Sunday, August 26, 2012

Reading Notes: Bring Up the Bodies and Umbrella

Having read (well ... read and / or sampled, as I'll discuss) two more of the Booker longlist titles now, I'm up to 8 read and it's not even quite the end of August, which is way better - in fact, 5 better! - than I managed last year before the announcement of the shortlist. I find this mystifying given that last year I was doing very little paid work, whereas this year I'm combining my reading with quite a hefty workload, and my childcare and household commitments are not less. Maybe this is just a really high quality, non stodgy list? Maybe I have invested more heavily in it because I'm reviewing as I go, or because reading is a key relaxaton for my work-taut mind? Who can say.

Anyway - on to Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies and Will Self's Umbrella.

Bring Up the Bodies is Mantel's sequel to the lauded Wolf Hall, which itself won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Continuing the story of Henry VIII through the lens of his bovver-boy advisor, Thomas Cromwell, this book is, if anything, even better than its predecessor - and I say that as someone who loved Wolf Hall and thought it one of the most deserving Booker winners of the past 10 years.

Historical fiction, like other genre fiction, is often branded as less-than when considered with "literary" fiction. Perhaps the genre than suffers from this presumption of inferiority the most is romance fiction, but erotica, science fiction, fantasy, crime fiction and horror / thriller fiction are also tarred with the "not to be taken seriously" brush. Indeed, as I wrote in an earlier review, I think the unwillingness to take speculative / fantasy fiction on its merits will count against the wonderful Communion Town in this process.

However, every so often a book comes along that is just so good, just so stunningly, irresistibly well written and compelling, that considerations of genre are pushed aside. Wolf Hall was one such, and Bring Up the Bodies is most certainly another.

Bring Up the Bodies takes up the story of Henry VIII's self-glorying, brutal matrimonial depredations at the point where he is starting to weary of Anne Boleyn (and, specifically, her failure to give him a son) and has begun to notice meek Jane Seymour, the girl who will soon be his third Queen, mother of his only son, and corpse, in that order.

Using Cromwell as the focus and narrator (although, and this is a very interesting narrative choice, in the second person, not the first), Mantel unpicks the machinations, lies and distortions, the cruelties and tunnel vision, that led Anne to the chopping block. She spares nothing in her portrait of a clever, injudicious, arrogant woman who was nonetheless not evil, but undone by the petulance and inconstancy of spoiled-child Henry and the cunning, snakeish mind of Cromwell. As Bettany Hughes points out in her excellent review in The Telegraph, "The story of the world is littered with the corpses of clever, charismatic women. To make your mark pretty consistently over the past 3,500 years, as a female of the species you have had to be extra special; and being special in historical times usually led to the cold embrace of an early grave."

I like historical fiction generally (it's a genre that does appeal to me) and I've read more than one historical novel set in Tudor times; Henry and his three children-successors (boy king Edward, Bloody Mary, and Good Queen Bess) are colourful, attractive figures for storytelling in themselves, and each of their reigns also saw other significant shifts that make a good basis for a tale. But Mantel's books are a cut (and a half) above any other fiction I've read set in this period. They are completely rooted in the concerns, mentalities and preoccupations of their times, yes, but they also have much more far-reaching things to say about power and politics and gender. Mantel writes a story that is not just persuasive and completely engaging, but important, in the ways it shines a light on how power traps and declaws all challenges to itself, and how easy, how horrifyingly easy, it is to destroy a human being with nothing more than pretty, palatable lies.

In short, this is a truly great book. I would strongly recommend it to anyone (although read Wolf Hall first to get the proper lead-in!)

I must, in justice, preface my comments on Umbrella with an admission - I didn't finish this book. This is the first of the eight I've read so far that has defeated me; I just couldn't muster the will to push through, and I left it (according to my Kindle, at "63% read".) So it is possible that it turned some kind of significant corner and all came together in a wonderful crescendo at the end. (I doubt it, but I can't rule it out).

Umbrella is, in short, a book about consciousness and its absence. Using mental-home patient Audrey Death, and her treating psychiatrist Zack Busner, as its chief foci, it journeys through Zack's own dismal mental landscape, his bodies buried in the mind, and Audrey's frozen, amber-embedded world. A victim of encephalitis lethargica, which left some sufferers in a state of catatonic unreachability with repetitive physical ticcing, Audrey's inner dialogue is caught in her early 20th century childhood, featuring sisters, brothers, parents, and incidents that are long past and gone. Zack Busner's, on the other hand, is less sharp-edged; it's just dark grey and maudlin at all times, informed by his half-communicated memories of his ill brother and his own deep sense of futility.

It sounds like the makings of a good and interesting story; and, I must be fair, the book isn't without interest. Audrey emerges as an engrossing character, although Zack, to my mind, never lifts above "miserable and annoying". Some of the literary tricks are neatly executed, and there are some great turns of phrase.

However, I found the central narrative devices - dialect-based stream of consciousness for Audrey, and internal shape-shifting monologue for Zack - to be really difficult to get sense from, and, after a while, more wearying than rewarding. I understand (I think) what Self was doing with loading Audrey's text with heavily accented writing, but it made reading it a tiring and frustrating process, and I found I was spending my energy on decoding the thick text rather than allowing the story and its overarching themes to emerge and settle. Zack, and the picture of 1960s / 1970s medical treatment he provides, I just found unbearably depressing and bleak. After a while, between the hard to comprehend and the hard to like, there was nothing left to inspire me to keep pushing through to see if I could find the story arc hidden among the very literary stylings of the text.

So I would not go so far as to describe Umbrella as a "bad" book; that would be inaccurate and unfair, as I've not finished it and I did have moments of recognising power and engagement in the text. I would, however, unhesitatingly describe it as a challenging read, and one that, more than halfway into it, hadn't delivered nearly enough pay-off for the effort that it demanded of readers. YMMV, naturally, but this is definitely not one of my favourites.

Overall verdict for shortlist?
Bring Up the Bodies should be shortlisted if there is any justice in the world. The only reason it might not be (or might be but then won't win) is the bias against awarding the prize to two books in the same series.

Umbrella might be shortlisted if the judges like this kind of thing but there is no way I'd ever shortlist it. (I wouldn't have longlisted it either!)

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