Book Review: A Passage North

passage north

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“…she wouldn’t have been able to hear the music, which such films relied upon so heavily to set up the emotional valence of the scene, to tell the audience whether they should be sad or hopeful or anxious or fearful. She couldn’t have had any sense of the plot, any sense of why something was happening and what consequences it would have for the characters … to watch a film without listening to it was to experience it at a remove…”

A Passage North is an intensely introspective account of a few days in the life of Krishnan, a young man who has moved back to his family home in Colombo and is living an unfulfilling existence. The story opens with an evening phone call in which he is informed of the death of Rani, his grandmother’s former caregiver. Earlier that day Krishnan had received an email from an ex-lover, Anjum, her first attempt at communication since their relationship ended several years ago. It is around these two strands that the unfolding tale is constructed.

Krishnan moved to Delhi to complete his education and then study further. It was here that he met Anjum and started an affair that appeared to mean more to him than to her. She is an interesting character but the reader sees her only through Krishnan’s eyes. With hindsight he can observe that his hopes for a life with her could never have been fulfilled.

“…his response to Anjum was no different from that of so many people, men especially but women too, who seeing someone whose external appearance could sustain all their fantasies, proceeded to project everything they desired onto this person, acting surprised when they realized, weeks or months or years later, that the actual person was different from the image they’d formed, that the actual person had a history and an identity of their own that would not remain silent, responding to this discovery with indignation, as if they’d been lied to or misled…”

While Krishnan was living in India, a war was raging in the north of Sri Lanka that culminated in mass killings of indigenous Tamil people. Rani lost her two sons in this conflict, scars she couldn’t recover from. Krishnan decides he will travel to Rani’s home village to attend her funeral. It is during the train journey he takes that many of his ruminations are shared. The reader learns the detail of how Rani came to work for the family following a marked deterioration in the grandmother’s health.

Dissonance and guilt are described as Krishnan, a Tamil living abroad, learns of atrocities happening in a place he considers home while he remains safe far away. When his relationship with Anjum flounders he takes a job in the north of Sri Lanka, perhaps an attempt to prove his worth after his student dissipations. When this does not provide what he is looking for he moves south where he is now sleeping in his childhood bedroom.

The author employs long sentences in the narrative that go into huge detail on what Krishnan is thinking. As well as events impacting his family, and his relationship with Anjum, he reflects on poems and stories that, at a time in his past, affected him. This isn’t a glimpse into a young man’s thought processes so much as excavation.

In many ways Krishnan is so self-absorbed as to lack empathy. Habits appear almost child-like, such as the pleasure he derives from the rationed cigarettes he permits himself, his smoking of them carried out illicitly. While in Delhi his chosen behaviour was more openly accepted by him – drugs a common feature of social gatherings. Anjum comes across as taking more pleasure in the moment whereas Krishnan is seeking something he cannot quite grasp – experiencing at a remove without appreciating the nuances of his surrounds.

Although undoubtedly well written in a literary sense, the story has more density than depth. Krishnan may elicit sympathy with his lack of direction and unmet desire for fulfilment but he looks inside himself more than at the impact of what is happening beyond. He admires a landscape for what it makes him feel. He observes Rani’s funeral with almost scientific detachment. The philosophical ideas explored in the text are interesting to consider but the story lacks the element of engaging entertainment.

Any Cop?: A book that can be admired yet failed to captivate. Perhaps a worthy candidate for the Booker Prize but this reader would prefer a more enjoyable story to win.

Jackie Law

Book Review: An Island

an island

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

An Island tells the story of Samuel, who is seventy years old when the tale opens. For the previous twenty-three years he has tended a lighthouse on a rocky islet, where he cultivates vegetables and keeps chickens. Requested supplies are delivered by boat each fortnight. Other than these brief visits, he lives alone.

Occasional bodies are washed up on his shores, refugees who have perished and who he buries. The authorities have no interest in those whose skin colour and facial features mark them as foreign.

The book is structured across four days that unfold in short segments with many flashbacks. On the first day Samuel finds the body of a man who turns out not to be as dead as he first appears. Although unwelcome, Samuel cannot bring himself to leave the incomer to perish. With some difficulty he moves the inert form to his cottage. When the man recovers consciousness they struggle to communicate as neither speaks the other’s language. Samuel grows paranoid about the stranger’s intentions, especially when he starts to make himself too much at home.

Samuel’s backstory is gradually revealed when incidents remind him of events from his past. As a boy he and his family were driven from their rural valley smallholding by colonisers – the end of his peaceful and happy time. Those who survived the clearance fled to the city where they joined the ranks of beggars making trinkets to sell. At best this provided a subsistence living.

The unnamed African country goes through further periods of turmoil. The colonisers are replaced by a dictator who makes promises of improvement but feathers only the nests of himself and his supporters. Any who are caught speaking out against him are punished severely.

As a young man Samuel wanted to find a tribe he could belong to, latching on to a group of petty criminals and then a gathering of rebels. Neither, however, truly welcomed him. Given his circumstances and behaviour, it was no surprise to learn he ended up in prison for a time. Samuel had aspirations but little opportunity. However much he may have longed for acclaim, to make a difference amidst the poverty and turbulence, if he was to survive he could not be a hero.

“The films showed lovers, dance clubs, drugs and traffickers, as though that was all of it, everything. As though there were no history, and all the past was something that happened elsewhere, to be remembered by others.”

The brush strokes of Samuel’s past life help explain why he sought a solitary existence and struggled with trust. After his many challenging experiences, the island became his hard won refuge. When the stranger is thrust upon him he shows a degree of mercy but cannot set aside his ingrained fears, exacerbated by how hard he has worked to create a home. As the story is told only from Samuel’s point of view, the stranger remains an enigma. This works well in making him any man from elsewhere.

The author has crafted a subtle yet piercing portrayal of the costs of human subjugation and repeated rejection. Fear of the other has been inculcated, encouraged by those wielding authority. The writing is spare and evocative, the reader trusted to understand the whys and wherefores. Samuel’s island existence is rendered skillfully, his fears understood however abject.

Any Cop?: This is a fine literary achievement with which engagement is effortless. A thoughtful and lingering story that deserves its Booker Prize longlisting.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Real Life

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else.”

The protagonist of Real Life, Wallace, is four years into a graduate degree in biochemistry at a university in the Midwest of America. He grew up in Alabama and had been trying for a long time to leave. He wishes to put his former self behind him – to reinvent how he is perceived. The group he connected with online before arrival at the university – as part of organised orientation – became his closest friends, although still at a remove. He describes them as attractive and, unlike him, pale skinned. Race is an ongoing issue and one he believes they cannot understand. He resents their lack of empathy and interest in this.

Set over an intense and hot weekend, the story told has the vibe of A Little Life. It opens just after Wallace discovers that the lab experiment he has been working on through the summer months has been contaminated, possibly maliciously. Reacting to this, he breaks a habit of keeping his distance, going out to socialise by a nearby lake. Here he admits to his friends that his father died some weeks ago. Although they were estranged, the undercurrent of grief Wallace must process cuts through how he behaves: “people don’t know what to do with your shit, with the reality of other people’s feelings”

There is toxicity in the various relationships described that is brutal in its honesty – biased towards negative aspects. Wallace’s observations of the crowd gathered by the lake are almost cruel – “faces tight in the sort of mean way that fit people carry”, “older people, their bodies and lives gone soft, here to recapture some bit of the past like coaxing fireflies into a jar.”

It is, however, refreshing to read of a group of American students in their twenties rather than of more typical high school or college age – an acknowledgement that learning and personal development continue. The setting is still closed and protected, something that Wallace is growing ever more aware of. In striving to be here, but then not finding the happiness and acceptance he expected, he is struggling with what may come next. He sees racism in how he is treated but cannot articulate this: “people can be unpredictable in their cruelty”

Wallace is gay and, over the course of the weekend, hooks up with one of the men from his friendship group. The sex they indulge in is vividly described – and repeatedly brutal. Despite this, Wallace ponders the possibility of a loving relationship, “an inoculation against the uncertainty of the future.”

Wallace appears incapable of giving anything of himself except as a vessel to be used and abused. He then struggles to contain the internal anger generated. The reader will come to understand this better as more of Wallace’s backstory is revealed. “Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measurement of the pain in one’s life.”

Much of the action described involves people brushing up against each other, never really knowing the other, translating interactions vaguely. Friends who believe they are close grow irritated when behaviour is not as anticipated. Wallace’s view of friendship is grimly tainted, “a pantomime of intimacy, a cult of happiness”

Personal dramas – the issues they raise – are explored through dialogue and the dissection of responses to what is being said. There are repeated references to the senses, particularly how Wallace perceives the smell and taste of people and place. His friends accuse him of being selfish while he regards himself as always giving – behaving in a way that will make his dark skin more acceptable.

The writing style is rich and evocative but the relentless savagery in thought and behaviour remains disturbing. Settings feel claustrophobic. Characters seek personal happiness amidst thwarted expectations. Although well structured and paced, I did not find the story compelling. I learned lessons on the sociology of academia, and on the challenges faced by someone who looks obviously different to those he mixes with, but the lives of all the characters are portrayed as lonely and facing little prospect of improvement given described attitudes.

Any Cop?: I can understand why this made the Booker shortlist and would be neither surprised nor disappointed if it were to win. I would, however, think carefully before recommending such a dark depiction of life to certain readers.

Book Review: The New Wilderness

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

An independent press getting a title on the Booker longlist is a Big Thing for them, even if it can also create headaches due to the cost of complying with the rules the Booker sets on print runs and marketing. Oneworld Publishing, however, has a rare success rate – winning the prize in 2015 and 2016. When their latest release, The New Wilderness, was included on this year’s longlist I was eager to read it.

The story is dystopian fiction, a genre that is proving popular in current times – and worryingly prescient. It is an exploration of how people react when their comfortable world turns toxic. Acceptance is only challenged by individuals when conditions prove personally untenable.

The reader is introduced to a small group of volunteers who have left the City – where pollution is killing their children – to join a monitored study in the Wilderness. Here they survive as hunter / gatherers but must leave no trace of their existence. This means no constructing of shelters or tools they cannot carry. Rangers ensure that they follow the rules set out in the Manual, punishing them for any infractions.

Opening with a stillbirth, the harsh realities of the volunteers’ lives are quickly laid bare. The mother, Bea, leaves the bloody remains of her early born baby to the coyotes, returning to her husband, Glen, and daughter, Agnes, in the cave where the family sleep. Bea finds comfort in items brought from the City – against the rules, she has squirreled them away. Agnes watches everything, listening but not understanding her mother’s behaviour.

The world building is interesting and skilfully rendered. However, when the community sets out on a Ranger mandated journey my engagement waned. There are reminiscences along the way that explain how the original twenty came to be eleven. Although reliant on each other’s strengths and skills, the community members don’t appear to like each other, thinking only of themselves.

“It felt absurd to say, Jane was swept away in a flash flood along with our best knife in this very canyon. The people they were writing to would never get that, even though they’d been sad to lose Jane because she was a good singer, the thing they pined for to this day was that knife.”

To survive the Wilderness, the volunteers become wild. Animal skills must be learned. Behaviour is often base. There is little privacy – even to defecate or copulate. There are frequent battles of wills, displays of brutal self-interest as each seeks dominance. Deaths are accepted, although even in the City this had been a part of how they lived.

“Almost no doctor worked on emergencies anymore because there were no emergencies anymore. Because of overpopulation, emergencies were thought of more or less as fate.”

The story picks up urgency and momentum after the group leave the first Ranger post they are required to visit. Their exploits demonstrate how people turn feral. The focus moves from Bea to Agnes. Unlike many in the community, the youngster is happy with her life in the Wilderness. Despite her age, she seeks to be accepted and respected as an adult, something that is indulged – the few children are all granted greater clemency.

A story of this length needs occasional changes of direction and this comes with an unexpected encounter at the next location the community is sent to. As a result, the balance of power within the group shifts. At first this felt staged but the author’s reasoning soon became apparent – a continuation of the world building.

Outside of the Wilderness there is little of the natural world. Housing is dense with the population educated to work only jobs that are necessary. There are mentions of mines, servers and processing plants. Rumours of Private Lands, where people may live in comfort and plenty as they once did, are widely regarded as a fiction.

The community’s Ranger enforced, nomadic existence is called into question when members ask why they mostly adhere to the strict rules. Agnes in particular believes she could easily survive if granted freedom. She is angered by the adults’ overriding fear of being returned to the City – a place she barely remembers.

There are many disturbing episodes to consider. Humanity is not portrayed as benevolent. As reader sympathy shifts with greater understanding of the wider picture, the tension rises to prepare for the trauma of the denouement.

Any Cop?: What at first appeared a standard dystopia has the bar raised by the quality of writing and uncompromising approach to human self-interest. The world created is frighteningly believable. This is a widely accessible addition to the Booker list.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Days Without End

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

Days Without End is a tale of war, between men and against hardship, yet is narrated with a lyrical optimism even from within the worst of the carnage portrayed. Set in nineteenth century America, where white settlers are intent on removing the indigenous population before turning on each other in the Civil War, the voice of the narrator, Irishman Thomas McNulty, is richly authentic. He understands that the world cares little for the lives of the dirty poor such as him, but that life still has a value for all who can find a way to live.

McNulty spent his early years in Sligo, Ireland where he watched his mother, sister and then father die from starvation due to the potato famine. Alone and desperate, he crept aboard a ship bound for Canada, somehow surviving the hunger of the voyage and then a deadly fever on arrival. He makes his way south where, sheltering under a hedge in Missouri, he meets another young wanderer named John Cole. From then on they face their hardships together.

“I only say it because without saying I don’t think anything can be properly understood. How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with. We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there […] Hunger is a sort of fire, a furnace. I loved my father when I was a human person formerly. Then he died and I was hungry and then the ship. Then nothing. Then America. Then John Cole.”

The boys find work in a saloon before joining the army. For a set of clothes and the promise of food they do whatever is ordered. This mostly involves killing Indians, living under threat of attack, or passing time playing cards. Life on the frontier is one of peril – from enemy, weather and deprivation – but this is familiar and to be endured.

When released from the army Thomas and John travel to Michigan to join a minstrel show being run by the former saloon owner. They take with them Winona, a young Indian girl whose family they helped slaughter. These three set up as a family, until the major from their former unit asks the men to join a new regiment he is setting up in Boston to fight for Lincoln against the southern confederate army.

Although the fighting is barbaric, the day to day conditions endured also take many lives. The men must find ways to survive alongside those who consider the Indians, the people of colour, even the Irish to be vermin, better for all if eradicated. Thomas’s love for Winona, who he regards as his daughter, will cost him dear.

A tale of men and fearsome battles, yet the quality of the writing proves it worthy of a wider audience than may take interest in such base subject matter. The characters, period and locations are vividly painted; the brutality but also the beauty of existence emotively portrayed.

Any Cop?: This is a fine literary achievement worthy of its Booker longlisting. Despite this I am not entirely convinced it attains sufficient reach to be the winner.

 

Jackie Law