Marilynne Robinson came to fame with her novel Gilead in which an elderly small-town Congregational Minister John Ames reflects on his own life and the lives of his immediate family, particularly his second wife Lila and his seven year old son. In her second book Home, Robinson write about the family of John Ames best friend Robert Boughton, focusing on his son Jack, the black-sheep of the family who’s reappearance after a break of several years resurrects a whole series of conflict within the family.
Lila is the third book in the series and returns to focus on a period a few years before Gilead, when a homeless woman comes to lives in a broken-down shack on the edge of Gilead and slowly starts to impact the community, eventually marrying John Ames, despite his great age.
This book, like the others, is extremely well-written and it is immediately obvious that Robinson has taken great care with every sentence, convincingly writing in the “voice” of Lila for much of the book but also bringing out the dignity and maturity of John Ames whenever he becomes the focus of the story.
Lila was abandoned by her mother as a very young child and was brought up by an itinerant woman called Doll, who found the four-year old child living a precarious life on the steps of a rough-and-ready bar. Doll picks up the child and runs off with her, cuddling her in her shawl and finds an elderly lady who takes both Doll and Lila in for a while as they try to clean up the semi-savage child.
As we read of Lila, now an adult woman living in the shack in Gilead, the book keeps flashing back to lengthy passages in which we read Lila’s story. Doll cared for Lila throughout her childhood and youth. Times were extremely hard and for much of the time they joined up with a small gang of itinerant workers who took on the most menial jobs on farmsteads in return for a few coins or perhaps for a few meals of potatoes and corn.
Back in 2002 Michel Faber published a novel called The Crimson Petal and the White which Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian called “a supremely literary novel” and “dizzyingly accomplished” – a description which I totally agreed with. Looking back on this superb book I still feel it would be up in my top ten ever list (if I had such a thing). Since then I have been waiting for Michel Faber to write another book of equal quality and my hopes were raised when The Book of Strange New Things was published this summer. At 592 pages, it looked reassuringly long and the subject seemed sufficiently unusual for me to expect something really special here. I will tell you at the end of this review whether I found it.
First the story, which can’t be better summarise than in the publisher’s description from the cover: “Peter Leigh is a missionary called to go on the journey of a lifetime. Leaving behind his beloved wife, Bea, he boards a flight for a remote and unfamiliar land, a place where the locals are hungry for the teachings of the Bible – his ‘book of strange new things’. It is a quest that will challenge Peter’s beliefs, his understanding of the limits of the human body and, most of all, his love for Bea”.
It would seem that a vast and mysterious commercial company called UCIS have managed to colonise a remote planet. It is so remote that visitors to the planet have to be put into a state of suspended animation while travelling on the space-ship. When they arrive and are brought round, they find themselves in a bland, shopping-mall style building with a very relaxed community of engineers, scientists and medics, all of whom have been selected for having little to lose by spending large parts of their lives in this remote location.
Peter, a highly committed Christian, has been selected to travel to the planet because the planet has other inhabitants who require his services as a pastor. These are strange near-humanoid creatures (Peter names them the Oaseans from the word Oasis) who interact with the human colony by providing food in exchange for pharmaceutical drugs (quite what they do with them is never fully explained). A proportion of these creatures have been converted to Christianity by a previous human visitor but following his disappearance, the Oaseans threaten to withdraw the food supplies from the human colony unless they are supplied with another Christian teacher.
I thought I wouldn’t be able to stay away from writing about books for long and it only took a fine novel like The Paying Guests to start putting fingers to keyboard again.
Let me say at the start, there are no spoilers in this review.
After reading a few “so-so” books I found myself wanting to bury myself in some really good writing and recover that feeling of being swept along by a novel, resenting the time I have to spend away from it. I have always enjoyed reading Sarah Waters before (Fingersmith, The Little Stranger etc) for her complex plotting and rich characterisation and so when The Paying Guests came out I decided to try a sample chapter on the Kindle. Within a few minutes or reading I had made the purchase of the full novel and can only say that this is a terrific read, deeply absorbing and rich in atmosphere and insights into the human condition.
As the book opens we find ourselves a very few years after the First World War in a suburb of South London. Frances Wray and her mother live in a big old house which has become too expensive for them to run. Mr Wray has died of a heart-attack leaving only debts and disorder. Frances describes him as “a nuisance when he was alive, he made a nuisance of himself by dying and he’s managed to go on being a nuisance ever since”. Frances’s two brothers were both killed in the War and so the only option for the two women seems to take in “lodgers”, or as the prefer to call them, “paying guests” – a more genteel description to early 20th century sensibilities.
The paying guests arrive in the form of a young married couple, Mr and Mrs Barber (Lilian and Leonard, but what a long time it takes for everybody to get onto first-name terms!). Sarah Waters’ description of the first few days of adaptation is written with an artist’s hand – Frances and her mother find it difficult to share their home with these two strangers with their mysterious noises and comings and goings. They feel that the house is no longer their own (which it isn’t) and even their own space is invaded throughout the day because the Barbers have to go through their kitchen to get to the outside toilet (how easily we forget what life was like for most people a mere 100 years ago). Furthermore, Mr Barber has an extremely annoying habit of stopping to chat with Frances Wray while she is working in the kitchen – his easy familiarity grates with her desire for distance and a more formal relationship with her lodgers.
We went to Monk’s House yesterday, the Sussex home of Virginia Woolf. I’m not a great fan of Woolf’s writings but the house is not far from us, and it was such a beautiful May morning we decided to go across and look at the cottage set in its gorgeous gardens.
In one of her diary entries, Woolf wrote about Monk’s House,
Back from a good week at Rodmell – a weekend of no talking, sinking into deep safe book-reading; & then sleep: clear transparent; with the may tree like a breaking wave outside; & all the garden green tunnels, mounds of green; & then to wake into the hot still day, & never a person to be seen, never an interruption; the place to ourselves; the long hours. DIARIES 1932
In those days, you had to go down a rutted cart-track to get to the house, a path beyond leading to the famous water-meadows where Virginia met her death by flinging herself into the slow-moving but deep River Ouse. It shows the depth of depression she must have experienced, for the surrounding countryside and nearby coast with its chalk cliffs is spectacularly beautiful and (you might think) would refresh any soul.
And what do we have here? The first novel in a crime series by a new French writer, Jean-Luc Bannalec? Well, not quite, for most literary journalists are agreed that M Bannelec is in fact Jörg Bong, a top German publisher who has been doing a bit of moon-lighting by creating the somewhat grumpy police detective Commissaire Dupin. One thing for sure, Bannalec/Bong has scored a hit across Europe with Death in Pont-Aven and any fan of Inspector Maigret will find Dupin a worthy successor to Georges Simenon’s fictional detective. There are even back references to Maigret for the book opens with Commissaire Dupin enjoying coffee and croissants in the Amiral Hotel, which featured in Simenon’s Yellow Dog (interestingly enough, a real restaurant in Concarneau, which to this day features a “Maigret Menu“).
I spent four very pleasant days reading this book, with memories of several visits to Brittany, the scene of this fictional crime. Brittany is a remarkable place, steeped in atmosphere with incredible beauty around every coastal corner. The pretty villages, white-sanded coves, the off-shore islands and countless fishing boats, the exquisite sea-food and tons of typical French charm . . . I could go on, but it’s enough to say that it’s a region I love and this book put me in a holiday mood despite the vicious murder of a 91-year-old man that took place in its first few pages.
The elderly hotelier found dead from a knife wound on his restaurant floor is Pierre-Louis Pennec, a stalwart of the village of Pont-Aven where he has lived all his life in the hotel founded by his grand-parents. His grand-mother founded the hotel and with her generous hospitality rapidly befriended various painters including Paul Gauguin. Summer artists retreats took place in the village and before long, the Pont-Aven school of artists, became known for their paintings of Breton interiors and landscapes, packed full of local atmosphere.
So, it’s today’s Germany, and Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up early one afternoon on a patch of undeveloped land.
It was relatively quiet; I could not see any enemy aircraft flying overhead, or hear the thunder of artillery fire, there seemed to be no shelling nearby or explosions, no air-raid sirens. It also struck me that there was no Reich Chancellery and no Führerbunker.
In full dress-uniform, but reeking of petrol, Adolf Hitler gets up and makes his way across the road to a newspaper kiosk. He glances at the dates on the newspapers and when he sees the year 2011 he collapses to the ground.
So begins Timur Vermes book, Look Who’s Back, the first German novel to look at Adolf Hitler from a humorous perspective. And I have to say, it has been very well-received (if rather uneasily) and looks like it’s going to be turned into a film later this year despite the controversial subject matter.
On waking from his years of oblivion, Hitler wander across to a newspaper stall and begins to acquaint himself with today’s Germany. It is not a comfortable process and Hitler rapidly comes to the conclusion that the nation is as much in need of a Führer as before. But with no money in his pockets and an utterly changed landscape, the thought comes to him:
I needed a livelihood, however modest or basic. I needed somewhere to stay and a little money until I had a clearer perspective. Perhaps I needed to find a job, temporarily at least, until I knew whether and how I might be able to seize the reins of government.