Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Pigeon English, The Age of Miracles and The Sea Change


Stephen Kelman's 'Pigeon English' has a wonderful ending. There's a fantastic surge at the end of the book - it's all about the start of the school holidays - and it takes you abruptly to the finish. The actual finish suddenly seems inevitable, but it took me by surprise. It resounds beautifully and it's a terrific final few pages.

The rest, to me, seemed to drag in places in story-terms. The real punch of the book is in its linguistic verve and the sustaining of the point of view. It meanders a bit and would have made a punchier shorter novel, maybe. I still didn't feel I knew the other characters much by the end of it all. I wanted more about the woman who kept burning her finger prints off, for example. It's a book full of tantalising glimpses.

Then I was on to 'The Age of Miracles' by Karen Thompson Walker - a science fiction novel, really - about the suburbs in California and how the world looks from the point of view of a fairly ordinary family when a strange global phenomenon is unleashed. Days are getting longer and no one knows why. It could be to do with climate change or cosmic disasters; it could be a metaphor for economic collapse or clashes of faith or globalisation. All we really know about are the effects, and they are detailed scrupulously by the narrator - a young girl who watches and records everything - including her mother's disintegration, her father's secrets, and the strange adaptations that the human race has to make to accommodate those extra hours of 'white light.'

It's another book about racing towards inevitability - and disaster and death making themselves felt in very humdrum locales. In this case, though, the suspense is apparent all the way through the book. Food hoarding, radiation sickness, and the persecution of outsiders - it's all here, as it would be in any story belonging to the 'cosy catastrophe' genre (the genre of global collapse as experienced by a local community) and it all feels very real. My favourite moments are those when the changes start *creeping* into the lives of the characters - such as when the narrator becomes aware that her piano teacher's birds are dying, and birds are dropping out of the sky all over the world. I love the scenes with the flooded mansions by the ocean - the narrator and her father finding sea urchins in the sinks and pods of whales stranded on the beaches. It's a darkly lyrical book - as the best science fiction often is.

Both novels feature a scene in which their child characters leave their prints and names in cement as it solidifies. It's an interesting rhyme across two random contemporary novels. As if they both tap into a current neurosis for leaving something of permanance behind?

Joanna Rossiter's 'The Sea Change' shares a similar theme, in a way. Its two time zones - a war time village which gets evacuated and abandoned, and an Indian town hit by a tsunami thirty years later - are both swept clean and denuded of human stuff. Both intersecting story arcs are concerned with the figures left coping when the war or the ocean comes rushing through a landscape. I found Rossiter's book a very touching one - a little more textured and nuanced than its Richard and Judy stable-mates, perhaps. The writing is a bit meatier and self-consciously literary - and that's no bad thing. I did wonder though, whether it didn't get a little high-flown in its ambitions for what is, essentially, an inter-generational family saga about the war and secrets and disjunctures between mothers and daughters. Also, I wasn't sure about the mother and her journey into India at the end - it all seems a bit quick and easy for her, somehow, after a more or less sedentary lifetime. Sometimes I found the drama of it all pitched a little too loftily... as if the characters' lives were taking on a bit too much deliberate significance. I just liked hearing about them as they were and I struggled a bit when the book became a bit 'novelly'.

But these are just quibbles really, when I enjoyed the book a great deal, on the whole. I enjoyed all three of these. I'm thoroughly enjoying my summer of reading up-to-the-minute stuff. It's all very interesting to me. And i hope my thoughts are of interest, too!

It's almost the end of June - and I think pretty soon I'm going to present my mid-year top ten. I'm going to share with you my favourite books of the year so far..!

So...what are you reading just now?



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