If you go down to the woods

Greenwood, the title of the novel and the name of the family it concerns. But as we slowly discover, all is not as it seems. The novel stretches forwards to 2036 and backwards to 1908.

Michael Christie has envisaged a time when after the felling of many of American and Canadian ancient woodlands, there has come the Withering, a climate change catastrophe which has killed nearly all of the trees anywhere on the continent, causing a great dust and a choking of the population, save in a few isolated places like the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral, where Jake (Jacinda) Greenwood works as a Pilgrim Guide. The wealthy tourists visit the last remaining ancient forests to see these huge and awe-inspiring trees, many of them just saplings when Shakespeare was writing his plays, but even as she is spouting the approved script, Jake has recognised something that her bosses will not tolerate – the trees are dying.

This is not the first, or the only, novel that relates our human life directly to the trees. Overstory by Richard Powers (listed for the Booker Prize in 2018) also explores the lives of trees and the eco-warriors who try to preserve them and Deep River by Karl Marlantes tells the story of the great rape and felling of American trees for building everything – railways, houses, factories and the race to the bottom as more and more trees went and the dust storms grew.

In fact the desolation has gone on for centuries in practically every country. Samuel Pepys, and even Geoffrey Chaucer, oversaw the felling of ancient trees for the British Navy. It is hard to believe now, how many oak trees were felled to make one battleship. When the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s favourite battleship, was lifted from the seabed, it was estimated that at least 600 trees were felled to build her. And she was only the largest of a fleet of nearly 50 similar, though smaller, vessels. The British Navy continued building ships with wood up until the 1800s, which will have accounted for the loss of nearly all Britain’s ancient woodland. The inhabitants of Easter Island used every tree they had to build boats, houses and for domestic use, then they had to abandon the island. We have always wantonly destroyed forests and we are still doing it. And there are still eco-warriors desperate to prevent the damage.

Greenwood is also the story of a family whose roots came from different places but meshed together, in much the same way as tree roots combine underground and symbiotically aid and warn other trees of present conditions. In 1908, after a train crash, two boys are found to be the only survivors. They are not brothers exactly, but in their wisdom, the townspeople put them together and so a fraternal bond was formed.

Years later, one of them is faced with a decision that will cause ramifications of a different sort, and will bring them together in extreme circumstances. Each time, the generation will be added to by one single infant and slowly, slowly until we arrive at Jacinda, we will be allowed to discover the series of events that have led to her being a guide in the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral.

A complex, tender and subtle story of a family; allied with a telling warning to the despoilers of the ancient woodlands. 2038 is terrifyingly near, can we reverse the damage that we are doing in time to avoid the catastrophe described within these pages?

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The last of three

It took me quite a while to lay my hands on the final copy of Carole Brungar‘s Vietnam trilogy. Going Home only arrived this week. They are not readily available in the UK which is a shame, as they are very interesting and well written novels and certainly opened my eyes to the involvement of New Zealanders and Australians in the Vietnam War which I had always assumed was an American affair. The huge difference being that the ANZACS were not compulsorily drafted, so went voluntarily into that conflict.

The third part of the trilogy follows a New Zealand nurse, Rhonda McIlroy, into the conflict at a hospital at Qui Nhon, in South Vietnam. She meets an American helicopter pilot, Joseph Hunter on her first day and continues to meet him on and off.

Hunter is determined to pursue and marry Ronnie, while at the same time both of them are in the middle of a dangerous war which is far from over. Is this really the right moment to make commitments? Ronnie is not sure and holds Joe at arms’ length. In any case, they are both busy and separated for a lot of the time as they do the jobs they are out there to do.

Carole Brungar paints a very vivid and penetrating picture of the dangers from the enemy, but also from the heat, insanitary conditions and poverty in Vietnam, leaving aside the added dangers of the war. Children are brought into the hospital with shrapnel wounds, dysentery, fevers and even plague, rats are a perennial problem, even nesting in the hospital mattresses. Adding to the mess and confusion, families camp near their children in the wards, even cooking meals there. Ronnie tries her best to brighten things up, but her first attempts last only one day before being stolen.

The trilogy is fascinating and horrifying in equal measure and a window on to a conflict that is presently being forgotten or re-presented through American (Hollywood) eyes – it is high time that the Antipodean story was told. It would be possible to combine all three books into a single authoritative film should anyone think about it carefully.

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Translated into loss

A Lover’s Discourse is a novel and a contemplation of what it is to become a partnership and a parent. A lonely Chinese woman, the narrator, meets a man by chance at a picnic. He wanders off to pick elderflowers, she has never seen a man picking wild flowers and is intrigued.

One reason I picked up this book is because Xiaolu Guo was on the panel of judges for the Booker Prize last year. Another reason is that somewhere I read that English people tend not to pick up books by foreign authors. This seemed such an extraordinary statement that I was quite shocked. Although I read a lot, I would say that I was a fairly typical reader and my shelves are stocked with books by foreign authors, either written in English, like Ben Okri and Kazuo Ishiguro or translated – and where to start with those?

The young man turns out to be part English, part German. His father grew up in Saxony, moved to Australia, met his wife and moved back to Germany. Constructed through the conversations between the couple, they discuss Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse. Fragments and the nature of their separateness and what brings them together. There is a great deal about the different linguistic features of Chinese and European languages, why in Germany they talk of Vaterland/Fatherland but use Muttersprache? What gives objects gender? All these are a puzzle.

At one point they are living on a boat on the Regent’s Canal. The narrator, who is in England to complete a PhD, feels rootless but the young man is delighted with the boat, with the outdoor life and the carpentry and construction that is required. He is a landscape architect, which she thinks is an impossibility or a contradiction. At no point in the book do either of them have a name. It is all ‘I’ and ‘You’. Which gives a sense of distance from the characters.

Fed up with the cold, they travel to Australia. They discuss the various ways in which one can express the feeling of home, and where home is when you are not rooted in a single place.

This is a tender book, there are few violent moments. But alienation and a sense of loss imbue the whole novel with an overarching sense of longing. Even when she is pregnant, the narrator feels lonely and indecisive, should she go back to China, or live in England or Germany even? Will she ever feel fully comfortable in any language, though she can speak English, she cannot feel in English but only in Chinese?

Because all we ever get is the narrator’s perspective, the reported conversations that they have had, one can get very little sense of the other part of this couple, the man. It is as if he is the sounding block for her philosophical musings, though he contributes German phrases that mirror the Chinese phrases that she uses to describe how she is feeling.

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All the world a stage

I find myself very perplexed by the novels of William Boyd. He veers from improbably perfect (Brazzaville Beach, Any Human Heart et al) to impossibly bad (Restless, too painful to list others) and all stations in between. His latest novel, Trio, has had slightly mixed reviews and I would endorse the warmer ones, but this is not his most compelling book.

[How I hate the stickers! I am delighted to have a signed copy but wonder how many there are out there. Has WB sat and signed 1000 or 100? It does reduce the currency rather, if that matters. Gone are the days when the only way to get a signed copy was to queue at a book signing.]

Trio is about the making of a film with the improbable working title of Emily Bracegirdle and the ladder to heaven. Ann Viklund, an American star is the lead, with Troy as her boyfriend, with whom she quarrels and makes up in various locations in Brighton and specifically on Beachy Head. Off the set, Ann and Troy are having a glorious, but secret, relationship; involving a lot of wine and sex, while she is also swallowing downers and uppers as if they were Smarties.

The year is 1968, a hot English summer; student riots and violence in Paris; assassinations in America and the war in Vietnam – why wouldn’t you make a silly, trite romantic movie?

Her producer, Talbot Kydd is married with children, but is a closet gay man with a second hidden life. His right hand man is called Joe and his partner in YSK Film Ltd, who is in the process of defrauding him is, Yorgos Samsa .

Reggie Tipton, or Rodrigo as he insists of being called, is the film director. He is married to a novelist with acute writers’ block called Elfrida Wing and is also having an affair with a scriptwriter who is working on Emily Bracegirdle to finesse the ending.

All of them have secret lives and the thrust of this book is encapsulated in two quotations, one from Albert Camus on the opening page:

There is only one serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.

William Boyd also quotes Anton Chekov: “Most people live their real, most interesting lives under the cover of secrecy”.

Whether either of these interesting observations is actually true is a philosophical debate of its own, but for the purposes of this novel it all holds. We have it all: the secrecy, the dissatisfaction with the quotidian, petty betrayals, misunderstandings and the longing for another life, one that works better.

If only it was that simple.

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The pursuit of money

It is hard, right now, with money trees seemingly sprouting up around Westminster in a forest, not to think back to 2008 and the banking crisis which brought sudden ruin to all sorts of quite innocent people who were quietly just getting on with their jobs. So it is not entirely surprising that a financier like Bernard Madoff should have made his way into a fictional account of the Ponzi scheme that he used to swindle his friends, family and acquaintances.

In The Glass Hotel, we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of two loosely connected people. Jonathan Alkatis and Vincent, the youthful and attractive bartender at the hotel in Caitte.

Emily St. John Mandel has created a floating world of fantasy and finance. By switching between 2018 and 2008, she has managed a bridge between the catastrophe of 2008 and the present circumstances of her two protagonists. Jonathan is in prison, with a sentence of 170 years and Vincent is a cook on a container ship.

Back in 2008, before everything went wrong, or rather what was wrong was suddenly exposed, Vincent had become the trophy wife (though never explicitly married) to the rich, powerful and successful finance wizard, Jonathan. From more or less rags to riches, she enjoys her life while vaguely floating through it “being” the perfect accompanist without actually investing herself in it fully. Chameleon-like, she gives whatever perfect response is required, but emotionally she is detached.

Her half-brother, Paul meanwhile, is also thieving. Partly from Vincent and partly from a rock group called Baltica, with whom he has a conflicted relationship.

Other people in this novel are the investors and the staff of the seventeenth floor in the Gradia Building. On the eighteenth floor of this same block are the elegant and pristine offices of the legal side of Jonathan’s enterprise; below in rather dingy discomfort are the engineers of the Ponzi scheme. All but one of whom, will go to jail.

This whole novel is a web of people whose lives intersect briefly at different moments, but wind up together when the axe falls. It is a brilliant and disturbing novel of greed, beauty, moral failure and finance. The fictional characters are the good, the bad and the unfortunates whose lives spin out of control, just as in real life the victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme found themselves thrown into destitution when all was revealed in December 2008.

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Everything under an angry sun

Ethiopia, a country twice ravaged by foreign invasion, followed by a series of internal wars and a brutal civil war; even today, a country of dispossession and tribal conflict.

In Maaza Mengiste‘s novels, we are presented with a fictional account of the Ethiopian struggle. In her second novel, shortlisted for the Booker Prize we follow the warrior heroes that fought off the Italian campaign of Benito Mussolini in the 1930s. The main characters in The Shadow King were the women, Aster, Hirut and Faven/Fifi/Ferra and the unnamed character, the cook. All of them working alongside their menfolk, not as camp followers but active participants in the fighting.

At the very end of The Shadow King, a man walks into the photographic studio of Ettore Navarra with a message, Dr Hailu has just come away from the hospital where he has been operating upon a young boy. The date is 1974 and a new revolution is just beginning; this is the opening act of Mengiste’s first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze.

Haile Selassie and nearly all of his principal members of his autocratic government are in prison, or liquidated and the military are in control. But only through brutal and punitive measures can they keep ahead of the underground resistance. Dr Hailu’s family are in the centre of everything that is happening. Davit, his younger son is a key member of the resistance, ably assisted by his sister-in-law, Sara. Hailu himself is at risk, even in hospital. Friends and members of the family close to them are caught up in the violence.

Then a hideously mutilated, raped and brutalised girl is brought into the hospital, guarded by soldiers who are clearly terrified of the outcome. Her injuries are unspeakable, as a doctor Hailu must aim to heal her, but to what end? Further torture and ultimate death?

Maaza Mengiste aims to resurrect the memories of Ethiopia’s blood soaked past and to honour the dead, heroes that included members of her own family. She opens a door to a piece of World War II history that has been largely ignored. Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia could justifiably be described as the opening salvo in a world conflict; Europe’s eyes were turned towards Spain, but numberless villages and their innocent inhabitants, civilian men, women and children in Ethiopia were bombed, killed and injured with mustard gas dropped from Italian planes; they experienced their own Guernicas, we just don’t know their names.

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Scandi cold cases

Although I read a lot of the genre now called Scandi Noir, I seldom post anything about them. Not because I think any less of them than any other novels that I read, more that as a style there is often rather less to say. For crime readers, they are a known quantity and for fiction readers generally, they either do read them already, or eschew crime fiction all together.

Department Q stories, culminating so far in Victim 2117, enjoy a particular position in Scandi Noir, like all crime genre, they have a cast of certain characters. The department is lodged in the basement of a police station. Its head is Carl Mørck, his assistants are Rose and Assad, and eventually the team is joined by Gordon.

Assad is an interesting character, thrust unwelcome upon Carl in an early novel, by the Chief of Police Lars Bjorn, he has a small cubby hole next to Carl’s office. Rose is a punk, also with a peculiar characteristic; she occasionally goes off sick and sends her ‘sister’ to work instead. But it is not long before the others have worked out that this is her alter ego, but they go along with it. Gordon, a thin, stick-like member of the team is, on the surface, rather dim and plodding, and he loves Rose.

Carl has had a difficult career and in some ways, Department Q is a punishment cell. In the first novel, he and two colleagues are caught up in a shooting, one colleague is killed outright; Hardy, another colleague, is badly injured and is left a paraplegic and Carl escapes without a scratch on his body, but under deep suspicion (as far as we know, unjustified) by the rest of the force – hence his basement office filled with unsolved cases.

Jussi Adler Olsen has created a team of wonderful, quirky people and readers who have followed their careers over the seven previous novels have grown to love and admire their eccentricities, one of which is Assad’s morbid secrecy about his past and even his present. All that is about to change in Victim 2117.

The novel opens with an out-of-work journalist, Joan Aiguader in Barcelona, he has placed all his hopes upon the publication of his novel but all he has in front of him are rejection slips. On the TV in the café, where he is drinking a coffee he cannot pay for, there is BREAKING NEWS: a group is growing around a pillar on which a digital number is slowly rising. This is the number of the latest drowned victims washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, fleeing from Syria, Iraq and other places, refugees and economic migrants seeking a new life, and finding it in the cold implacable waters of the sea. Joan sees an opportunity.

Grabbing a camera, stealing money from an ex-girlfriend, Joan goes to Cyprus to see what he can see. His photograph of Victim 2117, an elegantly dressed woman of late middle age, causes a storm and sets Department Q off on two very different cases, for very different reasons. This, and all that follows, in this nail-biting chase after the villains, who are indeed very villainous, is the nub of this novel. But with it comes the real life stories of the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the prison at Abu Ghraib, the torture and executions from which these refugees are fleeing, made more chaotic and difficult after the collapse of the regime and the Iraq War.

Other Reading:

On a more serious note – Hisham MatarIn the Country of Men, The Return, Anatomy of a Disappearance & A Month in Siena

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Treading the boards

Joseph O’Connor has the ability to tweak the thread of a story and launch it into the world as a novel. In Ghost Light, he explores the premise of a relationship between John Synge, the Irish playwright and Mary Allgood, the actress who played under the name, Maire O’Neill.

The relationship is a fact, it was secretive and possibly, even celibate. In this novel, however, the couple holiday together in Wicklow; spend secret days together meeting apparently by accident on a train; and have a fully fledged affair. Synge lived with his mother, a Tartar of repressed fury and consummate widowhood, who held over Synge the danger of disinheritance. This may be fiction, but Joseph O’Connor knew the house that they really lived in intimately, he walked past it nearly every day.

Much of the action takes place over a single day in post-War London. Mary Allgood is old and slightly drunk, hungry and very poor. She blags some sustenance and a drink from a friendly publican. She takes with her one of the only remaining letters that she has from Synge in hope of raising some cash on it; but her dear friend, Mr Duglacz has died and she is met by his son, Michael. Kindly, but firmly he rejects the manuscript but gives her instead, a letter from his father. Weeping quietly, she disturbs a wedding in a Bloomsbury Church and at some point in the late afternoon she arrives at Broadcasting House for a radio play that is to be on the World Service that night. She is unwell during the broadcast and although they finish the play, she is sent home in a taxi.

Between these sections of the novel, we are given views into her young life, her acting and her relationship with Synge, Augusta Gregory and William B Yeats, founding members of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. The elegiac nature of the situation is painted in muted colours, with the rain and the wind buffeting the pair as they walk the headlands. It is a cold place, Ireland, but they both love it and each other. Synge is dying from cancer, so dreams of marriage, deferred until his mother dies, cannot come to fruition.

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The sons of great men

What it must have been to be the progeny of some of the great names of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Particularly those for whom their reputation lies in the perception of the multitude, rather than with their august drawing room companions.

Thus it was for the children of Charles Dickens. As explored and exploited in a marvellous new novel by Thomas Keneally. Oh, Mr Keneally! what an absolute joy it is to join in your exploration of the minds of the sons of Dickens who by no fault of their own, ended up in Australia and other far flung parts of the globe. Did Dickens know, even, what such a country was?

As we learn from this novel, Edward Dickens was sent to Australia before he reached the age of seventeen. His brother, Alfred, was already out there, and a great deal more embittered than the youngest scion of Gads Hill, it has to be said.

Plorn, as he was called, had never read a Dickens novel, about which he was mortally ashamed and thereby hampered when he arrived in the colony to discover that practically everyone knew passages by heart, even the bushrangers and criminals. So he swans around with the enamoured population in a slight fog, because they have assumptions about him that he cannot possibly meet.

He agrees where possible, obfuscates if necessary, and tries to explain to all whom he meets, that being Dickens’ son was not special to him or his siblings, because he was simply their father.

Keneally has the admirable knack of picking up the threads of a factual story and embroidering it with exquisite and meaningful detail. We can see and smell the trees and grasses of the Momba homesteads, the sheep, the noise, the wonder of it all to this Kentish boy from England. The kindness of friends and the cruelty of strangers, all there.


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The Devil is in the detail

Another polemical examination of our judiciary. This important and fascinating book drags us through the courts demonstrating how often media and the politicians, even those politicians with legal qualifications, get the facts wrong, and by doing so distort the message.

The Secret Barrister (and long may that last) makes the point that all this matters to all of us BECAUSE one day it might be you and or me dealing with it in person.

So I am going to tell you a story, a true story which shows how easily it might be that we get caught up in the law by accident.

I have a friend whose partner regularly went to the same shop to get his paper, cigarettes and bits and pieces. Not every day but fairly often. One day, the shop was burgled, the shopkeeper threatened and injured and cigarettes and money was stolen. The police did an identity parade of similar looking people (this was in the days when the line up was in person) and it so happened that this man was in the line up. The shopkeeper recognised him and identified him as the aggressor in the burglary. Because it was GBH this meant he was put on remand, but the bail was set so high that none of his family could find it.

I can assure you that this was a case of mistaken identity, the end of the story is so awful and tragic that I am not going to share it. But it ruined his family, it destroyed the life of my friend, his partner and at no time did he receive the justice he deserved. Partly, sadly because the situation was not shared widely among her friends and colleagues and most of us didn’t know what was happening in time to make a difference, this includes me. But largely because of the stringent restrictions on Legal Aid meaning that they could not afford proper and fair legal representation.

The point I am trying to make, and it is the whole point of Fake Law, is that the law matters very much to all of us and media and political spinning against it is profoundly damaging to us all.

For example, the widely held misconception that the European Convention of Human Rights and its upholding court, the European Court of Human Rights is part of the European Union and something we should get away from once Brexit is done and dusted because it is un-British, is wholly wrong. ECHR & ECtHR were set up after the Second World War, largely by the British political elite, to ensure that the horrors becoming apparent after that conflict could not happen again. The Geneva Convention had not been enough, something more stalwart and globally effective must be found.

We all need the stringent rules that govern our rights as people of this planet to keep us safe from say dictators and autocrats.

Another point that this book makes is that there is a paradox at the heart of the government. At some point the role of The Lord Chancellor was amalgamated with that of the Minister for Justice. This has resulted in the same person being responsible for the upholding of the judiciary in all its aspects at the same time as being the minister responsible to cutting the costs of that same body in order to balance the budget. How can that have arisen? Because members of the government, some of them lawyers, failed to notice the impossibility of that situation.

Media reporting, MPs fulminating, Twitter and social media bubbling furiously and all of it fueling a firestorm of criticism of judges, verdicts and outcomes of one sort or another all get an airing in this book. So much of it misrepresents the true facts, nothing more horribly than the case of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans, both very small children with complicated and life threatening conditions. What happened was tremendously sad and completely misguided.

Everyone should read this book, if only to get a better understanding of how the system works and how the government is chipping away at it to the detriment of fairness for all.

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