Wednesday, 24 October 2012

JK Rowling | Marian Keyes | Middle Class angst

This book review is middle class because it feels awkward and insecure. (There’s something I can’t say, but I may put it on the agenda for the parish council.)

Marian Keyes makes a fine point near the beginning of hugely entertaining and often very moving The Mystery of Mercy Close. The Walshes, she explains, didn’t trust “the outside”, “especially because the lead on the telly didn’t stretch that far”. And yet her new boyfriend Artie’s family can happily sit outside of an evening, doing a jigsaw while drinking homemade valerian tea.

Whatever valerian tea is.

Keyes’ book is beautifully judged and extremely funny. A regular number one bestseller, her popularity doesn’t rest on an ability to make you laugh but on the fact her jokes pack a huge heavyweight emotional punch. It comes here as she explores her lead character’s suicidal tendencies. Keyes has herself suffered from depression and you sense her honesty.

Set in contemporary Dublin, this is a timely reminder of the hellish reality of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy. Helen Walsh is a private investigator, yes really, who was laughing back in the day when everyone carried a thousand euro handbag and got their husband followed. But Helen’s flat has been repossessed and she’s now living with mum and dad.

Yet her mother insists the Walshes are middle class. It seems the quest for social identity exists everywhere, not least in my loo where I have installed a very funny little hardback: The Art of Being Middle Class.
The average “MC” person lives in a “constant state of insecurity” unsure of their “tastes, pre-occupations, behaviours and sensibilities”, its authors inform me while offering expert guidance on “How to behave in a gastro pub”, “The proper position of a waistband”  and “Real gravy – the dinner party weapon”.

Dinner parties are a staple of JK Rowling’s first book for grown-ups, The Casual Vacancy. Or Mugglemarch, as Britain’s fastest selling book has been unkindly, but perhaps not unjustly described.

Samantha Mollison the owner of an outsized lingerie shop in nearby Yarvil, is a terrible cook and her casserole goes uneaten by her guests, so she gulps down a bottle of wine and says horrible things to wind up Kay, the social worker who has moved to Pagford from London in order to pursue her relationship with Gavin, a solicitor, who was born with two cold feet. Kay was quite flattered by the way Gavin didn’t bother to set the table while preparing a quick spaghetti Bolognese. And so on.

While Keyes’ novel belongs to the moment, for all its social realism and much talked about satire Rowling’s exists in a strange sort of a bubble. With its snobby bourgeoisie and its desperate underclass, Pagford is a made up everytown – JK herself has likened it to Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire. And yet, no one there ever seems to watch much telly or care about the football score.

While the Potter novels are told clearly and consistently from Harry’s point of view, the Pagford pantomime is played out with a cast of what feels like dozens. Many literary novels do this. Few are any good. And The Casual Vacancy is a slow trudge for the first half. (She is clearly besotted with her characters and regularly uses parenthesis, like this one, to cram in extra detail).

And inner monologue, like this.

It does eventually pick up speed and yes of course, she draws you in before providing an emotional, and quite shocking pay off. But it is bleak. This is the world of the Durlseys, with Harry/Barry dead in the first few pages. And the reason why I’m feeling so awkward and middle class about it? I didn’t like it that much.

Monday, 1 October 2012

The Return of Captain John Emmett | Elizabeth Speller

This book was recommended to me. I'd completely missed it when it came out, even though it made the Richard and Judy list in 2011.

Richard, in the podcast for it, pithily describes it as a 'rattling good yarn'. It is. Speller's book is hugely enjoyable. Extremely evocative of the era -- the early 1920s, as Europe still struggles to recover from WW1 -- it manages a neat balance. Essentially this is a thriller, and quite a fanciful one at that. And yet it doesn't appear to be this at all, more  a lament, and a love story, for a generation lost.

There are echoes of Le Carre. Laurence Bartram is asked, by the man's attractive younger sister, to investigate the last months of the life of an old school friend, John Emmett, who has apparently killed himself. Gradually he pieces together Emmett's state of mind and in so doing Speller reveals some of the Great War's true horrors.

Speller is described as a poet and her prose is certainly of the highest calibre. As if every sentence has been pored over. And of course she is clearly highly knowledgeable about the First World War poets, those tragic young men who composed beautiful stanzas in the trenches. Those men certainly inform this novel.

I described it as fanciful: the plot grows and grows and takes twists that's more boy's own than you might expect. It's a hugely enjoyable journey. I scratched my head a fair bit over the character of Charlie -- who really did seem to be there to perform the function of a between the wars Google. If Laurie ever wanted to find out about someone in the military, he'd mention the name to Charlie and pop, up would come an address. Perhaps it worked that way. The old boys network. But it is certainly convenient for the plot.

That said, I found it extremely satisfying and I was intrigued by the portrait of the women. Contrasting portraits -- the radical former nurse and the stoic sister. A period when attitudes were changing, clearly.

The Return of Captain John Emmett on Amazon. But available elsewhere. There's a follow up too: The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton.