Sunday, 25 September 2016

"I'm not that Chinese, he says, and its true. He's never felt more American. He's finally reached the limit of his Chineseness, the outermost frontier..."

Readers of my last blog post will know I'm on a roll. I read Ian McEwan's Nutshell in a matter of hours - if you haven't read it yet you need to. Anyway back to this post, I discovered this week's read, The Fortunes, in an article by David Mitchell in which he commented on the genius of Peter Ho Davies latest novel. Needless to say, I picked up a copy of the book the very next day; I'm a sucker for recommendations from my favourite writers!

The Fortunes is an epic, generational saga that spans from Gold-rush era San Francisco to modern day New York charting the rise and fall of one Chinese migrant family's fortunes over 150 years. This is part essay and part drama but totally captivating from the outset. 

Where Willa Cather's O Pioneers! zoomed in to pastoral Nebraska The Fortunes takes a more gritty perspective via the Chinese laundries at the very edge of the frontier where hard work and perspiration are soothed by dreams of social mobility. This is American history seen clearly through Chinese eyes.

Each chapter is named after a specific fortune; Gold, Silver, Jade and Pearl. For me the novel was provocative, the chapter concerning the 'exoticisation' of golden age Hollywood contrasts perfectly with the threat Chinese migrants initially posed to gold prospectors heading West. Ho Davies writes fluently about the cultural legacy of screen siren Anna May Wong who was the first Asian American star in the US yet struggled with type casting and the taboo of inter-racial sexuality.

The final chapter brings the novel right up to date and completes a narrative arc that begins with migrants arriving in the US and ends with childless tourists travelling to China to buy new born babies. This is expansive stuff yet remarkably lets the reader experience several lifetimes in a mere 200 odd pages.  There are hints of David Mitchell here in terms of scale and in the different narrative viewpoints but the voice it uniquely that of Peter Ho Davies.

I read this novel in hardback, in part, at the wonderful Thame Food and Drink Festival

The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, published by Sceptre, 288 pages

Sunday, 18 September 2016

"There are not many options for the evening that follows an afternoon of drinking. Only two in fact; remorse, or more drinking then remorse"

In my experience there are books that you tell your friends you "couldn't put down" and then there are those that you simply, and physically, can't. This is one of those books. From the moment I turned the first page I was hooked into this curious story about murder, deception and revenge.

Ian McEwan's Nutshell is a part adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet; the Prince of Denmark  in this case is an unborn child and the narrative is delivered from within the confines of the womb. Don't worry, our narrator is trustworthy, highly intelligent with a brutal wit gathering what he does through overheard conversations between his mother and scheming Uncle, listening in to Radio 4 and an intuition far beyond that usually credited to a baby.   

Readers will either love or hate this novel depending on their willingness to accept the central conceit. For me, McEwan does an expert, I'd go as far as masterly, job of adapting a classic text in such a unique way. There is simply nothing lost but everything to gain in the telling of the story through the eyes of an unborn baby.

I easily empathised with the narrator and at times read and then reread certain passages, just because, "We're alone then, all of us, even me, each treading a deserted highway, toting in a bundle on a shouldered stick the schemes, the flow charts, for unconscious developments".

Other reviews will, no doubt, be less generous in praise for Nutshell; "is this some kind of joke?" I can hear the book groups gasp "Its just a gimmick" but for me this is writing that makes you sit up, commit to the story and let the World around you slip into a haze. Nothing else matters when you're reading, just suspend your disbelief and read. Even better, find a few space hours and read it all in one go.

I read this novel in hardback, in part, on the train in South East London

Nutshell by Ian McEwan, published by Vintage, 210 pages

Sunday, 11 September 2016

"The history of any country begins in the heart of a man or a woman"

O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel by Willa Cather which has been recently republished as part of Penguin Classics' Pocket Penguin series. Now, I'm not known for reviewing classics as such in this blog but I am a fan of The Happy Reader who have selected O Pioneers! as their book for Autumn, so I'm in.

Willa Cather's first great plains saga O Pioneers is set in the heart of the Nebraskan frontier at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The story hangs on strong willed and fiercely independent Alexandra Bergson who is given a farm to manage by her death-bed father in the fictional small town of Hanover, Nebraska. At only 16 years old Alexandra must manage a brutally subsistence way of life for her family whilst other's around her abandon the town after drought and disastr.

Despite the harshness depicted in the novel there are love affairs and occasional rays of hope which lift the novel to part romantic pastoral. The fact that this novel continues to be celebrated today in adaptations from TV films (1992) to opera (2009) shows a deep connection with the American psyche. Indeed for many Willa Cather is up there with Melville and Steinbeck in the canon of great American writers.


Willa Cather was trained as a journalist and at times the novel is more essay than literature but in places Cather shows a softer side; "For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning". In truth the story is more domestic than the title suggests; more cattle rearing than gold rush but perhaps this is Cather's own response to Walt Whitman's poem O Pioneers, O Pioneers?

For me this novel is particularly interesting today with forthcoming presidential elections and an electorate bitterly divided on immigration and social lines. In Cather's novel we find disparate communities struggling to survive in a patchwork landscape of Swedes, French, Irish and English families. Not exactly an easy read but a worthy diversion from the contemporary literary fiction I'm usually pouring over. 

I read this novel in paperback, in part, with a coffee and a pastel de Nata at Shoreditch Grind in East London

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, published by Penguin, 208 pages

Sunday, 4 September 2016

"I was there! I saw what you saw, I felt what you felt. As ever. Cora"

The Essex Serpent is the second novel from Sarah Perry and was published earlier this year with reviews in the Sunday Times which hailed it "One of the most memorable historical novels of the past decade. Lofty praise indeed but as a fan of Gothic fiction; from Stoker to Poe and Shelley to Walpole, I was looking forward to getting stuck in.

In Perry's novel we meet recently widowed Cora who leaves London for Essex upon reports that the mysterious 'Essex Serpent' has returned. Initially the serpent is little more than myth from a superstitious rural outpost far from the modernity of the City. Indeed, the novel is brilliantly evocative of the Essex marshes and the spirt in which the Provinces are more often that not portrayed in Victorian fiction.

Cora Seaborne is a strong willed woman with flair, intellect and the ability to influence those around her including young London Doctor Luke Garett. Its her interest in science and geology which initially draws her to the case of the Essex Serpent but its her faith that is ultimately the driving force. Her interest in fossils, and "having her name on the wall in the British Museum" is seemingly stronger than that in her own son Francis but Perry doesn't  explore this quite enough, presumably to make more of the tension built up as locals disappear and sightings of the serpent increase. Regrettebly this tension leads nowhere. 

The best parts of the narrative are told in letter form, this worked brilliantly in Bram Stoker's Dracula as a way to push the story forward. The trouble is that in The Essex Serpent there is simply not enough story.

For me, this is Victorian gothic pastiche. To see how the genre has evolved pick up a copy of David Michell's Slade House which contains all the Gothic tropes and a whole lot more.

I read this novel on Kindle in part in Margate during the weekend of the brilliant Margate Bookie

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, published by Serpent's Tail, 432 pages