New Books

Just bought 3 books for the price of 2 from Waterstones, my first book purchases for some time. Here’s what I got, along with a relevant review from The Guardian.

Small IslandAndrea Levy

Andrea Levy’s narrative switches between four protagonists. The first, Queenie, is Gilbert’s white landlady; they met during wartime when he came over as an RAF recruit. Returning on the SS Empire Windrush, he looks her up and takes a room in her house. Hortense, the Jamaican girl whom Gilbert married immediately before boarding the boat, arrives later to share his crumbling attic room; and Queenie’s long-lost husband, Bernard, finds his way back, a year after his demob, shortly after Hortense has taken up residence. The year is 1948.

The interaction between the couples is, to a certain extent, predictable, but a notable feature of the book is that the entire narrative and the stories within it clearly emerge from the memories of the period’s survivors. If ever there was a novel which offered a historically faithful account of how its characters thought and behaved, this is it. But the sheer excellence of Levy’s research goes beyond the granddad tales of 50-year-old migrant experience, or the nuts and bolts of historical fact. Her imagination illuminates old stories in a way that almost persuades you she was there at the time.

Her grip on the language of the characters is another surprise. There is an almost universal confusion in Britain about the nature of Caribbean dialects, and black authors reared in London or Birmingham have tended to reproduce the speech of every sort of Caribbean, regardless of region or class, as the same kind of pop music-inflected street slang, complete with missing consonants and apostrophised accents. Levy has no truck with this sort of gimmick. Instead, she creates a style which reproduces the rhythm and content of her characters’ speech. Even more impressive, she does the same for her English characters. Queenie sounds like a Londoner brought up in the early part of the last century. Bernard sounds like a man who has served in the Far East.

Levy’s immersion in the period seems an illustration of the fact that in recent years, 1948, marking the arrival at Tilbury of the Windrush, has taken on a new significance in the lexicon of Britain’s social history. A few years ago, the commemoration of this event sparked off a small explosion of interest in the consequences of mid-20th century migration. Artists and writers of migrant origin, especially Afro-Caribbeans, have responded to this historical platform with a new confidence and interest in exploring both their own roots and the circumstances of the time. The result is a growing conversation about the effects of Caribbean migration on British identity.

Levy’s authorial platform is balanced squarely in the middle of this conversation. The novel records some of the most un-pleasant racist aspects of the period, without displaying any sense of polemical intent, partly because her reliance on historical fact gives Levy a distance which allows her to be both dispassionate and compassionate. The history also offers an opportunity to construct the characters in patient and illuminating detail.

As you read on, however, it becomes apparent that her relentless layering of their personalities has a more subtle purpose. Hortense, for instance, is the least sympathetic character. Brought up with the consciousness that her “golden skin” makes her a superior creature in a country of darker skins, she is a village snob, insecure, narrow-minded, and more or less ignorant. Arriving in England with the expectation that it will be an upmarket version of her teacher-training college in Jamaica, she begins by despising the apparently feckless Gilbert and the circumstances to which he has brought her. She looks down her nose at working-class Queenie, and firmly rejects the notion that she has anything in common with the other slum-dwelling migrants. But she soon discovers that her precious qualifications have no meaning in the British education system, and that her status is precisely the same as that of any other black migrant. The revelation almost destroys her self-esteem, but it also sets her on a path to self-discovery. She ends by beginning to understand Gilbert’s strength, Queenie’s kindness and the sympathies she shares with them.

If I have a complaint about the novel it is related to Levy’s rigorous adherence to historical fact, which occasionally gives you the feeling that she has been so interested or moved by a particular incident that she’s manoeuvred her characters into the right place at the right time. For instance, Gilbert and Queenie are involved in a wartime incident where the US army attempts to impose a segregated seating plan in a local cinema. Gilbert resists and sets off a riot in which Queenie’s father-in-law is shot dead by American military policemen. The story is a truthful rendering of several recorded incidents, but in the context of the narrative it has an incongruously melodramatic feel. In much the same way, Bernard’s involvement in a mutiny in India, which, once again, fits with recorded fact, also feels, within the context of the book, a little over the top.

False notes of this kind, however, do not detract from the excellence of Levy’s narrative. Apart from everything else, Small Island is a great read, delivering the sort of pleasure which has been the traditional stock-in-trade of a long line of English novelists. It’s honest, skilful, thoughtful and important. This is Andrea Levy’s big book.

How We Are HungryDave Eggers

It is almost impossible to read Dave Eggers without the cult of Dave Eggers intervening. The hype surrounding this counterestablishment literary entrepreneur has spread so rapidly since the publication of his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that both iconic status and the inevitable backlash have been achieved within the space of five years.

His role as showman, publisher of the literary magazine McSweeney’s and cliquey philanthropist now well-established, there’s a chance that the focus will turn away from the personality and back to the writing: How We Are Hungry comes at an apposite point in his career, proving that beneath all the pop-lit posturing, Eggers can deliver the goods.

The man can simply write extraordinarily well. This collection of 15 stories, ranging from the one-paragraph Short Short Stories featured in Guardian Weekend to a 60-page nod at Hemingway, is inconsistent but intensely pleasurable to read. Despite a paucity of payoff and the odd blank experiment, Eggers is technically virtuoso. He can play with language and casually pin down psychological truth, while his pacing is so exquisite that he is more than capable of creating a page-turner in which next to nothing happens.

The collection starts with “Another”, a story of a middle-aged divorcee galloping through the Egyptian deserts and subjecting himself to the pain of the relentless jolting of the horse’s gait until he finally learns to absorb its rhythm. His search for more sights and further experiences is endless, and on he goes, disappointed but insatiable, streaming into the wilderness. It’s hard not to read these tales as miniature allegories, surreally humdrum fragments of life that encapsulate the human condition. Eggers’s characters, as the title suggests, are searching and almost uniformly hungry for intimacy, for meaning or foreign travel. Variants on the travelogue and road story provide the backbone for a collection that veers between hyperactive exploration and more meditative mental migration whose slower pace is equally compelling.

Eggers writes in a kind of formalised stream of consciousness, his prose eccentric and occasionally tricksy, but striking in its beauty. The horse in “Another” is “alive everywhere, restless, its hair marshy with sweat”, its breath emerging in “hydraulic bursts”. Light is vividly present: “Morning comes like a scream through a pinhole”; “living under that sun made me lighter and stronger, made of platinum”.

The author sometimes cannot resist extreme gimmickry: “There Are Some Things He Should Keep to Himself” consists of five blank pages. But the longer stories showcase a more accomplished and mature writer who can afford to junk the jokes and temper the experimentation in the sure knowledge of his own powers. “The Only Meaning of the Oil-Wet Water” is a superbly crafted long short story in which Pilar, a dermatologist, flies to Costa Rica to meet her friend Hand, an export from Eggers’s novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, in the knowledge that they’ll end up having sex, but uncertain what emotions will bind them beyond lust and friendship. Eggers sets animals speaking in cameo appearances, expresses his protagonist’s thoughts as a song, and punctures his own tension with narrative interventions: “There is almost no sadness in this story”; “The horses had no symbolic value”. But such eccentricities are skilfully placed in a story driven by anticipation.

Almost nothing happens to Pilar and Hand. As Hand points out, a man they’d met earlier could have come into their room to commit murder, but he didn’t. Eggers eschews any sign of a conventional plot in his determination to demonstrate that life can be mundane, disappointing and bewildering, and our search for symbolism and significance may be only that. “It was an uncomplicated day,” he states. To complicate the uncomplicated, his young Americans take their solipsistic quests out of their own country and search for answers everywhere from Scotland to Egypt to Tanzania.

The collection’s undoubted masterpiece is “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly”. Thin-lipped 38-year-old Rita puts herself through physical torment to climb Kilimanjaro through the rain. As she progresses, the heartbreaking story of the children who have been carefully removed from her care drip-drips through the narrative in a series of bald statements. Eggers’s great skill lies in the statement as opposed to the understatement, his apparent dissociation only thinly disguising a core humanity.

How We Are Hungry is a triumph of both form and content and proves that beyond the intellectual pranks and the distracting cult of personality, Dave Eggers is the real thing.

Chaucer – Peter Ackroyd

…which I can’t find a review for at the moment…

2 thoughts on “New Books”

  1. ‘How We Are Hungry’ is all right but not great: never trust a Guardian review of an Eggers book, as he writes for the paper. The best story is “Your Mother and I” and a lot of reviewers seem to agree that “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly” is the best though to me it seemed like just another travel-story among many others. If only I’d bothered to review it on Palimpsest, you could have saved your pennies…

  2. Yes, you bastard. Still, despite my occasional antipathy towards Eggers and his cronies, there’s just something about the risks he takes that attracts me to his books – better to try something different and fail than stick to the same old.

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