The mother of invention

The Jewel Seed by Joan Aiken,
illustrated by Peter Bailey.
Hodder Children’s Books 1998 (1997)

What is the Jewel Seed, and why are various people looking for it? These are the questions teen orphan Nonnie Smith keeps asking herself in this rumbustious fantasy novelette penned by the indefatigable Joan Aiken.

In ten action-packed chapters we discover how it is that Nonnie becomes parentless, how a twice-stolen shirt leads her into dire danger, how she comes to stay in northwest London and what befell her there. Along the way we encounter witches, a mysterious lodger and an even stranger cat, and wonder how a grandfather clock, apples, snakes, bootlaces and a three-note musical motif fit into the bigger picture.

And for those who like to rummage beneath the bubbling surface of her cauldron’s concoction there are hints as to the ingredients the author has selected to add to her rich stew.

Continue reading “The mother of invention”

Monoliths: myths and legends

Sacred Stones.
The standing stones of West Wales:
their history and traditions
by Terry John. Gomer 1994

Where I currently live in Pembrokeshire [November 2014] it’s hard to escape standing stones. If I go out our gate and walk in a clockwise direction, in the course of a five-mile walk I will pass three of them, one unnamed, another two all that remains of a complex called Cornel Bach.

If I go on another clockwise four-mile road walk I’ll pass two stones, one unnamed, another — possibly not in situ –all that remains of some stones at the aptly named Temple Druid. Within a relatively short walking radius I can pass the only surviving prehistoric stone circle in the area at Gors Fawr near Mynachlogddu or another complex at Meini Gwyr near Glandy Cross in Carmarthenshire.

Up on the nearby Preseli Hills there is a stone enclosure called Bedd Arthur or Arthur’s Grave, and a pair of menhirs called Cerrig Meibion Arthur or the Stones of the Sons of Arthur. And of course the hills are where the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried — reputedly. You can hardly take a step without tripping over one.

Continue reading “Monoliths: myths and legends”

Witnessing complicity

Charles Bridge, Prague (1903)

Melmoth by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tail 2019 (2018)

Anyone with a certain religious upbringing, be it Catholic or Baptist for example, will know how deeply a sense of guilt can be ingrained, and how much the gleeful reminder by elders God is watching you! may reverberate down the years. Add to that the concepts behind complicity theory, which postulates that in dehumanising an out-group one shares the guilt of what is done to them by others from the in-group, and one can imagine the febrile atmosphere that Sarah Perry conjures up in this haunting — in all senses of the word — novel.

Helen Franklin, 42, is working in Prague, and we meet her in the winter of 2016 as she comes to understand what is agitating her friend Karel Pražan. Already trying to escape an as yet unknown transgression in her past, she learns from the manuscripts Karel shows her of the figure of Melmoth, Melmotka, or Melmat, a woman who becomes the personification of all that dogs Helen’s current empty existence.

Through the streets of the Czech capital, through Brentwood, Manila, Heathrow, Cairo and the Black Sea we follow the trail of this mysterious woman who witnesses man’s inhumanity to man via those rendered complicit by association. Will Helen, punishing her body with anorexia, come to redeem herself, or will she submit to despair?

Continue reading “Witnessing complicity”

The House Beautiful

Sebastiano Serlio, Set design for a comic scene

“Behold there was a very stately palace before him, the name of which was Beautiful; and it stood just by the highway side.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

Reading Susanna Clarke‘s novel Piranesi awoke all kinds of echoes for me. The repetition, especially, of the narrator’s paean of praise to the place in which he resided — The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite — reminded me of texts such as John Bunyan‘s Pilgrim’s Progress and the refuge to which Christian sought entry, the Palace Beautiful, the way to it guarded by a pair of chained lions (not unrelated to Aslan, I suspect).

But there were other literary reverberations which were set up in my mind, stretching from classical Greece and Rome to this century; in the event that you may find of interest I’ve put together the following illustrated essay.

Be warned, though: in discussing the ideas behind various works of fiction I shall be giving away the odd secret or spoiler so, if you haven’t read them, you may want to skim over or even skip the text and just enjoy the illustrations.

Continue reading “The House Beautiful”

A saga retold

The Hound of Ulster
by Rosemary Sutcliff,
illustrated by Victor Ambrus.
Red Fox 1992 (1963)

Cuchulainn is the great hero of the Ulster cycle of hero tales, some dating back to at least the 7th century CE. There has been much discussion about how much they owe to historical events and how much to myth, legend and folklore. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the saga she treats the main characters as real humans with real emotions, albeit often with superhuman and even supernatural attributes.

She follows the traditional episodes of many hero cycles across many ancient cultures: conception, birth, childhood feats, weapon training, wooings, then the apogee of a career followed by the inevitable descent towards tragedy.

Throughout her version of the saga she brings her telltale skills as a storyteller — sympathy with her material, a poetic sensibility, a fine sense of pace, and the ability to delineate key personages in a huge cast and imbuing them with distinctive traits and appearances. Despite a preponderance of male warriors, druids and giants, several females make their mark, and not merely to weep for fallen warriors.

Continue reading “A saga retold”

Bohemian rhapsody

Prague. Photo by Julius Silver, Pexels

“Prague is one of the most interesting towns in Europe. Its stones are saturated with history and romance; its every suburb must have been a battlefield. It is the town that conceived the Reformation and hatched the Thirty Years’ War. But half Prague’s troubles, one imagines, might have been saved to it, had it possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.”
— Jerome K Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel”

Prague. Not a city I’ve ever been to but it wears a kind of aura as the capital of the Czech Republic — a country right in the physical centre of Europe and an apt symbol of the heart of the continent — and is thus a place I feel I ought to visit.

Being set centrally in what is deemed Mitteleuropa—nestled within Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria—Prague has also been at the crossroads of movements of people, with a turbulent and troublesome history, and yet historically it seems to retain a mystical attraction for freethinkers and revolutionaries.

And of course as the main city of ancient Bohemia it has a huge cultural capital in fictional terms, as I have discovered from recent, current and future reads.

Continue reading “Bohemian rhapsody”

Bittersweet symphony

Piazza (image credit: Polina Kostova /Pexels)

Nocturnes:
Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
by Kazuo Ishiguro,
Faber and Faber 2010 (2009)

This quintet of brief narratives told by different musicians and one music-lover, all told in the first person, describe relationships and acquaintances which never quite run smooth. Though ‘nocturne’ strictly describes a nighttime piece of music some of these stories have a daytime feel even when their tones can be dark.

The settings vary, moving from Venice to London, the Welsh Marches to Beverly Hills, and ending in an unnamed Italian town piazza.

Continue reading “Bittersweet symphony”

Intellect and imagination

The Secret Commonwealth:
The Book of Dust, Volume Two
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Chris Wormell.
David Fickling Books / Penguin 2019

“Dæmons don’t exist.
We might think they do; we might talk to them and hold them close and whisper our secrets to them; we might make judgements about other people whose dæmons we think we see, based on the form they seem to have and the attractiveness or repulsiveness they embody; but they don’t exist.”
— From Simon Talbot’s ‘The Constant Deceiver’

Intellect and emotion may be the dualism that governs the human condition: imagination may be the link that binds them together. In The Secret Commonwealth the rift between Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon which was brought about in The Amber Spyglass (and which became more evident in Serpentine) is now an apparently unbridgeable chasm. Lyra’s absorption with treatises and fiction dominated by intellectualism has only served to further alienate her from Pan; it doesn’t take much to push the dæmon to begin a search for Lyra’s lost imagination, and that nudge comes with Pan witnessing a murder.

Where the His Dark Materials trilogy developed into individual quests through various worlds to arrive at a resolution, and La Belle Sauvage turned into an epic voyage through flooded countryside to safeguard a one-year-old, The Secret Commonwealth combines both as we follow key players from Brytain across Europe to the Asia Minor in just one world — Lyra’s. As we follow those players, Pan, Lyra, and Malcolm (along with one other) we learn just how much danger they’re in, are given clues concerning the bigger picture, and learn about great movements of peoples in that world which not only echo contemporary events in ours but also throughout the ages.

At nearly 700 pages the middle book of Philip Pullman’s second trilogy following the career of Lyra Silvertongue is almost impossible to characterise succinctly, let alone summarise — even if that was desirable — so I shall resort to impressions: impressions of mood, of characterisation and of possible significances.

Continue reading “Intellect and imagination”

The Beloved Child

Piranesi
by Susanna Clarke,
Bloomsbury Publishing 2020

I am the Beloved Child of the House …

How else to describe this novel than as labyrinthine? Not only is it set in a physical maze-like structure but its narrator must, like Theseus, thread a path through confusing and sometimes conflicting revelations about who he is, what he’s doing there, and why his memory seems to be faulty.

He is named Piranesi by a colleague whom he thinks of as the Other, an older male who appears occasionally — usually twice a week — for an hour or so at a time, but otherwise his curious life is bound up with the House, with the seasonal tides that wash through some of its rooms, and with his journals in which, like a good scientist, he has been recording his explorations and annotating his observations.

But all is not well in the House: it is crumbling, worn away from the tides and the storms that invade the House; and when talk turns to death and killing Piranesi starts to realise that all he has taken for granted is based on uncertain, maybe even mendacious foundations.

Continue reading “The Beloved Child”

In the beginning

The ruins of Charn (Pauline Baynes)

The Magician’s Nephew
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Fontana Lions 1980 (1955)

In this, the penultimate Narnian chronicle to be published, C S Lewis describes how Narnia came to be. The Magician’s Nephew is set around 1900, the heyday of Sherlock Holmes and Edith Nesbit’s Bastable family adventures, in a suburban London street perhaps similar to Nesbit’s Lewisham (the place recalling the Narnia author’s own surname). Here Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke make friends in a walled garden behind a house terrace before explorations down a secret attic passage lead them in unexpected directions.

There can be few readers who haven’t read, or at least heard of, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, even if they’ve only encountered the first (and possibly the best) instalment, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Less familiar perhaps is the genesis of this world, and The Magician’s Nephew fills in these details admirably.

Biblical imagery is mingled with motifs drawn from classical mythology (such as winged horses) and some overt moralising, all leavened with attempts at humour; but to me what comes over strongest in a second reading is a depiction of different aspects of human love.

Continue reading “In the beginning”

More brief narratives

I recently mentioned that I had several collections of short stories in hand which I intended to get round to in the near future using the tag the Library of Brief Narratives. It’s my intention to include as many short story titles as I can bear throughout 2021, but to get off to a flying start by reviewing a couple of them in December.

I’ve already listed selections and collections with or including realist themes. Now, as a further amuse-bouche for you all, comes another listing of titles with a more speculative range of genres, from SF and fantasy through fairytales and on to horror and suspense.

Continue reading “More brief narratives”

Please to remember

Guy Fawkes by George Cruikshank (1840)

V for Vendetta
by Alan Moore and David Lloyd,
with Steve Whitaker and Siobhan Dodds,
additional art by Tony Weare.
Vertigo / DC Comics 2005 (1988-1989)

“Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”

What should one do, how should one react, under an unjust, authoritarian government? What is the correct response when faced with the evidence of a fascist state’s war on its own citizens? Should one heed St Paul’s advice to the Romans, to recompense to no man evil for evil; avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath? Or should one take the law into one’s own hands, meet force with force, fight fire with fire, and forever taint oneself with the selfsame actions that the state is accused of?

These are the dilemmas at the heart of this powerful graphic novel, when an individual known only as V — for reasons both personal and societal — makes war on the authoritarian leaders, their minions, their stooges, and the symbols of their power. His own symbol, a V enclosed in a circle, is reminiscent of the universal sign for anarchy but (as V insists) ‘anarchy’ doesn’t refer to no rule at all: it applies to an absence of legitimate government — archon refers to a ruler in ancient Greece — and this pertains in the Britain that’s depicted in V for Vendetta.

Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s Thatcher-era perspective, when individual freedoms and norms of social justice were determinedly being eroded, was an apt time to consider a narrative, a scenario in which a totalitarian Britain would be challenged by a figure from the country’s past, one whose effigy instead of being placed on a bonfire would initiate a pyre of all that was rotten in the state. Ironically, the fictional risorgimento was positioned as beginning in the year that a left-of-centre Labour government in fact won an election but which now fits a political situation three decades on from publication just like a glove.

Continue reading “Please to remember”

A tease

The Fool from the Marseille tarot deck

Utz by Bruce Chatwin,
Picador 1989 (1988)

Tyranny sets up its own echo-chamber; a void where confused signals buzz about at random; where a murmur or innuendo causes panic…

Chatwin’s final fiction, the novella Utz, is a tease in that nothing is quite what it seems. In 1967, a year before the Prague Spring, the unnamed narrator travels to Prague for some academic research where he hears of and meet Kaspar Utz, a collector of Meissen china figures. Behind the Iron Curtain is not of course the ideal place to amass a collection of kitsch artworks but Utz has agreed they will all go to a state museum after his death.

The novella opens with the collector’s funeral; the inevitable question then becomes, What has happened to the porcelain figures? And then, What will the Czechoslovak state now do? But here’s the tease: the narrator takes his time to render this question an urgent issue for the reader. And this being a Cold War story, some of the participants have to learn to be as secretive as the Soviet-era country they are living in.

As for the surname of the German-born baron whose life we are introduced to, will it surprise you to know — despite utz bearing “any number of negative connotations: ‘drunk’, ‘dimwit’, ‘card-sharp’, ‘dealer in dud horses'” — that it’s very possible that the word derives from the German verb uzen, ‘to tease’?

Continue reading “A tease”

What a story is

1849 print by William Miller, after Francis Danby, ‘Sunset at Sea, after a Storm’ (1824)

The Wall
by John Lanchester,
Faber & Faber 2019

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

No, The Wall doesn’t actually begin like this, but the hackneyed and often parodied opening is close. Imagine, if you will, an unsettling meld of Kafka’s The Trial, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and current world politics, all nested uncomfortably together in a cli-fi dystopia, and then you may start to have an inkling of the nature of Lanchester’s novel.

And unsettling and uncomfortable it certainly is. We are in some future Britain following an indefinable (and ongoing) climatic disaster called the Change, when the island has been surrounded by a concrete structure to keep out rising sea levels and what are loosely termed the Others. Joseph K’s parents are of a generation who remember a time before the Change and the Wall; Kavanagh himself feels alienated from them and their nostalgia for a life he never knew, yet only has vague dreams of becoming one of the elite who are able to fly around the world.

First of all though he has to do a tour of duty on the Wall, to help defend the country from the Others determined to escape from intolerable conditions elsewhere. But how would he feel if he were to be in the position of one of the Others, how would he behave, how would he react?

Continue reading “What a story is”

The love you take

Photo © C A Lovegrove

In the Sweep of the Bay
by Cath Barton.
Louise Walters Books 2020

“… And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make.”
— The Beatles, ‘The End’ from the album Abbey Road

Cath Barton’s new novella, as much as her debut The Plankton Collector, focuses on individuals and their relationships; as before, she presents her tale as a series of vignettes which invite us to observe without intruding, to sympathise while yearning for resolutions which may or mayn’t come.

That she manages to offer us portraits which feel both authentic and honest is testament to her skill and makes the novella such a delight to read. What could have been an exercise in sheer nostalgia becomes a bittersweet reflection of hopes and dreams succeeding and failing, of love blighted by suspicion, and of truths both revealed and covered over.

Continue reading “The love you take”