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

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

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

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is such a tease, drip feeding us just three novels in 18 years. This slowly, slowly approach wouldn’t be quite so bad if she hadn’t, in 1992, cunningly ensnared the whole planet into an enticing world of murderous students with her debut novel The Secret History.

The world went nuts for The Secret History and to make it even more exciting the woman behind the novel was as mysterious and compelling as the book she penned. She seemed to arrive from no-where to write the novel of the decade and her hair was so great! There were even rumours that this ‘Donna Tartt’ (no-one’s called ‘Donna Tartt’!) was actually the pen-name of her (former boyfriend) Bret Easton Ellis. Lies!

The very real Tartt then made her fans (i.e. the planet) wait 10 years – 10 years! – for her next novel. When it finally arrived The Little Friend was A Little Deflating. But despite its flaws, I rather liked it. I enjoyed the claustrophobic, sticky heat of the Mississippi backdrop and the haunting atmosphere of an unsolved murder as seen through the eyes of a child.

Then Tartt disappeared again to work on her bob third novel, or so we hoped. Eleven years, 11 years! – later she delivered The Goldfinch, a doorstop of a novel that promised a whole new exciting Tartt-world within its Bible-like bearing.

The reviews for The Goldfinch have swung between rapturous and reviled, with some critics declaring it as weightily important as its physical heftiness implies. Others, meanwhile, have dismissed it as a waffling, repetitive, often tedious… oh no, wait that’ll be me.

The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Decker who steals the Carel Fabritius painting of the title during an explosion in a New York art gallery that kills his mother. This catastrophe leads him on a road that takes him to New York’s fancy Upper West side, to a half-built Las Vegas suburb, an antique shop in Greenwich Village and a damp December Amsterdam. Along the way he meets – briefly – his alcoholic dad; trouble in the form of Russian Boris; kindness at the connected Barbours’; warmth and a home with Hobie and Pippa. He also discovers prescription drugs, vodka and antique fraud.

Conveniently for Tartt’s narrative, Theo locks up the painting in a storage hold for years where it’s safely out of the way of the police and the plot. The Goldfinch (the painting) seems to be purely symbolic (it’s a small bird chained to a pole, yeah? It’s beautiful and cruel LIKE LIFE PEOPLE) rather than a plot device. It only leaps to the forefront of the novel during the finally jarring chapters where the plot suddenly becomes Pulp Fiction’s European Vacation, the pace revving up along with the body count.

Tartt is a beautiful writer and there are many striking descriptive passages, I particularly loved her vivid sketches of New York that placed you on the garbage-reeking streets of the Meatpacking district in July or in a cosy bar in a Greenwich Village basement in winter. But perhaps her skill at conjuring up a world with her pen so expertly is the problem; no one, least of all her, wants to take a red Bic to her wonderful words and so we get the same thing same three different ways over three different pages. After a while all her lovely words negate their beauty; Donna, love, it’s time to find the delete key.

Theo should have been an interesting character, but he falls rather flat on paper and his voice is monotonous and humourless (granted, as an orphan which PTS he doesn’t have a great deal to giggle about). He’s a law-breaking good guy with a charm that may seduce the other characters but fails to shine from the pages.  And the ending is way too neat, is that really all we get for ploughing through nearly 800 pages? Cheers DT!

I won’t wait with baited breath for the next 12 years (if she follows the pattern she’s set) for Donna Tartt’s next novel otherwise the disappointment may be as crushing as having a bookshelf-worth of The Goldfinch fall on me. But while I wait, I’m off to read Tartt’s idol, Charles Dickens, a man who loved a lengthy descriptive paragraph, but knew – usually – when to stop.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan published by Vintage

If I was forced, at pain of being thwacked over the head with a hardback copy of War and Peace, to name my favourite contemporary author, I would say Ian McEwan.

I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager, when I picked up a copy of The Cement Garden, attracted by a tale of messed-up and cooped-up adolescents whose lives were ALMOST as depressing as mine. What I was probably hoping for was a British Flowers In The Attic, what I got was far better; darker and more disturbing, less sensational, more emotional, but stripped of any sugary sentimentality.

As I came to discover, McEwan’s powers lie in crisp, sharp prose, with not a mis-placed word. Like all great authors he can say more in a sentence than lesser writers can in a chapter. He never gets into a tangle of adjectives or sounds like he’s hurling long words at the reader in attempt to upstage you.

From The Cement Garden, I entered the even murkier, more sinister worlds of McEwan’s first two published works, both collections of short stories – First Love, Last Rites and In Between The Sheets. These were strange worlds, where women had relationships with orang-u-tans and fathers and daughters fought for survival in post-apocalyptic nightmare where lone tower blocks survived like cement cockroaches. McEwan’s late ’70s world made J.G. Ballard‘s look like an Ikea ad.

Over time McEwan’s literary landscapes slowly shifted from shadowy suburbia and grubby bedsit land to the professional urban middle class and love across the class divide in upper crust country piles. But while his protagonists moved up the class ladder and his settings became more aesthetically pleasing, there was still a dark heart at their core, pumping poison through Sunday supplement lives.

But my love affair with McEwan’s novels hit a speed bump with his 1998 novel Amsterdam. I laboured over it for weeks and over the years, as the memory of it became fuzzy, I came to hate it even more. I would tell people to read him, but beg them to skip his Booker prize winning novel. Was it reverse snobbery? Perhaps, I was studying for an English degree at the time and, like a typically smug undergrad, loved dismissing huge swathes of critically acclaimed works, much like McEwan’s hero in Sweet Tooth.

As the years passed the book became a blur of expensive red wine, white carpets and two middle aged men jabbing accusatory fingers at each other. Beyond that, I couldn’t remember much, the plot was lost to me completely, and as I continued to read and enjoy McEwan’s books (except Saturday, which I also dislike and which I should also revisit) I wondered what it was I so despised about Amsterdam.

So I went back and read it. And gobbled it up in one weekend. Because, of course, it’s great. Sure, there’s a rambling pile in north London with a wine cellar stuffed with expensive Beaujolais, but it’s a house whose heart’s been ripped out of it, where the composer, Clive Linley lives with his fading past, shuffling between unloved rooms amidst a pile of discarded scores and dirty wine glasses. Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor and Clive’s best friend, reached his professional apex through sheer luck and his ability to slip through life unnoticed. They are not men to envy, and they are certainly not mocking you with their (un)fabulous lives.

The novel opens with a funeral, Clive and Vernon standing in the rain, remembering the coffin’s occupant, their former lover Molly Lane. Molly isn’t the only thing they have in common: Clive and Vernon are also united by a hatred for her most recent lover Julian Garmony, the foreign secretary, a man who Molly’s husband, George, would also like to see destroyed. This rain-soaked meeting sparks a chain of events that set off a deadly cocktail of grief, fear, hatred, passion and jealousy.

In other author’s hands, Amsterdam would have been an hysterical thriller, racing along at speed and hitting the odd plot-hole along the way. But McEwan writes with a precision that hides the true horror until it confronts you with its steely honesty. Seemingly inconsequential, microscopic moments that writers have a tendency to smother in heavy-handed SYMBOLISM, those spots in time that turn the whole story on its head, are told with less fuss than the description of the wine Clive chooses for dinner. These are the moments that drive the story to towards its fatal end, but it’s not until later that we – like the characters – come to understand the consequences.

I’m currently finding my way through Barbara Kingsolver‘s overblown Flight Behaviour and missing McEwan’s sharp prose. When I’ve crawled my way to the end, I’ll need to dig out my copy of Saturday and see if the neurosurgeon and his marble staircase can win me over this time.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

For a while in my late teens Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter vied for my affections as my favourite author. Their worlds, whether magically realistic frozen Siberian plains or a small Lancashire town, were enchanting, engaging and compelling fantastical places. Their words and indomitable female characters had the power to change and influence a young, sheltered mind. Their feminism was not as intimidatingly, or as obviously political, as the literary criticism of Julia Kristeva or Judith Butler, but it had a far greater and more wide-reaching effect on me. If it hadn’t been for Carter’s wonderful  Fevvers, her cockney winged creation in Nights At The Circus, Winterson would have probably won this battle of words by a comma’s breathe.

But then, fatally, I chose Jeanette Winterson as the subject of my undergrad dissertation and my love affair with her came to an abrupt end. It wasn’t anywhere near as poetic as the heart-wrenching ode to lost love in Written on the Body – I cut Winterson’s novels off from my life with little ceremony and left her books to gather dust on my bookshelves.

Many years later I saw her speak at a literary event at the Southbank Centre. She was as funny, clever and original as her books. The spark was re-lit, although it remained more smouldering than ablaze and the first post-university Winterson novel I picked up was to re-read The Passion, her magic realism love story set amongst the carnage of Napoleon’s last years. But while I may have made tentative steps towards a reconciliation, my reading of her was frozen in the 90s. It was time to move on.

The Daylight Gate, my re-introducion to Jeanette Winterson, is a slight novel about the 1612 Lancashire witch trials. Winterson, a Lancashire lass, has long been fascinated by this dark mark on Pendle’s history and this is her fictionalised account of the 13 men and women tried and condemned to death following the August Assizes. Her source material was written by a London-based lawyer, Thomas Potts, who documented the whole sorry business after being despatched to the north by King James I. In Winterson’s novel, Potts is an overfastidious, ambitious jobsworth and possibly the most odious character in the book (and there’s some stiff competition).

In 1612, King James I (VI of Scotland) was still jittery following the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1604, the attempt by Catholics to blow him and his Protestant parliament back to Scotland. He was also obsessed with stamping out witchcraft and even wrote what sounds like a tedious tome called Daemonologie which, over three volumes, condemned witchcraft and gave the thumbs up to hunting witches. So convinced was King Jimmy that the servants of satan were out to  get him, that he believed that witchcraft had conquered up a storm at sea that nearly shipwrecked him on his way back from Denmark with his new wife (an event which inspired Shakespeare to write The Tempest).

As a result of his bumpy sea voyage, James was convinced that there were more witches square mile in England than at a Hogwarts reunion. He lumped Catholics and witches into one paranoid dark mess (“popery witchery witchery popery” as Potts mutters more than once) and set out with the help of people like Potts to rid the country of these folk and their cauldrons and crucifixes.

The Daylight Gate contains some classic Winterson touches. She doesn’t shy away from describing the gruesome and macabre – I pulled a few choice faces on the bus at some of the more grim passages. As The Passion featured Napoleon, so The Daylight Gate has a cameo by Shakespeare who comes across like a jolly decent date to the theatre. If only he were on match.com. Alice Nutter, a gentlewoman with a fascinating past, is a typical Winterson badass. She rides straddled when she thinks no one is looking, sticks up for the poor and the mentally ill and has magical powers that are rooted in reality.

Winterson does not attempt to defend the unlucky 13, there’s an ambiguity about whether they were witches, although I read it as there being perfectly modern explanations for the dark arts the characters dabble in. Or perhaps these magical moments are a typical Winterson dose of the fantastical.  I have read reviews of The Daylight Gate that found the idea that Winterson depicted these women as witches as betraying both the memories of the women and the plot. How, they reasoned, could we sympathise with them if they were guilty of the crime they were charged with?

But it’s a redundant issue, just as the Coalition have whipped up a storm about dole scroungers and benefit cheats in a bid to drive out the poor (to where, I don’t know – Middlesborough by the sounds of things), in 1612 this was less about witchcraft and more about powerful men versus powerless women; rich versus poor; an out- of-touch ruling party versus people struggling to survive day-by-day.

And surely we all wish for a little bit of magic in our lives? I know I do – and I think I’ve rediscovered it…

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson

Before I go to sleep

Proper grown up psychological thrillers set in worlds we recognise but hope never to inhabit are all the fictional rage right now. 

These latest page turners deal with the human as well as the pulse-racing. They aren’t hyperactive, gun-toting tales; no one is dashing around trying to uncover a love letter to Mary Magdalene or rifling through a family’s very dirty laundry with the help of an unhinged hacker. Nor do these new breed of thrillers favour plot over grammar, they don’t rely on hackneyed phrases or an over reliance on a thesaurus. The are, to use a hackneyed phrase, un-put-a-down-able, (yuck) without tripping over themselves with adjectives and unravelling plots.

Before I Go To Sleep, published in 2011, is the debut novel from S.J. Watson and one of the first of these wave of thrillers. It’s set to be made into a film starring Nicole Kidman as the lead. It’s a taut, tight, claustrophobic read about what it is to lose your memory and, with it, your life, or at least the one you know – or, rather – don’t know.

Following a traumatic accident forty-seven-year-old Christine wakes up every day believing she’s still 20 and that the man lying next to her is her latest one night stand. But he’s not. He reassures her every morning that he is her husband, Ben. There are photos of the two of them lining the bathroom mirror in an attempt to reconstruct those lost years. He writes notes on a blackboard in the kitchen to prompt her to do things she will have forgotten to do.

Christine’s world is small when we first meet her, shrunk to just her and her husband, but it’s about to grow bigger. She is called ‘out of the blue’ (although he had – or had he? – contacted her before) by a Dr Nash, a neuro-specialist who wants to help – and study – Christine’s strange case. He encourages her to keep a diary, and it’s this diary that forms the novel. The journal enables Christine to piece together the missing years of her life and uncover lies that she’s been erasing with every sleep.

Christine lost in a fug of nothing instinctively trusts no one and the diary at first confuses her, her instinct is all out of wack. And as our only guide, we as the reader, are equally as mistrustful of those around her.

There aren’t so much twists as slight meanders and it’s all the better for it. This doesn’t feel like a novel where the ending was written first and the rest of the plot had to be force down a narrow road of plausibility. The ending is the right one, that ties everything up more or less tightly (there are a few stray threads that I won’t mention for fear of setting off the spoiler alarm).

If you’re looking for a sharp, smart beach read then you could do worse than bung Before I Go To Sleep into your suitcase.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Skios by Michael Frayn

Skios by Michael Frayn

My first introduction to Michael Frayn was his 2002 novel Spies which I picked up in a book exchange in a guesthouse in Cambodia a few years ago.

This Second World War based drama was one of those mesmerising novels that you long to linger over and savour every word, but whose pull is such that you gallop through it only to be left bereft as you reach the final page all too soon. It’s been years since I read it in the suffocating humidity of a pre-monsoon season Cambodia, but I still think about the book and the feeling of reading it almost as often as my mind drifts to those lazy days in South East Asia.

Naturally I sought out other Frayn works. His Booker Prize shortlisted Headlong was a brilliant, snortingly funny countryside farce-thriller; The Scoop-like Towards The End Of The Morning a comedy set in the smoke-tinged, boozy world of a corner office of a Fleet Street newspaper during it’s dying days. And on stage, the majestic Noises Off (I also saw Democracy last year and, lets just say I’m a political philistine who prefers my Frayn funny or moving).

In his latest novel Skios, Frayn is firmly back in farce territory. In fact, this is farce so farcical it makes Noises Off look like, well, Democracy. Silly yet clever, hugely improbable yet completely believable, Skios follows Oliver Fox, a daft fella who arrives on the Greek island of Skios without the woman he is meant to be sharing a villa with (a villa, incidentally that belongs to his on-off again girlfriend’s friends) who he only met for five minutes in a bar while her boyfriend was out having a fag.

Friendless, address-less and lift-less, Oliver spots a woman at Arrivals holding a sign reading ‘Dr Norman Wildfred’ and decides to give this man’s life a whirl. The woman holding the sign is Nikki, the PA to the director of the Fred Toppler Foundation – essentially an academic holiday camp – who is at the airport to collect the organisation’s guest lecturer. The real Dr Norman Wildfred meanwhile is left to navigate Oliver’s chaotic life, which happily for the balding, overweight academic features lots of attractive young ladies. What follows is a catalogue of perfectly pitched and expertly plotted events that will either have you chuckling like a loon or groaning wearily at the whole silly mess.

Like the two taxi driving brothers who play pivotal roles in this comedy of errors, the pacy plot threatens to overturn on a few particularly sharp turns, but Frayn’s great skill is taking the ridiculous to a precipice only for him to steer this juggernaut of absurdity clear of a plot-cliff. Frayn is very much in charge of this story even if it feels that all these incredulous coincidences, unlikely connections and improbable timings are spinning out of his control.

Your enjoyment of Skios very much hinges on you not taking the characters too seriously. They are almost cartoon-like in their stupidity, vanity, arrogance and willingness to accept everything the way they want to see it. They don’t seem to be possessed of instinct or, for the most part, brains. In fact, they’re lumbered with very few characteristics, they are faint human sketches on which to hang a fun, farcical story on. And they wear it well.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

I devoured Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s Booker Prize nominated novel, in hours, diving straight into its murky, disoriented chapter and allowing Levy’s beautiful prose to lap over me as the novel’s tension built to a sad crescendo.

Levy’s novel covers some well trodden ground – the middle class family villa holiday in a hot country (this time, France); the successful parents as lost in the world as their adolescent offspring – but the powerful poetry of her words takes the cliched and adds a beauty and depth.

The story is slight; set in the mid-90s the novel follows two families in as they holiday in a villa in the south of France. There’s Joe JacobsJozef Nowogrodzki – a successful poet, damaged by his horrifying past and empty present, his war-correspondent wife Isabel and their daughter, Nina. Awkwardly accompanying them are Laura and Mitchell (a wonderfully, grotesque, comic character) who own an ‘ethnic’ shop in Euston and remain largely shadowy, background figures to the drama unfolding in the hazy heat.

The bomb that these family-holiday-gone-wrong novels need arrives in the skinny form of damaged and beautiful Kitty Finch, who has used her connections with the villa’s owner (her mother was her cleaner) as a way to meet her hero/obsession Joe.

Isabel, despite, or because, she recognised Kitty’s obsession with her philandering husband invites Kitty to stay with them in the villa’s spare room, ultimately pushing Joe and Kitty together. Coming off the antidepressant Seroxat, Kitty’s behaviour is volatile, erratic and frightening with an underlying naivety which makes her even more dangerous

Swimming Home’s greatest achievement is Levy’s prose that evokes a dense, dreamy sinister atmosphere punctuated by perfectly timed humour. The detached underwater feel of the novel and the quality of dreamliness that she evokes captures the tensions and emotions of the characters without any of them having to articulate how they’re feeling.

But it’s not a flawless novel, largely because Levy is guilty of one modern literary convention that irks me, that of the characters wearing their wealthy middleclassness like some kind of green flag metaphor. Like Ian McEwan’s more recent works (Saturday wore me out with its hummus soaked overtones) Levy’s characters are successful, wealthy urban middle class – farmers’ market-shopping, swearing-in-front-of-the-children types who probably smoke weed to a soundtrack of Cat Power at dinner parties. Why couldn’t Joe have been a struggling poet who was forced to write celebrity gossip for a website inbetween stanzas to make ends meet? Why the large house in west London? Couldn’t they have lived in a flat in an unfashionably area south of the river? Couldn’t Mitchell and Laura have been estate agents? I understand that the comfortable, affluent, successful lifestyle was meant to juxtapose with the characters’ unhappiness and dissatisfaction (news flash! people with big kitchens can be unhappy too), but I think that their circumstances diluted the point. If these characters had been more every day, their suffering would have been greater, more personal to us (me). I couldn’t see the worth in setting Kitty Finch’s background against the weathier characters, or, rather, I could, but Levy didn’t take it anywhere. Kitty was briefly angry that her mother cleaned rich people’s houses, but she didn’t install any class warfare into Nina, who she took under her wing for a few pages.

But none that has stopped me already beginning to re-read it; I’ll always take beautiful prose over character-quibbles…

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

ImageWritten over 50 years apart, Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning The Sense Of An Ending followings the unravelling of Tony Webster’s memories as his buried past is jolted back into life by the arrival of a lawyer’s letter. Meanwhile, Leo, The Go-Between’s narrator, is taken back 52 years to the first summer of the 20th century when he discovers his 13 year-old self’s diary in a long-forgotten trunk.

Bookended by a prologue and epilogue, both set in Leo’s present, take us into the story (Hartley’s opening line, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, is arguably more famous than the novel itself) and (sort of) tidies thing up at the end for us and for Leo.

The core of the novel is set in the first few months of the 20th century, a century that Leo is filled with confidence in, believing it to be the dawn of  “a Golden Age”.

The century certainly starts off well for him, as he rises to prominence at his boarding school after a spell he writes in his diary directed at two bullies seems to work when they fall to their near-deaths from a roof. His black magic powers seem to continue when his desire for the term to end early comes true when the school is closed after a bout of chicken pox. As a result, he’s invited to stay at his friend Marcus’ grand family house in Norfolk for holidays.

Thrust into a world of Viscounts and strange customs (wearing slippers to breakfast is looked down upon as “something bank clerks do”), Leo becomes enthralled by Marcus’ beautiful sister Marian, who gently, although to an adult’s eye, somewhat maliciously, teases him and spoils him in equal measure. But his infatuation with her leads him into a dangerous game when, persuaded by her lover (who Leo also develops a fascination for) the farmer Ted Burgess, to carry letters between the pair, they are free to continue their clandestine love affair with catastrophic results.

The Go-Between is a wonderful read. Rich and multi-layered, Leo’s 12-year-old voice is so beautifully realised and the Edwardian world, that you, as a 21st century reader knows is about to collapse around their ears, is bought vividly to life. And I’m a sucker for a country house setting, with all its fading glamour and unfathomable to the outsider rituals.

The blazing sun of a glorious July is an omnipresent character; Leo becomes obsessed with the barometer gauge, desperate for the dial to hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Hartley uses the weather both as metaphor and as a way to bring life in the big house to life. I could feel the prickling of sweat on skin, the heat of the sun on your face, the refreshing sound of water as they swam. Suddenly this world wasn’t a million miles away from mine (although I did read in during a very soggy summer, so it did stretch my imagination).

The weather as metaphor is almost a clichéd literary device and in the hands of a lesser writer, could sound as limp as Golden Retriever in the heat. But in Hartley’s skilled hands, the oppressive heat and the symbolic thunderstorm that breaks on Leo’s last day at the Hall, sound as fresh as a day after a storm.