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A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro (1982) 183 p.
Ishiguro’s debut novel, and not a bad one at all. It’s a frame story, with a middle-aged Japanese woman named Etsuko living in England, who recently lost a daughter to suicide, telling her other daughter about the days when she still lived in Nagasaki after World War II. In that time she struck up a friendship with another young woman named Sachiko, proud and wilful, who breaks many of the norms of Japanese society and has a strange, troubled daughter.
It’s fairly compelling from the get go, especially with the creepy vibe coming from Sachiko’s daughter’s insistence that she keeps seeing a mysterious woman across the river, beckoning children into the forest. This being an Ishiguro novel, not everything is quite what it seems. Most people will probably guess the “twist” before the ending – I put it in quotes because it’s clear, from a single line towards the end, that there may be multiple levels of deception going on. Most authors don’t have very good debut novels, but A Pale View of Hills is pretty decent – nothing amazing, but memorable and clever.
Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett (1991) 352 p.
Discworld #11 (Death #2)
In the early novel Mort, Pratchett expanded upon one of his best creations: Death, the anthropomorphic personification of human mortality. A Grim Reaper figure who shepherds souls into the next world, he takes a professional pride in his work and has a sort of vague fondness for humanity. Mort is largely the story of his human apprentice, though, with Death himself sidelined on a sideplot in which he goes and tries to actually live: attends a party, takes a job as a short order cook, etc. It’s the B-side to Mort’s broader adventure.
Reaper Man builds upon that concept of Death as a fish out of water, treating it far more seriously. Death is merely a servant in the cosmic order of things, and he is informed one day that he has been replaced. (His sackable offence was developing too much of a personality.) He is given his own lifetimer, a certain number of remaining days, and is allowed to keep his pale white horse Binky. With no avenue of protest, Death sets out to spend his last remaining days in the real, human world – and naturally takes a job as a farmhand, being handy with a scythe.
This sounds like a screwball comedy, but Death’s story in Reaper Man actually struck me as a sort of fairytale, which makes sense in its own contained universe. People cannot see what he really is, and most of his dealings in the remote village he moves to have a symbolic quality: the landlady who was widowed before her wedding day, the young country boys who seem to become old country men with no intermediate stage, the dreadful new combine harvester which stands as a symbol of ruthless, efficient progress. Death’s combination of wisdom and naivete makes for an enjoyable and surprisingly earnest little story.
Unfortunately Death’s story thread is also smaller than I remembered; most of the book is taken up with what’s going on in Ankh-Morpork, where in Death’s absence people have stopped dying. Windle Poons, the elderly magician from Moving Pictures, is very annoyed to find himself returned to his body after a brief stretch in limbo, and sets out to discover what’s gone wrong.
This is where Reaper Man stumbles: a beautifully painted, emotionally affective story about Death learning to live with ordinary people is paired with a wacky-hijinks adventure in which Windle Poons and his crew of undead oddballs follow the trail of the randomly appearing snowglobes which turn into shopping trolleys which are then accumulating into a hive that grows a shopping mall (???). I wish I’d made any of that up. It’s an absolute brain fart of an idea which Pratchett never should have put to paper, let alone shoved in alongside one of his best stories yet. He’s written silly, disjointed books that fell flat before this, but never one which was so brazenly a creature of two halves. Reaper Man isn’t quite as good as I remember – but that plot with Death, out on the farm, living out his days, is still really something special.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (1974) 270p.
It took me about fifty pages to realise why I was finding it difficult to get into Ragtime: there’s no dialogue. Which is not to say the characters don’t communicate with one another, bur rather that the entire book is summary, not scene. When there is dialogue it’s of the free-flowing, single-paragraph, no-quotation-marks sort of style, which absolutely drives me up the wall. It makes me feel as though the entire book takes place in a dream – underscored by the fact that none of the central characters have names, referred to simply as “Mother” or “Younger Brother.”
Which is a shame, because Doctorow writes quite beautifully in other ways, painting an evocative picture of New York in the very early years of the 20th century: the Lower East Side slums, the communist meetings, the power of the great industrialists. Probably not since Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay have I read a book which so joyfully celebrates the zeitgeist of another era without ignoring its moral failures, its racism, its poverty.
It’s not bad. It’s fine. I just wish Doctorow had written Ragtime as more of an actual, you know, narrative. One with characters and talking and other shamefully passe concepts.
The North Water by Ian McGuire (2016) 326 p.
A novel set on a whaling ship in the 19th century, especially one longlisted for the Booker Prize, will inevitably draw comparisons to Moby-Dick. You can forget about that; The North Water is completely different. Sure, it still focuses on the dark heart of man and ineffable temptation and all that, but this is more Jack London than Herman Melville. I was actually quite surprised, given all the broadsheet praise it got, how plot-driven and gripping it was – not that that’s a problem.
Patrick Sumner, a disgraced Army surgeon, signs aboard the Volunteer out of Hull, as does Henry Drax, a brutish and violent harpooner. There are various threads at play: a corrupt owner and skipper plotting insurance fraud, and Sumner’s valuable gold ring coveted by his unscrupulous shipmates. But the main story here is about Sumner and Drax, a principled man versus a monster, and the crimes and rivalry that play out between them.
This is one of the most compelling page-turners I’ve read in quite a while, which is a pleasant surprise when you’re going in expecting a Moby-Dick knock-off. It can sometimes be a little too neat; the conclusion in particular feels a bit perfectly Hollywood, with the story coming geographically full circle and the guilty being punished for their crimes, although this is tempered somewhat by a melancholy epilogue. I can see why it didn’t make the Booker shortlist; it’s a cut above most historical thrillers, but still lacks that certain something to make it truly great. But for its sense of adventure, its intricate gears of plot, of cause and effect, of going in entirely unexpected directions – I liked it a hell of a lot.
Beast by Paul Kingsnorth (2016) 168 p.
Paul Kingsnorth’s debut novel The Wake was a masterful account of a guerilla fighter during the Norman invasion of England; a story about a bitter and broken man who’s not as important or powerful as he thinks he is, written in an invented English “shadow tongue” to mimic the speech patterns of 11th century England. Following the novel’s success, Kingsnorth said he planned to write two more as a loose ‘England’ trilogy – a second novel set a thousand years later, in the present day, and a third novel set a thousand years after that, far in the future. These would obviously be very different books, but since The Wake was one of the best novels I read all year, I was looking forward to see what Kingsnorth did next.
Unfortunately Beast is a disappointment. The second novel of the trilogy, it’s set in the present day, but it could as easily have been set whenever. The narrator is living as a hermit on a rural moor, having walked away from his partner and infant child to go on a vision quest or something – Why I Gave Up Social Media, by Edward Buckmaster. (Given that Buccmaster of Holland in The Wake was an unreliable narrator and unsympathetic character, I don’t think Kingsnorth is necessarily supportive of this kind of neo-Luddism; on the other hand, given all his non-fiction I’ve read, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was.) Following an accident when his hut collapses on him, Buckmaster seems to be knocked into some kind of dream state or new reality – it’s all very disjointed-confused-narration-style, gradually degrading as the book goes on – in which the land is devoid of birdsong, the skies are eternally white, he cannot seem to leave the moor and he is being stalked by a strange, large creature.
Normally this kind of thing would be right up my alley, but the narration lost me. I loved The Wake’s shadow English, I loved the subtle clues that Buccmaster was dishonest, a liar, a psychopath. The narration of Beast, on the other hand, is the ramblings of a man slowly losing his mind. His plight is not particularly interesting given how unclear it is that it’s even really happening. Beast only runs for 168 pages, which was more than enough for my liking.
Having said that, perhaps in retrospect it will sit more comfortably as the bridging act in a trilogy. Kingsnorth is a talented writer, and given some of his published statements about environmentalism (he’s a self-professed “climate defeatist”) I still look forward to reading his depiction of England 1,000 years hence.