Category Archives: Fiction

The Ministry of Truth, by Dorian Lynskey (Picador, £16.99)

George Orwell left London for Catalonia on December 22nd 1936. He fled Barcelona in fear for his and his wife Eileen’s life six months later, hastily across the French border at Perpignan, through France by train, “away from the mountain and the vine, back to the meadow and the elm”, and was back in the family home in Wallington by the first week of July 1937.

He returned a changed man. Not just, as Fenner Brockway, general secretary of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) observed, “far more mature as a socialist”. Nor simply having seen first hand the brutal early military realisation of the “wave of revolutionary feeling” that, recalling in 1944, he felt sweeping over every detail of life in Europe at the time.  The abject bitterness of Orwell’s experiences in and immediately after leaving Spain – the fatal betrayal of his militia by Stalinist Communist forces; the helpless witnessing of comrades imprisoned, tortured and murdered; the capitulation to Soviet propaganda, and subsequent personal defamations, by elements of the British left – affected him in the most profound way possible.

He returned a man shocked into truth and steeled as a writer facing those truths. And though it would be many years before he would put them to paper, many of the sinister realities forced upon Orwell in Spain would resurface in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Bernard Crick wonders whether one bitter incident in particular – the apparent ‘confession’ by Orwell’s comrade in arms F. A. Frankfort (Frank Frankford), that the P.O.U.M. had been fighting for not against the Spanish fascists – was a grain destined to grow. “Could this specifically,” Crick writes in George Orwell: A Life, “as well as the Moscow trials generally, have given Orwell the idea for the bizarre and pathetic confessions of the animals in Animal Farm?”

If by the time he returned from Spain, as Crick believes, “most of Orwell’s formative experiences were over” and the seeds of the two great dystopian novels were indeed sown, it is fitting that 1936 is the year in which Dorian Lynskey begins his new ‘biography’ of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was the year in which Orwell himself said that “history stopped”; in The Ministry of Truth Lynskey adds that “history stopped, and Nineteen Eighty-Four began”.

Speaking at a recent event at renowned radical bookshop Five Leaves, in Nottingham, Lynskey agreed that Spain was a “turning point” for Orwell. As far as it can ever be truly surmised, by starting at this point of the novel’s conception, he explained, his new book offers a different angle for the reader. “I wanted to do it the other way around,” he told the audience. “I like to focus on the part of their life when they do their great writing. It’s easy to get lost in research. I wanted to bring Ninety Eighty-Four home to the reader.”

The Ministry of Truth doesn’t claim to be a complete biography of Orwell. But it does attempt to chart the life of his most famous novel, from conception to the modern day, decades past the point Orwell had succumbed to the illness that so blighted and dragged out the writing of it. In the years in between Catalonia and Jura [where he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four], Orwell grew steadily in stature as a public literary figure. With that profile came renown, much praise and – perhaps inevitably, given his tendency for truculence and “intellectual brutality” – many opponents.

Of the high-profile clashes Orwell became involved with in his career, Lynskey is particularly interested in a bitter literary tête-à-tête with War of the Worlds author H. G. Wells, setting aside a whole fascinating chapter to it. He recounts a fierce exchange between the two writers, on one of the few occasions when they met in person, at Orwell’s Abbey Road flat in August 1941. “Two days before dinner,” Lynskey writes, “Wells learned that Orwell had published an essay about him in Cyril Connolly’s magazine Horizon and procured a copy. ‘Wells, Hitler and the World State’ did not fill him with delight”.

One of the sharpest ironies of Orwell’s life is that after the punishing process of writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, a fearsome vision of a potential future, he scarcely had a future himself. And he was acutely aware that this was probably the case. Leaving Barnhill [the farmhouse in Jura] for the last time, he wrote to his close friend, Observer editor David Astor that “Everything is flourishing here except me”.

Even so, Lynskey notes in The Ministry of Truth, Orwell maintained a fierce schedule of work while he was on the island: “He typed it himself at the punishing rate of around four thousand words a day, seven days a week, propped up in bed for as long as he could bear in between bouts of fever and bloody coughing fits.”

He would only see another 227 days after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, almost all in miserable health. “He never lived in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Lynskey said at Five Leaves. But Nineteen Eighty-Four has lived on in the world – well into the 21st century, yet another generation is hearing the warning bells from this great dystopian novel.

The second half of The Ministry of Truth explores how this has happened, tracing Nineteen Eighty-Four’s passage through the collective cultural consciousness. Orwell coined the phrase “Cold War”, and this is where Lynskey begins, taking the reader through the 1950s when the novel was first received and began to pervade the wider culture. (In December 1954 seven million people in Briton watched the first two-hour adaptation of the book, on the BBC).

Later the music journalist in Lynskey loves to tell the story of David Bowie’s traumatic visit to Soviet Russia in 1973. During the return leg Bowie told Roy Hollingsworth from Melody Maker “I’ve seen life and I think I know who’s controlling this damned world. And after what I’ve seen of the state of this world, I’ve never been so damned scared in my life”. Soon after this Bowie began work on a musical adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which would form the basis of the album Diamond Dog, released in 1974.

Having traced Nineteen Eighty-Four’s life right through to the modern day, The Ministry of Truth ends, perhaps fittingly, with one of the novel’s first reviews – written while Orwell was still alive. The 1949 review, in Life, Lynskey says, “correctly identified the essence of Orwell’s message”, that to guard objective truth against self-serving mendacious minds who try to pervert it, is the highest calling of a writer. The Ministry of Truth goes a long way to showing how, and why, that is still so essential today.

Benedict Cooper

This review first appeared on the website of the George Orwell Society

It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s by Lisa Blower (Myriad Editions, £8.99)

UNFLINCHING descriptions of sex, violence and addiction are less controversial than in the past, but writers and publishers remain reluctant to tackle important aspects of human experience. Their refusal to talk about class led the writer James Kelman to accuse the literary establishment of treating people without money as if they ‘should be swept under the carpet.’

Lisa Blower lifts that carpet to explore lives deemed superfluous by business, media and government. Her well-rounded and convincing characters have limited choices as they face deprivation, disappointment and a relentless struggle for survival. Blower has been compared to Alan Bennett: the monologue is her preferred form and she shares Bennett’s knack for revelation through detailed observation and telling omission. The similarity ends there. Blower’s purpose is to find a voice for people often dismissed as inarticulate. Her narratives are direct and accessible, but there’s variety of both situation and style. Some are traditional monologues, others more dialogue driven; some are related from the first-person point of view, others use second-person; some are related by people struggling to survive, others by observers who have escaped the circumstances of those less fortunate.

Handled badly, a second-person narrative reads like a ‘choose your own adventure’ game, but Blower’s deft writing creates deeper engagement with the dilemmas of her characters.

There’s a nod to Great Expectations in ‘The Land of Make Believe’. It concerns the struggles of talented, working-class Dee, who tries to fit in at Cambridge University and wants to understand her mother, Ruthie, who works as a prostitute. It’s a touching and powerful tale, freighted with wit and subtle complexities. Blower’s stories are be grittily realistic, but she relishes ambiguity and enjoys injecting humour into the darkest of situations. Her readers are treated with as much respect as her characters.

In another standout story, ‘The Trees in the Wood’, Mia experiences sleep deprivation as a result of grief, while Laura’s sleeplessness is caused by panic and anxiety. It’s a many-layered story. It assesses the power of character-driven fiction in increasing our understanding of science; it highlights the risks modern life poses to sleep and health; and it’s an affecting tale of women’s resilience in the face of tragedy.

In ‘Dirty Laundry’ Alma’s life spirals out of control when she loses her job due to the Icelandic Banking collapse. Gradually, we learn of Alma’s other source of anguish and the story ends with a sense that all may not be lost.

This is a fine collection of twenty tough but tender tales by a writer who celebrates the lives of uncelebrated people with compassion and caustic wit.  It’s a tough but by no means depressing read with moments of hope as well as hardship.

Andy Hedgecock

This review first appeared in the Morning Star

 

Ursula Le Guin, a tribute by Andy Hedgecock

THE DEATH of Ursula K Le Guin on January 22 prompted elegiac tributes from critics, fellow authors and an assortment of activists — feminists, anarchists, socialists and environmental campaigners.

The diversity of Le Guin’s appeal is extraordinary, but so too is the paradox at the heart of her reputation.

She was a writer celebrated for highlighting the iniquities, horrors and dangers of the way we live now and for exploring alternative forms of social and political organisation.

When the US National Book Foundation honoured her contribution to literature in 2014, her award acceptance speech celebrated the positive potential of creative writing. “Hard times are coming when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being,” she said.

But Le Guin had firm views about the separateness of the creative process. In an interview a decade earlier, she declared: “[People] can read Kant and Schopenhauer if they want speculation. I am an artist, I write stories not treatises. I am not fully in control of, and do not seek control of, my stories.”

The loosely connected books of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle have done most to establish her reputation as a writer of thoughtful and provocative science fiction and fantasy. The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969, one of the earliest novels to be recognised as feminist science fiction, centres on a diplomatic mission to bring the Gethen planet system to join a coalition of humanoid worlds.

The envoy Genly Ai struggles to understand Gethenian culture, not least because its people are ambisexual. Some feminist commentators disliked the casting of ambisexual characters in traditional male roles and others were disappointed by the assumption of heterosexual norms.

But the book offers a sharp critique of masculinity and explores the theory that gender divisions cause sexual aggression and foster a hunger for war. Le Guin’s assertion that she “eliminated gender to find out what was left” is at odds with the idea that she relinquished control of her narratives because it implies she worked in a self-consciously political way.

Another Hainish book, The Dispossessed of 1974, offers a searing critique of capitalism and proposes a form of anarchist-communism as a potential alternative.

The story is set on two worlds, Urras and Anarres. Urras is rich in resources but its wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few. It is dominated by competing states, one based on patriarchal capitalism, the other on authoritarian parties that claim to rule in the name of the proletariat.

Anarres, on the other hand, is a harsher and economically poorer world with a social structure based on Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid.

Le Guin, who expressed her enthusiasm for Kropotkin in her non-fiction writing, was too subtle a writer to present a one-sided argument in The Dispossessed. The governmental systems of Urras are not portrayed as one-dimensionally malevolent while the limitations of life on Anarres are presented warts and all.

The key character, Shevek, is a physicist whose career is limited because his beliefs are out of step with his society’s prevailing orthodoxies. His work is further affected by an obligation to perform manual labour when Anarres faces a natural disaster.

None of the political options Le Guin sets out is perfect, hence the book’s subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia, but it is clear that she sees egalitarian and stateless societies, based on mutual aid and collective responsibility, as preferable to capitalist systems based on systems of command and control.

Le Guin’s writing is crammed with speculation about utopianism, sex, sexual politics, anthropology, religion and the misuse of power. Interesting obsessions for a writer who suggested readers should not look to her writing for speculation.

The Word for World is Forest (1976) is an allegorical take on the US involvement in Vietnam and its critique of colonialism, militarism and environmental destruction is more relevant than ever in the context of Donald Trump’s presidency.

In The Telling (2000), Le Guin rejected a purely materialist analysis of human relations in favour of striking a balance between traditional spiritual wisdom and the benefits of technological development.

The Earthsea cycle, a classic of children’s literature, has much to say on the responsible use of power and, as far as I can remember, 1972’s The Wizard of Earthsea was the first book I read with a non-white lead character.

In her later years, perhaps inspired by creeping fascism in US politics and her fears for the environment, Le Guin reaffirmed the social responsibility of artists. “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings,” she declared.

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art and, very often in our art, the art of words.

Andy Hedgecock

This article first appeared in the Morning Star

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrente (Europa, £11.95)

Having sold so many copies of My Brilliant Friend I thought that – in the spirit of self sacrifice – I should read the book, knowing it would be hard going, as so many people were talking about it. By now most people will have heard of this four-volume set of novels set in post-war Naples which follow the lives of two girls, later women, one of whom leaves the claustrophobic network of poor families through being educated whilst the other, though actually the brighter candle, stays behind. The background is poverty, tradition, rules and male violence and the expectation of little change. Early in the book the narrator’s friend Lila, aged ten, is simply thrown through a window by her father Fernando. “Fernando looked out, still screaming horrible threats at his daughter. He had thrown her like a thing. … ‘I haven’t hurt myself.’ But she was bleeding; she had broken her arm.”
As the girls filled out they became interested in men and men became interested in them. But dangers lay everywhere. Being given a lift in a car was akin to rape, which would need to be revenged by brothers. And in the background was the Mafia to whom any implied slight could be fatal. This caused one man to publicly apologise outside church for something that had not happened so that people could hear him being respectful.

The girls of the story had a loving friendship, they would copy each other and were rarely away from each other’s thoughts. And it is within these, I’ll reuse the word claustrophobic, thoughts that the novel grips you. It will be hard to avoid reading the rest of the series.
My only criticism would be that the original Italian – which I don’t read – must have had the families slipping into Neapolitan as some things are best expressed in the language of the street rather than standard Italian. The otherwise excellent translator Ann Goldstein has to tell us whenever people use dialect which, in making the point, loses the point.

Ross Bradshaw

List of the Lost by Morrissey (Penguin, £7.99)

Why read List of the Lost? For me, it was the same reason that I watched Cannibal Holocaust: a morbid curiosity about its nefarious reputation. A need to know that became an aesthetic endurance course. Morrissey’s debut novel clocks in at a mere 118 pages but feels longer. By the halfway mark, I was seriously thinking about pitching the book out of the window and re-watching Cannibal Holocaust just to feel better about life.

Let’s cut to the chase: List of the Lost hasn’t received a single positive (or even cautiously moderate) review – and with good reason. The writing is horrible. The worst of Morrissey’s adjectival excesses have been well documented already. Every noun comes with an adjective pot-riveted to it. Dialogue attribution is adverb-heavy, with characters speaking in page-length monologues. The dialogue is rendered entirely in italics, an annoying stylistic device. Syntax resembles a motorway pile-up, words smashing into each other. One frequently reaches the end of a sentence in complete bafflement.

Worse is Morrissey’s lack of facility as a storyteller suggests otherwise. Assessed as a work of genre fiction (it’s a sort-of a horror story), List of the Lost fails on every level. Twenty pages pass before any hint of narrative emerges from the verbiage, and what little follows would barely fuel a twenty-page short story. Characterisation is non-existent, dialogue non-naturalistic and the Brooklyn setting unconvincing. Pace, drama and tension? Go look for them elsewhere.

So what fills up List of the Lost’s 118 pages in lieu of these essentials? Well, there’s the political backdrop of the late 1970s, which inspires some epic rants about Thatcher and the monarchy (Morrissey occasionally remembers his tale is set in America and throws in the odd reference to Watergate), but mainly he soapboxes on the theme of vegetarianism. The book is so redolent in the imagery of the abattoir and the battery farm that a better title might have been So Help Me God, You’ll Eat Quorn or I’ll Write a Sequel.

There’s nothing to recommend here. Even the occasional – very occasional – succinct or mordantly witty turn of phrase offer little hope of Morrissey’s development as a writer of fiction. In fact, coming after his self-indulgent but considerably more readable autobiography, this is retrogression on a massive scale. List of the Lost is simply a vanity project, and just as Faber made themselves look very silly in publishing actor James Franco’s pompous musings, Penguin have scored a reputational own-goal in pandering to Morrissey’s ego.

 Neil Fulwood

 

The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach

Ferdinand von Schirach’s succinct and deceptively easily readable novel blends crime genre tropes with arthouse experimentalism; if Scott Turow had rewritten Last Year at Marienbad to include some courtroom shenanigans, this would be it. Although structured in four parts, each featuring a colour as a leitmotif, it’s essentially a narrative of two halves. The first documents the troubled life of artist Sebastian von Eschburg in a dark, occasionally absurd, and thoroughly unreliable manner. There are so many lacunae that sometimes it seems like you’re potholing instead of reading. The waters are further muddied by Eschburg’s emotional detachment and synaesthesia – the novel uses the condition to a narrative purpose unequalled since Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

The second half is from the perspective of Konrad Biegler, a defence lawyer so grumpy, so portly and so henpecked that he makes Rumpole of the Bailey look like Dirty Harry. Biegler races (or rather waddles) against time to make sense of the case – which involves a shedload of circumstantial evidence but no actual body – with the assistance of Eschburg’s glamorous partner Sofia. As the trial date approaches, Schirach first tinkers with then outright subverts his readers’ expectations.

The artworks and installations that make Eschburg famous are based on Goya’s The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, Sir Francis Galton’s multiple photographic exposure of the faces of criminals, and Wolfgang von Kempelen’s “mechanical Turk”. Not mentioned in the novel, but a tempting correlation, is the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Poetry Machine installation, a sort of random poetry generator that became a bete noire of the German literature scene a decade and a half ago. Similarly, Schirach’s novel reads in places like a randomly generated thriller, as he gleefully throws everything from hidden family secrets to the sudden reappearance of long lost siblings into the pot, seasons with east European hookers, and simmers over the hyperbole of torture porn imagery.

All of which, done purely for its own sake, would pretty much guarantee a cynically entertaining read. However, Schirach assembles all his pieces (including several rugs that don’t remain under the reader for very long) in the service of two thorny questions: what the relationship is between reality and truth; and, as Eschburg asks outright at a crucial moment, “what is guilt?” Omitted from Schirach’s author’s back cover biographical note is the fact that his grandfather was Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, an awkward bit of family history which nonetheless offers perspective from which to ponder that question.

Neil Fulwood

The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis (Sandstone, £8.99)

Spice Box LettersThe Nottingham writer Eve Makis’ first book, Eat, Drink and Be Married, drew on her family background as a Greek Cypriot living above her parents’ fish and chip shop in West Bridgford. This, and her next two books were aimed at a mass market – light fiction, with some humour, published by a mass-market publisher. In The Spice Box Letters Eve challenged herself to write a more complicated novel for the first time set in a world she knew nothing about. Several years on, several false starts and rewrites later we have her novel set in Armenia in 1915 and in more recent times among the Armenian diaspora in Cyprus, a community she barely knew existed before embarking on this novel.

Why 1915? This was the year of the massacre and expulsion of Armenians from Turkey in which perhaps a million people died, some from murder and others on long death marches into the Syrian desert. The Cypriot community stemmed from some of those who survived. Eve’s story starts in 1915, just as the massacres begin before moving quickly to England in 1985 where the daughter and grandchild of a recently deceased Armenian immigrant come across some of her letters, written in a script in her first language, in a script her family cannot read. You know immediately that the two incidents are related – the rest of the novel weaves together the back stories of one family, including that of Gabriel Arakelian, a curmudgeon who tries to hang on to the Armenian world he lost. Yet how do you hang on in the face of “the evil of assimilation, the curse of intermarriage, the biggest threat to our traditions, our language, our nation.” Others say “Let the young do as they please. Why should they be tied down, become victims of our past.? The answer is “Because we as a people nearly ceased to exist.”

This issue – one faced by any migrant community, including Eve’s own, is at the heart of the novel. But it is a novel, not a history book. Having said that, we learn a lot about Armenian cookery. Eve remarked at the book launch that she visited villages in Eastern Turkey that had barely changed in a hundred years and researched what herbs and spices were in use at the time to ensure authenticity.

Ross Bradshaw

To Kill a Mocking-Bird by Harper Lee (various editions, £6.99 upwards)

downloadWith the fuss about the sequel of Harper Lee’s other book scheduled for this summer, I thought it time to reread Mocking-Bird (and then rewatch the Gregory Peck movie)…

My copy of To Kill a Mocking-Bird is dated 1983 and in big indiscreet letters the cover announces “Over 11,000,000 sold”. I believe that figure is now about forty million. That probably means that just about everybody pitching up here will know the story, but for the few who don’t… The book, written in 1960, is set in Alabama in 1935 and is set among white people who all have Black maids, except they did not call them Black in 1935, and some of the everyday cruder versions are hard to stomach – but that was the time, those were the words. The narrator is Scout, tomboy sister of Jem, both the son of the single parent lawyer Atticus Finch but mostly looked after by the Black woman Calpurna. We learn a lot of the town – hot, slow, Southern, long-established, with people being identified as a “Ewell” or a “Cunningham” as if the family name alone is a guide to character though Harper Lee makes it clear that everyone white was really related whether they were professionals or “trash”. There’s the “Radley Place” where the mysterious Boo Radley lives, a dangerous recluse and somewhere out of town live the Black people. White men go to work while white women raise money for missionaries to the uncivilised. Harper Lee makes them look so foolish. Most people are pretty foolish to Scout.

The one who isn’t is Atticus, who treats people as he finds them, but finds good in most people or at least he has an understanding of their position. But the simmering issue is that he is due to defend a Black man charged with rape of a white woman, and this is the Deep South. He is not popular. The most moving part of the story for me is when he sets up camp outside the town jail before the trial knowing some people are coming to lynch the man, Tom Robinson. Scout – always with a nose for trouble – turns up and in her innocence shames the men into leaving. In the trial Atticus has to shred the story of the poor woman who called rape. A woman who lived in squalor, was mistreated, possibly sexually, by her father. A woman who was asked if she had any friends but who did not understand the question. One person only had been kind to her – the man now charged with, but obviously innocent, of rape. Tom is found guilty, as the whole town knew he would be. Despite the verdict Atticus’ family is deluged with gifts of food, firewood and crops by the Black people of the town who had seen, at last, that someone would stand by them.

I liked the book, admired the writing and took pleasure in the small things – such as how and when children did nor did not wear shoes, about the visit by the Finch children to Calpurna’s church where she faces down what could be described as a Black separatist, where, towards the end Scout stands on Boo Radley’s porch and sees what he must have seen of the town in his years of isolation. And I liked Scout, even when she was a vicious little brat. Gradually it becomes clear that Atticus does not stand alone. There’s the wealthy white man who  chose to live among Black people and the employer who gets himself thrown out of court trying to defend Tom. Towards the end a law officer shows great kindness to Boo Radley.

It would be easy to argue that, in the book, Black people are people who have things done to them and have no agency, or that this is a book about white liberals. The latter is true and the former is also true. This is the Deep South, in a red-neck area, in 1935. Yet there are strong women like Calpurna – Cal – who Scout loves and the whole was stratified not just by colour but by class and the grinding poverty that created victims like Tom and the woman Mayella who he did not rape. Harper Lee knew all this and used her language carefully, like when the seemingly decent Mr Gilmer prosecuting the rape case starts calling Tom “boy” as he questions him.  The effect is ice.

Tomorrow night, I’ll watch the film.

Ross Bradshaw

 

 

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken (Gallic, £8.99)

9781908313867Ah Paris, where booksellers go out for espressos and glasses of wine during the day at their nearby cafe instead of a trot round the block and a baked potato with cheese and beans… Bookseller Laurent comes across an upmarket handbag dumped by a bin which about to be emptied. He rescues the bag, guessing it had been thrown there by a thief. Having failed to give it in to the police he goes through it at his leisure. There are plenty clues as to the owner, but no address, no phone, nothing of monetary value but things of sentimental value. What is the story? An intriguing clue is  a novel dedicated to “Laure” by the elusive Patrick Modiano (see reviews of his work elsewhere on this site). Neat because Modiano’s novels are mostly about tracing someone unknown on the basis of clues. Among the possessions is the red notebook which includes the owner’s scattered thoughts, her fears and hopes

Gradually Laurent tracks down the woman who we know from the first is in hospital in a coma following a mugging. He knows her well by now, he’s read her journal, has picked up her strappy dress from a laundry and, unaccountably when he turns up at her door to return the bag he allows Laure’s gay friend, William, also visiting her flat to think he is her latest boyfriend. Laurent finds himself looking after the flat and moves in, to explore room by room, bookshelf by bookshop, painting by painting the surroundings of the woman he has not yet met but knows so well. Meanwhile his relationship falls apart as the women he is seeing thinks he has found someone else, as he has.

Literary references abound; Sophie Calle is there of course, but this is not a book with pretensions, just an easy Friday night read with the odd bit of clunky translation.

But the fantasy has to end. Laurent leaves a brief note for Laure is getting better and will return. She knows that this man knows her life better than others who have simply known her body and sets out to find a bookseller called Laurent…

Ross Bradshaw

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Chatto, £16.99)

NarrowRoadtotheNorthA couple of years before my mother died she sent me a photograph of herself, arm in arm with a man I’d never seen before. It was not a good photo – an old Box Brownie I imagine – which made the contrast between her own normally pale face and the near-black, but Caucasian-looking, man startling. I asked her about it but she said she did not want to say, but would I keep the photograph for her sake? In fact I knew the story. The man was someone she’d gone out with during the war who’d become a POW in Burma. He arrived back burnt black by the sun. His experience haunted him which led, eventually, to the relationship foundering. There’s more of course, but there’s no place for it here, other than to say the last part of Booker-prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North covers the lives of a group of Australians who survived working “on the Line” in Burma and there were similar stories. Of men who were broken by the experience, men who never mentioned it again and some, like the surgeon Doriggo Evans who achieved fame because of his heroism and leadership. He kept at least some of his men alive when not one of them was fit enough to work and hundreds were dying of hunger, dysentery, cholera, beri beri and overwork imposed on them by their captors.

It was the last part of the book which worked best for this reader, not just for personal reasons, but in reading the stories of survivors after the narrative. This included the experiences of three of the worst Japanese and Korean soldiers. Was it a surprise that the most senior officer segued into a cushy government job after the war, the second most senior went on the run and was not caught and the junior (the Korean) was executed? Not really. But all the stories of the survivors were interesting, and in one case hilarious when two ex-POWs smashed the window of a fish and chip shop to rescue live fish in a tank waiting their turn, yet went back the next day to pay for the damage. They found that the Greek owner of the shop had lost his son in the war so they sat all night eating and drinking with him, and he refused any payment for the damage they had done to his shop.

It took a long time to get to these stories but the earlier descriptions of the lives and deaths of the other prisoners will stay with me for years. Please don’t read this book before going to bed – you will not sleep well. The author’s father was a survivor of the Burma railway and one assumes accuracy in the fiction. Nor will it be easy to read haiku again – the cruellest of the Japanese recited haiku. The title is taken from the best known work of the Japanese poet Basho.

Other parts of the book were less convincing. Doriggo Evans was indeed a hero and was seen as such by his charges even when he had to pick 100 of them to go on a march that he knew few would survive yet before the war and afterwards, despite his marriage, he slept with every woman he could, without feeling. Or possibly in search of feeling, which he was only able to achieve in his illicit affair with his uncle’s much younger wife. These parts of the book did not work for me, not for any moralistic reason, simply because they did not work – and the sex scenes were just about bad enough for the Bad Sex Award.

Ross Bradshaw