The Trial

Bank cashier Josef F is minding his own business when he’s rudely apprehended by the police – on his birthday, no less – and informed that he is being prosecuted. Naturally, being a sensible fellow who is quite innocent of any crime, he is quite bemused by what must surely be a mistake. Still, he lives in a well ordered and stable society, so he has trust in the system to throw out the case as soon as he shows up for his first day in court.

Josef K is, of course, being a little naive. If he doesn’t know what he’s charged with, then he can’t convincingly claim to have not done it before he actually finds out, the judge reminds him – if he admits he doesn’t understand the law then he can’t claim to be entirely innocent. That’s the only thing Josef K will admit, but what he initially views as a farcical trial soon turns into a battle against a bureaucratic machine he always had faith in on the outside, so he faces an uphill struggle convincing everyone else still out there of the truth.

Franz Kafka is asking us to think whether we’ve ever watched someone be arrested and convinced ourselves that there had to be a good reason, and if there wasn’t, then the system – being about justice – would right things in the end. He’s also suggesting our answers to that question would probably be as naive as Josef K’s.

The purpose of justice in his world is about victory. It is about giving order to society for the sake of order itself. Without order society has no meaning, and entropy sets in, the drift to chaos. Much more comforting to imagine those people being herded on to trucks in Kafka’s neighbourhood a few years after The Trial was posthumously published had done something to deserve it, and that society was going to bring back order by sorting them out.

Kafka certainly foresaw a lot when he has Josef K learn that society embraces pleasing lies over uncomfortable or awkward truths. That system is never going to let him go, even if nobody knows what he’s guilty of. People don’t have to accept that something is true, just that it is necessary.

State of Wonder

Buy STATE OF WONDER by Ann Patchett

Having run away from her medical career after making a devastating mistake, the taciturn Marina Singh is much happier living the quiet life of a researcher for a pharmaceutical company – a job where the decisions she makes are a few steps further removed from life and death.

Part of the company’s research is based on studying the remarkable health of indigenous people living a drug-free existence in the depths of the Amazon. When one of Marina’s colleagues visits the project and is reported dead not long after, she becomes the inevitable replacement for two reasons – the scientist leading the project is her former university tutor Annick Swenson, and the wife of her dead colleague manages to use a bit of emotional blackmail to get her to go and investigate what might have happened when there is no body to return with the truth.

Marina enters the heat and everyday lethality of the heart of darkness having to choose between taking antimalarial tablets that give her horrific night terrors or risking the delirium of malarial fevers. Either way she is unprepared for what she finds when she is reunited with Doctor Swenson and meets the subjects of her study – women in their seventies who are still as fertile as their grandchildren.

The echoes of Joseph Conrad are naturally rather fresh, though here it’s not the dark heart of men being explored, but women who believe their own ambitions in one of the wilder corners of the world are altogether more altruistic. They’re not really, of course. If anything, the corporate and mercantile aims are even more brazen than they were in colonial times.

It’s a slow-burn novel, capturing the stifling heat and humidity of the rainforest. Marina is quite a passive main character for most of the book, but it doesn’t really suffer for it. She has been drifting through life, too timid to make a decision, second guessing every choice she dares make, in case she makes another terrible mistake. Only here, unable to escape the person whose absence led to Marina’s original mistake, will she be able to face up to what happened and move on.

Station Eleven

Buy STATION ELEVEN by Emily St John Mandel

Kirsten and the rest of her Travelling Symphony of actors and musicians walk the empty roads between Ontario and Chicago, looking for outposts of fellow survivors in this depopulated North America who would like to sit and watch some free Shakespeare. Because, as the Symphony’s motto (and Kirsten’s tattoo) goes, survival is insufficient. For these artists, there needs to be more to life than simply existing, scrapping for food and salvage in the slowly decaying remains of the old electric world.

Kirsten is obsessed with finding copies of a little-known series of graphic novels called Station Eleven. They are set on a space station built to appear like a planet, drifting somewhat aimlessly through the cosmos, with all its inhabitants hiding beneath the surface and living a lonely existence. The books were written and drawn by an artist whose estranged husband Arthur Leander died on stage right in front of a young Kirsten, only a few weeks before the end of the world.

Kirsten’s storyline is juxtaposed against the relatively trivial lives of people before the arrival of the plague that killed off most of the world’s population. She lives somewhat vicariously via both the Station Eleven stories and the tawdry celebrity gossip rag news items about Arthur Leander and his lovers that can still be found littering the abandoned cities.

Putting on plays gives her and the others a sense of purpose to continuing to exist, but as with Station Eleven and the celeb goss, they are also about co-opting the apparently more interesting lives of others. Whether the characters in the plays and Station Eleven really have the more valuable lives simply because people are interested in the presentation rather than the reality is a question Kirsten never really contemplates.

Part of that is because the novel is somewhat overburdened with characters (Kirsten only just about manages to come to the fore overall), and could have done with being double – yes – the length. Kirsten is clearly yearning to make a connection, but it’s difficult to make a connection in a world where there aren’t many people left to connect with, and most of those she does meet will either be afraid of her or, perhaps more likely, give her immediate cause to be afraid of them.

There is hardly anybody left in this bleak Midwest to be interested in someone like Kirsten in the way she is interested in constructed personalities spouting perfect lines of poetry or long-dead celebrities gifted sensational captions to photos of them living apparently exciting lives. The only people who have any form of celebrity cachet now are apocalyptic cult leaders, and their fame is earned for all the wrong reasons.

Despite all this, the novel’s post-apocalyptic world is certainly not as bleak or miserable as The Road. In its celebration of art as a way of giving existence meaning, it helps give things a sense of hope. It’s whether that itself is pretty meaningless is something the novel leaves unresolved – mostly.

The Gone World

Buy THE GONE WORLD by Tom Sweterlitsch

NCIS detective Serena Moss is called in when a mother and child are found murdered, with the older daughter missing, presumed abducted. But Moss’s assignment isn’t simply due to them being a naval family. The suspect is the victims’ husband and father, but that’s impossible. He was an astronaut on board the USS Libra, a top secret spacecraft sent into the future, and which supposedly never came back.

Moss is assigned to the case because of her own experience travelling into the future, being sent forwards to arrive at a point after uncrackable cases have been solved so that she can come back with the necessary information to do it. On one of her journeys into the future she arrived at the moment of Terminus – the end of the world. Everyone else who has seen it comes back changed by the experience, and her leg wasn’t the only thing Moss lost from her time watching humanity’s chaotic, violent end.

As she pursues the culprits across the decades – whilst still trying to keep a grip on her life in the present – she slowly starts to realise what must have happened to the Libra. She travels in time to bring back the truth, but she might not be the only one doing that, and the truths others are bringing could have devastating consequences.

This novel is a really quite ambitious genre crash of a novel. It is alternately (and then altogether) hard crime, sci fi, horror and apocalyptic fantasy. At times it reads like a Stephen King novel that has been adapted into a film with a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino but directed by Prometheus/Alien: Covenant era Ridley Scott, and then novelised back into prose by someone who secretly likes Stephen King but who still has a bit of ambition to be taken seriously by literary critics (and who is a really, really big fan of Interstellar).

And most of the time, it works. The twisting plot bends paradoxes so far the novel does start to creak a bit in the second half, before everything (and quite literally everything) comes together for a breathless conclusion. I see a movie version is in the offing, possibly directed by Neill Blomkamp, which makes me curious wondering what they will simplify – and perhaps tone down – to make it accessible and palatable enough to justify the amount it will inevitably cost.

Young Adolf

Buy YOUNG ADOLF by Beryl Bainbridge

Austrian expat and born-again Liverpudlian Alois Hitler is not looking forward to a visit from his younger brother Adolf. The Titanic may have just sunk in an ocean of hubris, but Europe obviously has a bright future ahead of it in which the oddball Adolf just doesn’t seem to fit. Alois knows why his sister paid for Adolf’s one-way ticket to England – to get him out of Austria and make him Alois’s problem instead.

Which is a role young Adolf fills with apparent fervour. Coming from months of wandering from hostel to hostel, getting to lounge about on Alois’s sofa and stew about a cruel world not appreciating his art from there instead is a big improvement. But Alois and his wife are not content to let this bone-idle egotist with ideas far, far above his station just annex their home. They insist he get a job. So he ends up as a hotel porter, which is where he becomes the patsy in some sort of criminal plot that may or may not also involve the strange bearded man Adolf keeps seeing around.

Nascent Nazis probably weren’t the usual heroes of such whimsical japes back when Beryl Bainbridge wrote this in the mid-70s, and to be honest, reading it these days it does seem a bit smug about the past not only being past but dead too. It’s positively dripping not with blood but with irony, and entirely self-consciously too. Bainbridge’s winking eye and nudging elbow is never very far from the page.

Writing a serious treatise about how a directionless, mercurial boy turns into a fascist isn’t her intention here, of course (so a couple of scenes giving a taste of young Adolf’s oratory skills and visiting the abusive past he and Alois suffered seem a tad incongruous). Here he’s just another underachieving drifter who thinks he deserves more than he’s getting. And maybe ultimately that’s her point. Within a few years there would be plenty of angry young men just like him. And if Hitler hadn’t become Hitler, somebody else probably would have done.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine


Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine. She’s stuck camping around the base of Maslow’s pyramid, but has long convinced herself that that’s where she belongs, that that’s about as much as she deserves. After all, as her mother is always more than happy to tell her, Eleanor is pretty much just a waste of skin.

Eleanor’s life follows a predictable and safe routine. She goes to work and avoids her colleagues, wearing the same clothes and eating the same lunch every day. Only her Wednesday night contact with her mother breaks up the week. Every Friday she buys two bottles of vodka, which see her through nicely until Monday. She has a crush on a local musician, and allows herself plenty of time to fantasise about a future together where she could escape all of this.

But she doesn’t have as long to wait for her life to be upturned. That happens the day she is out on the street with one of her co-workers, Raymond, and a stranger collapses in front of them. Drawn into Raymond’s act of basic compassion and inadvertently helping the man, Eleanor suddenly finds her life changing – improving – in myriad tiny but significant ways.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine treads a not unfamiliar path, introducing this lonely oddity and then revealing (quickly – this isn’t a spoiler) that she’s a victim of child abuse. It’s such a strong paean to surviving, however, that it seems a bit churlish to criticise its unoriginality on that front, especially when Eleanor’s voice is so engaging – even when she says, does or thinks things that make her isolation superficially easy to understand.

I did worry that the story was veering towards having Eleanor saved by a man and I wonder whether in an earlier draft things did head further in that direction. Regardless, I think the ending it has is the one that suits it best – quiet hope replacing silent suffering.

The Gods Will Have Blood

Buy THE GODS WILL HAVE BLOOD by Anatole France

Summer 1793, and the average French citizen has grown weary of four years of revolutionary unrest, whilst the revolutionaries themselves are fighting half of Europe on France’s borders, and fighting each other at home.

Once upon a time the emigres were the true enemies of the revolution, running away with France’s wealth. But now, angry failed artist (where else have we heard that character arc?) Evariste Gamelin realises the real enemies are actually those who were arrogant enough to remain behind, hoarding their wealth and awaiting a good opportunity to make their comeback. Never mind – the guillotine will sort out that problem.

And Gamelin, self-entitled lover of women, purveyor of unoriginal thoughts, and sanctimonious revolutionary (yes, he believes in egalite, but he clearly believes he is more egal than others), is perfectly suited to become a magistrate. He will have the power to condemn aristocratic (and not so aristocratic) enemies of the people to a swift death. So begins the Reign of Terror, which is not about to stop just because someone Gamelin knows is brought before the tribunal.

Gamelin is almost entirely objectionable for the first third of the novel, but in an entertainingly pompous way. Anatole France insists on throwing in a few moments of decency, such as when Gamelin splits his bread with a hungry stranger and her baby, then tells his mother he already ate his half so the rest is hers. There’s enough human complexity to his character to make us wonder whether either his head or his heart is in the right place after all, and ensure that we’re not just reading to see the fall that comes after the pride. It’s not really a tragedy, though. Not one about Gamelin, anyway.

Just as in my last read, Jamaica Inn, where Daphne du Maurier tackled a similar era through a prism of a century plus of further historical and literary development, Anatole France’s treatment of the Revolution is even less contemporary in spirit than Victor Hugo’s treatment of the 1832 uprising in Les Miserables. That lends the novel a certain smugness in hindsight, because it was written only a few years before bloody revolution gripped Europe’s east, and really not long before a quiet, untrammelled revolution in the west led to bloodletting on a scale to make the French Revolution look rather quaint.

Jamaica Inn

Buy JAMAICA INN by Daphne du Maurier

Following the death of both her parents, Mary Yellan has no choice but to go and live with her mother’s sister. Aunt Patience lives on the other side of Cornwall, a decidedly less sun-swept frontier of rainy moorland and ragged coastlines. Mary isn’t at all prepared for what she will find at Patience’s home, the remote travellers’ rest, Jamaica Inn. But it is Patience’s husband, the wild Joss Merlyn, who really proves a shock.

Trapped by distance and violent threats from the raving Merlyn, Mary soon learns the real reason why Jamaica Inn never seems to have any overnight guests. Those who do come show up in the middle of the night, and they are just as wild as her uncle. She knows better to ask any questions, but in his drunken delirium one day, Merlyn tells her the truth – Jamaica Inn is the staging post for wreckers who work the northern Cornish coasts, drawing ships onto the rocks to steal the cargo.

Mary wants to leave, but there is nowhere to go, and Aunt Patience is too much of a wreck to be abandoned. Hope comes in an unlikely form, Joss Merlyn’s younger sibling Jem, but Mary isn’t altogether sure he is any less dangerous than his brother.

I never really got on with Wuthering Heights, perhaps the most unconvincing of all (supposed) love stories, but fortunately Daphne du Maurier only layers on the Gothic colours (so grey, brown, black, another shade of grey, then) to pastiche them. Indeed, during her coach ride across the stormy moors which opens the novel, Mary’s preoccupation is not the wild gloominess of the world, but the fact that the roof is leaking and she doesn’t want to get wet.

The wild men of the novel are not irredeemable boors of the Heathcliff variety either, with Joss Merlyn every bit as much of a cartoon villain as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver, and his brother Jem more of a misunderstood outcast whose redemption is clearly signposted from the start, and who, with a change of clothes and a wash, could walk quite easily into an angsty YA novel.

Ultimately du Maurier’s sensibilities are more 1930s than 1830s, especially with regard to Mary being an independent character who can spend most of the novel scared without ever verging on hysteria and needing a man’s arms to faint into. And in a thrilling romp full of larger than life men (and not just the Merlyn brothers), that’s exactly what’s needed.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Buy FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway

In four days’ time, a ragtag gang of Spanish partisans – communists, gypsies, women, old men – will play their part in the civil war between republicans and fascists by blowing up a bridge. History will probably never remember this minor contribution (especially if the republicans lose), and most of those hiding in the forest, waiting for the hour, are well aware of their general insignificance.

The same is true of American Robert Jordan, a volunteer fighting for a cause he just about still believes in, sent up the hill because of his experience with dynamite. It’s not necessarily true of Maria, a woman who watched her parents executed before being raped by fascists, and who Jordan falls instantly in love with.

With a portentous sense that their time together may be short, Jordan need not worry about the other, less beautiful side of love. Four days is long enough to feel lust and longing. Maria becomes both true love and wife, and in another way his sister, because he has never had any of those things, and may otherwise never have them.

He’s well aware that his new, heightened sense of being alive may be him just being oversensitive, and that time hasn’t really become meaningless, but if these are going to be his final days on earth, he’d rather spend it amongst the trees with Maria than arguing with the drunk Pablo, who has his doubts about their mission – and who knows where the detonators are hidden.

There were times when I struggled with this in a way I never found it a struggle to get through A Farewell to Arms (admittedly that was some 18 years ago, and I was a different reader back then). I read it in bursts, on and off over several years, contemplating on a few occasions whether to give up on it altogether, but remembering how I almost did that with A Tale of Two Cities, only for the second half to be so much better than the first. Then there would be interludes such as the one where fascist prisoners are forced to run a gauntlet of all the village before having to jump off a cliff to their deaths. So I persevered, and it too got better as the hours the partisans have left run out.

It was impossible for me not to make further comparisons with A Farewell to Arms too. Jordan was only slightly more demonstrative than Frederic Henry, and Maria was only slightly less of a blank sheet than Catherine (though her dialogue was generally less barmy). It’s not a particularly convincing romance, purely circumstantial, but that’s probably the point. Despite the disparate nature of the guerrilla band, everyone there except Jordan and Maria seems to belong. It is Hemingway’s most romantic notion – that two outsiders will find each other (and find love) whilst there’s still time.

I sometimes turn corners of pages (I know, I know) when a writer has written something particularly worth returning to. I must have had portents of my own a year or so back when I turned one such corner on the page where one of the partisans asks Jordan whether there are any fascists in America and he says, ‘There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.’ I’m not so sure they will, Robert.

The May Queen

Buy THE MAY QUEEN by Helen Irene Young

The Cotswolds in the 1930s offer the rather innocent May an idyllic adolescence. Life is all about wild swimming, springtime fetes where the entire village comes together across class lines, and gossiping with her friends about the dreamy rich boy who lives up at the big house. The only shadow on the horizon would appear to be May’s steely nag of a mother, who is the cloud above every silver lining.

But there’s a world beyond the boundary with Oxford, and it’s a decidedly less innocent one. May’s slightly older sister Sophie disappears – apparently with a not inconsiderable stash of stolen cash – after getting pregnant, and now the wicked whispers May picks up upon are about whether the father is actually Christopher, the dreamy rich boy May has long pined for. And, of course, there is the small matter of that moustachioed chap now running Germany.

It’s years later before May discovers just how innocent a perception she really had of the world. She’s now a Wren, serving in Blitz-stricken London, when Sophie reappears with her young daughter in tow, and changes everything May thought she knew about their shared past.

This is a novel about two very different worlds – a timeless rural idyll and a turbulent, terrifying, exciting city – that actually turn out to be not that different after all because of the people who straddle the border between both. Helen Irene Young’s 1940s London perfectly reflects the turmoil of May’s home-life, forced into a state of permanent flux, changing overnight, every night, as both people and buildings come and go constantly.

Young has revisited a time gone just out of sight and brings it back into the now with edible prose, waspish humour and, most importantly, a lot of heart. She brings edge to a coming-of-age story whilst also allowing her characters to be quietly exhilarated about basically being on the frontline of the homefront. The sweetness of the younger May’s enviable existence is soured in devastating fashion over the course of the novel, but there’s still hope come the end that the older May will not end up mistaking cynicism for wisdom, as her mother clearly has.