The shepherd’s hut by Tim Winton (Picador)

shepherds hut

“When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth grey rumble going under me everything’s hell different”

THERE is a sticker on my edition proclaiming that this has been a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime, which is a bit odd, Winton being more of a pirate radio of a writer and I am not so sure this is really late night reading unless you like the feeling of hunkering down by the salt lakes. One of Winton’s strengths is opening up the western Australian outback and in a sense this is an Aussie western complete with metaphysical Christian allegorical finale. The first part is told in a series of violent flashbacks, the second part we are on the run through the salmon gums. And like in a western it has an easy going, bad arse first person narrative. On the surface nothing much is happening only go a little deeper and there is a psychological purging afoot. All good movie materials with tough-as-boots characters central to which is teenage Jaxie Clackton, butcher’s boy, abused, delinquent, feral, on the run, in the wild, a lost soul facing up to his own demons and staring down those in the bush. All for the love of Lee who is a character and half herself. The openings of each chapterette give a feel for the pace and style:

“The day the old life ended…

”Being a cheap bastard is what killed him…

“First two days I stayed right away from the highway”.

His prose is like a prize fighter with short jabs moving around the plot, ducking and diving through a bunch of memories and a faint glint of glory ahead. Jaxie joins a short, estimable literary list of tearway teens as defined by Holden Caulfield in Jerome David Salinger’s in Catcher in the Rye, although he is a lot more punk than the country rock band feel of the last book of Winton’s I reviewed in Dirt Music which has a different feel of another kind of journey…

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Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape)

 

warlight

“In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”

 

I RECOMMEND that you do not read too many reviews of this brilliant contender for the Man Booker 2018 prize. Or even listen in to the chat that will surround its nomination. The story telling is so careful and intense that even straying a few pages into the novel to offer a synopsis or too much flavour might spoil the enjoyment. The context is brilliantly researched. Post world war 2, London is all moody and foggy and filled with dodgy characters on the make. The dog track and the river are early themes. Like Ondaatje’s Booker of Booker winning title the English Patient he pulls back the sheets on an obscure, unobserved corner of the the theatre of war which he colours in precisely before pulling out slowly for the big picture.

London is emerging from the wounds of the blitz. At the centre we have the teenage Nathaniel and his sister Rachel roaming pretty much as feral kids in the rubble and underworld. He gives us an early clue – everyone has nicknames, so may not be quite who they seem. Nathaniel likes maps, to draw things as they are, to sketch in the world that lives in the boundaries. He is a selfish, driven adolescent which sort of serves to blinker the narrative rather cleverly.

 “I felt I was a caterpillar changing colour, precariously balanced, moving from one species of leaf to another.”

And he is joined in this murky, half world by the man the children refer to as the Moth and the former boxer, The Darter, Pimlico’s formerly finest and his girlfriends and the lovely waitress Agnes whose name is not really Agnes at all.

The opening 100 pages or so drift materfully creating a rich overture that might swerve in any direction…anyone looking to write could/should  jump into a few chapters. Here is a short sample of the children’s new housemate:

“For a private man who loved classical music…he had the loudest of sneezes. Bursts of air were expelled not just from his face but seemed to originate from the depths of that large and friendly stomach…late at night they could be heard, fully articulate, travelling down from the attic rooms as if he were some trained actor whose stage whispers could reach the furthest row.”

Outstanding.

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The president’s hat by Antoine Laurain (Gallic)

“Daniel Mercier went up the stairs at Gare Saint-Lazare as the crowd surged down.”

 

THE hat in question – and in the original French edition – belongs to president Francois Mitterand.

It is probably just coincidence that two of France’s notable novels of the last few years have featured the socialist president with enhanced, almost mystical qualities but it underlines the point that French writers are more interested in contemporary political allegories. Mitterand also feaurues as a lynchpin in Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language. Here Laurain uses a simple fable-like conceit of the missing hat to draw the fault lines through the Gallic political landscape: The horror of old school aristocrats at the rise of socialism at all and the left wing associations not so much with the workers but with artists and the moneyed media. From the quotes that adorn my copy I am not sure English reviewers actually get that point.

But as with his Red Notebook, Laurain manages to tell a light hearted tale that mixes mystical powers ascribed to the hat itself and its wearer with a nuanced and structured pastiche of modern society linking a financier to a mistress to a failed perfumer in therapy and finally a businessman each in their own way finding salvation or nirvana in the wearing of the missing hat and draw out an alternative politic. Curiously each of the different characters is voiced by different translators in Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken. Chapeau as the French say. Good fun but with a sinister twist at the end.

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The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain (Gallic)

“The taxi had dropped her on the corner of the boulevard.”

This is very filmable – a French comedy of manners, of mores, of missing identities. A screen version might skip the rich literary (French) references but the compensation of seeing a young Catherine Deneuve style actress playing the heroine opposite say a Jean-Paul Belmondo would compensate.

A bookseller Laurent finds a handbag discarded on the street and sets out to track down its owner. His only clues are the contents in the bag, which slowly start to entice and captivate him. The bag itself assumes mythical status. “A transgression. For a man should never go through a woman’s handbag – even the most remote tribe would adhere to that ancestral rule…”

The images are sexualised. “He gently pulled the zip all the way. The bag gave off an odour of warm leather and women’s perfume.”

And further as we go there are the cats, one of which is called Belphegor, after the demon who seduces by guiding people to discoveries, there is the powerful mistress, the precocious instinctual daughter and even a bit part for Patrick Modiano, another expert in the novella of missing identities that underwrites the very modern themes of the philosophy of identity and dual realities bound around an unlikely crush. It zips along quickly with sharp dialogue and spry humour. And it must be the first book to hinge on the elongated moment of Modiano deciding whether or not to insert a comma in his text…by way of climax. Great fun.

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The Hungry Empire by Lizzie Collingham (Bodley Head)

“Saturday 18 July 1545 was a fish day on the Mary Rose”

I SUSPECT if you went back in time the most difficult thing you would encounter might be the food, an argument given more than a little weight by some of the meals featured here.

Collingham quotes a letter from one travelling bookseller John Dunton in Ireland who is so disgusted by his hare broiled in butter that he asks for a boiled egg instead. There is then a graphic, almost pornographic, description of why Irish butter was so often so filthy.

Her thesis was first articulated by the Greek historian Heroditus. “The use of cookery to transform raw ingredients was the mark of civilised farming populations”.

This is history without kings or treaties, instead snapshots of how people ate at different points starting with the Newfoundland fisheries where the sailors traded salt cod for that very English vice of Mediterranean wines and spices. Better than the actual food bits though here are the mechanics at work at the start of empire, the first stirrings of capitalism, of economics itself, of local versus global, of city versus countryside, all very topical read against a Brexit debate. The French gave the world French, the Spanish swapped gold and silver for religion, but the British gave the world trade.

The realisation came in the Caribbean that an island did not have to be self sufficient at all if supplies could be shipped in. So it was beef from Ireland that was consigned to fill the returning sugar boats and feed the slaves who already outnumbered the settlers of New England 2:1. Later it was the Bengal opium poppy that balanced the books of the East India Company to pay for the new English habit of tea drinking, a trade with China that continued up to 1948. The empire was the drug dealer and we only began to impoverish ourselves when we stopped, albeit Collingham argues that maybe opium was not really the demon it has been made out.

Tea figures prominently. She argues it was a mark of the fading yeoman pastoral farmer being displaced from the countryside. Before that they drank beer – healthier and more nutritious – but the cost of brewing forced people to turn to cheaper tea which they in turn made palatable with sugar. One family account reveals they bought 4lb of sugar to every half pound of tea.

There is much here to jolt the cosy status quo of school history. Plus joyous little snippets such as the role played by the Huntley and Palmer biscuit tin at the battle of Rorke’s Drift and their influence on Nubian art décor homes of the 1940s.

Rather than sailing with her across the Atlantic at times I felt more like I was getting a guided tour of Collingham’s study so frequent and precise are the references, sometimes not even the book, but the actual page number. There are 82 pages out of 367 devoted to references plus another 15 left completely blank, presumably to add your own.

Anyone interested in Brexit could do worse than invest the time to read this and then write an essay on the lines of Errors in British foreign policy post 1945. The hard men and women who forged the empire may get a bad press these days but you feel the empire could not have been built by an EC technocrat.

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A long and messy business by Rowley Leigh (Unbound)

roleyleigh

“I have been doing this sort of thing for quite a while now.”

I am not sure anyone should write a cookery book until they reach a certain age. It is quite possible to open a food business with a dozen or so recipes, but that does not constitute a book of knowledge. It is down vocabulary and experience. And as a lot, probably most, are ghost written these days, there is no voice.

Rowley Leigh has plenty of voice to go along with his experience. He recalls unloading the first lorry load of produce delivered from the Paris markets at Rungis back in 1979. He has been at the helm of two of west London’s most fashionable restaurants Kensington Place and then Le Café Anglais, so he has built a fine repertoire of trusted post Elizabeth David style classics which he shared in the Financial Times for many years which form the back bone of this collection of monthly highlights.

There is a modesty and honesty to his writing and to his recipes. “Good cooks love a snowy head of cauliflower for the thing of beauty it is…”

And he slips in some technical and historical notes that might appear on a TV quiz like QI. “Classically crème Dubarry would be thickened with a béchamel sauce and a potage Dubarry with potatoes. I prefer to use rice…” Plus there is a little backgrounder on the salacious Comtesse Dubarry herself.

You feel the effort that has gone into the cooking and his frustration when the Times columnist Bernard Levin “spurned the scallops and foie gras, ignored the turbot and the pheasant and contemptuously murmured that he would just have an omelette.”

But then Leigh trained with the Roux brothers who used to audition young chefs by asking them to prepare an omelette, so his technique is worth listening to…”Heat the pan with the merest film of cooking oil with the suspicion of a heat haze. Add the butter and quickly…”

His Bolognese – a ragu in fact – is worth the price of the book as are many other recipes which offer a year’s worth of pleasure as much in the reading and cooking as the eating. There are little instructive tricks like marinating all the ingredients for a fish soup overnight in white wine before the cooking and then thinning the mayonnaise for the rouille with a little of the soup itself.

You might presume that such a work would have been snapped up by a mainstream UK publisher with a healthy advance – after all, to anyone in the know – many of whom are listed in the back as supporters – this is probably going to sit alongside Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories, which was nominated as the Waitrose food book of the decade. No such antecedents, as it comes from the crowd sourcing Internet start-up Unbound.

The evocative still life photograpy by Andy Sewell is equally awe-struck by the thing of beauty that it is.

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Lincoln in the bardo by George Sanders (Bloomsbury)

“On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.”

The Bardo of the title is a Buddhist idea of a transitional state between life and death, a purgatory. I mention it because no one else bothers.

There is a line in Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, also listed for the Booker of Bookers, written 40 years earlier, which sort of captures the essence of George Sanders task in this inflated tome:

“I shall use many voices, in this history…”

She goes on to explain a few pages later:

“In my head Jasper is fragmented: there are many Jaspers, disordered without chronology. As there are many Gordons. Many Claudias.”

I wonder if Sanders read those lines as inspiration? In essence these are the voices at the birth of a nation – 160 voices all told, I am told, sacrilegious, bawdy, defamatory, vernacular. Fine “fragmented” voices they are too crackling along like Dickens moving along without the worry of a plot or narrative or description or much of what we usually associate with the elements of story telling.

We have two books lashed on top of each other. Book one is the cleverly conceived saga of the president angsting over his son dying of typhoid while sending 10s or should that be 100s of thousands to their deaths in the civil war, told in snatches from newspapers, memoires, journals, some real, some imagined. Here there is a smart contrast between the descriptions of the society ball and later characters. There are even four pages of quotes as to what Lincoln himself looked like.

The second book is a dreamed up purgatory – the bardo of the title – where dead people or nearly dead people turn up for a chat under the auspices of the the dubious Vollman, Bevins and the reverend Everley Thomas.

The redeeming part of the first book is to catch the idiom of the time and sounds of the era, of a key moment in revolutionary history, we are there with them, but that is undone by the bogus hokus pokus of the underworld chitter chatter of the second book which laces through it.

There are any number – so many as to be clichés really – of literary references to grab on to – the Greek chorus of the dead, the second coming, Dante’s Inferno revised, Hamlet’s gravediggers etc. The undertones are perhaps supposed to suggest freshness and frankness but re-occurring visions of rape and latent homosexuality don’t read that way to me. It is macabre, telling dirty stories about the dead and when it is clever it is often sly, so when we are told that Abe has some difficulty making love to his new wife on their wedding night, it is because, we later appreciate, how moved and important their son might become to them. Subtelties like that are few and far between.

In fact this is not so much a novel as a prose poem that might seek to inhabit the same territory as T.S. Elliott, Ted Hughes or even more recently Max Porter’s Crow or Aimeer McBride. It is not an easy read across 340 pages, although to make things easier the publisher Bloomsbury has inserted plenty of white space so you might be reading verse. Lively’s book by contrast in my edition is 204 pages but is probably longer but she does not use much punctuation. Full stops and capital letters are about it. She also uses words like “shards” correctly where Sanders bends it to another purpose.

Bloombsury gives us a little pompous aside at the back of the book about how the type is in fact Fournier designed originally by one Pierre-Simon Fournier who lived from 1712 to 1768, so a century before the action here. I am all for publishers explaining the types they use and why but this just reads like so much aggrandizement.

It is not so much as what to make of the book – which is sort of interesting, clever, a diversion if you like this kind of thing, fragments of good writing, snatches really, odd spots of clarity, but plotless, guileless, devoid of a narrative engine, un-edited, overblown and corpulent – rather what to make it of it winning the Booker prize let alone being nominated for the Booker of Bookers. Elliott, Hughes, even Dylan Thomas brought people to the book, to reading, to enjoyment of reading, to the revelations of literature, to great visions of human consciousness and understanding, to visions of intelligence. This will put people off reading altogether. It aspires to be the Great American Novel but it is the Great American Un-Novel. This Booker emperor has, for me, no clothes on.

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