Category Archives: Bedtime story

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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When everybody else is raving about a book I do love to prove them wrong, but sometimes that’s just not possible. This was a genuinely enjoyable, thoughtful thriller that kept you guessing right up to the end and was highly original in its execution.

I suppose these questions stormcloud over our marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

Nick Dunne awakes on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife has disappeared. He knows they haven’t been getting on. Her diary reveals that she was afraid of him. That he could be cruel. And Nick has secrets to hide. So what did happen to beautiful, amazing Amy?

The novel is beautifully paced and the voices of Nick and Amy are convincing and distinct. Extraneous details act as colour to their relationship and also excellent red herrings, and the narration chillingly paints a convincing picture of the very cruel, very legal things that two people in a relationship can do to one another (emotionally and psychologically, not in a 50 Shades way), before the mystery even occurs. But also, you end up rooting for some surprising people, for some surprising (and sometimes disturbing) reasons. Probably the best thing about it is the way we see two conflicting sides of the story, and knowing that we’re reading a crime novel, our efforts to figure out the twist, to see how or whether he did it, actually leaves us open to easy manipulation.

It’s impossible to discuss the book in too much detail without giving away the ending and the twists, which everybody bangs on so much you’d definitely feel short changed. However, I did feel that towards the end it got a bit too deus ex machina for my liking, especially when it had started off so insidious and domestic. But seasoned thriller readers are probably much happier with the old familiar improbable resolution, so I am willing to let that slide. And crucially, it didn’t get in the way of enjoying what was an excellent, chilling, intelligent read.

Rating:
In a tweet: Jonathan Franzen meets Donna Tartt. In a good way.

Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

I remember the hype around this when it came out, as the first major work from Pullman after His Dark Materials and promising a similarly inflammatory reading of religion. It was available in two simple-but-beautiful editions from Canongate, suggesting a choosing of sides or an aligning of allegiance (I’d be interested to know which sold better, the black or the white. My money’s on the black).

The Good Man Jesusand the Scoundrel Christ

Anyway, when I finally settled down to read it, it was in a much less imaginatively designed paperback and on loan from a theology graduate friend who described it as ‘really disappointing’, but who also acknowledged that she has a much deeper knowledge of the Bible than your average reader and thought she might have been giving Pullman a bit of a hard time.

Not so, theology friend! For somebody who had obviously done his homework on religious literature for The Amber Spyglass, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an incredibly simplistic retelling, and I say this as somebody with a pretty limited Sunday School grasp of the Biblical stories, plus whatever you pick up in English Lit class along the way. I wasn’t offended by it in a religious sense, but I really thought it smacked of a kind of adolescent storytelling – ‘Wouldn’t it blow everybody’s minds if Jesus wasn’t one person….BUT TWO?!’. There used to be an old drunk guy who would regularly get on my bus and tell everybody ‘IF YOU SPELL LIVED BACKWARDS, YOU GET DEVIL’ and then stare at you like he’d proved an infallible conspiracy about the universe. I mean, he wasn’t wrong, but he definitely wasn’t as clever as he thought, either, smelling of Special Brew on the 143. And I feel like he and Philip Pullman have been to one too many Tennants-flavoured theology seminars.

The novel is written in a pared down style which I guess is supposed to be redolent of Biblical writing, although why people insist on suggesting that people 2,000 years ago all narrated their own inner monologues in this sparse way I have no idea. Christ is the black sheep of the family, intelligent, sensitive to moral ambiguity, and distinctly non-miraculous whereas Jesus is all impassioned earnestness and miracles. Christ becomes Jesus’s history writer, and inevitably starts to edit some of the occurrences for the sake of posterity, neatly bringing in a debate about the difference between History and Truth (and often helpfully telling you that’s what it’s doing at the same time. Just so, y’know, you don’t miss the significance). The man who encourages Christ in his endeavours is a shadowy figure (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe he’s the devil) who seems to be preparing the way for the church (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe the church is bad) – an institution that Jesus himself is against (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: doesn’t that just blow your mind, man?). We all know how the story is going to end, and surprise surprise, Judas and Christ are in cahoots, only it’s Christ that gets the 30 pieces of silver (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: exhausted).

It isn’t a bad book, not by a long shot, and for fans of Pullman it’s another bit of writing to gobble up by him. But where His Dark Materials offered some really challenging ideas with a bit of Milton thrown in, I found this to be a bit facile in comparison, and without the gimmick of the religious retelling, not a very compelling novel in its own right. I kept thinking about one of my favourite novels, The Master and Margarita, which contains a retelling of Jesus’ story through the eyes of Pontius Pilate in a much more nuanced, interesting, beautiful way. This just didn’t compete.

 Rating: 
In a tweet: Sunday school’s out for summer.

Review: Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Mr FoxPretty much a love song to Angela Carter, Mr Fox is a tangled web of stories centred around their well-to-do author in the 1930s, St John Fox, his wife Daphne, and his ‘muse’, Mary Foxe. It’s a book that demands careful attention to get everything out of it (and I think I’m going to have to go back and read it again for this reason), but that also skips along exuberantly.

Each tale is an exploration or a play on the Bluebeard legend – the story (also taken on by Carter) of the serial wife-murderer who gives his latest wife the key to a room she’s forbidden to enter. When she does, finding the bodies of his previous victims, she seals her own fate. In Oyeyemi’s spin on the tail, Mr Fox is a serial slasher writer who can’t help but kill of the women in his stories. As half-participant, half-muse in these stories, Mary Foxe is tired of the bloodshed:

“What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic. People read what you write and they say, ‘Yes, he is talking about things that really happen,’ and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You’re explaining things that can’t be defended, and the explanations themselves are mad, just bizarre–but you offer them with such confidence. It was because she kept the chain on the door; it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day’s scraping and bowing at work; it was because she was irritating and stupid; it was because she lied to him, made a fool of him; it was because she had to die, she just had to, it made dramatic sense; it was because ‘nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman’; it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.”

In protest against the narrative satisfaction of a dame done in and her killer’s remorse, redemption or discovery, Mary Foxe proposes a different set of stories. It’s up to the reader to discern whether it is she, Mr Fox, or later Daphne, who is the author. Characters slip in and out of reality and lapse from one story to the next, which can be a disorienting experience if you don’t a) pay attention or b) stop worrying about it. Some stories work better than others but that’s probably a question of taste: I enjoyed ‘fitcher’s bird’ for the blunt rejection of fairytale logic, ‘My Daughter the Racist’, although as that separately won a short story prize before Mr Fox’s publication, it doesn’t entirely mesh with the others, and ‘some foxes’ which was a genuinely moving end to the novel, coming full circle and creating a new myth out of the problems of male-female communication, but one that results in stilted co-operation, rather than death.

If I had a gripe about the novel, it was that Oyeyemi didn’t quite seem to do justice to the 1930s ‘meta’ storyline (maybe she was as sick of him as the women in the novel). While there is some working through of the problems in St John and Daphne’s marriage, it’s hard to see where exactly St John owns up to his responsibility for his female characters, and his total self indugence in his infatuation with Mary. Also, while the Yoruba story is really interesting, it isn’t something that a 1930s author could really write, and My Daughter the Racist, draws heavily on Western intervention in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, even if it does not mention them by name. While other stories mesh seamlessly into Mr Fox’s life, the segue is much more stilted when Oyeyemi tries to fit these anachronistic tales into his broader story. But it’s hard to see how you could reconcile this, when ultimately Mr Fox is doing service to Oyeyemi’s wider ideas about violence towards women in fiction – and its very real dangers. I also felt like sometimes Mary Foxe’s laconic demeanour actually did her a disservice – sometimes I wanted rage and fury when instead I got a sad, noir-ish drag of a cigarette and an imploring ‘Don’t look at me’. Unlike in Angela Carter’s writing, there isn’t a full working through of her ideas – Mr Fox’s misogyny is challenged, but I’m not sure it’s ever really thwarted.

That said, this is the kind of book where everything shifts on a second reading, and it’s worth at least that.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Fantastic.

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of AchillesMaybe it was the fact that it was a retelling of the Iliad, but I wasn’t expecting this book to be quite so trashy. I don’t mean in a bad way. It has been described as Homeric fan fiction, which is probably a bit unfair, but the exploration of Achilles and Patroclus’s burgeoning attraction and love has a distinct whiff of YA about it. Historic romance, is probably the best way to describe it, and if you’re on board with that then you’ll not be disappointed by The Song of Achilles.

The premise of the novel, which took Miller 10 years to write, came from her fascination at Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’s death. While I think the upshot of the scholarship about the Iliad is that you’ll never know whether Achilles and Patroclus were in a homosexual relationship as we would understand it today – given the various homoerotic practices in Greek armies of the day, and also the tradition of married men indulging in boys with no apparent censure – Miller gives their love full rein in her version of events.

Her writing of the infatuation is beautiful and lyrical, if bordering on the teenage poetry: ‘He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine.’ But against the backdrop of one of the most legendary wars of all time, the romance starts to wear a little thin. I started to find the moments that Patroclus has to himself, learning to tend to the wounded, or his relationship with Briseis (although you can see that coming a mile off – I guess the downside of reworking a classic legend is that its plot twists aren’t exactly unexpected) a relief from the constant tortured adoration of Achilles. Take this example of when Achilles gives Briseis to Agamemnon as part of a defence of his wounded pride:

I watch him leave. My stomach feels burned to cinders; my palms ache where my nails have cut into them. I do not know this man, I think. He is no one I have ever seen before. My rage towards him is as hot as blood. I will never forgive him. I imagine tearing down our tent, smashing the lyre, stabbing myself in the stomach and bleeding to death. I want to see his face broken with grief and regret. I want to shatter the cold mask of stone that has slipped down over the boy I knew.

Patroclus’s fury was a welcome relief from the adoration, but it is also an example of the very teenage passions that course through the novel’s veins – and it’s still all about Achilles.

And this was the major downside for me in this book: Miller has committed to a retelling of the relationship, not the war, through Patroclus’s eyes, and so things that you would expect to be part of a fully fleshed out character’s story –the fighting, his relationship with the other men, his feelings about the politics – all this is sidelined if not downright neglected; everything is refracted through the lens of his love for Achilles. Maybe I’m just not enough of a romantic, but I don’t believe that’s actually how relationships work – even epic ones – and it’s that that gives it its slightly angsty, YA feel. That said, it is an eminently devourable read, and I definitely wasn’t above shedding a tear at the end – it is definitely good angsty YA.

It did make me question whether the book would have won the Orange Prize for a similar telling of a modern-day relationship, and I suspect it wouldn’t. Once you remove the glamour of the ‘untellable story, retold’ angle, it becomes just another tortured romance (see The Forgotten Waltz for another shortlisted romance that was much more interestingly written, but without the benefit of famous characters). But as the ‘original’ tortured romance, it manages to sidestep accusations of unoriginality and instead becomes a ‘modern retelling of a classic’. Nifty.

Rating: 

In a tweet: Beautiful men, feeling beautiful feelings, in beautiful bronze. Also a war happens.

Review: The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

The story of an Irish woman’s lapse into adultery, this could have been the plot of any Marian-Keyes-molded chick lit, but was a refreshingly different take on the story. Gina is a difficult narrator; she changes her mind, she unapologetically misremembers things and uses this account as a simultaneous working out and defence of her actions. She glosses over some things and dwells on others, and frequently we get the sense of another part of the story developing just out of sight.

In fact, reading this novel felt for the life of me like going for dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while, don’t know that well, and haven’t quite worked out if I liked. Two bottles of wine later and she’s pouring out the one-sided story she’s woven out of this drama, knowing you don’t know any of the people involved, knowing it’s a cliche, and trying to defend herself about the accusations she imagines you making.

It’s a hit and miss narrative strategy, because Enright has created a set of characters who you’re not sure whether you’re rooting for or furious at, and as these middle class Terenureans get more involved in their domestic dramas and economic worries, you’re not entirely sure why in that case you’re even reading it. But it’s a very human portrait of some very human characters, and every time I got a bit frustrated – for example, Sean’s epileptic daughter Evie appears at significant moments like their first kiss, and you think that she ought to serve more of a function in the novel, but then she gets kind of sidelined – it’s a result of Gina’s inability to quite make the story she’s telling work. Her mother’s death is dealt with in a kind of rambling aside that nevertheless forms the central part of the novel, in a way that makes you work to flesh out your own conclusions about how it’s affected Gina, and whether it’s connected to her affair with Sean or whether it just forms another event in her confused suburban life. Gina herself admits there’s no real way of knowing:

This is the real way it happens, isn’t it? I mean in the real world there is no one moment when  a relationship changes, no clear cause and effect.

Or, the effect might be clear, the cause is harder to trace.

The effect walks up, many years later, when you are out to dinner with your new partner and she says, ‘My goodness. Would you look who it is.’

Not to everyone’s taste, then, but I was refreshed to find a novel that tried to honestly tell a woman’s experience, and wasn’t afraid to stop at admitting that that woman might be a flawed character, and narrator.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Breaking up is hard to do. So is writing about it.

Dancing Jax by Robin Jarvis

I tried really hard to like this book. Really hard. Like an underperforming child or the cat that pees on the carpet, I made a LOT of excuses for it. Robin Jarvis was one of my all-time favourite authors as a child. I devoured the Deptford Mice and Deptford Histories and felt genuinely bereft when they were finished and there wasn’t more to come. The man can definitely spin a yarn. I have a sneaking suspicion that his novel, Thomas may have in small way changed my life as a child. And discovering that this was about a fantasy book that possesses people, like some YA-King-Gaiman mashup, I nearly peed all over the carpet along with the cat.

It is a premise full of promise (to enter into the spirit of irritating and nonsensical wordplay). Jarvis writes exceptionally thrilling narratives that do keep you gripped, so when he starts to write about the dangers of an equally addictive book, Dancing Jacks, that is found in a creepy old house filled with eerily sentient mould, it has the potential to be a real spine-tingler. He turns the traditional idea of reading being a virtue, making you into a hero (as in, for example, that classic about escapist kids’ literature, The Neverending Story) by making it the very thing that poses the greatest threat. Book burning becomes a necessity for survival, rather than an easy Hitlerish metaphor for evil. It all gets a bit meta, and a bit dark. Great stuff.

Except it’s like reading this excellent premise through the dual lens of a) a terrible fantasy novel and b) an angry Daily Mail article.

Let’s start with a).

Every paragraph starts with an excerpt from Dancing Jacks. It’s a kind of Grimm Fairytale world based loosely around playing cards, but it’s written like your worst nightmare of a fantasy novel. ‘So mote it be’? Eugh. Even though it’s been written by a satanist who is presumably better at arcane arts than he is at literacy, the idea of an addictive book is kind of undermined by its sheer shonkiness. Martin, the harrowed Maths teacher who I guess is our hero (although the narrative flits between lots of important characters, including his stepson, Paul), actually seems to provide a kind of get-out clause – seemingly immune to the novel’s effects, he muses that he can’t see the appeal – ‘it was stodgy, repetitive and obvious and in places quite impenetrable’. Is this actually a get out clause written into your own novel?

To be fair, the more I think about this, the more I think about whether he’s making a point about escapism — plenty of fantasy and sci fi is ridden with cliche but the appeal of another world is stronger than people’s aversion to bad writing, and maybe he’s exploring how deep your desire to escape your own life will go. But then, plenty of fantasy and sci fi is really good. Including other work by Robin Jarvis. So I’m not convinced.

b) Fine, if you want to make a point about how the world has gone to hell already thanks to our shallow lives following footballers and talent shows. But don’t…don’t actually write your own diatribes into every single character’s speech in the novel! The demonic Ismus towards the end of the novel reveals why the time is now ripe for the dark book to take hold.

There are no children in this world any more. You dress and treat them as mini-adults. You let little girls play with dolls that look like Berlin prostitutes. The morality and hypocrisy I used to find so stomach-churning no longer exists. You foist on to your young people role models whose brains are never as active as their underwear, and whose talents and achievements extend only as far as the bedroom door and the ability to blurt every detail of what happens behind it. You give your precious offspring access to a lightning-fast network of corruption and danger. You immerse them in computer games far more violent than the most savage and dirty war, and target prepubescents with inappropriate music and imagery – giving them a vocabulary that would have revolted sailors back in my day. There are not stigmas, no taboos, no boundaries, no respect and certainly no innocence left. To be pregnant at thirteen is no longer an everlasting shame, merely a career choice.

This is the culmination of other asides about the state of the nation made by one of the other main characters. Supposedly a nerdy but loveable maths teacher, Martin still describes most of his pupils as ‘scum’ and tells Emma, admittedly a pretty irritating and mouthy student, that she’ll never amount to anything. Education at its finest. Even when Jarvis follows Emma, suggesting that in her story at least she might develop some redeeming features, she remains a 2D straw figure ripe for bashing – just as Martin all-too-readily assumes, she’s really only interested in getting wasted on ‘Breezers’ and being famous. Phew. Thank goodness our assumptions aren’t being challenged in any way, then.

This also brings me onto another issue, which is the slang. Writing in dialect, particularly when it’s young people, is fraught with danger but that’s not to say you should never do it – sometimes it makes for a fully immersive novel where you get a real flavour of the times that you wouldn’t with a more standardized lexicon. Not here. I’ve never been to Felixstowe, so maybe everybody does talk like an old man pretending to be ‘down with the kidz’ but I doubt it. So when some wannabe gangster kid (fair enough, we’ve all met enough of those) refuses to pull his trousers up because ‘It’s my identity, innit. I’m doing it to support my brothers. I won’t yank up my saggys…You is well bullying me, Sir,’ this isn’t the voice of a teenager but of a middle-aged man who knows enough to parody kids, but not enough to sound like them. It would work if it was Martin doing the impression, but not in a supposedly real-life scene. Similarly, the references to Facebook, Lady Gaga, I’m a Celebrity and X Factor are so exhaustive as to be, well, exhausting. A year after publication, it’s already starting to feel dated, and you can’t help wonder whether the ‘x’ in the title is similarly borne of a sense that that’s what people do to make things current, when in fact that stopped working about a decade ago.

Also, fans of 90s UK children’s programmes, does this have a familiar ring to it?

The Demon Headmaster

Ultimately, I feel like this novel skirts round the big issues it tries to raise. There are many more insidious dangers to children from modernity than the ones that Jarvis choses to focus on, and although the story gets gripping towards the end, it also never stopped annoying the hell out of me.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Would’ve been better with mice.

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.

Rating: 
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. 

Review: Michel Faber – The Fire Gospel

Flamin' NoraIf you wanted to be churlish, you might accuse Canongate of slightly cheating when it comes to this novel. Clocking in at 200ish pages of large, wide margined text in hardback, this is really more of a novella, and has much more of a short story feel than something like The Crimson Petal and the White, or even Under the Skin (his first novel, which was adapted from a short story – a fact that becomes kind of apparent with a bit of a panicky, tacked on ending, even while the whole novel is still excellent). But if you didn’t get it out of the library like a sucker, you’d still have forked £12.99 out for it. It’s not very literary to mind about ‘value for money’, and of course there’s more to it than a simple word count, but still, guys, come on. There’s a limit to the number of notes I’m going to want to write down the side. I could fit another novel in there.

Anyway, that’s a minor, tight-fisted quibble, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this book also does feel a bit like an eked out short story. That in mind, it’s still an entertaining and intelligent read. Theo Griepenkerl, an Aramaic scholar with a failing love-life and a fairly unsympathetic penchant for self-pity, discovers a perfectly-preserved scroll in an Iraqi museum during a bomb blast. Eschewing the normal channels for academic discovery, Theo smuggles it back to the US to translate it himself, only to find that he has stumbled on a fifth gospel of Christ’s life. Despite the incendiary nature of the material, Theo struggles to get it published – Malchus, the gospel’s author, has an irritating classical chronicler’s tendency to write about his bowel complaints and parental disputes alongside his more incendiary revelations about Christ’s final moments. (As a past student of Medieval History I loved this touch – medieval chroniclers are all about the digestive transit and ‘nocturnal emissions’ as well as the deifying. This is pretty much the only thing I actually retained from my studies.) But he finally manages it through a niche publisher, the book becomes a bestseller, and Theo becomes an overnight sensation, albeit a controversial one. Without giving too much away, some of the revelations about Christ are less than palatable to various religious groups, and Theo soon finds himself a target as well as a celebrity.

The view of the literary world is deliberately satirical, making fun of the author’s book-tour exhaustion, bafflement at fans, and of course, the fear of the amazon.com review (these particularly tickled me!). But at the same time it satirises the pseudo-religious thriller, the Da Vinci Code style protagonist who uncovers a new truth, only to have the established institutions after him and his inevitably beautiful female new ally. Theo is neither morally upstanding nor wedded to a larger idea of the ‘Truth’ – he simply wants to get his own back on his girlfriend for leaving him, and maybe make a bit of money too. He briefly meets the Dan Brown-esque sidekick in the beautiful agent’s assistant who organises him, provides him with security and of course sleeps with him, but as the plot takes a bizarre and farcical twist away from that formula, she’s powerless to follow. So Faber both makes fun of these books, the industry that produces them (he’s advised to change his name to ‘Theo Grippin’ to make it more accessible. And ‘gripping’, I guess) and the readers who demand a certain kind of satisfaction from them.

Viewed in this way, you can forgive the kind of two-dimensional figures that appear – the shallow, bitchy girlfriend, the cynical, overworked publisher, the unhinged fans and the equally unhinged religious extremists who attack him. As a reworking of the Prometheus myth, it works well – not too didactic, not too slavish to the original. It satirises the notion that world-changing discoveries are necessarily made through noble intentions, but equally shows through the media circus how this modern Promethean fire, this ‘inflammatory discovery’ ends up being a circular, confused kind of a revelation. It makes an impact, but it doesn’t necessarily change the world. That the book ends in a kind of farce is, in a way, the only course of action open to a plot which would otherwise become another religious thriller. Like Malchus’s account of Jesus’s death, the end is entirely underwhelming, but that is, after all, the point.

Rating: 
In a tweet: If you find yourself the translator of a hot new Fifth Gospel, never do your own publicity.

Review: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Shallow it may be, but I bought this book months ago solely on the merits of its cover. It looked impressive enough on the shelf to languish there without actually getting around to reading it, but with the furore surrounding its inclusion on the ‘readable’ Man Booker prize list (more on that later), it has bounded its way up the pile.

Set in the 19th century, the novel follows the life of Jaffy Brown – a street urchin growing up in Bermondsey – after a miraculous encounter with an escaped tiger belonging to Jamrach. Part circus master, part curio-and-pet-shop owner, Jamrach invites Jaffy to work in his menagerie, and in doing so sets the course of Jaffy’s life, from London to adventure on the high seas.

Birch’s brilliantly conjures a world in which men still quest after mysteries and monsters are still possible. In many respects, this is a mesmerising adventure story. Elsewhere I’ve heard it compared to Moby Dick, Lord of the Flies and even Dickens. I don’t read enough nautical fiction to know whether that part of the novel does it justice, but it rang true for me without becoming incomprehensible (as I’m afraid a lot of nautical terminology does after a while…).

But without giving too much away, we are denied the satisfaction of your average adventure yarn as the novel instead seems to hinge on that dividing line between accident and fate, impossibility and unknowability, and how our lives take the courses that they do.

One thing that did fascinate me was the title. I was expecting more from the enigmatic Jamrach, but he is a largely absent figure despite giving his name to the novel. The only way I could justify it to myself was in drawing a parallel between the random characters and experiences we encounter in our lives that define us, and the variety of animals and paraphernalia that comprised his shop. But I wonder whether that isn’t a little heavy handed, and if so, it rather throws away what could have been a fascinating and more developed character. I don’t know – I’d be interested to know if anyone had any other insights.

There was something about this novel that left me a little hungry: Tim, Skip and Jamrach all seemed as though they had more to offer. But, as with Dickens’ London teeming with life, it is the mark of a well-constructed fictional world, that we are sad to see it go.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Adventure, loss and (self-)discovery on the high seas.