Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday 28 August 2011

Has the novelty worn off yet?


Novelty is always welcome but talking pictures are just a fad – Irving Thalberg

The Kindle was launched on 19 November 2007. It wasn’t the biggest hit at first. In its first four months it only sold a paltry 100,000 copies and I wonder if Amazon thought it was going to die a death like the laserdisc. E-book readers had been tried before – Carrie bought me a Rocket eBook in 1998 (it, along with the SoftBook were the first handheld e-book readers available) and although I liked the product very much it never set the world on fire. Things are very different now. By January 2011 there were 12 million Kindles in homes and the conservative estimate for the end of this year is that that figure will grow to 22 million and to 35 million[1], again a conservative estimate, by December 2012 assuming the world hasn’t ended by then. And that’s just the Kindle. According to the research firm IDC the Nook is now outselling the Kindle. “IDC forecasts the worldwide eReader market to ship 16.2 million units in 2011, a 24% increase over 2010.”[2]

Of course that’s just dedicated e-readers and all you have to do is look at the list in Wikipedia to see that there is plenty of competition out there with the Sony Reader, the BeBook Neo and the Kobo eReader Touch to name just three. Fashion is a fickle thing though and technology moves at a ferocious pace. How many mobile phones have you been through since, say, 1983 which is when the first 1G network launched in the USA (make that 1981 if you’re Scandinavian or 1979 if you happened to live in Tokyo)? I hardly ever use my mobile phone. If I spend £10 in a year on calls that’s a lot because basically I only call two people, my wife and my daughter, and somehow I am on my fourth phone! Okay, I lost the first one but you see what I mean. Of course my daughter gets a new phone every year. And many of those phones double as e-readers anyway.

RocketebookPersonally if someone were to point me in the direction of a software upgrade for my Rocket eBook I’d be happy to keep using that. Carrie gifted me the Kindle but I was in no rush. I’m still stinging after buying a Betamax video recorder in 1982. I would have been happy to wait until we see what format comes out on top. Besides I prefer the Rocket’s shape, the backlight and the stylus and I don’t see that the text is any more readable on the Kindle. I would have expected the technology to have improved far more than it appears to have since 1998 but I don’t really care.

I’ve seen a number of major changes in technology in my life. Music is the best example. When I was a kid it was LPs and singles until, in the sixties, the audio cassette arrived and look how long it lasted – about forty years – before being superseded by CDs which, for all intents and purposes, were defunct within thirty years although I expect it’ll be a while before they vanish completely. Maybe once my daughter’s generation is done everything will be downloaded. Who knows? I’ll be dead and buried by then.

For the moment though e-books are something people want to play with and I suspect they will stay flavour of the month for a while. People are confessing to buying their first Kindles daily online and reporting back when they’ve read their first books – “Look at me! Look what I done.” And I am one of them. I’ve bought and paid for a couple of e-books and even read one of them. Mostly I’ve used the thing to read stuff I would normally read on my laptop. I proofread my last book using the Kindle. I didn’t make the corrections on the thing itself – sod that for a game of soldiers (the interface will have to improve considerably before I’d even think about that) – but I did use it as a way of making the text look new to my eye and caught a lot of things I’d missed on the computer.

I’m not going to tell you which e-book reader is the best. There are plenty of sites out there presenting the pros and cons. I suspect most people will not want to spend too much for their first one and so will veer toward the cheaper options. My daughter decided to go for a tablet PC which has an e-book reader programme on it and if I was to put a bet on it I think that this format will win out over a plain ol’ reader. Who buys a mobile phone that just makes phone calls these days? Does anyone even manufacture such a beast? Personally I’d be perfectly happy with that. I’ve only texted a handful of times in my life anyway.

That’s not the reason for this post. I’ve said as much as I have to say about the pros and cons of e-book readers apart from this: if you have bought one and are looking for something to read on it and are generally bowled over by the ridiculous choice available – as of July 4, 2011, there were more than 765,000 books available for download and the last I read that was up to 950,000 – let me draw your attention to three more releases.

Truth Fiction

My first two novels, Living with the Truth and Stranger than Fiction are now available in all the popular formats. In addition an omnibus edition, The Whole Truth, is obtainable combining both books. The prices are as follows:

So, yes, for the moment you can save a whole 1¢ by buying the two books separately but, obviously, when the price for the first book goes up to $1.99 The Whole Truth will be a real bargain. Or you might want to read the rest of the article first.

There is a lot of debate at the moment about how much e-books should cost and what some people are griping about is the fact that there is often little or no difference between the cost of a paperback and the cost of an e-book. I have even seen cases where the e-book was dearer than the paperback and I don’t care how anyone does their sums, that does not make sense to me. On the other hand there are a number of authors who are selling all their books for 99¢ or even giving them away (if only for a limited time) and why would anyone pay £7.99 for a book when there are loads of books out there free and for gratis?

maltesers_boxTo my mind it all boils down to quality and what the market will bear. If you shop in Poundland (which I do) you can pick up real bargains as well as a load of crap. At the moment, every time I’m there (which is not so often you have to understand) I come away with four boxes (120g) of Maltesers at a pound a piece. In Tesco I’d pay £1.50 for the selfsame product and why would I fork out another two quid for my teatime treats if I don’t have to? You’re not telling me that Poundland isn’t making a profit on those boxes. So, they’re happy, my tummy is happy and who cares what my waistline thinks? Tesco does do a 360g box for £4.00 but, again, why would I bother when I can get 480g for my money in Poundland? And there is no difference. The products are all in date. Only an idiot (or a rich bugger) would buy their Maltesers from Tesco. (Shocking Amazon are charging £2.49 for the 120g box!)

I thought long and hard about what to charge. I’ve never been greedy. All you have to do is look at the prices I charge for the hardcopies to see that (£5.99 including postage in the UK and £7.99 to the States) and I could say, to hell with it, let’s just get as many readers as I can and see if I can develop a bit of a fan base so that when the next books come out (I have another three novels, at least one collection of short stories and the poetry book) I might reap the profits later. There are too many conflicting schools of thought out there to know for sure what will work. Some are putting their prices up and down like yoyos trying to see what the optimum prices are and I may do that. My basic logic is that the prices I’m asking should be a fair price. If I went into a shop and there was a sale on I never thought twice about buying a cassette tape or a book for a couple of quid, £2.99 was okay too but once they started asking £3.99 or more then I began to scrutinise the product and swither. I have a tape of Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 that I bought in Stranraer about twenty years ago and I remember how long it took me to decide to buy it because I wasn’t flush and I think it was £2.99.

So, why am I not selling the omnibus for £2.99? If people didn’t have the whole world to choose from I would because so often things that sell for $2.99 in the States retail for £2.99 over here and there is no reason why they should other than the fact that is what the market will bear. Besides, like I said, I’m not greedy. I want to be read but I also want to be appreciated. There is an old argument about appreciation, that people don’t value things that are given to them and I believe that. If you’ve worked for something then you have a whole different perspective on the item. If it’s cost you, whether in time and energy or simply in funds, then you might not be as inclined to put it aside and never look at it or give it away to a charity shop some years down the line.

On BBC radio [on 16th August] the chief executive of Harper Collins UK said she believed e-books would go from 14% of their book sales to 50% within three years. She also said that whereas the e-book would become the paperback of the future, she believed the hardback would see a revival and become the sought after, special item, bought as present or treat, and likely to increase in price. Who knows? I don’t. I’m miffed though that in the UK the government has decided to add VAT to the price of e-books (which is probably why some e-books are dearer than their paper counterparts) because love them or loathe them e-books are the necessary future and this is something we have to embrace no matter how much that goes against what we would prefer. Trees are finite, digits go on forever and ever.

If you’re new here and know nothing about my books let me give you a brief summary. The rest of you can skip to the extra special offer at the end.

Living with the Truth

Jonathan Payne is a jaded bookseller at the end of a wasted life which has been spent in a dull north England seaside town. He could be an everyman, but seems to have missed the boat somewhere. He's both distastefully pathetic and oddly sympathetic. A passive character, he has been happy to read about life without experiencing either great joy or great despair. If Death were to knock on his door it wouldn’t trouble him greatly.

The knock comes. Only it’s not Death. It’s the truth. Literally. The human personification of truth.

Truth proves to be a likeable, if infuriating, character with a novel mode of expression: “glib dipped in eloquence and then rolled in a coating of irony,” to quote one reviewer. He knows everything and has no qualms revealing intimate details of lives of the people who cross his path while he’s with Jonathan. He’s quite indiscriminate. The same reviewer described him as “one of the most endearing antagonists I have come across.” Comparisons with Peter Cook’s devil in Bedazzled are not unreasonable.

Jonathan learns what he's missed out on in life, what other people think and the true nature of the universe which is nothing like he would have expected it to be. At the end, having learned far more than he ever wanted to know, he finds out that it's usually never too late to start again. Only sometimes it is: no Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey-esque turnaround for poor Jonathan.

The author Kay Sexton had this to say:

Kay-Sexton-stripes“In all, this is one of those novels that bookshops must hate: not hard enough to be spec fic, not weird enough to be fantasy, too realistic for the humour section and yet too humorous to shelve easily with the lit fic. And that, I suspect is going to prove to be its charm; for those who do read it, it's a singular take on the world, and it will either resonate with you or leave you cold. … But I can recommend that you try it—if you like distinctive fiction that rings no bells and blows no whistles but creeps up on you with its absurdities, this book will satisfy you, as it did me.”


Stranger than Fiction

Living with the Truth was set in the drab reality that is Jonathan Payne’s life, its sequel is set in the drab reality that is Jonathan’s afterlife. He awakes to find himself inside a landscape entirely generated by his own memories of his past life which means it looks pretty much identical to the seaside town in which he spent his entire and mostly uneventful life.

Whereas in the first book Truth could only confront Jonathan with people who were alive at the time Truth can now raise the bar and put Jonathan through a whole other level of embarrassment and misery including meeting his battleaxe of a mother and being forced to attend a conference made up of versions of him from all the other alternate realities. All to a good end of course.

It’s hard to describe this book without revealing much away. Suffice to say the universe has ended. And apparently, not for the first time. When Jonathan was alive he got to spend his final two days in the company of Truth—not he gets to meet some of the others, a group known as The Dunameon, with whom God is seriously ticked off because they keep running his creations into the ground.

As in the first book Jonathan is taken to some dark places but no matter how dark things get Truth is always there to make light of them. Like its predecessor (no pun intended), the book is shot through with wry humour and off-hand allusions to all manner of people from Kafka to Einstein via Frankie Howard.

Very much like Living with the Truth this is a hard book to categorise. As the author Guy Fraser-Sampson said at the end of his review:

gfs1“It is difficult to describe Murdoch's prose and do it full justice. You really have to experience it for yourself, and I sincerely hope you will. Go out and buy Stranger than Fiction. You won't be disappointed.”

Here’s the link to the Smashwords page and as a special rewards to my loyal readers for getting to the bottom of this page if you enter coupon code SJ39T (not case sensitive) on the Smashwords site you can order The Whole Truth for $1.99. This offer lasts for one week only.

I also have a new and improved (actually new and simplified) website here where you can read excerpts from the books and a whole whean of reviews.


[1] Steve Windwalker, ‘Just How Big Is the Kindle Revolution?’, Seeking Alpha, 14 January 2011

[2] ‘Media Tablet Sales Lag Optimistic First Quarter Targets, But Forecast Remains Strong, According to IDC’, Business Wire, July 8 2011

Tuesday 23 August 2011

The Good Muslim

The Good Muslim

Don't be so frightened of it. It's only religion. – Tahmima Anam, The Good Muslim

The Bangladesh Liberation War was an armed conflict pitting East Pakistan and India against West Pakistan. The war resulted in the secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh. As far as wars go it was a short one – it lasted only nine months, from 26 March – 16 December 1971 – but a lot of damage can be done in a remarkably short period of time:

During those nine months in 1971, the world watched while the Pakistani army conducted a campaign of mass murder, rape and ethnic cleansing against an unarmed civilian population. In the name of religious unity, they killed up to 3 million people (although an official Pakistani report only acknowledges 26,000 civilian deaths), displaced another 10 million into neighbouring India, and are alleged to have raped hundreds of thousands of women.

March 26 [2011] marks the 40th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh (that being the day when the war began), and the country has come a long way. Born out of that brutal war of secession with Pakistan, battered by floods, cyclones, coups and political assassinations, it was once a country that had little chance of surviving. But against all odds, Bangladesh has flourished. It no longer fits the cliché of the "basket case" dismissed by Henry Kissinger in 1971. – ‘Happy 40th birthday, Bangladesh’, The Guardian, 24 March 2011

So writes novelist, Tahmima Anam a couple of months after the publication of, The Good Muslim, the second in a planned trilogy of novels. When I saw it on Canongate’s list of new titles I specifically asked for a copy. Like most of us I know little about Muslims. I get confused between Sikhism, Islam and Hinduism but from all accounts they can have some pretty odd ideas what Christians are all about too.

Anam’s first novel was called A Golden Age and was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book. It was set during the Bangladesh Liberation War itself. This second book focuses on the transition period between 1971 and 1992 but concentrates on 1984. The third novel, which will be set in contemporary Bangladesh, will focus on climate change. Of it she says:

My husband asked me if I could write a story that didn’t have epic events. I’m fixated by people’s lives being difficult, and bearing the weight of a great event. I try to keep it intimate but when you come from a place like I do, it’s hard to write a novel about small things. – Tina Jackson, ‘Tahmima Anam: The Good Muslim is an intimate view of extremism’, The Metro, 20 May 2011

Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1975 Tahmima Anam grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok, due to her father's career with UNESCO, and yet is clearly devoted to ensuring that the world remembers clearly what her nation of birth had to go through to gain independence:

I love the country. It is my nation. My heart stays there wherever I might go. I spend some months in a year there. – Ziya Us Salam, ‘Parallel Realities’, The Hindu Magazine, 8 May 2011

I certainly hadn’t remembered but from all accounts many of the Bangladeshis themselves didn’t care to remember; the war was over and they simply wanted to get on with their lives. No one wants to talk about the women who were raped and abused during the war:

birangonaAfter the war ended, Bangladeshi leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman described the women as ‘birangona’, which translates as ‘heroines.’ However, any resulting children were not welcomed, and abortion camps were set up to deal with the problem. – Tina Jackson, ‘Tahmima Anam: The Good Muslim is an intimate view of extremism’, The Metro, 20 May 2011

At least that’s how things are in 1984 when, after several years working as a doctor in the countryside (where she travels from village to village focusing on the care of these ‘birangona’), Maya Haque, the book’s narrator, decides to return home to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh:

Thirteen. Her broken wishbone of a country was thirteen years old. Didn’t sound like very long, but in that time the nation had rolled and unrolled tanks from its streets. It had had leaders elected and ordained. It had murdered two presidents, [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the independence movement, and General Zia, a decorated war hero]. In its infancy, it had started cannibalising itself, killing the tribals in the south, drowning villages for dams, razing the ancient trees of Madhupur Forest. A fast-acting country: quick to anger, quick to self-destruct.


On Independence Day, Maya switched on the television and saw the Dictator laying wreaths at Shaheed Minar, the Martyrs' Memorial. He had a small dark head and wide shoulders fringed by military decorations. Last month he had tried to change the name of the country to the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh. And before that, he had bought a pair of matching Rolls-Royces, one for himself, another for his mistress.

Now, on the anniversary of the day the Pakistan Army ran its tanks over Dhaka, he was making a speech about the war. Eager to befriend the old enemy, he said nothing about the killings. He praised the importance of regional unity. All Muslims are Brothers, he repeated. She couldn't bear to listen. She switched off the television and found her mother in the kitchen, frying parathas.

The unnamed Dictator in question is Hossain Mohammad Ershad whose rise to power seemed to confirm the world’s suspicion that democracy could not flourish in a country with so many problems. But in 1990, a popular movement not unlike the ones we are witnessing in the Middle East today ousted Ershad. There have been four successful parliamentary elections since then and whereas in the nineteen-eighties Bangladesh relied heavily on international aid, nowadays only 2% of its annual development budget comes from out of the country.

But that’s now. The twenty year period, when Bangladesh was finding its feet, was a turbulent time. The novel focuses on two siblings Maya Haque, who is in her early thirties and still unmarried, and her older, recently remarried brother, Sohail. Both have been terribly affected by what they witnessed and experienced during and because of the war…

She remembered the sight of dead men with their hands tied behind their backs, their faces lapped with blood, and she remembered every day she had worked in the camps, scooping bullets out of men with nothing but a spoon and a hunter's knife.

…but they each respond in radically different ways.

The words ‘radical’, ‘militant’, ‘Islamic’ and ‘fundamentalism’ are words we are used to hearing on the television and reading in our paper in various combinations, mostly bad. The term "Islamic fundamentalism" is most often used to describe Muslim individuals and groups which advocate Islamism, a political ideology calling for the replacement of state secular laws with Islamic law but when Anam talks about her characters as “fundamentalists” this is not what she means; no one is building bombs or planning the downfall of the West. Think Hasidic Jews and you’re probably closer to the mark. And even with them there are approximately thirty larger Hasidic groups, and several hundred minor groups and it’s the same with Muslims and Christians. There is no ‘Christian Church’, there are Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Wee Frees, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Anglicans and hundreds of other denominations and sects.

When Sohail returns from the war his mother encourages her clearly-troubled son to take comfort in his faith which he does. She gives him a copy of “the Book” which he reads. His pre-war ideals were secular and reformist but over the next few years he becomes more and more devout, growing his beard, rejecting modern dress, burning all his books and devoting his life to his faith eventually attracting a band of followers who address his as ‘Huzoor’, an Urdu word (surprisingly) meaning ‘my lord.’ When his sister, on the other hand, witnesses what’s happening to her brother she cannot bear it; she leaves home to work in the countryside and only returns when Sohail’s wife dies to find him changed beyond recognition and it is this period the book concentrates on. This is what the author had to say in a recent interview:

Maya feels certain companionship with people. Sohail opts to take the path of faith, religion, decides to educate his boy in a madrasa. He is representative of a big resurgence of religion in political life. The siblings have different concepts of the country. Maya works as a midwife, wants to serve the people. Sohail is attached to faith and afterlife. I have tried to project the conflict between faith and secular society. – Ziya Us Salam, ‘Parallel Realities’, The Hindu Magazine, 8 May 2011

KoranI should explain what a madrasa is. The word itself refers to any kind of educational institute but although the word is never defined in the novel – virtually no foreign terms are which I have to say bothered me – it is clear from the context that this is a school that focuses on a study of the Qur'an, Islamic metaphysics and Islamic ethics pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. It is also, in the case of Zaid (Sohail’s six-year-old son) a boarding school far from home and because his father shuns modern technology it’s not as if he can phone home for a bit of reassurance. Zaid becomes the main point of contention between Maya and her brother, the battlefield on which they wage their war. The boy wants to go to a normal school with all the other children but his father will hear none of it and even when, at first, Maya takes up the boy’s education, her brother places heavy restrictions on what she can and cannot communicate to him. Maya naïvely believes that her brother needs rescuing despite the facts that…

She sees that he fell into the abyss and that this Book is what brought him to the surface and allowed him to breathe. She sees too, in herself, the need for such a rescue, such a buoy, such a truth. But because it has suddenly become clear to her that religion, its open fragrance and cloudless stretches of infinity, may in fact be what he is claiming it is, an essential human need, hers as much as his, and because she feels the twinge of his yearning, turning like a leaf in her heart, she decides, at that moment, that it cannot be. She will not become one of those people who buckle under the force of a great event and allow it to change the metre of who they are.

…but if she cannot rescue him then she can try and save his son. Which she does, try, and this is her brother’s simple response:

He was not yours to save.

When you start to read the book it’s impossible not to imagine Sohail in the role of the good Muslim and that that title should really be read in a disparaging tone – i.e. a good Muslim = a bad person – and there will be people out there who hold the same view as the generals who maintained that the only good Indian/German/Jap/whatever is a dead Indian/German/Jap/whatever. It’s never that simple. Maya is also Muslim but she is a Muslim in the way a great many of us are Christians, getting married in a church, having our kids baptised in one and having our funeral service in one but never setting foot in one any other time of the year (apart from possibly Easter and Christmas) unless it is to attend the wedding, christening or funeral of someone else. This is what the author had to say when pressed on the subject:

I meant to ask the question to my readers, left it open to them. As a novelist, my job is to raise questions; not to pronounce verdict on who is a good Muslim. – Ziya Us Salam, ‘Parallel Realities’, The Hindu Magazine, 8 May 2011

Sohail is not a bad man. Far from it. When we first meet him he is returning from the war when he discovers, rescues and returns to her village a woman who had been captured and repeatedly raped by the opposing army. When he finally arrives back home – later than all the rest because of this detour – it’s abundantly clear that he has been terribly affected by not just this but by everything he has witnessed and, as we learn late in the book, what he himself has done. He’s not suffering from PTSD – at least we are never told that he is – but that doesn’t mean he’s not in crisis. And in times of crisis people very often turn to God. As the aphorism goes: There are no atheists in foxholes. It happens the world over although usually after the crisis they slip back into their old ways. Religion – any religion – does one important thing: it orders the universe. It tells you what to do, what not to do and what to expect to happen if you do or don’t do what it tells you to; its followers relinquish control to a higher power. All you need to be responsible for is learning the rules and following them. Following rules is easier than thinking for yourself and so the tighter rein his god has on him the better as far as Sohail is concerned.

Maya follows another path after her return. A male friend, Joy (Sohail’s best friend’s younger brother), recently returned from the United States where he made a living as a taxi driver, takes her to a political meeting where she hears the author of a modern Bengali classic who lost her son in the war speak of a country "that allows the men who betrayed it, the men who committed murder, to run free, to live as the neighbours of the women they have widowed, the young girls they have raped". Maya decides she needs to do something – there are hardly any of her once-revolutionary peers who seems willing to fan the flames for justice – and ends up writing a newspaper column where she can address such issues, a risky thing to do and one that has inevitable repercussions.

If Sohail is a radical does that mean that his sister is an idealist? That would be a simplistic reading of this book. In the same way simply to say that it is about the conflict between the sacred and the secular isn’t quite right either. Where this book succeeds is that it makes Sohail human – we get a peek inside the mind of a religious zealot – but because the book is narrated by his sister we’re still on the outside. I think more could have been accomplished had we had access to his thoughts, what he was really thinking as opposed to what he says and what his sister reads into what he says (and probably more importantly what he doesn’t say).

Should we be frightened of religion? When Maya tells her mother that Sohail is going to turn her house into a mosque, Rehana replies "Don't be so frightened of it. It's only religion." Of course it’s only a religion until we start witnessing miracles. And Anam provides us with one in a place devoted to science: the irony is laid on with a trowel. If it is a miracle. And that’s the thing about miracles – they require a different kind of faith to the one scientists have in their formulas. Maya is shaken by it but who says that science and religion cannot coexist?

This is a striking, well-written novel and its style is well-suited to its content. It manages to bridge historicity and the demands of a fictional narrative quite well. Most of the characters are well-rounded, the important ones anyway, even if we don’t get as much insight into Sohail as I might have liked; I would have also been interested in learning a little more about his wife but she is kept in the shadows. I didn’t find out nearly as much about what a good Muslim ought to be as I had hoped either. It did reinforce my own opinions about puritanical brands of religion in general – I may know nothing about Islamic fundamentalism but I know plenty about Christian fundamentalism – and, although I can completely understand why Sohail makes the choices he does, I too wanted to grab him by the lapels and shake him.

golam.azamThe ending – really it’s a postscript – is a chapter set in 1992 and there is little in the book to identify what is going on but apparently in mid-January 1992 a hundred and one member national body was formed, popularly known as the Nirmul Committee, with the aim of bringing war criminals to justice. One of their demands was that Gholam Azam, the head of the collaborators (the Rajakar), be tried by a special tribunal, but the government paid a deaf ear to them, so they set up their own mock court:

The historic trial of Gholam Azam was duly held at the Suhrawardy Garden on 26th March 1992 before a mammoth gathering of inspired men, women and children. A court of twelve judges had been formed earlier with Jahanara Imam as its chair-person. Charges against Gholam Azam were brought and heard. Witnesses were produced. In the absence of Gholam Azam or anyone to defend him the court on its own provided a counsel for him. At the end of the trial the court, after considering the matter from all angles, found Gholam Azam guilty of all the ten charges brought against him and gave its verdict that he had committed such crimes as deserved death sentence and nothing less. The verdict was received with a deafening roar from the multitude present and the People's Court was warmly hailed by the people for its great patriotic role. Fresh demands were made to the government to try Gholam Azam as a war criminal by a special tribunal which could be easily set up under specific clauses provided in the country's constitution and implement the wishes of the people and the verdict of the People's Court by sentencing him to death without any further delay. But the government paid little heed to these demands. – Professor Kabir Chowdhury, 'Resisting Fundamentalism', Secular Voice of Bangladesh

In Anam’s fictional account one of the witnesses is Piya, the woman Sohail saved back in 1971. It is not exactly a happy ending but it is something.

You can read a short extract from the novel online here and download the first 25 pages here.

Let me leave you with a video of Tahmima Anam talking about her book:



AnamTahmima Anam was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1975 and grew up in Paris, New York and Bangkok, due to her father's career with UNESCO.  Her father, Mahfuz Anam, actively participated in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, and is currently the editor and publisher of the Bangladesh Daily Star – Bangladesh's most prominent English language newspaper. He is also chairman of a Bangladeshi NGO called the Freedom Foundation. Her grandfather, Abul Mansur Ahmed, was a renowned satirist and politician.

After studying at Mount Holyoke College and Harvard University, she earned a PhD in Social Anthropology. Her first novel, A Golden Age, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Costa First Novel Prize, and was the winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. It was translated into 22 languages. Her writing has been published in Granta, The New York Times, and the Guardian. She lives in London.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Your character is not you


Character is like the foundation of a house – it is below the surface. – Anon.

One of the hardest things writing my last novel, Left, was working with a character who was so not me. This was not simply because she’s a woman and I’m not – because I’m told I actually do quite a good job with my female characters, besides my wife and daughter bestowed me with ‘honorary woman’ status years ago – no, what was so hard was because I chose to make her someone who had shut herself off from her emotions and that’s really not me. I’m not ruled by them but I do wear my heart on my sleeve a bit.

I was reading a blog recently – Sarah Duncan’s blog actually (she used to be Rodney’s girlfriend in Only Fools and Horses, the one before the one he actually married) – where she was talking about the choices that we get our characters to make and how there’s a danger of asking them to do something that might progress the story but which isn’t reasonable or believable. The example she gave was of a mother being pressurised to do a job presentation or stay home to look after her sick kid. Of course we don’t have all the facts here; we don’t know how sick the kid is. Kids get sick all the time – that’s part of being a kid – and no parent can afford to drop everything every time they get the sniffles. Additionally we don’t know what support mechanisms the mother has in place – her daughter might be being looked after by her grandmother who was a staff nurse for thirty years specialising in paediatrics.

It doesn’t really matter what the situation is, a choice has to be made and choices have consequences. Do you always make good choices? No, so why should your character? Do you ever do something out of character? Yes? So why can’t your character? When I started writing the female protagonist in my book – she’s called Jennifer by the way, Jen to everyone bar her dad – I stuck her in situations and got her to do things: go here, pick up that, put it down. I treated her a bit like a character out of The Sims. She didn’t have much of a personality. I’m not saying she had no personality just not a well-developed one.

Once the story was well under way and I could see where it was heading I then went back and looked again at the kind of person she was and asked myself if she would necessarily do certain things, or think certain things, or believe certain things, none of which would affect the action particularly because she wasn’t make those kinds of decisions, not at the start of the book anyway. An optimist and a pessimist don’t go about making a cup of coffee differently, not essentially: the optimist might sing while doing it and the pessimist might not care so much if it was done right but the mechanics would be pretty much the same: spoon in the coffee, add hot water and milk and sugar to taste. What they thought about while doing this rather mundane task would be different and this is where I started to tweak the character.

So what kind of personality did you give you character?

Good question. Thank you for that. Personalities are complex. There really is no such thing as a simple personality. Which is why psychologists have spent so long trying to devise methods of categorising personality types. One of the most popular is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment and I bet many of you have sat that test if only for the sheer hell of it. The test assesses four dichotomies: Extroversion versus Introversion, Sensing versus Intuition, Thinking versus Feeling and Judgment versus Perception giving a possibility that you will fall into one of sixteen different types of which ISTJ and ISFJ are way the most popular for introverts with ESTJ and ESFJ the trendiest choices for the extroverts.

Nothing’s that simple though. Just like bones, personalities can get broken, shattered even, and, seriously, who wants to read about a healthy, well-rounded individual going about their day-to-day business? I suppose there must be people like that out there just as a non-dysfunctional family might also exist somewhere but I’m not holding my breath. Life damages us. If we’re jammy we get away with a few cuts and bruises but most of us aren’t so lucky and we will sustain any number of more serious injuries over the years which is why some of us end up with personality disorders. We all know the popular ones, the obsessive-compulsives, the schizophrenics, but there are others and, of course, how these conditions manifest themselves vary. You often hear people say, “Oh, I’m just being a little bit OCD,” or something along those lines. Can you just be a little bit OCD? Yes, you can. People don’t fit into boxes neatly. They can have mood disorders too like depression or bipolar disorder too. They’ll have varying IQs. They have unique life experiences. Basically there as many boxes out there as there are people.

DSM4I do find it helps to set out the . . . rules, is the word I’m going to go for . . . the rules that say what is normal for your character. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is a widely used manual for diagnosing mental disorders. It’s the book that tells you what you need to do to say you’re OCD. What I did with my character was look at what I’d had her do and think up until this point and see what was a good fit for her. So I had her take a few tests including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment and I very quickly realised that this list fitted her like a glove:

A. A pervasive pattern of detachment from social relationships and a restricted range of expression of emotions in interpersonal settings, beginning by early adulthood (age eighteen or older) and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four (or more) of the following:

  1. neither desires nor enjoys close relationships, including being part of a family
  2. almost always chooses solitary activities
  3. has little, if any, interest in having sexual experiences with another person
  4. takes pleasure in few, if any, activities
  5. lacks close friends or confidants other than first-degree relatives
  6. appears indifferent to the praise or criticism of others
  7. shows emotional coldness, detachment, or flattened affect

B. Does not occur exclusively during the course of schizophrenia, a mood disorder with psychotic features, another psychotic disorder, or a pervasive developmental disorder and is not due to the direct physiological effects of a general medical condition.

This is the criteria for schizoid personality disorder. As you’ll see there is scope within the list for a wide variety of personalities. Up until this point all I really knew about Jen was that she was serious, cerebral and not close to her dad who has just died; she is trapped in a loveless (although not entirely sexless) marriage, lives in a strange city she’s never made home and has a teenage daughter she can’t relate to. If I could’ve summarised her in a single word it would have been ‘numb’.

My daughter had a boyfriend once who had OCD. You wouldn’t know he had it to look at him. He didn’t wear a badge or anything although you can get them. But it dominated his life. The thing is he knew he had OCD just like I know I’m a depressive and many people know what they are and they almost say it with something akin to pride especially if they’ve sat a test and “passed” – See! See! That proves it! The problem with having a diagnosis like this is that you start to see the word through OCD- or depressive- or ISTJ-coloured glasses and modify your behaviour to fit with what some textbook says you ought to behave like. I’m a depressive so you wouldn’t expect to see me playing air guitar and singing along to ‘Born in the USA’ but I can assure you I have. You’d certainly never get me doing it in front of an audience, not even my wife, although when my daughter was wee I would have been more willing to make a fool of myself for her benefit and I suspect that’s still the case.

In doing research I spent a long time wading through online forums where schizoids and wannabe schizoids hung out comparing their emotional scars. It was fascinating and also a little disturbing to see how important this label was to them. Here’s the rub though, when the new edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) comes out all the personality disorders are going to be reclassified. They won’t disappear but they will be represented dimensionally rather than categorically and I could almost see the panic in some of the entries as if they were saying, “If I’m not a schizoid then who am I?” I exaggerate but I also get it. When I fell ill a while ago and it wasn’t simple depression I was frustrated because I didn’t know how to explain what was wrong with me. Essentially I was suffering from a cluster of symptoms following burnout but I didn’t have a neat buzzword to use. The simple fact is that my particular cocktail of symptoms was unique to me and any form of reductionism would be inaccurate.

But back to Jen. In Left Jen is in every scene. She is the narrator. We watch her. We hear her. And no one wants to spend that amount of time in the head of one person and them not be interesting and there’s nothing more interesting that different. We love seeing weird animals on TV and we love weird people. Here’s how Jen describes herself:

It’s okay to be sad and hungry at the same time. You shouldn’t feel guilty. Life potters on, I told myself, only I wasn’t sad exactly. Sad is a child’s word and I wasn’t a child any more. I was empty and my emptiness was crying out to be filled. I found it easier to express my emotions when I was a kid. I can remember being sad as a kid and happy and angry; the whole spectrum of emotions was available to me but as I’ve grown older everything’s turned grey. I no longer feel sadness; I remember sadness and act accordingly. Have you ever watched Dexter? If you’ve not, how can I describe him? Your friendly neighbourhood serial killer I suppose. Wait, I’ve thought of a better example: Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data has no emotions and so fakes them in a bid to fit in. So does Dexter. And so do I these days.

I fixed spaghetti and toast. The spaghetti was tinned and had meatballs in it. The bread was frozen. It had to be toasted twice because the toaster doesn’t work right.

I felt something but it was something new, a guilty version of angst: guilst, maybe. Why, with so many people having experienced loss, are there so few words that made sense of this? I felt bereft of language. Is there a word for that? I bet it’s not one of the forty-eight [emotions]. Speechless I suppose will have to suffice. I'm good with words most of the time but all of a sudden none of them seemed up to the task besides words-with-a-capital-w admit things and I wasn’t ready yet to let certain truths into my life.

Jen has sat the Myers-Briggs test. She doesn’t know it as that – it was years earlier at school – but she remembers being told she was a ‘Scientist’ type, which is INTJ. Here’s the full list:

  • ISTJ - The Duty Fulfillers
  • ESTJ - The Guardians
  • ISFJ - The Nurturers
  • ESFJ - The Caregivers
  • ISTP - The Mechanics
  • ESTP - The Doers
  • ESFP - The Performers
  • ISFP - The Artists
  • ENTJ - The Executives
  • INTJ - The Scientists
  • ENTP - The Visionaries
  • INTP - The Thinkers
  • ENFJ - The Givers
  • INFJ - The Protectors
  • ENFP - The Inspirers
  • INFP - The Idealists

She’s never been tested for anything else. So as far as she’s concerned she simply is who she is. She’s not right or wrong. She just reacts to the world her way. And that’s how most of us are. Dexter is a psychopath and what Jen is relating to is his lack of "emotional intelligence" because she is also stunted in that way. Why is DexterDexter that way? Because he saw his mother massacred in front of his eyes when he was a little boy; he wasn’t born that way, unlike Data who was manufactured without an emotion chip.

So what happened to Jen? There are a number of theories about what causes schizoid personality disorder but unlike some of the other personality disorders the jury’s still out on this one. One thing that does keep cropping up is a family history of bi-polar disorder. So with half the book written I went back and grafted a mother into the picture. Up until this point all we know is that she died when Jen was a teenager. I’d mentioned cancer but all that changed. And her dad? Well I’d already painted him as a workaholic but I modified his character to make him a man who escaped into his work as opposed to a man whose job defined him. Again none of these decisions radically changed the story but it’s details like this that flesh out a character. And of course all these details are dribbled out over the course of the whole book; I hate long chunks to exposition and Star Trek is just awful when it comes to its information dumps.

Talking about Star Trek there is another character who struggles with emotions: Seven of Nine. Again, she wasn’t born that way – she suffered a trauma at the hands of the Borg and had her humanity ripped away from her when she was only six. Over four seasons we get to watch her struggle with coming to terms with who she could be unlike Jean Luc Picard who after his ordeal with the Borg was pretty much back to drinking his Earl Grey and boldly going after a punch-up in the mud with his brother. Okay there is a huge time difference and time after time it’s been impressed upon us just how rock solid Picard’s character is; that he would get it all out of his system in one episode is not terribly unreasonable besides we do see the odd twinge appear in later episodes and the films.

Is it important that the people we have inhabit our books and stories stay in character? Earlier in the book Jen is clearing out her father’s wardrobe when she chances upon an item of clothing:

I came across something I did recognise in one of the drawers, an old pullover, something I actually remembered Dad wearing around the house, something he’d had when we had still been a family. Or when we imagined we were still a family. A house is no more a home any more than a group of relatives automatically make up a family and families can be as much about pushing people away as they are about supposedly letting them in. I thought to bury my face in it, the pullover, but I stopped before I’d really started. Not me. Too melodramatic. And I have no idea why that would’ve been a bad thing, to slip out of character for a moment in the privacy of my father’s… of my own flat. Who was watching? God? Dad? I sniffed it instead. It was fusty. It didn’t even have that ‘old man’ odour; it had probably been years since he wore it. For some reason I tossed it on the bed not exactly sure what I might do with it later.

Why do you do things out of character? If you do something you want to do then doesn’t it mean that that is in character? In a Facebook exchange L. McKenna Donovan called me dour:


If you want to know what it's like to write a novel, read Jim's blog post about his latest endeavour. Love his dour sense of humour!


I'm not dour! No, wait a second ... yes I am.


Yes, you are, and I almost admitted to the cliché of the dour Scotsman, but I decided not to. Great article, Jim! Long, but well worth the read! Thanks for posting it!

Am I dour? What does ‘dour’ even mean. Stern? Laconic? (Surely not?) Awkward? Or is dour a part I play when I’m online to entertain the troops? That I do it so well suggests that there might be some truth to the rumour – and I throw my hand up right now and admit to being a grumpy pig at times especially when tired – but I’m not so sure I am actually dour. Dour is not a switch or if it is it’s more like a dimmer Punk Albumswitch than an on/off switch. Would a dour bugger stick on The Best... Album in the World...Ever! and crank up the volume while he cleaned the flat in preparation for his wife’s return from the States?

A couple of nights ago my bedside clock started to make an odd buzzing noise. Not all the time. Just ever few minutes there’d be this electronic cackle and then it would lapse into silence. Eventually I unplugged it so I wouldn’t spend the whole night lying there waiting for the next occurrence. There will be an explanation why it’s suddenly decided to make that noise but I’ll probably never know what it is. And people I find are like that too. We get sudden itches and pains and spots. Let’s talk about spots. Spots appear in the queerest places don’t they? I mean we’re not androids like Data but we are biological machines and sometimes we don’t, as Data might put it, function within normal parameters. And we never know why. Why did our body decide to give us a pimple on our eyelid or inside a nostril? You could go mad trying to answer questions like that.

Here’s a snippet from an exchange between Jen and her husband. She opens:

"Why do you love me?"
"What are you on about?"
"It's a simple enough question. Why do you love me?"
"You used to shout at Anne for saying that."

Most of never think about why we do things. It’s actually the central issue raised in my last book, Milligan and Murphy, the core of the book being how the protagonists coming to terms with the fact that there are no reasons for unreasonable things.

Novels are not real life. They have plots – a lot of them do anyway – and tie things up neatly at the end. The characters express themselves succinctly, stay on topic and don’t go “er” and “um” all the time. Huge chunks of time when nothing interesting is happening just vanish. And behaviour gets simplified, streamlined: good people do good things and bad people do bad things. What makes a character stand out is where they surprise us.

Why does a girder – a dirty great chunk of metal – bend like a drinking straw? Stress. It’s not designed to bend but stick an earthquake underneath it and it will most certainly behave out of character. But there will be a reason. There will be a reason why a pimple decided to appear on your eyelid and there will be a reason why Roy Batty didn’t kill Rick Deckard at the end of Blade Runner. Deckard guesses at what that reason may have been but we never find out for sure and we don’t need to. In reality he’s being true to his real character. The murderer Roy Batty is actually him behaving out of character. Had he been given a reasonable lifespan by his creator then none of the events in the film would have happened.

There are always consequences to our actions whether we’re in or out of character. Allowing the characters in your writing to do the unexpected can take your writing in a direction you might not necessarily feel comfortable going but it is often worth investigating because it very likely will reveal levels to them that you might never have thought to investigate normally. And if you don’t like where the road less travelled takes you, well, this isn’t real life – you can just tear up those pages and take the other one.

The real problems arise when you have to have your character do something out of character to progress the story. If Superman has a choice to save Lois or the world you know he’s going to save both because he’s Superman. The rest of us will have to choose. And that choice will affect the character even if it’s the right one – the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few … or the one, for example – and after being faced with the burden of doing the right thing you might assume that doing the right thing the next time would be easier when it might actually prove to be even harder; the character could view this as an opportunity to do what they should have done the first time round.

Characters develop and characters’ characters develop. Usually. Like flowers blooming or carcasses rotting. Nothing stays the same for long.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke

Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke

The bowled hills and river valleys of the border country in the west of England are my landscape, and when I wake up in the morning and look out at the fields and woods and hedges, I know I am looking at the frame of my heart. – Peter Benson, Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke

Peter Benson has published seven novels, including The Levels (winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize), A Lesser Dependency (winner of the Encore Prize) and The Other Occupant (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award). The Evening Standard described him as “one of the most distinctive voices in modern British fiction”, while The Times said his writing was “funny and painful and beautifully done so that we recognize life with a gasp” whilst the reviewer of Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke in The Independent said:

A new novel by Peter Benson is cause for celebration. Possibly the most underrated English novelist of the past quarter of a century, Benson is in part responsible for my love of books. – Christian House, Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, By Peter Benson’, The Independent, 19 June 2011

I mention this up front more for my benefit than yours because I found I wasn’t terribly impressed by Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, although I’m having difficulty saying why exactly. I suspect it’s just me. There are some books that I have never been able to connect with from authors who have fans waiting with bated breath for their next fix. The thing is there’s nothing actually wrong with this. It is clearly written (and written clearly) by a man who obviously knows how to tell a good story and I feel terribly guilty for not being more excited about this book, particularly because it compares well to a couple of novels that I’ve read recently that I did enjoy. The two I’m thinking of are Fresh and especially Ghosts and Lightning both debut novels. All three books focus on people in . . . what shall we call it? . . . the lower strata of society, not, I grant you, a favourite topic with me but in the hands of the right person (e.g. Irvine Welsh) it can be an interesting setting to examine the human condition.

Benson’s book focuses on two young lads living in the West Country in 1976. Elliot, the narrator and main protagonist, is twenty-one, although, as he points out:

…that’s got little to do with it. I could have been twenty-four. It wouldn’t have made any difference to what happened. Or nineteen. Nothing would have changed.

Now 1976 I remember well for lots of reasons – the heat alone was memorable and the action in this novel takes place during that long, hot summer – and when I saw that I perked up a bit because I’m always fond of a bit of nostalgia. The West Country, however, is a foreign land to me. Basically you’re talking about the two_ronnies_yokelscounties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset and I probably have as shallow a view of the natives there as most of them have of us Scots. Put it this way the first thing that came to mind was the Two Ronnies doing their farm yokels; that and The Wurzels. So, there you have it – shallow, shallow, shallow. To be fair Benson doesn’t go to any great lengths to suggest a West Country accent so apart from the place names – Appley, Kittisford, Stawley, Taunton, Ashbrittle and the fact that cider is their tipple of preference – this could be set in any rural community.

The blurb on the back says that it’s…

A tale of adventure with as many twists and turns as the enchanting Somerset landscape that forms its backdrop, Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke is, above all a celebration of the English countryside – full of magic, history and superstition – where smoke is in the air, and where not all is what it seems.

My main gripe, I think, is the “twists and turns” because I wasn’t surprised by any of them. They weren’t always telegraphed but when they happened they were exactly the kind of ‘surprise’ I would have expected. The cover artist spoiled the only one I probably wouldn’t have seen coming because when I read ‘smoke’ I imagined a van filled with a collection of airborne solid and liquid particulates and gases. I did not, in my innocence, realise that ‘smoke’ is a euphemism for cannabis. Still even with that interpretation when Elliot and his mate Spike discover a polytunnel tucked away in the woods I was not taken aback to find it jam-packed with weed and after spending only a few pages in the company of Elliot’s best friend Spike it was glaringly obvious what he was going to do with said weed and as the street value of the aforesaid Class C (now Class B) drug was not insubstantial it was also no surprise that the owners thereof would come looking for their property after dealing appropriately (if somewhat harshly) with the gentleman they had left in charge of it and, perhaps after having just watched The Shadow Line the day before I started reading this, who the bad guy turns out to be also came as no great shock. Okay, that’s the bare bones of the story. Other things happen that you might not necessarily expect to find but nothing so unexpected I was left with my jaw hanging as I was with the aforementioned Shadow Line. That said, would Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke translate onto the small screen? Yes, without a doubt, and it would work very well; I would probably watch it.

So what was it about the book that I didn’t enjoy if I’m happy to say I’d watch a TV adaptation? I think the answer is: time. This would fit neatly into an hour and a half drama, I have no doubt, whereas the book took me several hours to read and I didn’t find myself feeling that the time had been well spent. I had been entertained – I never said it wasn’t entertaining – but I was hoping for something deeper, more meaningful. It certainly wasn’t a hard read but from the beginning I didn’t bond with the protagonist and that’s a bad way to start any book. I’m going to be shallow here again. Elliot used to work as a tree surgeon. I used to know an ex-tree surgeon and I didn’t like him so, like I said, I probably started this book in the wrong frame of mind. He’s not a tree surgeon when we meet him though. Now he’s working on Mr Evans’ farm and living in a caravan; not that his family feels like he’s left home because he’s always popping around getting a bite to eat and a bit of advice. The advice comes mainly from his mother:

Three hundred years ago she would have been dragged from the house, accused of cursing a crop of cabbages, tried by a mob, found guilty of everything bad that had ever happened anywhere in the parish and burnt alive on the village green. Even now there are people in the village who cross the road when they see her or the cat. She was taught stuff by her mother, who was taught stuff by her mother, who was taught stuff by her mother, and so on until we don’t know who taught who what. When I say “stuff” I mean the old signs nature gives, the ones that everyone used to know but most people have forgotten. And beyond the old signs, sometimes she gets hunches – superstitious feelings, some people would say. Hunches about things that are about to happen, intuitions and insights.

Apparently she’s seen the same potential in her son which is why when Spike tells him he wants to show him something he should have just known it meant trouble if only because he heard “a distant croak, the call of a single raven” just after Spike has told him to meet him that night:

“Beware,” I whispered. “Be careful.”

“Of what?”

“The raven.”

“You fucking weirdo,” said Spike, and then, “you coming or you going to be a chicken for the rest of your life?”

“OK,” I said, “but let’s be careful.”

“Aren’t I always?”

I said nothing.

The whole “magic” undercurrent is interesting – I kept expecting Elliot to come to some sort of spiritual awakening and I suppose you might say that he does have one when, in a moment of crisis, he resorts to one of his mother’s charms but on the whole it’s underplayed and kept in its place. This is very much a novel set in the real world. As Elliot comments:

I watched a magpie, a single chattering bird that hopped from branch to branch and back again like an evil shadow of its own image. Mum always told me to salute the magpie, but I wondered; are the old superstitions simply reflections of our fears, and do we make the superstitions real by acknowledging our fears? Sometimes I surprised myself with the things I thought.

At first I thought this was going to be a buddy-movie-kind-of-a-novel, two lads get in a bit of bother and rely on their wits, charm and luck to get themselves out of it but it didn’t pan out that way. When the going gets tough Spike bolts for cover and Elliot is left holding the baby, er, weed.

Enter the love interest. I have nothing against a bit of romance in a novel, even a bit of rumpy-pumpy if needs be, but quite often the appearance of a woman feels contrived and formulaic, a little (and don’t shoot me down for this) something for the Tarzan & Janeladies. Does Tarzan really need Jane? (Try googling “unnecessary love interest” – it’s interesting reading.) In Elliot’s case it’s Sam, one of the (so-called) hippy-girls that have made their home in the village. Once again there is absolutely nothing wrong with the introduction of a girl here. It happens naturally enough if a little too easily (although I’m probably basing that on my experiences with women) and it is, of course, convenient; it provides a bit of a subplot when we really need one if this book isn’t going to end up being a novella.

The main theme of this book, as far as I could see it, is human bondage; the ties that bind. Elliot, despite the fact that he’s no longer living at home, is still clearly bound to his family but especially his mother and her beliefs; he is bound to his best friend and the book would not be the book it is without his (misplaced?) loyalty to Spike; he is bound to his employer, Mr Evans; he is bound to Sam; bound to the truth; and his fate bound up with a vanload of cannabis. Everyone is pulling at him, the bad guys, the good guys and the guys who just happen to get in his road from time to time. As Elliot notes, "until you meet these people you are only part of a person. You need others to make you." But what exactly do they make of Elliot?

The other is, I suppose, meaning. It gets confused with magic but the whole point to the charms his mother gets him involved is that actions have consequences and everywhere we’re surrounded by the consequences of other people’s – or creatures’ – actions:

Another pigeon flew past and a crow. A pigeon followed by a crow meant something, and it meant something important, but I couldn’t remember what.

A “hoop house” hidden in the woods means something too, nothing remotely magical but the meaning was clear as soon as the two lads ducked inside the thing. I didn’t, however, find this book meant anything to me. I can relate to Elliot’s sense of duty but I find it hard to see why he was ever friends with an idiot like Spike, but then again maybe Spike only grew into his idiocy once their friendship was already established. Benson is ages with me – a couple of years older – but his 1976, the heat wave excepted, feels very different to mine. You wouldn’t think that 350 miles would make that much of a difference. But it does.

The other thing the blurb talks about is “a celebration of the English countryside” and to be fair Benson does a good job in painting a believable and colourful picture of life in and around a small English village and I suppose if I’d had more experience of them I might have been moved more by the descriptions. The nearest I could conjure up other than what I’ve seen on TV was a car trip Carrie and I took through the Lake District; that was picturesque. This is what he has to say about landscape:

Landscapes print themselves on people’s minds. They start slowly and push themselves in gently, and they never stop. They become part of someone, like an arm or hair or an eye or a finger. Remove some people from a landscape, and they hurt as much as if you’d cut off their nose.

Although I understand what he’s going on about I’ve never had that kind of relationship with the land.

I feel bad about not being about to be as excited as Christian House in The Independent and I would certainly give Benson another go but I really was the wrong reviewer for this particular one. The book he’s working on at the moment, about a 98-year-old English aristocrat who's waiting in his crumbling house for the police to arrive and arrest him for sticking a Toledo stiletto in the eye of a radio producer who said the wrong thing to his daughter, sounds much more interesting.

peter_bensonWikipedia doesn’t have much on Benson apart from what I’ve mentioned at the start of this article. It does say:

His work has been described as ‘a far-reaching exploration into unlikely relationships’ and is characterised by the precision of its language, characterisations and approach.

and that gives me hope.

Make your own mind up through. You can read the first chapter and most of the second chapter here as a PDF and just the first chapter here online. There’s also a brief Q+A on the Alma Books site.

Monday 8 August 2011

Shadow Child

Shadow Child
There is no solution to grief. Somebody had a metaphor for bereavement. You go through a long tunnel, sometimes very narrow and dark, sometimes broad with glass roofs, but you’re still in it, you’re always going to be in it, because it happened. – Libby Purves[1]

On the front cover of the paperback of Shadow Child, the copy I own, it says – above the title, and in capital letters – THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER which although accurate feels somehow wrong. Perhaps it’s just me but whenever I see things written in uppercase like that I hear the words being declaimed loudly: THE INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER. The book has been translated into 15 languages and rightly so. If Shadow Child were a movie it would be being referred to as a blockbuster and yet if the book were filmed it would be no such thing. Because it deals with death. Which is strange because it seems we have no problem with death, death of a pretty huge scale in fact. In Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King the body count was 836! The Two Towers managed 468 with The Fellowship of the Ring lagging behind with a paltry 118. In fact if you check out the top 100 films as far as body counts go there isn’t one where less than 63 people die. We like to see people die. And if we’re not watching them die on the big screen we’re hunched over our TVs or computer monitors risking RSI as we end the lives of hundreds upon hundreds of whatever the latest game’s opponents are.
Death comes to all men or, as John Donne, put it, “Death comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes.” “Death is the great equaliser,” – Hamlet. You would think we would have more empathy when someone dies but Joseph Stalin hit the nail on the head when he said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” The reason that Shadow Child would never be a blockbuster is because it deals with the death, not simply of an individual, but of a child, an infant. What is more the girl is not a work of fiction; she was a real, living, breathing baby – at least for forty-seven days.
I’ve said before that a writer’s natural response to life is to write about it. It’s also their natural response to death it appears. Shadow Child was not Pieter Thomése’s first book. He had written five before it and he has written five more since finishing it. It differs from the others in that the child, Isa, was his. And his wife’s, of course, but this is not so much about her or even about them as a couple coping with the death of a child; it is about a writer’s attempt to preserve his baby daughter in words. When Paul Auster’s father died he did exactly the same, he sat down and penned the memoir Portrait of an Invisible Man in which he writes:
Even before we packed our bags and set out on the three-hour drive to New Jersey I knew that I would have to write about my father. I had no plan, had no precise idea of what this meant. I cannot even remember making a decision about it. It was simply there, a certainty, an obligation that began to impose itself on me the moment I was given the news. I thought: my father is gone. If I do not act quickly, his entire life will vanish along with him.[2]
Thomése could have said much the same. What he did say of his daughter is that “[i]f she still exists anywhere, then it’s in language.” During a panel discussion[3] at Bookexpo in Los Angeles in 2008 he told the audience that he was terrified that he wouldn’t be skilful enough to get it right: “I wrote about this immediately after it happened. There was nothing else I could do.”
Schaduwkind On Amazon, the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition is listed as Shadowchild: A Meditation on Love and Loss but the Bloomsbury edition simply calls it Shadow Child. The title in the original Dutch is Schaduwkind. It’s a popular title, in fact Libby Purves has just published a novel called Shadow Child which she wrote following the death of her son. She, however, decided to fictionalise the experience rather than do the same as Auster and Thomése:
Novels are in some ways more intimate than any confessional memoir. Autobiography tells you only what the writer remembers, and how she wants you to think she behaved at the time. Some are truthful, some are not. But even the most honest memoir is a careful artefact, reality filtered through self-conscious caution.[4]
In the same panel discussion, Thomése said: “A novel or memoir can take you to places where you’ve never been.” It’s interesting that he said, “or memoir,” here. Purves deliberately chose to write a novel rather than a memoir because she wanted to explore aspects of grief she had not experienced. Her own loss had brought her into contact with other people’s losses – there are very few of us who have not lost someone – and she could see that there was a story to be told. This was some eighteen months after her loss. Thomése was too close to his to do more than try and record and analyse.
There is not a lot to the book. We learn about the events leading up to the child’s hospitalisation, the wait to see if she would recover, the realisation that she would not, her death and their initial reactions afterwards. One Amazon reviewer had this to say:
Now this is a beautiful book, please don’t get me wrong. The author expresses the pain of losing a baby with insight and real feeling.
For those who have lost a baby, myself included, it was comforting to read the thoughts and feelings of someone who has been through the same pain. (Although please note, the author is male – so there are some aspects of losing a child that are not discussed.)
However, the book does not chart the journey to healing this pain. The book ends with the author still in pain. Personally at this point of grieving, I need light at the end of the tunnel, some way to continue, so I actually found the book to be quite depressing[5]
These are valid criticisms up to a point. I don’t believe the author was interested in how they would cope so much as he wanted to record his daughter’s short life and its effect on him:
We learned to read lips, eyebrows, fingers. I even read backs and shoulders. I read footsteps, doors, silences. Later they brought in the equipment, more and more equipment. We learned to read that as well. We learned numbers and their relationship to respiration, pulse rate, blood pressure. We learned to ignore beeps, and could distinguish unerringly between the various drips and tubes. They provided us with explanations, the only ones at our disposal. We wanted to understand everything, we sought a handhold in every fact, in order to keep from falling. Into bottomless nothing.
How do we come to understand things? Understanding is cumulative. As a child I understood what love is. At least I believed I did. I loved and I was loved. I understood what that felt like. Only now I’m in my fifties can I accept that my definition required significant adjustment and I’m still not sure I’m happy with how I define love. The same goes for loss. I’ve lost pets, acquaintances, one friend that I know of, both parents but I haven’t – and hope I never do – lose my daughter. I’ve misplaced her but she was never lost to me. So I don’t understand what Thomése went through. And I never want to. I do understand his need to understand and why he would turn to words to help him. That is what appealed to me about this book: his struggle with language.
He begins by re-examining a death he is familiar with, his father’s:
For a long time … my father continued to pay absolutely no attention to his own death. After his funeral, he just kept coming home. He had a place set for him at the table, he received his mail at the old address. He had parked the car (as the only one in the family who could drive) in its regular place. His raincoat hung on the hook by the door, his hat lay on the rack. His footsteps were heard regularly on the stairs, he shut doors – upstairs, outside – behind him all the time. And when you got up to see what was taking him so long, you could still smell his tobacco in the hall: as if he’d just gone out the door and would come back in a bit. Sometimes I had to pull out the obituary just to convince myself that he was dead.
Suddenly, one day the table stopped being set for him, his mail stopped arriving, his hats and coats disappeared from the rack, his footsteps were no longer heard and everyone stopped getting up to see what was taking him so long. Apparently he was dead then, without anyone being able to say exactly when it happened.
Time reconciles, they say. But that should be: time reviews. It’s a review exercise. You keep in hashing things over, until you forget what it was like at first.
Empty CotKeeping that in mind you can see why he might want to get his thoughts down while they were fresh in his mind. He would never forget – that goes without saying – but he would never again be able to remember with such accuracy. Time protects us like that.
That the author is male, yes, but that doesn’t mean his has no insight into his wife’s plight:
You remained a mother right down to your fingertips. With knowing hands you cared for what was left in the dented hospital cot: a doll that had to be washed and dressed and combed, because we were playing that it was alive.
You bathed her, changed her nappy, gently brushing her curls. (So beautiful, I saw you thinking, hard to believe this child was made by people.)
This is possibly the most moving chapter where his wife gets the baby ready after her death. As she does so the father sips some of the milk she had expressed and struggles to describe the taste, finally settling on almonds. The child now dead, is then taken away:
Everything [else] is still here. The baby clothes, the playpen. Just in case. Just in case it all turns out to have been a big misunderstanding.
Sometimes I forget that the future is new. There’s still the old one, that I can’t get out of my head.
Today, too, on the street I saw forms she could have taken. There are enough things that would fit her. Gestures, faces, figures. … Instances in which she was potentially present.
All of this the father tries to put into words. There is a problem though:
Language, everything had been hollowed out by events. No word had kept its meaning.
My hands, my arms, are too full of holes to embrace what is being lost. The only words left start with un- and in-, words that try to get away, that try not to say something.
Where language is, there insufficiency is gauged. Only when a thing is gone do you find the words for it. And so every word becomes an afterword, every sentence is an epitaph.
Lifted from her body and laid in words. She has become someone who must make certain she is born over and over: in the words I find for her.
No pictures, please. A memory needs enough room to keep being recollected. It must be able to hide in places where no one looks. In words where no one’s expecting it.
I have to write to hear her; on her own she’s nowhere.
What is striking about this beautifully-worded memoir is what is doesn’t tell us. What is unsaid is important because it is unimportant. He divulges little to do with the death itself. We are not told its cause or which hospital she was taken to. If you dig around on the Internet you can find out a bit more but (in English at least) there’s not an awful lot there. I can tell you that she died of a brain haemorrhage but I have no idea what the cause was. Words are there to record, yes, that’s one of their functions, but, more importantly, words exist to give those events meaning. On the whole the language is simple, the sentences no longer than they need to be, the chapters short and to the point. There is no wallowing in the moment, no milking the melancholy. Lovers of misery memoirs will no doubt enjoy this book but to call it a misery memoir is to sell it short. It would be like calling Nineteen Eighty-Four a science fiction novel.
When I bought the book I thought it was a novella. I wasn’t disappointed to find out that it wasn’t because it’s far more than a record of events. It is quite correctly described as a meditation; one where its author comes to the same conclusion that many writers have come to before him, myself included, that words aren’t the answer but they’re all we have left to us. The most profound chapter is actually quoted in full on the book’s cover:
Missing word.
A woman who lives longer than her husband is called a widow; a man who remains behind without his wife, a widower. A child without parents is an orphan. But what do you call the father and mother of a child who has died?
I can just see that father thinking to himself or even saying aloud, “What am I? What have I become?” and realising that no one in the history of language has found the word to describe a parent whose child has died. Its lack of a word says everything.
Who is this book for? First and foremost it was for himself. Publication was an afterthought. The best books I find are those written purely to exhaust the author’s need to get something out of his head and onto paper. Do I think that this is purely for those who have lost a child or even a loved one? No. Like the Amazon reviewer I’m not sure they would find any comfort in it but what they might find are the words to articulate how they feel. Not everyone is gifted with words. They feel the ache but apart from crying or lashing out they have no way of communicating it. And so they paw through books of quotes looking for other people’s words to say what they have no words to say. Thomése may ultimately be saying that words are inadequate but considering what he was working with – these wholly inadequate words – what he says is actually more than adequate.
You can read the opening chapter here.
PFT P.F. Thomése was born in Doetinchem in the Netherlands in 1958 and won the AKO Literatuurprijs with his first book, the short-story collection Zuidland (South Land), in 1991. He went on to publish two novels, Heldenjaren (Heroic Years, 1994) and Het zesde bedrijf (The Sixth Act, 1999), and another collection of short stories, Haagse liefde en De vieze engel (Love in The Hague and The Dirty Angel, 1994) before making his international breakthrough with the Schaduwkind (Shadow Child, 2003) which won the Max Pam Award. He lives in Haarlem, the Netherlands, with his wife Makira and their two children.
His website is in Dutch but worth checking out for its seven bios, one of which lists the music he listened to while writing Shadow Child:
I’ll leave you with Mompou’s Musica Callada (Silent Music), Book 1, I


[1] Libby Purves, ‘There Is No Solution to Grief’, Daily Mail, 8th October 2010
[2] Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude, p.6
[4] Libby Purves, ‘Honestly, my new book Shadow Child is all made up’, The Sunday Times, 18th April 2009
[5] Review of Shadow Child by A Customer
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