I came across Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke on Max Cairnduff”s website Pechorin’s Journal and it sounded interesting, especially for someone like me who enjoys the quirky, off-beat read from time to time. It turned out to be an intriguing book with much food for thought; a book-group would find plenty of opportunities to explore the many byways to the plot which Lee Rourke takes them down.
Jon Michaels, loses his job in publishing having apparently been stitched-up by his two female bosses (by the end of the book we may be feeling they had a few good reasons to get rid of him!). He returns home drunk to receive a phone call from his brother to tell him that his estranged Uncle Rey has committed suicide and that Jon has to go down to Canvey Island to sort out the remnants of his uncle’s sad and lonely life. With Jon’s depressing thought-stream echoing through our heads we travel down to the Essex coast with him, our expectations of a successful mission dwindling with every mile of the train journey of the way.
I normally dislike the use of the present tense/first person in a whole novel, but I have to admit that it works well in Vulgar Things. It allows us to really get inside Jon’s head, even though this is not always a great place to be. His recent divorce and the loss of his job, together with the unenviable task ahead have left Jon in an angry and miserable mood. We start off with a degree of sympathy for Jon and it’s not long before we realise that he is vulnerable to patterns of self-destructive and obsessive thinking which will lead him into quite a bit of trouble in the next few days.
Number 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.
1985 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 Leipzig Affair 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.
I 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
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.