Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest

It takes a while to kick in but as this novel progresses it develops as a subtle and beautifully written portrait of old age, with its rhythms and unsettling disassociations. We see clearly what can only be the main character Ruth's early and painful descent into Alzheimer's.

But there's another powerful dimension to the story - it's quite a brilliantly paced psychological thriller. The sense of menace increases as Frida, the 'carer', is revealed as anything but. Ruth, sensitive, intelligent and not short of money, is a widow residing alone in a large family home by the sea. She becomes increasingly powerless and vulnerable, falling prey by the end to forces well beyond her comprehension and control.

The ending is tragic and ensures the novel as a whole reverberates with meaning. It will stay with you long after you've put it down.

McFarlane's debut novel has been shortlisted for this year's Stella Prize. It won't win it - Clare Wright's The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka ticks too many boxes - but its shortlisting is well deserved. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

New fiction from Text: Sebastian Hampson's The Train to Paris

He's a 20 year old student in Paris and already an annoying little moralist with a peck-peck judgementalism, and she, beautiful and in her mid-forties with a suspect past, just wants to 'have fun'. 

This tiresome and unoriginal story grinds on and on, becomes increasingly irritating, and eventually fizzes out. 


(Normally Text does a lot better than this. Thankfully.)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Terry Eagleton's 'Culture and the Death of God'

If you're at all fascinated by religion and philosophy, and particularly the 'God debate' Terry Eagleton's latest book is a must read. 

It's a superbly written survey of Enlightenment, Idealist, Romantic, Modern and Postmodern thinkers, and its thesis is this: 'It is remarkable how long it took modernity to achieve an authentic atheism....Not believing in God is a far more arduous affair than is generally imagined. Whenever the Almighty seems safely dispatched, he is always liable to stage a reappearance in one disguise or another. Secular concepts contain so much religious baggage that religious faith is not easily consigned to a benighted past'.

You could safely categorise this book as yet another big boot up the arse to the hated Richard Dawkins and his ilk who he mercilessly attacked in his wonderful 2009 polemic Reason, Faith and Revolution. Dawkins and Sam Harris are 'old-fashioned nineteenth century rationalists who dismiss religious belief without grasping the kind of phenomenon that is is meant to be'. 

Eagleton also has fun with the unctuous Alain de Botton and his Religion for Atheists: 'A committed atheist like himself, de Botton argues, can still find religion 'sporadically interesting, useful and consoling', which makes it sound rather like rustling up a souffle when you are feeling low'.

But a word of warning: don't attempt this book unless you want to seriously engage on an academic level with its arguments. Eagleton inhabits a rather rarefied atmosphere with his God and his European philosophers. As is his usual style it could be called a huge exercise in name-dropping, and therefore tedious in the extreme. And in a real sense, apart from the final challenging chapter on Postmodernism, it could have been written fifty years ago.

Nevertheless, as a huge fan, I persevered, and can safely say it was well worth it.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Snowden Files by Luke Harding. Just brilliant!

This just released book by award-winning Guardian journalist Luke Harding is absolutely riveting. 

It's a very comprehensive telling of the whole Edward Snowden affair from the very beginning to just a few weeks ago. It's as objective as it's possible to be, but it's obviously sympathetic to Snowden's motives, actions and his current plight and vulnerability - stuck in Russia with a very uncertain future.

There are many heroes in this fascinating story of our times. Not just Snowden, but the editors and journalists who risked so much, who dared to confront the powerful political and security establishments of the US and Britain and expose their manifest wrongdoing - Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, being a clear case in point. 

Harding weaves all the elements of this complex tale together seamlessly. In lucid prose he clarifies the technical and legal dimensions and the background political dramas as well. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough.