The Colour of Blood by Brian Moore
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
here to add your comments
Small Island by Andrea Levy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
here to add your comments
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
however did not find the message overstated and had no objection
to this passage whatever.
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.
here to add your comments
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
here to add your comments
Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
here to add your comments