Zadie Smith ‘Swing Time’

—She would not press play until she had Fred and Ginger exactly where she wanted them, on the balcony amongst the bougainvillea and the Doric columns at which point she began to read the danse as I never could,img_1054 she saw everything the stray ostrich feathers hitting the floor, the weak muscles in Ginger’s back Fred had to jerk her up from any supine position spoiling the flow ruining the lines, she noticed the most important thing of all which was the dance lessons within the performance, with Fred and Ginger you can always see the danse lessons.

Swing time is the story of an unnamed narrator and the four female characters that influence her life up to the point at the end of the book where she is 33 years old and she finally takes the time to begin to question herself.

The First and foremost of the influences on her life is her childhood friend Tracy, from the initial quote, who lives on a nearby estate and who she meets at dancing classes, drawn together by their exact same skin colours:

—Tracey and I lined up next to each other, every time, it was almost unconscious, two iron filings drawn to a magnet.

The narrator is defined by what Tracy is and what she herself is not. Tracy is a gifted natural dancer, determined, earnest and speaks her mind about everything except her father, Louis, a local character no longer living at home, thrown out by Tracy’s mother. Tracy grows up becoming rebellious, getting in to a dancing school and drifting away from the narrator.

In parallel to friendship with Tracy, the narrators home life is in flux as her West Indian mother strives to exist through education in a single minded climb through learning obtaining a university degree, becoming a local councillor and then a member of parliament, the price to pay is her lack of time for her family, her husband leaves home and her lack of empathy towards and time for her daughter who spends more time with Tracey:

—I was not a dancer at all –although I took too much pride in my singing, in a manner I knew my mother found obnoxious. Singing came naturally to me, but things that came naturally to females did not impress my mother, not at all. In her view you might as well be proud of breathing or walking or giving birth.

The story then moves on to its second phase as Tracey begins to get secondary roles in west end musicals, the narrator’s Mother goes through a relationship with the ‘Notable Activist’ and then lives with her assistant, Miriam. As this happens our Narrator begins a ten year role as a personal assistant to Aimee, a mega rich superstar traveling the world on private jets, to ensure that Aimee can be free to live her life in the full whilst ensuring that the narrator can have no life of her own. Aimee unfettered by day to day life, all taken care of by her assistants, moves seamlessly from one idea or obsession to next, one in particular will take up a good deal of the narrator’s  time, a school for young girls in The Gambia:

—Governments are useless they can’t be trusted Aimee explained to me and charities have their own agenda, churches care more for souls than for bodies and so if we want to see real change is this world….well then we ourselves have to be the ones to do it, we have to be the change we want to see. By we she meant people like herself of financial means and global reach who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own fortunes. It was a moral category but also an economic one and if you followed its logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing therefore the more money a person had then the more goodness or potential for goodness a person possessed.

The fourth female character to influence her life is Hawa, a young teacher at the village school in The Gambia, a young balanced woman, happy with the simple village life she lives and the gossip that goes with it, Hawa as the other strong female characters in the book are shown as contrasts to the narrator who nonetheless sees her as having some things in common with her. Hawa is however ten years younger than her and as this final quote shows cannot avoid her destiny to marry, which again is seen through the narrator’s reaction:

—I couldn’t rid myself of a nagging sense of error that having misread everything beginning with Hawa who opened the door of her compound wearing a new scarf, black that covered her head and stopped half way down her torso and a long shapeless shirt, the kind she had always ridiculed when we saw them in the market, she hugged me as firmly as ever….oh sister good news I am getting married. I hugged her and felt the familiar smile fasten itself on my face the same one that I wore in London and New York in the face of similar news and I experienced the same sense of acute betrayal, I was ashamed to feel that way but couldn’t help it a piece of my heart closed against her.

The wheel eventually turns full circle with Tracy bringing up her children in her childhood flat, no longer able to dance, still angry, an anger that in her case gives her a certain balance and the narrator having stepped off of the treadmill with only questions before her. Finally it is only the narrator that seems to have an acute sense of observation but no character, a shame for the book.

First published in English as ‘Swing Time’ by Hamish Hamilton in 2016

Liz Moore ‘The Unseen World’

—Her father had made his cream sauce and was assembling the salad he had dreamed up of endive and grapefruit and avocado.img_0991 He was moving frantically now and she knew that talking to him would be a mistake. His hands were trembling slightly as he worked. He wanted it all to be simultaneously precise and beautiful. He wanted it all to work. “What am I forgetting,” he said to Ada tensely.

In the Unseen World Liz Moore offers us a multilayered ideal of a gifted child Ada brought up in the eighties in Boston by her brilliant father who spiritually nurtured  her in a home educated environment, taking her regularly into his laboratory at the BIT (Boston Institute of Technology) where she would converse with her father’s research students and in the evening help her father organise his elaborate dinner parties for his laboratory members. An idyllic world narrated by Ada herself. Until little clues such as the opening quote leads us towards the implosion of the idyll and of Ada’s certainties as her father who has educated Ada to have an ingrained mistrust of government, and police slowly slips into Altzeimer’s disease.

The description of the slow deterioration of his mind in this book seems remarkably close to reality. Ada who cannot imagine life without her father does her best to minimise the effects of this illness to the outside world, this illness which has descended prematurely upon David as she calls her father, until one day when David goes missing and after searching for him all day and all night with Liston her neighbour, David’s senior laboratory researcher, they finish by calling the police thus slowly beginning the inevitable march towards David’s hospitalisation.

The hospitalisation of David is then the real start to the book, Liston volunteers to adopt Ada only to discover that David was not the person he claimed to be, no person by that name had obtained his first degree and in several layers, flashbacks to his tragic youth and to the events that caused him to need to change his identity, up to how he had been able to be employed by the BIT, David’s Background is explained to us.

David’s life work had been on artificial Intelligence, working on a computer code called Elixir which was capable of interacting with people (mostly David and his lab assistants as well as Ada. David had left the information about his past with three sources, two of which died prematurely and Elixir for which he left a disc with a code to Ada who did not crack the code for many years when she herself was working in a laboratory on virtual reality.

The future development of David’s Elixir and Ada’s work would lead to “The Unseen World”. The UW where when Ada is able to travel into it Elixir is present but has taken David’s form.

And of course the only person with the access to all the information in the book to be able to write it wasn’t a person at all.

First published in English as ‘The Unseen World’ by Windmill books in 2016

David Lodge ‘Small World’

—There are three things that have revolutionised academic life in the last twenty years, though few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine. img_0986Scholars don’t have to work in the same institution to interact , nowadays they call each other up, or they meet at international conferences.

Back to 1984 to close my year on a third book loosely linked to literary theory, after The Night and La Septième Fonction du Langage, through mostly imaginary characters, with a few exceptions such as Saussure and Roland Barthes. Was 1984 so long ago? This was pre-internet, the revolution had not yet happened. In hindsight, as one of the characters, Morris Zapp explains to us in the opening quote, the great changes of the previous twenty years which are at the heart of the book, these changes seem tame and so far away compared to the changes that have occurred since then.

A second reflection on time passed is that this book is clearly also pre-AIDS, with the book’s morals linked to my memories  of the seventies:

—Well you see, about ten years ago those two were nominated for our exchange scheme with Euphoria – in America, you know. Zapp came here for six months, and Swallow went to Euphoric State. Rumour has it that Zapp had an affair with Hilary Swallow, and Swallow with Mrs Zapp…one day…he and Hilary Swallow flew off to America together, and we really didn’t know which pair we would be getting back: Zapp and Hilary, Philip and Hilary, Philip and Mrs Zapp, or both Zapps.

So this book takes place in the academic jet setting world of English professors, with foreign travel, hotels and sexual encounters being the driving force, the conference subject matter being merely the oil that keeps the machinery going. The two main intrigues concern firstly a new well endowed UNESCO chair of Literary Criticism, with all the main characters vying for this appointment and secondly the relationship between the young  Persse Mc Garrigle from university college Limerick and The mysterious Angelica Pabst who herself is trying to finish her doctoral dissertation on Romance, as she herself explains later on in the book:

—The paradox of our pleasure in narrative, according to this (Roland Barthes’) model, is that while the need to ‘know’ is what impels us through a narrative, The satisfaction of that need brings pleasure to an end….Romance, in contrast, is not structured this way. It has not one climax but many, the pleasure of the text comes and comes and comes again. No sooner has one crisis in the fortune of the hero averted than a new one presents itself.  No sooner has one mystery been solved than another is raised. No sooner has one adventure been concluded than another begins.

And effectively speaking, Persse spends most of the book seaking out Angelica, constantly moving from one climax to the next as Angelica seems continually to be something else than he at first imagined.

Who will be awarded the UNESCO chair, who will leave his or her partner for whom? Will Persse and Angelica end up together, is romance more about the quest than the finding?

First published in English as ‘Small World’ by Martin Secker & Warburg in 1984

Michael Connelly ‘The Wrong Side of Goodbye’

-Chief Valdez ….when he was with the LAPD….ran afoul of a lieutenant named Pounds, who filed an internal complaint and unsuccessfully attempted to have Valdez demoted or even fired.img_0974 Valdez avoided both and just a few months later heard about a detective named Bosch who himself got into an altercation with Pounds and ended up throwing him through a plate-glass window at Hollywood Station. Valdez always remembered that name, and years later when he read about a now-retired Harry Bosch suing the LAPD for forcing him out of his job on the cold case squad, he picked up the phone.
Valdez couldn’t offer Bosch a paycheck, but he could offer him something Bosch valued more: a detective’s badge and access to all of the tiny city’s unsolved cases.

So Bosch is back, no longer with the LAPD whose hierarchy Connelly has milked to death in this long series, but as an unpaid detective in San Fernando -Barely bigger than two square miles in size….an island city within the megalopolis of Los Angeles working the unsolved crimes. The release from the LAPD lets Connelly take us back to the fluidity of some of his earlier works such as Black Ice or The Poet  and leaves the reader without that empty feeling of ‘why did I read another one of these?’ that some of his later works have left me with. That said, writing this a week after reading it I have completely forgotten the story and have had to re-read parts to remind myself.

This is then, as is to be expected today a book with two non-intersecting mysteries whose only common point is the detective and his limited time to handle two affairs. (I’ll have to read some of his earlier works to see if it was the fashion then) The first affair is a private detective affair where Bosch is contracted by Whitney Vance, a very old billionaire, at the centre of an industrial giant, who is without offspring, to find a woman he had been close to in the 50’s and to see if he had any descendants through her.

-What do you want me to do? Bosch asked again.
-I want you to find someone for me, Vance said. -Someone who might never have existed.

But of course this won’t be straightforward

—Don’t be naive, Mr. Bosch. I am sure you conducted a modicum of research before coming to see me. I have no heirs, at least known heirs. When I die, control of Advance Engineering will go to a board of directors who will continue to line their pockets with millions while fulfilling government contracts. A valid heir could change all of that. Billions could be at stake. You don’t think people and entities would kill for that?

The second affair is with The San Fernando police and a serial killer, where no one before Bosch had dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s And realised that the cases were linked.

I did read this through quickly, the mystery and twists held to the end, and if I should forget, do remind me never to volunteer to be Bosch’s partner!

First Published in English as “The Wrong Side Of Goodbye” in 2016 by Orion Books

Hugo Wilcken ‘The Reflection’

-As I shaved, I stared at my face in the mirror with more curiosity than usual. For a moment or two, under the intensity of my own gaze, it began to look strange. img_0952As if, instead, I were staring at a wax model of myself. It was that same sensation of the unreality of things that had struck me the day before, wandering around Manhattan. But then, in a blink, everything was normal again. The face was mine.

This book is the story of Manne, or is it the story is Smith, no it’s the story of Stevenson, or is it?

The book begins with Manne, working as a psychiatrist out of a Manhattan address he could hardly afford, we learn that he is separated from his wife and that in the ten years since then his life has not moved on. As the story moves forward we are shown several glimpses of the instability of Manne’s grip on reality similar to the opening quote, for instance:

-thoughts still circled me, just beyond my grasp, as if they were emanating from somewhere else.

He thinks at one moment someone is following him butTwo things then happen which have an influence on him, first of all he receives a call telling him his ex wife Abby is dead and secondly he is called by the detective he works with, D’Angelo, to classify a seemingly confused man, Esterhazy, who claims he is not who the police and his supposed wife say he is but a Mr Smith,  as mad, then based on a doubt about what he had been asked to do he goes back and rescues the man taking him back to his own appartement.

Manne believing he is being followed rushes into the subway and in the crowd ends up being pushed in front of an oncoming train. After waking up in a psychiatric hospital where no one believes he is Manne, he gradually takes on the identity of a Mr Smith in order to be released, except that he is Smith, maybe:

-I had to mourn the death of Manne, while at the same time assist in the birth of Smith. Right now, the two felt equally distant from me. Equally unreal. I was located somehow in a void between them, observing both as if they were someone else.

He then escapes from the hospital and disappears into Smith’s New York where there are differences and parallels to Manne’s life, with him slowly slipping into Smith’s life as if it were his:

-It seemed that as Smith gradually solidified, the rest of the world reconfigured itself in order to account for his presence, albeit imperfectly. Just as, at the same time, it erased the traces of Manne from the city’s streets.

As we get used to him being Smith, his own realisation of the contradiction of his having been Manne and the choosing to be Smith become apparent:

-In my gut I knew that wasn’t the case. It was more complicated than that. Stories I’d made up in the hospital about Smith had seemingly taken on a life of their own.

Just as Manne had had his Abby, Smith had had his Marie with whom he now meets up again, she knows he is Smith and she eventually takes him back to the appartement where she lives which belongs to a Mr Stevenson. Smith putting on one of Stevenson’s suits Slowly becomes Stevenson:

-Smith, like Manne before him, was losing shape and form. In the end, I hadn’t done enough to keep him alive. I walked the length of the street, passing no one on the way. Not only was I leaving this street forever, but soon enough nothing would remain of it. The fact literalized a feeling I sometimes had, that as I moved through the city, I was destroying what was behind me and inventing what was in front of me.

Stevenson then  finds himself following Manne, confused? So was I by now, and the loop was looped!

First published as ‘The Reflection’ by Melville House in 2015

Laura Lippman ‘After I’m Gone’

-Seven point five percent, she said at last.
-The country is two hundred years old this year. They’re asking you to give seven point five percent of the country’s entire history.image
-That’s a lot, and you know I don’t give points easily.

As part of my 2016 English lit targets, Laura Lippman here, influenced by a true case, the disappearance of Julius Salisbury a lottery and strip club owner in 1970 has written a fictional account here of what would happen to the women left behind after the disappearance of a successful but petty criminal. She imagines the family he left behind and their relationship with his mistress, a stripper at his club.

Felix Brewer disappears at the beginning of the book, 1976. On bail under a federal charge for running illegal lotteries, he doesn’t think he would survive the fifteen years in jail that was being asked of him and so in collusion with his two friends, Bert Gelman the lawyer and Tubby Schroeder the bail bondsman he skips bail and disappears leaving his wife Bambi, and three children, Linda, Rachel and Michelle as well as his mistress Julie Saxony who he persuades to drive him to the airport, he was going to leave everybody catered for:

-Julie was going to have it hard, once he was gone. Bambi had the girls, friends, family. Julie didn’t have anyone except her sister, an odd duck and that was being kind. The puss on that one when she took the wheel.
-This better be for forever, she muttered.
-You’re getting yours, he reminded her. Everybody was getting theirs, one way or another.

Ex Baltimore detective and present day cold case private investigator, Sandy Sanchez, drops a file and as he picks it up comes across the erstwhile picture of Julie Saxony, he remembered the case, she had disappeared, 10 years after her boyfriend Felix Brewer in 1986, gone to join him everybody supposed until her body was found in Leakin park in 2001. Maybe it was the mystery, or just her looks that tempted him to re-open this case.

When Felix Brewer disappeared so did his money, but what happened to it, Bambi was left with nothing to raise Felix’s family, Julie Saxony who was left his cover operation, a modest coffee shop, moved up to a small bed and breakfast and then to a fancy  restaurant just before disappearing, but with what money? Bambi’s?

Brewer left behind him a tangled web of friends and family and as Sandy investigates at his slow pace, he picks apart this puzzle,  Julie was definitely going to meet Felix when she disappeared. Bambi had found her own pearl earring at her house just after the disappearance, except she hadn’t lost it; had Felix bought the same earrings for all of his women? Had Julie been to Bambi’s house when she had been away and only Rachel had been there?

A pleasant murder mystery with an in depth study of each of the five women characters as well as Sandy, Felix was after all gone, so why spend too much time with him? As usual all is not as it seems and betrayal is at the heart of things. An interesting two weeks of audio in the car,  I’m not sure I would buy the book.

First published in English as ‘After I’m Gone’ by Faber & Faber in 2014

David Nicholls ‘ Us’

‘Amsterdam’s reputation as a city of sin always seems something of an anomaly to me as if one were to discover the presence of an immense crack den in the centre of Cheltenham Spa.’image

Well if you’ve been to Cheltenham Spa you will appreciate this typical example of the dry humour of Douglas, David Nicholls’ narrator and main character in his 2009 novel, Us, one of my English lit targets for 2016.

Us is the story of a family, Douglas and his wife Connie and their son Albie. As the novel opens, Connie in what to Douglas seems out of the blue, tells him she wants to leave him after twenty years of marriage. The story then follows two converging paths, the first being from the past as Douglas traces his life with Connie up to the announcement, and the second as Douglas organises a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe for all three to try and persuade Connie to stay.

Some hints at the differences between Connie and Douglas are given in the present day after the announcement, when Douglas explains why he thinks they are together:

I’d always been under the impression that we were together because we wanted to be together, because we were happy most of the time I thought, we loved each other I thought, clearly I was mistaken, but I was looking forward to us growing old together, me and you growing old and dying together. Connie turned to me her head on the pillow and said:
-Douglas, why would anyone in their right mind have thought of that?

At the beginning of their story Douglas, a logical, conservative and literal scientist, engrossed in his work to the extent of having no social life and whose idea of imagination stretches to wanting to ensure a secure future, meets Connie, an imaginative ex arts student and would be artist, living life to the full as it comes, good or bad. Connie is on the bounce from a torrid relationship with a fellow artist.  Nicholls draws us the picture of  Douglas, before the meeting, with dry humour, epitomised by the following quote:

I was wary because parties and dinner parties in particular had always seemed to be a pitiless form of gladiatorial combat with Laurel garlands bestowed to the most witty, successful and attractive and the corpses of the defeated lying bleeding on the painted floorboards. The pressure to be one’s best self in such circumstances I found paralysing.

The answer to the question, how have Douglas and Connie’s view of life or their personalities mellowed and come closer together after twenty years of married life is brought into focus by their relationship with Albie their son, confrontational with Douglas, fusional with Connie and their diametrically opposed views of what is good for Albie’s future explains the underlying tensions which Connie lives as a straight jacket on life and imagination and which righteous Douglas finds to be a normal disagreement:

My son was soon to study photography on a three year course which we were financing and although my wife, who knew about these things, insisted that he had a talent, an eye,the fact of it filled me with an anxiety that I fought daily to suppress, at one point he had been intending to study theatre, theatre! at least I had managed to nip that in the bud

-Even if it’s hard he has to try, if he loves it he has to try, why must you always stomp on his dreams?
-I’ve got nothing against his dreams as long as they are attainable.
-But if they’re attainable then they’re not dreams.
-And that’s why it’s a waste of time I said, the problem of telling people that they can do anything they want to do is that it is objectively, factually inaccurate…….
-When did it start Douglas she said, her voice low, when did you start to drain the passion out of everything?

The Grand Tour is of course a disaster, Albie at 17, wanting to discover life had no interest in a family holiday touring European art galleries with bickering parents, I will skip this whole episode as the brush strokes were too thick for me although sugar coated by the dry humour.

Douglas is forced to look back at moments in their relationship where the early signs of misunderstanding were present and are still there to the present day, his example of reading tells us about their radical and opposed views, but also about how Douglas feels Connie sees him:

In the early days of our relationship, on a trip to Greece I think it was, I neglected to take a book onto the plane, it was not a mistake I would make again.
-What are you going to do for two hours?
-Oh I’ve got some journals, some work stuff, a guide book.
-But you haven’t got a novel to read.
-I’ve just never really been that bothered about fiction I said. She shook her head.
-I’ve always wondered who those freaks are that don’t read novels and it’s you, you freak, she smiled through all this, but I still sensed an incremental slip a loosening of my grip on her affections as if I had casually confessed to some racial bigotry. Can I really love a man who doesn’t see the point of made up stories.

At this point, I feel a little nuance in the characters is missing to make them real, outside of film that is. This makes me think a little of Notting Hill or of 4 Weddings in the character development. Probably a good film subject.

First Published in English as”Us” by Hodder and Stoughton in 2014