Notes on a Scandal

Thursday, 26 April 2012

When I was tidying up last week I found this overlooked book that should have been in the review roundup.

Notes on a Scandal
Zoe Heller
(Penguin, 2004)

A teacher, Barbara Covett, gets drawn in when a colleague, Sheba Hart, is accused of having sex with a pupil.

This novella is in the first person singular, and is delightfully creepy. The waspish comments of the narrator, a frustrated history teacher approaching retirement, are entertainingly prim. The range of teachers at an inner city comprehensive are recognizable stereotypes that she precisely lampoons.

As the plot unfurls, Barbara’s obsession with ‘protecting’ Sheba becomes more unhealthy than Sheba’s madness in having an affair with a pupil. Her desperate desire for a special friend mirrors that of the teenage girls she teaches, although she would never demean herself with such a comparison. The hints of a backstory, involving a private school in Scotland and a previous scandal that meant Barbara had to move to a North London comprehensive, evoke The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In another echo, Sheba doesn’t realise who betrays her.

The prose is crisp, sharply capturing a neat, waspish and thoroughly nasty mind. It makes you collude with Barbara by drawing you in with wit and humour at the start. So when the cracks start, the disgust you feel is all the stronger for having liked her.

Thoroughly recommended.

this book will save your life

Sunday, 17 July 2011

I actually read this back in April – I’m just really behind on things.

This book will save your life
a.m. homes
(granta, 2006)

Richard Novak has a big hole in his life, and in his LA garden. He sees no-one but his trainer, cleaner, interior designer and nutritionist – all of whom keep his body and life neatly controlled. After an inexplicable pain takes him to the ER, he stops on the way home to eat a (prohibited by the nutritionist) doughnut. Before he knows how it happened, he’s enlisting a movie star to helicopter-lift a teenager’s horse from the sinkhole in his garden and befriending a reclusive screenwriter.

This contemporary American novel is about reconnecting with people, and letting go. Novak’s pain makes no sense to him. Yes, he’s divorced, and estranged from his son. Yes, he’s trading stocks and shares from home. But he takes good care of himself. The problem is that he only cares for his physical self.

The doughnut – fatty, sugary, forbidden but so pleasurable – is an impulsive decision. The first one in around a decade. And once Novak starts he can’t stop. He starts being impulsive all the time, leading to a string of coincidences and synchronicity that leave him adrift but connected.

There’s a great use of housing as metaphor here. Novak lives in a beautiful but clinical modernist shell, being undermined by a huge hole. He’s having someone work on the interior of the house. After the mystery pain, he dismisses the interior designer and moves out. Instead he starts working on his own interior world, leaving the beautiful shell to crack.

I’m not so sure about the use of the Indian Anhil, who runs the doughnut house, as a trigger and guide for Novak’s emotional and spiritual awakening. It’s a bit too stereotypical, a bit too orientalist. Anhil is materialist, with his love of cars and the American Way, but this is presented as a child-like joy/wonder so it still sits uncomfortably for me.

Overall I enjoyed it, but it’ll go off to the charity bookshop.

I have to be ruthless now – have you any idea how many copies of The Very Hungry Caterpillar we need to shelve?


Monday, 22 November 2010

Ages ago, Carrie and I discussed potential blockbusters we could write. What about one like Footballers Wives but about the Tour de France? The hotels, the podium girls, the lads, the scandals, le ventoux. Eventually, we dismissed this as an insane idea that would never sell.

Had we done any research, rather than discuss the idea idly, we’d have discovered it’d already been done.

Freya North
(Arrow Books, 2000)

Catriona (Cat) McCabe is a budding cycling journalist nursing a broken heart. She gets a gig as the Guardian correspondent covering the Tour de France, spending three weeks in the travelling village that is the greatest of the Grand Tours. In the process she makes friends in the press corp and on the teams, and finds a new romance.

I’ve said before that I enjoy romance novels. Sadly, I don’t enjoy this sort of bonkbuster.

There are some good elements. The Tour is a great hook for a novel, offering drama, surprises and people on the very edge. Each chapter is a day of the ride, so you get a sense of the structure of the Tour. I actually liked a section from the point of view of the fictional sprinter, Luca Jones, as he wins his first ever stage. And I’m amused that Catriona appears to have been named so her nickname of Cat mimics the Cat 4, Cat 3 etc climbs of the Tour.

But the prose.

The tenses are all over the place, skipping from third person present tense by one character to third person past tense from another within the same paragraph. There’s an authorial voice that uses first person singular and/or plural (always in italics) and has conversations with the characters so that they are answering questions instead of having internal monologues. I’m a believer in the idea that you can break the rules of written English for dramatic effect. But Cat doesn’t make it clear if North is deliberately doing this or is just rather sloppy.

Worst still are the supposed race report articles Cat submits to the Guardian. Here’s the opening sentence of an actual race report by the Guardian this year:

After more than 2,000 miles of racing over the past three weeks, exhaustion finally caught up with Andy Schleck today.

There’s a who (Andy Schleck), a what (he was exhausted) and a why (2,000 miles in three weeks). You’ll read on to find out the details.

Here’s one of Cat’s:

Against the shimmer of lavender fields and the stab of cypress trees, amidst the rustic stone buildings tiled in terracotta, under the gaze of the inky mountains of the Vaucluse, the Tour de France found itself in the midst of a Cézanne painting.

As all the journalists I’ve trained with would tell you, that 43 word sentence would be cut. It’s very poetic but poetry comes after the who, what, where, when, how and why of reporting. The opening para needs to contain some key fact other than Provence is rather pretty. And opening sentences tend towards 20 words.

It’s not that North didn’t do her research: the acknowledgements thank David Millar (Scottish rider, once dirty now clean) and Alasdair Fotheringham (one of the two Fotheringham brothers who are regarded as great cycling writers). She loves the Tour, it’s clear, but this is not a great cycling novel.

And let’s not even wonder how Django McCabe came to be named…

The Rain Before It Falls

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Last time I read a Coe novel, I was disappointed with it. So this one sat on the to be read shelves for a couple of years.

The Rain Before It Falls
Jonathan Coe
(Penguin, 2008)

When Gill’s Aunt Rosamond dies she leaves behind a bequest for the mysterious Imogen, a blind girl Gill once met at a party in the 1980s. In attempting to track the girl down, Gill discovers a family history of maternal disfunction and a branch of her family tree she never knew before. And then, finally, a letter arrives…

This is a story within a story. Rosamond left behind a shoebox of photos and some tapes. Before she died, she’d selected twenty photographs that summed up the story she needed to tell Imogen and attemtped to describe them to the lost girl. She tangents each time, revealing her own unhappy past as well as that of the family.

This isn’t Coe the cynical, comic writer: this is compelling and heartbreaking stuff. The epistolary nature of it evoke private and disconnected worlds. Rosamond describes what the photographs don’t reveal. She shows how someone who doesn’t know the private lives of the people in the photographs will see as little as Imogen would. The smiling family sat outside a beach hut isn’t really happy – they’re just smiling for the camera.

It’s very hard to say more without spoiling the book. But I stayed up late and got up early to finish it as quickly as I could. Simply beautiful and surprisingly moving.

The Bird Room

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Bird Room
Chris Killen
(Canongate, 2009)

Don’t you hate blurbs that deceive you? The Bird Room promises to be “a candid, funny and joyous portrait of love and desire in the modern age”. Only one of those adjectives actually applies, and then only if you assume the candid refers to the sex and don’t expect it to equally apply to love and desire (neither of which are the same thing).

The prose limps along, never enabling you to engage with the characters or care about them. Alice, the “smart, sexy” love interest, doesn’t get to narrate and her words and actions, as relayed by Will (the putative protagonist), make her seem as broken and emotionally blank as the other characters. There’s certainly no joy in the book, and pitifully few laughs.

You can see the glimmerings of themes, lurking behind the facile plot. William, Will’s friend, is his more cool double: the one who left Manchester for Glasgow, the one who travels, the one who gets girls despite not being a looker, the one who isn’t paranoid about things. Clair puts on the identity of Helen so she can be all the things she isn’t: she leaves home (although not Manchester); she wears contacts; she leaves her old job to be an actress in online porn.

The problem is any potential themes are drowned by a deadened prose style and minimalist plot. It feels like reading a book where someone has mistaken ‘graphic’ for ‘adult’, and thus splattered references to sex on every page. To be honest, I read far better sex scenes in fanfic, and at least there the characters tend to be engaging and have a complexity of emotions. Each character in The Bird Room has one state: paranoid; shallow; narcissistic; confused.

It’s taken me a week to read it. Not because it’s long (a mere 200 or so pages in B-format paperback) but because after an initial session with it, I put off reading the rest of it until this morning.

The End of Mr Y / Mister Toppit

Thursday, 31 December 2009

The End of Mr. Y
Scarlett Thomas
(Canongate, 2008)

Mr Toppit
Charles Elton
(Penguin, 2009)

(I try to review books individually, but I wanted to get these last two done before the end of 2009 and, as they are thematically linked, I cheated.)

Both these novels have books within them which possess the protagonists. With Mister Toppit, the book series within the book has a protagonist based on the main narrator – Luke Hayward – as a child and he spends his adolescence attempting to escape his fictional counterpart. Only a few sentences of the Hayseed Chronicles are quoted in the novel. With The End of Mr Y the fictional book has a much greater role: anyone who reads Thomas Lumas’s The End of Mister Y is cursed, vanishing from the real world. After her professor leaves suddenly, Ariel Manto finds his copy, with one key page missing. She is compelled to find the missing page, follow its instructions and discover what became of both her professor and the book’s author.

Authors as father figures are key in both novels. Mister Toppit is told as a series of interconnected narratives from the different people involved. Primarily Luke but also his sister Rachel (who was denied a role in the Hayseed Chronicles) and Laurie, an American hospital radio presenter who witnesses Arthur Haywood’s death. Arthur, the author, is the only character to be denied a point of view, existing solely through other people’s perceptions of him. Saul Burlam, the professor in The End of Mister Y, is both a fatherly and vaguely sexual figure to Ariel – a woman who has already reimagined herself (she tells the reader she renamed herself).

Another odd similarity between the books is that I had to check each time whether they were set in Britain or America. The End of Mister Y is set in an unspecified university town and it only becomes clearly British when Ariel pays in pounds for a book. Mister Toppit is partially set in LA but otherwise dashes between a West Country house and Soho. Again, it wasn’t until Arthur was walking around Soho Square that I was sure the book was set in Britain. It’s an odd criticism to make, perhaps, but I do like prose to belong distinctively rather than to be from some odd mid-Atlantic nothingness. I don’t mean towns need to be named, just that I shouldn’t need to double-check the publishing details to be sure where a book was written.

The main difference between the books – one that seperates them quite clearly – is that in Mister Toppit, the Hayseed Chronicles remain books. Written as a form of escape by Arthur, they trap his family. The fans struggle to see Luke as himself and not as the protagonist in his father’s books, whilst his sister’s absence from the books causes her to lose her real identity and his mother is annoyed to be trapped in real world wranglings with Laurie and others over posession of the books’ ‘inheritance’. In The End of Mister Y, the fictional book creates an escape for Ariel and other characters, plunging them into the addictive Tropsphere.

Mister Toppit is fundamentally realist, The End of Mister Y is fantastical. The End of Mister Y deals with ideas of language, physics, reality, reading. Mister Toppit merely looks at how a fantasy can destroy lives. Of the two, I’d say The End of Mister Y should be easily the one I preferred, but its epilogue soured it for me.

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