Mort by Terry Pratchett

Mort was the first Discworld novel to focus on Death (previously limited to scene-stealing walk-on parts), and arguably the first one to have a proper plot. Death, for reasons never quite explained, recruits an apprentice named Mort, a gawky, gangly teenager from the Ramtops. Mort is soon upgraded from stable-cleaning to soul-reaping duties, but he bungles one of his early jobs, thwarting the fated assassination of a princess and thereby causing a schism in reality.

It’s clear Pratchett takes delight in this opportunity to flesh out (for want of a more appropriate term) Death. As the skeletal harvester of souls enjoys some downtime, we learn of his passion for cats, his bemused regard for human customs, and his confected, monochrome Domain. Death’s otherworldly presence is captured wonderfully from the very beginning – his hand ‘smooth and rather yellowed like an old billiard ball’, his cough ‘like the pistol-crack of an ancient beam full of death-watch beetle’. Pratchett can send a shiver down the spine, then immediately undercut it with a wisecrack as dry as a bone, or a (literal) pratfall.

It’s an odd experience re-reading a Discworld novel after more than 20 years – the movement of the story feels nearly new, but particular scenes and jokes are startlingly familiar, as if the better part of them had been lodged in the back of my mind all this time. Among these old favourites were a footnote about monarchy travelling faster than light, and the section where Mort visits a pub and samples the corrosive drink ‘scumble’. There’s also plenty of stuff that must have flown way over my head during my first read.

French Exit

French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

After his comic Western The Sisters Brothers, and his Alpine Gothic fable Undermajordomo Minor, Patrick DeWitt brings his addictively arch style to a novel that’s less precisely located in genre, but owes something to screwball comedies.

Frances Price is the widow of an absolute rotter, a lawyer who made his enormous fortune representing the most repugnant clients – ‘the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, the apparatus of the war machine, gun lobbyists’. She’s since been frittering away his cash. As French Exit begins, she learns it’s almost all gone. She and her adult son Malcolm will have to vacate their luxurious Manhattan home and take up a friend’s kind offer of an apartment in Paris. Across the Atlantic and into this uncertain future, they must also drag Small Frank, an elderly cat who contains the frustrated soul of Frances’ dead husband.

Malcolm is a little passive and dull-witted compared to Frances, who is ready with a shocking remark, a withering put-down or a wild non-sequitur whenever bored of the conversation. The dialogue between mother and son is always fun, and always dancing around deep shadows of unspoken resentment and remorse. More sparks fly as they travel to Paris and collect hangers-on – including a fortune teller, a needy, overly talkative fellow ex-pat, and an out-of-his-depth private detective.

French Exit is less pacy than DeWitt’s last two novels, but no less charming. It has strong characters and a sharp sting in the tail, making for a memorable book that continues his hot streak.

I thought Jacques Audiard’s 2018 film of The Sisters Brothers was great, and rather overlooked at the time, but French Exit seems perhaps trickier to adapt, and the imminent film version doesn’t really appeal.

You need to move with it.

Another great quote from a recent interview with the Australian author Richard Flanagan, whose The Living Sea of Waking Dreams I read this week:

The more I’ve written, the less I think of novels in terms of metaphors and symbols. I think the least important thing about a novel is the intentions you start with and the ambitions you have at the start – and once the story starts to move, you need to move with it. If the writing isn’t surprising you, it’ll never surprise or interest the reader.

Richard Flanagan on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan’s latest finds him fixated on two modern crises – elderly care and ecological ruin. Anna’s mother Francie is close to death in a Hobart hospital, and her three children face difficult decisions. Tommy – a failed artist, part-time crayfishing deckie, and as the only one who has stayed local in Tasmania, Francie’s caregiver for many years – thinks it best to let her slip away. Terzo, a successful businessman, seems to see death as somehow beneath the family, and will happily throw his money and contacts at the problem. Anna falls somewhere between these two positions. When the recurring dilemma becomes too much, she is in the habit of retreating into her architectural work, or her phone. But the latter only offers her a harrowing slideshow of our doomed planet – footage of the Australian wilds aflame, photos of charred koalas and cattle, reports of yet another species driven to extinction, and more bad news from elsewhere.

Those ‘doomscroll’ passages are deliberately unflinching. Away from the glow of Anna’s smartphone, the hospital scenes are just as hard to bear. Like Anna, we are vexed by the medical language loaded with euphemisms, and traumatised by the sight of a life so reduced that it’s barely there. Seeing her mother hooked up to a ‘vermicelli of tubes’, Anna compares her to ‘a carapace of something long ago caught and killed in a spider’s web’. So many other images are haunting and horribly accurate to an experience so many will know.

Into this complex mix, Flanagan boldly chucks a massive helping of magic realism: early on, we learn that Anna’s body parts have started vanishing – first of all her ring finger, her left hand blurring into nothing at the knuckle like a shoddy bit of Photoshop. This theme is developed in that certain characters can notice Anna’s missing parts, while most seem oblivious. The parallel with our planet’s miraculous nature being erased every single day, yet mostly ignored, is powerful.

Realism is the least effective way of describing reality. It was a way of trying to find a story that would speak to this strange way in which the more we’re confronted with horror, the more we turn away from it and refuse to acknowledge it.

Richard Flanagan on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book

The Mystery of Henri Pick

The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos – translated by Sam Taylor

Did a deceased Breton pizza chef, never known to pick up a book nor write so much as a birthday card his whole life, secretly pen a great novel? When a young couple (an ambitious editor and a fledgling author) discover Henri Pick’s opus in an eccentric Crozon library that stores rejected manuscripts, it’s a curious mystery that soon becomes a national phenomenon.

Strewn with references to Brautigan, Pushkin, Proust, Houellebecq and more, and depicting a fickle French publishing industry with bitterness and cheek in equal measure, the comedy here can be enjoyed by any voracious reader or budding writer. You’re never far from a droll observation like “Reading is a completely egotistical pleasure”, or “Writing is the only job in the world where you can stay under the duvet all day long and still claim to be working.”

Writing is the only job in the world where you can stay under the duvet all day long and still claim to be working.

With a wilfully obscure body of artistic work at its centre, a fitful plot and flashes of bluntly described lust, this reminded me most of Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions. Ultimately, it’s frothier than any Auster, and for me its cuteness wore very thin in the final stretch. But it’s a promising start to this series of translations from TV box set connoisseurs Walter Presents, in collaboration with Pushkin Press — both very reliable curators of eclectic foreign fictions. It’s also, if I’m honest, a small consolation for this struggling would-be author.

Crow Court

Crow Court by Andy Charman

In the Dorset market town of Wimborne Minster, as wedding bells ring through the bright Spring morning, a choirboy is found drowned among the rushes and weeds of the River Allen. Andy Charman’s debut novel connects thirteen more episodes, spread out over more than a decade in the mid-19th century, to that initial tragedy and scandal. Key characters include a bereaved cordwainer who sleepwalks onto his wife’s grave every night, a panicked, lovestruck stablehand making a midnight flit, a young Admiral Nelson fan whose play-acting goes awry, a labourer-turned-sailor rounding the Cape, and many other memorable folk.

Each of their chapters is carefully voiced, totally convincing in its historical texture, and appropriately peppered with Victorian Dorset dialect. That ranges from the self-explanatory (‘proper trimmen crop o’ rushes’, ‘bangen girt wave’) to the more cryptic (‘spindly little gawk-hammer’, ‘dewbit’). But the language never trips up the story, and there’s a helpful Glossary at the back.

Crow Court always keeps one beady eye on the mystery it began with, but is in no hurry to resolve it. Confident that he has a cracking conclusion up his sleeve, Charman takes his time exploring each little narrative thread, finding the humour and humanity in everything. Even the episode most loosely related to the drowned choirboy (Shakespeare’s Thief) is entertaining in its own right. Indeed, some of the chapters have previously been published as self-contained short stories.

This is an impressive, innovative first novel and a piece of historical fiction like no other.

Light Perpetual

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

In November 1944, Alec, Vernon, Ben, and twins Val and Jo are being shepherded by their mums around Woolworths when a V-2 rocket drops through the roof. Francis Spufford describes the death and destruction with unflinching precision, millisecond by millisecond, from the combustion of the ‘livid gas’, to the ‘blizzard of metal jags and brick flakes’, to the crater left behind. Then he asks: what lives might these five children have led had the V-2 somehow never reached them, a misguided missile that perhaps ‘slipped unnoticed between the North Sea waves’?

I expected something like the speculative sprawl of Paul Auster’s underrated 4 3 2 1, but the structure here is much simpler. We drop in on the five at regular intervals from 1949 to 2009, for short vignettes, and we learn of the surprising turns each life has taken in the interim.

Spufford evoked 1746 Manhattan with verve in his fiction debut, Golden Hill. He’s just as good at these glimpses of post-war Britain, whether he puts his characters backstage with some Beat craze also-rans in 1964, amongst the skinheads menacing markets, playgrounds and ska gigs in the late 70s, or in a VIP box above Millwall’s Den in 2009.

At first, it’s puzzling whether the wartime what-if conceit was even necessary. If Spufford had just wanted to look at British fascists, or Thatcherite property grifters, he needn’t have fashioned an alternate reality. But there are several beautiful passages that echo that frozen moment of the explosion, and carry with them some nagging sense of how miniature and fragile a life is. They create a theological undertow that is hard to miss.

Spufford has said the novel is designed as ‘a picture with death as the frame‘ and it’s successful in that regard. The main flaw, for me, is that some of the key scenes built around music don’t have the transcendent quality that they aim for. From songs to hymns to operas, music is important to Light Perpetual, but it’s so difficult to do it justice in prose, even for the brilliant Spufford.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk – translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Though it’s a fine multiple-murder mystery, it’s the narrator who makes Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead such a compelling read. Meet Janina Duszejko, semi-retired school teacher and amateur astrologer, who leads a quiet life on a tough plateau in rural Poland. She’s among the very few who can tolerate the dreadful winters there, and among of the first on the scene when a neighbour turns up dead one snow-laden night.

The early chapters signal Janina’s singular perspective on the world. She rejects most given names for people, preferring labels that sum up her immediate impression of their character or physicality – hence Bigfoot, Oddball, Good News, The Grey Lady, and more. All animals she encounters have their nouns capitalised, and some are granted names (as with Consul, the fox that criss-crosses the Czech border). It’s a clue to her intense respect for the natural world.

She holds a wide range of pet theories (‘Theory’ is also always capitalised), leading to many brilliant digressions: on the ‘testosterone autism’ of middle-aged men, on how weather reports offer a useful typology of all people, on overused expressions, on ‘Lazy Venus syndrome’, on the beautiful art of translation (her buddy Dizzy whiles away hours crafting Polish versions of William Blake), on the power of Anger. It’s a rare protagonist who contains so many eccentric, often contradictory notions, but Janina is somehow totally believable. She’s peaceable and belligerent in equal measure, pitiable and frightening at the same time. Like Drive Your Plow, this earthy thriller full of cosmic thinking, she is unforgettable.

I look forward to reading more of Olga Tokarczuk’s writing, hopefully translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose work here is outstanding.

She Come By It Natural

She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh

Dolly Parton was born in January ’46 in a cabin on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains – after which her sharecropper father paid the doctor who delivered her with a bag of grain. Sarah Smarsh’s rural Kansas upbringing involved a different kind of poverty, but in She Come By It Natural, it’s a unique lens through which she can examine her favourite country music superstar – for so long a kind of punchline, but now an icon with an assured legacy as a ‘sex symbol, creative genius, and philanthropic juggernaut’.

Smarsh draws on her own childhood, professional life, and relationships – particularly her bond with her ‘seen-it-all’ grandmother Betty, ‘the real life Dolly’ – to tease out the feminist dimensions in Dolly’s songs and in the way she leads her life. The title comes from Betty’s remark that Dolly ‘come by it natural’ – while Dolly has politely eschewed labels and movements, letting feminist wave after feminist wave pass her by, she in fact has always been a self-possessed woman, leading by example.

Any casual fan knows Dolly has never forgotten her ‘dirt poor’ roots, building her career on songs like Coat of Many Colors, but most will find some new wrinkle to admire here – for me, it’s the enormous energy she has poured into charity work since making her fortune. I liked the observation that Dolly’s cartoonish ‘backwoods Barbie’ look (modelled on the ‘town tramp’ she admired as a girl), so often ridiculed, is as much an expression of solidarity with the downtrodden as Johnny Cash’s grizzled ‘Man in Black’ persona was. “That’s the difference between being a man and a woman making a thoughtful statement with their clothes,” notes Smarsh.

The book is lifted from four articles first published in the roots music journal No Depression in 2017. Although a new foreword offers a cursory roll call of how Dolly and the world have moved on since, it made me wish the material had been reshaped and expanded. As it is, it doesn’t flow as well as it might, occasionally reintroducing concepts in a way that shouldn’t be necessary in a seamless book.

Perhaps in a rejigged version there would’ve been more passages like Smarsh’s perceptive analysis of the 1970 masterpiece Down From Dover. That song, the tale of a pregnant teenager abandoned by the baby’s father and then her family, is Dolly reckoning with ‘the ghosts of women’s fates she has escaped’ and comes from a southern Gothic seam in her early songwriting. I’d have liked more of these close readings of key recordings, which can unlock so many of the ideas Smarsh is interested in, including Dolly’s deep empathy and precious connection to her hardscrabble origins.

Rabbit Redux

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

Ten years after Rabbit, Run, Updike reacquaints us with Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom. He’s weathered the 1960s holding down a printing job and his marriage to Janice, whilst raising his son Nelson (now 13). He immediately seems more conservative and no less toxic than last time around. In a neat flip of the first book’s dynamic, Rabbit now has to come to terms with his wife vanishing and shacking up with another man. If that seems inevitable in hindsight, the rest of the plot does not.

The main disappointment here is that Updike takes much less care over his supporting characters. A rickety middle act is built on two figures who aren’t convincing at all – Jill, a runaway from a wealthy Connecticut family, and Skeeter, a drug-pushing, sermonising black Nam veteran on the lam. A background of the moon landing, Vietnam, Ted Kennedy in Chappaquiddick, Laugh-In, and so on deliberately roots Rabbit Redux much more precisely in time. Although Jill and Skeeter are meant to fit into this, to contain some late 60s wayward white hippiedom and black activism respectively, they ring awkwardly hollow, and only serve to expose yet more ugly sides to Rabbit’s personality. That’s a shame, as other new faces, like the slick car salesman Charlie Stavros, do jump off the page.

The constant in these novels is the precise, ultra-observant voice, and that was enough to hold my attention during the weaker sections – once Updike’s style clicks, it’s very impressive and absorbing. I might have to take a bit of a break from Rabbit, but I remain curious about where Updike takes him next – I gather Rabbit is Rich is many readers’ favourite in the sequence.