Tag Archives: Faber & Faber

For the Joy of Reading: Days Without End

I did not really expect Sebastian Barry to write a Cowboys and Indians novel, but that is what he has done.   But it is not that straightforward.   The cowboys are not real cowboys, driving a herd up from Texas or wherever to the railheads.   The story begins long before that era with people starving in Ireland and those who have the strength finding their way to the ships that lead them to the new world.   That is what happens to Thomas McNulty, the narrator of this story, and he ends up hiding from the rain under a bush in Missouri.   That is where he meets the love of his life, Handsome John Cole.

The second seminal event is the meeting with a Lakota warrior, Caught-his-Horse-First, and that in turn leads John and Thomas into the adoption of a Lakota girl, Winona.   [The Lakota are known to history as the Sioux, a name given to them by French-speaking trappers from Canada.   The name means cut-throat].   That is all the plot that you really need to know.

The story spans the Indian wars, the American Civil War, the death camp at Andersonville, the vicious racism of the post-bellum years in the Southern States, and it tells it all through the somewhat bewildered voice of Thomas McNulty.   The one constant is that Thomas loves John and Winona, the one as a husband and the other as a daughter.   They have to adopt many stratagems to survive as a family, one of which is Thomas, who is not very tall, disguises himself as a woman.

This is one thing that had never occurred to me.   Many of the dancing-girls in the saloons were boys.   There were so few women west of the Mississippi that the saloon owners had no choice but to employ pre-pubertal boys.   So, Marlene Dietrich’s song “Go, see what the boys in the backroom will have” in “Destry Rides Again” was not so far from the truth.

This is a truly entrancing story.   The language is extraordinary.   It has a beauty that will pierce your heart.   There are sentences of riveting power, my favourite being “The major’s as busy as Jesus at a wedding”.   Now you have to know this story, but if you do I guarantee that you will laugh.   It is that kind of book.   There are phrases and sentences that will take you by surprise, and make you laugh, although the story is tragic.

I cannot imagine that this story will find much favour in Trump’s America.  It is the story of the American Dream as nightmare.   It is not “Birth of a Nation” or “Gone with the Wind”.   It is much more like “Soldier Blue” or “Little Big Man” and these are films that very few people remember now.    It is a story of two genocidal events – the Irish Famine and the Indian Wars – and it tells of how three ordinary people coped.   Handsome John Cole, Winona and Thomas McNulty will remain in your memory for a very long time.

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For the Joy of Reading: The Golden Legend

This is an extraordinary book.   It is extraordinary in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to begin.   So I thought that I would start with the obvious and work forwards from there.   Nadeem Aslam is a master of the craft of writing.   His choice of words is exquisite.   His construction of sentences approaches the immaculate, which is as good as it could ever possibly get.   Like the Ancient Mariner, he knows how to seize the attention of his readers and to make us listen until he has finished his story.   And what a story this is.   It is spellbinding.   It is riveting.   Whether you emerge sadder or wiser depends on your ability to listen and to understand.   You will not emerge from this tale unmoved.

This is an uncomfortable tale.   I imagine that there are many people who will be extremely unhappy with it as it brings things hiding in the shadows into the light.   It begins with Massud and Nargis setting out from their home to join a group of people carrying by hand rare and valuable books along the Grand Trunk Road in Zamana from the old library building to the new.   It begins with a story of renewal and a message of hope.   An American is driving along the same road and two young men on a motorcycle attempted to rob the American at gunpoint.   He opened fire and in the ensuing fight Massud is killed, as are both the robbers.   This is when the story enters the depths of hell.

The American claims diplomatic immunity, and the Pakistani military want the families to accept payment in compensation for the deaths in accordance with Sharia law.   But an extremist fundamentalist group want the families to reject compensation so that the American can be executed.   The original leader of this group was killed by a drone attack in Waziristan, and his widow, Aysha, and his son, who lost both his legs in the same attack, have returned to her father, who is the Imam of a mosque in Zamana.   Her brother-in-law and his gang of militants have also come to the mosque.   Aysha has begun a clandestine relationship with Lily, a rickshaw-wallah and a Christian, whose daughter Helen is being taught by Nargis.   There is one further character to introduce and that is Imtiaz.   He is a young man who has fled from the Indian Army in Kashmir to learn how to fight.    He ends up in a training camp outside Zamana, and he runs away from there.

It is not my task to tell you how all these stories interlock.   That you must discover for yourself.   The themes of the book however are quite clear.   This is a book about corruption.   There is the corruption of seeking wealth, that allows justice to be bought, that allows people to buy their way out of trouble, where influence is for sale.   There are also the two sides of this corruption process, those who are prepared to be bought and those who are prepared to buy.   But there is a much deeper corruption – that of the soul.  Nadeem Aslam explores the roots of this kind of corruption – anger, hate, humiliation, feelings of powerlessness, persecution and despair.   Nadeem Aslam explores all of this without being judgemental, although I think it is clear for whom ha has sympathy.

Aslam’s other theme is those redeeming qualities in all human life, hope and love.   They pervade this story.   In many ways, they are the root of it.   As I have said, it is an extraordinary tale.   It manages to be realistic and uplifting at the same time.   Nadeem Aslam is one of the extraordinary writers of our time.   He shows us the world as it is, but insists that there is hope.   His is a voice against despair.   His is a voice of humanity, of hope, of love – and the greatest of these is love.

For the Joy of Reading: This is Memorial Device

My first shock came in the second paragraph.   “This isn’t Manchester or London or fucking Chingford.   This is Airdrie.”   For those of us who lived near Chingford in the 1980s, the idea of it as a cultural centre is astonishing.   Chingford was consigned to the outer darkness.   It was a place of wailing and the gnashing of teeth.   Its sole contribution to culture was the election of Norman Tebbit as its MP, and that tells you everything that you need to know.   How the hell did Chingford get included in this sentence?   I mean, people knew that Chingford was there, but that was no reason to visit it.   Chingfordians used to flee to Romford or Ilford on a Saturday night for their entertainment.   Now, of course, it is probable that someone who lived in Airdrie did not know this.    But even so, this beggars belief.

And the second shock was that I was reading a book about the punk scene in Airdrie in the 1980s when I know nothing about it.   I was not brought up in Airdrie, and by the 1980s I was too old to be involved in the “scene” let alone punk music.   The third shock is that I am actually enjoying it.   This is a bit like the shock I had when reading Alan Bissett’s “Boyracers” which I was instructed to read as part of a library reader development course.   I enjoyed the energy of the writing, and that is the same with “This is Memorial Device”.    The writing is extraordinarily energetic, and will take you along like a wave cresting onto a beach.   Just like “Boyracers”.   That really is a commendation.

This is the story of Lucas Black, as remembered by his friends and acquaintances in Airdrie, and of the music scene in the 1980s in that Lanarkshire town.   It is fair to say that the narrators are unreliable, some of them because they were stoned, some because it is now a long time ago and their memories are fading.   The focus for their memories, no matter how faulty, is the music of Lucas Black, who is a sort of savant.   He certainly has a profound effect upon all the narrators in various ways.

This is Memorial Device tells the tale of how Lucas Black influences everyone around him in some way, but it is much more than that.   It celebrates the joy that music can bring into people’s lives.   It celebrates the sheer indomitability of the human spirit.   It celebrates friendship.   It celebrates the culture of ordinary people living ordinary lives.   It celebrates how ordinary people create the extraordinary, and transform their lives for the sheer joy of it.   And just in case you haven’t realised it, I should say that David Keenan tells a good story.

Also when both Andrew O’Hagan and Alan Warner tell you that this is a book that you should read, as they do in the blurbs on the cover, you can make a pretty good guess that this is a book you should read.   And, no, I am not going to tell you what the title means.   You will have to read the book to find out.

For the Joy of Reading: I Saw a Man

How do you even begin to describe the way that Owen Sheers writes?   Do you say that he is a poet, and that his words cascade like a stream down the mountainside?   Do you say that he is a consummate storyteller, fingering his harp, as the bards of old, so that you have no choice but to listen? Do you say that his stories have the force of legend, of myth, telling you something fundamental about your own humanity?

Or do you just say to people that you should read this book?   Do you just say that reading it is a pleasure?

So what is “I Saw a Man” about?   It is about grief.   It is about bereavement.   It is about adapting.   It is about survival.   It is about men coping with trauma.  And although the subject is a difficult one, it is a joy to read.   Why is that?   It is because Owen Sheers writes with a deep compassion  for all his characters.   It is because this book is deeply human.   It is because you will come to care about all of them – Michael and Samantha and Josh and Caroline and Rachel and Lucy and Daniel who are at the centre of the tale.

It does not give anything away to tell you that Caroline is a journalist who is killed by a drone on the Pakistan/Afghan border, nor that there is another death as the result of a domestic accident.   The whole story revolves around how everyone else copes with this, and especially Michael as the husband of Caroline and the neighbour of the Nelson family, who suffer the second bereavement.

To say anything more would spoil the story, because there are things that happen that you will not expect, and there are consequences on which the story hinges..   It is a story told in the interaction of the lives and deaths, as they occur.   From the start, you will know that something dreadful is going to happen, or has happened, and then you find out in a sort of flashback that Caroline has been killed by an American drone, operating along the Pakistani/Afghan border and controlled from the USA.   It is Michael who is the link between this and the house on Hampstead Heath where the story starts, and where the second death takes place.   And it is Michael who is the heart of the story.

This is a story about the human soul.   It is a story about how we are not perfect.   It is a story about how we try to cope.   It is a story about how we must live with the results of our stupidities, our emotions, our hopes and our fears, and how we come through the other side because that is what we do, because we have no choice.   It is a story that tells how we adapt, not necessarily to tell the truth but to survive the consequences of our actions.

It is a story of great compassion, of deep understanding, of astonishing humanity.   It is a story that is well-worth reading.

One final thing, Coed y Bryn, the cottage where Michael and Caroline have their home in Wales, means Mountain Wood.