The Darkest Place ~ Jo Spain

Jo Spain’s Chief Inspector Tom Reynolds has had a bad year, harassed by his immediate boss, Joe Kennedy (a portentous name if ever there was one) and blamed by the press for problems that are not of his making, things only get worse when he is contacted by Kennedy on Christmas Day and told that he is to prepare to travel to the West Coast Island of Oileán na Coilte to investigate a forty year old cold case. The island housed St Christina’s an asylum long ago closed down and now the subject of archeological investigation as a precursor to modern development.  Forty years previously, however, it had been the centre of an investigation into the disappearance of one of its senior doctors, Conrad Howe.  Howe’s wife, Miriam, has never given up hope that he will return home and each Christmas, on the anniversary of his disappearance, she dresses the Christmas tree in exactly the way he liked it in anticipation of his homecoming.  Now, concealed in one of the mass graves dug for the patients, Howe’s body has been found, little more than a skeleton, but still wearing his distinctive jacket which also contains his wallet.

Horrified by the details he reads in a diary, secreted by Howe in his attic, of the treatments inflicted on the asylum’s patients, Tom finds himself searching not just for a murderer, but also for the identity of the doctor at the centre of this abuse.  His efforts and those of his team are thwarted at every turn, however, by the presence on the island of Dr Lawrence Boylan, former head of the asylum and now a seriously ill man.  It is clear that he and the ex-nurse, Carla Crowley, who now takes care of him, are hiding something but whether it is to do with Conrad Howe’s disappearance or with more recent occurrences isn’t immediately apparent.

There have been several novels over the past decade that have dealt with the aftermath of the closing of asylums, many of which housed people who should never have been classified as insane in the first place.  One of the most interesting questions that Spain poses in The Darkest Place is to do with the effect that living and working in such an institution had on the people employed there.  No doubt many of the patients wrongly incarcerated did eventually become mentally unstable, but what about the staff?  How many of them managed to retain their sanity and what were the consequences for all concerned if they did become ill?

Because of its subject matter, this is not an easy book to read but it is a good crime novel. I did suddenly click what had happened, what the truth was behind Conrad’s disappearance but not until about eighty-five percent of the way through, which I think is about the right time for the light bulb to go on.  Jo Spain is a writer I am becoming increasingly impressed by and I warmly recommend this, her latest offering.

With thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for providing a review copy.

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Prague Spring ~ Simon Mawer

F9F2A25A-543F-4899-9866-D8DF120D57ECWay back in the early 1990s, just before Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the College at which I worked entertained three Czech secondary teachers for a month and I was given the pleasurable task of showing them round the country and taking them to various music and theatre events.  Their English was perfect (I took them to an Oscar Wilde play and they laughed in all the right places – a lot of native English speakers don’t get Wilde’s humour) so we were able to have really interesting conversations about the different ways in which we had been brought up and educated.  One evening we were talking over coffee in the foyer of Symphony Hall and the subject of the Prague Spring and its aftermath came up. “I remember that,” I said. “I remember I had just bought a rucksack made in Czechoslovakia and wondering if we would be getting any more imports from your country.”  “Yes,” said one of our visitors.  “I remember it too. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing the Russian tanks rolling through our village”.  There is remembering and remembering.

Simon Mawer’s new novel, Prague Spring, memorialises the weeks immediately before the Russian invasion from several different points of view. The book opens in Oxford where two students, Ellie and James, having both been let down over holiday plans, join forces to hitchhike across Europe during that summer of 1968.  Ellie, from a seriously middle-class background, has already been involved in student politics including the ‘riots’ in Paris the previous year.  James is a northern working-class lad who is nowhere near as politically inclined. Making decisions pretty much on the toss of a coin, they bumble their way across Europe, ending up in a Prague heady from the new freedoms that the Czech people have been demanding for themselves.

Once in the capital they encounter both politically involved Czech citizens and Sam  Wareham, a first secretary at the British Embassy who is observing developments from a professional and personal point of view.  Professionally he ought to be maintaining a level of detachment, but personally he is involved with a young activist, Lenka  Konecková, who isn’t the slightest bit backwards at coming forwards whenever she gets the opportunity of challenging those who are meant to be leading her country towards increased independence from Soviet interference. Through Lenka we learn something of the depredations that the Czech people have suffered over the two decades since the take-over by the Communist Party in 1948 and of the humiliations they have been forced to endure in order to forge any sort of life for themselves at all.

The reader meets Sam and Lenka long before the young British couple arrive in Prague, theirs is the second point of view we encounter.  There is, however, a third commentator,  what I would have to call ‘an intrusive narrator’ although I didn’t find him/her worryingly so.  This is a voice that clearly comes from the future and knows what is about to happen to these people who are so desperately fighting for their independence.  I did wonder at first if it was going to turn out to be one of the characters looking back with hindsight, but in fact it is more abstract than that.  It is the voice of each one of us, inevitably reading this book knowing what is about to happen, experiencing the vitality of these young people while aware of what the outcome is going to be and powerless to anything to prevent it.

It is this sense of inevitability which drives the novel and the reader forward.  There is no real suspense involved, because we know what brought that Prague Spring to an end.  We worry about certain characters, but nothing the writer nor the reader can do will stop those Russian tanks rolling into Wenceslas Square.  What it seems to me that Mawer is most concerned about is the way in which the outcomes for ordinary, everyday people are so randomly decided; how little say they have in their own destiny. We come across this in several ways.  There is, of course, the tossing of the coin that I have already mentioned.  Ellie and James abnegate their decision as to where they are going to travel and hand their future over to fate. They are lucky they have the option to renounce personal choice of their own free will.  Those under Soviet domination will not be so lucky. Unless, of course, they happen to have money and influence.  If you are a world renown conductor then don’t worry, someone will get you out to the West.  An ordinary citizen, like Lenka, however is going to have to stay and, if you will excuse the pun, face the music.  Most telling however, are the constant reminders of how James and Ellie met, taking part in what is described as a sub-Beckett play in which their two characters, Fando and Lis, are searching (fruitlessly) for the city of Tar.  Reading about the Czechs’ attempts to exert free will, knowing that they are not going to make it, is very like watching the characters in a Beckett play delude themselves that they are in charge of their destinies when all the time the world is conspiring to reduce them to ashes.

This is not the first time that Simon Mawer has written about Czechoslovakia’s troubled history.  His 2009 Booker shortlisted novel, The Glass Room, explored the years between 1930 and the country’s annexation by the Nazis in 1938 through into the post-war period.  Perhaps there is some family connection, I don’t know.  What I do know is that he appears to have a real sense of empathy with the Czech people and the turbulent times through which they have lived and I strongly recommend this book.

Some Progress

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Last time I moved I swore never again.  Now, three weeks into the process of downsizing, I am remembering just why I was so vehement eighteen years ago.  When those that know about these things claim that it is one of the most stressful thing that anyone can undertake they are definitely not joking.  I think I have psoriasis on my eczema although if someone was to argue that it was the other way round I wouldn’t contend against it.

Actually, I have been comparatively fortunate.  I got a buyer the first day the house was on the market and she now has a first time buyer, so within a fortnight a reasonably short chain is in place.  However, I think her buyer is a game player, so chickens are not yet being counted.  The Estate agents are projecting a move around the beginning of May but again I’ll believe it when it happens.  Anyway, when I look at all that has to be done between now and then, the beginning of May 2019 seems like a better option.  The Bears vacillate between excitement and trepidation, with the exception of Jolyon Bear, who controls the purse strings; he just looks distraught all the time.  In fact, as long as they have their sofa, a nice warm fire and a plate of marmalade sandwiches they will be all right wherever they end up.

All this has done my reading progress no good at all.  When I ought to be concentrating on the book in front of me, I find my mind wandering off into room measurements and lists of people who will have to be contacted and worst of all, how to get rid of everything that I can’t take.  So, the only book I’ve finished these last two weeks has been Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for book group and that was a re-read.  We had an interesting discussion about that, however.  Most of us have teaching backgrounds of one sort or another and so as well as the parallels being drawn between what happens in the novel and the conventions of Greek drama we also had much to say about the responsibilities of teachers for their pupils, whatever age those pupils might be.  Julian Morrow came in for some harsh words.  At least this gave me an excuse not to talk about my friend’s husband’s new book when we met on Thursday.  Fortunately, we had so much business to get through on the agenda that the subject didn’t come up, but thanks for all your advice.

I have spent the weekend making lists of what has to be done and when. I always feel better when I have a list. I’m hoping that this means I can get back to more of a routine and start reading and commenting again.  I think my own posting will still be sporadic but I’ll pop in here every now and again and keep you updated.

A Moral Dilemma

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60Briefly today as life becomes no less hectic.  I need advice.  Tomorrow I have to go to a meeting which will be chaired by a friend of mine whose husband has just published his latest novel to what can only be described as something less than critical acclaim. I haven’t had time to read it yet, so I can’t pass my own opinion on it (which may not turn out to be any more favourable than that of the critics), do I mention it at all?  All thoughts on the matter gratefully received.

The Dark Angel ~ Elly Griffiths

IMG_0001Just what do you do when the 2000 year old skeleton you are in the process of excavating rings you up and, when you fail to answer, sends you a text message?  You send for Ruth Galloway, of course.  The Dark Angel, Elly Griffiths’ tenth novel featuring the Norfolk based forensic archeologist, begins in the Liri Valley in Italy where Professor Angelo Morelli, an old acquaintance of Ruth, is clearly as concerned about his television presence as he is about ‘Toni’, the skeleton he is unearthing.  When his phone rings in the middle of shooting, the skeleton suddenly gets all his attention.  The television moguls are not, however, amused and so, in a bid to save his media career, Angelo invites Ruth, who much to her dismay he sells to them as an international bones expert, to come over to Italy and give her opinion about Toni’s provenance.

Ruth is not in a good place.  The Dark Angel takes up from exactly where The Chalk Pit ended, at DS Clough’s wedding.  As we follow Ruth and her six year old daughter, Kate, to the reception, it is clear that she has been stunned by the announcement of Michelle Nelson’s pregnancy.  Michelle is the wife of DCI Harry Nelson, who is Kate’s father, and the forthcoming birth of this unexpected child makes it very clear that any future that Ruth might have hoped for with Nelson is not going to materialise. When the call to Italy comes, with the promise of accommodation for her and Kate and the chance to stay on for a few days holiday afterwards, she welcomes the opportunity to get away.  Accompanied by her friend Shona and Shona’s four year old Louis, Ruth takes herself off to sunnier climes.

Although two murders are committed, one in Italy and the other in Norfolk, they are not the focus of this novel which is actually about the concept of family and the legacy of grievances which can resurface from one generation to another.  This manifests itself not only in the complications of Ruth’s relationship with Nelson but also in the history of Angelo’s family.  To some Angelo’s recently deceased grandfather is a hero, others are not so sure.  A member of the Italian resistance, he brought aid to the wartime partisans as they fought against the Nazis.  Some people, however, argue that such individuals only made matters worse for the populace in general, bringing the wrath of Mussolini’s black shirts down on everyone, regardless of their involvement.  Angelo and his mother Elsa defend his reputation vigorously but the undercurrents of ancient grievances are clearly there.

Wartime feuds are recent history, however, compared with the debate raging in academic circles as to the relative importance of the Romans when compared with the even older tribes who populated the region at the time when the smart phone savvy Toni was buried.  The Volsci (remembered mostly in Britain for their role in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus) have had little attention paid to them but their descendants are determined that the ‘family’ will not be forgotten and are prepared to go to some lengths to prevent further excavation of Roman sites, pushing instead for investigations into the other Italic tribes.

Into this mix is introduced Samir, a Catholic Syrian refugee, who is separated from his family and has risked life and limb in order to try to meet up with them in Italy where he hopes to be able to build a new life for them all.  There is an uncomfortable passage in the middle of the novel where his background is explained.  Uncomfortable, because of what it is describing, but also uncomfortable because the writing is suddenly different from the rest of the text and as consequence it sticks out as a polemic rather than being better integrated into the story.

But then the whole novel is something of a polemic about the complexity of family and the difficulties that defence of family brings with it and as a result for me, at least, this undermines the overall structure of the story.  The notion of the family is relevant to both crimes but the focus of the book is on neither and so they seem almost peripheral to what is happening.  This really isn’t a crime novel; it is a novel about Ruth and Nelson’s relationship and as such I have to say that I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as I have the earlier books in the series.  Its saving grace is that, Samir’s exposition apart, it still maintains the rather quirky narrative voice which presides over the action and lets no one get away with anything even so much as resembling a half truth.  Ruth packing for Italy asks What else does the conscientious mother need?  Antiseptic cream? Nit comb? Gin? and paying their respects to Sunday as a day of spiritual significance Nelson and Michelle are in the modern British equivalent of church: a garden centre. And it has Kate, a far more active presence than in previous books, who, with her Paddington hard stares is ever bit as effective as the narrator when it comes to deflating adult egos.  So, not a complete disaster, but not what I was looking for when I picked this book up.  I hope when we next meet Ruth it will be in a more crime focused context and that her personal life will be a little less to the fore.

With thanks to Quercus Books and Net Galley for making a copy of this book available.

Back-Cataloguing: Ghostwritten ~ David Mitchell

100345897916916239_K9VLdzu9_fHaving decided to make a real effort this year to read the back catalogues of some of my favourite writers I jumped in at what might be thought of as the deep end (that’s certainly the way I found myself thinking of it) and picked up David Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten.  The first Mitchell novel I read was The Bone Clocks and I then went back one when The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet turned up on a book group list.  I also read the novella Slade House as soon as it was published.  What struck me about all of those books, each of which I really enjoyed, was the way in which the intertwining which is characteristic of each individual novel was extended between the texts themselves.  Characters, and more importantly, ideas, slip and slide between one volume and the next.  Consequently, I’ve had it in mind for some time to go back to the beginning and try and trace the intricacies of Mitchell’s thinking throughout the entire sequence.

Well, this would have been an excellent idea if I hadn’t then decided to read Ghostwritten at a time when I was very definitely suffering from post viral fatigue.  It is not a book to read when the little grey cells are refusing to fire at even fifty percent of normal capacity (and that is assuming that normal capacity is anything to boast about in the first place).  So, what follows is more a collection of thoughts sparked by the reading than any attempt at a cogent review, which would require me to bring those thoughts together and link them into a coherent whole.

The first thing that I was aware of was that I would have read this book very differently if I hadn’t already encountered Mitchell’s later works.  In fact, if this had been the first of his novels that I’d read, the only thing that would have kept me reading would have been my research interest in the way in which writers organise their narrative material.  The book is structured as a sequence of episodes (not short stories – they are definitely episodes from longer narratives) and at first the evidence of any link between those episodes is very tentative.  Indeed between the first two for a long time the only link I could pinpoint was the use of the term ‘quasar’.  However, because this wasn’t my first encounter with Mitchell’s style I was primed to be looking out for links, even if they only appeared at the level of the word.  And also primed to be aware that something as structurally emphatic as the first of those links would be of great importance as the novel developed.   ‘Quasar’ clues us into the world of science and latterly, more precisely, the world of quantum physics, which moves us onto what I think is Mitchell’s chief concern, embodied in the title.

So, the second thing which struck me was the various possible meanings of the title. We ignore a title at our peril.  We used to give the students a text, a list of instructions, with the title removed and ask them what they thought they were being asked to do. If they ever did get the right answer it was more as a result of a wild guess than through any clues they picked up from the text itself.  Without the title they were floundering.  So what does Ghostwritten mean?  Well, the first clue, (for me, at least) came in the episode where the narrator is a free floating consciousness that moves from body to body and directs the behaviour of those individuals that it inhabits.  Our lives are controlled by a force outside ourselves?  They are written by a ghost?  That would certainly link back to the first episode where ‘Quasar’ has given over his life to the machinations of a cult leader.  Then we have an episode set in London in which the main character, Marco, is ghostwriting the memories of the ageing Alfred.  Surprisingly, I hadn’t so much as given the practice of an author ghost writing for someone else a thought.  However, I think Mitchell’s real concern makes itself felt when we reach the section of the novel that deals with quantum physicist, Mo.  Against all she has been promised, Mo has seen her research put to military use and knows that the hundreds of people who have already died as a result are but the tip of the iceberg.  She tries to resign from her job only to be told that she can’t, that she, her current research and anything that she might develop in the future belong to the American Government.  Her life, the way she tells her own story, is being written by someone else.  She no longer has control of it. She embodies what Alfred has already made clear to Marco, that

we all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us.

Intending always to make her way back to the small Irish village that is home, she goes on the run for long enough to allow her to develop the ultimate ghost writer, the zookeeper, a piece of technology that can take its own decisions and override the commands of its political overlords. It’s a nice thought.

Another question which seems to concern Mitchell is the difficulty of pinning down realities. This crops up in the discussions around quantum physics:

Quantum physics speaks in chance, with the syntax of uncertainty. You can know the position of an electron but you cannot know where it’s going, or where it is by the time you register the reading. Or you can know its direction, but you cannot know its position.

and again when exploring the nature of chance and fate.

Does chance or fate control our lives?… If you’re in your life, chance. Viewed from the outside … it’s fate all the way.

Talk about cerebral overload.

But, for me the really interesting discussion is the one to do with story and memory. Let’s take memory first.  The notion that memories are actually only stories that we tell ourselves, embellishing what really happened as we go, is nothing new.  In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves Karen Joy Fowler explores what she calls screen memories: the memories we superimpose over the reality of our experiences. Here Mitchell suggests that the act of memory is an act of ghostwriting and that memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present.  I’m sure if we’re honest we can all remember occasions when we have polished up a memory to make a better story in the telling and once we do that there is always the possibility that we will begin to believe the tale that we have created and replace the original events in our own minds with the enhanced version.  But that would suggest that the teller is in control of the story. Mitchell doesn’t seem to agree with that.

The human world is made up of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed.

I have to admit that I don’t completely follow that. Story is essential to who we are.  I absolutely believe that. Barbara Hardy once wrote that narrative is a primary act of mind and for me it is one of the things which distinguishes us from other creatures. But this seems to suggest that story writes us. I need to think more about that when the little grey cells are functioning on a higher level.  Or perhaps I need to read the next book.

So, as I said, not a review, just a set of responses to what is clearly a very complex book.  Will I go on and read Number9dream?  Definitely, but not immediately and possibly not before I have read Ghostwritten a second time.  There are some seriously interesting ideas being explored here and I’d like to get a better grasp of them before moving on.

Burn The Evidence ~ Keith Nixon

IMG_0093Burn the Evidence is the second in Keith Nixon’s South Coast based series featuring DS Solomon Gray.  Working with his colleagues, DS Mike Fowler and DI Yvonne Hamson, Gray is called in when three bodies wash up on the shore line near Ramsgate.  At first it looks like an attempt by immigrants to cross the channel which has gone radically wrong, but the discovery that one of the men has died from stab wounds and another is actually the son of Jake Armitage, a prominent local business man, suggests that there is more going on than mets the eye. Regan Armitage has always had a reputation for trouble and so the possibility that he has somehow been involved in smuggling immigrants into the country is not unlikely, but when the toxicology report shows him to have had ketamine in his system the search for person behind both the smuggling and the deaths widens.

At the same time as we are being brought up to date with current events another strand of the narrative takes us back ten years to a boarding house fire which resulted in several fatalities.  Despite rumours that Jake Armitage was behind the fire, the official reports indicate that it was the result of an accident.  Very early on, however, we know that that was not the case and one man is still smarting over this, the journalist William Noble, who was ruined when his paper was forced to close after he made allegations about Armitage’s involvement.  These two stories come together in The Lighthouse, a refuge for the homeless, where a survivor of the fire is confronted by a survivor from the smuggling operation. Adnan Khoury has fought his way from Syria only to see his travelling companions betrayed at the last hurdle by those they had trusted to bring them into England.  The only witness to what really happened on the boat, he is now being sought both by the police and by those who need to silence him before he can tell anyone else what happened.  Attacked by two thugs who force their way into the refuge, Khoury escapes, but not before heavily pregnant Rachel, one of the Lighthouse’s assistants, is injured.

Solomon Gray finds himself involved in these cases not only professionally but also personally.  He and Jake Armitage were at school together and so even though he is well aware of Regan’s reputation, Gary feels obliged to go the extra mile.  However, Armitage also has other strings that he can pull within the ranks of the local police: strings that bind not through the ties of friendship but through the more murky connections of corruption.  Gradually, the reasons why the fire was labelled an accident become chillingly apparent.

Running through the novel is the theme of parents who, for various reasons, have been separated from their children. Khoury has left his wife and sick child behind in Syria, members of the family caught up in the fire have been estranged and there is a background of domestic upheaval to Gray’s story.  And this is where, for me, this novel falters.  I picked it up for review because it was recommended by a friend who is actually much more heavily involved in the world of crime fiction than I am.  I wondered about reading the first book in the series first but because time has been short this month decided against it.  That has proved to be both a blessing and a curse, a blessing because I have been able to judge how well Burn the Evidence works in its own right and a curse because actually it doesn’t.  There is clearly something amiss with Gray’s family life.  What I have been able to pick up is that his son Tom is missing and has been for some considerable time.  I think he was last seen when he was six and the possibility that he was abducted is floating around.  It is also apparent that Solomon is estranged from his daughter, but I have no idea why that might be, what her name is or how old she is.  From half a sentence I gather that his wife is dead.  I assume that all this was explained in the first novel and I know how difficult it is to get the balance right in respect of including such information in subsequent books, but it is a balance Nixon fails to find.  As a result I felt that I was being locked out of a lot of what made Gray the person he is.  Couple this with the fact that in general character development gave way to plot and I found it very difficult to feel that I had any understanding of the main players let alone be in a position to empathise with them.  The story runs along nicely but for me it lacks the texture and depth that would have bought it to life.  If I find myself with a spare afternoon I might go back and read the first book and see if that helps to bring the series to life, but if not then I’m not sure that I shall be looking out for the third.

With thanks to Netgalley for providing this book for review.Burn

The Years of My Life

04241FD6-393A-4ED1-A603-FCCF60EA9B7DAt some point over the last month or so I have read about a blogger who is deliberately reading books published in each of the years of her/his life. Unfortunately, I didn’t make a note of who that was, so if it is you or if you know who it might be, please let me know, because I think it is a great idea and if you don’t mind I am going to join you.  One of the things I prize most about reading is the insight it gives into the time in which a book was written.  Even if it is an historical novel or a piece of science fiction it still reflects to some extent the values of the society out of which it has developed. Selecting a certain number of books from each year, and working through those years chronologically, should, in theory, offer a developing insight into the world in which I have grown up and the literature that it has given rise to.

But how to select?  When you think of all the books which are published every year where do you begin? Plus, there have been rather a lot of years of my life. I have a certain amount of catching up to do. My initial thoughts are that I shall pick just one novel from each of the genres that I have been most concerned with, namely, contemporary fiction, crime fiction and children’s literature and fit them into my reading over two or three months, depending on length and what else has to be read over that same period.  As far as possible I shall choose books that I haven’t read before, although with the children’s fiction for the early years that may not be so easy as far less was being published and I was a voracious reader from an early age.  I also think that I am going to stick just to British publications.  If I try and spread my net too wide then the whole thing will become just completely impractical and besides it is the reflection of the society I grew up in that I am interested in and that is British society.

So, where do we start?  The year is 1949.  (Don’t bother to add up on your fingers – at some point this year a sixty-eighth birthday has been or will be celebrated.)  You see what I mean about the catching up?  A quick look at Wikipedia’s 1949 in Literature page offers me all sorts of possibilities.  Just picking out those that meet my criteria in adult fiction and which also take my fancy there are:

  • Agatha Christie ~ Crooked House
  • Graham Greene ~ The Third Man
  • Marghanita Laski ~ Little Boy Lost
  • Nancy Mitford ~ Love in a Cold Climate

I feel thoroughly ashamed at having to admit that I haven’t read the Greene and as I have a sneaking suspicion that I do know the Christie but have just forgotten all about it, I’m going to push the boundaries a bit and class The Third Man as crime.  I am also remiss on the Mitford front but would have to read The Pursuit of Love presumably in order for the second volume to make sense.  I shall ponder that for a few days longer before making a final decision.

In children’s books, Enid Blyton seems to have started three different series that year. (She must have known I was about to appear on the scene and would be needing copious amounts of reading material.)  Noddy Goes to Toyland and The Secret Seven were both published as was The Rockingdown Mystery which is the first of six books about the same group of children and a small monkey.  It was also the year that we first met the Moomins but they don’t meet the British criteria.  Neither, unfortunately, does Ruth Park, whose name I was amazed to see on the list.  In my mind, this New Zealand born but Australian author belongs much later in my career when she was publishing such superb books as Playing Beatie Bow. I had no idea she was writing so much earlier.  I thought I might try Geoffrey Trease’s No Boats on Bannermere but I can’t find a copy that I can afford, so it is going to have to be a re-read, I’m afraid.  A quick look round the book selling sites has unearthed a volume with the first three of the stories in the Rockingdown series and I shall quite enjoy going back to spending time with Barney and Co. I always liked them better than the Secret Seven or Famous Five.

When I’ve made a final choice for contemporary fiction I’ll try and fit these into November and December.  Fortunately my book groups go quiet as we get closer to Christmas and so I should manage all three.  Then we’ll hit the fifties and who knows what there will be to be found there.

 

La Belle Sauvage ~Philip Pullman

IMG_0245I want it recorded here that I did not deliberately catch a cold on the day La Belle Sauvage was published just in order to give me an excuse to spend two days curled up in front of the fire reading Philip Pullman’s long anticipated return to the world of Lyra Belacqua.  In fact, I would much rather have read it with a clearer head.  Nevertheless, it certainly made those difficult first forty-eight hours easier to bear and the need to make sure that I haven’t missed anything gives me the perfect excuse to go back and read it through again as soon as the opportunity arises.  I may need to anyway if we have to wait as long for the next volume as we have for this, simply to satisfy my appetite for almost perfect story-telling.

Because, if there is one thing Philip Pullman knows how to do it is tell a story.  From the first page you know that you are in the hands of a brilliant raconteur.  His characters come to life in front of your eyes, the settings are picture perfect in your mind and the story begins to unfold with a logic that seems irrefutable.  We are back in Lyra’s Oxford, a city which physically doesn’t seem to be that much different to the one we know ourselves, but which, in terms of its social structure and the forces which motivate that structure, is very different indeed.  Ten years before the events unfolded in Northern Lights, the power of the Magisterium is just beginning to really make itself felt and when eleven year old Malcolm Polstead is confronted in school by a group calling themselves the League of Alexander, who are there to recruit the local children to be the ears and eyes of Holy Church and report on those in their community who suggest that there may not be a God or who mock the Church, he recognises this as something he wants nothing to do with.

Malcolm is the son of the local innkeeper and has as good a life as a child could wish for, helping out in the Trout Inn, running errands for the nuns in the local priory, and spending time on the river in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.  And, like most eleven year old boys he is naturally curious, so when he picks up gossip in the inn about a baby being brought to the priory he hightails it off to see if this is true.  Sure enough, there is Lyra, just months old, left with the nuns by her father, Lord Asriel, to protect her from Church forces who are seeking the child as a result of a prophecy about her future.  Malcolm, like pretty much all of us who have met Lyra over the years, is entranced by her.  Given the scrapes she will be getting herself into on a regular basis ten years down the line, she is a remarkably good baby, which is fortunate, because when circumstances change and Malcolm is forced to flee with her, through horrendous floods and tracked by the Consistorial Court of Discipline, silence on her part becomes a necessity.

With only a local teenager, Alice, for company, Malcolm, having rescued Lyra from the devastated priory, sets out to find somewhere she will be safe from the machinations of her mother, Mrs Coulter, and of the Church.  His first thought is to get her to Jordan College, where she might be given sanctuary, but the floods don’t allow this and so swept ever southwards in the valiant La Belle Sauvage, the children aim for Chelsea in the hope that they will be able to deliver the baby to her father.

Pullman has said that this novel should not be seen as a prequel to His Dark Materials but as an equal and in some ways I could be pushed to agree with him.  As I’ve made clear, this is a rattling good story which engages the reader completely, just as the earlier books did.  However, for the most part, I can only see this as a forerunner of what is to come.  Most obviously, of course, it tells about events which precede those in Northern Lights. It reveals to us not only how Lyra came to be living under the protection of the scholars at Jordan College, but how the alethiometer found its way there as well. Furthermore, it is also a prequel in terms of what it asks of the reader.  Ideas which had to be given serious thought in the earlier novels, such as the concept of Dust, the relationship between a human and their daemon and most importantly, the question of Grace, are barely touched on here.  And, then there is the question of the underpinning of the story’s structure.  In His Dark Materials the debt that Pullman owed (and acknowledged) to Milton’s Paradise Lost was easily apparent.  If there is such a debt here it would seem to be to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queen, which is quoted on the novel’s final page.  However, not only is this work’s influence not immediately obvious throughout the book, but those episodes which it might be seen as having given rise to are, for me, the weakest parts of the story. Their purpose is so unclear that I could happily have lost them altogether.

Of course, there are two other books still to come and it may well be that when we have the completed trilogy more will be made apparent and that cohesive links which seem to be missing now will become obvious.  Nevertheless, La Belle Sauvage reads as a far less complex work than any of the books in His Dark Materials and as much as I enjoyed it I hope the forthcoming volumes of The Book of Dust will ask more of me as a reader.