Archive of May 2009

Sat 23 May


I may have mentioned Tobias Hill in an earlier post but since then have read his first published novel. The title of "Underground" works on two levels, it is both the London Underground and a more murky underground in the past; a subteranian incident from our protagonist's childhood.  It could even be argued that the sub-plot from childhood is using the term "underground" in another sense, the one of the shadey dealer who is not legitimate.

The writing is probably even more strikingly original than it was for "The Cryptographer" which I have already mentioned (see that earlier post of mine).  I especially enjoyed the way we are given to understand the attraction between the feral female who he finds inhabiting the underground and the subsequent play on our emotioons when we discover she is not all we might have hoped for.  But this plot development is entirely necessary in the context.

And it is this context, one of childhood and the abuse that can occur there, both from monstrous parents and from others who are not parents but perhaps even more monstrous, it is this which forms the actual "meat" of the novel.  I truly loved the way these issues are explored tangentially and yet the plot remains one of a gripping thriller which accelerates towards the ending with a born and assured gifted writers natural grace of expression.

There is a new person in my life, and she suffers a degenerative eye condition ( retinitis pigmentosa) which means that her vision is already severaly compromised and will eventually fail entirely.  Although at the time of reading I was not thinking about this, with the benefit of hindsight I am finding all sorts of resonances with that.  He seems to find both loneliness and comfort in the darkness.  He wants to be alone and at the same time recognises it as a special quality, and not necessarily a healthy one.  I think it is no accident that the flourescent light which is his only source of illumination at times is coming from a watch his father gave him as a boy, one which incidentally bore the image of Stalin's head on the watchface.  Many times in the story being in the absolute darkness of the underground, be it a mineshaft or a train tunnel, is used as a great way to sharpen our sense of danger or even perhaps to enhance the erotic.  These moments in the writing are used as springboards for us to speculate or join with the protagnoist exploring emotional issues.  he is clearly profoundly affected as a young man both by his mother abandoning him (and his father) and by his subsequent perception of his father as a monster whom he in turn abandons when he leaves the country and comes to London.

All of these observations can only be made after completely reading the novel - and many of them only after a little time to digest it.  So I fully recommend this fine first novel to anyone who chances upon this post in my blog.  And if anyone can comment and add their own opinions, well that too is most welcome!

Wed 13 May

Poppy Shakespeare

I first read this book as a random find by a new author at my library when it had just been published in paperback, which must have been about two years ago.  Last night we discussed it at the library bok group.  I did not have especially good memories of the book so it came as a surprise when it was quite well received.

Undoubtedly the language takes a little getting used to because the narrator is "N" a user of the mental health system in more or less present day Britain.  I think there is one short chapter in which the phrase "Do you know what I'm saying?" crops up four times, for example!  There's also an ample sprinkling of profanity which may offend the more prudish reader.  Beyond that there are a few devices the author employs which could annoy; I think every character seems to have some adornment to their name, like "middle class Michael", "Slasher Sue" and so on.  The chapter structure is short and choppy and "N" is a little conversational, advising tht you can skip chapters if you have been to the daycentre, for example.

Although I didn't have time to reread the book properly and frankly would not chose to do so I did have a quick scan and was surprised that these annoyances did not get in the way for me the second time around.  Perhaps they are things one gets used to?

During the book group I also learned that the author speaks from experience having spent ten years as a user of the health system.  Some elements ring true - the way a group of patients may form a collectve community for example.  Many elements are exagerated to comic effect, like the idea of "Mad Money", an epithet for the benefits available to service users, for which it is required that one prove madnes to claim.  This sets up a reverse Catch 22 situtation for Poppy Shakespeare to prove she is mad, something that is played upon for most of the book and makes a plank for the plot.

Personally I could not help thinking the author was heavily influenced by Catch-22, One flew over the cuckoos nest, and Cold Comfort Farm.  The last is the most tentative, but there were elements of the writing which I found rang bells with my memories of Stella Gibbons work.  I have to be honest and say they are elements that do not endear the authors to me, but for all that I guess it's still worth a read.  I cannot help feeling her ending is extremely dark and bleak and I'm not sure why - at the book group we wondered if it might be because the book is dedicated to someone who was a user of the system for whom things did not go well.  That would not surprise me but it does depress me