Monday, 1 June 2015

Book Review: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The world as we know it is flooded, drowned, and very very soggy. In Kirsty Logan’s debut novel, she gives us a future (presumably) where dry land is in short supply and those who live on it (landlockers) have the upper hand in social status.

That’s unless you’re a dampling, with the sea in your veins, fish stew on your breath, and webbed toes. The Gracekeepers partly follows the Circus Excalibur, a small crew of performers who float nomadically across the ocean, exchanging performances for food. They’re all face paint, hair dye and glitter, a gender-bending troupe constantly reinventing itself in each performance.

We learn about a number of characters in this fanciful world. There’s North, the young woman who dances with a bear in a dangerous pirouette of death and rebirth for the punters. Red Gold (Jarrow), the Circus Ringmaster and owner who is blind to some harsh truths. Avalon, his bitchy wife who wants to rise through the social ranks. And Callanish, a mysterious gracekeeper who spends her time administering rites for the dead by starving small birds in cages over the sea.

Logan’s prose is tightly controlled, dreamy and magical. To call this a dystopia doesn’t seem right somehow, instead The Gracekeepers brings to mind the magic realism of Angela Carter. But there’s not really much more beyond the descriptive language. The characters seem underwritten, with a multitude of gaps left unexplored (I’m still not really sure what happened between Callanish and her mother). Perhaps this is deliberate and I’m not saying we have to know everything, but the effect kept me oddly distanced and unengaged with the story. Threads are woven loosely and then abandoned. This effect is exacerbated by the structure; early on alternating third person chapters from North and Callanish’s perspective are established, before suddenly a hotchpotch of other views butt in, often for only one chapter. It’s disorientating.

There are some arresting passages of prose however. A scene where North dives deep into the ocean and finds a drowned city, for example, or her relationship with the bear. Logan seems indebted to Shakespearean themes, motifs and theatre too—her clowns are surely incarnations of the Shakespearean fool, inciting rebellion against the upper classes while simultaneously acting as scapegoat for society’s ills. The acrobats are male/female, brother/sister, husband/wife, and they seem to swap between all these roles, bringing to mind the gender play of Twelfth Night. The term ‘damplings’ perhaps suggests the ‘groundings’ of early modern theatre audiences. And of course, you can’t help but think Exit, pursued by a bear… 

But these motifs all seem a little bit forced and a little bit too self-aware, while the clowns’ potential is never fully realised. They just kind of slope around in the background, leaving glitter and eyeliner over the bedsheets. The ending, when it comes, feels rushed and certainly not as apocalyptic as it promised to be, although Logan does a good job of creating pathos (you’ll guess what happens).

The Gracekeepers is an odd little fairytale which is definitely worth reading, but just don’t expect a huge amount of depth. Like any good circus performance, it’s all smoke and mirrors.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Book Review: number9dream by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s second novel, number9dream has all the typical hallmarks of its writer. Interconnected stories—check. Historical pastiche—check. Blurred lines between fantasy and reality—check.

We follow teenaged Eiji Miyake in his search for his father in Tokyo, in a journey which veers wildly from one writing style to another.

So we might be thrown into Eiji’s delusional fantasies involving him storming a building with guns to steal his father’s file, or into a violent encounter with the Yakuza, which Mitchell still manages to execute with characteristic drollness. Every chapter is a new puzzle to solve. You’re disorientated as you’re chucked into some new and bizarre slant and have to work out what the hell’s going on—and on the whole, it works.

Tokyo is a vivid consumerist bubble, a Blade Runner-ish city (at one point Eiji watches Blade Runner in the video shop he lives above and works in) layered with colours and sights and smells. A twenty-four hour city which exists in stark contrast to the backwardly beautiful Hicksville in which Eiji grew up.

Eiji is a likeable character too, as he embarks on his Bildungsroman journey of origins and identity. He spends a lot of time lying in his capsule above the video shop, looking after the stray feline Cat and waging war on the pesky Cockroach. He even finds the girl of his dreams (entranced by the back of her lovely neck) in between dodging Yakuza factions, trying not to get blown up and hunting for his father. Is it all in Eiji’s head? Is some of it? Who knows?

Where number9dream falters is perhaps in the execution of its ambition. While Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks gelled together, number9dream is sometimes just a bit too sprawling and disconnected. Some of the segments don’t work as well as the others—particularly one section where Eiji goes into hiding.

He discovers an author’s manuscript about a chicken and a writing goat and suddenly we’re in the murky waters of metafiction. And I think we’d all agree, this is where we do not wish to be. Another section follows the doomed pilot of one of the manned suicide torpedoes (Kaitens) during WW2. It should be fascinating, and while the pilot’s journals pertinently talk about his family back in Nagasaki during the summer of 1944, the section still doesn’t quite ignite our interest.


Still, it’s an engrossing read and the ending is suitably Mitchell-esque in its apocalyptic doom and gloom. A flawed but vivid novel.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Reading List 2015

My reading tally has been a bit measly so far this year (various boring life things getting in the way). But here goes.

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn (quite an enjoyable read for its genre, even if you can guess the twists)

Number9dream - David Mitchell (pretty bonkers)

Wool - Hugh Howey (another dystopian story. Started off well, but lost momentum)

Veniss Underground - Jeff Vandemeer (utterly nuts, in a very good way. Loved it)

Shift - Hugh Howey (next in Wool series. Rapidly losing interest I'm afraid)

Alone in Berlin - Hans Fallada (powerful stuff. Everyone should read this)

The Gracekeepers - Kirsty Logan (whimsical and soggy fairytale)

The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes (I wanted to like it...)