Monthly Archives: February 2012

Review: The Black House by Peter May

Welcome to LewesI’m not a big crime reader, but The Black House has done well for itself since its release last year, getting a spot on Richard & Judy and finding itself consistently in the Top 10, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

The novel opens where another might have climaxed*. Fin McLeod (oh yes, this book is SCOTTISH) is a police detective in Edinburgh, reeling from the death of his son – troubled, plagued by nightmares, unable to work, and marriage disintegrating. But a murder on the Isle of Lewis that echoes one of Fin’s own unsolved cases calls him back to his home and a past he has tried to forget.

I read a review of this novel on BookGeeks that described it as an unconventional crime novel, but actually the Isle of Lewis functions rather like a Christie manor or Midsomer (my points of reference obviously veer towards the old lady Sunday night viewing, rather than anything grittier or darker than Jonathan Creek). Fin finds himself interviewing the very close-knit community he sought to escape, renewing old friendships, tensions and memories. The narration is interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood on the island – his friends, his girl-next-door-tentative romance with Marsaili and his parents’ early death.

It’s an atmospheric place to set a novel, and is packed with information about the culture of an island that is both part of and separate from Scotland. I had only the vaguest notion of the tradition of guga hunting that still occurs on Sula Sgeir, but the book manages to patiently explain the tradition without making you feel a research grant is being rammed down your throat (not always an easy task). As a born city-dweller, it’s hard to know whether the emphasis on Gaelic in the pubs and as a marker of belonging is a little twee, and similarly whether it’s really that likely that Fin would know everybody (it’s interesting that the local Ness bobby who becomes Fin’s hapless sidekick doesn’t seem to have nearly the insight into the local characters that the absentee Fin does, unless it’s for a bit of expositional dialogue). But local charm is a difficult thing to get right, and probably sounds a bit twee to our hackneyed ears even when it’s genuine – and with Peter May, I certainly get the impression he’s writing from his own experience.

As you might expect from a classic crime novel, it’s only half about the murder. It’s really more about Fin confronting his own demons and making sense of what happened to his son, a spectre which makes us feel like there is more to discover, and which – without giving too much away – does work to quite artfully misdirect us. While there is the odd niggle – a bit of convenient ‘pub dialogue’ that runs through the last 15 years of personal history, the slightly far-fetched denouement, and the increasing incredulity with which you find yourself asked to sympathise with a man who at one stage in his flashbacks is entirely unsympathetic (but then in a way that’s part of the flair of the book, that it carries it off) – on the whole this is a gripping read. I left work early to read the next chapter. On one memorable day I missed my stop because I wanted to find out what happened.

If there is anything frustrating about the novel, it is the way in which characters, most notably Fin, can sometimes behave in quite arbitrarily irrational ways. The secrets that they harbour on the island are generally convincing, but one has to worry whether Marsaili is really given her dues as a 3D character, given some of the choices that she makes and, in a sense, beholden to her set-up as the apex of a manly love triangle. Some of this does become clearer by the end, but half way through the book you are left wondering whether Peter May really knew how to write into the deeper, darker corners of the mind. By the end of the novel, I’m still not sure, but for entirely different reasons. And it’s worth reading the novel just to find out what they are.

* I feel really weird using this word to mean ‘the moment of dramatic intensity that signals a mystery/thriller’s central revelation’ because, like you (even if you won’t admit it), I have read too much softcore porn. Let’s just acknowledge that this is an unfortunate side-effect of the word and move on…*titter*.

In a tweet: Wallander meets the Wicker Man.



Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

It's only a paper moon... There’s nothing like finding a huge hardback book from an author you love in your Christmas stocking. Sadly, for me, it was Book 3 of 1Q84, so I had to traipse out and purchase my own doorstop copy of the first two books.

It’s worth noting that Jay Rubin was the translator for this one, whom I prefer to Alfred Birnbaum for his slightly more pared-down style. For a book that’s talking about two damaged people, treading a line between the farcical, the fantastic and the horrific, the slightly anaesthetised narration is particularly useful for that, although I know some readers can find it grates after a while. Some more interesting discussion about the nuances of translation can be found on Murakami’s English-language website, here.

Aomame (‘Green peas’ in Japanese) is a woman with an important appointment. In her hurry to make it, she takes a taxi driver’s advice to climb down an expressway service stairway, and in doing so crosses into this eerie new world that is the same, but different. We soon discover that she was headed for a very unconventional meeting, and she has a surprising (or maybe not so surprising, depending on what kind of novel you’re in) line of work.

Meanwhile, Tengo is the more familiar Murakami protagonist – a young 30ish professional with a mundane job as a cram school maths instructor, a lot of free time, and a solitary disposition. I do sometimes despair of the ease with which Murakami’s leading men manage to live in nice apartments, pop out to bars and only work 3 days a week – surely if it were that easy, we’d all be doing it – but their means do always seem to be justified in the text. Just. During this bountiful downtime, Tengo is a budding novelist. His editor enlists him to rewrite a flawed but incredibly compelling story by a Fuka-Eri, a mysterious teenage girl. It is a modern folk tale about ‘Little people’ who come from another world, who speak to her community, and who have a sinister power. Drawn to the story despite himself, Tengo ghostwrites it into a bestseller, and in doing so, binds his fate to that of Fuka-Eri.

Both Aomame and Tengo find themselves in a reality that is not quite their own but then, we find that their lives were never really what we’d call normal. Linked by a childhood experience and connection, they have to find a way to find one another if they are ever going to make it out of 1Q84.

“Please, Miss Aomame,” the man said. Then he released a brief sigh. “There is nothing in this world that never takes a step outside a person’s heart. And it just so happens – should I say? – that Tengo Kawana has become a figure of no little significance to us at the moment.”

Aomame was at a loss for words.

The man said, “But then chance has nothing to do with it. Your two fates did not cross through mere happenstance. The two of you set foot in this world because you were meant to enter it. And now that you have entered it, like it or not, each of you will be assigned your proper role here.”

“Set foot in this world?”

“Yes, in this year of 1Q84.”

In many ways, this (these) is (are) a typical Murakami novel. He is fascinated by splits, and you see duality everywhere in his work. Here, it is the world that has split in two – 1984 is replaced by 1Q84, a parallel world that is almost exactly identical, but with two moons. People, too, are divided – into maza and dohta, but it isn’t as simple as giving somebody a double and trying to make a semi-profound statement about light and dark sides. In earlier Murakami novels, as here, these are two halves that don’t necessarily make a whole – connectedness doesn’t mean completion.

For somebody who wants an introduction to Murakami, I would recommend starting with either Kafka on the Shore or Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I feel like they have more obvious, imaginative points to be made, but also answer more of the questions that they establish. There are a lot of plot devices in 1Q84 that are never answered, avenues that are never followed. This is something that I quite like in a way – we avoid this idea of ‘Chekov’s gun’ (that anything included in the novel must be relevant or useful, or ‘answered’ somehow) and even some startlingly original ideas remain undeveloped or unresolved – but it can also feel frustrating. IQ84 to me felt like more variations on a theme – a theme that I love, but one which is more of an aficionado’s indulgence than a new avenue or world to explore.

In a tweet: It’s only a paper moon / sailing over a cardboard sea / If we don’t slip into an alternate world / it’s not Murakami.