Archive | January, 2014

Van has finished reading…Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

29 Jan

Yvonne Carmichael isn’t likeable, which is always a risk with a protagonist. It explains why, in this current phase of distaste for the Prologue, the author presents us with a prologue. We know as soon as we begin that something is going to go wrong. And of course it does go wrong, spectacularly and all too believably wrong. But we’re torn. People aren’t good or bad and bad things are not selective. So in spite of Yvonne’s unlikeable nature we feel for her. What saves Yvonne is that she’s human. This is true of the mysterious Mr X, too – remember this: given what we learn about him, his history and the knowledge it must necessarily give him, could it not be an act of kindness – in a twisted way – when the floor gets too hot and that moment comes. An unreliable narrator she may be, but the crux is that she’s no more nor less reliable than you or me. In one sense I can believe there is in fact a deeper honesty at work here, for Yvonne ultimately admits more to us than any Jury would ever hear, and her judgement of herself is inescapable. People are stories. ‘The stories we tell in order to make sense of ourselves, to ourselves.’

  Ms Doughty could have chosen any number of high-flying professions for Yvonne, but what a pleasing stroke to pit nature so visibly against nurture – to question the predisposition of our genes against how circumstance shapes us. There is the juxtaposition of fact against inference where it comes to the central hub of Yvonne’s field. ‘DNA made me, and DNA un-made me’, she says. How irrefutable DNA evidence has become. And yet on the other side there is a lingering sense of the genetic predisposition to mental health issues that threads the maternal family line.


I’ve had the dubious honour of serving on a jury at the Old Bailey. It wasn’t a high profile case, but it was a serious one, and Louise Doughty has caught that unique atmosphere perfectly: The slow erosion of excitement; the ever-swinging pendulum of the jury’s opinion; the studied theatrics of those polished players in their gowns and wigs; the moments of levity that rise so unexpectedly you could almost believe a bird had blundered in to stir the turbid air; even the wide-eyed relief with which you greet the weather outside, no matter what it throws at you – just aware that yours, at least, is the choice to brave it. And that moment at the end where everybody holds their breath is captured perfectly.

There are layers in this book that it’s well worth the effort to uncover, and there are things that linger in the mind well after the book has been closed.

Van has finished reading…Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth

19 Jan

The cover of this book is enough to prepare you for the horrors that may follow – the book is hemmed with a block print of slaves laid out in the belly of a slave ship. It’s the bald presentation of the facts of the voyage that really give it power though. It’s never overdone, which heightens the sense of the everyday about it.

While it may seem strange to talk of the ‘facts of the voyage’ when talking about a fiction novel, I’m left in no doubt that all these things are included because they featured in Unsworth’s research. It’s not the fact that people could do these things to other people however that alarms the most. Unsworth captures a terrifying mindset in the nature of the ‘masters’ in this piece. The moral imperative that lends credence to the title Sacred Hunger is at once illuminating and horrific. As justification it is priceless, and mirrors so perversely that other hunger for freedom, or at the least for respect, that it truly frames the darkness in the hearts of humans trapped in their own history.

Not for the faint-hearted, but definitely worth the effort.

Van has finished reading…England, England by Julian Barnes

7 Jan

Whose history is it, really, anyway? We trust the buffs and what they tell us. We capitalise it so as to give it authority, but would the people preserved in that aspic recognise themselves? Sometimes I look in the mirror and mistake myself.

  Then there’s the language that possibly interposes more than it intercedes. Bucolic, pastoral: They’re grainy words that give an impression rather than sharpening a true image. Is it any wonder that this hankering is bred in us for the golden age that never was. It’s the image of the Empire that attracts, rather than the foetid squalor, the blinkered arrogance, the blind will that built it. And of course we are more aware in this enlightened age. We frown at the right moments, wave our copy of the Independent and tut-tut at the atrocities we now acknowledge were committed. Never again, never again…

  Nonetheless we are still a product of that ambiguous tract of History, whether we like it or not.


There’s something distinctly Michael Frayn about this Julian Barnes. Comedic writing’s a tricky thing (any good writing’s a tricky thing, but comedy particularly), and when you consider the premise of this book you’re already in a position where you’re thinking ‘don’t be ridiculous’. But there’s the genius in this tale’s construction. You come out the other end of it thinking ‘could you imagine…’