Gnomon – Nick Harkaway

Some things try their best to defy explanation. Realistically it is quite hard to define why you fall in love with one person and not another; I can’t tell you why I have an irrational fear of buttons (that’s why it’s irrational, obviously); you can’t quite describe why you choose the 18th property you see when house-hunting (barring the phrase ‘it felt like home’…). Which can be a problem when part of your job is recommending books to customers. There are times when saying nothing more coherent than ‘it gave me the warm fuzzies’ is enough but it isn’t the best way to review dystopian fiction. So, obviously, I try to explain what it is that I’ve enjoyed about a book – how it made me feel, what I made of the characters, if the plot or language reminded me of another book, film or even a song. If I go quiet for a long time after finishing a novel it is probably because I’m trying to work out what those connections are. With Gnomon, the new book from Nick Harkaway, I think I’m going to have to start describing before I know what hit me…

33852053Gnomon is set, it seems, in an alternate reality where Britain operates under a benign but all-encompassing system of surveillance. Instead of politicians, fallible and corruptible human beings, the country is controlled by the System, watched (at all times and in every way) by the Witness and, if things do go wrong, there are Inspectors (like Mielikki Neith, one of the book’s central characters) to work out what happened. When Diana Hunter dies while being interrogated (by having her brain thoroughly and electronically read) Neith has to, effectively, inhabit her thoughts to find out what happened. But instead of one woman’s thoughts, feelings and life she finds at least four other stories unfolding in there – and what stories they are! A greek banker, doing well enough but nothing spectacular, encounters a shark while swimming, escapes and becomes some kind of financial guru. Saint Augustine’s discarded lover becomes some kind of  miracle-worker, utilising the power of a temple of Isis which somehow exists even though it should only be a figment of her imagination. The owner of a security firm returns to his former life as a famous artist when his grand-daughter needs him to visualise the computer game she is developing (where Britain is governed by an all-seeing surveillance system…). A mad, godlike figure plans to build a new reality by swallowing the current one – just like it happened before. And through it all is the image of the shark – terrifying and destructive and sometimes more than just an image.

The first time Harkaway thoroughly confused (but also delighted) me was when I read his first novel, The Gone-Away World, about nine years ago. I’ve reread it a couple of times since, I still love it (especially Ronnie Cheung – I bloomin’ love Ronnie Cheung), but I find new angles each time. Harkaway is the son of John Le Carré and, although he writes in a completely different genre, he seems to share his father’s love of a convoluted (but totally joined-up) plot. I’m fairly certain I’m going to have to read Gnomon a few times before I even begin to realise what was going on. If you like a book which is very big, very dense and very clever then this could be for you – the fact it is also very funny is a bonus – just don’t blame me if you have major problems trying to describe what just happened to you when you’ve finished.

Jane

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The Djinn Falls in Love – Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin eds.

Retellings of fairy-tales, folk stories and myths are huge at the moment (and have been for a while). Authors like Angela Carter, Philip Pullman and Joanne Harris have explored many of the stories which are hugely familiar to us all and made us think very differently about them. There doesn’t seem to be a fairy-tale character who doesn’t now star in their very own YA franchise and my favourite, Alice in Wonderland, crops up everywhere. The universal themes of stories which we have heard from our childhoods help to give us a sense of familiarity (which the best authors then undermine like mad). But of course not every culture tells the same stories so I was interested to read this collection of tales based on the tales of djinns (or jinns or genies) which we only know in the West from Disney films.

djinnContrary to everything I thought I knew (and which most people raised in cultures where these beings are as well-known as elves and gnomes are to us could have told me) most djinn don’t live in bottles. They don’t necessarily spend all their time granting wishes and they don’t all speak like Robin Williams – these djinn are much more interesting and diverse. These djinn are people. Interestingly the biggest named author in the book (the incomparable Neil Gaiman) wrote one of the stories I liked least – although, to be fair, it was a chapter from American Gods and maybe I could tell that, while complete in itself, it wasn’t a whole story. The rest of the stories cover a multitude of genres and time periods: I particularly enjoyed some of the more sci-fi/dystopian ones (Saad Hossain’s Bring Your Own Spoon, for example), but most of them had some elements of speculative fiction in there. The one which may stick with me longest, however, was chillingly real – REAP by Sami Shah – and featured a blend of magical beings and realistic drone warfare.

A really interesting collection and, like the best short story anthologies, it will lead you towards lots of brilliant new authors.

Jane

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

Magical Realism seems to be one of those styles of writing which really divides people. I managed to totally split our shop book group down the middle when I got them to read One Hundred Years of Solitude (and when I say ‘down the middle’ I really mean that one or two agreed with me and enjoyed it – the rest found it odd and irritating) but it is a genre I generally enjoy. It was, however, not the genre I was expecting when I picked up Mohsin Hamid’s latest. His previous works have been experimental in their form so I guess the surprise was that Hamid was working within an existing format – it is no surprise, however, to find that he does it very well. In fact I checked out the main characteristics of the genre and I reckon he has ticked most of them…

exitwestNadia and Saeed are young people in an unnamed city (my feeling is that it is based on Syria or somewhere similar in the area but that feeling would probably change with whatever war was in the news…) who, like young people the world over, meet and begin to develop a relationship. This is dramatically intensified when simmering unrest develops into a civil war, cutting off normal means of communication. Nadia is passionate and impulsive; Saeed thoughtful and more socially/religiously conservative but they are sure they love each other. Probably. When the situation in their home city worsens further they decide to escape.

So far this doesn’t sound very ‘magical’. The realism of the unrest/civil war/atrocities is, well, very very real. The deaths, most of which seem to be civilians who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and described with almost emotionless brutality and the day-to-day problems faced by those caught up in such conflicts are also covered in dispassionate depth. I think this feeling of disconnectedness was the first hint for me of what was to come so when the method of escape being used came up I was ready to accept it. Doors. Black doors. Which lead to other cities, other lives and other possibilities.They don’t all lead to lives of luxury – the ones heading to the affluent West tend to be heavily guarded – but Nadia and Saeed move gradually westwards, through the Greek Islands and London before ending up in California. Of course, realism is still a factor, so when people move via these doors they still meet the same problems refugees face in our own reality: prejudice, poverty, political manipulation. Nadia and Saeed face the fact that their relationship was formed in an almost unreal situation and, now they are halfway round the world from home, they have to find out if it has any future.

I’m not sure if I should class this book as speculative fiction, magical realism or literary fiction. It is all three. It is also a fascinating study of what it could be like to be displaced and how the world could react to an increasing influx of refugees to the West. It is beautiful and scary and well worth a read.

Jane

Is it all in the hair?

Now bear with me here. I recently read two books which seemed, at first glance, to be very different. The first was a collection of short stories by a very famous Canadian novelist and poet: the second was a first novel, set in 15th Century Constantinople, by a tv archaeologist. My subconscious wanted me to do a joint review of the two – but why?

And then it struck me (on a long car journey after a weekend of folk music and wine – this isn’t important but may explain my state of mind) that they were both writing speculative fiction and they both had really interesting hair. hair 1 hair 2 Maybe, just maybe, there is some kind of literary Sampson-like quality going on here…

Anyway, I digress…

master of shadowsLet’s start with Neil Oliver – he has written a number of books in connection with his tv programmes, on various historical and archaeological subjects but Master of Shadows is his first novel. Set in Scotland, Galicia and Constantinople in the 15th Century it is clearly playing to Oliver’s strengths (I’ll admit, I was reading it in his accent in my head…) and he deals with the history as well as I would expect of him. You certainly get the sense of the sounds, smells and sights of the Medieval world and lots of action to boot. My only real quibble with the whole book was that every time the main character, John Grant, was referred to it was by his whole name. I’m sure there was a good reason for this but it was lost on me.

I’m not going to give you the reason why I would class this book as speculative fiction – of the ‘alternate history’ genre – since that would be an enormous spoiler but it is enough of a twist to make this book have appeal beyond the purely historical. The history, however, is well enough researched not to make a historian twitch.

Margaret Atwood, on the other hand, is no stranger to the world of speculative fiction – the worlds of The Handmaid’s Talestone mattress and Oryx and Crake are well-known and, rightly, acclaimed. Atwood herself has been at pains to ensure that these books are not called science fiction (although she has referred to them as social science fiction which seems a fair term to me) and, in fact, one thing that seems to characterise her work is that she doesn’t limit herself to any one genre or style.

The stories in Stone Mattress are like fables or fairy tales – they are very slightly dissociated from what I would define as everyday reality – and yet they are also very real. Many of the stories touch on the experience of aging or, to put it more accurately, on the memories of youth from the perspective of old age. My favourite tale in the whole collection was Torching the Dusties – which was a chillingly dystopic view of what could happen if mob rule demonized the elderly as worthless drains on society – but I would also heartily recommend the rather macabre The Dead Hand Loves You. All the stories are beautifully written, of course, and shot through with all the wit and wisdom you would expect from Atwood.

Jane