Point of No Return by Martha Gellhorn

point of no return martha gellhornFor a book about war, Point of No Return has an oddly gentle pace. It follows a US infantry battalion in northern Europe in the later stages of World War Two.

We see their privations and boredom, the cold, the harsh conditions and their camaraderie, alternating with bursts of battle and brutality. Soldiers are killed then replaced and the cycle begins again.

The main characters are Lt Col Smithers and his new driver, Jacob Levy. Smithers has almost mythical status among his men because he has never been wounded. Levy has been injured three times and hopes his proximity to Smithers will afford him some protection. Smithers, though young and from an ordinary background, has risen through his skill but the responsibility weighs on him as he is caught between his troops and the orders handed down from the faceless higher ranks.

Both Smithers and Levy dream of home and try to imagine a future after the war. They know that war has changed them, that they won’t be able to fit easily into their old life. Levy gives much of his time to daydreaming and falls in love with a woman in Luxembourg. Even though they lack a common language, he imagines she will share his plans for the future.

The end is jarring, deliberately so, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. There is an afterword from Martha Gellhorn where she says she wrote the book entirely for that ending and this somehow undermined my involvement in what I’d read before. Still, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read and definitely worth a look.

I received a copy of Point of No Return from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Enjoyed this? Take a look at Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy

 

 

 

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

beautiful bureaucrat helen phillipsThe Beautiful Bureaucrat made me laugh on the first page with its description of Josephine’s unfortunate interviewer (I won’t spoil it for you). Josephine wouldn’t, ordinarily, want to work in this rather unprepossessing office, entering a single figure per record time after time in a database, but she and her husband have moved to the city because of an economic crisis and have been forced to lower their sights.

It was easy to identify with Josephine and her husband Joseph – it brings back memories of crappy temp jobs when you perform apparently meaningless tasks over and over with no context or sense of purpose, before returning home to a grotty tenancy, hoping that this is not forever but just the route to a better life. The difficulties for Josephine are lightened by her strong relationship with Joseph, his humour and the small pleasures they find in the everyday.

Despite this, the job does undermine Josephine’s confidence and her identity. There are some nice vignettes highlighting the small humiliations and odd rituals of office life, the stock characters who apparently find this bizarre world normal and comprehensible. Then Joseph starts to behave oddly too, and she begins to question the purpose of her work.

After a promising start, my interest wavered. Although this is a short book it felt too long. The relationship between Joseph and Josephine, which at first was kooky and endearing became too much, like a couple who use their pet names in public. They have little shared games such as wordplay which, endlessly repeated, grate. The mystery around Josephine’s job takes a fairly predictable trajectory and I felt at the end that I hadn’t really learnt anything.

I’m also a bit weary of the trope that administrators are soulless and sinister. Without administration, nothing gets done. What about a book about the quiet heroism of the office manager, coordinating resources and people and systems in a game of three-dimensional chess, leaving the neurosurgeon or maverick entrepreneur or touring orchestra free to shine?

I liked the quirky prose and odd perspective of The Beautiful Bureaucrat so would probably read something else by the author but this feels like it needs more substance and fewer words.

I received a copy of The Beautiful Bureaucrat from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Looking for another Kafka-related disappointing read? Here’s my review of Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

 

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss

forest dark nicole kraussForest Dark is a book of two halves. There are alternating narratives that never cross (or do they – the end is ambiguous). Jules Epstein, a wealthy and influential Jewish lawyer who has spent his life acquiring stuff, suddenly decides he wants to give it all away. He takes a trip to Israel with this in mind.

The other narrator is also headed to Tel Aviv. She is an author (who happens to be called Nicole). She is struggling to write and is contemplating the end of her marriage.

The book opens with Epstein and I enjoyed the book at this point. It has a dry humour while also asking some interesting questions. I loved the prose. I don’t normally highlight fiction while I’m reading, but there were sentences that were so beautifully crafted and nuanced that I wanted to return and reflect on them (although I haven’t, yet).

When I got to the author narration I stalled. She just wasn’t very interesting. The realist elements felt too banal and the absurdist elements too ridiculous. It felt like the author (Nicole Krauss, not the ‘fictional’ Nicole) had some issues she wanted to work through (creativity, marriage, kids) and was still too close to them to make them into art. (I understand, her ex, Jonathan Safran Foer, has also written a novel about marital breakdown, Here I Am, so maybe she felt she had to put her side.)

There is an odd Kafka storyline. I’ve noted an apologetic tone in some reviews, words to the effect of, ‘I don’t really like this book but I’m probably just not clever enough.’ Just because a novel references Kafka it does not mean it’s good!

The privilege of the narrator grates. She lives in a world where relatives keep spare apartments in world cities which you can drop into any time, where the Hilton is like a second home and the manager knows your name. She never appears to notice that not everyone lives like this. Given that this world is satirised in the Epstein story, I assume the ‘real’ Nicole has more sensitivity in this than the ‘fictional’ Nicole but I couldn’t find any sense of irony or self-deprecation in the narration which might have made her more bearable.

It’s taken me a few weeks to get through Forest Dark. I kept hoping it would get better (it didn’t). Then I reached that point where I felt I was too far in to stop. I focused on the Epstein bits (there were some nice set pieces, though it didn’t quite hang together for me) and I gritted my teeth and skimmed the author story.

I’ve heard that Nicole Krauss has written some great books and the quality of the prose made me want to try another one, but this was, for me, was something of an ordeal.

I received a copy of Forest Dark from the publisher via Netgalley.
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Want to know more? This interview with Nicole Krauss from The Guardian is interesting. She talks about the nature of the self and why she included Kafka in Forest Dark.

 

 

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, narrated by Romola Garai

hot milkHot Milk is the story of Sofia and her mother, Rose. Rose has a condition which may or may not be psychosomatic and is unable to walk (except when she isn’t). Sofia, with her hard-to-pronounce Greek name and her absent Greek father, her high level of education and low level of employability, has walked away from her own life to do the co-dependant’s dance around her mother. But her own behaviour is less than predictable.

There are so many things to love about Hot Milk. First, the setting. I spent some time in Almeria and the story perfectly captures the strange, remote quality of the place, the extreme landscape and the unlikeliness of a resort in such a harsh climate, the international cocktail of outsiders who wash up there, who are so different but just in being there, become somehow the same.

Like the shimmering heat of Almeria, there is a languid surface to the story which belies the simmering of ideas and themes. This is a story about individuals, about mother and daughter, about the spiky Sofia who will neither conform nor rebel but is always disrupting her own dreams. It is also about the unravelling of Europe. It deconstructs what we are sure about, shows us that the world we think is fixed is in flux. Spain and Greece, once at the heart of Mediterranean civilisations, are now on the periphery. It poses playful questions about the body politic and the willingness or otherwise to take your medicine.

This is a clever book, cool, ironic, provocative (and the narrator of the audiobook captures this tone perfectly). Whenever I think about it, I see something new.

View Hot Milk on Goodreads

 

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth narrated by Michael Maloney

morality play barry unsworthNicholas Barber is a fourteenth-century cleric who has left his position in Lincoln Cathedral through youthful restlessness. He is therefore a fugitive, and a hungry one, when he happens upon a group of players and they allow him to join them. Their journey takes them through a town where a woman is about to be hung for murder. They decide to perform a play about her crime but somehow the story refuses to fit the form.

There is so much packed into this beautifully crafted short novel. It is alive with the sights and sounds and smells (especially the smells) of the period and has all the archetypes of the Medieval hierarchy. However, it is an order under strain, where the conflict between the individual and the role that is assigned to them is about to come to the boil.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the dramatisation of the murder by the players. The writing is impressive because we see everything from Nicholas’ point of view as he performs, but we also get a vivid sense of what the audience sees. This is enhanced in the audiobook by the excellent narrator. He distinguishes not just the individual characters, but between their ‘real’ and their theatrical voices, as they move between artifice and realism.

As the players perform the play their understanding of the murder changes. They are not only learning the truth, they are creating it. In telling a story of their own devising, rather than the officially sanctioned account, they are questioning the very basis of their society, even though they know there will be consequences.

Morality Play is a book that stays with you, with its intricate drawing together of the visceral honesty of theatre and the role-playing that we call real life.

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Conclave by Robert Harris

conclave by robert harrisLast year I went to Rome for the first time. It’s hard to write about the experience – the art, the sights, the culture – without lapsing into cliché, but I became particularly intrigued by the institution of the Vatican.

We spent one wonderful day in the Vatican Museums, gorging on some of the world’s greatest art (and not one work by a woman). As someone who had a notionally Catholic upbringing – I wouldn’t go so far as to say lapsed as I was never convinced to begin with – I felt keenly the contradiction between enjoying all these treasures and thinking that the wealth that purchased them should never have been appropriated from my ancestors in the first place.

On another day we visited Saint Peter’s Basilica and, as we were staying nearby, we often found ourselves wandering round the Piazza and the surrounding streets in the evening. All these experiences, and my reading before we went, left me with a jumble of conflicting images and a fascination with this strange world: the nuns who are excluded from influence but perform so many vital tasks and whose presence is even felt in the galleries (they get to repair Raphael’s tapestries so I guess we did see some women’s art after all); the priests from around the world offering confession in  Italian and English, Polish and Tamil; the hot priests calendar; the shops selling lavish ecclesiastical robes; the high-tech efficiency of the tourist operation.

So I’ve had my eye on Robert Harris’ Conclave for a while, with its promise to delve into the mysteries of this strange world. And I was not disappointed.

The conclave of the title takes place after the death of a fictional Pope, but one with some resemblance to Pope Francis. We don’t learn too much about him at the beginning, except that he is a reformer. The story is narrated by Cardinal Lomeli, one of the Pope’s closest associates, who is tasked with the organisation of the conclave, just as he is struggling with a crisis of faith.

As the cardinals assemble from around the world to choose his successor, we are introduced to the favourites to succeed the Pope and to their supporters and factions. The deceased Pope also plays a significant role, even after death. His influence, his love, and the consequences of his actions are felt acutely by Lomeli and the others who were close to him and they learn that he made some surprising decisions in his final days.

You might question whether there is much drama to be had in the deliberations of a group of men over 60, largely confined in one place. However Harris does it brilliantly. He weaves together all the issues confronting the church, and the contrasts between the cardinals – in matters of faith, temperament, politics and geography. Lomeli’s role means he has to liaise with the outside world during their supposed confinement and his assistants prove to be able co-conspirators (and of course there are nuns again, providing the catering).

There is a lot of detail of the traditions of the conclave, capturing both the splendour and the banality of the life of the Vatican. There are a few Father Ted moments, such as when the cardinals make their way to their accommodation for the conclave, dressed in their full regalia, pulling their wheelie suitcases behind them.

Harris asks interesting questions about the nature of spirituality and its relationship to ritual. There are moments when the cardinals may be moved by the voice of God, or it may just be that they imagine him saying what they want to hear. The reader is left to make up their own mind.

I spent some time thinking about the way the conclave, and the novel, end. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. But then an ending that makes you think, and question, is perhaps the best kind. I found this a fascinating insight into the strange world of Vatican politics and a great political thriller.

View Conclave on Goodreads

Want to know more? I enjoyed this interview with Robert Harris on the Kobo Writing Life podcast 

Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello, translated by Alex Valente

can you hear me elena varvelloI sometimes feel I am missing something. Other people love a book, people whose opinions I respect and often share, but I just don’t get it. I feel a bit like this with Can You Hear Me? It is marketed as both suspense and coming-of-age. It is a coming-of-age story, but I am struggling to find any suspense.

The narrator, 16-year-old Elia, begins by telling you the climax of the story. His father is having some kind of mental crisis. Elia suspects he was involved in the disappearance of a boy and he will go on to take the teenage babysitter from next door into the woods.

Of course many great books employ this technique and yet still manage to pique your curiosity because you want to know how they get there, books as diverse as Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier or Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. However here, I didn’t feel that there was any interest or anything to feel curious about, because there is no struggle or conflict, no sense that anyone is trying to influence events.

Elia drifts through the summer, doing coming-of-age stuff, hanging out with a kid his parents disapprove of, challenging him to dares, getting the hots for his mate’s mum, and meanwhile his father is disintegrating. Elia signals his unease by putting a picture of the missing boy on his wall and saying inarticulate teenage boy things to his mum along the lines of, what about that boy, though?

The characters speak in abstractions so you know that they’re deep, such as when Elia’s mother says to him, ‘I’ve thought about some things, you know? I don’t know why they felt so important. They don’t matter at all now. You have your life to live.’ And so it goes on to the inevitable.

There’s a sense of overwhelming passivity about it, there’s no suspense because the characters don’t do anything or even look remotely as if they might. It’s very moody and atmospheric but you feel like you want to puncture it, like ask them why no one thought to contact the police or a mental health professional. Elia’s mum works in a library, she could have looked it up.

If it weren’t for the fact that it came highly recommended, I wouldn’t have finished it.

I received a copy of Can You Hear Me? from the publisher via Netgalley.
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