Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) by Madeleine Thien

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I took the first week of the New Year off work to give myself time to recuperate from all the usual Christmas excesses. It didn’t go exactly to plan because, in between catching up on sleep and reading my new books, I took it in to my head to paint the bedroom and this inevitably took longer, and involved more effort, than I had expected. As these things always do. It meant I ended up reading much of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a gift from P, while sitting on the cold floor of our empty bedroom waiting for paint to dry, although I also snatched a few minutes of reading time in the café at Ikea and in the waiting area of Argos. Ordinarily I’d probably have put the book aside until I had more time but in this case I was enjoying it so much that it wasn’t really an option I was willing to consider.

I don’t know very much about China’s Cultural Revolution although I did take a course on the subject in my second year of university; the module seminar was first thing on a Friday, the morning after the weekly two-for-one deal on drinks at the Student Union, and, I’m embarrassed to say, I very rarely made it to class. I feel pretty bad about it now. Still, I seem to have gleaned enough to know that the characters in this book might have a rough ride ahead of them. And I was certainly right about that. In Do Not Say We Have Nothing Thien takes three generations of one extended family of musicians through more than sixty years of Chinese history, from the early days of the Maoist revolution through resettlement, famine, denunciation, imprisonment and protest. The story begins with Big Mother Knife and her sister Swirl, tea house singers in the days before the war, but focuses most of all on their children, Sparrow and Zhuli, whose lives are changed forever when the government decides that they and their music are undesirable in the new China.  It’s the third generation – two young women who meet in Canada following the Tiananmen Square protests – who piece together their complicated shared family history and try to make sense of all that has gone before them.

I assumed that when the story finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer and I got smaller and smaller. When I told Big Mother this she laughed her head off. “But that’s how the world is, isn’t it?” 

It would be quite easy for me to do a standard review post here where I list all the things I like (Wen the Dreamer, the Book of Records, Zhuli, the music and the way Thien explains the subtle differences between Chinese characters….) and dislike (nothing much – maybe the slow build up to Tiananmen?) about this novel but that doesn’t seem quite right here because I don’t think these are necessarily the things that stayed with me afterwards. Instead, I think what I will remember most is my emotional response to this novel, or at least to certain scenes. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is powerful, relentless stuff and (oh the cliché) I really found it hard to put it down. Moreover, on one occasion about midway through, when the hysterical denunciations of Conservatory students were reaching their peak, I decided it’d be best to just put the book down and walk away for an hour or two. I think I was starting to feel a bit hysterical myself. It says something about the way Thien sweeps you up into this tale; she weaves its various threads together beautifully and keeps them taut almost to the end so you’re fully entangled in everything you read. I found it very difficult to shake this story off after I turned the last page and I was still wondering about Ai-Ming several days later.

Since finishing this I’ve read a couple more books but I’ve once again fallen way behind on my posts. Expect a quick flurry of reviews very soon!

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The Luminaries (2013) by Eleanor Catton

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I finished The Luminaries a week ago and knew immediately that I’d need to give myself a bit of time to mull it over before I could do it justice here on the blog. I’ve given it a great deal of thought since then and now I’m ready – armed with a fried egg sandwich, a cup of tea and some ginger cake (a feast fit for kings) – to try and put my thoughts about this wonderfully complicated, intricately plotted epic novel into words. Whether those words will make sense or not is anybody’s guess but here goes.

“A woman fallen has no future; a man risen has no past.”

I have a special place in my heart reserved just for massive, door-stopper novels like this one. They give you so much more room to settle into the story, especially when the plot is as complex and meticulously put together as this one. The Luminaries takes place in New Zealand – making it the latest stop on my Around the World tour – in the newly established gold rush town of Hokitika. When Walter Moody arrives fresh off the boat to seek his fortune in January 1866 he discovers a town in turmoil; in the past few days a local hermit has been discovered dead in his shack, a prostitute has been found lying insensible in the street and a popular young gold digger has disappeared without a trace. Shortly after his arrival Walter inadvertently stumbles into a secret meeting called by twelve local men to try to make sense of these strange circumstances. As new information is revealed he’s drawn into a bizarre tale involving hidden gold, the opium trade, blackmail, revenge, long lost family and star crossed lovers.

Oh it’s complicated. So complicated, in fact, that whenever I skipped reading for a day or two I almost always had to go back and skim read several pages again to remind myself of all the tiny but very, very important details I might have forgotten in the meantime. I could never tell whether my natural forgetfulness might one day come back to haunt me. Thankfully it never really did, mainly because as new information is revealed the explanations are revised and the tale retold, often several times over so you’re never really sure how much of any version of the tale you can really believe. It’s the intricacy of the plot, combined with the way each character’s fate is intertwined with all the others, that makes this feel like an authentically Victorian novel; there’s something very Dickensian, or even a bit Wilkie Collins about the way Catton does this. It’s brilliant.

The first 360-odd pages of the novel are set during that first evening in the Crown hotel as the twelve gathered men recount their tales to the newly arrived Moody. From hereon each of the remaining 11 chapters gets shorter and shorter, reflecting the changing phases of the moon until by the end each one is shorter than its descriptive title. To take the astrological theme further Catton associates each of her main characters with a star sign and uses charts to determine their changing fortunes as the novel progresses. It’s a clever experiment in form and although I still don’t know what exactly it added to the novel I liked the idea and on the whole I can appreciate the way in which Catton draws all of this together. However, as I think this over now I keep coming back to those decreasing chapter lengths and I wonder whether, if I’m honest with myself, I might not have found them a little unsatisfying really. The problem, I believe, is just that the briefest shrunken chapters come right at the end of the novel when you’re hungry for more information, not less. It wasn’t really something I thought about until after it was all over though.

This is really the only small complaint I have to make about this novel. I’ve been raving about how much I enjoyed it to everyone who will listen ever since. It’s the cleverest, most engaging novel I’ve read in a really long time.

I can recommend doing a google image search for Hokitika if you’re looking for some striking travel porn to make you truly desperate to visit the west coast of New Zealand. Spectacular.

War & Turpentine (2013) by Stefan Hertmans

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We turn tough and get sentimental; we laugh as we cry; our life’s a waking slumber, a slumberous wake; we quarrel with our arms around each other; we lash out at each other while shrugging our shoulders; no part of our bodies or minds remains intact; we breathe as long as live and live merely because we are breathing, as long as it lasts. 

Before the Booker International long-list came out earlier this year I hadn’t heard of Stefan Hertmans but I immediately added some of the finalists, including this novel, to my ever growing to-read list as soon as the news came out. I heard so many positive things about it in the months that followed but resisted getting myself a copy until I went to the library to collect Silkworm a week or two ago and it just happened to be prominently displayed on the neighbouring shelf. Obviously it was destiny.

It took me a little while to get through War & Turpentine; not because it’s a particularly dense book but because it soon became clear that this was one worth taking my time over. It’s a strange novel that seems to straddle a couple of genres but essentially it’s based on the memories of the writer’s grandfather, Urbain Martein, which were written down in three notebooks in the later years of his life. The notebooks were passed to Hertmans on Martein’s death but not read until three decades later. In the first and last parts of the novel Hertmans combs over his grandfather’s life and work pre- and post-war: a poor childhood in Ghent, his father’s career restoring frescoes in churches, his early training in an iron foundry, art school, love, marriage and eventual death. Cutting through Hertman’s story is Urbain’s personal account of his experiences in the Great War, as they were written down in painstaking detail many years later. This is the backbone of the novel and its looming presence colours everything you read before and after.

It’s a little difficult to tell where the line between fiction and memoir really lies here, particularly because Hertmans illustrates his story with images of his grandfather’s sketches, paintings by the great masters he loved and photographs of the places he knew. I think this might be one of the things I liked most about this novel though. It’s almost like Hertmans deliberately allows the edges between art and real life to become a bit blurred because, for his grandfather, they were part of the same story. It occasionally makes for some quite painful reading but in amongst the poverty of Urbain’s childhood and the grim horror of the trenches Hertmans shines a light on moments that have the power to both devastate you and uplift you at the same time. One short scene, which takes place in a  small dockyard church while Urbain is in Liverpool recovering from wounds received at the front, made me quite emotional and I found myself blinking back tears and swearing at myself to keep it together at least until I was in a less public place. Hertman really touchingly shows all the brutal inhumanity of the world (a description of a gelatine factory will make your eyes water) alongside the wondrous and the beautiful: Urbain’s paintings, his mother, his short love affair, the Liverpool church, the beautiful landscape surrounding the battlefields, the sight of animals escaping the warefare… It’s a sad novel really but the contrasts give it a kind of hopefulness.

Hertman’s skill as a poet is evident here in the touchingly lyrical language. It’s so finely crafted it feels almost like a delicate work of art in itself. I really enjoyed this.

Silkworm (2014) by Robert Galbraith

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I made a quick lunch-break dash to the library in order to pick this up and still had enough time to read some of the first chapter on a park bench before heading back to the office. It was a lot of effort to go to for a book I hadn’t really planned on reading so soon after The Cuckoo’s Calling – usually I get a bit bored if I work my way through a series too quickly – but the recent TV adaptation was getting discussed in great detail in my office and it was driving me kind of nuts. I was worried that if I didn’t read it soon then someone was going to spill too many beans and ruin the ending.

(Incidentally, I am currently a week behind on ‘Bake Off’ and having a very similar problem. I have to go make a cup of tea whenever my colleagues start discussing it.)

In Silkworm’s opening chapters, private detective Cormoran Strike takes up the case of missing author Owen Quine. Quine’s last act, in the days before his disappearance, was to send draft copies of his latest bizarre novel to everyone he knows including his wife, his mistress, his editor, his agent, his biggest rival and his publisher. Unfortunately for them the novel contains some vicious, thinly disguised poison-pen portraits and reveals some deep, dark secrets they’d probably rather not share. Under the circumstances it’s clear that there are several people who might have liked to get their revenge on Quine, or prevent him revealing further unpleasant truths, so Strike and his assistant Robin have to work out precisely who appears in the novel, who read it and who has the most to hide.

It’s a much darker, grittier novel than The Cuckoo’s Calling but I don’t think I enjoyed it quite as much. The plot is cleverer and just like Cuckoo it’s carefully put together with no worrying loopholes or loose ends. I’ve said before that I really love the way that Rowling builds vivid, believable worlds around her characters and this isn’t an exception. I particularly like the way that she describes real London places; it makes Strike’s world feel tangible. Similarly, however, I’ve also said before that I wish some of Rowling’s later novels were shorter and I stand by that here too. I think this novel wouldn’t have started to drag so much if Rowling was better at staying on topic. She wastes too many precious words on scenes that don’t matter, that slow the pace and become an annoying distraction from the real story. I liked Silkworm but would have enjoyed it even more if it had been a few pages shorter.

I’m also starting to wonder whether Robin might be a better central protagonist. Strike’s ok but I think telling the story from Robin’s point of view might actually feel just a little fresher. At the moment her relationship with Strike is straying into clichéd territory and I’m scared it’s going to get a bit predictable in the end. I’ll keep on with the series, since I’m quite enjoying them and they’re very easy to read. Maybe Rowling will surprise me.

The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) by Robert Galbraith

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“How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.” 

I came back from France with a nasty cold and was pretty much useless for anything requiring an upright position (or breathing) for a few days after our return, which put a very definite stop to my Doctor Zhivago reading plans. Something light, entertaining and plot driven was in order so I reached for The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first in the J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith mysteries. I have vague memories of having bought this at a library book sale when I was still at my old job so it’s probably been lurking in the unread pile for about two years at least. It was clearly high time to knock this one on the head.

As I said, The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first in the series and introduces us to Rowling’s private investigator Cormoran Strike who, as the book opens, is newly dumped, broke and living in his office. Strike is asked to investigate the supposed suicide of a world famous supermodel and – no surprises – it quickly becomes clear that her family were right to suspect foul play all along. Over the course of the investigation Strike interviews anyone with a known connection to the victim and meticulously reconstructs her last movements, all this while his disastrous private life disintegrates around him.

This is fairly standard detective fare but, for all its occasional sweariness and talk of rap megastars, Twitter and Boris Johnson, The Cuckoo’s Calling feels somehow endearingly old fashioned. There’s no pathology or forensics here but a lot of time is spent combing over minute details gleaned from interviews with witnesses and there are some traditional red herrings to misdirect you along the way. Strike is an old school private detective with a background in the military, woman trouble, a fondness for drink and the ability to handle himself in a fight. He’s not, however, such an enormous cliché that he feels derivative or that you can’t believe in him; in fact, I warmed to him quite a bit and particularly enjoyed his interactions with Robin, the fresh faced secretary from the temping agency who arrives on page one. Their mutual embarrassment and wariness of each other was kind of heartening and I’d consider reading the next in the series just to see how this relationship develops.

Like the later Harry Potter books this suffers from a lack of editing and I couldn’t help thinking that a little careful cutting here and there might have made this novel feel a little tighter without necessarily sacrificing any of the momentum or atmosphere that Rowling is so good at creating. And she does that exceptionally well here, I think; The Cuckoo’s Calling isn’t an astounding work of art but it is engrossing and the world she creates for her characters is vivid and believable. In spite of its flaws it succeeded in cheering me up at a time when I was feeling pretty rubbish. It got me through my cold, its after effects and the depressing post-holiday return to work which, in all honesty, is the worst. I was grateful to have this book to look forward to on my lunchbreaks during that first week back.

H is for Hawk (2014) by Helen MacDonald

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I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

It’s been several weeks since I finished this book so you’ll have to forgive the hurried, vague review which doesn’t really do it justice. Despite not being my usual cup of tea (at least on first appearances) this was an early addition to my birthday wishlist; I say this because when H is for Hawk first came out I carelessly dismissed it as a sort of misery memoir until several word of mouth recommendations assured me I’d got that entirely wrong.  I’m pleased I got over my initial reservations; this was very well worth the reading.

It’s a difficult book to describe, H is for Hawk, because there’s a lot going on here but put very simply it’s a memoir of MacDonald’s attempt to train a goshawk named Mabel in the wake of her father’s sudden death. She knits her grief into the story of Mabel, describing both her memories of her father as well as the practicalities of purchasing, training and living with a wild bird.  Alongside this tale MacDonald also provides a study of the reclusive author T.H. White whose own chaotic dabblings in falconry, as described in his 1951 book The Goshawk, were a source of much childhood confusion and inspiration to McDonald. In this way she provides a really moving account of her own grief, carefully scrutinising all the ways in which she consciously or unconsciously looked to the wilderness as an escape from her own life in much the same way White did seventy years before. In her own eyes they both follow an ancient, literary tradition, that of the grief stricken hero who retreats into the wild to forget the traumas of the past. Her attraction to the sullen, troublesome goshawk and to White, a fellow misfit, reflect her own perception of herself as an outsider in grief.

For a memoir about grief this isn’t a dark book although of course it deals with what was clearly a very dark time in the writer’s life. For me it was a surprisingly enjoyable read, told with real passion and warmth. Because it’s so unusual – part nature writing, part personal memoir, part literary biography – it’d be very easy to accuse H is for Hawk of feeling scrappy but I really don’t think it does. There’s a lot going on of course but it’s all meshed together really naturally so you almost don’t notice the switch from one theme to another. The strongest parts, at least for me, were McDonald’s descriptions of the natural world. I think I could read some of her descriptions of afternoons spent flying Mabel over the flat Cambridgeshire countryside again and again and I would still find them lovely.

As I said, it’s just a quickie review today but I’ll be back again soon with a post on The Man in the High Castle. I have more to say about that one… read into that what you will.

The Essex Serpent (2016) by Sarah Perry

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The beautiful William Morris-y design gracing the cover of The Essex Serpent was what first sparked my interest in this book. It was also enough to attract the attention of two strangers who separately approached me to enquire what I was reading. On one of those occasions I ended up drawn into a long (but interesting) conversation about Victorian novels until, hey presto, lunchbreak was over and I was supposed to be back at my desk fifteen minutes ago. Ooops.  But still, it’s nice the way a pretty book can bring strangers together.

On the face of it this book is everything I usually love: not-so-stuffy Victorians, a strong and intelligent female lead, tons of gothic drama and atmosphere, a mythical threat and a bit of social conscience. The leading lady, Cora Seabourne, is a young widow and amateur fossil hunter who heads to the marshy Essex countryside for some rest and relaxation following the death of her husband. Curiosity at the bizarre rumours of a winged serpent terrorising local fishermen attract her to the village of Aldwinter where she sparks up a friendship with the harassed local vicar William Ransome. The novel focuses partly on the hysteria and superstition arising from the supposed mythical beast but also on the effect that her rapport with Ramsome has on them both and those they love.

The setting, I think, is possibly the thing I enjoyed most about this book. I often find that I particularly warm to books with a strong sense of place so Perry’s haunting descriptions of the bleak, wintery marshes rang really true to me. It’s also the case that in books and in real life I’m naturally drawn to this kind of flat landscape myself (see: WaterworldGreat Expectations, The Nine Taylors…) so maybe I just felt quite at home in Aldwinter. It’s the perfect setting for a mythical beast dragging unsuspecting men fresh from the alehouse to their deaths beneath the waves. I also think it lends itself really well to a story like this one where tension and atmosphere are so important. Combined with Perry’s beautifully lyrical writing style this makes an eerie, almost otherworldly tale at times.

 “Each was only second best and they wore each other like hand-me-down coats.”

I couldn’t help thinking that in the end, sadly, too much of The Essex Serpent was given over to the growing friendship between Cora and Ransome and as much as I enjoyed watching this unfold at the beginning I found it to be a bit of a distraction towards the end when the narrative tension should really have been at its height. I didn’t dislike either party particularly but it occurred to me afterwards that I found every other character more compelling and would have liked more of them instead. In the main, though, I think my problem is that I was just a bit disappointed that the serpent didn’t feature more prominently or that the answers to my many questions weren’t answered in the way I wanted them to be. It felt a little bit like a clever plot had been swept aside in favour of some romance and melodrama that weren’t enough on their own to keep the momentum going. I’d have liked a twist, a reveal, something, to keep me interested but it just wasn’t there.

This book hasn’t been relegated to the charity shop just yet; I think I enjoyed it enough to keep hold of it for now and it will look quite pretty on my shelves (when I find some space for it). I’ve since read Albert Camus’ The Plague  – a 99p Oxfam shop find – and was struck by some of the similarities, and differences, between this and The Essex Serpent (although I’m aware that this isn’t a fair comparison to either author). I’m working on a short post on this now and should have something up here soon.

 

The Sellout (2016) by Paul Beatty

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That’s the problem with history. We like to think it’s a book, that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”

I still haven’t found that copy of Dr Zhivago I bought in January and promptly mislaid. Its absence throws all my immediate reading plans into question, not that I’m ever very good at sticking to those plans, but still, it’s the principal of the thing. In the end I gave up the search for the missing book and reluctantly added it to my Amazon wishlist ready for my birthday. You never know, I thought, I might get lucky. In the meantime I decided to focus on some of the books I received for Christmas but haven’t yet got round to reading, beginning with Paul Beatty’s Booker Prize winner The Sellout.

I heard so much about this book in the wake of the prize nomination last year that I felt like I knew the story fairly intimately already. For those not in the know, the novel’s narrator, known affectionately as Bonbon, embarks on a campaign to quietly re-impose segregation on his home town of Dickens. His actions are partly a protest against the swallowing up of his community by the anonymous Los Angeles suburban sprawl but he’s also fuelled by a belief that there might be some tangible benefits to his campaign; when his friends and neighbours are confronted by a ‘Whites Only’ sign on a bus, for example, they’ll be reminded of how much has already been achieved and how much they still have to fight for. It’s not a genuine crusade against the achievements of the Civil Rights movement, more an opportunistic attempt to inspire and unite a lost community.

The Sellout is bitterly, darkly funny and made me laugh out loud quite suddenly and unattractively on several occasions. For the first two thirds of the novel I was enjoying it so much it was all I could do to refrain from reading whole paragraphs aloud to those around me, knowing as I do how annoying I find it when others do the same thing. The combination of Beatty’s shrewdness, his almost confrontational tone and the subject matter make this an uncomfortably entertaining read but it’s so highly entertaining that I can recommend it on this basis alone. My only real problem with The Sellout is with the final few chapters; after promising so much it just fizzles out without really acknowledging the consequences of all that has gone before. It’s almost as if such a perfectly set up plot can’t sustain the cleverness for long and collapses under its own weight. I don’t really know what I was hoping for.

Only a short review this week – that doesn’t do this book justice at all – as I’m a little behind with posts at the moment. I’ve nearly finished Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and I have a ton of pictures to post from my latest literary travels, which reminds me that I still haven’t posted pictures from our pilgrimage to another author grave way back in December. So many good intentions, so little time…

His Bloody Project (2016) by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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I’ve probably mentioned a hundred times before that I’m a sucker for an unusual narrative style and particularly for stories told in letter or diary format. This book caught my eye last year, before it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, because of its subtitle: “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.” Hang on a second there, sunshine. Documents? Just my cup of tea. After that I fully intended to pick this up at the next opportunity but, as so often happens, promptly forgot about it as soon as something else came along. That’s just typical really. I spotted it again during some impromptu bookshop browsing a few weekends ago and then managed to read the whole thing before the weekend was over. That should tell you how daft I was to delay reading it for so long.

“One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone…”

In the preface to his novel Burnet describes this as a true story uncovered while he was researching his own family history in a Scottish archive. I don’t believe that’s actually true but it’s a clever layer to the fiction and adds a certain gravity to the tale he goes on to tell. The story he’s uncovered is that of seventeen year old Roddy Macrae who, we’re told, was charged with a horrific triple murder in a remote Highland crofting community in 1869. In this novel Burnet brings together all the original evidence relating to the trial that followed: the witness statements, post mortems, expert opinions, court transcripts and, most remarkably, Roddy’s own lengthy account of the events leading up to the crime. Roddy’s defence claims that he was suffering from a sort of temporary insanity at the time of the murders but would an insane man know he was insane? And if so, can you really trust anything he tells you?

This isn’t a straight forward crime/detective genre novel. Instead, as Burnet applies layer upon layer of information he leaves the reader to decide how far the evidence can be trusted and whether Roddy was really in his right mind at the time of the murders. I think the ‘documents’ format works really well in this respect as it means the reader can see the same man, and the same crime, from several different angles, each one with its own agendas and prejudices. Burnet’s restraint in handling all these different layers is evident here and it never feels disjointed or jarring. With hindsight I’m not sure that Roddy’s own account of the crime feels quite as historically authentic as some of the other reports but in some ways this works in the novel’s favour. It certainly creates a really atmospheric picture of this tiny, isolated community with its ancient customs, language, feuds and tensions.

It took me a while to realise that Burnet was deliberately leaving the ‘facts’ of the case open to interpretation by providing conflicting opinions and omitting certain details from Roddy’s memoir. One key piece of information mentioned briefly in a post-mortem report had me scratching my head for ages as it didn’t tally with Roddy’s own account, which I wanted to be truthful. It was at his point that I realised that there was clearly more to this tale than initially meets the eye and I spent much of my time from hereon waiting for a twist, a big reveal, that would suddenly make everything fall into place. However, I think by refusing to hold your hand or provide all the answers Burnet makes this a much more gripping, though unnerving, read. It’s the kind of book that will either leave you disappointed by the lack of answers or raking over the details in your head for days following. My response was much more like the latter.

Shylock is my Name (2016) by Howard Jacobson

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There has been frustratingly little reading time this last week or two and I’m trying very hard not to feel a bit down about it. It’d be horrible if reading were to become some sort of competition where I have to read so many books in a year or I’ll feel like a failure…. But at the moment it seems to be taking me a long, long time to finish any books at all. It’s disappointing. I miss reading. It makes my day (and me) a little bit nicer.

“That’s how vilification works. The victim ingests the views of his tormentor. If that’s how I look, that’s what I must be.”

This book was a birthday present from P earlier in the year on the back of a documentary we saw with Jacobson and Alan Yentob in Venice in which they talked about our responses to Shylock. I came away with the impression that this was a sort of retelling of The Merchant of Venice but that’s not quite right; it’s more of a re-plotted, re-imagined tale in which Shylock – not a version of Shylock but the actual Shylock fresh from Venice – strikes up a strange friendship with modern day art dealer Simon Strulovitch in a Manchester cemetery. The two have a lot to talk about and when Strulovitch’s precocious daughter Beatrice becomes entangled with a Nazi saluting footballer, Shylock suggests that Strulovitch exact his ‘pound of flesh’ from the man who has wronged him in a way that will sound eerily familiar.

The conversations between Strulovitch and Shylock form the backbone of this novel. They discuss errant daughters, fatherhood, what it means to be Jewish and how Jews and non-Jews regard each other in the modern world. Their discussions are interesting, funny and challenging enough that they aren’t as tortuous as they would be in the hands of a less clever author. In fact, they’re the perfect mouthpiece for Jacobson to explore Shylock’s place in our world and you get a strange sense that he’s really enjoying doing this. The rest of the novel feels kind of flimsy in comparison and I wondered whether Portia (or Plurabelle as she is here) deserves a bit better than Jacobson is willing to give her; she’s no longer the spirited young woman capable of annihilating Shylock in court but the vapid star of a reality TV show. It doesn’t seem quite fair. Shylock on the other hand is just as disconcerting here as he is in the play; he’s vociferous both in defending his own actions four hundred years previously and in urging Strulovitch towards revenge.

It helps if you have at least a passing familiarity with The Merchant of Venice beforehand. I haven’t read the play but I’ve seen it performed on stage and on film so I was fairly confident that I’d get to grips with this in no time. Within a few chapters, however, I was flicking through The Complete Works of Shakespeare trying to remind myself what the hell the monkey had to do with anything (and then kicking myself for having forgotten that the monkey is the final twist of the knife in Jessica’s attempt to hurt her father; it’s kind of a big deal). I think I kept up with this novel but maybe I’d have appreciated some of the nuances a bit more if I’d had a deeper knowledge of the play. It’s something I’ll have to bear in mind for a future reread. Even armed with a bit of knowledge, I imagine this isn’t always easy going, partly because the conversations between the two main characters require some concentration but also because, while there’s a certain amount of dark humour here, there’s also some bewildering anti-Semitism on the part of some of the other characters. Much like The Merchant of Venice, this isn’t a comfortable experience and although it doesn’t have the same power to devastate I admire the way it’s told.