Sunday, 30 August 2009

Gathering the Water by Robert Edric

"If brief enthusiasms can make independent booksellers seem fickle, some redemption may be found in our loyalty to individual authors. We often have longer memories than both chain retailers and publishers, and our customers’ support depends on our taste as much as our efficiency. Hot news quickly cools, but the favourites abide: Shirley Hazzard, Javier Marías, Robert Edric, William Maxwell, Penelope Fitzgerald."
So begins an article in the most recent issue of Slightly Foxed (no. 22) on an author I have long enjoyed, Barry Unsworth. Reading the article last weekend, though, I was struck by the coincidence that I had on my last library visit chosen a book by a writer hitherto unknown to me, Robert Edric, and there he was being recommended by John de Falbe.

In Gathering the Water, set in 1847, the narrator, Charles Weightman, is so alienated by grief at the death of his fiancée that he regards moving to a Yorkshire valley to oversee its flooding as an acceptable “new start”. Here, regarded with hostility by the villagers whose eviction he is to superintend, he forms an alliance of sorts with another outsider, a woman caring for her mad sister. Actually, Mary Latimer isn’t really an outsider in the literal sense – she was brought up in the valley but moved away, and has only recently returned. Her alienation is every bit as great, though, since with the loss of their already crumbling home, she will be forced to send her sister to an asylum. She and Charles do not become friends, they are simply bound by their isolation and by the weight of their pasts.

This is, in all sorts of ways, a difficult book. For a start, it is 250 pages of unrelenting oppression, not a single moment of lightness or warmth that I can recall. The writing is sparse, there is no grandiose description such as you might expect from a historical novel, no set pieces to indicate place or community. Dialogue is elliptical and indeterminate. I wasn’t entirely sure what Weightman was there to do, and neither, I think, was anyone else. This is writing that conveys more in the absences than in what is there: here are events which seem to have significance, yet are never explained, relying instead on the weight (there is that word again) of impression to convey a brooding sense of tragedy. Again subverting the historical novel, there is nothing epic about this tragedy, but rather dirt and ordinariness and inevitability, the villagers’ realistic expectation of inadequate compensation, Charles’s uncertainty about the real remit laid upon him by his indifferent Board. All conversation turns to loss. This is a novel, not of purification by grief and adversity, but of bathos.

All this might suggest that there is no pleasure in reading Gathering the Water, but that is not the case. While it is evident that Edric is an author who expects work from his readers, there is no lack of generosity here – you are not left, as in some books, with an aggrieved feeling that you haven’t been given enough information. Where meaning seems unclear it is not that the narrator is wilfully withholding what you want to know, it is rather that it is too painful to address, or that he has failed to penetrate the murk himself. Moreover, there is grace and precision in the writing, and always a sense that the writer is in control, with a narrow focus on the task in hand – no unnecessary flourish, nothing of the baroque. The language and imagery reflect the setting:
I asked them their names. Most of the people here shared the same ten or a dozen Christian and surnames. As in all other things, there was no superfluity here, no exotic flowering amid the grasses and reeds. There were Riggs and Cloughs, Lumbs and Cleggs and Scales, all of which might just as likely have been the names of the features around them; thus were the two – people and place – bred into each other.
Edric has written a number of other novels with historical settings, as well as a trilogy of detective stories set in Hull.

Friday, 28 August 2009


The days are getting cooler, the nights are drawing in and oh, goody! It’s time for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril again, absolutely my favourite challenge of the year. Oh wait, I said that about the Once Upon a Time Challenge – oh what the hell, I just love Carl’s challenges. This year the banners are really lovely, too.

Now - to the reading pool (I love this bit): first of all, I am determined to join in with the Short Stories Peril again, to which end I have just demanded that my son hand over my copy of John Buchan’s Supernatural Tales, which he has had for ages. Years ago I read Buchan’s Witch Wood, and it was deliciously spooky – in fact, I “inherited” the library copy of it, because I left it beside the bed one night, and the puppy chewed it. There are fifteen stories, which I think should see me through!

As usual, I shall be over-ambitious and go for Peril the First, four books of any of the following subgenres: Mystery; Suspense; Thriller; Dark Fantasy; Gothic; Horror; Supernatural. Last year I wanted to read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, as everyone else was doing, but my copy didn’t arrive until after the challenge had finished, since when it’s been on the TBR pile. I thought about starting it during OUT3, but secretly I wanted to save it for the autumn, so this year it’s back on the pile with the definite intention of reading it. I decided, too, that Ian Rankin’s Rebus series counts as dark – some of the television series (with John Hannah as Rebus) is being re-shown at the moment and you would think Edinburgh never actually sees daylight! To celebrate RIP IV I started A Question of Blood last night and read for much longer than I meant to.

So, that’s my first three chosen. I read a review of Agatha Christie’s supernatural stories at BooksPlease, so I’ve added that to the list, and I have The Children’s Book on order with the library – for those who don’t know, it’s about a teller of stories and, from what I can gather, quite dark enough to be included here. The rest of the reading pool will offer some choice for those last-minute changes of mind. As Carl says, it’s more fun with a list to choose from.

Ian Rankin, A Question of Blood
John Buchan, Supernatural Tales (SS)
Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
Stephen Hunt, The Rise of the Iron Moon
A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book
Patricia McKillip, The Book of Atrix Wolfe
Agatha Christie, The Hound of Death (SS) – if I can find a copy
Mark Z. Danielowski, House of Leaves

Later additions:
Robert Holdstock, The Mythago Cycle

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Brother and Sister by Joanna Trollope

Two years ago I thought I might not read another of Joanna Trollope’s novels, after I’d been rather disappointed by this one. On a recent library trip, though, I wanted something for immediate reading and, since her books are at the very least reliably easy to get into, I picked up Brothers and Sisters. In common with several of her other books, it turns on the repercussions that a decision has, not only on the person who makes it, but all of those around her, the ever-widening ripples caused by throwing quite a small pebble into the water. Nathalie, worried about her small daughter’s ear trouble, inflates her anxiety until it becomes a preoccupation with finding her birth mother, and establishing her origins. Unfortunately, she insists that her brother David, also adopted, must take part in the quest and since he has always been under Nathalie’s thumb, he agrees, despite the disquiet of his wife Marnie.

Emotional upheaval ensues, not only for Nathalie and David, but for their families and even for the employees of the business run by Nathalie’s husband. Nathalie is only concerned, too, with finding the two women who gave birth to unwanted babies – she lacks the imagination to foresee the possible destruction which she may be bringing down on them, and their own families. Yes, emotional growth may be possible, but does Nathalie have the right to choose it for everyone else?

This isn’t a subtle book, and it gives the issues a pretty cursory trot round the block. As usual, you want to give the main character, Nathalie, a good shake, and tell her to take a good look at what she has, but Trollope knows (and we know too) that people just don’t work like that. It’s a quick read, with just about enough depth to satisfy at the time (though some of the statements about adoption are trite enough to make you scream), but I couldn’t remember much about it within a couple of days of finishing it.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Star Gazing by Linda Gillard

The day before I started Star Gazing I spent some time surfing sites with pictures of the place where I spent wonderful holidays as a child, the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Part of the pleasure of those holidays was the very long drive from the Central Highlands – up the Great North Road over the Drumochter Pass to Dalwhinnie, then turning westwards towards Spean Bridge and Fort William, before catching the Corran ferry. Once we had crossed Loch Linnhe it was still a long journey – a couple of hours to drive a little over 50 miles along a single track road, but at every bend the views were indescribably beautiful, especially the unforgettable first sight of the islands in the distance. Circumstance has dictated that I have only been back once as an adult, but I dream of seeing it again one day.

The route I describe is a little further south than the one undertaken by Marianne and Keir in Star Gazing, when he takes her to Skye to show her his home, but my own experience lent piquancy to their journey – such beauty, which Marianne can only see in Keir’s description, because she is blind. Much of his attraction for her is in the way in which he creates pictures out of the other senses, the tangible ones of sound and smell and touch, but important also is his awareness of intangible senses, like the location of the body in space. Much of the story is told in Marianne’s voice, and we become aware of her reliance on these other senses to maintain her independence, while her refusal to use a stick is a means of holding to a psychological independence, since she is doubly vulnerable, first by nature of her blindness and second by the early death of her husband.

One of the things that I liked about Marianne is that she isn’t entirely likeable – she’s prickly and sharp-tongued, “crabbit” as Keir says, and her relationship with her older sister Louisa is at times scratchy. Louisa’s is the other main voice telling the story, and her protectiveness and occasional impatience are entirely convincing. Their days are spent in the douce surroundings of Edinburgh, with visits to concerts and to the “Botanics”, so that the events which unfold during Marianne’s visit to Skye are a shock to them both, causing each to retreat defensively into her shell while she considers the future. The sense of the two women treading carefully round each other is well caught. The portrayal of these three characters, Marianne, Louisa and Keir, is delicate and sensitive – Gillard’s instincts about the ways in which people work are finely-tuned - which makes the contrast with Louisa’s assistant, Garth the Goth, all the more joyous – despite his Goth make-up he is down-to-earth and just plain fun.

I really don’t want to say too much more about the plot – this is one of those books which will absorb you completely (I read it in a day), and will stay with you long afterwards. The lingering image I have from it is the one I mentioned earlier – the body’s location in space, an image heightened by the involvement of other senses than sight and which recurs throughout the novel. Keir’s dream of his friend Mac falling from a rig platform is one such image, the isolated cottage on Skye another. It’s a book, too, with a strong spirit of place, with Edinburgh, Skye and briefly, Aberdeen, clearer for the the counted paces, the reliance on sound and touch. Which makes it all the more pleasing to be able to add that Star Gazing has been shortlisted for the first Robin Jenkins Literary Award which promotes writing inspired by Scotland's landscape. The winner will be announced on 24 August at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Friday, 7 August 2009

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil by Christopher Brookmyre

It’s a while since I read a book by this author. When his first novel – Quite Ugly One Morning - came out, my son passed it on to me, saying that it was black and funny and edgy, and I enjoyed it, with the odd reservation. Later, it was made into a TV series, with James Nesbitt in the role of Jack Parlabane, and again, I thought it worked well, but I didn’t feel a great deal of inclination to read any more of what I think turned into a series involving the same investigative journalist. The other week in the library I thought I might give him another try, and chose what seemed to be a standalone book with a very long title.

The opening was excellent – simply two voices discussing, in somewhat hapless fashion, what on earth they are going to do with a couple of bodies. You get the impression that they probably aren’t responsible but have somehow been lumbered with the bodies to dispose of, but it’s not clear, although when one of the two is later arrested by the police (or rather, the polis, since almost all the dialogue is written in Scots of what may be varying opacity) he denies responsibility for the murder, and demands that an old school friend, now a corporate lawyer, is sent for. Thereafter, the book alternates between the police investigation, under the direction of another contemporary from school, and the past, starting with the first day at primary school for a disparate bunch of children. It’s a significant day for all of them, establishing the beginnings of friendships and enmities that will re-emerge twenty years later.

Although much of the black and scabrous humour appealed to me, I did find the pace lagging. This may be because, although I found the adult characters amusing, the school episodes – accurate to a fault - reminded me much too painfully of my own schooldays in a small Highland town, where an English accent ensured your permanent alienation from the rest of the human race. Not to mention the shock of outside lavatories and the dread of the “belt”, a peculiarly vicious instrument of torture - boys vied with each other to be punished in order to prove how hard they were, and in Brookmyre’s enlightened school it wasn’t used to punish girls, apparently, but my schooldays were longer ago and corporal punishment was inflicted on girls as young as six. Anyway, Brookmyre gets the mix of sadistic teachers and mindless cruelty amongst children – funny though individual situations may be – about right, and I found it heavy going.

The children themselves were somewhat lacking in characterisation – I found it hard to tell the small boys apart, especially once they had all gained nicknames. Also, there’s not much detective work, the necessary process being that of remembering, and the wrapping up at the end is perhaps just a little too disingenuous, although the histories of the various children did succeed in coalescing into a whole. There is a glossary (!) for those who need it, and many words will be evident from context – if in doubt, assume the meaning is scatological and you won’t go far wrong. And if that’s something you object to, then I’d steer clear of this author altogether. Otherwise, it's okay, and I wouldn't entirely rule out reading another.