Category: fiction


ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr (Fourth Estate, 2014)

 "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever"

 51mfo0a70zl-_sx331_bo1204203200_This engrossing novel follows the parallel lives of a young German boy (Werner Pffnig) and a young French girl (Marie Laure) caught up in the mayhem and confusion of the second world war.

The novel’s year zero is 1944 and the complex yet brilliant plotted story shifts back and forward in time.

Short chapters give the urgency of a thriller yet patiently piece together the threads that briefly and movingly bring these two blighted lives together.

Doerr unsentimentally shows us how ordinary lives are corrupted by the horror of war.

One of the real strengths of the novel is that our sympathies lie with both of the main characters even though conventionally speaking they are mortal enemies and Werner is alined with the morally depraved Hitler youth. Continue reading

BRIDGE OF SPIES directed by Steven Spielberg (USA; 2015)

220px-bridge_of_spies_posterAs a self-confessed movie nerd I can’t get enough of the ironic post-modernism to be found in directors like David Lynch, Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch. I identify strongly with the cynical and often surreal gaze they direct towards the modern world.

In my book, The Coen Brothers fit squarely into this category so it comes as something of shock to find Ethan and Joel’s names (alongside British playwright Matt Charman) on the screenwriting credits for Spielberg’s very conventional drama. Apparently, their remit was to add some zip to a story which, with shades of Fargo, is “inspired by real events”.

Lawyer James B. Donovan played by Tom Hanks is the decent, upstanding all American family man appointed to defend the devious Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in what is initially conceived as little more than a show trial.

I suspect it is the Coens who came up with the best line in the movie when, in response to Donovan’s comment that Abel never seems to worry, the spy asks “Would it help?” This is funny the first time around, but when he poses the same question on two further occasions, it loses its novelty value. Otherwise, the script is tight and workmanlike although has none of the wisecracks or lively verbal exchanges you come to expect in Coen Brothers movies. Continue reading

ROOM directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Canada/Ireland/UK, 2015)

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Joy and Jack look for light in the darkness.

Room is the story of survival. The main victim is Joy Newcombe ( which evokes the idea that he is the devil in human form. While in captivity he has fathered Joy’s 5-year-old son Jack and you imagine that sexual abuse is the prime motive for his actions.

There is always a morbid curiosity to uncover the dark secrets that drive this kind of depraved behavior. A weakness of the movie is that we learn so little about this man’s background or what happens to him after being apprehended. We hear of, but never really see any physical abuse and only the sound of a creaking bed tells us that he is repeatedly raping her. Continue reading

What makes Rabbit run

RABBIT, RUN by John Updike (Penguin Books, First published, 1971)

235845Powerful works of fiction are not dependent on the nobility or likability of the characters.

Two of my favorite fictional creationd are Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov from Crime And Punishment and Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike from the Gormenghast trilogy. Each are prime examples of men behaving badly motivated by a bitter and twisted ambition.  Their ruthless and murderous actions are deplorable but they are both fascinatingly complex characters.

Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is in a wholly different kettle of fish. There is nothing endearing about him and the very banality of his failings mean that he barely qualifies as an anti-hero. He is not a killer, nor does he crave power but his selfishness, random lustfulness and frustration are ugly traits that infect the lives around him.

A one time basketball star, he is unable to come to terms with a humdrum life with a dead-end job and a dismal marriage. He wants out but has nowhere to run.

Updike’s cynical depiction of the human condition is so absolute that we are pitched into the mire of Rabbit’s squallid affairs without a moral compass. We are not required to condone or condemn his actions nor to sympathize when he hits rock bottom to the point that : “He feels underwater, caught in chains of transparent slime, ghosts of the urgent ejaculations he has spat into the mild bodies of women”. Continue reading

Donna Tartt’s worst novel

THE LITTLE FRIEND by Donna Tartt (Vintage Book, 2002)

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A creepy cover but, like the novel itself, I have no idea what it is meant to signify,

“The only thing keeping this book together is the binding” quipped one reviewer on Good Reads. It’s an exaggeration but I understand where this reader is coming from.

Donna Tartt’s second novel begins,like her first and third, with a violent death. The sister of a dead boy, Harriet,  vows to find out what happened. She’s a gutsy, unconventional young woman and the strength of this character raises hopes that this might be a tight and nail-biting murder mystery or at least a gothic melodrama of sorts.

It is neither.

The main failing is that the tightness and control displayed so brilliantly in The Secret History is absent. Instead, the looseness that made the conclusion of The Goldfinch such a disappointment is all too present.

When Donna Tartt is writing about domestic dramas she is good at exposing “the tiny flaws and snags in the thread of reality” and creates tension in the most mundane of family situations. When she tries to write about characters from the wrong side of the tracks the credibility factor begins to falter. Drug dealers and violent delinquents are not her forte. Long passages here try desperately to create a Dickensian sweep involving good vs evil; right vs wrong but end up being merely sprawling and unfocused.

It picks up briefly towards the end with a couple of good action sequences but by then I’d ceased caring.

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