Nutshell by Ian McEwan – Review

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“It’s already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence.”

A murder-mystery novel from the point of view of a foetus would have been a concept bizarre enough to get my attention, even if it hadn’t been written by Ian “My Prose is Fucking Immaculate” McEwan. Unfortunately, this novel left me frustrated and annoyed despite some incredible strengths from a stylistic point of view.

The writing is stellar; the characters are generally well-drawn, if slightly flat; however, the potential of an unusual narrator — a young foetus seeing the world from fresh eyes — is disregarded.

Instead of merely brushing aside the issue of an intelligent foetus narrator and jumping joyfully into magical realism, there is the groan-worthy (if slightly tongue in cheek) explanation that his mother listens to a lot of Radio 4 and podcasts. Explaining something which can have no satisfying logical explanation just draws readers out of the world that’s been created; it would have been far better if this hadn’t even been addressed. McEwan should have had trust that the reader would have come on this journey with him regardless of its internal logic, because logic is simply not something most engaged readers pick up literature for. Ingenuity should always trump believability.

Still, I was hopeful for an interesting perspective on the world even if things were off to a stilted start. Then the foetus develops a taste for wine, and rhapsodises on the subject endlessly. He despises bores, and is a fierce proponent of science. He also is apparently very invested in what goes on inside campus colleges in America. That was when I realised that this foetus has the personality of upper-class sixty-eight year old writer named Ian McEwan. It’s frankly bizarre and more than a little lazy.

McEwan’s prose is sparkling as always, flying between topics, but this actually works against the novel. Its basic conceit is one of a helpless infant watching his family collapse into murder, and yet he is always acute and rational about everything that’s happening, draining away any sense of helplessness.

So the dissonant tone was something I couldn’t get over, although it did warrant reflection on other books which did unusual narrative perspectives justice. Flowers for Algernon and The Sound and The Fury, for example, are both heavily described from a mentally underdeveloped point of view, but feel no less complex or rich in subtext because of this: the stilted grammar and spelling used in both acted as a way to make us appreciate the desperation of someone who wasn’t able to communicate effectively. The narrator of Nutshell is trapped inside his own mother, with nothing but kicks as a way to talk to her, yet he never feels alive (and not in a clever meta way as a comment on what it must be like to be a foetus); there’s no true fear or even raw emotion, and so there’s little investment on the part of the reader.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t engaged at points, though. The structure of the novel combines with the as-mentioned intensely readable prose to make the book satisfying to glide through, although I’ll never feel the urge to pick it up again. It ultimately comes across as masturbatory on the part of the author, a writer of incredible ability who simply couldn’t be bothered to stretch himself too far from the norm while still wanting to put on a façade of experimentation.

If an author chooses an unusual protagonist, the difficulties this might entail in regards to prose need to be embraced. Half-hearted an interesting premise with rote stylization is just a waste.

The North Water by Ian McGuire – Review

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“He will not die, he tells himself, not now, not ever. When he is thirsty, he will drink his own blood; when he is hungry, he will eat his own flesh. He will grow enormous from the feasting, he will expand to fill the empty sky.”

Sumner, a disgraced surgeon with a murky history, is aboard a whaling ship bound for the North Sea. He is in desperate need of relief from the horrors and disgrace he endured during a war in India, and seeks escape; as conspirators and murderers work beneath the decks of The Volunteer, however, and with the ship going deeper and deeper into dangerous, icy waters, peace begins to seem like a very distant prospect.

The difficulty of living with modern (delicate) sensibilities in a world where brutality is needed to survive is laid bare in The North Water. As the scale of the crew’s corruption begins to trouble our protagonist, his own demons rise. Fascinating characterisation of a cast who would be easy to despise in a less well-written novel mean that you are never allowed to become numb or bored by their constant struggles and squabbles, despite the almost absurd frustrations characters trudge through.

There’s a heavy dose violence, but the novel rarely tries to shock you with gore. Descriptions of brutalities (which are common) are kept simple, but this directness makes the story feel grounded despite a number of truly mind-wrenching horrors. This also makes it gratifying when McGuire allows himself a bit of indulgence and lets loose a page or two of utterly stunning prose.

From the opening chapter, it’s clear McGuire was heavily influenced by Cormac McCarthy: the curt sentences, the blending of cruel and disturbing subject matter with elevated prose, the near sociopathic characters, the matter-of-fact dominance of nature over man. I love Cormac McCarthy, but his imitators rarely come off well by comparison. When a writer has mastered their craft, any attempt to copy their style often comes across as faintly embarrassing and pity-inducing; it’s like watching someone copy the Sistine Chapel on a bit of cardboard using crayons. Fortunately, McGuire brings a heady dose of introspection which makes his novel feel more contemplative than McCarthy’s almost inhumanly grand epics.

The North Water is, simply put, outstanding. The structure is masterful, edging you towards the climax without cliché trappings typical of page-turners as the foreshadowing and layers of mystery build on top of each other until the final, devastating act. There’s more here than just thrills, however: horror, ingenuity, and redemption are melded by beautiful prose. Pick it up and let the cold sink into your bones.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster – Review

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“It is easy to sympathize at a distance,” said an old gentleman with a beard. “I value more the kind word that is spoken close to my ear.”

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster has a well-known premise: suspicion between cultures creates a misunderstanding, which creates tragedy, which creates anger, which creates more tragedy, and so on. It’s the sympathetic way the narrator explores the minds of characters from across the spectrum of wealth, class and race in colonized India that sets it apart almost a century on from publication.

The novel is set in the 1920s, when the British Raj has an intense distrust of a native Indian population in the town of Chandrapore. Their suspicion is a self fulfilling prophecy: the natives can tell they are already being charged guilty of some yet to be named crime, and so walk on eggshells; they know they can’t expect any benefit of the doubt if they put one foot out of line of what their new rulers consider ‘proper’ behaviour. Pushback in such a repressive environment seems almost inevitable.

This  distrust creates a gulf which can only be crossed with great difficulty, and it’s the occasionally disastrous attempts at friendship of the native doctor Aziz, a melodramatic but affectionate man, and the tolerant British headmaster Fielding which drive this novel. Aziz is accused of a horrific crime by Adela, a sheltered young British woman who is the soon-to-be daughter in law of Mrs. Moore, whom Aziz greatly admires. They all try to come together with good faith, but suspicions over any interactions between natives and the British create an environment fraught with risk for any who step slightly out of line.

It’s a powerful but slow-paced novel, and around two-thirds of the way in I thought was let down by a lack of commitment to the perspectives of Indians, and though that less time with stuffy Englishmen and more time with frustrated natives would have done the novel some good. The final book (the novel is split into three) addresses this and is the strongest section by far, closing the novel with one of the most hopeful yet heartbreaking chapters I can remember reading. I’m a sucker for any story which focuses on empathy as a theme (hence my recent love for the film Arrival), but there are enough layers here to keep any patient modern reader invested. Just don’t expect a page-turner; this is a slow burn, but it’s worth the effort.

Augustus by John Williams

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“It is fortunate that youth never recognizes its ignorance, for if it did it would not find the courage to get the habit of endurance. It is perhaps an instinct of the blood and flesh which prevents this knowledge and allows the boy to become the man who will live to see the folly of his existence.”

Augustus by John Williams retells the history of Gaius Octavius Thurinus, a young Roman nobleman who was the named heir of Julius Caesar. Stepping into a world of assassination, corruption and war, we read from the perspective of a large number of people as he attempts to remake the world as he sees fit. The world, however, makes those who strive for greatness pay a heavy price.

Despite the enormous power Augustus wields, what makes this novel interesting is the presentation of such an extraordinary person as relatable and sympathetic. This is an undoubtedly smart man who seizes circumstance with great skill, but is ultimately just a man despite pretensions to Godhood; he’s no more powerful or pitiable when left alone with his regrets than anyone else.

It’s impossible for me not to make comparisons with William’s prior novel Stoner, which I finished recently and thought was a masterpiece. Augustus is understandably very different in tone; it’s like taking in a bombastic orchestra after enjoying an intimate show by a single man with a guitar. Yet this still feels like the more warm novel of the two despite the grand scale and bloody subject matter; themes revolve around failure like in Stoner, yes, but there is a stronger focus on friendship and politics, with a warm humanism about the former and exasperation with the latter.

This novel is about Augustus as a man, yes, but is also about the way experience carves a person out of the mountain of their hopes and ambitions, discarding the rubble we used to see as our innate self. In other words: no matter how hard you try, the world and its coincidences and tragedies will shape you far more than you can ever shape it in return.

The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker – Review

“History. Language. Passion. Custom. All these things determine what men say, think, and do. These are the hidden puppet-strings from which all men hang.”

The Darkness that Comes Before is both thoughtful and brutal fantasy, like Game of Thrones mixed with the surreal politics of ancient Rome. Fascinating systems of faith, magicks and social interaction weave together a world which feels dangerous and realistic. There is religion, but also blind faith and ignorance; there is learning and philosophy, but nearly always toward foul ends; there is magic, but it can’t do much other than pure destruction.

There are webs of intrigue here which make Westeros players seem like amateurs; plans which span centuries, plans with higher and darker aims than the conquering of just a kingdom.

When I began this hulk of a book, I was worried. The seeming protagonist in the prologue was good at everything he did; he appeared to have a special destiny; the first person he met adored him. “Ah,” I thought. “Here’s the typical boring fantasy hero. Yawn.” This seemingly perfect character then abandoned a terrified farmer (and his dogs, the bastard) to be eaten, out of nothing but pure selfishness. It was then I realised that I may be in for something a little different, somethign intruiging which could eschew the idealism of Tolkien and the boring, thoughtless cynicism of many modern fantasy authors.

The person we spend the most time with is the spy-sorceror Achamian, and this is unfortunate as he’s the least engaging out of the sprawling cast of this novel. His sections are heavy on exposition and light on intrigue; as we have seen this world from wildly different perspectives, we often know more than Achamian does… and yet whenever he makes a discovery it’s treated as though the reader should be surprised too. This makes his sections a slog, although they thankfully become less common as the novel goes on.

The most interesting characters are Anasûrimbor Kellhus and Cnaiür urs Skiötha. The former is a manipulative superhuman with inscrutable motives, while the latter is a fearsome warrior in the Khal Drogo vein who is both highly intelligent and cripplingly insecure. They stood out from the large cast because they were incredibly hard to predict; they fell into some standard fantasy archetypes, certainly, but were strong enough as individuals that I was always fascinated to see what decisions they would decide to make. Kellhus’ backstory was particularly engaging, with riffs on transcendental meditation and philosophy which felt very fresh for this type of fantasy setting.

Yet when I got to the final page and realised things were going to end on a cliffhanger, I was pissed off. The Darkness that Comes Before makes the typical mistake of a first book in a series: assuming that just because questions may be answered in later novels no closure is needed in this one. As a result it’s difficult to recommend, as — even though the world and some of the characters were fascinating — I have no desire to read another two thousand pages in a similar vein, despite that I really enjoyed this. There are too many books in the world and too little time.

 

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Review

“We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.”

On a cold night floating on the Thames, Charles Marlow regales his shipmates with the tale of his encounter with Kurtz. This was a man with what many saw as natural greatness, yet on an ivory expedition in Africa he was swept up in corruption and madness.

There are (likely unintentional) echoes of Melville in the heightened language and mangy characters, but where Melville used his beautiful prose to elevate you to the skies, Conrad pushes your face into the dirt. His descriptions of Africa and the long river the characters journey down are so vivid that, much like in The Drowned World by Ballard, heat seems to radiate from the pages. It’s almost enough to make you sweat.

There’s also an impressive tension which permeates the book; while the description of Africa itself is a twisted caricature of the continent, often veering into colonialist wet-dream, cutting dialogue and a constant sense of danger means that character interactions are always fascinating.

The very last section, which isn’t even set in Africa, is the most interesting. This may be because Conrad is far more engaging when he’s writing about people in general rather than specific individuals, as with the latter his tendency for caricature again shows its head (although Kurtz is an exception).

During a scene with Kurtz’s wife, it becomes obvious Marlow will live a life contaminated by the darkness both he and Kurtz immersed themselves in when they went into a foreign land with little sense of danger. Marlow went to Africa just to travel along a snakelike river, but the serpent bit him and the poison will never leave his blood. He saw the continent, and the people inside of it, as something incidental to his own personal journey, and was punished for his naïveté. Conrad makes it clear that corruption and violence never quite leave those who encounter it. The taint will always be in the back of the mind, whispering.

Stoner by John Williams – Review

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“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

William Stoner is a university professor with little ambition who walks through the world as though bracing against a strong and cutting wind. When he sits at a desk, it is too small for him; when he puts on clothes, the cuffs are too tight; after marriage, he discovers his wife is as bad a fit as most everything else in his life. His life is a slow, quiet trudge through ill ease.

This is a novel which is sad and tender, moving you over an emotional cliff face with a gentle touch and then watching you fall with pity.

It’s odd then that it’s such a joy to read.

The charming and meticulous prose surely helps. You can feel the effort and thought put into each sentence radiating from the pages:

“He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist.”

Williams has the gift of being incredibly erudite without excluding readers. There are few allusions to outside texts (or at least ones the reader needs to know to understand), and the language rarely uses in obscure words or references. Instead, word choices are so meticulous, and each sentence flows into the next with such delicacy, that this is writing which is simply awe inspiring.

William Stoner is big-hearted in the meek Midwestern way, and thus intensely loveable, so the attachment I and so many other readers have formed with him shouldn’t be a surprise. Yet it’s unusual for a protagonist to be so passive, and  strange how the petty acts of cruelty against him made me angrier than acts of pure evil in other novels. His timidity pushes a theme of isolation and endurance in a cruel world, and this may be what makes small moments all the more affecting.

Other characters are created and carefully cast aside by the author, but never forgotten by the reader. Dave Masters, for example, appears for maybe ten pages at a stretch yet has lodged himself more firmly in my mind than the protagonists from many other novels.

So this book is hardly plot heavy and has none of the hallmarks of what could be considered a page-turner, yet I didn’t want to stop reading. It gives you with the kind of warmth William Stoner longs for in literature and which makes me grateful as a reader, and so now I’ve finished I’ve already ordered another John Williams novel to light the same sort of fire in my chest.