Monday, 26 April 2010

Shoes of giant people

When Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible was published ten years ago, it won the powerful acclaim of Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton. Now her first full-length novel since then has been shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.

The Lacuna is an epic tale which sweeps from the vibrancy of 1930s Mexico to the McCarthy trials of alleged communists in the US in the late 1940s and 1950s. The narrative is seen through the eyes of writer Harrison Shepherd, the son of a remote American father and a capricious, social-climbing mother who brings him up in her native Mexico.

From early childhood Shepherd keeps a diary. This comes stunningly alive when he encounters famed muralist and active Communist Diego Rivera, his beguiling artist wife Frida Kahlo and the exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky, who spent his final years in Mexico. By becoming part of their extraordinary circle and acting as their cook and secretary, Shepherd inadvertently throws in his lot with art and revolution – a move which is to have devastating repercussions.

Kingsolver has admitted that she originally imagined the novel without Frida Kahlo but that “she moved into it.” Weaving the stories of real-life characters into a work of fiction is fraught with difficulty, but Kingsolver, with her meticulous research and keen eye for historical detail, succeeds magnificently.

The only stumbling block is that the larger than life Kahlo and Trotsky, with his love of animals and hopes for a world cleansed of evil, prove far more enthralling than the modest Shepherd. At one point he admits to Frida that he is “a mouse creeping around the shoes of giant people, trying not to get stepped on.”

After Trotsky’s murder in 1940, Shepherd begins a new life in North Carolina, where he puts his masterly talents of observation to good use by writing novels. But to his dismay, his colourful past returns to haunt him when the FBI decides to investigate him. As Shepherd’s lawyer dryly observes: “If a man is not a Communist, they’ll prove he is.”

Largely written in diary format, interspersed with newspaper cuttings, letters and notes by Shepherd’s devoted stenographer Violet Brown, this remarkable novel is a finely crafted story of identity and loyalty. And as the title implies (lacuna means “gap” or “missing piece”) all too often there is a yawning gulf between what is true and what people simply assume to be true.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Published by Faber & Faber, £7.99.

Emma’s rating - ****

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Living daylights

Blueeyedboy is darker and far more complex than Joanne Harris's first psychological thriller, Gentleman and Players.

Set once again in the Yorkshire town of Malbry, it's the cleverly-plotted story of BB, a man in his 40s who lives with his mother and works in a dead-end job.

Sitting at home, BB spends his spare time caught up in a virtual world. He has set up a website called badguysrock and reinvented himself online. Using the moniker of blueeyedboy, he churns out a series of murderous fantasies featuring real-life friends and enemies.

But BB, it soon emerges, is an unreliable narrator. Harris herself has likened her novel to a Rubik’s cube, which twists and turns with no obvious solution in sight, and readers have to keep their wits about them to decipher what is fact and what is fiction.

One thing’s for certain, though - the devious BB is not what he seems. Harris gradually reveals the murky secrets of his past, including his toxic relationship with his mother (a chilling figure who collects hideous china dogs, forces her sons to wear the same colour each day and whips them with an electrical cord when they transgress), his feud with his two brothers, a string of unsolved local murders and the mystery of a blind girl prodigy who can “see” music.

Best-known for the fabulous Chocolat, her first novel, Harris began this book with a few fragments of plot and admits she was stunned by where it led her. During the course of her research she spent hours online, made friends using a pseudonym and became fascinated by the way people can choose how to portray themselves. As BB himself points out, “as long as it stays a fantasy, who really cares which role we adopt?”

Interestingly, each chapter of Blueeyedboy takes the form of a post on a web-journal. Some are public, some are private, but each specifies the mood of the writer, the time of day and the soundtrack they happen to be listening to. On public entries there’s even a comments box.

Harris has described her novel as principally a “black comedy, not to be taken entirely seriously.” I’d beg to differ. This is an ingenious, gripping read – but far from finding it comic, it terrified the living daylights out of me.

Blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris. Published by Doubleday, £18.99.

Emma's rating - ***

Monday, 12 April 2010

Writing the tricky second novel

Former screenwriter Sadie Jones took the literary world by storm two years ago with The Outcast, her debut novel. Set in the stifling world of post-war Surrey, it was a runaway success, selling 400,000 copies, winning the Costa First Novel Award and becoming a firm favourite with book clubs.

Second novels are notoriously difficult so a lot is riding on Jones’s eagerly-anticipated follow-up. But Small Wars, published in paperback this week (April 15), is a fine novel, as assured and elegant as her first.

Major Hal Treherne is driven by two passions – his burgeoning military career and his adored wife Clara, the sister of his army friend James. After six years in Germany, where he spent his time “overseeing exercises that were almost uniformly without incident” and never once saw “a shot fired in anger,” he is keen to do the job he was trained to do. That is, to serve his country and lead his men.

Hal is delighted, therefore, when he is posted to defend the British colony of Cyprus in 1956. Clara and their small twin daughters sail out to join him and the family moves into married quarters on the army base. Clara enjoys days on the beach, Shakespearian readings organised by the Colonel’s wife and drinks at the officers’ mess.

One army wife claims Cyprus is just like “Cornwall in summer.” In fact it’s anything but. As Jones explains, the conflict had seen “a fledgling desire for independence harden into a terrorist campaign,” and Clara learns to her cost that bombings, ambushes and street fights are a terrifying daily occurrence.

As well as leading a series of bloody and often brutal skirmishes, Hal has to confront issues like rape, torture and murder. As he struggles with his own personal crisis, the beliefs and values he has adhered to all his life are called into question. Meanwhile Clara grows more and more fearful, both of the volatile situation her daughters and unborn baby are being exposed to and of her increasingly distant and unpredictable husband.

Like The Outcast, Small Wars is characterised by Jones’s cool, calm prose and keen eye for detail. From the idyllic home-counties villa of Clara’s childhood to the sun-drenched Cypriot hillsides where the guerrillas hide out from the British troops, her writing is vivid and compelling. Meticulously researched and emotionally powerful, this is a second novel to be proud of.

Small Wars by Sadie Jones. Published by Vintage, £7.99.

Emma's rating - ****