It Looks Like I Have a Crime to Solve…

Today while I was sat at my desk work, work, working away, I had a random text message from my neighbour. She was rather worried as she has signed for something for Sumci Salidge at our address and it looked a bit dodgy as it was covered in evidence tape. My mind went into overdrive. Firstly I wondered if I had done anything really naughty that the law could be after me for. Then I wondered if my divorce papers were finally here. Then I started thinking of the movie Seven and that scene with that  box. I then had a meeting and forgot about it until I got home.

Indeed it was a box that was covered in evidence tape which said ‘Do Not Open’, which of course made me want to open it…

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So I did…

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Well, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw all the evidence bags – I was in my element! I should here explain that my dream job, had I finished my A-Levels and gone to university after, would have been to become a Criminal Psychologist or Profiler. You know like Sue Johnston in Waking The Dead, the person who they call in when they want to work out who the killer might be, what their personality, predilections and motives might be. I would have found it fascinating. (Instead I have ended up working in events and business tourism with a sprinkling of booky delight.) So to get this box was just too much.

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There is dust and a brush for finger printing, a blue light torch for looking for blood stains (see I know what I am talking about), a magnifying glass, seven cents, a USB stick and various files and clues. This is all for the sampler of the new novel Flesh and Blood by Patricia Cornwell, which as you read you must refer to the numbered evidence and make sense of it all. So actually being a detective as you go, amazing. I cannot wait. I haven’t started yet, but plan on giving it a whirl over the weekend. I will report back in the next week or so…

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The Year of the Ladybird – Graham Joyce

Happy Halloween to you all. I mentioned yesterday that this is one of my favourite days of the year and most of you will know I love a good chilling and creepy tale. One of the most recent spooky tales that I have read is The Year of the Ladybird, even subtitled ‘a ghost story’, by Graham Joyce. Many of you will know that sadly Graham Joyce passed away last month which was so sad to hear, especially at the mere age of 59 and because he is such a wonderful writer and storyteller. It was Gav who decided that for his choice for Hear Read This we would read his final novel, one which he had discussed with us on The Readers when we interviewed him about the amazing Some Kind of Fairy Tale and which I bought as soon as it came out in paperback.

Gollancz books, paperback, 2014, fiction, 265 pages, bought by my good self

It is the summer of 1976 and a heat wave has hit Britain, the hottest since records began. David, a young man who wants to go and find out more about the world, takes a break from his studies to become one of the staff at a holiday camp beside the sea and sands. David has decided that this first taste of true freedom away from the world of his mother and step father will be a big adventure. Yet as he gets to know the people behind the smiling ‘employee’ faces of the holiday park he soon discovers a much darker side to their characters and the society of the day. He also becomes aware of a man and young boy who seem to be following him, yet who can disappear without a trace.

I was an Alice in Wonderland. It was a world I knew nothing of, hyper-real, inflated, one where the colours seemed brighter, vivid, intense. I was excited to be working there, being part of it, but the truth is I felt anxious, too. It wasn’t just about being an outsider, it was the strangeness of it all. Many of the staff I met were odd fish. I had a crazy idea that they all had large heads and small bodies, like caricature figures on an old-style cigarette card.

With The Year of the Ladybird Graham Joyce was an absolute master of tension and an ominous atmosphere. Holiday camps are of course places of fun for all the family. You have the sand castle competitions, the donkey rides, the camp and ridiculous games and shows. Joyce marvellously gives all these things a sense of menace be it with an act of violence at the end of a singers act, be it the little looks certain staff members give each other, or be it an incident with the donkeys that goes from being very funny to something bordering on animal cruelty. Everything that is glitz, glamour and fun has its own rotten underside. Even ladybirds can become small monsters when arriving on mass. Every bit of beauty, glitz, glamour and camp has its rotten underside. Like the heat the tension crackles through it.

What also adds to the tension is our protagonist and his general naivety. David is a young man who is excited and almost overawed by all he sees and those he meets. There is quite a cast of characters at this holiday camp and almost every one of them has a darkness about them be it Tony and his illusions and control, the grumpy Dot running the uniforms who almost enjoys giving you the wrong size, the all too camp and nice to be true Luca or Nobby who lets say lives up to his name. David’s actions are also occasionally unwise, and not always moralistic, even if accidental. Firstly he falls head over heels from the woman that he really shouldn’t. Terri is the wife of the over bearing and brutal Colin, should you talk to him the wrong way, let alone look at his wife, and you might find yourself in more trouble (and possible pain) than you could bargain for. In his keenness to get to know Terri, David sort of befriends Colin accidentally and it is through this friendship that another tension arises as Colin takes him on a day out which ends up in a meeting of the National Front (which I am amazed is still going) and shows him some of the darkest and most unnerving side of society and politics. I was chilled before we had even got to the actual ghost of the tale.

It was the man in the blue suit I’d seen on the day of the sandcastle competition. He was hugging a child – presumably the boy I’d seen. Maybe the blue suit was made of some synthetic material because its threads caught in the sun’s rays and darted light. He had a rope coiled over his shoulder.
But then the sun darkened and I felt dizzy. My breath came short. I heard a groan way off – way out to sea and I felt an uncomfortable panic, triggered by something very old shifting deep inside me. I looked up. The man and the boy had turned to look at me, perhaps because I was acting oddly. But their faces were in the shadow. It made no sense. They were turned full on to the sun, but their faces were grey flat and smooth like beach pebbles, almost in silhouette. Even though their faces were indistinct, they peered back at me with suspicion, as if I had somehow meant to harm them. I felt a wave of revulsion. My teeth chattered.

Any of you who read this blog regularly will know I love a ghost story yet I am very picky about them. I have read many a novel where I have been thoroughly creeped out throughout until the ghost reveals itself and I think ‘really, that was what was scaring me?’ and being let down by the ghoul/demon/monster. I have to admit that I didn’t feel particularly chilled by the ghost of the man in the blue suit, which of course inspires the American title of The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, more puzzled and intrigued by who he and the little boy were. Without giving anything away, I liked the eventual reveal (even if I sort of guessed it, being a guesser) and the story that it told. Once you have read it, which you should, you will know what I mean. The same happened with the ladybirds, I was intrigued by the phenomenon of this plague of cute insects but not left as scared or freaked out by it as I was expecting.

Yet I don’t really think that is where Joyce wants us to be chilled and creeped out. As with Some Kind of Fairy Tale, the chilling moments happen where you might not expect them. For me personally it was the sections involving the National Front that I found to be the most chilling parts of The Year of the Ladybird. Firstly there is the fact that from a historical context this was a ‘political party’ of neo-Nazi’s who started to do well in the local elections when the big parties were leaving people feeling disillusioned. They thrived by spreading a campaign of fear and bullying and even horrific acts of violent protest. This is all the more chilling as currently here in the UK we have a party doing that, without the violence, and then worldwide we have ISIS and other terrorist groups who create a world of fear. Joyce looks at their motives and also their attitudes which makes for some uncomfortable reading in all sorts of ways.

The Year of the Ladybird may not be a conventional ghost story, in fact to me it is more a case of a story about the darker aspects of humans with a ghost in it. It is a tale of the fear that we humans can create in bullying and violence and how some people can be irrationally afraid as what they see as different or wrong and what that fear within them can do. For once the blurb on the back of the book didn’t lie when it said ‘this is a novel that transcends the boundaries between the everyday and the supernatural while celebrating the power of both.’ It is also a book that looks at the darkest of shadows in the world, even on the sunniest days of the most humid heat wave.

If you would like to hear myself, Kate, Rob and Gav talking about the book in even more detail, and also getting all their views on it, check out this episode of Hear Read This! If you would like to hear myself and Gavin interviewing Graham almost two years ago and discussing the wonderful, wonderful Some Kind of Fairy Tale you can do so here. Graham Joyce will be much missed and I cannot help think of all the wonderful stories he had still to tell, though fortunately (in a slightly odd way) I still have most of his works to go back through. Who else has read The Year of the Ladybird, or indeed The Ghost in the Electric Blue Suit, and what did you make of it? Which other of Graham’s novels would you recommend I head to next? What have you been reading this Halloween?

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Spooky Stories…

As you will all know tomorrow is Halloween which is one of my favourite days of the year. I think it comes second to Boxing Day, seriously these are both above my birthday and Christmas in terms of times of cheer and joy for me. Anyway, it will be Halloween and I don’t know about you but I am in just the right mood for some spooky stories and tales of terror. Which ones to read though?

Well, funny you should ask that as I have made a little selection of potential books which I thought I would share with you in case you need inspiration, though I would love more recommendations from you below…

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Cold Hand in Mine
by Robert Aickman – Recently republished by Faber & Faber, this second collection of Aickman’s ‘ strange stories’ is supposed to be one of his creepiest, weirdest and most chilling. I am really looking forward to reading these, they also happen to be my latest choice for Hear Read This when we record in a couple of weeks so I hope they are in Gav’s suitcase while he travels around America.

Say Her Name by James Dawson – I have been meaning to read this for ages, James is now the ruling Queen of Teen and should really be the Queen of Scream as his wonderful novels are like better written Point Horrors for the current generation – and I love Point Horrors! I feel especially bad for not reading this sooner as I challenged James to write this one as I said modern ghost stories can’t be scary. This will definitely be my next creepy read.

The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill. I think Susan Hill is a legend at ghost stories, well I think she is a legend in all the forms she writes in. This is one of the few of her ghostly tales that I haven’t read and is guaranteed to give me the chills. Delightful. It has also reminded me that I have an anthology somewhere of ghostly tales chosen by Hill, that could be another addition. I am currently reading one of the Simon Serrailler series of crime novels by Susan and it is marvellous.

The Orphan Choir by Sophie Hannah. Sophie Hannah is most well known for her psychological thrillers (which I often find spookier than ghost stories as I mention on this episode of The Readers) and also for recently writing a new Poirot novel. Last year she wrote this spooky tale for the newly reinvigorated Hammer Horror imprint. It is another book I cannot believe I haven’t read yet, mind you like Susan Hill I am very behind with Sophie’s series. Shame on me.

The Mistletoe Bride and Other Stories by Kate Mosse. I have yet to read any of Kate Mosse’s novels. I tried reading Labyrinth when it came out in paperback and wasn’t in the right mood for it. I actually have this collection, subtitled ‘haunting tales’, and the equally creepy sounding The Taxidermists Daughter high up on my TBR. I sometimes like a short story collection as a way into a new author, and also ghost stories can be particularly spooky or chilling in the shorter form.

I know I have recommended it endless times but if you fancy a fast an chilling read do grab The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. Oh and I also must recommend Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter. I will also have a ghostly tale up for discussion on the blog tomorrow. So which books will you be curling up with on Halloween night? Have you read any of the books I have selected? Which books would you recommend?

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Sacred Country – Rose Tremain

I am slightly wary of talking about seeing themes in an authors work for fear of people thinking I have got above my station and am being a bit pretentious. However having now read four, of Rose Tremain’s works for Trespassing with Tremain, Sacred Country being the penultimate, there are a few themes I am spotting. The stories of outsiders seem to be something that Tremain is most captivated by. In Sacred Country it is not one person who is the outsider, though initially you might think it, rather a whole cast of characters who all feel at odds with the world around them and those closest to them, who often feel it too. Tremain is something of a mistress of the unsaid and the voice of those who are different.

Vintage books, paperback, 2002, fiction, 366 pages, bought by my good self

From an early age Mary Ward feels like she is slightly different from everyone else both in her family and in the small village of Swaithey, where the Suffolk countryside meets the coastline. It is not until the funeral for the King, in 1952 when Mary is six, that she knows how to put it into words. As soon as it dawns on her we know that Mary is going to have a difficult life ahead of her fighting against the conforms of normality in many people’s eyes.

She stared at her family, took then in, one, two, three of them, quiet at last but not as still as they were meant to be, not still like the plumed men guarding the King’s coffin, not still like bulrushes in a lake. And then, hearing the familiar screech of her guineafowl coming near the farmhouse, she thought, I have some news for you Marguerite, I have a secret to tell you, dear, and this is it: I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.

There is much that is marvellous about what Tremain does with Sacred Country and indeed with Mary. At the start of the novel I have to admit that I was rather worried. Child narrators are a complex beast in fiction, often used to highlight some moral or social story with naivety which can often come across as either being calculating or utterly off putting because invariably the author decides to make them precocious or overly chipper in the face of diversity. Not so in Tremain’s case, thank goodness. In her youth Mary has a pretty hard life and she just manages to bear it in the main, she isn’t overly chipper, she isn’t precocious, she just survives because it is human instinct. This isn’t to say that Tremain doesn’t use both the naivety and the black and white nature of a child’s mind to her advantage, as in the early parts of the novel she will often use a child’s eyes to highlight some of the things going on that they aren’t noticing but we are as adult readers.

I didn’t want to think about where Estelle was going. On the other side of Leiston there was a place called Mountview Asylum which we had sometimes passed on the way to the sea in Sonny’s van. I whispered once to Timmy that this was a loony bin where boys got sent if they couldn’t learn multiplication. Instead of cringing with fear as I’d hoped, he looked at the place, which was a converted stately home with red walls and flying turrets, and said: ‘Which bit of it is the actual bin?’ And we all laughed. Even Estelle. This is the only time that I can remember us all laughing together – like a proper family in an Austin with a picnic hamper – when Timmy asked the question about the Actual Bin.

As we read on we like Mary, not because she is different and going through a hard time (though that is what makes us root for her) but because she is a fully formed thoughtful young girl, who just happens to have been born in the wrong body and indeed in the wrong place and at the wrong time. I kept thinking of all the people who must lived through this in the past let alone now, as I read along with Mary’s struggle with trying to come to terms with and find out who she really is and where that journey takes her.

This alone in Tremain’s hands would have been a wonderful novel yet she does several things that take it up a notch or ten and make it truly exceptional. Firstly there is the fact that as we read Mary’s tale and meet all the people around her, even those who she merely passes in the streets of Swaithey, we soon discover that many of them too are outsiders in their varying ways. We have mothers who have had children out of wedlock and been left with merely people’s kindness and judgement to deal with, we have people hiding their sexuality, we have unrequited love, we have people with mental illnesses, alcoholics, spinsters who people gossip about and insinuate allsorts. I could go on. With all this going on Tremain both shows the utter hypocrisy of society and people within it. She also looks at the fact that often we all feel lost and alone and don’t talk about it, when if we did we might find out that actually other people feel lost too only for different reasons.

Rose Tremain gives us real insight into what is left unsaid through the style in which the book is written. We will often go from person to person in the village through an omnipresent narrator and then suddenly we will find ourselves in one of the characters heads as they narrate a section of each chapter, which are actually years from the 1950’s onwards, giving us additional insight from different characters vantage points. This is invariably through the Wards be it Mary, her brother Timmy or her mother, Estelle, and father Sonny ; all who give their own slant on their lives and their place in the ‘family’, though some proving quite uncomfortable to be in the mind of. I found Estelle to be particularly fascinating and could have read a lot more of what is unsaid between her and all those around her through her narrative.

Another thing that Tremain does which I have mentioned my love of before on this blog several times, is use the world around the characters to set the scene. The ramshackle and rundown farm in which the Wards live seems to reflect the family within it, as it gets more decrepit so do the relationships within it. The same with Gilbert and his mother, living in a house on the edge of a crumbling cliff face, as time goes by things become eroded, security is lost and the threat of danger comes ever closer. Even the weather and the atmosphere of the countryside often reflects a sign of things to come.

That night the storm came. In ten hours it rained seven inches. The apple trees were stripped of their blossom by the wind. The telephone lines and the power lines fell onto the lanes and fields. The shoulders of the ocean hurled themselves at the undefended shore and the cliffs at Minsmere began once again to slip and fall away.

As Mary grows up and the book follows her life it also literally grows both in scope and in the themes it brings up. As Mary starts turning more and more into Martin we follow life for those people still in her home village but also follow her as her world grows from her own village, to neighbouring towns (when she visits the wonderful, wonderful  Cord) to the cities and then even further afield. As the decades pass there is also a growth in technology and advancement in science, surgery and also society as the world changes. Here again Tremain plays a masterstroke as time moves on. Often the things going on in the background (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, Vietnam, the swinging sixties and even the world cup of ’66) reflecting the atmospheres or moments within certain characters lives. You often feel like every paragraph has an extra layer or two beneath the initial words and story it is telling you and this is what I am coming to admire more and more in Tremain’s writing.

Sacred Country is a novel that is as compelling as it is complex. It is a marvellous novel about a young person born in the wrong body and how hard it must be, it is also about much more than that. There is as cast a cast of characters and their secrets as there is themes about society and the world in which we live in and how it has changed over time. It is a book about those who are different and those who become outsiders be it from their situation or in some cases their own choices. It is about communication and what is left unsaid. It is also a book about acceptance. All this told without sentimentality, yet filled with heart and understanding.

It is official. Rose Tremain is swiftly becoming one of my very, very favourite writers and Sacred Country is a book that I will be thinking about for a long, long time. (I am quite desperate to discuss Irene and Pearl, Gilbert and Walter, and many more characters in more detail but didn’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet!) I am thrilled to have so many more of her novels and short stories to go, including of course the final Trespassing with Tremain title Restoration which I will be talking about in three weeks time. In the meantime who else has read Sacred Country and what did you think?

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Filed under Review, Rose Tremain, Trespassing with Tremain, Vintage Books

Slowly Does It, Sometimes Less is More…

So something that I have been keeping a little bit of a secret recently is the fact that I have a new job, I actually started yesterday. This is all very exciting, partly as I genuinely didn’t think that I would get it. I am back at the company I worked with on the festival last summer and am part of the team setting the foundations for the next one; I will be working on the events and business tourism side which I am really excited about. So there has been lots of celebrating and even some fizzy pop opened and drunk in the Savidge Reads household over the last week or so. This all became a little more sober and sombre when I suddenly thought ‘oh ****, what about all my reading time?’

Once the initial palpitations stopped and I had calmed down I realised that actually I realised it wouldn’t be as bad as I thought because I have noticed that I naturally of late my reading, and indeed my reviewing have slowed down a lot and that I have been enjoying both more.

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I used to be in the very fortunate position of being a books pages editor for a magazine which meant that I worked from home and spent most of my days reading. Back then I could get through 130+ books a year without frazzling my brain. This is roughly two or three books a week. I was reviewing them and discussing them but do you know what I don’t think I was reading them and worse still I actually think I was abusing the power a book has and doing these books a disservice. I know this because someone asked me what I thought of X book I read a fair few years ago and I couldn’t remember a thing about it, my own blog post had to remind me. I was a mixture of shocked and saddened by this; I felt I had let the author and the book down. I understand that you will forget some reads naturally but when I went and looked at my ‘books read list’ for those years something became clear. I had become a reading and reviewing machine, not just a reader.

Since leaving London I have lessened the amount I read in part because freelance has been less and so I have had to work more even though it was part time. Then Gran was ill and my mind was too full while she was dying, so I read less again. I then got a full time job and naturally my reading and bookish freelancing stuff fit in with that, lessening over the summer when my work hours were bonkers and only really reading things for work, though I was lucky they were generally things I wanted to read anyway.

When I was back from America I thought ‘oooh I can read a book a day now for the next month or so’ and I started, within a few days I had stopped, it felt like work and not just for the fun of it and books were blending into one again the point Ali Smith makes in Artful popped back into my head “Books themselves take time, more time than most of us are used to giving them. Books demand time. Sometimes they take and demand more time than we’re ready or yet know how to grant them; they go at their own speed regardless of the cultural speed or slowness of their readers zeitgeists. Plus, they’re tangible pieces of time in our hands.”  I have also been reading marvellous books like The Narrow Road to the Deep South which if I had rushed an read in a day, as opposed to reading over the week I did, I think would have really lost something for me. Again, it would have been a disservice to the book, the writing and really me as a reader.

The same applies with blogging and reviewing, if I read and then reviewed a book every day, apart from lessening my reading time because of all the writing and thinking every review takes (currently three separate sessions) it would drive me mad. I am not sure what benefit this would have on the books? If I really want you to read a book wouldn’t it be better for me to review it and leave it there for a day or so, making sure that people have a gander rather than it getting swallowed up and lost in the mass?

I have made a very big decision since getting this job that for the length of the contract I am going to say a polite no thank you to freelance reviews anywhere else (unless I really want to read the book or Fiction Uncovered/the Man Booker/Baileys Prize or any other book prize phone me up), pop You Wrote The Book on hold for a while (I have recorded until Christmas, so will let it have some time off until spring) and just read as and when which titles take my fancy. I will also have a crazy target of only 52 books on GoodReads next year, I should bin that challenge off al together but I like to see what I have read each yet. Either way no rushing, just reading.

This has all really been a very long winded way of me saying that my reading, and naturally my blogging will be slowing down a bit, not masses but if I read and review two books a week that will keep me very happy. If I read more, thats a bonus, if I read less so be it – fortunately I have a backlog of about twelve book thought blog posts. I am hoping with the reviews that I do post and the chatty posts I interweave, as and when, you will find that less is actually more.

*Note I did not type this while at work but a few days before I started and scheduled it – just in case my new boss is reading this. Thank you.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

I have recently mentioned the power and intensity that a novella can bring, and indeed have been favouring novellas over longer, most often epic, tome like novels. Yet reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which verges on tome and is definitely epic in scope, has reminded me how much I love getting completely lost in a book for a good long week of reading. Then once finished be left feeling the loss of it, unable to shake it. You see it is one of those books that totally envelops you and also contains everything about the world within its covers. It is therefore going to be one of those books that is a complete nightmare to try and encapsulate everything it does or do justice. (Hence why this is one of the longest reviews I have ever written, despite seven sittings over a week to edit and edit it, do bear with me though as you really need to read this book.)

Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 464 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is essentially the tale of one man’s life with all that befalls him. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. He was the surgeon, having the strange job of helping people escape death only to then have them healed and sent off to work that was likely to lead to death be it from sickness, exhaustion or torture. He is a man who has had a love affair with this uncle’s wife. It is really these two particular strands of Dorrigo’s life that this novel follows going back and forth developing a life lived, with it joy, despair, loss and love. This is what makes the book difficult to write about, yet reads so naturally even as it goes back and forth in time. Essentially whilst it is about Dorrigo’s life, it is also these two main strands that have defined him and that our focus is pulled towards.

Flanagan, I think, does something very clever early on as he draws us to both Dorrigo’s elderly years and his early youth very quickly in interweaving bursts. If you are worried you might get confused, as I was so I am not being patronising, you won’t, you differentiate swiftly as you read. Here we are told of something he witnesses as a young man which relates to something in his older years but it also tells us why Dorrigo doesn’t, and therefore we might not want to, consider him a war hero, as Dorrigo is a fantastically and humanly flawed character.

Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy.

Before we have even come to the love story or the horrors of war, we spend time with the fascinating and conflicting character that is Dorrigo. Here is a man who people see as a hero, and who has saved many lives, yet who likes to drink drive and sleep with his wives best friends or his best friend’s wives. He is incredibly likeable is some respects and then utterly reprehensible in others. He combines both good and bad, which is something that we forget that those who die or survive fighting for the good are, we all have good and bad sides be we a victim or perpetrator of war. In fact I think the soul of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is what is good and what is evil, though more of that in a bit.

Here I wanted to say that this novel is like a cow as it has two hearts, then I realised that they have two stomachs and Dr Who has two hearts, then I realised that I should just say that the book really just has two hearts to it. Blimey, that was over complicated, let me explain.

One of the hearts of this novel, no pun intended, is the love story between Dorrigo and Amy. Here again Flanagan creates an interesting dichotomy as we read on. When the affair between Dorrigo and his uncle’s wife starts, after a wonderful meeting in a bookshop, I was thinking ‘you awful pair of saucy buggers’ soon though I was caught up in it. Frequenting readers will know I am not a fan of a love story; I was gripped by this one. Flanagan wonderfully captures the passion and almost obsession that love can form and the reckless monsters it can make us. There is nothing saccharine here. Again I cannot spoil anything but I was rooting for Dorrigo and Amy even though I knew morally I shouldn’t be. Once again Flanagan cleverly makes us question what we see as good and bad behaviour dependent on cause and circumstance.

She wanted to bury her face in those armpits there and then and taste them, bite them, shape into them. She wanted to say nothing and just run her face all over him. She wished she wasn’t wearing that print dress – green, such a bad colour, such a cheap dress, so unflattering and her breasts she wanted up and out not lost and covered up. She watched him, his muscles little hidden animals running across his back, she watched him moving, wanted to kiss that back, those arms, those shoulders, she watched him look up and see her.

One of the things I really admired about The Narrow Road to the Deep North was how whilst a story of Dorrigo Evans’ life we get to see him through other people’s eyes. Above you have the obsessional view of him from Amy, you get his rather blunt and cynical opinion of himself and through characters like Darky Gardiner you also get to see the man he is with his comrades during the war when life is at its hardest and most cruel, just as you do through Nakamura as one of those running the war camps. This also means you get different people’s perception of the war, be they on either side of it, or all the way back in Australia. War is very much the second heart of this novel.

The scenes, and indeed middle section, in the novel that are set on the Death Railway are some of the most devastating that I have ever read. Even thinking about them I genuinely get a shiver up my spine. I hate to use the term that a book was ‘bravely written’ yet I cannot think of any other way to describe Flanagan’s writing at these points. The daily life there in the jungle with the endless back breaking work, the lack of food, the illness, the beatings, the torture, the loss of life are all viscerally depicted. Some of the scenes blow your mind be it with the horror of what occurred, the frank and gruesome nature of some of the surgery Dorrigo must do to save someone, the confronting scenes told by men who like to torture or the moments of love the men show each other as they try and keep their own humanity. Utterly incredible.

As I want to be reasoned with this review and not just bang on about how amazing it is so you think I would have just lapped it anything up, even had Flanagan made Dorrigo sale across on ocean with a talking horse for company, I did have a slight wobble with the books final section. Suddenly Dorrigo’s elderly years go into overdrive and he suddenly goes through a few more devastating things and I did wonder if we needed them. Obviously I can’t give any spoilers but there was one story that made me think ‘really?’ briefly before then something else happened and I was so moved at the end I cried for about the sixth time.

A minor quibble but one I wanted to mention so you know I can see any amazing books flaws, as no book is completely perfect, though this is close. Now, of course, I am worried I haven’t mentioned some of the other amazing things like the Haiku’s that run through the novel and how they accentuate it, or how Dorrigo uses books and literature to work out his place in the world, how the book is constructed in parts that almost mirror each other or discuss some of the other characters that appear in the book but I am in danger of never shutting up. See it really was one minor quibble. Anyway…

As I mentioned earlier I think the main theme of this book is what is good and what is evil. We are taught from an early age that, whichever view you side with, there are goodies and baddies in war. The people who die fighting for the good are untouchable heroes and those who are on the bad side are all villainous and odious. Life is not that black and white and that is what The Narrow Road to the Deep North is really saying through Dorrigo Evans life and all he goes through. He is a war hero and an adulterer. Some of his fellow men suffer and are wonderful people; some are nasty pieces of work. Nakamura heads a prisoner of war camp where abominable things are happening; for him this comes from doing what he thinks is best for his country in the long term and using the enemy to create a better, great and good, future for Japan.

Flanagan looks at the good and the bad in the good and the bad. It is not comfortable and is incredibly confronting, especially in scenes described both on the Death Railway and later some insight into Japan at the time, but it makes us question and think without drip/force feeding us or even giving any answers, as all the best books should.

The journalist said he had done a story on the survivors, had met and filmed them. There suffering, he had said, was terrible and lifelong.
It is not that you know nothing about the war, young man, Dorrigo Evans had said. It is that you have learnt one thing. And war is many things.

The Narrow Road to the Dark North is a book that you experience, one of those books which makes you feel every paragraph emotionally and in your very core. Not only did it introduce me to a period in history, and indeed a place, that I knew almost nothing about; it also made me want to be kinder than I am, note how lucky I am, tell my loved ones I love them more often than I do and reminded me that not a second of life should be wasted because you never know what may come around the next corner. It is a book about war, peace, love, hate, death and life. Yes, it really is one of those life changing and life affirming books, an incredibly written modern masterpiece.

I could go on, I won’t. I will just say you need to read this book. I can see why it won the Booker. It is easily going to be one of my books of the year and I now want to read everything that Richard Flanagan has written. If you want to know more about the book, the background it has with his father (the book is dedicated to him ‘prisoner 335’) and more you can hear me and Richard in conversation here, I nearly blubbed at one point – professional. Who else has read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and what did you make of it? Which of Flanagan’s novels should I read next?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Man Booker, Review, Richard Flanagan

Over 1,000,000 Views…

I just wanted to pop a quick thank you post up here on Savidge Reads after I was given a notification very early this morning that this had happened…

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Believe it or not you guys have contributed to over 1,000,000 – yes that is right over a million – views of Savidge Reads since it moved to WordPress back in late 2009 – I am of course now wondering how many that is in total since 2006 in its various guises! Anyway, I am almost quite, quite speechless and also somewhat elated, whilst also thinking that it is completely bonkers. Anyway. I thought I would share it with you and say thank you all for stopping by, be you a lurker or a commenter on the blog, you are all ace! This has added to the other celebrations which have been going on here as I have got a new job, more on that in due course, still waiting for all the finer details to be sorted and signed. Excitement all round though!

Right now back for the seventh edit in a week of my review of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I am determined to try and do justice and encapsulate all it does. Big thank you again and sorry if this seems a smug self congratulatory post, I am just dead chuffed/thrilled.

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Filed under Random Savidgeness