Monday, August 13, 2012

Reading Notes: Swimming Home, Philida and Skios

I've now finished another three books on the Booker Prize longlist - surprising myself somewhat, I'll admit, given how busy I am. But nighttime reading is one of the things getting me through, and none of these books was a hard or effortful read... so here I am, 5 down, 7 to go, and it's only 13 August :-)

I thought about holding off one of these reviews until I had read a sixth, so I could do two posts with a pair of books in each, but the next one in my sights is Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis, which, on first blush, seems to be a bit heavier going than the ones I've read thus far. Given my time constraints, and that I much prefer to review books when they are fresh in my mind, I decided to do a triple-review instead of these three very different books.

Swimming Home, by British novellist Deborah Levy, is nothing whatsoever like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in theme, tone or storyline, but my reaction to it was extremely similar, for reasons I can't quite pinpoint. By this, I mean that I found both books to be easy to read, well-written, insightful and mostly enjoyable (despite the significant - and, now I come to think of it, parallel - dark undercurrents in both); but, I found neither book compelling, and I felt that both were reaching to express eternal truths that didn't quite communicate.

Levy's book, like Joyce's, starts with a fairly simply premise - an English family, father a poet, mother a journalist, holidaying abroad with their friends - but quickly becomes significantly stranger in its characters and plotlines, due, in part, to Levy's narrative choice to reflect a lot of the action through the very disturbed character of Kitty.

Levy displays a casual mastery of nuance and half-seen hints in this book; very little is stated baldly, and even when things are, you are always aware that there are buried layers that the characters are not discussing. The shifting relationships between the characters that I'd consider the main protagonists - poet Joe, journalist Isabel, their teenage daughter Nina, and the stranger-intruder, aspiring poet Kitty - are fascinatingly drawn. Levy uses minor characters to great effect, too, amplifying the half-spoken conflicts and dramas of the main story arc enormously.

The ending of this book irritated me, and, again, like with Joyce's novel, I think it is because it was meant to be a surprise, but wasn't. Everything in the last half of the text was leading (to my eye) to the conclusion, so I was neither shocked nor particularly perturbed by the ending. John Self, reviewing this book in The Guardian, wrote that "the reader closes the book both satisfied and unnerved", but I disagree with that assessment. I was neither satisfied nor unnerved by the close; more, I was disappointed, because I think more could have been done, and an opportunity was missed.

Michael Frayn's Skios is, simply and beautifully, a farce. When I say farce here, I do not mean "something stupid and risible", which is what people often mean today when they use that word. I mean it is a lovely, truly funny example of a rarely-successful kind of comedy writing, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it.

For anyone familiar with Frayn's hilarious play, Noises Off, it will come as no surprise that this book is quite theatrical in feel and execution. I could imagine, with a few minor adaptations, staging this quite easily. Yes, you'd have to dispense with the philosophising about the nature of identity, but, to me, that is the least successful part of the book in any case. Where Skios rises magnificently to the occasion is in its almost Wodehouse-style scramblings of misunderstandings, sharp dialogue, fairly one-dimensional but dead accurate characters, and just extremely clever plotting that makes this a highly entertaining book on every level.

The basic plot device is a well-worn staple of farcical comedy - mistaken identity (in fact, traded identities). A series of events sees serial prankster Oliver Fox, on his way to a liaison with his barely-known lover Georgie, being mistaken for tired, staid academic Wilfred Owen, on *his* way to deliver an important lecture at a made-up cultural foundation based on the Greek island of Skios. Owen and Fox end up living each other's intended lives for over a day, as various other characters' imperatives drawn closer and closer; all of their timelines come together in a glorious bang (literally!) at the moment the lecture is due to be delivered.

This was such a fun book for me; nothing in it demanded I feel All the Sads, or recoil in disgust and horror from the cruel history of humanity, or meditate on the nature of life, or weep readerly tears for depressed, suicidal characters. After Swimming Home and Philida, it was pure light relief, skillfully executed, and I easily gulped it down in two sittings.

Philida is, of these three, clearly the best book (in my opinion, naturally). I started with a preconception in its favour, given how highly I regard Andre Brink as a writer and a humanist, and it more than delivered on my expectations.

Do you know Andre Brink? If not, I highly recommend you make the acquaintance of his canon, even though it is not at all an easy or happy journey. Brink is a white South African writer who writes about his country, its past, and its present, and he does not pull any punches or soften any truths. He has written about actual historical events (although fictionalised)and uses sparse scraps of information, in archives, in records, in stories, to begin his imagined journey into the worlds of the past and their voices. His work is beautiful, cruel, painful, honest, mystical, and it gets inside you, stays with you, for a long time after you put the book down.

Philida reprises a common motif in Brink's work - that of using tangled and complex relationships between individual white and black South Africans to both reflect on and underscore broader themes about the troubled foundation of the social structure as a whole. As in many (most?) of his books, a relationship between a black person and a white person is the progenitor of localised trouble, but also emblematic of shifting sands in the wider world.

Not all of Brink's key bonds are sexual - the central relationship in A Chain of Voices, for instance, is effectively quasi-fraternal, between the slave Galant and farmer-master Nicolaas - but it is in Philida, which starts with a complaint of ill-treatment lodged by Philida against her master's son and father of her children, Francois Brink. (In an oddly unsettling turn of fate, the Brink family in the story is a collateral branch of the author's own family).

Set in the last years of legal slavery in South Africa (the book culminates with the official end of slavery in 1833), this book is incredibly gripping from the first page. What I cannot but always love in Brink's work is the ways in which he humanises all his characters - there are no caricatures or cartoon villains here. Yet, even in giving them all struggles, pain and genuine softer emotions, he never shies away from explicit moral judgement of their actions and the rottenness of the power structure that enables them. We may not see individual white slave owners as monsters, but their actions are monstrous and unforgivable, and Brink never lets us forget it.

I won't spoil this book by giving away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that I gave up a night's sleep to read it from start to finish, and I ended that night feeling bruised but not sorry. It is very hard emotionally in places - the brutality may upset some readers severely - but it is one of those books that it's important to read, even if it hurts.

Overall verdict for shortlist?

Philida will be shortlisted, and thoroughly deserves to be.
Swimming Home won't be shortlisted unless the judges really, really like this kind of book, and I agree that it shouldn't be.
Skios is a joker in the pack for me - I really, really enjoyed it and I would probably shortlist it just for something different, but I don't think it'll actually make the cut.

(*I still reserve the right to change these votes after I read more books, in case the rest are either wonderful beyond belief or really weak :-)


  1. Just a quick question! How are you managing to get all of such an up-to-the-minute book list? I assume many libraries don't have them all (or they're on constant rotation.) Are you buying them? (Fiona)

    1. Good question :-) I got Harold Fry from the library, but the other four so far (and Narcopolis, next on my list) I have bought as ebooks via the Kindle store. Mostly they have been modestly priced, to my delight - all but one have been under $10.