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review 2017-10-07 15:53
"The Wolf Border" by Sarah Hall
The Wolf Border - Sarah Hall

At the start of "The Wolf Border", Rachel Cain, an English zoologist, is living a stable, semi-wild, almost solitary life working on the grey wolf recovery program in the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Idaho. The book, told from Rachel's point of view, covers a period where her life changes fundamentally as she returns to her native English Lake District to work for an eccentric Earl, reconnects with her estranged family, deals with being pregnant and leads a project to reintroduce grey wolves to the North of England.

 

The book has a strong plot that deals with politics and class and the struggle between the wild and the civilized. On that level alone it would be compelling but what sets it apart is Sarah Hall's muscular writing and her unflinching insights into people.

 

The language is sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal, always precise. The people are complex and real. The book is filled with sex, death, science, addiction, grief, motherhood and many varieties of love and distaste. The sex is described with an honesty that is so unusual it is almost shocking. The raw pain and anger that death produces in those who are forced to watch it and survive it are graphically evoked. The overwhelming experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood are embraced without being romanticised.

 

One the themes of this book is rewilding, the untaming of our countryside by returning to it predators that we have long since exterminated. Rachel Caine is working towards this and,

"...would like to believe there will be a place again where the street lights end and wilderness begins: the wolf border."

Rachel walks this border throughout the book, sometimes seeing herself and those around her primarily as animals dominating their territory but still driven by basic needs and urges, sometimes feeling the pull to retreat from that wilderness into a safer world where she can protect the family and friends that she loves.

 

Rachel stumbles into motherhood through accident and hesitation. Its effect on her is transformative. It changes who she is, not just by making her into someone who would give her life for her child but by making her understand that her new-found vulnerability is also the key to seeing herself and the world clearly. She tells herself

"The only wound is life recklessly creating it knowing it will never be safe it will never last it will only ever be real."

One of the things that I enjoyed about this book was the way in which the Earl and his daughter were portrayed. It perfectly captured the charm and the power of this class and made my hackles rise in self-defense far more than encountering any wolf would.

 

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I recommend the audiobook edition, narrated by Louise Brealey who has the perfect pace and the slightly hard-edged delivery needed for "The Wolf Border".

 

Sarah Hall interviews well. She's frank, articulate and doesn't conform to the traditional "book plug" format.

 

If you'd like to hear her views on "The Wolf Border", take a look at the interviews below in The Guardian and The Independent.

 

 

sarah hallInterview in The Guardian 

The books interview: the author of The Electric Michelangelo talks about her new book, The Wolf Border, how motherhood has affected her work and why avoiding politics in fiction is juvenile.

 

 

 

 

5809511One Minute Interview in The Independent

 

 

 

 

 

 

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review 2017-10-03 17:24
"Autumn" by Ali Smith - shortlisted for 2017 Mann Booker Prize
Autumn: A Novel - Ali Smith

Set in 2016 Post-Brexit vote Britain, "Autumn" revolves around the experiences of a young art historian and the old man who helped her learn to see and think when she was a child. The story moves up and down the timeline of both their lives and flips from strange, presumably allegorical, dream sequences, through discussions of art and imagination and freedom through to hyper-real depictions of the modern life.

 


The opening chapter is an allegorical dream sequence that screams the literary equivalent of college band concept album and was almost enough to make me stop reading, yet the next chapter got my complete attention.with a sequence about going into to use the “Quick Check” passport service in the ruined post offices our governments have created as they've pillaged public assets. Ali Smith makes this familiar activity fresh by a muted rage that clings to irony and comic observation as it hangs above the pit of despair that life in a totalitarian state produces.

 


"Autumn" is a book you have to engage with rather than glide through. It's a conversation with the reader rather than an entertainment. For the most part, it was a conversation that I took a lot of pleasure in but there were some parts, dream sequences, long lists of how Brexit split the nation, where I felt as if I wandered into the "Time Passes" section of "To The Lighthouse": I knew I was reading something bold and innovative but it didn't really engage me.

 

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"Autumn" made me re-examine what I thought I knew about the allegedly swinging sixties in England. I was four in 1960 and I realised it's a period that I've never really examined from an adult point of view. I grew up being aware of things referred to in "Autumn" like Christine Keeler and the Profumo Affair,  and (at the time) risqué movies like "Alfie" but had no real understanding of them. They were too recent and too long ago.

 ]1939"It's A Man's World" by Pauline Boty[/caption]

I came to British Pop Art much later, so I thought I'd be on firmer ground but I was completely unaware of the work of Pauline Boty, who features heavily in the book and who Ali Smith examined in a piece in the Guardian.  Seeing pop art through the eyes of Ali Smith's characters made me hungry for it, even though most of it normally slides past me.

 

This is a book of big themes and real people. It explores the relationship between memory and imagination and how they compete and cooperate to construct and sustain the story of our lives that we tell to ourselves and others. It’s about seeing past the obvious to the real. It’s about a bloody-minded refusal to give in to all the people and institutions that try to make us live smaller lives. It's about borders and crossing them or being kept out. It’s about triumphing by finding a way to express joy.


This was my first Ali Smith book. It wasn’t always an easy experience but it was a memorable one. “Autumn” is the first of a four-novel seasonal sequence covering how the contemporaneous relates to the diachronic. I will be back for the rest.

 

The first link below is an extract from the audiobook. The second link is Ali Smith talking about "Autumn" to the TLS:

 

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review 2017-09-24 17:34
"Persuasion" by Jane Austen, performed by Juliet Stevenson
Persuasion - Jane Austen,Juliette Stevenson

I read "Persuasion" on a wave of enthusiasm for Jane Austen created by reading "The Jane Austen Project". I'd never read the book before and knew nothing of its plot or its ending. I found that this ignorance significantly enhanced my enjoyment of this book about lovers frustrated by circumstance and the things that they have persuaded themselves of or have been persuaded of by well-meaning advisors..

 

I listened to the audiobook version read by Juliet Stevenson who delivered every line with an ease and confidence that made the whole book at once easily accessible and tantalisingly complex.

 

The clarity of the language, the dryness of the wit and the unhurried pace of the book all added to my enjoyment.

 

I was surprised at the vigour of the social commentary in the book. The vain and incompetent Baronet, who takes pride in looks he has convinced himself are not declining year by year and a rank he gained by birth but lacks the acumen to sustain in life is practically vivisected in the text, even though he is the father of the mild-mannered main character.  There is also a spirited championing of the capabilities of women and the role that men play in disadvantaging the development and use of those capabilities.

 

Some of the novel is set in Bath, a city I lived in for many years, so I was amused to see references to streets that apart from the addition of traffic signs and double yellow lines, have remained unaltered since Jane Austen's time. I used to live in the building occupied by the baddy of the plot. It was great fun to imagine these familiar streets populated by Regency sailors and a ladies so unused to exercise and so bound up in corsets that walking up Milsom Street was an achievement.

 

The story itself is rather unremarkable but achieves a considerable level of engagement in  the lives of the protagonists for a plot built on so slight a premise. I enjoyed myself immensely and am now encouraged to move on to the rather more substantial "Emma".

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review 2017-08-25 22:34
"Reservoir 13" by Jon McGregor - on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

I found "Reservoir 13" hard to engage with at first. This partly the (I suspect, deliberate) frustration of my expectations and partly the style in which the people and events are presented.

 

The blurb says

"Reservoir 13 tells the story of many lives haunted by one family's loss."

The book opens with a search across the hills of an English National Park, for a teenage girl who has gone missing. My genre-led expectations kicked in and I settled down to a book about crime and guilt and secrets in a small village, with the mystery solved in a few weeks, during which colourful local characters and traditions are scrutinised and set aside as the villain is uncovered.  I knew that the book was on the Mann Booker Longlist, so I was expecting some trope twisting but I wasn't expecting something that rejects every convention of a crime novel.

 

I quickly amended my view of what the book was about but still found it difficult to care about because the story is told in an authorial voice that reports what little dialogue there is, rather than using direct speech and describes people and events with all the passion of an academic wildlife study.

 

I felt that I was being given a pencil sketch sprinkled with small details highlighted in colour for reasons that weren't immediately clear to me. 

 

I recognised that I was being shown the rhythm of rural village life where people's lives are governed by the seasons, personal routines and the politenesses required by long-term propinquity but the rhythms did not provide a narrative thrust.

 

I felt locked out of the inner thoughts or emotions of the people. The authorial voice seemed to have all the intimacy of a camera drone filming a landscape:  all-seeing but from an alien non-human perspective.

 

About a third of the way through, I finally surrendered myself to the rhythm of the book and let it carry me along.  It reminded me of the adjustment in pace that I had to make when I moved to a village in Somerset after living for years in London. I had to slow down to see the place. I had to let it absorb me before I could be part of it.

 

"Reservoir 13" shows how life is lived in a village. As thirteen years worth of seasons passed, I was given a surface view of all the things that people in a small village know about each other: the gossip, the constant observation of each others acts and the things they don't say or don't ask. I cam to understand how the politeness of being indirect grants dignity and privacy while still offering the possibility of sharing the things you cannot bear alone.

 

Initially, direct speech was less frequent than descriptions of wildlife or weather but, as the years passed and the context had been established, I was allowed to hear certain conversations and evesdrop on interior monologues.

 

The people in the village are following the same tidal flows as the wildlife around them and, just as Il earned about the courtship of badgers in the woods, I was shown that most human mating rituals are led by women and conducted through body language and eye contact more than words.

 

Some characters found their way into my affections: the vicar, carrying around everyone's cares and confidences, like heavy stones in her pockets, who brings comfort and compassion wherever she goes; the woman who walks her neighbour's dog every day but still treats each time as if it were something new.

 

The missing girl is not the centre of the book but rather something that distorts the flow of village life without adding to it, She is like a water-logged piece of driftwood that only occasionally surfaces but is always there, disturbing the peace of the water.

 

She has her own leitmotiv that often marks her appearance

 

 "The girl's name was Rebecca or Becky or Beks. She had been looked for and she hadn't been found."

 

She is a constant reminder of the possibility of loss and perhaps and incentive to hold on to those we love for as long as we can.

 

"Reservoir 13" has a distinct voice and an unusual structure that did, eventually, imprint the village on my imagination and made me reluctant to leave. The narrative doesn't thrust, it shapes your perception of people and events with gentle persistence, like a stream eroding one bank and building up another.
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text 2017-08-20 09:35
"Reservoir 13" by Jon McGregor - on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist - this is not going well
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

From the description this sounds like a crime book - teenage girl goes missing on the hills above a small village - doubt - suspicion - secrets - yet it's on the Mann Book Longlist so I was expecting something with a twist.

 

I wasn't expcting something so difficult to engage with.

 

The story is told in an authorial voice that reports what little diaglogue there is rather than using direct speech.  The narration is a dispassionate description of events with all the passion of a more academic wildlife study.

 

This is mostly a pencil sketch sprinkled with small details highlighted in colour for no apparent reason.

 

There is a  focus on time passing and routines like seasons governing people's lives that gives the book a pleasant rhythm without providing any narrative thrust.

 

No access to the inner thoughts or emotions of the people. It has all the intimacy of a

camera drone filming a landscape:  all-seeing but from an alien non-human perspective.

 

I suspect the author is trying to do something new with form and that I should be delighted that he is eschewing the conventions of the genre. Instead, at more than an hour in to and eight hour book, I am still wondering what will make this book worth reading.

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