She took her hand from his shoulder. She balled her two hands into fists and punched them in the air, and from the depth of her belly she let loose a scream, a halloo, in a shrill voice like a demon. The press of people took up the cry. They seethed and pushed forward for a view, they catcalled and whistled and stamped their feet. At the thought of the horrible thing he would see he felt hot and cold. He twisted to look up into the face of the woman who was his mother in the crowd. You watch, she said. With the gentlest brush of her fingers she turned his face to the spectacle. Pay attention now. The officers took chains and bound the old person to the stake.
Hilary Mantel first came to my attention with Beyond Black. This is a dark and faintly disturbing novel with a supernatural premise. It’s a ghost story through and through; an unusual one of course, because Mantel is such a distinctive voice. Where the ghosts in Beyond Black are unquestionably real, Mantel keeps them just under the surface in Wolf Hall. The spirit world exists in bad dreams and warnings of ill omens, or in the hauntingly unforgettable horrors of brutal 16th century England where Mantel explores the life of Thomas Cromwell.
My opening quote is from a passage in the book where the young Cromwell is forced to watch a public execution. Violent torture and execution spreads throughout the pages of Wolf Hall. Public burnings and the discussion of horrible ends to life are familiar to Mantel’s world. And the novel is frank about this, beginning with an awful scene of brutality as it describes how the young Cromwell is beaten senseless by his abusive father. Mantel’s novel follows Cromwell’s life as he rises from these pitiful beginnings to sit in the inner circle of Henry VIII. For me, this is much more than a traditional historical book. In a recent interview Hilary Mantel explained some of the reasons for writing Wolf Hall. Whilst anyone with a reasonable knowledge of the period will know Cromwell’s place in history, his personal life has remained mostly unknown. What sort of a man was he? How did he come to be so favoured by the king?
Mantel has set herself a challenge but comes to answer these questions brilliantly, and the book’s key episode is where Cromwell seals his important and enviable bond with the king. Henry is troubled by dark dreams of his dead brother. Unable to make sense of them he calls for Cromwell, and his visitor manages to calm him with the right word, and the best careful gesture. More effectively so than the king’s usual aides. This is a lesson in human nature, the art of politics and the most artful ways of achieving one’s ambitions. For me, Cromwell appears to personify the first modern man in a dark and still primitive age. Classless, forward thinking, wise yet not as cunning as sometimes portrayed by historians or authors. Foremost, above and beyond the dark mentality of the public burnings; spritually and even morally evolved – where his father was cruel Cromwell does not repeat the same brutality on his own family.
Wolf Hall is a difficult novel to read but is worth sticking with for Mantel’s often remarkably poetic pieces of writing. I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Michael Portillo, but he was right on last night’s Late Review when he said that the book would have benefited from some fiercer editing. At 650 pages it is a marathon read, and doesn’t even cover all of Cromwell’s life. This, I fear, will go into the second and equally lengthy volume. But I also agree with John Carey, who believes that Wolf Hall will win this year’s Booker. It’s just too much of an original and striking piece to ignore.
There’s something about Nick Hornby that makes me want to keep reading his novels, even though there’s a high disappointment factor. After the initial joy of High Fidelity he’s never quite returned to that peak, with his stream of fiction becoming weaker with each release. Only last year’s Slam suggested that he may have returned to something of his former greatness.
Juliet, Naked again looks at male obsession, a subject very familiar to Hornby. The title refers to The Beatles stripped down version of their final release, Let it Be, Naked, where the fictional Tucker Crowe, a reclusive rock star, releases a similarly no nonsense version of his acclaimed Juliet. Crowe is in some ways an American version of Syd Barrett, abandoning his fame to live quietly and in obscurity. The age of the internet has brought the Crowe obsessives together, poring over his lyrics and the countless bootleg albums of his concerts.
The novel’s lead character Alice shares her life with one such Crowe obsessive, a man most content to scour online forums and blogs for information about his hero, going as far as visiting the toilet of the bar where Crowe was last spotted in public.
There’s a lot of humour here, and some wry observations, but sadly Hornby’s latest quickly loses all of its promise. The problem is the unengaging characters which develop little more than simple sketches, and the unrealistic premise which introduces Crowe as a potential love interest for Alice. Oddly, the backstory involving a forgotten English seaside resort was far more interesting than the dull and unconvincing Crowe, and a missed opportunity for developing into a far better book. I’m sorry, but this is one to avoid.
For a while I lapped up James Lever’s Me Cheeta, although its length ultimately reveals its limitations. As a short story it would have been marvellous. Something found by chance in The New Yorker or Granta perhaps, or part of a collection by the obviously highly imaginitive Lever. But novel-sized a definite no.
Now in his late 70s and in retirement as he spends his days mostly painting, Cheeta looks back on his former career which reached its height during the Tarzan films of the 1930s. He begins by recounting a hilarious encounter with Rex Harrison during filming of the ill-fated Dr Dollittle in 1967. The book appears to be taking an immediate and satisfying shape; Lever is witty and the conceit of the monkey narrator well executed. Things however take a frustrating turn, where Cheeta goes back to his jungle roots and appears to take a very long and meandering time to reach a proper narrative. These early chapters struck me as padding, perhaps an attempt to expand a much slighter work.
Me Cheeta is best when looking at the Tarzan/ape dynamic, and when Cheeta meets the elderly and dying Johnny Weissmuller it’s a surprisingly moving chapter. There’s also a very witty account of Charlie Chaplin, although it appears out of sorts with the rest of the book. Elsewhere Lever shows flashes of brilliance, for example Cheeta reaching the States and running wild in a movie theatre showing King Kong (the resulting chaos means he misses the end of the film and he wrongly assumes that Kong’s ascent of the Empire State Building was a wise move). There’s also a grand joke that runs with the well worn theme of giving enough monkeys enough time and typewriters (as the myth goes, one of them will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare).
However, I’m perplexed as to why this book has received such praise. The joke wears a little thin after a while, and I was itching for some human company.
During my recent travels Down Under I became acquainted with the work of Christos Tsiolkas. The Australian author’s latest novel The Slap was the winner of this year’s Australian Book Industry Awards and also the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. This is a book that has brought Tsiolkas to the mainstream, at least if the count of holidaymakers reading this by the poolside is anything to go by.
The Slap is a far more accessible novel than Tsiolkas’s previous work Dead Europe, published four years ago. Although very rewarding, Dead Europe is a dense, disturbing and meandering piece of fiction. I found it at times inpenetrable, reminding me of my recent encounters with Roberto Bolano and Jonathan Littell. There is also a supernatural thread which recalled to me the most difficult to digest of Neil Gaiman’s work, American Gods.
Dead Europe is part ghost story, part disturbing travelogue and part rumination on the nomadic nature of man. It follows Isaac, an Australian photographer of Greek descent, as he follows an uneasy path through Europe, one full of homosexual encounters and disturbing experiences in the dark corners of European cities. Isaac has a knack of stumbling into the underbelly of culture, and a fascinating backstory told in alternating chapters frames his plight brilliantly. Dead Europe is an extraordinary novel. It isn’t for the light hearted and I never felt comfortable with this book, but it is one I may challenge myself to read again.
But onto The Slap. It’s remarkable that the author of Dead Europe could also produce this, an apparently mainstream novel that nevertheless reveals a highly talented author. The Slap begins simply but slowly develops into an absorbing and mulitlayered work. During a suburban Australian barbecue a man hits a small child. Somebody else’s small child, and the fallout of the event provides a hook for Tsiolkas to explore class and status. The events that unfold are seen from the point of view of eight people present at the barbecue, and The Slap takes in different views of life ranging from a teenage boy discovering his sexuality to an elderly grandfather perplexed at the changing world before him. Impressively, Tsiolkas also appears at ease when writing from either a male of female perspective.
Christos Tsiolkas is a highly gifted writer. The Slap is an engaging entry into his world but be warned. Although it is vastly different to Dead Europe both novels succeed in shocking, both in language and sexual reference. His world is an adult one, and worryingly so.
A very brief post from Australia which I aim to complete before my $4 credit expires in this very noisy internet booth.
I am currently enjoying the spoof memoir Me Cheeta by James Lever and hope to post a glowing review when I return. Less impressive was Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self which I failed to finish. The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser was well written but ultimately became another book where nothing happens. But high on this year’s list go Breath by Tim Winton, The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas which may well become my novel of the year.
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