Monday, 17 January 2011

The Children of Dynmouth by Wiliam Trevor

The blurb of The Children of Dynmouth uses the word ‘sinister’, and the phrase ‘evil lurking in the most unlikely places’. It had won me over with that alone, but the main reason for reading is that I was interested in the Penguin Decades series, and this was published the year I was born, so seemed as good a place as any to start.

Evil and sinister are definitely very appropriate words to describe both the feel of this book, and the central character, fifteen year old Timothy Gedge. Timothy lives in Dynmouth, a nondescript seaside town, and spends his time visiting the residents of the town, and just generally wandering around making sure he knows everybody’s business. He is a pretty odd character, he appears to have no friends of his own age, and enjoys attending funerals, whether he knew the deceased person or not. It is through Timothy’s eyes that we view the foibles, idiosyncrasies and secrets of the people of Dynmouth, and as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that he is prepared to use his ill-gotten information to further his own needs, wants and desires.

Timothy appears to be an unloved child, his mother seems to have no time for him, yet all the time in the world for his elder sister, and his oddness leaves him with very few friends at school. The only time he ever felt good at anything was when he dressed up as Elizabeth the 1st for a lesson, and realised he had a talent for mimicry and humour. Thus when the annual spot the talent competition comes around, he decides to enter with a decidedly dubious act involving a bath, a wedding dress and three historical murders. And then sets about procuring all the props he needs from the residents of Dynmouth, using his knowledge of their hidden truths to blackmail them in to giving them what he needs. Sometimes he is speaking the truth, other times he is only partially truthful, and he has used his imagination to conjure up the rest, but on all occasions he causes devastation in his wake, tearing apart families and friendships, and exposing the papered over cracks in peoples lives. He is also creating the excitement he craves in life through bizarre fantasies. It is one such fantasy, that celebrity talent spotters may be at the small town talent show, that fuels his rampage through the personal lives of the people of Dynmouth, and when this is finally quashed, it is only replaced by another, even more unlikely fantasy.

In many ways Timothy is a despicable character, but I couldn’t help but feel slightly sorry for him. Unloved at home, ostracised at school, and living in a town where the height of ambition seems to be to get a job in either the fish packing place, or the sandpaper factory is hardly the ideal scenario for turning out a healthy, happy well balanced child. Tellingly, the two most balanced, well adjusted children in the story are the two that are schooled outside of Dynmouth and only return for their holidays. As a character, Timothy is a brilliant vehicle for developing a sense of the stifling nature of growing up in a small town, without parental guidance and support.

The novel itself is interesting and as much as Timothy, his deviousness and his fantasies are a large part of the story, the people of Dynmouth themselves, and the gradual reveal of their facades, fantasies and hidden truths was another of the reasons I liked this book. Dynmouth is always portrayed as dull and staid, but when we first meet the residents they seem happy, if ever so slightly resigned to the blandness of their lives. As Timothy reveals his secrets, the residents take on a new light, and their unhappiness and despair almost seems to have been apparent from the start. I liked seeing how the dynamics between people changed as their secrets became known, and the unhappiness they had previously managed to hide (even from themselves) came to the forefront, and permanently changed relationships.

I enjoyed this book a lot. The sinister and evil mood was present almost from the very start of the book, but it was a very gentle story, with nothing overplayed or exaggerated. It all just felt very real. The characterisation of all the characters seemed totally believable, and their secrets, although one of them was a fairly big secret, none of them seemed outlandish at all. It was a book about small, ordinary things. The ordinary lives were changed by the actions of one child, and I felt it was enlightening both in how many secrets a small community can have, and the effects of these secrets on that community.

Good Bits

“Timothy Gedge was a youth of fifteen, ungainly due to adolescence, a boy with a sharp boned face and wide, thin shoulders whose short hair was almost white. His eyes seemed hungry, giving him a predatory look; his cheeks had a hollowness about them. He was always dressed in the same clothes: pale yellow jacket with a zip, and a t-shirt that more often than not was yellow also.”

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Post Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

It was the structure of The Post Birthday World that convinced me to read it. Its actually been sat on my shelves for a long time, and I wasn’t sure it was ever going to get read. Sometimes it just seems the right time for a book, and this one just seemed to tie in so well with some things I’ve been thinking about recently, I felt I had to read it.

Irina McGovern, an American living in London is in a solid, stable relationship with Lawrence, also American, when suddenly she feels an irresistible pull to another man, and is overcome with a strong desire to kiss this man, a joint friend of her and Lawrence. That is how chapter one finishes, and from that point onwards the book veers off in two opposite directions and covers Irina’s life over the next five years in both circumstances. There is the thread where she submitted and kissed him and conversely, an alternate reality where she resisted and didn’t kiss him.

At the start of the story, Irina is reasonably happy and content in her relationship with Lawrence. She has moments were she wonders whether it is right, but the companionable, peaceful home life they have is generally all she wants out of life. A children’s book illustrator, she spends her days working and indulging her other passion, cooking and baking, for a very appreciative Lawrence. The other man is Ramsey Acton, a world famous snooker player, who comes complete with the income, attitude and lifestyle of a major player in the sports world. On the surface these two men couldn’t be more different. Lawrence earns good money, but they are cautious with it, and having an alcoholic mother has left him vehemently opposed to regular drinking, or being drunk under any circumstances Ramsey on the other hand likes a drink, and splashes his cash on good food and wine whenever the opportunity arises. Lawrence is a terrorism expert, who works in a think tank so converses about politics and current affairs regularly. Ramsey has no real interest in anything but snooker. Without giving too much away, in one thread Irina leaves Lawrence for Ramsey, and in the other, she stays with Lawrence and the novel juxtaposes the two opposing possibilities of Irina’s life.

It’s an intriguing, if simple idea, but what makes this book so special is the way it is done. The chapters are written so that a conversation may appear word for word in both strands of Irina’s story, although the emphasis may be totally different or the conversation is between two different people. It is not only conversations, but events that occur in both threads, although the outcomes can be totally different dependent on which reality we are in. Even a simple trip to the supermarket with her partner (whichever one) turns out totally differently. Relationships with friends, parents and colleagues are all juxtaposed with slightly different outcomes dependent on which reality we are following. The parallels don’t stop with the small things either. The biggest events in each strand are tuned on their heads to, all be it at different ends of the respective stories.

It made for a brilliant story, and a thought provoking read. I can’t imagine there are many people that haven’t wondered what would have happened in a given situation if they’d reacted differently, said something different, or done something differently. What we see Irina do is go through a series of trade-offs. Some decisions don’t pan out the way you want, or intend, but there are other things that are beneficial because of that decision. She obviously doesn’t see this, because she is only living one life at a time, but as readers we see her trade offs and compromises in her life (either one), and this can only be seen by seeing both lives. I wouldn’t work as a linear narrative, because as readers we would also be thinking what if?.

As I mentioned earlier, it was thought provoking for me on a much more personal level too. At eighteen, I left a Lawrence (that really is his name), for a Ramsey type character, but sixteen years later, that same Lawrence is back in my life, and all the little things that irritated me enough to leave him, are what I love about him now. Its odd, and this book expands slightly on thoughts I’d been having anyway about what would have happened if I’d have stayed then. Would it have all been rosy, did we both need to go our separate ways and grow up, world my life be totally different now, would it be better, worse or just different. Not having the luxury of seeing my alternative reality, I’ll never know, but all I can say is that I loved this book, and it was definitely right book, right time!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Radleys by Matt Haig

I had this book pushed onto me, and told I HAD to read it, by someone I usually trust implicitly to know what I will like. But Vampires? I haven’t read vampire fiction (modern at least) since I read Anne Rice in my teens and I was therefore really unsure. But I read it anyway, and I’m really glad I did.

The Radleys are vampires. Although unless they told you, you wouldn’t know it. Peter and Helen Radley live in a normal, pleasant suburban street with their two teenage children Rowan and Clara. Rowan and Clara don’t even know themselves that they are vampires, as their parents have never quite found the right moment to tell them. It would not be immediately obvious to them because the family are abstainers, meaning they consider blood drinking to be morally wrong, and although the craving itself never goes away, they attempt to live normal lives. There are issues however. They still have extreme reactions to sunlight, can’t abide even the smell of garlic, and eat copious amounts of rare meat! The children have these oddities explained away to them as sensitive skin and so on, but problems arise when fifteen year old Clara decides to turn vegan! Whilst at a party a drunken boy pushes her a little too far, and in her deprived state, she loses all control, and reverts to her true nature.

This event is the crucial point of the whole novel. In essence, the book revolves around the revelations and events that this discovery has on the whole family. Peter and Helen have to deal with the natural repercussions of this event, as well as the double shock for the children, who realise both that they are vampires, and that they have been lied to their whole lives in one evening. Add into the mix the appearance of Will, Peter’s brother, a fully practicing and out of control vampire, and the whole façade of normality Peter and Helen have constructed for themselves threatens to come crashing down.

There is so much about this book that makes it readable. It mixes an original story, humour and moments of intense darkness together very well. Because as much as this book is about abstaining vampires, not all vampires abstain so there is blood drinking, killing, and persecution. And some pretty sadistic vampires out there. The humour comes from a book within the book, known as the Abstainers Handbook. Chapters from this are interspersed throughout the novel, with ‘helpful’ tips, such as

“if blood is the answer, you are asking the wrong question”

That such a book could even exist is amusing in itself, but the way it is written is so condescending, it is impossible not to smile at some of its ‘advice.’

There is so much more to this book though than a slightly quirky vampire story, although it does do that very well. In fact I felt that the vampirism was just a representation of difference, and how we all try to protect ourselves from being seen as different. Because as much as Helen and Peter attempt to create an outward impression of normality, it never quite succeeds. They manage to hide their vampirism, but their neighbours still think there is something not quite right about them, and comment to themselves about their odd behaviour. Being set in suburban England, it is portraying scenes that are completely understandable for many readers of this book. Many people live in the vicinity of people who don’t draw their curtains, or exhibit other slightly strange behaviour. I thought the book was brilliantly observational on how ordinary people live, and how even slight differences can provoke comment, usually in so called liberal minded people. I liked the fact that I could imagine the places easily, and even some of the people.

In the end though, the book is about accepting who you are, and not trying to build too much of a façade up around yourself, and reconciling your own life and preferences with other peoples. It is about the Radleys progression from almost denying themselves, to learning to accept what they are, but also how to temper that with what is required to live in a civilised society. And it was brilliant. I loved it.