Review: Restless

William Boyd’s Restless won the Costa Novel Award in 2006, and when I found a copy in our small library in Sicily (it had probably been left by a guest), I decided I had to read it.  The reviews on the cover were effusive in their praise.  For example, The Times was quoted on the front cover as saying: “Boyd is a first-rate storyteller and this is a first-rate story . . . An utterly absorbing page-turner.”

The setting of the novel is the early years of World War II, when Britain and Russia were fighting against Nazi Germany alone, and the US had not entered the war.  The central female characters are Eva Delectorskaya and her daughter, Ruth.  The chapters alternate between Ruth telling her side of the story, in the first person, from 1947 onwards, and Eva’s story being told in the third person from 1935 until 1941.  Ruth does not know her mother as Eva; she knows her as Sally Gilmartin, née Fairchild.  She also didn’t know that her mother was half Russian, half English, and was living in Paris, age 28, when the war broke out in 1939.  The principal male character is Lucas Romer, who recruits Eva into a special branch of the British Secret Service.  Eva is beautiful and fluent in Russian, English and French.  After being recruited and trained in Scotland, one expects that Eva will be parachuted into France to work alongside the French resistance.  But we learn – partly through the files that Eva/Sally passes to her daughter and partly from Eva herself – that she has been recruited into an organisation which attacks Germany through the media.  The stories that the organisation places are sometimes fabrications and sometimes exaggerations or little-noticed Nazi misdeeds. In 1940, the organisation, including Lucas and Eva, move to New York City, where their focus shifts to persuading a reluctant American people to join the war against Germany.  Eva and Lucas become lovers, and for Eva, Lucas is the perfect secret agent: brilliant, and devious, but devastatingly attractive.  Of course, they succeed in persuading the White House to go to war, but just before Pearl Harbor, Eva is sent on a mission during which she is nearly killed.  Suspecting everyone, including Lucas, she goes onto hiding: first in Canada and then in England.  Years later, as an old woman, she persuades Ruth to help her unmask the traitor.

What could be a better story?

What I particularly liked about it was the subversive activity involving the use of the media.  One wouldn’t expect media people to be literally assassins, but when one is a traitor and one has to prevent something from happening, one uses strong measures.  The daughter who doesn’t know the truth about her mother, who discovers it during the course of the novel, and who collaborates with her in realising the conclusion, is another appealing feature.  The story is very well-written – not in a literary style – but in straight-forward, clear language.

The only faults I could find were what seemed to be a little bit of ‘filler material’ about Ruth’s occupation: teaching English as a second language to business people.  I also wasn’t clear about what actually happened during Ruth’s nearly-fatal mission.  Somehow, it didn’t all fit together.

But having said that Restless is a first rate thriller, and if you decide to pick it up, be sure you haven’t any pressing engagements: it’s difficult to put it down.

Book review: Aleph

I’ve been on holiday in Sicily for almost three weeks, so I had some time to do a little reading.  (The weather, the sea, the beaches and, most importantly, the company were all very nice.)  At the news stand/book store in the main square of Capo d’Orlando, I had a look through their collection of English language books, which are to be found in the darkest inner recesses of the store, mixed in with German language books. Aleph, by Paulo Coelho, a popular and well-regarded Brazilian author, caught my eye.  I had read his Eleven Minutes some time ago, and I was impressed.  It is the allegorical story of a young girl who, through her failures to achieve true love, goes to Switzerland where she becomes a successful prostitute.  But then she meets and falls in love with Ralf, an artist with whom she falls in love, and she discovers sacred sex: a mixture of sex and love in which one gives up one’s soul for the loved one.  Thought provoking and a very nice story.

Aleph is written in the first person, and it is, at one level, an interesting story about a trip across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  At the allegorical level it is Paulo Coelho’s complex exploration of self discovery.

The train trip seems to involve the author himself: he reports on his interactions with his publishers, editors, journalists and readers in a very modest yet engaging way.  One sympathises with his hardships: lack of sleep, the cold and bad-tempered colleagues.  I found it easy to wish that I, too, were on that hellish train just for a chance to meet Paulo Coelho.

But the ‘meat’ of the story involves a perceived sin that Paulo committed in an earlier life: as an official in the Spanish Inquisition, he failed to testify to the innocence of several young women who were then burned alive.  One of the young women has been reincarnated as Hilal, a young Turkish woman who believes that her life depends on making contact with him.  Diligently, she tries to establish a relationship with him without really understanding her own motivation.  Paulo learns in a sequence of dreams what he did.  She forgives him unconditionally and unknowingly, and he finally declares his sin to her, and is able to persuade her to get on with her own life as a concert violinist.

The ‘Aleph’ is a condition where all things in the universe and all time are able to converge at one point.  It represents perfect enlightenment.  Paulo and Hilal are almost in an Aleph at a certain point between the carriages of the train.

Interestingly, there is no sex between Paulo and Hilal: not that he isn’t tempted and that she isn’t willing.  At one point, she appears naked to him and he remembers her naked before the Inquisition.  The only difference being that then she had pubic hair, but now she is shaved.  He comments negatively (and quite rightly, I think) on the popularity of women shaving.

This is quite an interesting novel.  The trip, the characters, their relationships, and the actual events are all captivating.  And Coelho’s writing style is both engaging and clear.  The problem for me with this book is that I don’t believe there is such a thing as an aleph, nor do I believe that, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, we carry a debt from one life to another.  It’s another example of my literal mind getting in the way!

Review: Bring Up the Bodies

I have just finished reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  I felt that I had to read this Booker Prize-winning novel by a writer who has won the Booker Prize for the last two years.  I’m glad I did, because now I can see what all the fuss was about.  In my opinion, the novel is very good, but it also has its faults: see below.

The setting is sixteenth century England during the reign of Henry VIII, and the time frame is from the onset of illness of Katherine, the ex-queen and Henry’s divorced wife, to the execution of Anne Boleyn, the king’s second wife.  The story is told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to the king and the second most powerful influence in the kingdom.

What I liked about the novel was its (for me) faithful rendering of the culture and values of Tudor England.  The characters, though there are perhaps too many of them for one novel, are clearly drawn.  The prose is captivating, but sometimes a little difficult to follow.  And the story, itself, even if well-known, was difficult for me to set aside.

There are 762 reviews of Bring Up the Bodies on at the moment: 469 are five star and 26 are one star.  I thought it would be interesting to look at the one-star reviews and see to what extent I agree.

Here are excerpts from five of the one-star reviews:

  • “Non-specific pronoun use drove me batty… She begins lines with “He says….” He who? Why do I have to wonder who the speaker is?”
  • “If I had not been rather familiar with the Tudor history the author’s disjointed rambling would have lost me with the first ‘children falling out of the sky’ to the end.”
  • “Ms. Mantel’s offering is not completely factual and gives a very biased, gossipy, and amateurish impression of the people of the age.”
  • “She seems to be allergic to telling the reader who is speaking so you find yourself constantly going back through the pages to try and discover who is saying what.”
  • “Beautifully written, yes – try and follow the story! Yeesh! By the time the slew of adjectives are regurgitated (some call it prose) the story line (plot) is long forgotten. That’s okay at first but it occurs page after page after page and soon all one is reading is prose and about what?”

I have to admit that at first the use on the non-specific pronoun, ‘he’, confused me, as well.  But after about ten pages, I realized that ‘he’ almost invariably referred to Thomas Cromwell.

“Children falling out of the sky” occurs on the first page, and when I first read it, I wondered what the image was about.  But, by the bottom of the page, I realised that the ‘children’ were tamed hawks.  Still, I wondered why the author would begin a novel with a confusing statement.  An ambiguous statement – OK – but confusing?

Historical novels do not pretend to be ‘completely factual’, and it seems to me that it’s OK for an author to present a biased point of view, as long as the biased view ‘holds water’, which, in this case, in my opinion, it does.  It is gossipy: so what?  Amateurish?  I don’t think so.  I, too, have read a lot of Tudor history and I think Ms Mantel does an excellent job setting the reader down into the culture, values, and scenery of the sixteenth century.

What I found confusing was that Ms. Mantel would use different names for the same character: the ‘Duke of Norfolk’ could be ‘Thomas Howard’ on the next page.  I believe this is faithful to the customs of the 16th century: a man could be ‘Thomas’ to his friends, but ‘the Duke of Norfolk’ to strangers.  Still, with so many characters (68 are named in the Cast of Characters) it is difficult to recognize all of them in each instance.

The prose in Bring Up the Bodies borders, at times, on the poetic.  Take, for example this paragraph:

All summer has been like this, a riot of dismemberment, fur and feather flying; the beating off and whipping in of hounds, the coddling of tired horses, the nursing, by the gentlemen, of contusions, sprains and blisters.  And for a few days at least, the sun has shone on Henry.  Sometime before noon, clouds scudded in from the west and rain fell in big scented drops; but the sun re-emerged with scorching heat, and now the sky is so clear you can see into Heaven and spy on what the saints are doing.

In my opinion, Ms. Mantel sometimes gets carried away with her imaginative imagery, and risks losing some readers in doing so.  “Spy on what the saints are doing” is an example.  In a way this image is appropriate: the culture of the 16th century was fervent in its religious devotion and fear.  Moreover, the image reinforces the clarity of the sky.  But to the modern reader, the image is jolting: how can one look at the sky and spy on the saints, if, indeed, there are any saints?  If I had been clever enough to have this image spring to mind, I might have tempered it to say: “the sky is so clear one might think to see God’s halo.”

 In summary, I think that Bring Up the Bodies represents a landmark novel, and is worth the extra effort to read it with understanding.