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Monday, 31 March 2008

100 unblessed sneezes can be fatal

How do you go about creating a memorable character, a Holden Caulfield or a Charlie Brown, someone who grips your attention and no matter what they do, you'll keep turning those pages to keep up with them? It's a good question.

The protagonist in Dan Rhodes' Gold could be one of those characters. She is a half-Welsh, half-Japanese, bibliophilial, beer drinking, junk-food eating, cuticle-nibbling, thirty year-old lesbian painter and decorator going by the name of Miyuki. The book records a week in which she goes on her annual midwinter holiday to trek along Pembrokeshire coast without her partner Grindl as a way of keeping their relationship interesting. She's been going to the same unnamed village for eight years straight.

I had never heard of the book when Canongate asked me if I wanted a copy to review but the wee bit I read about it piqued my interest. On researching the author I discovered that he had also written a collection of short stories entitled Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories. I had bought this for my daughter a couple of years back, so there must have been something about him because, as my late mother was fond of saying, "I don't buy rubbish."

That the book was short was also an attraction. I have never tried to hide the fact that I have an abiding fondness for short novels and novellas. Rhodes thinks the same as me:

Brevity is mistaken for laziness when more often than not it's the opposite that is true ... Gold clocks in at 198 pages and I'm convinced that, apart from in truly exceptional cases, this is about as long as a book ought to be. - Dan Rhodes's top 10 short books, The Guardian

Canongate's blurb says of it "you'll laugh, probably cry and you'll be finished in time to go to the pub," and I have to confess – and believe you me it feels like a confession – I did laugh out loud twice, albeit briefly and not very loudly, but I managed to rein in the tears. As for it being a quick read? Yes, most definitively – I finished it within a day without pushing myself.

The opening does what every good opening should do: captures your interest:

Tall Mr Hughes, short Mr Hughes and Mr Puw were standing at the bar of The Anchor. 'You know what we would be doing right now if we were alligators?' asked tall Mr Hughes, who had hardly spoken about anything but alligators for three consecutive evenings. It had been alligators this, and alligators that.

If your first thought is of Cliff from Cheers then you're not far off the mark but that is only one side of tall Mr Hughes.

There are only a few recurring characters in the book: the three old barflies, tall Mr Hughes, short Mr Hughes and pot-bellied Mr Puw; Mr Edwards, the landlord of The Anchor who appears incapable of saying anything other than “Holy Mackerel” and yet who also manages to infuse this expression with a wide variety of meanings and depths of feeling; Septic Barry, the long-haired caravan park lothario; his girlfriend-of-the-moment who doubles at The Anchor's barmaid and The Children from Previous Relationships. Rhodes introduces each of these in the same way, presenting only enough information to enable his characters to deal with the plot-such-as-there-is up to that point; half the book passes before we find out who the heck The Children from Previous Relationships really are and it's not until page 188 we discover Septic Barry's girlfriend's name. Little by little Rhodes fleshes his characters out; they become real to us; we start to care about them. Flashbacks are used extensively and effectively.

Much of the book is concerned with how little people know each other or need to know about each other. From what I have seen and read about the Welsh people it seems like a lot of them are like us Scots, a bit backwards in coming forwards with regards to relationships. They don't feel this overbearing compulsion to put things into words for them to make sense of life. And if they do, then they use as few words as necessary. If Japanese poetry is anything to go by I expect they're much the same.

There is a lot of repetition in Gold but it's really more like theme and variations; every day she is there is pretty much the same but different. When she walks into the pub at the start of the book, an act she repeats daily for the rest of the book, everything is as it was the last time she was there the year before, the punters, the landlord, even the pike on the wall with which she has a strange bond due to the fact it was framed when she was born so she has come to regard each of them as the same age.

There is an odd sub-plot too if you can call it a plot; it's more of a recurring motif. Did you realise that if you sneeze one-hundred times and nobody says, "Bless you," then you will die? As the days drag by Miyuki keeps a running total of how many times and, as the week wears on, she begins to get perilously close to the edge. (Before you rush off and start googling it, Rhodes confirmed in interview that he made up the whole thing).

To my reading the book is essentially about love without being a romance or even especially romantic (chick-lit it is not); it is a dissection of the nature of love (and it is only coincidentally love between two women) but we only get to examine one side of the relationship; until the last two pages of the book we only see Grindl through Miyuki's eyes. The one thing Miyuki has stipulated in this relationship is that they spend one month each year apart as "a lesson in not taking one another for granted" and during that time they are not to make contact. Grindl globe-trots. Miyuki travels a mere one-hundred miles to Pembrokeshire where she drinks too much beer, subsists off junk food and, in her "quiet moments of desolation", pines for Grindl.

She brushed her teeth, set her alarm and got into bed. She sniffed, sneezed her eighty-first unblessed sneeze and picked up her photograph of Grindl. She gave it a kiss. She was missing her so badly she could feel it in her toenails and her kneecaps.

It is an interesting and believable relationship. Up until meeting Grindl, Miyuki has simply been content to be the lesbian-girls-have-a-fling-with- to-see-if-they’re-really-gay. Now she has someone who stops her living on Pot Noodles, Jaffa Cakes and Pepsi Max.

There are a number of pivotal moments in the book. The first is where Miyuki decides to spray one of the rocks on the shore with gold paint; it is not the success she had hoped for and the result and its effects on her are significant. It is apparently reminiscent of some of Rhodes earlier work, the short story 'Landfill', where Maria turns town dumps into beauty spots.

     'Modern art, is it?'
     She nodded.
     'So what does it mean, then?'
     'What do you mean, what does it mean??'
     'I thought modern art was all supposed to mean something, not just be nice to look at.'
    Miyuki wondered if he was right, and that it should mean something. The trouble was she hadn't thought deeply about it; she had only done it because she thought it would give the occasional passer-by a welcome surprise.

The second moment, and one that strangely enough hinges on the first, is where tall Mr Hughes vanishes and how it affects the small community.

She saw herself sitting in The Anchor in a year's time, with short Mr Hughes and Mr Puw standing at the bar, staring into space and saying, He's probably visiting relatives, or something, and He'll be in tomorrow – he's not going to miss three-hundred-and-sixty-nine days in a row.

The final one is where she decides to cut short her holiday and go home early and on her way there the book reaches its not-so-grand and frankly quite subtle and underplayed finale.

I wondered what Rhodes hoped to gain by having his protagonist of mixed nationality but I see this as something of a metaphor that is echoed in other aspects of the novel. That he chose Pembrokeshire is interesting. Pembrokeshire looks quintessentially Welsh, but is often referred to locally as 'Lloegr Bach' ('Little England'). I had expected a close-knit, even closed-off community and was surprised to see her as accepted by the locals as she is, but she is still "the Japanese girl" even when seconded to the pub quiz team, if only to answer questions with an Oriental flavour, the men name their team, "Hughes Pew Hughes Japanese Girl." As it turns out, although conceived in Osaka, she is, to use her own terminology, “[a]s Japanese as laverbread” (a Welsh delicacy made from seaweed) and only knows as much as she does about the Far East because she has, after years of disinterest in her roots, begun studying up on it to assuage the constant questions she has found herself expected to know the answers to throughout her life. In her local community where she works with her partner, no one refers to the business by its proper name; people just call them, "The Lesbians." This is as much a novel about identity as it is about anything else.

Rhodes has been likened to Magnus Mills, a writer I'm not familiar with but one Rhodes reads, though if what I've read about Mills is accurate then I get the comparison. Mills is reported to have a deceptively simple, dead-pan style whose books focus on the very common man so I can see where they're coming from. That said, Gold seems a bit of departure from much of Rhodes earlier writing which I've seen described as "a curious blend of charm and brutality" – I don't find anything particularly brutal about it at all.

One reviewer (Claire Allfree in the Metro) referred to all the character in this book as vacuous. Granted they are not heavily delineated characters, more pencil sketches, but it takes a subtle hand to make the right strokes in the right places and Rhodes does this very well, He doesn't pour information over our head on page one, rather he presents one piece, lets it grow on us, then another, then another. It is also a very effective way of keeping the reader’s interest.

Apparently Gold spent an entire month in Heat magazine’s Top 10. I'm really not sure that statistic does this charming little book any favours at all. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned it.

Rhodes is an intriguing fellow and has been fairly vocal in the past – perhaps a little more opinionated than some might think advisable for a new writer wanting to win friends and influence people – but I find myself intrigued by some of his opinions:

I think a lot of big literary authors take themselves so seriously that they end up churning out work that’s critic-friendly and prize-friendly but it’s actually just boring. For me. I know there’s an enormous audience for it but I find a lot of literary hard-hitters to write quite boring stuff. Whereas I’m as influenced by telly and comedy and music as I am by book writers. And what I’ve taken from those things, I think, is that you just have to keep the pace going, you have to keep things toe-tapping and entertaining. - Spike Magazine

Some 'serious' writers lose track of the fact that they should be telling a good story, and if you don't tell a decent story all is lost. I doubt many people got the point of Fury by Salman Rushdie because it's so unentertaining I doubt many people finished it. I certainly didn't. I just got angry with him for wasting my time with a load of tedious tripe. He's a clever bloke, but not quite clever enough to realise that he should have written a readable book. There's too much of that about. - The Elegant Variation

Far too many books are written by writers who are writing because they are writers and that's what writers do. So many new books seem to be sloppy and half-arsed, and as a reader I find that deeply offensive. - 3am Magazine

I know myself when I'm not writing a part of me feels that I ought to be writing, that I don’t deserve to keep calling myself a writer unless I am writing, so I like the idea of an author who only writes what he believes in even if that does make both of us sound a bit idealistic.

My big problem is whether or not to call Gold a literary novel. I don't think it is but I think that says more what is wrong with literary novels than what's wrong with this book because I don't think there is anything wrong with this book. It is not a book I would have bought purely because of how it's been marketed; it looks like a holiday read (especially the misleading cover of the 2008 B-format reprint which is what I was sent) which again says more about me than it does about the book.

So is Miyuki Woodward going to become a literary icon, a Welsh Holden Caulfield? No. Nor would she expect to be. She won't be the next Bridget Jones either. The book will run its course, go out of print and she'll be forgotten. The thing is, I don't think she should be, not yet.

Rhodes despite having a Welsh surname and living in Edinburgh is actually an English writer. One of Granta magazine's Best of Young British Novelists 2003, his novel Timoleon Vieta Come Home won the Authors' Club First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.

Born in 1972 he has worked in various jobs including stockroom assistant in a bookshop and teaching in Ho Chi Minh City. He says that 1980's band The Smiths are "still the soundtrack to my life – I can't work out if they saved it or ruined it".

Gold was published: 29 Mar 2007


Ken Armstrong said...

This reminds me of a great book I read in Australia, years ago, called The Glass Canoe by David Ireland. It was set entirely in an Oz pub and by golly I loved it to bits.

Multiple sneezes do exercise people's concerns:

I always heard that if you sneezed three times and nobody said 'bless you' then the Fairies came and took you away and, hey, we don't need that, do we?

Jim Murdoch said...

Very interested, Ken. Loved the link.

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

Jim, this novel sounds really good - since I'm Welsh, it has a particular attraction. Will definitely be looking out for it.

And Ken, that's what I was always told since I moved to Ireland too! I tend to sneeze at least four or five times on the trot (little ladylike ones) when I do sneeze, so my friends have to bless me an awful lot. I think the fairies have taken me a fair few number of times by now though.

Jim Murdoch said...

Catherine, there are copies on for 1p if you're interested and they have the cool cover too.

Dave King said...

I do believe this might be my sort of novel. I like the slow unraveling of mini-mysteries. I rather gather from your remarks that it's probably very atmospheric, too. It doesn't sound much like anything I've read. All plus points, so far!

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Dave, there are copies on Amazon for 1p + postage so it's worth the risk. I'll be honest it really isn't the sort of book I would normally go for but I'm glad I did. It's not really much of a mystery to be honest but I did like the way he drip feeds you details, not necessarily important details, but it takes a while to come into focus. The thing is, you make assumptions based on what you know up to that point and they won't always be right.

I loved the understated ending. I so wasn't prepared for it.

BillyWarhol said...

wow i like this dude's Opinions + the fact he has the Balls to speak out about Tripe!! Growing up on a Mink Ranch I had to handle the shite every Wed. + Thurs. afternoon + i can attest to the Fact it Stinks!!

oh yoy*

Great Review Jim + Good Luck on yer 5th*

Cheers! Billy ;))


p.s. i saw Johnny Mars from the Smith's a few years ago - amazing guitarist + an awesome Band*

Anonymous said...

Thanks for submitting this to the Rhythm of Write blog carnival! Please stop by and check out the other submissions as well. Good luck!


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