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Another beautiful Miami day. Mutilated corpses with a chance of afternoon showers. I got dressed and went to work.

My friend Linda over at Tapetum Lucidum recently challenged me to review today’s book. I guess I have been putting it off for a few weeks. Can’t think why, although I avoided the television show as well for a couple of years too. That too was only because my then-girlfriend-now-wife Stephanie insisted on my watching it with her. It has one of the most impressive title sequences of any show I have seen, and the heat and sweat of the Miami setting conspires to create an unusually manic tone to the episodes themselves.

Slowly but surely I have grudgingly come to like it. Still there is this reluctance to get to grips with Dexter on my part, which is difficult to explain to friends who are fans. Is it that I am squeamish, me, who would happily sit through a marathon session of brain-chomping zombie movies? I guess I have issues with the notion of a human monster. Monsters for me are creatures of fantasy. Psychopaths on television make a pretence at realism, all the while seeming utterly inhuman. That’s hard for me to get my head around.

Dexter has no such confusion in his life. He is a monster. He even enjoys it. Throughout his adult life his bloodlust has been spurred on and contained by two competing presences in his mind: the entity he refers to as his ‘Dark Passenger’, and Harry, the worldly wise cop who took him in as a child and taught him the rules of how to hide his murderous nature. Harry gave him a code, one that would allow him to sate the urge to kill, while at the same time only directing him to target other murderers. He is a human-monster slayer, if you like, on the hunt for paedophiles, abusers and killers much like himself. Think an apex predator who is fiercely territorial of his ‘patch’.

He has even found a profession that gives him an additional outlet for his compulsion, working in a Miami police department crime lab. His expertise is blood analysis. Except for the lab’s latest case, there seems to be nothing for him to work with. A new serial killer has hit town and is carving up prostitutes. The bodies are left in public spaces, dismembered, with no traces of blood. Dexter finds himself fascinated with the methods employed by this new challenger to his title, even curiously excited at the prospect of meeting someone as good as himself.

Meanwhile his foster-sister Deborah is desperate to solve the case and make sergeant. Unfortunately she has no head for local politics, despite Dexter’s attempts to guide her through the choppy waters of backstabbing superior officers and the station pecking order. She recognizes that her brother’s strange hunches often tend to land the case, pushing down any concerns as to how it is so easy for him to think like a murderer. Before the case is closed, Dexter will find his loyalties to the memory of Harry and Deb, his only remaining family, tested as never before, as the killer’s behaviour seems so close to his own. Perhaps he is the killer, the Dark Passenger having finally won?

What I enjoy about this book is how well Jeff Lindsay employs what I call the ‘Humbert Humbert effect’ (as with Love in the Time of Cholera). We are invited to share the same headspace as a monster, who charms us and attempts to win us over with deadpan humour. He seems honest, revelling in his torture and murdering of other ‘monsters’, but in fact how he presents his actions to us is subtly leavened – he becomes the hero. At one point he even self-applies the word ‘avenger’.

Then there’s his delicate relationship with Rita, a battered woman who is looking for an emotional relationship, but too afraid to take the next step. As Dexter has no real sex-drive, this suits him perfectly. To again emphasise this inverted notion of a murderer-as-innocent, he finds himself pulled between three demanding women. His eagerness to meet this new slasher is described as being comparable to a teenage girl waiting for a boy to ask her out.

As all of this is framed by Dexter himself, the reader cannot trust any of it. With lashings of gallows humour and perversity, this is a quirkily entertaining read.

It was ten feet tall and topped with a single strip of wire, and something about the sight of the wire got to Teddy. He felt a sudden pity for all those people on the other side of the wall who recognized that thin wire for what it was, realized just how badly the world wanted to keep them in.

Dennis Lehane is my literary nemesis. I have never met the man, he never made a statement that insulted my god, countryman and/or parentage – but I have had occasion to be exasperated at the sight of his name in raised lettering.

You see as a Joe R. Lansdale fan the first thing I do whenever I visit a book store is gravitate to the ‘Fiction’, section of the shop and peruse the alphabetical listings of authors. Lehane and Lynda La Plante (I also bear her some irrational resentment) are usually present and accounted for, but never my favourite creator of good ol’ boy amateur detective novels. If ever you are passing the ‘L’, section and hear a long drawn out sigh – that is probably me.

Ashecliffe Hospital is the gothic setting for Shutter Island, a mental hospital situated on a bleak and isolated island, designed to treat some of the most violent mentally ill patients in the American psychiatric system. The story begins with the arrival of two Federal Marshals to the island in September of 1954. Teddy Daniels has been assigned to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando, a patient at the facility who reportedly vanished from her cell in the middle of the night. While he usually works alone, Teddy has been assigned a partner for this case, the gregarious and good-humoured Chuck Aule, a recent transfer from Seattle. Where Teddy is haunted by his past, Chuck is warm and charismatic. The two men bond despite their differences, both veterans of WWII, although Teddy is still traumatised by his war-time experiences, including the liberation of Dachau.

The two men are introduced the director of the facility, Dr. Cawley, who explains the circumstances of the case. Rachel Solando was delivered to her room by an attendant. There was another member of staff present in the hallway outside her room monitoring that evening. On the floor beneath a game of poker was being played by several of the attendants. There was nowhere in the room where she could have hidden and so when her cell was checked and she was not to be found, everyone from the attending staff up to the board of Ashecliffe are baffled as to what happened. However, one clue was left behind. A cryptic note written in code that refers to a ‘rule of four’. Teddy has some facility with code-breaking and sets to trying to decipher the meaning of this note, while he begins interrogating the staff and patients.

The two marshals are convinced that this is an inside job, but they have no way of proving it. Slowly Teddy becomes convinced that something much larger than a simple missing persons case lies behind his being called to the island. After all while no one can give him any insight into Solando’s vanishing, what little they can tell him is remarkably similar in wording. There are hints of radical surgery being performed in secret at the facility, perhaps within Ward C, which the two men are forbidden from entering. Dr. Cawley is effortlessly polite, but refuses to give Teddy access to any of the files belonging to patients, or staff. Then there are the headaches – crippling, numbing migraines that have begun to afflict Teddy with increasing intensity. Is there a cause for this affliction that is somehow connected with Ashecliffe? Teddy, however, has an ulterior motive for coming to the island. There is another patient here, someone he has been looking for for years. A man named Laeddis – the killer of his wife.

This is a dark and intensely paranoiac thriller, a rich concoction of grand guignol and ‘Reds under the Bed‘, era suspicion. Conspiracy theories are exchanged like conversational tidbits, psychiatry is regarded with fear for its desire to fix the human mind as one would a car engine. Lehane plays on these pulp fiction tropes to build the narrative to an explosive finale.

If I had a complaint it would be that the characters’ voices were for the most part indistinguishable. However, that is a moot point.

This is a book of taut and effective thrills, that will leave readers chilled. Well executed.

In my memory my life at Hailsham falls into two distinct chunks: this last era, and everything that came before. The earlier years – the ones I’ve just been telling you about – they tend to blur into each other as a kind of golden time, and when I think about them at all, even the not-so-great things, I can’t help feeling a sort of glow. But those last years feel different. They weren’t unhappy exactly – I’ve got plenty of memories I treasure from them – but they were more serious, and in some ways darker.

I noticed that this book is soon to be released as a film starring Keira Knightly, Andrew Garfield – the future Spider-Man – and current It girl of the moment Carey Mulligan. A warning to those who are curious – do not view the trailer if you haven’t read the book. It basically spoils the whole plot.

This is a great shame, as so much of the enjoyment of reading Ishiguro’s novel comes from having the plot unveiled in a non-linear fashion before the reader. It is written in such a curious, teasing style that to open the first page with even a broad understanding of what is to follow risks spoiling the experience of reading it entirely.

With that in mind I will attempt to tread carefully here.

(I have just rewatched the trailer myself – dear god, they even include the last scene from the novel!)

Hailsham is a special school for special children. Boarding at the institution from an early age, the boys and girls in attendance are educated in a broad array of subjects, as well as encouraged to engage in sport and the arts. Their instructors are known as guardians and the children under their care grow to adolescence with little experience of the outside world.

Kathy H was a student at Hailsham many years ago. Now she enjoys reminiscing on her experiences growing up at the school, narrating the events that led to her becoming a carer, her profession for over eleven years. She recalls the growing friendship she shared with a boy and a girl, Tommy and Ruth and the complicated love triangle that followed them from Hailsham, her passion for Tommy unfulfilled for many years.

Ruth was always an imaginative, attention seeking girl, prone to inventing secrets to share with a select number of friends. Kathy is eager to become her confidante, but finds it difficult as her inquisitive nature has a habit of revealing the lies her friend is compelled to tell their peers. Tommy is mocked and bullied by the other boys for fits of rage that he flies into whenever he feels tricked or alienated. Eventually a new guardian at Hailsham, a Lucy Wainwright, manages to cure Tommy of his anger. However, her compassion only spurs on the curiousity of the three children as to the purpose of the ‘special school’.

Certain words and phrases begin to be repeated within their hearing as they grow older, such as ‘carer’, ‘possibles’, ‘completed’, that are never properly explained. Strangely, despite their ignorance of the meaning behind these words, the repetition alone allows a certain familiarity with the expressions to grow, so  that most of the students are never really all that curious about finding out what lies behind them.

Of course when the truth is revealed it is too late.

The story’s setting is Britain in the 1990s, but despite appearances by Oxfam stores for example, this is not our world. Kathy is not only an unreliable narrator, she is a frustrating. At least at first. The impression I had reading the book was that I was listening to the reminiscences of an elderly person who was not only senile, but desperate to hide secrets from their past from me. By the story’s conclusion, however, Ishiguro has revealed an entirely different reason for the importance of memory in Kathy’s life, as well as the nature of her recollections.

The title itself is drawn from a pop song that Kathy had a tape recording of. During the course of the novel her precious tape vanishes, only to reappear later at a significant point in the narrative. It becomes a delightful leitmotif for the themes of the novel, the meaning of the song’s lyrics, which is to say Kathy’s impression of their meaning, holding the secret behind the plot. The idyllic descriptions of Hailsham slowly reveal a sinister undercurrent, that drags the characters to an inevitable ending.

Heart-breaking, poignant and brilliantly studied.

“Ah, you light-complexioned women are all sulky,” he said. “What do you want? Compliments and soft speeches? Well! I’m in good humour this morning. Consider the compliments paid, and the speeches said.” Men little know, when they say hard things to us, how well we remember them, and how much harm they do us.

According to Matthew Sweet’s introduction both William Thackeray and British Prime Minister William Gladstone read this book in a day. So it seems I am in good company. However, it appears I have been labouring under a misunderstanding about this book. I always assumed it was a ghost story, thanks to a little known film starring Lukas Haas with a similar title, whereas in fact it is a pseudo-gothic tale of family intrigue and fraud.

The book’s preface contains a note stating that this is a new kind of tale, one were the action is to be related to us by its own characters. Published in serial form by Charles Dickens in the 1860s, this was considered a unique feature at the time. Collins proves to be adept with this new narrative form. [The characters] are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take the chain up in turn and carry it on to the end. The reader is left to question the truth of the events as they unfold.

Shortly before assuming a well-paid position as a tutor at Limmeridge House, Cumberland, Walter Hartright has a startling encounter on a country road just outside of London. A woman dressed entirely in white seems to appear out of nowhere. She speaks in low darting sentences, seems confused and possessed by turbulent emotions. Muttering accusingly about a man of rank, a baron of some kind, she begs Walter’s assistance. He agrees to accompany her into the city environs, where she claims a close friend lives who will aid her in her distress. She forces him to promise not to detain her, or question her about her circumstances and just as suddenly as he had made her acquaintance, the mysterious woman in white departs, leaving him much bemused on the streets of London.

After arriving at Limmeridge, Walter assumes his post as tutor to the two young women of the house, Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. The head of the house is the louche dilettante Frederick Fairlie: art lover, insufferable snob and claiming to suffer from a multitude of ill-defined afflictions. As he memorably describes himself during a later passage in the novel, he is nothing but a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man”.

Having introduced us to our nominal cast of characters, we then meet the villain of the piece – Sir Glyde. A man of good repute, whom Walter quickly notes, is a baron. Could this be the man the woman in white was babbling about? For Walter has fallen in love with Laura Fairlie and Sir Glyde has been promised her hand in marriage. Broken-hearted, the young hero leaves Limmeridge on an exploratory trip to Honduras. His part in the adventures that follow is not ended yet, though the telling of the tale passes from him.

Collins has both main actors and bit-part players address us during the proceedings. The story is told through the device of diary extracts, legal testimonies and signed confessions, an increasingly familiar device through the latter-half of the 19th century. Collins had a background in both art (hence Hartright’s role as an art teacher) and law, which explains the fraught legal dilemma that Laura quickly finds herself in. Strangely when Walter assumes the role of narrator, his heroic aspect transforms the two sisters into self-admonishing weak-willed women. Yet when Marian, distraught at the fraudulent marriage her sister becomes enmeshed in, steps to the fore, she is revealed to be a canny and determined heroine. She meets her match, however, in the conniving Italian Count, a friend to Sir Glyde, who uses charm and guile to entrap Laura’s estate.

Only the mysterious woman in white knows ‘The Secret’ to defeat the conspiracy that traps the sisters in their own homes, at the mercy of powerful men who with a word can strip them of their class and commit them to the asylum.

Madness and evasions of the word of the law haunt the proceedings, playing on fears of false incarceration. This is an effusively written, yet chilling, work of suspense.

I know where I am. I know more than they think. Earlier today someone with an officious voice said, close to my ear, ‘It is touch and go as to whether she will ever regain consciousness.’ Touch and go. Makes it sound like a children’s game.

This morning I had a talk with someone about reviewing. I argued that often I will rave about a book that might have a sloppy structure, or stereotypical characters, but it will get one thing just right and I’ll love it. It is that one connection with me as a reader that matters the most. However, on occasion I find myself reading something that is competent in every respect, but simply put leaves me cold.

A disturbed young woman boards a train to Edinburgh to meet her sisters and then moments later leaves on a return trip to London.  Then Alice Raikes, while standing at a traffic crossing, steps directly into the path of oncoming cars and is seriously injured.

The family gathers at her bedside in hospital, her parents Ben and Ann desperately trying to understand what may have compelled their daughter to try and take her own life. We discover that Alice has lived a turbulent life touched by tragedy. Formerly a free spirit, more vivacious than her bookish siblings and reserved father, she has been left broken by an abruptly ended relationship. Was it this that led to her suicide attempt?

The reader witnesses the thoughts of three generations of the Raikes women. Alice and Ann have more in common than they know, while the deceased Elspeth continues to appear as a ghostly presence throughout the novel. Her function in the plot is to define Ann as a young girl whose life turned in an unexpected direction and before she knew it she was a mother to three young women, recently also a grandmother.

One of the few men to assume the role of narrator briefly is Alice’s lover John. Aside from the gentle natured Ben Raikes, he is one of the few positive male characters featured in the novel. O’Farrell defines the men in Alice’s past, as well as Ann’s, are domineering and grasping. A Jewish Londoner trapped between his love for the wild-natured Scot and his family’s traditions, John is portrayed as an almost entirely selfless character. Everyone else is either living a secret double life, or blind to the problems of others.

This is a book about self-involved people frustrated by the course of their lives. Alice’s suicide attempt appears to be premeditated, with the majority of the novel concerned with unravelling the possible cause. The action skips from the perspectives of the three Raikes women, backwards and forwards through time. In some ways I found this book reminiscent of Everything Is Illuminated, also concerned with secret family histories and tragic eruptions. The post-modern reliance on narrators who lie to the reader as much as themselves is a common device, not to mention the time skipping (although over a shorter period of time in O’Farrell’s novel).

Whereas Safran Foer tackled his mashed-up style with alacrity, however, O’Farrell’s approach is far more leaden. I felt no sympathy to either Alice, or Ann, who both after a time seemed to become interchangeable. Despite one of them being in a coma for the duration of the novel! The inclusion of a sub-plot relating the stresses placed on young love due to different cultural traditions, in this case Judaism, felt tacked on.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, my chief frustration with this book is that overall it is quite well written, but I was simply unable to engage with the proceedings and was left wishing it was several chapters shorter. Ultimately After You’d Gone feels like a digression into the lives of three women twisted by sadness, one that you could afford to miss.

“What does it mean schmuck?” “Somone who does something that you don’t agree with is a schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Putz.” “What does that mean?” “It’s like schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Schmendrick.” “What does that mean?” “It’s also like schmuck.” “Do you know any words that are not like schmuck?” He pondered for a moment. “Shalom”, he said, “which is actually three words, but that’s Hebrew, not Yiddish. Everything I can think of is basically schmuck. The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow, and the Jews have four hundred for schmuck.” I wondered, What is an Eskimo?

Five years ago I went to see Liev Schreiber’s excellent film adaptation of Safran Foer’s novel.  If you have yet to see this movie, I would strongly recommend you get the dvd. It manages to be many things at once – comic, witty, stunningly shot and finally heart-breakingly sad. Everything Is Illuminated also introduced me to Eugene Hütz lead singer of gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. Hütz was hired by director Schreiber to consult on music for the film. Indeed his irrepressible song ‘Start Wearing Purple’, is featured on the soundtrack. However, so impressed was Schreiber by Hütz that he hired the singer to play the role of Alexander Perchov. Alex is one of many interpreters, or story tellers, challenged with unravelling the mystery presented to us by Safran-Foer in the novel.

‘My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.’ Immediately Safran-Foer throws us into the company of yet another unreliable narrator, one for whom English is not even a first language. Hired by a young man named Jonathan Safran-Foer to act as translator on his trip to the Ukraine, Alex regales us with his impressions of the curious American Jew. Why would anyone leave America to travel all the way out to Odessa, when everyone wants to travel in the opposite direction? Why would someone actually pay to do so? This strikes Alex as the act of a very stupid person.

The book acts as an investigation of Safran-Foer’s own family history, tracing the origins of a small community known as Trachimbrod and its fate during the events of World War II, as well as Alex’s growing awareness of how his family’s past is tied to the strange American’s. The two narrators of this tale are joined by Alex’s grandfather and his ‘Seeing Eye bitch’ Sammy Davies, Junior, Junior. Safran-Foer is of course deadly afraid of dogs, but their gruff driver insists upon her presence in the car as he is convinced he is blind. They travel out of Odessa across the Ukrainian countryside, but are unable to discover any clue as to the location of Trachimbrod. Everyone they speak seems either not to know, or strenuously insists that no such place ever existed. The three men and a dog continue until they find the one person willing to ‘illuminate’, what happened to the community of Jews that once lived at Trachimbrod, a secret that changes the lives of the three men forever.

Safran-Foer skips through time and memory lightly, hinting at the eventual reveal of the book, while also distracting us from the grim fate of Trachimbrod with the comic narration of Alex. There is much to laugh at in this book and even the family history of the Safran-Foers proves to be an absurdist account that is half cabbalist fugue, half preordained tragedy. When the truth finally is revealed, it is gruesome, tragic and powerfully captured. The jumps through history suddenly coalesce into a grand narrative that is part condemnation of the horrors of the Holocaust, part meditation on the role played by memory in Jewish culture.

The film made me cry and sure enough the book did also. This is self-aware writing that embraces post-modern tropes, but also manages to retain a heartfelt emotional core.

Strongly recommended.

But that mathematical impossibility was not taught to us for no reason, and the teacher had not without reason attempted to draw it for us. In the indirect manner of all our education, that day I had seen the shape of the world on which I lived.

Christopher Priest is something of an ‘Ideas man’. That’s ideas with a capital ‘I’, as for better or worse his novels tend to revolve around a mysterious central premise, generally kept under wraps until the end. That other mystery monger Christopher Nolan filmed his novel The Prestige some years ago and embargoed media reports on the twist until after its release. He is also fond of the using unreliable narrators, to ensure the mystery continues despite what the reader has been told.

Helward Mann has spent most of his life in a crèche, learning what little he is entitled to about the history of the City according to Guild law. The Guilds rule over the City with a series of strict regulations. No member of any Guild can reveal to an ordinary citizen what they have come to learn during their duties. The ultimate purpose of the City and its business is also a strongly held secret. Helward’s own father, a member of the Future Guild, has told him little of what he expects of his son once he is called to choose membership of one of the several organizations that run the City. In the end, when the callow youth is summoned to the ceremonial rite of passage, he chooses to follow his father’s example and joins the Future Guild. As part of his apprenticeship he is assigned to each of the remaining Guilds to gain essential experience, including the Track Guild, Traction Guild, Bridge-Builders Guild, Barter Guild and Militia Guild.

It is also arranged that he is to be married to the daughter of Bridge-Builder Lerouex. His future bride, Victoria, is a fiercely inquisitive young woman whom he knew during his time in the crèche. The oath he must swear as a Guildsman forbids him from speaking of his work, but she continues to pressure him. She has noticed that they are moving. Helward himself is sent out of the city to work on the tracks that the City travels along. The wooden structure is dragged along the ground by a series of winches and pullies. He sees the sun for the first time, a hyperbola hanging in the sky that resembles a spinning top. The ground itself shifts and time is relative to the distance he travels from the City. People measure their age in miles travelled, as it is the only reliable gauge. No one can explain to him why this is and Victoria grows increasingly frustrated with his reticence, perceiving that he is becoming just like the other tight-lipped Guildsman that run the society, murmuring only occasionally about unseen threats to their survival. The Guilds employ natives from the lands they cross in this alien world. The men are put to work on the tracks. The women are brought into the City for the purposes of breeding. Helward is dismayed by these barbaric practices of enslavement and exploitation, but his superiors only insist that it is necessary. Finally he is asked, shortly before the birth of his child with Victoria, to assist three women who were taken to the City in returning home to their village. What he learns during his travels alters his understanding of the City itself and the alien world they are trapped on, far away from Earth.

This novel reminded me a little of David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, a ground-breaking book published in the 1920’s and unfortunately for its unsuccessful author, too ahead of its time. Inverted World also bears many similarities to Philip Reeve’s excellent Mortal Engines series for children. Those novels also described societies living upon moving cities, practicing a form of ‘Municipal Darwinism’, that ensured the survival of strong, predatory municipalities by preying on weaker inhabited structures. An excellent series of books and strongly recommended.

Unfortunately, to my mind, Inverted World’s mysteries proved to be cumbersome and did not hold my interest for the duration of the novel. As an examination of irresolvable conflicts between opposing perceptions of the world, it managed to progress along reasonably well. All the same, I did not find myself compelled to continue reading to its gnomic conclusion.

Sadly this was a tough slog for me.

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