All Together Now

gill hornbyI do wonder what it must be like to be Gill Hornby. Not only does she have a famous brother to live up to, but she has now decided to write books in more or less the same generic space, thus leaving herself open to endless comparisons with him. If it had been me, I’d have changed my name, but given entertainment’s current adoration of the already-recognisable, perhaps it is considered to be a tick in the right publicity box. This is in some ways a bit of an echoey book, reminding me of the feel-good film, The Full Monty, except with choirs rather than strippers, so, more decorum, less radicalism, but definitely a book that wants to leave you with a smile on your face.

All Together Now, is about a community choir in the anonymous commuter belt town of Bridgeford, a place in other words, where community is hard pushed to flourish. When the novel opens, the choir’s beloved leader, Constance, has been seriously injured in a car crash, and those who remain are somewhat adrift without her. Responsibility falls on the shoulders of Annie, a 50-something mother-of-three tending a painfully empty nest. Even her husband, James, has become caught up in a tricky law case that necessitates him spending his weeks in London. Annie is a Salt of the Earth type, the woman who remembers all the names of the children her children were at school, with, the woman who bothers to vacuum the carpet of community areas, the woman who takes half an hour to walk down the main street because she knows everyone working in the charity shops (‘Fortunately, she was a social athlete in peak condition.’)

Annie drums up new members for the choir with a great deal of arm-twisting. She coerces single mother, Tracy, who has only scorn for communal activities but a voice the choir needs, and newly-divorced Bennett, a man who is uptight and uncool and socially a tad inept (‘he found himself wishing [his ex-wife] had left him a helpful little folder, like landladies did for holiday rentals: a starter information pack for the rest of his own life.’) However, he also has a voice trained from childhood as a choral scholar. Throw in some extras – Jazzie, the council estate child who wants to save herself for The X-Factor, Lewis and his disabled daughter, Katy, elderly codgers Pat and Lynn (think the two old men up on the balcony in The Muppets) and we are all set for social comedy.

In fact, there is a lot of rather witty and admirable writing in the novel. The multi-purpose building where the choir hold their meetings, for instance, is described rather amusingly:

The stolid, mixed-material, mongrel-architectural Coronation Hall sat back from the corner of Church Street in an apron of its own car park and stared out at the town like a plain and disapproving old aunt. It eschewed comfort – its windows were high, its floors dull and dusty, its walls a distempered cream – and offered only the basic barrier to the elements. A bit of weather, in its opinion, never hurt anybody; if it could talk, it would tell you to put on a vest.’

And its also excellent on the way that community spirit has withered and died in so many small towns. When the local Talent Show is held, Tracey observes the sparse attendance and imagines ‘the rest of the town down there, sunk into its armchairs, with its backs to them.’ Those bustling, extrovert planners and muckers-in like Annie are portrayed as both essential to community life and also somewhat ridiculous, easy to mock. But Gill Hornby is astute in the way she sows her seeds of doubt; what if all this keeping-to-ourselves business, safely barricaded as it may be, ultimately ends in loneliness? Visiting the hospital to serenade Constance with the choir, Tracey observes Annie interacting with her group of bed-ridden friends and remarks that:

they were all Annies, these women: doers of their bit, thinkers of others, busiers of bodies. They were all Annies and they were all knackered. Who was going to take over from them all, when they couldn’t do it any more?…. [But] at least they were not alone. They were ageing and they were knackered but, clearly, they still mattered. Their beds were surrounded by cards and flowers and home-made cakes. The primary school had done a frieze for the retired librarian; the Sunday school had made a little garden in a box for the church volunteer.’

Tracy, as you may be gathering, is the focal point for change; she has to let go of her teenage son, embrace community activities, give up the secret she’s keeping and stop being too cool for school. She’s a great character and well-drawn, but Gill Horby has an odd way of not quite nailing her scenes, particularly in the first half of the book, so we don’t get to witness exactly what makes the difference. We tend to catch up with Tracey as she contemplates her altered feelings, which isn’t as satisfying. Also the writing is at times too frenetically jolly, bouncing us along Tiggerishly, subsuming all events to the comedy. And of course the funniest things often come hard on the heels of what’s sad and upsetting, or too poignant, a defence against emotion and a relief from it. But there’s not much light and shade here.

However, what Gill Horby does best in this book is describe the life-affirming vitality, the sheer joy, that singing in a choir can produce, and she does this in spades. Apparently you can download the soundtrack to the novel, as it were, and I’ll bet a lot of readers won’t be able to resist. Hornby does have an eye for a catchy song. All in all this is a fun, warm-hearted novel with some laugh-out-loud lines. Steer clear if you want a bit of darkness, but hand out to anyone who needs to stop singing the blues.

 

The Global Phenomenon With The Long Title

harry quebertDo you ever feel that the nectar of hype comes in a poisoned chalice? Back in October 2012, a novel written by a 28-year-old Swiss man that had been awarded a couple of prestigious French literary prizes caused the most immense stir at Frankfurt, its one-man publisher selling the rights to over 30 different countries (with the book to be translated into anything between 32 and 37 languages, reports vary). People at the fair called it a global phenomenon but couldn’t quite remember its name, referring to it in their excitement as ‘the French novel with the long title.’

And then I imagine the publicity mill went into overdrive and comparisons with Roth, Franzen and Bellow were bandied around, and inevitably it all went downhill from there. Reviews of the English translation by Sam Taylor have been decidedly mixed, with the American ones the most caustic. ‘It’s the sort of novel you recommend to a grieving friend or coworker out on jury duty—somebody with temporarily disabled critical faculties trying to forget who or where they are’ the New Yorker said sniffily. But if they weren’t expecting Roth or Bellow, then I should think those on jury duty were pretty glad to have it.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a slick and entertaining piece of literary fun with mirrors, set in an appealling Twin Peaks landscape. And so long as we don’t get any more carried away than that, no one is going to have their expectations hurt. The narrator, Marcus Goldman, is a young writer whose first novel has been an outrageous success. Once he’s run through a ton of royalties and sucked up enough syrupy recognition to feel bilious he finds himself on deadline for a second novel without a single idea in his head. Facing humiliation and a nasty law suit, he decides to visit his much-loved college mentor, Harry Quebert, in his seaside home at Goose Cove, New Hampshire. It doesn’t do a great deal for his writing, but the reunion is good for Marcus’s soul. He was a callow and cunning youth, too hooked on achievement to understand the notion of quality, but Harry knocked some sense into him (literally, in the boxing ring). And it’s Harry’s career as a celebrated novelist that Marcus longs to emulate.

However, not long after this visit, Marcus receives the stunning news that Harry is in prison. A body has been dug up in the grounds of his house, the corpse of Nola Kellergan who went missing thirty-three years previously. Alongside her in the grave is a manuscript copy of Harry’s most successful novel, The Origin of Evil. Hop back to August 1975 when Nola disappeared and we find out that she was having a passionate love affair with Harry that provided the inspiration for his novel. Worse still, Harry was waiting for her in a hotel room further up the coast that night but she never showed; they were intending to elope to Canada, for Nora was only fifteen and they both rightly feared scandal and jail.

Steadfastly refusing to believe in Harry’s guilt, Marcus returns to Goose Cove to undertake his own investigation. He’s known to the locals and he has Harry’s memories to guide him. But he’s also at the centre of the media storm, another famous face to add to the mix, and his editor and agent are leaning hard on him to turn out a book on the murder case as fast as he can. We are of course reading the book – or some version of it – that Marcus will eventually write. Except that this book in our hands includes all manner of revisions as twists and turns develop in the investigation, theories come together and then fall apart, and characters are unexpectedly seen in a new light. If you appreciate the metatextual level, you’ll enjoy the subtleties of Dicker’s plotting, but you don’t have to look at it like that. In a straightforward way, it’s a clever piece of crime fiction that keeps you guessing throughout its 600 pages.

Given that Joel Dicker clearly likes a bit of irony, I hope he doesn’t mind that his homage to a certain kind of American noir story is probably designed to annoy a lot of American readers. There’s all that metatextual stuff, and then a 15-year-old femme fatale (though how we see Nora changes constantly across the book) and then a whole bunch of archetypal characters. There’s a gruff and aggressive detective (who mellows), a dodgy rich businessman and his maimed chauffeur/henchman (quality of life destroyed in a random attack by thugs one night), a social-climbing café owner and her hen-pecked husband and Marcus’s crazy Jewish mother, who inhabits her role to such a degree of intensity that she makes no sense whatsoever. It may be no more than coincidence, but the contemporary French novels I’ve read in the past ten years or so seem quite comfortable with archetypes. Amélie Nothomb, one time star of the French literary firmament said in interview that

when we create we’re totally in tune with this creative pole that’s full of archetypes and which is, in fact, totally ridiculous, but perhaps also at the origins of life.’

I thought that was quite an interesting statement, but you’ll know where you stand on it. There’s also rather a lot of cringe-inducing aphorisms concerning the art of writing. For instance: ‘If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.’ But this is a narrative designed to be read fast, and if you zip past them at the right speed, they barely register at all.

So, let’s have a last look at the credit and debit sheet. If you want finely-drawn characterisation, exquisite sentence creation and no Lolitas, then this is not the book for you. If you like clever plotting, pacy storytelling and enjoy satires, homages and parodies, then it’s well worth a try. But whatever you do, don’t let the hype guide you; no good will come of thinking Jonathan Franzen might have written this.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Cover-of-To-Kill-A-MockingbirdIt’s funny how many well-known classics – Frankenstein springs to mind – turn out to be quite different to my expectations. I thought To Kill A Mockingbird was all about a court case in which a black man is wrongfully accused of the rape of a white woman. And chapters 16-22 out of 31 are indeed focused on this gripping piece of blatant injustice, beautifully constructed, jaw-droppingly outrageous and rightfully taking their place amongst the works of literature that will survive eternity because they have something so powerful to say.

But what about the rest of the book? It reminded me of other American classics like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer’s Schooldays with their gentle pace and episodic structure, a slow 360 degree contemplation of a society that is still in the process of constructing itself, although it thinks itself finished and complete. The heart of Mockingbird is with Scout and Jem, the siblings who are being brought up by their widower father, Atticus Finch, and allowed to run wild, according to small town wisdom. But we readers see nothing of the sort. Instead, much of the novel is about the education that Atticus is trying to give them – an education that is complicated by their own perceptions and the rules that society seeks to impose. For what Atticus is trying to do is teach them to be unusually deep and perceptive readers – to read against the grain of common understanding.

Take for instance, Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, an elderly neighbour who torments Scout and Jem by insulting their beloved father – because of his decision to defend the black man, Tom Robinson. Jem loses his temper eventually and cuts the heads off all her camillias, an act which angers Atticus and for which he must pay a penance. Mrs Dubose wants to be read to every day, and the children carry this promise out, hating and fearing the bedridden fits she succumbs to, whilst being aware that the reading sessions are gradually growing longer and longer. Finally they are released and Mrs Dubose dies shortly afterwards. Only then does Atticus present them with the solution to the mystery. Mrs Dubose, old and ill, has become a morphine addict, but she is determined to crack the habit before she dies. Jem’s reading helps her through the stages of withdrawal. Atticus explains to them:

‘I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what…She was the bravest person I ever knew.’

Instead of seeing a cranky, cantankerous, vicious old lady, Atticus insists they should see the reality of fear and despair that lies beneath, as well as courage in the face of death. It might look like she hates them, but really, Mrs Dubose hates her own fate. It’s a beautiful study in compassion, but it’s also remarkably convoluted. Another example is Mr Dolphus Raymond, a white man considered to be evil because he lives with a black woman and appears to be constantly drunk. In fact, the children learn that he only pretends drunkenness to help out the townspeople who want to hate him for the way he lives. He hands them an excuse that also gives them a credible way to understand why he won’t change.

A great deal of this novel is concerned, then, with the legibility or otherwise of people, the strange ways they mislead or signify by misdirection because of an overly rigid and complex code of appearances. How does this fit in with the crucial trial, you might ask? Well, perhaps it’s going to take this sort of careful, subversive reading for the whites to come to terms with the blacks, to see past their colour and the prejudices it provokes, to the real people beneath.

But there are some problems with this. Scout, quite rightly points out that the education they are receiving is out of line with the community they live in: ‘nobody I knew at school had to keep his head about anything’ she complains, instinctively aware they are being prepared for a society that is not yet ready for them. And the educated, liberal middle-class attitude that Atticus wants to pass on to his children is itself steeped in its own kinds of coding. What Atticus wants Scout and Jem to do is never show their feelings. They must at all times maintain a veneer of politeness and respect, no matter what they feel.

Whatever is wrong with this, you may ask? Well, the problem is that such a mode of behaviour ends up by supposing that only vile and unpleasant things lurk beneath the surface of human beings – that politeness is essential or else aggression and vice will seep out. We’re given an example of this in Scout’s teacher, who confuses Scout by sanctimoniously reviling Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in the classroom whilst mouthing off to her friends in private about the blacks and the need for them to keep their place. Where education doesn’t cover her attitude, that old human hostility rears its head.

But the best example of the problem with this attitude comes from Atticus himself. At the end of the book, Scout and Jem are placed in great danger, but their attacker is stabbed. When the sheriff comes to see Atticus, he tells him the villain fell on his own knife. Atticus will not believe this; in fact he is determined that Jem must have killed him in self-defence and it’s only by the most strenuous efforts on the sheriff’s part that the wholly innocent Jem doesn’t land up in jail. Atticus is incapable of believing in his own son’s innocence because his code of interpretation gets in the way.

See, this novel cannot believe that humans can live without a code, and that’s the most intriguingly problematic thing about it. There is no hope in emotional congruence as the saviour of human relations – a world in which people are allowed to feel what they feel, but precisely because they have their feelings and are aware of them, can choose how best to act. The most congruent characters in the novel are, of course, Scout and Jem, and this is why they are so endearing and so lovable and so easy to relate to. It’s also why the hopes for a more just society rest upon their shoulders. When Scout asks Mr Raymond why he’s told them his deepest secret, he says: ‘”Because you’re children and you can understand it”,’ children whose instincts have not yet been warped by social mores, and who can still cry out of a wordless but accurate horror over ‘the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking.’

To Kill A Mockingbird is brilliant on the simple hell that gets enacted on blacks by whites. When it comes to the behaviour of adult whites between themselves, the situation becomes more complex. Perhaps being taught to pretend a polite serenity one doesn’t feel is the first step forward, but it’s still pretending. In a world where, as Judge Taylor says ‘People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for,’ the practice of pretence gives them a reason to do so. But still, above this layer of complexity, Mockingbird is a novel that pushes hard for compassion, sympathy and kindness, thus gaining a place in the great canon of world literature not only for its storytelling skills, but also for its great big heart.

Pleasantville

PleasantvilleContemporary politics might not be particularly edifying to live through, but that constant whiff of corruption and bad faith that seems to hang around the corridors of power these days, the pervasive belief, fostered by the media, that politicians will do anything to get their way, makes for some pretty compelling fiction. Attica Locke, whose last novel, The Cutting Season, I loved for its willingness to dig down deep into the issues of race relations (the way Eva Dolan digs relentlessly into issues of immigration) has brought her novelist’s gaze to bear on these two themes, in a story about race and politics set in 1996 that subtly prefigures Obama’s entry into the White House.

Houston, Texas, in the final stages of its mayoral race has come down to a run-off between two candidates: Axel Hathorne, an African-American former Chief of Police and Sandy Wolcott, the current states attorney. Crucial to the competition is the district of Pleasantville, a black community founded in the civil rights era that has learned how to consolidate the black vote and can swing a closely run poll. On paper it looks as if Axel ought to be way out in front, but when a young woman goes missing, last seen wearing the blue t-shirt of his campaign volunteers, public opinion starts to shift against him. And then when his campaign manager and nephew, Neal, is charged with her murder, the timing is so bad and the evidence so weak that the most outrageous smear by the other side is suspected. But is it political suicide to say so?

More or less coerced into helping the Hathorne family is Jay Porter, the small town lawyer who featured in Attica Locke’s first novel, Black Water Rising (which I haven’t read and it didn’t seem to matter). Jay is unwilling to take on the case; he is still coming to terms with the recent death of his wife and his difficulties in parenting their two teenage children, Ellie and Ben. For a year he has been treading water and can scarcely bear the thought of entering a courtroom again. Plus, he has more than enough work to deal with, as he is still chasing the money promised his clients by Cole Oil, a petrochemical firm whose thoughtless practices were causing dangerous pollution. The $56 million that the firm is still finding ways to avoid paying out is causing his clients to lose faith in him and to seek other lawyers. It’s this issue which the Hathorne family’s patriarch, Sam, manages to hold against him until he agrees to help with the murder case.

What I especially like about Attica Locke’s novels is how real they are. Pleasantville actually exists, a community based on political activism who ‘endured the worst of Jim Crow, backs of buses and separate toilets; and yes, they paid their taxes, driving or walking for miles each Election Day, waiting in lines two and three hours long. Yes, they waited. But they also marched… holding out the collective votes of a brand-new bloc as a bargaining chip to politicians previously reluctant to consider the needs of the new Negro middle class’. And Jay Porter is such a plausible protagonist. When we first meet him, he is waiting for the police outside his broken-into offices, strenuously avoiding any act of derring-do. ‘There was nothing in that office that he couldn’t live without, not a thing in the world he would put before the need to get back home to his family in one piece. He wasn’t trying to be a hero.’ Some have heroics thrust upon them, however, and inevitably as the mayoral fight gets dirtier and the investigation into the murder comes closer to its perpetrators, it’s Jay’s family that gets put on the line.

This is a twisty, complex legal thriller, reminiscent in some ways of John Grisham, but a great deal more serious and literary. It’s crime fiction for grown-ups, if you like, the sort of novel that is definitely going to inform and enlighten you while it takes you on a tense quest for a killer. Occasionally, I thought Locke risked burying her action with her beautiful prose, but she is such a talented writer the story manages to be compelling throughout. I was also glad to have been educated by The Good Wife about American politics, as I felt I got more from the book because I knew something about state’s attorneys and campaign managers and the general atmosphere in which politics is conducted. But that being said, you could pick this book up in all ignorance and still enjoy it. At the end of the day, there’s a murderer to catch and a two-person race for a high ranking job between teams of politicos whose ambition risks outweighing their ethics. When you get to the final section of the novel, set in the courtroom, there’s a terrific momentum carrying the reader along. Attica Locke is definitely a subtle, clever and insightful writer to watch.