Thursday, October 08, 2009

A long time between posts

Sigh. I don't want to spend an entire post on why I haven't been posting but I probably owe some sort of explanation for my pretty hopeless neglect of this blog. The last few months have been absolutely hectic at work. The flow on effect of that has been that I just haven't had the mental space for writing here. In fact I've barely had the mental space for actually reading. If you look at my 'recently read' list you'll see lots of the fairly easily digestible young adult fiction (Robert Muchamore's Cherub series, for example) that has been my diet for the last little while.

Anyway, I've just had almost two weeks holidays in which to get back my reading mojo, and while it took a while to come back, I've finally hit my stride and have been swept up in some quite fabulous books lately.

Christine Falls is written by Benjamin Black (aka Irish writer John Banville) and it's wonderful, page-turning, whiskey-soaked, rain-drenched crime fiction. Black takes us back to Dublin in the 1950s. His central character is pathologist Quirke, who has the pre-requisite damaged past and taste for booze that we expect in this genre. Quirke finds himself investigating his own family when he discovers his brother-in-law (a pediatrician in the same hospital where Quirke runs the morgue) changing the death certificate of a young woman named Christine Falls.

This being Dublin in the 50's, the Catholic church is a heavy, oppressive presence whose influence reaches all the way to the new world- part of the novel is set in Boston. There are dark hints of shadowy organisations behind the scenes who are not pleased that Quirke is nosing around in their business.

I loved this novel. The writing is beautiful and there is a degree of atmosphere and characterisation that is not always found in crime fiction. Quirke was so alive to me that I could almost feel the whiskey burn its way down his throat, feel the pain of the beating he receives part way through the book, feel the shortness of breath as this bear of a man limps about the streets of Dublin and Boston. Some fans of crime fiction might find the plotting not as inventive as in other crime novels. A little like the Australian crime writer Peter Temple, Black gets the characters right first, so that you almost forget that there is a crime to solve. And I'm really ok with that.

In contrast, Kingsley Amis' short crime novel, The Crime of the Century, feels mannered and overly reliant on plot. This novel was actually written as a series of columns for The Sunday Times. The best thing about it was the interesting introduction by Amis where he discusses the process of writing in this genre. He felt it was really important to cut out any material unnecessary to the plot, and I can see his point, but in the end this reads like a clever exercise in dropping clues rather than something a reader could engage in emotionally.

The last novel I'll mention for now is Beryl Bainbridge's Every Man For Himself, a beautiful evocation of the four days aboard the Titanic before it famously sank. The story is told through the eyes of a young man, Morgan, a wealthy, well-connected boy trying to find his purpose in life. Morgan is, in fact, the nephew, by marriage, of the owner of the shipping company that owns the Titanic and has had a small part himself in designing the ship (well, some of the tap fittings in the suites) as part of his quest to 'find himself a career'. Morgan is an astute eye in this world of snobbery and vanity. He himself is saved from being completely part of that world by the fact that he lived in abject poverty until he was found and adopted by his uncle as a young child. Memories of that dark beginning to his life simmer just below the surface of Morgan's consciousness and explain his attachment to the dashing, charismatic character of Scurra, a character Morgan sees as a kind of father figure.

The central concept of the novel works really well- we know what is going to happen to the ship and therefore the petty concerns of the passengers and crew (is the library too big? Are the carpets the right colour?) take on an incredible poignancy. Bainbridge also writes beautifully and I really felt that I was part of the world that she created. She has some wonderful ways of describing characters; one man is described as never having thought something that hadn't already been thought by someone else (Bainbridge of course expresses it better than that, but at the moment I can't actually find the exact quote). I would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would have been fairly well-trodden ground but this is a fresh perspective on the event. The last pages are, naturally, devastating.

So now I'm off to read my next book, Sylvie Matton's historical novel, Rembrandt's Whore, which, if nothing else, should lead to some mighty interesting traffic to this site...


Sarah said...

Good to see you posting again, I can relate to being overworked!

I really enjoyed Christine Falls and its follow up The Silver Swan, and hope Banville revisits the characters. Like yourself, I enjoy character driven crime fiction, and this and Peter Temple are very successful examples.

I read that Amis book years ago but can't remember anything about it. I think his comic novels are much better than his genre ones. Have you read any of them?

jess said...

Thanks for your comments Sarah. I'm glad you liked Christine Falls as well, and I'm definitely going to look out for a copy of The Silver Swan

I agree with you about Kingsley Amis. I really loved Lucky Jim so was disappointed to find this book so lucklustre.

Kailana said...

Glad to see you posting again! I was surprised when my reader told me there was a new post at this blog. :)

Jeanne said...

Many of us can relate to being overworked...luckily there are a number of us with long attention spans. Have you gotten around to reading Finnikin of the Rock yet?