The Fiction Faction - Archive - October 2005-February 2006
Elizabeth Baines
 

October 2005
The Colour of Blood by Brian Moore

We met at Sarah’s by the skin of our teeth: her busy life as a doctor and mother had caused her to get the day wrong. A quick borrow of crisps and nuts from Mark and she was ready to greet us, but unfortunately had only read half the book, having intended to finish it that night. Busy with his own family, Mark hadn’t managed to read the book either, and once again there was an overriding sense of books getting squeezed out by life.

In spite of its hasty beginning, this was another of the civilised meetings to which our group has recently ascended (or descended).
There was a consensus of approval for this short political thriller set in a fictional East-European country during the Communist eighties and centred around the power struggle between the Catholic church and the state. Everyone present had found the book entirely engrossing and most of us had read it at a sitting. I for one am no fan of thrillers as a rule, but had found this book one of the most engaging and resonant I had read.

Sarah asked me why I didn’t tend to like thrillers. I realise that I am no authority on the matter (having read few thrillers), and of course there are exceptions. However, I said my impression was that in the typical thriller, however ‘thrillingly’ ambiguous things might seem while the plot is in progress – uncertainties as to who are the goodies and who are the baddies – its moral universe tends ultimately towards the simplistic (ie is based on a distinction between goodies and baddies). Sarah said that there has in fact been a trend towards the morally flawed protagonist, but agreed that characters in thrillers tend not to be psychologically complex. Not unconnected with such moral and psychological simplicities, I felt, was the fact that many thrillers are written in unremarkable and clichéd prose.

This novel however, we all agreed, was written brilliantly and with great integrity. Right from the first paragraph Moore sets up in spare yet vivid prose a haunting atmosphere of uncertainty, preparing the way for the violent event which will occur by the end of the first page, an attempt on the life of protagonist Cardinal Bem. The events which ensue – Bem’s kidnapping by unknown agencies, his escape and period on the run – create the structure of a conventional thriller; however the true concern of the novel is less with the twists of this plot than with the moral, political and religious issues at its heart, and, most importantly, with the humanity of those involved on all sides.
The novel adheres consistently to Bem’s viewpoint and there is no red herring or ambiguity for the reader which Bem himself does not experience. This makes for an emotional honesty and interiority not often the concern of political thrillers, and the reader is led to identify when Bem finally reaches a moral crisis and is forced to question his own religious integrity.
Mark noted the similarity here with the novels of Graham Greene. John pointed out that Moore’s prose is starker than Greene’s yet if anything paradoxically more vivid, and most people agreed.

There were one or two quibbles. I said that I got bored towards the end of the chase: by this time many of the ambiguities appeared resolved (although it’s possible to interpret the end in a way which throws doubt on this), and the novel seemed here to descend to the conventional thrill of the chase for its own sake. John had noted one or two moments where the prose lost its emotive grip and took on the perfunctory conventional-thriller mode.
But these were only minor objections and, as Doug pointed out, this book is a brilliant argument for the short novel so unpopular with publishers these days yet increasingly the only kind which members of our group are finding time to tackle. Exciting and atmospheric and packing a complex story and heavyweight political and moral issues into less than 200 short pages, this book is thrilling essentially by virtue its economy.

At which conclusion Trevor decided to open another bottle of wine, but then, in our new civilised incarnation, we thought better of drinking it and keeping a worn-out Sarah up when she had to work early next day, and went home instead.

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November 2005
Small Island by Andrea Levy

Life pushing out books more than ever. This meeting had to be postponed as hardly anyone had read the book in time, though only a few made it to the meeting in the end.

Those who did had enjoyed this novel set in post-war London when newly-married Hortense arrives from Jamaica to join her husband Gilbert in Englishwoman Queenie’s boarding house, and charting the Jamaican and wartime events which have brought the characters together and the social and racial difficulties they must negotiate.

I am afraid to say, however, that in spite of our enjoyment, and in spite of the novel’s prize-winning status (the Orange of Oranges), we had some fundamental reservations.
In terms of the prose, we all thought the book extremely well-written, taking as it does the alternating first-person voices of four main characters, cleverly contrasting their perspectives on events, accurately and wittily capturing their contrasting registers, and treating a potentially sonorous subject with a redeeming humour.
There were also details we found enlightening, most notably the difference between the British and American forces in their wartime treatment of race: the Americans, unlike the British, conducting segregation and thus institutionalising racism. The fact that certain towns were designated ‘white’ one week (only white troops deployed) and ‘black’ the next was a revelation to most of us.
We did however find the racial theme somewhat simple. The beginning of the book sets it up clearly: Queenie reminisces about attending the British Empire Exhibition as a child and seeing black people for the first time ever, on display as curiosities. This continuing reaction to black people in wartime and postwar England – curiosity, shock, physical disgust and deep cultural misapprehension – is the theme of the book and the notion on which the story pivots. While those of us old enough to remember could vouch that this was a social fact of the time, it was felt that racial matters have become far more complex since, and thus, for a contemporary book of 530 pages exploring racism, we found Small Island ultimately unsatisfying.
We also felt that in spite of the lightness of touch and the engaging nature of every episode, on reflection the book was research-heavy. Queenie’s period working in a wartime rest centre, her involvement in a bomb attack, the RAF experiences of her husband Bernard and of Gilbert are all revelatory – Gilbert’s experience as a black airman in particular – but such episodes read like Mass-Observation accounts (indeed, the wartime Mass-Observation diaries are included in the author’s acknowledgements) with a wealth of detail not essential to the core story and often appearing to squeeze it out.
On the other hand, someone said that the core story isn’t in fact much of a story, its most dramatic and enthralling aspect hinging on a coincidence which no one in the group could take.

People also found that in spite of the air of intimacy provided by the first-person voices, there were moments when the motivations and psychology of the characters remained unclear – Hortense’s precise attitude or emotional state, for instance, when she destroys Gilbert’s relationship with another woman, or when soon after she suggests to him marriage to herself, or Queenie’s metamorphosis from hard-hearted young girl to liberal-minded and kind young woman, which last seems as it is presented almost like an inconsistency.
Echoing this psychological uncertainty was an uncertainty I had noted in the authorial stance. The first-person narrations are often cast in the mode of dramatic monologue, Gilbert’s in particular: Come, let me explain. However, the audience and the circumstances occasioning the narration are never made clear, leading most people in our group to read the narrations rather as interior monologues and then to feel unsatisfied by the gaps in psychological revelation.

Once again we were largely in agreement. However Mark, who as a new third-time father has failed to finish the last few books, said he suspected that if he could only finish them and join in properly he’d reintroduce some of our old dissent.

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December 2005
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Jenny chose this novel, the story of Afghan refugee Amir whose new life in America is haunted by the sin which as a child in 1970s Afghanistan he committed against his faithful friend and servant Hassan, and his nail-biting return to the Afghanistan of the Talibans to find redemption.
The book is reputed to be a favourite with reading groups, and our group was no exception, a large and enthusiastic number turning up to discuss it (after our recent poor showings), and I had to run and fetch extra chairs.

Introducing the book, Jenny said that while she thought it something of a potboiler, she had found it a really exciting read and that it had told her a lot about Afghan society which she had not known. This was a view generally shared by the group, with one or two exceptions.

However, while everyone agreed that the plot was somewhat contrived, the group was dramatically divided over the standard of the writing.
On the one hand Sarah and Doug thought the early sections, which take the mode of a memoir and describe Amir’s childhood in Kabul, exceptionally well written, both feeling that the writing fell off once the book moved into the more contrived thriller tale of Amir’s return to Afghanistan.
John, Anne and I, however, could not have disagreed more strongly about the earlier sections, John indeed saying that he had found the book in general and this earlier part in particular so badly written that he could not engage with the book at all. Anne saw the book’s main problem as being that it’s really two books in one unsuccessfully fused, the memoir of the first part and the thriller of the second. John and I felt that our problems with the prose style of the earlier part were linked to this: sections which Sarah and Doug found vivid we found sadly lacking the focus of dramatisation, always a danger with the memoir mode:
Hassan and I used to climb the poplar trees in the driveway of my father’s house… Sometimes, up in those trees, I talked Hassan into firing walnuts with his slingshot at the neighbour’s one-eyed shepherd… [Hassan’s father] would wag his finger and wave us down from the tree … he always said(my bolds).
As Henry James once so famously advised, this kind of continuous retrospective account is always less dynamic and resonant (both in itself and in terms of a book’s structure) than a single properly dramatised scene.
Unlike Sarah and Doug, I felt that in the second part of the book, where dramatisation takes over, the prose picks up, developing a rhythm and economy often missing in the earlier part.
There was general agreement that over-repetition and lack of economy were faults with the book, but people were ready to forgive them for the insights the book provided into a way of life and a history little known hitherto in the west, and for what they, like many critics, saw as the searingly painful honesty of a narrator accepting his sinfulness and coming to terms with it.

It was on this last point that John and I disagreed most fundamentally with the others. I said that my greatest objection to the book was its disingenuousness. It seemed to me that the whole time we are being manipulated into this position by a narrative which in reality drips with self-regard.
However, our attempts to prove this with reference to the prose fell completely flat. John’s quotation of the opening sentence:
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975
as portentously self-centred (particularly as we will later find that the incident concerns the tragedy of another, not mentioned here) was met with the question, Well, what would you expect of a first-person narrator?
I said, But whatever terrible things happen to others, it always has to be about the narrator. I quoted the end of the chapter in which teenaged Amir and his father and other refugees flee Afghanistan and the Russians invaders in a petrol tanker. When they are finally safely across the border and the tank is opened up, one of the young men, Kamal, has died from the petrol fumes:
Before any of us could say or do a thing, Kamal’s father shoved the barrel [of a gun] in his own mouth. I’ll never forget the echo of that blast. Or the flash of light and the spray of red.
It is always the ending of a section of writing which carries the weight of significance, however, and the chapter does not end here, but with an additional sentence focusing on the narrator and his ‘sensitivity’:
I doubled over and dry-heaved at the side of the road.
Sarah countered that that was precisely how a teenager would think (ie he’d concentrate on himself), and Doug said that it was quite consistent with the selfishness of the narrator, about which he is being completely honest. Neither accepted my argument that as a matter of authorial, rather than narratorial, choice it was an unironic and self-regarding one.

John argued that the opening short section is lacking in focus. There is no indication as to ‘what Amir is today’ so the statement is meaningless. The second sentence continues:
I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking in to the alley near the frozen creek.
Precise the moment may be to the narrator and author, but it lacks precision for the reader, as the situation is not contextualised and there is no further elucidation before the narrator jumps forward in time to the near-present and Golden Gate Park. Here someone is flying kites which may have retrospective significance once the reader has read on and encountered the Afghan kite-running contest at the heart of the story, but they do not carry the presumably intended resonance at this point on a first reading. The narrator then lists the names of people he remembers as he watches the kites, people who will be central to the story but who to the reader at this point are no more than that, just a list of names, before finally sonorously repeating his opening statement:
I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.
Trevor and others, however, insisted that a bit of mystery at the start of a novel was a good thing. We said that there was a difference between mystery and lack of focus, but they did not agree that the passage lacked focus in the way we claimed.

I commented on a passage near the beginning, in which the author neatly if sonorously establishes the core relationship of the book. Referring to himself and Hassan as babies the narrator says:
…we spoke our first words.
Mine was Baba [Father].
His was Amir. My name.
However the effect is then spoilt by overstatement:
Looking back on it now, I think the foundation for what happened in the winter of 1975 – and all that followed – was already laid in those first words.
Others however did not find the message overstated and had no objection to this passage whatever.

Mark hadn’t been able to make this meeting and hearing afterwards about our disagreements commented that reading is ‘all subjective anyway’, which as a writer I don’t know whether to find worrying or comforting.

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January 2006
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Another large meeting to discuss this book of Mark’s choosing. Published in 1929 but set in the late-Victorian period, the novel concerns the ‘adventures’ of a group of children from two colonial families sent to school in England from Jamaica, and captured by pirates en route.
The book was a sensation in its day and is known as the classic which challenged the sentimental Victorian popular image of childhood as innocent, and paved the way for the later Lord of the Flies. However, our group encountered certain problems as to how to read it in the present day and age.

Anne said that she had found the novel unpleasant, but thought that she might have been intended to find it unpleasant, though wasn’t sure of this. Some people, notably Mark, Jenny and new member Hans, found the prose dated and formal for a novel written in the late twenties, although Hans said that he soon adapted and got drawn into the story. Jenny strongly objected to the narrative mode of ‘telling rather than showing,’ and Trevor agreed, saying that he found the author opinionated.
We never really got to grips with this last point in the meeting, but as John said afterwards, the author Richard Hughes, a young man of twenty-six when he wrote the novel in the late twenties, is not the same as the narrator, whom we learn has not visited the island since 1860. The narrator is therefore identified as Victorian, which inevitably informs the voice he/she is given by the author. However, John also said that he nevertheless had a problem with this narrator, who is never further identified and whose attitude to the events of the novel often seems ambivalent. This ambivalence may well be a calculated stratagem, an antidote to Victorian certainties about the nature of children, but it did lead at times to our difficulties in interpreting the author’s own attitude.

Several people noted the parallels between this story and Peter Pan, and we felt that this book was a deliberate pastiche and critique of that tale in which childhood is an idyllic state out of which it would be better not to grow, and in which, although the children adventure away from their parents, they are ultimately cocooned in a sentimental mother-love. Here, on the contrary, the children are said to love their cat more than their mother, suffer little on separation from their parents, and, once let loose on board ship, exhibit a complex and animal amorality which involves a certain amount of matter-of-fact cruelty. In addition, the main protagonist, eleven-year-old Emily, experiences a certain existential awareness which implies a Freudian concept of the complexity of childhood psychology. These moments in Emily’s psychology are presented as moments of change and there is explicit reference to the stages through which children pass as they grow into adulthood, countering the simplistic Victorian child/adult dichotomy. The pirates themselves are indeed at moments presented as childlike, and, in what seems an important and symbolic statement on the part of the author, are unarmed. On many occasions the children and pirates seem deliberately aligned in their amoral and child-adult complexity.

However, from our present-day vantage point we found the novel unsatisfying and the psychology of the children still too simplistic. While I could appreciate the depiction of the children as a refutation of Victorian concepts, I found their lack of trauma on being separated from their parents unrealistic in the light of our subsequent ideas of nurture and parental deprivation, and the novel on this level collusive with Victorian/Edwardian children’s stories of untroubled adventure. There was some discussion about this. Some people pointed out that the children already led somewhat ‘hippyish’ lives independent of their parents in Jamaica, and Trevor said that they were thus absorbed in themselves and took their parents for granted. Mark thought that it could be explained by Richard Hughes’s own Edwardian-style childhood in which middle-class boys were routinely separated from their parents by being sent to boarding school. I said that none of these things could explain the children’s lack of a sense of loss: anyone who is taken for granted is by definition depended upon, and just because separation was the middle-class Edwardian norm did not mean that there was not a sense of loss, inevitably repressed, and that what this book seems to lack from our vantage point, in spite of its Freudian concept of child complexity, is the Freudian idea of emotional repression.
John had wondered to me beforehand if perhaps the fact that none of the children ever comments on the sudden unexpected disappearance of the elder child John (who happens to die on a visit on shore), is perhaps meant by Hughes to be an instance of repression – the narrator does indeed make the point that none of them mentions it. If this is the case, however, the issue of repression doesn’t seem properly addressed, and Jenny in particular found repugnant the way John’s death was skipped over. It is true that one might read the ending, in which Emily condemns the pirates to death for a crime she herself committed but then blanks off and puts it all behind her, as a deliberate portrayal of repression, but once again it is impossible to draw definite conclusions. The narrator declines even to speculate: What was in her mind now? I can no longer read Emily’s deeper thoughts, or handle their cords. While this allows Emily the independence and complexity which Victorian images of childhood would have denied her, it leaves us in the dark as to how conscious she is of the consequences of her actions – and left our group largely unsatisfied.

Neither could we work out the author’s precise stance on the sexual abuse by the pirate cook of the eldest child, Creole Margaret. There was disagreement among us about how likely it is in reality that all of the other children would be as innocent of what is happening to her as they seem to be in the book. Would they really have been so innocent, as indeed Victorian sentimentality would have held? Or is this another instance of repression, and if so is it that of the children or the author: is the author slyly assuming that the children are repressing their own awareness, or is he, in view of the moral climate in which he was writing, simply unable to deal with the issue? In any case, in our present paedophilia-conscious era, the way it was glossed over – and spliced with portrayals of the pirates as humanely quaint – made for us a less than comfortable read. Anne pointed out too that making the abused child Creole made the abuse ‘safe’ in a somewhat racist way.
We felt it was also unclear
how aware Emily is of the sexual nature of the captain’s approach towards herself, when she repels him by so symbolically biting his finger, or how sexual the author intends to imply her own behaviour is when she subsequently woos him back to be her friend. Ultimately we felt it was another instance of authorial ambivalence, that Hughes himself had been unable to address this issue. Someone suggested that indeed the character John had been dispensed with by the author precisely, however subconsciously, in order not to have to deal with the abuse of boys, of which as an ex-boarding-school boy he would have been all too aware.

Classic as it is, we found copies of this book hard to obtain. Sarah hadn’t succeeded in getting one, so hadn’t read it, and said that she didn’t think she would now: we hadn’t exactly sold it to her. Doug, however, was one person in the group who had entered entirely into the spirit of the book and had enjoyed it unreservedly.

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February 2006
Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig

Three new members and a very lively, noisy meeting with lots to distract us: some very tasty titbits provided by Jenny, an unusually large amount of wine and, since two of our new members had just moved into the area, the subject of house removal - all a far cry from the grim Argentine prison-cell setting of this novel of Trevor’s choosing. Nevertheless, in spite of the distractions, we managed to conduct a disciplined discussion.

In this novel, in the night-time darkness of the cell, Molina, imprisoned for a homosexual offence against a minor, relates to his political-dissident cellmate Valentin the spell-binding stories of lush and supernatural films in all of which, someone pointed out, people and things are often not quite what they seem. As the stories unravel, Valentin too becomes bewitched by them and his rational cynical guard comes down, and the two men begin to affect each other profoundly, drawing each other like ‘spiderwomen’ into their worlds.

Trevor said that when he read the book years ago he thought it was brilliant, but this time, reading it in a rush while suffering from flu, he had found it somewhat hard going, and wasn’t now at all sure that it was any good after all.
A main sticking point, he said, was the footnotes which interrupt the story at seemingly random points and provide a lengthy and dry account of the history of theories of homosexuality. Everyone agreed, and no one felt sure of their function or usefulness. New member Clare who is a counsellor and psychotherapist was particularly irritated by the material as over-familiar, although Anne suggested that maybe it was there to educate a homophobic 1970s Argentine audience. Even so, we were still puzzled about the way the footnotes appear, splicing up the story as they do – most often mid-dialogue – and seeming to run counter to it in mode. We all however agreed that there is a strong air of authority about the writing of this novel, and felt that nothing in it is done without calculated intention.

We turned our attention to the mode of the story itself. Much of it is played out through dialogue alone. We all agreed that this is brilliantly done, that although there is thus never any narrative intervention or description we gained a vivid picture of the cell and sense of the two characters. Clare presumed that Puig’s use of this mode must simply be due to his training as a filmmaker, but Trevor had a different theory:
As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the prison authorities are spying on Valentin, and later we are treated to transcripts of surveillance reports. Trevor wondered if in fact the dialogue we read is a transcript of a surveillance tape, and we all entertained this idea until I pointed out that the dialogue sometimes bleeds into first Molina’s and later Valentin’s inner thoughts in a way which suggests otherwise. Alternatively, and more simply although politically, it is a way of promoting the novel’s theme of the power of fantasy in the face of oppression and political over-rationality, allowing the characters and their impulses and the dream-like recounted film fantasies to float free of narrative restrictions or contingency. Clare then suggested that the footnotes are above all a formal narrative device illustrating the uselessness of theory in the face of the human need for sensual fantasy and the comfort of relationships – for it is indeed very hard to attend to them while one is involved in the story of the novel.

All in all, we were very impressed by this book and its devastating end, and new member Fran said she was very glad of the chance to read it, which otherwise she wouldn’t have done. At which point, the meeting disintegrated into separate and noisy discussions on other topics, and we fell on the food, and to our shame all of the wine got drunk.

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ELIZABETH BAINES: | PLAYS | SHORT STORIES | NOVELS| NON-FICTION | OTHER WORK

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