The Zero And The One

Posted in Books, Reviews, Three Star
on May 9, 2018

I received an ARC from Legend Press in exchange for an honest review.

A bookish scholarship student, Owen Whiting has high hopes of Oxford, only to find himself immediately out of place. Then he meets Zachary Foedern from New York. Rich and charismatic, Zach takes Owen under his wing, introducing him to a world Owen has only ever read about.

From Oxford to the seedy underbelly of Berlin, they dare each other to transgress the boundaries of convention and morality, until Zach proposes the greatest transgression of all: a suicide pact. But when Zach’s plans go horribly awry, Owen is left to pick up the pieces and navigate the boundaries between illusion and reality to preserve a hold on his once bright future.

I galloped my way through about 80% of this book. It’s intriguing, with a sense of tragic mystery, and you want to understand what has happened. However, as I got closer to the denouement, my pace slowed down somewhat. And I’m going to try and unpack why in this review.

This is a dark, coming of age, novel, with a twist. Our protagonist Owen, is a classic outsider. He doesn’t fit in at Oxford, and, because he’s gone to Oxford, he doesn’t really fit in with his family anymore. So, understandably, when Zachary appears – all confidence, cleverness and self-assurance – it’s understandable that Owen is all too eager to be taken under his wing. Zach pushes Owen, and at first it’s good – he brings him out of his shell. But all too soon it gets riskier, and darker, until he proposes their final dramatic act – a suicide pact – an idea conceived apparently on the basis of philosophy and how suicide is a perfect act.

Of course there’s rather more to it than this.

There are shades of Brideshead Revisited throughout, though one rather gets the feeling that Ruby intended his work to be a more intellectual version of it. And as it gets darker, the claustrophobic nature of it reminds me a little of Christopher Isherwood’s Alone in Berlin. Ruby is clearly well read, and has taken influence from a vast spectrum of literature. You can tell this in the way that it is written – the prose itself its very good. But it does lack the follow through.

The novel dips between the present and the past. It begins with Owen on his way to Zach’s funeral, so everything we hear about Zach is told via flashback. This almost works, it’s almost a confessional, it’s almost very clever – but it doesn’t quite get there. It is a sympathetic way of writing – everyone who has been bereaved will understand the need to revisit memories – but it fails to really bring anything new to the story. We don’t get the impression that Owen might be hiding anything until right at the end of the book, he’s far too parrot like in his reporting of life with Zach. It’s a compulsive confessional in many ways, except you don’t see the final confession coming.

It has to be said that none of the characters in this novel are particularly likeable. At first you so desperately want to root for Owen – the shy, unassuming person who has just lost his best friend – but as it goes on you learn that he’s actually quite unfeeling and callous. It makes it hard to empathise with him. Zach is extreme, and brash. When we meet Zach’s twin Vera, she is equally bizarre and unsympathetic. When you have a novel which is made up of entirely unsympathetic characters like this, it does make it hard to care about the outcome and this is what I found happening as The Zero And The One reached its denouement. What should have been thrilling ended up seeming a little bit flat. It should of been dramatic, but because I didn’t care enough about what happened to the characters, it didn’t work, for me at least.

Ultimately, this book thinks it is more clever than it actually is. It’s not bad – the writing itself is good, if a little pretentious in places. Some parts are better thought out than others. The faux philosophy and quotes from the fictitious Hans Abendroth The Zero and the One book are some of the best bits of this novel. There are some aspects which make the reader feel uncomfortable – which isn’t in itself a bad thing. However, as bits start to unravel it does start to become a bit… ridiculous. There’s enough plot in the latter chapters for at least three books, and so some of it becomes superfluous. And it’s not believable.I’d give the first part of this book 4*s, but unfortunately the ending really does let it down – so its 3* from me.

A Station On The Path To Somewhere Better

Posted in Books, Five Star, Reviews
on March 25, 2018

I received a free ARC version of this book from Simon and Schuster UK Fiction in return for a fair review.

For twenty years, Daniel Hardesty has borne the emotional scars of a childhood trauma which he is powerless to undo, which leaves him no peace.

One August morning in 1995, the young Daniel and his estranged father Francis – a character of ‘two weathers’, of irresistible charm and roiling self-pity – set out on a road trip to the North that seems to represent a chance to salvage their relationship. But with every passing mile, the layers of Fran’s mendacity and desperation are exposed, pushing him to acts of violence that will define the rest of his son’s life.

I hold my hands up. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book very much. This was something I’d chosen based on the very fact that it was so different to anything I would normally pick up. (Apparently, just reading the same five books over and over again doesn’t make for a great book blog – who knew?).

And I am so glad I gave it a go. This blew me away. This is such a well written book. It is a novel of two parts: the first, a thriller, of the lead up and description of the traumatic event, the second, a more psychological take on the after effects of witnessing something so awful, and Daniel’s attempts to craft a life from the fragments left behind. A shift in narrative and pace like this could throw a lesser author off, but Wood handles it very well.

The story builds and escalates as you read. We learn that, from the beginning, Daniel’s mother is not keen on the idea of her estranged husband taking Daniel on this roadtrip. But we assume that this is for no other reason than because he is a flakey father, he has let his son down numerous times before, and that he can’t be trusted not to take Daniel somewhere unsuitable. And the first part of the novel is just that; we start to see the unravelling of Fran’s lies –  he takes Daniel to a seedy pub, he feeds him junk food. Because we are seeing the story through Daniel’s memories (or indeed, his interpretation of his child-self’s memories as an adult who has already had to recount this story numerous times, to police, to relatives, to therapists…more on this later), dark hints are laid throughout the narrative that the worst is still yet to come. We know, almost from the offset, that something terrible is to happen, and that Daniel himself will survive it, but the other ‘twists’ are, in effect, told to us far in advance of them happening. It adds a terrible sense of foreboding to the narrative, everything becomes heightened and claustrophobic. It is very powerfully done.

The narrative style is worth a comment. It is a complex mix of the childhood naivety of the young Daniel, combined with hints to the emotional damage of the older Daniel, the sense that he’s had to recount the story many times before, and a fear that he’s forgetting, or misremembering. There are times when his guilt comes through, when he tries to justify his behaviour or the fact that he didn’t realise what was going to happen. This is very much the story of someone still in the grasp of PTSD – which becomes evident as we hear of Daniel’s life post the road trip. It is very cleverly, and sensitively handled.

That Daniel is a fan of the programme his father works on is no coincidence. He listens to the audiobook of it at first to pass the time in the car, but it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t the only work of fiction that he is listening to. Once the lies and inconsistencies from his father first start to reveal themselves, they steamroll. There is something very poignant in the description where Daniel, desperate to distract himself from what’s going on, makes calculations as to how long the battery on his walkman will last. It is a moment of stark contrast; reminding us how young and childlike Daniel is, and yet how terrifying and adult the situation he finds himself in is.

The prose is beautifully written, and quite often as I was reading I found myself outrightly admiring the writing style. It may be the English nerd in me, but I really appreciate the way that Wood handles language. It is rich and brilliant, and also chilling in parts. On the one hand, there is the description of the physical geography of the road trip, which carries a preciseness with it that fit’s Daniel’s attempts to recreate the story as accurately as possible. On the other, Wood manages to capture the uneasiness a bad gut feeling which creeps across Daniel and the novel, until you are certain that the only outcome can be tragedy.

The ending, for some, could be seen as slow paced, but personally I enjoyed the shift in tone. We see the enduring effects those fateful days have had on him, and how he lives under the shadow of his father – a man who he is terrified of turning in to. This is not quite a story of healing – that would be too simplistic – but there is something almost like hope at the end. It is a realistic hope, it is not the fairytale kind, there is still work to do. (Work has already gone on, of course, there is mention of his coping mechanisms, therapists, the things he has done to counteract the wrongs of his father, but as in life, there is no magic solution, these are all just stations on his path to somewhere better.

Overall, this is a very strong, dark, thriller. Not for the faint hearted, it doesn’t shy away from trauma and the aftershocks in a way that stays with you long after you’ve read the last page. I couldn’t tear myself away, and I would thoroughly recommend to anyone.

Five Stars

For never was a story of more woe

Posted in Five Star, Reviews, Theatre
on February 21, 2018
Romeo And Juliet

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo…

 

I had the chance to see Guildford Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet this week, and, my gosh what a treat.

I have it on good authority* that the GSC can be relied upon for exceptionally good interpretations of the marvellous bard. I’m glad to say that, even with a play that by rights should have been forever tarnished by GCSE English, my boyfriend and I had a thoroughly good time, and spent a merry evening unpacking all its cleverness. Yes, that’s right. My boyfriend, the engineer who has only ever read one book in his whole life** actually wanted to discuss Shakespeare with me. I really don’t need to write any more of this review, surely that is testament enough?

To set the scene: the production takes place at Holy Trinity, a large Georgian church situated in the middle of Guildford. Director, Charlotte Conquest, has taken inspiration from these surroundings to set her Romeo and Juliet in 18th Century Verona – and the audience is transported to this decadent and dangerous period. From a visual point of view, the play is extraordinary. There is some clever silhouette work at the beginning, and the use of red lights at key moments in the play adds drama. This is a very visually impactful production, and it is clear that the staging has been well thought out.

The masked ball, where our doomed lovers meet for the first time, was a beautiful piece of theatre. As the two teenagers tried to connect, the adults found ways to block them. Seemingly innocent, there was an undercurrent of something else not far from the surface. With perfect timing, and exceptional choreography, in the dance, the sinister side of this world revealed itself, exacerbated by the red lighting that would used. The two young lovers are not as free to move as they might think, they are trapped in their world which may seem glamorous and opulent, but that masks an ugliness and danger.

This theme is carried through, particularly through Lord Capulet, who is on one hand seemingly reasonable, personable and kind – but on the other terrifying and formidable. Gordon Cooper and Sarah Groban convey this well; the latter’s reactions to Lord Capulet are well worth noting as it is she who really gives the audience a clue as to his private demeanor. Her flinches and trembles give subtle nod that he is a character that cannot be defied – and that Juliet would be wise to behave.

Lucy Pearson’s Juliet is a fireball. She is, in parts, awkward, stroppy, shouty, determined, stubborn – the list goes on. She is absolutely teenage and all that goes with it. Clearly they’ve had fun with this interpretation. A very talented actress, her heartbreak is tangible when Romeo is exiled, and so raw – in the way that only teenagers can be. This is her play, she will heed no advice, she decides so forcibly on Romeo that she simply will not have it any other way. And Ricky Oakley’s Romeo plays off this so well. Again, so tangibly teenage, this production does not shy away from the fact that his affections begin elsewhere. But he is happily to be latched on to by Juliet. The accent was at times distracting… Overall his guache affections and slight bashfulness at the receipt of Juliet’s love had charm to them. He carries the more serious speeches of the play well, and there is a youthful vulnerability to his last words which reinforces the tragedy of the play.

The supporting cast must also be mentioned. Harriet Thorpe’s Nurse is a joy to behold. She stole the stage with every scene she was in; streetwise and hard, but with soft edges and a very motherly and protective streak towards Juliet. She added must needed humour – as did Benvolio and Mecutio (Robert Elkin and Jack Whitham respectively) who played off each other beautifully. And anyone who wasn’t touched by Noel White’s Friar’s remorse must have a heart of stone.

Overall, a truly fantastic production, with good casting, staging, lighting and music. Only occasionally, were the limitations of space felt, but the strong cast and wonderful direction made up for this elsewhere. There were no weak links in the cast, no falterings and try as I might I cannot pick fault.. The creative team should be congratulated on what they have achieved in this production.  

This alone was worth moving back to Surrey for.

5 stars.

Guildford Shakespeare Company

*my parents.

** And I’m not even sure if he finished that. I know. It’s a sore point. I’m working on it.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan – Review

Posted in Reviews, Three Star
on January 21, 2018
Nutshell

Interesting. That’s the word that springs to mind when trying to sum up my thoughts on Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. It is very interesting.

It is an interesting concept; the idea of modern-day Hamlet as foetus. And it works. Assuming, that is, that you suspend your disbelief for a moment, and go along with the idea that a foetus is capable of cognitive thought. (My favourite review of this book refers to it as a ‘Womb with a View’. Very droll).

I’ve been trying to write my review of this for a while. I keep circling back to it – not quite sure on which side of the fence I am sitting on. (How very Hamlet of me, indeed). For the most part, I enjoyed it, but there was something that wasn’t quite right at the same time.

But let us start at the beginning.

Nutshell is set in the present(ish) day. We find Trudy, 9 months pregnant with Hamlet as foetus. She has left her husband, John, a struggling poet, but taken up residence in his multi-million pound, but dilapidated townhouse in London. She has taken as a lover, Claude, playing out the betrayal we see in the play, and the novel follows the course of their relationship as they decide how to eliminate John (and his claim to the house) from their lives.

In Nutshell the betrayal is very much more tangible than in the play of Hamlet. For starters, Trudy has actively betrayed her still living husband – not the memory of him. And, as the book unfolds, we see the differences between Trudy and Gertrude. Trudy is a much less sympathetic character, actively complicit – indeed a driving force – for her ex-husband’s murder. The motivation of Claude and Trudy are much simpler, being as they are purely financial. It’s not just Trudy who has different characteristics than the book. John is a weak character, easily pushed about – unlike what we hear of Old Hamlet in the play. The inactiveness of Hamlet himself is down to physical restrictions, rather than mental. Claude is often closer to Polonius than Claudius, with his self indulgent pontifications.

Ay, there’s the rub. Nutshell is similar yet different to its source material. Hamlet, itself, is a very complex play, full of intricacies, double-meaning, and bits to puzzle out, so by changing and simplifying the plot in the way that McEwan has, you are going to lose a lot of this. Even by just removing the royal-family element of the plot and replacing it with financial gain, you lose the complexity of court life, and the real motivation of usurping power. And with a purely financial agreement, the story and the motivation is, by implication, weaker. Added too that we have a Hamlet in the know, indeed a Hamlet trying to prevent, rather than revenge – which turns the original on its head. So much of Hamlet is about him learning who he can trust, and indeed, doubting what he has seen – this is not the case for the self-assured Foetus Hamlet that we meet in Nutshell.

Perhaps then, it is this which has had me sitting on the fence, because Nutshell is a very clever book in a number of ways, but it falls down in comparison to the original. Shakespeare is a lot to live up to; Hamlet itself has a huge heritage. It is a lot to live up to. It is impossible to view Nutshell without comparing it – and indeed comparison should be welcome (since why would you write something like this if it wasn’t). But it will always be a harsh comparison. For me, some of McEwan’s authorial decisions weaken the overall novel. But, nevertheless, there are still a number of interesting elements to the book that has been written.

Firstly, of course, the concept of Foetus as narrator. I believe this has been explored before – but I have to confess, I’ve not read anything which uses this device. Now you have to take this, and the “science”, with a pinch of salt. The foetus is clearly biased, and we are relying on his interpretation of events (which mirrors the play, where the audience is told much more than it ever sees). However, the interpretation is much more straightforward in many respects,  because it is peppered with events which are also reported in a fairly straight manner (more on them, later). The foetus – just as play Hamlet does – has an obsessional love for his mother. He overlooks many of her failings (her over-indulgence in wine, lots of wine, at nine months pregnant, for example) and although he does reprimand her for certain things, his anger is largely directed at Claude. So far so similar, but then of course, it diverges. As a foetus, he has what play Hamlet so desires – utter closeness to his mother. He is literally at one with her. Where she goes, he goes; they cannot be separated (until he is born, which does seem to cause him some anxiety); she is his.

And that changes things. He is complicit in his father’s murder. He sees their plotting. He knows the plan. It’s the opposite to the play because we meet Hamlet before. Whereas play-Hamlet is paralysed from acting after from his own indecision, and his fear of what may happen next, book-hamlet is paralysed physically. Although he knows what is going to happen, he is unable to stop it because there is a physical barrier between him and the world in which the action takes place. The future is more certain – at some point Hamlet will be born, and they will murder his father – and it is the foetus’ powerlessness that we feel very keenly as readers. Though he does consider devising a plan of action to save his father, it is ultimately his loyalty to his mother which wins.

There are further costs to him being so close to his mother. The things that Play-Hamlet accuses Gertrude of are literally played out in the book. The relationship with Claude; the ‘frailty’ of women – all of it. In many respects, the closeness that Play Hamlet dreams of, is also his worst nightmare. We see his breakdown in the play when he thinks of Gertrude and Claudius together – and there he only has supposition and assumption. Here, he has a front row seat – literally. He is there when they make love. He is there when they plot. He is always there and he cannot escape.

Because Hamlet is always there, and because of the setting of the novel, it does lose a lot of the play’s metaphorical power. One example – being poisoned in the ear has the double meaning of words and act.  A glycol laced smoothie is far too millenial for that. The grand and impressive Hamlet’s father is reduced to a snivelling and somewhat pathetic shell of its origin character. It’s hard for us – and indeed for Hamlet – to admire him. There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, stemming from the poison in the ears and in the minds of the characters in the play. This is not so here – a delipidated house does not have the same power. Neither does the motive of money. Trudy stands only to lose, not gain, from her ex-husband (a man so clearly besotted with her that he will let her have anything if it means she will not leave him). That Trudy is so involved with the murder seems a little forced. She becomes almost the Lady Macbeth to Claude’s Polonius.

Something else I feel is a little lacking is in the characterisation. Trudy lacks the emotional and intellectual nuances that we see from Gertrude. She doesn’t go through the state of realisation that Gertrude does as she starts to see Claudius for who he really is. Perhaps this is a deliberate tactic, but for me a large part of the tragedy in Hamlet is that for all their flaws, there are some sympathetic characters and with a little more understanding, perhaps a different ending may have been possible. I can’t see that in Nutshell. It’s a shame too to miss out on the more endearing or steady characters (Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio, and Gertrude as she is portrayed in the play). Without these  Without these buffers the whole cast is dangerously close to being completely unlikeable, self-absorbed and selfish.

For all my criticisms, I do think it is an exceptionally clever book – if a little unsatisfying to read. It is not designed to be a copy of the play, so perhaps it is a little unfair of me to contrast it so sharply. Being a short novel, based off the longest Shakespearian play comes into it too. If you were to explore all the themes set up by Shakespeare you would need something along the lines of War and Peace in length! Hamlet has a lot of heritage, it is a particularly well studied play, and it was a particularly ambitious project with McEwan chose. Bearing that in mind, should I even be surprised that the idea was better than the execution? One of the next books I intend to read is Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, her retelling of The Tempest. I’ll be interested to see how that compares….

3 out of 5 Stars.