WARLIGHT by MICHAEL ONDAATJE
Reviewed by Alexandra Shaw
Subtlety, smoke and subterfuge pervade Michael Ondaatje’s latest work, Warlight. It is a book that I had the all-consuming feeling while I was reading it that I was only understanding, or grasping, or even casting my eyes over one half of what was truly there. It is a technique that, I hope, is an authorial sleight of hand to mimic the narrator’s own unsureness and misrememberings of his own past, though I can’t rule out that I may have to stop enjoying my novels with a companion glass of red wine.
Like reality, I felt the first half of Warlight – as the narrator, Nathaniel, reminisced on his childhood – was the more romantic and intriguing half, and a story I could have read for a hundred pages more. The first sentence explains the premise in a charmingly childlike way: ‘In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who many have been criminals.’ But these characters do not, thankfully, turn out to be Fagins to Nathaniel’s Oliver. While their way of life is unusual, at best, and borderline neglectful at worst – in the sense of an absence of care, rather than an abuse of it – it becomes apparent that Nathaniel and his sister Rachel come to care deeply for their guardians, and protect the life they lead avidly. Like all children, they have adapted to their lot and work to do the best they can out of it.
The book unfolds quietly and carefully, and shifts in its focus as it unfurls to the mother of the two children, and the realization they reach regarding their parents’ departure. In this way it perfectly represents the shedding of the ignorance of childhood, and the narrator’s growth into his own person as he begins to gain an understanding of the motivations of people around him. It’s a compact work, but one whose depth outmeasures its length, and definitely one to read.
SNAP by BELINDA BAUER
Reviewed by Jade-Louisa Pepper
Snap by Belinda Bauer should, in theory, have been something I devoured. It has all the hallmarks of my favourite things – it’s loosely based on the (unsolved) murder of Marie Wilks, it’s based in a small town that wouldn’t be out of place on an episode of Midsomer Murders, it’s a well endorsed thriller on the Man Booker Longlist — and yet I can barely summon an ‘it’s alright, I guess?’ when people ask about it.
Uneven is the best way to describe Bauer’s latest, as the taut and tension-filled opening chapters become a distant memory when we sit through yet another instance of Catherine – the pregnant woman so afraid of eating the wrong thing in case it harms the baby – ignoring death threats, break-ins and robbery in case she is blamed for leaving the bathroom window open.
Catherine isn’t the only character to fall into absurdity for no reason I could see other than to keep the plot going. The entire police force seems to be staffed by plot devices and characters dropped in from various comedy sketches from the 1980s. The latter half of the book hinges on the idea that the maverick city cop (why yes, he is a misogynist, good-old-boy, drill sergeant–style boss, however did you guess?) accepts the proposal of the 14-year old he’s arrested for committing a series of robbery and helps him investigate the murder of his mother. Hanging a lampshade on how ridiculous this is doesn’t make it easier to swallow.
Jack, our Artful Dodger of the book, is a bright spot. His trauma around the death of his mother and the strain of having to take care of his two sisters after his father abandons them is depicted brilliantly. The increasingly terrifying dreams he has about the roadside murder of his mother are genuinely unsettling and he actually reads like a teenage boy thrust into an awful situation.
Snap has its moments of brilliance – the final scenes in the car genuinely had my heart racing, for one – but a few good scenes aren’t enough to keep the book together or my interest up. Crime and Thriller novels absolutely deserve their place on the Man Booker long and shortlists, no matter what the naysayers might cry, but I’m afraid this one remains an unlikely candidate for winner.
SABRINA by NICK DRNASO
Reviewed by Anne Bowman
28-year old Chicago native Nick Drnaso’s second novel Sabrina is creating a lot of buzz in the literary world. His first novel Beverly won the LA Times Book prize for the Best Graphic Novel and was shortlisted for many more. Sabrina has already been hailed by Zadie Smith as ‘a masterpiece’ and ‘the best book – in any medium – about our current moment.’
There is an unsettling mystery at the heart of Sabrina involving a missing woman, a videotape and a violent murder. US Airforce engineer Calvin Wroble works the night shift. Upon reporting to duty each evening he is required to fill in a questionnaire – a box ticking exercise designed to measure his mental stability. ‘How many hours of sleep did you have? How many alcoholic drinks have you consumed? Do you feel suicidal yes or no?”’His wife recently left with their young daughter and he spends his free time playing war simulator games online. One day, Teddy – a childhood friend whose girlfriend is missing – arrives to stay. He is in catatonic shock and Calvin is determined to help him get back on his feet. Shortly after Teddy’s arrival, a mysterious videotape depicting a violent murder is delivered to a local news outlet. Calvin is drawn into a dark web of fake news and conspiracy theories. The answers on his daily questionnaire become increasingly worrying.
The story unfolds slowly, weaving narratives in a sophisticated way. We are offered several perspectives, from the painfully withdrawn Teddy, to Sandra – the grieving sister of the missing girl, to Calvin’s estranged wife. The storytelling is rich and very clever. The world that Drnaso creates is one of sparse human interaction and sterile habitats – the artificial glow from the television, computer or fast food restaurant often the only light – creating palpable unease and tension as the story builds. Within the first fifty pages, I found myself tearing through the book desperate to uncover the truth.
Recent years have seen an extraordinary rise in the popularity of the graphic novel. The beloved primary colours of superheroes have paved the way for writers such as Adrian Tomine and Alison Bechdel to bring new genres to new audiences. Even staples like Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman are now perhaps a little “retro”, and modern readers look to graphic novels as worthy challengers to the “traditional novel” – creating works that blend high literature and art, forging an exciting, innovative way in which we consume stories.
Shocking, disturbing and utterly addictive, Sabrina is a graphic novel about our time, for our time. Drnaso’s storytelling is delicate and heart-breaking, with echoes of American greats like Raymond Carver or John Steinbeck, and well-deserving of its spot on the Booker longlist.
FROM A LOW AND QUIET SEA by DONAL RYAN
Reviewed by Katryna Storace
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan tells the stories of three very different men each in search of something or somewhere to call home. Tossed about on a metaphorical sea of love and loss are Farouk, a Syrian refugee, Lampy, a young man recovering from a broken heart, and John, an elderly accountant.
The men’s stories are unfolded slowly and quietly by a dispassionate third-person narrator. The language is lyrical and involving nonetheless; it draws you into an intimate space with each of the three men. This where Ryan is at his strongest. He weaves a narrative net around that reader that makes them invested in the lives of his characters, and in their individual struggles. Their voices are distinctive – what Martina Evans, in the Irish Times, calls a ‘dazzling array of voices’. We believe in Farouk’s hopes for a brighter future in Europe with the same vehemence as our belief in John’s deep regret over his failed relationship with a younger woman.
The novel culminates in the final section, ‘Lake Islands’, when the connections between the apparently disparate narratives of the three men are revealed. Herein lies the book’s power: these are genuinely surprising revelations. There is nothing contrived about the way that these lives merge and overlap. The characters become more real – if this is possible – as it comes to a close.
From a Low and Quiet Sea is a superbly crafted, haunting novel and consolidates Donal Ryan’s reputation as a master storyteller. Its short extent – 181 pages in total – makes for a quick yet affecting read that stays with you, well after its echoing final lines.
IN OUR MAD AND FURIOUS CITY by GUY GUNARATNE
Reviewed by Joey Connolly
You wouldn’t call In Our Mad and Furious City an unambitious novel. It has the sentence ‘See London.’ in the first paragraph. It’s narrated by five characters of wildly various ages, national origins, religious habits, world-views. It aims to both capture the experience of North-London estate life, but also to comment on the currents of racism and nationalist politics currently on the rise in the UK. And it aims to do so in part by placing those currents in the historical contexts out of which London’s many first- or second-generation immigrant populations have arrived.
The book even wants to make some suggestions for the solutions to these problems. It’s a lot for a debut novelist to take on, but Gunaratne’s novel – while not without its flaws – manages some remarkable successes.
Two of the novel’s older narrators, Caroline and Nelson, originating from Monserrat and Belfast respectively, find contemporary events (the novel has a Lee Rigby–style murder in its recent past, prompting far-right demonstrations around the estate) directing them backwards, towards previous iterations of the violence simmering underneath the multiculturalism of contemporary London. For Caroline it’s the horrors of the troubles; for Nelson it’s the Enoch Powell–era fascist, anti-black thugs and the pushback from black immigrants.
Gunaratne’s ability to paint these previous conflicts as a shadowy presence in today’s struggles is impressive. He invests the prose with recurring symbolic touchpoints (fire, provisional soldiery, the struggle for innocence) allowing the connection to be implied, without the necessity of any heavy-handed or reductive comparisons to be drawn; the troubles aren’t simply comparable to the Islamophobic violence of today. But England’s history is a history of colonialist and religious oppression, and remembering that is crucial, Gunaratne argues tacitly, to understanding discord in London today.
Although Gunaratne’s capable of strong prose, even raising to occasional moments of beauty, his main weakness is in the creation of the voices of the novel’s younger protagonists. Too often throughout the book we’re left with the impression that a generic ‘literary’ voice has been sprinkled with the buzz-words of the contemporary London demotic, and the task of narrative stylisation has been left there. The problem’s heightened by the fact that the book’s narrative perspective is somewhere between spoken monologue and reported thought. But take passages like Ardan’s: ‘I just dussed out. Drank bare spirit that night as well, I was mad depressed and mangy. Came up here to look at the Ends at night because the view from the West Block is as nice as it is dismal in the daytime.’ But inserting ‘ennet’, ‘yuno’, ‘road’, ‘tho’, ‘bare’ into a text isn’t sufficient to create an authentic or convincing diction. Although it has convinced other reviewers – Shahidha Bari (a Cambridge-education Romanticism scholar) in the Guardian, for example – so perhaps it’s my understanding of the vernacular that’s lacking. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
There are other flaws beside these. Most significant is the fact that the book’s sprawl and scope requires at times that the characters perform actions necessitated by the plot rather than their own internal compulsions, desires or will. As a result of this, the central event of the novel’s story (I’ll avoid spoilers by not specifying) comes to feel simultaneously predictable and underdetermined; we knew it had to happen, but we never get any sense of why it happened. Aside that it’s useful for the novel’s storyline.
I’d be inclined to forgive such things, though; they’re a flaw precipitated by the novel’s ambition. During an extremely multicultural football match on the estate, Yusuf says (or writes, or thinks) ‘For a few hours the Square would cast us at the Nou Camp with our Gerrards and Ronaldos, Figos and Rivaldos and a few Cryuffs. These names, ghosting through our movements as we played, the cage with its concrete turf and cracked centre circle, made us free.’ It’s a bitterly ironic moment, as that ‘cage… made us free’, and as we feel the ghosts of historical violence ghosting through the movement of this novel’s protagonists, and drawing the story towards its brutal and inevitable conclusion.