The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

A new book from Kate Summerscale is reason for excitement. I don’t willingly read a lot of non-fiction (always preferred working on it as an editor to reading it for pleasure) and yet when I see that this particular author has published a new title my insides do a little dance in anticipation and said title doesn’t linger on my kindle for long.

The reason for this is that the author is dynamite at combining thorough research with wonderful storytelling. When I read her books I am not only entertained but educated in that best of ways – the way where you’re having such a good time that you don’t even notice. And I don’t just mean I learn facts and history – though I do. I mean that I find myself pondering all kinds of things about people, society and even myself, so that by the end of a book I have cogitated and discovered more about, well, life.

The Wicked Boy was no different. Like The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, it was intriguing, meticulously researched, written with great empathy and in a narrative style that takes the reader through the chapters as if they were reading – and trying to figure out – a mystery, rather than the details of a 120-year-old crime and the life of the sentenced thereafter.

In 1895 Robert Coombes and his brother Nattie are tried for the murder of their mother. They are aged 13 and 12. The boys seem neither upset nor ashamed of the crime, and though they try to cover it up (badly) they are keen to admit it when accused. The account of their behaviour, the crime and the public’s reaction to it at the time is fascinating, created by Summerscale with clever layering of source material. One of things I love about this author’s style is that you never feel as if she is telling you what to think, nor does she try to fill gaps where gaps cannot be filled. It means that you the reader are sifting through the information – that comes from a range of perspectives, it is never one-sided – and forming your own view of the situations being described. So while you are reading, you are also considering everything for yourself: Do I believe these boys committed matricide? Why do I think they did? Surely there must be a good reason or are they just insane? And while you are reading and pondering you are steered through the story with grace and a subtle confidence that only comes from a truly accomplished writer.

Back at the turn of the twentieth century, the trial concludes with Robert deemed insane and to have influenced his brother to help murder their mother, and is sent to an asylum where he lives a full if very quiet existence as an inmate. It is the best kind of that type of institution, a place where people are treated with care and respect, where they are given occupation and peace, and some, like Robert are moulded to return to the everyday world. When Robert is released he ends up serving with honour as a stretcher bearer in the First World War, and emigrates to Australia where he lives an unremarkable and quiet life in a small rural community. He is a tailor, a talented musician, a small-hold farmer. He is well-liked, intelligent and respected. He keeps in touch with his brother who, like him, also went to war, works hard and lives an unremarkable life.

An unremarkable almost hermit-like life, perhaps, but I was so interested in Robert Coombes and his decisions, and he is described with such empathy, that I was gripped to each page, wanting to find out another small detail, wanting to add to my picture of this child-murderer grown up who I was beginning to like and wanted to see happy in some way. Of course, the somewhat frustrating thing with non-fiction is that we rarely have neat, rounded, happy endings; we only have what the author can discover, what the documents can tell us. At the very least, in this case, what the author discovers about Robert Coombes is satisfying for the reader.

In the end, when reading The Wicked Boy we are reading a book of two stories: an account of a sensational murder trial in Victorian England, and the tale of one man’s search for redemption. Both stories are equally mesmerising, though the latter certainly affected me more; it is still sitting beneath my ribs, forcing the occasional deep and contemplative breath. I didn’t expect this when I first started the book. I thought I would be witnessing the retelling of a captivating trial and a shocking crime. I wanted to gawk and be thrilled. And I did, and I was. But I was also taken on the journey of a quiet man’s life, on his personal travels towards atonement. And I was fascinated, interested and, ultimately, touched. This is a fantastic book from Kate Summerscale that I would heartily recommend. It is skilfully written, a pleasure to read, and a work of great scholarship and compassion. I will not forget it in a hurry.

Classics diversion

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens and London is awash with celebrations, exhibitions, publications and tenuously linked products connected to the great writer.

Regular readers know that I am partial to a classic novel (both modern and your more classic classics) and Dickens is one of my favourites, so the Charles-o-rama is okay with me, for the time being anyway. It’s not often a writer has such public focus for an entire year, so although I assume one will get a little tired of hearing of his brilliance and listening to lectures proposing what Dickens would think of Twitter and the crisis in the Eurozone were he alive now, overall I see it as a positive and inspiring thing. (A colleague of mine has been so inspired he is planning on having a year of Dickens to kick through some of the novels he never got around to reading. Fabulous idea, if you ask me.) It’s also had me thinking about classics in general and when my writing muscles are back in shape I have a couple of recently read titles to post on — including a Dickens’ novel. Until then, here is the always firm-thinking and eloquent Richard Flanagan on our relationship with classic literature.

http://www.randomhouse.com.au/blog/richard-flanagan-on-classics-1435.aspx

The Brave by Nicholas Evans

Back in 1995 Nicholas Evans’ novel, The Horse Whisperer, was a mega-bestseller. In 1998 Robert Redford made a film based on the book and the world went horse-whispering crazy. All of a sudden—in Australia at least—morning television chat shows and weekend current affairs flagships were running stories about moustachioed silent-types in checked shirts who could make a pony dance to their bidding (which anyone who grew up in Sydney and longed for weekend visits to El Caballo Blanco can attest, is a mighty fine thing). More important than this equine-talking fad, Nicholas Evans became a successful author and went on to write some very good novels, in particular The Loop, but also The Smoke Jumper, The Divide and most recently, The Brave.

Mr Evans is a fine writer and his narratives are well-honed. I would describe them as ‘quietly told’ but I always find myself helplessly wrapped up in them and eager to continue paddling along. He is very good at communicating the private sides of his characters, and can write of slightly ‘damaged’ individuals and their soul-searching without resorting to clichés.

His stories tend to be set in natural environs, perhaps because he knows he has strong skills in describing landscapes, or perhaps because he just prefers writing about them. In any case his tales are mostly set in mountains, on farms, in small towns, on the plains. (And in America, although he is an Englishman who lives in England.) Because of these settings, sometimes his narratives include an animal-theme, for example in The Loop we learnt a lot about wolves.  But sometimes, they don’t. This doesn’t bother me, but it seemed to bother some of his publishers. Well, they at least sometimes appeared to ignore this fact, and continued to attempt to shove an animal onto any of his covers that they justifiably could. After all, this is the man who wrote The Horse Whisperer, the reading public might not be smart enough to work that out if they didn’t see a furry creature staring back at them.

All I can say is thank god Mr Evans went back to the horsies so that novel, publisher, cover and reader were aligned again. Not that The Brave is really about horses, but there are storylines involving hollywood westerns, cowboys and indians, horse handlers and mountain riding. I certainly won’t quibble with the equine-flavoured cover, which is, in my opinion, quiet stunning. What the novel mostly discusses, though, is courage and what it means; when it is false, when it is true and when it falters.

Tom Bedford is our protagonist and we hear his tale from two ends: 1959 when he is a quiet English boy obsessed with westerns, who is thrust into Tinseltown when his sister marries a TV-star cowboy; and 2007 where he is an academic and writer living with a secret from his childhood that is brought to the fore when his soldier son is charged with murder.

When I was reading The Brave, I struggled somewhat to succinctly explain to others what the plot was because, like Mr Evans’ previous novels, there was a complexity to it that warranted more than a one or two lines from the likes of me. When I call the novel ‘complex’ I don’t mean that it is difficult or convoluted; I mean that it is layered, involved and considered. The experience of reading The Brave is a quiet one; but it is an intense quiet, full of emotion and raw introspection, cleverly constructed by a talented author who deftly leads you through his tale. Layered, involved, complex, and there are key plot points you don’t want to reveal to others for fear they will ‘ruin’ the story, plus a general sense that this is not a book to summarise for others; more one to suggest that they should read and experience for themselves, and hopefully enjoy.

I may not have been able to quickly outline the plot of The Brave for you while I was reading it, but I could have told you that I was absolutely taken with it. I could have told you that I felt as if I carried some of the emotions of the characters around with me during this time, and that I used any spare moment to pick up the book and read a few pages more. I could have told you that the parts of the story set in 2007 were very good, but the parts set in 1959 were excellent. I could have told you that I had always been a fan of Nicholas Evans’ books and that I was just so pleased that he’d had another book published and that it was, plain and simple, a very good book.

Edge by Jeffery Deaver

I’m not usually judgmental of others’ reading habits. As long as there is some kind of decision-making process behind what they read, I don’t really mind how they spend their reading time. I like to think I’m not a superior-reader type, and you only have to read through the titles I post on to see that I’m not a hardline highbrow-literature digester. I’ve even been known to make a general-type of statement (and making general-types of statements is a sweeping habit of mine) when discussing the topic of ‘Men’ that ‘I don’t like men who read’. This, as with most of my general statements, is not entirely accurate. For starters they at least have to be able to read, and for after-starters if they do read for pleasure I do find that attractive. I think my point is more that one does not have to be a super-keen reader, or much of a leisure-reader at all, for me to appreciate them as a person. (And to be honest—back to the Men thing for a second—if I was sitting on a park bench reading Joyce and some nice-looking chap sat down next to me and said, ‘Oh, Joyce, he’s my favourite writer, what do you think of the book?’ I’d fear I was trapped in a romantic indie movie where we were all going to end up sad but appreciatively wiser at the end. It’s just not my style of wooing.)
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This all being said, when someone – and I’m now speaking of all classifications of people – likes the same book or author as me, it does create a stirring within of a need to bond with that person. Nay, a stirring that we are already bonded. When someone really likes an author or book that I like it suggests to me that we share thoughts, tastes and ideals on a number of levels. That we have both been privy to a secret that only certain people can share. That we speak the same language. It’s perhaps why I feel so attached to the members of the book group I belonged to in Sydney, and why I feel the need to join one in London (should do something about that).
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Of course you always need to consider the popularity or success of a book or author before latching on to your book-soul-mates. When the two of you like Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird you may need to delve deeper to see if you really do share a crazy kind of book-loving love.
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As many of you know, Jeffery Deaver is one of my favourite authors. But due to the man’s popularity, I don’t necessarily get all stirred up when someones tells me they like his books—it certainly piques my interest, but there usually has to be more to it. This could be the other volunteering him early on as a favourite, or if I refer to him or one of his books (it’s very common for me to refer to books I’ve read in the most random and everyday conversations, such is my life informed by my habit) and they latch on to his name or start chattering away about quadriplegic forensic investigators I know there might be more to this potential book-friend. I found a Deaver-friend recently (and it has turned out to be more than a passing thriller-friend-phase) and was so happy to share this with them that I leant them my copy of his most recent title, Edge.
While busy keeping up with two series and penning the latest James Bond novel, Jeffery Deaver decided to bash out a standalone thriller called The Edge.
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Corte is a protector of witnesses who seems to work for no organisation anyone can name. Cool, calm, stoic, professional, necessarily private, also a board-games connoisseur. He is assigned to protect a family who have been targeted by a ‘lifter’, a freelance extractor of information. Henry Loving is the elusive fiend whose method of choice for extracting information is a sheet of fine sandpaper, some rubbing alcohol and the target’s bare toes. Loving also happened to kill Corte’s mentor, so this time, it’s personal.
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As ever, this Deaver novel is a consuming, fast-paced read. You feel as if you gain insight into the main character and also into his profession. Towards the climax you feel the desired fluctuations of anxiety and fright, only to remain satisfied when you close the covers. Occasionally the witnesses were a trifle irritating, but I guess that’s the reality of being in the protection game (and of a writer creating issues to overcome in a narrative).
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I like that Mr Deaver doesn’t limit himself to his successful series, and that he seems to continue to tell all his stories well despite the pace at which he delivers them to the world. I’m still more than looking forward to reading the next Kathryn Dance novel (I’m assuming, seeing as the last series update was a Lincoln Rhyme book), but in the meantime, standalone stories such as Edge will keep me well fulfilled.

M is for McCarthy

The last time I read a Cormac McCarthy novel I became so animated that a stranger sharing my dining space walked over and insisted I write down the name of the book I was reading because any book which caused someone to have so many emotions flash across their face was worth purchasing. Now I’ll admit there was a fair chance this was a line, but I still got the opportunity to spread the McCarthy gospel—so let’s not dwell on my gullibility, but rather the most recent book from one of my favourite authors.

The letter M was always going to be hard because I had so many books to choose from. No need to worry for now that the letters Q and V are coming up, for M I was solid. Margaret Atwood, Inspector Montalbano, Magical themes and titles, Mormons, the options fanned around me like a fan made of books. In the end the choice was easy. Sitting in the pile was The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy.

The Sunset Limited is ‘a novel in dramatic form’. Call me dense, but that’s basically a play, right? And call me denser still but I find that reading a play is very different to reading a novel, dramatically formed or otherwise. Remember that english teacher who made you read Othello out loud because ‘Shakespeare was meant to be performed’? They had a point. And even though when reading stories in this structure I tend to read aloud to myself in my head (if you follow me), it can’t replace seeing the play/novel in dramatic form and I don’t think it can affect you in the same way. I am more than happy to re-read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Hamlet, The Lady in the Van, Don’s Party or Waiting for Godot, but the reason I go back to these plays and like them so much is that as well as reading them I have also seen them. So I’m wondering: if I see The Sunset Limited performed will I like it more than I did when I read it? And would I then re-read it to different result?

I’ve spoken about the thrill we experience when we discover one of our favourite authors has a new book on the shelves; but what do you do when that new book fails to satisfy like others have? Possibly it depends how disappointed you are. I’m not overly distraught in this case, just a little underwhelmed. I am used to reading Mr McCarthy and being thrust into a thoughtful haze for a number of days, to feeling it necessary to take long full breaths just to stay somewhat upright, to uttering his name in low, reverential tones the type of which I otherwise reserve for large religious buildings, national art galleries and the British Museum. If someone asked me should I read The Road or No Country for Old Men I’d likely hold their collar and rock them about a bit in my insistence that they must. If they asked me should they read The Sunset Limited I would look up from my coffee, go to point my teaspoon at them in a half-hearted manner, then shrug and say, ‘Sure, there’re some interesting bits. It’s McCarthy after all.’

What I like best, and admire  most, about McCarthy’s writing are his artful descriptions and his ability to work with tension, suspense, conflict and basic, raw human emotions (and weave a plot through it all). His dialogue can be pretty magic too, though often spare, and it wouldn’t usually be the first thing I mentioned when discussing his work. But here we have a novel in dramatic form and thus what we have is dialogue, and almost dialogue alone. What Sunset gives us is an old-school philosophical discussion on life and religion. Two characters sitting in a bare room in a ‘black ghetto’—opposites in many ways, representative of different worlds—are brought together by a simple, desperate act. A white, educated man who believes existence in this world offers nothing tries to kill himself and is rescued by a black man, ex-con, who believes that God and the Bible are the only answer anyone needs to anything. Lock them in a room and discuss. And in the end the answer is…

I think the reasons for my lack of whelm are three-fold: I find reading a play simply to read it a slightly utilitarian experience; the thing I love most about McCarthy’s writing is his description (which scripts necessarily lack); and when you revere an author so much and the last thing he wrote was The Road, well, your expectations for the next thing from him are high—ridiculously high—and the chances of him meeting those expectations are slim no matter what he produces, but perhaps especially when what he produces is a little play and you weren’t really expecting that at all.

If you cast your eyes over the list of plays I like, you’ll see that a novel in dramatic form which deals with the notions of, and reasons for, existence should be something which appeals to me. And like I said, The Sunset Limited isn’t completely devoid of appeal, but it lacked oomph and didn’t have that McCarthy road-train effect on my being which I’ve come to expect. I’m willing to accept some of this as a deficit of skill or comprehension as a reader, but not all of it. I do believe that if I saw it performed I would appreciate it more and perhaps I would flip back into using those respectful church/Picasso/Rosetta-stone tones. Perhaps you should read it and see for yourself. It’s McCarthy after all.