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Book Reviews

The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna (Canongate)

The Howling Miller by Arto PaasilinnaI read this book last night. Started to read at 11.45pm, fell asleep on it a couple of hours later, woke up at about 4.30am and switched the light on and finished it. Couldn’t not. It’s funny, touching, mad, sad, and totally un-put-downable.

Gunnar Huttunen comes to a small village in the north Finnish backwoods soon after the Second World War. He sets to repairing the mill, and to start with seems to settle in. He entertains the villagers and the children by imitating various animals and birds, and apart from the odd period of depression when he howls in the woods all night long, waking the village dogs and setting them to barking, he makes friends. He falls in love with Sanelma, the horticulture advisor, who persuades him to start a small vegetable garden. This idyll doesn’t last, however. Gunnar lapses into manic behaviour on a regular basis, upsetting his neighbours and incurring their wrath. For instance, when his vegetable garden is still bare earth after a few days despite his care and attention, he mulls over the problem then races up to the farm where Sanelma is lodging in the early hours of the morning and demands to speak to her there and then. As a result of a bizarre yet seemingly inevitable sequence of events, the fat farmer’s wife is tumbled down the stairs and claims to be deaf and paralysed thenceforth.

Can’t recommend this highly enough. The copy I read was produced by Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights – one of the best bookshops I’ve ever been in – in conjunction with Canongate – one of the best small publishers I’ve come across – in a limited hardback edition. It was my mother’s copy – I may have to acquire my own.

Pippa Hennessy

Gathering the Water by Robert Edric (Black Swan)

Gathering the Water by Robert EdricRobert Edric is a good example of a productive mid-list author who, perhaps unusually, continues to be published despite what can only be modest sales and limited reviews. Save for his three Hull-based crime novels, he is also unusual in that all of his novels seem to be utterly different to each other. His The Kingdom of the Ashes (Doubleday), for example, is set in Allied-occupied post-war Germany where a British officer tries to make sense of those in his charge while Gathering the Water (Black Swan) concerns a washed-up nineteenth century engineer supervising the flooding of a valley on behalf of an un-named Water Board.
Charles Weightman is never sure of his role, knowing only that those whose land is to be flooded resent him. Indeed, he is known as “flooder”. The Board is making money out of the dam, giving little compensation to locals for houses that anyway have little value other than that was their home. Few will speak to Weightman save for an older woman, Mary, recently returned to the area with her mad sister Martha, who we learn will shortly be returned to an asylum. Mary is the only person who sees that “Mr Weightman” as she always calls him, carries his own burden – the recent death of his fiancee – and has no responsibility for what is happening to the land. As the water rises steadily, so does the tension and people leave as refugees in their own country knowing they have been defeated by the Board. What will happen to Mary once her sister goes back to the asylum?
Gathering the Water is – as I’ve indicated – a sombre book. It is a short book, easily read in an evening, which, with only a rare intrusion of an inappropriately modern-sounding word, carries the feel of mid-nineteenth century industrialisation clashing with its victims, including Weightman himself.

Ross Bradshaw

S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst (Canongate)

S. by JJ Abrams and Doug DorstYesterday the staff at the bookshop could not bear the suspense any more and ceremoniously gathered round to break the seal on S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst (Canongate, £28), which has been intriguing us since it arrived. Inside the slipcase is a slightly battered looking “library book”, with its own Dewey decimal sticker, and date stamps. The novel is full of side notes, in different hands, debating the text, commenting to each other. Scatttered throughout the book are postcards, old posters, a cloth map, typed and handwritten letters, old newspaper cuttings. Reports are that the novel itself is worth reading, but not brilliant, but what we loved was the attention to detail in the whole package, and the absurd variety of material tucked into the book. A printer was in the shop last night and could not keep his hands off it. How did they do it all for £28, he said. As a publisher, I want to know as well. I hope the novel is good – but really, I don’t care. The whole book is such a masterpiece.

Ross Bradshaw

S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst - contents

S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst - inside