Days without End by Sebastian Barry

I never thought I would like a book about army life, about brutal battles and vivid descriptions of the atrocities of war, but this book was one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Please don’t be put off by my first sentence; this book is worth reading for the quality of Barry’s writing alone, as well as the extraordinary story that he tells, that of two gay men in the US army in the 1850s and into the American Civil War.

Days without end

The book is narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irishman who fled to America aged 13 after his family had literally starved to death in Ireland. Thomas talks to us throughout this novel in the conversational tone of one without much education, but with a wisdom of having lived a hard life. He is matter-of-fact, without self-pity. He said that when he arrived in America with others on a ship, “The point is, we were nothing … We were a plague. We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Thomas left the horrors of a starving Ireland but came to the New World to encounter a harsh reality of expansionism in which indigenous people were being slaughtered.

Existing on virtually no food and living in rags, Thomas met a boy called John Cole, who was equally hungry and ragged. A friendship starts and almost right away, Thomas “felt like a human being again“. The boys searched for work and ended up in a mining town, working as dancers dressed up in women’s clothing to entertain the miners. There is nothing sexual about this; they danced for the miners:

Maybe we were like memories of elsewhere. Maybe we were the girls of their youth, the girls they had first loved. Man, we was so clean and nice, I wished I could of met myself.”

But the boys grew into men and could no longer pass for pretty dancing girls, and so at 17 joined the army, a hard life but one that gave them food, clothes and a horse each. Most of the fighting was against Native Americans (Indians), a horrific ethnic cleansing with brutal, physical battles, but Thomas plainly explains his and John’s behaviour:

“…. I don’t think anything can be properly understood. How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with. We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there.

soldiers

Much of the novel is about the army, the horrendous hardships the soldiers go through, not only with the fighting but also the hostile countryside and weather conditions. On reading about this life, I wondered how on earth anyone ever survived it, but Thomas and John did, and throughout the novel, the story of their love is woven, a beautifully quiet and tender love story that seems at odds with the setting.

Barry’s handling of this gay relationship is so masterfully accomplished that it moves through the story without appearing fantastical, for it is almost unreal – two men in love in an overtly masculine military context where lives don’t count for anything. I didn’t cotton on to the gay aspect of the relationship until, early on in the book, in between descriptions of the army and base camp, Barry throws in the sentence:

And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.

Barry challenges the readers with questions of identity as these men are gay, yet they remain loyal to their army compatriots. They are tender with each other, yet they kill when necessary. Barry stretches us even further when John and Thomas marry secretly and, when John leaves the army and Thomas runs away, Thomas lives for a while as Thomasina, finally dressing in women’s clothing as he had always wished to. He is feminine, yet remains masculine in his attitude to war and the army to which he has to return. And more for the reader to ingest – John adopts a Sioux girl after a raid on an Indian camp in which all the adults were slaughtered, and so the three of them live as a family for a while, happily. It all sounds strange, but Barry makes it come alive and treats the subject in a delicate and open-hearted manner.

This book was inspired in part by Barry’s son, Toby, who came out a couple of years before the book was written. In an interview with The Guardian, Barry said: From that moment on we (his son and Barry) entered into this extraordinary period where he was instructing me in the magic of gay life.” 

Barry listened and absorbed everything his son told him about gay love, cross-dressing and wove it into his novel:

“I was very impressed by the subtlety, the delicacy and the intricacy of the love between Toby and his boyfriend. People talk about tolerance, but it’s not really about tolerance. It should also be about emulation and reverence and learning from.” 

This novel can be read on many levels – a story about war, a description of life in the US army in the mid-19th century, a love story. It is a book about identity, patriotism, and friendship; fear and fervour, ugliness and strange beauty; it is bitter-sweet. It is a book written with such beautiful sentences that a dreamlike quality is evoked even in the most awful scenes; I found myself going back and re-reading battle scenes, because of the imagery that Barry uses; I found myself reading too quickly, compelled to find out what happens to Thomas and John, and I found myself almost unbearably moved by the love they had for each other.

I thought Barry’s books were good before this one, but now I believe him to be a truly great writer. I will read this book again and read it more slowly next time.

Barry

Reference:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/01/sebastian-barry-costa-book-award-2017-days-without-end-interview-gay-son

 

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Nutshell must have the most curious narrator I’ve come across in many years: a nine-month old foetus, pompous and opinionated, yet strangely beguiling. And surely a unique opening sentence:

So here I am, lying upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.

nutshell

Told from his point of view in the first person, the story line pivots around the foetus being privy to a forbidden relationship and a dastardly plan the couple has devised.

I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, I make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.

A few pages into the book, I wondered how McEwan was going to get away with writing about a foetus who is so knowledgeable about the world and its affairs, but he rather glibly pulls it off by having the unborn baby listen when his mother tunes into the radio, or when she listens to podcasts and audio books, or plays classical music. He learns about good wine when his mother drinks (which she does fairly often) and pontificates in a snobby way about the merits of a good burgundy or Sancerre. He knows contemporary politics, and surmises things he has not seen, such as colours and lightning.

Thus the foetus talks to us in an adult voice, as a reluctant observer to the plot that is unfolding within earshot and about which he can do nothing to prevent.

The plot is a familiar one to those who know Hamlet, and the epigraph is a quote from Hamlet that gives the novel its title. The mother, Trudy, has kicked her husband, John, a gormless poet, out of the house (John’s family home), even though she is pregnant with his child. She is now  in a relationship with Claude, John’s banal brother, described by the narrator as thus:

This is Claude as in property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing. He enjoys a thought, speaks it aloud, then later has it again, and – why not? – says it again. 

The narrator listens to Trudy and Claude plot against his father, for whom he has developed a tenderness, and whom he is unable to warn. John still visits Trudy at his house, trying to woo her back in a meek manner, oblivious to the plan being devised against him. The narrator, in his distress, mentally pens a letter to his father, finishing it with:

Don’t come down the stairs. Call a carefree goodbye and go. Or if you must come down, decline the fruit drink, stay only long enough to say your farewells. I’ll explain later. Until then, I remain your obedient son … 

The book ends with the narrator being born at home, Trudy crying, Claude panicking in disgust, too late to call an ambulance. The birth is described fantastically,  the narrator describing his agonising journey into the world:

I travel a section where I know a portion of my uncle has passed too often the other way. I’m not troubled. What was in his day a vagina, is now proudly a birth canal, my Panama … not casual cock can compete. For a stretch, I’m deaf, dumb and blind, it hurts everywhere. But it pains my screaming mother more as she renders the sacrifice all mothers make for their big-headed, loud-mouthed infants.

What I enjoy about McEwan is that no book he writes is like another; the story lines differ and so each new book of his is a new adventure. I had a sense throughout this book that McEwan had fun writing it and enjoyed creating this unusual, sometimes irritating, often endearing, narrator. His prose is as smooth as ever and he has retold a classic tale in the most masterful, imaginative manner.

mcewan

 

 

 

Two books about prisoners: A Book of Memory and A House in the Sky

This has not been an intentional reading theme; it just so happened that I read two books in a row that were about prisoners. The first was a novel, The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah, and the other was a memoir,  A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout, co-written with journalist Sara Corbett.

book-of-memory

Petina Gappah won The Guardian First Book Award in 2009 for her collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly. The Book of Memory is her first novel and it is a powerful story of a Zimbabwean woman sitting on death row for the murder of her adopted father, a rich white man. It had been waiting on my Kindle for a long time; I’m not sure why I didn’t get round to reading it sooner because the opening sentence alone is enough to captivate one:

The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death. It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man.

Memory is an albino woman who grew up in a poor township, spending her childhood being teased and bullied by other children, playing with her siblings, and avoiding the sun. This book is her way of remembering and interpreting her past, and of trying to gain an understanding of why her life followed the trajectory it did, leading up to her sitting in prison as the only woman on death row. Memory’s narration skips from past, to present, to way, way back, to the immediate, and carries on circuitously, as memory itself does.

Gappah
Petina Gappah

It sounds like grim stuff, which of course it is, but Gappah has created the most wonderful character in Memory, whose voice is suffused with humour and a marked lack of self-pity. I enjoyed every minute of the book –  the plot itself, but also Gappah’s writing – her descriptions are so vivid that I could imagine the prison, almost taste the mangoes and smell the dusty Zimbabwean roads. Never is Memory’s albinism used as a pity-point, though when it’s brought into the text, it brings home the awfulness of the condition,  with the descriptions of her skin blistering and bubbling, and the merciless teasing from others. In the same way, the murder of which she is accused is not the central pivot of the book and we only find out about it right towards the end because this is not a book about an albino, nor one about a murderer; it is, as the title says, a book of memory.


house

A House in the Sky is also about a prisoner, though this time it is the true story about a young Canadian woman who was kidnapped and held hostage in Somalia with her ex-lover for 460 days. Amanda Lindhout also grew up poor, squashed into rooms with her siblings, listening to her mother being beaten up by a younger boyfriend. As a means of  escape, Amanda would buy old copies of National Geographic – with money from scrounging for recyclables – and lose herself in the photos of strange and exotic countries.

Once old enough, she waitressed in high-end clubs to save money to travel and as soon as she could escape, she ventured into countries she’d always dreamed of visiting in South America, Africa and Asia. The book starts off a bit like a travelogue, with accounts of Amanda’s travels to various destinations, none of which are ‘easy’ countries to visit. After travelling on and off for a couple of years, while waitressing in between to save money, she visits Afghanistan and Iraq and starts a semi-career as a war journalist, albeit a very naive one.

 

AM
Amanda Lindhout

 

In the beginning, in an attempt to ingratiate herself to the captors, Amanda persuades Nigel to convert to Islam and, for a while, this tactic works as she is treated with respect and taught the Koran. Her kidnappers are young, and unfamiliar with women, especially Western women, and she describes them in such a poignant way I almost started to feel sympathy for them. After an escape attempt (for which Nigel believes she must take the blame), however, her captors begin to torture her through isolation, rape and beatings. In a vividly described section, she is even taken to the desert one night and is led to believe she is about to die, as a man holds a serrated knife to her neck.

Somalia

Amanda survives by creating ‘a house in the sky’ and escaping to happier places in her mind when her body is being treated worse than an animal’s. With an incredible inner strength, she manages to reach a place of understanding and empathy for her captors. Although she and Nigel are kept separate, they remain in touch by leaving notes in the bathroom and even creating Christmas presents for each other out of scraps of rubbish.

They both are freed after their families manage to raise a fraction of the amount of money initially demanded and Amanda begins to piece her life together again in Canada. She has started a philanthropic NGO to enable women in Somalia to get to university and, when asked why she would want to help people in the very country where she was taken hostage and abused, she replied:

“You can very easily go into anger and bitterness and revenge thoughts and resentment and ‘Why me?'[…] Because I had something very, very large and very painful to forgive, and by choosing to do that, I was able to put into place my vision, which was making Somalia a better place[…] I’ve never questioned whether or not it was the right thing to do[…] What else to do after the experience that I had, than something like this?”  

This memoir reads as smoothly and beautifully as any good quality novel, and I felt privileged to have read it, to have been given an insight into such an intimate, frank account – yet devoid of self-pity – of a woman’s experience to hell and back. Amanda Lindhout is an incredible woman to have been able to go through this experience and to survive it with forgiveness and goodwill in her heart.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I had been warned that this book was terribly gruesome and harrowing and that made me hesitate to read it. I should remember not to be put off by other people’s warnings and only make my judgement once I have started reading a book – this is an incredible novel. It won the Man Booker Prize last year and the chair of the judges, AC Grayling, said: “Some years, very good books win the Man Booker Prize, but this year a masterpiece has won it.”Cover 1

Yes, it is hugely harrowing and people who lived through World War Two, or those who cannot face brutality, may well not want to read it, being about Australian prisoners of war who worked on the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At times I had to take breaks from reading about the abuse suffered at the hands of the Japanese; it is told in horrifyingly graphic detail with no description spared, yet I feel it is important to know all this to understand the depth of the novel and, if nothing else, for the reader to know the realities of what went on in that part of the war.

Simply put, this is a novel about war and love, yet it’s also about good and evil, about power and submission, and about cowardice and bravery. The protagonist of the book is a man called Dorrigo Evans, a doctor who enlists at the beginning of WWII and whose unit surrenders to the Japanese in Java. As a colonel and a surgeon, Dorrigo becomes the leader of the prisoners and is hailed after the war for his bravery, becoming a famous war hero. He tries as best he can in the camps to look after his men, often intervening with the Japanese generals.

POW

Dorrigo is a flawed hero; a reluctant leader, he often feels he has no place to be the one to have been put in that position in the camp, and he is a man deeply in love with his uncle’s wife, with whom he had an affair before the outbreak of the war. His love affair with Amy haunts him constantly. Dorrigo marries after the war, knowing he does not love Ella, and spends the rest of his life in a suspended state of reality, unable to feel anything at a meaningful depth.

Flanagan shows us the lives of those soldiers who survived the war, the hopelessness that pervades their lives and the effects of what would now be called post-traumatic stress. He also takes us into the minds of the Japanese generals after the war and we see the justifications made by them for their behaviour, believing what they did was simply in service of the Emperor and the greatness of Japan, although they fear reprisals.

Flanagan skilfully takes the reader backwards and forwards in the book, from the war camp to Dorrigo’s childhood, to the camps and back to his love affair, from his marriage to his post-war empty life – it kept my mind sharp but never confused me. His writing is beautiful, even when he writes about the utter horrors of the war camp, and I spent most the book feeling haunted by his words; still do, in fact.

I feel I have barely touched the surface of this novel, it’s one I need to go back to and read again to appreciate Flanagan’s expert handling of the story. I have also barely touch the surface here in this review; there is so much more complexity to the novel, such as the poetry taken from a 17th-century Japanese poet called Basho (the title comes from one of his haikus).

Flanagan

I would warn anyone wanting to read it that this is a book of brutally graphic descriptions of cruelty and suffering, yet that they would miss out on a masterpiece if they don’t.

Two great books I’ve recently read: Road Ends and The Signature of All Things

Road Ends by Mary Lawson

ImageIn this novel, Mary Lawson writes about small town life in Canada, concentrating on one particularly dysfunctional family that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. The eldest boy in the family, Tom, lost one of his best friends to suicide and eighteen months later, Tom is still too numb to do anything other than live at home and drive a snow plough clearing roads as a job. He barely talks to anyone anymore. His mother has had another baby, despite being advised not to by doctors, has retreated into her own world and totally ignores the rest of the family. Then there’s Meg, the only daughter, the one who has kept the family together and the household running. The father, Edward, is either at work or in his study and avoids his children as much as possible; he seems quite unable to parent. And last of all, there’s dear Adam, who is little still, and totally neglected. He reminded me of a stray dog, desperate for love.

Meg, however, decided she must leave home and goes far away to London where she creates her own working life in a hotel. The household descends into squallor and chaos without her around and, reluctantly, Tom is faced with having to confront just how bad it is and has to learn to deal with the world and responsibilities again. Eventually he writes to Meg and asks her to come home.

I’ve related that in such a bland way; believe me, the book is so much better than the synopsis I’ve just written. It is so tender at times, while mirroring the unintentional cruelties that family members can inflict on each other. It also reflects well the almost claustrophobic atmosphere of a small town, where everyone watches Tom deal (or not deal) with his grief. It’s a great read.

 

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I haven’t been so pleasantly surprised by a book in a long time – what a great read. I didn’t like Eat, Love, Pray; found it cloying and cringe-worthy, so I didn’t look kindly upon this new novel of Gilbert’s. It is also another tome (why is there such a trend at the moment for extremely long books?), which put me off for a while.

But the minute I started the first paragraph, I knew I was in for a wonderful story written by a very accomplished author. Image

Alma Whittaker, the book’s protagonist, is one of the best characters I’ve met in a long time. She’s not beautiful, she’s not graceful or dainty but my heavens, would she have made a great feminist. Brought up from a young age by her parents to speak her mind, she is intelligent, educated, and constantly curious. The book is set in the 1900s, starting with the story of her parents, and then spanning Alma’s life. It ranges around the globe from London to Peru, Philadelphia to Tahiti and then Amsterdam. Her father, Henry, is an extremely rich man who made his money through the acquisition of rare botanical specimens, while her mother is extremely knowledgable about botany and so Alma grows up in a world of science and exploration, with finally focussing her studies on all kinds of moss.

Through her studies, she meets a man who becomes her husband, a man who brings great sorrow into her life and causes her to finally leave the house she grew up in and go in search of answers to his peculiarities. With these travels, she slowly develops a theory of evolution that equals Darwin’s. 

Gilbert must have done  an incredible amount of research, both scientifically and historically, for this book, but never once does it sound didactic and I was totally absorbed in Alma’s totally believable world. She is such a rounded character, robust and capable and yet very vulnerable and aware of her physical shortcomings (she’s large with wild red hair, big hands, ‘comely’ one might say). 

I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time. It’s not as detailed as The Goldfinch (although about the same length) and perhaps not as skilfully written, but it’s a fantastic story. 

 

 

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

This is a book about war. A first novel, it has been met with acclaim and won the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, as well as the 2012 Guardian First Book Award. But ignore all the accolades and read it just for what it is because it’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read and will become one of the great books about war. 

The Yellow Birds is about the US occupation of Iraq, written from the point of view of a young soldier, John Bartle. It centres around a single, tragic incident in a small village involving him, his brutal sergeant and another vulnerable soldier, Murph, and then the resultant psychological damage that John Bartle has to deal with when he returns home. The book does not try to describe the war itself, it serves to bear witness to the sensitivity of the soldiers involved and the horrific decimation of human life. The style is detached and non-sensational. It is not for the faint-hearted but everything it describes has happened in war before and will again.

ImagePowers himself spent time in Iraq as a US soldier, and this reflects in the tiny details (such as the flowers growing in a field) he includes when describing war – whatever war is, since it seems so senseless by the time you have finished reading this book. It is written in a lyrical style that brings beauty to the horrors and yet brings them alive in front of your eyes. I have already gone back and reread parts of the book because of the sparse, perfect use of words and the rhythm of his sentences.

This is an important book, and I seldom describe books as that. I think people who glorify war should be made to read it, or youngsters who are filled with a misinformed sense of nationalism. War all so pointless after all and so damaging on those involved in it. I haven’t stopped thinking about the book since I read it. Image

May we be forgiven by AM Homes

Forgiven

I haven’t read any other books by AM Homes who made a name for herself with her novel The End of Alice. I will read more by her, however, since I have read May We Be Forgiven. It is a read that starts on a roller-coaster ride of horrific events and ends up as a depiction of the tenuous strands of communication that keep us working as families and as a society. 

At the start of the novel, we meet Harold Silver having Thanksgiving dinner at his brother, George’s, house. George on the surface has it all – prosperous job, beautiful wife, two adorable children, yet Harold shows us how disconnected they really are. Harold lusts after Jane, the children sit and play on their small screens during the meal and George shovels food into his mouth, bombastic. Jane gives Harold a long passionate kiss in the kitchen – ‘The kiss was serious, wet and full of desire. It was terrifying and unexpected‘. 

A couple of hours later, Harold gets a phone call to fetch George from the police station. We never get the details of the car accident, but George has killed people. He get put in a psyche ward in hospital and, with him there, Harold stays with Jane in her house. When George gets discharged, he comes home to find Harold in bed with Jane and kills Jane with a lamp. 

All awful, yes, but told with a delicious dark humour that kept me smiling through the depiction of dreadful events. After this climactic beginning, I began to wonder where on earth the book could go. It slows down after this, yet retains its dark humour, focusing on Harold’s life in which numerous bizarre events happen.  He moves into George’s house, adopts his children and has to learn the delicacies of parenting  grieving teenagers, takes on the dog, loses his wife. He explores internet dating, he takes the children to South Africa for Nate’s bar mitzvah, has two grandparents move into his house, takes custody of the child whose parents George killed. 

The pace slows down and the writing becomes more reflective, focusing subtley on the disconnected relationships around him. It’s a curious read, one I was fascinated by even if sometimes I had to reign in my disbelief at the plot. 

Homes