Book Review – Martin Amis – The Zone of Interest

Book review – The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

This is a difficult book for me to review. Firstly, I am a hopeless Amis groupie. I can think of no single celebrity in literature (or elsewhere) who would similarly reduce me to as much of a stammering idiot were I to find myself in his or her presence. I have read Amis for 35 years years. From the towering London Fields and The Information, to the shriekingly funny Money and The Pregnant Widow, and even to the incomprehensibly awful Yellow Dog and the failed experimental Time’s Arrow, and to the deeply moving Experience (which rendered all other memoirs pallid by comparison). So I should not really review him – my bias disqualifies me.

Secondly, the Holocaust. There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I devoured every Holocaust book I could lay my hands on, both fiction and non-fiction. The horror of it never diminished, and the answers to the question of how a people could so industrialise hate and cruelty, even in war, were never provided. I have steered of the subject ever since, it it too hard to forage any further. Reading about the Holocaust allows one to gain knowledge, but what happened remains impenetrable.

But The Zone of Interest takes the reader there, directly into the searing center of it, a the focal point of operations of a large concentration camp. It is told via a number of perspectives, mostly Nazis (the camp Kommandant, Gestapo, SS, various German camp, army and government officials). There is one Jewish perspective, a ‘Sonder’ (a sort of senior inmate who is granted a slightly longer life by assisting in the killing).

Amis’s dark brilliance in this book is is that the near-indescribable machinery of death and torture and starvation and rape and anesthetic-less medical experiments and flogging posts are dropped jauntily into dialogue between Nazis and their colleagues and wives and lovers. They are never described in narrative, always simply as part of dinner conversations or internal first person musings over a brandy and cigars, all without a shred of awareness or guilt – how much cement for this, how many bullets for that, the length of the steel tip at the end of the whip, the funny old Jewish lady who complained that there was no dining car on the train transport (just prior to being clubbed to death), the little boy with the club foot who could not walk properly when his was forced to take of his prosthesis, the annoying cost of feeding and keeping Jews alive for 1 month to mine coal in sub zero temperatures before letting them die, the genius of stepping up slave labour from ‘double time‘ to ‘triple time‘ work, the efficiencies of the Punishment Police, the 5 year old girl who clings to the Kommandant’s leg as she is separated from her mother to go the gas chamber. These anecdotes, embedded in conversations juxtaposed with other comments about the fine chicken preparation on the table or extra-marital flirtations or party politics create a terrible cognitive dissonance for the reader. It could not possibly have happened this way. This sort of depravity was surely accompanied by at least a modicum of doubt and guilt and distaste.

Not a bit of it. The conversations and dialogue expose the stunning success of the mad racial scientists of Nazism, who had created the fact of Jews (and others – Slavs, Catholics, gypsies, communists, homosexuals) as insects, as Untermenschen – a perception of such hermetic perfection that no one ever questioned the right of a German to torture or kill for pleasure or profit or whatever reason was deemed fit. So a functionary will discuss the upcoming coming Christmas concert at the camp Officer’s Club in the same breath as complaining about the annoying smell emanating from the open sores of the women in the Women’s block, or the outrageous slothfulness of Jews dragging other dead Jews to the crematoria too slowly.

There is a plot – a love story between the camp Kommandant’s wife and a communist she knew in the thirties, and the reaction of of her drunken cuckold husband. But it is overshadowed by the awful everyday concentration camp picture that is so realistically painted by Amis – blood soaked and putrid and amoral and bestial, with the cries of the tortured and dying echoing behind every banal conversation on every page.

This is not for the faint hearted, but it is, in its terrible way, another work of Amis genius

Book Review – Us by David Nicholls

Book review – Us by David Nicholls

As part of my slow and faltering journey through the Booker longlist I waded into this book with a considerable amount of curiosity. Here’s why – Nicholls wrote a light frothy omlette of a book (and blockbuster) some years back called One Day, which I remember reading, and remember laughing at times and would have forgotten immediately and completely if not for the movie. All I remember was the device (the same day of a love relationship described each year for decades). Oh, and the heroine getting squashed flat by a truck in the last scene, so convincingly done that I was nearly moved to look up how they filmed it.

So I was curious as to how this new one ended up on the longlist, given that the Booker aspires to, um, more earnest fare (although not always – remember Skios?).

The book opens with an absolute sparkler of a first page, on in which you reach the bottom line and settle in with a slight grin on your face, saying – oh, this is going to be fun. Here is the setup – our hero, the first person Douglas, a scientist of little repute, has been happily married to Connie for 20 years. She is, by repeated account, someone who he still cannot believe he snagged. In short, she is gorgeous and sparky and impulsive, he is plain and fusty and practical. Then on page 1, she tells him that she thinks their marriage is has run its course, and she wants out. Such is the shock of this, that he, well…that’s why page 1 is such a cracker.

Then there is their 17 year old son, a dark and moody boy with whom he has a near-estranged relationship, so strained and tortured, so bruised with misunderstandings and misinterpretations, so littered with the best and broken intents of fathering, that I could hardly bear to read it (with my bright-eyed and beloved teenaged boy lying on his bed next door noodling endlessly on Instagram).

So a trip is planned before his wife intends to head off for greener pastures, and before his son becomes a stranger. This trip is a grand tour of the art galleries of Europe (a well researched travelogue of its own, a feast for art-naives like me). And thus the story of their marriage and life is told, flip-flopping between the grand tour and its attendant mishaps, and what transpired over the last 20 years of this marriage.

Will he win Connie back? Will he find common ground with the son he loves? Well, this is the engine of the story, and I wish not to spoil. It is about the illusions of permanence and the nature of second chances and love’s uncommon ways of being given and taken.

The book is often funny (although perhaps a little overheated in the wisecrack department, a malady with which I have occasionally been similarly afflicted). The voices are clear and strong, the language fluent, the narrative unencumbered by weighty digressions, the emotions authentic. And it finishes strongly and satisfyingly, perfectly pitched to the last word – a rare pleasure indeed.

But, still a light meal. To which I say, we all deserve one occasionally, particularly after the sometimes exhausting spelunking of darker literary caves.

Book Review – The Children Act – Ian McEwen

Book Review – The Children Act by Ian McEwan

I have a rocky relationship with McEwan’s work. I liked Atonement. I loved Amsterdam. I rhapsodised to the point of obsession over Saturday. Other than the startlingly original and funny treatise on the single pubic hair peeping out of the heroine’s underwear, I did not like On Chisholm Beach. Sweet Tooth invited an unflattering comparison to Le Carre at his best (damn, whatever happened to Le Carre?).

So I approached McEwans’s latest with the attitude of beaten puppy. It is, happily, a partial return to form. Not great, but very good, particularly after the books finds its rhythm after a slow start. Although there is a section of writing from page 131 – 135 which is better than great, a smouldering, sharply chiseled and gorgeously rendered essay on the sadness and horrors of failed families. I reread it three times – it is a reminder if just how good he is.

And failed families are the bedrock of this novel. The protag is Fiona Maye, an English high court judge presiding over family court. These matters are given life by 3 cases presented to M’Lady through the course the book and described in detail – the viewing and judgement over the morally ruptured rubble of families once catalysed by love and now exploded by resentment or hate or betrayal or the monotonous cacophony of human weakness and inflexibility. And always, damaged children standing stunned and mute in their wake. Ultra Orthodox Jewish fathers blocking their daughters’ access to education, an extreme Christian sect refusing to allow a blood transfusion for their dying son, a conjoined set of twins, for whom the medical murder of one will save the other. Moral morass, all grey, the sort of choices for which the law is near hopeless

A second connected narrative, revealed early, concerns Fiona’s long term husband and partner to their childless but seemingly successful marriage who has has suddenly decided that he needs to have one great passionate affair with a younger woman before he slides down the hill of his 60s towards dotage. The interplay of her shock and humiliation and rage against him, and her cool and wise judgements in the cases that come before her are cleverly juxtaposed.

The link that binds these two narratives is a beautiful and and complex teenage boy whose life has been saved by one of Fiona’s judgements, who begins to stalk her. This culminates in a meeting between Fiona and the boy in the reception of a private hotel, and is stamped by a small and brief 3 second act of inexplicable and shocking recklessness initiated by the judge, eventually offering her a sort of bridge to forgiving.

As always, McEwan’s book is interspersed with essays and mini-treatises on matters great and small, but all tightly bound to the plot – the families that we destroy through selfishness, the moral quagmires in which we thrash, and the redemption and forgiveness that hover just within reach for those who can see.