Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Liberty's Fire, by Lydia Syson

Like Lydia Syson's previous books, A World Between Us and That Burning Summer, this novel has as its subject love in a time of conflict. The first was set in the Spanish Civil War - about which probably most of us know a little, but not very much. The second was set in WW2 - but in a seldom-explored corner of it: it deals with conscientious objectors. (We know a good deal about the fate of conscientious objectors in the First World War, but we hear far less about them in the second one - perhaps because we have come to see the first conflict as a largely shambolic bloodbath, whereas the second is broadly seen as a 'just war'.)

Liberty's Fire is set during the Paris Uprising of 1871, when the workers, starving and desperate after being besieged by the Prussians, declared that the people would govern the city through a Commune. It's a time about which I knew virtually nothing: after reading the book, I know a great deal more!

However, Lydia Syson is far too skilled a writer to overload the book with historical context. In the foreground of the novel are four vivid and appealing characters, and it is the stories of their relationships and the shifts they have to make to survive the turbulent times that drive the novel forward.

Anatole is a young violinist. I'm not sure that we're ever given a physical description of him, but it becomes clear that he is very attractive, in his personality as well as in his appearance. He has tremendous joie de vivre, and he's the kind of person whose charm and enthusiasm make him a magnet for other people. He is vaguely aware of this, but almost entirely guileless; impulsive, warm, generous - but perhaps a little careless about the effect he has on others. This is particularly so in the case of Jules, a young, well-to-do American with whom Anatole shares an apartment. Jules is a photographer, which means among other things that he is invited to be present at some of the significant events of the uprising - he is a witness. It quickly becomes clear to the reader that Jules is in love with Anatole. What's less clear is how aware Anatole is of this. He seems to have some sense of it, but chooses not to explore too deeply what Jules' feelings are for him; perhaps it's more convenient for him that way. Jules is a marvellous character, very subtly drawn.

The Commune has thrown out the normal conventions of social intercourse, and so when Anatole meets a working-class girl called Zephyrine, he is able to get to know her. They fall in love. Zephyrine is gripped by the ideology of the communards, by the idea of freedom and justice for all, and Anatole is swept along by her enthusiasm - only for both of them to see that neither side has a monopoly on cruelty and injustice. The fourth member of the quartet is Marie, a singer and friend of Anatole. She is ambitious, and she sees that the Commune may give her unexpected opportunities. But her brother is a soldier with the Nationalist (opposing) forces; as far as she knows he's a prisoner of war. She is desperate to help him, but she finds that her attempts to do so lead her into murky moral territory.

So the scene is set for conflicts of all kinds. Lydia Syson writes about all of them with skill, but it's her descriptions of the fighting which, as a writer, particularly impress me. I've written about battle scenes, and it's not easy; unless you can find good first-person accounts, how can you really imagine what it was like to be under a particular kind of fire? Well, Syson makes an utterly convincing job of it. Here, she writes of an explosion at a cartridge factory:

...the cloud had a capricious, uncapturable beauty: innumerable silvery ostrich plumes, continually unfurling, whirling, twisting in the air, revolving round themselves and others, endlessly and speedily rolling in and out of one another...And from the sky fell burning timber, molten lead, empty bullet cases and human remains.

The Commune only lasted a few short months, and the communards were ferociously punished. The issues are complex, but Syson handles them adeptly. And as we see how this movement by the people and for the people starts with passionate idealism, but becomes mired in the politics of necessity, perhaps we may reflect with perplexity on how the same story continues to be told - over, and over, and over again.

The book is marketed at young adults, but as is so often the case, I think it's also entirely suitable for 'old' adults!

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The first book I read by Kazuo Ishiguro was An Artist of the Floating World. I had taken my son up to Warwick University for an open day, and while he looked round, I bought this from the book shop. (I wonder if it still has one? Neither Bristol nor Exeter, where I've recently been working, appears to have one - which I find bizarre beyond words...) I read it in one sitting: I found it completely absorbing. I was fascinated by the world that was described - Japan pre and after the second world war, and by Ishiguro's subtle manipulation of the reader's response through his viewpoint (and unreliable) narrator.

Since then, I've read and enjoyed some of his books but found others more challenging. Now I've just read The Unburied Giant, his most recent one. The setting - a just post-Arthurian Britain - is very different from his other books, but there's a similarity about the voice, which is calm, apparently reflective and rational - almost monotonous. He certainly doesn't go in for flourishes. It's a semi-fantasy world, peopled with ogres, pixies, demons and a dragon - though none of these seem very real, and the ogres and pixies in particular don't appear to have an obvious purpose. (Well, not to me - though I'm probably just being dense.)

Arthur is dead, and the Saxons and Britons are living in a slightly uneasy harmony. Relations between the two communities are eased by a strange forgetfulness, which Axl and Beatrice, the elderly couple whose quest for their son forms the central narrative, call the 'mist'. They are puzzled by the way snatches of memory tantalise and then elude them; they want to regain their memories of the past, but they come to suspect that there may be things that would better remain hidden.

Along the way they meet other significant characters - notably Wistan, a brave Saxon warrior, and Sir Gawain, Arthur's nephew, now elderly (and a little reminiscent of the knight with the Questing Hound in T H White's A Once and Future King), and sometimes comical, but still noble and courageous. And they meet the boatman, a Charon-like figure (or is he an angel? He's described once as having a 'shining back', and he does his duty with a kind of sorrowful determination) who, it seems, cannot ultimately be escaped.

I don't think it's a particularly successful creation of a fantasy world, but I think that probably wasn't what Ishiguro was interested in. It's an allegory, with huge things to say about love, memory, war, reconciliation - about the very nature of humanity, which seems to leap from one conflict to another. A terrible onslaught is foreshadowed at the end of the book - one which took place fifteen centuries ago: but what have we learnt? Not a lot, when you cast a quick eye over the news.

This is just a preliminary response; it's not a book that reveals everything it contains in one quick reading.

Would love to hear anyone else's thoughts!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Visiting Vincent

I recently visited a museum in Amsterdam devoted to the art and life of Vincent Van Gogh: it's one of the best museums/art galleries I've ever visited. Follow the link here to read about it - and about the poignant story attached to this particular painting.

Monday, 11 May 2015

How I finally came to read John Green's 'The Fault In Our Stars'

Now, if you have any interest in books for teenagers/young adults - or even if you haven't - you have probably heard of The Fault In Our Stars. It's about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love; first published in 2012, it became a New York Times bestseller and was subsequently made into a film.

Although I do have a considerable interest in books for young people, I didn't become aware of it until a friend lent it to me - I have to confess, this was about a year ago, but I've only just read it. Why the delay?

Well, firstly, I'm not sure what I feel about books written about, or purportedly by, dying teenagers - or even in some cases by teenagers writing from beyond the grave (eg The Lovely Bones).It's not that the books aren't well-written or anything like that; it's just that I feel slightly uncomfortable about the notion that both the author and the readers are making use of an inherently dramatic, but very sad and private situation.

I realise that this isn't entirely logical. For a start, it's what writers do all the time. I did it in my own book, The Willow Man, when I wrote about a child with a serious illness. I had my reasons - one of my own children had been through something similar, and I was sort of writing about it in an attempt to come to terms with that - but all the same, having written it, I didn't just put it in a drawer - I got it published. But terminal illness - that feels like a step further. But perhaps it's not; really not sure about that one.

The main reason though - and this is an odd one - is that this book has clearly been extremely successful. It didn't need me. Now, clearly this is ridiculous - but nevertheless, if I hear masses about a book and I know it's doing really well, my gaze tends to slide over it in bookshops. Maybe it's because I've heard so much about it, it's almost as if I've already read it. Maybe - perfectly possible - I'm just jealous. Maybe when something is very highly praised, the reality can never quite match up to the expectation.

Anyway - the reason I finally settled down to reading The Fault In Our Stars is that I recently went to Amsterdam, and while there, I visited the Anne Frank House. When you have been round the house, seen the Secret Annexe and read and heard all the heart-breaking testimony, there is an area where quotes from people who have visited the house are projected onto a screen. Some are from famous people, some aren't. Well, John Green, the author of TFIOS popped up. One of the exhibits in the house is a list of all the Jews who were deported from Amsterdam and murdered in the extermination camps; Anne's name is highlighted. Green makes the point that underneath her name, two boys are listed, both called, I think, Arno Frank. What about these two, he asks? Why shouldn't they be remembered too? And I think he made an undertaking that he would remember them. It was an interesting point and it struck me. And then I remembered that the book had some connection with Amsterdam, and so when I came home I read it - and found that a significant and rather lovely section takes place beside the very same canal near which I had been staying.

Lovely Amsterdam - the setting for part of the book.

Well, this is a ridiculously long introduction to writing about the book, but finally I'm there. It's clever, it's sad, it doesn't sentimentalise or pull any punches; it's funny and witty and of course, it makes you cry. Are teenagers really that clever and articulate? Is anybody really that clever and articulate? Well, clearly John Green is. And he makes the point in an interview that teenagers are the ones who are reading the difficult classics, not adults. But, although I enjoyed their cleverness, Gus and Hazel did strike me as being super-exceptionally bright.

That said, it's a riveting story. You know it's not going to end happily - how could it, when you're told at the outset that the main character has terminal cancer? - but the twist that comes near the end is just guttingly unfair. A very, very clever book: deeply moving, often funny, and not remotely sentimental. I would certainly recommend it - but then, you've probably got more sense than me and have already read it.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Me and A Game of Thrones...

... or, clutching at the coat-tails of fame!

A few days ago, I was rootling about on Google, checking whether their new algorithm has made my website impossibly difficult to find (it hasn't - phew.) By accident, I got onto Images, rather than Web, and I was intrigued to see that alongside a few pictures of me and of people I know, there were lots of people I didn't recognise at all. I scrolled down, and then I noticed this picture of me with two school children. It looks as if we're all having fun, doesn't it? I'd never seen it before, so I visited the page it came from.

It was featured in a newspaper article. And the reason for that is the girl on the left. The lovely smile may put you off track, but are the large dark eyes familiar? Well, if you're a Game of Thrones fan they should be - because this is Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark!

Apparently, this is one of a number of photos of a younger Maisie which were released to celebrate her 18th birthday. I get a name-check in the article:

One picture also reveals that Game of Thrones is not the first time she has been involved with fantasy novels.
In 2009, Maisie and fellow student Joe Knight met the author of Warrior King and Daughters of Time, Sue Purkiss, at Norton Hill School.
Warrior King is not exactly a fantasy novel - it's about Alfred the Great, and his daughter, Aethelflaed - but it does have an element of fantasy (probably my favourite character in the book, Cerys) - and the Dark Age world would be easily recognisable to GOT fans. And actually, Aethelflaed, who is also the subject of the story I wrote for Daughters of Time, has a fair bit in common with Arya - both the daughters of kings, both tomboys and good fighters, both loyal and brave. (Though Daughters of Time wasn't out when I visited Maisie's school.)

Such fun! It's sent me back to the books - I'd read the first two some time ago, but given up when all my favourite characters kept getting killed off in ever more gruesome ways. Am reading Book 3 at the moment - and guess who's my favourite character now? Fingers crossed she survives...