The laptop catastrophe has meant lots of reading and no blogging. Here are four excellent novels of merit that I have read recently, anyone of which could have been on the Man Booker list:
Michael Arditti – Of Men and Angels
Patrick Gale – Take Nothing With You
Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley
Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls
Of Men and Angels is a strange books, it is really the story of how the Angel Gabriel, Michael and other angels, but especially Gabriel, have been portrayed in human storytelling. Going back particularly to the part played by the angels in the telling of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the saving of Lot and his family.
Each section, and there are five, brings us nearer and nearer the present day. The opening section, By the Rivers of Babylon, deals with the familiar story and its origins in various scriptures, The Bible, The Koran and other Babylonian texts; the next section tells the story of the traditional Guild that staged the Lot story in the York mystery plays of the Middle Ages; moving on from the fifteenth century we arrive in Florence at the time of Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities and finally more or less to the present day to Los Angeles, the City of Angels.
As a quick run through literature, painting and poetry this is quite a feat. There is drama, passion, humour and imagination. Each section is prefaced with a short introduction in the “voice” of Gabriel, but then the narrative takes off into a realm of its own. His/her wonderment at the way men imagine angels, at what point they acquired wings, sex and other attributes. It is a researched and well trodden topic, but here is gets the full panoply of treatments from the forbidding flaming sword of Michael, to the number that can dance on the head of a pin and finally to the creation and destruction of the modern city of the plains, Los Angeles.
An entirely different book from a prolific and favourite author, Take Nothing With You is a love story with a terrible difference. The narrator has only recently recovered from the loss of his long term partner and has found, online, a new friend; Eustace has just a day to reflect on his life and his new happiness before embarking on a radical, aggressive treatment for thyroid cancer.
The novel covers his strange childhood, his love of music and his cello teacher, Carla Gold, his adolescence and growing awareness of his homosexuality and the dramatic turn of events that leads to his parents’ separation.
This is set still in the age of Aids and HIV as a deadly disease, Eustace is surviving and the cancer is just the beginning of what might be the downward spiral. Meeting someone online throws up difficult decisions, about revealing his cancer and the treatment.
Patrick Gale’s writing is informed, insightful and full of gentle humour. There is a tremendous sub-plot which the intuitive reader will have understood immediately, but which the young man, the narrator, remains entirely unaware of. It is never spelled out, so it becomes distinctly possible that Eustace remains ignorant even to the end.
This is a stunning coming-of-age novel, complex, transitory, confusing. Patrick Gale never disappoints and this one has all the hallmarks of a masterly pen.
All Among the Barley is set in the years immediately before the Second World War, even the shadows have not started to fall. In a rural community a young girl, Edie Mather, watches as her life slowly disintegrates; with the coming of a journalist, Constance FitzAllen from London, the young girl begins to see her life from a different perspective.
She is not aware how very destructive are the motives behind Constance’s questions, and Constance inveigles herself well and truly into the farming community, only in the end to upturn the tables.
The narrative is bookended with the voice of an elderly woman returning to her community after a near lifetime in an institution – care in the community is the name of the movement, and that did not go well for anyone.
Melissa Harrison has a wonderful eye for detail and ear for cadences. Like Jon MacGregor we are made aware of the seasons. For lives in a farming community at that time, before mechanisation and industrial farming methods, the seasons and the weather were key.
Belief in influences that were unseen but deeply felt, tradition, superstition and magic were commonplace. Health and ill-health were transparently part of daily life, hospitals and doctors came at a cost, so why not go to the healers, who were mostly women.
England in all its past magnificence and glory is on these pages, and read now it is possible to take fully on board what was swept away by the coming conflict. The absolute unawareness of impending disaster hangs over this novel from start to finish.
The ending is one familiar to many farming families in its bleak tragedy.
Finally, back to a re-telling of The Iliad. This must be the most richly mined resource in literature, after perhaps The Holy Bible. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Margaret Atwood, Madeleine Miller and many, many more have mined this great epic and Pat Barker is no exception.
Abandoning the First World War, she has turned her gaze on to the Greeks and Trojans. In The Silence of the Girls, she reminds us that there were two women at the heart of the Trojan War. Helen obviously, since her abduction (or elopement) led to it all and Briseis, a Trojan princess who is abducted after the sack of Lyrnessus and awarded to Achilles, filtched from him by Agamemnon when he was forced to give up his own prize and all that followed from that fateful decision…
The narrative is Briseis’ summation. Long after the war is over and Achilles is dead, she looks back at the lives of the captive women in the seemingly endless war at the base of the walls of Troy. Slaves and concubines to their captors, they still had to make a life. It might not have been the one they had chosen, but to survive they had to put up and shut up. And that it the point really. The Iliad is all about the men; this novel is also all about the men, and Achilles mostly but the women are there, ever present and not speaking much.
There is an exquisite moment when Briseis’ silence speaks volumes…