Saturday, 29 January 2011

We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

Drugs, living in squats, Britain and the 3-day week, the family hamster - if, like me, you’re about the same age as the characters in We Had It So Good, it’s a book which leads to a great deal of gazing off into space while you ponder your own experience in light of the events described. Linda Grant chooses to make her protagonist, Stephen, an American, thus allowing her to consider happenings on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the second half of the last century – faced with the prospect of being drafted to fight in Vietnam if he returns to the States, he opts instead for marriage with Andrea and life in London.

The novel's events are seen through the eyes of various people: primarily, Stephen and Andrea themselves and their children Max and Marianne. Because Andrea has trained as a psychotherapist she has privileged access to other pasts, among them those of her friend Clare and Stephen’s father Simon. These lives reflect the major considerations of the era – the immigrant experience, isolation chosen and involuntary, the impact of war and terrorism – alongside the everyday domestic existence of the liberal middle-class (that is, the book’s natural audience).

In interviews Grant has talked about the “toxic legacy” of the baby-boomer generation, the complacency which accepted the advantages provided by a liberal postwar society while making little effort to pass on those benefits to future generations. What happened to turn the idealism of the sixties into the selfishness of the eighties? Grant thinks we got our comeuppance with 9/11, and the start of the disaffection of the rest of the world with western arrogance.

Along the way, Grant has much of interest to observe about the ills of the current day, and our inability to find solutions to them: our fear of ageing, our creation of a “victim” society, our obsessions with health and normality (the quiet Max who is almost assaulted, in his view, with grommets to cure the loss of hearing that he has accommodated to is especially poignant, I felt). I was puzzled that Grant had left out the event which was, for some of us, an earlier assault on US and UK complacency, the Lockerbie air disaster – the more so since I see from the afterword that she talked with a member of the UK family group about the aftermath of terrorist attacks. My own experience of the events of 1988 suggest that western arrogance is not easily rocked, and that as new towers rise on the site of the World Trade Center, 9/11 will be accommodated along with the other events we prefer not to think about.

As I said, We Had It So Good is a book which makes you think, and offers an absorbing story in doing so, but if Grant has set out to turn our eyes inwards, to make us consider ourselves and our society, I’m despondent about the outcome. But I applaud the attempt, and recommend the book.

We Had It So Good is the first book chosen for the Virago Book Club.

Other reviews:

Friday, 21 January 2011

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

When Neil Gaiman wrote London into Neverwhere it made my toes curl with delight. This really was a novel with a sense of place, every greasy, gritty inch of it. A Madness of Angels does it too – as in Neverwhere you’ll find yourself on a disused underground station, or seeing a familiar building from a slightly different perspective. And it is only slightly different – Matthew Swift, sorceror and erstwhile corpse (except that his body was never found) is urban, contemporary, and could easily be someone you know. Like Harry Dresden, he’s a magic user who’s firmly rooted in the everyday world.

To be honest, this was my second go at the book, I’d picked it up once before and started it, and been put off by the use of “I” and “we” interchangeably in the opening pages. Just not in the mood at the time, perhaps, but since then I’d seen it mentioned a couple of times as something original and not-to-be-missed. And I’ll admit that even now, I found the beginning just a tad fey - the reader adrift with the newly-revived Swift, uncertain even whose head it is you are in - so that I fervently hoped that it would get down to something a little more concrete soon. Well, that concrete turned out to be the streets of London, dirty, familiar, infested with pigeons, reverberating to the distant thud of the underground, at once joyous and sinister in its squalor.

When Swift returns from death, somewhat augmented, to the discovery that all his friends have died horribly, he’s bent on revenge and prepared to make allegiances wherever he can find them. Recruiting an ad hoc army of bikers, religious fanatics and characters from the city’s own mythology, he starts picking off the henchmen of the man he holds responsible, a fight which escalates so rapidly that he fears there must be a traitor amongst his allies. But despite his resurrection, Swift knows that he’s not really hero material and his confidence in his magic is undermined by what he fears must be the eventual outcome. It’s this humility which makes him so attractive to the reader:
I felt that it should have been drizzling, perhaps with a thundercloud or two overhead; it would have suited my mood. As it was, the day was crisp and clean, a thing of bright light and cold, empty blue skies, big and pale. I sat with my arms curled around as much of my aching body as I could comfortably achieve, and tried not to wobble a newly loosened tooth. There was probably, I knew, some spell or other that could repair the damage, but I wasn’t about to try mystical dentistry and somehow felt the whole thing was beneath me. James Bond never had to go for emergency dental treatment; Jackie Chan never smiled a smile of gold crowns; Bruce Lee didn’t spend the final credits of any kung fu film sitting with his arms wrapped round his belly like he had food poisoning, feeling sorry for himself – therefore, neither should I. Besides, from what little we knew and what we could guess, dentists were a species we wished to avoid.
Swift is not the only appealing character. I was rather sad that Jeremy the troll made such a fleeting appearance, but there were others I liked too, including the slightly daunting Mrs Mikeda. People and events are described in a dense and lyrical prose which crackles with the electricity of the blue angels in Matthew's mind. Here, too, magic usage has a logical connection to the surrounding world - even down to power of the humble Oyster card - with an individualism which feels natural and right, and carries with it some striking images. It's a worthy successor to Neverwhere and, since the magic of a place is a creation of its locality, history, architecture, mythology and even its inhabitants, I wonder if Griffin can do this with other cities as well as London? That would be truly wonderful.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

One Bloody Thing After Another by Joey Comeau

I found it quite hard to know what to think of this horror story, more novella than novel, since my Kindle copy appeared to be haunted by faint lines of text which appeared, writ large, in seemingly random places, often apparently bearing no relation to the immediate events - they clearly were part of the story, but I couldn't decide who they were spoken by. Were they in the original, the non-Kindle version, or were they the result of some arcane glitch that appeared during conversion? The answer is that I'm not sure - I tried looking at the PDF version and couldn't find them there (but my access was limited and brief), and I am very aware that formatting seems to go a bit haywire when transferring to the Kindle, so I'm left wondering. If they were intended to be there they were mysterious and effective, puzzling until the end, when I finally worked out whose voice it was. (If anyone thinks I was being unduly dense, I should point out that there were other formatting difficulties, even more confusing - if it had been a longer work, I doubt if I could have stuck with it).

Jackie has a bit of a problem with anger management. Charlie can't guess what the headless woman is desperately trying to tell him and, anyway, he's more worried about his dog getting old. Jackie wants to tell Ann she loves her, but Ann is preoccupied because she's having trouble with her mom. It's a gruesome little tale, the story of people struggling to hold it together when really bad things happen. The writing both externalises their struggles yet makes them sympathetic - perhaps the brevity helps here, because I think it would be hard not to read it all in one gulp. It's a helter-skelter of a horror story, everything tumbling inexorably towards a conclusion which is more a muddled heap than a resolution, yet somehow breathlessly satisfying, even though you're not sure how you got there, or if it's really over.

Overall, I think it's a success - not quite my usual kind of thing, but funny, experimental and grisly. If the opportunity arises, I'll approach other works by this young writer with interest. It was read for the Canadian Book Challenge, via NetGalley (who have, I note, removed their Kindle option for the present.)

*Edited later to say that a review on LibraryThing makes it clear that all copies are haunted by apparently random words (as I'd hoped, because it's something that stays with me now that I've finished the book). I think the intention may be easier to follow in a printed version.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A life in books

I saw this at Juxtabook and thought I would play before leaving 2010's books. She says "A nice end of the year meme pinched from Other Stories and Gaskella.

"Using only books you have read this year (2010), cleverly answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It’s much, much harder than you think!"

* Describe Yourself: Practically Perfect (Katie Fforde - don't I wish!)
* How do you feel: Ankle Deep (Angela Thirkell)
* Describe where you currently live: Log Hut (Thomas Firbank - and I did, at one time...)
* If you could go anywhere, where would you go: A Place of Fallen Leaves (Tim Pears)
* Your favorite form of transportation: Minnow on the Say (Philippa Pearce - Minnow is a boat)
* Your best friend is: The Invisible Girl (Laura Ruby)
* You and your friends are: Children of Chance (Elizabeth Pewsey)
* What’s the weather like: Acqua Alta (Donna Leon - my feet don't seem to have been dry for weeks)
* Favorite time of day: Before Lunch (Thirkell again)
* If your life was a: Tapestry of Love (Rosy Thornton - if only...)
* What is life to you: One Bloody Thing After Another (Joey Comeau - that's much more like it!)
* Your fear: Murder in the Garden (Veronica Heley - well, weeding's murder on the back)
* What is the best advice you have to give: Don't Tell Alfred (Nancy Mitford)
* Thought for the Day: What's Bred in the Bone (Robertson Davies)
* How I would like to die: Giving Up the Ghost (Hilary Mantel - I don't want to spend the afterlife haunting)
* My soul’s present condition: Shades of Grey (Jasper Fforde)

Who'd have thought I could start and finish with a Fforde? What I couldn't do, I'm afraid (and unlike both Juxtabook and Gaskella) is link to my reviews of the titles I chose, but I promise I didn't cheat, they are all from last year's list. And it was fun!