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Old 15th Sep 2008, 12:51   #1
John Self
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Default Recently Abandoned

I thought it would be good to have a place where we can comment on those books which we've given up on, and which we don't feel able to write an informed review of, but about which we nonetheless have something to say.

Yesterday I read the first 60 pages or so (the first two chapters) of Chris Cleave's The Other Hand. Cleave attained minor notoriety with his first novel, Incendiary, as much for the circumstances of its publication as its content. It took the form of a letter to Osama bin Laden, and was published in the UK on 7 July 2005, when al Qaeda-inspired bombers blew themselves and several dozen others up on the Tube and on a bus in London. Bad timing.

Nonetheless Cleave apparently attained a big advance for his next two books, and The Other Hand was published recently. A publicist in Hodder asked me if I would like a copy and I said yes. It arrived just before the Booker longlist circus began so I just got around to looking at it this weekend.



The presentation of the book irritated me straight off. It has a garish, badly drawn cover illustration (available in a choice of colours), and it fetishises its own collectability by having Signed First Edition printed (not stickered) on the top right corner of the dust jacket. The blurb is similar to that for the first edition of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, basically saying We're not going to tell you anything about this book because we want it to be a surprise other than that the African beach scene is horrific. The story starts there but the book does not and Please don't tell your friends what it's about when you recommend it to them. "It's a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it." Finally, most bizarrely of all, there is a letter to the reader printed on the first page, pointing out how brilliant the book is, from Cleave's publisher Suzie Dooré. "Dear Reader, You don't know me but..." (Scott Pack on his blog pointed out that he does know Dooré, and in fact employed her in her previous job.)

So I may have been feeling ill-will toward the book from the start. My review copy also came with a bunch of postcards containing extracts from the book. These were pretty good, as they were all from the voice of Little Bee, the Nigerian girl who narrates alternate chapters. The voice Cleave has given her is a bit cutesy but disarming and quite funny, reflecting for example on how she (as a refugee) wishes she was a pound coin instead as then she would be welcomed everywhere she goes. The book begins with her being released from a detention centre after two years and then phoning her only contact in the UK, journalist Andrew O'Rourke. So far I was enjoying it.

We then switch to O'Rourke's widow, Sarah, who narrates chapter 2. She tells us that Andrew killed himself five days after receiving the call from Little Bee, and five days later Little Bee came to live with her. She has a young son, who wears a Batman costume at all times (cue a scene where he jumps into his dad's grave in the costume and tries to prise the coffin lid open when he realises his daddy is in heaven). For me, Sarah's narrative was excruciating. It was a muddled mix of casual chattiness and attempts at piercing observations, and the scene where Sarah is told of Andrew's suicide is implausible (he did it at home, but the police were called after a neighbour reported "the sounds of a man in distress") and ill-judged, with an attempt to show Sarah's shock giving rise to emotional distance, but just coming across as inappropriate. There is reference to her missing a finger, which relates to the African beach scene mentioned on the cover flap. We know that this is a central scene, but like Pearlie in Andrew Sean Greer's The Story of a Marriage, Sarah withholds the details for no good reason other than to keep the reader in suspense.

I skipped forward and found out the details of the beach scene - just before the middle of the book - which was grisly stuff but I not enough to make me want to read the rest of the book. It struck me then that The Story of a Marriage also had a missing finger in it. Perhaps there should be a special category of stories with missing fingers: the good (A Prayer for Owen Meany, Roald Dahl's 'Man from the South') and the bad (The Other Hand, The Story of a Marriage).

Anyway. Maybe on full reading the Little Bee stuff would cancel out the Sarah stuff, but I didn't fancy working my way through 350 pages to find out.
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Old 15th Sep 2008, 15:16   #2
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Default Re: Recently Abandoned

Interesting. I was sent a copy of this too. Will see when I get to it - having too much of a fun time with Dalkey at the moment.

But didn't I notice Howard Jacobson's new one on your reading list, only to mysteriously vanish without a trace? Just couldn't get into it?

I suppose I'm abandoning Peter Brook's The Empty Stage. In a way I hoped it would teach me more about the theatre, but I rather feel some knowledge first wouldn't go amiss. I read the first 'speech' (The Deadly Stage), and it was okay, I suppose, but not exactly enticing enough to move on through the other three.
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Old 15th Sep 2008, 15:24   #3
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Ah yes, Howard Jacobson's not-so-recently-abandoned The Act of Love. I got about 70 pages into it. Like Kalooki Nights, it was OK, but not enticing enough to read 320 (or for Kalooki, 450) pages of. I'm disappointed, because I was such a fan of his previous few books and kept thinking that if he just tweaked a knob in one direction, he could produce a real book. Unfortunately he seems to have tweaked the knob in the other direction. Most criminally, The Act of Love lacked jokes (not entirely, but mostly), and Jacobson's greatest talent as a writer is his wit. The book also has a doubtful premise: the narrator, Felix Quinn, believes that no man is happy in his marriage unless he knows that his wife is being 'seen to' by another man. The whole book seems built to justify this proposition for the character, and then very slowly to play it out. I dispatched it to the charity shop immediately so I couldn't change my mind.
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Old 15th Sep 2008, 16:32   #4
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I have a feeling I will Imminently Abandon James Buchan's The Gate of Air. Buchan is the grandson of the Thirty-Nine Steps man, and a novelist I always meant to read, mainly because he was published by the admirable Harvill Press (Carver and Richard Ford were among the other English language writers they brought to prominence in the UK). All his six earlier novels are out of print, but I remember titles - High Latitudes, Heart's Journey in Winter - and the only shadow on the horizon was the vague memory of an absolute hatchet job of one of his books, though I can't remember which. Still, this is offset by the alarming praise on the cover of The Gate of Air. The mighty Michael Hofmann proclaims "I don't believe this country has a better writer to offer than James Buchan," and of his last novel, A Good Place to Die, the hard-to-impress Philip Hensher says "there is really no word for it but 'masterpiece'". Others say things like "daringly ambitious, phenomenally accomplished" and "the new Graham Greene."

The Gate of Air is subtitled A Ghost Story, and concerns Jim Smith, 29-year-old retired software entrepreneur, who was ousted from his company when it floated on the stock exchange. He buys a place in the fictional county of Brackshire: Paradise Farm. "Old-fashioned and inconvenient, Paradise Farm opened vistas of romantic domesticity and, once that was all done, expense without limit." He struggles to find acceptance with the locals, who are snobbish and eccentric. (Perhaps here Buchan, who married into aristocracy, is writing from experience.) He has a vision of a woman, Jean Lampard, née Thinne, who is the subject of an almost-nude (she sports a hat) portrait in a neighbour's property, and who went missing in the 1960s.

And it has quite the strangest narrative feel of any book I have read in months. The voice of the narrator is uneven, sometimes writing from the viewpoint of the character, then passing comment on the character ("conceited man that he was") with no apparent context. There are startling jumps with no explanation - one night Jim starts delivering sheep of lambs, a sudden expertise ("Jim caught and upended the ewe. She had milk on both sides ... [He] washed his hands and spread them with antiseptic gel") which has never even been hinted at before. There are curious details which make the reader question Buchan's decision-making as a writer, such as a female character called Glory Gainer - not only a clunking reference to the trophy wives who occupy the properties around Jim, but a name which is bound to invoke laughter in anyone under the age of 70 at the similarity to Gloria Gaynor. Most bizarrely, there is this line:

Quote:
She was not a person that one might come on in the next seat in an aeroplane, or on The Hard at Brightwell, or at the popcorn counter of the Odeon in the interval of a performance.
In the interval of a performance at the Odeon? Can it really be the case that James Buchan (who is in his early 50s) hasn't been to the cinema in 30 years?

There are odd slangy chapter titles ("Billy No-Mates", "The War Between the Toffs and the Chavs") which sit oddly with the sterile tone of the prose. We have so few hints of any past life for Jim ("he had never taken a holiday... he knew nothing of women... he had no experience of children") that I began to wonder if he was the ghost - then there are two pages which blurt out his CV in a bizarre style which reads like satire:

Quote:
...In Palmyra, he worked as an errand boy for the German Archeological Mission. For a while he was employed as an orderly at the Ibn Sina Hospital in Baghdad and suffered an injury that he felt himself fortunate to have survived. In Manipur, he was hired by merchants to carry cheques and foreign currency by taxi to Calcutta. It was then that he adopted the habit of wearing a weapon, which he had not been able to shake. [There is no reference in the previous 98 pages to Jim carrying a weapon.] Once in Dindigul, where he worked as a clerk for Indian Airlines...
If this had been a self-published book, or even the lowest sort of pulp thriller, I could dismiss all this as just inept and clumsy prose. But Buchan's reputation from those quotes precedes him, and I just don't know what to make of it. Naturally, I have sought out review of the book. I could find only three. The Daily Mail one sounds as though the reviewer just typed it up from the press release. John Burnside reviewed it for The Times(a "wonderful novel"), and I somewhat distrust his praise of it simply because he never once refers to the unavoidable eccentricity of the telling, which is something that is bound to strike every reader. I find myself agreeing with a lot of what Anita Brookner says in The Spectator: "strange ... reads like a nervous breakdown in which both the writer and the reader are embedded ... largely incoherent" and, the reason I am in danger of abandoning it, "there is no resolution."

So I am inclined to give it up because what's the point of finishing a book where I'm pretty sure I'm not going to get any more out of it? Not much benefit in doing so just so that I can write a review which says, "Here's a book you've probably never heard of. It's no good." And yet I am halfway through and it's not exactly taxing, and there are some good lines, like this nicely nasty description of a rural estate agent.

Quote:
Harriet was new to the property trade. She had set up as a buyer's agent just the year before in the belief that she had an asset in her friends who had married rich men. It was a model business plan. Harriet knew every rectory, manor and hall in the country, and how each sat, as it were, in the female lap. Where others saw gardens and porticoes, and vehicles aslant on yellow gravel, woods cluttered with pheasants, lawns, swimming pools and the many badges of British rural opulence, Harriet saw women's hearts at the point of breaking. She knew who was unhappy, who was unfaithful, who was sick, broke, or mad, who was on pills or the bottle, who was on the point of flight. For such premonitions of change, the London buyers paid.
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Old 15th Sep 2008, 16:50   #5
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Default Re: Recently Abandoned

Here is Hensher on Buchan. Apparently his style "can seem cold to the inattentive reader." That'll be me and Anita, then.
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Old 15th Sep 2008, 19:56   #6
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I just dropped Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis after discovering that the translation was abridged "to make the book better and more accessible to modern readers." Yeah. The guy won a Nobel, and the translator knows how to make the book "better." Don't think so.
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Old 15th Sep 2008, 19:56   #7
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I abandoned Don DeLillo's "Falling Man" earlier today. An unabridged audio book that has you falling asleep at the wheel can't be good.
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Old 15th Sep 2008, 21:23   #8
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Well I've now officially abandoned The Gate of Air, despite Hensher's best efforts to persuade me that Buchan intends to confound the reader with his narrative (and plenty of Amazon reviewers agree the same of his earlier books). Hensh:

Quote:
I read Heart's Journey in Winter twice before I was remotely certain of its events, and three times before I had the beginnings of a sense of who was lying to whom; but that stupendous escalation of trustlessness, that descent and deception and spreading poison, are worth any effort you put into it. It is as grand and baffling as Henry James's The Sacred Fount.
Now I am very willing to accept a book which requires multiple readings to extract its juices. I never really felt comfortable or complete with Martin Amis's Night Train until third or fourth time around. However the difference is that right from the start, Amis gives you plenty to like on every single page, lots of black wit and quotable lines; so there is an incentive to complete it first time, and to return again and again. Despite some nice lines, I don't feel that with The Gate of Air. However, I do feel somewhat foolish, because looking again at that quote I mocked above -

Quote:
She was not a person that one might come on in the next seat in an aeroplane, or on The Hard at Brightwell, or at the popcorn counter of the Odeon in the interval of a performance.
- it now seems blindingly clear to me that this is supposed to be a reflection of Jim's own out-of-touch sensibility. How could it be otherwise? It just seems so obvious. Having said that, as Jim is supposed to be 29 years old, and the book is set in the present day (Buchan writes here about ghost stories, and expresses his allegiance to M.R. James's rules including that "the ghost story must be set in the writer’s times"), how would he even have a perception of there being intervals in cinemas, when they haven't had them for the best part of 30 years? Again I retire baffled. But I might just hang on to The Gate of Air for a further approach in due course.
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Old 15th Sep 2008, 21:32   #9
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I read High Latitudes a couple of years ago and retain little of my thoughts on the book other than it was absolutely average. Strangely though, in my 60 book school-fete clear out a few months ago, I pulled it out of the pile and returned it to the bookshelf ?! Perhaps because it's because of its rare subject matter (City, finance etc). But then, I was suckered into buying Mergers and Acquisitions and that lasted 71 pages.

I wonder how many of those little Lehman worker bees are scoping out an expose as we speak ....
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Old 15th Sep 2008, 22:32   #10
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Thanks Quink. I know what you mean about those late rescues from the charity pile. Who knows what drives us?

Anyway, I am on the brink of heroically consummating my third abandonment in two days. Glenn Patterson's Once Upon a Hill: Love in Troubled Times is a book I was really looking forward to. A book about Northern Ireland, but from a proper publisher (Bloomsbury)! It must be good! And Patterson, I'm pretty sure, lives near me, so it would be quite nice to give it a decent review, help out a local author, get invited round for dinner etc. etc. I was prepared to overlook the fact that he's 47 but looks about ten years younger.

I enjoyed the prologue, the fun game of spotting places and shops I recognised. Patterson also has a nice amiable voice, and a good way with footnotes. There are also pictures - ace. But it pretty quickly devolves into, well, a series of anecdotes and facts'n'figures about his ancestors. And frankly, I wouldn't want to read all that about my own ancestors. Maybe it's stymied from the start as the last book I finished was a family memoir by Philip Roth - and nobody's matching up to that.
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