Book Plans

So, this pretty poorly photographed pile of books represents my reading plan for the next few weeks and months. I’ve already started Parade’s End and will be reviewing each of the four novels separately before summing up at the end. The Garden of Evening Mists and Narcopolis are the last of the Booker Longlist books which I have. I’m as yet undecided as to whether I will buy the remaining four novels to round out my Booker Series. The White Goddess, Alif the Unseen, NW, and The Yellow Birds all come out around the end of August and the beginning of September, so those are fairly high up the list as well. As is Simon Okotie’s Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? and The Forbidden Kingdom from Salt and Pushkin Press respectively. I’m also continuing my reading of the Penguin English Library so as to bolster my woeful acquaintance with ‘classic’ literature – whatever that means. The mammoth The Children’s Hospital, which was released a few years ago in the US, looks very interesting (as well as having a great cover). Finally, My Life in France by Julia Child should make me both pretty hungry and yearn to wander some Left Bank book-haunted alley-ways in a dependably clichéd manner.

Man Booker Longlist: Skios – Michael Frayn

Part of the Man Booker Prize Longlist 2012 Series.

That Michael Frayn can deliver a well-turned farce should come as no surprise. That he should do so whilst reflecting on the nature of the form itself and on the intimately related issues of identity and causality whilst never ceasing to be amusing is something one must seriously admire. The great, the good, and the not-so-good are gathering on the balmy Greek island of Skios for the Fred Toppler Foundation’s annual Great European House Party: an event ostensibly aimed at promoting so-called European values of culture and cooperation. The House Party always ends with a distinguished guest lecturer. This year that lecturer has been chosen by ambitious PA Nikki Hook. (‘Discreetly tanned, discreetly blonde, discreetly effective, and discreetly nice.’)

There had to be a lecture. Why? Because there had always been one. There had been a Fred Toppler Lecture every year since the foundation had existed. They had had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, three Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of.

This year that lecturer is the esteemed and influential science administrator and expert in scientometrics Dr Norman Wilfred, a man with very mixed feelings about the rigmarole of the lecture circuit, and slightly less mixed feelings about the perks of said circuit. That impersonation and living by one’s wits will be at the heart of Skios is signalled by the bowl in the guest lecturers’ quarters decorated with an image of Odysseus landing on the island disguised as an itinerant knife-grinder. Who, precisely, is impersonating whom, and for what purpose, isn’t entirely straightforward, but the shiftless and incorrigible chameleon at the centre is one rather Ripley-like Oliver Fox, supposedly on his way to a borrowed villa for a dalliance with a married woman. Goodness, might Wilfred and Fox have similar cases? Might they be on the same flight? Might Nikki, who dreams of the Directorship of the Foundation and an attractive and esteemed lecturer, have gone to the airport without a photograph of the man she intends to meet? Well,

 She watched him approach. He was still smiling. She was still smiling herself, she realised.

‘Dr Wilfred?’ she said.

‘I cannot tell a lie,’ said Oliver. No – said Dr Wilfred.

And so it begins. The premise is ridiculous. We know it’s ridiculous, Frayn knows it’s ridiculous. Its very absurdity is part, firstly, of the form of farce and, secondly, and more interestingly, part of Frayn’s reflection on the form of farce and the contingencies of human interaction. It’s hard to say quite how he does this without giving some crucial plot points away. In Skios characters have their sense of identity shaped by others’ expectations of them, who are, in turn, shaped by yet more expectations and apparent obligations in an endless reciprocal web of projected concerns. When one is already an impostor, that relationship can only unbalance one’s identity even further. As things become ever more, well, farcical, Frayn reveals everyone to be, in some sense, something of an impostor, including the Foundation itself. What is striking is how self-interested everyone is, whilst still being so affected by others’ opinions as to their worth and identity.

Wilfred and Fox are polar opposites: one the man of science, committed to a strict brand of determinism, the other so unpredictable in his actions as to verge on the pathological. Wilfred doesn’t just believe in science’s capacity to unearth the chains of cause and effect underlying everything, he is also professionally committed to its measured management. It is this issue of the nature of one event’s relationship to another that lies at the heart of farce, and Frayn plays each character’s approach to life off the other, culminating in something of a step back and reflection on the form itself. Thus the absurdity of the initial premise plays into this reflection and is ultimately vindicated by the clear self-awareness of the form Frayn is working in. It is this aspect, more than any other, I suspect, that led to Skios’ Booker longlisting.

So Frayn’s novel is fundamentally a consideration of naming and fate – remember that image of Odysseus? –  all wrapped up in a completely ridiculous, but pretty enjoyable, comedy of errors. The two Greek taxi drivers named Spiros and Stavros who are always mistaken for one another should give some indication of the tone. Skios is a well-crafted and fast-paced philosophical romp around a sun-drenched island populated with self-interested characters who see what they want to see, right to the end.

Man Booker Longlist: The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.

In The Lighthouse Alison Moore has created an unsettling, seemingly becalmed but oddly sensual, and entirely excellent novel. The middle-aged and recently separated Futh is going on a walking-tour in Germany to clear his head before returning to a single life in a flat full of boxes his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Angela, had to pack for this stunningly ineffectual man. Futh’s very name is an awkward monosyllabic cotton-woollish and wholly unmemorable sound. He is constantly outrun and unbalanced by the actions of other people: the aggressive cuckolded hotel-manager, whose wife desires his mother’s silver lighthouse perfume case, his father’s women, and his bored wife who echoes the mother who left him as a child. Time and again Futh ends up in the middle of others’ problems but is too inept to realise it and suffers as a consequence.

His heart feels like the raw meat it is. It feels like something peeled and bleeding. It feels the way it felt when his mother left.

Futh is lost in the present, at home only vaguely in the past. Indeed, it is as if his development was arrested the moment his mother left, and everything else is seen through the lens of that departure, that void. His childishness is remarkable: in one episode Futh, fully-grown physically at least, is smacked by his father for speaking out of turn. He has so little idea of how to conduct himself that his behaviour renders him frankly creepy. At one point he approaches a woman reading an English book and tells her she smells like his wife. Matters are only made worse when she sees his hand thrust deep into his pocket as he talks: he’s clutching his lighthouse, which takes on a rather phallic dimension in Moore’s writing at this point. When he first arrives at his German hotel he encounters Ester, the chronically unfaithful wife of the manager, who sleeps with passing men in the guest rooms.

 He stands in front of her, and she regards him, this man with gravy on his chin and on his shirt and even on the crotch of his trousers. ‘I’m Futh,’ he says again in English. ‘Someone’s expecting me.’

And yet no one is really expecting him. Futh is, at almost every point, superfluous.

A strange symmetry runs throughout the novel. Symmetries of smell and memory, of stains and disinfectant, and of the sense of lives cut adrift and slowly driven onto the rocks at the very moment they thought themselves safe. At the centre is the lighthouse, the object with which Futh orientates himself to the world. It becomes fairly clear that he has chosen the wrong reference point. Futh’s silver lighthouse belonged to his mother who liberally applied its expensive scent of violets and he repeatedly returns to the moment atop a cliff where he first recognised the fractures in his parents’ marriage.

Futh, up on the cliffs in Cornwall with the silver lighthouse in one hand and the stoppered glass vial in the other, wandered back to his parents. His mother was still lying with her eyes closed, her face turned to the sun. His father was looking out to sea and then Futh heard him say, ‘The foghorn blasts every thirty seconds.’

’Do you know,’ said his mother, ‘how much you bore me?’

The vial shatters in Futh’s small fist, scarring his hand and rendering the silver lighthouse hollow as his mother leaves him. Ester also has a lighthouse but hers is a cheaper wooden version: a symbol of her dissatisfaction, her infidelity a symbol of her dissipation. Their coming together does not bode well for Futh and Moore handles the denouement (for once a fitting term) very well indeed.

Moore builds a picture of a deflated and damaged man with whom it can be very difficult to feel any sympathy. Throughout particular smells attract Futh: violets, orange peel, apples, cigarette smoke warm cotton. All of them signal the memory of his mother and motivate his search for substitutes which seems to sully every relationship. Time and again his wife tells him ‘I’m not your mother’ in the face of some request. The artificial evocation of his mother through scent signals Futh’s sheltering within the false, with the safe. His professional life was bound up with producing artificial smells – the now outmoded scratch’n’sniff cards. Their dependability after twenty years is what matters most to him: these tiny bottles of scent don’t leave him. His essential childishness and need for support sabotages every endeavour. He can’t even manage a regular meal or avoid sunburn and blisters whilst on holiday. At times, his obsession with the past takes on more disturbing sexual dimensions, a result of his father’s dalliances in shared hotel rooms.

It is interesting to compare The Lighthouse to another Booker longlisted indie novel Swimming Home by Deborah Levy.  Both create an uncomfortable atmosphere of unhappiness and loss, both hark back in some sense to parents and childhood and dependence, and yet they are so different in tone and structure that reading both as part of the Booker longlist is a complementary, if not  altogether cheering, experience. Levy’s prose creates a fluid space of uncertain dimensions within a crystalline, faceted structure, which is resistant to interpretation beyond a certain point. Moore, however, sustains an understated but utterly compelling drive, which unflinchingly documents the failings of her protagonist, piling each unexceptional moment on the next, to create a discomforting and moving portrait of intense loss.

Battleborn – Claire Vaye Watkins

I’m pretty busy at the moment, but I wanted to post a quick review of the excellent Battleborn which came out this week in the UK.

Claire Vaye Watkins is one of those writers whose own history threatens to overshadow their writing: which would be a shame, because her short story collection is marvellous. Her father was intimately involved with Charles Manson’s ‘family’ before aiding the prosecution in Manson’s trial for murder; and her mother was a depressed alcoholic who died of an overdose in 2007 two months before Watkins graduated from college. Against the background of such a family history, it is unsurprising that Watkins has produced a collection of stories so concerned with relationships, their tensions and failures, mostly set against the hard landscape of her home state of Nevada whose nickname is ‘Battle Born’ because it achieved statehood during the Civil War. That birth in a time of violence and fear underpins the whole collection, whose hot and scouring prose reveals an unexpected softness and tempered resilience in the struggling occupants of each story.

‘The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in. At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.’

This first line of the first story Ghosts, Cowboys announces the haunting of many characters in Battleborn. This story interrogates Watkins’ own history, her own attempts to understand the context of her birth, and where one should even begin looking: the birth of the state, the occupation of a plot of land, or the arrival of a group of young people at the ranch in 1968. How much we can gain from this probing of the past is questioned by Watkins,

‘Everything I can say about what it means to lose, what it means to do without, the inadequate weight of the past, you already know.’

Intertwined with the personal is the West, the landscape shot through with veins of silver and death and memory. In Man-O-War a lonely old man finds a pregnant girl out in the fierce heat of the desert and comes to believe she could be a substitute for the wife who left him and the child they never had. The ease with which tenderness gives way to violence in the face of the frustrations of impersonal landscape runs throughout Battleborn. This is brought home strikingly in the excellent The Diggings which subjects two Forty-Niners to the heartless and grinding reality of the gold rush and the ‘lump fever’ which overtakes the narrator’s brother. (If nothing else, introducing me to the word ‘ripsniptiousness’ would be a virtue of this story.) He might be speaking for the whole collection when says,

‘Because though I was afraid and angry and lonesome much of the time, I was also closer to my own raw heart there in the territory than I have even been since.’

At no point does Watkins give her characters any quarter. There are no fairytale endings for the Italian boy who stumbles into a brothel and instantly destabilises its structure in The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past; nor do the memories of the degrading trip to Las Vegas the female character forced her vulnerable friend into ease with time in Rondine al Nido. Dysfunctional relationships, missing or effectively absent parents, and the challenges of parenthood stand starkly against the heat and memory of the landscape. You can’t dissemble in the desert, it doesn’t allow it; and nor does Watkins, whose voice emerges powerfully from these stories, as does the fierce character of Nevada. The strengths and failings of a rugged individualism are subjected to the cutting edge of an uncompromising style. It’s a very good collection and I’ll be keen to see what comes next: whether Watkins will further dissect her home state and their shared history, or chooses to move outward. Either possibility promises much.

Durham Book Festival 2012 Launch with Rachel Joyce

Yesterday evening I made my rather soggy way to the lovely Crook Hall in Durham to attend the launch party for the Durham Book Festival 2012 which runs from 13th to 30th October. The plan had been to have a garden party, but the torrential rain meant that we moved inside and, after indulging in cake and wine, we all settled down in the medieval hall to hear Claire Malcolm, the Chief Executive of New Writing North and the Festival, introduce the programme for this year, before handing over to the poet Linda Francis who outlined her current plant and ecology-inspired project ‘Botanical’ and read a poem. Claire then introduced Rachel Joyce, the author of the Man Booker Longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which I reviewed here).

I thought I’d give a summary of the discussion which followed Rachel’s reading. Rachel, who apparently writes in a shed, had a successful career as an actress with the RSC and National Theatre before she began writing radio plays and adaptations for Radio 4 and BBC 2. Harold Fry grew out of a radio play that she began eight years ago for her father who had been told he would lose his battle with cancer. He never knew about it, but it eventually grew from a forty-five minute play into a Booker longlisted novel. That Rachel wrote the radio play for her father, in the hope of somehow keeping him alive, explains a lot about the way the novel turned out. It also shows how personal a writer she is. One of the things which came out of the discussion was the extent to which the experience of landscape and, I think, the Harold’s reticence comes directly from Rachel. Interestingly, despite the many comparisons made (by me amongst others) between Harold Fry and Pilgrims Progress, The Odyssey, The Canterbury Tales, and so on, Rachel explained that she never thought particularly explicitly about the her literary or religious predecessors; rather, this was a story about a fairly ordinary man, doing a pretty extraordinary thing, which, although likely inflected by the many tales floating around most people’s heads, was not conceived of in relation to them.

As Claire Malcolm highlighted, Harold Fry exchanges darkness for humour throughout, often within the space of the page, which led to Rachel’s admission of a fairly intense love for farce and slapstick. More seriously, I think, is the intertwining of darkness and humour that runs through most ordinary lives and, again, it is with the ordinary, fleeting meetings of normal people that Rachel is most concerned: meetings which hint at unseen and deeply-felt cares and stories. This explains quite a lot about the meetings Harold has throughout the book.

One story I particularly liked was that, as a mother of four, Rachel often has to wait for an empty house before she can retreat to her shed (whose walls were adorned with pages of the UK Road Map, much to her husband’s confusion when he discovered that it jumped from Bath to the Lake District). As a result, she has her children trained to take notes in the car in case an idea strikes at a moment when putting pen to paper would be inadvisable. Talking of writing, Rachel’s next book is apparently rather different. All she would tell us is that it is told from the point of view of two male voices, one of whom is a child who believes their mother to have done something awful. Complication ensues.

The Festival has secured a three year funding agreement with Arts Council England which should help the twenty-two year old Festival grow further. I’ve really enjoyed the last few years and I think they have some fairly ambitious plans. The programme is now online and we’ve already booked as many tickets as we can afford (poor students etc.). I thought we had gone for a good spread, but it turns out that it’s mostly poetry. We ummed and aahed over Pat Barker talking about her new novel Toby’s Room (reviewed here), but didn’t book it in the end.


An Evening with the Poet Laureate: Carol Ann Duffy

A Box of Birds Launch: Charles Fernyhough

Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor – Jack Straw

Roger McGough: As Far As I Know

The Narratives of Nature: Ruth Padel and Jean Sprackland

I’d also have loved to go to Anne Stevenson at 80 and the evening with this year’s Festival Laureate Lorna Goodison amongst quite a few others. We’re looking forward to it.

Man Booker Longlist: Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.

On the surface the Booker longlisted Swimming Home is another study of middle-class woes set in a really rather nice Provencal villa in the hills above Nice in 1994. Two couples, African ‘emporium’ owners Laura and Mitchell – awkwardly tall and overweight, respectively – and the famous poet Joe Jacobs and his war correspondent wife Isabel with their daughter, Nina, lounge around the swimming pool.  Their thinly veiled dislike for one another is destabilised by the arrival of the young self-proclaimed botanist Kitty Finch, first glimpsed beneath the pool’s surface, her body warped by the water, naked and painfully thin. All this is observed from a neighbouring balcony by Dr Madeleine Sheridan who knows rather more about the history of Kitty’s mental health than is immediately apparent.

Standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gases seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating.

She is allowed to stay in the spare room by Isabel for reasons that are not at all clear. Like so much else, we cannot be sure if Isabel’s motivation is as opaque to her as it is the reader. As the book progresses it become clear that Levy is doing something far more interesting than the normal literary investigation of summer implosion in a pretty setting. Small misunderstandings paralyse because they momentarily undermine convention and thus disorientate. Yet Kitty’s frequent nakedness is so gross a breach that it goes almost unmentioned. Kitty strips people both literally and figuratively and thus precipitates a crisis. The couples’ unconscious and intuitive dissembling is derailed by a character ill enough to be both open to everything and willing to highlight anything. There is, however, some connection, some deep understanding, between Kitty and Joe, rooted in his writing, with which she is so obsessed, and a shared mental anguish, bound up with the poet’s confused Mittel-European heritage.

How could she tell her that she and Joe were transmitting messages to each other when she didn’t understand it herself?

Levy has cited John Cheever’s story The Swimmer as a strong influence on Swimming Home, and the correspondences abound once one is aware of the relationship. Cheever’s muscular prose is echoed in Levy’s lean translucent sentences which are anything but lucid. In her lambent style Levy alludes to so much, but renders so much mysterious. She emphasises the manner in which the desire for simplicity is its own negation, because that desire leads to repression, to communication without any substance but misunderstanding and anger and pain. Mitchell and Laura  are far less carefree than they seem, Joe and Isabel so detached from one another, each, in their own way, slipping into depression. Perhaps the most interesting relationship is between Joe and Nina, who becomes central as the novel progresses.

They never talked about his own childhood or his girlfriends. This was not so much an unspoken secret pact between them, more like having a tiny splinter of glass in the sole of her foot, always there, slightly painful, but she could live with it.

This needling discomfort is mirrored in the reader. Throughout the book flashes of sincerity melt in the heat of the Summer and in the sheer danger of expression. Levy doesn’t allow a smooth transition between the internal and external for either her characters or the reader. This is part of what makes Swimming Home so unsettling. As with Neddy in The Swimmer, whose initial choice to swim the county seems to lack any clear rationale, so Levy clouds motivations and relationships as the theoretically transparent pool water becomes cloudy through mismanagement and inattention. With a Cubist fondness for allusion, her faceted prose creates a fluid space of shifting desires and dreams. That uncertainty is constantly brought to a head by Kitty, whose unpredictability disorientates everyone.

 No one felt able to intervene because they did not fully know what it was they were seeing. It reminded Nina of the day she watched an eclipse through a hole in coloured paper, careful not to be blinded by the sun.

The violence lying behind, the seething plasma of desire, tamed by repression and the everyday: that is Levy’s concern; and behind that, death. Tom McCarthy flings Freudian terms about with abandon in the introduction, and he is right to highlight the shadow of death and neurosis beneath Levy’s writing. That darkness runs through Swimming Home, but it does not suffocate, even if it unnerves.  It is the sheer lack of control that strikes one so forcefully. This can be seen in Levy’s physical concerns. Our bodies outrun us in both youth and old age. As Nina becomes increasingly aware of her body and its effect on others, so Madeleine becomes aware of her aches and pains and her increasing invisibility. The romantic intentions of the local café waiter Claude, so enamoured of Nina, stand in stark opposition to the disinterest of the waiters in Nice to Madeleine’s desperate and over-primped entreaties.

Madeleine’s determination to strip away the layers of others’ deceit is as destructive and ill-willed as her aging. There are no simple answers to the problems in Swimming Home. Psychoanalysis hovers in the background, but does little good. So often to analyse is to obfuscate and destroy. That probably goes for reviews as well. And in that spirit I have to admit to certain, very limited, reservations about the ending or epilogue, where the surrealist family dreams of the epigraph return. It feels tacked on, as is the risk with epilogues, and lacks the weight of the rest of the book. Had the book ended in 1994 there would have been a symmetry to what is an intensely graceful work. But this is a small reservation.

Swimming Home deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist. It provides few answers, but does so with such economical prose and circling, gestured characterisation, falling towards a deep sadness. As only the third novel released by the small subscription-based publisher And Other Stories it is a real triumph (and beautifully produced). Definitely recommended.

Toby’s Room – Pat Barker

I really wanted to love Toby’s Room – released 16th August – because, whilst it is not in any way a bad book, I had not enjoyed Life Class, the book whose events are sandwiched by those in Toby’s Room, as much as I had hoped. Toby’s Room was going to bring me back to Barker. However, I found it oddly unsatisfactory despite, or perhaps because of, its thoroughly competent and occasionally powerful character. Toby’s Room returns to the young Slade-trained artists of Life Class, Elinor Brooke, her ex-lover Paul Tarrant, and Kit Neville, as well as their artist-surgeon teacher Henry Tonks by whom Barker was clearly fascinated and who plays a larger part in Toby’s Room as the portraitist of disfigured servicemen. At the heart of everything is Elinor’s brother Toby whose presence haunts the novel. Their complex relationship of desire and dependence, and his apparent disappearance and death on the battlefield set her on an obsessive mission to discover what happened to him. So close growing up, one day is enough to derail their relationship.

Toby had been right all along. Somehow or other they had to get back to the ways things were. What had happened was not something that could be talked about, or explained, or analysed, or in any other way resolved. It could only be forgotten.

After he is reported ‘Missing: Believed Killed’ Toby’s bedroom becomes the repository of guilt and longing, but most of all the signifier of the empty space inside Elinor. It is the space she needs to fill, to exorcise, before any resolution becomes possible. His ghost is everywhere, not least in the person of Elinor herself, who bears such a resemblance to Toby. Following his disappearance her work becomes inspired, she paints landscapes each of which contains the diffuse shadow of her brother. Indeed, Toby is only ever seen through the eyes of others, all artists, which is fitting as the analysis and deconstruction of the War, and of Toby in particular, by each of them seems to be Barker’s key concern. In the pre-War section Tonks enrols Elinor in an anatomy class where she dissects an unknown man and is repelled by so clinical an approach to the human form: she cannot see the life in such an artistic programme.

 Churned-up flesh; churned-up landscape.

The ordered and disordered in the analysis and destruction of flesh underpins the novel and probes the artist’s role and aims in the body’s depiction. As Paul Tarrant puts it when describing his Nash-echoing landscapes, ‘The point is, the wound and the wasteland are the same thing. They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.’ This affinity between ruined earth and ruined flesh can be seen in Kit Neville, who returns from France with an awful facial injury and is sent to the specialist facial reconstruction hospital at which Tonks works to record the progress, or lack thereof, of the patients’ recoveries. Neville is an unflinching, unsympathetic Modernist, all hard edges and machined parts, all of which make him ideal both as an observer in France, and as the individual whose facial disfigurement both challenges his Futurist aesthetic and leads to his being, in turn, subject to another’s analytic gaze.

The northern light flooding in through the high windows was pitiless, but not more so that Tonk’s gaze. He was still at the table selecting pastels from a tray, but now and then he stopped to look at Neville, who felt his injuries had never been more cruelly exposed than in this glaring light.

The ambivalence of the artistic response to disfigurement and ruin is well played-out in Elinor’s response to an injured patient.

He had been a remarkably handsome man; still was, on one side of his face. If anything, his injuries threw the beauty of his remaining features into sharper relief. He reminded her of some of the ‘fragments’ they used to draw at the Slade where so often a chipped nose or broken lip seemed to give the face a poignancy that the undamaged original might have lacked. It disturbed her, this aesthetic response to wounds that should have inspired nothing but pity.

This marks the beginning of a more sophisticated response both to the war and to artistic practice on the part of Elinor. So what is it that fails to satisfy? Part of the problem may well be that this is well-trodden ground for Barker and, indeed, for many others. She has spoken of the First World War as our myth, our Illiad: a set of events which can be endlessly reinterpreted and represented as a means of exploring human nature and action. This is a valid position, as the wealth of good Great War literature attests, but new ground should be broken each time and supported by the particular characters and narrative presented, and this is where Toby’s Room becomes unsatisfying. As a study of differing reactions to service, grief, and injury, Toby’s Room is fairly compelling, particularly in Neville’s brooding and occasionally explosive recuperation, whose morphine dreams transport him back to the Front, and to Toby. However, the whole book feels curiously unmotivated, and the figure of Elinor is partly to blame.

The paradox of Elinor is that she so resembles her brother as to become unconvincing as a woman. She is curiously unsympathetic in her pursuit of the truth of Toby’s fate, simultaneously passive and aggressive and oddly opaque despite our access to her mind. Without the violence of the Front to fall back on – something Elinor’s political stance precludes – the normal centrifugal force of Barker’s men is missing, despite the attempt to supply that founding injury in another form in 1912.

One also has to question whether Toby’s Room works as a stand-alone novel given its oddly bracketed structure. As far I can tell it is not presented as a sequel to Life Class whose narrative, for all that I was not bowled over by it, at least had the virtue of cohesion and a quality of concentration.  Toby’s Room is dark, disturbing, and, in certain respects, acutely insightful; and yet it refuses to cohere as it should in order for its aims to be fulfilled. In that sense it is frustrating, but certain passages stand out as impressive, in particular those about art: those focused on the artists are less compelling in general, and suffer from a lack of weight. This is a good book, but it’s not the return to form I was hoping for. Essentially, the problem is that it’s all been done before. It’s no Regeneration.

Book Post

So, this happened:

I have a lot of reading to do! I’m very excited to have Zadie Smith’s NW before it comes out next month. I’ve read a couple of these in non-Penguin English Library editions, but in a pretty teenagerish way, so it will be lovely to revisit them, and to read some new things I really should have read already. I’m also soldiering through the Booker Prize longlist at a fairly leisurely pace. I’m very excited to have Parade’s End, which I started once, but didn’t have the time to read properly. PhD work is fairly heavy at the moment, so I’m trying to balance everything. Reading and writing for this blog feels like a holiday though, so there will be plenty going on.

Durham Book Festival Launch

The Durham Book Festival 2012 runs from 13th to 30th October and they have very kindly invited me to the programme launch next week. The Festival has gone from strength to strength in recent years, with Simon Armitage and Don Paterson filling the role of Festival Laureate in 2010 and 2011. I don’t know what’s on the programme this year, but I really enjoyed 2011, and I’ll be going along to as many events as I can (writing, teaching, stuff permitting). The Booker Prize Longlisted Rachel Joyce will be reading at the launch and I’ll write a little report on that next week. I’m looking forward to it.