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.

The Cement Garden

Buy THE CEMENT GARDEN by Ian McEwan

After their father’s death, Jack, Julie, Sue and Tom’s mother takes to her bed – and never really leaves it again. When she also dies unexpectedly, none of the children are willing to let her go. Instead of surrendering her body to the real world, Jack insists upon burying her. Not in the garden, however, but in a large wooden chest in the cellar, filled with cement he mixes himself.

At first Jack, Julie and their siblings want to maintain the visage of being a normal family for the benefit of an outside world they don’t want to interfere with the world within their home. They have got a taste of the freedom all teenagers yearn for, and don’t want to lose that. But theirs was never a normal family to begin with.

Julie assumes the role of mother and Jack father, whilst Tom not only becomes the baby (being the youngest), but a baby girl. Their fluid roles slowly dissolve into a general rolelessness, and their sense of individual identity wanes. Total freedom gradually imprisons those left unprepared for it by parents who perhaps never were part of the normal, real world to begin with.

Unfortunately Jack’s cement mix was incorrect, and it never properly sets. His mother decomposes down in that cellar, and her strange, strange smell starts to seep through the house like a spectral presence.

Ian McEwan was one of those authors I first encountered via a university syllabus, which is never a good way to find any writer. So this is the first novel of his I’ve read in almost 15 years. It’s a slight tale, at times more about atmosphere than character. A whiff of decay lingers around its almost post-apocalyptic world of near-empty streets and demolished prefabs, let alone inside the walls of Jack’s house, where casual grotesqueries start to seem quite domestic.

Thirst

Buy THIRST by Benjamin Warner

After being stuck in unmoving traffic for several hours, Eddie decides to ditch the car, let someone tow it, and worry about everything later. He’s been under a searingly hot sun all day and is dying for a drink. On his long trek home, however, he starts to overhear some alarming things. The powercut that caused the jam on the freeway has affected the entire city. What’s worse, the water’s out for everyone too.

Nobody is too worried to begin with – the power has been out before, so has the water, and even when that’s been the case for a couple of days, someone shows up eventually to fix it, and then everything’s fine. In the meantime they just have to sit tight and make things last, just in case it takes as long to fix things again this time too.

As the days pass, the shops empty of anything with a liquid content, and people begin to drink vinegar instead, they start to hear new rumours. The water won’t be coming back on. The only water that hasn’t been chemically changed to become flammable is undrinkable brackish water. And the rest has dried up, or burnt up. People start dying – but not always from thirst.

For much of its length this is a detailed forensic portrait of the end of the world as told from the perspective of a single neighbourhood falling apart, together. Its pace never seems slow, despite its depiction of the gradual descent into a hell of communal dehydration. Desperation and primal panic turns friends and neighbours into opponents – competitors rather than enemies. Every drop of water must be fought over. Nobody else can be trusted – who knows what secret bottles or cartons someone might have squirrelled away if they don’t seem as thirsty as everyone else.

When it becomes devastatingly clear that nobody is coming to save them, what thin threads of society that remain are finally cut. The novel wanders off the road a bit after that, as Eddie’s extreme thirst provokes a delirium that allows the story to indulge a little too predictably in developments that might or might not be real.

Up until then, however, it’s really quite excruciatingly tense and all too plausible.

Sweet Caress

Buy SWEET CARESS by William Boyd

When Amory Clay is still at boarding school, her father shows up one day to take her for a drive – a journey that ends with him driving the car into a lake in an attempt to kill both of them. But that isn’t really the end of the journey for Amory, because this experience colours the rest of her life, particularly when it comes to her relationships with men.

Desperately searching for a more suitable father figure, she develops an infatuation with her uncle Greville. It is he who introduces her to photography, a hobby that becomes a passion that becomes a job. Through her camera lens Amory gets to see the tumult of the middle half of the twentieth century, always convinced she’s a part of it, always convinced she can actually capture a story – or, better, a truth – on film.

From the easy defeat of Mosley’s blackshirts at the Battle of Cable Street (which only helps generate a sense of cosy complacency about fascism), Amory’s work takes her to burlesque Berlin during the slow, simmering rise of Nazism. Thence to a US in jazz-infused splendid isolation just before the attack on Pearl Harbor and, following the Allied invasion after D-Day, back to a Europe that has adopted a new casualness towards seeing mutilated bodies left unburied by the side of the road.

Along the way she embarks on various transient relationships with fellow photographers, but it is the relationship with a Scottish commando she meets in war-torn Europe that lasts the longest. Her oblivious search for a replacement father figure pretty much ends with her finding the closest match to her own father. He was a damaged First World War veteran. Her husband is damaged in the Second. Through him she comes partway to understanding what her father must have gone through.

Ultimately this is a novel about stories, linked loosely together by the wars that destroy them. The book is interspersed with period photographs that give the sense of this being a memoir rather than a work of fiction. Their presence emphasises that pictures aren’t really worth a thousand words – they hint at stories, but only give an unreal sense that they tell the whole thing. Amory still has to fill in the gaps.

Sometimes Amory feels a little too lascivious, following her passions into bed rather quickly with many of the male characters that cross her path. It takes quite a long time for the reasons why to start to become clearer.

Though it continues afterwards for several more chapters, the novel effectively ends in Vietnam, a war Amory’s country isn’t even involved in but which she feels drawn to nonetheless. Here she can finally leave her father behind, in another war that robs a generation of countless stories, even if those men do come home too.

Jonathan Unleashed

Buy JONATHAN UNLEASHED by Meg Rosoff

By all appearances Jonathan Trefoil is living the dream. He works in marketing in New York City and has a stunning girlfriend who everyone would tend to think is well out of his league. He knows his life isn’t all that fantastic, of course. Marketing involves getting excited about stationery and hanging around trendy, trendy hipsters with a penchant for verbing nouns. And his girlfriend Julie sees him as a bit of a curio. She knows it. He knows it.

What’s more, Jonathan’s dogs know it. They’re not even his dogs – his brother flew off somewhere too exciting for dogs, let alone Jonathan, and left Dante the bordercollie and Sissy the spaniel cooped up in Jonathan and Julie’s increasingly cramped apartment. Julie can’t stand them and thinks they’ve got it in her for. He can’t admit it to her, of course, but Jonathan’s already got his suspicions that the dogs are taking over his life – and in more than one sense of the phrase.

There’s a definite Adrian Mole vibe running through this novel. Jonathan is overly introspective and insecure, as disbelieving of his good fortune landing Julie as everyone else, and frequently spends time indulging daydreams and other fantasies. Some of them feed the grand comic book slash novel he’s working on called New York Inferno, recasting everyone he knows (and everything that annoys him) in a version of Dante’s (the poet’s, not the dog’s) Hell based on New York City.

Whether Dante and Sissy really are showing a sentient concern for Jonathan’s life and are trying to nudge him in a better direction, or whether he’s just projecting on to them his own sense of self-doubt, is a nice joke that Meg Rosoff keeps going for much of the book. The novel manages to pivot around its furry plot devices without actually being a very dog-heavy book, so even this cat person wasn’t put off.

And it’s a bit more cheerful than Rosoff’s How I Live Now too.

The Virgin Suicides

Buy THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides

The five Lisbon girls manage to be the main topic of conversation on their 1970s Midwest suburban street without even doing anything. Part of it is their unique attractiveness (not even classical beauty – more a captivating allure). But most of it is their mystery. Living almost a secret life, largely separate from their peers, they are kept deliberately anonymous by their similarly (but more wilfully) anonymous mother.

To the teenage boys who live in the same neighbourhood, the Lisbon house looks reasonably normal from the outside, and the girls seem close enough physically not to be out of reach. But when Mrs Lisbon agrees to a party – the first and last party her daughters ever have – the boys learn just how far away the girls really are. The party comes to a sudden terrible end when the first of the daughters kills herself in front of everyone. Within a year, all of her sisters have followed her.

We never learn the name of the narrator of this novel. He (if indeed there’s only one of them) is ultimately as anonymous as the Lisbon girls. He isn’t really a character – nor really much of a narrator, for that matter. He’s more of a curator, collating news, rumours and speculation about what happened to the girls (years after the fact), his narration more of a commentary linking it all together.

For all Jeffrey Eugenides’ wonderful writing – perfect sentences that may focus on the prosaic and the domestic (like a more literary Stephen King perhaps) but which are sometimes closer to poetry than prose – I was left utterly unaffected by his robotic storytelling. But maybe that’s the point.

The picture he paints of America is of a place where nobody really knows anybody else. And maybe, despite it coming in a novel about five suicides – five child suicides, no less – that’s the most depressing thing of all.

This is the Way the World Ends

Buy THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS by James Morrow

George Paxton is a very ordinary man, even though he loves his slightly macabre job chipping names and epitaphs into gravestones. Prudence and being sensible are very much at the core of George’s straightforward approach to life, so he leaps at the chance when offered a free hazard suit to protect his daughter from all the effects of a nuclear war. Sure, he has to sign a contract accepting responsibility for any future nuclear conflict that does occur, but George doesn’t worry about that. The free suit buys him peace of mind. His daughter will be safe if the bombs do fall.

Unfortunately George doesn’t even get back from the shop with the suit before the city disappears from his rear-view mirror in a 1-megaton thermonuclear fireball. His daughter has probably been minced by a thousand shards of broken glass travelling at almost the speed of sound. If only she had been wearing her suit, thinks George; everything would have been fine.

Meanwhile the end of the world is only the beginning of George’s trials. He’s now going to have to answer for letting it happen. After all, he’s already signed the document that lays the blame at his feet. He may come to regret being rescued from the radioactive wasteland by some black-blooded ghostly types. These ghosts, who refer to themselves as the ‘unadmitted’ are not echoes of the past, but spectres of a future that will never be – all the people who will never be born because the world has incinerated its own potential.

This blackly comic novel reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, specifically Slaughterhouse Five, and not simply in the plotline of a man being taken into a surreal world parallel to our own where he has to answer for the violent ridiculousness of his entire race. James Morrow shares Vonnegut’s somewhat despairing view of mankind’s self-destructive streak – laughing because you have to, really.

It was written at a time in US politics when key members of Reagan’s administration were trying to convince him that it was possible to win a nuclear war, and recommending he adopt the SDI missile defence system. Morrow makes it quite clear that believing we can ourselves be safe from the enemy’s nuclear weapons whilst at the same time believing the enemy will always be at risk from ours creates an illusion of safety and supremacy that only makes nuclear conflict more likely.

As it is, both the US and Russia deny firing first in this novel, though one or other of them may have launched an ‘anticipatory retaliation’… So still the other guy’s fault, then. Moments of satire, including a fiery argument over whether to use a nuclear submarine’s missile launch tube for purpose or for growing oranges, reminded me of Dr Strangelove taken to an almost surreal extreme. Morrow’s descriptions of nuclear devastation are also darkly comic and surreal, annihilation and suffering made all the more horrific by being described almost flippantly, like imagery from a Monty Python cartoon segment.

There are funny asides where the novel appears to be a vision Nostradamus is having for the future. These could have seemed incongruously daft, and also ended up Pythonesque in the wrong way, but Morrow makes it work. The scenes with the smug, conceited Nostradamus casually predicting future doom from a safe distance, where he knows it won’t affect him, help hammer the novel’s message home.

Ordinary people enable the destroyers of the earth by either supporting them or claiming there is nothing they can do anyway. But they can’t absolve themselves of guilt and try to shrug off responsibility. Just because George Paxton is the only normal person whose name is on the charge-sheet doesn’t mean he is the only normal person who should have to take the blame.