Book review – French Exit by Patrick de Witt

Book review – French Exit by Patrick de Witt
A couple of years ago, I met Canadian novelist Patrick de Witt at a bar at the Athol Fugard Theatre at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. He had recently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel The Sisters Brothers. Like everyone else, I was intrigued to meet a Booker shortlister in the flesh. He was friendly and odd and and a little bewildered and oddly magnetic, fixing people with big, blinking scary eyes. I never read the book. But I came away from the encounter thinking that this was one weird guy who might set your car alight for fun, with you in it, and you might not even mind.
 
The author is clearly a weird guy and so is this story. Like in upside-down weird. Brilliant weird. Shriekingly funny weird. Off kilter. Whacko. In a genius sort of way. Every character that deadpans his or her way though the action is slightly askew, both in who they are and what they say. But, being both weird and exceptionally talented, the author makes everyone seem completely normal, even when they are most definitely not.
 
Sentences and paragraphs and dialogue are short and tight and taut in this book.
 
And so will it be with this review.
 
New Yorker Grace is 65, a once beautiful socialite, admired and envied and hated, and now bankrupt through profligacy. Glacial, insulting, imperious, near-friendless, aloof. I liked her tremendously, in a horrified sort of way.
 
Malcolm is her 32 year old son. He is friendless. He has no ambitions. He doesn’t care about much at all. His fiancé is leaving him. He is droll and dry and floats around doing little. I liked him tremendously too.
 
He lives with his mother in their palatial apartment. They talk by phone from their respective rooms.
His father and Grace’s ex-husband, Frank Price, from whose businesses their wealth originally sprung is long gone, having flown the coup decades earlier. And now dead. Yet he inhabits the book. I want to say in a weird way, but that would be understating.
 
So Grace and Malcolm flee their financial woes in NY and flee to Paris.
 
With their cat, Little Frank.
 
And there they find out that that Frank Price, late father and husband, has taken robust re-incarnated residency inside the cat’s head. And said cat has now disappeared into the parks and alleys of Paris. De Witt makes this seem absolutely natural, I swear. I didn’t even blink when this came to light. I said, oh, that’s interesting.
 
And there they assemble a menagerie in their apartment – a medium who can contact missing cats and can see people who are about to die and a Private Investigator who really isn’t very a good one and a lonely Parisian lady seeing friends and the NY ex-fiancé of Malcolm and her new beau (now in Paris) where they drink a great deal and…, oh God, de Witt is just one weird mofo. Brilliant and funny, did I mention? But so weird (I may have mentioned) that my face looked like a Picasso portrait by the end of the book.
 
De Witt is clearly off his rocker. I mean this in the nicest possible way, of course.
 
And weirdly, I really loved this book.

Book Review – Theo & Flora by Mark Winkler

Book review – Theo & Flora by Mark Winkler
 
 
Theo & Flora, a most unusual novel of love’s hopes and disappointments, past and present, is built on a number of devilish literary devices which had me hopelessly sucked in within a few chapters.
 
The first is the structure. The novel takes places in two time frames in successively interleaved chapters. The first is in the present, in Cape Town, though the eyes of Wasserman, a once successful novelist now stalled and desolate and deserted by his more successful wife. The second is through the eyes of his grandfather-in-law, attorney Theo Silver between 1944 – 1949 as he bounces between Cape Town, Hermanus, PE and Knysna in search of love and peace.
 
And as we find out later (not a spoiler), also linked similarly to the author himself. This is no small matter. A fictional novelist writing a novel about his late grandfather-in-law, actually written by Mark Winkler, who has exactly that grandfather-in-law. It is seems to violate the laws of the universe somehow, but I can’t pin it down.
 
And herewith devilish trick number 1 – the story from 70 years ago is told in the present tense and the current day story is told in the past tense. I snorted with glee when this became apparent by Chapter 2, and that choice turns out to be much of the fuel for the ensuing story, and it never feels tired.
 
Devilish trick number 2 – this story is an epistolary, kind of, a story told in a series of old letters between two people, adulterous lovers in this case, at the end of World War II. But Mark Winkler gives it a twist. Present day Wasserman comes across the letters in his Cape Town house. And he fashions a novel out of them, while the author Winkler takes us (in each odd chapter) back to the present 70 years ago to flesh the story out through Theo’s eyes. Damn, that’s clever. It creates simultaneously an immediacy and intimacy for both the living Wasserman and his late grandfather-in-law Theo. I imagine Winkler puzzling over how to tell this story and suddenly shrieking in joy as he sees how to do it.
 
So, the setup. Writer Wasserman’s wife has left him, he was once famous but is now nearly forgotten, except by his French editor Delphine who begs him to write again. He is alone. He has no real friends. He drinks a little more than he should. And then he finds a box of old letters.
 
And the other setup. Theo Silver is married to Sarah, it is over 70 years ago. They have a son. They live in moderate affluence in their Jewish Cape Town community. But Theo is hopelessly love with the married Flora Goldberg and furtive dalliances and assignations ensue. And the story is driven by this immovable lynchpin – in those days one could not get divorced without spousal approval. And Theo’s wife Sarah would rather that everyone was miserable – herself, Theo and Flora before she would submit to that public humiliation.
 
Oh, the complications that this decision brings! Theo & Flora is a tumultuous story of love and lust and patience and nastiness and betrayal and cowardice and cunning and dark urges and moral ambiguity (on most everyone’s part – there are no truly lovable characters here, my favourite sort of cast).
 
The 1940s story (the story of Theo and Flora) could have stood alone as a novel, but Winkler’s decision to go meta and also tell the story of the fictional author of the novel is a force multiplier – the reader is left loving and hating people across time, alive and dead, all of whom are connected to each other by marriage. And I say again, including the real author, Mark Winkler.
 
Oh, and almost nothing on politics, race, class, history, apartheid. What a relief to have these South African elephants out of the room so that the story has space to breath on its own.
 
Mark Winkler has sort of quietly rocketed to the upper echelons of South Africans letters over the past 3 or 4 years, with shortlist nominations, international deals and rave reviews of his previous (and this) novel. He has become a favourite of mine not only because he is a beguiling story teller and gentle and caring wordsmith (I kept wanting to clip sentences for re-reading), but because every one of his novels that I have read (three out of four) are utterly different in tone and form and story and character – his range is astonishing.
 
If you haven’t read Winkler, do it now.
 
Published by Umuzi
(c) Steven Boykey Sidley

Book Review – Milkman by Anna Burns

Book Review  – Milkman by Anna Burns (winner of the Booker Prize 2018)

On numerous occasions since I was a pubescent tyke I have attempted to read James Joyce’s  Ulysses. The first was at 13, when a friend of mine and I, acting on the advice of a rakish older teenager, tried to find the reputed purple prose and forbidden porn between its covers (we didn’t, of course). Then in later years, more attempts, borne out of guilt and curiosity and masochism. I never made it past more than a few chapters, getting lost in the dense jungle of words and paragraphs, endless, rambling, chaotic, a steamy thicket of impenetrable literary flora.

I finally admitted defeat and moved on.

And then, a couple of years ago, I went to see the inimitable Jenny Steyn acting (solo); 90 minutes of explosively performed Molly Bloom from Ulysses. And she did it, unsurprisingly, in Irish. With that accent reeking of history and famine and whiskey and poetry. The curled ‘r’s’ and gentle lilts and hills and valleys splattered with metaphors and allusions. And James Joyce suddenly came to life. That’s it I thought! You have to read Joyce in Irish! Not English. Irish (the accent)!

And so it was with Milkman, this year’s Booker prize winner. Called ‘incomprehensible’  and ‘impossibly dense’ by some reviewers, I decided, fuggit, I am going in with my machete. And I will read it in Irish (I am no good at speaking accents, but I can hear them, the song and cadence in every sentence). On the rare occasions where I lost concentration switched to English it indeed became, um, leaden, opaque.

So this is like nothing else you will ever read, if you decide to uncrate your old Irish sword and fearlessly wade in to battle.

The best way I can describe this book it is one part Joyce (the close-packed cornucopia of words, sentences falling over each other, paragraphs sweeping endlessly over many pages, the joyous vernacular – (a ‘numbance’, an attitude of feeling numb, for example, or the emphatic use of  ‘auld’ for ‘old’, written and pronounced just as spelled, just slightly differently than the boring english version).

And then one part Joseph Heller (weird and wobbly characters like ‘tablets-girl’ or ‘Somebody McSomebody’ or ‘nuclear-boy’ only mentioned early, but making themselves loudly and colourfully known only later, like Major Major Major in Catch-22). And the deep, black, screaming hilarity of the most unfunny of situations.

And then one part Kafka. Or maybe four parts Kafka. The world which unfolds makes Kafka’s cockroach seem common.

Our heroine (never actually named, like all of the characters in this book) is an 18 year-old eccentric, walking around her 1970’s Irish town (also not named, and neither is the IRA or Northern Ireland or Britain – only ‘renouncers of state’ and ‘the country over the water’). She walks with her head down, reading books, reading more books and not talking to anyone. That’s all she does, other than occasionally visit her ‘maybe-boyfriend’.

We soon find out why. These are deep in the times of the troubles. Everyone is suspect. Or could be suspect. Or should be suspect Or is made to be suspect. Traitors are a rumour away, a wrong smile, a misplaced glance, a wrong address. There are bombs and beatings and tar-and-featherings and kneecappings and death and disappearance. One day you are just living a small life and the next you are branded a traitor. By people who are perhaps, maybe also maybe-traitors. Or could be. Or could be made to be.

So bewildered is our heroine by this illogical and Bedlamic world into which she is forced to inhabit that all she can do is read and walk and talk to no one and look at no one. And have sex with maybe-boyfriend, who loves cars and has a workshop and has a acquired a turbo-charger from a car from ‘over-the-water’ and so his neighbour wonders whether he is a traitor and so…

Into her cloistered world steps Milkman, near the book’s opening. Not a milkman (although there is a milkman in the book, an important one). No, Milkman is a renouncer-of-state, a big shot paramilitary. And old and scary and slimy. And he wants her, because if you are a big shot in the renouncers-of-state, you take what you want, including pretty eccentric and vulnerable 18 year-olds who finally have no other choice.

And so the book takes wings of a sort, with our heroine stopping at every thought and conundrum and possibility, turning it this way and that, her head a jumble of maybes and surely-nots and what-ifs. And lets not forget the many, many sisters and brothers-laws and widowed mom and ballroom-dancing children and slaughtered dogs and decapitated cat’s head and, god, ach, ach, this book is near impossible to review, even though the plot is deceptively simple. 

So, like my first attempts at reading James Joyce I am giving up on this review.

But if you choose to read it, read it in Irish. It is exhausting, astonishing, beautiful and you will leave it in a numbance.

Book Review – Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

Book Review – Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

One of the great good fortunes of my life is that I have never been visited by great loss or grief, but having been a proximal observer many times (and increasingly often as the years progress) it often seems to me that my rope must soon run out.

This slim memoir (117 pages), published in 2013, takes on the subject of grief and mourning with such surgical precision (and from the vantage point of the closest of personal circumstance) that I will surely return to this book as a guide and hip flask if and when I am similarly struck down.

Julian Barnes married the literary agent Pat Kavanagh (originally South African) in 1978 and remained happily and deeply committed to her for 32 years until she died very suddenly in 2010. He does not get into the details of her death; we find out only that there were mere weeks between the discovery of her medical pathology to her final moment. The book is not about the process of her dying, it is about the overwhelming (and impossible) task of accepting, wrestling and understanding the grief that accompanies a loss of a loved one. It is at once wrenching and panoramic, and in the hands of Barnes’s elegant and unwavering language, even more so, sometimes to the point of the reader having to stop mid-sentence to look away, as if from terrible car wreck.

First two thirds of this books are about other matters – ballooning in the late 18th century, early photography, Sarah Bernhardt and a specific love affair with one English gentlemen named Thomas Burnaby. As interesting and skilfully described as these historical events are, their tether to the death of Ms Kavanagh and Barnes’s descent into its aftermath are not evident until the last part of the book, where he launches directly into her death and his emotional drowning in the wake of it. It is described in finely-grained intellectual and emotional minutiae, and carried by the sort of language mastery for which Barnes is acclaimed.

This is naked microscopic introspection at its most brutal, its pain hard to witness, its eloquence soaring and melancholic. I can really only recommend this book for anyone who has encountered loss and grief, or like myself, has escaped it and wishes some to archive some wisdom for when it arrives.

Podcast review – Caliphate (New York Times)

A review – Caliphate, a New York Times podcast
 
Moving from my usual book reviews to a new media, I must talk about Caliphate, an NYT podcast, similarly feted (and voluminously downloaded). It struck me as I listened to these 10 episodes on a recent trip with my family that the Age of Enlightenment (mainly the 18th century) in which we understood human reason to have taken root in many disciplines is bullshit. This podcast clearly demonstrates the ease with which the determined and driven can turn men (mainly men) into monsters. I refused to listen to this for the longest time, I don’t know why. Perhaps I thought it would be preaching to the converted. Perhaps I was apprehensive about listening to the worst of things.
 
But if you take the time to listen to this 10-episode series, probably the best written and best on-the-ground reporting (US, Canada, Syria, Iraq, etc) I have ever encountered on any medium (the reporter’s name is Rukmini Callimachi),, you will enter the following worlds:
 
You will enter the world of ISIS, deep and dark and fetid. Hearing people people who who believe that raping 11 year-old girls is a sacred act (there is a whole theological justification there, they pray before doing it). That flogging a man’s back 150 times at full force with a belt encrusted with 2-inch studs is fair punishment for wearing his pants too long. That rolling over a live bound man in a tank is an expression of god-graced justice. And they believe that this is right with the same absolute fervour that you believe it is wrong.
 
You will enter the world of a middle class Canadian university student from a loving and not particularly religious family, who signs up for this and eventually commits atrocities without question.
 
You will enter the world of recruiting, and how scientifically shaped it is – these are not fools, not wild Imams ranting hatred. Every single word of those online sermons is calculated like a complex architecture. By the end, when it is over, the potential recruit is complete putty. It is a working algorithm for radicalisation, nothing less.
 
You will enter the world of how young recruits are trained in committing atrocities – also very carefully graduated until a boy cutting off a man’s head requires no more emotional effort than squashing a bug underfoot.
 
You will enter the world of the Isis bureaucrats – better able to provide clean streets, water, electricity than any municipality that we ever encounter here (quickly, efficiently, without corruption and with great technical skill.
 
You will enter a world where fear is the greatest convincer. Nothing seems to work as quickly and as efficiently. An entire population of 12 million (at its height) completely subjugating themselves without any resistance at all.
 
And you will enter a world of dogged reporting and story-crafting at its absolute finest.
 
This is a remarkable journey. A lot of it truly revolting, sickening, hard to listen to. Most of it just an extraordinary look how small the gap between reason and its opposite, about how utterly pliable we are are, and at least in my case, how dangerous any sort of faith is, because it is so easy to take faith and warp to any arbitrary agenda. It just takes skilful leadership and convincing oratory. We know this story, it is old as religion, and it works as well as ever in this story.
 
Finally, it struck me that most of the world, particularly here in SA, look at America and see Trump. I look at America and this American, an Arab-speaking Muslim-born, female, weight-challenged (joking about being fat-shamed by Isis-trolls) heroine reporter, Rukmini Callimachi.
 
Listen to this, you will emerge from it transformed in ways you did not expect.

Book Review – Florida by Lauren Groff

Book Review – Florida by Lauren Groff
 
Steven Boykey Sidley
 
If you put a gun to my head and asked – best novel in the last decade – I would go with Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Imagine my little Snoopy dance then when I heard that Ms. Groff had produced her latest, Florida. Not a novel, but a collection of short stories, all somewhat connected to Florida, her home state.
 
Short stories are a new flirtation of mine, I have come to them late. It is a special art, rendered naked by brevity. Every word counts and there is no time or length for sag and lard.
 
It is an offbeat and eccentric collection, awash with cocked-head frowns and gentle melancholy, swollen with unusual allusions, freighted with the author’s anxieties (especially around her two boys, and children in general) and fuelled by some the most unusual and sharply-spiced sentences you will read in the modern literary canon. At this level she is like Anne Michaels, who wrote Fugitive Pieces. The writing is like poetry, it power lies in the sentence and phrase, in the stones rather than the structure.
 
This was a surprise to me. Fates and Furies was a volatile, volcanic, sexy and lurid love story. Florida is a quiet contemplation about life and death and parenting and marriage, often filtered through the hot wet swamps of Northern Florida. That these two books came from the same author is testament to her diversity – both memorable in completely different ways.
 
So there is the story of her late night insomniac walks in her Florida neighbourhood while her gentle husband takes on the care her babies, a task for which she feels unprepared. And a swamp shack-born boy, Jude, wrecked by his abusive snake-loving father, his unfulfilled life racing by us in a matter of pages as he finally returns at the end of his life to the swamp house of his birth to seek his father’s spirit. There is an injured mother and her two boys, trapped in a hurricane in a house alone, neighbours wisely fled. And two little girls abandoned by dissolute and crime-ravaged parents and cousins alone on an unpopulated island, trying to survive starvation and loneliness, bound only to each other. A young woman losing her way, dropping from university into homelessness and hopelessness and finally gently hinted better future. A woman talking to dead lovers and late husband and late mother about the life she wondered whether she had lived rightly. And finally a mother and her two sons chasing ghosts in France, a rumination on looking and not finding.
 
Joyous stuff, like Fates and Furies? Not at all, but there is a thick and wet atmosphere that pervades all of it, clinging to the reader like a fine sweat as we live the character’s internal lives, pervaded by their small hopes and many disappoints and heavy regrets. More importantly, these small stories seem to be invaded by their author. Her talents, her bewilderments, her continual search for a life’s meaning as she clings to life rafts of a gentle husband and innocent children.
 
So I continue to be in Lauren Groff’s thrall now, my appreciation of her spread wider than before, even though this book is more distant, less immediate, less fun. But every bit as profound.

Book Review – Less by Andrew Sean Greer

One of the challenges in reviewing the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is that it has done exactly that –  won one of two most prestigious prizes in English fiction (the other being the Booker Prize), and so I can assume that some very wise and well-read judges had made this decision for sound reasons. The other challenge is to read through the hyperbolic shouts that adorn the cover, most from writers who command a large acreage of my literary mindscape, and to try and maintain objectivity in the face of them. And then there are the hundreds of reviews, which I would prefer not to read before I do my own. Which strikes me a tad ascetic, now that I think about it.

So. Less. The title takes its etymology from the last name of Arthur Less, and double entendres abound, the surname nestling in warmly with Mr. Less’s diminished life. And also joining a list of literary novels whose books are named after (and robustly inhabited by) their protagonists – Bellow’s Herzog, Lewis’s Babbitt, Williams’s Stoner. Arthur Less is introduced as a minor novelist, about to turn 50, and feeling a battered by a a betrayal of love in particular, and life in general. And so he embarks on a trip around the world – Mexico, Germany, France, Morocco, India, Japan. The reader tags along, and finds out about his life and loves lost along the way.

Arthur Less – lovelorn (twice over). Insecure,  Lonely, in a self-imposed sort of way. Existentially crushed. Lost.  Such a character should sink under the weight of his own disappointments and frailties, but a strange thing happened in this book. First I found him bland. Then I felt sorry for him. Then I started to like him and root for hm. And then I really, really cared what happened to him. It was a sort of magic spun by Greer; an excellent literary trick.

There was other literary magic too. The narrator, sometimes ubiquitous, sometimes attached and occasionally (and weirdly) dropping into first person and directly addressing the reader in the second person (‘You would think that Less…’). It takes no small accomplishment to pull that off, and Greer does. We find out why in the last chapter’s blinding reveal, more on that later. The unusual voice of the narrator turns our to be the key which finally opens the door of the novel.

There are few women in this book. Less is gay. His fiends are gay. His life is spent mainly among men. There are lovers, affairs, one-nighters. We discover that Less’s great love was a genius Pulitzer prize-winning poet, an older man who leaves his wife for Less, thirty years before the start of this story. And then a second great love, a younger man named Freddie, who suddenly leaves Less to marry another younger man, This world of gays and homosexual love is a little outside of my reading (and my life’s experience). It was edifying to peer inside that world.

So what is the book about? Less’s failed affairs, and the imminent wedding of his recent lover Freddie of ten years has forced Less to run away,. To literary festivals and award ceremonies and desert tents and teaching engagements and magazine assignments all over the world. We perch inside his head, as his thoughts range chaotically from his youth to his present, the narrative darting between his failures and fealties, his old affections and new afflictions. It seems to be plotless trek, but one on which we are pleased to hitch a ride, accompanied by this tall, blond, balding and bewildered lesser man of letters, oxymoronically referred to by the narrator as ‘little Less’.

And then there is the last chapter. I do not want to spoil, but it was wonderful, surprising, uplifting and moving – a virtuoso emergence of a hidden plot, shyly replacing Less’s world with the world of narrator. An astonishing sleight of hand that takes this novel into a place that few others dare to go, and which certainly sealed the accolades that have come its way.

There were many fine and surprising things about this thin novel. The slow revealing of the Less himself. The writing – new, fresh, uncluttered, wry, sometimes very funny. The shorts spurts of Fellini-esque experiences in the different continents, beautifully nuanced and understated, like Less himself. Nuggets of wisdom and self-knowledge suddenly appearing briefly on the page as Less travels onwards.

Was it is the best novel of the year? Probably not, at at least to my mind (The Nix was far more worthy, although that may have been last year).

Was it a great and enduring work of fiction? Perhaps.

Was it a fine and satisfying and pleasurable work of literature that I would recommend?

Yes, it was. It was. Definitely.

Book Review – Things Even Gonzalez Can’t Fix by Christy Chilimigras

One of the genres I generally avoid is the childhood memoir of trauma and pain. Not because it doesn’t interest me, but because of the grinding repetitiveness of abusive, neglectful, selfish or drug-addicted parents and relatives. I have read enough of them to find them generally depressing and too drenched with loathing of many stripes.

But this book is truly astonishing, and heralds the arrival of one of the most exciting new SA voices I have read in a long time. I read the first paragraph of the book by accident and it took my breath away, and so I continued over one long day and night to the end. My breath only returned much later.

Chlimigras’s command of words and meaning and metaphor is endlessly thrilling as she recounts a bewildering life to date (she is now 24). Her incomprehension at having to absorb the casual callousness and unkindness of those she loved (and still loves) is so well drawn, so literary, so profoundly expressed that I found myself partially hypnotised and partially sickened by as I watched her grow from scared and confused child to damaged adult.

But it is not really Chilimigras’s bruised history which recommends this book. It is also not the cast of characters (barely hidden by pseudonym, fully formed, flawed and fucked up), some of them them explicitly cruel, and others merely broken on the rack their own weaknesses.

It is more the style in which her chaotic life is splattered across the page, a sort of narrative Jackson Pollack. It brings to mind everyone from Hunter Thomson to Lori Groff to Jack Kerouac to Irvine Welsh. It is the way in which the reader staggers and cries and roots for the author, saying – your life will get better, it will get better, even though we know we are simply throwing optimistic sparkles into the air. We, and Chilimigras have no idea whether her life will get any better, or whether she will ever fully heal.

There is redemption in this book too. Her older sister, who is pseudo-named Soul & Protector, the lifeline to which her hope is tethered. Her wild and drunken friends as she grows into a teenager. The extended Greek family cocooning her as best they can with concern and food. And the author’s own threadbare resilience, resolute even against the worst of her own life’s choices.

This young author has just started, this is her debut. She can go anywhere with this talent. I hope she moves away from memoir and writes great fiction.

But it really doesn’t matter, as long as she keeps writing. Just read the first paragraph.

Things Even Gonzalez Can’t Fix is published by MFBooks. CC writes about sex and relationships for Cosmopolitan and other SA magazines.

Book Review – The Nix by Nathan Hill

Book Review – The Nix by Nathan Hill

Steven Boykey Sidley

Every year I try to read at least one door stop. 500 pages or more. The last few years – 4th of July Creek, The Goldfinch, City of Fire, & Sons, Purity. It is sort of a toxic cure for me, who reads slowly. It is a disciplined commitment of a month or more. A forced marathon of sorts, in a world were ever shorter amusements are endlessly on offer. When I get to the end of these long reads (in this case over 600 pages), I feel as though the accomplishment is as much mine as it is the author’s.

So as usual, I am late to the game. The author of the book, 40-year old Nathan Hill has already been to SA, for the Open Book festival. There have been a number of local reviews. And so I toss my tardy hat into the ring.

Before I review, a couple of factoids. Nathan Hill took ten years to write this, his first novel. After moving to New York in his late twenties he was swamped with rejection from agents and publishers. And then on moving out of tiny apartment in New York to move across town, everything was stolen from his car. Including every word of he had ever written, and all of his backups. He had to get clothes donated by friends. A difficult start for a novelist who then perseveres for TEN MORE YEARS before getting his first publishing deal. That story alone is worthy of its own fiction.

A book of this length needs to sprawl. Breadth is the fuel of such a long tale, the sort of breadth that requires of the author the ability to leap and somersault and reach across time and character and location and pay attention to stitching and borders and tangential excursions and returns. And so it is with this book, not perfect, a little rambly in parts, but overwhelmed by so much brilliance that lapses fade into only minor quibbles. Dickens, said John Irving. This writer is like Dickens. A writer who knew how to sprawl.

And sprawl it does. Over 50 years, backwarding and forwarding, from the small town midwest to Chicago to New York to Norway. It sprawls across past tense and present tense and first person and third person and internal and external monologue. It sprawls across characters who never meet each other and whose lives are full and sad or angry or resigned or shocking or funny. It sprawls across the most poignant of tragedy and true milk-through-nose hilarity. It sprawls across politics and gender issues and sexuality and love and family and betrayal and video game addiction and rough sex and child abuse and a confused America. It sprawls across the English language, acrobatic, virtuosic, at times controlled and assured and at times chaotic and undisciplined. There were times when I thought to myself, mouth agape, is there is anything this author cannot do? It was true that there were parts that went on a bit (the original draft was 1200 pages). There were scenes and characters, while brilliant, which did not push the story forward at all, and seemed like separate short stories gleefully inserted because the author couldn’t bear to kill his literary children.

But by the time I got to the end with its truly face-slapping and a tad labyrinthine reveal and tie-up, I thought, this is is sorcery. It is so glorious and magical and overflowing with, well, the bewildering stuff of life, there was almost a relief when I reached the last page.

So what it is about? the book focusses on two main characters. Samuel Andersen-Anderson, a bored and distracted assistant professor of English in Chicago. And then his mother Faye, who had abandoned the family in the sixties, when Samuel was 11. The entire book is propelled by the story of why she left, and funnelled immutably and combustively into a single epiphanal event in 1968 – the Chicago Democratic National Convention, a fulcrum of American politics and culture, from which the country has never really recovered. Jumping forward, a national incident occurs in the Chicago of 2011 – of a middle-aged woman throws rocks at a Trump-like presidential candidate, to be immediately arrested and charged with felonies of all stripe. It is Samuel’s mother Faye, who he has not heard of in 40 years. Between these two events an entire world unfolds, and the book reaches for the status of Great American novel, a sad and funny and ruthless and satiric and profound story of 50 years of that bruised country, what it was, what it has become and what redemption may yet still  gleam on its horizon.

This book is not for everyone; one has to truly love the US (as I do) to really love this book. This book is, for me, everything that fiction should be rash, risky, flawed, ugly, melancholy, enraged, funny, surprising, beautiful and transformative.

There is a long holiday coming up. You have a few weeks. You have no excuse. Run a marathon.

Book Review – Day Without End by Sebastian Barry

Book Review – Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
 
Steven Boykey Sidley
 
I have always had a irrational distaste for books written entirely in a deep vernacular, not so much in the dialogue, but more in the narrative sections, perhaps driven by a judgement that the descriptions in streetwise or pidgin or dialect or the diminished vocabulary of the uneducated would flatten the horizons of language.
 
This book proves me poorer for my prejudice.
 
The hero and first-person narrator of this book is Thomas McNulty, a young boy grown up hard and unschooled in the tragic and famine-ravaged Ireland of the early 1800s. Jumping ship after the death of all who love him he finds himself penniless and friendless and starving in America. A chance meeting during a search for a sleeping shelter brings him to the equally young John Cole who will become his lifelong brother-in-arms and more.
 
The story and the writing achieve two remarkable feats. The first is the language, melded from poor grammar, from Irish gutter slang, from old words put to new use and from the soaring sentences of Thomas’s simple but profound imagination without the author having to rely on any of the language of high literature. Barry just keeps this up – on and on for pages at a time, without flagging and stalling or digressing. I have never read anything quite like it, so unusual is its source, this man-child Thomas McNulty, buffeted cruelly (and a occasionally kindly) from a deeply felt life.
 
The second feat is the weaving in of a transgender theme, unusual (if not unique) in a book that takes place in centre of this unkempt 19th Century America, heaving in acts of quiet genocide during the Indian Wars around Missouri and then, later, its own war on itself, the Civil War. This trans plot stands out as a bright thread in this love story, a little surprising perhaps, but bringing its own colour squarely to the plot, completely unhampered by any sermonising on the politics of gender.
 
Over the course of the book, the bulk of which stretches about 15 – 20 years, Thomas Macnulty and John Cole and a small Indian girl orphaned by slaughter find their way through both the harshness and charity of strangers, the heart-breaking bond of loyalty between men who killed innocents, cold, starvation, betrayals and a threadbare peace to an end that uplifts and ennobles, the way all grand love stories should.
 
Both the so-called Indian Wars and Civil Wars are wrenchingly rendered though the simplicity of Thomas’s eyes, giving a most personal view of this period’s history and its emotionless brutalities. And the story and plot which winds through these these historical events is tense, clever and very different to the usual historical fiction fare. I will not forget the cast of characters – even the lesser ones (a remote mining town dance hall proprietor, an German interlocutor between the army and tribes, a grief-stricken major, a ‘Negro’ cannon bearer).
 
Sebastian Barry, 62, has written 7 novels and 13 plays. He was won the Costa Book of the Year (among numerous others) and is a perennial shortlister (Man Booker, three times, including this year).
 
It is my first time into the breach with him, but it will not be my last.