Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Derby Day: DJ Taylor, Chatto and Windus, £17.99

The mists of Lincolnshire haunt the flat fields and lowering sky, and seep into local myth and legend.

Out of this fog which, we are told, lurks like a dense white halo over the low-lying land, there is said to gallop a winged steed: coal-black, with flaming eyes.

This mist haunts Scroop, a gently disintegrating manor house that overlooks the wolds, “where there are more rooks than Christian folk”.

Scroop is the ancestral home of Samuel Davenant, and to a second flesh-and-blood black horse – Tiberius - which casts its spell over the characters in DJ Taylor’s gothic, evocative novel.

In particular, Taylor’s characters are spellbound by the two and a half minutes that it will take Tiberius to run the Derby.

In those 160 seconds, fortunes may be made, men will be ruined, and the fates and destinies of the characters in this mesmerising, finely-realised pastiche of a Victorian novel determined.

The race is the climax to a tale in which George Happerton, a chancer and adventurer, bluffs his way into marriage with Rebecca Gresham, daughter of an unutterably respectable lawyer who has worked in the Equity Courts for 50 years.

Marriage to her is said to be worth £50,000. But it’s not enough. And nor is the respectability that this marriage could have won him.

Having got the girl, Happerton sets out to steal the horse from Davenant, through a campaign of forgery and deception funded, although he doesn’t know it, by his father-in-law.

But Rebecca has depths or – rather – shallows to match those of her husband, if only he could recognise them. Instead, she remains an unfathomable mystery to him.

If Happerton is a modern Victorian man, his wife is a modern woman. She likes his campaign to buy Tiberius and win the Derby because “it spoke of enterprise, status and ultimately money”.

She admires his speculative schemes, or at least those she is told of, but is irked that she is kept in ignorance of others. And, knowing that this modern world is not quite modern enough for she herself to take any great strides, she schemes to use her husband as her proxy, plotting to have him installed as a Conservative MP.

Taylor aspires to introduce us to a cast of characters to rival Dickens, who he references several times in the text. He makes a pretty good fist of it.

We have Happerton’s lowlife sidekick– some say his jackal - Captain Raff: a small, dirty, and rather ill-favoured former officer.

There is Mr Pardew, a crack safe-breaker whose enterprises are a key part of the Tiberius/Derby plot.

And there are Mr Gallentin, the Leadenhall Street jeweller whose lifted gems help finance Tiberius’s attempt on the Derby, and honest-plod Captain McTurk of the Metropolitan Police, who seeks to foil the plot.

All are swept up onto the Epsom Downs to take part in the novel’s climax; to mingle with the faux aristocrats, the swells in frock coats, tiny half-starved boys selling race cards, grub street scribblers from the Pictorial Times and the Illustrated London News, and the Mayfair tarts – Happerton’s among them.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Nicole Krauss: Great House, Penguin Viking, £16.99

George Weisz does magic: he retrieves the past for those robbed of it.

Not entirely unlike the True Kindness - the special Orthodox who hold the dying victims of bomb attacks in Israel, and “collect the spattered dead” - he shuttles endlessly across Europe and America tracking down the lost, inanimate underpinnings of Jewish lives riven by the holocaust.

This forensic furniture dealer tracks down the plundered desks, bureaus, chairs and beds their dispossessed owners long for: “all that furnished the lives they lost or the lives they dreamed of living…”

He talks of his work profoundly: “There is amazement that comes over each one…when I at last produce the object they have been dreaming of for half a lifetime, that they have invested with the weight of their longing.”

A lost bed’s significance grows for its owner as death nears: “before he dies, the man whose soul was overwhelmed needs to lie down in that bed one more time.”

But there is one item that eludes Weisz. For 44 years he has laboured to reassemble the contents of his father’s Budapest study; the constituents of which were loaded onto a Nazi Gold Train when the SS plundered Jewish possessions ahead of the Soviet advance on that city in 1945.

He has been doing so: “as if by putting all the pieces back together he might collapse time and erase regret.”

He has found everything but a vast desk with 19 drawers: the desk at which his father, a history scholar, wrote and which, aged four, he was given the key to the only lockable compartment. Weisz says of it: “when I was very young I believed that two thousand years were stored in those drawers.” He’s not wrong.

Much of Great House concerns the post-holocaust history of that desk. It has travelled across continents, given by lover to lover, writer to writer and, perhaps, mother to son.

It has dominated: physically, emotionally and spiritually, the lives of all through whose hands it has passed.

But in his quest for it, Weisz has a rival who is even more accomplished and cunning a desk-detective than he: his daughter. Why his daughter should want to deprive him of this great prize is at the heart of the book, so I won’t reveal her motivation here.

But let me give you a quote that might easily form the poster teaser-line for a great movie-adaptation of this book: “My father died fifty years ago on a death march to the Reich. Now I sit in his room in Jerusalem, a city he only imagined. His desk sits locked in a storage room in New York City, and my daughter holds the key…”

If I have made Great House sound like a gripping and rather profound detective story then I’m afraid I am misrepresenting it. Sadly, the desk is the least wooden character among Great house’s cast of po-faced, self-absorbed writers and academics who endlessly faff about analysing their dreams and worrying if they will ever write again. The hope has to be that they won’t.

So while you could buy the book and labour, as I have, to extract the great story that is at its heart, personally, I’d recommend you wait for the movie.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Perfect Lives, Polly Samson

Into Celia Idlewild’s perfect world an egg drops. There she is, preparing a perfect breakfast tray for her husband - "everything as it should be: black lacquer tray, two white porcelain cups, ginger thins, the Sunday worship on the radio” - when the egg plops through the letterbox and cracks on the mat.

On the shell is written in thick pen: “HAPPY FAT…”

We learn: "For a moment she was puzzled by what was written on the egg. But not for long.” The full message, obliterated in the smashed egg, would have been ‘happy father’s day’. The egg opens a crack onto another life that Celia has sought to close off; one she first learned of when a woman inadvertently alerted her to the existence of a child her husband has with another woman.

Celia has told him: "I will stay with you if you promise to never see that child again."

And now comes the egg: “Egg bomb. Stink bomb. Bombshell.”

Celia’s is just one of the, inevitably imperfect, lives presented in this collection of loosely-connected short stories; brief sketches, snapshots in which the lives of half a dozen assorted, seaside-dwelling artistic types overlap.

There is Richard, the brilliant pianist reduced to tuning old pianos turned tinny by the sea air. Richard must break off from a Chopin Barcarolle to ply his trade, and the highlight of his day is to tune Celia's perfect piano, “a Bosendorfer that had once apparently belonged to a high-ranking SS officer – who’s fingerprints stained the ivory keys?” It is the piano of his dreams.

Tarnished dreams are a recurring theme in the book.

Tilda the picture restorer has been winkled out of Hackney to take on her husband’s family farm and formidable mother; drawn there with tales of the fine strain of cattle bred there for generations, the fact she is pregnant, and an article about how to be happy in The Times.

But she can’t love the baby she bears: "She's tried, it’s like willing a dream."

Another woman carries on a curious kind of illicit relationship, cuckolding her husband not with another man but with a Leica camera that she covets, obsesses over and fritters money on as she might a secret lover.

Several of the lives drawn bear the inheritance of profound suffering: as Catholics in officially godless, communist-era Poland, or as the Jewish victims of Crystalnachte.

Yet, in the end, the cracks in these lives are often healed. Aurelia, a singer, performs on the same Hamburg stage her Jewish grandfather was booed from, but finds balm for the memory in taking a red rose thrown at her feet to place on his grave.

Estranged parents and children are reconciled. A potential tragedy ignited Tilda’s love of her baby and “a warmth like candlelight ran through her”.

The stories have a leisurely pace that belies a sharpness of observation and a depth of emotion. They are snatches that blend and develop like the short tracks on side two of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, each a significant and distinct part of a greater whole.

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson, Virago, £15.99