The Skeleton Road ~ Val McDermid

51FXygpW68LOne of the most horrific features of the war that raged across the lands previously know as Yugoslavia during the 1990s was the scant attention paid to it in the rest of Europe.  Yes, we were aware that something was going on, probably because our holidays to the region had had to be cancelled, but if challenged to say anything about the reasons behind the conflict or to distinguish between the warring parties most of us would have been silent.  I am still at a loss to understand quite why that was the case, but Val McDermid’s latest standalone novel, The Skeleton Road, does, perhaps, go someway towards explaining the West’s blinkered response.  As we get deeper into the back story of Dimitar Petrovic, an officer in the Croatian Army, and his partner, Professor Maggie Blake, it become clear that so much of what happened was the result of generations of bitter infighting and acts of sectarian revenge.  It brought to mind something that I once heard said about the Northern Ireland conflict: if you think you understand what is going on in Northern Ireland then you don’t understand what is going on in Northern Ireland.  I suspect the same is true of what was happening in Eastern Europe at that time.  You had to be part of it and to have the cultural memory of the region to have any hope of even following, let alone understanding, what was going on.

However, McDermid’s story doesn’t begin on the streets of Dubrovnik but on the roof of a derelict Edinburgh building where, tucked away out of sight, a skeleton is found: a skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull.  The investigation falls to DCI Karen Pirie, head of a Cold Crimes Unit, along with well-meaning but rather less well intellectually endowed, DC Jason Murray, predictably known as the Mint. Their enquiries lead them to Oxford and to the College set of Professor Maggie Blake, a lecturer in Geopolitics, where they hear for the first time the story of General Petrovic, the lover that Maggie thought had left her eight years previously to return to his Balkan roots.

Gradually, both women piece together the story of what has happened to Petrovic and why; Karen because it is her job and Maggie because she is now faced with the knowledge that there are things in her partner’s past about which she has had little, if any, understanding. As it becomes clear that the reason for the murder must lie somewhere in the maelstrom of the earlier conflict, the two women journey to the small village that was Dimitar’s childhood home and come face to face with what it means to be caught up in the centuries of revenge killings that mock the very concept of civilisation.

I normally very much enjoy McDermid’s standalone novels and certainly this one begins with real promise.  However, the further in I got the more I started to feel as if what I was reading was a draft that still needed working on.  To begin with, there are simply too many strands to the narrative.  As well as those associated with Pirie and Blake there is also the Professor’s written account of her earlier time in Dubrovnik and a further story attached to two members of the war crimes tribunal who are tasked with finding out who is killing people about to be indicted before they can be brought to justice.  This fourth strand never really gets integrated into the rest of the story and just adds characters and plot lines that confuse rather than elucidate the main thrust of the tale.  It is redundant and what information it does contribute could have been included far more economically elsewhere.

This would then have given more narrative space to developing the main characters and their relationships, especially DCI Pirie.  Karen Pirie has potential.  She is a likeable character, her work is interesting and could easily have been developed into a series and the relationship between her and the Mint has the capacity to grow into one of fiction’s great investigative partnerships.  But we simply don’t get enough page time with her and in what we are allowed narrative threads are started which then come to nothing.  For example, the animosities between her and her immediate superior which ends one chapter on a very obvious cliffhanger is subsequently ignored.  Why is it there?

Ultimately, I was left with the feeling that Pirie was little more than a means of allowing McDermid to make a point about the capacity that all humans have within them to respond viscerally at times of crisis.  And it’s a fair point but in the end the way in which it is given voice left me unsatisfied and feeling that this is not one of McDermid’s best crafted novels and has perhaps been rushed out before it was really ready.

The Devil in the Marshalsea ~ Antonia Hodgson

TDitMarshalseaLittle Dorrit has always been amongst my favourite Dickens’ novels and so I approached Antonia Hodgson’s first novel, The Devil in the Marshalsea, with a mixture of caution and anticipation.  I didn’t want to read anything that would detract from my vision of London’s notorious debtors’ prison but equally I was looking forward to revisiting its precincts.

In fact, Hodgson’s Marshalsea is a very different place from that which Dickens describes, both in real life and fictionally.  Her novel is set in the Autumn of 1727, almost a hundred years before the 1820s’ setting given to Little Dorrit.  The prison that she describes, although still located on Borough High Street, was not on the same site and the conditions in which the prisoners were kept were very much harsher.  This latter fact is all the more apparent if you come to this novel after reading Dickens’ work and one of the things that I very soon began to realise as I read what is an excellent piece of historical crime fiction, was just how much I had romanticised the existence that those imprisoned in this goal were forced to endure.  Mr Dorrit may lack his freedom and his self-respect but he does not spend each day worrying about whether or not it will be his last and, if he is to die, what horrible torments will precede his final moments.

The same is not true for Hodgson’s protagonist, Tom Hawkins, a young man whose family has destined him for the cloth but whose own plans for advancement are somewhat different.  Confined to the Marshalsea after he has been robbed of the money that would have paid off his debts and allowed him to start over, Tom finds himself lodged with the notorious Samuel Fleet, in a berth previously occupied by one Captain Roberts, a prisoner who officially is said to have committed suicide but whom many are certain was murdered – possibly by the infamous Fleet himself.

Roberts’ death has left a sense of unease in the Marshalsea, all the more noticeable because daily so many other deaths go unremarked.  His widow still haunts the prison in the hope that someone will help her to prove that her husband was not a suicide and thus enable her to regain custody of their son who has been taken from her by her family.  And, those who have power within and over the controlling prison regime are anxious to have it shown that they had nothing to do with a deliberate killing, despite the fact that they are responsible for the conditions and punishments that regularly bring about the deaths of so many others.  So, Tom Hawkins is offered a flickering light in the darkness of his despair.  If he can find out who did kill Captain Roberts his debts will be paid and he can go free.  But, is it possible for him to make such a discovery on his own and in the few days that he is allowed for his inquiries?  If he does ask for help then whom can he trust in a society where personal gain is always going to trump communal needs?  Loyalty, as he soon discovers, lodges in unexpected places and those on whose support he ought to be able to depend can prove less than steadfast.

In recounting Tom’s story Hodgson shows that she can weave a really convincing plot, including catching the reader out at the last moment, without ever once stretching the bounds of credulity.  She held me in the grip of her story telling and carried me relentlessly along with her narrative drive.  However, the real strength of this book lies in the author’s ability to recreate the horrors of the world in which Tom finds himself confined and I for one will never see the Marshalsea in quite the same way again.  The evils that were perpetrated on men, women and children who, in many instances through nothing more than ill-fortune, found themselves incarcerated in conditions that were worse than in-human are nothing short of demonic.  And, once individuals found themselves imprisoned in this den of iniquity they were very unlikely to ever make their way out.  The cost of living in the Marshalsea was far higher than it was outside the prison walls, the rents and prices paid for food going, for the most part, straight into the pockets of the governor and his trustees.  Rather than being able to pay their debts off the prisoners were more likely to find them growing exponentially.  It would seem that the basic strategies employed today by pay-day loan companies are nothing new at all.

The Devil in the Marshalsea is as good a first novel as I’ve read in a long time and I am very grateful to Hodder for having sent me a copy for review.  I understand that there is a sequel in hand and I am now looking forward to what I hope will be a continuing sequence of stories from a time in England’s history that has not always been as well served by historical fiction as it might have been.

The Short Story Project ~ The Prologue

Image 1First and foremost, I have to say a very real thank you to those who commented on my last post and were so enthusiastic about the idea of the Short Story Project. I have been giving it a lot of thought over the intervening few days and I hope that I will be ready to start by the end of the week.

Many of the comments you made were really useful in helping me to formulate my ideas in greater detail. For instance, my list of possible variables grew exponentially.  I can now see that at some point I shall have to consider such differences as nationality, gender and possibly sexuality of the author, the date when the story was written and the genre of which it is an example, whether it was written in English or if I am reading a translation and the length of the text.

However, initially, I’m not going to take any of those factors into account for two reasons.  First, until I’ve got some specific results there is no point in trying to generalise out.  To start with, I simply need to begin to explore some stories and gradually build up a data set.  I can’t begin to look for patterns until I have enough material for patterns to become apparent.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I have to see whether or not the method of analysis I use for complete stories will prove equally as effective a tool when applied to fragments of stories.  There can’t be anything instinctive about this. My results have to be replicable by anyone else carrying out the same process.  I have to be able to cite grammatical evidence for my decisions.  In one sense, then, it doesn’t matter where I start because if my methodology isn’t generally applicable it isn’t going to be any use.

So, following up Ian’s advice about checking out the various Penguin and Oxford anthologies I’ve ordered a copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by A S Byatt on the grounds that at least I can trust her to have selected stories that will be worth reading.  In fact, looking at the Table of Content I can see that this will give me works from a wide range of dates and, eventually, from authors of both genders, but as I say, initially that isn’t going to be important.  As soon as that arrives I can get down to work.

In the meantime, I am trying to master the art of keeping a spreadsheet on my computer.  If you should see any smoke rising into the skies from the general direction of the English West Midlands then you will know what it is!

What Do We Mean By ‘Story’?

imagesRecently, over on Tales from the Reading Room, Litlove reviewed a short story collection by Tom Barbash.  As usual, I commented on my inability to engage with the short story form, even though I frequently used to include examples in my teaching.  In reply, Litlove asked me whether I enjoyed fairy tales, because were they not a form of short story, and I had to admit that I did, if only because I have frequently used them as material for analysis in my research work on narrative organisation.  However, something must have made me uneasy about this, something that then lodged in the back of my mind and which my few remaining little grey cells have been worritting away at ever since, until my concerns finally coalesced while I was out walking this morning.  I enjoy and have worked with fairy tales because they really are short stories whereas so many texts that are called short stories actually are not.

The fairy tale is, quite simply, a story that is short.  But, short or no, for the most part, it is a complete story.  To put it bluntly (although I would slaughter any student who chose to be quite so blunt) it has a beginning, it has a middle and it has an end.  Or, to be a little more precise, it follows the canonical pattern of exposition, inciting moment, igniting moment, development, climax, dénouement and conclusion.

Let’s take as an example that well known short story, The Three Little Pigs. The exposition introduces us to the main characters and the salient facts about their current life style (i.e like so many grown up sons and daughters they are still living at home with their mother).  But, these pigs are about to strike out for independence and so at inciting moment they all go out into the world to build their own individual houses.  Yea for the pigs!

Now, at this point the story could go off in all sorts of different directions.  It could turn out to be a tale of sibling rivalry as each of the pigs tries to outdo the other two in terms of building the biggest and best house.  It could have a developmental aspect to it as, having built their new homes, the pigs then decide to launch out into the business world and give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘bringing home the bacon’.  What this plot line needs is an igniting moment to point readers in the right direction so that they can find their way safely through the fairy tale forest to the end of the story.  And so, along comes Mr Wolf and in the space of a huff and a puff our tale becomes one of survival against the evils of the outside world.

So, through the development section we watch as pig after pig finds his house destroyed by the evil machinations of Mr Big Bad.  (Please, no comments about the way in which the figure of the wolf is wickedly maligned and that really they are all nice, kind animals who live a quiet family life and wouldn’t so much as hurt a fly.  This one isn’t after flies.  He’s after roast pig and he’s the baddie.  OK?)  Finally, however, the pattern is broken and at climax pig number three, bravely sheltering her (check out the gender correct version in the Storychest reading scheme) two brothers manages to build a house that defeats the evil intentions of the wicked wolf and we are left to follow the dénouement with bated breath as the villain of the piece tries to climb down the chimney only to fall head first into the pot and become the chief ingredient in the siblings’ housewarming party.  As I said before – Yea for the pigs!

And those three intrepid house builders then get the reward that they deserve because the conclusion of the story, the point at which we move out of the event line and let the protagonists sink back into a settled and tranquil life, is the one that we all know so well – And they all lived happily ever after.  The Three Little Pigs may be short but it is a fully structured story.

However, my suspicion is (and it can be no more than a suspicion because I haven’t done the necessary research) that most so called short stories are actually nothing of the sort.  Rather they are parts of stories and we, as readers, are left to construct the elements that are missing.  Not that I’m suggesting that there’s anything wrong or indeed unusual about that.  I’ve done a lot of work with children on single frame cartoons which normally offer you either the climax or the dénouement of the story and you only understand what is funny or pointed about them because you are able to reconstruct the rest of the narrative from prior knowledge either of a specific situation or a well rehearsed trope.  I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of seeing a political cartoon in the daily press and being completely unable to interpret it because we haven’t been following the particular news item to which it is related.

Perhaps this points to one reason that so many of us have a problem with the short story as a form; it demands so much more of us as readers than does the full-blown narrative.  It can also be much more tantalising, especially if the dénouement and/or conclusion is missing.  Some of us like our stories nicely rounded off.  We may not demand the happy ever after, but we do like to know what happened in the end.

Of course, this is the point at which I should analyse half a dozen so called short stories just to show that they are not – stories, that is.  But, as I’ve said, I’m not in a position to do that – yet.  Because if there is one thing that might galvanise me into action and finally get me reading short stories then it is the possibility of being able to analyse them to see what actually is happening in an organisational sense.  Sad person that I am, I love grammatical analysis at whatever the level of hierarchy might be appropriate.

So, I am announcing The Short Story Project, in which I undertake to read one short story a week and do my best to analyse its narrative structure in order to see if my theory holds water.  The first thing I need to do is get hold of a good anthology because single authored collections are not going to work for this.  I need a range of stories by different writers and if possible from different nationalities and various time periods. I can go and have a good mooch round the library and local bookshops but if any of you have suggestions then they would be most welcome.  As the results, whatever they might be, become apparent I can report back on them here.  If I can keep it going for a year then I should have enough material to offer at least some tentative conclusions and maybe eventually even come up with enough evidence to support a move to rename the genre altogether!

Stoner ~ John Williams

9780670671243I’m really not very good at climbing on bandwagons, especially where books that are being hyped in the media are concerned. This is a character trait I noticed first when Watership Down was the must read title one summer back in the early seventies.  I wasn’t going to succumb to public opinion and read a novel about rabbits (for goodness sake) even though I was blithely prepared to say good morning to the numerous representatives of the species that I passed every day on my early morning cycle rides into Stratford.  Eventually, of course, I gave into the pressure and finally realised what all the song and dance was about, months after everyone else had had the pleasure of Richard Adam’s insightful commentary on both extremes of human society.

You would have thought, then,  that I would have learnt my lesson.  If that many people are singing the praises of a particular novel it is just possible that it may have something to recommend it.  Nevertheless, despite all the publicity, despite the fact that every time I’ve walked into Staff House at the University for the past year I have seen someone reading it, it has taken the appearance of John William’s Stoner on one of my book group lists to get me to pick up a copy and to discover what a really wonderful book it is.

I could sing the praises of this book in so many ways.  I could tell you about how beautifully it is written.  There is nothing spectacular about the writing, nothing intensely lyrical or poetic, but every word is placed with care and precision and there is a rhythm about it that echoes the rhythm of the life of the novel’s central character, University English Professor, William Stoner. For the most part this is a steady beat reflective of what some have seen as a dull and even a sad life, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments that elicit in the reader real emotion, most often in my case anger at the way in which other people take advantage of a man who never really comes to understand the lengths to which some individuals will go to get what they want, regardless of the damage that may be done to others in the process.

I could tell you about the accuracy of the portrait it paints of life in the University sector.  For example, even though many things have changed in the years between the early part of the twentieth century depicted here and the present day, I’m afraid that the departmental in-fighting still goes on.  I have met Holly Lomax, the Professor who is determined to get his own way about a student who everyone else can see is struggling, insisting that he be allowed to continue even though eventually not only will the student be damaged by the experience but so too will any others he comes into contact with.  I have actually worked with Holly Lomax.  There have been the occasional days when I have specifically wanted to strangle Holly Lomax – for the ultimate good of the student, the department, the University, the world.  Like Stoner, I have resisted.

But what I actually want to tell you about in praise of this novel is what Williams has to say about the joy of being a teacher, because for me this is the ultimate truth and the heartbeat at the very core of this book. From the moment when his mentor, Sloane, asks Stoner

‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.’

Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded.  Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, ‘Are you sure?’

‘I’m sure,’ Sloane said softly.

‘How can you tell? How can you be sure?’

‘It’s love, Mr Stoner,’ Sloane said cheerfully. ‘You are in love. It’s as simple as that.’

to the point of his retirement dinner where after a couple of false starts Stoner finally says

I have taught at this University for nearly forty years.  I do not know what I would have done if I had not been a teacher.  If I had not taught, I might have – ‘ He paused, as if distracted.  Then he said, with a finality, ‘I want to thank you all for letting me teach.’

Stoner is, quite simply, a teacher.  He is defined by his job, and by the way in which he does his job, he defines what it should mean to teach.

I wish I had read this book by the time I retired, I would have plagiarised that final speech unmercifully.  But I suppose that would have been to suggest that I was something like as good a teacher as Stoner is.  That would be difficult.

Interestingly some of the things that show him at his best are times when Williams tells us that he upsets various students.  The most obvious of these is the case of Holly Lomax’s protégé, Charles Walker, who Stoner refuses (rightly) to pass through his oral examination as part of his progress towards a doctoral qualification.

‘God damn it,’ Lomax shouted. ‘Do you realise what you’re doing, Stoner?  Do you realise what you’re doing to the boy?’

‘Yes,’ Stoner said quietly, ‘and I’m sorry for him.  I am preventing him from getting his degree, and I am preventing him from teaching in a college or university.  Which is precisely what I want to do.  For him to be a teacher would be a – disaster.’

Sometimes your job as a teacher is to prevent your students from following a path that would damage not only them but also many generations of other students.  It is never easy, but if you really are a teacher you have to do it.  Just occasionally, I had to take the same decision in respect of students who wanted to be primary teachers.   It hurt, but the thousand children they could well have encountered in a forty year teaching career had to come first.  The thought of Charles Walker being allowed to stand in front of a class of undergraduates frightened me so much I couldn’t read on for a time.

Less immediately apparent to the non-professional eye may be the moment when Stoner reflects on the way his teaching style unsettles some of his students.  He gets so caught by his enthusiasm that he stutter[s], gesticulate[s], and boldly, proudly displays the love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words.  Many of his students respond to this with renewed efforts of their own, showing hints of imagination and the revelation of tentative love.  However, there are also those who had been able theretofore to plod through his courses by the repetition of mechanical steps who begin to look at him with puzzlement and resentment.

Teaching is not about rote learning, it is about enthusiasm and inspiration, but there will always be some students and a great many people in power who will be frightened of the freedom of thought that not only allows but actually encourages.  A good teacher wouldn’t have it any other way.

As you will have noticed, I have now climbed on one of my soapboxes.  It is time to get off and to say simply that I wish I hadn’t waited as long as I did to read this book and to urge those of you who may not have yet done so to get hold of a copy as soon as you possibly can.

Abattoir Blues ~ Peter Robinson

51lKGyzeImL._1I came rather late to the Peter Robinson party, which I think was probably something of an advantage.  Having gone back and read the earlier books it’s very clear that as his DCI Banks novels have progressed he has made great strides in both his characterisation and his plotting, so much so that Stephen King’s puff on the back of his latest,  Abattoir Blues, claiming that the series is the best…on the market, doesn’t seem substantially overblown.

Set, as most of the novels are, in the Yorkshire Dales, this latest instalment sees Banks and his Inspector, Annie Cabot, in pursuit of a gang of thieves involved in a rather more sophisticated form of rustling than that which we associate with farming tales of earlier years. While animals are vanishing, the more substantial items on the missing list are farm vehicles valued in at least five figures, which are being whisked off to destinations in Eastern Europe.  The latest of these is a tractor belonging to incomer John Beddoes and shall we say that he is not best pleased.

When Michael Lane, the son of a nearby farmer, goes missing it is inevitable that he becomes a prime suspect in the robbery, especially as there is a history of bad blood between him and Beddoes.  However, the discovery in a deserted building of evidence that points to a murder, alongside indications of some sort of large machinery having been stored there, raises questions as to whether or not Lane has been involved in much more than theft and despite the protestations of his girl friend that he would not have been associated with anything illegal, an all out manhunt begins.

Like a good number of crime novels at the moment, one of the questions this book raises is whether or not there are people involved in illegality who are so high up in the echelons of society as to be untouchable by the law.  There are certainly a good many who think that is the case and I’ve read several novels this year that take the line that this is now how the world works.  I won’t spoil the conclusion of this particular story for you, but simply say that it was more satisfactory than certain others, some of which have left me spitting feathers and despairing of a justice system seen as hidebound by the greed of people in power.

One characteristic of Robinson’s novels that I really appreciate is that he offers me a complete experience with each book.  While there is the on-going story of Alan Banks’ private life and the slow development of the characters that surround him, the core of each narrative is the specific crime that he and his team have been called upon to investigate and there is rarely any sense of being left in limbo having to wait a year for the next book to see how a particular storyline is going to play out.  I can’t say that it doesn’t ever happen – I’ve just remembered being left uncertain as to whether or not Annie Cabot would recover from a shooting incident – but it is rare.  It isn’t that I think a secondary on-going crime narrative can’t be made to work, but if it takes over from the primary case without being resolved then the novel becomes unbalanced.  It takes a really good writer to bring it off.*   There is no such problem with Robinson, although, ironically, perhaps he has the skills to make it work.

So, while I will have to wait a year to see if Winsome’s love story is going to have a happy ending (I do hope so!) I do know what happened to John Beddoes’ tractor, have discovered whether or not Michael Lane lived up to his girlfriend’s confidence in him and have seen at least some of the baddies get the comeuppance they deserved.  All in all a satisfactory couple of days reading.

*The best example I’ve come across recently has been Jane Casey in The Kill in which she brings her on-going story to the fore and makes it the central crime, thus eliminating any possible narrative conflict.

Summer School Book Three: The Lieutenant ~ Kate Grenville

The-LieutenantThe Lieutenant is the middle book in Kate Grenville’s trilogy about the foundation of colonial Australia.  Unlike the two books on either side of it, which follow the fortunes of the Thornhill family in the early years of the nineteenth century, this novel is set in the late seventeen hundreds and is based on the true life story of William Dawes, who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788.

Like Dawes, Grenville’s Daniel Rooke is a marine who has been assigned to this expedition on the strength of his abilities as an astronomer. Tasked with recording the expected reappearance of an historical  comet, Rooke is allowed to build himself an isolated hut to act as an observatory. This suits him very well as from childhood he has been something of a loner and he is ill at ease in the company of men who seem to take a delight in casual violence.  His isolation also means that he is able to begin to build a meaningful relationship with the Cadigal people, the original inhabitants of the Botany Bay area, and gradually to explore their language.

Given my background, inevitably it was the discussion of language that first attracted me to this novel when it was published in 2007. Using only the notes that Dawes made in his original journals, Grenville gradually strips away all the perceptions that we might have about how you learn to communicate with those who don’t speak your tongue: from the debunking of our common British strategy

the boy shouting at Rooke as though he would understand words said loudly enough

to Daniel’s more understandable attempts to systematically collect vocabulary and syntax.

[L]anguage was more than a list of words, more than a collection of fragments all jumbled together like a box of nuts and bolts. Language was a machine.  To make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts.

But learning someone’s language is far more than decoding the grammar and the lexis.

You [do] not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who speak it with you

and when Rooke strikes up a friendship with Tagaran, a Cadigal teenager, he begins to realise that to understand a language you have to also develop an understanding of the people themselves and of their culture.

What had passed between Tagaran and himself had gone far beyond vocabulary and grammatical forms.  It was at the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.

I was fascinated by how difficult some of the group found it to grasp this idea. After all, I’m the grammarian, the one who for years has made a study of the way the bits go together.  Perhaps it is because we are all of a certain age and were all taught languages in a very systematic way?  I don’t know.  I’m actually going to be discussing this book with a similar group later in the year and it will be interesting to see if there is the same reaction.

Other areas of discussion brought more unanimity, however.  Inevitably, Rooke’s friendship with the Cadigal comes into conflict with his duties as an officer in the marines.  As in The Last Runaway, the main character is forced to question whether or not he should stand by what he knows to be right or follow the path laid down by the community to which he belongs.  In Rooke’s case, this means deliberately disobeying an order and then having to take the consequences, which could extend as far as public execution.  We talked particularly about how he tries to find a way around his difficulties by telling himself that it will be all right to take part in the expedition to capture six of the Aboriginals because they will be too astute to be taken.  As Rooke himself eventually recognises, this is only playing with the truth and he has allowed self-interest to blind him.

If an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not, or how many clever steps you took to make sure it failed.  If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong.

Immigration was also raised again.  In this instance it came about through our discussion of Grenville’s involvement in the Reconciliation Walk when the people of Australia acknowledged the wrongs that have been done to the Aboriginals over the last two centuries.  Several members of the group had relatives who had emigrated to Australia and made it their homes, some two or three generations ago.  They echoed Grenville’s own words in respect of how those relatives feel:

[a]s “native-born” Australians, we’ve got nowhere else to call home.  If we don’t belong here, we don’t belong anywhere.

Grenville is in the same position as Mrs Reed in The Last Runaway.  As a fifth generation Australian she has lost her ties with the country from which her ancestors came.  The difference, of course, is that it is her own conscience that is suggesting that she has no right to be there rather than the voices of other immigrants insisting that she leave the country to them.  In the Chevalier novel the plight of the American Indians isn’t really up for discussion.

Finally, we felt we had to turn our attention to the way in which violence is justified by those who want power and can find no legitimate way of gaining it.  When Rooke goes on the expedition to capture six of the Cadigal people he discovers that he hasn’t been told the full story.  If six Aboriginals cannot be captured alive then they are to be slain and their heads brought back to the camp.

‘The heads, Rooke, were to be brought back in the bags provided.  Having been severed with the hatchet provided.  The governor’s argument was that it was necessary to act harshly once, in order not to have to act harshly again.  The punishment inflicted on a few would be an act of mercy to all the others.’

Just two days after the news broke of the murder of James Foley there was no way we could avoid acknowledging that our own history doesn’t bear close examination in this respect.  There is always an excuse, always a ‘good’ reason for acting in such an inhuman way, but no excuse, no reason can hide the fact that such behaviour is an act of barbarism, wherever and whenever it takes place.

This wasn’t, perhaps, the happiest note on which to end our Summer School but it did reflect the depth of thought that had gone on and the wide range of topics that we found ourselves engaged with.

Summer School Book Two: The Last Runaway ~ Tracy Chevalier

imagesIf I’m honest, I have to say that this was the book that I was least looking forward to reading.  I have had a very mixed history with Tracy Chevalier’s work: some I have loved and others I have been really disappointed by.  However, I had had a specific request to include this in the initial list of fifteen and when it turned up in the final three I had to sit back and go along with the majority vote.  Reading The Last Runaway reminded me of one of the things that I find difficult about this author’s work: she is very direct in her message and that lack of subtlety can often lead to her over simplifying the issues that she is addressing.  I thought that was particularly the case in the way she dealt with the suffragette movement in Falling Angels.  Here, however, perhaps because the topics she was covering were less immediately relevant to me, I was aware of this trait without being particularly annoyed by it and consequently ended up enjoying the book much more than I had expected.

The main thrust of the story, which is set in 1850, is to do with a Quaker woman, Honor Bright, who has left England with her sister Grace to live in a small Quaker community in Ohio.  Here Grace is to be married to Adam Cox, an acquaintance who has made the move earlier to be with his brother, already established in the township. However, Grace dies before reaching their destination and Honor is left alone in a country she doesn’t know, with people who are not particularly pleased to see her.

Once there it is difficult for Honor to avoid knowledge of the activities of the Underground Railway, the system set up to help those slaves escaping from the southern plantations to reach safety by crossing the border with Canada. Received wisdom tells us that in many instances it was the Quakers who were instrumental in setting up and maintaining the lines of communication that allowed these people passage through a state which, despite being officially free, was still bound by the federal law forbidding individuals from helping runaways.  What Chevalier does, however, is question whether that was always the case and what happens when abstract religious principles, which dictate a specific course of action, run up against the reality of every day living.  As Honor muses,

[p]erhaps principles were not as strong a motivation as the reality of losing money and land.

Honor, having married into a local farming family, finds herself in conflict with their policy of non-involvement.  Already dismayed by the separate benches for black members in Quaker Meeting Houses, when she discovers runaways hiding in close proximity to the farm she does what she can to help them despite strict instructions to the contrary from her formidable mother-in-law.  Honor is horrified by the family’s refusal to help but, as we discover, the Haymaker family have previously paid a very heavy price for assisting runaways and their decisions are being made in a frame of reference that Honor cannot even begin to understand.

This led to an interesting discussion about how easy it is to advocate a set of rigid principles when you are unlikely to be called upon to enact them in your every day life.  Being a Quaker has posed no problems for Honor in her family home of Dorset because it has asked nothing substantial of her.  What she realises when she finds herself in a very different environment is that if

an abstract principle [becomes] entangled with daily life it [loses] its clarity and [becomes] compromised and weakened.

It would be very easy to condemn the Haymakers for their attitude towards the runaways and their refusal to live up to the religious principles they avow, but we have not lost a father and a home to the actions of evil-minded bigots.  None of us can know how we would act in a similar situation because we have never found ourselves walking in the Haymakers’ shoes.  Yes, we would all like to think that we would do as Honor does and continue to find ways of assisting those trying to make it to Lake Erie, but we cannot know if that is how we would behave until we have been tried.

The other aspect of the book that raised some discussion was the subject of colonisation.

‘Even in Oberlin [the negroes] are a separate community, and those who have run away are not entirely safe.  That is why we support colonisation.  It seems a better option.’

‘What is colonisation?’

‘Negroes come originally from Africa, and they would be happier living back there, in a new country of their own.’

For some of us this gave pause for thought because it is too close to opinions we hear expressed on the streets of our own cities today.  And Mrs Reed, a runaway who has settled in Oberlin, has the obvious answer,

‘Why would I want to go to Africa?  I was born in Virginia.  So was my parents and my grandparents and their parents.  I’m American.  I don’t hold with sending us all off to a place most of us never seen.  If white folks jes’ want to get rid of us, pack us off on ships so they don’t have to deal with us, well I’m here.  This is my home, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’

The Last Runaway proved to be a reminder to us all that there are rarely easy answers to issues where the people involved perceive their livelihood and welfare as being threatened and that when any one of us finds ourselves in such a position the principles we thought we so firmly held are likely to be tested.  It may be set in the Ohio of 1850, but the themes it deals with are very pertinent in Britain today.

Summer School Book One: The Tenderness of Wolves ~ Stef Penney

51gTxN+G1cLThe first book that we read for this year’s Summer School was Stef Penney’s Costa winning novel, The Tenderness of Wolves.  For me, this was actually a third read and it says a lot for the strength of the book that I was still able to enjoy it and find new things to think about despite already knowing the text very well.

For anyone who hasn’t read the novel it is set in the Hudson Bay area of Canada in 1867 and tells the story of the search for Francis Ross, a seventeen year old who may or may not have been involved in the murder of a French trapper, Laurent Jammet.  Several parties are involved in the search:  the Hudson Bay Company sends its representatives, his mother sets out with the help of William Parker, an Indian tracker and Thomas Sturrock, a retired journalist, who is actually more interested in a bone tablet that he had hoped to persuade Jammet to sell to him, shows an interest as well.

Inevitably, there was discussion of how well Penney had depicted the harsh Canadian winter landscape, given that she had never visited the country, but most of our conversation focused on the linked issues of characters coming to know themselves better and the wider question of how our perceptions dictate the way in which we react to the world around us and the people in it.

The first time I read this novel I was struck by the images of someone’s vision coming into focus.  The most literal of these surfaces early on in relation to Donald Moody, a naive young man who has made the journey from Scotland to join the Hudson Bay Company.

Shortly after he emerged from the bright fog of childhood, Donald had to acknowledge that he had difficulty seeing objects at any distance…he stopped hailing people…as he had no idea who they were.  He developed a reputation for coldness.  He confided his unease to his mother and was provided with a pair of uncomfortable wire-framed spectacles.  This was the first miracle of his life – the way the spectacles brought him back to the world.

There are, however, much more subtle explorations of the notion that our understanding of and relationship to the people and the world around us is dependent on the way in which we see.  Mrs Ross ponders on this in respect of the landscape that surrounds their small settlement.

Sometimes you find yourselves looking at the forest in a different way. Sometimes it’s no more than the trees that provide houses and warmth, and hide the earth’s nakedness, and you’re glad of it.  And then sometimes, like tonight, it is a vast dark presence that you can never see the end of; it might, for all you know, have not just length and breadth to lose yourself in, but also immeasurable depth, or something else altogether.

And then she expands on that thought to include her husband.

And sometimes you find yourself looking at your husband and wondering: is he the straightforward man you think you know – provider, friend, teller of poor jokes that nonetheless make you smile – or does he too have depths that you have never seen?  What might he not be capable of?

One of the questions that haunts the more thoughtful characters in this novel is how well they may or may not know the people around them, especially those that society has told then they should or should not be able to put their faith in.  Two members of our group have had experience of living in countries colonised under British rule and they were shocked by what they learnt of the underhand dealings of the Government backed institutions in Canada.  As they said, they had been brought up to think that such ventures as the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Company were the basis on which good governance was built and while they were aware of the damage done on the Indian subcontinent by the powers-that-be they had still retained their belief in the Canadian fur trading enterprise.

In the wilderness that Mrs Ross and Donald find themselves traversing they have to put their faith in the very people they have been taught to suspect, the native Canadian Indians.  Parker and Jacob see the land in a completely different way to that of the incomers.  Comparing his understanding of the wilderness which has come to him via the written word to the way in which Jacob comprehends the world he has grown up in

Donald has a suspicion that the book-learnt knowledge he imparts to Jacob is not really his to give; he just happens to know how to tap into it, whereas when Jacob tells him something, he seems to own it entirely, as if it comes from inside himself.

The question of the importance society attaches to the written word is one that is raised in this novel but not thoroughly explored.  I was sorry about that because I think it is an interesting aspect of the manner in which we in the West judge indigenous peoples.  We have come to value the ability to record our thoughts and actions through the written word to such an extent that we question the sophistication of those groups who have not seen the need to develop such a system.  As someone said, one of the first reasons for developing writing was to make sure that the people you were trading with weren’t swindling you.  Perhaps, where there is more trust there is no need to develop such a fail-safe.

Our discussion ranged over many other areas.  I will just raise one.  As well as winning the Costa Award, The Tenderness of Wolves was also named Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year.  Several of us (crime fiction readers all) questioned whether or not that was appropriate.  Yes, the book begins with a murder and the action is driven by a quest to discover ‘whodunit’, but does that automatically make  it a crime novel?  I’m not certain where I stand on this.  I don’t find the crime the important part of the book.  I am much more concerned with the journeys of self-discovery that many of the characters are making.  On the other hand, I don’t want to imply that crime fiction isn’t capable of exploring issues of great social and ethical import.  Indeed, at its best, crime fiction is a prime literary means of exposing the problems of society to public view.  I’m going to have to do some more thinking about this and perhaps come back to it in a later post.  In the meantime, what do you think about the question?

Will Someone Please Do My Ironing?

ImageThere are two things which never cease to amaze me about Summer School.  The first is that something which is so invigorating and energising while it is happening can leave me so completely exhausted once it is over.  I love the opportunity to get together with a group of friends to do nothing more than talk about books. (Well, we drink tea and eat a lot of biscuits as well, but the impulse to indulge in that sort of behaviour is built into the DNA of the printed word, isn’t it and so doesn’t count.) I never want to stop when our allotted time is up and fortunately neither does anyone else; we often overrun by nearly as much again.  But, once it is over, I find I need to spend the next twenty-four hours doing absolutely nothing just to recoup all the energy I have spent when I thought what I was doing was replenishing it.  I suspect that what I have been replenishing is the energy of the soul.  Unfortunately, what I need right now is the energy to tackle the mountain of ironing which this morning seems to be even higher than the dreaded tbr mountain.  So, if there is anyone offering out there, you are more than welcome to call round!

The second thing, and it’s one which happens every year, is the way in which the books chosen purely on the strength of having loosely connected themes suddenly start to talk to each other in ways that we might never have expected.  By the end of the week we are talking as much about the books that have gone before as we are about the last book on the list and this year branching out into what the novels have to say about current events as well. I am going to put up posts about each of the titles and reflect a little on the nature of the discussion that went on but I thought today that I would just give you a hint of the type of topics that we found ourselves talking about.

The three books we read, under the overall heading of Breaking New Ground, were Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway and Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant.  Of course, we talked about the individual themes of each of the novels and the merits of the books as literature, but there were also specific themes that kept cropping up.

For example, we repeatedly found ourselves discussing the way in which how we see a situation colours our experience of it and how we see an individual dictates our relationship to them.  Coupled with this was the question of how we actually look.  So, if we don’t look carefully enough at something, if we see it only partially, or out of focus, then we are going to misinterpret what we see and find ourselves in trouble because we have misjudged our position.

Another theme that was common across all three titles was that of the conflict between the rule and an individual’s conscience.  Sometimes this surfaced as one of the character’s having to decide whether or not to obey orders laid down by a secular institution he or she was beginning to question. Sometimes it was the more personal dilemma of whether or not to remain true to the religious principles that had previously been the backbone of your existence.

The immigrant experience is, of course, common to all three novels, but a question we perhaps hadn’t expected ourselves to be discussing was brought up in two of the books; namely what happens when one group of immigrants is made to feel unwelcome, especially when we are talking about people who are fourth or fifth generation.  Trying to pretend that the ‘go back where you came from’ lobby isn’t every bit as vocal today as it was in the times when these books are set is to imitate the proverbial ostrich.  As is trying to duck the question of the use of extreme violence to convince your enemies to capitulate.  Discussing various scenes in The Lieutenant two days after the news of James Foley’s beheading wasn’t easy.

So, all in all, a very thought provoking week and one that I hope to give you a flavour of over the next few posts.  I hope you will feel able to comment on them and that by doing so we can widen the participation of the Summer School and extend the discussion even further.