Wednesday 30 April 2014

The Whitehall Mandarin

Just as a lie is most effectively hidden in truth, so fiction can be at its most convincing when intertwined with fact. And in The Whitehall Mandarin, Edward Wilson adeptly weaves his fiction together with historically accurate detail to present a broad-sweeping canvas of espionage as thrilling as it is believable.

London in 1957 is mired in the Cold War. The British are watching the Soviets pretending to be Americans. This is a familiar world for Catesby, Cambridge-educated veteran of bluff and double-bluff, whose working class upbringing nevertheless tars him forever an outsider. When a Soviet spy ring in London stops sending intelligence to Moscow, Catesby is sent to investigate where those secrets are going and discovers that the charismatic Lady Somers, first female head of the Ministry of Defence, may not be all she seems.

The Whitehall Mandarin is set on an epic scale and demands your complete attention from the off, as it shifts from clandestine meetings in London back rooms to the all-enveloping Suffolk fog, from a hair-raising plane ride across America to assignments for Catesby in Moscow and Vietnam which may not include a return ticket. The air is thick with sexual misdemeanour and honey-trapped blackmail is rife, while other secrets are given up willingly enough through ideology or good old fashioned greed.

It soon becomes starkly apparent that not all communists are the same and, as the story swings into the 1960s, the repercussions of China's role in the undercover power struggle begin to crystallise. Cameo appearances by historical figures from Chairman Mao to President Kennedy are littered between spooks of all persuasions and particularly enjoyable are the many incarnations of Cauldwell, the ultimate shape-shifting spy.

It would be impossible to fully flesh out the whole mind-boggling cast list of characters, but while some are sketchy or elusive, Catesby is unfailingly well-rounded and engaging. A loner with few enduring relationships, he picks his way through this tangled web of near annihilation with uncanny intellectual shrewdness. All too often he finds himself an expendable pawn in a life-or-death chess game, reflecting
The wonderful thing about espionage wasn't what enemies did to each other, but the way allies stabbed each other in the back
The descriptions of Vietnam feel particularly authentic
a war waged largely by unformed young men slowly uncurling from adolescence
although this was the only section of the book where I felt in danger of being overwhelmed by historical and geographical detail.

Edward Wilson's writing is intelligent, action-packed and breath-taking in scope. He's a master of reinvention himself, having grown up in Baltimore and served in Vietnam before giving up US nationality to become a British citizen. The Whitehall Mandarin is his fourth novel in the Catesby spy series and, while his books are often compared to those of John le Carré, there's also a dash of Indiana Jones adventure thrown in for good measure.

By the unexpected and satisfying conclusion of The Whitehall Mandarin fact, fiction and conjecture have become impossible to separate and unsettling to contemplate. How did China develop into a nuclear power so quickly and why did Nixon really decide to visit? Many conclusions are drawn but others left open, hopefully for Catesby's next assignment. In the meantime I'm looking forward to discovering what I've missed so far, by reading some of his back-list.

The Whitehall Mandarin is published by Arcadia Books in the UK on 15th May 2014. Thanks to Arcadia Books for my review copy.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The shock of The Shock of the Fall

Everyone must have one.

A subject they don't like reading about. Something that hits too close to home. That threatens the tightly wrapped skin we all bandage ourselves in, to keep us from breaking apart.

A fatal crash. Cancer. The death of a parent. Or a child.

For me it's schizophrenia, the word that encapsulates a world of madness so terrible, it's hardly ever uttered. Except in association with mass murderers on the rampage, or when making crass jokes about Jekyll-and-Hyde-style split personalities.

When we were choosing our next book club read, I was the one who suggested Nathan Filer's The Shock of the Fall. It had just been selected as Costa Book of the Year and was at the top of my teetering To Be Read pile. I knew it was about mental illness. I thought I could cope.

Then I read the quotes on the opening page. And realised it was about schizophrenia. That's when I froze. My childhood was decimated by schizophrenia - my older brother's. It's the reason I can't bring myself to read about it in fiction.

Or hear The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd.

Or think about the amount of blood there is on a fist that's been plunged through a glass door.

Or the paperwork that comes with sectioning.

Or the side-effects of Electroconvulsive therapy.

Or be anything other than the child who's never any trouble, because this family has had far too much of it already.

What made me decide to go ahead and read The Shock of the Fall is that Nathan Filer is a registered mental health nurse. He's writing about this cruelest of illnesses from the inside - or the next best thing to it.

Matthew Homes begins by telling the story of his older brother Simon, how he died in an accident when he was a young boy, and how Matthew feels responsible. Gradually, we get to know the present day nineteen-year-old Matthew, piecing together his descent into mental illness. As for so many, his life becomes a cycle of hospitalisation, care in the community and attempts at independent living in a world where he still hears his brother's voice
He could speak through an itch, the certainty of a sneeze, the after-taste of tablets, or the way sugar fell from a spoon.
So often, schizophrenia sufferers are defined by their diagnosis and pigeon-holed as dangerously mad. One of Filer's many achievements is allowing us to see far beyond Matthew's symptoms, to feel profound sympathy for the sad and frightened boy that's underneath.

A schizophrenic's behaviour is frequently alienating and Matthew lashes out because of how the illness makes him feel. Not to mention the debilitating side-effects of his medication, dished up along with platitudes by those whose job it is to look after him. But he's also a talented and engaging story-teller who usually regrets his actions and tries to make amends. He's still able to make some human connections and has a fractured but enduring relationship with his parents and most of all his Grandma, Nanny Noo.

The Homes family have suffered the doubly-devastating blow of losing one beloved son, only to have the other afflicted with a terrible, incomprehensible disease. One of the many, many moving incidents in this story is when Matthew reads what his father has written on the bedroom wall, always anticipating it would be painted over before Matthew could see it
We'll beat this thing mon ami. We'll beat this thing together
Never give up. That was my Dad too. I was frightened of reading The Shock of the Fall because of the unhappy memories it would rekindle. After all, it's easy enough to cause an explosion but much more difficult to stick things back together again afterwards.

I can't even try to review this book objectively, other than to say it's a wonderful, astonishing achievement. The typography and drawings are thoughtful and lovely. Despite the many harrowing scenes, its pages hold laughter, tenderness and redemption within them too. Because there is still hope; my brother is much better now and living with minimal support. I'm so glad I found the courage to read The Shock of the Fall and, if you haven't already, I'd urge you to do so too.

The Shock of the Fall is published in the UK by The Borough Press.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Chop Chop by Simon Wroe

I'll admit to being a little wary when I spotted the pigs' trotters pulsating from the lurid cover of Simon Wroe's debut novel Chop Chop. I wasn't the only one - it was Penguin Bloggers' Night and some of the vegetarians round the book table were looking positively puce. Surely those trotters must be a harbinger of literary violence, a visual warning to the squeamish about the dangers contained within?

Then Simon read an extract and I realised Chop Chop is a darkly funny, insightful tale of life in a professional kitchen, a sort of Kitchen Confidential infused with humour and transplanted from New York City to Camden Town. True, it's fiction and the protagonist isn't a masochistic alpha male but an introverted young lad from 'a place where learner drivers come to reverse park'. But Chop Chop still dishes the dirt behind-the-scenes with some brutally eye-watering revelations.

The lowest of the low in the hierarchy of a north London restaurant, Monocle (his kitchen nickname) is commis chef at The Swan. He's a resting author so there's no way he wants the job, but he needs it to pay the rent on his grimy lodgings.

Monocle is escaping an unhappy home life, consisting of a feckless father, a careworn mother and an older brother-shaped chasm. Early on, it becomes obvious he's not alone, all the other chefs from psychotic Ramilov to Racist Dave are fleeing from something as well. The Swan's kitchen is a wonderful melting-pot of losers, including the particularly tall Dibden:
That small sad head of his looked further away than ever, pushed out of the top of his body like toothpaste from a tube.
What they've all escaped to is far from an ideal sanctuary. The kitchen is ruled by a despotic head chef whose favourite pastime is devising new tortures, from 'The Mark of Bob' on the back of the hand to lobsters at loose in the walk-in fridge. No sane person would want to work here, but these chefs share a common love of self-destruction and are already existing on the edge. They suffer to prove they're alive and their world is so insulated that, with one or two exceptions, the waiting staff and even the diners are unimportant. Only the grotesque 'Fat Man' stands apart, a being so powerful in Camden and with such legendary appetites, he is even feared by Bob.

As Monocle's story unfolds, it is in turns bleak, funny, vicious and ultimately poignant. Of a university relationship which failed before it ever really got off the ground, he says he was
not hurt by the presence of the firing squad, but by the sight of one soldier among them who had not bothered to shave

Simon Wroe has recreated an intensely macho world, a savagely enjoyable trawl through the underbelly of a professional kitchen. It's like asking for snow in the Sahara to wish it might have included at least one well-rounded female, neither love interest nor mother but a woman allowed to be as funny as the men. This aside, there's really no need to fear the trotters. Chop Chop is a debut novel to relish; fast-paced and absorbing, full of wit and larger-than-life characters, all wrapped up in a fresh and self-deprecating new voice.

Thanks to Penguin for my review copy. Images courtesy of Amazon.