In no particular order, my top ten reads of 2011.
- The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders
- The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
- Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd
- A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
- Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
- The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
- On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry
- Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
Otopeni airport was a two-storey building with plate-glass walls and red-veined marble floors; overstaffed, but with nothing happening …. The airport was a place of perpetual lull, perpetual betweenness, as transitional as the plane we had just left behind. But it’s the transitional places that hold us all the longer and enclose us all the more.
The Last Hundred Days is the debut novel from poet Patrick McGuinness. Set in Romania in 1989, this is a semi-autobiographical account of a young British university lecturer caught in the historic events surrounding Caucescu’s fall. Writing this a week or so after finishing the book, it lingers in my mind with a dreamlike quality; the events depicted almost seem unreal in how they describe a world so different to our own.
In terms of a believable account of Romania in the late 80s, McGuinness cannot be faulted. The opening chapters of the book are brilliant, describing the narrator’s arrival in Bucharest and his slow but irreversible immersion into the new culture. There is a thread through the novel that suggests that the narrator will never be able to leave, best personified by the scene where he abandons his trip home to resolve his dead father’s estate. And there is a gritty sense of atmosphere throughout – regret, unease, almost an excitement at the dangers present – from observations of demolition and rebuild in the Romanian capital to uncomfortable encounters with deep set corruption and ugly police brutality.
However, The Last Hundred Days is, forgive the pun, at least one hundred pages too long. McGuinness struggles with the burden of resolving his overcomplicated plot, which attempts to present aspects of a thriller (more than once the narrator makes reference to James Bond adventures) with some romantic intrigue (unfortunately McGuinness is not skilled are writing believable romantic encounters). But even if this is an uneven ride (and please employ a better proofreader for your next publication), this is a novel well worth a look. But The Last Hundred Days presented me with a poser. Should a novel be this naturalistic and in essence be little more than a dressed up autobiography? Or can a book be just as, or more, effective with a completely fantastic narrative? I’m thinking of The City and the City by China Miéville, a novel which is essentially a fantasy but nevertheless explores oppression and the absurdity and horror of a police state just as well if not better.
“I was in your dream?”
“A man was in it. A man I did not know or care about.”
“Was he a good man or a bad man?”
She spoke in a whisper: “He was a protected man.”
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt is by far the best of the titles I’ve read from the 2011 Man Booker Longlist. This is a highly original novel, dark in places and often odd, although deWitt always keeps the strangeness in check. An excellent read and highly recommended.
deWitt writes a naturalistic Western narrative which is is strengthened further by pivotal female roles and there are also other elements, although carefully placed, of the supernatural and fantastic. Early in the book, the brothers encounter a witch whose actions, originally feared, may turn out to have been benign. Additionally, the spectral presence of the brothers’ mother also runs throughout the story, and I found the maternal importance proving critical towards the novel’s conclusion.
Eli and Charlie Sisters are notorious characters in 1850s America, the time of the California Goldrush. They are dispatched by their boss, the mysterious Commodore, to carry out a murder. Cold blooded killing is their line of work, and the brothers escape several scrapes by emerging with the upper hand. deWitt examines their success in these brutal encounters with some subtlety; as brothers they exist as a close knit unit and this duality appears to keep them alive.
To emphasise this advantage many of the characters they encounter on their journey are alone and consequently doomed, such as the ranting man they meet at the beginning, the various gold prospectors they run into who are driven mad by isolation and the young boy hopelessly out of his depth in a violent world who tries, unsuccessfully, to latch onto them.
Eli, the narrator, is the more thoughtful of the two, running to fat and dreaming of a simple, dull, life and settling down with a girl and opening a shop. The scenes where he cares for his ailing horse, Tub, are strangely eloquent and deWitt draws Eli with such strength as to draw the reader helplessly into his world. But I wouldn’t go as far to say that Eli was likeable, although he is in contrast to his brother Charlie, the more quietly confident of the two. Readily mocking of Eli’s fancies, this is a man who relies on frequent alcoholic benders to purge his demons. Charlie is ostensibly the stronger of the two, although the narrative hints early that such balances can change. And there is such tension in this novel; there is never a relaxing moment when you think that they won’t suddenly draw their guns.
The story shifts gear towards its conclusion when it is revealed that the man they are intending to kill, Hermann Warm, has obtained a mysterious formula for detecting gold. When they finally encounter Warm, who has teamed up with their former associate Morris, the brothers have to alter their approach when they come up against a duality possibly equal to their own. This is where the novel really proves itself as something special, and where a lesser writer may have struggled with such an audacious plot, deWitt manages to handle it with supreme confidence. Throughout, the novel remains refreshing and innovative.
I described The Sisters Brothers to somebody and they remarked on seeing a similarity with the work of cinema’s celebrated brothers, the Coens. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this novel would transfer well to the screen at their hands, especially in the light of their recent additions to the Western film genre with No Country for Old Men and True Grit. However comparison to the Coen Brothers far from does The Sisters Brothers justice. Actually another recent innovative film came to my mind, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. Like The Sisters Brothers, Meek’s Cutoff also doesn’t ignore the role of women in 1850s America. But forget films for now, deWitt’s novel exists as a unique work of art in the novel form: so read it.
The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein
Possibly the only thing shared between Spike Milligan and Peter Ackroyd is that they have both published their own take on the Frankenstein story. I’ve not read the Milligan version, but I think I’m safe in assuming that the only similarities with Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein are the bare bones of the story, something familiar to as all via Mary Shelley’s novel or Universal and Hammer film adaptations. I’m confident in this assumption – in no way do I imagine Peter Ackroyd as the missing fifth Goon.
Ackroyd remains faithful to Shelley’s framework in his re imagining, embellishing the story with an exploration of the young Victor Frankenstein’s thirst to study anatomy. There are vivid descriptions of 19th century scientific experimentation; the attempts at reviving cadavers with electricity, the dark London inns where Frankenstein seeks out the services of the Resurrection men, the dangerous underworld types who will bring him fresh corpses to work on. His knowledge and love for London unquestionable, Ackroyd writes about the city with relish. It’s a convincing and very fascinating world to dip into.
The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein also makes Mary Shelley one of its cast, along with Bysshe Shelley, although this is a conceit that sometimes sits at odds with the thrust of the narrative. But all in all the novel is a fine addition to the Frankenstein canon. And it already has its successors; Danny Boyle’s stage version is currently playing. Interestingly, the duality between Victor Frankenstein and his monster is explored in Boyle’s version, where the two lead actors alternate the roles, and Ackroyd does something similar, exploiting the link between creator and creation and offering an unusual, and quite shocking, conclusion.
There is a dusty title on my shelf at home called Phantom Britain. Published in 1975, Marc Alexander’s book collects several accounts of ghost sightings and tales from across the country. There are many such collections as this, dating back no doubt through the centuries. In The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time Peter Ackroyd brings together the best of such real life ghost stories.
Ackroyd’s collection is one of the best I’ve seen of this type. His research appears very thorough and the only criticism is that too many of these eyewitness accounts of haunted houses, poltergeists, ghostly dogs and possessions date from before the 20th century. They are interesting to read, but their attention to detail and matter-of-factness make them resemble the fictional spooky tales that followed them, in particular those from the late Victorian era. Such close similarity to what most readers take as pure fancy may dull the effect of these supposedly true recollections.
This is an excerpt from The Little Girl, dating from 1880:
I had had that feeling for some minutes, when I saw at the foot of the bed a child, about seven or nine years old. The child seemed as if it were on the bed, and came gliding towards me as I lay. It was the figure of a little girl in her nightdress – a little girl with dark hair and a very white face. I tried to speak to her but could not. She came slowly on up to the top of the bed, and then I saw her face clearly. She seemed in great trouble; her hands were clasped and her eyes were turned up with a look of entreaty, an almost agonised look. Then, slowly unclasping her hands, she touched me on the shoulder. The hand felt icy cold, and while I strove to speak she was gone.
The bulk of these tales are brief and often inconsequential, and what fascinates in many is the insight into bygone times. However the best in my opinion were the more recent eye-witness accounts, such as the stories of phantom hitch-hikers and unexplained happenings on dark and deserted byways. The hauntings of Blue Bell Hill in the 60s and 70s are brilliantly creepy, as is the account of the Phantom of the A38. More contemporary phenomena like this would have make The English Ghost even more essential reading. Rather than the inspiration for ghost stories, these are the beginnings of the modern urban myth, which perhaps deserve a volume of their own.
Do you believe in ghosts?