The Last Testament

When I opened the front cover of this charity shop buy I found a photograph of Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland inside, and I don’t mean bizarrely inserted. I suspected Sam Bourne might be a pseudonym cynically designed to both bring to mind Robert Ludlum and cash in on the recent movie adaptations of his thrillers, but I was surprised to find out whose. Seeing as it’s announced so brazenly before you reach the first word, I didn’t really buy the claim he uses a pen name to distinguish his fiction from his journalism, especially when the author biography describes his writing on Middle Eastern politics (important to the plot here). Perhaps it’s the old highbrow disdain (is it unPC to call it snobbery?) for popular fiction.

But he needn’t have worried. Yes, the prose is as colourless as Dan Brown, but his dialogue’s a lot less pulpish (no villains snarling “How they mock us, in the house of the Lord!” here). And politically, as thrillers set in the Middle East go, it’s hardly the simplistic blood-letting of Tom Clancy. Both the goodies and the baddies exist in a grey world, and Freedland leaves it intentionally muddied as to which is which, and not just to milk for thrillerdom’s par for the course cliffhangers. Consequently it’s an intelligent, thought provoking yarn that taught me a thing or two about Israel and the Palestinians. Freedland’s 20 year career reporting on the region lends it a sense of realism (in all its complexities). Some descriptions are clearly from life.

Anyway, The Last Testament (as in ‘will and’, but I won’t spoil whose) starts with a well known Zionist archaeologist trying to rush the Israeli PM just before the start of earnest peace talks. He’s shot and killed, and shortly thereafter a Palestinian archaeologist is also murdered. With the talks in jeopardy, the US sends in mediator Maggie Costello to stop things boiling over and get the discussion moving forward again. But with the two sides at entrenched stalemate, she realises what links the two archaeologists is the solution. Of course, what links the two archaeologists is almost five thousand years old, and there are plenty of people who would much rather those age-old secrets die with the two old men.

Literature it ain’t, but the pages just flew by, and I kept turning corners to read up on some of the facts later. Meanwhile I could have kept a ticklist of all the usual thriller tropes thrown in, from the heroine seeking redemption for past mistakes to the baddie who turns out to be a goodie and the goodie who turns out to be a baddie (Dan Brown’s favourite). Freedland somewhat overuses the unexpected-death-that-you-know-the-character-actually-survived twist, and there are some very silly developments involving Second Life, but all forgiveable.

The Sam Bourne novels are a charity shop perennial, but when I finished this one and went hunting for one of his others, would you believe it, there was not one to be found. So instead I’m reading The Short Reign of Pippin IV by John Steinbeck, which might be even sillier than The Last Testament.

Canvey Island

I started reading this one last month when it wouldn’t stop raining, and a novel that started on the night in 1953 when floodwaters drowned half of Canvey Island seemed rather apt. It wasn’t just the arrival of summer, the Olympics or having to finish writing my book that delayed my completing it. I grew up in a seaside town only a few miles from Canvey, and this novel perfectly encapsulated what winter is like in a summer town. That’s not particularly a compliment. Indeed, I grew tired of the book’s ceaseless miserabilism long before the end.

Len is out dancing with his sister in law Vi when his wife Lily drowns, trapped at home, having sent son Martin to get help. The novel follows the ripples caused by her death through the decades, as Len and Vi seek increasingly more comfort in each other’s arms, and Martin forsakes his class and upbringing to go to university, based on a grief-stricken desire to pioneer ways to hold back the sea. It becomes Martin’s novel by the end, as he finds himself drawn back to Canvey for the first time since leaving as a teenager. This being exactly the kind of novel you’re expecting it to be, it’s all about unfulfilled lives, abandoned dreams and the plight of the working class, and when the author’s done with those, he throws in some more death for good measure.

I don’t have a problem with serious books. I don’t think novels necessarily need to have any humour. I do think they need to have a little more tonal variety than this novel, however. Even most funeral eulogies manage to raise a smile or two, even if they are smiles of appreciation rather than amusement. It all just seems terribly worthy, like the author has some sort of point to make with all this bleakness.

But I can’t see one. Despite all their foibles and contradictions, the characters never have more than a single dimension, and both they and the novel creep along at the same pace from first page to last. Skipping a decade between chapters doesn’t make a difference, because on either side of the divide the characters are still doing what they were doing years before, either making the same old mistakes or brand new ones.

I’m not left wondering where these characters will be a day, a month, a year or a decade after the last page, because I already know. Runcie has provided little scope to believe they will ever make the right decision, no reason to hope they will ever find any happiness. All that lies before them is more misery and then death.

When I started this blog I decided I wouldn’t write wholly negative reviews for books I didn’t like. The truth is that I didn’t hate this one, and Runcie’s dialogue and prose were never unbelievable or dull, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone to read on a cloudy day, and even less on a pleasant one.

Final Voyage

Yesterday I finished my third book, which was called Worse than Titanic when I started, but along the way became Final Voyage. Despite being more than twice the length of my previous two books (47,338 words against about 23,000) I found this the most straightforward to write, perhaps because writing narrative is more of a natural fit for me than writing explanatory text.

This does mean that three books in I still haven’t come up with a title of my own (this
is the only book I’ve named – got rewarded with a chocolate bar for it). I’m happy with the new title. It’s less sensationalist than the previous one, something I became concerned about when an alternative title being considered for the book was So You Thought the Titanic was Bad! (complete with exclamation mark). It made me wonder whether those on the coalface of bookselling really care about the contents of a book, and whether the title matches that, so long as a buyer’s attention is grabbed.

In fact, the only time I struggled with this book is when I thought it might end up getting published under that title. It’s not academic history, but it’s not trivia either. Most of the chapters push 5,000 words. That title would only grab the attention of someone to whom the contents would not appeal, whilst at the same title warding off my target readership, who are looking for popular history, not some glib ‘trump card’-style read pitting various maritime disasters against each other and seeing which comes out worst. Worse than Titanic had to go for the same reason.

Of course, the new title isn’t entirely accurate. One of the ships featured in the book (the Thielbek) sank a few hours before the end of the Second World War carrying 2,800 concentration camp inmates, only 50 of whom survived. Four years later she was raised, repaired and put back into service.