‘Meeting the English’ by Kate Clanchy

By on 5-16-2013 in Behind the scenes, Uncategorized

‘Meeting the English’ by Kate Clanchy

This was the fifth book I read from the long list for the Desmond Elliott Prize – I’m chairing the judges this year – and I enjoyed it hugely.

The compassionate and capable 17-year-old Struan Robertson travels to Hampstead from his bleak Lowland town in answer to an advertisement placed by the family of Philip Prys, a literary behemoth and incorrigible philanderer now laid low by a stroke. The family need a nurse for Philip, but it soon becomes clear that Struan’s presence will be a boon to them all.

This is a novel that begins as an enjoyable hatchet job on a certain kind of superannuated literary grandee, and develops into something altogether more thoughtful and moving. Prys’ family, ripped apart by his self-indulgence and their own hardness, have lost the ability to love one another or even to be civil. Struan, having not yet developed the Southerner’s immunity to empathy, becomes a healing influence – but at an increasing cost to himself.

It is a mark of this novel’s strength that it works on several levels at once. On the surface it is a satire that flashes with neat insights and wicked humour. (The author’s summary dispatching of Virginia Woolf’s THE WAVES alone is worth the price of admission, and the sheer viciousness of Myfanwy, Prys’ awful ex, is addictive).

At the same time, this is a book that has a beating heart in the tenderness with which the author draws the character of Juliet, the 16-year-old daughter of Myfanwy and Prys. Poor Juliet – rather plain, rather plump and rather confused – has never been loved or wanted, but there is something bright in her nature that refuses to be rolled over.

‘I’m not shagging anyone, and probably I never will, and anyway, I’m probably a lesbian, I keep thinking about Celia’s hips.’ And Juliet collapsed on the filthy bed, and sobbed… Myfanwy sat down beside her.
‘You can’t,’ she said very certainly, ‘be a lesbian, Juliet.’
‘Why the fuck not?’ asked Juliet.
‘Because,’ said Myfanwy, ‘you’re too fat. You can’t be a fat lesbian, see, because people will just think that’s why you are one. Because you can’t get a man, you see. Lesbians don’t want lesbians like that.’

At the centre of this novel is Prys himself, crocked and helpless, sentient but speechless, sometimes aware of his predicament and at other times believing himself to be watching an arthouse film, or even writing the dialogue as it issues from the mouths of his family. These scenes are beautifully done, and the author wears lightly what is clearly a gift of wisdom and an enormous amount of research.

I was struck by what an extraordinarily accomplished piece of writing this is. From the first chapter, one can relax in the certainty that the author knows exactly what she is doing and where she is going. It’s masterful. In common with several of the books on the long list, the performance is so assured that there is nothing to suggest a fictional debut.

I basked in the glow of this book and felt privileged to have met it.


‘Marriage Material’ by Sathnam Sanghera

By on 5-16-2013 in Behind the scenes, Uncategorized

‘Marriage Material’ by Sathnam Sanghera

This was the fourth book I read from the long list for the Desmond Elliott Prize – I’m chairing the judges this year – and I couldn’t get enough of this clever, funny and enlightening novel.

When Arjan’s father dies, he leaves his bohemian London milieu to help his mother run the family’s convenience store in Wolverhampton. What begins as a few days’ visit turns into a full-blown crisis of identity that sees Arjan strung out between his Punjabi roots and his London life, as embodied in the relationship with his longsuffering fiancée, Freya.

The author bills the novel as a subcontinental “remix” of Bennett’s ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’, compete with a family of shopkeeping Bainses, a constant Kamaljit who plays the dutiful daughter, and a sophisticated Surinder who elopes with a bagman. It all works brilliantly because – although slyly satirical – the satire is of the warm hearted and fun loving stripe and – although knowing – the book is unpretentious and fabulously written.

Sanghera is incapable of writing a sentence that isn’t funny on some level. Sometimes he’s quietly amusing, sometimes obliquely, sometimes poignantly. And then every now and then he drops in a laugh-out-loud line that has the reader in bits. I think if you like Howard Jacobson’s style then you’ll enjoy Sanghera’s writing.

“I could only recall one other instance of racist graffiti, when I was about seven and someone had scrawled a massive ‘KKK’ on to our house door. I remember asking Dad what the letters meant and him replying that they must be the initials of the miscreant in question. I eyed a classmate at my infants school going by the name of Kuljit Kaur Kalirai with suspicion for months afterwards.”

This is a book that continues to delight. From its wonderful opening meditation on life behind the counter of a corner shop, it grows into a moving examination of filial and cultural ties before taking a mischievous diversion through the hilarious patois of Arjan’s foil, Ranjit, and then racing towards its tongue-in-cheek farce of a finale.

On a literary level I was impressed at the audacity of conjoining a modern theme with Bennett’s plot, and struck by its appropriateness in a novel concerned with the marriage of cultures. But the book certainly doesn’t presuppose familiarity with Bennett’s novel, and works neatly as a stand-alone piece – which was really the level on which I enjoyed it most.

The novel has stayed with me since I finished it a few days ago, and I’ve been trying to work out why. I think it’s because the novel has some sharp and timely truths hidden in the folds of its lighthearted tale. This is a timely and meaningful story about the tug of cultures, told in an engaging and uncondescending way. I think it might be the kind of thing Oscar Wilde had in mind when he said: If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.


Sedition by Katharine Grant

By on 5-16-2013 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.


The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison

By on 5-16-2013 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.


The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

By on 5-16-2013 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.