Friday, 30 April 2010

"Mother London" by Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock is probably best known for his Pyat Quartet, a work which I greatly admired, but which somehow did not quite work for me. Towering picaresque novels, the four books trace the life of Maxim Pyatniski, a Russian inventor and his relationship with an Englishwoman who, at least in her youth, is a great beauty and a mistress of several men in succession.

I recently saw Mother London in the library and was instantly capitivated by it. It is worth noting at the outset that Moorcock is a very talented writer, and has worked in a number of genres, including science fiction, for which he has won many major awards over the years.

I should also mention that I have recently read Thomas Pynchon's V (see a review on this blog), and felt very strong echoes of that book, not just stylistically but also within the narrative feel, most notably during the period when V2 rockets are falling on London. In fact, out of interest, I checked which had been written first. Moorcock's book was published in 1988 , whereas V was 25 years earlier. It would be fascinating to know if Moorcock had read it and, if so, what he thought of it.

Mother London is told in a series of vignettes which dot backwards and forwards in time, and are told by various narrators. The only connecting factors are London itself, which almost becomes a character in its own right, a little like Alexandria in the Alexandria Quartet, and the fact that all the narrators have been diagnosed with mental problems and most of them know each other, so that they flit in and out of each other's stories. The three central characters in particular have all been at the same mental hospital at the same time.

Apart from being a fine novel in its own right, Mother London asks some disturbing questions about the nature of mental illness and our perception of it. Is it, for example, simply a convenient way of classifying and ignoring something with which we do not know how to deal? Is it perhaps simply a sane reaction to an insane world, as suggested by R.D. Laing in The Divided Self? Foucault's Madness and Civilisation, which looks at differing attitudes to madness through the ages, is another interesting parallel.

Despite its structure, the narrative is not disjointed. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but Moorcock manages it. There is even a gratifying sense of satisfaction as everything comes together at the end amidst mist and romance.

This is one of the best novels I have read for a long time, and it is difficult to believe that it has not won a major fiction prize. Who knows, I may event try his Cornelius books, even though they are SF ...

Monday, 26 April 2010

"Arthur Ransome and Capt. Flint's Trunk" by Christina Hardyment

Christina Hardyment starts her quest for the real people and places used by Ransome as the inspiration for his books at Leeds University Library, where his papers are kept, many of them in an old cabin trunk which clearly served as the model for Captain Flint's. She then embarks on an odyssey of exploration in the Lake District, just as the Swallows and Amazons do on so many occasions, later visting also the Norfolk Broads and Hamford Water (Secret Water).

She also tracks Ransome through his life, tracing the variuos families with whom he was friendly and speaking to the real life adults who, as children, were the models (or part models in some cases, since he seesm to have taken various qualities from different people and put them together) for the various characters. She also performs some valuable analysis of the plots and participants of the various books which, although they took Ransome nearly twenty years to write, all take place within four years of what she calls "Ransome time", a Golden Age of childhood innocence in the 1930s.

Any Ransome fan will love this book, which will add greatly to their enjoyment and understanding of the series. There are also some interesting perspectives on Ransome's own life, though as Hardyment herself concedes, Hugh Brogan's biography of Ransome is the place to go for this.

It is heartening to be able to report that, though first published in 1984, a good book is, for once, still in print, and in paperback too. Do buy it.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

"Black Rock" by Amanda Smyth

Amanda Smyth tells a compelling story very well in Black Rock, in what will inevitably be pigeon-holed in publisherspeak as "a coming of age novel", but is actually much more than that. In reading it I was reminded both of Okri and Naipaul.

The tale is told through the eyes of Celia, a central character who is well crafted and fully credible. As well as a study of childhood and the death of illusions it also portrays, in a delicately under-stated way, the inifinite complexity of human relationships. Anyone who enjoyed the film Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud will find all sorts of echoes of it in this book. I predict a great future for this book (apparently the film rights have already been sold) and for its author.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

"The Berlusconi Bonus" by Allan Cameron

The Berlusconi Bonus is a futuristic novel set around the idea that if you become sufficiently wealthy and powerful within society then you can apply for membership of a special elite, to whom the usual rules do not apply.

"With a Berlusconi Bonus you pay no tax, you can bribe whoever you wish, ... you can murder almost with impunity, you can even rape women and bugger boys as long as they or their parents do not have BBs as well."

This is a very well written novel in which Cameron takes what might seem a rather silly plot device and builds into a serious, thought-provoking book. It is, literally, a novel of ideas, with various scenes in which different BB holders discuss the meaning of individual freedom and the role of the state. It is the central character's tragedy that he cannot handle the freedom of thought that comes with being rich and powerful, thus also raising interesting psychological themes about the need of many people to be told what to do and think.

This book is like a 1984 for today. I say that very deliberately, not least because I am a huge fan of Orwell's. This is a book which has some very important things to say, things which linger with you and force you to confront various issues. I recommend it.