Friday, October 14, 2011
Ignorance plays the chief part among men, and the multitude of words; but opportunity will prevail.
Cold. Queen Street, Sandy Bay. September 2011.
Two decent reads this week. First up, Saturday by Ian McEwan is a novel set across a single Saturday (and night) in inner-city London in early-2003 as the city geared itself for large demonstration against the invasion of Iraq. The central character is a 48-year-old neurosurgeon that goes about his day as normal (albeit pondering the meaning of the protest and the geopolitical realities that inspired it). As might be expected, something else happens as well as a violent and troubled stranger penetrates his usually-tranquil world.
This book seemed to divide the critics, and I guess that I can see why. The protagonist lives a blissful, upper middle class existence that appears to chaff with many reviewers. Nonetheless, and despite my decidedly anti-bourgeois tendencies, it didn’t worry me.
Utilising a neurosurgeon as the centrepiece of the story affords McEwan the opportunity to explore core human concepts – happiness, ideology, rationality, love and so on – from a clinical perspective. Moreover, despite the relative harmony of life evident in the narrator; reminders of the fragility of that harmony are ever present. The fact that Perowne (the surgeon) is a rationalist set amongst artists (a famous poet father-in-law; a burgeoning poet daughter; a musician son) also provides plenty of opportunity to explore the foundations of our beliefs and actions.
After some delay in reading him, I am rapidly becoming a McEwan fan. The novel is very nicely constructed, and features some lovely writing. There is a profound attention to detail in Saturday which really does allow him to build the growing sense of disquiet as the novel heads towards its climax and dénouement.
I liked it a lot. Despite a reasonable slow opening third, this really is a gripping read. Highly recommended.
Second up is the latest from another of my favourite contemporary British novelists, Magnus Mills’ A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked in.
Set in the Empire of Greater Fallowfields, once a mighty seafaring power, the novel finds the reader encountering a court that nurses memories of imperial glory and sustains only the vaguest awareness of the lands that surround it. A feudal system remains in place and our central character is the unnamed ‘Principal Composer to the Imperial Court’ – who cannot read or play a note – which affords us a privileged insight into the inner workings of the cabinet, which is preoccupied by the prolonged absence of ‘His Exalted Highness, the Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields’.
As with all of the Mills oeuvre, this is an odd little book. Greater Fallowfields is a whimsical little place populated by simpleminded folk out of tune with the rest of the world. Think Kafka blended with Andrey Kurkov. I am sure that the peculiar tone of the piece will annoy many readers; I don’t mind it but will confess that at times I struggles to concentrate on the narrative as the story slowly drifted on.
It is not the greatest thing ever written, and the ending was a little hasty for my liking; but ultimately this is a book with an odd sort of charm. If you’re looking for a very ‘British’ kind of writer, Mills is not your man. More Central European in tone, I find his eccentricities endearing rather than maddening. I suspect that many could go either way. Recommended.