Sedition by Katharine Grant

By on 3-28-2013 in Behind the scenes, Uncategorized

Sedition by Katharine Grant

This was the third book I read from the long list for the Desmond Elliott Prize. (I’m chairing the judges this year). What an eclectic and intriguing list it is proving to be.

Set in a licentious coffee house London where cash is still king even as Europe is swept by revolution, ‘Sedition’ is one of the most delightfully contrary novels I have ever met.

The book is a period piece rich with historical detail, yet its dialogue and themes are resolutely modern. It is a light-hearted comedy of arriviste parental aspirations versus breathless teenage deflowerings, but the comic flow works against a counter current of convincing darkness. The novel repeatedly flirts with the erotic but coolly pulls focus. It is built on high musical metaphors, yet it isn’t above deploying the lowest euphemisms: this is a novel where, during a very technical variation on Bach, a man might contemplate whether he will go in by the servant’s entrance.

This, then, is a tease of a novel. It continually offers one thing only to snatch it away and replace it with something quite else – and it does this again and again, right through to an ending that is a clever – because fitting – anti-climax.

I will confess to being buffeted by this novel as if by squally winds. Just when I thought I had its number, the author took the already disturbing relationship between the novel’s femme fatale, Alathea, and her father to an altogether more serious place. There is a disturbing and unquiet beast hiding in the heart of this heavily-veiled novel. The author never completely reveals the novel or its characters, and the effect, at least on me, was unexpected.

In keeping with the novel’s paradoxical qualities, I always adored the plot and occasionally deplored the style. I found myself irritated enough to throw the book at the wall several times, but then intrigued enough to read the whole thing twice.

It was startling to realise that something so contrary to one’s taste can be very much to one’s liking. I finally admit to finding the book extremely impressive.

What won me over was the sheer strength of the story, which has the legs to escape the bounds of the novel. I could not help visualising ‘Sedition’ as a multi-part TV production, complete with a burlesque cast of debutantes both vampish and ingénue, a flawed Cassanova scheming to defile them one per episode, a high-contrast aesthetic of beauty, ugliness and deformity, a fetid and lusty London for a backdrop, a hundred exquisite costumes, and a ready-made soundtrack by J.S. Bach.

This is a wonderful read from a born storyteller.

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The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison

By on 3-28-2013 in Behind the scenes, Uncategorized

The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison

This was the second book I read from the long list of the Desmond Elliott Prize. (I’m chairing the judges this year).

An excellent and elegant novel written with patience and authority, Robert Allison’s debut takes the reader to the pitiless desert, in which man’s nature finds neither ordered society to disguise it, nor compassion to console it.

Allison makes his protagonist an amnesiac. His fellow travellers are deserters from Britain’s demoralised army in the darkest months before El Alamein. Thus there is no chain of command to guide our man, no mission to direct him, and few perceptual cues to help him recover the memories he has lost in the explosion that opens the story.

All he has to go on is a collection of letters – written to parents and sweethearts and intended to be read only in the event of their authors’ deaths. Why is our hero carrying these? What is his connection with the dead men? Can he piece together his own identity from theirs? Most hauntingly of all, might he have been involved in their deaths?

We realise we are dealing with an exploration of human fallibility wrapped up in a mystery, and the effect is both thrilling and unsettling. The novel appeals to our high and low instincts simultaneously, and I felt it worked wonderfully on both levels.

Of course the amnesiac protagonist can often work well – since No-one is a readymade Everyman – but the novelist must try hard to make the device his or her own. I submit that Allison succeeds for three reasons.

First, his use of the shifting desert as the story’s unreliable substrate is a clever context for a story about memory and identity. This is underpinned by some wonderful writing. I was thrilled by lines like: “The ground otherwise so insistently regular that the same expanse seems to repeat itself over and again, nature having lost its will to miscellany.”

Second, Allison’s very compact central cast encompasses enough character to tell a complex story. The brutish Swann and the wheedling Brinkhurst do more than simply epitomise the soldier and the officer class. They form a dipole – their forces of attraction and repulsion beginning to awaken our protagonist’s memory of self – and yet they themselves are bipolar, driven by contradictory currents. As Allison writes, “In seeking one’s own identity it should come as no surprise to unearth more than a single nature.”

Third, Alison succeeds by keeping the dialogue terse, the emotional range narrow, and the prose consistent and anchored to realism. He writes well about landscape and men’s journey through it, and at times I was reminded of the American novelists’ treatment of the West – in that the hardness of the country renders complex moral questions down to harsh and necessary decision points.

This is what makes a compelling novel, surely: that it acknowledges both the subtlety of our nature and life’s pernicious habit of making us choose. Left to our own devices, we would be everyone. How much harder to have to become someone.

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The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

By on 3-28-2013 in Behind the scenes, Uncategorized

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

It was hard to choose what to read first from the Desmond Elliott Prize long list. This tremendous novel arrived under-hyped, modestly-titled and soberly jacketed, allowing the lucky reader to discover much more than was claimed for it.

According to the blurb, it measures the effect of the property crash on small town Irish life – but this feels like a story about all crashes and all lives.

Set in an unfinished outskirt of an unnamed town, arguably the real action takes place in some metaphysical place halfway between here and the beyond; a limbo in which a rich ensemble cast struggles to break an eternal cycle of childhood trauma visited upon the next generation.

Written with humility and irrepressible humour, this is a wise and warm-hearted novel that does a huge amount of work in its lean 150 pages.

It’s hard not to love these rare writers who are sufficiently sure of their theme to know when they have addressed it. It’s probably harder to write 150 pages than 500. I felt similarly impressed after reading Kevin Powers’ THE YELLOW BIRDS.

And it’s not as if this book feels sparse or minimalist. Ryan finds plenty of space to let it breathe, and to inject some winning lines. I loved “He’s not civilised. He’s not even evolved.” Or how about “He didn’t even have an arse – just a hole in his back.”

This is a story about sharp tongues and blunt instruments, and Ryan gives power to both. He is great on the gossip, despair and sheer weirdness of life far from the bright centre of things. While I was reading, I thought of Ross Raisin’s GOD’S OWN COUNTRY, Jacob Polley’s TALK OF THE TOWN, and Philipp Meyer’s superb debut AMERICAN RUST.

I’d be glad to know what others think of those comparisons and whether there are others that could be made. In any case I think this is a unique and original novel – I suppose I’m making connections by way of indicating the author’s calibre.

There are a couple of dozen characters here, most of them voiced, each voice providing corroboration or rebuttal of previous evidence, and so I find it amazing that the story doesn’t feel cluttered or complicated. It’s easy to read – the author does just enough to remind us who’s who, without making it our problem to keep up. As I get older and lose brain cells, I appreciate that kindness from a writer.

It’s interesting how Ryan handles the multiple first-person narratives. It would be hard to fully differentiate so many voices – lesser writers (no one we know) might have given us a bunch of signature tics. But Ryan has a sure touch and doesn’t attempt ventriloquism for every character.

Some of the voices do have distinctive idioms and vocabularies, but finally I began to feel that the novel wasn’t really written in the first person at all, but rather in a person with dispensation to haunt the space between the first person and the third. This seems fitting for a novel examining the gap between the mortal and the eternal. I’d be interested to hear what others thought about the voices.

For me, this novel was five hours of magic. The writer makes such a modest claim on our time, and repays it with such an expansion of the heart, that I was left impressed and delighted.

Read this if you want enough characters for Dickens and enough time left pick up the kids from school.

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Confirmation That I Am Alive And That Nothing Dreadful Has Happened*

By on 3-28-2013 in Behind the scenes, Uncategorized

This morning someone told me, “Ooh, Chris Cleave, we thought something must have happened to you!”

I now realise that I dropped out of this website and out of Twitter for the best part of a year. It was abrupt, unplanned, and just-sort-of-happened. Apologies if you missed me, but my best guess is that after a period of grieving you were able to cope with the gnawing sense of loss.

Here’s why I think I went quiet:

  1. I was deep into my new novel, which I’ve recently finished and am now working up. I like it (you do get better at some things with age) and I wanted to give it all of my time.
  2. I was bone weary of talking about myself, so I took the writer’s prerogative of hiding behind my work for a while. It’s our version of taking the Fifth: novelists are legally allowed to stop tweeting every now and then.

Here’s why I am, as of now, back:

  1. I missed the banter.
  2. I’m chairing the judges for the Desmond Elliott Prize this year, and having looked at the candidate novels I realise that the quality is astonishing and that I will want to talk about them on all available frequencies, as soon as the embargo is lifted.

Now here is the thing:

When I logged back on today after my long absence I was amazed to find so many kind and thoughtful messages, on Twitter and in the comments section of this website. I now feel pretty selfish for just tuning out with no explanation. I will try to reply to everyone individually, but the general message is: Thank you very much indeed, yes I am fine, and I count myself lucky that you cared. Really I have just been working very hard and I hope you will enjoy the new novel when it comes out, which I guess will be late this year or early next.

* CORRECT AT TIME OF PUBLICATION. TERMS AND CONDITIONS APPLY. SOMETHING DREADFUL MAY IN FACT HAVE HAPPENED BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS.

Come & meet Philipp Meyer

By on 3-28-2013 in Behind the scenes, Uncategorized

On Tuesday 16th July I’m interviewing Philipp Meyer on stage at Lutyens & Rubinstein bookshop, Kensington Park Rd, London, at 7pm.

Do come if you can – Meyer is rarely in the UK, we are lucky to have him, and it goes without saying what an important writer he is. I think there are very few novelists writing at his level in the English language at the moment, so this is probably the last chance to see Philipp in a small venue and have a few words with him while he signs your copy of his book.

The occasion is the UK publication week of Meyer’s second novel, THE SON, which I – and many others – have raved about elsewhere. This follows his superb debut, AMERICAN RUST. Meyer’s timeless writing draws comparisons with that of a wildly heterogeneous bunch of writers – Steinbeck, Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cormac McCarthy – whose only common attribute is their greatness.

I’m looking forward to the evening because in addition to his writerly gifts, Philipp is a compelling and unconventional character. Raised in Baltimore, he was a decent bike racer for a while, came to writing relatively late and wrestled with it as if the loser would certainly perish. He is as tough as the country he describes, he does not compromise in his work, and he combines these qualities with great amiability and good humour.

Come and see an honest writer at work.

  • Lutyens & Rubinstein bookshop, Kensington Park Rd, London, 16th July at 7pm. Tickets £8, details here.