Thursday, 25 November 2010

Two Women Of London - Emma Tennant

It is very clear from the beginning what this short novel is going to be about. Not difficult when two of the characters are Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde. Yet despite working from such a well-known source, Emma Tennant has produced a work that is very much her own and which retains tension throughout.

The Jekyll and Hyde theme is used to explore a community of women and the forms of feminism they represent. This is done with such a light touch that the story is allowed to make its point without once become a lecture. There isn’t time. The pace is pushed throughout via the notion of someone collating witness testimony after an event. In this way we get different perspectives on the story.

Ultimately, we know what has happened, but the why is what becomes intriguing. That and the community (which must surely have sprung from the same influences that inspired Moorcock’s Sporting Club Square stories), living in a part of London I knew before it became gentrified in the ‘80s.

As ever, with a Tennant novel, the construction and skill of the author is as much a joy as the content. The way in which she conveys atmosphere and draws character with such apparent effortlessness, the way in which there is never any sense of a supreme proponent showing off just how clever they are, the way in which old and new ideas are melded and used to cast a new light in old dark corners… Excellent.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Doomsters - Ross Macdonald

I had intended to add this to the ‘other books read this year list’, but The Doomsters deserves a special mention. The framework of the book is fairly typical Macdonald. It is as much about personal corruption as public corruption, the plot is complex without ever feeling contrived, and the characters are as always fascinating. Indeed, they drive this story - sometimes sedately, sometimes with complete disregard for the safety of others.

What makes this so special is the depth of the psychological insight, set out effortlessly through the story and its inhabitants. It is about insanity, regret, the infinite shades of morality that lie between those two impostors ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It is about how we deal with guilt; it is about the nature of guilt. It is also an exploration of existentialism. Not bad for a book that on the surface is a noirish thriller about murder.

The other thing that makes this book so special is that all the above is the result of the plot. The story is key. The situations, the events, and the characters present us with the ideas and discussions without once breaking the narrative. Events happen within a couple of days. And apart from quite natural discussions with a psychiatric social worker, the exposition is the story.

Friday, 19 November 2010

The Erasers - Alain Robbe-Grillet

This was Robbe-Grillet’s first published novel and it broke new ground with enormous confidence. On the surface it is a detective novel of a peculiarly French kind - quiet, philosophical and so real you can feel the grit. If it was a movie it would be black and white. And the allusion to movies is apposite as Robbe-Grillet went on to be involved with some wonderful film projects as well.

So far so ordinary. Where Robbe-Grillet hacks through a hedge and builds a gate to a whole new field is in his technique. Given his success in film, it is valid to note that his written work is cinematic in the sense that we are given images, often repeated, often focussed on tiny detail, and from these we are allowed to construct a story. This is not so much abstract as cubist - we come back to scenes and details but always from slightly different perspectives. It is these that allow us a glimpse into the inner lives of the characters rather than straight descriptions of how characters are feeling.

Chronology is also dispensed with. It is not thrown out altogether; rather it is used in a way that reflects our inner view of the world. Whilst events may occur in a sequence, we very often revisit them when thinking of them, re-arranging events and our responses to them. Through this we are allowed to build up a comprehensive picture of what is happening in the novel.

Counter to the intuitive thought that a detective story becomes less enigmatic; this one becomes more complex as it goes on. The basic story is satisfying in itself, but the real joy is experiencing the way in which it unfolds through the minor detail and the slow composition of the whole.

If there is one problem I have with this particular translation it is that the translator clearly did not know the difference between a revolver and an automatic pistol. It makes no real difference to the story, but the two guns have radically different ways of working and it just bugged me. Perhaps I should brush up my extremely rusty French and read it in the original (although I fear if I brushed away that much rust there would be nothing of substance left to work with).

Highly recommended and an ideal place to start with Robbe-Grillet if you have never read his work before.