David Hebblethwaite

Wild swan 1170 Reputation points Help-d956b624e3a70f299ff60fb4f6e79359
  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

    I smell a good book...

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    Perfume is one of those books I had heard of by reputation, but didn’t actually know anything about. And now I’ve read it… well, it’s not what I was expecting, but it’s good. I liked it, but saying so feels a little uncomfortable — as well it ought! Patrick Süskind tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man with a preternaturally acute sense of smell, but no human odour of his own. Growing up in eighteenth-century Paris, Grenouille begins as a tanner’s apprentice, but soon inveigles his way into the employ of Giuseppe Baldini, the renowned perfumer. Baldini has fallen on hard times, but Grenouille’s unparalleled instinct for concocting scents turns the perfumer’s fortune around, and Jean-Baptiste is subsequently able to leave and become a journeyman. Over the years, Grenouille learns more of the techniques of perfume-making, and discovers how to manufacture scents that can provoke a certain reaction in people — he can go unnoticed by people, or catch their attention, as he...Perfume is one of those books I had heard of by reputation, but didn’t actually know anything about. And now I’ve read it… well, it’s not what I was expecting, but it’s good. I liked it, but saying so feels a little uncomfortable — as well it ought! Patrick Süskind tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man with a preternaturally acute sense of smell, but no human odour of his own. Growing up in eighteenth-century Paris, Grenouille begins as a tanner’s apprentice, but soon inveigles his way into the employ of Giuseppe Baldini, the renowned perfumer. Baldini has fallen on hard times, but Grenouille’s unparalleled instinct for concocting scents turns the perfumer’s fortune around, and Jean-Baptiste is subsequently able to leave and become a journeyman. Over the years, Grenouille learns more of the techniques of perfume-making, and discovers how to manufacture scents that can provoke a certain reaction in people — he can go unnoticed by people, or catch their attention, as he desires. But Grenouille’s wish is for the greatest of all perfumes, the one which will make him adored by — and hence gain power over — all. The secret ingredient of this scent is the essence of innocent girls — and so the murders begin… Süskind pulls off a very difficult feat in Perfume, which is to write a book about an utterly vile and unsympathetic character, and make it compulsively readable. This is in large part down to his prose style (and, by extension, to John Woods’ excellent translation), which has the feel and quality of a myth or fairytale. The paragraphs are often long, the description often detailed; but in a way that offers depth and flow rather than weighing the narrative down. Süskind is particularly good (as one would hope and expect) at evoking smells: his opening pages are a useful reminder that eighteenth-century European cities would have stunk; more generally, he emphasises the importance of a sense that’s all too easy to forget about when writing and reading fiction. As a character, Jean-Baptiste Granouille is someone you’d hope never to encounter, the kind of person you’d hope could never even exist. He’s single-minded to the point that his entire being is distorted by his obsession. All this makes Grenouille extremely difficult to empathise with; and the author makes little attempt to help us. Süskind does a lot of telling rather than showing, which has the effect of sealing Grenouille inside his own mind. Even though we see his deepest imaginings, Grenouille remains a cold and distant figure. This is quite deliberate, I’m sure, and in keeping with that fairytale style; it pushes the story slightly out of reality. Then comes the uncomfortable question: does Perfume make light of mass murder, or at least fail to take it seriously enough? On balance, I would say not; though the issue is thorny. Grenouille gets his comeuppance in the end, but it’s a fairytale kind of comeuppance. I don’t think Süskind dwells gratuitously on the killings, but there is a nagging sense that the idiom in which he’s chosen to write doesn’t allow him to treat the situation with the gravity it deserves. Still, I think Perfume is a powerful book. Yes, it’s pretty much geared towards doing one thing and one thing only — but it does that thing very well indeed. The book kept me reading to the end, and left me thinking about it afterwards; which is a fine outcome for the reading of any novel. (more)

  • Dazed & Aroused

    A world of suffocating shallowness...

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    The exploits of a model in a glossy, superficial world of sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ photo-shoots do not, to be honest, sound like immediately appealing reading — which is rather the point. This is the world in which Gavin Bower has chosen to set his first novel; and it’s a world of which he has first-hand experience, having been a model himself. And it’s not a world that Bower paints very prettily. Dazed & Aroused is narrated by Alex, who became a model straight out of university, and spends his days (and nights) shuttling between auditions, shoots, and parties. The agency pays his rent, and he can piggy-back for free on his father’s membership of a chain of exclusive clubs. In short, Alex has the kind of lifestyle that could easily be the envy of any young man with a taste for hedonism. The story of the novel is essentially one of how Alex messes up such lasting relationships as he has. Bower set himself a difficult task with this book, which was to take a fundamentally unpleasant subjec...The exploits of a model in a glossy, superficial world of sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ photo-shoots do not, to be honest, sound like immediately appealing reading — which is rather the point. This is the world in which Gavin Bower has chosen to set his first novel; and it’s a world of which he has first-hand experience, having been a model himself. And it’s not a world that Bower paints very prettily. Dazed & Aroused is narrated by Alex, who became a model straight out of university, and spends his days (and nights) shuttling between auditions, shoots, and parties. The agency pays his rent, and he can piggy-back for free on his father’s membership of a chain of exclusive clubs. In short, Alex has the kind of lifestyle that could easily be the envy of any young man with a taste for hedonism. The story of the novel is essentially one of how Alex messes up such lasting relationships as he has. Bower set himself a difficult task with this book, which was to take a fundamentally unpleasant subject and write about in a way that was readable whilst still bringing home the unpleasantness. I think he pulls it off. It helps that Dazed & Aroused is so short (less than 200 pages), because it simply wouldn’t work at greater length. What Bower has done is construct the novel in a particular way so that everything — from ‘plot’ to prose style — is geared solely towards a critique of the world Alex inhabits, and of the protagonist’s response to it. There’s no room in the text for anything else. Alex’s world is suffocatingly shallow: he flies from city to city, with barely any sense of what makes each place distinctive; meets beautiful people everywhere, who all blur into one another; he has a girlfriend, but thinks nothing of cheating on her… His life is one of drifting, albeit with a certain amount of glamour. There are celebrities and successes, but the really big break remains elusive for Alex. Names like Kate Moss are spoken like charms, as if to symbolise that golden moment which forever lies around the corner. All this is mirrored in the prose: for one thing, Alex narrates in the present tense; but Bower has other, subtler techniques: every so often, when the hedonistic perks of the model’s life go to his head, Alex will retreat into long, breathless sentences where he’ll gabble about this and that and all the exciting things that are happening to him and all the people at all these places and he’ll do so without punctuation or pause… A very effective way of distancing us readers from the narrative, just as Alex seems distant from his own life. However, Bower’s prose is not always so well judged. Particularly at the beginning, I was concerned that he was making the subtext a bit too conspicuous: in the second chapter, for example, Alex listens to a Frank Sinatra song that talks about people being made and broken; and then overhears a conversation about the superficiality of modern life. Alex also has a tendency to notice slogans and beggars around him; and he notices them so often that it can become wearying. The former of these issues settles down eventually, as Bower embeds his critique properly in the fabric of his text, where it should be; the latter, however, never quite stops being intrusive. Be that as it may, Dazed & Aroused broadly achieves what it sets out to do. No, it’s not a particularly pleasant book to read; nor does it necessarily have much to say that is new — in the sense that you probably had an idea that the fashion world could be superficial, which might in turn have a detrimental effect on some of the people who inhabit that world — but it’s a book that works. It works because it shows so clearly the consequences of Alex’s actions. For, in the end, Dazed & Aroused is a very personal book — Alex is at least as much to blame as his industry for his circumstances, and probably more so. In keeping with his superficial narration, we don’t really get to understand Alex; but there’s a sense at the end that he might, at last, be starting to learn something. There’s hope after all. (more)

  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics

    A bookish mystery -- but just a bit _too_ bookish...

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    Blue van Meer has lived a peripatetic existence with her father Gareth, a professor of political science (her mother having died in a car accident several years previously), until her senior year of high school, when he deigns to let the two of them stay in the same town for the whole year. At her new school, Blue becomes drawn into the world of the glamorous, captivating film studies teacher, Hannah Schneider; and the select circle of students, nicknamed the Bluebloods, whom Hannah keeps close. Then, on a camping trip later that year, Blue finds Hannah’s body hanging from a tree — apparently suicide, but could it have been murder? What Blue discovers subsequently may draw into question everything she thought she knew. This is her story, in her own words. I had never heard of Special Topics in Calamity Physics before seeing it in a bookshop on holiday, but it seems that it caused quite a stir on publication, being lauded as the startling debut of a young, talented author. I’ll be h...Blue van Meer has lived a peripatetic existence with her father Gareth, a professor of political science (her mother having died in a car accident several years previously), until her senior year of high school, when he deigns to let the two of them stay in the same town for the whole year. At her new school, Blue becomes drawn into the world of the glamorous, captivating film studies teacher, Hannah Schneider; and the select circle of students, nicknamed the Bluebloods, whom Hannah keeps close. Then, on a camping trip later that year, Blue finds Hannah’s body hanging from a tree — apparently suicide, but could it have been murder? What Blue discovers subsequently may draw into question everything she thought she knew. This is her story, in her own words. I had never heard of Special Topics in Calamity Physics before seeing it in a bookshop on holiday, but it seems that it caused quite a stir on publication, being lauded as the startling debut of a young, talented author. I’ll be honest and say that I was half expecting the book to be insufferably pretentious — and, in some ways, it does try one’s patience. But it’s actually quite fun to read once you get into it; and there is much to admire within — which may be the novel’s main problem: plenty to admire, but less that’s easy to truly love. First, the prose. Blue van Meer is a very bookish girl — very bookish, and it shows in the volume she has ‘written’. All the chapters are named after books, the text is full of quotations from books (many of which, in keeping with the novel’s playfulness, have been made up by Pessl — even one of the chapter-title books exists only in the pages of Special Topics), and Blue has a habit of making comparisons by referring readers elsewhere: ‘Jade was the terrifying beauty (see “Tawny Eagle”, Magnificent Birds of Prey, George, 1993)’. Pessl also writes Blue as tending to overdescribe and digress; in short, the narrative voice is full of quirks that become wearying over 500 pages… but not as much as you might think. If these quirks get tedious, they’re quite easily ignored; and for the most part, they make the book sparkle. What’s less easily ignored is the voice of Gareth van Meer. We often get to hear what he thinks of this or that (he’s usually critical), in his pompous drone that makes one feel almost like tuning into some mindless, lowest-common-denominator TV show, just out of spite. Blue does come to question whether all her father’s ideas are as right as they appear; but that doesn’t stop his interjections dragging the book down. A bigger problem, though, is that, for all Pessl’s undoubted verbal dexterity, she comes up with some real clunkers. I like some of her insights and images, such as ‘Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint’; more often, though, we get lines like ‘[a] gold, five-tiered chandelier at the center of the room hung like an upside-down duchess shamelessly exposing to the paying public her ankle boots and froufrou petticoat’. It works insofar as you can see what the author means; but it doesn’t half feel awkward. Moving on from the prose, the characterisation in Special Topics is an interesting issue. I’ve read an interview with Marisha Pessl in which she says she deliberately wrote the novel to be ‘larger than life’, and this it certainly is. Would any teenager be as immersed in books as Blue van Meer, or as beuatiful as the Bluebloods? Would any teacher be as extraordinary as Hannah Schneider, or any academic as relentlessly intellectual as Gareth van Meer? Probably not, but then again… I remember how adult some sixteen-year-olds semed to me when I started high school; and I’ve encountered my share of people who seemed as remarkable as Hannah Schneider does. They might not have been so in real life, but that’s what these characters are like: not real people, but mental images of people viewed at a distance — not how they might really be, but how one could imagine them to be. Of course, there’s a trade-off associated with larger-than-life characters, which is that the author has to work harder to make us care about them. It’s a task that Pessl doesn’t always succeed in: for example, a scene where Blue confronts her father, and ends up throwing books at him, ought to be one of the most emotionally charged in the book; but Blue lists every single book she throws (complete with author and year of publication), and it comes across as absurd. So, although it’s possible to make real people in one’s mind out of these extraordinary characters, and it’s possible to see Blue in particular learn, grow and make mistakes; one has to dig pretty deep to be able to do so. And then there’s the plot. Special Topics is very cleverly plotted, with many apparently incidental details brought back and reinterpreted in the final act. The trouble is, the solution to the mystery hinges on information not known to the reader in advance — information that, moreover, is entirely fictional in nature. There’s absolutely no chance of ‘playing along’, no feeling of ‘I wish I’d noticed that’, because you could never have noticed. It’s like watching someone else completing a difficult jigsaw puzzle, rather than being involved yourself. So, as I said at the beginning: there’s plenty to admire here, but not so much of what can bring a book close to my heart. It’s possible to admire Pessl’s ability to make words dance, but not necessarily what she says with them. It’s possible to admire her depiction of extraordinary characters, but less easy to fully care about them. It’s possible to admire her ability to construct a detective puzzle, but not necessarily to enjoy that puzzle. In the end, I like Special Topics in Calamity Physics, but I don’t love it. It will, however, be interesting to see what Pessl writes next. (more)

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (Penguin Classics)

    A book that doesn't grow old?

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    The Picture of Dorian Gray falls squarely in the category of ‘books I know about and so don’t need to read; except that, when I do read them, it turns out I didn’t know them at all’. What prompted me to read it now? It was the choice for a new reading group I’ve joined, which met a few days ago. (NB. This is more likely to be a series of scattered impressions than a proper ‘review’.) If you had asked me to summarise the book a couple of weeks ago (i.e. before I’d started reading it), I’d have told you that Dorian Gray was a man who didn’t age, whilst the figure in the portrait of himself that he had hidden away aged instead. And I’d have been wrong. It’s true that Dorian doesn’t age; but the picture bears the marks of psychological ravages as well as physical ones — and it’s the former that prove more damaging. We first encounter Dorian Gray at the home of his artist friend Basil Hallward, who’s been painting the titular portrait. Here, Dorian meets the vile Lord Henry Wotton, a h...The Picture of Dorian Gray falls squarely in the category of ‘books I know about and so don’t need to read; except that, when I do read them, it turns out I didn’t know them at all’. What prompted me to read it now? It was the choice for a new reading group I’ve joined, which met a few days ago. (NB. This is more likely to be a series of scattered impressions than a proper ‘review’.) If you had asked me to summarise the book a couple of weeks ago (i.e. before I’d started reading it), I’d have told you that Dorian Gray was a man who didn’t age, whilst the figure in the portrait of himself that he had hidden away aged instead. And I’d have been wrong. It’s true that Dorian doesn’t age; but the picture bears the marks of psychological ravages as well as physical ones — and it’s the former that prove more damaging. We first encounter Dorian Gray at the home of his artist friend Basil Hallward, who’s been painting the titular portrait. Here, Dorian meets the vile Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonistic aesthete who values ‘beauty’ above all else, and disapproves of such values as loyalty and unselfishness. Dorian is at first wary of Henry’s worldview; but, when Sybil Vane, the young actress to whom he is engaged, kills herself (because of the harsh way in which Dorian dismisses her and the acting which is so close to her heart), Dorian sees the first change in his portrait — and this causes hm to throw himself into a life of decadence. The rest of Wilde’s novel chronicles Dorian’s decline, as he becomes ever more selfish, ruining the lives of others, even to the point of murder. He does start to have doubts and regrets in the end; but by then it may be too late for him. I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a fascinating psychological portrait; what’s particularly interesting is the way that Dorian’s life and ’self’ become distorted, even as his body stays the same; he might have escaped the ageing process, but Dorian can hardly be said to have remained immaculate, as he wished. Related to that last point is the issue of morality. Wilde’s preface (I’m unsure whether or not it is meant to be taken at face value) includes a comment that ‘there is no such thing as an moral or immoral book’; but I do see the book as quite moral, because the Dorian’s selfishness and hedonism seem to me to be presented in an ultimately negative light. However, I don’t think a reading of the novel as a bad-things-happen-to-bad-people moral fable quite works; because, strictly speaking, Dorian gets his comeuppance for seeking to abandon his decadence (as symbolised by the portrait); and Lord Henry, who espoused in the first place the philosophy that led to Dorian’s (and others’) ruin, gets no comeuppance at all. So there is some moral ambiguity there; I think the issue is probably going to remain unresolved in my mind. As a novel… I hestitate to judge a hundred-year-old book by my own modern standards of how a novel should be; but, for what it’s worth, I thought it well written but a little awkwardly constructed, with Wilde whizzing over a period of eighteen years between the most important events in Dorian’s life, and leaving the details of who some of the characters are rather sketchy. Anyway, the most imprtant thing is that I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a good, thought-provoking read — deservedly a ‘classic’. (more)

  • Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking Trilogy)

    An extraordinary coming-of-age adventure

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    They came to New World from beyond the stars, looking for a purer existence, and made their home in Prentisstown, at the edge of a swamp. There was tragedy, of course: indigenous creatures known to the settlers as ‘Spackle’ released a germ that killed all the women of Prentisstown and half the men, and left the survivors broadcasting their thoughts to each other in a stream of what they now call ‘Noise’ Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown, though in a month’s time he will turn thirteen and so become a man. One day, whilst out in the swamp with his dog Manchee (who can speak, but only a word or two at a time), Todd finds a pocket of silence – a place where there’s no Noise. This shouldn’t be possible but, as Todd is about to find out, a lot of things he believes about life and the world are actually wrong. When Todd returns home, he tells Ben and Cillian (who raised him after his mother died) about the ‘hole in the Noise’ – but doesn’t get the response he expects. Ben and C...They came to New World from beyond the stars, looking for a purer existence, and made their home in Prentisstown, at the edge of a swamp. There was tragedy, of course: indigenous creatures known to the settlers as ‘Spackle’ released a germ that killed all the women of Prentisstown and half the men, and left the survivors broadcasting their thoughts to each other in a stream of what they now call ‘Noise’ Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown, though in a month’s time he will turn thirteen and so become a man. One day, whilst out in the swamp with his dog Manchee (who can speak, but only a word or two at a time), Todd finds a pocket of silence – a place where there’s no Noise. This shouldn’t be possible but, as Todd is about to find out, a lot of things he believes about life and the world are actually wrong. When Todd returns home, he tells Ben and Cillian (who raised him after his mother died) about the ‘hole in the Noise’ – but doesn’t get the response he expects. Ben and Cillian tell Todd he must leave Prentisstown immediately; they won’t explain why, but give the boy a knife and his mother’s diary which, they say, will tell him all he needs to know. Unfortunately for Todd, he can’t read. Still, off he goes with Manchee, soon finding that not only are there females on New World (Tood meets a strange girl named Viola, who has no Noise of her own), but also that Prentisstown is not the only settlement on the planet, and that there’s a dark secret at the heart of the town which explains why an army of its inhabitants are marching after him… Oh, but this is a wonderful book. First of all, Todd is a superbly realised character. Ness tells his tale in a first-person dialect that sounds like a real voice; finds the right balance between being different without becoming annoying; and reveals as much about Todd as anything he does or says. Here, for example, is Todd describing the difference between his and Viola’s accents: ‘Her lips make different kinds of outlines for the letters, like they’re swooping down on them from above, pushing them into shape, telling them what to say. In Prentisstown, everyone talks like they’re sneaking up on their words, ready to club them from behind.’ There is a downside, though, to having such a strongly ‘present’ first-person narrator, which is that the secondary characters aren’t fleshed out as much. Viola’s character is quite rounded, but those furthest from Todd (such as his adult nemeses in Prentisstown) come across as quite flat (but how could they not, when Todd hardly knows them?). Still, that’s a price worth paying to have the joy of reading Todd’s words. Ness also uses Todd’s voice to great effect when writing action sequences. His two main techniques are long, breathless sentences full of conjunctions; and extended sequences of single-sentence paragraphs. They really do make the story feel more kinetic; which helps balance out the linear nature of the plot, which is a pretty standard race to the end. In other circumstances, this might be a problem; here, the pages fly by, so it doesn’t matter. The book’s title is interesting. The formulation ‘The Noun of Adjective’ in the title of a science fiction or fantasy story usually indicates a thing of great power or importance. I was really pleased to see that this novel’s titular knife is just an ordinary hunting-knife — there’s nothing mystical about it. And yet, the knife is highly significant for what it represents to Todd; it’s his symbol of being a man, it gives him the power to do things he couldn’t otherwise do (such as killing), and to let go of the knife is to relinquish that power. So naturally, there is violence, bloodshed, and death in The Knife of Never Letting Go; but these things are not gratuitous or glorified, as Todd comes to realise that violence is not the answer, whatever the question. (That’s not the only way in which Todd grows up during the book; the changes in the way he sees Viola are well handled by Ness, as Todd experiences the first stirrings of feelings he cannot name, but which we recognise.) Of course, there are problems with the book. One quibble I have is that it’s implied that Todd’s narrative voice is his Noise, and occasionally Viola (who can hear Todd’s Noise even though she has none of her own) will react to something in the narration; but not as often as she would if it were Todd’s Noise. I didn’t like that sense of Ness’ cherry-picking to suit the plot. And a few things aren’t explored as fully as they could have been: we don’t see enough of the Spackle; nor, to the best of my recollection, do we learn the significance of the ‘hole in the Noise’. But, as the cliffhanger ending reminds us, there’s time yet, for a sequel is coming. And one advantage of reading this excellent book in the year after its publication is that I don’t have to wait long for that sequel. (more)

  • Gone Away World, The

    A joly, eccentric uncle of a book...

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    The Jorgmund Pipe is on fire. It shouldn’t be, because it was designed to be the most resilient structure ever built by humans; but then again, the very notion of things that should or should not be looks kind of quaint in this future. The Pipe is vital because of what it carries around the world: a substance called FOX that keeps the Unreal at bay. The fire must be put out, and who better to do so than the people who constructed the Pipe in the first place? That small band of people are hired by the Jorgmund company to do so, and they set out at the end of the first chapter. And then we go back in time and, for the next 300 pages, follow the intertwined lives of Gonzo Lubitsch and his best friend (who is the novel’s narrator) from their childhoods, through their time spent studying martial arts, to university, and then into the army, where the pair meet the others with whom they will eventually build the Jorgmund Pipe, and where they encounter the weapon which will literally chang...The Jorgmund Pipe is on fire. It shouldn’t be, because it was designed to be the most resilient structure ever built by humans; but then again, the very notion of things that should or should not be looks kind of quaint in this future. The Pipe is vital because of what it carries around the world: a substance called FOX that keeps the Unreal at bay. The fire must be put out, and who better to do so than the people who constructed the Pipe in the first place? That small band of people are hired by the Jorgmund company to do so, and they set out at the end of the first chapter. And then we go back in time and, for the next 300 pages, follow the intertwined lives of Gonzo Lubitsch and his best friend (who is the novel’s narrator) from their childhoods, through their time spent studying martial arts, to university, and then into the army, where the pair meet the others with whom they will eventually build the Jorgmund Pipe, and where they encounter the weapon which will literally change the world. The Go Away Bomb works by removing the information from matter, leaving nothing behind: the target is simply ‘edited out’ of reality, no mess, no fuss. Except, wouldn’t you know it, there is unforeseen mess and fuss, and it’s the end of the world as everyone knew it. Back to the novel’s present, and our heroes extinguish the fire — but it’s not over. On returning home, the narrator finds that his life has changed inexplicably. Then the truth dawns, and the course is set for the final showdown… I don’t know whether to love or hate The Gone-Away World, and I suspect I’ll end up doing both. For one thing, it’s the writing: this is a long book, and Nick Harkaway’s prose is dense, detailed and discursive. For example: The apple cake is very good. It is fresh and sweet, with moist bits of apple and the applegoo which happens when you make a cake like this and get it just right. There are none of those retch-inducing bits of core which some cooks insist are an important part of the apple, presumably out of a false sense of parsimony, because those bits ruin perfectly good mouthfuls and therefore consume scarce apple cake resources. Elisabeth is an apple cake perfectionist. Then comes an even longer section about the cake box. 500-plus pages of this stuff is somewhat wearying; but reading The Gone-Away World is not a hard slog, and certainly I never considered giving up. I think the main reason for this was Harkaway’s superb control of the prose: he surely knows exactly what he’s doing — when other characters take over from the main narrator to tell brief stories, the changes in voice are distinctive — and, once you get into the syle, it’s quite easy to accept the eccentricities and digressions (though there are still a few passages where you might feel like skimming). And there are some sharply effective nuggets of prose within, too; for example, when a soldier is injured: ‘Bobby Shank will escape, but he will not be okay. Not unless a miracle happens, and the reason they’re called miracles is that they don’t.’ The prose style adds to a more general feeling of being somewhere sideways of reality. That sense also comes from the novel’s quirky accoutrements (a pig-powered dynamo! bands of ninjas and mime artists!); and in the ways that its world differs from ours — it’s quite feasible to create alternate worlds that feel grounded in reality, but Harkaway’s doesn’t because, for example, its history and geography seem outlandish: Cuba has become part of the UK, and Gonzo and his friend live in a vague place which seems British, but might be somewhere else. Fair enough, but in the early stages of The Gone-Away World, I started to wonder whether this quirkiness was going to muffle the emotional impact of Harkaway’s story. To a large extent it doesn’t: the author is quite able to weave in sharp satire; and in particular can get across the horrors of war — both its underpinnings (a modern war like the one fought in this book is an ‘un-war’, a ‘hyper-violent peace’) and its realities (as in his descriptions of the consequences of the Go Away Bomb). Yet there are still times when it is harder to care. The quirky prose can make the characters seem distant; and aspects like the ninjas and mimes never quite lose their sheen of absurdity, which particularly lets down the story’s final act. But the sheer presence of The Gone-Away World is undeniable and, overall, welcome. At first, The Gone-Away World is like a jolly, eccentric uncle who comes to visit, wraps you in a bear-hug, regales you with strange tales of his past, and never pauses for breath. As time goes on, though, you see more of the person beneath the eccentricity, and discover that you had more in common than you thought. I am glad I read the novel, and I won’t forget the experience in a hurry — for more good reasons than bad. (more)

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