Book Review – Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

Book Review – Midwinter by Fiona Melrose

It is the onslaught of the literary festival season here, and as a result, I have a unusually large pile of books to read, some for professional reasons, some for pleasure, and when the stars align, both. Among this pile was snuggled a book called Midwinter, by Fiona Melrose.

I ashamedly admit to have known little about the author, or her book. I just opened it up as the next in the pile and started reading – a courtesy for an upcoming event on which we would share a stage.

After a few short chapters I assumed that Fiona was an English author, with six generations of deep and muddy roots in Suffolk, where much of the action takes place. I was astonished (after a quick Google) to find out that Ms Melrose is SA-born and bred and currently resident and had only spent a few years in that windswept rural corner of England.

This book, to put it mildly, is a marvel. At its root are two tragedies that shape and warp the two protagonists – an ageing father and barely adult son, Landyn and Vale, struggling to make ends meet in an unforgiving and cold corner of England. The book opens with the first incident, a drunken boat accident on stormy night off the Suffolk coast. The second, an incident of violence in Zambia decades prior, robbing the father of his wife and the son of his mother. Growing painfully and raggedly from these two incidents is the story of these two broken men slamming blinded and bruisingly into each other, their rage, their grief, their hopelessness, their humanity and their eventual redemption in each other’s pain.

The book draws its fuel from deeply empathetic drawings of Landyn and Vale – one old and sad and mostly gentle, the other young and bewildered and undone by loss. The father’s inarticulate love for his motherless son, the son’s wrath and resentment at a failed father who he blames for his mother’s death act as the harsh backdrop for the story. Beautifully written and is underpinned by dialogue so authentic that I could hear the bray and lilt of thick country accents as their restrained few words to each other fail to disguise unexpressed emotions and unspoken truths.

The story of that terrible night in Zambia unfolds slowly over the course of this short novel as it wraps around the story of this diminished family battling to cope with themselves and their hardscrabble lives on their failing family farm in England. The chapters are alternately narrated by Landyn and Vale, giving the reader a clear and nuanced view of two sides of their same shattered worlds.

My description of the novel may seem bleak, but the beauty of the language and dialogue lifts it out of the blackness of their character’s lives (as do some of the marvellous secondary characters who make their contributions along the way). But I loved these two damaged men by the end of the book. I found hope in their fumbling and angry love for each other. The best of fiction both moves and transforms the reader – Midwinter was wildly successful on both counts.

Watch this author. She is still relatively young, and there are few debuts that I have read as satisfying and accomplished as this.

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    Book Review – Black Hole Blues by Jenna Levin

    Book Review – Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin

    Since I started writing novels some years ago I read non-fiction less often than I would like and far less often than I used to. But a daughter at UCT studying Astrophysics and a wifely Christmas present of this book (roundly garlanded as one of the best of 2016 by various opinion-makers) gave me license.

    The subject is the 60-year story of the construction of two co-operating LIGOs in the US (I won’t bother with the expansion of the acronym, but it is an L-shaped, 4km long piece of insanely complex astrophysical equipment) and its very recent confirmation of Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves, now considered to be one of the most important experimental scientific confirmations of the last century. It is also the study behind the geniuses (and eccentrics) who envisioned and built the project.

    The book doesn’t attempt more than a careful prose description of the science, so as not to fall into the trap of losing non-physicist readers along the way. Suffice it to say that billions of years ago two stars circled each other. They collapsed eventually into individual black holes and then merged. In the last 200 milliseconds of that merger, they released a massive amount of energy which warped space-time in a little ripple that travelled 1.4 billion light years to earth, which was ‘heard’ by the two LIGOs at exactly the same time on a day in September 2015. Billion of years. Billions of miles. And we design a piece of kit to hear the last 200 MILLISECONDS of the event, which proves a dazzling prediction of the theory of relativity.

    If this doesn’t impress impress you about the boundless ambition of human curiosity, I am not sure what will. It has not only confirmed the theory, but opened the first truly ‘new’ field of astronomy in many decades, and will allow us to look deeper, further and more clearly into where we came from.

    The science in the book is given bright colour by the descriptions of the fascinating politics of big science and the human brilliance, failings and tragedies of the many scientists who laboured on this near-impossible project. Janna Levin brings all of them to light in a way that only the best fiction tries to do. BTW – astronomer Kip Thorne (the driving force behind this for decades) also wrote the treatment for the film Interstellar.

    Levin is herself a physicist and professor, but her use of language and an unusual stylistic flair can stand toe-to-toe with writers of any genre. This is a must read for anyone with who struggles, like I do, to make sense of the inscrutable world of advanced physics and cosmology and its practitioners, but who wish to get a clearly articulated glimpse of its mysteries.

    You will leave this book knowing far more about the universe and the best of human ingenuity than when you started.

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      Book review – Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

      Book Review – Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

      A short while ago I posted a picture of my holiday reads, this novel among them. I got an equal number of ‘You’re going to love it’ and ‘You’re going to hate it’ from people whose opinions I respect equally.  Argh. The pressure.

      This is a big book. Not as in lengthy (a reasonable 389 pages), but as in bursting. It is, at its swollen heart, a great and rending love story, a story of marriage (messy, betrayed, boundless) and the potholed roads on which it travels –  romantic, erotic, tragic, infuriating and lingering. Its plot as uneven as life, its cast as unpredictable and flawed and and unreasoned as, well, people are.

      There is a large cast of characters, but really only two – the husband Lotto and his wife Mathilde.. Lotto has grown from a oversized, acne scarred and unhappy teenager (deposited by a controlling mother into a bullying prep school) into a tall, strong, beautiful Adonis – loved, talented and graced with charm, kindness and unfillable yearning for adulation. Young and at college he meets Mathilde, a 6 foot slip of unusual beauty, abandoned and insecure. And they fall instantly in love, moving to New York, he to seek success in theatre and she to seek herself. Their unruly ambitions and love for each other crest and crash against each other repeatedly, leaving the reader bruised and exhausted. And we follow them at uncomfortably and piercingly close quarters for many decades, their unspoken secrets and pasts slowly but determinedly creeping up on them like malevolent shadows.

      The book is divided into two sections – their first 25 years (‘Fates’) and thereafter (‘Furies’) separated by a life-changing event which I won’t spoil. The first section is mainly Lotto’s perspective, his belated sterling career as playwright, his vaulting ambition, his endless love and lust for Mathilde. The second half, mainly Mathilde’s perspective, is her titanic battle between vengeance and kindness, careening dizzily between time frames as her best and worst selves wrestle for the next 40 or so years.

      Groff’s writing is startling – a mere few words can leave the reader gasping. Her facility with phrase sentence, scene and the complexity of human emotion is like none I have ever read before (this is my first Groff). She is also intimidatingly erudite (this book is not for everyone – I felt deeply peasanted by some of the literary and theatrical references – Greek mythology anyone?). It also occasionally employs devices – first acts of disguised autobiograhical plays written by Lotto, play synopses masquerading as motive, even one section where the actual novel narrative is in its entirety embedded in the first act of a play. Normally this would annoy me, but there is something so unique in the way that this book is played out that makes it feels natural, necessary, wildly expository.

      Oh, and the sex. Deep, near pornographic descriptions of their lovemaking. Usually I cringe, but in the hands of Groff, I became (how shall I say this?), um, titillated.

      I really loved this book. I weep for Lott and Mathilde, their story tears at me still. I think Lauren Groff is a genius, likely beyond my reckoning. I will read everything she writes from now on. Highly recommended.

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        Book Review – Nutshell by Ian McEwan

        Book Review – Nutshell by Ian McEwan

        After panting and wheezing my way though a couple of doorstop books (not all of which did their weight justice), I was relieved recently to have been confronted with the dainty new 199-page novel from Ian McEwen, Nutshell. McEwen is one of those people, like Woody Allen or Philip Roth or Martin Scorcese, where a a new offering simply requires a mandatory pilgrimage, even if there are certain to be disappointments along the way.  Saturday, Atonement and Amsterdam had engraved McEwan’s name on my must-always-read list, and its economy was an added attraction. 

        This book’s premise is an audacious conceit. The narrator is the main protagonist’s unborn boy-child, nestled snugly in her womb, where he is witness to murder-most-foul. I say this with intent because the foetus hilariously narrates in faux-Shakespearean English (the book is set in our current time), full of poetry, soaring soliloquy and flowery flights of imagination and introspection. This is a high-wire act, and when it became clear who was narrating (within minutes of starting the book), I got  a little anxious – this is just silly, I thought – it cannot sustain. A foetus (even if one were to grant literary license), has never seen the world. How can it possibly be our ubiquitous narrator?

        Ah, but McEwen is a master of device (his most recent, Sweet Tooth, reveals the entire story to have been a brilliant deceit in the final pages). In Nutshell he smartly fashions the mechanisms of this unborn baby’s knowledge – he has heard his mother in conversation, he has heard podcasts late into the night as his mother struggles with insomnia, he has heard the muffled TV, the radio. He knows a great deal, our foetus, without ever having to have opened his eyes.

        And then there is the plot. An old-fashioned English murder nefariously planned by the mother and her lover, directed at our baby’s father – a cuckolded, impecunious and unheralded publisher of poetry, now separated and forced out of the house that he owns (and which his would be killers want). Our little womb-bound hero knows of the murder plans, what can he do? He loves his mother and his father – what is to become of his life of the murder plans succeed? What if she is caught? His, um, erudite babylike musings on these matters make up much of the clever and lightly comedic backdrop of the novel.  There are plot holes galore, the murder and its undoing is reasonably predictable, but it is all bundled together in a literary and good-natured package and serves more to advertise McEwan’s mastery of language, dialogue and quintessential British comedic understatement than it does to advance the crime genre in which it unfolds.

        There are some truly funny scenes – our tiny hero’s periodic disgust as his mother’s oafish and oversexed lover takes her from behind, squashing his little head with his thrusting penis.  Our unborn child’s unashamed and very modern admission of his drinking problem, a result of his mother’s excessive fondness for fine wines. His terror of ending up as an foster baby in a 13th story walk-up.

        This is undoubtedly the first (perhaps) and last time we will have a foetus as a novel’s narrator. In less experienced hands this could been a terrible mess. But this novelist knows his way around storytelling (20 books, excluding librettos and oratorios and screenplays). And perhaps he dashed this off in the metaphorical equivalent of an afternoon, but it was worth the quick pilgrimage this author’s work demands.

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          Book Review – Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

          Book Review – Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
           
          There is a sub-sub genre of American literature, a shelf labelled the American Jewish Experience. As short as this shelf is, it groans under weight of great American writers – Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Heller, Mailer, to name the obvious ones. Jonathan Safran Foer, whose name was made in his 20s with his mega-successes Everything is Illuminated and Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close piles muscularly and rudely into this august company with his latest, Here I Am, ten years in the making.
           
          This is a long, sprawling, shambolic and largely (although not completely) successful addition to this genre. The book pokes unrestrainedly and gleefully and often painfully into every nook and cranny of a reluctantly secular East Coast American Jewish family – its broken heart and it angst and its desperation and its ancient and partially believed rituals and its endless pride. There is almost nowhere that this novel does not go (a 12 page description of a 13 year old’s masturbatory excesses is a shockingly funny nod of recognition to Roth’s Portnoy, whom he renders rather quaint by comparison). It peers into the carnage of a failing marriage, the tension between secularity and religion, the tenuous, fracturing and heartbreaking loyalty between American Jews and Israeli Jews and finally the constant worrying and questioning and second-guessing and on-the-other-handing of the Jewish intellectual, caught endlessly and uncomfortably between his warring head and heart.
           
          At the centre of of the book is Jacob Bloch, a successful but unfulfilled TV writer, and his family. There is his wife Julia, an architect who designs houses she will never build, soon to leave him. There are his three smart, funny, precocious and sometimes soulful boys, the oldest of whom has found escape from his confusing teenage world in an alternate reality game called Other Life where he inhabits the avatar of a witty young woman he creates. The is his father Irv, a life spent raging ceaselessly and fruitlessly against anti-semitism and the Arab threat to Israel, his beloved holocaust-surviving grandfather Isaac, his childhood cousin, Tamir, long decamped to Israel to become a different sort of Jew. These characters are all massive, flawed, gentle, cruel, caring, but mostly rendered rabid and unhappy by self-analysis and and endless philosophising. But along the way the reader is treated to truly soaring dialogue – a long marijuana-fueled rhapsody between Jacob and his Israeli cousin, a startling Bar-Mitzvah speech, banters of love and frustration within a fractured family.
           
          The opening lines of this book sets the stage – ‘When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to Jewish Home’. This is not metaphorical – the Middle East is struck by a massive and utterly destructive earthquake, as is the Bloch family in the US, in many smaller but no less upending ways. The book belongs to Jacob, and Foer spends 600 pages wondering through his complex and confusing head – we love him, we hate him, we care about him, we marvel at his intellect and wisdom, we wish he would just STOP over-thinking and find out who he is. We wish him peace, which he rebuffs at every opportunity.
           
          Sadly, the last 100 pages of this bristling novel falters badly – it seems to lose its direction, its voice and its heart as it bounces dizzily forwards and backwards in time. This is perhaps the greatest curse of famous writers, who might not accept instruction from well-meaning editors (it reminded me of the rambling and unnecessary last 100 pages of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch).
           
          Nevertheless. This book is a large mountain to climb. You will get tired and hungry and grumpy. But along the way, the views. Oh my, the views.
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            Book Review – The Safest Place You Know by Mark Winkler

            Book Review – The Safest Place You Know by Mark Winkler

            This is an astonishing South African novel.

            Some time ago I reviewed Winkler’s Wasted, which was a disturbing pleasure to read. The first thing that jumps out on reading this (his third) novel is how different it is – in tone, structure, language, dialogue, characters, narrative. Wasted was urban and bristling. This is something else altogether. Authors dream of this sort of diversity and dexterity – it is a rare gift. It is as though Winkler has seemingly accessed an entirely new writer out of the same space in his head and heart. That is the first astonishment.

            The second is the writing. From word to sentence to paragraph to chapter the language soars, sometimes so beautifully as to reach for poetry. Descriptions of simple things – raindrops or dust or a tree or a gesture is wrought from original and exotic material – I often found myself rereading sentences and paragraphs after simply gasping at the language the first time around. There is a danger in this of course, because those chapters (and there were a few) that do not reach the same level of excellence become starkly bland. But I quibble, because the whole far exceeds its parts.

            The action unfolds in the early 1980s. Two separate lives, irrevocably damaged by cruel and abusive fathers, are thrown into a strange and poignant embrace on a wine estate near Paarl. The first is a 17 year Afrikaans boy, Hennie, fleeing an act of violence on his family farm, now in the final death throws neglect and drought. The second is a 30-something lawyer, Andy, the estranged heiress to a wine estate, irrevocably damaged and alcohol-enslaved, now returned to the estate on the untimely death of her hated father. The damage wrought by their respective fathers and the subsequent corrosive secrets carried by their children sit a the heart of this story, which unfolds as they both try to communicate, try to comfort each other, try to comfort themselves and try to find a way to leave the past behind. If I can misquote Philip Larkin – they really fuck you up, your fathers. Winkler looks long and deep into those wounds.

            The cast is rounded out by the counterpoint of two other key characters. One is the estate domestic helper, Johanna, a white woman deposited reluctantly (and finally with great loyalty) into the coloured community by an act of apartheid madness, and the other a small child of unknown provenance, Charlotte, who arrives mysteriously on the estate, bringing with her a chimeric and other-worldly healing for all. For me this was the only off-key note in the book (I have difficulty with the introduction of magical realism into a beautifully rendered story of tragedy and redemption, but perhaps I quibble again). I will say no more about the plot, it unfolds and refolds with great sensitivity and care, and the character’s voices echo loud after the final page.

            I am told there was a reviewer who compared Winkler favourably to JM Coetzee. Perhaps (I am poorly-read in the Coetzee department), but I would simply say that The Safest Place You Know has elevated Winkler into a cadre of uncommon talent, I would take a soft bet that he ends up being one of the great writers coming out of SA in the early part of this century

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              Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

              Book Review – Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo
              Richard Russo sits pretty much at the apex of American literature. Much beloved, Pulitzer-garlanded and graced with a 20 year history of almost unanimously acclaimed novels of small town America and their hopeful, flawed, damaged and occasionally lovable inhabitants.
               
              The precursor to Everybody’s Fool, published in 1993, was titled Nobody’s Fool and introduced the untameable and irascible Sully, a character so memorable that he immediately took his place next the other great and complex men of US letters like Ford’s Frank Bascombe, Bellow’s’ Rabbit Angstrom and Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman and Mickey Sabbath. I have read many of Russo’s other books as well, all cracking with dry wit, wry comment, gentle and sharp-edged humour and the multiple failures and tiny triumphs of an unheralded America. Reading his previous books was always a deep pleasure – wide casts of unusual characters, rope-tangled plots and an an unstinting ear for broken rhythms and slightly dissonant melodies of American dialogue writ small.

              But Everybody’s Fool is a mixed bag. So a quick setup, and then what I believe to be its successes and failures.
               
              The anti-hero of the previous novel, Sully, is relegated to a supporting role in this book. He is now 70, in ill-health and more temperate as he tries to find a way to correct past missteps, to give love another chance and to live out the remainder of his life with some grace.
               
              A previously minor character, Police Chief Raymer steps up to take centre stage in this novel. He is a marvellous mess of a man, believing firmly that he is more stupid, less competent and less deserving than he actually is. He is widowed and hobbled by his belief that his late wife was having an affair. After her death he finds a garage opener among her effects, This becomes the novel’s McGuffin as he tries to find the garage door that it opens, there to presumably identify the man who stole her affections. And the complications that follow, oh my! A venomous snake, a grave robbing, a central character struck by lighting, a dog who gnaws at his bleeding penis, a seriously paranoid black policeman with a Red mustang, a butterfly-tattooed butt cheek, a collapsed building, a severed ear, unidentified toxic sludge oozing out of the ground, and a huge cast of drunks and losers. And that’s just a sample. These jigsaw pieces all come together neatly in the final few rollocking chapters.
               
              Everybody’s Fool succeeds as a literary madcap plot, spinning hither and thither but holding onto its central theme of the search for love and dignity even amongst the most failed and desperate of souls. It’s dialogue is masterful, and the writing floats effortlessly even as it boasts its literary credentials.
               
              But it fails elsewhere. Sully’s journey is a disappointment – he is less interesting as a fading old man than he was as the unpredictable and aggressive grouch of the earlier novel. And the Sully story runs basically parallel to the Raymer story – their intersections and overlaps are a bit forced. It is basically two books, and this dilutes the whole. There are other lapses – a cartoon-like bad guy and some lengthy character backstories which add little to the whole.
               
              When Woody Allen makes a film I always see it, I have never missed one. He often does not succeed, some are awful. But making the pilgrimage the cinema is just something that needs be done. Allen’s voice should be heard – because even at its worst, there are moments of brilliance that make it worthwhile.
               
              So it is with Richard Russo.
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                Book review – Wasted by Mark Winkler

                Book Review – Wasted by Mark Winkler

                In keeping with my policy of not reviewing books written by friends (which I violated in the case of Bloomlak’s Continental Shift), let me declare that I have never actually met Mark Winkler, but our paths have crossed occasionally on Facebook. I figure that there is distance enough to write this without bias.

                A while ago I reviewed We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves and was faced with the problem of how to review it without giving away the incident on page 77, which was so off-the-charts that the reader had to utterly re-evaluate the characters, the plot, the narrative, everything.

                So it is with Wasted. Something happens on page 62 that is similarly shocking, leaving me to have to dance around it as I write this. So excuse the pussy-footing, I don’t want to spoil.

                This is a startlingly original book, and a first person voice of long-lingering and searingly poignant originality (I will think about the protagonist, Nathan, for a long time). The first section of the book introduces us to this amusing, eccentric oddball, who lives alone, sleeps with the lights on, has no friends, labours competently in a junior sales position in an ad agency and has a near permanent erection which is relieved often, by hand or happenstance.

                His interactions with people are sparse, taciturn, self-deprecating and somewhat bewildered. His internal world broils with sharp and unique commentary and slightly bent self-reflection and off-kilter brain banter. He is, in short, the sort of character to whom the reader is quickly drawn, in a maternal sort of way. We want him to succeed. We want him to make friends, find love. He is kind. He is lost. He visits an older woman friend sick with cancer often, and with unconditional affection. Yes, he is pretty weird, but he is the sort of guy that I have known and am often drawn to – depth masquerading as oddity. There are the smallest hints of what is to come, but I was never fully aware until later, when it happened.

                And then page 62. OMG. I sat up in bed when I hit this page and yelped. Nathan does something. And the book becomes something else – a funny and sad and profound investigation into dark matters from which most of us are happily hidden. I can’t say more. I will ruin it.

                The writing is sparse and economic and evocative and acute. The secondary characters, are well-salted and mullti-coloured, and at least one of them (a doomed and insightful murderer named Naicker) is clearly the author’s mouthpiece for the great matters of life and death, a technique to which I am always drawn (I am as interested in the authors’ opinions as I am in characters’ opinions).

                Winkler is a local author, but the book is not in any sense ‘South African’ other than in its locale (Cape Town) and he stays mercifully away from tropes of race and history and politics that bedevil many other SA novels. This book is not plot driven – there is one, of course, but it plays second fiddle the far more interesting troubled mind and shattered history and truncated future of Nathan Lucius, as complex and tragic a character as I have read in a long time.

                Reading Winkler was an uncommon and unexpected pleasure – this book is very different from other literary fare and its brevity belies its depth. Take a deep breath and go on this morally chaotic journey into dark places with Lucius – you won’t forget him soon.

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                  Book Review – Purity by Jonathan Franzen

                  Book Review – Purity by Jonathan Franzen
                   
                  I am a bit late to the game here. Given the shield-tempered literary standing of Franzen (Time Magazine cover and all), Purity has been reviewed everywhere on the planet since the middle of last year. I didn’t read any of the reviews, because I loved The Corrections (Freedom less so) and wanted an unencumbered virgin experience (excuse the crossed metaphor).
                   
                  This turned out to be a uncomfortably uneven book, bouncing from soaringly rendered passages and profound insights and unusual and compelling characters and glorious dialogue and a Rubik’s cube plot to sophomoric musings and embarrassing melodrama and long and lumpy explanations that insult the intelligence of the reader (there are entire pages of plodding musings about love and hate that could have been better rendered as a single line of dialogue). From the best to the worst in barely paragraphs. My friend Helen Moffet, a well known editor and author would have little patience for this – I am sure she would have cut this book in half, and retained it often brilliant core. Perhaps Franzen is too untouchable, too revered, editors would not have dared go into combat with him.
                   
                  And yet.
                   
                  When Franzen is good, he is like no other. There were surprises in this book. It is often very funny, which has not been one of his previous calling cards. The opening chapters introduce Pip, our early protagonist, as vulnerable, hostile, complex, acerbic and fucked up a young woman as you are ever liable to meet in fiction whose sharp tongue has the reader cackling, loud and often. Why Pip (her real name is Purity, Pip is her nickname)? Was this going to be an modern Great Expectations? There were early hints but they faded. Perhaps Franzen tired of this thread.
                   
                  The plot meanders cleverly away from a young Pip in San Francisco (who has fled her wildly eccentric mother to find herself and her missing father), to a flashback to another world in 1980s East Germany where an Assange-like character called Andreas Wolf commits a crime of passion that sets the stage for his notoriety and paranoia to come. And elsewhere the US, a wheelchair bound author called Charles and a love-torn journalist called Leila and the founder of an online newspaper called Tom and a dummy nuclear warhead in Texas and a Wikileaks-type operation the jungles of Bolivia and the streets of Denver, and, and.
                   
                  What seems like an improbable and inscrutable plot winds it way neatly around characters and motive and ties it all into a cleverly wrapped bundle. The journey that the reader is taken on is head spinning – many locations, characters, scenes, vignettes, storylines, love affairs, emotional earthquakes. I won’t even try to understand why a reasonably minor character, about 3/4 of the way through the book, suddenly changes from 3rd to 1st person, going on to relate a throat-grabbingly brilliant description of a failed marriage.
                   
                  So what was this book about? There are three characters who compete for the reader’s attention, and whose lives intersect on multiple planes – the confused and opinionated Pip, the jungle-dwelling uncoverer of global malfeasance Andreas, and the investigative online site-owner Tom. And these characters circle and feint. Around their secrets, the secrets of others, the secrets that bind and the secrets that destroy. This book is about just that. The distorting power of secrets.
                   
                  But oh for the hand of a imperturbable editor. Perhaps Purity, although interesting and worth the read, might then have been a great book.
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                    Book Review – City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

                    Book Review – City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

                    944 pages. Really large. Large in ambition and character and plot and language and emotional scope. So large, that a reader’s review of polite length is a daunting prospect – there are just so many moving parts. But given the astonishing final 200 pages (and notwithstanding some of its earlier indulgences), it is worthy of a try.

                    The book is set in New York between Christmas 1976 and July 1977, and bookended by a shooting in Central Park and the great power blackout that crippled the city seven months later. These two event draw together an astonishing palette of characters – a group of disaffected anarchist/punks, a master fireworks designer, a neglected and love-lorn teenage boy, a fantastically wealthy and dysfunctional uptown family, a petite and pretty dreamseeking big city newbie, a physically handicapped detective, a depressed reporter, a fictional iconic and short-lived punk band, a gay black aspirant novelist and his heroin addicted white artist boyfriend. All of these lives (and many more) are strung together in a unruly tapestry, intersecting in unpredictable ways as the period between the shooting and the power blackout construct a stage in which they careen and bounce off each other, by co-incidence and design. It is a wildly complex and multi-layered plot, sometimes ingenious, sometimes disingenuous, sometime gripping, sometimes stalled in underlying character soul-searching and tangential asides. 

                    This period was a terrible time for New York – it was bankrupt, crime was out of control, buildings were being set alight all over the poor boroughs of the city, the heat of that 1977 summer was wilting – it seemed the end of things in that great city (I remember this well, having just moved to the US). Against this backdrop, Hallberg has constructed a bursting amalgam of literary fiction, detective thriller, love story, historical narrative, psychological study and philosophical treatise on all manner of things, all beautifully rendered in soaring language.

                    The first part of the book sets up the wide cast of diverse characters, drills their backgrounds deep, with flashbacks and flash-forwards and assorting musings, before the shooting in Central Park happens on a cold New Year’s eve. And then a slowly converging plot that congeals finally into a hurtling, rock hard, sharped edge, page gripping climax over the final 200 pages, with the threat of a terrible tragedy revealing itself and coming hotly into focus (and language suddenly and cleverly shifted from past to present tense).

                    And what of its length? I think that there is a reason most novels are 350 pages or thereabouts. It is the sweet spot for the medium. A story can be moulded neatly into this package, requiring, what, 10 – 20 hours of the reader’s time? It is a digestible attention span. But 944 pages (which took me 6 weeks to finish)is, quite simply, too long for most tastes, too long for energy to sustain, for the colours of narrative and plot and character to retain the vibrance of the moment. Yes, there are exceptions (Dickens comes to mind, The Goldfinch, &Sons, Infinite Jest). But they are exceptions. Is this? Yes, in many ways it is a great book, painstakingly constructed and tended, but a judicious and merciless edit of 400 or 500 pages would have rendered this a masterpiece. Still, I can’t deny that I felt a sense of a achievement when I finished.

                    Hallberg was paid $2 mil for this debut novel – a breathtaking advance, a record. Apparently he compared his book to a box DVD set of House of Cards or Sopranos or Breaking Bad – scores of episodes consumed in a single binge watch. He wanted to recreate that experience in reading.

                    He didn’t quite get there. But it was close enough. 

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