Book Review: Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Dr Nicholas Slopen is an average academic for whom books are the “centre of the world”. You can practically smell the brown cords and the musty scent of old books emanating from him.

Nicholas – Nicky – has carved a bit of a niche for himself as a Dr Samuel Johnson expert, with one well received book of the great man’s letters under his literary belt, he’s now in the process of producing another volume. Johnson’s words and his 18th century world have help create who Nicholas is. The books, the words, the thoughts he’s absorbed over the years are as vital as DNA and he’s about to learn just how vital in a hugely violent and degenerative way.

We’re first introduced to Nicholas Slopen by an ex-girlfriend, Susanna Laidlaw-Robinson, who opens the novel with a prelude of the story that follows. Nicholas enters her life years after they last met only for him to die in her house hours later. Confusingly for her, Nicholas Slopen actually died a year before and there are grisly post-mortem pictures to prove it. So who was this man with Nicky’s eyes who called her by his pet name for her,‘Suki’? Sure, he looked different and the tattoos were puzzling, but we all grow older and that was unmistakably Nicky’s personality imprinted on that face.

The answer lies down the back of the sofa where Susanna finds a USB left by the doubly-dead Nicholas. Its contents reveal how ex-Nicholas Scholey came to be in her Midland’s shop. His tale is Strange Bodies.

Nicholas journey to the Midland’s begins with a meeting with the perfectly drawn Hunter, a music biz mogul whose part hippy, part sociopath. He calls on Nicky’s expertise to verify the provenance of what are believed to be long-lost letters of Johnson’s. Excited by the thought of Johnson treasures, Nicholas’ agreement to investigate this slash of potential literary gold pulls him into a deadly experiment driven by Hunter’s vanity and ego.

Strange Bodies is a book about how words make up who we are, our bodies – our carcass as they are referred to later on in the novel – are little more than vessels to transport the real us. There’s undoubtedly a Frankenstein shadow hanging over Strange Bodies, but Theroux’s monster has a 21st century sophisticated and humanity that Mary Shelley’s gothic novel lacks. There are quotes from Shakespeare, Milton, and of course Johnson. London – the city Johnson loved, “if a man is bored of…etc” – is an unassuming, but powerful background as Theroux takes us from the fancy squares behind Piccadilly to shabby South London suburbs.

Strange Bodies is an absorbing tale that genre-wise is hard to define. It’s part literary thriller, part sci-fi, a novel that weaves literature and science, words and theories into a compelling narrative. It should read like a completely bonkers, far-fetched tale, like a Jasper Fforde book on steroids, but it’s firmly rooted in real life, littered with enough references to scientific theory and told with such confidence and elegance that you don’t question the strange events that unfold.

For a book about language and the dusty world of academia, Strange Bodies is very physical, quite brutal in places, like Shakespeare’s more vicious moments when the fine words slip away to make room for flinching realism, but it’s also very funny in places, and not in a literary-slap-on-the-thigh in-joke way.

If Strange Bodies sounds heavy going, it’s not, it’s an intelligent, gripping, multi-layered page-turner that is both a great yarn and a love letter to literature, an ode to words and their power and beauty.

by Suzanne Elliott

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Book Review: Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

William Boyd is a writer than elicits great love from many a bookworm. His 2010 novel Any Human Heart, the story of Logan Mountstuart’s ordinary yet extraordinary life, tops many a favourite book list.

Keen to join this army of devotees, I read Any Human Heart a couple of years ago and waited – and waited – to be transported into that zen like other worldliness that a good book takes you too. But I never clicked with it. Was it pompous Logan? Boyd’s sturdy prose? The inescapable maleness of it? I don’t know, but whatever it was the book didn’t seduce me.

But Boyd is clearly a robust and imaginative storyteller and I wasn’t about to give up after one novel. I picked Ordinary Thunderstorms as a friend – a Boyd fan – said it reminded her of Ian McEwan, in my mind a Very Good Thing.

Ordinary Thunderstorms  – a rather grandiose title for such an unpoetic book – is the story of Adam Kindred, a climatologist, who on his return to his native England after years in the States, finds himself homeless, friendless and wanted for murder within a matter of hours.

His problems start when he stops for lunch in Chelsea. Most people’s do. But his problems are far worse than merely encountering a particularly rah-rah Sloane; his road to oblivion begins with some unnoteworthy chit-chat with another lone diner, Philip Wang. Wang is an eminent immunonogist who accidentally (on purpose?) leaves some rather important documents at the restaurant. When Adam attempts to return them to Wang at his flat, he becomes embroiled in some pretty dark business that shatters his life as he knows it forever.

Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller stuck in the Thames’ mud, its thrills bogged down by obscure details and unnecessary fluff (and I’m quite a big fan of unnecessary fluff). The book  tantaslingly hints at being a bigger, better, more multi-layered novel than it is. The themes Boyd touches on – the corruption of the pharmaceutical industry, what it is to be a citizen in a 21st century city, identity and white collar crime – are rich for exploration, but are only given a cursory nod here.

The plot and the cast of characters are all in place; there’s an ugly bady with a soft-spot for dogs, a prostitute who still retains a tiny speck of humanity despite life’s best attempt to erase any compassion, a tough but kind police officer woman and some evil Suits. The Thames, in all its murky glory is the novel’s main artery, although Boyd doesn’t allow it to beat much life into the novel, the story’s pulse rarely rises above semi-consciousness.

Each of these main characters had their own – third person – chapter that are fairly indistinguishable. Rita, the police officer, who I think was meant to be a twenty-or-early-thirty something woman, sounded exactly like 59-year-old  Ingram Fryzer, the head of the drug company Calenture-Deutz who employed unfortunate Philip Wang and whose dealings are decidedly dodgy. Cockney bad ‘un Jonjo Case, who is also on Adam’s trail, sounds like a privately-educated middle manager doing a bad impression of a barrow boy.

London, specifically the Thames, is perhaps the book’s starring role, although Boyd never really captured its magic. I’m reading Marcel Theroux’s fantastic Strange Bodies at the moment, a book that shares a lot of themes and motifs with Ordinary Thunderstorms, but the London Theroux conjures up is a far more 3D city than the one that lies rather flat in Boyd’s book.

Ordinary Thunderstorms is a readable if unexciting novel that doesn’t deliver that thunderbolt that a really great book should. Maybe it will be third time lucky for Boyd and me…

by Suzanne Elliott

Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revolori in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson inhabits a world entirely of his own, where real life is amplified and sprinkled with magic dust as we’re taken on a journey into his wonderful imagination.

Anderson’s had a few wobbles recently, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is up there with his best – some would say (me) that it is his best. It’s utterly joyful despite the darkness that loiters in its shadows. It’s both hugely funny and quietly sad and never less than spell-bindingly charming.

Fittingly for a director who creates his own filmic world, The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in a fictional central European country, the Republic of Zubrowka, shortly before the Second World War (to continue the non-specific location, the encroaching Nazis are replaced by unnamed fascists).

The film is a triumph of storytelling even if the story being told is fairly slight. It begins with a  girl paying homage to the statue of The Author before picking up the unnamed writer’s memoir of his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the early 1960s. We are then transported back to 1982, where The Author (a stonking five minutes with the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson) is grappling with this very book.

His reminiscences take us back to the visit to the now shabby Grand Budapest Hotel that inspired the book. The once palatial hotel is now tatty and largely empty, it’s decor peeling and its stately rooms resounding with the silence of the handful of lonely, solo guests that wander wordlessly through them.

Intrigued by the hotel’s decline, The Author (who back in the 1960s looked a lot like Jude Law) meets the owner, the melancholy Zero Mustafa in the once majestic Turkish Baths and over a three course meal in the hotel’s cavernous dining room The Author – and us – learn the story of the decline of Grand Budapest Hotel as Zero takes us back to the 1930s where where we meet M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and a young Zero (played brilliantly by newcomer Tony Revolori).

Ralph Fiennes, an actor I rarely find palatable (admittedly because he’s usually playing a sadistic bastard) is absolutely wonderful as Monsieur Gustave, the fey, flawed, but big-hearted concierge, a role he performs with perfumed military precision.

He’s a standout star in a film brimming with a cast of characters. There’s Tilda Swinton as M. Gustave’s 82-year-old lover whose death throws the concierge and his new recruit, Zero (who in 1932 was a fledgling lobby boy)  into the path of the silent, but deadly JG Jopling (Willem Dafoe) and a very angry Adrien Brody as her son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis. Along the way we also encounter Harvey Keitel‘s naked torso, a priceless painting, a spell in jail and, of course, Bill Murray.

Anderson flirts with whimsy, but crucially The Grand Budapest Hotel is too funny and too clever to stray into twee territory. There’s also an aura of sadness and moments of violence that imbue the film with a weightiness that its jauntiness may at first disguise.

The film is beautifully shot, the elegance and symmetry of the hotel and the snowy mountains provide plenty of scope for sweeping panoramas that are interspersed Anderson’s trademark tight facials close-ups. The smudged, muted colours give the film a nostalgic feel and the four eras we move through are largely visually interchangeable. Stories, after all, don’t have a time frame.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Cement Garden, The Vaults

George MacKay as Jack and Ruby Bentall as Julie

George MacKay as Jack and Ruby Bentall as Julie

 The Vault Festival is an eclectic six-week programme of arts and entertainment at the underground arts centre, Vaults, in the bowels of Waterloo.

This year’s flagship productions are an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, and this, Ian McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, brought to the stage for the first time.

The Cement Garden is a coming of age tale with a dark heart, set in the stifling heat of the summer of 1976. On the cusp of 15, Jack is the second of four children with an inappropriately rampant crush on his beautiful older sister, Julie. The intensity between the pair is compounded when first their father, then their mother dies and, in a bid to avoid foster care, they bury her in a block of cement in the cellar. As you do.

The two of them are left alone to play screwed-up-families with their younger sister Sue (Georgia Clarke-Day) and five-year-old brother Tom. Unrestrained by adults and society’s rules, Jack and Julie start to inhabit their new roles as “mum and dad” a little too well over the long summer holiday.

Young Tom is represented by a manky rag doll manipulated and voiced by David Annen. At first this seemed like an unnecessary affectation, the sort of off-beat idea that can blight more experimental theatre. But it worked well and the doll soon and seamlessly become part of the family. Less distracting than a child actor’s presence would have been, you believed in Tom’s innocence and his confusion as his world crumbled.

The Vault’s Library space could have been built to stage a play as disturbing and claustrophobic as The Cement Garden. The unusual two storey space under Waterloo’s train tracks is certainly made good use of, even if the resulting set is more imaginative and interesting than practical. Perched on wooden benches in the middle of the long ‘stage’, there were several blind spots, but since I spend most of my theatre trips in the gods, behind a pillar or flush up against the stage, I didn’t find this view as much as a problem as some might. Still the unusual set up is a little distracting and the amount of space the actors are required to cover meant some frantic rushing around that was at odds with the languid feel of the original novel.

Talking of the book, knowing the story well does blunt the sharp edges of the play. With McEwan’s taunt writing diluted down to its bare essence, the element of surprise becomes greater. But the young cast are excellent and bring a real feeling of suspense and foreboding. Ruby Bentall as the practical, inscrutable Julie and BAFTA Rising Star nominee George MacKay as Jack are particularly brilliant as the two leads and, while the original tension of the novel has got a little lost in its transition to this dark, expansive underground space, they deliver powerful performances that leave you a little winded as the lights come on.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: The Weir, Wyndham’s Theatre

The Weir, Wyndham's Theatre

The Weir, Wyndham’s Theatre

The Weir is one of those plays that’s about nothing and everything. It’s a gentle, funny play for the most part, with a plot that revolves around five people getting pissed in a down-at-heel pub in an unnamed, remote part of Ireland, livening their whiskey soaked evening with ghost stories.

But Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s script delves into the human heart and extracts a play that’s moving, funny and tender. Billed as a ghost story, The Weir isn’t a spine tingling scarathon in the vein of Woman in Black; The Weir’s ghosts are far more human.

It’s a wet, blustery night (both, as it happens, inside and outside the theatre) and local bachelors Jack (Brian Cox) and Jim (Ardal O’Hanlon) have taken refuge in their local with barman Brendan in his shabby – in a decidedly un-chic way – pub. They are joined by married regular, the flashy in a small town way Finbar (Risteárd Cooper)  and Veronica (Dervla Kirwan)  a young woman who’s recently moved from Dublin to this part of the world searching for a bit of peace.

She doesn’t get much on this particular night as the four men, in a bid to impress the attractive blow-in, start narrating their personal ghost stories with verbocious Jack as the eloquent ringleader.  But amongst these stories of ghouls and spirits, the most haunting tale of them all is all too real.

The Weir is engaging and funny and filled with sadness and regrets that overflow like Valerie’s pint of wine. The cast are all fantastic; Brian Cox’s Jack shifts effortlessly from Guinness-fuelled show-off to reveal a man scarred by heartbreak and regret. Dervla Kirwan is quietly and then devastatingly brilliant as the lone woman with a past so shatteringly sad that the men – and the audience, or this audience member at least – are stopped in their tracks.

The Weir may not spook you, but it will haunt you in other – more affecting – ways.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle is the tale of Mae Holland, a girl from the ‘burbs, burdened with college debt and a sick father, who blags a job at the world’s biggest internet company, The Circle, and begins to play her part in controlling the world and its data. In essence, The Circle is about the internet coming to eat us; Dave Eggers’ stern warning to the world of the fate that awaits us if we don’t get off Facebook.

The Circle is a terrifying amalgamation of Facebook, Google, Twitter and your bank details. It’s a Circle of Hell in cosy jumpers. It sounds like the Worst Place on Earth to work, like an Innocent smoothie bottle come to life with the face of Steve Jobs and ping pong tables under each arm. It’s Google run by Kim Jong-un, a scary mix of touchy-feeliness and totalitarianism.

Plot wise The Circle goes round and round. Not a lot happens; Mae gets increasingly embroiled in the inner workings of company, she’s given more computer screens, chums up with the Three Wise Men (the company’s CEOs), shacks up with some dubious sorts and falls out with her parents and her ex.

Eggers’ heavy satire and narrative rely on Mae being a complete moron. Fortunately, she’s happy to oblige, her young brain frizzled by a lifetime of status updates, pictures of her dinner and emoticons. Her parents’ health care and her desire to never go back to the grey-tinged dullness of her first office job in her hometown offer us an idea as to why she’s so crazy about this sinister company and why, beyond the odd raised eyebrow at the beginning, she never asks questions. But I wasn’t convinced as to how easily she was sucked in; where was her early 20-something cynicism? Why did she love her really tedious work so much? Why did she not think the people she was working with were humourous idiots?

The Circle tells a story that is uncomfortably close to our own world. I felt my anxiety levels rise as the computer monitors mounted on Mae’s desk and the relentless stream of zings, smiles, frowns, customer queries and questionnaires began. It is in places a very funny book. Sending frowns to military organisations in Africa in an attempt to shame them into stopping their atrocities made me chortle (sorry, LOL) and the rather unfortunate incident with her parents, the bedroom and a camera added a toe-curling, humourous touch.

The Circle is a fun read with an all too realistic vision, but its satire is little too heavy-handed. Orwell’s 1984’s dystopian nightmare was so futuristic that his vision of a totalitarian state gave us enough space for his message to strike a cord. Orwell would not have needed an over-extended, clunky metaphor about a transparent, rare shark kept in a Circle fish tank that eats everything in its way to help us understand that the internet had become an evil Pacman.

One of the scariest things about this novel is that a man (Mae’s father) with MS is denied the health care he needs as he’s unable to pay for it. Already a reality in the States, when the Coalition have done dismantling the NHS, it’s also our nightmare future. And this, even more than the monolithic internet is what I’ll have sleepless nights about.

by Suzanne Elliott