Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor
Saints of the Shadow Bible
Ian Rankin (Orion: £18.99; e-book £8.55)
This is a wonderfully absorbing, fast paced, innovative and involving story. Rebus’s past, when he started as a rookie cop at the now long gone Summerhall Police Station, comes to the fore. There’s no dialogue from that period, yet Rankin has it as a constant, menacing feature as the story develops. The Saints of the title are the group of more experienced senior officers from Summerhall who had their own approach to justice. How much did Rebus know? How involved was he?
As always, Rankin builds his narrative around current issues: so we have issues related to and the impact of the creation of the single Scottish police force and the reopening – by a female Solicitor General – of a previous failed prosecution through the removal of the double jeopardy rule. There is more reference in this novel to the Scottish prosecution service, with only a little licence taken with the powers available to the law officers. There are also two or three narratives through the book, apparently unrelated but which arrive at a satisfying conclusion. Rankin also whets the appetite by bringing his fairly recent incarnation, Malcolm Fox of The Complaints, into the fold, as he and Rebus develop their “relationship”. This must rank as one of the best Rebus novels. A must read.
Heaven and Hell
Jon Kalman Stefansson (translated by Philip Roughton) (Maclehose Press: £7.99; e-book £4.80)
If you are an Icelandic man at start of the 20th century, what does the sea mean to you? The endless dark that merges with the sky for much of the day every winter? A place filled with fish and opportunity, or a place of sorrow covering the eyes and bones of drowned compatriots? Is it the focal point of your existence, as you prepare each night to row out in a sixereen? Does it occupy all your thoughts, or none? Does your brain become numb as the years go on, or do you fill it with books and ideas from far flung places?
The unnamed boy who is the centre of this book shares poetry, Paradise Lost, with his friend Bardur. Away from Milton, something as prosaic as a forgotten waterproof can bring its own tragedy and consequences. Chapter 2 – "Hell is Not Knowing Whether We are Alive or Dead" – sees the boy as outcast, on a journey, away from the sea. Will this end in death or a new beginning? Will his book save him?
From the numbness and the tragedy, follow the boy on his own movingly described quest. Perhaps no one from outwith a Scandinavian country could evoke such bleak and harsh sea and country scenes; certainly no one but a highly proficient author could evoke this extraordinary passage, and love of a friend, with such skill.
Nothing is sweet to me, without thee.
The Enigma of the Return
Dany Laferriere (translated from the French by David Homel) (MacLehose Press: £12.99; e-book £7.26)
The news cuts the night in two. The inevitable phone call that every middle-aged man one day will receive. My father has died.
These are the opening five lines of this autobiographical account of Laferriere’s return from exile in Montreal to a Haiti which is at once different and the same. Having fled following the murder of a fellow journalist in the Papa Doc Duvalier days, his return awakens much more than family memories. For those wondering why five lines in his book have become two in this review, virtually the whole book is written in blank verse.
Had I been browsing in a bookshop, this would probably have remained unpurchased, which would have been my loss. What is described is a percolation of tropical heat back into a soul which has become used to Canadian winters. The wonders and delights of a Caribbean island are invoked, while the author makes us keenly aware of its social and political problems, eternal issues which may never be resolved.
The writing is exquisite. It is difficult to turn more than a couple of pages without taking that extra moment to savour lines which can be as sweet as a ripe mango, or as bitter as the aftermath of a drive-by shooting. A work of beauty.
Growing up in Restaurants
The Story of Eating Out in Britain from 55BC to Nowadays
James Pembroke (Quartet Books: £17.50; e-book £11.90)
We have three books for the price of one here. There are snippets of autobiography of an extraordinary childhood. We read of the decline of the Pembroke family: it has clearly risen again, but James does not give us details of its rise – he is now a successful publisher.
It is a history of eating – of that more anon – and it is a thoughtful social commentary on the current position of food and foodieism in middle class 21st century Britain.
The first part is by far the most intriguing. To call his a life less ordinary would be to make it far duller than it really was. Eating out nightly from an early age was the norm, conveyed in Dad’s navy blue Rolls Royce. Mother’s one ill-starred attempt at home entertaining ended with a half tight guest finding her picking flowers in her nightie at 11.30 pm.
The history is well researched and poorly ordered. Many chapters seem to overlap, as though they had been individual articles published separately and shunted together without much editing. They are, however, stuffed full of fascinating facts – even a tedious foodie such as I learned from them.
But the central stand of this book, and that which makes it so irresistible, is the good old fashioned joie de vivre. Why is that old fashioned? Well, as Mr Pembroke points out, we have all become far too damned precious about food. When a group of six convivial friends can sit round a restaurant table and realise after 90 minutes that they have done nothing other than talk about the food, something is seriously wrong. When restaurants are quieter than churches, our take on religion really has gone askew. Go to Italy (always good advice, by the way) or to many other less repressed countries than ours and observe how to eat out. Top quality is insisted upon, but always with noise, with fun, with gusto. James recognises that too.
This, however, is no recherche du temps perdu. It is a chronicle of fun, flavour and information, and as such I commend it to all.
The Shadow Girls
Henning Mankell (translated by Ebba Segerberg) (Harvill Secker: £17.99; e-book £4.74)
An occupational hazard of great fame as an author can be the reissuing of your back catalogue, not always to your best advantage. Ian Rankin’s reputation, for example, was not hugely enhanced by the republication of his Jack Harvey books. And fans of Kurt Wallander will find little to recognise in this recent publication in English of a 2001 work.
Jesper Humlin, self-styled as one of the most successful writers of his generation, is a pompous poet, who is being pressured by his publisher to write a bestselling crime novel. (Did this ever happen to our Henning, one wonders?) Some of the waspish early exchanges between them, and the literary spats with his contemporary Viktor Leander, could have been written by David Lodge, having a lightness and humour not usually associated with Mankell. But the opening chapter makes the reader realise that this is to be no piece of froth. The shadow girls of the title are illegal immigrants from a variety of countries, into whose lives Humlin is sucked. Slowly the veneers of these girls’ pasts are peeled away and the quite shocking stories of their lives and short times are uncovered. Well written as one might expect, but don’t expect this to be like any other Henning Mankell book you’ve ever encountered before.