Of the Devil’s Party: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

This review first appeared on The Scottish Review of Books website, 8th April 2017.

On 15 November 1959, Kansan farmer Herb Clutter’s throat was cut, his head blown open by a 12-gauge shotgun. His teenage son Kenyon’s final moments were spent bound and gagged yards from this scene, before he too was shot at point blank range. Soon after, Kenyon’s sister Nancy uttered her last words before turning to face her bedroom wall, which was seconds later sprayed with blood. Having endured the agony of listening to her family die, Herb’s wife Bonnie was shot dead as she lay in bed, her hands clasped as if in prayer.

Truman Capote has no interest in clichéd depictions of one-note monsters, so the killers of In Cold Blood – Dick Hickock and Perry Smith – are allowed to rage, laugh, despair, feast and dream; and therein lies the book’s moral dilemma. Does Capote’s overwhelming interest in his antihero Perry Smith veer into unhealthy territory, proving the author to be, as William Blake said of John Milton, ‘Of the Devil’s party without knowing it’?

In Cold Blood seeks to unpick the Clutter case from the inside out. In 1959, Capote visited Holcomb, planning to write an article for The New Yorker examining the aftershocks of these seemingly motiveless acts of barbarism. Instead, the story swelled into his seminal ‘non-fiction novel’ of 1965, in which Capote eschews journalistic tropes and utilises novelistic techniques of scene selection, layering, manufactured dialogue, dramatic tension and beautifully crafted language.

From the offset, Capote lumps victims and perpetrators together: ‘At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.’ It may, then, seem as if the Clutter deaths are no more than a handy launch-pad for Capote’s psychological study of a murderer. Take, for instance, Perry Smith’s vivid description of his recurrent surreal dreamscape, an African jungle containing a stinking tree with blue leaves and diamonds big as oranges:

‘That’s why I’m there – to pick myself a bushel of diamonds. But I know the minute I try to, the minute I reach up, a snake is gonna fall on me. A snake that guards the tree. This fat sonofabitch living in the branches… We wrestle around, but he’s a slippery sonofabitch and I can’t get a hold, he’s crushing me, you can hear my legs cracking… he starts to swallow me.’

Perry is saved, as he always is in such dreams, by a vast sunflower-yellow bird who devours the snake and gently lifts the dreamer to paradise. The dream tells you everything you need to know about this fantasist who craves the discovery of riches, feels hunted by those he imagines seek to thwart him, and who desires the miraculous assent to some non-existent promised land.

Readers gain direct access to the rat’s nest of Perry’s consciousness. We hear how alcohol honed his mother’s tongue ‘to the wickedest point’, made her swollen and promiscuous before she ‘strangled to death on her own vomit’. We hear how he and his siblings lived off ‘mush and Hershey kisses and condensed milk’ before being disbanded and forced into care. Perry was placed in a Catholic orphanage where nuns beat him with a flashlight and doused him in icy baths as punishment for bedwetting. Two of his siblings committed suicide. His thwarted father tried to kill him.

We are made privy to Perry’s rich interior life, his un-nurtured capacity to learn, his musical ability, his desire to acquire a dazzling vocabulary, his exquisite handwriting. He is ‘an incessant conceiver of voyages’, fantasizes about ‘heaping caskets of gold’ and a land where the sun shines always and ‘all you wore was grass and flowers.’ We are led to envisage his ‘changeling’s face’ flitting between ‘impish’, ‘soulful’, ‘corrupt’, ‘gypsy’, ‘gentle’, ‘romantic’ and ‘roguish’, his ‘stunted’ legs making him ‘no taller than a twelve-year-old child’.

Compare this to Capote’s strangely detached account of Herb Clutter, which makes the man seem puritan and patriarchal. Herb eats ‘Spartan breakfasts’; shuns tea, coffee, cigarettes and alcohol; does not care for card games, golf, cocktails, buffet suppers or ‘any pastime that he felt did not “accomplish something”’. His word is law. He is a pillar of his baseball-and-bible-loving, white-as-a-picket-fence community.

Wraithlike Bonnie Clutter’s personality is reduced ‘to a series of gestures blurred by the fear that she might give offence, in some way displease’. Sixteen year old Nancy seems, quite frankly, too good to be true. She cooks, sews, arranges flowers, plays instruments, tutors younger girls, gets straight As, is class president, a leader in the 4-H programme and the Young Methodist’s League, can ride a horse, and yet ‘never brags’. To a girlfriend on the phone she says: ‘I just want to be his daughter and do as he wishes.’ Fifteen year old Kenyon is not given much of a look in at all.

And yet – there are dreams nestled in these pages every bit as evocative as Perry’s malodorous tree and yellow wonder-bird. Marie, wife of Detective Alvin Dewey, dreams that an apparition of Bonnie comes before her, wringing her hands and muttering frantically: ‘To be murdered. To be murdered. No. No. There’s nothing worse. Nothing worse than that. Nothing.’ In another dream sequence, Alvin Dewey chases the ghostly forms of the two killers, riddling them with bullets as they evaporate, laughing mockingly at him. The detective is ‘filled with a despair so mournfully intense’ that he awakes.

Nor is Capote’s sympathy reserved exclusively for Perry. Sue Kidwell, Nancy’s friend, is shown overwhelmed with emotion when Nancy’s beloved horse Babe is sold for seventy-five dollars to a farmer who will doubtless put the old mare to work. As Babe is led away, Sue ‘raised her hand as if to wave goodbye, but instead clasped it over her mouth.’ Capote, master of suggestion over statement, uses Sue’s small gesture of grief, sickness and horror to disturb us far more than weeping and wailing ever could.

Nancy’s boyfriend Bobby, too, is bathed in the light of Capote’s consideration: ‘grief had drawn a circle round him he could not escape from and others could not enter’. One sentence doing the work of ten, Capote’s deft phrasing illuminates the isolating power of loss. Nancy is shown to be extraordinarily brave before her death, ‘trying hard to act casual and friendly’ even as armed intruders breach the sanctity of her childhood home. Herb’s valiant efforts to keep himself and his family calm, to cooperate in order to avoid the very worst thing happening, are also profoundly affecting. A story from Herb’s boyhood, in which he drives a horse and cart through a snowstorm to deliver Christmas presents to his family, makes him so much more likeable than the pleasure-dodging killjoy of the opening pages.

Far from painting Perry as nothing more than the victim of hideous circumstances, Capote shows the man to be, at times, wholly despicable. True, Perry is revolted by brutish Dick’s paedophilic tendencies, and prevents him from raping Nancy before her death. Guts twisting, he can barely eat while Dick blithely wolfs chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, steaks, Hershey bars and gumdrops. Perry lies ‘embraced by shame’ in his cell while Dick tells dirty jokes and makes a shiv to stick in Undersheriff Meier’s neck. Standing in the courtroom in a borrowed shirt and rolled-up jeans, Perry is a pitiable figure, looking ‘as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field.’

However, Perry is also capable of terrible racist slurs, made more despicable by the casualness with which he spouts them. He claims to have once thrown a man off a bridge for no reason. On reading a newspaper article detailing his crimes, he wonders idly how much the Clutter funeral cost. He hunts, alongside Dick, for ‘a stranger to rob, strangle, discard on the desert’, and was able to converse genially with Nancy before – apparently – putting a bullet inside her. As Perry’s sister writes, he is ‘a human being with a free will.’ Nothing can excuse his deeds, not even the childhood from hell.

There is a wealth of detail in In Cold Blood, the symbolic power of which is never overstated: the two scavenging tomcats outside the courthouse who appear like incarnations of Dick and Perry; Perry’s chrysanthemum tattoo mirroring the chrysanthemums swaying in the Clutter garden; the exotic yellow bird of Perry’s dream contrasting with the dull ‘blonde chicken’ of prosaic Dick’s; the trapped bobcat of Marie Dewey’s recollections, sparked by a photograph of Dick: ‘though she’d wanted to release it, the cat’s eyes, radiant with pain and hatred, had drained her of pity and filled her with terror.’

Capote’s use of portentous statements at the end of sections creates a creeping sense of unease. On Bonnie’s final day, for instance, Capote describes the contents of her bedroom, including a bookmark, ‘a stiff piece of watered silk upon which an admonition had been embroidered: “Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is.”’ His use of the present tense and the way he cuts between scenes creates a dramatic tension reminiscent of a cinematic thriller. As the killers’ car crawls towards the Clutter house, time jumps to after the murder, and the gruesome acts are – for the moment – omitted. It takes over 200 pages until we hear the murderers’ accounts of what exactly happened that night, a hugely satisfying payoff after Capote’s tantalising drip-feed of information.

But more than this, Capote is unrivalled in his ability to capture personality in dialogue, from informer Floyd Wells describing bad checks as ‘a regular washline of hot paper’, to salty-old-broad Mother Truitt relating an act ‘so low a caterpillar could pee over it’. His evocations of the Kansan landscape elevate In Cold Blood above the mere thrilling or titillating: the ‘hip-high, sheep-slaughtering snows; the slushes and the strange land fogs of spring; and summer, when even crows seek the puny shade, and the tawny infinitude of wheatstalks bristle, blaze’. Whether he is describing ‘the pumpkin-season temperature, the day’s arid glitter’ or ‘the fields, lion-coloured now, luminously golden with after-harvest stubble’, Capote’s masterful prose reaches poetic heights.

Recently, much has been made of Capote’s special treatment of those inhabitants of Holcomb he liked (handsome, tenacious Dewey appears like a matinee idol) and his dismissal of those he did not (Duane West, a key figure in the trial, is dismissed as a pudgy, prematurely-aged nobody). Capote’s flamboyance and childlike voice endeared him to some but forced more conservative denizens to recoil.

Armed with nothing more than an excellent memory, he interviewed locals without taking notes, creating composite characters and inventing scenes. Abandoned by his own parents, and, as an openly gay man, on the fringes of society himself, he clearly felt an affinity with Perry Smith, a beguiling bond that led him to narrow his focus. Does this mean the author’s ego had a warping effect on his search for the truth?

If, as Voltaire wrote, we should ‘Judge a man by his questions, not by his answers’, Capote should be judged not by his tweaks, inventions and omissions but by the questions he raises, which remain every bit as pertinent today. Is the death penalty as cold blooded as premeditated murder? What happens when the American Dream turns sour? What makes people kill? Without offering any explicit moral judgment, Capote leaves his readers to decide.

In Cold Blood is a sophisticated whydunit written with extraordinary poetic power, tense as a thriller, stylishly bleak as a film noir. Perry Smith is undoubtedly the most vivid and complex character, but was Capote truly ‘of the Devil’s party’? Quite possibly, but if he was then he most certainly knew it, and used his insight into the mind of a brutalised, broken man to leave us with a startling thought: there but for the grace of God go I?

Book Review: Sarah Dunant’s In the Name of the Family

This review first appeared in The Scotsman (Books section), April 1st 2017.

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Corrupt, carnal and compelling
Sarah Dunant’s blood-drenched tale about the Borgias is gripping, writes Jacqueline Thompson

Was there ever a more notorious family than the Borgias? Using tactics more rotten than the corpses clogging the Tiber, Rodrigo Borgia thrusts his way to supremacy, becoming Pope Alexander VI and one of the most powerful men on earth. By 1502, Alexander’s bastard son Cesare is commander of an army, his daughter Lucrezia a plumptious piece of meat on the marriage market. The trio encapsulates the ‘violent pleasures’ of the Italian Renaissance; but is there any truth to the whispers of incest, murder and madness, or have the facts been embellished as heavily as Lucrezia’s pearl and diamond-studded gowns?

This is the intriguing territory explored in Sarah Dunant’s In the Name of the Family, the sequel to 2013’s Blood and Beauty. The exploits of lusty, capricious Alexander – ‘this monster churchman ripe with corruption’ – and restless, ruthless Cesare – ‘a bastard marauding philistine’ – are vibrant and arresting, but it is Lucrezia’s story which best reveals these sensual, dangerous times.

Lucrezia may wear bedazzling dresses, but she is scrutinized by ‘spies from all over the country, their mission to note her every gesture and to price each piece of jewellery, every yard of cloth.’ She has lost the love of her life through her brother’s brutal machinations, forced to leave her son in Rome as she travels to marry a stranger. The upkeep of her lucrative appearance is ‘hard work; all the plucking, perfuming, creaming, corseting, lacing, powdering…’ Sex is perfunctory, its grotty realities apparent as she mops the ‘leftover liquid’ from her body, noting how ‘women can bruise on the inside as well as out.’

And yet, her mental strength is a source of wonder, her courtly guile likened to warcraft: ‘conquering city after city with charm rather than cannon.’ After wounding trysts with her new husband, Lucrezia is stoic: ‘there is much to celebrate.’ She fights for every ducat of her dowry, knows her worth as the vessel of male heirs, and is adamant in her desire ‘to embrace gaiety’ in the face of sickness and grief. In an era obsessed with women’s wickedness, from Eve to pox-bearing prostitutes, has history slandered Lucrezia?

Meanwhile, Pope Alexander, a rapacious ‘bear of a man’, is ‘in love with women, wealth, orange blossom and the taste of sardines’. He is arrogant, believing himself impervious to a tempest as he stalks his ship’s deck, singing. He has ordered countless assassinations, is changeable as a sprite, but he is also funny and theatrical, embracing life with every atom of his being.

As for Cesare, seen through the eyes of Machiavelli, iconic inventor of ‘Realpolitik’, he seems to care for nothing but war and sex. Cesare’s mercurial nature can spill over into galling cruelty. He is treacherous and animalistic, laughing, alongside his psychotic comrade Michelotto, as they butcher innocents. His sexual jealousy towards his sister – the source of those rumours of Borgia incest – can erupt into acts of shocking barbarism.

Dunant’s poetic style raises the novel above titillating gossip, and her striking imagery renders it as rich as a Pinturicchio fresco, whether describing frosty ground cracking ‘like small animal bones’ or eels circling a fisherman’s wrist like a ‘living bracelet of snakes’. This gripping, sumptuous book shows that, excessive and ferocious as they doubtless were, the Borgias were truly something.

In the Name of the Family
By Sarah Dunant
Virago, 464pp,

Poetry Review: Tracey Herd’s NOT IN THIS WORLD

This review first appeared in The Glasgow Review of Books (22/02/17)


Tracey Herd Not in This World (Bloodaxe, 2015)

By Jacqueline ThompsonD8vo 64pp

On the 10th of June 1987, American actress Elizabeth Hartman threw herself from the window of her fifth floor Pittsburgh apartment. Haunted by depression, she was just forty-three when she died. It is Hartman’s face – young, smiling, impossibly fresh – that beams in triplicate from the cover of Scottish poet Tracey Herd’s third collection, Not in This World, a work inspired by Hartman’s struggles as well as Herd’s own experience of clinical depression.

Martin Colthorpe described reading Herd’s second collection, Dead Redhead, as ‘an intoxicating experience, in which you become thoroughly immersed in her world and her obsessions’. Not in This World is no exception, with Herd’s continuing ‘obsessions’ plotting a dark psychological landscape populated by doomed movie stars, broken girls and powerful racehorses, filled with images of blood, snow and wreckages.

As in Herd’s previous collections, the figure of the girl detective makes an early appearance as the speaker of ‘What I Wanted’ sets out:

with my magnifying glass
and pocket torch to follow
the tracks that led off as far
as a child’s eye could see.

In ‘Dreams of Lost Summers and Found Lines’, ‘old green and cream Penguin novels’ (detective stories) appear, as does Miss Marple in ‘The Living Library’, and in ‘The Case of the Inconvenient Corpse’, a Miss Marple narrative is retold from the perspective of a callous male figure. Fairytale heroines also return, with a raging, righteously bitter Snow White narrating ‘Nobody Home’, spitting out thoughts of the woodsman: ‘as if he hadn’t already fucked me over / by leading me into this foul, dark place’. In ‘Reverie’, Cinderella is once more evoked as the speaker refers to her bleeding feet: ‘Glass slippers were never made for dancing’.

There is also a Herd-esque profusion of Hollywood icons: Vivien Leigh, ‘her green eyes slanting in the fire’s feline rage’; Norma Shearer, ‘one eye cast about in a delinquent / skew that parodied beauty’; Joan Fontaine, to whom Alfred Hitchcock ‘casually let slip that the cast and crew / hated’ her, and who Laurence Olivier ‘had no time for’; Olivia de Havilland, whose ‘quiet strength’ pervades; Louise Brooks, her eyes ‘cool and sane’; Mae Marsh, ‘the girl with the bee stung lips, / bee sting, gentle bee sting, blonde, beautiful, bee stung’; and Clara Bow, ‘dancing her frantic Charleston’.

Other pop culture allusions abound, from James Dean and Buddy Holly to The Great Gatsby and the Titanic. Like a poem by T. S. Eliot or a song by Morrissey, these provide the delight of recognition, as well as the desire to Google topics – like the life of Hartman – that require illumination. Indeed, one of the most affecting poems is the final one in the collection, ‘Calling Card’, about Marina Keegan, an American writer who, in 2012, died in a car crash aged twenty-two, five days after graduating from Yale. Knowing the facts makes the poem all the more poignant, and more beautiful too:

Your words couldn’t protect you,
but they never left you,
swirling around your body like moths.

Recurring motifs create a strong sense of unity: champagne; flowers, especially funereal lilies and fairytale roses, their colours mirroring the blood and snow that lace these poems; cuts; ice; glass; mirrors; vehicular crashes; graves; stars; hearts; God; old movies; children; jewels; bullets; and violently removed skin. Indeed, so prevalent are Herd’s icons and so distinct is her voice that it would, quite often, be possible – à la Larkin and Plath – to identify her poems even if they were stripped of her name. This is what Sarah Wardle described as Herd’s ‘strong and singular voice’, and it is arguably the poet’s greatest asset.

However, there are notable departures from broken girls and dead film stars, and, in fact, a wide variety in terms of ideas and perspectives. ‘The Afternoon Shift Are Leaving the Port Talbot Steelworks’, an ekphrastic poem based on a photograph, presents the steady stoicism of these ‘anonymous men’, ‘their tread, heavy and tired, but their heads unbowed’ before the unceasing machines. The titular focus of ‘The Fortune Teller’:

…misquotes Macbeth with gloomy relish
running a ragged nail along lines that speak
of witches, massacres, wild-eyed horses

– foretelling miscarriage before holding out her ‘dirty hand’ for payment.

No matter how arresting the subject matter, Herd’s technical expertise should not be overlooked. Her adept deployment of first person perspective gives a directness and immediacy to poems, even when they take faraway figures and places as their focal point (many are set in America, with references to New York, Vegas, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, Idaho, North Dakota, Iowa, Eisenhower, Southern belles and diners). In ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, Herd-as-Hartman laments: ‘I am left behind, a failed actress, / holding the script – which is in tatters’, her pain palpable despite the gulf of decades and miles.

Herd’s use of rhyme is also skilful but unobtrusive, as in ‘Vivien and Scarlet’, which maintains its a/b/a scheme throughout and ends with a couplet, juxtaposing structural tidiness with the decidedly non-fairytale ending of the actress’s life. In ‘Leaving’, the regular aa/bb/cc scheme of its two-line stanzas creates a greetings card effect, encapsulating the simple but profound pathos of its subject: ‘the bow of a ship sailing out into evening. / Somewhere, someone much loved is leaving.’

Herd’s use of repetition, such as the phrase ‘eyes of the palest blue’ in ‘Norma Shearer’, is also artfully handled, with the internal rhyming of ‘white’ and ‘light’, ‘knew’ and ‘skew’, as well as the alliterative ‘sexy suffering in satin gowns’ and ‘Retire a rich woman, / royalty of sorts’, creating a musical soundscape that is both jaunty and strangely unsettling, evocative of the dark underbelly of old-school fame.

In ‘Five Seconds’, Herd deploys a conversational tone that belies the horror of the sheer bad luck of Ritchie Valens dying in the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly (Valens, a support act, won a coin toss for a seat on the flight, a flippant gesture that determined the teen’s fate): ‘Funny how five seconds…never mind’. Continuing this theme in ‘The Music Men’, Herd’s arresting imagery takes centre stage:

Out into the dark, star-laden night,
the snow piling up like gambling chips
all over the state.

Buddy’s horn-rimmed glasses merge with the unseeing eyes of oculist ‘Doctor / T.J. Eckleburg’, the looming billboard from The Great Gatsby which gazes blindly over the soul-sapped inhabitants of America like the God of Mammon.

Herd’s greatest strengths are, perhaps, also her greatest weaknesses, depending on how one approaches her poems. Her strong narrative drive can occasionally feel as if plots are being retold, as in ‘The Case of the Inconvenient Corpse’ or ‘Joan Fontaine and Rebecca’, in which the events of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca are described at length, albeit from intriguingly skewed angles. Her persistent ‘obsessions’ with dead girls and forsaken icons mean that some readers may feel at a remove from the poems. Andrew Neilson commented of Dead Redhead that Herd too often wears ‘the mask of personae’ and that ‘it would be nice for its sequel to feature a little more of Herd herself.’ Any reader hoping for a radical departure from the themes of Herd’s earlier collections will be disappointed.

However, it could also be argued that every poem betrays something of its creator, no matter how veiled in persona that poem may appear, and Herd’s own experience of depression suggests that she dominates these poems as surely as Hartman does. A poem like ‘The Unicorn Seat’ has a distinctly personal feel, written as it is ‘for Elsie and Lucy’:

…I have one little hand
in each of mine and you both stare up
at the arching evening…

So, too, does ‘Just One Request’, whether the figure who walks

slowly out into the waters of the Mar de Plata,
the malignancy blooming for a second time
without cease, as unstoppable as spring

is known to the poet or not. Either way, the figure’s grace and stoicism in the face of illness is just as powerful: ‘There is a dignity in knowing when to leave’.

Not in This World is further proof of Herd’s enormous talent, her ability to draw her readers into the hinterland of her fascinations and surprise, challenge and delight us with the blistering force of her perceptions. Dark they may be, but these are poems that are a joy to savour, beguiling enough to bear repeated readings, each one throwing up fresh ideas thanks to Herd’s keen wit and kaleidoscopic knowledge of popular culture. The most potent element of the collection is the solidarity between Herd and Hartman, uniting as it does these artists from different worlds. The closing lines of ‘Cemetery in Snow’ are eerie and sad but ultimately redemptive, encapsulating Herd’s power to simultaneously unsettle and console:

Somewhere, I think, someone has lit a fire.
The warmth comes from another world entirely.
Hold my hand, friend. We will not be lonely.

Poem: ‘Housekeeper’

‘This poem first appeared in Poetry Ireland Review (ed. Vona Groarke), December 2016.

Issue 120










I put eyes and tongues into every
dumb object I encounter, finding
smiles in fire-grates, laughter
tinkling in the servants’ bell.

I console the long silver spoon
as I polish her and all her daughters.
I stroke the cheeks of dusty clocks,
wipe sweat from leaky windows.

As I scrape up luncheon crumbs
he grumbles again: his women left him
out of spite. Tears mottle skin as dry
as moths entombed in wardrobes.

My cuckoo master laid his eggs
in umpteen nests: wife,
stepdaughter, chambermaid;
but never prune-fleshed me.

I used to hear his grunts then watch
them scuttle from his room. Now
I cannot shake the cat-in-the-wall
ache bricked-up in my chest.

I have stayed here too long.
I am as dried out and stuck
as rice abandoned in a pot.
I’ll never leave.

Poem: ‘The In Pin’

This poem first appeared in Scotia Extremis (ed. Andy Jackson and Brian Johnstone) 07/11/16


You brand me Very Difficult, as if I’m here
to challenge men who fritter days in stuffy

office blocks, evenings in provincial sheds
Sundays crawling up the backs of gods.

You peruse my Munro kin like bridies
on a buffet tray, but I’m the tricky bugger.

I make you strain with ropes. I don’t flinch
at your pitons. Gobs gape at my drop,

arseholes pucker tight as drawstring hoods.
I can’t be Bagged like a tin of shortie

or a bottle of scotch. I’ve felt the shifting
of tectonic plates, cracked and shuddered

through glacial drift. I’ve watched clans clash
like stags, flags indecipherable with blood.

Rain will rust your bolts, their fine red dust
tossed by the wind like ashes. You may fancy

your eroding steps superior to any other
Tommy Tourist’s, but watch your back.

I’m born of lava: my jutting jaw a blade’s edge,
my basalt skull treacherous when wet.

Book Reviews: James Tait Black Awards 2014 (Fiction)

My shortlist:

 1. Siri Hustvedt. The Blazing World

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Hustvedt, Siri. The Blazing World

I have adored everything Siri Hustvedt has written, but when I first read this, months before the JTB judging began, I cast it aside, unfinished. I found the protagonist, artist Harriet Burden, irritating, and the fragmented nature of the book frustrating. However, on re-reading it for JTB, and actually finishing it this time, I found it to be fascinating, gripping and amazingly inventive. I realised that I had, on first reading it, fallen into the exact trap that so many of the critics who dismiss Burden in the novel fall into. Because she possesses traits that make for a compelling and charismatic male figure – she’s big, tall, loud, opinionated, well-read, scarily intellectual, angry – the critics are ‘put off’, and I was too. Hustvedt duped me just like Burden dupes her critics.

Burden rages at the world for largely ignoring her art and treating her as the mere appendage of her successful art dealer husband. She hatches a plan to expose the misogyny she feels is at the root of this, and devises three new art installations, each one presented to the world by a male artist who acts as her ‘mask’. However, something goes wrong with the third show. The artist fronting it, the handsome, egotistical and mysterious Rune, claims the work as his own. He dies not long afterwards, a bizarre death caught on his own video camera.

The narrative is presented as the critical work of editor I. V. Hess, written after Burden’s death, and is comprised of fragments from Harriet’s cerebral, meandering, alphabetised notebooks, as well as written and spoken accounts given by her daughter, son, lover, friends, acquaintances and critics. The narrative jumps from the past to the present to the future, and flits back and forth between strikingly differing perceptions of Burden. Each character is exceptionally well drawn, with their own particular ways of speaking and seeing the world around them, so that you feel that there are many lives and worlds going on between the pages.

Hustvedt is a genius at describing art installations so that you feel as if you are actually standing inside them. From the heated, life-size bodies Harriet creates, to the rooms which get progressively bigger as you walk through them so that you feel infantilised by the end, or the maze of the third show, which you can only escape if you pay close attention to the clues scattered throughout, the works of art here are eerie, evocative and enchanting.

The Blazing World deserves to win the JTB award because it is a gripping story presented in a complex and imaginative way. It is a novel which raises big questions about life, art, perception, masks, philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, gender, and so much more besides. A compelling and thought-provoking read, I highly recommend it for the shortlist.

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Johnston, Bret Anthony. Remember Me Like This

Remember Me Like This is about a boy, Justin Campbell, who goes missing from his family home in a small Texan town; but this is not a whodunit or even a whydunit. We know who the boy’s abductor is, and the reasons for the abduction are deliberately never fully explored. This is, instead, an account of what happens when the boy is found and returns to family life. As a study of a family’s complex, shattering grief and almost unbearable relief, the book is extremely successful. The boy’s mother, father, brother and grandfather are deeply convincing characters who each have their own conflicted thoughts, feelings and idiosyncratic coping mechanisms. Hearing the innermost torments and desires of the boy’s mother is particularly arresting, not to mention moving. The atmosphere of the Texan town is richly evoked by Johnston – the oppressive weather, the neighbours who know everyone’s business, the skate park where local kids hang out, the excitement over the forthcoming shrimp jamboree – and the dialogue feels flowing and true to life.

However, because Johnston deliberately side-steps why the abduction took place, and what exactly happened to the boy whilst he was missing – for over four years – I felt that too much was omitted. I wanted to know why the man who abducted Justin did what he did. I wanted to know what exactly Justin had suffered. I don’t think that this is salacious; I just could not make sense of Justin without knowing what he had experienced throughout these four years. The fact that his own parents and sibling never ask him what he has gone through seems bizarre to me. This left me feeling ultimately dissatisfied with the book, despite it being well written and engaging.

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 McCall Smith, Alexander. The Forever Girl

Set on the island of Grand Cayman, this tells the story of Clover, a girl who falls in love with a boy called James when they are only six years old. Despite the fact that James does not seem to return her affections, at least not in a romantic sense, Clover remains in love with him, even as they grow into adulthood and attend university in Edinburgh. As their story unfolds, a parallel plot takes place with Clover’s mother, who realises one day that she has simply and startlingly fallen out of love with her husband. The lush landscape of the island is beautifully drawn by McCall Smith, and the maze of emotions felt by Clover and her mother are subtly navigated. Clover’s constancy, particularly when set against her mother’s seeming capriciousness, is affecting and wonderfully observed by the author (who seems to have been a teenage girl in a previous life). There is a neat change of direction at the end, not quite a twist but a sweet surprise nonetheless. A delicious book, I read it in one sitting, but it feels more like an especially high quality holiday read, the kind of book you could devour on the beach in one day, rather than an inventive, prize-winning sort of novel.

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McEwan, Ian. The Children Act.

Told from the viewpoint of Fiona Maye, a middle-aged High Court judge, The Children Act concerns a seventeen year old cancer patient, Adam, who is refusing treatment on the grounds of his religion. As a Jehovah’s Witness, he and his family do not believe in blood transfusions, and so Fiona must decide whether the court can enforce medical treatment on the boy or not. As a study in ethics, there are some interesting ideas raised here. Passages in which legal cases are described are fascinating but brief, and the parallel plot concerning Fiona’s crumbling marriage feels lacklustre in comparison.

My biggest problem is with Adam, who speaks like no teenage boy I have ever met. His dialogue is just plain weird, precocious, flowery and irritating. He beguiles his nurses with his poetry and his violin, but a scene in which he plays his instrument while Fiona sings by his bedside is hideously awkward and, I felt, unintentionally funny. Seemingly in love with her after one fleeting bedside meeting (although only Jehovah knows why), Adam stalks Fiona to a country retreat and they share a kiss. His motives for doing so are never explained and the whole thing feels odd and tawdry. The ending is meant to be heart-searing but it left me feeling cold and totally unmoved. The grief and torment surely felt by Adam’s parents is basically ignored. Despite dealing with BIG IDEAS, the book felt like much ado about nothing, tedious and strangely lightweight.

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Moore, Lisa. Caught

Having escaped from prison after being caught smuggling marijuana, 25 year old Slaney must make his way across 1970s Nova Scotia, all the way to Columbia and across the sea, encountering a rag-tag bunch of truck drivers, strippers, sleazy motel owners, drug dealers and undercover cops along the way. Eager to pull off another drug heist that will make his fortune, Slaney’s journey has all the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll you could want from a road trip thriller. However, Moore’s prose elevates the novel above more mainstream thrillers. Her forensic attention to detail, describing the tiny things about a scene which might otherwise go unnoticed – the elephant pattern on a burst footstool, the noise of swishing lupins like the pages of a glossy magazine – renders the book far more memorable than your average cop chase page-turner. Her depictions of people tripping on acid are particularly vibrant and, at times, very funny, and the dialogue is crackling throughout. This is a good old-fashioned yarn, accessible and enjoyable, but it is what it is: a thriller about a man on the run, another great holiday read without the inventiveness that would make me want to shortlist it.

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Pinto, Jerry. Em and the Big Hoom

This novel is essentially a character study of a woman, Em, who has bipolar disorder. Set largely in their Bombay apartment, Em’s son gives an account of his mother’s wild mood swings, which range from flamboyantly joyful to morosely suicidal. Em’s sense of humour is, at manic times, riotously inappropriate, and she often makes sexually explicit jokes to her young children. Her husband, nicknamed ‘the Big Hoom’ because of the grumpy noises he makes, is a stoical but largely silent figure who has endured his beautiful and capricious wife’s mood swings and suicide attempts throughout the decades simply because he loves her.

There is a lot of humour in the book, despite the often grim subject matter, and the outrageous character of Em is wonderfully drawn. Her disgust at being brought low by her status as mother manages to be funny, feminist and horrible all at once, given that she aims this statement at her own son: ‘[Men] just sow the seed and hand out the cigars when you’ve pushed a football through your vadge. For the next hundred years of your life, you’re stuck with someone whose definition isn’t even herself. You’re now someone’s mudd-dha!’ Em smokes like a chimney (developing a little cauliflower-like tumour on her tongue which mysteriously disappears overnight), develops ‘pica’ in some of her manic phases, wanting to eat the most extraordinary things, and makes statements that are jabberwocky-nonsensical.

My problem with the book is that Pinto often doesn’t allow his dialogue – which is great – to do the work for him. At one point, Em is being so outrageous that all he can reply is ‘mother!’, ‘stop!’ etc. Just as I was thinking ‘his mother has reduced him to exclamations’ he writes: ‘my mother had reduced me to exclamations’. I also didn’t get a vibrant enough feel of Em’s family, or of the apartment and the city in which they live in. What I will remember from this is Em and only Em, and, for me, that doesn’t feel like enough to have taken from a book.

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Rahman, Zia Haider. In the Light of What We Know

This is a weighty and cerebral tome, 555 pages long and choc-full of ideas about politics, love, identity, exile, roots and rage, with musings on philosophy, finance, class, culture, science, faith, war and everything in between. An unnamed investment banker, wealthy but brought low by the economic crisis and the breakdown of his marriage, narrates the tale, which is basically a conversation between himself and his old friend, Zafar, who turns up on his doorstep one morning looking dishevelled and distracted. The narrative flits between Kabul, New York, Oxford, London and Islamabad as we hear the story of Zafar’s life, from his humble beginnings to his elite education and career, as well as his ill-fated love for a complicated and troubled woman who treats him with disdain. There are so many books, scholars, poems, theories etc. referenced throughout the narrative that Zafar’s mind seems like an encyclopaedia. It can feel quite dizzying, the breadth of topics discussed throughout.

My problem with the book is its structure. Zafar’s long, long story often shoots off into long, long tangents, so that an engaging plot line gets interrupted and isn’t returned to for another hundred or so pages, by which time the emphasis has been lost. I found this repeatedly frustrating and, at times, even confusing. The climax the book seems to be building to (a rape) happens ‘off-screen’ and is deliberately referred to only obliquely, as if some things are too terrible to name. It might be too terrible for Zafar to discuss, but I felt short-changed by this, and eager to know the details, not for any sort of macabre titillation, but so that I could better understand Zafar and his story. I found this to be an arduous read, though I appreciate how skilful the writing is, and how impressive the novel’s scope is. I almost recommended this for the shortlist because of its sheer erudition and depth, as well as Rahman’s ability to locate the personal in the political (and vice versa) and the generally epic feel of the plot – but it would be dishonest of me to suggest that I truly enjoyed this book. It was a slog.

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Waheed, Mirza. The Book of Gold Leaves

In Kashmir, Faiz, a painter of exquisite papier-mache pencil boxes, falls in love with Roohi, who has dreamed of a star-crossed romance all her life. As the pair’s relationship develops, a violent rebellion takes place in their city. Added to this approaching disaster, Faiz is Sunni and Roohi is Shia, so their love story seems doomed from the start. The first part of the book depicts the couple’s burgeoning love, whilst the second part focuses on the conflict. Having witnessed a minibus full of schoolchildren, as well as his own godmother, caught in crossfire, Faiz is radicalised, and is next encountered trekking across the mountainous border into Pakistan to join the uprising. He becomes known as the ‘papier-mache militant’, making bombs in a camp surrounded by unmarked graves in an uncanny mirroring of his gentle past life making pencil boxes.

The first section of the book feels clichéd, and I never really understood why the pair fall in love in the first place. Roohi is certainly beautiful, but Faiz seems to fall in love with her before he knows anything about her character. The same could also be said of her love for him. Added to the apparently shallow nature of their romance, Roohi is also just too good and too dutiful to be an interesting character, though Faiz certainly is engaging. Waheed shines a light on a conflict that is often wrongly forgotten, and he writes about it unflinchingly, often devastatingly, with wisdom and sensitivity, exploring the region’s religious politics through family dynamics, locating (as Rahman does) the personal in the political. In doing so, he presents the terrible moral toll of war. If the love story had been as convincing as the account of the conflict, and if Roohi had been a more vivid character, I might have recommended this for the shortlist.

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Walcott-Hackshaw, Elizabeth. Mrs. B

Presented as being loosely inspired by Madame Bovary, Mrs. B’s titular protagonist is a dissatisfied middle-class woman in her late forties, living in Trinidad with her husband Charles and daughter Ruthie. Having had an affair with a married professor during her time as a student in Boston, Ruthie has had a nervous breakdown and returned home to the island. When Mrs. B discovers that her only daughter is pregnant – the daughter who she has pinned all her pride and joy upon – she begins to feel keenly the pressures put upon her by her aspirational and catty social circle. A past secret affair with her husband’s friend feels like unfinished business.

The constant violence in Trinidad – rape, mutilation, murder – is ever present, an eerie and often politically-linked force that has compelled the Butchers to leave the secluded home they loved for a gated community where their neighbours may watch their every move. This creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, oppressive despite the island’s lush beauty, which is gorgeously evoked by the author throughout the narrative. Ruthie’s relationships with the professor, as well as with her friend Monique, are finely drawn, and the distance between her and her parents is subtly and sensitively achieved. Mrs. B’s disaffection from her husband is nuanced and sad, and her childhood, revealed in flashbacks, makes sense of her current predicament – her absent parents and wonderful, bibliophile aunt providing her with a sense of abandonment and love, respectively.

The blurb promises that these upper middle-class characters are carried ‘towards a deeper engagement with their fellow but less privileged islanders’ but this really isn’t the case. A few homeless people are described and referred to, but they have no dialogue and therefore no voice. The family’s servants also have almost no dialogue. We know that horrific violence with political motives is taking place, but it is never properly explained why this is happening and what has led to the island’s shocking predicament. As a nuanced study of a family, this book is excellent and thoroughly enjoyable. I finished it with an excellent feel for the characters of Mrs. B and her social circle, but with little understanding of the political climate of Trinidad and how this affects the island’s lower social strata.

Book Review: James Tait Black Awards 2013 (Biography)

My shortlist

  1. Nicholas Shakespeare. Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France
  2. Paula Byrne. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things
  3. Emily Rapp. The Still Point of the Turning World


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Al Khafaji, Dorothy. Between Two Rivers: A Story of Life, Love and Marriage from an English Woman in Baghdad

 This rough diamond of a narrative relates the story of a young woman from Lancaster who marries an Iraqi man and goes to live with his family in Baghdad. Beginning in the 1960s and unfolding over 18 or so years, Dorothy’s tale centres on her domestic life in Iraq: her pregnancies, the births of her children, her experiences of child-rearing, shopping, socialising and trying to fit in with her in-laws. Through these domestic details, political realities are unobtrusively revealed, from mysteriously vanishing neighbours to tense roadside run-ins with Baathist officials. Al Khafaji quite brilliantly illuminates the gripping and shocking events from this time, which in hindsight read as dark portents of the still more harrowing events to come. Her proximity to Saddam Hussein is a particularly startling aspect of the memoir; her son was a classmate of Hussein’s monstrous son Uday and her daughter was forced to participate in Hussein’s birthday celebrations. People who Al Khafaji knew personally were imprisoned, tortured and killed, including men, women and children. An air of paranoia laces the narrative – the walls have ears wherever she goes – and yet a surprising sense of humour and normality pervades; this is far from a depressing read.

Al Khafaji does particularly well in portraying the status and plight of women in this society, bravely detailing her own abortions and the actions of her often verbally aggressive and seemingly uncaring husband. There are, unfortunately, dozens of typographical errors throughout the text, from missing punctuation marks to a couple of incidences where line-breaks have been unnecessarily added, leaving sentences hanging in a limbo of white space for no reason. Even the cover page fails to give the ‘woman’ of the title a capital letter. This shouldn’t reflect on the story itself, but it is irritating and undermines the work. The author also has a habit of repeating information (at one point remarking that she has yet to mention the issue of abortion in Iraq, despite having described a doctor renowned for carrying out secret abortions) and uses phrases like ‘cheesed off’ when a more forceful word or phrase is required, or exclamation marks that aren’t necessary.

However, on the whole, Al Khafaji’s lucid, engaging, humorous and conversational story-telling style, which often trips back and forth between various decades, helps the narrative to both meander pleasurably at some points and at other points zoom-in on certain incidents with effective intensity. She depicts a vibrant side of Iraq that most people – used to seeing the country only in the bleakest of news reports – will not previously have witnessed, and this is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. This is a riveting read and a good edit would remove its flaws and allow it to dazzle.

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Byrne, Paula. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things

‘Yet this sketch reveals more than has been realised by previous biographers’ (328). This is a typical comment from Paula Byrne’s hugely confident and entertaining biography of Jane Austen. Austen was, Byrne informs her readers from the start, the first novelist to offer accurate representations of ordinary life, without the need for Gothic melodrama. Walter Scott made the comparison between Austen and the Flemish school of painting, and by focussing on ordinary objects such as a writing desk, a shawl, a cushion, a miniature painting etc., building her chapters around each object, Byrne’s format perfectly reflects the Still Life approach so brilliantly executed by Austen. Yet, despite the domestic nature of the items examined, the book does not stay indoors. Instead, Byrne uses these items as platforms from which to launch the connections she makes between Austen’s work and events as far-reaching and dynamic as the French Revolution and the Slave Trade. Not that indoor events are intrinsically safe or boring; the Austen family’s history of madness is a particularly intriguing example of the extraordinary events that can occur in so-called cosy and sheltered domestic worlds.

Byrne’s approach is a bold one, culminating in her discovery of a potentially new portrait of Austen, the evidence for which she conveys in a highly compelling manner. Such boldness is well-founded; she cross-references her seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of Austen in order to contest certain claims. For example, she cites a comment made in one of Austen’s niece’s letters to geographically locate the setting of a watercolour sketch of the author, painted by Austen’s sister – which had previously been of unknown setting. She also cites a shopping spree that Austen went on before her book had made a profit in order to refute a claim made by Austen’s brother that Jane had little confidence that the book would do well. It is a feat in itself to produce a work as fresh, original and enlightening as this when the topic has been discussed so often before.

Byrne readily admits that she is heavily indebted to Deirdre Le Faye’s chronology of Jane Austen from 2006 and Park Hanan’s biography from 1987 and, indeed, there is a lot of familiar territory here for Austen fans (albeit pleasurably familiar territory). But, all in all, Byrne’s admirable quest for new angles, alert attention to minute detail and celebration of small things make this a pleasure to read, as does her accessible writing style and seemingly effortless knack for structuring thorough and nuanced research. Recommended for the shortlist.

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Dixon, James. Out of Birmingham: George Dixon (1820-98), ‘Father of free education’

Dixon drops a name or two in his preface (‘Seated beside Sir Stephen Tumin, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, over dinner…’ (8)) and I’m afraid I never fully recovered from this. The biography relates the life of the author’s great-grandfather George Dixon, who played a key role as leader of the Birmingham-based National Education League, campaigning for compulsory free education in nineteenth century England and Wales. According to the author, his ancestor has been overlooked by historians due to the eclipsing fame of Joseph Chamberlain and John Bright, and he wishes to rectify this.

Dixon was renowned for not having a single enemy; Charlotte Bronte, who knew the family, described him as being polite and pretty but ‘without a backbone’ (23). The author talks at length about what a good, mild-mannered. modest gentleman his ancestor was (the fact that Dixon would not have wanted a statue of himself erected is mentioned more than once), which is all very lovely but it does mean that the subject lacks bite, and makes one wonder whether the fact that Dixon has been overlooked by historians might be because he’s just a bit…dull. It’s written with clarity, but there’s an abundance of very short paragraphs which makes the book look like a textbook and creates a more juddering, fragmented reading experience than is entirely comfortable. It’s a dry, if worthy, topic, and there are so many footnotes listing books, their publication details and page numbers, that it feels more like reading an impressively researched thesis than a full-bodied biography.

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Hamilton, Duncan. Immortal: The Approved Biography of George Best

The clue is in the title of this hugely romanticized biography of football legend George Best; it is totally unsurprising that this hefty 520-page tome has achieved ‘approved’ status. The praise for Best listed in the book’s foreword borders on the hysterical. He is described by Hamilton as ‘physically perfect’, ‘debonair’ and ‘virile’ with a near Mensa-level IQ. ‘Genius?’ asks Hamilton. ‘He was much more than that.’ Even the blurb states that: ‘Every man envied him and every woman adored him.’ Well, no, not every man envied him and not every woman adored him, and it is this exaggeration that makes an otherwise well-written book rather tiresome.

Best was an undoubtedly remarkable sportsman, and Hamilton’s obvious passion for football and Best himself infuses the book with zest and energy. But, ultimately, Hamilton is so preoccupied with romanticizing past events that, whilst it is no doubt a captivating read for fans of Best and of football in general, non-fans (like myself) will be left bored to tears by large sections of the book and possibly tittering at the photo captions describing Best as a ‘model-in-waiting’ ‘with seldom a hair out of place’, ‘the perfect billboard for his own clothes’, a ‘pin-up’, ‘fashion icon’ and ‘perfect physical specimen’. Indeed, so much attention is paid to Best’s appearance that it becomes comical and, at times, borders on the homoerotic.

Best was, of course, a deeply flawed individual and Hamilton does address his icon’s pig-headedness, his womanising ways, excessive materialism (for example, buying garish and costly shirts that he would wear only once before discarding) and other less saintly character traits. His death by alcoholism at the age of 59 is treated with an admirable sense of compassion, and rightly so. Hamilton paints vivid and endearing pictures of the folk who touched Best’s life, from his salt-of-the-earth landlady Mrs Fullaway to enigmatic manager Matt Busby, and skilfully evokes the varying atmospheres of the shifting decades and the changing nature of our ‘celebrity’ culture. It is undeniably well-researched and well-structured, but left me longing to read an earthier, more honest and altogether less blinkered account of the talented, troubled soul.

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Muirhead, Fergus. A Piper’s Tale: Stories from the World’s Top Pipers

This is more a collection of brief interviews with various musicians than a cohesive exploration of piping. Each quick chapter discusses the career of a different piper/group and the book isn’t tied together in any other way than this. The conversations with the likes of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers do give a good insight into the life of a musician; the dedication it takes to become skilled in the art of piping, life on the road and so on. Muirhead’s writing style is unfussy, lucid and flowing, but the book is filled with jargon that outsiders aren’t likely to understand fully and, for me, became tedious when things like tuning were discussed, or when competitions were listed as if they were already familiar to the reader. The forewords by Eddie Reader and Carlos Nunez are also pretty poorly written and that’s not a great way to begin a book and goes to show that great musicians/singers do not necessarily make great writers. This is probably a pleasurable read if you’re a piper yourself, or even a musician in general, but for non-musical folk like me it felt like being on the outside looking in at a world I’m not particularly interested in. One for the fans.

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Norman, Jesse. Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet

A book written by a Conservative MP, with an endorsement from Boris Johnson on its front cover, is hardly likely to be 100% palatable to a non-Tory reader, and Jesse Norman’s biography of Edmund Burke is no exception. Norman’s writing style is, for the most part, lucid and flowing and is laced everywhere with the author’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject. The first half of the book, focussing on Burke’s life, is generally successful and often stimulating. The second half, focussing on Burke’s work and how this relates to politics today, is less successful. With regards to Burke’s life, Norman’s references to Burke’s contemporaries, including womanising, squint-eyed John Wilkes or wealthy playboy Charles James Fox (who lost his virginity to a Paris Madame when he was just 14), are highly entertaining, and actually left me wishing I could follow their stories instead of well-behaved Burke’s. Not enough attention is paid to Burke’s personal life; though Norman admits that ‘Burke took care not to allow private matters to intrude into his public life, but there was no great gap between the two’ (97), he almost completely ignores Burke’s wife Jane. For example, he refers to her miscarrying a child but dismisses the topic in less than a sentence.

Indeed, Norman mentions Mary Wollstonecraft’s dislike of Burke’s ‘patronizing and offensive view of women’ (142), especially his discussion of beauty in the Enquiry, and readily admits that Burke ‘has little of interest to say about women’ (279). The same, sadly, could be said of Norman, since references to women in this book are fleeting. Burke’s defence of the poor and abused, especially the Irish peasantry, is inspiring to read about, but the fact that he did not support extension of the franchise cannot be ignored. The result of this is that Norman’s incessant need to relate Burke’s work to politics today becomes irritating and intrusive. Norman states at the end of the book that ‘The political context was quite different from that of today, of course’ (228), and that ‘some key aspects of Burke’s thought may strike a modern audience as wrong, irrelevant or merely offensive’ (279). He’s right, which wouldn’t be an issue if he didn’t keep trying to make Burke seem particularly relevant to our modern society. In short, the first half of this book is generally entertaining and enlightening, but the second half is dust-dry and tries too hard to drag Burke’s political inclinations into the 21st century.

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O’ Kell, Robert. Disraeli: The Romance of Politics

O’ Kell reads Disraeli and his career through his novels rather than vice versa, and this is a refreshing angle to take. It gives dual weight to Disraeli’s status as a novelist and politician, which here seems thoroughly justified. The literary and political aspects of Disraeli’s career are united by O’ Kell’s focus on Disraeli’s imagination and his ties to romance. He claims his book is not a ‘typical biography’, nor a critical study, but is instead a narrative focussing on Disraeli’s dual careers and the emotional intensities inherent in both. This approach gives coherence to O’ Kell’s portrait of Disraeli which, even if it is a partial portrait, does result in a generally entertaining end product. However, at over 600 pages long this is a very long partial study, featuring numerous very long plot summaries of Disraeli’s novels and a sometimes tiresome, self-argumentative style. It is an extremely detailed work and draws a great variety of sources together in a neat and nifty fashion (novels, speeches, memoranda, newspaper articles, pamphlets and letters) but, despite the entertaining subject matter, it is an ultimately arduous read.

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Rapp, Emily. The Still Point of the Turning World

Reading the blurb of this might well lead some people to dismiss it as another dismal misery memoir. The story relates the moment and aftermath of the author’s son being diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease when he was just nine months old, a degenerative and always fatal condition. It’s the kind of book I normally swerve to avoid. Yet this story is filled not with misery but with a deeply philosophical sense of what it means to love, to live, to grieve, and how to turn this grief into art. It questions the danger of placing one’s self-worth in ambition and the pursuit of goals, the quest for happiness not in the present but in some sunny always-in-the-future ideal. Rapp’s style is contemplative but lucid, free-flowing but exceptionally well-orchestrated. Her approach is pragmatic and contemplative: ‘this great capacity to love and be happy can be experienced only with this great risk of having happiness taken from you – to tremble, always, on the edge of loss.’ (23)

Rapp challenges media representations of disabled people as being either objects of pity and sadness or achieving magnificent feats. She cites a remarkable letter that Mary Shelley wrote to James Hogg just hours after her child had died, relating her own experiences of grief to those before her. Rapp challenges the American ideal of the pursuit of happiness, its elevation of high achievement, ambition, capitalistic cravings, the need to strive, to have purpose, to be the thinnest, smartest, funniest, best, most famous, most rich. How can any of this relate to her son when he has no future? How can any of these things matter to her now that the worst has happened? Such things are all about transformation; if I achieve this my life will be better. Her son will never transform and can only degenerate: does this mean his life has no value? This is a seam of questioning with rich rewards.

High-flying Rapp had to unburden herself of such preoccupations and misconceptions, and it’s an interesting process to be made privy to. She describes how the parents of her writing students wanted to know how many hours tuition their kids would need before their work was publishable, dissecting the commodification of children, the way certain parents look at their children as some sort of investment; how she too did this before the awful diagnosis was made. She details the way in which the Tay-Sachs gene was the result of persecution and isolation, of Eastern Europeans forced into shetls and thereby having to intermarry and develop the mutant gene. She dismisses images of angels and heaven as insincere and useless in the face of overwhelming grief, the existence of luck, and the warped hierarchy of people’s grief, as if grief is ever quantifiable.

Rapp writes that to turn grief into art it must be revised, the words shaped. She describes her experiences with Reiki, its principle that healing should not be regarded as the means to an end goal but as a moment-to-moment thing, writing sensuously of placing a pine needle under her son’s nose or rubbing his bare feet in the soil. Rapp draws on the work of C. S. Lewis, Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, Louise Gluck, Pablo Neruda and a host of other writers who have addressed death and grief, a sort of literary therapy. She writes beautifully of what it is like to love and lose an infant, evoking all the smells, textures and sounds of her son so that he becomes not just a symbol of grief but a living, tangible human being whose brief life meant something. All these elements combine to create a work of honesty, intelligence and a deep-felt sense of humanity. I recommend it for the shortlist.

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Shakespeare, Nicholas. Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France

This thrilling tale relates the life of the author’s beautiful and glamorous aunt Priscilla, who was sent to live in Paris as a child and, as a young woman, remained there throughout the German occupation during WWII. Because she owned a British passport she was one of the 4,000 British women sent to an internment camp in Besancon near the Swiss border, where open cesspits, frostbite, pneumonia, diarrhoea, malnutrition, food poisoning and dysentery were a daily grievance. It is a subject about which not much has been written. As Shakespeare comments, on discovering accounts of this terrible time: ‘I had the freakish impression of being taken by the wrist and being led down, through a procession of unlocking doors, into the cellars beneath one of the most fascinating and yet, in spite of all the literature on it, incompletely explored moments of the twentieth century – a period over which France continues to draw firm bolts: “Four years to strike from our history,” is how the French still refer to it.’ (217).

Having found boxes filled with his mysterious aunt’s letters, diaries, photographs and stories, Shakespeare decided to write the story of Priscilla’s life, and it is a very juicy story indeed, filled with love affairs, tempestuous family relationships, infidelities and a whole lot of mystery. ‘It was a period which encouraged doubles and pseudonyms’ (271) and, indeed, the author clearly had to do a lot of detective work in order to piece together the accounts of Priscilla, her lovers and her friends. That Priscilla chose to remain in Paris during the war, when she could have escaped to begin with, is one such mystery. Once she remained she was stuck, and it is at this stage that the tale takes on the air of a thriller in which Priscilla had to follow the ‘rules of concealment that John Buchan imposed on his hero Richard Hannay […] “If you are hemmed in on all sides in a patch of land there is only one chance of escape. You must stay in the patch and let your enemies search it and not find you.”’ (276)

When the war was over, and having had love affairs with Germans (possibly even Nazis), Priscilla was in a dangerous situation. Women accused of sleeping with the enemy were often stripped naked, their heads shaved, and paraded through the streets as traitors. Not that men who had slept with German women were victimised, as Shakespeare notes: ‘Horizontal collaboration was a crime uniquely pinned on French women, for whom sleeping with the enemy may have been the only way to feed their children’ (336). Shakespeare’s sympathetic exploration of the plight of women is one of the book’s strongest points. Indeed, at the book’s conclusion, Shakespeare writes that his aunt’s ‘life is a reflection of how hard it was to be fulfilled as a woman, even until recently. The two things she had wanted to do, she could do today, without the help of a man: she could have told her story honestly, and she could have had a child out of wedlock’ (405).

What a wonderful insight into the life of a remarkable but damaged woman this is: a beautifully written, well-structured, sensitive, evocative, intriguing, moving and engrossing read. Highly recommended for the shortlist.

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Victor, Maria Paez. Liberty or Death! The Life and Campaigns of Richard L Vowell

 I felt bombarded with information reading this biography of an obscure British Legionnaire. You have to wade through 12 pages of background and 6 pages of maps and diagrams just to get to chapter one, and the whole thing feels much more like reading a dense history textbook than a biography with a linear, unifying plot (not helped by the tiny text and large page-size). I also found the abundance of endnotes distracting. In chapter one alone there are 34 notes, despite the chapter being only 6 pages long. The subject is an interesting one, and the sheer amount of research that has gone into the project is evident and impressive. If you are passionate about nineteenth century wars in South America, and have a background knowledge of the subject, then this book may well have great merit for you. However, with the (what feels like) thousands of names and dates that swarm over every page, added to the author’s fondness for long sentences, I found it a frustrating and inaccessible read. A skilled writer of biography should be able to make extensive and detailed information accessible to a wider audience and I do not believe that the author achieves this here.