6)

Hemingway himself, claims to have killed at least 100 Germans, which as a journalist he was not entitled to do, but at the same time it was known that for him “enough was never enough” and he was inclined to dress it up a bit. Strangely, the one engagement about which he wrote not one sentence was Hürtgen, perhaps finally, “enough” was way too much. In any event, he left the combat zones for good and returned to Paris, a privilege not afforded to what remained of the 22nd, who fought on to Berlin.

Moonglow was, in many ways, a more satisfactory book. Maybe novels are always better at presenting messy, complicated lives in a digestible fashion. Chabon’s grandfather was also in Europe towards the end of World War II, but on a quite different mission. As a noted chemist and engineer himself, he was tasked with seeking out as many German engineers and chemist, especially those involved with the V1 and V2 Rocket programme, to find them, capture them and extradite them to America, preferably before the Russians.PhotoScan (4)

The other parts of the book present a wonderful eccentric, a talented engineer engaged in rocketry, even before the war. Passionate about space exploration, but also with a haunted and difficult married life. This is a truly remarkable book, by a wonderfully talented and inventive writer.

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Family secrets

Tolstoy is supposed to have said “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way“, the same can be said of family secrets, happy families have small secrets that do no harm; unhappy families seem to have secrets that can cause damage generation after generation. So it is with the two books I am writing about today.

conradThe one I read first was Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers. The two eponymous characters are scientists, they met at Cambridge, married when Eleanor fell pregnant, have four children and have been married some twenty five years. The children are all very different, but the third child, Caro is even physically different from the rest of the family.

But one quite outwardly ordinary day, Conrad fails to return from a conference in Germany. For a couple of days, Eleanor convinces herself that this is just because he missed his flight, she had the wrong day anyway or some fairly logical but unexplained reason. But soon, the continued silence, the fact that his colleagues seem perplexed by his non-appearance and her children’s concern force upon her than this is no ordinary absence.

Caro takes off to Munich in pursuit, Eleanor feels conflicted, was this the best option? But there is no stopping Caro, she will go and find him. Meanwhile, Eleanor overhears her other children discussing the possibility that she has “done away with him”.

During the course of this novel, we see both partners considering their past relationships; ones they have with other people as well as each other. The disappearance makes Eleanor review her behaviour, which has not been admirable and Conrad reviews the circumstances that have caused him to run and hide…

Professional conflict, work related stress and general busyness accounts for some of the fracture, professional jealousy also plays into the mix, and personal jealousy contributes to a fairly toxic situation. But it is not until there is a crisis on this scale that either of them take the necessary steps to resolve the failing marriage.  Inertia has caused them to carry on, both on a separate trajectory that is contributing to their lack of communication plus the dreaded secret – the uncovering of which has caused a leprosy of distrust to blight the marriage, the slow deadening of feelings…

Jane Rogers has the ability to observe human frailty with a warm and insightful gaze, to impart this on to the page in a way that packs an immense punch. To pick up almost any of her novels is to enter a world of awareness into characters that may be widely different in age and circumstance from our own and to inhabit their world completely for the next three hundred or so pages. Gifted and brilliant writing.

The second novel, also by a well known writer, is Cousins by Sally Vickers. This is a book after my own heart. It speaks to me of the sort of family I know, Northumbrians root and branch, with a pedigree that goes back generations and who have lived man and boy in the same house for many, many years. Dowlands, at the start of this novel, is in the hands of Hetta’s parents having been given over to them in a rather run-down state by Hetta’s grandfather. The book is told from the point of view of three women, all related to William Tye whose devastating accident is the focal point of the opening chapter.cousins

Hetta Tye is William’s younger sister, the older girl is called Sydella, know as Syd who lives in Jordan with her husband Omar. Hetta recounts all of the first section. Bell recounts the second section.  Bell is William’s aunt, sister of his father, and mother (single) of Cecelia always called Cele. Bell is a wild card, rackety and irresponsible but with a generous heart, in the eyes of the family she finally redeems herself.

As you might imagine, from the title of the book, William, Cele and Hetta are very close, and have been for as long as anyone could remember. Cele was often, not to say always, parked with William and Hetta either at Dowlands or at the house of their grandparents, Wilfred and Bertha Tye, always know as Fred and Betsy, while Bell was off with one partner or another.

Betsy, William’s grandmother, is the narrator in the third section and the final section returns to Hetta. There are more cousins, Fred and Betsy happen to be first cousins, they have three children, the eldest is Nathaniel, he also figures in this story, although even before the beginning of the novel he has died in an accident; another uncle who has died is Fred’s older brother who was killed in action.

This may all seem rather incestuous now, but reading around from books that include The Bible and many Victorian novels, the marriage of first cousins was not thought in any way odd or unsavoury or, even, unwise until quite recently. The Tye family are in no way unique, you only have to look at many Quaker family trees to find married first cousins, and as I said, Abraham sent Isaac off to marry one of the daughters of his brother.

Consanguinity and its consequences were not recognised until the mid-twentieth century. Inbreeding increases the risk of genetic disorders which leads to a decreased biological fitness, a fact which was only studied properly fairly recently. Parents with similar genetic mutations may be unaware of and unaffected by any disorder, however their children are at a higher risk and may be susceptible. Even second cousins who marry and have children, will have given their offspring a higher level  of risk than the rest of the population.

Cousins is not really about the genetic risks, but there is a definite undercurrent of family disasters being visited upon generation after generation. It is this that makes the novel so fascinating, the hidden histories that are slowly revealed, family secrets that impact one upon another. Collateral damage being how each event impacts on the rest of the group, in much the same way as a pebble thrown into a lake.

This is also a book about love and the risks that one will take, for love or through loving someone enough, or too much.

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More of America

darktownAs promised in the last post, here is Darktown by Thomas Mullen. Set in 1948, it is a fictionalised account of early police work in Atlanta, Georgia. However, on this precinct all the policemen are black; eight men, under a white mentor, operate out of a hot basement apartment in an area of Atlanta largely populated by African Americans. These eight men have all the appearances of the white city police: guns, batons, badges and uniforms – but they have no squad cars and they are not allowed to arrest white citizens, furthermore they can do nothing if white cops decide to bring their operation into the black neighbourhood.

This happens, frequently and often violently, especially if a policeman called Dunlow happens to be around. Known for violent and often wrongful arrests of African American citizens, he is the nemesis of Officers Boggs and Smith.

So on a dark night when Boggs and Smith stop a car, one with a white driver and a young African American passenger in a yellow dress, there is not a great deal they can do; but a few hours later they seen the same car being stopped by Dunlow and Rakestraw, by this time it is clear that the young girl is in trouble as they have seen her being hit and when she jumps from the car and runs away, they assume that Dunlow and Rakestraw are dealing with it…

This is, at one and the same time, a police procedural thriller, a search for the perpetrator of several  untimely deaths and the extreme difficulties faced by the black officers who are not permitted to investigate crimes, even ones committed on their patch; they are not permitted to walk about in their uniforms unless actually on duty or appearing in court, so they are required to carry their uniforms in garment bags and to change on the site – generally in a cupboard and finally, they are not permitted under any circumstances to enter the police HQ.

This is also about race relations, the gulf between the two sides of Atlanta. The invisible dividing line between the areas where the white folk live and the areas for other people, and woe betide any uppity African American who builds a property on the wrong site, real estate being what it is, an area needs to maintain its status as a white neighbourhood, otherwise property values will nose-dive…

The writing is brilliant, the story breath-taking and the message is plain.  It is hard to believe that we have moved such a short way beyond this divided and hideous world and to many people it looks as though some of it may come back any time soon. This is the book to read, being forewarned is some way towards preventing it all coming back to haunt us.

Searching through the TBR pile I came upon another, very different American novel. Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen is so different that it is hard to relate the two books as being placed on the same continent. This is the tale of a woman, a doctor, looking back over her life and upbringing on a farm near to Philadelphia. In fact it is not clear where exactly the eponymous place, Miller’s Valley is exactly, but it must be East somewhere.Millers Valley.jpg

Mary Margaret Miller is the only daughter of Bob Miller and his wife, a nurse, who farm in the lower reaches of the valley.  They have two sons Ed and Tommy, Ed is quiet, stolid and hard working and eventually goes off to become an engineer, Tommy is fabulously good looking, and wild with it.

The thrust of the story, though, centres around plans to dam the valley. The state engineers come round offering deals to people who will give up their homes and relocate, this process is slow and many people think it will never happen. Often after severe rains there is catastrophic flooding, but still the residents are reluctant to move. The Miller family have been there at least since 1822, a matter of about one hundred and twenty five years and possibly more.

The characters, their families, their successes and failures are bewitchingly drawn for us, the readers. We really care and appreciate their dilemmas. The mistakes they make are terribly human and familiar and the Miller family are not unique in their triumphs and their tragedies.

This is also a novel about change, change resisted and then embraced. Mary Margaret moves away to study, marries and has a family and circumstances bring her back to Miller’s Valley to work as a GP. Looking back over her life, she muses on the things that change, the hidden secrets even among families and those things that remain unchanged – among them love.

Anna Quindlen has written several novels, but is virtually unknown in this country, hopefully that will change.

edricFinally, another book about the flooding of a valley, this time an English valley and written mostly from the perspective of the engineer. He comes to look at the feasibility, but finds his decisions are made much harder once he gets to know the residents. This is The Gathering the Water by Robert Edric, and author I have frequently recommended.

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America on my mind

No, this is not a “dump Trump” polemic (for a change). I am concerned with two remarkable novels about America before and during and after the Civil War, that is between 1861 to 1870. These will be followed by another book about America which lies at the top of my TBR pile – Darktown by Thomas Mullen, set in Atlanta in 1948 – watch this space.

barryRead in order of chronology, Sebastian Barry‘s new novel – Days Without End follows the fortunes and misfortunes of one, Thomas McNulty. It is a given that SB mines his own family history, not always as popular with said family as with his readers, and this is another fictionalised account of a distant relative.

Thomas leaves Sligo for Canada after his mother and sister have died in the potato famine; he knows what hunger is and escapes. Canada spits him out and he signs up with a friend, John Cole for the US military.

If you know your history, this will remind you that it is at the time of the “Indian Wars”. Thomas and John are both drafted into battalions hiking out towards California on the Oregon trail. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, there are graphic descriptions of killing, brutality and inter-race misunderstandings. Thomas and John do what they are told, without liking it one bit.

But the tale has a twist in it, and they end up with responsibility for a young Indian girl from the Oglala Sioux tribe.

So this is also a book about love, between two men and between these two men and the young girl, aged about ten. They leave the army and head off towards a peaceful future, but then the Civil War starts and they need to sign up again…

The second book has many attributes that echo Days Without End. News of the World follows the fortunes of one Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd who after the Civil War, but while the country is still unstable not to say frankly lawless, goes around the States giving public readings from newspapers.jiles

Bearing in mind that many people were illiterate, these were popular events and Captain Kidd made himself a living from it. But in Wichita Falls, he is called upon to take a young German-born child, also about ten, back to her relatives in Castroville. A tremendous distance, pretty much the length of Texas.

Paulette Jiles has presented us with a densely packed novel of exceptional interest, daring and emotion. Beautifully crafted and written, Captain Kidd and the young girl whom he calls Johanna, travel in a second hand buggy through plains and mountains, along and across flooded rivers braving Indians, cowboys, and plain evil-minded pimps.

This too, is by way of a love story. Johanna is an Indian-captive child, she has witnessed appalling horrors.  The Captain is old enough to be her grandfather but he grows to respect and admire her, and she grows to love him. Their adventures bring them even closer together, but he knows, even if he cannot get her to understand, that his mission accomplished will sever their connection.

The inevitable tension in this arrangement, and the growing bond between the two is exquisitely written.

If you read this and enjoyed them, you might also like The Son by Phillip Meyer [Not the Booker – a motley collection posted 4th September 2013]scan0003

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A life in paints

Two unexpected coincidences. I read a beautiful memoir by Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine and then visited Tate Britain to see the new exhibition of paintings by Paul Nash.

war-and-turpentineThe book is a memory of his grandfather, a man that always seemed to be painting copies of the great masters. Shortly before his death Urbain gives his grandson a set of notebooks, though it is many years before he actually reads them.

They are the notebooks that describe in accurate and appalling detail his war service in Belgium during World War 1. Slowly a picture emerges of a young man, fighting a hopeless, chaotic and bloody war against a stronger and more ruthless enemy. Such actions that Urbain witnessed were unparalleled in savagery, such that he could not mention them again. So he painted, again and again simple, peaceful landscapes, mostly devoid of people, or many and detailed copies of famous grand masters, Rembrandt, Velásquez and others.

Hertmans, once he gets around to looking at the notebooks, begins to uncover a life filled with loss, horror and sadness, but it is through discovering this that he finally begins to understand his grandfather.

He comes upon him one day, weeping over a copy of Diego VelásquezThe Toilet of Venus [more commonly called The Rokeby Venus now in the National Gallery]. What was it about this particular painting that could evoke a memory so painful that a grown man should weep? Towards the end of his journey through his grandfather’s life, looking again, finally – properly – at his paintings, he sees something that reveals the man.

This book is a tour de force, the slow and steady accumulation of knowledge, as the author physically traces the steps of his grandfather, taking stock of places named in the notebooks, going to the places and looking, trying to imagine what his grandfather saw, probably through the target lens of a rifle or his binoculars, brings him to a place where he begins to understand the warrior, but it is something quite other that draws him towards the appreciation of the man.

This discovery also reveals the nature of his grandparents marriage, how it came about and its consequences, both for his grandparents and for his family.

A telling, subtle and rewarding book. A look into the past, seen through the lens of the gun and of the painter, a painter who never in all his life painted a single picture of the war.

nashThe exhibition at Tate Britain similarly tells the story of a painter, starting from his 20’s and passing through all the stages of his painting and development through to the final year of his life.

Paul Nash developed different styles of painting, from exquisitely detailed pieces in monochrome, showing a sensitive artistry and graphic skill, wood engravings, calligraphy and book illustration, (poetry even) right through British Surrealism and Expressionism to abstraction and finally back to landscape.

In all this, Nash changed styles, media and colour. His early works, often including trees and birds showed a definite mind-set, were frequently monochromatic and often studies of the same view, accurately, stylised or abstracted. At the bottom of some fields near his family home, for example, there were three elm trees. These appear often, sometimes in daylight, more often in moonlight, occasionally in silhouette, vastly out of scale with the landscape in which they are placed. All the more poignant because they have virtually disappeared from the English landscape.

This period was interrupted by the First World War. Paul Nash joined the Artists’ Rifles. He was in active service on the front line trenches in France. Sadly, at a time when he was convalescing after an accident in which he broke a rib his battalion, stationed on Hill 60, received a devastating and fatal attack and nearly everyone was killed. Nash’s paintings of that time, some of them the best known of all his work, were made later on and were a memorial to his lost comrades.   Paintings of the view from the trench, blasted trees standing in a sea of mud, and views of the trench showing soldiers on duty, many of these pictures show no man’s land at night, lit by flares and starlight in eerie and horrible ghastliness. A single monochrome work, shows unusually, the aftermath of the bombardment with dead bodies, barbed wire and chaos.

From there he moved towards painting interiors, generally of places looking out from indoors. His style has altered once again, taking on a symbolic message, death lies in the garden; a huge tree stump with a naked billhook thrust into its heart was painted after the death of his father, and is simply called February. Trees in an orchard look as much like barbed wire defences as apple trees, stacks of chopped logs and a snake coiled around a fence represent both death and healing.

There are often other mirrorings, from his flat window in St Pancras, he mixes the supports in a pot plant (the plant itself is dead) with the back of an advertisement hoarding and the window frame, making the viewer step back to figure out what exactly is going on here.

His dabbles in abstraction, filling his canvases with objects, often mathematical or draughtsmen’s tools, strange perspectives.

His landscapes of Berkshire and Oxfordshire however, return more and more to the naturalistic, though there is often something uncannily like the world war landscapes in the placing of ponds and curving hills. But trees and birds abound.

His flirtation with Surrealism and Expressionism failed to move me, it seemed to be an experiment engaging the mind and not the heart, though they are some of his more favoured works.

The Second World War intervened and he joined the war effort as an official war artist, his age though, kept him in England. Here he was taken to places where Nazi planes had crashed, and he faithfully recorded these spectacular failures: a huge plane, nose-cone deep in Windsor Great Park, a downed bomber bellied in a corn field, and the most famous painting of all –  a graveyard of smashed bombers, looking for all the world like a furious ocean of waves, until you pick out the swastikas and black crosses on wings and tailfins. There is an accompanying video film of Paul Nash visiting this extraordinary place, where smashed planes were gathered in huge stacks.

Paintings of the Rye Marshes and Dymock were done when he was recovering from a nervous breakdown, the angular sea wall and the river bending towards the sea take on sinister and war-like appearance, mirroring once again his trench experiences in an earlier war.

After the war, Nash returned to Boar’s Hill, his house looked across to Brightwell Barrow. A view that he had first painted in 1912, calling it Wittenham Clumps, though this is a mis-nomer.

The final room in this exhibition shows about sixteen different paintings all of the same view, though you need to pay attention to see this, since he moves or eliminates various strategic trees, plants or visual clues.

Two of the most striking show the sight of the clump, a high hill with beech trees at its summit, in an eclipse. You see both the sun and the reddened moon floating above this familiar but not familiar landscape. Both painted in 1946, the year of his death.

The trees have grown since then and it is no longer possible to see exactly the view that Paul Nash painted, but you can visit the footpath near Castle Hill, Brightwell Barrow itself, though, is on private land.

 

 

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Mid-town culture lunch

The Bridewell Theatre nestles down behind Fleet Street and St Bride’s Church, in a narrow lane called (unsurprisingly) Bride Lane. The theatre specialises in short 45 minutes dramas that start at 1:00pm. Visitors are encouraged to bring their lunch, to sit for 45 minutes munching while being entertained: a break from their computer screens, blackberries, iPhones – a quiet refreshment of stomach and mind – the imagination workout.

poppyToday (and all last week) The London Ballet Company were performing Poppy, A Symbol of Hope and Remembrance.  A balletic interpretation for Remembrance and Armistice Day. While perhaps the choice of music was sentimental and somewhat unsophisticated, it was nevertheless, a moving and beautiful piece. [There are reasons for this, performance copyright being only one].

It is hardly surprising to learn that we followed the fortunes and misfortunes of a single artillery soldier in the First World War, back home on leave with his family and then back to the trenches where he meets his end. His loving wife, meanwhile, joins the VADs, leaving a young daughter with her grandmother.

It was intensely moving. It is hardly a spoiler alert to say that both parents die, one in an incredible ensemble piece, where the dancers were clearly dressed as “poppies”, in scarlet floaty dresses with a thick black waistband, but with German helmets on. Here they enact the death of the soldier, eventually carrying him off stage.poppy-6-star-3

At this point you see his wife, wakeful and worried and you see her decision to “do” something; anything. She appears then in a veteran’s ward with another ensemble of suitably clad nurses, there is a touching simplicity to the arm movements of this troupe, it is clear that they are healers, but also nervously religious. [rehearsal picture only]. After an air-raid, the wife is also killed.poppy-rehearsal-nurses

The final ensemble, shows the daughter, dancing a solo, visiting a graveyard, now dressed in her mother’s coat over a scarlet dress. She dreams of her parents meeting in heaven, they appear happy and together. The ensuing pas de deux replicates many of the early dances that we have already seen. Then more dancers appear carrying poppies, and symbolic helmets from WW I through WW II and on towards today.

The finale shows them laying these at the feet of the couple, who now stand slightly apart, and facing away from the audience, while Joan Baez sings Where have all the Flowers gone?

The dance and the choreography were accomplished and imaginative. The sound system was not of the finest, but over all this did not matter terribly. A moving and appropriate way to offer remembrance and respect to the dead.

snowIn case you are annoyed that this is a post-performance piece, may I add that the same company are performing Snow Queen – The Loss of Love (based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy story) on 2nd and 3rd of December in the Canada Water Culture Space.

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Books, books, books again

Actually, although I was fully immersed in the big screen experience I was also reading lots of books between films.

hm-returnOn the publication of his memoir, The Return, by Hisham Matar, I returned to his previous books on my shelves, two novels – In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance. I am not entirely sure whether it is appropriate to describe writing like this as lyrical, but I am going to chance it.

Hisham Matar has been an exile from his own country, Libya, since he was a small boy. Born in New York during a period when his father was in favour, he lived for a short while in Libya and then fled with all his close family to Egypt, leaving cousins and uncles behind at the mercy of the Qaddafi regime.

When he was still a young boy, his father was abducted from Egypt with the connivance of the authorities and taken to Libya and incarcerated in the dreaded, notorious prison Abu Salim. In this dreadful place were also his brothers and some of his nephews. The only way that they knew that he was there was that night after night he recited from memory reams of beautiful poems.

In fact, many people that Hisham Matar later interviewed in his endless search for what had happened to his father mentioned this nightly, comforting and exquisite recital.

At some point, though there is no proof of date or time or where, Jaballa Matar vanished.

The Return is about the search for information, and also about the moment when Qaddafi fell and the family: Hisham, his mother and his brother Ziad, returned to Libya; about the release of the remaining members of his family from Abu Salim and about the search for answers.

So why describe this writing as lyrical? The descriptions of the sea, the light, the sky in Libya are sublime, it is poetic and also the language of the exile. Lyrical, too, are the passages about meetings with family, many of whom had not seen Hisham since he was a small boy, shared meals and companionship in different houses.  Again it is the scents, the light and the sense of realignment which seem to me to be covered by this term.

Clearly, the same cannot be said for the terrible description of the hardship and privation that was the experience of the prisoners in Qaddafi’s network of hidden prisons and torture chambers; but an equal level of descriptive power lies there however horrific. Overriding all the books is a plangent tone of loss, of uncertainty, of fear.

hm-country

In the first novel, In the Country of Men, a nine year old boy lives in a family situation of secrets. His mother’s secret (since alcohol is forbidden) is that she is a drunk; his own interpretation is that she is ill, but to the practised ear it is clear what this illness is; his father, an importer of European goods, also has a secret. He is not always abroad when he says he is, which untruth Suleiman discovers one day while waiting for his mother by a plinth, he sees his father cross the square and enter a narrow house; but later on the same day, his father telephones home, and on being asked where he is, he says that he is abroad.

Suleiman also witnesses his neighbour being hurriedly bundled into a car, whereupon his friendship with the boy next door cools suddenly. Such is the nature of childhood loyalty – go with the flow; and this need to be helpful, liked and favoured leads Suleiman into a morass of duplicity and eventually betrayal.

This book came out in 2006 and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is a deeply affecting and devastating novel, a story of love and betrayal, innocence and intrigue and it came out before it was widely known how very close the author was to the horrors unfolding in his home country.

By the time Hisham Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, was published in 2011 more information about his own life had appeared in the national press.

Nuri loses his mother at a very young age; the effect of this loss is spread-eagled over the whole novel. Nuri meets a young woman, Mona on the Alexandrian coast while on holiday and experiences his first feelings of love, imagine the emotional impact then when his father also falls in love with Mona and marries her.hm-anatomy

His emotional turmoil turns in on himself though, because although he profoundly wishes for his father to get out of the way, when he does vanish one night in Switzerland he and his stepmother grow closer, and in their attempts to discover the truth they uncover a wealth of detail which makes them both wonder whether it is ever possible to know anyone, even someone as close as a father and husband.

This is a marvellously constructed novel, travelling through a trajectory of youth to manhood; of animosity to affection and at the same time having a slow reveal that is as surprising as it is affecting. It is hard to stop reading this book.

In all these books the sense of impending doom, the overwhelming sense of mystery and loss, of unfathomable mystery seem from the point of view of the young is presented in beautiful, spare, lucid prose. I am not sure at all in what order they should be read, but if all of them are on the TBR pile, I would start with The Return.

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