Book Review: Fatherland by Robert Harris

Fatherland by Robert Harris

Fatherland by Robert Harris

As Marty McFly found out, tampering with history is a dangerous game; tweak one little bit of the past and you risk unravelling the present. But fiddling with the “What Ifs” is a rich subject for storytellers and re-imagining the past, and in doing so re-telling the present, has become a popular branch of sci-fi and is now  almost a genre in its right.

Robert Harris’ 1992 best seller Fatherland is an alternative history novel that imagines a past where the Allies lost World War II and Hitler’s dream of the Third Reich has become a terrifying reality. Starved into surrendering, Britain is now a German outpost along with most of Western Europe. Meanwhile, Poland and her eastern neighbours have been eaten up and consumed by a Nazi-run Germany. Switzerland, and its mountains (of gold), stands alone as a German-free zone.

Harris’ post-WWII world is mostly entirely believable. It’s a terrifying place – suffocating, frightening, devoid of good art, decent books and humour. Although while The Reich is a dark, dangerous world, the Germans haven’t been entirely de-humanised into frog-marching cardboard cut-outs. There are signs of rebellion as the heady 1960s creep in; even The Beatles have a little cameo (although would they have existed in a Nazi-run Britain? And would the 60s have swung quite so exuberantly – if at all – with a bunch of uniformed killjoys in power? Such are the perils of the alternative history novel).

Fatherland is as much about the small within this monolith to fascism, the story of one man’s fight for justice in a world that’s run by criminals. Xavier March is a detective in the Reich’s equivalent of CID. He’s a great detective, but not a good citizen, in fact he’s far too good a detective to let corruption win even if it means risking his own life.

The Empire is gearing up for the celebration of Hitler’s 75th birthday, an event that marks a national holiday and a great deal of marching and chest puffing. Five days before the official day, March is called to investigate dead body in a river just outside Berlin. As March delves deeper into a seemingly straightforward murder case, he learns that this apparently routine investigation has far deeper ramifications, his enquires taking him right to the very top of the government, revealing horrors that could pull the thread that will unravel the whole world.

Like all good cops in risky situations, March finds himself a sidekick, Claire Maguire – a pretty, young American journalist notchaknow – who is plucky and curious and offers much needed comfort in March’s difficult time. Their romance was an irritating, screamingly obvious and cliched addition (and why she had to be 25-years-old to March’s 42 is best left with Harris). But at least Maguire and her American brashness livened up a novel full of men in uniform (the only other women in the novel was a gargoyled receptionist and March’s ex-wife, who we never heard directly from).

The off-colour romance and the lack of female voices aside, Fatherland is a good read. Thrillers are usually so far removed from the kind of book I like as to render them invisible, despite the ubiquity of those embossed covers in grating serif fonts. I like books where nothing happens; I’ll usually take pages of someone buttering a piece of toast over chapters of breathless action. But having your foot in plaster for weeks means a great of (temporary) life changes. The proximity of a novel suddenly becomes the only criteria to read it and Fatherland, loaned to me a few months earlier, lay within an arm’s reach of my bed. Fatherland may not have converted me entirely to a new genre, but I will be more open to a thriller’s captivating arms.

A former journalist, Harris has a reporter’s skill of writing sharp, unfussy prose with enough colour to illuminate the world – in this instance, one we fortunately only ever to imagine. As all good thrillers should be, Fatherland gallops along, but, as all bad thrillers do, it doesn’t outrun itself. The plot doesn’t end up on a tangled web of confusion and dead ends; the conclusion is neat without being contrived.The even pace and realism is helped along by the quiet, considered March whose actions always seem believable even when he’s clearly doing something very stupid, his conviction in his task successfully putting pay to doubts of plausibility.

Fatherland is perfect sickbed, beach or airport read, which sounds like an insult, but isn’t meant to be. It’s pacey and gripping enough to block out the world and its annoyances. Even your fellow passengers, or your fractured foot, won’t quite seem so bad after taking a trip to a world where Germany won the war.

by Suzanne Elliot

 

Theatre Review: Shutters, Park Theatre

 Shutters, Park Theatre

Shutters, Park Theatre

Shutters at Finsbury Park’s year-and-a-bit-old Park Theatre is a triptych of plays that highlight women’s journey over the last century.

The short plays, directed by Jack Thorpe Baker (two of 30 minutes, the final one of 50 minutes) are loosely linked by themes of family, community and Americanness (as well as their femaleness), but otherwise are stand alone set pieces that, despite some heavy subject matter, tell neat, witty, largely captivating stories.

The first, Cast of Characters by Philip Dawkins, is a deconstructed play seen from the backend, the framework a run-through for a play we never see. It’s dizzingly fast-paced and takes a while to untangle, the all-female cast oscillating between the many roles of both genders while an unseen playwright’s dismembered voice occasionally interrupts their read-through with her asides. Essentially it’s a play about rehearsing a play, but it’s far more fun than that sounds and almost certainly a lot more entertaining than the play that’s been rehearsed that centres on a dysfunctional family very much in the vein of American literature.

The conceit allows for a playfulness that the heavy subject matter of the play being read-through wouldn’t have allowed. There are excellent performances from the all-female cast, in particular from Nicola Blackman who brings a comedic touch to a miserable MS sufferer stuck in a love-less marriage, and Lucia McAnespie as the chirpy 80-year-old Bernice.

The second play, Trifles, downshifts in mood and hurtles back in time to the beginning of last century and a rural community rocked by an apparent murder, suspicion falling on dead man’s wife. Written by Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Susan Glaspell, Trifles is often hailed as one of theatre’s first feminist plays. A hundred and two years after it was written, Trifles may have lost much of its shock, horror feminism, but its themes are still all too familiar.

Trifles sees three puffed-up men stumbling about trying to find clues in a suspected murder case, mocking the two women present, one a friend of the suspect and the other the sheriff’s wife, for concentrating on the seemingly trifle – the condemned woman’s needlework, her preserved fruit, THAT jewellery box. Of course, their feminine observations unearth far more than the men’s arrogant jackbooted stomp. The play weaves together as beautifully as a well stitched piece of patchwork and is genuinely thrilling.

The final play, Brooke Allen’s The Deer is, despite the inclusion of a talking deer (a very endearing Joanna Kirkland), the most conventional. A messed up bad boy, his college professor channelling Robin Williams as he tries to get him to dream bigger, his pretty older sister (an excellent Yolanda Kettle), herself stuck in a deadend job in a small town. That things don’t end well is never in doubt, but the ending has a neat little twist that adds a less predictable element.

The six all-female cast members are all highly watchable and engaging in which ever role they’re playing – and their American accents seem pretty faultless to me – while Jack Thorpe Baker’s direction is slick and well-paced, the tempo of the three play format working well in the intimate Park 90 space. The premise – showcasing the female experience over the past century – may sound heavyweight, but Shutters carries it lightly, but no less seriously making for an entertaining, interesting evening.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue

My first introduction to Emma Donoghue was her gem of a novel Room. A moving, mesmorising book, Room is the story of four-year-old Jack who is born in captivity, a product of his mother’s imprisonment and continued rape by an unnamed kidnapper.

Room is heartbreaking and majestic, Donoghue captures the bewildered four-year old’s voice so beautifully that Jack is as vivid a fictional character as you’ll find.

But I discovered that Room was a departure for Donoghue whose usual territory is the world of corsets, cobbles and carriages with a hefty dollop of historical scandal. Slammerkin pre-dates Room by nine years and is set in 18th century London and the then English town of Monmouth. It’s the sorry story of Mary Saunders, a girl born a few steps from the gutter on Charing Cross Road who soon rolls right into after being thrown out of her mother’s house.

Mary’s future never looked bright, but once homeless, it’s positively desolate. But then she meets Doll, a St Giles’ prostitute – straight out of the book of tarts with hearts – who literally picks her up off the street and teaches her survival in the crudest sense. But even she can’t protect Mary from the vagaries of London life and Mary is forced to flee to her mother’s hometown of Monmouth where she is taken in by her mum’s old friend Jane Jones and her husband Thomas. Jane is a dressmaker and Mary, who as a lady of the night in London knew the worth of fine clothes, soon develops a taste for beautiful fabrics and wonderfully crafted threads. Life is quiet in Welsh borders for a while, but Mary longs to be free in a world where lowly born women never were. Her lust for a life of freedom – and a beautiful clothes – ends in tragedy.

Slammerkin should be a rip-roaring read, it’s got all the elements of a gripping historical yarn. Based on a real life Mary Saunders, it’s got violence, lust, slurry strewn streets and dastardly men. But the story got sort of stuck in the mud of Charing Cross Road and while always threatening to take off, never seemed to come to life. My judgement probably isn’t fair – although I’ve now only come to realise  – as I’m not a great historical fiction fan. Novels set in the past written in contemporary times always seem so po-faced, while fiction of the time – Dickens, Austen et al  – are shot through with wit.

Slammerkin is no different. It’s relentlessly gloomy and dispiriting and strangely uneffecting despite the brutality and hardship. This isn’t polite historical fiction, Donaghue doesn’t flinch from the realities of working class life in Britain in pre-Welfare State days. There are some horrific scenes, particularly in Mary’s early days on the mean streets of 1760s London that made me recoil, but left me unmoved. Mary Saunders certainly isn’t unsympathetic, but she’s rather dull. I don’t buy the idea that you have to like characters in novels to enjoy a book, but a fictional companion has got to be good company and Mary frequently bored me, she seemed so lifeless for one who had led such an extraordinary life.

Donaghue is clearly a fine writer with an ear for dialogue and a way of conquering up vivid scenes with little fuss, but it’s her corset-less world that I’ll be sticking with.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Straight White Male by John Niven

Straight White Male by John Niven

Straight White Male by John Niven

Straight White Male is the portrait of the artist as a drunken mess. The novel’s anti-hero is Kennedy Marr, the youngest ever winner of the Booker Prize, a toxic, talented, charming concoction of many of his literary heroes – those straight white males of the title – a Groucho Club-frequenting Frankenstein monster of Fitzgerald, Yeats and Kingsley Amis with the nuts and bolts of James Joyce, Amis junior, Graham Greene et al.

After several years as a penniless writer supported by his first wife Millie, Kennedy’s debut novel Unthinkable catapults him to literary superstardom. Suddenly, still just 27,  he’s the voice of a generation and a hero to TLS readers and undergraduates alike.

But his success and wealth stir up deep-rooted neurosis that no amount of whisky or women can smother. Two divorces, a move to LA and a money spinning career as a screenwriter led him further down a path strewn with discarded Laphroaig bottles, models’ underwear and bloody noses as he tries to run away from death and, in the process, life.

Now with a colossal unpaid tax bill and an equally impervious writer’s block, Kennedy is offered a lifeline when’s he’s awarded the FW Bingham Award worth half a million pounds. The downside to this apparent windfall? He has to leave LA for the Cotswolds and teach creative writing to a bunch of undergrads at Deeping University, the very same institution where his ex-wife Millie teaches. Having gulped from the poisoned chalice of success and wealth, can he settle into academic life in rural England and become a better father, son and brother?

Despite Kennedy’s unrelenting pursuit of pleasure, Straight White Male isn’t an ode to hedonism. There’s no judgement, but we’re not encouraged to admire Kennedy’s wandering eye or mid-Atlantic brawls, although it’s difficult not to sympathise. That you only want him to become a better person for his own sake rather than to fit neatly into society’s moral straightjacket is credit to John Niven for making Kennedy more than a one-note selfish, drunk philanderer. He’s engaging company, a shambolic charmer with a heart as big as his drink problem. He is also, like the novel, funny and clever, two of the most important things in life and literature.

Straight White Male pays obvious debts to the dead white men Kennedy worships as well as their natural living heirs, but I also heard Zadie Smith’s voice in Niven’s pacy dialogue that, like Smith, captures everyday speech with a writer’s flourish. Kennedy’s heightened realism reminded me of many of the characters in Smith’s novels, people we recognise with added padding from those wielding the pen.

Straight White Male is a sharp, intelligent satire that may not quite hit the same literary heights as Kennedy’s (and can we assume, Niven’s?) heroes, but is a richly comic page-turner with brains.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

It is always a little dispiriting not ‘getting’ a book that others hold close to their hearts. Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition is a Goodreads smash, its appeal straddling ages, genre-snobbery and borders. Not only that, but national treasure and the unofficial-cleverest-man-on TV, Stephen Fry, LOVES it. As proof, there’s a great big quote on the cover assuring us Notes from an Exhibition is the best thing since the invention of the printing press (“this novel is complete perfection”). Perfection! Wow, this has got to be good, right. Right?

But Notes from an Exhibition sort of drifted in front of my eyes like a piece of seaweed on a calm Cornish sea. I kept waiting for that magical moment when a book comes to life and you click with it like a soul mate. But this novel and I never made it past that first awkward date.

Canadian-born, Cornwall-dwelling, Rachel Kelly is a once successful artist who has spent her life in the shadow of bipolar. She drops dead in her attic studio one morning where she had – as she did everyday – locked herself in to paint furiously, even though her work had fallen out of fashion in the years leading up to her death. Despite popping her clogs within the first few pages, this is Rachel’s novel. It’s about her legacy, both personally and professionally, as well as a posthumous unearthing of her secret history and identity.

Notes from an Exhibition certainly doesn’t want for a plot, it’s stuffed full of story lines that meander across oceans and time zones, veering from 1970s Cambridge to small town Canada and back again to modern day Penzance, Notes from an Exhibition’s true base. It’s choc-o-block with drama – and characters, oh my god, so many characters – but despite the constant drama, the tension never seemed to build; the big reveal or twist would sneak past me and it was several pages before I realised I’d missed another character’s personal tragedy.

Nothing is too trivial for Gale to try and tease out some suspense. There was a whole mini-drama involving Rachel and Anthony’s third child, Hedley who was convinced for about five pages that his husband was having an affair with a woman. This woman and the entire narrative were then dismissed a few chapters later with an unconvincing sentence.

Beyond the tangle of story lines, Notes from an Exhibition examines, at arms length, the link between talent and depression. Rachel, it’s suggested, is less productive when she’s drugged-up, while during her manic periods she is capable of painting her greatest work. Gale stops short of suggesting that there is a direct correlation, although Rachel seems to believe it. Gale also doesn’t wince from the impact bipolar has on the sufferers’ family. Rachel has few redeeming features – she’s short tempered, mean to her children, rude to her husband, selfish, indifferent and self-absorbed – personality traits that can’t all be blamed on her condition. But her fragile state means her family must dance lightly around her, bending to her moods and whims. Anthony, Rachel’s gentle, patient, honest Quaker husband – and potentially the novel’s most interesting character – gets rather lost in the dysfunctional noise of a family of four children damaged by their power of their mother’s personality.

Despite dealing with a heavy subject matter and including several very dark events, there was something rather twee about the style of Notes from an Exhibition, it’s tone almost jarringly jolly. It’s not that Gale doesn’t take bipolar, or any of the other problems raised – and boy, we’re not short of dysfunctionality here, we’ve got drug use, homelessness, underage sex – seriously. He’s clearly done his research, but perhaps this is part of the problem, this novel doesn’t feel like it comes from the heart, but from the textbook. And while the novel is well constructed – I liked the conceit of framing each chapter with the notes from Rachel’s posthumous exhibition – and a thoughtful one, it was, for me at least, as dramatically gripping as a cream tea and not as enjoyable. But I can’t help feeling that I’m the one missing out…

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Crucible, Old Vic

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic's The Crucible

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic’s The Crucible

Arthur Miller is having a bit of a moment on The Cut. Just as the gut-wrenching A View from the Bridge bows out in bloody fashion at The Young Vic, at the other end of the street, its more stately elder, The Old Vic reprises The Crucible, Miller’s tale of the Salem witch hunt.

The Crucible may just be my favourite Arthur Miller play. It’s a gem of a piece of drama – a cracking story with plenty of boo-hiss villains and honest country folk being merrily trampled by utterly nuts authority figures all told in Miller’s stylish dialogue. It’s dark and sinister, packed full of suffering, hypocrisy, bonnets and archaic speech (‘sit ye down’!).

A drama this good deserves a fantastic reprisal and this Old Vic Yaël Farber-directed production draws out the angst and the madness to deliver a play of brutal intensity.

The Crucible is, of course, Miller’s allegory for the McCarthy communist witch hunt in 1950s America, but even discounting this second layer the plot is a cracker. Nine months before the curtain rises to find Mary Warren rolling around on a bed, in the grips of a fever (which the locals have – easily – confused with being possessed by the devil) farmer John Proctor had an unfortunate rumble in the haybales with the family’s maid, Abigail Williams. While John and Abigail keep watch over the sick girl – not exactly the most romantic of situations – Abigail attempts to rekindle their former fling. Hurt by John’s rebuttal, Abigail, encouraged by her elders talk of the devil, seeks a revenge so deadly that it decimates the whole town of Salem. The rumours she starts legitimise the authorities to murder and these moralistic men are sent into increasing spirals of madness and power lust until the town of Salem lies derelict and smeared with the blood of its innocent population.

Incidentally, Salem in this production lies nearer to Manchester England than Massachusetts (a link to Lancashire’s own witch hunts?), which is probably more accurate considering it’s unlikely that these early settlers had already perfected an American accent in 1692.

John Proctor must be a fantastic role for an actor, he’s up there with Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, crippled by a fatal flaw and only realising what he’s about to lose when it’s too late. Filling Proctor’s big clopping boots for this production is Spooks and Hobbit star Richard Armitage who is the big star draw here. Armitage has made a career of playing brooding, angst ridden men that never fall neatly on the side of either good or bad, and as Proctor he is called on to crank up the angst factor far beyond dwarf-range. If I were Yaël Farber I’d have him reign it in a little, especially towards the spine-tingling climax where the emotion gets a little lost in the shouting, but he gives a huge, powerful performance in what must be a taxing role both physically and emotionally.

As big a punch as Armitage gives, this is very much an ensemble piece with many fine performances. Fresh out stage school, Samantha Colley hugely impresses as Abigail Williams, Proctor and Salem’s downfall and one of literature’s great villains. Gosh Abigails’ bad – and so unrepentant! – and Colley plays her with that deflt innocence and malice that the part demands. In a cast of great depth, other standouts include Harry Attwell as Thomas Putnam, Anna Madeley as John’s long suffering wife Elizabeth and Jack Ellis as the ruthless Deputy Governor Danforth who could probably project his crystal clear diction across the river.

A few niggles: the Round (handily crucible shaped) may have many advantages, especially I should imagine if you’re on (in?) it, but the bowl-like shape of it means actors’ words can get a little lost in the stew of dialogue when you’re up in the Lilian Baylis. This was a preview I saw and I wouldn’t be surprise if they tightened the production up at little – at 3 hours 40 minutes you could fit two and a half performances of A View from the Bridge into it – and there were a few flabby scene-setting moments that look pretty but delivered little. That said, this is too good a production for you to notice how long you’ve been sat there (your knees may tell you otherwise).

Farber’s Crucible is pumped full of heart and passion (perhaps, at times, it cup runneth over with emotion) – and Miller’s great story is given a rapturous reprisal that’s almost matched in intensity by the ecstatic applause at the curtain call.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Quietly, Soho Theatre

Declan Conlon as Ian and Patrick O’Kane as Jimmy in Quietly at the Soho Theatre

Declan Conlon as Ian and Patrick O’Kane as Jimmy in Quietly at the Soho Theatre

Football forms a background to Quietly, Owen McCafferty’s Belfast-based drama, but the odds played out on stage in this searing 75-minute play are far bigger and run much deeper than even Bill Shankly could imagine.

Quietly is Northern Ireland’s brutal history in microcosm set in a pub on the city’s fringes where a Catholic and a Protestant meet to play out their own linked personal and painful history.

Northern Ireland are playing a World Cup qualifying match against Poland at home. Polish barman Robert is supporting his home nation with vocal frustration. As usual, he has just one customer, regular Johnny, a morose man shrouded in disappointment resentment, seeking refuge, as he does every night, in this pub at the top of the road. But tonight Jimmy warns Robert to expect another punter and that there “may be shouting”. When the third man, Ian, arrives, there is more than just a bit of shouting, his presence setting off sparks that ignite the fire of these two men’s shared personal history throwing up confessions, half-apologies and regret as Robert looks on as referee.

This tight 75 minute long play bristles with anger, disappointment, resentment – and forgiveness. As the play reached its emotional crescendo, there was a lot of sniffling which I can’t believe was all due to hayfever. But in amongst the angst there were some lovely amusing  moments that cut through the gloom.

Quietly is unpretentious, striking and deeply moving in its simplicity, these are not men used to talking about their feelings or admitting their mistakes. Johnny and Ian’s story is one of many from a certain point in Belfast’s history and its power lies in the way McCafferty draws out the personal from the newspaper headlines. Theatre is so often about small things wrought large – an end of an affair, a family secret – but Quietly is a big story diluted to its essence; the pain of two families destroyed by hate, the effect of history on individuals.

As affecting and as nicely structured as McCafferty’s script is, it’s the actors who elevate Quietly to such an emotional place. Patrick O’Kane, an old school friend and long-term McCafferty collaborator, as Jimmy pulls out a controlled powerhouse of a performance that’s moving yet low-key. Declan Conlon is unassumingly brilliant as Ian, a man weighed down by his past and Robert Zawadzki as the barman brings a lightness of touch when most needed.

Unshowy, yet exhilarating and gripping, the brilliance of Quietly should be shouted from the roof tops

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Skylight at Wyndham’s Theatre

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Revived for the first time in a UK theatre since 1997, David Hare’s Skylight is the first of this year’s West End star vehicles, with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy as the two leads and Stephen Daldry in the director’s chair.

Hare’s play, written before Kensal Rise was colonised by the Queen’s Park latte sipping, yogic overspill (which impinges a bit of some of The Points), is part love story, part political debate. Despite being nearly 20 years old, the themes that run through Skylight resonate more than ever as it showcases the cyclical argument between two sides of the political debate: are we responsible for others – for those worse off in society – or does everyone simply have to look out for themselves? Skylight also runs the gauntlet through guilt, responsibility and love.

Nighy and Mulligan play Tom Sergeant and Kyra Hollis, two former lovers who meet for the first time since the end of their adulterous affair three years ago. The two have vastly different views of the world, but can their love bridge the chasm of political differences?

The play, set exclusive in Kyra’s frigid, sparse flat, opens with her receiving her first guest of the day, Tom’s 18 year-old son Edward (Matthew Beard) bouncing in uninvited and asking her to help heal his father whose spark has left him since the death of his wife Alice, a year ago. Edward is an absolute charm and Beard plays him with an endearing naivety and laconic wit, shadows, we will see, of Nighy’s Tom. Beard’s Edward doesn’t appear again until the end, and such was the impact of his small role, that I rather missed him in the bits in between.

Later, while running a bath, Kyra is interrupted by the blare of her broken intercom announcing the arrival of Tom, and so begins a night of passion, polemics and pasta. Tom is a rich restaurateur with a chauffeur and the beginnings of a chip on his shoulder. He shouldn’t be a likeable man, but Nighy’s innate charm and comic timing ensure that you fall for him. Nighy first played Tom Sergeant back in 1996 and he’s so at home in the role that it’s difficult to see anyone but him as Tom.

Kyra, a middle class solicitor’s daughter who’s living an almost saintly life in penance for her comfortable upbringing, is a teacher in an inner city school in East Ham. She is on the side of the fence that says we are collectively responsible, although Hare doesn’t present her as an angel, after all, she happily had a six year affair with a man while living under the same roof as his wife and two children and admits to not feeling the slightest bit guilty about it. And what of her well meaning motives, is she, as Tom suggests, patronising and misunderstanding of the people she is trying to help?

If this all sounds rather heavy and Issue Driven, it’s not. Skylight is far more fun than that, Hare’s script is full of humour and lightness of touch inbetween the bigger points and it’s delivered on with assurance and wit by the cast.

The living set was a lot of fun, with Nighy and Mulligan being called on to muster all their acting dexterity to actually cook on stage (do not go and see this play on an empty stomach). Watching the actors chop, grate and stir, the tomato sauce bubbling away on the stove while Tom and Kyra trash out their world views, added an extra element of realism while the off-hand cooking disagreements softened the more intense dialogue.

As much as I enjoyed Skylight, I couldn’t help think that in less able actors’ hands, Hare’s script would have been in danger of being overly plummy and self-conscious. That is, of course, part of Hare’s appeal; he writes witty, captivating dialogue that has its roots in realism but is unashamedly heightened and dramatic and as such is full of potential theatrical potholes which a top bill cast like this deftly avoid. Not surprisingly, Nighy is particularly as ease with Hare’s dialogue and his undeniable stage presence rather dominated the duals between him and Mulligan. Mulligan is quietly great, but part of Kyra seems oddly slight, for all her firebrand opinions and self-possession she seems a little slight.

Skylight is an elegantly written and slickly performed play which stirs up some well-worn themes with a fresh voice.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: High-Rise by JG Ballard

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JG Ballard’s world of dystopian urban landscapes set somewhere in the near future has become so recognisable that he’s gained his owned adjective: Ballardian. These Ballardian novels evoke collapsing societies set against shiny modern worlds that are at once a sci-fi step removed from us and yet all too recognisable. In Ballard’s world, the collapse of our so-called civilised society can be sparked by something as simple as a smashed champagne bottle.

Ballard understood the fragility of the human psyche better than most. His teenage internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai, described in his autobiography Empire of the Sun, shaped his view of human nature and, in turn, his novels. High-Rise is the second in Ballard’s urban disaster trilogy, book-ended by Crash and Concrete Island and follows the professional middle-class inhabitants of a flashy newly built, upscale tower block as they revolt against it.

I first read High-Rise years ago during my “Ballard-period” (I used to have a habit of reading an author’s oeuvre consecutively, an excellent way of killing your love for a writer) back in my pre-London days. Its tale of professional people descending into anarchy within a 40 storey tower block has loomed large in my mind ever since, especially now I live in London and am under the shadows of tenement blocks that are increasingly owned by high-earning white collar workers. (The Erno Goldfinger designed Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove, which is said to be one of the inspirations of High-Rise and was originally built solely for council tenants, is now one of London’s most sort-after addresses. Art, life etc).

Ballard begins the novel at the end with one of literature’s most enduring sentences before rewinding to the moment Dr Robert Laing pinpoints as the trigger that set off the building’s decline into a violent, lawless society with its primitive class system and clan-led brutality (that champagne bottle).

Amongst those sharing Laing’s experiences of a civilisation gone to ruin high above the streets of London are Anthony Royal, the building’s architect, a modernist Bond villain-like character presiding over his kingdom like a deposed despot – or your average London landlord. Then there’s Richard Wilder, a burly TV director on whom perhaps the building has the biggest impact, his madness gaining currency as he climbs the floors in a bid to conquer his concrete mountain. As the swimming pools fill with the carcasses of dogs and the air-con vents are blocked by faeces, the three men attempt to seize control of their minds – and the building.

Ballard’s vision of the impact architecture has on the individual runs through many of his novel and it’s particularly obvious in High-Rise where the building is as much a character as the tenants. But while the middle-class inhabitants of the tower block desend into anarchy, Ballard’s not dismissing this return to a simpler life as a bad thing. Are, he seems to be asking, Laing and his neighbours simply de-evolutionising back to where we should be? See how easy our primeval power makes it for us to adapt to less sophisticated situations (this is the same logic I apply to music festivals). And while High-Rise is often described as a vision of urban dystopia, when we first meet Robert Laing, he’s having a jolly old time gnawing on a dog’s barbecued leg amongst his rubbish strewn balcony, describing himself as the happiest he’s ever been. So perhaps it’s the world outside the high rise that is getting it wrong?

I enjoyed lapping up Ballard’s hugely imaginative and sinister world again, although I remembered half way through High-Rise that bingeing on Ballard had given me a distaste for his very distinct writing style. He writes with economy and little emotion, his prose as brutal and cold as a tenement block in November. Similarly, his characters are broadly sketched and his prose remains at a constant, middle-lane pace. Of course the simplicity of his writing hides his brilliance as a writer, the shocks of violence all the more brutal told with minimal fuss, while the juxtaposition of events are more sharply felt by the blandness of his description.

As a vision of an urine-soaked hell, High-Rise is an all too real one, and, like all Ballard books I’ve read, it’s a compulsive and powerful novel that lingers on the mind like the stench of a rubbish strewn hallway on a summer’s day.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

I have frequently claimed to anyone that cared to ask that Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors. But it struck me recently that this claim is a little overstated; I’ve only read two of her novels, White Teeth and The Autograph Man. And I didn’t much like The Autograph Man.

Sure, it’s a 25 per cent hit rate (I also claim J.G. Ballard as one of my top 10 authors despite having only read about a quarter of his output, and loved about a fifth), but when I suggest Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors, what I’m actually saying is she’s one of my favourite-people-who-I-don’t-know, a well-known person who I’d invite to one of those imaginary dinner parties we’re always being asked to attend.

Eager to boost my Smith claims beyond pretend dinner parties, I was keen to read her most recent, NW. But a copy of On Beauty had sat accusingly on my bookshelf for so long that, I discovered, it contains references within its dusty covers that are now consigned to the technological dustbin (there’s a plot device featuring a Discman) and it looked like it needed some love and attention.

Which is exactly what most of the characters in Smith’s transatlantic family saga need. Ostensibly, On Beauty is about two warring families, or rather warring fathers. On the left is white Brit Howard Belsey and on the right is African-American Sir Monty Kipps, two art history academics embroiled in a bitter war of words about Rembrandt and politics, a rivalry that crosses the Atlantic and embroils both their families.

But the relationship between Monty and Howard is set to mute for most of the novel, their disagreement simply a catalyst to drive the novel on its way. This isn’t a book about two grown men squabbling; it’s about everything but, covering marriage, race, class, friendship, morals, first love, betrayal and politics across two continents.

The transatlantic conceit – the story skips between London and Wellington, a well-to-do town near Boston – is perhaps a little clunky, although I love Smith’s descriptions of our city so, for me, it was a niggle with an upside. And skipping back to England half way through the novel was a convenient way of introducing Howard’s working-class pre-academic roots and giving him a much needed framework.

There’s an impressive cast of characters, but the real stars of the book are Howard and his brood. The Belseys are a sweary, liberal, chaotic mixed race family; there’s Howard who treats life and those around him like one big joke who for all his huge brains (or perhaps because of them) makes some appalling decisions. His three children – upstanding Christian (against his liberal Dad’s wishes) Jerome; strong-willed, determined if rather unpoetic Zora (a nice little nod to one of Smith’s favourite books, Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Levi, with his box-fresh trainers and street talk who is frankly adorable, even when – especially when – he’s trying to play the bad guy. Watching over them with love and exasperation is Howard’s wife; big, beautiful, black Kiki, who looks on with patient eyes and a determined mind. It’s her unlikely friendship with Monty Kipps’ sick wife, the brittle in every way Carlene, that sparks a chain of events that knocks the family’s life off kilter – and more than one person off their high-horse.

Like all the best books, On Beauty doesn’t have a plot-line turned up to 11; loads happens while simultaneously nothing happens. There’s a death, people have sex with the wrong people, teenagers fall in love and in with the wrong crowd, there are affairs and break-ups and the odd Powerpoint presentation.

Perhaps it was the academic setting, but On Beauty had something of the Lucky Jim about it, Howard a kind of Jim Dixon with even worse judgement. Smith’s novel is always teetering on the brink of silliness, threatening to descend into the ridiculous, but Smith, like Kinglsey Amis, is too good a writer to let the story or the characters tip into farce or caricature.

Smith definitely deserves to lorded as a favourite author. She’s a dexterous writer who can deftly skip tenses and perspectives, flip from characters’ external thoughts to their internal monologues with a flick of her pen. But it’s her dialogue, her ear for language, her understanding of human beings that makes Zadie Smith such a wonderful writer to read and, I imagine, a great dinner party guest.

by Suzanne Elliott