Book Review: The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

Writing as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shook off Inspector Wexford to produce suffocating psychological thrillers that probed the darkest reaches of the human mind in all too realistic settings.

Rendell, both as herself and as her alter ego, has always been adept at creating an atmosphere of seedy glamour that’s as alluring as it is terrifying, building the suspense by drip feeding clues, throwing in symbolic suggestions and hinting at trouble to come until the pages are bulging with all that tension.

The House of Stairs is thick with intrigue, with a languid plot that doesn’t reach a climax until the final few pages. Despite the genre, Vine’s thrillers aren’t disposable page turners, but novels that dig deep and reveal themselves slowly. Reading the House of Stairs was, for me, like climbing the 106 stairs in the Notting Hill house of the title on a hot and humid day on crutches. I was eventually hooked, but Vine unpicks the plot slowly rather than letting it unravel chaotically, building the tension at the expense of driving the plot. I admit that inbetween admiring her skilful writing I wondered when we’d get somewhere, anywhere with the story.

The protagonist, Elizabeth, is a seemingly reliable narrator who is keen to record every detail of her story accurately with the reader. The story begins at the end of one part of Elizabeth’s life and the start of another path that we will follow for a while. An only child, Elizabeth’s mother died when she was young and her father remained a distant and uninterested parent. Elizabeth’s loneliness is compounded when she discovers that she may have inherited the family secret, the defective gene that causes Huntington’s disease. Living under this shadow, the motherless Elizabeth finds comfort and sympathy with her cousin’s wife, Cosette, a warm, benign woman who I imagined smelled of talcum powder and hairspray.

(As an aside, the Huntington’s disease thread was an odd one, Elizabeth’s diagnosis at first seemed to be loaded with symbolism, but in the end appeared to be constructed purely to explain the lack of children as it sort of hovered around at the beginning seemingly With Significance, before being overshadowed by Plot.)

Anyway, one fateful Christmas Elizabeth goes to stay with a friend’s family who live in a big house in the country (of sorts, they get the Central Line there – this is a very London novel). There she meets the mysterious and beautiful Bell who lives in the cottage in the grounds. On Boxing Day when the family in the big house are settling down to a quiz, Bell walks into the draughty hall and announces that her husband, Silas, has killed himself. Despite the circumstances, Elizabeth is enchanted by Bell – she’s cool and frank and intriguing and dresses in black. But right from the beginning of the novel, we know Bell has been to prison, so the blast of cold air she brings in with her when she steps into the big house is metaphorical as well as literal.

Not long after this eventful Christmas, Cosette’s (rich) husband dies suddenly on his way to work one morning and left alone but wealthy, Cosette sells her home in the suburbs and moves to a four-storey townhouse in Notting Hill (the slightly charred W11 of the 1970s rather than today’s swanky postcode). And then the story really cranks up… ha, not really.

We are introduced to many waifs and strays who move in (including Elizabeth) and the House of Stairs becomes a sort of commune with fancy wine and meals in Chinese restaurants that Cosette pays for. The House of Stairs features a large cast of characters, many of them drifting in and out of the house of the title and the page. Few of them mean anything to the bigger story, their presence is simply a way of filling up the House of Stairs (the building) and the House of Stairs (the book) as well as helping us understand Cosette’s drive to banish her loneliness by filling her home with people. One day Bell comes to stay and we all know that this is the beginning of the end, but for who? And how? It’ll take us a while to find out, but the suspense could kill you.

The House of Stairs is a clever, grown-up thriller that definitely isn’t one for people that like their crime novels pacey and immediate.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: Dear Lupin…Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son; by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer, published by Constable

Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son; by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer, published by Constable

Dear Lupin is a collection of letters from former Sunday Times racing correspondent Roger Mortimer to his son, Charlie – who is not so much wayward as completely a drift in the sea of life for most of the correspondence.

The letters begin during Charlie’s truncated time at Eton, when Roger took to addressing his son as ‘Lupin’ after The Diary of A Nobody’s Mr Pooter’s equally flighty son. Roger, we learn, is never one to let an opportunity of wordplay go especially if it means having a little dig at one’s family.

Roger has a wonderfully endearing, old-fashioned narrative voice that can make finding a dead rat in the garden entertaining and amusing. He has, as he points out several times to his son, a great sense of the absurd and finds the humour in the smallest domestic detail, even if he’s not looking for it.

Dear Lupin reads like P.G Wodehouse with a hefty dose of Evelyn Waugh melancholia. The collection is hugely nostalgic, in all its gritty glory and includes some toe-curling Enid Blyton-style off-colour remarks (Roger Mortimer has as much time for political correctness as he does for the woman from the Inland Revenue who is continually pestering him).

Much of the humour in the book comes from Roger’s stream of consciousness, his juxtaposition of news that slips between fatal pile ups on the motorway, his wife’s current cantankerousness barometer reading, sage advice to his son (“in other words, try and have a good time without making a fool or a shit of yourself”) and spot on observations (“except for the first fortnight at preparatory school a honeymoon is for most people the least happy experience of their life”).

As funny as this collection is (and it’s very, very funny for the most part) there is something rather sad underneath the tales of Hot Hand Henry (his daughter Louise’s much disapproved of husband) and the un-housetrained dog. There’s an edge of darkness that hovers around both Roger’s letters and the snippets of Charlie’s life we hear in his father’s replies. Rather than diminishing the book, it serves to make this less a wot-ho rah-rah tale of upper middles out Bertie Wooster-ing Bertie Wooster and more a tale of one man’s bafflement at life.

Roger’s comfortable, if eccentric life, is at odds with the bleaker moments of his past. He spent five years as a prisoner of war after being captured in Dunkirk in 1940. His only mentions of these years are off-the-cuff remarks and tales of his fellow POW-pals, several of whom he still sees on a regular basis. For someone who endured such horrors, no wonder a pile up on the A3 is as trifling as a cold snap.

Plus, even more than the artery of sadness and the blistering humour, it’s the warmth and tenderness that spills from the pages of Roger’s succinct letters. Charlie can’t have been an easy son to love with his restlessness, boisterous and a drink and drug problem serious enough to land him in hospital for two months and, later, a rehab clinic.  But Roger, despite his penned-ticking offs, remains incredibly patient with his son and never abandons him to the vagaries of life without his emotional – and occasionally – financial help. And, of course, plenty of snortingly-funny anecdotes.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine by James Smythe published by Blue Door

It’s sometime in the future (although we’re not told when). England is very hot, so hot that rather than running out to frazzle themselves in the heat, these newly sun-savvy Brits opt to stay in air-conditioned rooms (an unimaginable future). Lots of bad things  (war, floods, bonkers weather) have happened, although we’re never told exactly what and why. The Isle of Wight, has – for reasons that are never made clear  – become an outpost for hooded hooligans, making it less a 1950s idyll, more a Hackney in the 90s.

Living amongst these hard-nosed yoofs is Beth, a school teacher with a secret. Her husband, Vic, was a soldier in one of those wars we’re never told about and was shot in the head. His post traumatic stress was treated with a new technology – the Machine – that was meant to wipe bad memories and replace them with nicer ones. But something went wrong, and early adopters (among them Vic) had all of their memories wiped, including those innate in us. Vic is, when we first meet him, an empty shell, who can’t remember how to be human and has spent the good part of five years in a care home. But Beth is determined to get her husband back (physically and mentally), the only problem is that the Machine, the only way of restoring Vic’s memories to him, has been banned. Can a black-market model be the answer to all her problems?

Of course, not. This is a dark tale with very little (any?) chinks of light. Written without quotation marks, the narrative is a continual, relentless barrage of bleakness. This would be OK if I felt we were getting somewhere with this tale set in our near future (which, sadly, still includes Tesco). But the story was a little stodgy and the lack of a backstory left me feeling like I was fumbling about in the dark for narrative purchase. Why was the world in such disarray? The ozone layer is mentioned once, something happened in Iran – which presumably isn’t the fault of the ozone layer, but who knows – there were floods, there may be more and London has a huge, ugly flood defence running the length of the Thames and spoiling the view from the South Bank, tsk. Why is Beth living on this island of reprobates? Why is it an island of reprobates?

All these niggles are kind of besides the point, as the real subject of  James Smythe’s tale is the age-old story of technology taking on a life of its own (think Frankenstein’s monster with an iCloud account). But The Machine only really cranks up towards the end when the boundaries between reality, truth and memory become blurred in a tense and surprising finale (the ending is great in its in muddiness, it genuinely took me my surprise and shook me out of my nonchalant detachment from the story).

I liked Smythe’s vision of the future that was believable, if frustratingly sketchily drawn, and there was hints of a great story that would occasionally spark to life only to become stuck like the spinning beach ball of doom. But I do love to be tripped up by a novel, as I was with the ending to this sci-fi tale, so the sometimes hard slog through The Machine’s internal workings had a rewarding pay off.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book review:  Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe published by Viking

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe published by Viking

This year’s literary hit, the much celebrated Love, Nina is a book worth all its plaudits. It’s a wonderfully heart-warming book with a rapier-sharp wit that cuts through any smugness, a potential hazard in a book where it’s normal for Alan Bennett to pop round for tea and people sprout ancient Egyptian when discussing a dog hanging out by the bins.

The Nina of the title moved to 55 Gloucester Crescent, NW1 from Leicestershire in 1982 to work as a nanny to Sam and Will Frears. Their mother, Mary-Kay (MK) Wilmers was deputy editor of the London Review of Books; their father director Stephen Frears (the couple were divorced and Frears has only a cameo in Love, Nina). Alan Bennett (AB) lived across the road and would often pop round for dubious sounding 80s suppers. Inspired by her booky surroundings, Nina goes on to study for an English A Level while minding S&W and later enrols at Thames Poly, but she’s still a regular visitor at 55 (she even ends up moving back into the nanny quarters, even when she’s no longer the nanny).

Love, Nina is a sharp and witty book of letters that she wrote to her Leicester-living, London-hating sister Vic. They are full of wonderfully witty observations detailing the everyday domestic dramas of her adopted family. Written like a script in progress, the letters often contain snippets of the day’s conversations at 55. The Frears/Wilmers family (+ Bennett) are a bright, liberal bunch and their supper chat reflects this – not that they discuss Goethe over dinner (it’s more likely to be the humming fridge), but there’s a captivating and charming intelligence even in their most banal chat.

This is a delightful book that shimmers with humour and warmth, showing a microcosm of brainy north London in a breezy series of incidents on Gloucester Crescent, a place where it’s routine to borrow saws from Jonathan Miller, and Shirley ‘Lace’ Conran annoys the neighbours with her dodgy burglar alarm. This is a world where the f-bomb is dropped over dinner as casually as discussing the right way to cook new potatoes (do not mash). Nina is an engaging writer and her ear for dialogue enables her to pick out the humour from the smallest of events (mislaying Jonathan Miller’s saw, AB fixing the fridge).

Love, Nina  makes you wish that you sitting around MK’s kitchen (MK sounds terrifying, but brilliant) eating badly cooked tarragon chicken, discussing the strange sexual preferences of Nina’s fellow students with AB (not with him, to him) while also inspiring you to re-read Chaucer (despite Nina finding it as frustrating as I did when I read it for my A Level).

A truly joyous book, read it on the bus at your peril.

by Suzanne Elliott  

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

 

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

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: The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Elizabeth Gaskell

If there’s one skill an English degree equips you with, it’s the ability to devour even the fattest novels in the hours between bed, the student union bar and your next seminar. But despite my ability to read fast, it took me six months to read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography on Charlotte Brontë. I reached a point, around 400 pages in, just as Anne Brontë breathed her last in Scarborough, when I had to take a break from the relentless gloom of this family’s life. Anne was the sixth Brontë to die within these pages and her death left Charlotte with only her morose father for company in their parsonage in the middle of a graveyard.

My spirit broke along with Charlotte’s. But while Charlotte valiantly rallied herself to write her final masterpiece, Villette, I put Gaskell’s biography down until I felt ready to face the grieving Charlotte and the Yorkshire moors again.

What a terrible life those girls led, constantly sick with a succession of Victorian diseases, cooped up in a pokey vicarage with the dead rotting away under the flagstone floors, embroidering themselves blind (the Brontës, not the dead). No wonder the moors held such an allure for them, what freedom it must have been to stride out across the open countryside and to feel the power of nature. Hooray for the NHS, a good diet and feminism.

There were chinks of light in the darkness; the success of her novels (under the pseudonym Currer Bell) meant Charlotte was the toast of London literary society for a time; she even got to travel to the capital and hang out with her hero Thackeray. She also got to chum up with Elizabeth Gaskell who may not have been a big bag of fun, but was certainly a loyal and generous friend to Charlotte.

Although, there is some debate about Mrs Gaskell’s motives in her account of Charlotte and her family. It’s widely believed that she tweaked Charlotte’s story and character to suit her own view; the figure in Gaskell’s account is often a mousy, fearful sprite, whereas it’s thought that the Jane Eyre author was feistier, more passionate, less pious than the one portrayed in the pages of this book. Noticeable by its absence is Charlotte’s unrequited love for a Belgium professor during her time as a governess in Brussels, an episode that was the inspiration for Villette. But this was the Victorian era, when ladies worried about the propriety of any kind of fun. As a woman with one-eye on God, Charlotte would no doubt rather her prof-crush wasn’t the subject of posthumous tittle-tattle.

But I thought I caught enough of a glimpse of Charlotte’s voice and her formidably strong and intelligent mind to make this account well worth reading if you’re a fan of Charlotte’s novels. This woman had a lot of shit thrown at her, but she never whined, you could feel her loneliness in the letters she wrote, but she never allowed herself to wallow.

When I finally went back to the last few hundred pages of Charlotte Brontë: A Life I polished it off in no time, my intrigue newly fire-up by the now lonesome figure of Charlotte and the progress of what would be her last novel, Villette. I enjoyed Charlotte’s bemusement at the excitement the figure of Monsieur Paul Emanuel created in her the book. He quite got those Victorian ladies’ bloomers in a twist. One of Charlotte’s friends told the author that her ideal man was no longer Jane Austen’s Mr Knightley, but Monsieur Emanuel. I love this 19th century fan-girling; Colin Firth and his wet shirt didn’t invent literary lust. Although, I’m reading Villette now and struggling to see the attraction, he takes brooding to corners Darcy would never dare go.

Like a walk on a muddy moor Gaskell’s account of the Charlotte is slow and sometimes difficult, but it’s invigorating and illuminating in its portrayal of a woman who produced some of literature’s most enduring characters.

by Suzanne Elliott