Tag Archives: book review

Hungry Times – a review of Hive by April Doyle

Hive by April Doyle – a review

April Doyle’s debut novel imagines a near future Britain ravaged by the impact of Colony Collapse Disorder, and its knock-on effect on the pollination of crops. With the devastating decline of bee populations – a keystone species in the ecosystem – the consequences on food production are catastrophic. Doyle’s Britain is not that dissimilar to the one we already live in – with food banks in more demand than ever, and parents having to make hard choices about how to feed their children – but taken to the extreme. With the rationing system and the constant background gnawing hunger of the characters it feels reminiscent of WW2 and the lean Post-War Years. Folk are forced to rely on their ingenuity, or willingness to transgress the narrow line between civilisation and barbarity. All of this could have been rather grim – Children of Men, Survivors, The Road … we’ve seen it all before: the cliché of dystopia; the tropes that have been done to death. But here, Doyle does something refreshingly different. Although the shadows are clearly present in this starving Britain (and sometimes devastatingly centre-stage) the author on the whole chooses to focus on her small cast – a farmer and his wife and their two young daughters, an old friend, a scientist and her assistant, a boyfriend and an ex-lover. Although they all endure hardship (or worse) their struggles have a life-affirming quality to them. Due to the nature of the scenario Doyle posits, food takes on an almost sacramental quality, as does the ‘miracle of nature’ itself – the wonder of bees, the cycle of life. The entomological aspects are well-researched and are intrinsic to the plot. Use of ‘found’ paratext from scientific journals, documentaries, and so forth deftly weave in exposition between the chapters, providing an interesting shift of register and scale. These could have come across as just a way for Doyle to show her research in an unleavened form (rather than working it into the fiction) but it becomes apparent the orthography of these infodumps have narrative relevance. The novel gains new energy with the addition of nanodrone technology (courtesy of an old flame), developed as replacement pollinators, and this conflation of nature and science is fascinating to read. In the hands of another author (e.g., Michael Crichton) this would have been a tech-thriller, but although this element catalyses things Doyle pulls back from punchy, full-throttle prose. Indeed, it is least convincing when she is forced to describe violence (although the death of one of the main characters is very moving). The chapters sometimes feel too brief, and the final reveal lacks foreshadowing (it is set up, but then strangely forgotten by the characters). Nevertheless, it is a well-told tale, one that was an engaging, enjoyable read. With ‘soft force’ it nudges the reader to think about food and where it comes from. By focusing on a single aspect of the ecosystem – bees – Doyle’s book has greater resonance and authority than those that adopt a wider approach. It is a welcome addition to the growing canon of ecofiction.

Kevan Manwaring, 12 April 2022

Sovereignty, Masculinity, and Hierarchy in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light.

Amazon.com: The Mirror and the Light (9780008366735): Hilary ...I have just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s magnificent conclusion to her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, and apart from feeling somewhat bereft (now that I no longer have the double Booker Prize winner’s exquisite evocation of Tudor England to immerse myself in during lockdown) I find myself reflecting upon some of its themes.

Sovereignty

The Wolf Hall Trilogy is dominated by two characters – Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s lad from Putney who through his own remarkable intelligence and tenacity, rises to become earl and the monarch’s right-hand man; and Henry Tudor. Their tense friendship I will deal with in the next section, but here I wanted to consider the portrait of sovereignty Henry VIII offers. Far more complex and nuanced than many portrayals of the king over the centuries (in paintings; plays – Shakespeare’s last; novels; films; comic books; ad infinitum, it seems) Mantel’s Henry is intelligent, painfully self-aware, conflicted, and dangerous. The ultimate alpha male in many ways, his unconscionable treatment of his unfortunate (though often equally formidable) wives, heretics, religious real estate, sacred icons, and any one who got in his way or in his bad books, still qualifies him as the villain of the piece. Mantel does not white wash him in the least. And yet Henry’s extreme solipsism and terminally inflated ego – what we might call today a narcissistic personality disorder – is the result of the whole ridiculous edifice of royalty: that is inherent privilege, entitlement, and so-called noble blood. The whole machinery of state, the oil of society, and the sweat of the commoners, supports this invented status – as fictional as anything devised by the best storyteller. For centuries the divine right of kings was a given – to question it was treason, and (very painful) death. Now we still have ‘royalty’, their power often diminished to tokenistic roles, but the creaking institution of monarchy continues. Henry Tudor is a portrait of a man with too much power, whose every capricious whim must be indulged – whose changing moods assail the nation he rules like a tempest. All of his ills are projected onto demonised enemies. Those in favour one week, find themselves anathema the next. Any institution in his way is dismantled. All is fuel to his pyre. In this respect Mantel’s Henry is a portrait with topical resonance. There are many demagogues and tyrants around the world but one in particular stands out. Mantel clearly didn’t write the trilogy as a critique of Trump, but it is hard not to draw a comparison – reading chapters in tandem with seeing the latest insane tweet or briefing from the American president shared all over the news and social media. It is a portrait of how not to be a king, of a kind of anti-sovereignty. Henry Tudor was not a great ruler, because he could not even rule himself. Born to ‘rule’, he is like the classic spoilt child who is never given firm boundaries. Nobody tells Henry what to do. It is ironic that his brother Arthur died young – symbolic in a way of a true portrait of sovereignty, King Arthur: the legendary king of Britain and the epitome of everything Henry was not. In truth, any leader will project our hopes and expectations onto will eventually disappoint. The real sovereignty is found within. Thomas Cromwell, the self-mastered man, found it – and I suspect that is what worried Henry more than anything. His talented servant was more kingly than he ever could dream to be. And Cromwell rose, through his own remarkable merits, to be the most powerful man in England. But of course alpha males cannot accept any competition. And so off with his head.

Masculinity

Although Mantel’s searing portrait of Henry VIII is a masterclass in toxic masculinity, the Wolf Hall Trilogy in its entirety offers many positive portraits of maleness – indeed, although the female characters are significant and often sympathetically wrought (although just as flawed and conflicted as the men), it is the men who dominate the proceedings in almost every way conceivable. The author delights in the company of her male characters and her best dialogue is often in their (private) company – in the intimate exchanges between friends, allies, and rivals behind closed doors. Cromwell’s coterie is lit up by the sparky exchanges between the bright wits and strong personalities of Rafe Sadler, Richard Riche, Gregory his son, Richard his nephew, Christophe, and Call-me-Wriothesley. There is an electrifying jousting of intellect, strategy, and diplomacy between Cromwell and Eustache Chapuys, the ambassador of Spain – one of the most touching friendships in the series (perhaps Cromwell’s only true equal or kindred spirit). Then there are the posturing and jockeying men of the Court – Charles Brandon, Norfolk, Thomas Wyatt; men of the cloth – Stephen Gardiner, Cranmer, Barnes, Cardinal Wolsey (Cromwell’s mentor and a ghostly presence in the last novel), Thomas More (gone but not forgotten); and then the various fathers and brothers, pushing their daughters and sisters forward under the King’s eye, into his bed, hoping for elevation of status. Cromwell is a great patron of the gutternsnipe, the chancer, the cocky lad, and the underdog. He ‘fathers’ them all, and in his way is a good a husband and father as circumstances would allow – until tragedy strikes. The appearance of an unexpected daughter shakes his world – and sense of self-worth – to its foundations. He cannot help but feel a failure, despite all his many triumphs. And yet it is because of this fallibility that we get a rounded, realistic, and affirming portrait of masculinity.  Cromwell is far from perfect, but he is a whole man. Over nearly two thousand pages Mantel limns in minutiae the consciousness of a single human being to a dizzying degree, reclaimed and rehabilitated from history.

Hierarchy

Finally, the Wolf Hall Trilogy explores various notions of hierarchy, of hegemonic power structures. These are ultimately what did for Cromwell. In the eyes of the aristocracy he could never quite shake the mud from his boots. Not that he tried to deny his humble origins. Indeed he wears it sometimes as a badge of honour. He is more in touch with the people than the court, certainly than the king. He experiences the full gamut of society. He rises from the open midden of Putney – his face pressed to the cobbles by his father’s boot – to the highest offices in the land. He accrues great wealth, land, titles, and power – but he never ‘lords’ it over anyone; he certainly doesn’t seem to abuse his power. Undoubtedly he had an excellent head for business and prospered accordingly, but one senses this isn’t what was motivating him. Cromwell did not seek to better himself for that reason – but for his own personal development perhaps. To see how far a man could go. And yet his extraordinary progress was ‘vaulting ambition’ to his enemies. The status quo, which maintained the power and wealth in the hands of the few, felt threatened by such advancement. If one commoner could rise so far – then, heaven forfend, others could as well. And that was the one crime the Tudor elite could to countenance. The multiple homicides of Henry VIII and the daily horrors of religious persecution, capital punishment, and extreme poverty, were acceptable. But not social mobility. Cromwell begins the trilogy being brutalised by his father, the thuggish Walter – and ends being crushed by his surrogate ‘bad father’: Henry Tudor. Throughout his time serving the king Cromwell is forced to endure continual threat of execution, unexpected punishment, passive aggression, mockery, and ingratitude. It could be argued that he ‘acts out’ his relationship with his father through his relationship with his king, to whom he becomes a whipping boy, however ‘favoured’. Cromwell is constantly reminded of his place in the pecking order – he is not born into privilege or power or wealth. Henry’s fool, Patch, rudely reminds Cromwell of this – in front of the whole court. When this no longer serves to put the Putney boy, nicknamed ‘Put-an-edge-on-it’, in his place, the machinery of the system grinds inexorably towards its doom: the reaper in the clock, present from the first page, can wait no longer to administer the coup-de-grace.

Ultimately, The Wolf Hall Trilogy offers an unflinching and deeply perceptive insight into human nature. Mantel’s Cromwell is a masterful instauration of one of history’s unflattering characters: Holbein’s ‘heavy’ turns out to be the prototype Rennaissance man. In its scintillating language, its glittering rhetoric, elegant statecraft, profound historicity, and life-affirming connoisseurship of civilisation it is a counterblast to the endemic vilification of the intellectual, the liberal, and the nuanced we face today in public discourse. It is a message in a bottle from four hundred years ago (via a 21st Century mind) of our rare and precious humanity. All that our mercurial human nature is capable of – the very worst and the very best.

 

© Kevan Manwaring 19 May 2020

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, 2020)

 

 

Time To Get Out the Shovels

A Friend of the Earth.jpg

A Friend of the Earth by TC Boyle –

A  Retro Review

This novel feels eerily relevant even though it was published in 2000. Boyle tragic-comic novel imagines the world in 2025 – one of perpetual Climate Chaos, Biblical deluges, mass extinctions, resource stress, and an endemic breakdown of civilisation. Yet despite this bleak (and all too plausible) scenario, Boyle somehow manages to import some black humour into the situation. The central protagonist is the colourfully named Tyrone O’Shaughnessey Tierwater (mirroring the author’s own Celtic nomenclature), a septuagenarian environmental activist turned glorified zoo keeper for a Mick Jagger-esque super-rich rock star, who has a wish to preserve the unloved species of the planet – the hyenas and other scavengers – within the compounds of his West Coast estate.  We find Tierwater drolefully eking out his autumnal years, obsessed with his failing body and lack of sex life, when the arrival of his ex, the deadliest of species, Andrea – a formidable, and still attractive powerhouse – and an annoying tag along, April Wind, who wishes to write the story of Tierwater’s daughter, Sierra: a heroine of the protest movement. The narrative bifurcates at this point – between the dramatic present, told in first person, and the vivid flashbacks, related in close third person. The vignettes from the more reckless, seemingly resource plentiful past, provide an ironic counterpoint; and the accounts of Tierwater’s increasingly reckless direct actions offer a poignant thumb-in-the-dyke to the consequences of a world past tipping point, where the floodwaters rise and no Noah is going to save the animals. The monkeywrenching is comically related, and Boyle’s book consciously picks up the baton of Edward Abbey’s 70’s classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang – updating it with millennial sensibilities. Boyle’s book is filled with brilliantly rendered characters and a vividly-realised, convincingly researched world. Even in the chaotic cascade of it all, one still comes away with a crazy sense of hope, but one tempered by the reality checks of the severity of what we face, and the fallibility of those who must deal with it: the Augean Stables of it all. Time to get out the shovels.

Kevan Manwaring

Underland – a review

UNDERLAND: a Deep Time Journey – by Robert MacFarlane

a review by Kevan Manwaring

Underland Cover

This remarkable book, which MacFarlane has been working on for about a decade has now irrupted, like an underground river, into broad daylight – astonishing us with its force and volume of news from the underworld. Underland: a deep time journey is a speleological journey into some of the world’s most astonishing underground spaces and systems. It charts a katabasis through its triadic structure (First Chamber; Second Chamber; Third Chamber) – a mythically resonant dramatic arc of descent, testing, and return. A guide of impressive interdisciplinary erudition, insight, and humanity, MacFarlane undertakes a kind of hero’s journey – in Britain, Europe and the North – while clearly emphasising the knowledge, skill, daring, and down-to-earthness of his guides. Most of the chapters recount meetings with remarkable people in remarkable places, and thus deconstructs the notion of the sole, male explorer striking Caspar David Friedrich type hero poses on lonely crags, or above fathomless abysses. This is a book about relationships, complex systems, interdependence, and consequences. Nothing is isolation. Everything is interconnected – mycorrhizzal networks of mutuality. The human is always present in nature and vice versa. MacFarlane parses the anthropocentric engagement with the underworld into three categories of usage – to shelter, yield, dispose:

The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.

The author explores iterations of these in some familiar and obscure places – from the Mendip Hills in Somerset, to the catacombs of Paris, the war-torn karst landscape of the Adriatic coastline, to the glacial fields of Greenland and the nuclear storage facilities of Finland. These extraordinary vertiginous deep-dives are framed by a fictionalised opening which serves as our own access point – a kind of fictive portal – into the subterranean.  The literary and mythical haunt the scientific, geographical, and historical layers throughout – although MacFarlane does not make heavy weather of the intertextuality, being a sharp-eyed and cool observer. Not that his prose is cold, technical, or sterile. He brings alive each experience in a gripping, visceral way. Some sections are overwhelmingly intense and claustrophobic. This travel/nature-writing/memoir/cultural history is as riveting as any well-written thriller. At times it evokes the Sublime of the Romantic, John Martin’s apocalyptic vistas, and Tolkien’s Mines of Moria; at other times it conveys a chilling science-fictional aesthetic. The book is uncompromising in its clear-eyed assessment of the Anthropocene, of humankind’s unquestionable impact upon the planetary ecosystem and geological record. This is a book every Climate Change denialist should read. Yet it goes beyond a kind of literary activism to appeal to the most humanistic instincts – of caring for one’s children, grandchildren and future generations, about being deeply aware of the legacies we leave behind. It is a sobering time-capsule, a message in a bottle from the future – like the teleological warning on the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico, designed to communicate the extreme biohazard of the nuclear waste stored there in a 100,000 years time:

We are going to tell you what lies underground, why you should not disturb this place, and what may happen if you do.

This could be the premise of the book, although it is more than just a series of cautionary tales. It is imbued with profound wonder, appreciation, and praise-singing for the natural world, for human courage, and ingenuity. MacFarlane returns into the light with tales to set your hairs on end, but also with a sense of hope – a hand held out in friendship, in aid, in love across generations, across time.

 

Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2 May 2019

NB this is an extract. The full version of this review is to be published in TEXT: the journal of writing and writing courses in the Autumn. http://www.textjournal.com.au/

Cassandra Complex – a review

Jonathan Taylor’s impressive new collection is reviewed…

Cassandra Complex - cover

This new collection from the multi-talented Jonathan Taylor (novelist, memoirist, poet) is, in his own words ‘a collection of poems, found poems, found translations, mis-translations, prophecies, pseudo-prophecies, apocalyptic visions and moments of retroactive clairvoyance.’ These heteroglossic voices are gathered together in four ‘movements’, foregrounding the (mainly classical) musical motifs which reoccur throughout, a preoccupation of Taylor’s in his oeuvre to date. From the very first poem in the collection, ‘Liar’, there is a wry destabilisation of the many prognostications we are bombarded by on a daily basis. The haruspices of the past, decoding entrails, become the pundits of the present – failing to predict storms, election and referendum results. The intertextuality is dizzying, and could easily alienate the less adventurous reader, but there is a strong strain of humour throughout, an often exasperated tone that most people could relate to who throw their hands up in the air at the craziness of modern life. And some poems are so direct and relatable they are almost unbearable to read, such as ‘Crap Allegory’, about Grenfell Tower, or ‘My Father’s Paranoia’, concerning a filial dereliction of duty. Others offer an excoriating deconstruction of facile aspects of modern life, as in ‘Person Specification’. Some poems interrogate the act of poetry in a self-reflexive and witty way, such as ‘This Poem is Too Neat’. Taylor may wear his wide-ranging learning on his sleeve, but he is never at risk of ‘dumbing down’ to the reader, or playing to the crowd in a Slam Poetry way. Although some of this does work in performance, many of these are ‘page-poems’ that warrant re-reading. It is a Pandora’s Box of disasters and delights, and is worth opening up.

Kevan Manwaring 2018

Available from: http://www.shoestring-press.com/2018/06/cassandra-complex/

Lightning Strikes and Knee Pain

An attempt to review a book is to put into words what one thinks about it. One perhaps starts off by not having a firm opinion but by the end of the review, if all goes well, one has been formulated. This does not really change the nature of the book, but it may change the person writing the review, or possibly the person reading it. It may persuade or dissuade this hypothetical reader to buy (borrow or steal) the book, or it may affirm or conflict with their existing opinion about it, if they’ve already read it – or simply read lots of reviews. It is a chain of ghosts, drawing us further and further away from the book itself, itself an articulation of an experience (either direct, vicariously, or imagined), encoded into black marks, which we translate in our minds into thoughts, feelings, images, and sounds. A homeopathic dilution of real life – that could be a working definition of fiction, creative non-fiction and especially literary criticism. Dyer’s book is, in some senses, a critique and deconstruction of this hall of mirrors. It is an anti-biography, an apparently ‘failed’ attempt at a ‘book about DH Lawrence’ (that we all end up writing, sooner or later, in the Dyerverse of ever decreasing circles – the singularity of futility which is his MO), which, in its gonzo approach of endless digression, indulgences, annoyances, paranoia, and transgressions, actually ‘succeeds’ in channelling something Lawrentian. Dyer makes endless comic capital at of the vainglorious absurdity of ‘experiential research’, while actually undertaking it – globetrotting in pursuit of Lawrence in a form of protracted displacement activity, an endless deferment of gratification – by gratifying every deferment. By the pathological deconstruction of such an approach Dyer actually reifies it, as he finally admits: ‘Had we not seen and done all these things we would not be the people we are.’ (p231). Dyer’s antics is a form of invocation – though he protest too much (ad nauseam) his aches, pains, mishaps, moments of weaknesses, fury, frustration and many failings, all help to conjure Lawrence, to embody Lawrence, to live Lawrence: ‘ hoping by this Lawrentian touch to persuade my audience of the all-consuming bond between the subject and the speaker of the talk’ as he quips about a botched talk on Lawrence he gives (p206). He argues forcibly against the aridity of dusty academic studies, far removed from Lorenzo’s full-blooded approach to life – mocking the ivory towers even as he moves to ‘Dullford’ as he calls Oxford, his very own alma mater. His restlessness and neurosis are very much first world problems from the perspective of male, white privilege, at that (the modest lower middle class roots long since abandoned), and as such, his self-ironic posturing would be facile if it wasn’t so frequently funny. And despite his disingenuity – Dyer wears his erudition very lightly – this is only a performance of philistinism within the context of … a book about DH Lawrence. Yet there is method to Dyer’s madness and there are moments of genius, or at least, great wit: ‘Spare me the drudgery of systematic examinations and give me the lightning flashes of those wild books in which there is no attempt to cover the ground thoroughly or reasonably.’ (p105) And yes, Out of Sheer Rage is full of mini-lightning flashes as we observe the synaptic pyrotechnics of Dyer’s overheated brain. It is amusing, almost transgressive, like listening in to the ‘mad’ person at the party who says all the things everyone is thinking. This is writing as Tourette’s Syndrome. Dyer plays the court jester with gusto and perhaps makes some valid points amid his buffoonery. He is entertaining, but exasperating. To spend too long in his company would be grating, but for a while his Lawrentian ‘playback theatre’ is a gloriously irreverent read. And as an approach to ‘life-writing’ it has some originality and literary merit: it has a pulse. But that is perhaps only a reviewer seeking an ending to his review and wanting something positive to end on.

Kevan Manwaring 2018

Lupus Cromwellius

The TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall & Bring up the Bodies has just finished and what perfection it was – ‘event TV’ that deserves to win lots of gongs. Period drama is something the Beeb does better than anyone. It was so refreshing to watch a show that wasn’t dumbing down – the acting was sublimely subtle (Rylance’s Cromwell was a masterclass in nuance and understatement), the direction, the script (paring down Mantel’s immense, linguistically-pyrotechnical works), the costumes, the lighting, the music … This is Civilization – what we must fight the Barbarians to preserve. A ray of light in a darkened world. What can be achieved with creative freedom and sufficient funding. All from the mind of a supremely talented woman.

Here are my reviews of the first book….

Wolf Hall – a review

An unforgettable masterpiece, Wolf Hall is an instant literary classic that is riveting from beginning to end. Hilary Mantel is at the height of her powers here, creating a fully realised Tudor England that is dark, damp, deadly and deceitful. In Thomas Cromwell she has forged a true diamond in the dustheap, a flawed multi-faceted protagonist who we can feel compassion for while being in awe of his steely intellect, insatiable ambition, and ice-cold heart, doused in the brutality and tragedy of life. He raises the over-used adjective ‘Machiavellian’ to a whole new art form – as though The Prince was written for him. Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn – all are brought to life, vividly, memorably, in all their vainglorious failings. The broken structure and use of present tense is bold, giving it a contemporary edge (although many of the themes have a topical resonance also – especially the financial gerrymandering); and the highly polished prose is exquisitely poetic at times, while never failing to serve the narrative. Each sentence is tart with razor-sharp wit and a Scorpion-like sting. Each arresting metaphor metamorphoses into the next sentence – a linguistic conjurer’s trick that is never merely for show. Mantel makes the language work harder, but the prose never feels tortured – it flows like a fine vintage wine. This is a heady, dangerous pleasure that any connoisseur of narrative will delight in – leaving you ravenous for more.