I seldom read through a book in one sitting, so I was surprised when I found myself fighting sleep to finish Janice Hallett’s The Appeal, a whodunnit written in the form of a modern epistolary novel. The quick and dirty synopsis: senior barrister Roderick Tanner QC has assigned two law students to review the materials of a done-and-dusted murder case. Tanner believes that the wrong person has been incarcerated, and wants some fresh eyes to review the case ahead of the upcoming appeal to cast new light on the matter. What follows is a series of emails, messages, press cuttings and correspondence from key individuals involved in the case.
It starts off with the return of Sam and Kel to the UK from Africa—the husband-and-wife duo are nurses who had spent the better part of the last decade working as overseas volunteers. They settle in a small, closed community led by Martin and Grace Hayward, both of whom jointly own the local golf club and chair the local theatre troupe, The Fairway Players. It becomes readily apparent that the troupe plays a central role in the community, and participation in the troupe is a quick way for newcomers to ingratiate themselves with the community.
Martin Hayward is acknowledged as the alpha of the community and runs his family and the Fairway Players with a firm hand. Things change suddenly when, after the announcement of the new play, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Martin announces that his two year-old granddaughter, Poppy, has developed a rare form of brain cancer. Her only hope is an experimental drug being developed in the US which is unavailable through conventional channels, and which will cost £250,000 to obtain through Poppy’s oncologist. But Sam, whose time in Africa has perhaps made her a more worldly person, smells a rat…
It may be difficult to get a firm grip onThe Appeal at the start as the entire story is told through the written correspondence of the various characters. However, Hallett’s remarkable ability to get in the head of her characters and channel their quirks and biases through their emails and WhatsApp messages—difficult at the best of times—gives the story greater emotional texture than initially anticipated. Of course, we must also accept that her characters do selectively censor themselves in their correspondence, which raises questions about the reliability of their testimony. And some parts are just irresistibly funny: an exchange between the garrulous, but annoying, Isabel Beck and an uninterested Martin had me bursting out in laughter when Martin responds to Isabel’s novella of an email with a one word reply.
One thing: the book supposedly gives you enough information to figure out whodunnit before the big reveal at the end. I’m not sure if it does. But then again, I read it in one sitting so I might have been too tired, or just not clever enough, to figure it out. All in all, The Appeal is a gripping read, but perhaps not one for fans of dark Scandinavian detective noirs.
During an author event here at Lit Books on Nov 2, 2022,Audrey Magee, author of The Colonyand former journalist, said that while writing her novel, she had to keep the reporter within in check. Notwithstanding the self-professed demarcation of roles, The Colonyis a fine example of a key journalism precept, namely, show, don’t tell. The result is an achingly beautiful novel written with a fluency and sparseness of prose that draws all emotion out from the page to inject them fully within the soul of the reader.
Such is the prowess of Magee’s Booker-longlisted novel that it makes absolute sense as to why it didn’t win the prize: it simply reads too well. Also working against it Booker prize-wise is that rather than it being a simple story masked in complexity, it is a complex story that masks itself in simplicity. The Colony recalls to mind that other quietly powerful novel, John Williams’ rediscovered Stoner, which similarly traverses the themes of class, ambition and betrayal within similarly narrow confines. Indeed, Julian Barnes’ verdict on Stoner can and ought to be restated in respect to The Colony: “the prose was clean and quiet; and the tone a little wry”.
Set in a fictitious remote island in the Atlantic at the height of Irish sectarian violence in 1979, The Colonycentres around the arrival of two neo-colonials, an Englishman and a Frenchman — an artist and a linguist, respectively — to an unnamed island. Entitled and oblivious, both arrive with the aim of seeking out and capturing for themselves an authentic Irish experience, to the amusement and bemusement of the islanders.
Despite initial reservations about the intentions of Mr Lloyd, the Englishman, some of the islanders begin to warm to him, particularly James, an island boy with a preternatural gift for painting. Recognising James’ talent and in appreciation of his willingness to run around as his dogsbody, Lloyd promises to take James home with him to London and showcase his precocious, if naive, talent at his wife’s gallery. In the meantime, Lloyd is also painting James’ mother, Mairead, in the style of Gauguin, despite the disapproval of the remaining islanders.
The Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Masson, has arrived on the island to complete his longitudinal research on the Gaelic language. He has been coming to the island annually for five years to document and capture changes in the language on the island, which, thanks to the remoteness of the location, was relatively free from outside influence. Viewing himself as a protector of the authenticity and survival of the language, Masson finds favour with the matriarch of the family who fervently insists on keeping with the old ways. Masson expects to be lionised for his work; the islanders know better.
At its core, Magee’s novel is a restatement of the violence of colonisation, and a revelation of the play of power within a complex weave. It is when this dynamic is normalised — when the one who wields power and the one over which power is wielded forget their place — that the nuanced wretchedness of the colonial relationship is revealed. Indeed, this is stated with some force in The Colony where each chapter is divided by a short report on some incident of violence that happened in Northern Ireland in 1979, culminating in the assassination of Lord Mountbatten on August 27.
No such ruckus disrupts the quietude of the main story, save for a rather menacing, albeit ambiguous, ending for some of the islanders. The Colony ends the way that Irish novels must: a melancholic return to the status quo with everyone just that little bit more sad.
The author session we had with Magee and Pusaka founder Eddin Khoo was thanks to the support of the Embassy of Ireland in Malaysia. Below are edited excerpts from the hour-long conversation.
On achieving a sense of distance in her writing: I think I grew up in an Ireland that was kind of almost distant from itself. The core of this novel is the violence — the violence that was the backdrop to my childhood, to the childhood of the people of my generation. And it was obviously distant from me as I was living in the south, but the violence was up in Northern Ireland. And most of the time you lived your life, but sometimes it cut into your life and it became very difficult to absorb.
I think you naturally created a distance from your identity to protect yourself from the violence. I say this because as a child, your identity was so defined by what you thought of the violence. For anybody growing up in a violent situation, whether it’s a violent marriage or a backdrop of violence, they can become quite distant as a way of self-preservation. I think a lot of us became quite distant from our heritage and our sense of Irishness — by that I mean our relationship with the language, our relationship with the flag because it was so politicised. Everything about our identity was politicised. So our flag is green, white and orange, which embodies the Catholics, Protestants with the neutral white between us. That was deemed to be an appropriate foundation of the state — and it was. But when the violence started again in the late 1960s… most of us just distanced ourselves.
I became very interested in otherness, and I became very interested in France and Germany. It was an easier space than Ireland. And then I continued that passion by going into journalism; it’s not your story, it’s somebody else’s story. So that kind of life as a viewer became quite a natural space for me, to stand outside of things. That’s a very valid space as a writer.
That fed into the titles. My first novel is called The Undertaking. It’s the Second World War from the perspective of the ordinary German — again, standing back to analyse. The Colony is obviously about colonisation, what it is to be colonised, what it is to be the coloniser. But I deliberately went with the definite article and a noun. I suppose drawing to a large degree on Camus and that whole L’Étranger/La Peste, that sense of creating an environment from which you can stand back to then explore. So it’s a distance to create an exploration because we assume we know what happened in Nazi Germany. We assume we know what happened in Ireland, what happens when you’re colonised, what happens in colonisation. But I’m much more interested in the latencies, in the things that are hidden from one generation to the next. Or the things that are passed on from one generation to the next by parents, grandparents, schools, institutions, politicians, society in general that we don’t even understand we’re inheriting and that we’re still repeating. And to do that, you need a distance. […]
But I can create a space for us all to think about what we know, what we’ve inherited, what we don’t know, what maybe we should think about. […] I wanted to understand the implications of that for all of us. We go on because we’re always focused on the future, because we have to be. We have to focus on the next generation. But sometimes to bring the next generation to the right place, you have to go back a bit to go forward. And that’s the space I’m trying to create.
On the passage from journalism to writing her first novel: I really had to — and I kid you not — go on a detox programme. I had to unlearn everything I had learnt about writing and create a freedom of space for something to happen. When you’re in journalism it’s always very preordained — obviously much more so in news writing than in feature writing and I did both — but also to no longer be certain. I had always been involved in otherness because that was exciting. Journalism is the epitome of other. But sitting with [the man who’s family was killed] the most precious thing we can hope for is an ordinary life. So I became compelled to try to create that ordinariness, and what was the impact. I wrote my first novel, which is what is the impact of fascism on the ordinary person. and then I was halfway through The Colony when I realised I was actually writing a triptych of power and the ordinary person. So we have fascism and the ordinary person, [The Colony] is colonisation and the ordinary person. There is a third novel, it’s got “the” in the title and that’s all I can tell you.
It was quite a process. I had to go back to the writing I was writing before I ever went into journalism. I was a ferocious letter writer, I had dabbled in short stories and plays but then buried them thinking I’ll never be a writer. You’re also dealing with the legacy of Irish writing. It’s hard to underestimate the legacy of four Noble Prize winners. Where do you begin? So to even put yourself forward and use the word writer was such a huge step for me. I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t say I’m a writer. In journalism I was never a writer; I was a journalist who wrote. It’s just such a precious word in Ireland. Writer is a very precious space, and I revered that space. Therefore, to enter it, I had to leave journalism behind me.
On how European literature shaped her fiction writing: I was 16 when I met French writer Marguerite Duras for the first time. I had a wonderful French teacher in school who is my friend. She decided to do Moderato Cantabile with us which is one of Duras’ very sparsely written books. It’s a beautiful book, not a lot happens and yet a ton happens. I had been reading as part of my English curriculum all the Dickens and the Jane Austens and they’re all grand, lovely, great. But there was no space for me as a reader. I was always being told what to think, what to feel. I found that a bit boring. And then I met Duras and I was like, ‘Oh my god’. This is so radical for me because she created a space for me where I could engage; I could make my own decisions and I could analyse things for myself. She treated me as somebody who had thoughts and that was utterly radical. [Albert] Camus was huge because of his integration of narrative, politics, philosophy and sociology all into a novel and I thought that was thrilling. There was obviously Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Böll, Thomas Mann — the list is long and wonderful.
I had two amazing departments in University College Dublin (UCD). In 1980s Ireland we were doing French feminism while there were rows raging about divorce, abortion, homosexuality — all these things were really introduced by the church and anybody who stepped out of line was in trouble. I was on the fourth floor of UCD immersed in French feminism, French film, French linguistics, French language, German philosophy. I mean it was the most incredible space of otherness and it absolutely fed into me. But I think it fed into me in a very interesting way as well because you know you might be reading Goethe in German or German in the Middle Ages. And of course I didn’t understand a thing. So you learnt how to grasp onto a tiny phrase that gave you an understanding. When you read in a foreign language, you learn how much you can actually say with very little, that you can cut out tracks and tracks of description and put it into two words and you still pass your exams.
That really fed into understanding the impact of just two words, or three words or a phrase and how much that can carry, and how little you need to carry a whole scene.
Signed copies of The Colony are available to purchase in-store and online.We also have Magee’s first novel, The Undertaking.
UPDATE 5 Oct 2022:So pleased to hear that PENDATANG has hit its funding target and will be proceeding as planned! We have made our contribution comprising proceeds from the sale of Crime and Thriller books for the stipulated period + some from Min Hun’s coffee fund. We are looking forward to supporting the movie when it comes out.
Hi folks! We are helping to raise funds for the production of Kuman Pictures’ Pendatang, a Malaysian action thriller. Kuman Pictures, who is headed by our good friend Amir Muhammad, has opted to crowdfund the resources required for the film’s creation instead of relying on large companies or corporate sponsors so as to enable the movie to be made and screened without commercial or bureaucratic considerations. (For more information about the movie: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/pendatang-movie#/)
While Lit Books is not in any way affiliated with the movie industry, we feel that this is an important story that needs to get told and should be given every opportunity for that to happen. To that end, we will be forwarding 50% from the profits of all crime and thriller books sold at our store until the end of the crowdfunding period (Aug 24 – Oct 6, 2022) towards the production budget. Head on to this link to cruise our crime fiction section, buy a book and help get a movie made: https://litbooks.com.my/product-category/fiction/fiction-crime-and-thriller/
(Note: Should the crowdfunding fail to meet its target, the funds raised through this promotional period will be set aside for the funding of future projects.)
As booksellers, Elaine and I constantly work through an endless pile of books to determine their suitability for our shelves. We usually divvy up the books between us and avoid reading the same book to speed up the assessment process (which makes for interesting book conversation, because rather than discussing something we had read together, we are almost always telling each other about the book that we just read). It’s not often that we would say to the other person, ‘Hey, you need to read this book’ but she said just that after finishing Elizabeth Wong’s We Could Not See the Stars several months ago. I mumbled, ‘Okay, I’ll get around to it,’ and left it at that. But several weeks ago, she’d thrown the book at me, metaphorically speaking, and said ‘Read It!’, because the author was going to be making an appearance at our shop and I Needed To Read The Book. And so I did.
At first blush, We Could Not See the Starsis a work of speculative fiction set in an alternate Malaysia populated by emigrant Chinese in which Manglish is spoken exclusively. The story begins in Kampung Seng, a small fishing village on the west coast of the Peninsula, where our protagonist, Han, lives the quiet, unassuming life of a rural fisherman. He schleps for his rich uncle — Tauke Lim — who owns the largest fishing operation in the kampung and spends his days aimlessly rooting around, despite his young age. What sets Han apart from all others, however, is his spotty provenance: his mother, Swee, had suddenly appeared at Kampung Seng with him in tow years ago armed with a mysterious looking spade, and never disclosed any information in regards to her origins or her family. That she would then deliberately run into the sea to her death several years later, leaving no clue as to her origins save for the odd-looking spade, would further deepen the mystery of the pair.
Han, who has little recollection of his mother and even less of their past, is phlegmatic about this void in his life even though he is plagued by dreams and fragments of memories embedded in his being. All this changes when his mother’s spade is stolen from his house — “She’s dead and I have nothing left of her!” — spurring Han to go after the thief, setting him off on a journey that will take closer than ever to the discovery of the truth of his heritage. His odyssey will see him leave his tiny kampung for the first time, taking him to the Capital in the Peninsula, then across the deadly Desert of the Birds, and finally across the sea into the Hei-San archipelago where the secret of his origins lies within the forest of Naga Tua.
First, a word about the language. It is clear from the off that Elizabeth Wong is adamantly writing a book about Malaysia, for Malaysians. However, there is also no doubt that she is writing about a specific setting of Malaysia and for a specific segment of Malaysians:
In their evenings, they lingered in the parking lot of the former Golden Star cinema. The last rays of sunlight flared across their motorcycles as they smoked their cigarettes, and the dust clouds from the main road billowed around them. Sometimes they would race from Golden Star to Liu’s prawn farms on the other side of the village, and back again… If they were at Boon Chee, they would watch football matches that were showing on the twenty-year-old Sony TV that hung over the entrance, next to Laughing Buddha looking at them. ‘Eh, boss, boss, more beer, peanuts also, why like that so slow?’ Chong Meng would holler, and the workers would scurry.
Those of us of a certain vintage and variety would certainly recall such locales: Chinese townships anchored by the local cinema — the Sentosa, Paramount and Ruby cinemas come to mind — supported by an enclave of petty merchants selling sundry items and fireworks under newspapers during Chinese New Year. The local patois would very much be dictated by the majority dialect group in the area, and if any English was spoken in these areas, it would be in the Manglish so deftly illustrated in the line of dialogue above. Even the cry of the rooster, which Wong phonetically dishes out as Goukokoko, is typically Manglish; nowhere else would you find a rooster’s cry written out in this way, in the same way that so many thousands of Chinese Malaysian mums have sounded the cry of the rooster to their children.
Indeed, all of Wong’s characters speak in Manglish in the novel. Nevertheless, it is a particularly Chinese Malaysian variety of Manglish that dominates in the book which leaves the question of, ‘What about the other races?’ unanswered. The fact of the matter is, the other races don’t feature in the book at all; or if they do, their distinguishing marks are subsumed under generalities and abstractions. (White men do make an appearance in the book, although they are, perhaps slightly pejoratively, described as the White Ghosts, a literal translation of the Cantonese term for Caucasians, gwai lo [鬼佬]. Before anyone loses their composure over this, it’s a very minor role and their presence more a function of world-building demarcating boundaries than anything else).
But there is a reason for the Chinese-Malaysian-centricity of the book. At its core, We Could Not See the Starsis a fable about the Chinese diaspora, and about the descendants of those who left the motherland for Nanyang in search of riches in these relatively virgin lands. It is about those of us who have been separated from our ancestral lands for generations, who have lost all bonds of familiarity with these lands, and yet hold on to a thin thread that ties us to a past and impels us to seek out our identity by following that thread of history. This theme is repeated in several passages through the novel:
We are all part of this world, Ah-ma explained, connected in this great shining net of humanity, and to belong in it fully, one needs a past, a history.
For we are stardust — we are merely a minuscule physical manifestation of larger processes, planet forming from bits of rock and dust, plants generating oxygen, comets and asteroids delivering water, volcanoes spewing aleum, creating homes for humans to find and populate; we are one sentence in a larger story, one whose ending has not been written yet. To lose this history is death.
We Could Not See the Stars is not a perfect novel. I have some reservations about the pacing and the structure of the book, and there is a sense that the balance between world-building and plotting is slightly off-kilter. Nevertheless, the book continues to resonate deeply within me because the problem of historicity and identity is one that I can strongly identify with. Going back to the metaphor of the thread of history which ties us to our past, we can also see that the thread thins and weakens with each successive generation. There will be a point of inflection in which the thread snaps altogether, and decisions will have to be made: about when and where we are to re-anchor ourselves, and to decide our part in the larger narrative. We will need to do this, because, as Wong tells us, to lose this history is death.
Join us for an author session with Elizabeth Wong in Lit Books on 6 Aug! Purchase tickets here.
If there is a lesson to Keiichiro Hirano’s At the End of the Matinee, it is this: love endures. A quiet romance replete with all the clichés, Matinee can, nevertheless, resonate with the right reader at the right time. It is also a reminder that however much love can strike one like a bolt of lightning, a whole series of accidents and happenstances need to fall into place in order for love to work.
Matinee is the story of two people, Satoshi Makino and Yoko Komine. The former is a genius classical guitarist and the latter a renowned journalist. The two meet entirely by chance as they both reach what would be the first apex of their respective careers and are immediately drawn to each other. Their time together at the first meeting is short, but they would build their relationship through emails and video calls, finding succor in the company of each other even as they find their individual powers starting to wane.
But the course of true love never does run smooth, and the very deliberate intervention of Makino’s jealous suitor proves insurmountable for the pair. They separate and life goes on. They find new partners, start families but neither can shake the feeling that something essential is missing in their lives. They eventually come to know of the sequence of unfortunate events that had led to their break up, which brings with it some comfort. They are drawn again to each other, but has too much time passed, for better and for worse, to pick up where things had left off?
There is little that is new in Matinee but the old-fashioned charm it does possess makes for a refreshing read. The lovers are earnest and uncomplicated, and the relationship is derailed only due to the highly unlikely and malicious intervention of a third party, whose only function in the book, really, is to do just that. There are no last minute dashes to the airport—
He didn’t want to do anything that drastic—or rather, he didn’t want Yoko to put him in the position of having to do something that drastic… he had the painful feeling that going after her would not only make him into [sic] a pitiable figure but the fact that she’d made him go might also lower her ever so slightly in his estimation.
—because, let’s face it, those Hail Mary passes never work. Lofty discussions are liberally scattered throughout the dialogue to remind us that our lovers are forces of nature to be reckoned with, wholly constituted with intimate knowledge of Bach, art house films and philosophy.
It will be difficult to imagine At the End of the Matineestanding as a testament to the endurance of love or as a story of romance par excellence but there are certainly layers in the book that deserve further attention. There are pleasures to be had from the story, and the loftiness is told well enough to be interesting and only occasionally hint at their being artifices for a more profound truth. Worth picking up together with a nice chardonnay from the left bank.
Deciding a best of list is always a frustrating experience because there are so many books to choose from in any publishing year. Then you also have to decide if books that elicit a strong emotional response is more or less deserving of a place than a novel that is, though more subdued, on the whole, a more technically accomplished work — it’s tough. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed your reading year as much as I did.
Summer by Ali Smith Each entry of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet has made my “Best of” list in the past three years and Summer has unsurprisingly made the list again. While not my favourite of the four books in the series, Smith’s pretty good is still terribly good although I couldn’t bring myself to read it until there was a lull in the pandemic newsfeed. Tackling prickly issues including immigration, nationalism and COVID-19, it is a true testament of Smith’s storytelling ability and deftness of touch that the novel can seem light and even delightful at times. Which is not to say that the novel panders. It is sharply critical as were the previous three entries and, as with the previous novels, near impossible to sum up briefly what it is about. Nevertheless, we find the redemptive value of art again a central theme and a reminder that the tragedy of evil persists because of the inaction of good men and women.
How to be a Liberal by Ian Dunt The title is misleading because Dunt doesn’t really dwell very much on how one is to be a liberal. Instead, this is a masterful work chronicling the genealogy of liberalism from its philosophical roots to its political, economic and moral instantiations. Dunt does a good job in correcting widely held misapprehensions along the way, e.g., by restoring Harriet Taylor’s rightful role as John Stuart Mill’s collaborator rather than just a hanger-on, and expertly weaving together the disparate threads to create a cogent historical sequence of events. Starting out as a polemic against the rising tide of nationalism, How to be a Liberal charts the development of liberalism from philosophical ideology to economic and political dogma, and reveals the way this cornerstone of the 20th century has now come to be reviled and abused by political leaders. Written with the aplomb of a page-turning thriller, this book is particularly worth reading for those of us with poor knowledge of European history.
The Giant Dark by Sarvat Hasin The Giant Dark doesn’t feel particularly exceptional during the reading; however, the impression it leaves after turning the final page makes it one of my most memorable reads of the year. A stunning retelling of the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, The Giant Dark follows the doomed love affair of cult rock star Aida and Ehsan, an erstwhile poet and artist who has lost his mojo. The story picks up with the lovers meeting again after having broken up for the last 10 years after Aida returns to the US from their London home. In that time, Aida has channelled her heartbreak and longing into her music, which has turned her into a rock star with a fanatical following. A chance dinner date brings the two of them back together. For Aida, it is the fulfilment of a decade’s longing; for Ehsan, it is a rebirth but to what end? Comes replete with a Greek chorus (read bacchantes) ready to worship and tear down their hero with equal aplomb.
The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman Richard Osman’s cosy mystery — and I use that term advisedly because there seems to be something pejorative in it — is an excellent read to wind down the year. We return to Cooper’s Chase in this second instalment of the Thursday Murder Club series where a group of old age pensioners (OAPs) choose to unravel unsolved mysteries and crimes that occur in their surrounding environs. In The Man, Elizabeth, the de facto leader of the group and a former spy, receives an unwanted visitor in the form of her ex-husband. Also a spy by training, he has been called out of retirement to infiltrate the home of a crime lord, which, naturally, goes wrong. Meanwhile, Ibrahim, the brains of the outfit and the voice of reason, has been the victim of a snatch-theft and is suffering from post-event trauma. Joyce, the ever-cheerful and enthusiastic member of the group, is trying to hold everything together. A page turner that is readable in every aspect.
Silent Parade by Keigo Higashino I am a huge fan of Keigo Higashino so anything new from him almost automatically makes it to the list. Silent Parade is the latest of the Detective Galileo series featuring Manabu Yukawa, Higashino’s sleuthing physicist who is always ready to pitch in whenever the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department encounters a sticky case. This time, it’s the death of the prime suspect involved in the murders of two young girls 20 years apart. Reticent and more cunning than his external demeanour lets on, Kanichi Hasunuma has already escaped the judgment of the court once, and the family and neighbours of the second victim wasn’t about to let him get away again. Hasunuma is conveniently murdered during a popular parade through the neighbourhood but everyone seems to have a rock solid alibi. Our returning flatfoot, Chief Inspector Kusanagi, is again stumped and calls on the deductive powers of his university friend Yukawa to help solve the seemingly impossible murder. A gripping page turner, Silent Parade is a book you want to finish in one sitting.
A few years ago, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to accompany my wife and her brother on their sibling-bonding hike up Mt. Kinabalu. This was — is — something that I am not particularly keen to do, and the only reason I would have ventured to do so would be out of love or, as it was in this case, out of spite. The hike up Kinabalu is not particularly difficult or treacherous but it can be dire when the weather is inclement — which it was — and when the hiker at issue is unfit and overweight — which I was. There were plenty of occasions on the way when I’d simply wanted to quit, turn around and say, this is not for me. However, it was one of those occasions in life when you just had to keep going forward because you couldn’t turn back.
M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Againreminds me of that hike: beautiful, grueling, unforgettable, momentous. I would add ‘regrettable’ but as with the hike, I think I’m rather glad for having read the book/ascended the mountain than if I had not. It is not the most accessible of books and it does not yield readily to judgements of “I liked it” or not; indeed, it may be almost sublime (in the technical sense of the term). Seldom does a book prompt immediate re-reading but this one did, if only for one to piece together the various clues scattered throughout the book.
Sunken Landfollows the lives of two protagonists: Shaw and Victoria, unlikely middle-aged lovers whose lives are linked by a conspiracy website and the myth of an ancient, atavistic race of water people. Both are gripped in some form of low-key existential crisis — Shaw, recently unemployed, checks into a low-rent guest house on the bank of the Thames while Victoria, tired of city life, opts to move into her late mother’s house in Shropshire in the Midlands. They have a tenuous relationship, further strained by Shaw’s continuing effort to give up any and all forms of agency, while Victoria’s attempt at bucolic life is interrupted by a parade of strange characters at her new home by the river Severn.
Shaw picks up work with the eccentric Tim Swann whom he meets at a cemetery harvesting muddy water from a depression in the ground. A general dogsbody, Shaw is set to work on a number of seemingly random tasks, including visiting derelict wholesalers in the depressed outskirts of Greater London, jotting down the testimony of a retired civil engineer who had been arrested for violent disorder, and video recording the actions of a psychic during a séance. Shaw is happy to go along with Tim’s increasingly strange bequests, including the transport of a pale green body from a swimming pool to places unknown and bearing witness to an incestuous coupling.
Victoria, meanwhile, settles into a community where the locals seem to be participants in a strange cult that has as its bible Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, a Victorian-era fable about a boy who transforms into a water sprite. Her only friend is Pearl, the owner of a café in town who occupies a queenly position of sorts in relation to the other oddballs in town. Victoria’s suspicions become even more piqued by the strange gatherings of men in the middle of the night, a mysterious voice calling out to her at all hours of the day, and Pearl disappearing into a pond only inches deep.
Drained by their experiences, Shaw and Victoria meet once more but find themselves unable or unwilling to connect with each other. “I’m living without explanations, if you can understand that,” Shaw explains at one point. And Victoria: “I always want to tell you about my life but somehow I never can. Isn’t that weird?”
No and yes.
From a plot perspective, Shaw is doing exactly what he says — living without explanations. Things happen to him, around him, by him, but he is simply there accreting circumstances. One reviewer describes Shaw as “post-critical” — he no longer questions or wonders or connects, but simply allows things to happen around him, effectively transcending the subject-object dichotomy. This aloofness, if it can be called that, finally fails him at the end of the book:
Shaw stood in the doorway. He became convinced there was another person in the room with them, then recognised in a single pure instant that it was himself. Events seemed to have paralysed him, casting his consciousness into the old root of his brain whence it struggled to escape.
Victoria, who has more of her wits about her, finds that she, too, has lost her agency. Driven into a psychic noose by the cult-like inhabitants of her city, Victoria confronts a reality of her home in the Midlands that jars with her big city London sensibilities. Unlike Shaw, she is caught in an eschatological maze that defies her will at every turn and prods and leads her to an inescapable fate.
Reviewers have read in Sunken Land a psychogeography of Brexit Britain. While it may be difficult for anyone not residing in Britain to ascertain the veracity of that claim, it must be said that Sunken Land can be a discomfiting experience. The inconclusive and allusive plot that leads the reader on with the promise of closure — “Everyone gets an answer in the end,” an exasperated Victoria is told; “All will be revealed” Tim tells Shaw on another hapless adventure — never comes to a satisfying close. And yet there is something beautiful but haunting in the writing that both gladdens and terrifies at the same time; while I’m reluctant to draw parallels with Lovecraft, there is more than a nod in that direction viz the watery gothic imagery that saturates Sunken Land. The bookis also about forgotten places: spaces left behind and forgotten by the passage of time, and in which the distinction between legend and reality becomes inseparable.
This was my first Harrison. Despite a substantial backlist of work in the realms of speculative and literary fiction spanning decades, I’d not come across his work until he showed up in my newsfeed as having won the Goldsmiths Prize for 2020. I tend to give this award, which recognises excellence in experimental writing, a wide berth. I will likely continue to do so but Sunken Land will at least make me pause to reconsider, and pick up a book out of spite.
The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is available here.
Bill Gates’How to Avoid a Climate Disaster doesn’t set out to change your mind about climate change. Not really. Instead, Gates — who says he thinks more like an engineer than anything else — sets out to do what an engineer does best: the book is a comprehensive and accessible summary of the problem, and the tools and solutions that he thinks will help stave the climate disaster. Which is not to say that he is a climate fatalist — say like Jonathan Franzen — Gates is optimistic throughout (almost annoyingly so) but one can expect no less from a billionaire philanthropist who has spent the better part of this century on aid programmes and developmental schemes.
The main thesis of the book is that humanity needs to reduce our current rate of carbon emission from 51 billion tonnes each year to, well, zero within the next few generations. Failing to do so would result in disasters of epic proportions that will be costly both in terms of resources and human lives. He then goes on to detail the main human activities that must be addressed in order to curb carbon emissions — power generation, construction, transportation, heating and agriculture — and some of solutions that are already available or on the horizon that may solve the issue. Gates is a wonk so no surprise that his solution to climate change is a technological one.
He is well aware that climate change is as much a geopolitical issue as it is a technological one; carbon emissions will only increase as lower income nations climb up the value chain and it would be “immoral and impractical” to try to stop them. The only solution, it seems, is to once again put our faith in the marketplace and price the new carbon-neutral or carbon-negative alternatives so that they become more affordable than the current carbon-emitting solutions. This will require a radical rethinking of existing laws and pricing mechanisms that must of necessity be cross-border and holistic.
How to Avoid a Climate Disasteris a handy guide which gathers all the relevant information into one place. If nothing else, it is an accessible and informative book that spells out the scale and challenges of the problem. However, climate change is perhaps the intersectional issue and any solution that addresses it from one or two perspectives, as this book does, may seem ineffective. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster might not change any minds, but it might give the right reader some ideas on how they might make a greater contribution.
Genzaburo Yoshino’s How Do You Live?is a beloved Japanese coming-of-age novel that has been translated into English for the first time by Bruno Navasky. Originally published in 1937, How Do You Live? is regarded as a classic and an important children’s title in Japan. Soon to be an anime directed by the auteur Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, the book is a meditation on what it means to live with honour and integrity, and what it means to live a meaningful life in society.
The tale revolves around Junichi “Copper” Honda, a reflective 15-year old with precocious intellect and curiosity. Having lost his father at an early age, Copper turns to his mother’s brother, i.e. his maternal uncle, as the father figure in his life. A naturally curious and energetic boy, Copper enjoys a lively relationship with his uncle who he turns to for advice on subjects ranging from science to social relationships and ethics. These ponderings typically arise from Copper’s interactions with his peers or his observations of the empirical workings of the world.
The uncle, recognising the intellect and spark in Copper, encourages these musings and challenges the boy on his positions. These interactions are later recorded in a notebook that expands on the advice bequeathed to his nephew and elaborates on connected themes. Citing a broad range of thinkers including Copernicus, Napoleon and Goethe, the notebook serves as a handbook for living and guide for becoming a mensch.
How Do You Live is a charming story reminiscent of books such as Jostein Gaardner’s Sophie’s World and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince where the central vehicle that moves things along is the mentor-mentee relationship between Copper and his uncle. The book is divided into two distinct narratives: the first follows the journey of Copper, as an every-day school boy making his way through life with all the accompanying quotidian drama of a young teen, while the second are essays written by the uncle in the notebook which are didactic in function.
While the combination of the two might seem to be a recipe for a somewhat dull read, the opposite is instead true; as Neil Gaiman says in the foreword, “the joy is that the book contains both parts, pulling at each other, each informing the other side, and that if you removed either part you would have a less interesting book.” How Do You Live?Is a thoroughly enjoyable read and the anime should be no less interesting.
It’s difficult to read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sunwithout locating it among the rest of his writing. What makes the job more difficult is the Nobel laureate’s tendency to produce variations on a theme, unlike, say, David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, Bone Clocks, Utopia Avenue) whose past performance is no guarantee of future results. Ishiguro’s self-professed “dirty secret” is that he has only ever written one book over and over again with varying levels of virtuosity.
Ishiguro’s big tussle in each of his books is invariably the question of truth and the reliability of his limited and flawed narrators. These narrators construct imprecise and incongruous worldviews because it turns out that these are essential to their survival. In Never Let Me Go, Kathy H. and her fellow clones hold on to the unlikely hope that a display of their humanity will delay their inevitable sacrifice. Masuji Ono in An Artist of the Floating World can only justify his existence by believing himself to have been a far greater monster than he really was. Stevens, the butler of the Nazi-sympathising Lord Darlington in Remains of the Day, sacrifices truth at the altar of duty and dignity until he can no longer afford to do so.
Whatever their flaws, these narrators remain sympathetic characters if only because they reflect our own fragile grip on the meaningfulness of the world, and our need to create narratives for ourselves despite our own limited and narrow understanding of the people and events around us. The difference for Ishiguro’s characters is that they are almost always ultimately caught in their self-deceit; as Stevens says, “One is not struck by the truth until prompted quite accidentally by some external event.”
So what do we make of Klara in Klara and the Sun, the protagonist of Ishiguro’s eighth and most recent book? An Artificial Friend, or AF, Klara was built to be a companion for children in a fractured society that has stratified into an Orwellian caste system. Power has become concentrated in the hands of the few while automatons increasingly act as “substitutes” for human workers. Schools have been shut down in favour of homeschooling through remote devices known only as Oblongs, and chosen scions of a select few participate in a genetic editing process that results in their being ‘lifted’. Brought up in isolation, children in this dystopia socialise in mediated “interaction meetings” where they practise disguising their backhanded compliments as social grace. (This dystopic future, written in a time of pandemic, seems almost laughably kitsch until one realises that it’s not too far off from the current state of learning.)
The world in Klara and the Sunis not a happy place; but it is a hallmark of Ishiguro’s novels that the worst evils are attenuated through the use of normalised language: “lifted” and “substituted” in Klara, or “completions” in Never Let Me Go referring to the death of an organ donor mid-vivisection. Klara’s world is a morass of contradictions and genteel horrors, but as with Ishiguro’s other books, this horror is very much softened by Klara’s experience and understanding.
Precocious for an AF with unique powers of observation and synthesis, Klara begins life as a display model at the AF store. Because of these traits, she is extremely sensitive to the nuance and patterns of human behaviour around her, even when they are incongruous with each other. This comes up in an interesting bit of philosophy of mind when Ishiguro describes just how an AF might view the world, which builds a unified intuition from discrete perceptions that are given to her in discrete perceptions a la Kant. When contradictions in her perceptions occur, the unity is broken up into individual “boxes”, indicating that the scene before her is contradictory, confusing or otherwise incongruous. For example, In one passage, her perception of the store manager is broken into boxes, one of which showed her eyes “that were filled with kindness and sadness” even as another box focused on the manager’s jaw which reflected “anger and frustration”.
These incongruities would pop up regularly during her time spent with Josie, the teenager who purchases Klara and brings her home. Josie is very ill and her relationship with the people in her lives are tense, especially in relation to her overbearing mother, Chrissie, and her neighbour, Rick, with whom she has a youthful romance. Josie has already lost her older sister Sal to a similar sickness, and the loss has coloured her world — from the estrangement of her father to her mother’s overprotective demeanour.
Klara is an excellent AF, not just to Josie but to the other people in her lives. Reflective and spiritual — again, unique traits for an automaton — she becomes involved in the private sufferings of the people around Josie. Incapable of self-deception, Klara’s beliefs and actions are motivated by her empirical observations and her sense of duty. Nevertheless there is something at the core of her being that adds to the synthesis, which motivates her to make some very un-AF-like decisions, such as rejecting a potential customer while waiting for Josie to return to the store, and deducing the nature of love in her reflections at the end of the book. Klara may not be an unreliable narrator in the traditional sense, but neither is her portrayal of the world one that is truly representative. (Then again, whose understanding of the world can be truly representative?)
As with Ishiguro’s other books, the world constructed in Klara and the Sun is by necessity narrowed by the first-person perspective, but one of Ishiguro’s strengths is his ability to do so without suffocating the reader. Instead, it becomes an intimate marriage of self and experience which leads to beautifully reflective prose. An oddity in the book, however, is the tonality of the dialogue between the teenaged children who speak with an American patois that is distinct from everyone else in the book. It broke the reading momentum the first few times I encountered them but they eventually became niggling irritations rather than severe disruptions.
There are some inexplicable issues in the book; for example, how does an AF with a highly developed scientific cognitive mind fail to understand the true nature of the sun? Or misidentify objects such as a roadworks machine to be some sort of mythological creature of evil? It is unclear if Ishiguro’s world is logically consistent, but then again perhaps that is not the point of this book, or any of his books for that matter. Klara and the Sun might not hit the same artistic heights as his previous novels but it is still a beautifully quiet, elegant novel.
Klara and the Sun is available in hardback (RM116) and trade paperback (RM75.50) here.