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Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Mister Pip


by Lloyd Jones

The setting is a primitive community on a South Sea island which fears being caught in the conflict between a ruthless militaristic government and rebel guerillas. The community deals with the lack of any educational provision by inviting the community’s only white man – one of the principal, beautifully drawn characters – to stand in as teacher. The narrator is Matilda, a 15-year old girl who is one of his pupils. His main standby is to read to them from a battered copy of his favourite book, Dickens’ Great Expectations. While feeding Matilda’s hungry imagination, this ultimately has unthought of consequences.

I thought the strengths of the book lay in the rich evocation of the setting, and the convincing development of the very believable characters, some of whom show unexpected depths when faced with extreme – not to say horrific – moral situations. You may feel that Matilda displays more insight than you might expect from her age and backround; but this is of course written from the standpoint of her adult self, who can be allowed, I feel, a little licence here. It did nevertheless seem to me that the author’s very sure touch faltered a little towards the end, where there is a tendency to over-explain, to reveal the bare bones of every moral dilemma. It is the ambiguities in the story which have been one of its great strengths to this point, and readers should be credited with the ability to face these unaided.

However, Mister Pip passes the most important test: I read it almost in a sitting, and felt unable to put it down.

reviewed by Christopher Bazalgette

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Extra(ordinary) People


by Joanna Russ

For someone who is not a huge fan of science fiction, I have been reading a fair bit recently. Rather, I have been revisiting old favourites. And Joanna Russ’s work certainly comes into the category of favourites – of any genre. In fact, as far as I’m concerned she is one of the best writers I’ve ever read.

Her work is intelligent without relying on obscurity or cleverness; she writes with passion and clarity; tackles difficult subjects with ease, wit, and humour (which isn’t always the same thing); and has done more to stretch the boundaries of her chosen genre than most other writers.

Extra(ordinary) People is more than a collection of short works without quite being a novel. This, in itself, makes for an interesting and vibrant format where themes can be explored from different angles without creating the false or awkward situations that might be necessary in a single piece. These themes and ideas are carried forward in a way that unifies the pieces, even though they are outwardly disparate.

As well as the themes that are explored (of which more in a moment); there is a common underlying viewpoint that binds the stories.

A lesser writer would, perhaps, have made something of this structure, creating and peopling an elaborate back story, yet Russ has allowed the stories to do that through the voice of the central character(s). A sense of alien presence, of otherness, is conveyed through what is highlighted as absurd in humanity.

The stories in the book are about communication and about understanding what it is to be human, especially for one half of the human race. And this is why I have left the themes of this book until now. Russ is a feminist. And already I can hear the sound of hordes of sci-fi fans (and others) walking away. Which is strange and saddening. Yet it is no rare thing for sci-fi apologists to expound its ground breaking qualities whilst accepting books that are misogynistic, militaristic, or at best paternalistic without batting an eyelid or bruising their delicate consciences. Make one mention of the position of women in a future or alternative world and we are told this cannot be real sci-fi (unless of course the women in question are young, blonde, pneumatic and wearing skin tight space suits). The same holds for fantasy.

Yet some of the very best sci-fi and some of the very best fantasy has been and will continue to be written by, for, and about women. And long may it continue. I don’t want a literature that excludes half the planet’s population, or treats its members like a housewife in a fifties sitcom. That is degrading and downright unrealistic.

Russ examines the place and experience of women in the world. This world. Other worlds. She stands assumptions on their heads. She explores possibilities. She even discusses the nature of fiction. And she does it as part of a long and grand tradition of women writers in the genre. Yet it is not polemic. That makes for bad fiction. And if there is one thing that is certain, it is that Joanna Russ writes good fiction – extraordinary fiction.

reviewed by Graeme K. Talboys

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Book News - Short Story Prize

The longlist for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award contains 39 collections, including no less than eight published by the wonderful Salt Publishing and even one, Gilded Shadows by Mary Rochford, which has been self-published!

More details and the full longlist can be found here.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Daphne


by Justine Picardie

Justine Picardie’s novel takes you through an episode in the life of Daphne du Maurier, and into her home Menabilly (the inspiration for Manderley in her most famous work - Rebecca). As you follow the story, everywhere you turn, you bump into the ghost of Rebecca.

Justine has created a Menabilly/Manderley so compelling that you will be haunted by its ghosts as much as Daphne is. The plot roams along corridors and through doors, some open and some closed, reflecting the structure of the old house itself.
Manderley broods over the novel in the same way it broods over ‘Rebecca’ and it provides both a physical and a metaphorical structure for the novel. The narrative takes you backwards and forwards in time and into the house’s lost and forbidden corners. The writing is full of literary illusions and allusions that delight and capture the imagination. The plot is threaded through with tricks of time and place as Justine Picardie explores and punctures the barriers between reality and fiction.

Daphne tells the story of the life of Daphne du Maurier, woven around her writing and the labyrinthine journey it takes her on as she writes a biography of Branwell Bront—Ď. Her path is littered with characters you will already know, some real and others of literary origin, such as Rebecca and Peter Pan.

She has also accomplished the neat trick of making all the characters sympathetic on at least some level. Many are deeply flawed – for example, Daphne’s husband Tommy’s alcoholism and depression mirrors that of Branwell – but in each case the reader can forgive and understand the behaviour and find a redeeming feature in the character.
I’m left feeling that whilst this novel must have been hefty and time-consuming to write – research underpins every page – it must also have been great fun.

About two thirds of the way through, I realised that although I wanted to get to the end to find out what happens, I didn’t want to get to the end because I didn’t want to leave this confusing and moving world that Justine Picardie has created. Fittingly, the end of the novel does indeed jolt you out of that world but the characters and their ghosts will stay with you long after the final page.

reviewed by Helen M. Hunt