Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The Dinner

The Dinner, Herman Koch

The international bestseller from Dutch writer/actor Herman Koch has made it to English and looks set to be this year’s The Slap, though less crude and more focused than that book was. The book is set at a dinner for four – the narrator Paul, his brother and both of their wives – in an upmarket restaurant somewhere in Holland (Paul is careful not to name precise locations in the course of his narrative). The four have met to discuss an incident involving their teenage sons which featured on the Dutch equivalent of Crimewatch. So far the boys have remained unidentified by the police and the public at large; only their parents have recognised them from the hazy security camera footage. What would you do?

This book is a book club must. Even if your club is inclined to veer off topic, there is so much to ponder here that almost anywhere you veer will be to the point: nature v nurture; racism, political correctness; justice; morality; technology; waiters in posh restaurants . . . The list is endless. It’s a book you’ll fly through quite easily. The content is more interesting than the style (and there’s an American feel to the translation that screams, ‘Screenplay, please!’), but the questions it raises will remain with you for a long time after you finish reading.

Ancient Light

Ancient Light, John Banville

If you’ve read John Banville’s Booker-winning The Sea, you will find in his latest book, Ancient Light, several distinct echoes. The older man looking back on a certain period of his boyhood; the infatuation of the young boy with an older woman. This is a theme that obviously intrigues Banville. Here the parallels and echoes are so strong that it almost begins to seem as though in the earlier book he was preparing a sketch to be ‘fleshed out’ later. So close in fact are some of the details – the wilful curl of hair, the fleck of tobacco on the lip, the gaze up the skirt – that one starts to wonder about autobiographical input.

Somewhat strangely, Banville professed not to have realised that Ancient Light might form the third part of a trilogy, along with Eclipse and Shroud, until the question was put to him in a recent radio interview. And indeed it does not depend in any way on either of those two, forming as it does a complete whole in and of itself. While other trilogists of the moment bang out their ephemeral fantasies on their submissive keyboards with nobody much questioning the shabby ‘message’ on offer, there will be those who will take issue with the depiction of the sexual relationship between the 15-year-old boy and the 35-year-old woman at the heart of Ancient Light. Here though, there is level upon level of meaning, of imagery, of language, none of it reducible to a single soundbite or cover blurb. (The Sebastian Barry quote that did find its way onto the cover is most peculiar: “Could any book be better? Did it even need to be as tremendous as this?” Perhaps in its original context it reads as more sincere.)

If some of the themes have been sounded before, they are themes always worth revisiting, and Banville’s prose on this occasion has reached new heights, is like clear spring water on a hot day: refreshing and restorative.

The Snow Child

The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

Wolverine River, Alaska, 1920. Jack and Mabel, a childless couple in their middle age, have moved to a homestead in the Alaskan wilderness to start a new life and try to bury the grief they have carried for years. As the book opens, it seems as though Mabel at least has given up hope of achieving their aim. When she steps out onto the ice-covered river, peering down at the frozen bubbles and large cracks beneath, we hold our breath.

From the opening lines of this novel we are held, not only by the character of Mabel, and then of Jack, but by what is, in effect, the main character in the story – the place itself:

this strange wilderness – guarded and naked, violent and meek, tremulous in its greatness”.

Raw and unforgiving, it is also a place of great beauty, and we watch as each of the characters in his or her own way battles to an understanding of that paradox.

There is magic here (the story is based on an old Russian fairytale), but magic that seems possible; a child living in the woods, a snowflake that doesn’t melt. And there is silence, everywhere silence; the silence of a snowfall, silence full of small unfamiliar sounds, silence filled with absence. This is a truly lovely book, a hymn to a place and way of life by a writer who knows and loves them. There is an old-fashioned charm about the tale, which is told in a simple, beautiful prose. Pared clean, honest, and unpretentious, this is how to make an impression on your debut.

Highly recommended.

Me and You

Me and You, Niccolo Ammaniti

Fourteen-year-old Lorenzo Cuni hates people. Having seen a documentary about a type of fly that makes itself look like a wasp in order to protect itself, he has learned how to fit in by appearing to be like those around him. In order to stop his mother in particular by turns nagging at him and worrying about him, he has told her he is off skiing for a week with some classmates. In fact, he heads down to the cellar with his headphones, his Playstation, some tins of tuna, and a fake tan spray. He hasn’t counted on his half sister Olivia turning up  . . .

The setting is ripe for comedy, and there are amusing moments in this short but thoughtful book. However, taken as a whole there is more here that is sad than funny. The larger picture is painted in apparently simple brush strokes but, looked at closely, reveals telling details of a broken family and some damaged people. At times the narrative threatens to veer slightly into soft terrain, but manages to stay the right side of schmaltz.  The ‘me and you’ of the title, for example, becomes a poignant refrain when Olivia recounts an incident from Lorenzo’s childhood that he himself has forgotten, and he is patently struck by the idea that at one moment at least he was not alone:

‘Then the motorboat took off. And me and you, we stayed down in the cabin where it smelled of bilge and everything was shaking and rocking.’

‘Me and you?’

‘Yes.’ She took a drag of her cigarette. ‘Me and you.’

A one-sitting read that will repay a second visit.

The Watch That Ends The Night

The Watch That Ends The Night, Allan Wolf

From the ship’s rat, scurrying between the pages (‘follow the food, follow the food’) to the businessman Bruce Ismay (‘Why clutter a ship’s deck with lifeboats? / First-class passengers would rather see the sunrise’); from Harold Bride, the Spark, overjoyed to be appointed to Titanic’s message room with her new technology (‘For the next six days, we will be Titanic’s only ears / Titanic’s only voice’) to Captain E. J. Smith (‘My career has been uneventful. I am content / to run the straightest line between the two coordinates’), Allan Wolf has conjured twenty-four voices from the Titanic and taken a fresh and very different approach to the events surrounding the sinking of the ship in April 1912. The novel moves back and forth between short monologues, drawing you in from the opening page. The various portraits are sensitively imagined.  The research is here, unobtrusively. (All the people named were actually on board the vessel.  The sources are presented at the back of the book.) Where facts are scarce, Wolf has filled in the outlines plausibly; where they are known, they are presented by the by, discreetly.  Yes, we know what happens in the end. But these pieces with their touching human details bring you on board with the various ‘characters’ and make you hope that somehow it won’t. And throughout the whole thing whispers the most compelling voice of all – that of The Iceberg, a villain of decidedly Shakespearean cast:

‘Within my frozen mass I cannot find / an equal to the heart of humankind. / I’ll have my heart when ship and ice align. . . . The ice will have his pick of human hearts / as soon as fair Titanic plays her part.’

If you’re a Titanic buff, this is a creative new angle on familiar material; if you’re someone who wants a gripping story that happens to be true, it’s a moving, memorable and, yes, respectful piece of work.

The Woman In Black

The Woman In Black, Susan Hill

Susan Hill was one of the 2011 Booker judges whose priority for prizeworthiness was “readability”. It has to be said that the woman practises what she preaches. The Woman in Black is hugely readable, atmospheric, absorbing and subtle. Read it before the big screen ramps up the melodrama and adds a soundtrack that the eerie stillness of the book really doesn’t require.

COB Recommends
Looking for a good book to read? This is a selection of books we like. From just published to older publications to the classics, we're sure there's something here to tempt the bookworm within you.
By Genre
  • No categories