Saturday, 10 January 2015

Could you write a book like 'Summertime'?

I've just finished reading 'Summertime' by John Maxwell Coetzee.  In this masterpiece work, nominated for the Booker Prize, Coetzee writes as a unnamed biographer piecing together stories from Coetzee's life after he is dead by interviewing his friends, lovers and acquaintances.

Of course, there is more to the narrative than Coetzee himself.  The interviewees speculate as to the reasons why he is seen as an outsider in his own family, exploring familial expectations of South African men in the '70s.  Coetzee grew up during the first years of Apartheid, and the narrative considers the political implications of being witness to those years, and what it means to feel like a stranger in one's own country (as a white man, he and many of his friends are conscious of a feeling that they have a right to live where they are born, but that that right is somehow illegitimate by virtue of their imposed presence on someone else's country.)

On the way, he considers his personal inadequacies by examining his feelings about his uncomfortable relationship with his father and his feelings about his professional underachievement.  He also recounts specific events from his sexual and romantic past, and even critiques his own writing, and how it could have been better.

In the hands of a lesser storyteller, 'Summertime' could have been difficult to read, but Coetzee is probably the most decorated English-speaking author in the world, and he manages to frame a critique of himself and everything he is, and has achieved without seeming insufferably self-centred.

I'm writing about this partly as an exercise to myself and partly to throw the gauntlet down to you, dear reader-who-writes.  I'm assuming this is most of you.

So this is my challenge: Would you - could you - write a book like 'Summertime'?

Friday, 2 January 2015

Four Thousand Words reviews 'An End of Poppies', by Simon Poore

Please note that this review contains spoilers.

'An End of Poppies' is a novel by Norwich author Simon Poore about an alternative history in which the intolerable stalemate at the heart of World War I continues far beyond its allotted timescale, and leads to the respective sides building giant walls across central Europe to resist the infantry advances of the other.

Our joint protagonists are Esme Wilbraham, a young woman in 1960s London who works in a munitions factory, and her would-be paramour, British soldier Jimmy Fitzpatrick.  The pair grew up close to one another and their families are distant friends.  We learn much of the backstory of the conflict from the MOD-censored letters that Jimmy and Esme send to one another.

I was immediately intrigued by the original premise of 'An End of Poppies', which is more than a simple re-imagining of the outcome of a war.  The author is clearly aware of inherent weaknesses in that premise, alluding to potential questions that the reader will be asking as they progress through the text.  He cunningly avoids the question of why the advancing armies do not simply circumnavigate the walls (indeed, why not try a sea invasion?) and it is suggested that there are not the resources on either side for a sustained artillery bombardment sufficient to destroy the walls (though with the exception of manpower, resources to repair them seem limitless.)

Nonetheless, I am a great fan of alternative histories, and 'An End of Poppies' is wonderfully imagined and described.  Much thought has clearly been given to the social constructs that have formed as a backdrop to war, from the nature of the relationships that develop between soldiers to the feminist resistance movements within the allied countries.  Less attention is paid to the political context of the conflict, except for observations about the efficiency of the propaganda engine involved and the continual insidious attentions of military intelligence staff.

Towards the end of the book, the idea is touched upon that the military deadlock is politically convenient for the ruling classes, at least in Britain.  This and other questions raised by the text are largely glossed over, but fortunately I was sufficiently engaged with the story to the point that these questions never became more than minor irritations for me.

The story rejects current trends in young adult literature in that it is narrative-driven, rather than character-driven.  The nature of the predicament in which the characters find themselves mean that they are largely passive participants in significant events.  However, this means that the story only really comes to life towards the end of the novel, when Esme goes on feminist marches opposing the war and Jimmy makes the decision to flee a military hospital and head back to Britain.

The choice to tell the story of the developing conflict through the exclusive medium of censored letters is both an interesting and a brave choice, and I found it very easy to imagine the world in which Esme and Jimmy live - one in which horrors have become routine and commonplace, and joy exists only in relatively mundane events.  I didn't find the characters of Esme and Jimmy to be sufficiently nuanced, particularly at the start of the story.  Both are young and reserved, with seemingly similar personality traits, and were it not for the unique nature of their respective experiences, I might well have been hard pressed to tell one from the other.

The text (on Kindle as of November 2014) also contains a number of minor typos and occasional duplicated or omitted words, but these don't detract from the story in any significant way. 

Even with these considerations, 'An End of Poppies' remains an enjoyable read that is arguably more than the sum of its parts.  Poignantly, it will stay with me most for its bittersweet observations about the motivations that drive people, and the ultimate futility of war.

'An End of Poppies' is available now on Kindle and in paperback.