Archive for August, 2013

The Shining Girls

August 28, 2013

shining girls

Possibly the strangest pairing I witnessed at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year was Lauren Beukes and Mikhail Shishkin. Beukes is a science fiction writer from South Africa who has also written for comics; Shishkin is a writer of literature with a capital R (for Russian) which pretty much squares the seriousness with which he regards his craft (I don’t mean to imply he was aloof or sombre – he was actually very funny). It didn’t help that the two novels were linked in the programme by time travel: when it was suggested to Shishkin that his novel featured time travel he simply said, “No.” I didn’t care, having enjoyed both of the novels and keen to hear both of the writers; Shishkin is one of Russia’s most significant contemporary writers; and I had wanted to read The Shining Girls ever since I had heard the ‘pitch’ – a time travelling serial killer.

One of the major differences between genre and literary writing is highlighted in comparing the two novels: whereas Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark cannot be said to have much of a plot at all, the plot of The Shining Girls is one of its greatest achievements, existing as it does across more than one plane (Beukes used a ‘murder wall’ in order to map it). Harper, the novel’s killer, stumbles across a House in 1931 which allows him to access different years up to 1993. He uses this to kill a number of women but he does not kill them in chronological order; therefore the order of his killings is different to the order of the deaths. (This, of course, makes it very difficult to even link the murders). That he also visits his victims in their pasts before killing them adds another layer of order to events.
Beukes ability to unravel all this without confusion, and while using a series of narrative viewpoints, points to a considerable skill in the novel’s construction.

Time travel, and a sophisticated narrative, is not the only thing that makes this novel stand out from the now ubiquitous serial killer genre. Beukes is particularly successful in making each victim, even if she only takes up a few pages, an individual. Many of them feel as if they could carry a novel themselves: Zora, a black welder in the shipyards of World War Two; Alice, a trans-gender performer in the 1940s; Margot who helps in an abortion clinic in the 1970s. Many of them also fight back, making their final moments more poignant but also reminding us that they cannot be simply pigeon-holed as victims. Zora, for example:

“”She grabs his belt, pulling him down with her. He struggles to raise the knife again and she punches him so hard in the side of the head that she dislocates his jaw and breaks three of her fingers, the knuckles crunching like popped corn on the stove.”

(Notice the care Beukes takes to use a metaphor her character would think of).

One victim, Kirby, survives and attempts to track down her attacker where the police have failed. Working as an intern for a newspaper give she access to their archives, but for much of the novel it seems unlikely she will even connect the murders never mind find the killer. Despite this, the resolution is credible, a result of Harper’s own personality as much as any investigative nous. Clearly to enjoy this novel fully one must accept the House as a time portal, though I suppose it could also be seen to represent a consistent and continuing violence against women. Even if that is a little too much for you, there is still much to admire in its wonderful characterisation and construction.

The Secret Knowledge

August 19, 2013

secret knowledge

At his recent event at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Andrew Crumey pointed out that there were two types of mystery novels. In one the puzzle was like a jigsaw, satisfyingly pieced together until complete but then rather redundant; in the other the puzzle is never entirely solved and those looking for a solution will only experience frustration, as if the jigsaw had a number of pieces missing, or pieces from other jigsaws had infiltrated the box. Suffice to say that Crumey’s work is much like the latter: those coming to The Secret Knowledge expecting that secret to be unveiled by the end are in for a disappointment. Those, however, looking to be stimulated and challenged may want to open the box.

It will be no surprise to those familiar with Crumey’s work that The Secret Knowledge contains more than one narrative, and that hints of alternative realities are never far away. The novel begins romantically in 1913 with a proposal from composer Peirre Klauer to his lover Yvette shortly after he has informed her that he has recently begun a symphony (the titular Secret Knowledge), a private commission from:

“A variety of people. Dreamers and scholars; an intellectual fraternity.”

Pierre says he has one final test for her: “Wait here and when I come back our future can begin.” A few minutes later he shoots himself.

In the second narrative, David Conroy is a pianist on a downward spiral. Once tipped for greatness, he is now only rarely invited to perform and spends most of his time (when not feeling sorry for himself) teaching. Through a chance meeting (though the novel throws into question the very concept of chance) he comes into possession of Klauer’s symphony and passes it on to a new student, Paige.

Crumey (a physicist) said that the novel is not about physics, but, though music is the unifying language of the novel, a stray physicist does appear in a remark by Conroy:

“I met a physics student the other day and asked him about Schrodinger’s cat. You know, the thing that’s neither dead nor alive, but both at once. The student said, maybe we’re all inside the box.”

Of course, maybe this is a physicist in-joke –an obligatory mention of the one idea that seems to have penetrated popular consciousness. Nevertheless, we find Pierre alive and well in Glasgow in 1919; and Conroy’s wife seems to fade out of existence, not only leaving him but leaving no trace. Alternative realities are also a literary device (as is a mysterious manuscript), and Crumey takes us through an almost recognisable historical landscape featuring philosophers such as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, as the story of Klauer’s symphony between 1913 and the present unfolds. This leads to sudden immersion in philosophical discussion at times, however Crumey is careful to dramatize these discussions, for example making clear the enmity between Adorno and Hannah Arendt. (And for those wanting to explore the issues the novel raises further, they provide a handy reading list.)

Crumey is a writer to be treasured because he is a writer of ferocious ideas. Just don’t expect him to provide all the answers:

“…I want you to keep hold of the confusion, don’t try to resolve it, because I can tell you now, there won’t be an answer, there never is. Art is always inconsistent.”

All is Silence

August 11, 2013

all is silence

Sharing a stage with Ron Rash at the Edinburgh International Book Festival will be Manuel Rivas, discussing his most recent novel, All is Silence, which was published earlier this year in a translation by Jonathan Dunne. The novel focuses on life in a small coastal village in Galicia where smuggling is commonplace. It begins in the 1960s when its three main characters – Fins, Brinco and Leda – are still children. They have an early encounter with the smugglers when they discover boxes full of whiskey bottles in an abandoned school. The local crime boss, Mariscal, is clear about what he expects:

“They have mouths, and speak not. Learn that and you’ve gained half a life.”

Twenty years later little has changed but the stakes are much higher – now it is drugs rather than alcohol and cigarettes which are being smuggled. Brinco and Leda are married and work for Mariscal but Fins has joined the police and is back to break up the smuggling operation.

Rivas uses the personal relationships to highlight the silence, the ‘keeping quiet’. Though in the background Spain has gone from dictatorship to democracy, in the village nothing has changed. The distance between Fins and Brinco is emphasised by the number of occasions where we see Fins watching him, hoping to find the evidence he needs. The silence between them is now one of enmity rather than friendship. Brinco has had a lifetime of keeping quiet, beginning with the silence that surrounded Mariscal’s affair with his mother. As the police get closer, violence also erupts between the criminals after a payment goes missing.

The second half of the novel has the plot of a thriller, including a series of betrayals leading to the final page, but not the style. Generally written in short chapters, it lacks the linking narrative of most genre writing, instead insisting that the reader make the connections. Even within chapters there are elisions within the vocabulary of the story imitating the silences that separate the characters. The final confrontation between Fins and Brinco reveals that there have been secrets that neither has known about.

All is Silence is not an easy read. The characters hide behind nicknames and their relationships often have to be deciphered by the reader. Little is said of the twenty year gap – again the reader must do the work and recreate that time from hints. This only reflects the novel’s theme, however, a novel full of silences. It reads like a conversation filled with pauses where much is left unsaid. It begins with the line:

“The mouth is not for talking, it’s for keeping quiet.”

It’s no surprise it ends with Leda not telling.

Burning Bright

August 6, 2013

burning bright

One of the best things about any book festival, especially the astonishing clanjamfrie that is the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is the discovery of new authors. By this I don’t mean only those authors new to the craft, but those long-established writers you have somehow neglected up until now. Cleverly, Edinburgh frequently pairs authors in its events – not only does this appeal to the Scottish psyche (two for the price of one!) but it allows you see an author you love… and an author you might love. And so it is that my enjoyment of Manuel Rivas brings me rather strangely (but wonderfully) to Ron Rash. Rash is an American writer who already has five novels under his belt as well as a number of short story collections, and it was with one of these I started: Burning Bright, originally published in 2010 and appearing here a year later thanks to Canongate Books.

Rash is not, it must be said, the cheeriest of writers. The final sentence of the first story, ‘Hard Times’ – “He tried to imagine a place worse than he was” – might be taken as a challenge he sets himself in the rest of the collection. The story itself is brutal and unflinching. When Edna discovers eggs missing from her henhouse she suggests to a starving neighbour it might be his dog. He immediately cuts the dog’s throat and walks on saying simply, “You’ll know for sure now.”

The second story, ‘Back of Beyond’ (as you can see the titles themselves suggest the mood – the third is called ‘Dead Confederates’ and by the time we reach the fourth – ‘The Ascent’ – we’re fairly certain it will be meant ironically), tells of a pawnbroker who rescues his brother from his addict son. The only way he can do this is by sending the son away. Again the final line suggests the hopelessness of it all, referring to those addicts who come to his shop pawning whatever they can find to feed their addiction:

“If he was late opening a few minutes, or even an hour, it wouldn’t matter. Whatever time he showed up, they’d still be there.”

Addicts also feature in ‘The Ascent’ as a young boy seeks to cope with his meth-addicted parents. When he finds a diamond ring his father pawns it for drugs – but also to buy him a bike for Christmas. When he sees his parents suffering from withdrawal he offers the bike back to them:

“You can take the bike down to Bryson City and sell it.”

The image of the crashed plane where he finds the ring (see I told you it was ironic) is central to his dreams of a better life.

Generally such dreams only lead to further heartache in stories like ‘Into the Gorge’ and ‘Falling Star’. The latter is a particularly touching portrait of a man desperate to keep his marriage alive. Even when in ‘Dead Confederates’ the narrator makes some money it comes at a price:

“There’s always a price to be paid for anything you get. I wish it weren’t so…but if it’s the worst to come of all that happened I can live with it.”

Ultimately, living with it is about the best Rash’s characters can hope for. But while they are generally not to be admired, neither do they feel pitied. Rash’ writing gives eloquence to the lives of the inarticulate, the marginalised and the forgotten. Despite their often grim subject matter it is difficult to describe these stories as anything other than beautiful.