Book Review: The Prophets of Eternal Fjord, by Kim Leine

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_prophets_of_eternal_fjordKim Leine is a Danish-Norwegian novelist. He received the Golden Laurel award and the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for this, his fourth novel, The Prophets of Eternal Fjord.

If you enjoy historical novels, mixed with a bit of fantasy, with dark forces aplenty, the epic storyline in Prophets of the Eternal Fjord will certainly appeal to you.

The opening chapter sets the scene for the novel, with missionary Morten Falck pushing a woman off a cliff in Greenland in 1793, with her willing participation.We gradually unravel the whys and wherefores of this drastic action over the following 500-odd pages of the novel.

Newly-ordained priest Morten Falck sails to Greenland in 1787 to convert the Inuit to the Danish church. The Sukkertoppen colony, is a harsh environment, is a far cry from the parish he envisaged while studying in Copenhagen. During his study, Falck was absorbed by the ideology of Rousseau – particularly the sentence ‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,’ which dominates his thinking during his dark moments.

The missionary becomes involved with those in his care: his ambitious catechist, a lonely trader’s wife, and a widow he comes to love; but his faith and reputation are dangerously called into question. A number of native people reject the Danish colonial settlements and establish their own community, Eternal Fjord, living without Danish rules. Falck lives with them for some time, creating a number of challenges for him.

The book is divided into three parts, with the second part called ‘Colony and Catechism,’ with The Ten Commandments as chapter headings. However, sins replicating the exact opposite of the commandments occur: among them a rape on a Sunday, a nasty abortion and a theft leading to a fire.

The novel travels back and forth in the years between 1782 and the early 19th century, as well as between various locations in Denmark and Greenland.

It took me a while to sort out the characters and time frames in this book, but it was a great read and will be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys a historical novel. The author does note some events included in the novel are pure fantasy and did not necessarily occur, but the more significant cultural occurrences, such as the great fire in Copenhagen, were as accurate as possible.

Leine uses wonderful descriptive language throughout the book, for example: ‘The fog still lingers in the bays and where the sun has yet to reach. It is as though the rocks are shrouded in gauze and tulle. It makes him think of death.’

The book has been translated from Danish by Martin Aitken.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Prophet of Eternal Fjord
by Kim Leine
Published by Atlantic Books
ISBN 9780857897916

Book Review: The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante

cv_the_story_of_the_lost_childAll four books available in bookshops nationwide.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, of which The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final book, is some of the best writing I’ve read in the past year.

The books follow the story of Lila and Elena, from their childhood in postwar Naples until the early 21st century. They are written in the first person from the perspective of Elena, and the friendship between the two women is the driving concern of the books. Both characters are highly intelligent, but Elena is the one who puts herself through school, leaves Naples and forges a career; Lila stays behind. Part of the tension in their relationship comes from these different paths they take, and the ways in which Elena becomes upwardly socially mobile and, in a sense, leaves her friend behind (book three is called Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay). Elena is preoccupied with the belief that Lila is the more intelligent and capable of the two, and that Lila through force of personality is in some way controlling the course of her life: “As usual [Lila] was taking on the job of sticking a pin in my heart not to stop it but to make it beat harder.”

Reading these books was an intense experience. Don’t be put off – they’re not ‘difficult’. I mean more that I enjoyed them intensely. Alan Bennett famously wrote that: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

Or, as AS Byatt put it: “Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark …”

cv_my_brilliant_friendThat is what it was like. Ferrante’s writing is passionate without being melodramatic; intellectual without being dry or lofty; and contains an incisive, specific psychological realism that makes the work feel universal. I felt immediately pulled in. My physical reading experience was strange: I wanted simultaneously to read the books very fast in order to find out what happens, and to savour each sentence like a poem. The result was that my eyes kept skipping ahead and then looping back.

The Neapolitan quartet has been translated from the Italian, and hats off to Ann Goldstein for doing an excellent job. Elena, the narrator, often refers to other characters speaking in Italian, as distinct from the Neapolitan dialect. The characters’ linguistic choices, I gather, reflect their levels of education, their social context, the emotional tenor of their words and the impressions they want to make.

“[Lila] resorted to Italian as if to a barrier; I tried to push her toward dialect, our language of candour. But while her Italian was translated from dialect, my dialect was increasingly translated from Italian, and we both spoke a false language.”

The stories of Elena and Lila feel very real. The narrative avoids neat endings and comeuppances, with the result that the tension and uncertainty about what might happen next is always there. Growing up in the slums of Naples, violence is a constant part of the characters’ lives, and I was never sure when someone in the book would next be murdered or attacked or raped.

cv_the_story_of_a_new_nameElena and Lila live through the second half of the twentieth century, with all the changes that involved, and a lot of the books is about how they respond to those changes – technological, social, ideological, political – including the changes in sexual mores. I was particularly struck by the presence of sex in their lives, how it is described, how they feel about it, the choices they make. The writing is intimate without being titillating, and explores their deeply ambiguous feelings about their own sexualities and experiences, including their experiences of sexual violence.

As a feminist, I was also very interested in the ways in which Elena and Lila encounter and react to what we would now call second-wave feminism. One of Elena’s early books is about the ways in which men invent women through writing, and one of the fan theories about the Neapolitan quartet is that Ferrante – a famously shy and mysterious author – is actually a man.

Another thing that really kept me reading was Lila. Lila is an extraordinary character. I understand why she had such an impact on Elena: she is brilliant (the first book in the series is called My Brilliant Friend), domineering, sharply intuitive, unrelenting; and so vividly, perspicaciously alive. Lila exists in the world intensely. She has a terrific fear of what she calls ‘dissolving boundaries’. Elena describes Lila’s breakdown after a major earthquake:

cv_those_who_leave_and_those_who_stayShe said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogeneous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that – it was absolutely not like that – and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped.

It is no wonder that Elena, who makes her career as a novelist and writer, feels, despite her success, always in Lila’s shadow. “As usual a half-sentence of Lila’s was enough and my brain recognised her aura, became active, liberated my intelligence.” The Neapolitan quartet is written, we learn at the beginning of the first book, by Elena upon Lila’s disappearance (or self-erasure), as a way of making sense of their lifelong friendship.

There’s a danger with novels about novelists writing books that the story disappears into a morass of indulgent self-commentary (hello, David Mitchell). This is not the case here.

Only [Lila] can say if, in fact, she has managed to insert herself into this extremely long chain of words to modify my text, to purposely supply the missing links, to unhook others without letting it show, to say of me more than I want, more than I’m able to say. I wish for this intrusion, I’ve hoped for it ever since I began to write our story, but I have to get to the end in order to check all the pages. If I tried now, I would certainly get stuck. I’ve been writing for too long, and I’m tired; it’s more and more difficult to keep the thread of the story taut within the chaos of the years, of events large and small, of moods. … I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me.

I recommend the Neapolitan quartet very highly and to pretty much everyone. New readers: start with the first book, My Brilliant Friend. Existing readers: savour the last book, and don’t fear – it has a brilliant ending.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

The Story of the Lost Child (Book Four in the Neapolitan Quartet)
by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925240511

Book Review: Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_thirteen_ways_of_lookingThe novella and three short stories in Thirteen Ways of Looking each centre on a character in search of a lost connection – a lost intimacy – with another person, or God, or hope. Or, rather, the characters aren’t seeking to re-connect so much as learn to live without connection. They’re learning how to be alone, which can be lonely but not necessarily: the stories flash back through memories, childhoods and relationships. These are the parts I enjoyed the most, more than the meanderings the stories sometimes go through on the way to these memories.

It’s not a passive read, which is good. You’re presented with puzzles (the first story is a whodunit) and confronted with some morally tricky choices (some brutal abuse and the question of forgiveness), which is also good. It would probably be a great Book Club choice – it’s short and full of “things to discuss” and will “make you think”. But…

I guess here I should be upfront: I didn’t like this book very much. I found it irritating, more often than not. The writing was too close to the surface – it was Writing – and I prefer for writing to be invisible so I can get lost in the story and characters. Not that I don’t like it when writers do great or interesting things with language – I love words! and language! and experimentation, sometimes! – but, hmm. Something about these stories made it seem like they were writing exercises rather than stories. And because each of them dealt with quite hefty issues – Issues – it all felt a bit heavy-handed to me.

I’m sure there are dozens of readers out there who’d disagree with me. In fact, going by the boatloads of fancy accolades on the cover of the book, I suspect I’m a bit too much of a grumpy or cynical reader for this writer. (I could barely stop myself from rolling my eyes at the earnest, black & white, gazing-out-the-window, chin-on-hand, scarf-wearing author photo inside the back cover. In fact, I think one look at that photo sums the book up – if you’re on-board with its tone, give the book a go; if it gives you the giggles, step away.)

If you’re going to read something with this title, I’d suggest the Wallace Stevens poem, which opens each chapter of the novella, for showing new ways of looking at familiar things (and it’s shorter). Or if you’re interested in writing, seek out the excellent documentary about Wellington’s creative writing school, IIML.

Reviewed by Jane Arthur

Thirteen Ways of Looking
by Colum McCann
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408869840

Book Review: The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

cv_the_wolf_borderThe Wolf Border by Sarah Hall is a work of realist fiction, a contemporary novel that tells the story of zoologist, conservationist and wolf specialist Rachel Caine. After having worked with wolves in North America for many years, estranged from her family, Rachel moves back home to the Lake District to supervise the reintroduction of a pair of wolves to England under the aegis of the Earl of Annerdale, and against the backdrop of the Scottish independence referendum.

The Wolf Border is an intriguing title, and a well chosen one. The epigraph says that the word susiraja in Finnish means wolf border, “the boundary between the capital region and the rest of the country. The name suggests everything outside the border is wilderness.” Ideas of borders, and wildness/tameness, abound – especially the idea of borders being crossed; of people, animals and even institutions moving between states of wilderness and civilisation.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about this book is Hall’s treatment of the wolves themselves. The Wolf Border opens with Rachel dreaming about wolves, and remembering a time in her childhood when she wandered off at a zoo and encountered her first wolf. I initially wondered whether Hall was setting Rachel up to have a mystical, even psychic connection with wolves; to have a spirit animal. But no: the wolves remain believably wild animals, wary and elusive. They’re still fascinating, of course – they are the focus of Rachel’s professional life – but they remain resolutely un-anthropomorphised, un-tame.

It is the wolves – the animals, their place in Britain’s ecosystem, and people’s envisioning of them – that drive the plot. The catalyst is the Earl of Annerdale’s decision to transform part of his vast Lake District estates into a wolf sanctuary, and to reintroduce to England one pair of wolves to live there. He headhunts Rachel – who grew up in the Lake District – to manage the project, including managing the public outcry as the ancient fear of the wild predator is aroused. Rachel is initially reluctant to live so close to her sick, elderly mother but, when she becomes accidentally pregnant, decides to take the job in order to be able to get an abortion – illegal in the States – on the NHS.

The Earl of Annerdale is an intriguing character. He is enormously wealthy and powerful (at one point the Prime Minister stops by in his helicopter for dessert) and has an extraordinarily vast sense of entitlement; the extent of which we do not grasp until nearly the end of the book. His passion to reintroduce wolves to Britain seems to be driven as much arrogance as by a commitment to environmentalism. One of the most interesting subplots of The Wolf Border concerns his true motivations and mysterious family circumstances: where is his son, and how did his wife really die?

One of the main reasons The Wolf Border succeeds is because of its protagonist, Rachel. She is fascinating: competent, prickly, solitary. The Wolf Border is told in the third person, in the present tense, and without quote marks. We are always with Rachel, looking over her shoulder; she is present in every scene.

“She would like to believe there will be a place, again, where the streetlights end and wilderness begins. The wolf border. And if this is where it has to begin in England, she thinks, this rich, disqualifying plot, with its private sponsorship and antiquated hierarchy, so be it. The ends justify the means.”

As the book progresses, though, we begin to realise that, even though Rachel’s working life is focused on wilderness, and bringing a sense of wilderness back to densely populated Britain, we are actually witnessing Rachel’s journey in the opposite direction. At the beginning of The Wolf Border Rachel is a lone ranger; determinedly single, limiting herself to casual sexual encounters only, and deliberating keeping only the loosest of ties with her mother and brother. But, gradually, she begins to cross the wolf border back into, as it were, the capital region. She visits her mother; and, following her mother’s death, decides to keep her baby. She starts getting involved in the life of her brother, Lawrence: his unhappy marriage, his terrible secret, and his psychological struggle with the emotional legacy of an unstable mother and an unidentified father.

She also allows herself to drift into a relationship with the local vet, Alexander. I found it refreshing that the romance, instead of being all-consuming, and the author’s chief concern, is entirely ordinary, and largely unexamined.

“She does not love him. That is, she does not feel love as described by others, the high and low arts, not in relation to the person here in her room. But all that is misnomer, poetry, an unproved chemical; he has survived her tendencies; he releases something in her, if only a feeling of wanting another day, a feeling that the day with him is better than ordinary.”

I recommend The Wolf Border highly. Hall has crafted a novel that is engagingly plotted, and enhanced rather than encumbered by its big ideas. One for environmentalists and lovers of family drama and political thrillers alike.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage, @e_heritage

The Wolf Border
by Sarah Hall
Published by Faber & Faber
ISBN 9780571299553

Book Review: The Faithful Couple, by A D Miller

Thcv_the_faithful_coupleere are great novels that feature deep relationships between men, sometimes lovers, sometimes friends. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.

Only the most unimaginative reader would be surprised at the way Adam Tayler (handsome, silver spoon in mouth, history at Durham) and Neil Collins (plain, shopkeeper’s son, economics at Sheffield) interact over the 280 pages, eight chapters and eighteen years of The Faithful Couple. I’m not giving anything away here – each chapter’s title is the year it covers, and they are listed on a contents page. And by calling the book The Faithful Couple, A D Miller makes sure there’s not the slightest doubt about where this story is going.

Miller does try hard to make the reader care about Adam and Neil but, apart from the odd moving moment, mostly fails. This is due in part to the risk Miller takes with the narrative structure. Good on Miller for taking that risk, but it doesn’t pay off. The choice to go with two third person narratives means subtlety is scarce, because Miller wants to make absolutely sure we know which character we are with at any given moment. After a few pages of heavily signposted thoughts and feelings, described in detail, (‘Neil lied, realising…’, or, ‘Adam wasn’t regretful…’) it all gets a bit tedious. If characters are different enough, even if they are in the third person, readers can tell whose point of view it is without being told all the time. The problem in The Faithful Couple is that Neil and Adam are simply not different enough even though, given what we know about them, they should be.

Having two protagonists (or perhaps Miller thinks that the couple act as a kind of single protagonist) means you never really know whose story it is. Neil gets the first twelve pages so I assumed it was his story, but no. Adam appears on page twelve with his own thoughts, Miller dropping in great chunks of backstory. Was he really thinking about his life in conveniently summarised paragraphs (‘Unlike Neil, he was a practised exhibitionist, especially when he had been drinking’) as he wandered around in the throes of a hangover? No, I don’t think so. There are other, much better, ways to show your readers what your characters are like.

The generation who were in their teens in the late 1980s and early 1990s will undoubtedly identify with Adam and Neil and the way the world changes around them over the following two decades, particularly the online world. But I was never really convinced about the incident at the beginning of the story that sets the whole thing off, and certainly didn’t believe the weight it carries throughout the book.

I finished the book because I had to, not because I cared about the characters (I didn’t) or because I wanted to know what happened (I worked that out early on). For an account of two lives that became linked through a shared event, with a backdrop of the growth and collapse of the financial world in the digital age, you could do worse, but if you’re after subtlety, unexpected discoveries, and depth of character, you’d better look elsewhere.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Faithful Couple
by A D Miller
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9781408705919

Book Review: Last Night on Earth, by Kevin Maher

Available in bookstores nationwide.

From the blurb I was hoping for something a little like Ben-cv_last_night_on_earthElton-meets-The-Rosie-Project − black humour intermingled with the heart-warming relationship between (slightly) estranged father and daughter, and maybe a touch of romance. This was not that book.

It was far more complex than that.

It opens with baby Bonnie’s dramatic entrance into the world. Told with visceral and gripping detail, it is almost as though I were there, sharing the excitement – and distress – with Shauna and Jay. It is this birth that marks the beginning of the end for their relationship. Bonnie, born with her cord around her neck, is deprived of oxygen for too long, and her prognosis is not good: “Potential developmental issues.”

We are then taken on a chaotic journey, switching helter-skelter between past and present, between Shauna, Jay and a scattering of other characters. Tossed back into Jay’s past, where we meet his mother − trapped in the early stages of dementia. Jay mentally “pens” letters to his mother, in painfully intimate details, of his early days in the
city, of nights misspent, of his budding career in the “fillum” industry.Then to the present, where Jay struggles being a part-time dad, living − for the most part − a bachelor lifestyle, and watched over by his guardian angel, The Clappers, who is of robust nature, and a tendency to get straight − and rather bluntly − to the point.

Here, Jay’s life spirals into further chaos, disorientating the reader as much as the character. It is madcap and fast-paced, the kind of book where you feel like you’re clutching at the edges trying to keep up with what is going on; where you have just settled into one track, only to find yourself hurtled headlong onto the next.

There is humour here − but of the bleakier, shadowy kind. The kind that makes you laugh, then feel guilty for laughing, like you’ve commited some sort of emotional crime. Some of the characters are memorable − I particularly liked Jane, possibly because of her interview with Kirsty Jackson, a high-flying celebrity with far-too-many restrictions on her interview questions. Jay’s mother’s odd quirks too, make her stand out amongst the rest of the (rather large) cast. I also found Shauna’s therapist, Dr Ghert, with his rather unconventional treatment techniques, to be memorable − if not likeable.

Bonnie, the little girl who is the light of Jay’s life, feels almost like a non-character in comparison to the others in this story. Certain little mentions are made of her delightful quirks − of moving her cot so that she can roll into Jay’s bed, for example − but for the most part she feels more like an accessory than the keystone character of the plot. Her potential development issues are never expressly dealt with − apart from two: her lack of speech and poor motor control (told, but never really shown). It is never made clear whether her early trauma has left her mentally impaired − perhaps that is intentional − although it would have been nice to see her fill a more important role. I was hoping for more father-daughter interaction, and feel somewhat cheated at the lack of this.

There are chapters in present tense, in past tense, in first person, in script. Speech marks are non-existent. Dramatic events happen with a derailing jolt, then are over and, for the most part, ignored for the rest of the prose. The writing is borderline stream-of-consciousness and lightly seeded with words in dialect. Other things happen, including characters appearing that I would swear had not been foreshadowed or even hinted at, being treated as if they’ve been there all along. It is a strange, experimental kind of book, which made for a rather bemusing read. This is the sort of book that you have to sit down afterwards and then mentally dissect to try and figure out what the heck was happening.

Overall, this is not a book for the faint-hearted, but if you are someone who loves a mental challenge and a literary rollercoaster ride, then jump aboard!

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Last Night on Earth
by Kevin Maher
Published by Little, Brown
ISBN 9781408705087

Book Review: The Tears of Dark Water, by Corban Addison

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_the_tears_of_dark_waterThis is great story telling. A riveting story of modern day piracy, a clash of cultures, people’s lives torn apart. The quality of the writing is not so great, and for that reason many will consider it not much better than an airport or pool side read, but in terms of being a page turner, it is right up there. It also raises a large number of issues that have become so much a part of our daily news – terrorism, piracy in the Indian Ocean, the might of the US government vs everybody else. As well as intangibles such as the basic human needs of justice and truth, the bonds of family, religion, and simple human decency.

Daniel Parker, a successful lawyer, and his 17-year-old son Quentin are most of the way through a world sailing trip on the family yacht Renaissance. Wife/mother Vanessa continues to live at their home in Washington DC, working as a doctor in the practice she founded. Quentin has not given his parents an easy ride through the teenage years, and this trip is an attempt by Daniel to re-bond with his son. The relationship between Daniel and Vanessa has also been sorely tested over the previous few years. The trip, so far, has been a fantastic success, with the Renaissance now off the coast of Somalia. So you already know what is going to happen next. A band of pirates, led by the young Ismail, hijacks the yacht and its two sailors. Isamil is a highly intelligent young man, in his short life having lived through violence and murder, been kidnapped himself and seen his family and life as he knew it torn apart. He has a sister, Yasmin, who has disappeared, her only link to the outside world a mobile phone she has managed to keep secret from those around her.

As news of the hijack leaks out in the US, the Navy, the Seals, and a hostage negotiator, Paul Derrick, are deployed to do their part in the rescue of Daniel and Quentin, as well as the apprehension of the seven hostage takers. Being a novel, things do not go to plan. About half way through the book, things take a decidedly interesting turn, with everyone out to protect and save themselves – the Navy, the Seals, the Parker family, Paul, Ismail and Yasmin. How these diverse elements and characters come together is gripping and very well done, if at times a little melodramatic in the telling. But, as I said earlier, the quality of the writing is surpassed by the quality of the story and the people who fill it.

So it is much more than an airport book shop read with a big glossy cover and author’s name in large letters. And at the end of it all, there is a serious message – we do actually have to learn to get on with our fellow human being, to understand them and their pasts, not just their immediate pasts but where they have come from. So the book isn’t really about Somalians hijacking foreign vessels, and the author makes this point in his notes. Piracy is his narrative framework for looking at the much bigger issue of the breakdown of Somalia over the past twenty years or so, and the lawlessness that has resulted from the ongoing civil war. It is tragic, and hardly surprising that the problems spill over into the Western world – after all Somalians really do have nothing to lose by taking the law into their own hands.

The author’s starting point for this novel was the 2011 hijack of a US flagged sailing boat, the Quest, in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates. HIs ‘research odyssey’ as he calls it includes visiting Somalia, getting to know the people there, interviews with many US government officials, an FBI hostage negotiator, learning how to sail, staying on an aircraft carrier, going to the trial of the Quest hostage takers – immersing himself in these strange and different worlds. The result is this excellent story, well worth the effort. Part of his dedication at the beginning of the book is “For the jewel of the Indian Ocean, may you rise again”. And after finishing this book, you too may well hope for such an outcome.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

The Tears of Dark Water
by Corban Addison
Published by Quercus Publishing Plc
ISBN 9781848663114

Book Review: The Serpent Papers, by Jessica Cornwell

Available in bookstores nationwide.

The Serpent Papers is complex and interwoven narrative spanning several centuries. The cv_the_serpent_paperswriting is rich in description, at times, intense, and very evocative. An ambitious debut, very cleverly conceptualised.

Our protagonist, Anna Verco, is an academic, with a fascination in historic literature. Her various skills, including a sixth sense for hidden locations, result in her employment within Picatrix, a mysterious, and somewhat shady, corporation. She is challenged with the task of tracking down some mysterious documents, the eponymous ‘Serpent Papers’, which allegedly contain lost secrets and the road to personal power.

Anna’s search takes her to Spain. As the secrets deepen and the mystery unfolds, links start to appear, connecting these manuscripts with the brutal murders in 2003 of three women and the much-adored Spanish actress, Natalia Hernandez. These murders may be in the past, but as Anna’s search continues, it soon becomes abundantly clear: the murderer is still out there.

This is an elaborate and complex story, with excerpts from diaries, letters, and conversations interwoven into the prose. It is the sort of narrative that requires a sharp mind and clear concentration to grasp the threads and start to unravel the hidden secrets and depths. As a narrator, Anna cannot be particularly relied on to tell the truth: she suffers from strange hallucinations and occasional black-outs. The various excerpts, likewise, suffer from the individual bias of their authors, thus leaving the reader to seek the answers between the lines.

Early on, the story feels somewhat rambling, but the tension soon begins to mount, crescendoing into a dark and brutal climax.

Unfortunately, I lacked the sustained concentration this book required. Whilst the main character, Anna, was relatively well-developed, I found it hard to empathise with her. The changing of the narrators/point of view every few chapters kept throwing me off (I tend to read in short chunks), and it was only when the danger came pressing a little too close for comfort, that I become fully enmeshed in Anna’s plight. Otherwise, I was more-or-less confused, and a bit bored, for the majority of the tale. It would probably benefit from a second reading.

The market for this book is anybody who enjoys a literary mystery, with a hint of history: but I, unfortunately, am not this market! Now, back to my pulp fiction.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Serpent Papers
by Jessica Cornwell
Published by Quercus
ISBN 9781848666733

Book Review: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_the_anchoresImagine you are in a room, a cell really, ‘seven paces by nine’. There is a door – nailed shut. There are blocks of stone (they will become your friends). And, luckily for you, a cat, who decides to make your cell his home, too. (The cat can leave – and does – anytime he wants. You can’t – or rather, don’t want to).

These circumstances are those of seventeen-year-old Sarah in 1255; the country, England. The Anchoress tells the story of Sarah’s first few years as an anchoress, ‘a holy woman shut away in a small cell,’ who dedicates herself to God and receives, in return, the care and protection of the Church.

I felt a little nervous about this premise – just a room? Inside someone’s head in the room THE WHOLE TIME? Crikey, I thought – there had better be some flashback. It takes a writer wielding a powerful pen to write around such a limited setting. Robyn Cadwallader should be well-pleased with her debut efforts here, for the story is crafted well and does indeed shift from inside to out – I need not have feared for my claustrophobic, reader-self. And yes, there is flashback to vary the story. All jokes aside, it is a necessary variation.

There are two narrative ‘voices’ in this novel – the first is that of Sarah, told in first person past tense. The second is Father Ranaulf, a gifted scribe who starts out in his own small room, a scriptorium he dreams of growing. His story is noticeably told in third person, giving him and the narrative a distant, less-caring air. Which is fairly fitting – Ranaulf is burdened with the spiritual care of Sarah quite early in the book. He visits Sarah and the interactions are gruff and brief. He doesn’t want anything to do with the woman, really, but land will be lost if the anchoress does not have ‘adequate counsel’. I felt sorry for the man when his superior said ‘Your quill can wait, Father’, for I think Cadwallader writes the nearly-surly Ranaulf in all his complexity. All he wants to do is work with his quill and produce beautiful scrolls. Yet he is required by duty to attend to Sarah. In all truth, I wanted to let the man be, with his parchments and ink and admiration for fellow artists who work alongside him. Even if he was lucky enough to be there only because he was a man.

And what of Sarah, herself? Shut in this room, with only two maids through a wall to interact with on a daily basis? I found it hard to understand why she would choose this life, even with the necessary first person narration, and the reader’s omniscient ability to hear her thoughts. The main internal conflict for Sarah is whether she can rise to the mighty challenge of being an anchoress – the anchoress immediately before her couldn’t bear it, and the one before that is buried beneath Sarah’s feet – yes, in the cell. A lot of reading time was spent with my feminist self quietly chanting ‘just get out, just get out …’. A virtual impossibility in the 13th Century, of course.

However, even as I struggled with the decisions Sarah made, I also felt transported by Cadwallader to a completely different time and place; a time of serfs and lords and theology above all else. A time of patriarchy and religion. Although there is a long way still to go in religious and gender equality, I was left feeling after reading this that perhaps we have come quite a long way. In the end, the way that Sarah compromises to resolve her inner turmoil makes for a satisfying conclusion to this story about a very repressive time in England’s history.

Review by Lara Liesbeth

The Anchoress
by Robyn Cadwallader
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9780732299217

Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Here we have the latest novel from Michel Faber, he of Under the Skin and The Crimson cv_The_book_of_strange_new_thingsPetal and the White fame. The Book of Strange New Things tells the story of Peter Leigh, an evangelical Christian minister who leaves Earth for a new planet to spread the word of god to some aliens.

I really enjoyed this book, and recommend it highly. It is an intelligent, compassionate, absorbing novel at the literary end of speculative fiction. There are genre cues on the back cover; puff quotes from some heavy hitters: David Mitchell, Philip Pullman, Yann Martel. It contains some of the classic hallmarks of science fiction (aliens, interstellar travel, set in the future) and is an intense, nuanced character study that feels completely realistic.

One of the things I really liked about this novel is how undramatic and low-key the alien encounters are. The Book of Strange New Things is set in a near future where humans have travelled to another planet, made contact with an alien species, and it’s no longer front-page news. It reminded me a bit of the aliens in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels: they’re just a bit dull. Peter calls them Oasans (a child on Earth won a competition and named the new planet Oasis), and they aren’t warlike or godlike; they neither threaten humanity nor usher it towards a higher consciousness. They’re just quiet, physically repellent, willing to trade food for medicines – and very keen to learn more about Jesus and The Bible (which they call “the book of strange new things”).

Our first sight of the aliens is startling: “Here was a face that was nothing like a face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: even more, it resembled a placenta with two fetuses — maybe 3-month-old twins, hairless and blind — nestled head to head, knee to knee. Their swollen heads constituted the Oasan’s clefted forehead, so to speak; their puny ribbed backs formed his cheeks, their spindly arms and webbed feet merged in a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain — in some form unrecognisable to [Peter] — a mouth, nose, eyes … [Their voices were like] A trombone carved out of a watermelon, held together with rubber bands.” But, as Peter lives among them, he comes to accept the Oasans’ ways and form emotional bonds with them through an – apparently genuine – shared love of Christ.

The new planet seems, at first, to be pretty undramatic. There are no mountains or ravines, humans can breathe the air just fine, the temperature is moderate; biodiversity is very low and we only come across one kind of creature (a chicken-like animal). Everything seems flat, soft, damp, and slow-paced – and yet, both the Oasans and their environment are fascinating. One of my favourite characters in the book was the atmosphere. The air and the water seem to almost interchange. The rain is beautiful and dances through the sky in extraordinary patterns (this is what the cover design is referencing, although I think they chose the wrong colour). The atmosphere seems to be an active participant in life on Oasis: “Tendrils of atmosphere licked [Peter] between his sweaty shoulderblades, twirled around his nipples, counted his ribs.”

And yet, and yet … Something is not right. Peter has been sent to Oasis by a mega-corporation called USIC – who are they, and what is their real agenda? Can the aliens really be as harmless and as keen to receive the word of god as they seem? What happened to the minister before Peter who ‘disappeared’? Most importantly, how can his marriage survive this extraordinary separation? Faber grows the tension so gradually you barely notice it; a gentle, worrying tug from chapter to chapter. He also plays guessing games with you, using the last line of each chapter as its title, hinting at troubles ahead.

Peter and his wife Bea, who he left back on Earth, have access to some kind of interplanetary email, and their correspondence reveals the growing cracks in their intimacy. Life on Earth is becoming dramatically difficult: environmental, political and economic crises are all coming to a head, like catastrophic dominoes. As Bea’s daily life becomes more and more tormented, her husband appears increasingly unable to care. Peter becomes engrossed in his ministry, where he is surrounded uncritical beings who apparently only want to learn adoringly from him, and take what he’s willing to give. While professing his – real – love for his wife, he gradually starts punishing her emotional demands on him with withdrawal.

Peter is an interesting protagonist. He is an alcoholic who was rescued from a life of violent self-destruction by Bea, who introduced him to evangelical Christianity. He’s a good guy with real faith who genuinely wants to help. And yet, he undoubtedly has a darker side. His faith seems to have its roots in his alcoholism: the addictive fanaticism having been transferred from booze to god.

I strongly recommend The Book of Strange New Things to readers of literary fiction and science fiction alike. The big concepts – humanity, faith, love, estrangement, how well can we ever know others? – are engrossing, and illuminatingly explored. The prose has that wonderful inviting quality that the best writers manage: it is both easy and beautiful to read. Go forth into that Oasis and see what you can find.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage

The Book of Strange New Things
by Michel Faber
Published by Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN 9781782114079