Monday, 14 June 2010

Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldon

Suggested by my mum, I really wasn’t sure whether I would like this book, and it took me a while to actually get round to reading it. The first few lines intrigued me though,:-

“Two years after I was born, my mother had a miscarriage. Had she not, I would have grown up with a younger sister. This is the sister’s story, set in an alternate universe which closely mirrors our own.”

The alternate reality in question is a world very much like ours, set a few years in the future, but almost unrecognisable from our own mostly due to a complete economic and social breakdown caused by the financial crisis of 2009! The consumerist society is well and truly defunct; the days of plenty are over. The country is ruled by a National Utility Government (NUG), and supplies that we take for granted today are in short supply, such as coffee, tea, fresh meat, water and electricity. There is also an emphasis on growing your own vegetables, with the gardens of many terraces being converted to communal vegetable plots. The full picture of the state the country is in is drip fed to us through the course of the novel, as Frances relates her life story, mainly from her home in Chalcot Crescent.

In this world where everything has degenerated Frances starts telling us her story whilst she is sat on the stairs avoiding the bailiffs who are knocking on her door, to repossess her house and confiscate her property. Frances is an author of numerous successful novels, but in the current climate, the money for publishing has vanished so she is now living a subsistence level existence, along with virtually everybody else. Her grandson, Amos is sat with her, and he is determined to extricate her, or at least her property from this mess.

Frances herself is the main narrator, although not the main focus of this book. She is telling us the events, and they are obviously filtered through her perspective, but it is the stories of her family that are important. She tells us a lot about her past, her relationships both with men, and with her sister Fay. Frances is not altogether a very pleasant character, although unfalteringly honest about what she has done in her life. I was going to say, the mistakes she made, but she doesn’t see them as mistakes, she s quite straightforward about the things she did. Her acceptance of the new regime is a little odd though, as she seems to just want to let it be, when in the good times, she was a voracious campaigner, and witnessed all sorts of injustices.

As to whether I liked this book, I’m not sure. There was a story running through, mainly concerning Amos and her other grandchildren, and how involved they were in Redpeace and an attempt to overthrow NUG, and this as aspect of the book felt a bit flat for me. The story itself never seemed to kick off properly, and was all wrapped up very quickly, and I personally thought rather unsatisfactorily. However, I did enjoy reading about this imagined world where everything had gone so horribly wrong, and because it pulled so much from events that have happened recently or are happening now, it was an amusing satire on government and use of power. The NUG had slogans for everything, and food that cold not be grown was provided by the state, but in a nationalised form (as in WWII), such as national bread, coffee, and National Meat Loaf, marketed as suitable for vegetarians! The reason for this is bizarre, and a bit creepy but I won’t give that away.

I think the thing that kept me reading most though was the complete unreliability of Frances. She is telling this story, but at various points she can’t remember something that others say has happened. She also spends a lot of time imagining what may be happening if it outside her area of experience, and at one point she is unsure herself whether what she has just narrated has actually happened, or if her writers brain has imagined it. That was the most fascinating aspect of this book for me, especially as at the very end, it is made clear what we are actually reading is a second draft, after NUG approval, which throws the whole validity issue into disarray. And obviously, this is all imaginary anyway, as Frances didn’t exist in the first place, so is this Fay Weldon’s take on an alternative life for herself!

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Imagine a world in which everybody living in it had turned blind. It’s a pretty horrific thought, and in Blindness, Jose Saramago has created a pretty unpleasant scenario for what would happen to the world and humanity if this was to occur. Out of all the things that could happen to me, blindness is one of the things that frightens me most, and to be honest this book didn’t do much to quell those fears.

However, that does make it sound like I had a negative reaction to this book, which I didn’t at all. I thought it was fantastic. I loved virtually everything about it, the story, the ideas expressed, the slightly odd writing style, and most of all the way it made me think what I would do.

Told both by an omniscient narrator, and through dialogue between the characters, the story starts with one man going blind in his car at a set of traffic lights. Helped home by another man, he is petrified and quite understandably goes to see the doctor an eye specialist. Then we briefly follow the characters that come into contact with him, and any they in turn come into contact with, and gradually see them all turn blind, the way an epidemic generally tends to spread. Soon, the government is in panic mode and confines all the blind and those suspected of being contagious to a disused mental asylum, in a desperate attempt to stop the white blindness spreading. Everyone in the asylum ends up blind, except one solitary woman, the doctor’s wife, who pretended to be blind to be able to stay with her husband, and through whose eyes we see a lot of what conditions in the asylum are like.

Understandably, living conditions in the unit assigned for the blind are pretty grim, and organisation pretty poor too. Although promised supplies of essentials such as food and hygiene products, these very rarely arrive at the required frequency or in a substantial quantity, and the deliveries become scarcer as time goes on. There are also more and more blind people being assigned to the unit and more and more animosity from the army officials guarding them. As will happen in any place where large numbers of human beings are gathered with limited resources, a minority will attempt to hold power, and assert control, which for a while succeeds, but eventually leads to the ‘patients’ escape from the hospital, after some violence, and their comprehension of what the outside world has become with everybody blind.

I mentioned the writing style earlier and there is no doubting hat this book is written in a very odd style. Generally each chapter starts with the omniscient narrator setting the scene, and making moral comment on the events as they are unfolding, but then when the story switches to dialogue, virtually all punctuation disappears and it is never marked who is speaking to who, or when the speakers change. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. It seemed to transmit the sense of helplessness and blindness that the characters felt, and I think possibly the immense concentration that was required to read this book mirrored the concentration needed by the blind characters simply to converse with each other, or do anything vaguely resembling normality. Possibly I’m thinking too much here, but I don’t think this book would have had the effect it did if the writing was more conventional. Also none f the characters were ever identified by names. They are simply termed, the doctor, doctor’s wife, girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint and so on. The most powerful effect of this book is the sense of reality it portrays and that this could so easily happen, which is only achieved through the immediacy of the writing style, and the lack of names, so it is almost impossible not to put yourselves in the story to some extent. It could be anyone, anywhere. It could be you!

All through the book, there is a sense that what we term humanity and civilisation is a pretty fragile concept, and in dire circumstances, it will disappear almost in a flash. The particular group of blind people that we follow retain a small amount of dignity, but how much of that is simply because they have the eyes of the doctor’s wife to see for them is open to debate. Events both inside and outside the asylum show a world that degenerates into barbarism alarmingly quickly and it is an unflinchingly depressing view of humanity that is portrayed. Whether things would degenerate this quickly simply through the loss of sight I wouldn’t like to speculate, but you would have to hope not. But I wouldn’t be so sure. This book certainly makes it clear how much we rely on being able to see to live any kind of reasonable life. Horrific, harrowing, depressing, but ultimately fantastic, brilliant and I loved it!

Best Bits

“I only mean that this is all we are good for, listening to someone reading us the story of a human mankind that existed before us, lets be glad of our good fortune at still having a pair of seeing eyes with us here, the last pair left, if they are extinguished one day, I don’t even want to think about it, then the thread that links us to that human mankind would be broken,”

Friday, 4 June 2010

Small Wars by Sadie Jones

Small Wars is a novel based Cyprus and England during the military emergency over there in the 1950’s. Focused around Hal, a Major in the British army, and Clara his wife, it is more a book about how war changes and affects people, and by extension, the effects it has on a marriage.

Clara and Hal are presented as a very solid, together couple, with both trying to do what is best for each other and their children. Clara knows and accepts the responsibilities of being an army wife, and Hal accepts his duty to provide for her, look after her and keep her as safe as possible. But more than this, they seem happy simply being together and in love. However separately defined their roles are, they always seem to find time to be together, this closeness is always apparent at the start of the novel, shown most effectively through their sharing of a brandy and cigarette after a meal. Hal and Clara have spent Hal’s first commission in Germany, where although Hal has done well and risen through the ranks, he has seen no real action, and is actually looking forward to his posting in Cyprus.

However, this seemingly blissful situation can’t continue, else obviously there would be no story! It is not long before the atrocities Hal witnesses in his day to day life stat to affect him, and as a consequence he starts to gradually withdraw from Clara. It is not long before the things Hal is dealing with start to affect the way he feels and how he sees himself fitting into his home life. Throughout the book Hal is torn between his family life, and his army career.

“His own self was overwhelming him and everything else was far distant”

“The room felt extraordinarily big to him, and very clean. He was too big for it, and not welcome”

There is a sense of what is right and wrong in military action running throughout this novel, and although it is seen through Hal’s eyes, it is also seen through the eyes of Lawrence Davis, a national service soldier, who works as interpreter. In this line of work, he is witness to some things he would rather not see, and spends a lot of time reconciling himself to what is acceptable. In a way, Hal’s struggle with himself is more personal and expressed through his actions, whereas Lawrence voices his feelings to himself (and the readers), making it clear in words what Hal is experiencing through his behaviour.

“Davis was surprised that his capacity for dread and disgust had not diminished. The boy was kept awake, standing, for hours at a time, and with each interrogation, seeing his deterioration, Davis jumped through the same hoops in the circus of his mental process. Steeped in shame, he condemned himself, but always, in the back of his mind, the thought: This is still within the realms of acceptable. If something really bad were to happen, I’d do something.”

“He clung to the notion that he had a limit, that his threshold lay somewhere, uncrossed and ready to save him, if only he were given the opportunity.”

Whether either Hal or Davis has a limit, and whether they are ever prepared to cross it, or what it would take to push them over the limit is a question to be answered as the novel continues. This theme continues throughout the book though. At times the British army seemed to be quite forceful and didactic towards the locals, and this is what both Hal and Lawrence are railing against, in their own different ways they both seem to have a dilemma between what they have been conditioned to believe, and what they actually believe to be right.

However, having said that this book is about Hal and Clara, and the strain that the war puts on their marriage, that is not what I actually liked best about this book. They go through some horrific things, but their personal story never really grabbed me that much. It all seemed to fall a bit flat where they were concerned. As well as the ideas mentioned above abut where your personal limit is, and what you can actually do about it, which were written about brilliantly in this book, what I actually liked best about this book was the horrific descriptions of warfare, both the guerrilla actions of the opposing side, and the reprehensible actions of the British army. There seems to be a despair throughout the book that this ‘war’ is not really about anything, it is not important and therefore the deaths and horrors involved are all pointless. It’s an interesting idea, in fact suggesting that if it was over territory it would all be ok, but it does a god job of showing how this feeling of pointlessness can affect even the most revered soldier.

“At least a battle-at least they would have the name of a battle to say he died in, not just a row of letters most of them didn’t understand, at least a country to fight against, or defend, not this small, dirty struggle. He took out his handkerchief and wiped his wet hands”