Poetry Review: Yellow & Blue, by Thomas A. Clark

yellowandblue

This review first appeared in The Literateur Thursday 24 April 2014

The experience of reading Thomas A. Clark’s Yellow & Blue is much like taking a walk. The small and unassuming stanzas, resting in the clean white space of a page without capital letters or punctuation, lead us on a journey past sea rocks and skerries, gables and gardens, sandwort and shells, bog-cotton and birch, mountains and moss. Clark delights in simple, natural things and the power and beauty inherent in them:

 

————————————after rain
————————————briar leaves
————————————have a scent
————————————of apples

 

This is quiet, contemplative, Zen-like poetry that records what Kathleen Jamie termed a ‘walking-pace life’; a life in which time is taken to pay close and careful heed to the natural world surrounding us. As Clark puts it: ‘If we have been given the gift of the world, the very least we can do in return is give it our attention.’ His poems act as ‘little spaces of quiet where things can be seen clearly’.

Though Clark’s is a peaceful sort of poetry, Yellow & Blue is filled with a sense of liveliness and humour. It is poetry with a wink:

 

————————————here is a garden
————————————of tansy run riot
————————————around anyone
————————————bright enough
————————————to neglect it

 

Though he revels in rivers, flowers and mountains, he does not turn his back on human life. The stanzas which linger awhile on domestic scenes are some of the most powerful sections of Yellow & Blue:

 

————————————in a back parlour
————————————the best furniture
————————————is seldom used
————————————linen is folded
————————————neatly in a drawer
————————————fresh for an occasion
————————————that never arrives
————————————the clock ticking

 

The apparent simplicity of such stanzas belie the close attention Clark pays to language and sound. Indeed, this is poetry for the ear as well as the eye:

 

————————————in a wilderness
————————————or bewilderment
————————————of sandwort
————————————and bladder-wrack
————————————small shell place
————————————sheltered

 

So much is going on beneath the still surface of these lines; Clark’s work may be quiet and contemplative, but it is bustling with life. The visual and half-rhyming repetition of ‘wild’ in ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’ evokes the untamed nature of the landscape Clark is describing, and the alliterative quality of ‘shell’ and ‘sheltered’ gives an onomatopoeic effect of a hushing shush, the quiet nature of this sheltered place. Visual and aural patterns are created by the assonance of the ‘i’ in ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’, the ‘a’ in ‘sandwort’, ‘bladder’ and ‘wrack’, and the ‘e’ in ‘shell’ and ‘sheltered’, as well as by the consonance of the ‘d’ and ‘r’ in ‘wilderness’, ‘bewilderment’, ‘sandwort’, ‘bladder’ and ‘sheltered’. These patterns aptly echo the rhythmic, flowing quality of a well-paced walk.

There are so many layers to this one small stanza, which reflects the multi-faceted nature of the landscape Clark is describing; the open land may appear vast and clear, but look closer and you will find it packed full of the intricate details of living things. Such richly textured evocations of a peculiarly Scottish landscape are brought to life by the cadences and lilt of Clark’s words, their rhythmic quality and the patterns of sound that emerge as each line progresses. The multisyllabic ‘wilderness’ and ‘bewilderment’ are reduced to the shorter ‘sandwort’ and ‘bladder-wrack’, followed by the monosyllabic ‘small shell place’, ending in the one-word line ‘sheltered’, the hard ‘d’ acting as an aural full-stop and mirroring the simplifying, quieting act of finding shelter, of being enclosed and protected from the noisy elements.

Clark’s literary snapshots of his journey could be classified as ‘the art of the ordinary’, a term which highlights the painterly nature of his verbal landscapes. Robert Stacey has commented on the three categories into which Clark’s work falls – still life, landscape and domestic interior – referring to his poetry as ‘a still life in action’. This can be seen most clearly in lines like:

 

————————————by a window
————————————blue cornflowers
————————————in a yellow cup
————————————continually
————————————wake up

 

These ordinary objects are brought to life by Clark’s close attention, and the titular colours of yellow and blue are a recurring theme in his work. In one of his installations, the phrase ‘one blue moment’ is printed in blue on a white wall in a room containing a blue bedspread, and in another room the phrase:

 

————————————Anyone
————————————who comes
————————————to yellow
————————————wants more

 

is printed in yellow on a white wall beside a yellow wall. Such rooms, in which Clark’s words find the space to breath, demonstrate how his work does not fit quite so comfortably in magazines; the texts require a different kind of reading process. In book form, their spare, isolated situation on the pages of collections like Yellow & Blue provide this crucial breathing space. Poetry outside the clustered pages of a conventional book or magazine, in Clark’s words, ‘takes you by surprise’. Rather than being tucked away out of sight, arrived at through deliberate searching, it can be stumbled upon accidentally.

The sense of poetry being part of our everyday world, whether it is placed in a hospital in Glasgow or an old kimono shop in Nagoya (where Clark’s poems have appeared), makes poetry accessible rather than lofty. Clark’s belief in ‘poetry as making, as a practical rather than an intellectual activity’ underlines this down-to-earth appeal. Though the poems of Yellow & Blue appear in book form, there is still a craftsman-like quality to their shape and movement; they could just as easily be carved into stone or painted on a wall. Indeed Clark’s own publishing endeavour Moschatel Press, which he runs with the artist Laurie Clark, produces hand-made artist books that bear out this sense of poetry as craft or practice.

This meticulous, crafted and objective quality grounds Clark’s poems in their linguistic materiality and in that of the natural world they gesture towards; they are pastoral but never Utopian. As John Freeman has commented of Clark’s work: ‘To value the light is to be aware of the darkness’. Though the beauty and joy to be found in natural things is felt throughout Yellow & Blue, they are not quite idealised. There is a sense, felt in the silences around the words, that these things we cherish might someday be lost. The act of valuing something stands alongside the horror of losing it, and how awful would it be to lose our connection to certain landscapes and the things they contain through apathy and negligence?

Recording and revelling in a particularly Celtic type of landscape that might someday be lost brings to life shades of myth and folklore, found in lines such as:

 

————————————sylphs and nymphs and kelpies
————————————might slip between
————————————silks and shocks and sulks
————————————of water into real bodies

 

Such images escape the pages of fairy-tales and emerge into the very real world witnessed throughout Clark’s walking poem. Yellow & Blue closes on another stanza in which the fantastical is placed in the real, a magical image that could have emerged straight out of a tale of bygone days:

 

————————————a lamp of fish oil
————————————with a wick of rushes
————————————gathered by the light
————————————of a full moon

 

Through taking this imaginary journey with Clark, we come to realise that we have not yet lost our connection to a host of precious places and things. They are there, waiting to be discovered and treasured, if we would only take the time to walk and listen and look.

Book Review: The Waiting by Regi Claire

Waiting

This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp, published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS)

Lizzie Fairbairn, protagonist of Regi Claire’s The Waiting, might just be one of the most surprising septuagenarians you’re likely to encounter in literary fiction. Visited in her Edinburgh home by the vaguely sinister Rachel, granddaughter of her childhood friend Marlene, Lizzie is forced to confront incidents from her history that put her repressed,  seething nature through the wringer. As the story shifts from the 1930s through to the present day, Marlene’s complex influence over Lizzie’s past unfolds as Rachel’s intrusion  into her current life grows increasingly alarming.

An ominous atmosphere settles over Lizzie’s story from the start. As a child her perception of the world around her seems skewed, as if she views nature as inherently cruel  and predatory. Through Lizzie’s eyes, trees reach into the sky and tear it apart, the wind viciously tears leaves from branches ‘by the fistful’ and the sun sears human flesh like a branding iron. Seagulls screech and jeer at her, and a bunch of chrysanthemums are perceived by Lizzie as ‘stiff and uncompromising. Callous.’

Even as an old woman, at a time in life when tempers are assumed to have mellowed, Lizzie’s view of the Edinburgh landscape surrounding her is laced with violence:  ‘On good days I sometimes picture the hill coming furiously alive, tossing its giant head to cast off the human fleas crawling all over it.’ Her neighbour Miss Erskine’s battle with aggressively spreading skin cancer seems only to reinforce this notion that nature is remorselessly uncaring. Lizzie’s spite becomes fused with her malevolent view of the natural world, and she appears to take pleasure in her fantasy of the hill harming the humans who have dared to walk upon it.

An incident in Lizzie’s childhood, when her little dog Liquorice becomes pregnant even though she is far too young to bear a litter, seems to have a profound effect on her.  How could Mother Nature allow such a wicked thing to happen? Lizzie’s mum blames her daughter for allowing the dog to fall pregnant, and Lizzie keenly feels the torment of this  blame: ‘My heart felt stone-heavy with grief and guilt. Ignorance is the root of so much harm. So much evil.’ Lizzie, for her part, blames the unrepentant Marlene for the tragic incident, and attributes it to her friend’s remorseless immorality, leading her to wonder whether ‘the world would be a better place if people were truly without conscience, as  wilful and capricious as Marlene.’ At least that way we would be spared the agony of contrition.

This lack of morality in Marlene raises the much-explored issue of ‘nature versus nurture’, a matter examined in countless texts, from Oliver Twist to Lionel Shriver’s  We Need to Talk about Kevin. Whether a child can simply be born ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or whether we are always a product of our upbringing, is sensitively documented by Claire  throughout the development of Marlene’s character. More than once, Marlene’s mother Mrs Gray asks the question: ‘Why on earth did I go and make her?’, a question which explains a  lot with regards to the woman Marlene becomes. This callous dismissal of her own child, as if Marlene was no more than a hindrance or an error, is compounded by the fact that Marlene is illegitimate, the shameful by-product of a sexual affair Mrs Gray had as a widow. Rumour has it that twice Mrs Gray tried to leave the baby on the doorstep of the child’s father  and twice had the bundle returned to her.

This rejection is repeated years later when primary school teacher Mrs Robson gives Marlene the role of Mary Magdalene in the school nativity play, a calculated act with  significant repercussions. As a bastard child, apparently unfit to play the part of anyone but a ‘fallen woman’, Marlene’s Mary Magdalene is crow-barred into the story, despite  the illogical chronology, and made ‘to stumble about the stage like a drunk, searching and searching, unable to find her way to the stable.’ Lizzie notes that no one, not even Marlene or Mrs Gray, seems to see anything wrong with this, but Lizzie’s ‘heart still bleeds for Marlene’ when she thinks of it, years later.

Lizzie puts a great deal of emphasis on another incident from her and Marlene’s childhood. Marlene has no idea that she is a bastard child, a product of perceived sin,  until Lizzie tells her one day as they sit on a primrose covered riverbank. Lizzie becomes convinced that this is the moment Marlene loses her innocence and childlike faith in people, that it is perhaps she who is to blame for Marlene’s unravelling; that this is why her friend stopped being ‘the trusting child she had once been — before the  primrose bank …’ Was Marlene born ‘bad’, as her mother seems to suggest? Or was this a self-fulfilling belief, the very reason why Marlene turns out as she does? Was the  social stigmatizing to blame, or is it all Lizzie’s fault?

And yet, it is apparent to the reader from the very beginning that it is Marlene who repeatedly leads Lizzie into horrible situations, not the other way round. Whether it is Marlene persuading Lizzie to take a colleague out for lunch so that she might humiliate him by probing him on his past crimes, or getting the pair of them sacked from jobs in a hotel, or leading Lizzie into a museum where she is assaulted, Marlene is shown to continuously lead her friend astray.

This malignant influence appears to lead to a gradual decline in Lizzie’s own sense of morality. When Marlene comes into some money she decides to visit a poor tenement family as an act of charity, taking Lizzie along for the ride. Merely mimicking the act of helping the impoverished family, the pair fails to do anything but  take from them: ‘These people were poor alright. Yet they made us sit down on their least rickety chairs, closest to the fire, spread a fresh tablecloth and offered us  tea and homemade pancakes. And we, who had come empty-handed, ate their pancakes, drank their tea, and left.’ Even when the newly moneyed Marlene humiliates her friend by visiting the dressmaker’s where Lizzie works and abusing her newfound position of superiority, Lizzie still remains her friend.

Indeed, Lizzie seems to keep missing her chance to leave this noxious friendship, which is perplexing and, on occasion, infuriating to read. When Lizzie muses ‘How come  I hadn’t ditched her long ago?’ the average response is surely an exasperated: ‘Yes, how come?!’ Lizzie knows her friend is a user and a thief (‘She just took things, used them,  then lost interest’) and yet she stands by her, forgiving her time and time again, perhaps because of her guilt over the primrose bank incident, or perhaps because, in her heart,  Lizzie believes she is as bad as her friend. Indeed, there is a destructive side to Lizzie, even in her old age, a nastiness that rises to the surface as she surveys the young  folk surrounding her in the city’s Meadows: ‘I feel like pulling the wires out their ears, feel like grabbing hold of their sloppy jeans, chopping off the excess cloth and tossing it to Yoyo for chews.’

Where this unprovoked rage stems from is unclear, but Lizzie’s bitterness suggests she is a thwarted individual, burdened by the experiences of her past. Unlike Marlene,  however, Lizzie chastises herself for her less noble actions. She refers to herself as ‘a selfish beast’ and admonishes herself in a shocking fashion: ‘Bitch, I scourge myself,  bloody bitch. How can you be so heartless?’ It is alarming and yet strangely thrilling to witness an old lady, a figure endlessly caricatured as dotty and benign, acting  in such an unconventional and vivid manner. It is as though Lizzie has been infected by her friend, and Lizzie’s husband certainly seems to believe in the toxic effect that  Marlene can have on others: ‘She’s poison, believe me.’

Lizzie’s husband Alan raises another important issue explored by Claire, namely the social position of women throughout this period. Alan is of a decidedly old-school  mode of thinking, and treats his wife with a dismissiveness bordering on disdain: ‘Even now I can see his hand swat me away like a fly, Into the kitchen, woman, I’m waiting for my  tea, then reach for the Scotsman or the tumbler of whisky on the coffee table.’ Alan takes a biblical stance on how women should be treated and what their role in society  should be: ‘he held forth on how a wife was decreed to be the helpmate and support of her husband — made from his very own rib, after all …’

It is for this reason that he so detests Marlene; she does not conform to his idea of a moral woman, so far is she from his ideal vision of loving wife and mother.  She is unfaithful to her husband, a sexual tease of the first order, a heavy drinker, and a negligent mother. This link between women and morality — the idea that women  should be kind, nurturing and self-sacrificing above all else — is broken by Marlene in a way that is simultaneously deplorable and exhilarating. Her husband and children suffer terribly, which is unforgivable, yet Marlene bursts from the restrictive mould imposed by Alan and his ilk, something which, if not quite deserving of admiration,  is nonetheless deeply satisfying to read.

Regi Claire tackles these weighty topics with sensitivity and nuance, deftly weaving them through a narrative which time-trips between numerous decades without being reductive.  There are moments when the quality of her writing is truly stunning, whether it is the comical image of a group of old women hobbling over a yard and sweeping the ground with their  flap of skirts, or an elderly Lizzie listening to rock music and thinking of WWII, the boom of the drums intermingling with the boom of anti-aircraft fire, ‘The sounds of destruction  visited upon the living.’ Claire’s characterisation is subtle and precise, whether she is describing Marlene’s husband consumed with regret for not following his career as a research  scientist, or Lizzie having never held a grown woman’s hand until she holds Rachel’s, or Marlene, for all her flaws, living life to the absolute heights and depths, raging  in the throes of death.

This is a novel full of the pits and peaks of life, of humour and pathos, of joyful light and nightmarish darkness, and the crisp, clean, razor-sharp style of Claire’s writing  cuts to the heart of a story that will linger in the reader’s imagination for long after the final, dazzling passage ends.

Jacqueline Thompson Creative Writing PhD student The University of Edinburgh J.Thompson-9@sms.ed.ac.uk

The Waiting by Regi Claire is published by Word Power Books, 2012.

Book Review: Republics of the Mind by James Robertson

This review first appeared on The Bottle Imp website, published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS). It is edited and produced by Gwen Enstam, ASLS’s International Project Developer, and Duncan Jones,  ASLS’s Director.

It’s no easy task to produce twenty-two short stories of startling diversity and successfully unite them by a select handful of themes, but in Republics of the Mind James Robertson does just that. Whether the stories here are set in a decaying Scottish safari park or a graveyard, a South Dakota reservation or an abandoned mental hospital,  Robertson continuously returns to the same group of dilemmas: entrapment and the wish to escape, inertia, nightmarish visions of the present and future, existential crises,  mortality and, throughout it all, fear. Robertson’s gritty, realistic style and evocations of Scottish working-class life have earned him comparisons with the likes of Irvine  Welsh and James Kelman, but is it when he enters into the realms of the nightmarish and surreal that his explorations of certain ideas are at their most vivid and compelling?

Many of the characters here are trapped in some way, united by their inability or unwillingness to free themselves from their fate. In ‘Giraffe’, Jimmy and Dave are sent to  clean up a run-down safari park’s ‘meat-room’, opening the door to find the room heaving with maggots and cockroaches, rank with decomposing flesh and oozing black blood.  There isn’t much else they can do but clean it; they’re poor and need their jobs: ‘That was it really. They were stuck. They didn’t have great prospects in front of them.  They had to take what they were given.’ They are just like the animals in the safari park: trapped and surrounded by decay. Poverty has entrenched them.

Likewise in ‘The Jonah’, Billy tries to make a better life for himself but is burdened with his immoral, womanising friend Sean, as well as by the poverty that  restricts his movements. Hitch-hiking with his irksome friend, the pair briefly splits up, and Billy is given a chance to take a lift and part ways with Sean. A thousand things race through his head as he decides whether to accept the lift or refuse it: ‘This was all in a moment. A moment like all these moments in his life when he felt he was  being tossed like a coin. For a moment the chances hang spinning in the air, and then you call.’ Chance does play a role in our lives, but so does the act of making choices,  and in liberating himself from his friend we hope Billy has finally found some semblance of emancipation.

In the titular story, a couple rail against the new government, disgusted that Scotland is represented by such corrupt and detached politicians. They discover a mental  state which seems to remove them from the strife their country is experiencing: ‘It was a state of being in which all the people understood themselves, and what they were doing, and why they were where they were.’ Is this their mode of dealing with their own sense of powerlessness, a way to find inner peace, purpose and contentment? Or are they just  running away from reality? Is their method of escape not really an escape at all?

In ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (I’ll Tell You Everything I Know)’, a housewife seeks escapism from her mundane life. She is a slave to schedule and wants to experience energy and life, to finally feel something. She visits a record shop and listens to the blues, music ‘unlike anything she’d heard’, and this offers her a momentary escape. The young man in the store who introduces her to this exotic music feels similarly trapped, though by the very opposite of what traps the housewife: there is no one waiting for him back home, and the excess of freedom is oppressive.

‘Willie Masson’s Miracle’ reveals the plight of the elderly, the poor souls who are mentally fit and healthy but whose sound minds are trapped inside bodies that are  failing them. Willie’s arm is paralysed, but as he is being severely patronised by a home help he manages to summon up some unknown force to exact his revenge: ‘…he was amazed  to see his hand flip up and catch the wifie a neat wee skelp with the knuckles right on the end of her nose.’ In this he finds a brief respite from being babied and misunderstood, a brilliant act of defiance.

This sense of entrapment bleeds into the feeling of inertia that plagues so many of the characters here. In ‘Screen Lives’ Shona plucks at her loose skin, ‘…filled with a terrible dread of being old, of not having done all these things.’ She fears wasting her life but can’t seem to summon the courage to do anything about it. Likewise in ‘The Dayshift’, a nameless man runs through the motions of his dull job and repetitive home life, his stultifying routine devoid of diversity or spontaneity. He muses on ‘the ten-minute walk  that he would make to his house where his wife would be in the kitchen. The smell of soup. Always the same smell, always the same soup.’ He is well aware his life is humdrum  and monotonous but doesn’t do a thing about it. Though Dean is only twenty-five in ‘The Future According to Luke’, he feels ‘like he wasn’t fully alive, like somebody had reached in and taken some vital organ out of his body while he was sleeping.’ He wants anything to happen, even something bad, just to lift him out of his ennui.

Fear of time running out intensifies in ‘The Claw’, a story about a young man who visits his grandfather in an old folks’ home. He sees that his grandfather is ‘caught between history and hope, but history weighs heavy in his scales now, and every year it gobbles up hope.’ The young man’s dismay at his grandfather’s failing body — particularly his  arthritic ‘claw’ — is made particularly wrenching when we discover that the young man is HIV-positive, that he is terrified of decaying like his grandfather. The old man’s predicament is a horrible premonition of what his own will be. Similarly, the poor soul sitting on the toilet in ‘Facing It’ looks at the blood in the bowl and feels like  ‘everything has failed him, he knew it was all coming apart in there…’ He does not want to face the road to death — his family’s distress, doctors, hospitals — and instead wants to just walk into the hills and die. These men’s dread of time passing is not just a symbol of their inertia but a terrible fear of a more imminent threat.

If these real life events are nightmarish then they are nothing compared to the surreal events of ‘The Plagues’, ‘Pretending to Sleep’, ‘The Dictionary’, ‘The Rock Cake Incident’, ‘MacTaggart’s Shed’, and ‘Sixes and Sevens’. These six tales mark Robertson out from the usual comparisons with the gritty realistic style of Kelman and the like. True,  Robertson’s stories are filled with the stuff of real life, but his ghoulish flights of fancy are arguably the most memorable tales of this collection.

‘The Plagues’ sees a man’s apartment overrun with a biblical swarm of frogs, seemingly a manifestation of his depression. The ominous last line is like something straight  out of a horror film. In the sci-fi-esque ‘Pretending to Sleep’ people start lying down in the middle of the street for no known reason, and in ‘The Dictionary’ letters spill  out in all directions from the titular tome, a staunchly reliable thing made unreliable and perplexing. ‘The Rock Cake Incident’ has a Hitchcockian atmosphere (including an  intensely creepy dentist), and portrays normal things as unsettling and frightening, ultimately unknowable.

The most disquieting story is surely ‘MacTaggart’s Shed’, set in a future dystopian version of Scotland where ethnic cleansing occurs. Whether the events of people being  herded into a shed to be executed are real or imagined is uncertain. The man who witnesses these events, Chrissie, is certainly told that he’s dreamed it up: ‘Ye’ve been watchin  too much shite on the telly. Aw these news programmes ye watch, the documentaries and aw that. That aw happens somewhere else. Other countries. No here. Ye’re away wi the fairies.’

In ‘Sixes and Sevens’ we find an equally unsettling read, during which the reader doesn’t know quite what to think. This too has a Hitchcockian feel, set in an abandoned  mental hospital and focussing on a man who may be a visitor and may be a patient. The man’s grandfather lived here during the war, blighted by shellshock, and it is deliberately  unclear if he is visited by his spirit or if he is time-tripping, or if perhaps he himself is a ghost. At one point the man turns to see that the armchairs have ‘all crept a little  closer to the fireplace’, an event which would seem well at home in a ghost story.

Republics of the Mind is an altogether fascinating and unsettling read, expertly crafted to lead the reader direct into the psyches of a host of characters placed in situations ranging from the familiar to the preternatural. The dialogue is spot-on (Robertson has a particular knack for transcribing Scottish dialects) and each story  is shot through with a tangible sense of time and place, even when the action strays into the eerie and unknown. It’s an eclectic collection of tales, given a strong sense  of structure by Robertson’s encompassing themes, and is sure to provoke as much thought as it deserves admiration.

Jacqueline Thompson Creative Writing PhD student The University of Edinburgh J.Thompson-9@sms.ed.ac.uk

Republics of the Mind by James Robertson is published by Black and White, 2012.

Book Review: Captain of the Steppe

captain-of-the-steppe-195x300

This review first appeared in The Literateur (21 June 2013)

From the gallows to the trenches, the most desperate environments can give rise to humour, and the ferociously bleak landscape of Oleg Pavlov’s Captain of the Steppe is no exception. But can humour act as a means of expressing rage at a despotic system, or does it in some way make light of an unavoidably dark situation?

Set during the dying days of the Soviet Empire, Captain Khabarov is stationed in the godforsaken steppe, an enormous plain stretching far across the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. It is an unfathomable place, so bitterly cold the light-bulbs pop like boils and the inner walls grow skins of ice. The soldiers stationed here to guard exiled prisoners (or “zeks”) are sent last year’s newspapers and rotten food, surrounded by lice and rats, their wages as frozen as their bones. It is a place of stagnation and decay, of sickness and overcrowding, where the men feel cheated, lost and overlooked. Pavlov describes the penal colony as a blood clot, a glob of phlegm, a kennel and a graveyard, stinking of fried food and soiled laundry. He paints a vivid, often nauseating, picture.

And yet, despite taking place within this grim enclosure and the confounding landscape that encroaches so relentlessly upon it, Captain of the Steppe is far from a demoralising read. This is due in large part to Pavlov’s macabre sense of humour, vibrant language, startling similes and vivid characterisation. Pavlov, who was just twenty-four when the book was published in Russia in 1994, spent his military service as a prison guard in Kazakhstan, infusing the narrative with a strong dose of authenticity. Though the plot is fictional, the petty officiousness, political corruption and obscene injustice depicted are so sad, funny and engrossing because there is a resounding ring of truth to them.

One particularly illuminating source of the book’s grotesque humour is obese Cossack Ilya Peregud, a non-conformist, resourceful escapist – and hopeless drunk – who lives in fear of having his ponytail cut off. Ilya does not want “to turn into a worker ant” and knows “a hundred different ways of making vodka… from rice, wheat, rotten apples, wood chips, old women’s headscarves or sour cabbage soup”; when he drinks, “Ilya would take wing!” It is a heavenly depiction of drunkenness, and who can blame him when he has been placed in such dire circumstances?

What of the eponymous Khabarov? The novel centres round its hero’s decision to plant potatoes in order to feed his half-starving men. It is a simple act, done out of goodness, yet has lasting repercussions. The fact that Khabarov has not been ordered, or sought permission, to plant the potatoes angers and frightens his military superiors:

“So the matter has nothing to do with potatoes, really, but with the fact that a man like that, with nothing to lose, like this Khabarov, has dared to go against the rules. Turns out this is a political problem. Such people are more dangerous than any infectious illness.”

The potatoes are a demonstration of rebellion to the officials but represent hope for Khabarov, and in their green shoots the reader can see a symbol of the captain’s conviction, tenacity and humanity.

Though such events take place in the faraway land of the Kazakh steppe, there are a surprising number of vernacular words and phrases included throughout the narrative (“go on a bender”, “taking the piss” and “bullshitting”, to name a few), giving the dialogue an earthy, authentic feel. Credit for this should go to translator Ian Appleby, whose light touch makes a topic foreign to most British readers feel accessible and intimate. Equally arresting are the surprising similes with which the book teems: “a link of smoked sausage, curled round like a mongrel’s tail and with the same sort of red, crimped arsehole”. There are also some magically surreal moments: potatoes are personified; a wolf talks; and a man fuses with the wood of his chair. Such familiar language and left-of-field imagery add colour and life to the bleached-out, dead nature of the steppe.

Men dominate this barren landscape and yet, peripheral as they are, a whole article could be devoted to its women. They seem to fall into one of two categories: lascivious, cruel and ugly; or frightened, mute and submissive. Pavlov expresses a strikingly ageist vision of female beauty: “The young women were fair-skinned and slim, while the old women had skin like cured ham and were fat.” True, he might have witnessed such women in this particular landscape, but with no other more varied depictions of women on offer it is hard to excuse such dismissive, binary descriptions, especially when the male characters are so diverse and nuanced. However, it is a story that can be firmly classified as a product of its time and environment, and Pavlov should perhaps be forgiven for lacking feminist ideals in Russia, 1994.

Yet, while Russia remains plagued with corruption and totalitarianism, while media compliance and electoral irregularities add to the sense of a deeply flawed democracy, Pavlov’s work will continue to strike a chord. It is filled with black humour, but within this lies the heart of the men’s despair; you either laugh in such terrible situations or you cry (or worse). By showing the men’s humanity, their lack of otherness, Pavlov highlights the injustice that has been done to them and makes us feel their torment. In this way, Captain of the Steppe becomes a brilliant and lasting expression of a bitter, righteous rage.

You Talkin’ To Me?: Book Review

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I wrote this for The Scotsman last year but it never saw the light of day…until now!

Rhetoric: it’s a bit of a dry topic, isn’t it?  Full of old men in togas droning on, Latin words you can barely wrap your tongue around and all manner of complicated rules?  Not so in Sam Leith’s wonderfully witty and informative new book You Talkin’ To Me?  Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama.

In this book, Leith, a regular contributor to the Guardian, Evening Standard, Wall Street Journal and Spectator, sets out to prove that “this is not a subject that needs to be intimidating.” Ever wondered why you can never remember what page number you read something on but you can remember its location on the page?  Leith’s musings on rhetoric and memory will enlighten you.  Ever considered the phrase “pure rhetoric” to be an insult?  Leith will change your mind on that matter.  After reading this book, you will never again be able to listen to a politician’s speech without a knowing smile creeping over your face and thoughts like “what an obvious attempt at exordium” entering your head.

Rhetoric is, as Leith puts it, “the art of persuasion: the attempt by one human being to influence another in words.  It is no more complicated than that.”  It can be formal, used by the likes of priests and politicians to influence their audience, but it can also be as ordinary as a man chatting up a woman in a nightclub or someone trying to wriggle out of getting a parking-ticket.  That’s what’s so refreshing about Leith’s book; he takes a topic often thought of as archaic, dusts it down, and brings it slap bang into the twenty-first century.

True, all the old familiars are here: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, but so are a wide and often surprising range of other famous figures, from Satan and Sarah Palin to JFK and Jennifer Lopez.  The fact that George Galloway, Gandhi and Art Garfunkel (unusual bedfellows by anyone’s standards) lie together in the book’s index is an indication of how far-reaching and entertaining Leith’s examples of rhetoric are.  When ancient figures are discussed – and they’re discussed throughout the book – the information imparted is genuinely enlightening.

The book has a sometimes scholarly feel – Leith certainly knows his onions – but whenever it risks becoming too “high-brow” Leith pulls it back down to earth by quoting a song from South Park or relating an amusing anecdote involving Piers Morgan’s doomed appearance on Have I Got News For You?, a programme which, interestingly, uses a rhetorical question for its title (you start to notice these things after reading the book).  In this way, the drier, more complicated information is rendered accessible and sits more readily in the reader’s memory.

An example of this is when Leith tells us about “Judicial Rhetoric” – rhetoric that looks to the past in order to convict or exonerate – and uses a scene from the 1992 courtroom drama A Few Good Men to illustrate his point.  By describing an exchange between Tom Cruise’s character Daniel Kaffee and Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep, Leith is able to use heady terms such as “conjectural stasis”, “qualitative and/or translative stasis”, “ethos appeal” and “pronominal movement” and actually make sense of them.

The tone is winningly direct but full of amusing flourishes, such as when Leith refers to the time when rhetoric becomes lofty as “when rhetoric puts on a dinner jacket and polishes its dancing shoes”, or describes a drunk girl as having had “a baker’s dozen of Bacardi Breezers”.

The book is happily organised into bite-size chunks, making the often weighty topics more digestible.  Some of the content is unavoidably dense – I’m still trying to wrap my tongue (and head) around words such as “anadiplosis” and “occultation” – but there’s a handy glossary at the back of the book for when things get a bit tricky.

From the origins of rhetoric in the far-off climes of Ancient Greece to the rhetorical tricks used by the likes of David Cameron today, Leith’s book covers vast ground and gives an excellent overview of a topic that is, as it turns out, extremely interesting and, as Leith puts it, “gathers in the folds of its robes everything that makes us human”.  Who knew?

Next to Love: Book Review

next-to-love-cover

This review first appeared in The Scotsman October 2011

Can a novel focussing on the lives of three women span three complex, earth-shattering decades without being reductive?  This is what U.S. author Ellen Feldman (shortlisted for the Orange prize for her 2009 novel Scottsboro) seeks to do in her new novel Next to Love.

The story follows three friends living in a small town in Massachusetts between 1941 and 1964. Babe, Grace and Millie are each left behind as their men go off to fight in WWII.  Those who return are maimed terribly, and not just in the physical sense.  Babe’s shell-shocked husband Claude has seen so much that his missing fingers are genuinely insignificant to him.

Babe is dropped from her job in a telegraph office as soon as the soldiers return, and spends the novel railing against discrimination, not just against women but black people too.  Grace and Millie seem unaware of any discrimination, or if they’re aware of it they don’t let it bother them.  Grace has no problem being a housewife, except that she’s missing a husband and can’t seem to function without him.  The quickly re-married Millie appears to have dealt with the grief of losing her husband astonishingly well, but appearances can be deceptive.

Throughout the narrative, we learn many things: that Jewish soldiers were told by the U.S. Army to ‘Eat ham for Uncle Sam’, their necks looped with dog-tags stamped ‘H’ for Hebrew; that black soldiers lived by the myth that their time on the battlefield would earn them equality back home; that countless working women were sent home (just like Grace is) to be cinched-in by full skirts and tight bodices, condemned to the kitchen to cook elaborate meals for men with the trembles.  Despite the new material wealth (when industries, swollen by producing military equipment, poured their resources into peacetime needs) the women’s hearts and men’s minds were still breaking.

Broken hearts and shell-shocked minds are bad enough, but it’s how their trauma is dealt with that causes the greatest damage to these characters.  The three women’s husbands may have been ‘startlingly articulate’ in their letters home, but sharing is seen as unmanly and the unspeakable remains unspoken.  Women like Millie seem to deal with their grief by painting lipstick smiles on their faces and taping things up in boxes.  That’s what the men had been fighting for, after all: the image of the ‘good Christian wife’.  When the men return, having seen ‘dead bodies with twisted limbs, staring eyes, and oozing intestines’, how can they find such beauty and such innocence so unsettling?

It takes decades for terms like ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ to make sense of their condition, to give the terrifying thing a name.  Until that time, broken men like Claude harm themselves, harm their wives, thrash around in bed at night, sweating and screaming and unravelling in the dark.  Some end up like Joe Dumbrowsky, ‘who fought his way through France and Germany only to go into the garage in his own backyard, close the door, and turn on the car engine.’

It isn’t just the men.  The three women in the novel turn to drink, develop obsessions and crumble like their meticulously-crafted pastries.  Overwhelming, suppressed grief is to blame, but so is the chilling ‘Housewife’s Syndrome’, cured, according to Babe’s doctor, by gardening, needlepoint and painting by numbers.  The doctor is keen to try the last himself but doesn’t have the time.

Things haven’t changed enough for black people either.  Many black veterans are unofficially diverted from college towards Trade School, despite the G.I. Bill promising to take care of their education.  They’re still employed as servants, banned from the local pool, accused of spreading Polio.  Their boys are still beaten to death for whistling at white ladies.  It’s the same for Jews; Millie is still excluded from ladies’ groups for marrying one, her son is still beaten in the schoolyard for being a ‘Jewboy’.  As one good Christian man jokes: ‘I pray to heaven the English will stop Hitler… but not too soon.’

Feldman manages to cover all these wide and weighty problems whilst remaining deeply personal and engaging, her prose never forced or preaching.  In fiction it’s often better to go narrow and deep rather than wide and shallow, but Feldman manages to go both wide and deep.  By selecting each excellently drawn character, she is able to demonstrate a particular concern through their thoughts, actions and the things that happen to them, whether it’s Babe and her opinions on equality, Grace and her obsession with a ghost, or Millie and the anti-Semitism her family endures.

So can a novel focussing on the lives of three women span as many decades without being reductive?  The answer to that is yes, so long as you’re in the hands of a writer as skilled as Feldman.

Book Review: Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

Book Review: Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

This first appeared in the Scotsman books section Saturday 3rd March 2012

Lynn Shepherd has a knack for setting literary murder puzzles. Her previous book, Murder at Mansfield Park, re-imagined Austen’s original, elevating minx-like Mary Crawford to the position of the novel’s heroine and painting the previously angelic Fanny Price as a scheming heiress. The jaunty mystery featured Charles Maddox as a young detective who unravels the central mystery, and so too does Shepherd’s new novel, Tom-All-Alone’s.

This time around, Shepherd uses Dickens’s Bleak House as the backdrop to her work. Tom-All-Alone’s is her response to the events and themes of what is widely regarded as Dickens’s masterpiece, and features a number of characters from the original text – Tulkinghorn, Inspector Bucket, Lady Dedlock and Dr Woodcourt – whether as central or peripheral figures. The book seeks to depict the grim underworld of Victorian London which respectable gent Dickens could only hint at.

In this new murder mystery, Maddox is hired by the lawyer Tulkinghorn to undertake a seemingly simple task, but in doing so uncovers a scandalous and deadly secret that Tulkinghorn and his wealthy clients are desperate to conceal. Through his investigations, Maddox is plunged into a world of child prostitutes, murdered babies and the deeply unsavoury practices of high-ranking men.

Tom-All-Alone’s has a postmodern, knowing feel reminiscent of Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, another novel set in the murky underbelly of Victorian London. Shepherd reveals plot details to her readers that even Maddox is not privy to, and places us directly into the text alongside her: “Noon, Waterloo-bridge. From where we stand we can look up towards Whitehall and Westminster…” She speaks to her readers in a conversational manner (“And I can tell you…”) and leads us by the hand as we follow a man through streets thick with fog: “We have a way to go yet and the day is darkening. We must find him soon, or risk losing him altogether.” She advises us to muffle our faces against the stench, placing us into the story just as she has placed her own characters into the world that Dickens first created, giving the book an immediate feel, despite its nineteenth-century setting.

This literary magpie-ism is a treat for book-lovers, a little nudge-and-a-wink here and there which will delights Dickens fans without alienating those who’ve never read his work. Indeed, it is possible to fully enjoy and understand Tom-All-Alone’s without having any prior knowledge of Bleak House, although those who have read the original will get an added layer of appreciation for Shepherd’s ingenious use of the source material.

By placing her own detective into a classic work of fiction, Shepherd does something which fans of Austen and Dickens will doubtless have strong reactions to. Tom-All-Alone’s could be regarded as a brave attempt to expand on an already great text, or simply an ardent fan’s tribute to a much-loved author. Some might see Shepherd’s work as an impudent work of literary vandalism. But whether you think of this sort of book as a scandalous trampling of consecrated ground or a witty homage, it’s an intelligent and gripping novel which sparkles with a bibliophilic glee that reminds us that literature should, above all else, be fun.

Book Review: Birthdays for the Dead by Stuart MacBride

Book Review: Birthdays for the Dead by Stuart MacBride

This first appeared in The Scotsman books section Saturday 28th January 2012

CRIME fiction can be formulaic. But what if your policeman protagonist, normally the story’s moral backbone, is capable of just about anything?

What if you’re in the hands of an author who doesn’t flinch from even the grimmest scenario? And what if, amidst all this darkness and grot, the book manages to be funny?

The serial killer in Birthdays for the Dead, the new book from Stuart MacBride has been dubbed “The Birthday Boy” by the tabloids. He’s been abducting little girls for 12 years, always in the run-up to their 13th birthday, sending their parents homemade cards each year showing their daughters being slowly and horrifically tortured.

In this stand-alone departure from MacBride’s popular Logan McRae series, Detective Constable Ash Henderson has a seriously faulty moral compass. He’s lost everything good in his life; his daughter Rebecca’s been missing for five years, his marriage has collapsed, he’s been forced to live in a nasty council flat and he’s been demoted. Ash has little left to lose.

What’s more, he has a terrible secret. Each year he is sent a card from “The Birthday Boy” showing Rebecca being brutally tortured. He cannot tell his colleagues because if he did he’d be taken off the case, and he is determined to catch the killer. He cannot even tell his ex-wife, a heavy and lonely burden for any man to carry.

Ash is capable of extreme violence, even torture, and is a seriously corrupt cop, guilty of blackmail, cover-ups and extortion. Through this deeply flawed and troubled character, MacBride liberates the plot by showing us that when we are with Ash, anything can happen.

MacBride sets the story mainly in a fictional Scottish city, fearing he’d be sued by (or at least seriously offend) the police of any real-life locality. This gives an indication of how deep the police corruption featured goes and just how liberated the plot gets. With his rich descriptions of child abuse, torture, suicide, gruesome bodily functions, terrible smells and festering wounds, MacBride requires his readers to have seriously strong stomachs.

Yet, despite all the filth and corruption, the book has a lighter side. Ash has a sense of humour as dry as his name and cuts through pretensions and affectations with his satisfyingly direct manner. When a swaggering local radio personality, the self-proclaimed “Sensational Steve”, invites Ash into his conservatory, Ash reflects: “The conservatory … was big enough for a baby grand piano, a leather sofa with matching armchairs, coffee table, a couple of large pot plants, and Sensational Steve’s ego.”

Though Ash is violent and sarcastic, there is a sliver of nobility at his core, and some of his most vicious moments are shot through with humour. This lack of black-or-white/good-or-evil/funny-or-bleak divisions is another reason MacBride’s work does not fit comfortably into a set formula.

MacBride’s characters are full of convincing idiosyncrasies. One such character is Dr Alice McDonald, a forensic psychologist who aids Ash in his search for the killer. The nervy rapidity of her speech, hair-twiddling and the way she wraps her arm around her body in a self-protective gesture lead Ash to store her number in his phone under the name “Dr McFruitloop”.

But Alice also gets out-of-her-head drunk in order to lower her inhibitions and enter into the mind of the killer. She eats like a horse, dresses like a teenager and proves to be intuitive, loyal and brave. She has a past and troubles of her own. This sort of well-rounded, three-dimensional characterisation lifts the story above formulaic crime fiction, and the relationship between Ash and Alice is one of the most engaging aspects of the book.

It is clear that MacBride thoroughly researched the book (just look at the list of soil scientists, pathologists and the like he thanks at the beginning), which ensures the plot is watertight and authentic despite its fictional setting. MacBride also has a keen ear for dialogue, whether it’s a Scouse, Shetland or Edinburgh accent he’s writing. There are some lovely, acutely observed moments, such as when a mother hides a packet of Jaffa Cakes in the one place her daughter will never look: the tea-towel drawer. These real-life minutiae give the book a human and relatable feel.

The ending isn’t happy, tidy or fair – that’s life, after all – but it is surprising. MacBride’s unflinching exploration of disturbing and senseless crimes, his dark humour and the skilful way in which he gathers several inventive plot threads together at the novel’s end combine to make Birthdays for the Dead anything but predictable.

Book Review: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Book Review: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

This first appeared in The Scotsman books section Saturday 26th November 2011

ANCIENT Israel was a man’s world; it was men who wrote the laws, wrote the scriptures, waged wars, re-told their tales in history books.

In a world dominated by men, what happened to the women’s stories?

The Dovekeepers is American novelist Alice Hoffman’s attempt to tell their story. In it she tells the epic tale of the siege of Masada in 70AD, when 900 Jews held out for months against the Roman army from within their mountain stronghold in the Judean desert. Only two women and five children survived.

The story follows four women whose fates are woven together as each becomes a “dovekeeper” within the stronghold, women who care for doves and gather their droppings to make the soil fertile. Fiery-haired Yael, an assassin’s daughter, has the power to speak to animals without words. She can pick up scorpions, does not fear lions, and has survived the blistering heat of the desert. Bristly Revka, a baker’s wife, has witnessed a murder horrific enough to render her two grandsons mute. Aziza, a warrior’s daughter, is a skilled marksman raised as a boy, torn between her desire for a man’s freedom and a woman’s passions. Shirah is known as the Witch of Moab, a woman skilled in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, with a dangerous insight into the future and the hearts of others.

Hoffman centres her story round the only known account of the tragedy, written by the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus. Inspired by her own “intense and moving” visits to Masada, she incorporates real archaeological remains found there into her tale, from woven cloth and incantation bowls, to amulets and spells found in museums in Europe, Israel and Egypt. Filled as it is with factual information and real artefacts, the book is laced with the unreal, with magic, superstitions and ancient witchcraft. Using these mystical ingredients, Hoffman concocts a rich, female world in which the women tell the stories.

The private female universe we enter is filled with atrocities: child brides who flee their captors only to die in the heat of the desert; women, raped by soldiers, who slice open their hands and feet to drain away their sorrow; servant girls ripped apart by childbirth; demons who steal and strangle newborns; ghosts who sew themselves to the living; curses brought upon people for their wrongdoings; the Angel of Death, who seems to hover over everyone. Menstruating women are seen as unclean and, though a man may have many wives, if a woman dares to sleep with a man outside of wedlock, or commits adultery, or has an illegitimate child, she is treated with the deepest, often deadliest, contempt.

In this world, “women were hurt everyday and kept the cause to themselves”. They are voiceless, unable to articulate their suffering, and yet, as one of the women reflects, “among men words were not nearly as perilous as the ones women spoke”. Though men have the public voice, the private world of woman’s magic is shown to be as dangerous as any law men may decree or any weapon they may wield.

Spells are passed down secretly from mother to daughter, and with them the women try to combat the wrongs done to them. They weave spells and mix potions to chase away ghosts and demons, to secure men’s loyalty, to banish nightmares, to provide the antidotes to poisons, to keep children safe, to make the rain fall, to make barren women fertile. The spells and potions involve burnt hair, powdered snakeskin, herbs, spices, eggshells, berries, ashes, blood, sulphur, honey, flowers, roots, musk and all manner of curiosities.

They’re conducted in secret. Though the society in which the women live is ruled by superstitions, where signs and omens are seen daily and where the bodies of the dead must be treated the right way in order for their souls to pass into the “World to Come”, witchcraft is still feared as women’s wickedness, and Shirah in particular is mistrusted and ill-treated for her knowledge and powers.

Hoffman’s story is as beautiful as it is harrowing. Amidst all the horrors contained within the story, the human spirit and capacity to love endures throughout. Deeply atmospheric and brimming with intricate details from the time, the book captures the essence of the age as well as it does the complex characters of the four women. Most of all, it achieves what it sets out to do. The words of women like Yael, Revka, Aziza and Shirah may have gone unspoken for centuries, but Hoffman gives a voice to the women who have been silent for too long.