I don’t regard myself as a connoisseur of children’s books, though I’ve read quite a few over the years (what parent hasn’t?), but it’s been a while. Still, it made my dip into the world of ‘Varjak Paw’, a Mesopotamian blue cat, all the more refreshing.
Originally published in 2003 and winner of the Smarties Prize Gold Award, in Varjak Paw the author (S.F.Said) has created an interesting main character, heroic but humble, timid but courageous, naive but open to new ideas and tolerant of different pedigrees and perspectives. In keeping with classic books, such as “Watership Down”(Richard Adams, 1972), the fact that the characters are animals simply alters the context, but not the need for the cast to resolve the attendant challenges. In this example, feline blue-blood Varjak Paw and his family are living a leisurely existence with the Countess, but when their kind benefactor mysteriously disappears, Varjak Paw finds himself traumatically relegated to the street and facing threats to which he is not accustomed. The young cat needs help and to learn quickly how to survive.
Given the nature of the book, it is only right that due credit also go to the illustrator, Dave McKean, whose minimalist black and white drawings complement the story and deftly draw the eye, providing a visual treat that supports the fast-moving narrative. I note there is also a sequel to this adventure (“The Outlaw Varjak Paw”, 2005), which I shall add to my tbr pile, but in the meantime, I have sent my copy of the original book to my eight year-old nephew for a rather more expert opinion, though I remain confident that he will approve.
The first case for Harry Bosch since relinquishing his LAPD detective’s badge a year ago and a sense that the series’ readers are being prepared for a new direction, but not yet. Even shorn of the most potent symbol of his personal mission, this story confirms the fire energizing ‘Mr’ Bosch isn’t even damped down, never mind extinguished. Indeed, retirement has provided Bosch with that most precious commodity – time and when an ex-colleague, Lawton Cross, gives him a call, Bosch is soon back on the job.
As noted recently in “A Darkness More Than Night”, the main character is dogged in his pursuit of justice and unsolved/unresolved cases are mentally archived and copies of the investigation records retained, pending further consideration. Five years earlier, Bosch, Kiz Rider and Jerry Edgar were the first responders to the murder of a production assistant from a movie company. However, when a $2m dollar heist occurs on a film set just a few days later, the case is transferred to the Robbery Homicide Division. It galled Bosch that the young woman’s life wasn’t considered important until the money was stolen. In any event the RHD investigation went nowhere and when the two detectives involved were the victims of a bar shooting, the case was shunted onto the unsolved pile. The incident had left Lawton Cross in a wheelchair, his partner dead.
There was also the spectre of a missing FBI agent linked to the case bringing more echoes from the past hoving into view. Special Agent Roy Lindell (also appeared in ‘Trunk Music’ and ‘Angels Flight’) knows the value of Bosch’s involvement and runs interference for him, while former prosecutor, Janis Langwiser (‘Angels Flight’ and ‘A Darkness More Than Night’) provides some heavyweight legal cover.
Since Bosch ‘pulled the pin’ his former partner, Kiz Rider, traded a career in the RHD for the greasy pole of the Chief’s Department, angered by his decision to walk away. But, though Rider is sent to warn him off, Bosch has never been one to surrender in the face of authority and well-versed in the respective agency processes and scare tactics, he’s fleet of foot enough to duck and weave past the pitfalls devised by the LAPD and the Feds.
Bosch’s kryptonite remains his estranged wife and former FBI agent, Eleanor Wish. Settled in Las Vegas and making a living as a professional poker player, the intimate bond between the couple remains, but neither can compromise and risk their respective vulnerability. It’s a gnawing sensation for Bosch, the loss of the light in his life and an interesting diversion for the reader from the intricate plot of the investigation. Bosch also reflects on the very different relationship between Lawton and Danielle Cross, but they are equally casualties of circumstance, their lives marred by a shared history, from which there can be no escape. Amid the familiar thrill of Bosch’s relentless pursuit of justice, in this book the author poignantly captures the sense of multiple losses weighing on the main character, but the very satisfying denouement also hints at a potential source of salvation.
The story arcs that link characters intermittently across the series continue to demonstrate a remarkable feat of storytelling, but the gradual exposure of Harry Bosch, warts and all and the ongoing description of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, through his eyes, remains compelling, even as I move inexorably towards Book 10 in the series (‘The Narrows’).
Any contemporary story set (even partly) in Afghanistan runs the risk of appearing bleak, at least to western eyes. However, in spite of a sobering glimpse of life under the talaiban, it is Hosseini’s examination of a series of overlapping relationships, which reveals the frailty of man and the attendant capacity for tragedy.
At the outset, the narrator, Amir, is aged just twelve and has a close relationship with Hassan, the son of his father’s servant. The characters are all subject to a social structure which ensures they know their respective places (Pashtun are the dominant tribe locally, while the Hassari are commonly regarded as inferior) but privately such boundaries are blurred. That is, until an incident witnessed by Amir challenges his ability to openly support his erstwhile friend. Amir and his ‘Baba’ are members of an elite class, but following the death of his mother, giving him birth, Amir grows up feeling distant from his father and desperate for his affection. However, he is no ‘chip off the old block’. Baba is charismatic and courageous, a stalwart of Afghan society and Amir’s sense of inadequacy is fuelled by the very positive attributes shown by Hassan and admired by his father.
Kite flying, we learn, is an important pastime in Kabul culture and offers an interesting metaphor for life in the differing strata, contrasting the fliers with those subject to gravity, scrabbling for victory among the ‘also rans’. Ironically, it is with Hassan’s encouragement and help, Amir is able to excel at flying and inspire pride in his father. In a touching show of loyalty, Hassan even seeks to run down the last defeated kite in a kite-battling festival, to seal a memorable triumph for his friend. Yet, the euphoria is short-lived.
In an impulsive and childish act, Amir deliberately sweeps Hassan aside, but in so doing unleashes a lifelong sense of personal guilt, magnified by the dignified self-sacrifice of his victim. In spite of everything, Hassan, by fluke of birth a member of the lowly Hassari tribe, demonstrates a superior magnanimity and notwithstanding the consequent prospect of destitution, stoically accepts the betrayal.
Fast forward, and the overthrow of the royal family by the forces of extreme Islam and with it the social order that has secured their privileged positions, sees Baba and Amir flee Afghanistan.
In the USA, notwithstanding their attendant poverty, Baba exhibits the drive to start again, though father and son are sustained by the cultural traditions preserved in the local Afghan community. Still, there is an inevitability in the need for Amir, the young man, to be confronted with circumstances in which he must return to his birthplace and seek to atone.
This book is clearly well written and offers an interesting insight into Afghan society , both home and abroad. However, there is also the troubling spectre of child abuse, which is explicitly referenced and to my mind, diminishes the narrative. Not because it challenges some taboo, but rather it adds little value to the story and gives the impression that it has been included for gratuitous shock impact. Moreover, in the context of the book, such behaviour only occurs on foreign soil and could be construed as symptomatic of an inferior society, which given western trials of recent years, seems more than a little hypocritical. I acknowledge it could be argued that this may be a courageous addition on the part of the author, but on balance, for me, it detracts from an otherwise compelling read.