Ten thoughts about Barkskins by Annie Proulx

BarkskinsFor the last fortnight I have been making my way through Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, a 700 page generational saga following two North American logging families from the late-1600s to the present day. It’s a novel that brought me terrific enjoyment (it wasn’t unknown for me to wander around the house reading passages aloud to anybody who would listen!) and one which I’m somewhat bereft to have finished (and yet I couldn’t not finish it).

Here are ten things (be warned, *minor* spoilers ensue) that stood out to me about the book…

  • If there is an underlying structure to Barkskins, it goes something like: beautiful prose, beautiful prose, beautiful pose, SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENS, beautiful prose, beautiful prose… In that way the novel has a rhythm. Like chopping a tree until it comes crashing down and then starting again on the next one.
  • Barkskins feels like the LitFic novel you give your friend who only reads Science Fiction: colonists arrive in a distant new world, begin to exploit it to the detriment of the native inhabitants, and along the way develop new social structures and technologies (an unexpected aspect of the novel was how it touched upon the development of things such as modern paper, plywood, and prefabricated buildings). Moreover, Barkskins ends where an environmentally focused science fiction novel, say something by Kim Stanley Robinson, might begin.
  • The novel is a masterclass in showing and telling as appropriate (the “gearbox” approach as I like to think of it). Long stretches of time are covered quickly via telling and then Proulx slows things down to bring to life – to show us – the figures who intrigue her the most. One appreciates the richness of these dramatized sections all the more for the deftly sketched historical backdrop which Proulx plays out their lives against.
  • The reader ends each section reluctant to leave the character(s) they have been following. Thus one begins the next section almost resentful towards the new cast… until Proulx works her magic and one falls in love with/reconnects with the next set of protagonists, ending that section hungry for more, and beginning the cycle anew.
  • This passage:
    Barkskins Page
  • “Ships get built in the woods”. I love that observation.
  • The multitude of characters living through the novel’s three hundred years allows Proulx to explore a whole spectrum of sexualities and relationships. Which she does with maturity and sympathy. It goes a long way towards humanising the book’s protagonists and ensuring that each generation is not merely a carbon copy of their predecessors.
  • The obvious way of summarizing Barkskins is as a novel about the denudation of the vast North American forests but, flipping that around, it is also a story of just how destructive the relentless accumulation of capital can be to both one’s humanity and to the environment.
  • Lavinia Duke is such a wonderful character! This is all.
  • Proulx’s prose is obviously a major draw here but she always remembers that a novel has to not just be beautiful but also to entertain. She therefore weaves an almost pulpish quality into Barkskins, especially as the book progresses: for instance, the reader is regaled with the ghoulish tale of a burning railroad car rolling through America full of charred corpses; a key character freezes to death instantly on the shores of the Great Lakes where their body is left standing like a statue; a mad scientist reveals that his greatest invention is actually just a gigantic block of stone, and so on. Such moments have a borderline Pynchon quality but, simultaneously, one wonders just how many of them are based on real anecdotes which turned up during Proulx’s research…

Last year the English Department where I work asked staff members to recommend a book for a shelf – a miniature library of sorts – from which students could borrow and read. If we do that again this September then I might just name Barkskins as my pick… 700 pages be damned!

Other posts you may find of interest:

Stephen Baxter’s Titan: Twenty Years Later

TitanIt is almost two decades since Stephen Baxter’s Clarke Award nominated novel Titan (1997) first appeared. I have been reading it over the past week and despite its transformation into “a period-piece, a description of a lost alternate world,” it is impossible not to be struck by the prescience of a novel in which Baxter correctly predicts things like the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia, a widespread American rejection of science, and – in all but name – the rise of Donald Trump.

Set between the early-2000s and the present day, the novel follows an outlandish, years-long crewed mission to confirm signs of life on the titular Saturnian satellite. It is a sprawling, multi-faceted work told from the perspective of nearly a dozen characters including American and Chinese astronauts, beleaguered NASA administrators, Moon-landing veterans, rogue US Air Force officers, scientists, and journalists. Its near six hundred pages are rigorously researched (occasionally to Titan’s detriment) and it displays a strong thematic link to both Baxter’s other NASA novels (Voyage, 1996, and Moonseed, 1998) as well as to later work like 2009’s Ark. Indeed, the unrelenting “squalor and crap of [the characters’] lives aboard the spacecraft” (recounted over long stretches of Titan and Ark) is almost enough to make a person think twice about deep space travel.

Just as uncomfortable is the accuracy by which Baxter predicts contemporary life on Earth from his mid-1990s vantage. “It seemed America was likely to lapse into fundamentalism, and isolationism, and a kind of high-tech Middle Ages,” we are told as the novel charts the rise of a regressive energy which recasts science as a “spiritual dislocation” and sees creationism and Aristotelian physics made cornerstones of school curricula. Yet the eeriest aspect of Baxter’s almost precognitive world-building in Titan is the character of Xavier Maclachlan, an ambitious, rabble-rousing Republican who harnesses popular discontent into a presidential run. Maclachlan is, in essence, Donald Trump: A “nationalist-populist” who promises to “build walls around the nation” both metaphorically and physically.

One cannot help but think of Trump supporters being told to bring their firearms to polling places when reading about “armed militia bands” converging on Washington to support Maclachlan. Like Trump too, Maclachlan’s followers include members of the Ku Klux Klan and there is a rumour that “a former Klan leader was being made ready to become a future White House chief of staff”. Though of course the real clincher is how Maclachlan pushes for “a wall, two thousand miles of it, along the Mexican border, to exclude illegal immigrants”. All of this grants Titan a contemporary feel further bolstered by the fact that much of the book takes place during 2016.

An extended thought experiment as much as a science fiction story – something especially true of the final section – Titan is not a perfect novel (the writing isn’t necessarily Baxter’s strongest) but it is one which wonderfully captures the sense of wonder at exploration and the possibilities of the space programme. Nods to Clarke (a significant influence here) and Bradbury jostle for space alongside references to Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers, various incarnations of Star Trek, and other science fiction staples. This is a novel where the characters are in love with the idea of space travel and, in particular, with the heroism of the Apollo era. Still, for all of that, the reality of their experiences is surprisingly downbeat. The back half of the book is relentlessly grim as Baxter’s astronauts struggle to survive first the journey to Saturn and then the sucking methane slush of their new home all while their old one collapses under Maclachlan’s malign influence.

In an afterword from the year of publication, Baxter muses on how the then recent loss of Carl Sagan (who plays a small role in the novel) immediately rendered Titan “an alternate history”. Nonetheless it is the potential future history of the novel’s final fifty pages which seems to have consistently been Titan‘s most divisive element. Depending on your perspective, the book’s conclusion is either a whiplash inducing tonal three-sixty or a textbook example of what The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction memorably called Baxter’s “sweet-tooth for the eschatological climax”. Personally I would place it somewhere in the middle: an ambitious, left-field dénouement which cuts the novel’s hard science with something much closer to the fantastic. It is obviously fuelled by the author’s longstanding interest in evolutionary science (seen again in the stories of, as you might imagine, 2002’s Evolution) and it provides perhaps the happiest ending possible given everything that has come before. Is it a perfect landing? No, but in its messiness and aspiration it is as true to life as anything which Baxter’s astronauts encounter on faraway Titan.

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Thoughts on Emma Newman’s Planetfall

PlanetfallThe affecting, twisty-turny, and beautifully written Planetfall (ROC Publishing) is easy to recommend but difficult to review because, honestly, the less you know going into it then the better your reading experience will be. Personally I knew almost nothing about the story when I began the novel a week-and-a-half ago (I had seen it praised by Gareth L. Powell on Twitter and, honestly, that was good enough for me). I read the first hundred pages or so aboard the train en route to Mancunicon and quickly finished it over the following few days.

This is a very strong novel which consistently surprises the reader despite what, in retrospect, seems to be the inevitability of the story’s trajectory. The protagonist is Renata Ghali, or simply Ren, is a fabrication engineer and one of the leaders of a human colony on an alien planet. Twenty years ago she followed “Pathfinder” Suh-Mi – part scientist, part messiah – to the foot of an alien structure known to the settlers as “God’s City”. Since then Shu-Mi has resided in the city alone while the colonists wait for her return and Ren struggles with the difficult, debilitating truths of life on this otherwise desolate world.

Newman carefully paces Planetfall and builds the novel around a handful of genuine game-changing moments (the first of which is the appearance of a stranger who bears a striking resemblance to Shu-mi despite being far too young to have been part of the initial landing). Such reveals are convincing, with the reader never feeling cheated or mislead. What’s more, they build on one another in organic fashion. The novel is thus a masterclass in using little details to prefigure big developments. It is delicately done – typically arising from Newman’s logical, lyrical worldbuilding – and for the most part it is not apparent until after the event. In that regard, Planetfall is a novel I am already looking forward to rereading.

Indeed, as much as a reread offers the chance to trace Newman’s careful use of foreshadowing, it also offers an opportunity to spend more time with Plenetfall’s complex and realistically rendered protagonist. For it is Ren’s perspective, informed by suspicion and loneliness (and there are good reasons for both of those), which grounds this otherworldly novel. She refers to her own story as a “mosaic” and it is one assembled not just from secrets dating back to the colony’s foundation but from fragments of a heart broken multiple times over. Her narrowly focused first person narration further allows Newman to conceal and manipulate in satisfying fashion.

Some observations:

  • Newman employs something akin to social media throughout the novel but does so in a laudably unobtrusive fashion. Despite the tech underpinning it, it is nothing special; it is simply part of the characters’ lives and how they communicate.
  • Planetfall is, in many ways, like Prometheus done right.
  • The novel is as much an indictment of organised religion as it is an endorsement of faith.
  • If you enjoyed Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation you are likely to find things you will enjoy in Planetfall.
  • This might be the first great novel about 3D printing.
  • Go read it.

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Con Report: Mancunicon 2016

Manchnicon BeeI’m just back from Mancunicon, the 2016 British national science fiction convention (or EasterCon) in Manchester. It was a busy EasterCon for me. I participated in three panels over the first three days (though I know some people were on up to five!) and got to spend time with many good friends from across these islands and beyond whom I only see once or twice a year. That is the best part of any convention. It always is. Of course, the second best part is listening to and meeting writers and critics and fans who make you want to raise your game in everything that you do, and Mancunicon also provided its fair share of that.

On the first afternoon of the Con I joined my Clarion classmate Tiffani Angus, along with novelists Matthew De Abaitua and Tom Toner, for ‘Transcending the Genre and Other Polite Insults’ moderated by Kate Wood. This panel explored (as several of the weekend’s panels did) the boundaries between literary and speculative writing. It did so by asking questions about setting, character, reader expectations, and marketing. I’m disappointed we didn’t get to discuss the role of prose style a bit more (or get to the ‘insults’, which I figured was the reason I was on the panel!) but, overall, it was an enjoyable hour poking at a subject which could (and occasionally does, though in more academic contexts) have many days dedicated to it.

On Saturday I participated in ‘Adapting as a Creator from One Medium to Another’ with Chaz Brenchley, Guest of Honour Sarah Pinborough, and Gavin Smith (ably chaired by Emmeline Pui Ling Dobson). We bounced off a lot of topics here (video game tie-ins, television, and films, to mention a few). This panel might be the only time I ever get to talk about both Ted Hughes and comic books during a single event (though, honestly, I should probably have spoken more about my work on Neil Jordan; and it would have been nice to have delved into unconventional narrative forms such as Twitter fiction and so on, but hey!). That said, I think the main value for the audience was the insight – especially from Pinborough – into the world(s) of screenwriting.

Finally then, on the Sunday, I moderated the ‘Supporting the Short Stuff’ discussion with Ruth EJ Booth, EG Cosh, Matthew Hughes, and Juliet Kemp. These panellists brought a wide range of experience and insights (including writing for fiction magazines, websites, journalism, and anthologies) to the challenges presented by the contemporary short story landscape. The panel covered a lot of ground, everything from diversity to market realities to the intersection of both. Or, as Cosh put it, ‘crowdfunding isn’t about selling stories, it’s about selling a relationship, a community’. And if there was a theme of sorts that snaked in and out of various Mancunicon events, it was exactly that: Community.

Case in point was a performance of the post-apocalyptic play North Country by Taj Hayer. If you know Taj then you know that, in person, he loves puns, but North Country is a serious, provocative look at the notion of community after the end of the world. It refutes the whitewashed nature of so much post-apocalyptic writing and instead embraces the complexities (dramatic and otherwise) offered by a multi-ethnic cast of characters. It is a beautifully imagined and carefully constructed piece of work. The conclusion genuinely moved me.

Also top notch was Ian McDonald’s Guest of Honour interview (which saw his recent novel Luna: New Moon described as ‘Game of Domes’ or ‘Dallas on the Moon’). The self-deprecating and quietly knowledgeable Peadar Ó Guilín was the perfect interviewer for McDonald, and their hour on stage together passed all too quickly. In a similar vein, the great Kari ‘I can’t not be political’ Sperring was the ideal host for Aliette de Bodard’s GOH interview, which offered an engaging and personal look at blended cultures and the manner in which gender roles vary from society to society. As de Bodard said, ‘not having equal rights is not the same as having no agency whatsoever. It does not mean you have no story, or no power to affect your story.’ She also told the audience how she did her engineering degree at a military school and she still remembers how to strip down and reassemble an assault rifle. (She further appeared genuinely surprised by her well-deserved  – and unprecedented? – twin BSFA Award wins.)

Meanwhile, on the panel side of things, I was particularly impressed by ‘Menstruation, Contraception, and Reproduction in the Apocalypse’ and ‘Place, Identity, Story’ which both delved into their subject matter with intelligence and verve (the ‘Menstruation, Contraception, and Reproduction’ panel was particularly strong in this regard with all five participants holding PhDs).

Indeed the only real negative at Mancunicon was that this was the first (and hopefully the last) time I had to raise someone’s behaviour to a convention’s organisers. My friends and I repeatedly encountered an individual both predatory and systematic in their application of that behaviour. It was unpleasant for all concerned however I am pleased that the convention organisers dealt with the issue promptly and we had no interaction with said individual after the intervention of Ops.

But, as I say, Mancunicon on the whole was a success story. Some quotes from the weekend:

  • ‘It’s Twitter. No one is listening. Everyone is shouting’ – Sarah Pinborough
  • ‘To an early Irish king, space is a social web; to a Viking it is an economic opportunity; to a Norman it is power” – Kari Sperring
  • ‘I’m Dickens at heart really… but with better sex’ – Ian McDonald
  • ‘A twist must be plausible as well as being something the reader didn’t see coming’ – Charlie Stross
  • ‘For me Feminism is equality. It’s diversity. It’s being able to choose the life you wish to have’ – @hiddeninabook
  • ‘If the apocalypse kicks off, run into Harrods… They have underground bunkers the War Rooms would be proud of’ – Russell Smith
  • ‘The best writing about sex and food is about what’s happening in the character’s head’ – Doug S
  • ‘Writing about Ireland almost cost me my career…!’ – Ian McDonald
  • What to cut from writing ‘depends on what you want to accomplish in that scene’ – Russell Smith
  • ‘Exploration of the outsider is at the core of both crime fiction and science fiction’ – Guy Haley

Lastly, some stray observations:

  • EG Cosh has assembled a list of some the great fiction which was recommended during her panels at Mancunicon. You can find it here.
  • Participants who particularly impressed me included Matthew De Abaitua, Kari Sperring, Ruth EJ Booth, Russell Smith, Sarah Pinborough, Niall Harrison, and Nina Allen. Some of those always impress me; some of those were people I heard speak for the first time.
  • The BSFA awards, in their unpretentiousness, were an appropriate and charming celebration of fan culture.
  • After a few days of queuing for the elevators one begins to feel a touch of High Rise setting in…
  • As is the way of cons, there were a lot of panels which clashed with the ones was on. I would have liked to have attended the Book Reviewing panel and the Guest of Honour interview with fourth GOH Dave Clements (who launched his short story collection Disturbed Universes, along with a selection of other volumes from NewCon Press, at the Con. I’m looking forward to diving into that). So thank you to the people who Tweeted from those events.
  • Dimitri’s Tapas and Mezes restaurant in Manchester is wonderful! And great value! Highly recommended.
  • #PeopleBeforePanels

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The supreme stylist plucks at the strings of his own oeuvre

Here is a review I wrote for the Irish Examiner a few months ago…

Blue.pngThe Blue Guitar
John Banville
Viking; €19.99
Review: Val Nolan

John Banville returns to the art world in the quietly absorbing referential puzzle box which is his first novel in three years. The story may be slight but then one reads Banville for the prose and not the plot: Oliver Otway Orme – “O O O. An absurdity” – is a professional painter and an amateur thief. He “steals” the wife of a friend, is discovered, retreats to various shabby boltholes to pen an address to an “inexistent confessor”, and eventually submits to the messy fallout of his affair.

In Banville’s hands, this simple tale becomes a darkly comic vehicle for digressive colour: Orme tell us the history of “a few hundred acres of passable land”, of “a fatal accident I witnessed as a young man” (in Paris, naturally), and on and on, while merely glossing over the specifics of his infidelity. “There must,” he says, “surely be something or somewhere I don’t want to get to, hence all these seemingly innocent meanderings down dusty by-roads”. Of course, each incident is weighed heavily with meaning but then the structure of The Blue Guitar is strong enough to bear it all.

Strong enough too to carry the magpieish aspect of Banville’s own intellect. This is after all a novel which takes its title from a Wallace Stevens poem while opening by simultaneously invoking a minor Greek deity of theft and echoing one of literature’s most famous opening lines – “Call me Autolycus,” Orme wryly says by way of introduction – and thus the book announces its referential nature from the get-go. Later Orme adds that “a large part of the pleasure of stealing derives from the possibility of being caught” and, for the reader as well, there is considerable enjoyment to be found in catching the novel’s endless allusions.

References to art and literature predominate, yet, more often than not, the most overt are to texts of a fantastical nature. These include Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and even (via “Omnium”, that “fundamental substance of the universe”) Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Further call-backs conjure Banville’s own back-catalogue and fans of the author will recognize, for instance, the name Vandeleur from The Untouchable (1997) and the character of Adam Godly from The Infinities (2009).

Banville’s light touch in this regard offers a reflective and nostalgic backwards glance which aligns with the depiction of Orme himself. In that regard, character, text and, yes, even author blur together in satisfying fashion (with even the protagonist’s own sister thinking that he is a writer and not a painter). From a certain angle it is as though Banville is conducting a self-interrogation of sorts. One wonders, is he actually talking about a character named Orme… or me, meaning the writer himself?

For cloaked in Orme’s asides about art are insights equally applicable to the craft and practice of writing. “Everyone thinks it must be easy” if “you have some skill and master a few basic rules,” Banville-as-Orme says. He seems to be discussing not just writing in general but speaking to the authors of beautifully wrought but unimaginative and destined-to-be-forgotten literary writing in particular. Because “technique you can acquire, technique you can learn, with time and effort, but what about the rest of it, the bit that really counts”? Indeed, on occasion he seems to go for the jugular of misery fiction specifically: “I’m tired of brooding,” he says, “it availeth naught”.

By contrast, the pre-eminent stylist of his generation leavens the “new-old world” of The Blue Guitar with ideas more at home in speculative writing (and one should not be surprised given that he is also the author of some of the most notable European science novels, among them Doctor Copernicus, 1976, and Kepler, 1982). A kind of vague apocalypticism thus pervades the backdrop of this book. Eerie airships ply the skies between “spectacular showers of meteorites”. Meanwhile conversations are peppered with offhand remarks about “nasty new germs coming from outer space” and solar storms which show “no sign of abating”.

Moreover, clues sprinkled throughout indicate that Banville has set The Blue Guitar in the same physics-wise world as The Infinities. It is the seminal work of that novel’s patriarch, Godly’s “famous Brahma Postulate”, which has led to “the new science” and its acknowledgement of “intersecting universes”. All very intriguing, though Banville never allows it to overshadow the ordinary. He deploys it sparingly as the basis of hallucinatory moments of insight whereby Orme seems to glimpse the possibilities of other lives in mirrors and reflections.

Beyond that, however, the “technological wizardry” said to have changed the world has not had much impact on the dishevelment of the novel’s resolutely old-fashioned cast. Everyone here has a glass eye or a “Merovingian mother”. Everyone exudes a “lonely hauteur” within the “charmed if sombre realm of the half-mad”. It feels, if anything, like the rural 1980s, and it is in the dissonance between that threadbare ambiance and talk of “Godly particles” that the peculiar flavour of The Blue Guitar – the unmistakable Banvillianism of the novel – is at its most apparent.

That Orme inhabits the headspace of so many Banville protagonists before him – the outsider, the thief, the autobiographer – only reinforces this effect. As a narrator he is not strictly reliable and admits to changing people’s names for his own amusement, yet he is all too aware that “when I’m gone there will be no one here to register the world in just the way I do”. Again Orme might well be speaking for his creator, a distinctive talent capable of finding meaning in the most banal of images: a cup of undrunk tea; the fogged-up windows of a car; an artist’s dispassionate gaze.

Dr. Val Nolan lectures on Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

  • This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on 19 September 2015, Weekend, pp.34-35.

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Thirty Thoughts on my First Term at Aberystwyth…

Aber SunsetWell, I’m pleased to report that I’ve survived my first term teaching at Aberystwyth University in Wales. It has been a big change from the many years I spent at NUI Galway, there’s no denying that, but it has been a positive and rewarding new set of opportunities and challenges which I have enjoyed immensely. And, because I’m me, I have of course been taking detailed, massively subjective notes! So, without further ado, here are thirty observations and reflections on the past few months in no particular order…

  • Aber sunsets don’t quit.
  • On a clear day, you can see the entire curve of Cardigan Bay. The effect of this is to give you what feels like an immediate sense of the size and shape of pretty much the whole country.
  • At low tide on a sunny day, the Aber seafront looks like another planet.
  • AU loves acronyms!
  • On occasion, it’s tempting to think that AU stands for “Alternate Universe”.
  • This is especially true when one considers how Aberystwyth is like the Galway of Wales: It’s a university town mid-way up the west coast of the country, has a promenade (at the end of which people kick the wall), and even a local Advertiser.
  • On the other hand, it’s a much smaller town. Think Galway shrunk to the size of Maynooth.
  • Even locals are syllable conscious here and don’t bother with the full names of places. More often than not they’ll use a nickname or an abbreviation. Thus Aberystwyth is usually just Aber, Machynlleth is Mach, and so on…
  • There is *always* a car coming at you. Look both ways. Look again. Look a third time. Because traffic in Aber operates on quantum mechanical principles: It is only when you step into the street that the wave function collapses and the car actually appears.
  • Steps and Hills. Inclined and uneven surfaces of every kind. These are the things Wales is made of.
  • I have found the collegiality in Aber to be striking.
  • Teaching rooms in the Psychology Building, where I have classes, are decked out (walls, desks, chairs, and so on) in different colours with the aim of creating different effects on those present: “Blue induces a calming effect” (so this is obviously where one of my most energetic classes takes place); “The Purple Room promotes good judgement” (um, because… Prince?); “Green promotes well-being and learning” (then why not have them all green?); “The Orange Room generates enthusiasm and creativity” (note: I have no creative writing groups here); and, finally, “Yellow enhances clarity and awareness in decision making” (which is how we all end up on Ryanair flights, yes?).
  • There is one blue desk in the Purple Room which A.) Shouldn’t be there, and B.) Moves around every week…
  • The Personal Tutor system here is excellent (and, I think, genuinely beneficial).
  • There’s bacon in pretty much everything in Wales. Even the chicken.
  • “Aberdashery”.
  • “Aberttoir”.
  • “Faberystwyth”
  • Technically spotted in Shrewsbury, rather than in Aber, but I also appreciate the punny names of PG Skips and Atlas Rugs.
  • Speaking of, it takes two hours to get from here to Shrewsbury. Which I guess makes it my new Limerick.
  • It takes three hours to get to Birmingham, which I suppose is my new Dublin.
  • Whereas in Galway you will always find people walking the Prom, in Aber I have found it is often empty outside of the summer/early-autumn days. This is because the wind and the waves can be quite intense.
  • A surprising number of you have Aberystwyth doppelgängers…
  • The Devil has evidently visited Wales many times.
  • North Wales (so, say, the drive from Aber to the ferry in Hollyhead) is stunning and I love it.
  • People speak of the “Aber Bubble” which affects new residents after a while. Once inside the bubble, one never wants to leave…
  • The Ceredigion Coast Path – which runs through the town – is an astonishing amenity to have on one’s doorstep.
  • In addition to being a Legal Deposit Library, the National Library of Wales next door to the university has very awesome features such as tunnels where Shakespearian manuscripts were hidden in case of a Nazi invasion, as well as a room made entirely out of copper (to block electric fields).
  • It’s really difficult to discuss Star Trek IV in Wales (“They have to go back in time to save *what*?”).
  • Since arriving last September I have been undertaking the “Walk to Mordor” (that is charting my distances walked against the distances Fordo and Sam travel in The Lord of the Rings). As of the winter break, I have completed 745 km in Wales which is a little more than my initial target of the distance between Hobbiton and Rivendell (737 km; distances via http://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/2012/07/23/walking/).

Now, roll on Semester Two… Or, if you prefer, next stop Lothlórien!

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Short sharp shocks from nasty little haunted house tale

Slade House

David Mitchell
Spectre; £12.99
Review: Val Nolan

David Mitchell is, in many ways, like the initial protagonist of his latest spooky offering: an immense imagination in a world where mould-breakers and genre-benders are too often told that “you have to act normal. Can you do that, please?”. Thankfully, however, Mitchell seldom limits himself to the normality of realism alone. It is in fact his great strength as a novelist that he so readily marries masterful prose to big ideas such as the sentient satellite of Ghostwritten (1999), the nested narratives of Cloud Atlas (2004), or the vast battle between good and evil which provides the backdrop to The Bone Clocks (2014).

In Slade House, set within the world of that latter novel, one finds Mitchell very much at play. Here he gives us a grand old home “that only blurs into existence one night every nine years”, a building “like a board game designed by M.C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever”. It is a classic haunted house inhabited by Norah and Jonah Grayer, sibling “soul vampires” who prey on lonely, isolated people.

The author’s signature technique of constructing longer works from interlinked stories here results in five novellas set across forty years. As they progress, we meet a young boy in the 1970s, a racist detective in the late 1980s, a 90s college student participating in a paranormal field trip, her reporter sister searching her out a decade later, and, finally, the clever, cruel Norah Grayer of the present day.

In a microcosm of how Slade House itself fits into what Mitchell calls his “Übernovel” – the interconnected characters and motifs from across his published writing – past characters blur into each subsequent story as the Grayer’s victims pass messages from one generation to the next. In this way they themselves become the true phantoms of this inside-out ghost story, for Norah and Jonah, despite their power, are ultimately mortal and in many ways are the ones who are really being haunted here.

While the bickering rivalry of the Grayers showcases the author’s skill at creating well-defined characters, the writing here is, on the whole, a little less thrillingly sharp than in The Bone Clocks. But, then again, that is appropriate as Slade House is dessert to that novel’s rich, multi-course meal and is unashamedly a work of genre drawing on horror and fantasy in equal measure. Those who appreciate “something a bit like The Da Vinci Code” will relish talk of “atemporals”, “psychosoterica”, “reality bubbles”, and so on (indeed, it is in these latter stretches that the novel’s relationship to The Bone Clocks is most clearly spelled out) though a straight literary audience may find such occult bric-à-brac to be more challenging. On the other hand, there is still a considerable amount for such readers to enjoy in Mitchell’s evocative and endlessly inventive imagery.

That said, to draw too firm a line between the speculative and literary facets of Mitchell’s work is to do a disservice to one of the great contemporary novelists in these islands. For though his fiction is frequently structured around partitions and section breaks, his real strength lies in his willingness to bring together literary style with the endless possibilities of genre writing. It is an aspect of his work which the brief, often quite nasty Slade House provides a frighteningly effective example of.

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