Echo Chamber?

9:18 PM 16 FEBRUARY 2020

As a longstanding admirer of Sebastian Faulks’ work, simply the title of this latest novel (2018) stirred the reader’s imagination and the prospect of a return to the original site of the author’s reputation. The ‘French trilogy’, published between 1989-98 (‘The Girl at the Lion d’Or’; ‘Birdsong’; and ‘Charlotte Gray’) established Faulks as a major British writer, wherein he used the common backdrop of war and explored the immediate impact and legacy of conflict for the characters involved. This has proven fertile territory, partly perhaps due to the historical gravity of such events, which continue to weigh heavily on the scarred psyche of our continent, but partly also to Faulks’ unerring capacity to evoke a gallic essence in his novels, which transports the reader with such panache.

This latest novel is set in contemporary Paris, but through the contrasting encounters of an American researcher (Hannah) and Moroccan immigrant (Tariq), the author develops a vehicle to observe the modern cosmopolitan metropolis, as well as allude to difficult, past wartime and colonial memories that have yet to be fully expunged from the national consciousness.

Tariq is nineteen and though able to speak french (a legacy of his late, Algerian mother who was raised in Paris), he abandons his education in Tangier, to follow tentatively in her footsteps, arriving homeless and penniless, his first venture abroad. By contrast,Hannah has been dispatched by her US university to research a book and is returning to Paris, to the scene of her ill-fated and only love affair, ten years earlier. And with both main characters thus deposited, the stage is set.

The disparate experiences of Hannah and Tariq are driven largely by the stratified socio-economic groupings of the Fifth Republic, and that they apparently have little in common. Still, what limited overlap exists offers each insight into the other’s world and over time their respective curiosities satisfied, lessons learnt, fragile hearts restored, they can move on. However, what the main characters do have in common is their status as ‘outsiders’. Notwithstanding the undoubted magnetism of Paris, the ‘echoes’ emitted by the city resonate differently, even between native generations and the absence of that shared history suggests that visitors may be untainted, but surprised, by a sometimes troubled past.

Intertwining such complex themes, on the back of a fairly weak plot left me with the sense of a book that didn’t quite deliver on its potential. Faulks writes beautifully and with his customary affinity for all things French, but this book has a nebulous quality, which I found hard to fathom. Perhaps it is an inevitable bugbear that having produced a universally lauded ‘modern classic’ in ‘Birdsong’, readers wait impatiently for those heights to be repeated (incidentally I am a great fan of Faulks’ novel ‘Engleby’). In the meantime though, I am curious to read some alternative reviews of this novel, to see if I have missed the key that unlocks some hitherto hidden depth.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In every life a little rain must fall…..

1:17 PM 21 JANUARY 2018

In essence ‘The Rainbow’ is a family saga, which examines the journey of three generations of the Nottinghamshire-based, Brangwen family. In particular, several of the most interesting characters are strong women of that clan – mothers, partners, daughters.

Published in 1915, this novel assumed some notoriety following a prosecution, by the ‘Public Morality Council’ for obscenity and the first clash between Lawrence and British censorship. However, a century on, the contemporary threshold for public outrage is calibrated more liberally and enables the reader to engage with the much bigger themes present in the book. So, rather than becoming exercised by lewd sexualised behaviour and implied impropriety, of equal interest to the modern reader may be the backdrop of early industrialisation, the rise of capitalism and the attendant social consequences for women and, to use the modern parlance, social mobility.


The chapters are quite long, which seems to be Lawrence’s style and often the description of nature is beautiful though laboured. Yet, it does contrast the starkly grey and grimy towns to which the working class are increasingly tethered to populate mines and factories and satisfy the demands of mechanisation and progress. Indeed, arguably Lawrence has used the Brangwen’s as a metaphor for the urbanization of the midlands and a wider movement from a bucolic existence to a form of industrial serfdom, but transforming also social attitudes and the norms, which had hitherto maintained the status quo. Thus, the apparent loosening influence of traditional institutions (church, marriage, community) is portrayed by Lawrence as having potentially liberating effects, or at least challenging the hypocrisy of conventional moral rectitude.


Still, within the personal lives of the main characters are also the tensions, trials and emotional turmoil that appear ever-present in families, whatever the era and some interesting parallels to twenty first century life. First up, Lydia Lensky is the daughter of a Polish landowner, but a widowed single parent, when she receives a proposal of marriage from farmer Tom Brangwen. The couple go on to have a son, but Tom also raises Lydia’s daughter as his own and fashions a strong and special, though volatile relationship with ‘Anna’, in part to fill a perceived deficit in his marriage.


Anna, in turn, marries William Brangwen (‘step cousin’) and in some senses replicates the turbulent relationship modelled by her parents, but the couple go on to have a large family and Anna revels in her matriarchal role. The rapid succession of babies though also has implications for their eldest daughter. ‘Ursula’ is called upon to help tend her siblings, but in the frenetic bustle of the household fosters an especially close relationship with her father, to step outside of the care of four babies. Moreover, Ursula’s subsequent education and aspirations show burgeoning feminist tendencies and her resistance to the historical templates available for women – “…why must one inherit this heavy, numbing responsibility of living an undiscovered life?”- mark her out as the most interesting character in this book.


Ursula’s revolutionary leanings are expressed in her pursuit of independence, but Lawrence deliberately touched a nerve, by including the young woman’s developing sexual awareness, as a component of her rebellion. “She knew that she had always her price or ransom – her femaleness……In her femaleness she felt a secret riches, a reserve, she had always the price of freedom.”


The challenge posed by D.H.Lawrence to the sobriety of his time might seem less inflammatory today and yet the aspiration to be “proud and free as a man, yet exquisite as a woman” retains a familiar contemporary echo. The fact that this book precedes its better known sequel ‘Women in Love’, which continues to follow the lives and loves of Ursula and her sister Gudrun Brangwen, may also suggest that Lawrence was ahead of his time in more ways than one and can still speak to the multi-title, ‘boxset’ generation.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

It takes a whole village…

1:06 AM 2 JANUARY 2018

Using a novel to highlight invisible social issues, such as runaway teenagers, taking flight as a consequence of factors such as domestic violence, gang culture and parental rejection is a tricky business. For example, who knew “one in ten run away from home before they reach the age of sixteen, a massive 100,000 every year”? It’s a fairly damning statistic, which says much about British society and an apparent incapacity to protect vulnerable young people. Moreover, “two thirds of children who run away are not reported to the police.” Still, against this rather bleak backdrop, Jane Davis has constructed a subtle plot, which does far more than merely generate pathos. Indeed, JD has also sought to establish that this is not a problem solely besetting some poverty-stricken underclass, but rather an issue that crosses mundane social boundaries and ‘runaways’ might therefore be seen as victims of an extreme degree of family separation.


‘A Funeral for an Owl’ centres on history teacher, Jim Stevens, who works at an inner city high school, but originates from the nearby council estate and though the vagaries of social mobility have enabled Jim to move literally to the other side of the railway tracks, he has not strayed far from his roots. When a violent incident at school sees Jim hospitalised, colleague (‘Ayisha’) is drawn into the clandestine support he has been providing to one of his pupils (‘Shamayal’) and Ayisha’s own integrity, in the face of strict policies and procedures, is challenged.


Ayisha has benefitted from a stable family upbringing and though struggling with the expectations of a distant and demanding mother, she has little insight into the profound hardships experienced by some of her disadvantaged pupils, away from school. And so, while Jim languishes in a hospital bed, the story alternates between examining Jim’s past experience, which culminated in his being stabbed and the very pressing present, which finds Ayisha discovering that doing the ‘right thing’ can take courage and a sense of bewildering isolation.


In spite of his inner city upbringing, ten year-old Jim is into birdwatching and this egregious pastime enables the boy to connect with the troubled Aimee White. Two years his senior, Aimee is destined to attend the all-girls school designated by her wealthy parents, but for the intervening six weeks of the summer holidays, the pair fashion a poignant relationship, which bridges their respective worlds. Almost spookily prescient, Aimee observes that “Indian tribes believe owls carry the souls of living people and that, if an owl is killed, the person whose soul they’re carrying will also die.”


Later, the geekiness of Jim’s birdwatching also captures Shamayal’s imagination and there is symmetry too, in Jim’s burgeoning relationship with Ayisha.


However, what stood out most for me in this book was the crafted writing, in which JD changes gear so smoothly that the journey was simply a pleasure and over all too quickly. The plot was deceptively simple and yet the characterization of the protagonists was insightful and interesting (I especially enjoyed ‘Bins’ the estate eccentric, who is curiously invisible) and made the story eminently plausible and readable. Clearly the book is not targeted solely at young adults and as with a lot of good fiction, the food-for-thought it provides is rightly taxing. As a social worker myself, it would be easy to criticize the rather neat conclusion, which perhaps sanitizes the ‘messiness’ that attends typical family life, but that would be churlish and miss the point. The adage that ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’ is at the heart of this book and we all need to do our bit…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Modern charades….is it a book? Is it a film?

10:27 AM 26 NOVEMBER 2017

I generally get a sense of foreboding when I read on a book’s cover, “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE”, even more so when I have seen said movie. “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is a good example, in that it is a glorious ‘feel good’ film, with a host of wonderful actors, setting the bar high for the preceding novel, which I notice was previously entitled, “These Foolish Things”. But, notwithstanding this book has apparently inspired a successful cinema formulation, would it be any good?

The answer is ‘yes’, Deborah Moggach’s original novel is really well conceived and the interplay between the cast of characters is comical, poignant and even touching at times. However, the downside to seeing the movie first is a sense of disappointment that the book has not been faithfully reproduced on the screen. Some parts that have been ‘bigged up’ for the cinema-going public proved to be relatively modest on reading the book. Unsurprising perhaps, when the talents of Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith et al are at hand, but the young charismatic Indian entrepreneur (played by Dev Patel) shown on the book’s cover with his beautiful girlfriend, doesn’t actually exist in the intervening pages. Instead, Sonny is middle-aged, rather dull and a ‘bit part’, compared to his central role in the screen version.

In contrast to the Hollywood meets Bollywood makeover, the book is earthier and the characters’ back-stories more authentic, in turn making the plot lines more plausible. At a time when the UK’s National Health Service is creaking under the pressures of an ageing population and traditional family loyalties are equally stressed, the advantages of shipping out to a new retired life in a strange land is a tantalising prospect   The comparing and contrasting of cultures within the book was also arguably more nuanced and the author holds up an interesting mirror on what it is to grow old in modern societies. East and West both have their ‘hidden’ populations of the ‘uncared for’. But, perhaps the message of the book is that for those with an adventurous or courageous spirit and a willingness to share and create new social circles, life retains a wealth of possibilities.

The title is an interesting aside, but for me the book is much more explicitly about the characters and the dilapidated hotel merely a backdrop, albeit a useful metaphor, for which the original title may have better preserved the distinction. Still, despite the apparent temptation to ride the coat-tails of a successful movie, this book is, of itself, worth a read and perhaps for people of a certain age provides important fuel for thought.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Beautifully crafted by a talented wordsmith

12:10 AM 7 AUGUST 2016

An engrossing novel, which charts the devastating, lifelong impact of a misguided child’s testimony, in the wake of sordid domestic incidents. Belatedly, Briony Tallis, acknowledging her role in the deceit destined to shatter her family and the life of her sister’s lover, seeks to atone. In this acclaimed work, McEwan deftly develops the plot against the backdrop of Britain in the 1930s, 40s and post-war, conferring upon the book momentum, but also a weight of years, which carries the reader seamlessly to a contemporary conclusion.

One can but feel a sense of enduring torment for Briony, though dwarfed by the price paid by Cecilia Tallis and her would-be suitor, Robbie Turner. The sweep of the book touches on class, and the seismic social change in Britain advanced by the war, as experienced by the main characters. However, while the fickle nature of fate is evident, so too is the injustice of an immutable social order destined to ensure the ‘criminals’ live the life that was expected, apparently untainted by their willingness to sacrifice the innocent.

The book also offers a commentary on love, but challenges the construction of romantic idylls, which demand a happy ending. Rather, Briony’s gnawing sense of guilt is overtaken by the reality of events and her sense of ‘doing the right thing’ must suffer an unsatisfying delay. The resulting sense of unfairness for the victims is palpable and skilfully managed by McEwan, which is testament to his writing powers. Ultimately life can be unfair, despite our hankering for ‘natural justice’!

This was my first dip into the work of this author, but on this evidence he is rightly lauded and I found ‘Atonement’ a truly absorbing read. 

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1686514922

Rating: 5 out of 5.