Topic: Book Reviews

By Blood by Ellen Ullman

By Blood dustjacketIn a San Francisco hit by the 1970s oil crisis, an unnamed (and disgraced) college professor, perhaps himself mentally ill, sits in a cheap rented office eavesdropping on his neighbour: a psychoanalyst and her client, who is attempting to come to terms with her relationship with her adoptive mother. Over the months the complex layers of her origins are exposed, from a Catholic sect in rural Texas, to Israel, and eventually to Europe, the Second World War and the Holocaust. Correspondingly, the narrator’s obsession with the patient grows until he finds himself unable to restrain himself from intervening in her life.

This is a very well-written novel: Ullman’s sentences are lithe and sinuous, her language evoking the seedy, depressive milieu of a run-down city convincingly and poetically. There is something of a noir feel here, with the narrator occupying the morally dubious position of the private detective, the unobserved watcher with whom the reader is unavoidably identified. It is also very compelling: the story, delivered in breathless chapters two or three pages in length each, is paced like a thriller. Yet something about the seriousness of the novel’s subjects – identity, obsession, and ultimately the full horror of the Nazi atrocities – and the pacing left me a little uncomfortable. I found myself wondering whether it was appropriate to explore these themes using the conventions of the thriller genre, or whether instead we can read Ullmann’s use of it as another interrogation of the murky motives behind our investment in finding out the ‘truth’ about other people’s lives. Either way, this is a masterfully-written, suspenseful (though at times unsettling) novel.

Mr Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

Thomas Davies is Charles Darwin’s gardener. Recently bereaved, the loss of his wife has left him to bring up his two young children alone. Refusing the consolations offered by the church, he wanders the fields and lanes surrounding the village of Downe and speaks to no-one. What is it that life holds for him now? What will become of his children? And what do his neighbours make of him?

It is not the plot of this novella, however, which is its primary strength, but the way in which it is conveyed. Like an impatient listener turning the tuning dial on a radio from station to station, Carlson’s prose flits from one member of the village congregation to another, a chorus of voices that builds like those of the unruly jackdaws with which the book opens. Yet despite the seriousness of its themes and its consciously experimental form, this is not a depressing or worthy book, and the lightness with which it carries its complexity and the wit with which Carlson has drawn her characters make it a delight to read. A subtle, elegant philosophical and moral puzzle.

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

Ghost Hawk dustjacketWhen Little Hawk was eleven he was taken blindfolded into the winter forest by his father and left there alone; in three months time, should he survive, he would return to his village a man. But the world Little Hawk comes back to is not the one his father knew: settlers from across the sea have arrived in Wampanoag territory bringing with them fine goods, new religions, violence and disease. Amongst the rising tensions between the tribes and the newcomers, the lives of Little Hawk and one of the settlers, a young boy named John, become irrevocably and fatally linked.

Ghost Hawk is an emotionally complex, finely-wrought tale which recreates the world of seventeenth-century America with both historical fidelity and respect. This is a superb book which deserves to become a future classic, but it is by no means a comforting read: Cooper takes bold risks with both her characters and her narrative, and a sense of the unquiet ghosts of the past haunts the book’s pages. Highly recommended.

Iremonger: Heap House by Edward Carey

Iremonger dustjacketAt the heart of Heap House, amongst the piles of rubbish that cover the London borough of Filching, Clod Iremonger can hear his bath-plug speaking to him. It says ‘James Henry Hayward’. But it’s not just his bath-plug: his Uncle Aliver’s forceps say ‘Percy Hotchkiss’, whilst his grandmother’s mantlepiece says ‘Augusta Ingrid Ernesta Hoffmann’, and Cousin Bornobby’s lady’s shoe says ‘Cecily Grant’. Something very strange is going on which portends disaster for the Heaps and the whole house of Iremonger, and, with the arrival of an outsider named Lucy Pennant, everything seems on the brink of cataclysmic change.

This inventive and continually surprising novel evokes a darkly distorted image of Victorian London which is at once frightening, grotesque and often very funny. There are parallels here with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy or China Mieville’s novels, but the world of Iremonger is distinctively Edward Carey’s own, and the twin first-person narratives from which the story is constructed are compelling. A peculiar but superbly-realised fantasy and the first book in what promises to be an excellent trilogy.

The Man with the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi

The Man With Compound Eyes dustjacketOut in Pacific Ocean, the accumulated rubbish of decades has pooled into an enormous vortex of waste, an unstable island of plastic leeching poison into the sea. Atile’i, a son of the Wayo-Wayoan islanders sent away from his home as sacrifice to the gods, finds himself washed-up on its shores and believes he is in hell. As the tide of refuse bears down on Taiwan, Alice, a professor of literature, contemplates suicide following the loss of her husband and son in a climbing accident, yet changes her mind on discovering a kitten, one eye brown and the other blue, amongst the flotsam.

This is a digressive, multi-faceted novel rich in strange images, hints and suggestions: people can become whales or communicate with the ocean, can die at the bottom of cliffs and yet somehow survive. A man with insectile eyes appears to the book’s multiple narrators bearing cryptic messages. At times avowedly realist, at other moments shifting between fantasy, science fiction and fable, The Man with the Compound Eyes pushes at the boundaries between genres to interrogate the often uncomfortable relationships between peoples, the natural world, and their shifting conceptions of it. This is Wu Ming-Yi’s fourth novel, though the first that has been translated into English; hopefully more will follow.