Wednesday 14 December 2016

Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Back in 2014, I was keen to get my hands on Ali Smith's latest novel How to be Both - we'd just chosen it as our next book club read.

In a flurry of optimism, given the Man Booker isn't generally my favourite prize, I bought one of those bundles of the whole shortlist. There were a couple of other titles I thought I might read before the prize was announced.

Needless to say, the only one finished was How To Be Both (which I loved), with the rest of the books consigned to the depths of my TBR pile. Earlier this year I ferreted out Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and was blown away by that, too.

Since then, my eye has repeatedly been drawn to the eventual winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. How stunning must it be to have beaten two such strong contenders? Only one thing for it - read it myself and find out.

Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans, captured by the Japanese in the Second World War, is imprisoned in a jungle camp where POWs are forced to build the notorious Burma Death Railway. Here, Dorrigo and his Aussie camp mates endure the most gruelling physical and mental privations. Prisoners have few rights and are treated no better than slaves; malnourished, beaten and literally worked to death. Cholera is rife; despite this, Dorrigo must stand by as his patients are dragged out of hospital to make up work gangs and he's reduced to performing operations without surgical instruments or anaesthetic.

Flanagan writes with sensitivity and authenticity; the frequently harrowing passages in the squalor and monsoon rains of the jungle vividly detail the mental and physical struggle to survive. In their communal suffering, the motley crew of men from the furthest-flung corners of Australia are spirited but never saintly. Tiny Middleton works at such a rate that he sets an unachievable target for the rest of the men, while Rooster MacNeice harbours a festering resentment over the perceived theft of a duck egg.

The pressure on their Japanese captors is also well drawn; driven by a code of honour that sees death as a preferable alternative to imprisonment and always battling to fulfil the ever increasing demands from high command. Yet, the Japanese still show vestiges of respect to fellow officers, and Dorrigo is able to mitigate the worst of their orders by daily negotiating down the numbers of men required in the gangs. Concentrating on leading by example, on being 'the Big Fella' to his men, he's haunted still by the intense love affair he had before the war with Amy, young wife of his uncle. An affair which ended as Dorrigo was leaving to fight and already promised to another woman.
While captivated and horrified by the graphic events in the jungle, I struggled to engage with Flanagan's narrative outside of them; the post-war difficulties of the Australian survivors returning home, the rehabilitation of their Japanese captors into family men. While this sounds equally engrossing, for me the prose veers here towards the overblown. Most importantly, Amy simply doesn't ring true in my imagination as a living, breathing character. While the depiction of suffering in The Narrow Road to the Deep North recalls Sebastian Faulks' First World War saga Birdsong, the claustrophobic intensity of the affair Faulks describes between Stephen Wraysford and the married Isabelle seems lacking in Dorrigo and Amy's story.

A significant work and a contender, certainly, but this wouldn't have been my pick as winner. Only three more of the shortlist to read and, finger on the pulse, I might be finally able to form a definitive view of the Man Booker Prize for 2014.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is published in paperback by Vintage.

Friday 9 December 2016

Book Review: The Mine by Antti Tuomainen

In The Mine, Antti Tuomainen threads together two contemporary narratives to challenge the traditions of Scandinavian crime writing. This is Finland as a spent dystopia; elements of noir fused with the eco-thriller polemic of Paul E. Hardisty's The Abrupt Physics of Dying or David Shafer's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, to create a fiction that subtly subverts the genre.

Janne Vuori, investigative journalist for Helsinki Today, receives a tip-off about the hazardous practices of a mining company in Finland's frozen north. He's plunged deep into a black-and-white world of darkness and ice, where the snow must be forced to give up its secrets. Sifting through his findings, Janne becomes certain he's uncovering an environmental disaster. One that may have already claimed the life of a reporter, and that convinces him he's being followed back home in Helsinki.

When the mining company's directors die one after another in mysterious circumstances, it seems militant activists are taking matters into their own hands. But Janne's investigations are muddied, as unresolved elements of his past come crashing back to haunt him. And he must confront the most modern dilemma of all; how to combine his obsessive pursuit of the truth with personal responsibilities - as the father he never had to his young daughter Ella and husband to Pauliina, who has a career of her own.

Tuomainen, translated into English by David Hackston, writes with pace and style, weaving Janne's first person story together with blogs, emails and news articles and a second, off-kilter narrative that gradually comes into focus.There are similarities with Ari Thór Arason in Ragnar Jónasson's Dark Iceland series; Janne and Ari Thór are both young men with disturbed pasts, in search of resolution and their own identities. As Janne is confronted with a series of impossible dilemmas, he has to decide where his own morality lies and what it is that he holds most dear.

For lovers of fictional journalists (my favourite probably being Thomas Fowler in Graham Greene's The Quiet American), Janne Vuori is a gift:
Writing was thinking, a way of bringing order to the world. By writing I worked out what I was actually doing, formulated my true opinion on things. When I was writing, I could shut off everything around me...When I didn't write, it soon started to show...Everything began to become patchy. And the longer I didn't write, the more scattered and restless my mind became.
You can forgive a man like that quite a lot, even if you disagree with his choices. In the heart of the narrative are moments of humour, as Janne unexpectedly finds himself grappling with the logistics of twerking. But for the most part, Tuomainen keeps his reader on a tense, tight rein.

Maybe it's for another story, but I wanted to know more about the women in Janne's life  - his wife and mother - apart from their relationship to their men. They are both called on to make significant sacrifices of their own; what do they think of each other, how do they get along? It's an indication of Janne's personal struggles and single-minded pursuit of his own agenda, that there's still so much more to know.

The Mine by Antti Tuomainen is published in paperback and ebook format by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for my review copy.

Monday 5 December 2016

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Imagine being limited to speaking just 140 words a day; that’s exactly what happens to Bernadette and Oliver in this accomplished production from the University of Warwick’s recently-formed Walrus Theatre company. Words – tumbling and jostling with all the force of a white-knuckle ride – are the essence of this bare stage two-hander from the pen of Sam Steiner. Apparently, an average person uses 123,205,750 of them in a lifetime; here their loss is all the more starkly felt as they’re ruthlessly legislated away.

Bernadette (Beth Holmes) is a trainee lawyer and Oliver (Euan Kitson) a musician and political activist when they meet in a pet cemetery for the funeral of a cat. At first, they’re uninhibited, able to use all the free-flowing words they want. Bernadette questions Oliver’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend, while her profession obviously rankles with him. But, as their relationship deepens, the shadow of the Hush Laws looms over them, limiting their speech. Bernadette – practical, career-focused and, like so many of us, in denial that it will ever happen – doesn’t foresee the devastating consequences. Idealistic Oliver senses danger and goes on protest marches that ultimately prove useless. As the Orwellian laws are introduced, the couple rush to spill out their last uninhibited words of freedom, an ‘exorcism’ that raises more questions than it has time to answer.

Holmes and Kitson are engaging and likeable as they circle the stage and their two unadorned microphones, flexing together and apart in moves tightly choreographed by director Ed Madden to sometimes reflect, sometimes challenge each other. As the timeline zips back and forth – one minute they’ve just met, the next they’re each announcing the number of words they have left over from their day – we see their relationship move from infatuation and love through to boredom and disillusionment. Without the adequate number of words, they struggle to express themselves, to resolve issues and move on.

Through this everyday couple’s on-stage chemistry – polished now by repeated performance – the focus of the personal convincingly illuminates the social, political and philosophical consequences of such draconian limits. Bernadette, when in court, is allowed a special dispensation of additional words, dividing society into verbal ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. When each word needs to count, its meaning matters. A qualifier like ‘really’ becomes thoughtless and extravagant, two words like ‘love you’ run together to make a saving. And yet, one of the most endearing moments is when the couple spontaneously bursts into a gloriously wasteful rendition of the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

A show honed to great acclaim on the tiny stages of Edinburgh is in danger of wallowing in the relative size of the Factory Theatre, but still it works. Despite an ending that tries to wrap things up a little too neatly, it’s a clever and incisive exploration of free speech and the power of words.

Reviewed on 18 November 2016 | Image: Contributed