Peter Temple: The Broken Shore
Peter Temple was born in South Africa but he lives in Australia, and The Broken Shore is a crime novel; it is also the best novel in any genre that I've read for quite some time.
Basically, this book is a whodunit, and, like all good books of that ilk, it's also a whydunit. In my experience, finding a convincing motive for murder is the major problem in writing this kind of novel, and Temple comes up with a motive here which is far from original (in that it relates to an all-too-common situation) but is entirely convincing.
Temple's detective, Joe Cashin, is yet another policeman who has had a rough time, both professionally and personally -- a bit like Ian Rankin's Rebus -- but Temple wisely doesn't dwell on that. The story is told in nice short chapters and short paragraphs. Some will sneer at that comment, but by golly if you want to tell a story that people will gladly read, that's the way to do it. But the reader has to concentrate to get the full benefit of Temple's writing: the plot is as intricate as the mechanism of a high-class watch -- one of which features in the story.
And, er -- well, that's enough I think. Temple has quite a number of books to his credit, and has won prizes. The Broken Shore has won the Colin Roderick Prize for best Australian book and the Australian Book Publishers' Award for best general fiction. And now a UK publisher has decided to publish him here. A bit overdue, I would have thought, because Temple really ought to sell very well in the UK market.
The publisher in question, Quercus, is a new kid on the block and is worth taking a look at.
Sarah Waters: The Night Watch
Sarah Waters is now an established name, and, as noted here before, she writes extremely well. As far as The Night Watch is concerned, I wouldn't want to minimise the great skill, sensitivity, and care which went into the book; but, for me, there are problems with this one.
Sarah's previous novels were set in Victorian times, but The Night Watch is set in the 1940s. And, as I pointed out only last week, in relation to Julian Maclaren-Ross, the forties were a depressing time in England. That, believe me, is reflected in Sarah Waters's book. And the other problem here is that there is nothing which might be mistaken, even in the wartime blackout, for a plot.
Much research has been done (more of that in a moment), and the author has captured every detail of life in wartime, life in prison, and so forth. But what I find depressing, and on some pages too painful to read about, is the terrible atmosphere of fear.
We have perhaps half a dozen characters dealt with in some detail, and they are almost all frightened. Frightened of the atomic bomb, for a start -- though it isn't mentioned much. Frightened of loss of respectability: having a family member in prison; being known as a lesbian; terrified of becoming pregnant out of wedlock; being frightened of life itself, to the point of committing suicide. We are reminded of a what a performance it was necessary to go through for a pair of unmarried heterosexual lovers to book a hotel room. And we meet, yet again, the abortionist -- in this case not a backstreet one, but illegal all the same, and and none too competent. This is all absolutely true to period, but I don't want to know about it. I lived through it, and that was bad enough.
The absence of plot is also deeply worrying. I do hope that Sarah Waters has not fallen into the dreadful trap of believing that she is god's gift to literature, and that she is therefore above such things. You may remember that E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, said something along the lines of Oh dear yes, there has to be a story -- as if the need for a plot was vaguely disgusting and perhaps best ignored; rather like the need to defecate from time to time.
Forster took the view that a novel should just be allowed to stop, without the author having to bring things to a nicely rounded conclusion. And that, in my view, is what happens here: the book just stops. And the position is not improved by the author working backwards, from 1947 to 1944 and then to 1941.
We must just hope that Sarah Waters's true friends urge her to go back to the good old nineteenth-century lurid melodrama of Fingersmith, and that things will improve next time out.
In the acknowledgements section at the end, Sarah Waters lists a number of books which are, or look as if they are, at least as interesting as this one.
Mentioned, for instance, are Barbara Bell's Just Take Your Frock Off -- a Lesbian Life, Rupert Croft Cooke's The Verdict of You All, and Peter Wildeblood's Against the Law. The latter two describe what it was like to be sentenced to a term of imprisonment for being gay. Wildeblood's 1955 book was particularly influential in helping to bring about a change in the law.
Stephen Gyllenhaal: Claptrap
Stephen Gyllenhaal is a well known Hollywood film director, and he is also a poet. Claptrap, a collection of poems, is subtitled Notes From Hollywood.
The book comes with three introductions or prefaces: one from a Professor Emeritus, one from the two editors, and one from the actress Jamie Lee Curtis. Of these, the editors' is perhaps the most illuminating. 'Poetry in America,' they say, 'is no longer the distinguished art it used to be -- it's never read, hardly taught, and almost never practiced with any sort of discipline.' After wading their way through a three-inch pile of submissions, they were pleasantly surprised to find Gyllenhaal.
And, yes, one can see what they mean. Of course, if you are looking for poems which follow a regular meter, and which rhyme, then you ain't going to find them here. (At least, not to any great extent: there's a poem called Grammar which is actually constructed in an old-fashioned way, and which was, not surprisingly, the one that appealed to me most.) Instead what you have, for the most part, is what I would call prose snapshots: moments of time, glimpses of people, encapsulated like insects in amber. Which is fair enough.
The subject matter is often highly contemporary. Enron, for example, inspires metaphorical thoughts on family relationships.
I have to say that I am one of the many millions who, by and large, does not read poetry. However, if you are looking for a gift for a thoughtful friend who reads books in general, this might be it.
Claptrap is published by Cantarabooks, a small firm which has the motto: 'Beating our tiny fists on the big hairy chest of the corporate literary world.'
W.A. Harbinson: The Writing Game
This last one isn't so much a review as a mention.
The Writing Game is an autobiographical account of the life and times of a professional writer who has managed to survive the minefield of publishing for over thirty years. It doesn't attempt to teach you how to write, or how to get published. It just tells you what it's like to struggle to do those things. It's self-published, by the way.
Harbinson belongs in that class of writers who has been admired in this blog more than once. They're the kind of writers who produce a lot of books, sell lots of copies, get read by lots of people, and are steadfastly ignored by the media, who are much more interested in that first novel by Felicity Farnsbarns, the anorexic supermodel.
To be precise, Harbinson has written over fifty novels, many of 'epic length', plus short stories, magazine articles, screenplay adaptations, and radio plays. And he has survived.
A couple of book-trade people have written warmly about Harbinson's professionalism. Nick Webb, former MD of UK Simon and Schuster says: 'Why a writer as skilful and versatile as this is not an international name is a mystery, and it's one that serves as a valuable corrective for all those starting out on their own careers.' (Wannabes please note.)
And Alan Wherry, former sales Director of Bloomsbury, adds: 'I was the Sales Manager for Corgi Books in London in the late 1970s and every Harbinson title was a guaranteed 30,000 seller in its first month of publication. Later, in the early 1990s, I saw him write, under a nom de plume, nine novels in thirteen months. They were so brilliant that one caused the British Secret Service to consider issuing a D notice (which would have forbidden publication).'
I haven't read W.A. Harbinson's book, and I don't think I will, because, as with the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross, I think I would find it depressing. But anyone who hopes for a 'career' as a novelist should clearly give it very careful attention.