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

 

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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