Golden Hill – Book Review

Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford

Oh, what a lot of fun this book is! Step off the ship in the  New York harbour of 1746 with Richard Smith, an entertaining young wag with a cheeky way about him, as he looks and smells and gets into all sorts of trouble hanging around town for 60 days waiting for his £1,000 cheque to clear.

Finance was complicated in those days – lots of currencies in paper and coin and gold – and Smith had a very large cheque. Why? He’s not telling. Not us, not the merchants to whom he presents his cheque and not any of the worthies about town who think perhaps, he is a French spy.  This is the puzzle that keeps us turning the pages and the American gossips on their toes.

I would have been happy with a few more clues to the mystery, though some of the blokes at book club claimed to have been suspicious in the right direction, so maybe I was just being thick. It was one of those annoying plots where the almighty twist is revealed in the last chapter and you have to read the whole thing over again in the know. Sometimes I want to know the score before the game, especially if it’s a brilliant win.  I was irritated by  Life of Pi  for this reason – did anyone [spoiler alert] guess the tiger was the cook all along? Or who the annoying guest narrator was in Chidley’s The Wish Child?

Actually, an odd narrator jumps into Golden Hill too, just a couple of times, and appears at the end as the unlikely author. I bet Spufford had to argue to get that one past his editor.

But read this book for the creaking of rigging from the ships riding at anchor and the stink of the town: “A little fish, a little excrement; guts here, shit there; but no deep patination of filth, no cloacal rainbow for the nose in shades of brown, no staining of the air in sewer dyes.”  Yum.

Look up cloacal if you don’t know what it means. I love a book that has better vocab than my spell check.

And here’s a description of a staircase that puts you inside an old, dark, Dutch house (think of the rich tones in the film Girl with a Pearl Earring): “Stray gleams of polish showed the placing of the banisters and newel posts; picture frames set faint rumours of gold around rectangles of darkness or curious glitters too shadowed to make out, as if Lovell had somehow collected, and drowned, a stairwell’s-worth of distant constellations.”

Lots of his descriptions are like this; layered, multi-sensual, slightly chaotic.

There is a character cast that reflects the theme of the book, which boils down to the fact that things are not what they seem. “I know why a magician claps his hands,” says the inconstant Tabitha, who begins as the pretty daughter of the banker but turns into so much more: trickster, betrayer, love interest, caustic fence, forgiver, and eventually – well. Read the book. She is one of the most interesting characters I have met for a long time, but you have to work it out. They didn’t know in the 18th Century.   Septimus is not just the foppy Governor’s man, Terpie takes her clothes off, Smith shocks the town and the slave Archilles – but here again the author claps his hands and your attention is diverted elsewhere.

I am respecting the tradition of book reviews here by keeping mum, but there is a VERY BIG ELEPHANT on this page and I want to tell you to come back when you have read the ending so we can discuss what a £1,000 buys in the market in New York and what it all means. Did you think it was just a romping travel story?

Clap clap. Think again.

 

 

 

Sticking with Pigs – Book review

Sticking with pigs, by Mary-anne Scott

A fourteen year old boy, wrapped lovingly in cotton wool, goes out into the New Zealand bush with his uncle on a hunting expedition.

His parents have good cause to worry. The boy’s named Wolf, so you know they’re not precious by nature (named for Wolfgang Mozart, but sounds like his parents love a rough diamond to me). But Wolf has a chronically sick brother whose illness, as it would, dominates every safety decision and going hunting is not a walk in the park.

Lots of kids say they’d like to go hunting. I’ve never hunted, but I have friends who say they’d like to come tramping with me – a shadow version of a hunt but involving going bush with plenty of frightening-lite experiences. Mostly the friends are all talk and no trousers; when you start describing the hill tracks and the bare huts and the long-drops the enthusiasm wanes.

To Wolf’s credit, he trains up and off he goes with his uncle Jem and the dogs and the knife (no rifle, because to appease Wolf’s gun-shy parents, as the title says, they’re sticking with pigs), up the long haul to the ridge line, deep into the NZ bush. Scott doesn’t give a location, could be anywhere, but feels like the Ruahines to me.

If a kid can learn instinct, this is where he learns it.

There are wasps and pig shit, steeper and steeper hills, gullies, water and bush. I won’t give the story away but yes, there’s a pig. Then the trouble starts and Wolf gets his coming-of-age challenge slammed down on top of him, as raw and as kiwi as you like.

There’s a girl and a man’s mate at the edge of the story. I recognise both these characters. She’s an outdoor chick, handy with a GPS and long treks up the hills, practical, good in a crisis. I can see why Wolf fancies her. Uncle Jem’s mate has a pre-packed rescue kit and will walk through the night, no question, not much conversation. Everyone needs a mate like him.

Sticking with Pigs is probably aimed at reluctant young teen readers. But it’s also great entertainment for avid middle aged story-gobblers.

 

 

 

 

Chappy – book review

Chappy, by Patricia Grace

Chappy, by Patricia Grace, is a domestic story of a community whose relationships are entwined and confusing in the way real life is confusing.

“I told you that Aki was your uncle by double adoption. That first adoption was when Dorothea became mother to Moana-Rose and me, and we became his sisters.”  The timeline jumps around and the narrators switch about, it’s a rambling story that could be told by mates sitting around on old sofas with a few beers, interrupting each other and backtracking. Some incidents feel honest and factual, others edited with the retelling. This is the way family histories are, and there is truth in both.

The catalyst for the story being told is the (dare I say, Gen-Y) crisis of young Daniel in Switzerland, of New Zealand descent, wanting to find himself. He is the investigative reporter, if you like. I think the discovery of his family helps to heal him. I like to think so, anyway, although the story is not about him. “There’s a much more interesting story than one of a spoilt brat with his own bank account who had to try and kill himself…”

For me, the breadline living of the whanau that Daniel finds back home is a pretty typical mid-century NZ story, Maori or Pakeha. Rural life was precarious: a lot of self sufficiency, some number 8 wire, generosity and sharing, the value of a storyteller to an introverted community, both the welcoming and the fear of strangers. The necessity of going away and how grounded you feel when you make it back.

Chappy Star is a stranger, a Japanese stowaway on a ship. Maori seaman Aki stumbles across him and takes him home to the marae, where he finds kindred spirits. The differences between ghost-like Chappy and the warm and candid Oriwa, with whom he falls in love, are made to appear superficial – language, culture, nationality are nothing beside their attachment. Their love survives years of racially induced separation and misunderstandings. Oriwa understands this as she disentangles her family stories for Daniel. Maybe we all need to tell our lives as stories to understand them.

The novel is about roots and coming home – from Hawaii, where Aki washes up, from Switzerland where Daniel is born, and the confusion that ensues when home means two or more places. Chappy weaves between his cultural home in Japan, his adopted home in Hawaii and his spiritual home with Oriwa in New Zealand.

The story of Moonface made me cry. There is a lost child in many stories, but none so poignantly as here.  Moonface is Aki’s adored little brother.  At the end of one long afternoon, Moonface insists on following Aki to the spring, but he lies down in the ferns and falls asleep. Aki fills the billy, and when he turns around the boy is gone. In his mind, forever,  is “- the cold spring water, the silver tin, water silvered, the creaking birds, the pouring, the boy invisible, the unspeaking leaves, the trail of torches, the voices calling, the crying, the wailing of all the grandmothers in the world, the waiting, the ferny nest.”  It seems natural that Aki would absorb his lost brother into his soul to become his moral compass, the well of his tenderness. “Go home,” Moonface says, when Aki has been away at sea too long and needs to get his feet back on family ground.

Patricia Grace writes with lovely, sparse descriptions. Aki: “I was at the woodpile sawing stove-lengths from manuka trunks I’d brought down from the slopes. About mid-morning. There was mist soft-footing about the hills, grey like old photos.” It’s all you need, a whole scene implied from a good choice of words.

There’s a moral to Chappy, which is spelled out very clearly (in case you missed it) as Daniel sums up the story at the close.  He was born of the generation that left the home fires, and now is a wealthy outsider looking back in. “…I am who I am. I understand that now. I’m not about to chuck it all away and go barefoot, and I don’t wannabe a wannabe. So, no matter where I go or what else I undertake, I’ll continue to increase my understanding of this part of myself that I embrace with all my heart. I’ll keep in touch, work back and forth from wherever I am in the world and contribute from the depth and core of me.”

There you go, kids.

Potiki – book review

Potiki, by Patricia Grace

Not sure how I grew up in a kiwi bookshop without having read this. It would be on my list of books to recommend to new New Zealanders, as well as to oldies like me who missed it. It is a description of a rural Maori community and a way of life that most of us are probably aware is part of our history, but we haven’t been inside.  In Potiki, Patricia Grace invites us in.

This is a simple story of good verses evil, weak versus strong, county v commerce, tangata whenua v greedy imperialists.  Basically, it’s a book about the imbalance of power, told from the viewpoint of the extended rural family whose lives are threatened by the Dollarman who will bulldoze away their traditional lifestyle and smother their ancestral lands with rather obvious bad things: night clubs, golf, a zoo of trained whales and seals.  The reader needs to get past this very clichéd plot and enjoy the Maori characters, several of whom tell the story in their very distinct voices.

Roimata is the strong sensible woman at the centre of the community, and tells a lot of the story. She is a balance between her children who go away to university and come home with skills and ideas, and her husband Hemi, who believes in the old ways, working the land like his ancestors did, feeding the family from the garden and the sea, trusting in the land to provide all they need.  If school doesn’t suit the other kids, teach them traditional ways at home – Maori science and folklore. To Grace’s credit, she doesn’t paint this with a rose wash and the poverty is raw.  You do get the sense that these are people living on the edge and that subsistence living is, in the long term, unsustainable.

Roimata and Hemi’s adopted son Toko is physically handicapped but has a sixth sense, and this mystical element blurs the edges of reality enough that disbelief taints the rest of the story.  Once fantasy is out of the bag like that anything can happen, and the story entwines with myth and you don’t know what to believe.  There may be deeper parallels here, between Toki and Maui or Christ, but they take a bit of delving and this complicates an otherwise simple story.

Mary, Toko’s birth mother, is a colourful personality treated sympathetically both by Grace and her characters. She has a role in the story and the community. Her intellectual disabilities shape but don’t define her, and she thrives in the loving community.

And it is the loving community that really is the crux of the book – no one is marginalised, everyone is welcomed and you find yourself rooting for this most precarious way of life and deeply saddened to know that it is disappearing, or gone.

There are many Maori words and no glossary which has raised an issue with many readers – to me, this feels inclusive rather than alienating. Use your own sixth sense.  Or google.

Patricia Grace chooses her words well and is a beautifully understated storyteller. Potitki challenged some of my long held assumptions. I wish I had read it earlier. I went straight on to read Chappy.

Heloise – book review

Heloise, by Mandy Hager

Here it is!  Hot off the press, the Christmas book for your intelligent friends, the perfect answer to the question – read anything good recently?

In Heloise, Mandy Hager retells the ancient, true story of Heloise & Abelard,  a love affair between two brilliant, medieval French scholars.

Heloise of Argenteuil is my kind of heroine: she’s a thinker, smart and ambitious, she knows what she wants (education) and is argumentative and forthright.  But because she was born around 1100 she has a totally different frame of reference to a modern heroine and she understands the world through a filter of medieval religion. Everything starts with an understanding of God. That axiom makes her humble, deeply compassionate, with a strong morality. I can’t help thinking that if Heloise had been born this century she would have set the whole world ablaze.  She is a heroine to applaud.

The story opens with Heloise, aged 5, shackled in a pig sty.  She is rescued by her Uncle Fulbert who takes her to a nunnery and eventually to live with him in Paris. Her legend grows as she hunts scholars and philosophers to feed her mind, and eventually hones in on the academic genius of the day – Peter Abelard.

I found lots to interest me in this book. The love story is fabulously confusing, twisted, ultimately unfulfilling and terribly disappointing. What a prick (just saying). But the book’s setting is equally beguiling with cloisters, nunneries, ancient universities and wonderful descriptions of Île de la Cite in Paris, where “the houses are planted as tight as podded seeds.”  Underneath it all is a strong academic backbone – education in the middle ages meant debate and argument, you proved things were true by philosophical logic as much as science.  Educated people of the day had a quote for everything – I know so few people now who remember quotes, and no one who has the mots justes to illuminate a point in debate as beautifully as do Heloise and Abelard.

The background history is a powerful tide that carries the story along. The whole of France is in a state of religious upheaval as the State and Church grab power, redistribute wealth and rearrange laws to keep control of the masses. It all sounds a rather familiar tune, playing down the centuries. If your interest is in history the detail here will add real zing.

Mostly, I loved the complexity of the characters and how they were immersed their times. In an age of sanctioned domestic violence, the kindly Uncle Fulbert recommends Abelard beat Heloise if she doesn’t perform her studies correctly. Fulbert gets old and bitter and resentful of his young charge, betrayed, he also beats her senseless and yet she continues to love him in a complicated way. From Fulbert’s ambitious friend Stephen de Garlande I expected betrayal but he remained surprisingly steadfast to Heloise, a better man than expected. 

And so, I come to Peter Abelard, the great theologian and scholar, the rock star of the Cathedral school of Notre-Dame, the lover of Heloise. Even now I don’t know how I feel about him. Part of me wants to boo, but like Heloise I found his brilliance extraordinarily attractive.  He is impulsive and calculating. He saves and deserts. He is a loving rapist. On balance, I think he was a totally nasty piece of work, a man with huge natural arrogance that is exacerbated by his sycophantic followers.  Or perhaps he is driven to madness, and deserves sympathy and understanding? Mandy Hager leaves us to decide.  I think I will leave it to Heloise.

The Necessary Angel – book review

The Necessary Angel, by C K Stead

I’m always a bit suspicious about an older bloke inventing a protagonist with three delicious women on his plate.  So I read C K Stead’s The Necessary Angel  as a wistful story with more than a touch of fantasy.

As an exploration of relationships I did find I had to suspend belief. Are women (especially young, attractive and bright women) really so susceptible to a middle-aged married man’s charms?

Even Max’s high achieving wife, who disdainfully ejects him from the family home and children, seems unrealistically warm and understanding as she sets him up downstairs in a shag pad. You don’t get the feeling that they are so particularly estranged that he would immediately start exploring other women, it is hardly a way to win back the affection of his wife and continue a relationship of mutual respect with his children. Perhaps a holiday might have been a better way to re-charge the marriage rather than bringing a couple of hot young colleagues home to bed.

But this is Paris and the additional love-interest women are both embroiled in other relationships anyway. So, all good, then.

Paris is gorgeous to walk around with C K Stead. He has the poet’s ability to give an intense feeling of place in so few words. I did find myself re-reading some lovely phrases over again and out loud. It feels real. Narrow streets, leafy squares, roadside eating and the November wind. The incidental characters, too, are perfect: the concierge, the beggars, Skipper the dog.  The lead character doesn’t need to be a New Zealander – a Brit would serve just as well, and Max, who lecturers at the Nouvelle Sorbonne on war poetry, feels more European than any kiwi I know. But I still have enough of a chip on my shoulder to get a bit of a buzz when a kiwi (albeit a fictional one) has a prestigious starring role.

By any other author I would suggest the academic citations are slightly pretentious. Of course this is a story about literary academics and C K Stead has every right to name drop Flaubert, Amis, Lessing, Naipaul, Mansfield, Houellebecq, Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemmingway, Edward Thomas, Nabokov, Roland Barthes, Claude Simon, Wallace Stevens, Gurdjeff, Robbe-Grillet … come on! Keep up!  Perhaps it was the characters intimidating me rather than the author (in which case, great writing!),  but I did rather felt Stead glaring at me every time I was obliged to hit google.

There’s a sub-plot, the mystery of who stole the (so-called) Cezanne. The painting itself has a strange provenance which makes interesting reading, but we know who stole it.  The sadness and wantonness of the result of this event I thought rather wasted as  a finale. Holy shit! That’s not an ending, there will obviously be a discovery and a reckoning and what happens then, to Max and the easy truce with his forgiving wife?  This sub-plot would have made a cracking main story.

Je Suis Charlie! is a sudden loud note against the background noise of political unrest, migration and terrorism – a rise in the tension that flickers in the corner of the story like an unwatched TV.  The Necessary Angel of the title could be many things, Helen’s lithium, Helen herself, Sylvie, or tout le monde who come out onto the Paris boulevards to stand against terror.

Put your sophisticated socks on, settle down in a quiet place and do read this book. Prepare to be agitated and frustrated by the characters, challenged by the story and then suddenly and often delighted by the very elegant writing.

Knowledge of Angels – book review

Knowledge of Angels, by Jill Paton Walsh

A story with such a title, set in medieval times on a Mediterranean island with a wolf child and written by Jill Paton Walsh – I was smitten before I started reading.

Paton Walsh writes with the beautiful clarity of the best English writers for children, with clear simple phrasing, elegantly expressed ideas and a compelling other-worldliness. You dive into her books and are submerged.

This is an adults’ book – I think I read it first in my late teens and found it quite disturbing, but have re-read it often since and find the reading a vivid experience. I recently walked on the rocky shores of just such a place as this is set and recognised the world she describes: the monastery with the orange grove and the goats on the mountains and everywhere the view of the “hazy dazzle” of the sea.

The question that underlies the story is this: if a child has no human contact – raised by wolves in this case – will she come to recognise God instinctively?

The enigmatic Palinor “falls in” from an unseen ship and swims ashore. He claims to come from an island no one knows and the local prefect tells him must register as a visiting Christian, Saracen or a Jew.  He claims to have no religion, so is locked up. “A man of no religion might do anything.”

As a heretic, he is condemned to death unless the gentle scholar Beneditx can convert him. The men read and talk and discuss proofs of God but Palinor is not convinced and  Beneditx eventually questions own beliefs.  Palinor’s last hope to escape death lies with the child rescued from wolves on the mountain.

As an experiment, Amara the wolf child is kept in strict confinement at a monastery, where she is taught to speak but there is no mention of God.

If she discovers God on her own, this is proof that everyone is born with knowledge of divinity. If she has no concept of God, this proves that religion is not innate and must be taught, and therefore a man, like Palinor, who has never been educated in God is not guilty of turning away from God, but pitiable and ripe for redemption.

An Inquisitor from Rome arrives, hell bent on burning heretics at the stake.

God certainly moves in mysterious ways.

 

Not Forgetting the Whale – book review

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger

This is my “go to” book when someone asks for a good read. It’s light and lively, a good tale, with a back story that dives deeper than the whale.

Apparently there are three, three letter words that can bring down civilisation.

War. Oil. Flu.

Not Forgetting the Whale, by John Ironmonger, tells the story of Joe, a young, clever analyst who uses modelling to predict the coming of the third – a flu with the destructive force of a plague, capable of disrupting the world and tipping us into apocolypse.

It’s pretty big stuff for a story set in a little town in Cornwall, with nicely recognisable characters, networks of romance and relationships, and a visiting whale (cue book club discussions on symbolism, metaphor and allegory).

In the growing disaster as the fragile connections that underpin our world collapse, the town becomes an Ark as Joe and the locals close the borders and struggle to survive.

Joe’s modelling predicts that if Oil, War or Flu should bring us down, total collapse is inevitable.  But his clever computer, which analyses economics, supply chains, political activity and journalist reporting world wide, has missed the human factor.

Give this book to the pessimists in your life.

 

The Wish Child – book review

The Wish Child – by Catherine Chidgey

If you’d asked me what I thought of Catherine Chidley’s The Wish Child as I was reading, I might have been slightly ambivalent. The writing is poetical and descriptive but I had to concentrate to hear the different voices of the characters – Eric, an adopted boy from Poland, Sieglinde from Berlin and a third, unexplained, narrator.

But ask me now I’ve put the book down and and I’ll say: here is a book that needs to be read. The story and the confusion over the shadowy narrator is a slap in the face that haunts me.

The story is set in Germany during WW2 and told through the everyday lives of Sieglinde and Eric’s families. The fact that Sieglinde’s father is employed to cut words like “love” and “truth” out of books is just one strange part of the slowly twisting background of their world. The is an horrific and violent event – and I guess brutality is a byline of every war story – but I felt this was slightly gratuitous.  It feels raw and clumsy in the otherwise gauzy read – maybe that is quite deliberate, but I almost put the book down there.

I’m glad I didn’t, because the poignancy of ending made me go back and read the whole thing again, immediately.

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