Category Archives: Literary fiction

Review: The Cook by Wayne Macauley

The CookI don’t want to work for a boss who props me up just above drowning I want to work for a customer who knows I am below them and who knows that I know. This is my shame it is a shame I want to be proud of. The money is elsewhere it’s always been elsewhere that is the truth of our lives someone else somewhere above is holding the string dangling it in front of our eyes do we jump like dogs for a treat and try to grab our little handful or do we flatten our ears say I’m your dog you’re my master give him shame out of every pore make him feel so big and special that he can’t help dropping something down for you. It’s not up to us to change them our job is to lick their boots kiss their arses let them make the money they’re the ones who know how to and let’s be thankful for what trickles down.

It’s been a long time since I read a novel I enjoyed as much as this one. The second I finished it I told the person next to me they should read it. Then all my friends. Then anybody who mint be unfortunate enough to ask me about books. Then people who went even foolish enough to that. Read it! Everybody read it! You have to read it too!

Zac, a 17-year-old young offender, is given a choice: prison, or a celebrity chef school. Zac sees a chance to make something of himself, to give himself up into the service of others, and to make himself great – whatever the cost.

There’s an enormous sense of foreboding running throughout the book. Zac’s narration ventriloquises an uneducated, obsessive young man – sentences run together, there is little in the way of grammar, and it’s peppered with slang and asides. You can see from the above quote that the voice is really distinctive. Some readers might find this hard to get on with, but after half a page I found I no longer thought about it. It draws you inexorably inside his head, you feel his desperation and his preoccupation, even as you can see (as Zac can’t) that it leads him to decisions and actions of great cruelty, both to himself and others.

Part of what makes this novel so gripping is that you’re not quite sure what you’re supposed to think you’re reading. Is this a satire on celebrity culture, as you see the TV chef who runs the schools as increasingly flawed in contrast to Zac’s dark, determined idealism? Is it a satire on the narrative perpetuated by these kind of shows, where ‘following your dreams’ and ‘wanting enough’ is the only yardstick by which other people seem to measure success? It it a lambasting of the haute cuisine world and the trend of ‘conceptual dining’ taken to extremes? Is it a story of self-destruction, as you see Zac lose himself further and further in his obsession to create perfect meals to impress ever-absent guests? And through it all, as he leaves a trail of butchered animal carcasses in his wake, you’re wondering, will anybody else will be destroyed by his quest for greatness?

Read it read it read it.

[Full disclosure: I freelance for the non-fiction arm of Quercus (the book’s UK publisher) which is how I got my mitts on a copy. However, this review has got nothing to do with them and I wouldn’t be raving about it if I didn’t mean it! ]

Rating: 
First line: (I don’t actually know because I lent this book out the SECOND I finished it.)
In a tweet: Masterchef’s dirty little secret.

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Review: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

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The Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Dynasty is in trouble. In the fading resort of Swamplandia!, the family is reeling from Hilola Bigtree’s death from cancer, and as the Chief’s debts mount up, the children each find their own ways to deal with their terror of the unknown and save the park that is their home. But Kiwi has gone to work for a rival theme park, Ossie has found a boyfriend who may or may not be a ghost, and the Chief has gone AWOL, so it’s down to plucky, 13-year-old Ava, her red alligator, and the mysterious Bird Man to enter the swamp and fix their family fortunes. But the swamps are treacherous, and not everything is as it seems…

Told from both Kiwi and Ava’s perspectives, this is a darkly innocent narration. I love Ava’s voice, her bravado and her bizarre frames of reference that only a girl who grew up in an alligator-wrestling theme park could come up with. Lines like: ‘I could feel the secret rolling between the four of us like an egg in a towel.’

Her grief about her mother is expertly woven into the consciousness of a girl who does not know how to express it, manifesting itself not in passages about how she misses her mother, but in nervous tics, a lack of assurance about what to believe, and a desperate search for affection when she meets the Bird Man.

The gator-swamp is an excellent, other-worldly setting that makes it impossible to know what we as readers can and can’t believe in. Perhaps ghosts are real, if they can create such a lasting impression on a family. Perhaps men can commune with animals, if the Bigtree legacy is to be believed. It reminded me of Life of Pi, the way that the line between magical realism and traumatic experience were blurred.

The story of Louis Thanksgiving, that one heartless reviewer on Goodreads who clearly likes her stories flat and dull and obvious from the outset, was brilliant. Like an orphan from a fairytale, Louis was only adopted to serve as cheap labour on a Florida farm. His background is so starved of love and opportunity that the Depression is, to him, a blessing.

Happiness could be felt as a pressure too, Louis realised, more hard-edged and solid than longing, even… in fact he’d been so poor in Iowa that he couldn’t settle on one concrete noun to wish for- a real father? A girl in town? A thousand acres? A single friend? In contrast, this new happiness had angles. Happiness like his was real; it had a jewel-cut shadow, and he could lose it.

And once you’ve followed Louis’ tragic, wasteful, pointless story to its conclusion, you’ve fallen a little bit in love with him too, just like Ossie. Whether or not he is a ‘real ghost’, you are brought face to face with the injustices of poverty, bad planning and a lack of accountability. That’s why we get the ‘unbelievable’ story of Kiwi going to Harvard, because he could never go – the system is rigged so that of course he could never go. It is a notion more fantastic than a 13-year-old alligator wrestler. In its own, dreamy, teenage way, Swamplandia! is as furious as a much more explicitly political book.

A lot of reviewers have criticised this book for being too dark (stupid), for not properly explaining one of the climaxes of the book (stupid, because everything in life comes with an explanation) and for stranding us with an implausibly happy ending. But if you try to pick out what is ‘plausible’ about this book you entirely miss the point – it is getting tangled up in this problem that makes the book so compelling. And I defy you not to care about these kids. I couldn’t put it down.

Rating:
First line: Our mother performed in starlight.
In a tweet: A dark, murky, terrifying tale of adolescence.

Is the Editor Dead? (Manchester Literature Festival)

I am back in my glorious home town of Manchester for some Family Time, and took the opportunity to catch a couple of events at the Manchester Literary Festival. First up: ‘Is the Editor Dead’: a panel discussion with Michael Schmidt (editorial director of Carcanet Press and PN Review), Lee Brackstone (Faber Creative Director), Peter Hartey (founder of Poetic Republic), John Mitchinson (co-founder of Unbound, the UK’s first crowd-funded publishing house).

It was an excellent line up, and everybody was extremely convincing on the importance of the editor. Lee Brackstone summed up the role of the editor as ‘adding value’. It was also interesting to hear him talk about how after a long career as an Editor, his latest job title has dropped the ‘Editorial’ aspect not because that ‘adding value’ aspect has gone from the job, but because he sees its practice as so fundamentally different now to how it was when he started in the industry; editors now need to be more creative than ever in finding ways to engage readers.

John spoke of the role of editors as tastemakers and curators of books, rather than gatekeepers. I think that’s how most people perceive the archetypal editor, but he went on to elucidate some of the problems for that editor in today’s industry, where retailers detail what thy want and publishers try to make a square book fit these round holes. He described the dispiriting experience of working with an author only to find that WHSmith say ‘books about China don’t sell’ or something else depressingly general. As he rightly pointed out, this isn’t a model that encourages innovation, and his new start up/upstart Unbound aims to redress that balance, allowing readers to pay for books that they want tone written. There is still an editor, so there’s an element of curatorship, but the retailer is taking a back seat.

I hadn’t always been convinced by the concept of Unbound – to me it seems that you still have the problem that the author who is best at selling their proposal via various online media is the one who will do well, rather than an interesting proposition for a well-written bit of fiction. Unbound has a number of well-known personalities doing projects with them including Monty Python’s Terry Jones and Robert Llewellyn (Kryten off Red Dwarf) and I wonder whether the Unbound model needs that level of celebrity to encourage interaction from readers. Would they be as generous to somebody they’d never even heard of? Still, it’s definitely an interesting experiment, and lord knows the editor needs more of those.

Michael Schimdt was in danger of sounding a bit like the voice of the Old Guard when he attested that he would prefer to be edited by Virginia Woolf, sell only 80 copies a year in the first 3 years, but his book would be Ulysees, than be ‘Top of the Pops’ (oh yes I quote) for a couple of months. But he’s not wrong that the kind of trend-led publishing that at its most extreme has led to black and grey erotica all over Waterstones is anathema to innovation. Furthermore his point that publishers used to be smaller and more specialist meant that you were able to have diversity in literature even while you retained the model of an editor is almost exactly what Lee suggested in his way. There is space for specialism. If you wrote scifi, you’d go to one place, literary fiction another, women’s fiction another still, and in that way you weren’t sending out 93 manuscripts and basically waiting for a trend to hit.

It was only really Peter who proposed an alternative, very bravely putting his head above the parapet to argue that as people are increasingly moving online to discover what to read next (in part driven there by the homogeneity of contemporary publishing) the the algorithm, rather than the editor, is going to have a bigger part to play in matching reader interests with available writing. But of course, this isn’t a wholly democratic process, with those controlling the algorithms being able to control what gets recommended to whom. A request from the floor to expand on this process further didn’t really get to the bottom of how this process was open to abuse, but the various small-scale furores around amazon reviews and goodreads ratings are a flavour of it.

So is the editor dead? Despite essentially asking 4 editors, the jury still seemed to be out. Everybody was united on their desire for this notion of ‘curated content’, but the truth is that has already rather gone out of the publishing window. As John said, if you’re going to work for one of the Big 5 publishing houses, your job as an editor is essentially to find and make best sellers for retailers. I think the panel were right to suggest that this does create a space for somebody else, whether that’s online communities or smaller independent publishing houses, to come in and offer that curatorship, but so far there haven’t been many out-and-out success stories of this actually happening. In fact, given that these were all smaller(ish) publishers speaking, it would have been interesting to hear from an Editor at one of the Big 5, to see whether they feel ‘dead’ in that more commercial atmosphere. At the end of the evening, I definitely got the feeling that nobody wanted the editor to die…but nobody reassured me that it wasn’t on the cards. And in fact, it seems like this editorial death might be what the industry needs to revitalize itself in smaller, and more diverse forms.

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(I was going to work in a Lion King analogy with Mufasa as the editor that teaches our young Simba reader the skills he needs, but it takes his death to makes him realise the importance of Mufasa/the editor, then the self-serving 50 Shades phenomenon of Timon and Pumbaa come along and suggest that maybe books don’t need to be cared for and curated, but then he sees the error of his ways, but I ran out of time and energy, and that picture made me sad. Still, The Lion King as a publishing industry allegory. I think you’ll find it’s pretty powerful.)

Mid-week Treat! Literary coffee mugs

So my flatmates have finally moved out after 2 years of happy cohabitation, taking apparently all their lovely crockery with them. Sad times! This seemed as good an excuse reason as any to invest in some new bits for the kitchen, and oh whoops what do you know I accidentally bought four of these:

Literary transport mugsI don’t know, I tend to roll my eyes at some of the Penguin cover merchandise you can get these days, and the temptation to emblazon yourself with hints at how intellectual and literary you are, but at the same time, I think I am going to love these a lot…Plus they have the ‘points of interest’ making it nominally more educational? Maybe?

I bought Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockinbird, Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. So pretty much an A-level reading list. Which ones would you pick?

Review: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell SimMaxwell Sim is a man struggling. He’s the wrong side of 40, his wife has left him, he doesn’t understand his daughter, he’s estranged from his father, and he’s suffering from clinical depression that he tries desperately, but unsuccessfully to hide. In an effort to reconnect with the world, Maxwell takes up a job on a PR stunt, travelling across the country to promote ec0-friendly toothbrushes. Primed with his Prius and his strangely seductive SatNav, Emma, he embarks on his journey to Scotland. On the way, he tries to reconnect with various people from his past, only to find that things don’t go as he had planned.

As in most of Coe’s novels, Maxwell’s journey is interspersed with various other conveniently-appearing texts that cast the important events of his life in a new light. A personal essay by a holiday-romance-that-never-was, his father’s memoires, his ex-wife’s short stories, and, most disconcertingly, a documentary about the real-life Donald Crowhurst, all make him question the foundations of the life he has built for himself.

In What a Carve Up!, probably his most famous and definitely his greatest novel, Coe uses almost exactly the same techniques (an insanely lonely protagonist, an apparently insignificant moment in his past which radically alters the path of his life, a remote real-life figure – in this case Yuri Gagarin – and patterns of bizarre and sometimes upsetting connectivity) to make a scathing satire on Thatcher’s government, and the way that distant figures in government have indelible, tragic results on others’ lives. Here, Coe’s satire is directed at the banking culture – Maxwell’s father has a strange, intense infatuation with a trader in the 70s that ends with his father memorably accusing him of thinking himself ‘A cross between Leavis, Midas and Gandalf’ (haha) – but the satire falls a little short. Although the rickety nature of bad trades is cleverly illustrated with a complex, ultimately disastrous spread bet that Maxwell’s father is embroiled in, Coe doesn’t seem to have the same targeted, frustrated fury that makes What a Carve Up! so phenomenal. Instead, that becomes part of a wider circling around ideas about connection and isolation in the modern world, and also our ideas about what our lives should be – Maxwell’s narration takes us down plenty of dead ends  that trip up our own expectations that lives should be lived with the structure of a novel. It’s perhaps not as successful as What a Carve Up!, with meandering themes that are a nod to The Dwarves of Death (which I was much less enamoured with), but I don’t think these dead ends are to blame.

I’m always a bit suspicious of reviews that start by talking about other reviews, but I was amazed by how infurated this book made people. Reviewers have pointed to the slightly baffled commentary on modern technology – Maxwell’s unfamiliarity with text messaging etiquette, Facebook friends and mumsnet – but I think that’s a fairly convincing bafflement for a man in his 40s trying to grapple with the new technology, as are the slightly slower passages of Prius manuals and SatNav programming. One memorable review berated it for not being entertaining enough, but can you really spend 300 pages with a middle-aged man in the depths of desperate loneliness and have it convincingly be an action-packed laugh a minute? No. Don’t be an idiot.

Also, the ending has outraged so many people! ‘It’s too META’, they cry! ‘You aren’t the first person to invent postmodernism, Jonathan Coe!’ Since when did you have to be the first person to do something for it to be interesting? Without giving the game away, I thought it was a brilliant spanner in the works – I would challenge anybody who suggests it’s any less valid an ending than the one you were probably expecting, which while more familiar, are just as artificial. I was heartbroken – and in that reaction, you as a reader become the kind of connection with Maxwell that he’s been searching for.

Rating: 
First line: When I saw the Chinese woman and her daughter playing cards together at their restaurant table, the water and the lights of Sydney harbour shimmering behind them, it set me thinking about Stuart, and the reason he had to give up driving his car.
In a tweet: The terrible book reviewers of Maxwell Sim.

Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Didn't spot the bridge until the end of the book!NW takes a cross-section of a community in Willesden, North London, following the lives of four characters who grew up in the same run-down Caldwell estate. Leah and Natalie, childhood friends, have found their friendship strained by the different directions their lives have taken. Leah is content in her job and content in her marriage, except she secretly takes the pill to avoid the baby they both claim to want. Her narration is the most fractured and meandering, merging description and memory, thoughts and senses. In contrast, Natalie (originally Keisha) has thrown off her council-estate roots completely and reinvented herself as a lawyer living on the well-heeled outskirts of their community. But her transformation has left her with an identity crisis, as filling in her various roles as wife, mother and lawyer give her no clue to who Natalie (or Keisha) is. Felix is a young man with a new girlfriend, a pocketful of cash and the world at his feet. It’s the most inspiring and upbeat part of the novel (except we know that it’s not). And Nathan is, for most of them, the spectre of Caldwell – scarred, poverty stricken, and angry.

The narration reflects the consciousness of the characters themselves. It’s the free indirect speech of your A-levels, and then some (Mrs Dalloway is an obvious, and probably conscious, point of comparison). Chapter 37 recurs, out of order, because of its special significance for Leah. Natalie’s life is broken into 185 numbered segments that maybe smack a little of the creative writing class, but which I thought worked rather well. Smith’s writing is meant to evoke the bustle and jostle of London, and it is as dense, as crowded and sometimes as antagonising as London can be.

In fact, reading the novel I ended up with a Leah/Natalie split of my own. One side of me enjoyed the undoubtedly good and sometimes brilliant writing, the sheer joy of a novel that meanders rather than drives, sprawls rather than directs, and the pithy literary asides (‘People were not people but merely an effect of language. You could conjure them up and kill them in a sentence.’)

But the other side wondered whether there isn’t something missing. I’m not saying I wanted a moral of the story, but I did feel like it was a novel supposedly about class that wasn’t actually saying very much. For example, it wants to hate and satirize the middle classes, but while it manages a certain amount of self-aware eye-rolling, you don’t get the sense she really means it. Leah and her husband scoff at Natalie’s success, but they also crave it, and Natalie herself rolls her eyes at herself during one (stereo)typical brunch.

But the Thing that happens that knits the four characters together? That, that is reaffirming a whole load of stereotypes – those who seem to be scammers are, the scarred junkie commits the crime, a phone call to the police will sort it all out, the only victim of gang crime worth mourning is one whose making something of himself. Her Nathan section is the shortest and the one where the character is kept at the furthest remove, as though Smith herself has fallen victim to her middle class squeamishness and couldn’t quite bear the thought of spending too much time with him. But another part of me wonders whether she’s challenging us to look at how our prejudices work? We want to read books about working-class girl done good because it makes us feel more comfortable, as though we don’t hold the prejudices about the Nathans and the Shars that we undoubtedly do.

I don’t know. These aren’t demands that I would make of just any author, or most books. But they are ones that this book made me make! Like Zadie Smith, I had trouble wrapping this book up in a neat little parcel too. There are parts of exquisite craftsmanship next to some rather more difficult aspects (and a few editorial booboos – who carries around a bus ticket in London?). The infrastructure isn’t without its faults, but you can still have a great time. A bit like London…*

Other London-based metaphors for NW are gratefully received, nay, ENCOURAGED.

Rating: 
First line: The fat sun stalls by the phone masts.
In a tweet: A big job for a big city.

What is any ocean but a multitude of drops? Cloud Atlas the movie

Words cannot express how excited I am about this.

I was blown away by Cloud Atlas when I first read it – it’s my favourite David Mitchell novel – and by the looks of this trailer I think the adaptation may well do it all kinds of justice. I like that it looks like they’ve embraced the slightly schlocky aspects of each of the genres, rather than trying to make it consistent throughout. That, cats and kittens, is what’s so good about David Mitchell!

One thing: Tom Hanks I am pretty sure you are too old and white to play Zachry, but I’ll probably end up letting you off.

 

Judging a Booker by its Cover

Bing bing bing bing bing bing bing! It’s that time of year already! The Booker list is upon us, and we can now spend the next three months rifling through Waterstones displays and gnashing our teeth about the choices on offer.

Sadly for me I have only read a grand total of ONE of the longlist thus far, so as far as insider tips for the winners go, I got nothin’. But then I thought, you know what? Rather than read them, why not just make vague and arbitrary assumptions on them based on their covers?!

The Teleportation Accident
Bring up the Bodies
The Lighthouse

The Yips – Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)
A modern reworking of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, this time set in the contemporary world of professional golf tournaments. A down-and-out sports agent becomes obsessed with the rat’s natural proclivity for scouting out small holes, and how that might be harnessed to create a golfing champion. But all that seems like a pipe dream… until he meets a punk-rock frontman with a penchant for smashing up his guitars – and a swing to die for.

The Teleportation Accident – Ned Beauman (Sceptre)
Dr. Who slash fic in which he regenerates into a woman and becomes trapped in the 1920s. Posing as a Hall of Mirrors kiosk attendant while (s)he tries to fix the Tardis without the use of plastics, things take a distinctly erotic turn when the Louise Brooks look-a-like contest comes to town, with one particularly spunky contender.

Philida – Andre Brink (Harvill Secker)
A young girl comes to terms with her traumatic past on a plantation by learning to commune with the animals. Dr. Doolittle meets Jonathan Norrell and Mr Strange meets Wide Sargasso Sea.

The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng  (Myrmidon Books)
A lonely Japanese woman finds an outlet from her loveless marriage by corresponding with the local newspaper’s gardening advice columnist.

Skios – Michael Frayn (Faber & Faber)
If you liked Mama Miayou’ll love Skios!

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)
A down on his luck but kindly tramp chances across a battered copy of The Canterbury Tales. Inspired by their spontaneity and his affinity with Middle English (which he has honed through years of listening to Tinny Tim garble through 6 cans or more of special brew), he follows in their footsteps.

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)
One salmon’s story.

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)
Cheating! I actually read this one.

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore (Salt)
Variously described as a scathing comment on Cameron’s Britain or a Pynchion satire of modernist subjectivity, this is an avant-garde piece told from the point of view of the lighthouse. It only consists of the words ‘off’ and ‘on’.

Umbrella – Will Self (Bloomsbury)
Old Bill Spokes has lost his wife, is abused by his two grown children, and now even his cat has left him. All he has left is his bespoke umbrella manufacturing business, and he hasn’t had a customer in a month. But all that changes when a man walks into his shop with a request for a very special umbrella indeed. Spokes soon finds himself caught up between two warring East end families – and making the greatest umbrella of his life.

Narcopolis – Jeet Thayll (Faber & Faber)
A chance encounter with a tourist leaves young Indian snake charmer obsessed with the works of Picasso. Soon, his reproductions are picked up by a travelling art dealer who launches him onto the Young British Artist scene. But when Damien Hirst starts to take a little too much interest in his snakes, things become rather less…charming.

Communion Town – Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate)
An insightful look at using public records to find the optimal location for your new church.

So I reckon that’s got to be at least 90% accurate, right?

YOU’RE WELCOME.

Review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the BodiesThis is a quote-heavy review, because really, the best review I could possibly write would just be to transcribe huge chunks of the prose and roll around in them all day. The thing about novels about Henry VIII is that you know the plot – you come to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies knowing full well this is not going to be happy ever after for Anne, and it really doesn’t matter. (The endpapers of Anne’s neck in the hardback edition are a nice touch, after all, that’s what it all boils down to!)

Where Wolf Hall followed Anne Boleyn’s play for power and the legal and political divorce of Katherine from Henry, Bring Up the Bodies shows Henry’s waning interest in Anne, her increasingly hysterical attempts to keep him, and the rising star of the Seymours. Thomas Cromwell is again the man at the centre of it all – keeping balls rolling, plates in the air, tales spinning, kitchens running – and it is a delight just to be in his presence, to feel his mind working through Mantel’s masterful free indirect narration. The novel is steeped in historical research but wears it so lightly you barely even notice. People swear by saints you don’t recognise and talk about festivals and clothes and places you don’t really understand, but you never feel lost.

Indeed, the prose skips along so vividly and deceptively easily, you don’t realise you’ve found yourself immured in a single-minded plot for revenge until it’s too late. When Cromwell anticipates the King’s desire to be rid of Anne Boleyn, he sees the perfect opportunity to rid himself of those men who mocked the death of his master, Cardinal Wolsey, in Wolf Hall, dressing up as demons and carrying him off to hell. It is so officiously done, so scrupulously enacted, that you can almost miss the fact that you are witnessing the calling in of a debt the debtors had forgotten. What is scary is not only Cromwell’s unflappability in his accusations, nor his bloody mindedness to get at the truth, but also the idea that somewhere, beneath Cromwell’s apparent unruffled feathers and within the games of politics and strategy at court, that you can strike a blow on Cromwell that will not show and to which he will not retaliate, but which he will not forget, and which seven years later will be called to account.

Bring Up the Bodies not only alludes to the phrase used to describe prisoners taken to the Tower of London, but to Cromwell’s own settling of those debts. The bodies he is haunted by – his wife and daughters, Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey – and how they return in subtle, unexpected ways. Both Henry Norris and Anne recognise that despite the talk of marriage and annulment, adultery and witchcraft, this boils down to payback.

Cromwell says time and again, that once you have set your mind on a course of action, you must follow through without hesitation. And most powerfully, we have the rare glimpse of, not remorse or unease, but acknowledgement that these complex legal machinations boil down to something bloody and murderous.

Let us say you are in a chamber, the windows sealed,  you are conscious of the proximity of other bodies, of the declining light. In the room you put cases, you play games, you move your personnel around each other: notional bodies, hard as ivory, black as ebony, pushed on their paths across the squares. Then you say, I can’t endure this any more, I must breathe: you burst out of the room and into a wild garden where the guilty are hanging from trees, no longer ivory, no longer ebony, but flesh; and their wild lamenting tongues proclaim their guilt as they die. In this matter, cause has been preceded by effect. What you dreamed has enacted itself. You reach for a blade but the blood is already shed. The lambs have butchered and eaten themselves. They have brought knives to the table, carved themselves, and picked their own bones clean.

Yet Cromwell does not stop, and shows no regret for his actions. Bring Up the Bodies so vividly encapsulates a world in which subtext is everything, anticipation is key, and where the courtly manners, rituals and titles are underpinned by the ever-present threat of ruin or death. In this, Anne Boleyn is more Cromwell’s equal than he recognizes.

One thing she set out to do, this side of salvation: get Henry and keep him. He has lost him to Jane Seymour, and no court of law will judge her more harshly than she judges herself. Since Henry rode away from her yesterday, she has been an impostor, like a child or a court fool, dressed in the costumes of a queen and now ordered to live in the queen’s rooms. She knows adultery is a sin and treason a crime, but to be on the losing side is a greater fault than these.

[…] He says ‘Anne is dead to herself. We shall have no trouble with her now.’

But with the first steps towards reformation, the changing fortunes of Cromwell’s enemies (and who at court is really a friend?) and the ever-changeable, unpredictable King Henry, we can be pretty sure trouble will show up elsewhere for Mantel’s third book of the trilogy.

Rating: 
In a tweet:
 ‘Give him a dirty look and he’ll gouge your eye out…But he’ll stand anybody a drink.’

To read: The Great Gatsby

Since I’ve seen the play of the book being read, and the film of a reading of the book is shortly to arrive, I thought I might try to sandwich the actual book in between them. Gatz was a great way of discovering nuances I would have missed in the printed book, but I don’t hold out similar hopes for Luhrmann’s sumptuous reworking. It’s easy to be snobbish, which I don’t want to do as I’m sure it’ll be entertaining and beautiful and, y’know, totes emosh, and I don’t feel this way with all novels, but I think Fitzgerald needs engaging with on a personal level first.

One thing I am going to be snobbish about. That autotune…GOD.