23. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld

Published in 2009. This Edition: Random House Australia, 2010.

Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, 2009.

Shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2011.

“He was still whole, there were still things that one man alone was worth.” 

Frank Collard turns to the wild, and his grandparents’ rustic outpost in the swamplands, when an abusively disastrous relationship shatters his heart. Lonely, he gradually inches away from being corralled by the teeming landscape that surrounds his shack, to becoming a part of it, blending gracelessly and gruffly into the local milieu. Though he adapts the semblance of a normal life, rooted in work and earnest, albeit thorny, social interaction, he shares little of the past he’s fled. His reluctance to unburden himself of old hurts mirrors the journey of his father Leon, an extraordinary maker of cakes who found himself hard-pressed into military service, feeling it change him perhaps irreparably, as it did his own father, who volunteered eagerly, yet found vital parts of himself effaced by the reality of war.

There is the distinct impression one sometimes receives, when reading of something grand, or sweeping, or otherwise elaborately contrived, that a character has just done in the book one’s reading. The feeling is akin to furrowing the brow and exclaiming, “Well, that’s just not how real people behave, is it?” It is worth noting right here that Evie Wyld’s book is built on the structure of something unflinchingly honest—even the way it flinches is honest. While reading, one gains the impression of absorbing something stripped to barebones and left in the sun to roast, of prose subjected to a rigorous, flinty syntax, studded through with alarming pinpricks of raw beauty.

Wyld is at her best, here, when discussing grief, and the book could be considered a generationally unfolding sorrow-documentary, of a kind that dampens our eyes and makes us suck in our breath, with the laughter we laugh when things are good and proper miserable, so that to laugh about it is the only sane recourse. What is particularly laudable is the manner in which Wyld inserts gut-spasming woe into the most domestic and non-extraordinary of settings. Witness, for instance, Frank’s messy navigation of girlfriend-withdrawal, in the aftermath of a nasty confrontation that effectively seals their rupture:

“The toast pinged up, and, crying, he buttered it and daubed it with jam, inhaling deeply and letting out long shaky breaths. He ate it breathlessly between hiccups. His mouth, which at that moment had nothing to do with him, would not stop making the sound ‘Aaaaaaaa’ like a stiff door opening. He lay on the floor, a smear of jam on his cheek, and mashed the last of the bread into a wet pap with an open bawling mouth. The crusts sat on the floor. He swallowed and breathed in sharply, then cooled his crying to a whimper, then to sniffling and then just to staring. The sun moved across the kitchen floor, regardless.”

The author writes this so convincingly that we accept a grief so cavernous as to unman Frank, a relentless sadness that chokes, rendering useless the elegant protestations of studied melancholy. There are no fainting couches here, no dainty snifflings into handkerchiefs. I especially love the way in which Frank’s mouth “…at that moment had nothing to with him…”, reminding us that when we are this transported outside ourselves with a surfeit of intense emotion, even our anatomy feels remote, conducted by another, out of our sight, outside the realm of interest.

Though Frank and his father lead separate, near-diametrically opposed lives on the page, the ways in which Wyld unites their divergent stories with lashings of past trepidation, of an unquantifiable sense of void, are skilful and subtle. Both men feel themselves hunted and haunted by the nigh-unassailable sensation of being pursued into unknowns. Nothing in their resentment-riddled, mysteriously ill-articulated communion, or lack thereof, allows for the sharing of this unified phobia; neither of them knows the other suffers in a language so well suited to his unique understanding. The reader wonders, for the duration of the reading, whether or not it would make a difference to their relationship if, for instance, Frank were ever told of the dreadful doubts Leon nursed while at war:

“Tears on his face, he felt the teeth of a terrible thing on the back of his neck, breathing through its nose on him, in, out, hot, pant.”

Some may find it unrewarding that the exact cause of the father-son malaise remains largely unearthed. It can be galling to consider that Frank and Leon might have fallen out over some poorly edited snafu, a minor discrepancy that wounded both their masculine prides; perhaps Frank’s girlfriend wonders at this, as she tries to sift through the rubble that nourishes a long-term vow of silence. Personally, the ambiguity marshalling the quietness between these men works admirably; it leaves it to the reader to devise reasons, grand or minute, and it prompts speculation over how much of the events of the last chapter of the novel coloured Frank’s perception of Leon, and Leon’s musings over Frank. This is good writing, the skilfully underscored balance of omitting just enough, of never bludgeoning the reader over the head with detail; those of a discerning, thoughtful bent will notice appreciatively (while those inclined to fast-food in their literature will probably have put the book down by now).

Grief and terror couple and uncouple against a background of settings one would initially think too bland (save for the backdrop of Leon’s outpost and battlefield, which Wyld blesses with no war paint, just irksome bush scratching the legs and loosing the bowels of boys pretending at soldiers) to support their movement through the chapters. Yet none of the settings read as anything less than exquisitely suited to the unfolding of each private, stunted drama. The dirt and insect-framed jungle wilderness that surrounds Frank’s shack, the family bakery in Parramatta to which Frank returns, despite himself, in search of his father (the same bakery in which his father once turned out elaborate baked goods in a thorough, calm manner; the very bakery in which he courted Frank’s future mother), the home of Frank’s sole friendly family unit, in the unkempt northlands: all these locations in the novel are implacable, inviting themselves near-perfectly for Frank’s fumbling self-discovery. The author infuses as much detail (without rendering her landscapes in a saturated style) to these places, making them represent geographic markers as well as placeholders for the full range of human emotional discord and desire, as if to suggest that cartography remains immune, for the most part, to the petty dramas with which we map our time on earth. This makes Frank’s sadness and stubbly conflicts simultaneously relevant to him, and gloriously, disturbingly irrelevant, given the sweeping dismissal of Enough Time: a fact of which Frank himself seems all too cognizant for much of the novel.

Yet the mission statement of Wyld’s book, if there can be said to be but one, is not as reductive as “Life causes despair to run roughshod all over you; therefore, despair.” The gnarled, honest interactions he shares with Sal, the precocious child of the aforementioned family unit, are some of the best passages of the book, and attest to the contrary of prevailing desolation. Their unlikely bond speaks instead to the surprising friendships that can be worked at when embarrassment and artifice are cast aside. Beset at every dirty, suspicious corner with the long arm of the past, Wyld’s grittily redemptive novel seems to whisper, “This is the way you come back to yourself; this is how to banish spells of unremitting dark: gracelessly, naturally, with pain—the only way possible.”

This is the third book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.

18. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Published in 2006 by Mariner Books.

Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008.

“So if we’re all quarks and electrons …” he begins.


We could make love and it would be nothing more than quarks and electrons rubbing together.”

Better than that,” I say. “Nothing really ‘rubs together’ in the microscopic world. Matter never really touches other matter, so we could make love without any of our atoms touching at all. Remember that electrons sit on the outside of atoms, repelling other electrons. So we could make love and actually repel each other at the same time.”

Many a bibliophile has been quoted as saying, ‘Give me books before bread!’, but Ariel Manto’s acquisition of an ultra-rare 19th century tome literally lands her near to poverty. Yet, for a copy of The End of Mr. Y, a literary work with which Ariel is obsessed, the decision is effortless. The fact that everyone who has read the book seems to have disappeared (including Ariel’s Ph.D. advisor, who once gave an academic talk on this ‘curse’) does not dissuade her. Once she reads The End of Mr. Y, she is left with more questions than answers, and a burning desire to follow the journey of Mr. Y himself. Her own journey, replicated on the steps that he—and Ariel believes, her absent advisor—took, sends her spiralling into an alternative realm of reality, called the Troposphere, in which she is able to spatially manoeuvre by piggybacking on the thoughts of others. However, Ariel soon realizes that (a) not all in the Troposphere is as it seems, and (b) she is not alone in her mindsurfing odyssey.

It is hard to figure out whether or not Ariel Manto deserves the reader’s respect. At several points in The End of Mr. Y, attempting to love Ariel can feel like an effort in loving the most (under)doggedly dismal parts of ourselves, the ones we feed with cheap alcohol, too many cigarettes and a lifetime’s dingy disappointments. This doesn’t mean that the novel’s protagonist is poorly-drawn; quite the contrary—she shines by her very lack of lustre. Insofar as a character’s convincingly-rendered moments of unlikeability make her eminently more likeable, Ariel Manto’s a gem.

Emblazoned across the cover of the book is Jonathan Coe‘s assertion that you’ll finish The End of Mr. Y “a cleverer person than when you started.” Unless you are well-versed in quantum physics (and are, in fact, formidably read across the sciences), then this is likely to be true. The novel strikes a deft balance between those things that scientific research has already established to be beyond contention, and those things over which it still debates and troubleshoots.

This is no obvious science textbook distilled into fiction, however, for which we may be glad. Thomas is just as concerned about portraying the ways in which faith coalesces or collides with rational data and quantifiable proof. For example, the concept of multiverses, and the validity of time travel in and among these, is crucial to the novel’s structure. Attention is also paid to communication, to language and speech, to literature and expression, the conduits that determine how we interface with the world, and the reasons why what we perceive to be real may or may not be so.

We wrestle with the grey space between absolute conviction and staggering disbelief, as Ariel does. We watch her mind absorb new ideas, new frameworks for comprehension, and while observing those expand, alter, shift dramatically or incrementally as the novel progresses, we realize we’re hooked. At her lowest ebb, Ariel asks herself whether or not she would do it all again: to have forsaken so much, including a tangible future with a mysteriously familiar man, in search of knowledge, and she knows that she would. Fellow learning junkies will admire the eminently accessible, academic chops of The End of Mr. Y. It’s like summer reading for the unabashedly nerdy logophile and bookish scientist, both.

Reading The End of Mr. Y led me to contemplate the successful sell of gimmick-harnessed literature, which I mean in the most innocuous way possible. The ‘go-thou-no-further’ approach has worked admirably in this novel, as both strategy and context. Thomas prompts us to peer beyond each tarnished veil, which we do, each time, without hesitation. (I’d like to challenge at least one person who tells me that they weren’t tempted to conduct the exact experiment that Ariel does, since I’m reasonably certain they’d be lying.) Telling people not to do something, in the hope that they will proceed to do it, may seem like the easiest sell in literature, as in life. On the contrary, this technique has been so often and so ill-employed, that when it functions in the hands of a talented writer, we tend to take notice. Some of the success of books like these, and this, surely hinge on the adroit manipulation of that very concept.

The author engineers Ariel’s dalliances in the Troposphere (i.e. the parallel realm of thought in which she must mindsurf to progress) in fine and credible style. These passages of the novel often feel to be the most poised and crisply detailed. Whether Ariel is trespassing on the mind of a fundamentally insecure teenager, or that of her unlucky, morose neighbour, or the shadowy agents who’re tracking her down, each windowed interlude is a miniature showcasing of the author’s talent for capturing unique voices.

The end of The End of Mr. Y is unambiguous and indefinite, all at once. Odds are you’ll loathe it, or beam in satisfaction as you close the back cover. Either way, few contemporary novels astutely define “conversation piece” so well as this one. Be they silly talks, long-reaching rambles or heated dialogues, if you don’t have much to discuss, then consider that you just might have left your critical mind in another plane of existence.

This is the second book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.

13. His Dark Materials I:The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Published in 1995. This Edition: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Winner of the Carnegie Medal, 1995.

Winner of the 70th Anniversary Carnegie of Carnegies (the UK’s favourite Carnegie Medal winning book of all time)

The Golden Compass is bone-chillingly good ( a statement that surely holds some water, when you consider that I read it in decidedly non-frosty tropical temperatures.) Still, I felt the cold—the unmistakable ice-kiss of fear and awe that assails you when, and where, you least expect it.

Lyra  Belacqua has been perfectly content to play at full tilt on and around the premises of Jordan College at Oxford, for the entirety of her eleven year-old existence. Brought up in a well-intentioned yet scatterbrained way by the college academics, Lyra has been accustomed to being orphaned, with no blood relations save her oft-absent uncle, Lord Asriel. Though she lacks parental guidance, Lyra is never alone. She basks in the constant company of her dæmon familiar, Pantalaimon. Both her helpmeet and her best friend, Pantalaimon is of Lyra herself: neither she nor he can fathom a reality in which they exist separately. This bond between human and dæmon exists between all humans—to not be thusly companioned would be beyond the realm of belief, and of decency.

Lyra has long dreamed of accompanying Lord Asriel on his mysterious expeditions to the North, but she cannot predict that she will journey there under the oft-terrifying, fantastical circumstances that do take her. The Golden Compass charts her journey to the bitter-cold roof of the world, where Lyra and Pan must confront an evil beyond imagining, from even the most unexpected of sources.

If you are wary of the magical, mythical, extra-terrestrial or para-normal, The Golden Compass (originally entitled Northern Lights, which I prefer) is not the book for you. If you cannot abide an iota of speculation or criticism concerning organized religion, or discomfiting questions about why we believe what we do, then I strongly urge you to read elsewhere. Still, if you’re even the slightest bit curious, and are not averse to the very real possibility of a paradigm shift, then yes… reading this book could well change your life.

Each of the characters of Pullman’s novel is exceptionally well-crafted, whether they be major or minor. We meet and are awed, cowed, wooed and enraged by a host of extraordinary creatures, including my personal favourite, a fallen bear-sovereign, deprived of his ennobling armour, who dulls his bitterness with drink and hard labour. We also encounter a kindly gypsy seer, and the proud, sorrowful witch with whom he shares a storied past. We scoff at the wizened academics of Jordan College; we weep at the tragedy of a young boy’s loss of innocence, and we marvel, open-mawed, at the depiction of one of literature’s best-drawn, ruthlessly ambitious power couples.

Yet for all their fantastical elements, there is no awkwardness about this cast, no barrier separating them from us. They, too, obsess and are filled with equal parts regret for that which they have done and that which they failed to do. They, too, fall prey to vanity. They, too, are hurt for love, and not one of their stories compels you to narrow your eyes in derision, declaring, “Hmph. Only in a fantasy book.”

Set in an age of invention, discovery and conquest, The Golden Compass is littered with marvellous machinery, with vivid descriptions of barges, airships, of hot-air balloons, of instruments hewn with wicked and wistful intent. The most remarkable of all the creations we discover in this novel, however, is the titular object itself, otherwise called the alethiometer. Entrusted to Lyra to give to her uncle, she is told only that it tells the truth, and that she must learn herself how to decipher it—and learn, she does. The descriptions of the alethiometer attest to its beauty, and Lyra’s interactions with it show us, and her, that parsing the truth is an intricate, highly subjective process.

The novel is written in prose that seems, at times, plucked from the pages of a bygone era’s texts, such are its curious lilts and cadences, the peculiar goodness with which something is said, that enriches the very description of it, elevating it from the commonplace. Pullman truly is a turner of phrases. He subjects language to his particular purpose: to charm and captivate us. By my reckoning, he succeeds at that.

I think there has been some sad compromise over the literature to which we expose children, and I wonder at that. Who says that books for young people must be patterned with every prettiness, every convenient lie, every smiling face and sunny sky we can conjure? Detractors will, of course, posit that there is nothing natural about The Golden Compass, but the heart of the novel is filled with every natural feeling in the world, from grim despair to raging passion to lonely, determined resilience. Lyra becomes a benchmark for ourselves, as we wonder, at all that we would or would not do, with our destinies plotted out against the unforgiving, glorious Northern Lights.

‘You speak of destiny,’ he said, ‘as if it was fixed. And I ain’t sure I like that any more than a war I’m enlisted in without knowing about it. Where’s my free will, if you please? And the child seems to me to have more free will than anyone I ever met. Are you telling me that she’s just some kind of clockwork toy wound up and set going on a course she can’t change?’

‘We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not,’ said the witch, ‘or die of despair.’

Enjoy another consideration of The Golden Compass by my dear book reviewing colleague, Jennifer of Books, Personally, which examines some issues and concerns that this review doesn’t directly address, here.

This is the first book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.

British Books Challenge @The Bookette

For a while, I used to think of myself as more British in sensibility and temperament, than Caribbean. This is a feeling that’s been laid to rest with liberal helpings of common sense, perspective, and amazing West Indian food. (Just kidding about the food. It’s merely a bonus.)

Still, my love of phenomenal British literature abides, and so I could not resist from adding myself to the long list of participants in Becky (aka The Bookette)’s meticulously-organized and enthusiastically promoted British Books Challenge for 2011.

I’ll be entering in ‘The International Friend’ section, aiming to complete ‘The Royal Family’ challenge—that of reading 12 books by British authors. While doing up my final list, as with my Caribbean Writers Challenge ’11, I aimed to cover a wide range of genres, forms, concerns and literary voices.

The Challenge Shortlist (in no particular order)

{I will periodically update this list, as the books are read and reviewed.}

1. (Short Fiction) Books of Blood 1-3 by Clive Barker

2. (Novel) Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

3. (Novel) Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

4. (Play) Indian Ink by Tom Stoppard

5. (Novel) The Eagle of the Ninth – Rosemary Sutcliff

6. (Novel) Gold – Dan Rhodes

7. (Novel) The End of Mr. Y – Scarlett Thomas

{Read and reviewed in April ’11, here.}

8. (Novel) The Golden Compass – Philip Pullman

{Read and reviewed in February ’11, here.}

9. (Novel) After the Fire, A Still Small Voice – Evie Wyld

{Read in September ’11, reviewed in October ’11, here.}

10. (Novel) The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing

11. (Short Fiction) Free Love and other Stories – Ali Smith (one of the novels given in my Mother-Daughter Yuletide Exchange 2010.)

12. (Poetry) The World’s Wife – Carol Ann Duffy

[Official sign-ups are closed, but you can of course follow the challenge, if you wish!] This giveaway-packed challenge promises to be a pleasure, complete with far too many glorious cups of Earl Grey and (real or simulated) stormy-moor nights.