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Book Reviews

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


Missing Person by Patrick Modiano, translated by Daniel Weissbort (Godine, £14.99) and Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano, translated by William Rodarmor, illustrated by Jean-Jaque Sempe (Anderson, £9.99)

ModianoIf you scroll down, you’ll see that the last book I reviewed was by Modanio, and I liked it. I regret that I can’t give such a positive review to the first book here, though it is perhaps his best known, having won the Prix Goncourt in France, some years before his winning the Nobel in 2014.

Godine – a great American independent publisher – must be so thrilled (they were the first English language publisher of the second book here) having stuck with Modiano despite sales that could only be described as modest until the Nobel. But  Missing Person did not do a lot for me. The story is of Guy Roland, who decides to find out who he really is. That name and his identity were given him by his employer, a private detective, when the narrator becomes a private detective. Roland is a man without a past – the survivor of a fugue state (though the words are never used). When his employer retires Roland starts following clues to discover he could be one of several people. The clues lead him to assorted odd characters who invite him up, give him copies of photos and documents that lead him on to his next possible persona. He becomes a collector of other people’s memories and starts to imagine the lives of those he might or might not have been. Modiano deliberately confuses real life with imagined life so the reader is not sure if Roland has found anything real or is living in his imagination. Now that I am more familiar with Modiano, it is no suprise that a turning point is on the Swiss border in 1940 when a woman disappears without trace. The bones of a great story are here, but though this is only a novella of 168 pages I had to push myself to get to the end.

Catherine_certitudeModiano’s book for children, though quite suitable for adults, is, however, charming, and beautifully illustrated. The Catherine Certitude of the title looks back from New York to her childhood in Paris where she lived with her father before they rejoined her dancer mother in America. Her Papa owned a small firm which bought and sold, well, anything. It was obvious that the provenance of some at least of what he sold was dodgy. Was this the black market (which is how Modiano’s father made his living) or just scraping a living? Either way, her father was not a success and when Catherine is invited to a fellow ballet student’s party he pretends to own a posh car parked in the street, something nobody believes. When someone drives it away he pretends it is being stolen. But nobody is quite what they seem – he often speaks to people in “mysterious languages” while Catherine’s Russian ballet teacher is no more Russian than this writer.  Despite, or perhaps because of his failure, Catherine loves him and the whole book is a a fond look back on Paris and childhood memories.

Ross Bradshaw

Missing Person is available for £14.99  and Catherine Certitude for £9.99 at Five Leaves Bookshop , by phone  (0115 8373097) or by email (bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk) with free p&p for UK orders.
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The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano, translated by Joanna Kilmartin (Harvill, £8.99)

the-search-warranEvery time I visit Paris I’m always stopped short in the street by the sight of the small plaques commemorating those who died fighting the Nazi occupation. Ici est tombé pour la libération…Sometimes just one name, sometimes a few.  They appear on walls as if at random but with a map and a history book it would be easy enough, I imagine, to chart the ebbs and flows of partisan warfare in the city.

It is easier, though, to work out the old working class Jewish areas around Belleville. There some blocks of flats have lists of those taken by the Nazis and, more dramatically, school buildings listing the names of the Jewish children deported and murdered.

I was reminded of all this when reading The Search Warrant, the first of the books released in English following the French author’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a short, sombre,  novel of 137 pages which can be read in one sitting, and probably benefits for so doing as it  has no continuous narrative. The narrator comes across an old notice in Paris Soir in a December 1941 issue, advertising for information on a missing girl, Dora Bruder, who had ran away from her convent school where she had been placed to avoid the impending trouble. She was Jewish and would have been a “hidden child”. The narrator tries to find what happened to her and what happened to her family. Along the way he drops in details of his own family background, a broken family where – just as in his hunt for information on the Bruder family – he tries and fails to find his own estranged father who’d escaped from a round-up in Paris. He wonders if his father, who survived the war, had met Dora Bruder who was caught and did not survive.

The Search Warrant is a brooding novel with a narrator who turns out not to be so nice. Hanging over him all the time is a sense of loss. Something only too easy to feel in the boulevards of what was once an occupied city.

The book is ably translated and I look forward to reading more Modiano as his work appears in English.

Ross Bradshaw

Sworn Virgin, by Elvira Dones, translated by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories, £10)

swornvirginYears ago, a book group in Mansfield introduced me to the work of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, still the best known Albanian writer, who writes a foreword to this novel by what must be one of the few female Albanian writers published in English. Dones covers some of the same ground as Kadare, the rigid behaviour codes in the north of the country – the Kanun. In this book the code means that the female Hana Dona takes over her late uncle’s farm but she has to dress as a man, drink and smoke like a man, act in every way as a man – but must remain a virgin, a sworn virgin, to uphold the honour of the family as she is the only person left to run the place. To do this she gives up her sophisicated life in Tirana to become Mark. Her becoming a man is celebrated in her village of 208 souls, and she is honoured for so doing, no longer treated as second class, the usual female role.

Fourteen years later – after the downfall of Enver Hoxha (in a nice touch her uncle’s goat was secretly called Enver) she joins her cousin in America, one of the million Albanians who left the country in search of a better life and, after some hesitation, Hana gives up her life as a man. The book switches between the two eras. In due course she settles, becomes independent and grapples with the issue of sex.

Having had recent discussions with some people about our “binary” culture, this novel was timely. People like Hana/Mark did exist in Albania and a film is planned. The author interviewed many of these (wo)men including one who did migrate to America.

The book itself is strongest in its Albanian chapters. Life in America was not so believable, not least when Hana became a bookseller and took a prospective boyfriend out for a posh meal. Booksellers taking someone out for a posh meal? No chance. But while Hana’s wrestling with sexuality is not an issue, she was always a woman in man’s clothes and adopted behaviour, her attempts to deal with sex itself did not ring true. The translation could have done with a polish at times, occasionally being a little cliched in its language. Nevertheless the novel is an interesting read. But you will have to wait – the book is not published until 4 May.

Ross Bradshaw

The Good Wife, by Elizabeth Buchan (Penguin, £15.99)

goodwife‘Never judge a book by its cover’ may be old advice, but it’s also a tempting piece of self-deception when you’re browsing the books section of a charity shop, feeling in need of an easy read.

The twee cover of The Good Wife shouts Chick-lit for Forty-somethings, with a little line of squeaky-clean washing suspended between two arty trees, beneath which a cat is dozing on the remaining washing in a basket. So, being somewhat over forty and not having read Elizabeth Buchan before, I bought it.

It soon becomes apparent that Fanny (short for Francesca in this case), the Good Wife of the title, does indeed consider herself to be a good wife to her husband, Will. But Will is about to stand for Parliament, and politicians’ wives are expected to take on the duties of that role. Fanny dislikes the prospect of endless coffee mornings and listening to Will’s heart-searching about his ambitions and his Party’s policies, and so the stage is set for her to walk out and take over her father’s wine business – a world which she has loved all her life.

But fortunately for my expectations, it’s not as simple as that. Descriptions of the minutiae of life in politics rang true and were fascinating in the first half of the book. Fanny has the additional problem of her alcoholic sister-in-law coming to live with them, but although this should provide extra incentive for her to go, her loyalty to Will keeps her there. Unfortunately, as the book passes the half-way mark and the inevitable crises encroach on the marriage, Fanny’s indecision gets a bit tedious. Her interest in the wine business (initiating too much detail about wines) almost resolves the situation, but somehow I didn’t find the ending convincing.

 Viv Apple

Viv Apple is a member of Nottingham Poetry Society and Nottingham Writers’ Club

In the Dark by Deborah Moggach (Vintage, £8.99)

inthedarkThis year, 2014, will be notable for its commemorations of the Great War, but Deborah Moggach’s novel In the Dark (first published in 2008) was not written with this in mind, though it could have been. Set in 1916, it has no scenes in the trenches but is about the war from a refreshingly different viewpoint.

Young Eithne Clay runs a boarding house in London, assisted by her fourteen-year-old son, Ralph, and their ‘help’, Winnie. By page four Eithne is a war widow, and the story of how the family and its assortment of lodgers cope with life in the house is seen through the eyes of the adolescent Ralph – but not in a mawkish way. As Eithne struggles financially to keep things together for her son and the lodgers, she accepts the attentions of the local butcher, Mr Turk, who woos her with extra rations of meat and promises of a better life. The old house is transformed when Mr Turk moves in and installs electricity, gradually throwing light, literally and metaphorically, on the lives of its occupants. Ralph learns what it means to grow up through his interactions with Winnie, with blind Alwyne – invalided out of the army – with Boyce whom he regards as friend and mentor, and with the other lodgers. Each character is so brilliantly drawn that we can identify with their situation in 1916 as clearly as if it were happening now.

For some reason, Deborah Moggach’s two most popular novels, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Tulip Fever, seem to overshadow her others. Much as I enjoyed Tulip Fever, the emotional involvement I felt with In the Dark made this book far more memorable. It would make a wonderful film to add to the already long list of reminders of WWI.

Viv Apple

Viv Apple is a member of Nottingham Writers Club

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Atlantic Books, £12.99)

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin SloanI bought this at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights (before the Five Leaves Bookshop was a gleam in Ross the Boss’s eye, I hasten to add) on a whim, purely on the basis of the cover and the title. A 24-hour bookshop… now there’s an idea… (sorry boss)

Clay Jannon loses his job as a web designer. He accidentally finds a new job on the night shift at Mr Penumbra’s Bookstore, and soon realises that this is no ordinary bookshop. Part of his training involves how to climb the ladders to the ridiculously high bookshelves, which customers aren’t allowed to access. Customers, there’s another thing. There aren’t many, they’re all very odd, and they only ever borrow the books. Clay is determined to work out what’s going on, so he applies modern technology to the problem and soon works out that the customers are trying to solve an ancient riddle. Of course, he tries to solve it… then Mr Penumbra disappears…

If you asked me what genre this book fits, I couldn’t tell you. Amazon UK has it tagged as contemporary fiction, Amazon US places it in metaphysical genre fiction. The lone copy at the Five Leaves bookshop has wandered all over the place, and I think it’s now residing in the ‘books about books’ section. I guess magical realism just about covers it. It’s a fun read – kind of a Da Vinci Code for people who have brain cells to rub together. I loved it.

Pippa Hennessy

The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood (Canongate, £14.99 HB)

The Last Banquet by Jonathan GrimwoodThis is a novel that shouldn’t be enjoyable. It purports to be the journals of Jean-Marie d’Aumout, a nobleman in pre-revolutionary France. We first meet him as an orphan eating beetles (the black ones taste nicer than the brown ones) outside the house where his noble (but stupid) parents have starved to death because they were too proud to beg for food. Throughout his life, Jean-Marie is obsessed with food, more particularly with the taste of food. He isn’t a glutton, he just wants to taste everything at its best. His journal entries are interspersed with his recipes for the various foodstuffs he encounters. Through a series of adventures he becomes friends with Ben Franklin, Voltaire and de Sade, and achieves some prominence at Versailles. He marries and has children, is aware of the unfairness of French society but fears the revolution which he can see is approaching.

It shouldn’t be enjoyable because it dispenses with little details like plot arcs, protagonist-antagonist conflicts, tying up all the loose ends… it’s written exactly as if it’s the journal of one man’s life. But despite that, and despite the inherent ickyness of a boy/man who will describe eating anything and everything, I loved this book. Jean-Marie was beautifully developed and totally believable, and the surrounding cast of characters are still living in my head. The tawdry not-quite-splendour of post-Sun-King France is presented in the matter-of-fact manner one would expect of someone who lived there, but that someone has a way with words that takes all your senses from the present day and plonks them down in eighteenth-century France.

I’m looking forward to Grimwood’s next novel – I hope it is equally mould-breaking. (Jean-Marie doesn’t mention eating mould, but I’m sure he would have done)

Pippa Hennessy

Stoner by John Williams (Vintage, £8.99)

By now, the story of this novel is as well known as the novel itself (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/13/stoner-john-williams-julian-barnes) and Private Eye has commented about the way the book has been promoted by Waterstones and a bunch of mates. So maybe it is not such a word of mouth sensation as first thought… But it was a non-Waterstones bookseller who gave me a copy months ago, saying that I’d like this, and not to worry about the title being Stoner, it was unrelated to my hippie past.
So, this is a novel about an obscure American academic’s career, first published in the 1960s to small attention, which hung round Vintage for ten years not selling well, went into the limbo that is Print on Demand, then came back to life and has now sold squillions, and is all over the front table at Waterstones (and Five Leaves). But is it any good?
I think it is, but with qualifications. The shy and awkward William Stoner is from a hardcrabble family, who goes to study agriculture, falls in love with literature and spends his whole career at the same college as a student and a teacher of literature. Along the way he finds a wife who makes his life a misery, is made miserable by a secret relationship with one of his students (more on this in a bit) and is bullied at work by a disabled supervisor because he did not give a pass to a disabled student who his supervisor favoured. And the daughter he loved turns to drink. Sounds pretty awful then. On this basis the book sounds like a cross between JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain with a bit of David Mamet’s Oleanna thrown in. But it is a slow build and while Stoner is persecuted it is clear that his relationship with his grad student is loving and only fell apart because of the mores of the era (but still.. the book is being boosted by a lot of late middle aged men connected with academia…). Stoner fights back against the bullying, but subtly, and his boss does not speak to him for twenty years and even then is still trying to get him out of the college.
Hmm. I don’t think I’m convincing anyone in any direction here. Maybe just read it. Let me know what you think.

Ross Bradshaw

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris (Black Swan)

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s best read novel of 2013.

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne HarrisLooking back over the novels I have read in 2013, without a doubt my best read is Joanne Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange; a bitter sweet unravelling of wartime secrets and taboos in northern France. The heroine, Framboise Dartigen, is the sort of dour old French widow I knew as a child in France. Yet even in the 1970s whether playing on the beach in La Baule, cycling round the salt marshes of Guerande, or hanging out in cafes in Tours, a sixth sense told me there were things that one did not ask about the War.

When Framboise buys up her mother’s abandoned farmhouse and returns to the village of her childhood, she takes care that no one recognises her lest they discover her terrible wartime secret. She has inherited nothing from her mother but her old recipe book written in a strange language. She uses it as a basis to start a Creperie, and the little restaurant becomes a success. When her nephew and his wife come down from Paris to persuade her sell her mother’s recipes so they can market them in their Paris restaurant, her cover threatens to be blown.
Just as the nine year old Framboise laid traps and lines to catch “Old Mother” pike on the River Loire, so Harris weaves her story lines around the war memorials, orchards, markets, cafes and farmhouses of the Loire. Deprivation, love, black market wheeler dealing and hardship; all the complex emotional landscapes of the characters are narrated through the symbolism of food and the rhythms of rural life. I tasted the buckwheat pancakes, cider, jams and rilletes. I shivered at anchovies drowning in barrels of olive oil in the cellar, in which the young Framboise hides the forbidden oranges she uses to torture her mother.

The storm scenes over the Loire and ruined harvest, which herald the unravelling of the tragedy, remind me of the best of Francois Mauriac; Mauriac’s Bordeaux pines and rain beaten grape vines are Harris’s Loire Valley fruit trees and wheat fields. I gasped when at last the identity of Framboise is revealed and formality falls away as someone simply calls the old lady by her childhood nickname, “Please Boise.”
This is a brutal yet gentle masterpiece on the nature of the hard part inside- grief. It is a story which in some ways answered some of the questions I myself as a child never dared to ask about life in German occupied France.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is the author of The Woman Who Lost China, published by Open Books in June 2013 http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/the-woman-who-lost-china/about-book.html. She lives in Nottinghamshire.