Category: fiction


THE CASUAL VACANCY by J.K. Rowling

Drug addiction, sex, rape, power, corruption and lies. This ‘adult’ novel seems a long way from the world of Hogwarts.

On the surface Pagford is a safe and sedate town; a place where buses “trundle” and where the delicatessen is “run with the ritual and regularity of a temple”.

However, beneath this veneer of respectability lies a festering, dog eat dog world of spiteful social climbers. Rowling revels in her mockery of the airs and graces, petty rivalries and back-stabbing. At the same time she shows a compassion for underdogs and contempt for bullies and braggarts.

As a biting satire of middle class aspirations it is often reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s 1977 stage play ‘Abigail’s Party‘.

This fictional West Country town symbolises a Daily Mail culture of smug NIMBY conservatism. Its self-centred “moral radiance” contrasts with the nearby town of Yarvil where the children are portrayed as “sinister, hooded, spray-painting offspring”. Continue reading

LOVELY BONES, LOUSY FILM

THE LOVELY BONES directed by Peter Jackson (USA/UK/New Zealand, 2009)

“I was here for a moment, then I was gone. I wish you all a long and happy life”. This is how Susie Salmon, 14-year-old murder victim signs off.

She’s speaking from the ‘in-between’ world that is neither heaven or hell but is inhabited by her killer’s other victims. They drift serenely through cornfields under a vivid blue sky – an idealized world that you might find on a tacky greetings card. Peter Jackson pulls out all the stops to recreate this fantasy world, all it lacks are few Hobbits scampering around.

Meanwhile back on earth, Susie’s family are torn apart by her demise. It’s a story that would make more sense if Susie’s ghostly self could intervene directly and point them towards the serial killer. Instead, she merely hovers around while her father develops some kind of sixth sense and realizes who has done the dastardly deed.

You are left to assume that the murderer is sexually motivated but in Jackson’s sugar and spice take on Alice Sebold’s novel all such nastiness is implied and none is shown. Lynne Ramsey was slated to direct this until Film 4 went belly up and she would surely have given the story the harder edge it desperately needs. She spoke of disliking what she called the “my little pony, she’s in heaven’ story”.  Jackson just wants to make a fantasy movie about a dark subject and it’s mix that never works.

THE SHOCK OF THE FALL by Nathan Filer (Harper Collins, 2013)

How do we define and treat madness?  What goes on in the mind of someone diagnosed as mentally ill?  These are two of the questions that lie at the heart of this fine debut novel in which the author draws upon his experience as a registered mental health nurse.

The story is told from the point of view of 19-year-old Matthew Homes, a schizophrenic consumed by grief and guilt following the death of his younger brother Simon. The narrative jumps back and forward in time to piece together this tragic event which happened 9 years earlier.

We learn that Simon had downs syndrome and that the siblings had a special bond. The young boy’s death is announced in the first chapter although the circumstances surrounding his death are held back until near the end. This allows Filer to work in elements of suspense into what is essentially a study of one man’s slow descent into madness. His illness is in his genes and likened to a snake which “slithers through the branches of our family tree”. Continue reading

RUST NEVER SLEEPS

AMERICAN RUST by Philipp Meyer (Pocket Books, 2010)

Philipp Meyer is routinely likened to the blood and dust writers like Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy but the Baltimore-based author actually cites his own influences as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and James Kelman.

A point of connection between these British authors is that they all like to get inside the heads of their characters and that’s just what Meyer seeks to do in his debut novel. The story may begin like a state of the nation saga but evolves into a series of psychological portraits criss-crossing between two generations.

The two protagonists are men in their early 20s – Isaac English and Billy Poe. Isaac is academically gifted while Poe is a talented American football player. Their lives should be full of promise but are blighted by their own aimlessness and, more significantly, by a botched act of self-defence which gets treated as first degree murder. Poe takes the fall for the ‘crime’ while Isaac refuses to be swayed from hitting the road in some Kerouac style fantasy of being the “Duke of all hoboes”. Continue reading

ANYA’S GHOST by Vera Brosgol (First Second Books, 2011)

This beautifully illustrated graphic novel tells the tale of a frustrated teenage girl from a Russian family who is desperate to fit in with the cool set at her high school in America. Part of the story  is autobiographical since Vera Brosgol was born in Moscow (in 1984) and now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Anya is self-conscious about her accent, her weight and the fact that she doesn’t measure up to the Barbie-like beauties in her class. To make matters worse the boy she has a crush on hardly seems to notice her.

Her troubled life turns around when, on the way home from school, she takes a short cut through a cemetery and falls down a hole in a nearby forest. Instead of finding white rabbits or Cheshire cats she discovers the skeleton of a girl named Emily who died 90 years previously. She knows this because the girl’s ghost tells her so! Continue reading

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