Tag Archives: rural life

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 9

I think that while authors like Mike McCormack are still writing it is safe to say that the novel is not dead. That said, Solar Bones, his latest title is quite some read.

Solar BonesFirst of all, the book has no dust jacket, and seen in a pile from the angle of the cut page, it could be mistaken for a prayer book, as the pages are gilded. Then on opening the book, the reader becomes quickly aware that there are no full-stops, not just on page one but throughout the whole book even to the end.

So with no stops and no chapters and virtually no breaks in the prose, except for spacings, what exactly is this? A train of thought or stream-of-consciousness? Is it spooling backwards even though we are reading it forwards?page

The big question though is what is the relationship between the situation we find on page one to the events we experience in the last seven and a half pages. Is there a caesura somewhere that brings us into the present, and if so where?

These questions are important, but not killing. This is an extraordinarily rich, complex and wide reaching river of words describing the marriage and family life of one, Marcus Conway, civil engineer and father to Agnes and Darragh, husband to Mairead; the thoughts and ramblings of this one man, Marcus from the ringing of the Angelus bell at midday on 2nd November, to the pips signalling the one o’clock news on 21st March. That is to say, the thoughts range over this man’s childhood, various national events and some personal ones that eventually converge in the sickness of Mairead who is a victim of a Clostridium poisoning which takes down over six hundred inhabitants, and probably more, in an un-named Irish city, when the water supply is contaminated with human waste.

Meanwhile, we come back again and again to this same kitchen table with Marcus sitting at it, thinking and feeling a slow, unidentified dread.

The novel is full of humour, Darragh is quite the joker although we only meet him on Skype as he is currently the other side of the world; Marcus himself is not without a sense of the absurd, but also a sense of his own worth, which comes out in one train of thought about some work he is meant to be signing off, and cannot because the work is sub-standard: his civil duty and a quiet life for the politicos involved being at odds with one another.

I have never come across a novel quite like this one. It is not, even by a stretch of imagination comparable to Ulysses, Leopold Bloom’s experiences cover a single day and 260,000 words but it is clever and challenging in exactly the same way, and leaves you thinking about it for hours after.


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Scandi Noir Fest

If The Farm by Tom Rob Smith is not already in your “must read” pile, then hurry out and get your copy, or load your eBook at once. In fact, if you haven’t read Child 44 yet – what are you waiting for? You have no idea what you are missing!

In all honesty, I am playing a bit fast and loose with the term Scandi Noir, since Tom Rob Smith is not fully Scandinavian, only his mother is Swedish and Tom Rob Smith was brought up in England and still lives here. Nevertheless, the Scandinavian blood that he carries, clearly carries with it a strong sense of how to write what has grown to be the biggest publishing success story of the Twenty-first Century: a Scandinavian thriller.

scan0004The Farm is a strange mixture, it is a crime novel but not a police procedural thriller. It is at the same time, a novel about paranoia as experienced both from the inside and from the outside.

I cannot be accused of a spoiler here, since the beginning of this book was published in many national newspapers even before the book was published in this country, so what follows in a small part of the opening chapter:

“…sliding the phone out of my pocket, pressing it against my ear – sweat pooling on the screen. It was my dad. He’d recently moved to Sweden and the call was unusual; he rarely used his mobile and it would’ve been expensive to call London. My dad was crying. I came to an abrupt stop, dropping the grocery bag. I’d never heard him cry before.”

The call to Daniel opens up the book. His father, Chris has called to say that his mother is sick, committed to an asylum for erratic and irrational behaviour. No sooner has Daniel reached Heathrow airport for a hurried, last minute flight to Sweden, but his mother, Tilde calls saying that she is on the way to London, having discharged herself from the mental hospital. The victim, she says, of a terrible conspiracy.

There slowly unravels an extraordinarily weird story, told by his mother using a satchel full of what she terms “evidence”. She begs Daniel to keep an open mind. Meanwhile, his father, discovering that she has absconded arrives in pursuit.

The brilliance of this writing lies in the compelling details, each page reveals a new bit of evidence, or a new counter-attack by Chris phoning to keep tabs on the situation. Coupled with this drama being played out by his parents, Daniel has a personal secret which he has kept from his parents and this is about to be revealed now both of them are in London.

There are plenty of films one can think of which portray the disturbed mind, but I can think of very few books that so vividly give the reader a sense of the accumulation of fear in trivial details that is the symptom of paranoia, at the same time as it gives us the growing desperation of the listener, in this case Daniel, trying to figure out how much of this is imagined and how much is fact – especially when both his parents are begging him to believe their side of the story, while whichever side he comes down on the outcome is going to be horrible for one parent or the other.

Tom Rob Smith burst on to the writing scene with Child 44 in 2008, also a chilling tale, he has written four novels all together, The Farm is his latest. I recommend it.

[By the way, fellow Londoners, Daniel lives in a flat in Bermondsey which is unmistakeably The Jam Factory, the old Hartley’s factory on Tower Bridge Road, Southwark, now re-furbished as luxury apartments; the flat where he lives is on the top storey, all steel and glass with capacious roof gardens – o lucky man!]

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Wild Canada

I am not sure what prompted me to buy two books by Mary Lawson (one which I discovered I had already read and read again with pleasure). Set in north Canada, North Ontario in an imaginary, but believable town called Struan in a lake land area the families that live there are stretched almost beyond imagining by hardship, privation, and sheer tragedy; and yet, and yet they make out and have happy lives, fulfilled by farming, family and the wild landscape.
In Crow Road, the first of these novels, we learn gradually about the struggles to tame the wilderness, the three families who came out and grubbed up the trees, made the first farms, survived and stayed. Of the three only the Pye family are left and Crow Road deals mostly with the Pye family and their nearest neighbours the Morrisons. We meet teachers and the doctor, Dr Christopherson and his dog, Molly the Irish setter and all these elements settle into a rich pattern of rural life, the smooth unruffled surface hiding some great subterranean struggles that every now and then break forth in violence. Our heroine, Kate Morrison, tells the story of her family, her background and the lives of others slowly unwrapping the details as one might unwrap china after a move.

She has moved, out into the city and is a successful academic, the rest of her family, two brothers and another sister are still stuck back at Crow Lake. Reluctantly, slowly she reveals why.

The second book, The Other Side of the Bridge, we have moved on a decade or so, this time we are with the Christopherson family, and mostly through the eyes of the son of the doctor in the previous volume, Ian Christopherson. Still a teenager, he is struck early on by the fragility of relationships and how easily trust is broken. Dumbly and unwillingly he has to help his father in the surgery from time to time, he sees how endless the tasks of a rural doctor are, how ruthless the demands on his time; Ian decides that nothing on earth will propel him into that life.

Impelled by the alluring attraction of Laura Dunn that he can do nothing with, Ian volunteers to work on Arthur Dunn’s farm at weekends and during the holidays, thinking he will be spending time near Laura. Actually nothing could be further from the truth since he spends his hours working hard.

In the same way as in Crow Road, the story behind the circumstances in which Ian finds himself, are slowly revealed. We go back to life on the farm when Arthur and his brother Jake are young, Arthur the responsible, ox-like son of the soil and Jake his dare-devil, handsome, wayward brother. Things go from bad to worse, and then get worse. The outcomes are inevitable, but Arthur salvages something from the wreckage…and then Jake breezes back into their lives again.

Novels about Canada, especially the early pioneer period and the struggle to survive have an enduring fascination for me. I strongly recommend both these books and the new one Road Ends will surely not disappoint.

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