A suitable boy

16 January 2017

A Suitable Boy (English and Spanish Edition)A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An extravaganza of a book about life in India, where the theme of young love struggles for air amid the flow of family life; parliamentary politics; land reform at village level; the legal fraternity; poetry, song and literature both English and Indian; and even the shoe trade. It is set in the early 1950s, when Partition and the political resistance to Colonial rule are recent memories, and covers the lives of four middle class families. Lata Mehra is a young woman whose mother is set on finding her a suitable boy. Three candidates emerge. Haresh is good hearted, industrious, smart but not overly imaginative. His former romantic longing for a Sikh girl was suffocated by social prejudice, so he has reluctantly turned to search out a sensible and socially approved marriage partner. Lata herself has a romantic longing for another man, Kabir, and his heart thrills for her too, but he is a Moslem and therefore unthinkable. That leaves Amit, rich, brilliant and charming, a successful poet, and yet rather sterile. The support cast is large indeed, caught up in many subplots; if you are reading a print version you may want to keep notes of who is who and where they appear. Many of the characters are very well drawn, such as the socialite Meenashki and Arun, the overbearing older brother of Lata. [Spoiler alert:] If social prejudice brought tragedy to star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet, here it bring mediocrity.

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Jung’s impact on our culture

30 November 2016

Jung in Effect: Jung's ideas in the wider worldJung in Effect: Jung’s ideas in the wider world by Annette Lowe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This anthology looks at Carl Jung’s influence on society and culture: from creative writing, film analysis, spirituality and religion, through to marketing and public life.

In the Foreward David Tacey points out the pervasiveness of Jung’s ideas. For example, Jung developed the concepts of introversion and extroversion, of complexes like the “inferiority complex”; he originated what is now the Myer Briggs Type Indicator of personality. But as Tacey also points out, Jung himself is rarely mentioned, even within the professions of psychology or psychiatry. “Instead his major ideas have been relegated to small interest groups, to amateur societies and clubs, which do wonderful work in keeping the candle alive in dark times.”

Archetypes

One of Jung’s greatest impacts was in popularising the notion of archetypes. Annette Lowe discusses them in two chapters, on marketing and on creative writing.

According to the Jungian view of the world, we all draw on a collective unconscious, created in archaic times. This deep mental underpinning prepares us to pay particular attention to certain sorts of figures that keep cropping up throughout human history, in art and stories and in personal experience. When we encounter an archetypal figure they resonate deeply in our individual minds. Common archetypes include the Hero, the disruptive Trickster, the Mother, the Wise Old Man and the Crone. All have both positive and negative connotations. “The test of the vitality of an archetype”, Annette Lowe says, “is its endurance through time. So when we hear or read a myth or fairy tale, it resonates through to the archetypal layer of the psyche, and may also evoke our own feelings and associations.” She compares them to “templates” used to understand and organise our personal experiences. For example we may encounter the Mother in fairy tales as a wicked witch, or as a kindly tree that aids a heroine (my examples). Or, a picture of the Earth Mother or an encounter with a bossy librarian might set off the Mother archetype in our minds. And in any of these cases, we might also invest her with the longings, fears, anger or sense of well-being we received from our own mother.

Marketers, Lowe says, sometimes think that archetypes can be used to induce consumers to buy a product. This is largely mistaken, for while they can be used to make brands more memorable, they are not in themselves motivational. But archetypes have also been consciously employed, with more success, in movie series like the Terminator and Star Wars. We identify with an archetypal figure such as the Hero overcoming some formidable evil; the Hero might also represent our efforts to overcome some inner mental turmoil. The archetypal figure of the Divine Child can represent “hope and renewal”, “a future Redeemer”.

“Great writing”, Lowe adds, “has enough originality to bury the skeleton of the archetype-formula under enough contemporary ‘flesh’. The psychological pattern that the target audience unconsciously needs to see must be fully ‘clothed in modern dress’, as Jung says. Writing according to rules only produces great work if the writer also uses great originality.”

Elements of a real event that resonate with archetypes may be preserved and enveloped in mythic imagery, while personally specific elements fall away. Thus a real-life young man who fell from a cliff days before his wedding became, in folklore, the victim of a jealous fairy. This transformation took place within only 40 years, when the real events were recalled by people still alive, including his one-time fiancée.

Patrick White

David Tacey applies Jungian concepts to the literary analysis of Patrick White’s novels. “Each White book”, Tacey says, “is a variation upon a single myth relating to the figures of the Great Mother and her eternal youth. In every novel the same movement is established: the puer aeternus enters and is devoured by the mother-image.”

Many critics of White, Tacey says, “have claimed that the writer has made conscious use of Jung’s ideas and archetypes. This line of thought is entirely misdirected. White’s novels seem Jungian because the writer has in his own way drawn upon the deep unconscious and its archetypes.” It is not until the mid-1960s that White read Jung, and not until 1966 and that he tried to apply them in a novel, The Solid Mandala – only to misunderstand and misapply Jungian concepts. “I do not believe that White’s contact with Jung’s work was profitable: instead, it engendered confusion and presented a false lead to the critics. If anything it suggested that the author did not really understand his work, that the literary vision was autonomous and independent of his conscious intentions.”

The Tarot

Joan Snedden offers a chapter on the Tarot. After contrasting them to the familiar pack of cards (they are not entirely dissimilar) she matches the Tarot suits to “the four functions of Jung’s theory of types… Cups can be related to feeling, wands to intuition, swords to thinking, and coins to sensation” as well as to Water, Fire, Air and Earth.

People sometimes try to persuade us of the Tarot’s authenticity and power by asserting ancient origins to it. In fact, Sneddon says, there is no evidence of Tarot packs before the late Middle Ages. The Tarot’s real claim to antiquity and power lies in its ability to activate archetypal images of the collective unconscious, into which we then project individual personal meanings. She takes us through possible meanings for each of the picture cards, such as The Magician and the Fool, and suggests that the order of the picture cards can represent a meaningful personal journey.

I Ching and synchronicity

Jung, says Annette Lowe, “was largely responsible for making the I Ching known to the Western world.” It is a text used for divination. “The questioner throws three coins together, six times, and notes how many ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ are shown on the coins after each throw. The questioner looks up the result in a table which indicates the relevant reading to be consulted.” Its value is not as a mere trigger for our personal reflections, like a Rorschach inkblot. It connects us to something beyond ourselves.

There is “a synchronistic correspondence” between the psychic state of the questioner and the answer provided by the book. Synchronicity is a “meaningful coincidence”. Lowe quotes an example provided by Marie-Louise von Franz, a Jungian psychologist and scholar: “if I bought a blue frock and, by mistake, the shop delivered a black one on the day one of my near relatives died, this would be a meaningful coincidence. The two events are not causally related, but they are connected by the symbolic meaning that our society gives to the colour black.” It is not simply that the purchaser assigns a personal meaning to the black dress drawn from society’s conventional link between “black” and death. Jung’s approach is spiritualistic and religious, and sees the human world of language and culture as being connected to wider, external patterns of meaning. Lowe says: “if the individual mind does not shape a synchronicity, what does? Archetypal energies have influenced matter, and perhaps events in time as well, to create a synchronicity. Archetypal activity has the capacity to affect both psyche and matter.” She finds support for this approach in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Jung and Christianity

The Rev. Andrew Boyle writes on decades of experiences in the Uniting Church of Australia. He sees Jung’s worldview as a way out of the impasse in which the Christian Church finds itself, when confronted with the mysterious and the sacred in religious metaphor.

Boyle suggests that literal interpretations of the Bible’s mythological symbolism forces two untenable choices on us. Those who adhere to a scientific worldview shy away from such material in embarrassment. Christians who take this line find no more nourishment from Christian ritual than do atheists. Meanwhile, evangelicals and fundamentalists present Bible stories as facts.

Jung, Boyle tells us, recognised this problem but took a different approach to it. “He came to see that the psyche is developed and transformed by the relationship of the unconscious contents of the psyche with the ego. In individual life this is manifested in dreams and fantasies; in collective life through religious systems and their symbolic expressions.” Religious symbolism and ritual can therefore connect us more deeply to ourselves, to collective humanity, and to that which lies beyond. Jung said: “I have constantly revolved in my mind the question of the symbolism of the unconscious to Christianity as well as to the other religions. Not only do I leave the door open for the Christian message, but I consider it of central importance for Western man. It needs, however, to be seen in a new light.”

Other material

John Noack discusses Jung’s approach towards films, and his influence on film makers such as Federico Fellini. Noack also looks briefly at alternative approaches to film, and there is further discussion on the nature and role of archetypes.

Dodi Rose describes how a person with dementia was able to help others and get the most out of life, working in a supportive environment as a volunteer guide in a major art gallery. Rose’s account is framed within the Jungian concepts of individuation and the Self.

Other chapters go further into issues such as spirituality, homeopathy, astrology, and the Myer Briggs Indictor. There is a description of Jung’s role in the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, while other chapters cover icons such as David Bowie, Herman Hesse and Jackson Pollock.

This anthology has given me a handle on ideas that I’ve heard about but never understood. It is not just for true believers: people who don’t adhere to Jung’s worldview will still find much of interest.

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Casanova’s Return to Venice

17 September 2016

Casanova's Return to Venice. Arthur SchnitzlerCasanova’s Return to Venice by Arthur Schnitzler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 
Ageing, weary, his money gone, Casanova is travelling to Venice, to ask its overlords to forgive his past misadventures there, so that he can live out the rest of his days in “the city of his youth… enshrined in all the charms of memory”.

He is no longer handsome. “His power over his fellows, over women no less than over men, had vanished. Only where he evoked memories could his words, his voice, his glance, still conjure… His day was done!” But such self-admissions surge up against his narcissism, creating great turmoil in his heart. Intellectually he fancies himself the equal or superior to Voltaire, against whom he is preparing a polemic. But he remains addicted to sexual conquest and can’t settle calmly into the life of the mind.

A chance meeting on the road leads him into the lives of a group of local people, creating a forum in which the tensions of his inner life play out. There is his amiable and generous host Olivo; his hostess Amalia, hot to resume an old liaison with Casanova; their 13 year old daughter. There is a playful aristocratic Marchesa and her husband the Marchese, who is enraged at being openly cuckolded by the coolly insolent young soldier Lorenzi. There is the calm and lovely young Marcolina, focused on intellectual pursuits. This group spend two days and nights together, in gardens, bedrooms, at dinners and at the gambling table.

Spoiler alert

The charms of Amalia are stale to Casanova, who tries to put her off by emphasising his own physical decay. It is Marcolina who he must have: Marcolina, who holds the youth and beauty that he has lost. She offers him a dignified friendship across the generational and gender divide, with gentle intellectual sparring between equals, but she recoils at every glimpse of his lust. In fact she is sending him into a confused frenzy of despair, self-deceiving hope, and desperate calculation.

At their introduction, Casanova and Lorenzi “exchanged glances of cold aloofness that seemed to offer assurances of mutual dislike”; but moments later Casanova was staggered by the sense that his own youthful persona stood before him. He is temporarily soothed when he learns that Marcolina has rejected Lorenzi’s offer of marriage, but when he discovers they have a secret relationship the blood rushes to his head.

In the end, it is only by literally taking over Lorenzi’s identity – impersonating him in the dark – that Casanova beds Marcolina. But this “return to youth” is pitiful: when she realises what has happened she feels loathing and disgust, then deep sorrow. His second return to youth, in the form of Venice, is also pathetic: he is only allowed back as a police spy, reporting on hot headed young men of the kind that he once was.

Casanova also manages to rape Amalia’s 13 year old daughter. The girl does not show any distress during or after the event, rather she is excited and conspiratorial. Casanova cynically reflects that he managed to have grandmother, mother and daughter. The incident seems designed to throw further light on his character, but it may overshadow the rest of the story for many modern readers.

Most of the text is a close observation of Casanova’s state of mind. During the climatic events in Olivo’s house it shifts style, and feels more like one of Schnitzler’s plays recast into novelistic form.

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Restless Flags

9 September 2016

Restless Flags: a German Girl's StoryRestless Flags: a German Girl’s Story by Lilo Linke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A jewel of a book. A great shame it has become so utterly obscure.

Writing in 1935, the author describes how it was for her growing up in Berlin. Her childhood was upended by the outbreak of World War One. After wartime privations came revolution, the breakdown of the middle class during the hyperinflation of 1923, the decay of the Weimar Republic, and the first year of Nazi rule.

Her goal, as she humbly put it, was “to show happenings as they reflected themselves in my immature mind”. So she does not attempt to provide factual background to the events and places she describes. This hardly matters since she is covering one of the most well-studied parts of modern history. The richness of the book comes from the charm and depth of her subjective insights into herself and her personal development and the nature and evolution of world around her.

The book is dedicated to Storm Jameson.

The book was also published under the alternative title Restless Days. See Kirkus Review description.

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The Man in the High Castle

9 September 2016

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Penguin Modern Classic, this book won a sci fi award in 1962, the year of its release, and has now been serialised for television.

The scenario is an alternative 1962, after Nazi Germany and Japan won WW2. The former USA is sliced into an east and centre under Nazi rule, a west coast run by Japan, and a neutral zone around the Rocky Mountains. Most of the action is in San Francisco, where several lives intersect. Nobusuke Tagomi is head of Japan’s Imperial Trade Mission. But he also is intellectually restless, an earnest seeker of Truth. He is learned in eastern and western philosophy and religion, a follower of the Tao, and regularly consults the I Ching. Robert Childan sells antiques to rich Japanese collectors, fawning on his Japanese masters, but yearning toward the east, where white men rule. Frank Frink sells jewellery and metal-work art to the same layer of Japanese collectors; born Frank Fink, he is a Jew – something to conceal at all costs lest he be sent off to the Nazis. Frink’s estranged wife Juliana lives in the Rockies, teaching judo.

The Japanese have established rigid racial hierarchies and an authoritarian but law-bound regime which will execute rebels, but also price-gouging landlords. A place for everyone and everyone in their place. It is liveable, and liberalism is sprouting in the younger generation of Japanese professionals. But over the mountains a nightmare looms, revealed through the characters’ stray thoughts and comments. The Nazis have seemingly irresistible military superiority: a menace distant but looming ever closer.

The unity of opposites pervades the story: Axis and Allies, Germany and Japan, good and evil, past and present, illusion and reality, the spiritual and material, Yin and Yang, the external world and the world within our heads. And then there is the story-world and our world: a mysterious writer called Hawthorne Absenden, aka the Man in the High Castle, has written a popular novel describing a world in which the Allies had won the war.

It is a philosophical novel rather than science fiction in the classic tradition. The sci fi touches, such as human being landing on Mars, are irrelevant to the story line and could easily have been deleted.

Spoiler alert

After passing a critical moral test, Tagomi meditates on a silver ornament, perceiving it as a unity of the dark mineral earth and the sparkling fire of the heavens; he senses a chance to enter Nirvana, to escape illusion and the cycle of death and rebirth. Instead he finds himself transported to the San Francisco of our world. Without deciding anything about its existential status (though speculating that it might be one of the terrifying transitional places between death and rebirth depicted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead), he finds it dingy, coarse and ugly and a place where whites, offensively, do not defer to Japanese. He realises he is “Out of my world, my space and time” but quickly decides he has “broken from my moorings and hence stand on nothing… One seeks to contravene one’s perceptions – why? So that one can wander utterly lost, without signpost or guide?” The strange new world is no longer awesome to him, but merely a place of half-wakeful confusion, where the conscious and unconscious are all mixed up.

Perhaps he has been vouchsafed a glimpse of another world as a reward for his goodness. Or perhaps we humans are irrevocably anchored to the world we know, so our longings for the Beyond can never be assuaged.

Meanwhile Juliana meets Absenden and seeks wisdom from him. She also receives from the I Ching the message Inner Truth, which she interprets as meaning that Absenden’s book is somehow true: the Axis had lost the war. Juliana urges the novelist to “believe” but he shakes his head, and says he is not sure of anything.

Yet since we are dealing with Yin and Yang, the unity of opposites, Dick seems to suggest that his own book is also “true” – the Allies did lose the war, in some sense. Or perhaps both evil and good won and lost in both the alternative world and our world. Dick is not morally indifferent: he depicts the consequences of Nazi conquest unsparingly. But also he warns us not to absolutise the goodness of the Allies’ victory, and even though the alternate world seems on a path to ever greater horror, he offers a reminder that the actions of individuals can change the course of events. The light of the Yang reappears in the darkest Yin.

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Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times

7 September 2016

Cesare Borgia: His Life and TimesCesare Borgia: His Life and Times by Sarah Bradford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Italy in the 1490s-1500s, where the Renaissance is in full swing. This is the Italy of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (who are all mentioned). It is also swarming with prostitutes, a great many of them looking after the clergy. One lord “received ambassadors while lying in bed with his sister”. Another had both his wives murdered, raped his daughter and attempted to sodomise his son, but it was for heresy that the Pope excommunicated him. It is a world of warring cities and statelets, of intrigues and vendettas, poisonings, factional street fights and hired assassins.

To flourish in such circumstances required not just luck but extreme cunning, drive, courage, brilliance, and coolness under pressure. Enter Cesare Borgia, a man who became a byword for immorality: a man who “deliberately created his own myth by calculated acts of terror, veiling his life in a secrecy which gave his sudden brutalities and lightning moves added impact”.

In many ways Cesare fits the profile of a psychopath: abundant charm and charisma; the ability to read the feelings of others, without true empathy; the skills to act out deep emotions, without feeling them; the restless and reckless pursuit of new thrills, sometimes even against his overall interests. That said, his love for his sister Lucrezia appears to have been genuine (and not, as often supposed, incestuous). He was not a sadist. His treatment of the common people was no worse than that of his peers, and often better, since he took care to build support for his rule. Cesare Borgia was periodically interviewed by Machiavelli, and helped to inspire The Prince.

The book is a probing, thoughtful, weighty biography of this remarkable man. It is necessarily dense with names and the detail of events, which may be hard to keep track of. But it is well worth it for the fascinating accounts of the antihero’s subtle machinations as he draws on the power of his father, Pope Alexander VI, to navigate between the rival, predatory powers of France and Spain; to fend off Venice, then a strong independent power; and to try to establish his own united realm, under Papal authority, in mid-Italy.

His story reminded me of the Game of Thrones, and aficionados of that series take note: Cesare’s younger brother is Jofre, wedded to Sancia; the period has its own Red Wedding; and Cercei has interesting parallels to the blonde haired, “proud and cruel” Caterina Sforza, “noted not only for her beauty but for her courage and ruthlessness”.

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The Oxford Book of Modern Women’s Stories

27 January 2014

The Oxford Book of Modern Women's StoriesThe Oxford Book of Modern Women’s Stories by Patricia Craig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The writing is accessible, but there is quite a lot to digest in these stories. It depends how much you want to pick from each plate.

As the editor explains, the collection is all-female simply to redress a gender imbalance in earlier short story anthologies. While the authors write ‘as women’ – from life as experienced by a woman – their style and subject matter has little to do with gender. Here are a few of the stories that had most impact on me.

Willa Cather’s Paul’s case describes a nervy boy straining to satisfy his yearning for the lifestyle of the idle rich. His desperation, aesthetic longings, and silliness all draw you into his dilemma.

Afterward by Edith Wharton uses the ghost story to intensify and deepen a tale of business malpractice (I’m paraphrasing the editor here).

In Look at all those roses, by Elizabeth Bowen, we meet a couple suffering from an empty relationship and empty lives, as they drive through the empty prettiness of the Surrey countryside. It seems to hang in suspension; dazed and tired, they encounter a house set in an over-rich rose-garden that accentuates the feeling of unjoyful beauty. The story is like a fairy-tale or a dream in the way that a state of mind is externalised, in a setting where conflicting desires can all be satisfied. Sinister in some aspects, the story speaks of different ways to be captured, to be paralysed, and to escape. The supernatural once again sharpens the storyline, but this time only as an artistic suggestion.

Olivia Manning’s In a winter landscape tells of a journey through eastern Europe by a group of English youth, during wartime dislocations. Squashed together with refugees and complacent bourgeois tourists on trains, they find themselves in the company of a Polish soldier with a difficult personality. The story can be enjoyed simply for its delicate descriptions of snowy settings.

A flashy Indian movie star encounters two prosaic English girls in the suitably titled A star and two girls by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. He shows them a good time, but is baffled by their self-containment, in the face of all his social advantages. A reminder that there is no substitute for groundedness and a strong sense of self.

Is there life beyond the gravy? by Stevie Smith is a real stand-out; it should just be read rather than described.

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Love on a Branch Line

27 January 2014

Love on a Branch LineLove on a Branch Line by John Hadfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A tasteful and thoughtful comedy mixing myth, wish-fulfilment and English charm.

It is the late 1950s. Jasper Pye is an earnest young civil servant living with his mother, stung when various people, including a girlfriend of sorts, call him a bore. Just as his frustration peaks, he is commissioned to visit an odd little unit of Her Majesty’s Government based in a castle on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk – a wartime stopgap measure mysteriously prolonged. Ostensibly there to inspect it, his real, informal brief is to recommend its closure.

The locality is called Arcady, a strong hint that we will soon disconnect from the everyday flow of time. The last part of his journey is on a steam train, owned by Lord Flamborough, who has purchased the local branch of the line. Legless since 1926, the Earl lives on the train, travelling endlessly forward and back. His family’s motto is hic manemus: here we remain. Jasper alights at a station called Arcady Halt.

The unit is staffed by the stern-seeming Scot, Professor Pollux, his assistant Quirk, and their secretary, the young, plain, eager-to-please Miss Mounsey. They have long ceased doing any real official work. Closing the place might seem a done deal.

The problem is that Pye is slowly seduced by Arcady. For a start there are Flamborough’s three lovely daughters: the nympho Belinda, unhappily-married Chloe, and the virginal, too-young, but frenziedly romantic Matilda. They leave him very disoriented and hovering between desire and disgrace.

Belinda makes a playful reference to Freud, whose symbolism is never far away: the mother, Lady Flamborough, keeps whisking Jasper away to attend to her flowers; the Flamborough family has only married within its own extended ranks for generations; and then there is her husband’s severed legs.

The residents of Arcady are lotus eaters. The Lady has her floral borders and beds, the Lord his steam train and jazz music, while others have sunk into the honey of cricket, alcohol, collectables – fixed and narrow desires like Flamborough’s branch line.

Myth plays an important role, but nothing is laboured in this delightful book.

Sometimes bravery is needed not to face hardship, but to take the leap into joy. That, I think, is the true challenge Jasper faces.

In 1994 the book was adapted into a four-part series, which was very friendly to the intentions of the book, though there are subtle differences in the ending.

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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

24 November 2013

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The setting is England 1806, with the Napoleonic war in full swing, but this England has an unfamiliar back history. In the Middle Ages powerful magicians had walked the land, with the north ruled for centuries by the strongest of them, the Raven King. But magic faded with the first stirrings of modernity, and the adepts with it, leaving only scraps of writings and apocryphal tales of what had been – and a sorry lot of aspirant magicians. Some of these would-bes-if-they-could-bes are gathered together in the opening scene.

Soon we encounter the old, dried-up, small-hearted, bitter Mr Norrell, who unfortunately is marked for greatness: he is the first true magician to appear for hundreds of years. The early part of the book records his clumsy rise to high places, as he puts his magic to the service of England’s rulers and their wars. But to his consternation another true magician appears on the scene, the young, witty and personable Jonathan Strange. They stalk each other throughout much of the story.

The tale is told with dry humour, in a style reminiscent of the period.

It is strengthened by many strong characters. Norrell’s hard-headed servant John Childermass is one; another is the shabby street-stall magican Vinculus, repeatedly exposed as a fraud yet puzzlingly hard to dismiss out of hand; their encounter makes for one of the best chapters in the book. Then there is Strange’s charming wife Arabella; the strong-willed young beauty Lady Pole; a vain, sinister fairy known as the Silver-Haired Gentleman, whose “natural manner seemed to be one of extreme self-congratulation”; and Stephen Black, the black servant of Lady Pole’s husband.

The prior history of England is slowly built up through extensive, tongue-in-cheek footnotes. There is a wildness in the old magic; it scares Norrell but intrigues Strange. This drives some of the plot. But meanwhile Lady Pole and Stephen Black are caught in a dark spell that compels them to dance every night in a fairy court, and spend each day in deep depression; when Lady Pole tries to speak of it she talks only nonsense.

This is a wonderful book. The magical setting is rich and convincing and entertainingly described.

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Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones series)

18 May 2013

A Song of Ice and Fire, 5 Book Set Series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with DragonsA Song of Ice and Fire, 5 Book Set Series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From a distance the Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire series looked hypermarketed, blockbusterish, cliched.

No. Real quality.

The books are blockbusterish in some ways – the pseudo-medieval setting, padded out with extended descriptions of secondary people, events and situations. But the series has attracted readers far beyond fans of this genre, due to the rich characterisations, plot, and imaginative depth, garnished here and there by passages of very good writing. It is further enhanced by the TV series, of which more later.

As Wikipedia will tell you there are three intersecting themes. The vaguely European realm of Westeros has fallen apart as the rulers of various statelets vie for the high throne, left vacant by the fall of the 300-year-old Tagaryen dynasty. From the icy north the realm is threatened by wild peoples and other forces less easily understood. Meanwhile from Essos, the Mediterrean- and Mahgreb-like south-eastern lands, the exiled Tagaryen scions, brother and sister, long to retake their family heritage, the Iron Throne. Before long the brother departs, leaving only the young teen Danaerys Tagaryen to carry on.

At first magic is presented only through hints and references, but as the stakes rise a range of supernatural forces and personages step forward.

The warring provinces of Westeros sink down to amazing levels of chaos, carnage and misery. Yet, the darker the night, the brighter the star. Danaerys swiftly matures into someone intrepid, resourceful, brilliant, and above all compassionate. She who at first seemed just one more schemer looks more and more like the hope of the world. For all that, she is sometimes just giggling 14-year-old. Still, she acquires an army. And Danaerys is the only person alive who owns dragons. Three of them: young, but rapidly growing, just like her. But like anyone trying to improve things, Danaerys is, needless to say, set upon from all sides by people trying to drag her down. As her power grows she is a magnet for the sinister and the supernatural. Yet she has aid as well.

There is a vast range of characters, all the central ones complex and well drawn. Some are noble and strong-willed, others vile. A very appealing aspect of the series is the number of characters who are vulnerable or damaged in some way. A dwarf man; a fat youth, kindly but fightened; a woman knight ridiculed for her massive muscularity; a crippled boy; a bastard (when that really meant something); a helpless captive princess; a prince trapped as ward/prisoner in another noble’s household. As a reader I keenly felt the difficulties and pain they each face due these limitations, but I never felt that their lines or descriptions had been vetted for political correctness by reference groups. Such a welcome change. Remarkably for a modern novel, you find older, non-alpha males allowed some dignity, as are older women. Beware though – even central characters can die, which adds sharpness to every menacing situation.

The female characters are generally forceful, and some, refreshingly, are allowed to do genuinely bad things – though at least one of these women has been sanitised in the TV series, lest the audience stir uncomfortably. On other hand there are many prostitutes, and scenes of abuse of both women and men. Westeros is a harsh place. The TV series is R-rated.

The TV series cannot capture the full complexities of the story line, but does bring to life the key characters and scenes beautifully. Magnificent casting in almost every case.

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