Wednesday 19 December 2012

Michelle de Kretser: The Hamilton Case (2003)

Edition:Vintage, 2004
Review number: 1471

The genre of post-colonial literary fiction has become one of the mainstays of the Booker Prize, with wins for several over the years. When starting to read The Hamilton Case, I thought that it was strange that this novel, set in Ceylon in the generation leading up to independence, had been overlooked by the judges  - and I am not the only one, as Hilary Mantel (herself now of course a double winner of the prize) suggests that it should have made it to the short list in her endorsement on the back cover.

Sam Obeysekere is a Ceylonese from a wealthy background, descendant of a family which has worked with the rulers of the island for centuries (hence the schoolyard taunt, "Obey by name, obey by nature). His father's profligate generosity destroys most of Sam's inheritance, but not before a (local) public school and then Oxford University education let him become a prominent lawyer, who then achieves fame by solving the murder case of the title, leading to the arrest of an Englishman for the killing. This all takes place against the background of nationalist unrest (parallel to, but less well known to me than, Ghandi's campaign in India), in which Sam's brother-in-law (and long term hated rival) Jaya plays a prominent role.

Much of the novel is told from Sam's point of view, but not all of it. I prefer the parts of the novel which are told by Sam, with observations which appear in the third party narrative such as "He gave no signs of understanding that his life had been a series of substitutions" being irritating brickbats from a writer who has shown herself able to use Sam's one-sided account to portray the relationship between Sam and Jaya with subtlety and humour.

The later parts of the novel become a different story, of madness and ghosts, but this is nothing like as powerful as the first half. I found myself no longer being engaged by a novel which initially seemed to be one of the best (excluding things I had read before) I was going to read in a while. Some of the short chapters remain atmospheric, but the real meat of this book is exhausted by page 121, the end of the second section and the Hamilton murder case itself.

Perhaps this change is partly deliberate: there have been many people who have lived lives of early promise and a brief flowering which then go nowhere - at least in some terms. But it is odd: to catalogue the life of a Sri Lankan who would have been closely associated with the British colonial regime in the period after independence could have been an interesting story. There is little of this to be gleaned from what Kretser chooses to write about, which is basically Sam's inability to relate to those close to him - his parents, his sister, his wife, and his son.

Perhaps Hilary Mantel only read the first half of the book; perhaps there is more to the second half than I saw - as I find Mantel unreadable myself, I am unlikely to appreciate the same things in fiction that she does. The best rating I can give The Hamilton Case is 6/10, despite the brilliance of the beginning.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Lord R. Benson: iPlot (2012)

Edition: Marador, 2012
Review number: 1470

A simple but arresting idea sets off this thriller: a couple pick up the wrong iPad after an airport security check when travelling to Australia, and find that it is fill of files about terrorism, including copies of hate mail sent to the Australian Prime Minister Carla Moore. The documents are fairly swiftly erased, the iPad having a feature that makes it possible for the owner to delete documents on a lost device. When Carla Moore falls ill suddenly, they suspect that there might be a link between the event and this iPad, but, having nothing concrete to show the police, they need to investigate for themselves.

iPlot starts slowly, and I found the basic idea of the swapped iPads difficult to believe: surely it can't be the case that there is no security to stop unauthorised users accessing the content on an iPad without entering a password? I'd be surprised if there were no apps to add biometric authentication capabilities such as iris scanning to iPad authentication. I am not an iPad user, but the answer to both questions appears to be yes, from a quick search on google, though it seems to be possible to bypass iPad authentication; this is a list of biometric authentication apps. So the idea that it would be possible to pick another person's iPad and only realise it is not your own when you see it doesn't contain the film you planned to watch on your flight - especially as the iPad concerned contains seriously sensitive data. My doubts made it hard to accept the verisimilitude of the story from the beginning.

There were other flaws which did not help. There are some rather clunky passages of prose, including the second chapter, which consists of lengthy and dull extracts from the documents on the laptop, including information about the death of Alexander Litvinenko, which is likely to be fairly familiar to anyone who has followed the news over the last few years, at least in the UK. This material could have been better introduced, and there is no need for so much of it, just a few bits and pieces to establish the type of content which is stored in the iPad. Anyone who has watched shows like Spooks or Homeland will already have a pretty good idea of what these documents will be like, so it will feel like familiar territory which could be skipped to many readers. There is something of a tendency to over-explain the background throughout, especially as many of the topics involved (the iPads, the terrorist plotting, the science) are likely to be of interest and fairly well known to potential readers, who I suspect will be - I hesitate slightly to say - geeks like me, who will be drawn in by the iPad idea.

The characters are poorly drawn; they all seem to have the same personality, pretty much, and even their physical descriptions are similar in many cases - this is a world of good looking, intelligent, and basically nice people.

But there are good sides to iPlot too. The story builds to its climax well, and eventually the most cynical reader will be drawn in. In terms of the plotting, I would have liked to have seen more use made of the iPads after they set the plot in motion, but the finale of iPlot was good anyway. I liked the technological and scientific aspects of the novel, even if they were over-explained, but I wanted to enjoy iPlot as a whole more than I did. My rating - 6/10.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Michael Johnston: Rembrandt Sings (2012)

Edition: akanos, 2012
Review number: 1469

Art historian Bill Maguire tells the reader his life story in Johnston's new novel. At least, he narrates a version of his life: he is clearly a constant reviser of material from his journals, and undercuts much of what he says with sardonic footnotes. His story is bound up with that of a rather older man, a painter named Joe Rembrandt, and most of Maguire's story is taken up with Joe's recital of his own life story, told to the young Bill while in the last stages of terminal illness. And in turn, Rembrandt's story is bound up with (fictional) painter Alexander Golden, whose daughter he married. Or perhaps not: it is clear fairly quickly that not only is Bill Maguire an unreliable storyteller, so is Joe Rembrandt, even if he does share an insight into Golden's paintings which Maguire uses to establish his academic reputation.

What unites these characters is a love for (and knowledge of) fine art. Even their involvement in dubious activities - including forgery and possibly, murder, as the front cover puts it - is fuelled by and part of their love for painting. Johnston captures the power of their obsession well, which is particularly useful, as it is of vital importance to the plot, as well as making the characters sympathetic: a forgery (and even a murder) for the love of art is easier to accept than the same crime carried out just to make money.

Rembrandt Sings is not intended to be an action thriller, and is more concerned with the motivation of the forger than anything else. The ending has a nice thriller-style twist to it; if reading the novel, do not skip forward as you would ruin a treat. Having said that, it is also a novel I wished had been longer, a rare object. There is nothing much recorded from Bill's live between the early twenties when his academic career was beginning and the position of senior and respected art historian, a likely candidate for the next head of the Tate gallery, who is looking back to his early days in the art world. Perhaps nothing out of the ordinary would have happened, just a standard academic career path, but more information would have been interesting.

Painting is not really my thing (colour blindness means that I tend to have problems perceiving pictures in the same way as people with normal vision), but I do enjoy fiction about art. I was in fact just starting Michael Gruber's Forgery of Venus as I finished Rembrandt Sings, another novel about art forgery, with a rather different slant on the subject. And I love Iain Pears' Jonathan Argyll series, which seem to have finished, unfortunately; they are more traditionally crime stories, and have less convincing forgers than Joe Rembrandt (which is not surprising, as it is  not the point of the books). I don't think that, even though music is the art form dearest to me, I would find a musical faker as interesting as the characters in this book, no matter how well done.

Altogether, I found this an interesting and impressive picture of the forger, with a clever twist, though lacking in pace for most of the time. My rating: 7/10.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Walter Tevis: Mockingbird (1980)

Edition: Gollancz, 2007
Review number:1468

The best known novels by Walter Tevis are famous as films: The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Color of Money - a trio which certainly demonstrates versatility. As a genre writer, he is also known for Mockingbird, here reprinted as one of Gollancz's "SF Masterworks" series.

One of TS Eliot's most famous lines, known to many who have no idea who wrote it (one online quotation search engine bizarrely attributes it to actor Vin Diesel) is "This is how the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper". It is almost a one sentence summary of Mockingbird, and is quoted at one point towards the end of the novel. Perhaps "human civilization" would be more apt than "world", but otherwise the mood and fit of the line is pretty much perfect.

The setting of Mockingbird is at the end, then, of the human history. With all tasks handled by robots, humans have sunk into a listless, drugged apathy, almost entirely of their own (or their ancestors') making. The main characters include one of the last, most advanced, robots to be made, named Spofforth, and one of the youngest remaining humans, named Bentley, who eventually realises the meaning of the demolition of his school once he and the rest of his year group leave: there are no more children.

The third major character is a woman named Mary Lou, who has been living an outsider's life in New York Zoo, inhabited otherwise only by the robots who manage it and who pretend to be children visiting - and which may well also be many of the exhibits. She has been surviving by eating sandwiches made available by a bug in the management system: a robot is provided with them to fill a vending machine, but always has five more than fit, and no instructions for what to do with them, so is effectively immobilised until May Lou takes them from it. She has managed somehow to escape from the system and is therefore free from the drugs taken by every other human. The robots have seen that humans are happier in general without high intelligence or dramatic events, so the drugs make their takers less excitable and less clever.

Once this is established, a strange thing happens, the most important event in the story, and one which almost knocks the whole novel off its mournful path. Spofforth denounces Bentley as a criminal - a true accusation, for Bentley, having worked out how to read from a book, teachers Mary Lou, and this is a crime because reading can distract from the bland happiness which humans are supposed to experience. Bentley is sent to prison, and Spofforth moves himself and Mary Lou into an abandoned apartment, following a rather atavistic prompting of a hidden part of his mind, which was not constructed but is based on a recording of the mind of a human being.

With the end of reading, of education, there is so much that people just don't know any more. Like a prehistoric inland dweller who has never seen the ocean, Bentley comments: "I did not know sea water was undrinkable. No one had ever told me." This, on top of the general apathy brought by the drugs, is really what is bringing the end; things break down, and no one knows how to fix them or how to get a robot to fix them, and no one cares to do either, anyway. Temporary measures, such as the one which added contraceptives to the drugs to curb population increase, are set in place, but then no one remembers to rescind them afterwards.

The title of the novel comes from a caption in a silent film watched by Bentley, who is put to recording the words of such films as no one can read the captions any more: "Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the forest". Apparently, the Northern Mockingbird does indeed live and sing at the edge of forests during their breeding season, but Tevis' intention is to say something about his theme, but I found it hard to choose between several different interpretations of the phrase. The lives which are led by Bentley, Spofforth, and Mary Lou could be said to be a mockery of those who are living normal lives in the forest, and the mockingbird a symbolic outsider; the odd relationship between Spofforth and Mary Lou, while she is pregnant, is a mockery of twentieth century city life (as well as referencing the breeding season of the bird); or it could refer to Tevis' role as a commentator on the negative sides of the human drive to increase comfort and settle for the banal in experience as safer than living on the edge.

This is the kind of novel I would point to as a counter to those who think nothing with a science fiction genre label on it can be literary, or discuss real issues. Dealing with apathy, depression, and suicide as it does, Mockingbird is hardly cheerful reading, but is definitely recommended. My rating: 9/10.