September 2011 Archives

Perfect Architect

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Jayne Joso
Alcemi
9780956012524
May 2011
181 pp
Whole book read
Yes
This caught my eye. It has a simple but distinctive red jacket design and I have always been interested in the life of architects.

The start of the novel is told exclusively in an exchange of letters between the recently widowed Gaia (whose husband had been one of the leading architects of his time) and Selene. Initially, Gaia suspects she is writing to a young mistress of her dead husband, and the gradual disabusing of this notion is humorously and very beguilingly handled. Indeed, Selene is a delightfully witty and life-affirming creation.

It is something of a shame that the novel could not have been conceived as a wholly epistolary construction, because when the action moves away from the exchange of letters and the compelling relationship between Gaia and Selene, the novel loses its hold on the reader to the extent that the resulting four-way competition to design the perfect home for Gaia to move into and reconstruct her life in never achieves any traction. Whilst the letters are perfectly pitched, Joso is less assured when it comes to character dialogue. The American architect in particular is an embarrassing pastiche.

Nevertheless, I'm glad it caught my eye.



August

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Bernard Beckett
Quercus
9780857387899
September 2011
203 pp
Whole book read
Yes
I had not read Genesis, this author's award winning previous novel, nor indeed any of his earlier books for that matter. Although August is, in many ways, a deeply unpleasant novel, and very different from the one I was expecting, it is also, partly by virtue of being so unusual, a very interesting work of fiction.

The book's title refers both to to the theologian St Augustine and the eponymous establishment that Tristan (one of the book's two main characters) attends. I had laughably selected the book to read on the train thinking the title referred to the month August and that the jacket strapline - "A thriller that will turn you upside down" - promised a lightweight 200pp diversion. How wrong could I have been? And how shamefully ignorant of the tenor of the previous novel which had been selected for the Guardian Children's Book Prize two years ago.

Part of the book's unpleasantness stems from the situation which opens the novel, persists throughout, and the scatology of which the author seems to take perverse delight in describing.

A car has just crashed and is lodged upturned half-way down a ravine. Tristan, the driver, and Grace, the passenger, are trapped inside.

It soon becomes apparent that this circumstance is not going to be the prelude to a conventional 'thriller' - in fact it is hard to see how the book can be so described, when the novel is in fact a fairly demanding philosophical exploration of free will and determinism. The only real thrills in the novel are intellectual ones stemming from Tristan's attempts to outwit the manipulative rector at St Augustine's and prove that his actions are freely chosen and not predetermined.

It is a tribute to Beckett's ability as a writer that he manages to make this aspect of the novel - its crux - completely engrossing.

The stories of Grace's and Tristan's lives leading up to the car-crash are told in recollection. Neither really existed for me as a believable character, even and especially in the last quarter of the novel when the independent and codependent lives of each are given more space. But being moved about character is not what this book is about.