Tuesday, 27 July 2010

My Driver by Maggie Gee

My driver is the follow up to My Cleaner, which I loved when I read it. My cleaner was set in the UK, whereas My Driver picks up the same characters a few years later, but is set mainly in Uganda.

Mary Tendo is a Ugandan woman, who has worked for Vanessa Henman as a cleaner when she lived in London. They had a fairly turbulent relationship, and eventually Mary returns to Uganda, where she now lives with her boyfriend Charles, and their three year old daughter. She works in The Sheraton Hotel, which as the novel opens is preparing for writers conference, which numerous well known authors will be attending. Vanessa is preparing to leave for Uganda to attend this conference, and unknown to her, her ex-husband Trevor is also on his way out to Uganda, at Mary’s request, to build a well for the people in her village.

The book alternates between the experiences of all three of these people in Uganda, with each of them unaware that they are all present in Uganda at the same time. Obviously Mary is aware that Trevor is there, as she invited him, but neither of them know that Vanessa is in Uganda, and Vanessa is unaware of Trevor’s presence, and is unable to contact Mary, as the hotel she believed her to work at no longer exists. Adding to the intrigue of this are numerous scenes where they almost meet, are in the same place minutes after each other, or actually pass each other and fail to recognise each other. When they all do eventually meet, it is all very dramatic, if slightly far fetched, and pushes the boundaries of co-incidence just a little too far, but is also compulsively readable and incredibly moving.

There is also a thread running throughout of a wounded, half starved, child soldier running through this book. He is tormented by what he has seen and done, and although his identity has a huge significance upon the conclusion of the story, his presence is a stark reminder of the brutal conflict occurring in parts of Africa and the fear that Ugandan citizens are constantly living with. His identity is finally revealed at the conclusion, and his role in the bringing together of everybody was one of the elements I found just too co-incidental.

The main crux of the story revolves around these three characters, and their reactions to the experiences they have in Uganda. Vanessa faces some home truths about herself her status as a writer, and the consequences her rather uppity attitude to life has had on the people closest to her. And throughout her time in Uganda, we see both the publicly presented side of the country, as well as witnessing a slightly darker, poorer side of Africa, both through her eyes, and through Mary’s on her return to the village she grew up in.

What we do see in this novel is a shift in the characters mental attitudes, particularly that of the women. Vanessa is portrayed all the way through the previous book, and at the start of this one, as a self-righteous, self obsessed middle aged women with delusions of grandeur and an impression of her own superiority. Throughout this book, we see her gradually come to realise how life in Africa really is, and start to see the internal dilemmas she has with herself about how she has lived her life compared to how she should have lived it. Mary, however, just seems to get more extreme when she is in her own country. She was always feisty, and during her second stint in London stood up for what she wanted, but in her own country, she is downright obnoxious at times. I did like both women though, even if at times they were both incredible difficult to like!

There is also a definite shift in where my sympathies lay. In the previous novel it was Mary that appeared to be the more sympathetic character and the one that was a little hard done to at times. In this book Mary seemed to be much less likeable, and although Vanessa arrived with grand ideas, it didn’t take log for them to be stripped away by the harsh realities of life in Africa, and for her to come to some realisation of her luck and position in the world.

Although this book could quite easily be read without having read the previous novel, I think the aspect of reading this I enjoyed the most was see the character transformation and the subtle (and not so subtle) change in attitudes of the characters, over the period they have been apart, and their time in Uganda.

I did enjoy this book, although probably not quite as much as My Cleaner. It had the same mix of humour and seriousness as the previous one but I think the strong reliance on co-incidence and being in the right place at the right time, was just a little too much for me.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters. I’ve only read two of her books so far, with this being the third. Both Fingersmith and The Little Stranger were very different from each other, and this one was different gain, despite being set in the same time period as The Little Stranger. The one crucial, stand out fact about The Night Watch is that is told backwards, with the focus of the narrative being on how the characters ended up in the situations they are in, rather than what is going to happen.

Starting in 1947, we are introduced to Vivien, Kaye, Duncan and Helen, when they are surrounded by a post war gloom, and their personal lives seem to be in a bit of a sad, depressing state. Vivien is in a totally unsatisfactory relationship with a married man, Kaye walks the streets all day then visits the pictures alone in the evenings, Helen is obsessively jealous in her relationship although not necessarily without reason, and Duncan is living a lonely life lodging with a much older man. All the characters seem to have secrets, and it’s these secrets that propel the story forwards because for the majority of the book, as one question gets answered, it only opens up another set of questions! For example, questions from the first few chapters are what exactly happened in Helens past, who is Viv’s boyfriend, what was Duncan’s transgression, who is Mr Mundy, why is Kay like she is and what is the significance of the ring? It’s difficult to say any more about the plot without giving anything away, but during this first part, we really find out nothing more than the eventual fates of the characters, and learn about a few of the interconnections between the characters. Because all these characters stories intertwine, whether it be through family relationships, place of residence, sexual relationships or chance meetings.

As we move on to the second and third parts of the story, most things are gradually revealed, and everything becomes clear. It is really a story that could only work this way round. The characters lives are fairly mundane really, apart from the odd dramatic incident, and obviously, the ever present threat of bombing in both the second and third parts of the novel. To read about these characters lives in chronological order would just be like reading a story about four people, who due to totally random circumstances, happen to cross paths. For me the interest came from the gradual reveal of secrets and mysteries.

Secrets and secrecy are a big part of this book. All the characters are keeping secrets from other people, and this secrecy continues right to the conclusion (or beginning, depending which way you look at it). It is the secrets that they keep from each other that keep the story going, and add the trademark twists that seem to be a staple of Sarah waters books. They are not big, shocking twists here, but nevertheless they are moments of ‘oh, now why didn’t I see that coming’ scattered throughout the story, with most not being totally resolved until the end.

It’s probably obvious from this that I enjoyed the structure of this, and I loved the secrecy involved both from the characters in the story, and as a natural consequence of that, from the reader. But it’s not the only thing that makes this book work. The setting within London, both during the blitz, and in the immediate post war years is written about with a terrific clarity. I said earlier that the characters themselves lead relatively mundane lives, which in their individual personal lives, they do, specifically in the first part, once the war has finished. But their melancholic gloom is set against the much bigger picture of war devastated London, both after and during the blitz. Throughout the course of this story we witness how the war has a direct impact on the lives of the characters, particularly the women, but not exclusively, as well as how living in 1940’s Britain had a serious impact on any less than normal relationships as, being a Sarah Waters book, some of these characters are homosexual. Trying to conduct any kind of homosexual relationship then was done behind closed doors. And there we come full circle, back to the secrets again. Secrets, lies and hidden truths!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Battle of the Sun by Jeanette Winterson

When I read Tanglewreck last year, I was very impressed. But then I do like Jeanette Winterson’s writing anyway. That was her first foray into young adult literature and although The Battle of the Sun is not really a sequel, it does include some of the same characters, and follow some of the same themes. Knowledge of Tanglewreck would add something to the experience of reading this rather than not having knowledge taking anything away.

On the eve of his 12th birthday, in London 1601, Jack Snap is rushing home to receive the pet dog he has been promised as his present. Unfortunately, he never makes it home, and is kidnapped and transported through a waterless well to a house full of orphan boys (also kidnapped), known as the dark house. Overseen by a man known only as the Magus, the boys are forced to work on his alchemy projects, and are kept in line by a pair of creatures known as Wedge and Mistress Split, who are actually two halves of the same whole, born in a bottle, and were themselves created by the magus. The image of this pair hopping around the room on their single legs has to be read to be appreciated! And as an extra incentive, the boys are surrounded by previous captives, who having tried to escape, are then turned to stone as a punishment.

The Magus’ ultimate aim is to turn London into a city of gold, and he believes Jack to be the Radiant boy who is necessary to make the alchemy complete. Jack however, is not prepared to do his, and with the help of various fantastical characters, including a dragon in a moat, an imprisoned king sunk in a tank and a summoned knight, sets out to defeat the magus, and save London.

Simple enough story, but full of twists, and everybody trying to outwit each other. With the arrival of Silver, the heroine of Tanglewreck, Jack is whipped away to solve these problems, whilst getting a brief lesson in the problems of time travel, and the ability to exist in more than one place at once. Quantum physics makes a strong appearance in this book, just as it did in Tanglewreck, and again, it goes over my head, but it really doesn’t seem to matter! How do you go about processing the idea that The Dark House only exists in the Magus’s head and when he chooses to stop imagining it, it will collapse, even though the boys are still inside? Or that the Dragon is not in the moat, he is he moat, but also not the moat? The dragon in fact has some of the most interesting lines in this story, if a bit obtuse, but maybe that’s what makes them interesting.

“For whatever has stood in the world leaves behind an imprint, an echo, a scent, a spirit. What is destroyed is also reclaimed. What is lost waits to be found.”
I loved this book. It was a fast and relatively easy read, but a brilliant story, a really well created world, both the real life descriptions of London 1601, and the fantastical elements, with some very vivid characters. As well as the story, as well as the quantum physics thread, there is also a lot of understated humour, the prime example being Wedge trying any means possible to hatch a coconut, as he believes it is a magical egg, which perhaps in 17th century London, it would be! A good story, interesting ideas, and a very definite moral thread too, although I won’t go into that because it would ruin the conclusion. It was brilliant!