Review: Number 11 – Jonathan Coe

coe number 11Number 11 is Jonathan Coe’s sequel to his prize-winning 1994 novel, What a Carve Up, which was serialised on BBC radio.  Coe’s novel, The Rotters Club was also serialised on BBC2 television in 2005.   Wikipedia notes that What a Carve Up  “is considered an example of a post-modern novel, employing multiple narrative styles, different perspectives, movement between first- and third-person narrative voices and a highly fragmented timeline”.  As one might expect, Number 11, has exactly the same qualities, and while a superficial reading may find the book to be disjointed, erratic in style and perhaps in need of a thorough edit and tidy-up, it makes perfect sense in the context of its fore-runner.

The only problem with the book is that while it will delight Jonathan Coe fans (I am one), without a knowledge of the intentions of the author (and his previous work) it may be a little bewildering.   Some readers may find themselves thinking that while the book is amusing, it may not be worth the bother.

The book opens with a section called The Black Tower.  An eight year old girl Rachel and her older brother Nicholas are wandering around the Yorkshire town of Beverley on a winter’s day.  They are visiting their grand-parents while their mother and father are having a weekend away trying to get their marriage back-together.  The go into Beverley Minster as the light is failing, and Nicholas plays a terrible trick on his sister leaving her terrified and upset.

We then move forward a number of years where we find Rachel again terrified out of her skin and writing;

I never would have imagined that, in the very midst of a city as big as this, there could be a house enfolded in such silence. For weeks, of course, I’ve been having to put up with the sound of the men working outside, underground, digging, digging, digging. But that has almost finished now, and at night, after they have gone home, the silence descends. And that’s when my imagination takes over (it is only my imagination, I have to cling to that thought), and in the darkness and the silence, I’m starting to think that I can hear things: other noises – – –  I’ve not tried to write anything serious since my first year at Oxford, even though Laura, just before she left, told me that I should carry on with my writing, that she liked it, that she thought I had talent. Which meant so much, coming from her. It meant everything. Laura told me, as well, that it was very important to be organized when you write. That you should start at the beginning and tell everything in sequence.

And so the story really begins . . .


Jonathan Coe book-signing in Rome

There are several sections to this book.  We read of Rachel and her friend Alison returning to Beverley a few years later for a week’s holiday.  This time, the visit has another undertone of horror after an encounter with “The Old Bird-Woman” who terrifies both young girls until Alison’s bravery forces them to confront their worst fears.  This is interleaved with an account of the apparent suicide of weapons-inspector Dr David Kelly, as heard it on the radio news and also as interpreted by Rachel’s grandfather who is convinced that David Kelly was murdered.   The merging of a these two narratives, one fantastic and another topical have a big impact on Alison as she develops an adult mind.

The next section moves forward a few more years and concerns Alison’s mother, a minor celebrity due to an earlier singing career.  Val has sunk into a life of poverty and mild depression.  Her job as a library assistant is coming to an end and money is short. Suddenly out of the blue she is invited onto a programme which seems to be identical to I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here and jets off to Australia.  The experience is humiliating and only adds to Val’s depression and Coe seems to be highlighting the way that the media can raise some lives up very high while quite capriciously wrecking others.  This is hardly a new theme, but he makes the point well.

In the third section we see Rachel now at Oxford University and paying a visit to her lecturer Laura’s home.  The David Kelly theme comes up again when during a long conversation, Laura says,

Their political innocence. And that’s what David Kelly’s death represented for our generation. Up until then, we’d been sceptical about the Iraq war. We’d suspected the government wasn’t telling us the whole truth. But the day he died was the day it became absolutely clear: the whole thing stank. Suicide or murder, it didn’t really matter. A good man had died, and it was the lies surrounding the war that had killed him, one way or another. So that was it. None of us could pretend any longer that we were being governed by honourable people.

Laura’s father was obsessive about old films and we now read an extended section about his quest to find an obscure title from the 1950s. Movie history is another theme in the book and later, the final section will develop into a sort of extended B-movie as Coe plays with our heads by introducing a horror movie theme into what until then has been a relatively rational story.

He also throws in another section later on about two policemen which seems to have been taken from an old Ealing comedy.  At one point a murder enquiry leads to an award dinner with bizarre elements which I can’t quite place anywhere but no doubt have a reference to a 1950’s film

From the centre of each table, a circular section was removed, like a little trap door, by hands at first invisible; and through each resulting aperture a man’s head appeared. Sixty different men’s heads, at sixty different tables. The rest of their bodies remained beneath the tables, hidden from view. A ripple of surprise and admiration went around the room. At table number 11, the head was crowned by a mop of red hair. The head swiveled around slowly through 360 degrees, and each of the twelve guests found themselves being stared at in turn by a pair of piercing green eyes framed by large, owl-like horn-rimmed spectacles. ‘Good evening,’ said the head. ‘My name is Dorian, and I will be you’re talking menu tonight. I will be here all evening, to tell you about the food, and to answer any food-related questions.

what a carve upYou have to take these passages as ironic, harking back to earlier television and movie themes from the 1950s and 60s.  Coe is not throwing these incidents in to his novel randomly – they all hark back to some cultural reference which will be more or less obvious depending on your knowledge of early television and B-movie cinema.  Be assured, there are horrors yet to come but by that stage, near the end,  I was both dazzled and annoyed, having found the only way to get a handle on this book was to make notes of things that came to mind as I read it and then try to make sense of them at the end.

The number “eleven” theme is only partly-realised throughout the book and only in a seemingly random manner. This is Coe’s 11th novel.  The Mad Bird Woman lives at a house numbered eleven.  Rachel takes an eleven hour flight to South Africa.  The London house where much of the action takes place as eleven floors (and something awful can be found in it).  Alison’s mother rides round and round Sheffield on the Number 11 circular bus route.  Eleven is also the number of a storage unit and also the featured table number at the prize giving.

On the whole, as a Coe-fan, I enjoyed reading this book and found it intriguing and thought-provoking.  It is also annoying in various ways, perhaps a bit too clever for its own good.  In order to achieve some of his objectives, Coe makes us read through some tedious passages, particularly those which are deliberately not well-written (Rachel’s twelve-year-old voice for example, or the section on the two policemen).  Having said that I am glad I read it and knowing some of the background to the book has enhanced my pleasure in reading it.  You can’t stay in your comfort zone all the time and this book will extend most readers’ horizons in one way or another.

Alex Clark in the Guardian wrote in his review, “Angry, bleak, preoccupied with establishing occult power connections to the extent that it would easily earn its place on a shelf of “paranoid fiction”, Number 11 is undoubtedly a political novel. It is also an interrogation of the purposes and efficacy of humour in exposing society’s ills, and a spoof on horror B-movies”.

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Review: The Leipzig Affair – Fiona Rintoul

Leipzig-Affair-for-web-708x10241985 was not a good year to live in The German Democratic Republic.  While the country was still in the grip of an oppressive communist government, the wealth and freedoms of the west were becoming ever more visible thanks to the population’s exposure to western radio and television.  Only the most loyal communists could continue the pretence that the government of Eric Honecker was leading the country to prosperity and economic equivalence with the west.  Citizens needed a rare type of party commitment to ask with any degree of sincerity, “why would you want more than three brands of shampoo in the shops?” when packages from the west contained unheard of bounty.

The book is the story of Magda and Robert, two young people from both sides of the almost unbreachable political divide of West and East.

After a period of rebellion against her government, Magda has seen that there is no future in resisting the powerful state with it’s STASI secret police and it’s control of all job opportunities.  She is now training to be an official translator while continuing friendships with her old crowd of radicals and planning for the day when she will be able to flee to the West.

Over in Scotland, Robert is writing a thesis on Heinrich Heine and wondering whether to study iu West or East Germany.  Although the Heine archive is in Dusseldorf, his application to study there gets lost by a drunk lecturer and he instead gets offered a student exchange in Leipzig in the communist East.

A communist-leaning lecturer, John Bull-Halifax asks Robert to take with him four pairs of Levi jeans for Magda, a contact from a previous visit.  Once in Leipzig, Robert arranges to meet Magda in a train station bar and is immediately struck by her beauty.  He hands over the jeans and Magda invites him to a friend’s 30th birthday party, poor Robert begins a relationship which will induct him into the smoke and mirrors world of East Germany, where nothing is as it seems and informing and intrigue bedevil every relationship.

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Review: Piano from a 4th Storey Window – Jenny Morton Potts

pianoI have read quite a few books based in Brighton from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock to the police procedural thrillers of Peter James. Robert Dickinson presented a dystopian vision of a Brighton of the future in which social order had disintegrated (The Noise of Strangers), and Robert Rankin described a Brighton Zodiac with carriageway constellations criss-crossing the city (The Brightonomicon). I now have another fine novel to add to my Brighton collection – Piano from a 4th Storey Window by Jenny Morton Potts (buy paperback or Kindle)  which while being full of local colour and locations, also offers the story of a full-blown, head-over-heels romance with highs and lows both heavenly and hellish along the way.

Marin Strang is a Spanish teacher who’s life hasn’t quite worked out as she expected, leaving her single and existing on temporary teaching contracts, rootless and at a loose end for much of her time. Marin was brought up in a family of strict Jehovah’s Witnesses but one which mixed adherence to religion with real relationship difficulties which blight her to this day. She has been “dis-fellowshipped” by the JWs but has the remnants of a relationship with her ageing father who remains a loyal member.

“Marin’s childhood was the ideal preparation for solitude, finding her membership of the sect separating her from her natural friends at school. She developed,

 – an isolation to shield her from occasional major hurt. Or an isolation which drip fed daily minor hurt. She’d had so much practice at being on her own, she should manage it with ease.

Following a painful breakup from her last boyfriend, Marin finds herself wandering around The Lanes in Brighton (a quaint shopping area famed for its boutiques and quirky shops). She stops for a coffee at a café called Number 8 and catches a glimpse of an enticing social melée revolving around the café, particularly when she sees and hears Lawrence Fyre, a tall, unkempt, but charismatic individual who owns Sargasso Books in The Lanes.

Mr Tall’s tawny hair draped across his shoulders and sharp bones were poking at his clothes. His shirt, well, capacious, was the kindest description and it was almost white but there was a suggestion in the (crushed) fabric that it may have been a vivid colour once, decades back. With his back to her, she could comment internally no further but she heard herself say very quietly, ‘Turn round. Just turn around. Go on.’ This, you can enunciate without moving your teeth. Continue reading

Review: The Book of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

UntitledBack 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.

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Review: Hidden Knowledge – Bernardine Bishop

hidden knowledgeI have never read anything by Bernardine Bishop before but was drawn to Hidden Knowledge by reading a review of it in the Sunday Times and then by the five star reviews on Amazon (which I have been pleased to add to).  Although clerical abuse features in the book, I wouldn’t say that it’s the only theme and I was reminded of William Nicholson’s books (The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, All the Hopeful Lovers and The Golden Hour) in the way it focuses on a small community of people and explores the often complex relationships between them.

We have two groups of people here. Romola Tree has two brothers. One brother, Hereward, is a successful author and has a much younger female partner Carina, an Italian 22 year-old woman of considerable charm.  For much of the book, Hereward lies in a coma after a complex heart operation. The other brother, Father Roger Tree, is suspended from the priesthood and is in trouble with the law, having had a complaint about him abusing a young boy many years ago. Roger comes to live with his sister Romola while awaiting trial and we read much about his back story and what led him to the place he finds himself in now.

The other group of people centres around another abused boy and his mother Betty and and sister Julia. Ten year old Mark drowned while on a school trip twenty years before despite an attempt to rescue him by Father Roger Tree who was school chaplain at the time.  Betty has had much to deal with in her life and is now coming to terms with widowhood.  Daughter Julia has challenges of her own, being conscious of the ticking away of her biological clock despite her successful career in medicine.

Together, these characters provide Bernardine Bishop with plenty of scope for a rich and complex human drama.  The pace is slow, but the story unfolds in a very satisfying way and I found myself being drawn through the pages quickly, and wanting to get back to the book whenever I put it down.  As a male reader, I found much of the story rather female oriented, but the quality of the writing transcends gender issues.  The best women writers can write about men as well as any male (Jane Gardam for example), and likewise for good male writers when writing about women.

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Review: The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

paying guestsI 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.

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Review: Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

heart of the matterFor the last couple of weeks I’ve been casting around for something to read, making two or three false starts (on books which were so unimpressive I gave up on them), and finally deciding that it’s about time I revisited the works of Graham Greene.  I was partly inspired by the relaunch in Amazon Kindle format of the Vintage Classics editions of Greene’s novels, most of which are priced around £4.00, which to me seems pretty good value for such fine books which have quite a few years to go before they are out of copyright.

I think I read almost all of Greene’s novels and travel writings way back in the 1970s and 80s, which is so long ago that I could probably write a one-sentence synopsis of each book but no more.  While I remember Greene as a very cerebral writer whose novels make profound statements about the purpose of human existence, perhaps his greatest legacy is in the cinema, where so many of his books inspired films such as Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, A Gun for Sale, The Honorary Consul and others too.   Quite a powerful list of credits for someone who wrote complex novels in which literary quality is a major feature.

And so to The Heart of the Matter, a novel I chose because the name of the central character Henry Scobie stays in my mind but without the detail which would enable me to say anything about him.  I think I chose well because the book reminded me within the first few pages of what it feels like to have your mind absorbed in a great book.

Henry Scobie lives in a British colony in West Africa where he is the deputy commissioner with responsibility for the police.  Greene later identified the colony as Sierra Leone, and there is little in this 1948 novel to commend it as a travel destination with its poverty, corruption and general squalor.  Scobie lives with his wife Louise and together they take part in the social life of the colony with its rigid class structure in which everyone knows everybody else’s business.  Louise is a devoted Catholic but is also deeply disappointed with her life in the colony, where her husband has failed to gain promotion, leaving her languishing as a social also-ran among the colony wives.

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