Day 1218: The Singapore Grip

Cover for The Singapore GripThe Singapore Grip is the third of J. G. Farrell’s Empire trilogy, which takes a sardonic look at various parts of the British Empire. The Siege of Krishnapur is set in the nineteenth century during the Sepoy rebellion. Troubles takes place in Ireland during the Troubles in the early 20th century. The Singapore Grip is set during the Japanese invasion of Malaya in World War II.

The novel begins in 1939. Walter Blackett is a powerful Singapore businessman whose sole concern is the profits of his company, Blackett and Webb. Despite the Allies’ need for rubber, Blackett is concerned with keeping the price up and spends his time fixing prices and manipulating the market.

His senior partner dies, and Walter awaits the arrival of Matthew Webb, his partner’s heir. Although Walter’s beautiful daughter, Joan, spends her time tormenting various young men, she readily agrees to help her father’s ambitions by marrying Matthew.

Matthew is a naive and feckless young man, whose ideals have been somewhat battered during his work for the League of Nations. Although he is chubby and unprepossessing, Joan makes a dead set for him, dismaying Ehrendorf, the previous favorite. But Matthew is more interested in Vera Chiang, a Eurasian girl who may be a prostitute or possibly a Communist or maybe neither.

This novel is peopled with Farrell’s usual peculiar characters, including a figure from Troubles, Major Brendan Archer. As Singapore begins descending into chaos, the Major attempts to organize a volunteer fire department. But his efforts are hampered by a lack of interest, as the Singaporians concentrate on selling things and the Blacketts focus all their activities on a Jubilee celebration of the company.

Farrell’s cynical look at the last years of the British in Singapore is occasionally hilarious, with a dark and deadpan humor. It also contains much to consider, as various characters discuss the benefits of colonization (whether there are any), theories of commerce, and other ideas that obsess them.

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Day 1217: A Footman for the Peacock

Cover for A Foot man for the PeacockA Footman for the Peacock is a strange little novel. The novel was controversial when it was first published during World War II, because it depicts an upper-class family that tries to avoid its civic duty during the war. But that activity seems almost incidental to the rest of the plot.

What is the plot? The narration flits around in time but centers on the Roundelay family. Their current configuration consists of Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn and their household of two daughters, three elderly aunts, and three or four servants, including the retired and senile Nursie. When we finally seem to be settling somewhere, on the new Lady Evelyn’s growing acquaintance with the village and regional customs, we stay only long enough for her to hear an old running song, which Evelyn in her innocence takes to be about hunting. then we skip over to her daughter, Angela.

Angela seems to have a sensitivity to an upper-floor servant’s bedroom where the words “Heryn I dye, Thomas Picocke, 1792” are etched on a window pane. She makes an odd connection between this room and an unfriendly peacock in the grounds of the estate, which seems to be signalling Nazi bombers to destroy the house.

I guess I found this novel, which has a supernatural element, peculiar enough to be amusing, but it certainly has an unusual premise. I had more of a problem with the scattered narrative style, which took a long time to get somewhere. Ultimately, the novel becomes a story of class abuse and cruelty in the 18th century.

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Day 1213: A Country Road, A Tree

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeBest of Five!
I know little about Samuel Beckett except that he was Irish, and I have the most basic knowledge of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. (“A country road, a tree” is his setting for Godot.) So, I would not be able to say whether the novel at all conveys a true sense of what Becket was like. I can say, though, that I’ve read other works of biographical fiction that felt as if they gave a false or poor sense of their main character. A Country Road, A Tree is much more plausible in depicting Beckett.

The novel does not cover his entire life but concentrates on the war years, 1939-1945. Beckett is already a published writer, although probably not to much attention. He is friends with James Joyce and other writers and artists in Paris.

At the beginning of the war, Beckett is in Ireland. He feels stifled there, though, and chooses to return to Paris despite the instability. There he lives an increasingly stressful and straitened existence with his lover, Suzanne. At first, he has no papers, which complicates things when he and Suzanne are forced to evacuate Paris with the German invasion. Later, he decides to work with the French underground, which makes their lives even more precarious. Finally, they must flee to the countryside again.

Although this novel does not concentrate on the literary side of Beckett’s life—in fact, during much of it he is unable to write—it grabs your attention and keeps it. It also provides some insight into the man who produced his later works. I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourne and have been waiting for her to produce a work equal to it. This is that work, which I read for both my Walter Scott Prize and my James Tait Black projects.

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Day 1184: The Garden of Evening Mists

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsBest of Five!
Yun Ling Teoh, a Malayan federal judge of Chinese descent, has decided to retire early. She has been diagnosed with a neurological ailment that will cause more and more frequent episodes of aphasia and will eventually destroy her language abilities. She decides to return to Yugiri, a Japanese garden in Malaya that she inherited from its creator, Aritomo.

On the advice of her friend Frederik, the owner of a nearby tea plantation, Yun Ling decides to record her memories. She begins in 1951, when she went to Aritomo to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong, who died in a Japanese labor camp during World War II. Yun Ling also was in the camp, and her hatred of the Japanese makes it difficult for her to ask for Aritomo’s help. But her sister loved Japanese gardens.

Aritomo refuses her request but makes her a different offer. If she will take on the job of apprentice, he will teach her enough to design her own garden. She decides to accept the offer, having quit her job as prosecutor.

It is a difficult time in Malaya. No sooner did the war end than the government began fighting Communist guerillas, who were attempted to take over the country. And Akitomo has his secrets. He came to Malaya before the war, having resigned as the Japanese emperor’s gardener, but Yun Ling occasionally hears that he played a role for Japan during the war. He had some kind of influence, because he saved his neighbors from the Japanese labor camps. Yun Ling, we find, has her own secrets.

The Garden of Evening Mists is the best kind of historical fiction, immersing me in its time and place while informing me of events I was formerly unaware of. I found it deeply interesting and affecting. The descriptions are delicate and evocative, and the characters feel real yet mysterious. This novel was part of both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects, as well as the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. It is a powerful novel.

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Day 1181: The Zone of Interest

Cover for The Zone of InterestIn Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest, the Zone is a Nazi factory and concentration camp in Poland. Interestingly, Amis makes this setting a source of some very black humor.

The novel is written from the points of view of several characters, mostly Nazis, but it is mainly from that of Thomsen, an officer in charge of production at the rubber factory. He is a womanizer, but he begins to have feelings for Hannah Doll, the commandant’s wife.

Doll himself is a vile human being. He has his rival for Hannah imprisoned and uses threats against inmates’ relatives to force them to do things.

In fact, most of the characters are vile. And that’s the difficulty with this novel. First, is the Holocaust fodder for humor? I’m not sure it is in general, but it isn’t for me. Also, even though Thomsen is the least criminal of the characters because he’s working subtly against the war effort, these are people busily explaining away their own terrible actions.

Amis’s goal, I think, is to give some insight into the behavior of these people. Whether you want to read a novel on this subject probably depends on whether you’re interested in that insight. It made me a little queasy. This is one of the books I read for my Walter Scott Prize project that I didn’t really enjoy.

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Day 1179: In the Wolf’s Mouth

Cover for In the Wolf's MouthAnother book for my Walter Scott Prize project, In the Wolf’s Mouth is very different from the last novel I read by Adam Foulds. It is about the incompetent “liberation” of Sicily by the Allies during World War II, from the point of view of two characters. Will is a British field security officer who is ambitious to accomplish something. Ray is an Italian-American soldier who gets accidentally detached from his unit.

Although the plot of this novel is disjointed, it hinges upon the use by the American army of Sicilian exiles in its capture of Sicily. Unfortunately, some of these exiles are mafioso who fled the island 20 years before under threat from the Fascists. Ciró Albanese is one of these men, and under the auspices of the American army, he begins taking charge of his old activities. He considers Angilú one of his enemies, as the ex-shepherd took over his job and his house after he was kicked out. He also wants his wife back, even though she has remarried after thinking him dead. Eventually, Will gets wind of his activities.

Although this story is coherent enough, Ray’s story has very little to do with it. His is one of a soldier suffering from too much exposure to violence. His story is loosely connected by place and a link to the Princess, daughter of Angilú’s employer. This looseness gives the novel a disjointed feeling. After enduring a certain amount of tension through the problems of Angilú, we end with a fizzle, with Ray.

Finally, none of the characters are very knowable. We only really see one or two facets of their personalities. The sense of place depends on a few descriptions and a general aura of confusion. Although the novel kept my interest, I felt frustrated by it.

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Day 1173: Atonement

Cover for AtonementBest Book of Five!
Ian McEwan is a master at turning everything you think you know about a novel on its head, and he does that effectively in Atonement. This novel is a reread for me, the first one by McEwan I ever read, and I found it breathtaking. It is just as enjoyable when you know its secrets.

On a hot summer day in 1935, Briony Tallis commits a terrible crime. At thirteen, she is an imaginative but naive girl, a budding novelist. She misunderstands some interactions she witnesses between her older sister, Cecilia, and Cecilia’s childhood friend, Robbie, and this misunderstanding provokes her to tell a dreadful lie that ruins lives.

Five year later, Briony is a nurse at the start of World War II. She is trying to get published as a writer, but she is also concerned to atone for the lives she ruined.

This novel draws you in to the hot summer day and carries you along. It is beautifully written, and it shows great insight into the mind of the romantic, self-important child that Briony was. I can’t say much more about this novel without giving it away to the few of you who haven’t read it or seen the movie, but I believe it to be a postmodern classic. In short, this is a great book. It is intelligent, with ideas to ponder but with a narrative that just sweeps you along.

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