The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt: book review

Suffolk, July 1940 . . . In terms of choosing a place and time to set his debut novel, Jason Hewitt is off to a scintillating start. Suffolk is a county of diverse landscapes, rich in myth and fascinating histories that includes a wild man, green children, a buried Anglo-Saxon ship, UFOs and an abundance of rumours concerning thwarted German landings. The Second World War is of course much written about, but Hewitt’s angle is well chosen for this is Britain in the early throes of war with no end in sight and without a key ally, the United States, to tip the balance. The Channel Islands have just been occupied by the Nazis and an invasion of the British mainland seems entirely plausible, even imminent.

In ‘The Dynamite Room’, Hewitt tells the story of a Suffolk girl, the sole occupant of a house in an isolated village, who comes face to face with a Nazi soldier; the soldier takes her as his hostage. Whether this tale has any basis in fact whatsoever, whether it was propaganda designed to needle the conscience of our American cousins or just a product of wartime paranoia and too many pints of Adnams may never be known. But that doesn’t matter, because Hewitt’s version gives us a fleshed-out psychological drama between two extraordinary characters, Heiden, the first of a German invasion party to reach dry land, and Lydia, 11 years old and utterly alone.

Both Lydia and Heiden are resilient in their way. Both are afraid of – and dependent upon – one another. The book provides an explanation of how such a meeting may’ve occurred and plays out the intriguing consequences. Domestic challenges such as trying to get the water running, sharing a dinner with one’s captor or prisoner and procuring maps from hiding places are magnified into emotional battlegrounds. Each character probes the other for information while trying to conceal their troubled past and the anxieties of the present.

This is WWII fiction as apocrypha and alternative reality, as opposed to researched-to-the-nth-degree realism. Hewitt delves into his two lead characters’ points of view, in essence switching the protagonist/antagonist roles. Some of the flashback scenes are ambitious, and perhaps uneven as a result, because this writer is trying to explore human feeling in extremis. Not wishing to detract from the Nazi character whose conflicting motives drive the story forward, Lydia is the one who steals the show. She’s vulnerable without being passive and at a precarious age where innocence is ebbing away and full maturity has yet to blossom. Her thoughts and reactions are the soul of this novel.

It’s interesting to note that Hewitt is an actor and playwright because his work undoubtedly has the dramatic elements of a play. Claustrophobic, touching, character-driven and told in lovely prose, this novel has great crossover appeal. Readers who loved ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne and ‘The Separation’ by Christopher Priest will have a strong affinity with ‘The Dynamite Room’.

The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt

Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, March 2014

@Jason Hewitt123 on Twitter

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The Hunger Trace by Edward Hogan: book review

In The Hunger Trace, Edward Hogan’s second novel, we’re led through a landscape that feels simultaneously familiar, intimidating and astonishing. Derbyshire and falconry; a wildlife park and a love triangle that includes a deceased husband; a young man with special needs and a preoccupation with Robin Hood . . . Each of these themes has outward charms to be sure. But take a closer look, the way Hogan does, at these characters’ precarious existence, at their preoccupations and how they pit themselves against one another. Battles over territory, mating privileges and tests of strength pulse beneath the surface of seemingly mild personalities.

There are three characters we come to know intimately. Maggie, the young widow of David Bryant, pretty, placid and urban who inherits a languishing wildlife park. Christopher, her stepson, who is difficult and vulnerable, and at odds with his stepmother. Finally, Louisa, a woman who lives on the estate and who keeps no company except her hawks.

David is the centre of their world – and the void in it. Louisa in particular pines for him because she has the longest history with David though the true nature of her craving is obscured by the hold she had over him in life.

The natural world seeps into these relationships, literally and figuratively. There are practical problems to solve like when the herd of ibex are set free by persons unknown and tracked down to Morrison’s car park, or when the worst rains in a century come, flooding roads and endangering the raptors’ aviary. At times like these Maggie and Louisa have no choice but to work together, for whom else can they turn to?

Maggie is the warmer of the two women and sees better then Louisa does how much they have in common. Louisa, made bitter by experience, is unwilling to relinquish the comforts of isolation. They’re ostensibly rivals though the object of their mutual affection has died. The language and gestures are human; the forces moving them are animal.

Christopher is more than just a troubled teen, he is an abandoned child in a man’s body. His real mother is alive and well and has had nothing to do with him for years. He cannot accept the maternal overtures from Maggie for what they appear to be. What he would like most is to create his own family where he’s the man of the house or, alternatively, live the life of a noble outlaw in Sherwood Forrest. Neither dream is very realistic. Christopher is the physical embodiment of David, the new focus of Maggie and Louisa’s emotions, challenging and unpredictable. He requires no less patience than an injured animal who may attempt to bite you while you’re trying to save it.

The recurring image of falconry in this book is excellent. The delicate balance between care of the birds to keep them healthy, and the measured denial of food to keep them returning to the falconer’s fist works for numerous reasons, exposing the complexity of the human relationships that surround. This is but one example of Hogan’s creative brainpower, whose prose is crisp, the sounds and views of Derbyshire beautifully recreated. Equally impressive is the thorny friendship between Louisa and Maggie, how it deepens through the story, how each finds themselves influenced by the other.

Jealousy, hostility, helplessness and growth. The reader’s instincts constantly prickle. The Hunger Trace is accomplished and understated, a gem of a novel that manages to perturb and ultimately to reassure. For when we are consumed by terrible pain, what better therapy is there than to take care of a creature more fragile than ourselves?

The Hunger Trace by Edward Hogan

Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, March 2012

@simonschusterUK on Twitter

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Lost, Stolen or Shredded by Rick Gekoski: book review

In Lost, Stolen or Shredded, Rick Gekoski draws upon his expertise in antiquarian book dealing, academia and his proclivity for collecting to explore the hows and whys of missing art and literature. What unfolds is a collage of history, memoir, commentary and some truly fascinating stories – well known and obscure – of art heists, cultural vandalism, protected reputations and greed.

Each chapter covers a story or theme and Gekoski’s reflections on it. He tells, for instance, of Vincenzo Peruggia, an unprepossessing Italian picture framer working at the Louvre in 1911 who took the Mona Lisa off the wall, stuffed her up his smock, walked out with her unchallenged and kept her in his bedroom for two years. What’s intriguing, as Gekoski explains, is the public reaction to the theft. When the gallery opened a week later, thousands queued to look at the space the Mona Lisa left behind in an extraordinary convergence of crime scene curiosity and ritual mourning.

Another object, one never recovered, is a gaudy sounding edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a twelfth century Persian poet translated by Edward Fitzgerald) bound by Francis Sangorski with a peacock design in gold leaf and over 1,000 precious stones. It was commissioned in 1909, took two years to make, then sank with the Titanic in 1912. A further lesson, as if the Edwardians needed one, on the fallacy of decadence.

Some of the moments recounted by Gekoski are most poignant because they are deeply human. A striking example is the library of Guido Adler, a pioneer of modern musicology, whose collection included a personally inscribed manuscript of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (‘I am Lost to the World’) by Mahler. Adler, a Jew, died of natural causes in Vienna in 1941. His daughter, Melanie, inherited his library and unquestionably aware of its importance tried using it as bargaining chip with the Nazis in exchange for her life. An act of desperation assuredly and, with hindsight, naivety. Needless to say they procured the keys to her father’s library and its contents, and murdered her anyway.

Far less harrowing though no less interesting is a personal anecdote of Gekoski’s meeting with the Irish writer, Brian Coffey, in the 1980s regarding placing his papers with various institutions. In the 1920s Coffey was personal friend, golfing buddy and correspondent of Samuel Beckett. ‘How many letters would you say you had from Sam?’ Gekoski asked, book dealer antennae twitching. Coffey replied that he never counted but it was probably ‘thousands’ and that he threw them all away. Gekoski (presumably reeling from shock) asked him why?

‘At first, I just answered a letter, then chucked it in the bin. As you do. But after a few years, and Sam got well known, then I made sure to throw them away . . . because they were private.’

And this is the core of what Gekoski’s book is about, how we relate to works of cultural significance. Depending on our point of view art is personal property; a sellable commodity; of immeasurably greater historic than intrinsic value; damaging to individual reputations; a political firework waiting to go off; or rubbish getting in the way. Equally the loss and destruction of art and literature provokes different responses, emotional and real world.

As wide-ranging as this book is, there’s much material left for Gekoski to cover. Only as I was reading it (July 2013) a news report emerged of a mother in Romania who apparently burned paintings by Picasso, Monet, Matisse and Freud in her oven. The woman claims it was an attempt to ‘destroy the evidence’ following her son’s arrest for an art theft from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal Museum in October 2012. The work had a collective value of between 100m and 200m euros. This kind of story confirms what Gekoski explains: art thefts are not jaunty Thomas Crown style escapades by eccentric billionaire collectors, they are ham-fisted and motivated by money. And the more famous and highly valued a work, the more difficult it becomes to move it along the chain of dealers. Priceless paintings become virtually, even literally, worthless.

Paradoxically the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad during the Bush/Rumsfeld/Blair war in Iraq, the loss of thousands of ancient Mesopotamian pieces and the subsequent saturation of the antiquities marketplace in the West meant prices tumbled. Gekoski meditates on whether the appropriation of one culture’s treasures by another has any benefits? His juxtaposition of the case of the Elgin Marbles makes interesting reading. Still it’s a chilling thought that in the modern age, rather than taking an enlightened approach to artefacts, devastation is potentially systematic and the channels to sell merchandise superefficient.

Lost, Stolen or Shredded is based on the Radio 4 documentary of the same name. I didn’t hear it myself, but if Gekoski’s voice on the air is the same as it is on the page, then he’s witty, knowledgeable and engaging – someone I’d definitely want to be seated next to at a dinner party. Despite the big themes this is a hugely readable book about an intriguing subject.

In his afterword Gekoski reminds us with Buddhist-like reflection that even when it survives accident, political turmoil and bungling, art doesn’t last forever. Art is fragile and temporary. Its very impermanence is what we should cherish.

Lost, Stolen or Shredded by Rick Gekoski

Published in the UK by Profile Books, April 2013

@ProfileBooks on Twitter

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Forgive my absence

I’m retreating into writing solitude for a while. When I come out again, perhaps there will be a book of some sort? K x

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Today is World Poetry Day

 

“If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.”

 

by Emily Dickinson

 

World Poetry Day

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Bath Literary Festival

On Saturday, 9 March 2013, I appeared as part of H9 ‘New Voices’ with Beatrice Hitchman (Petite Mort) and Anthea Nicholson (The Banner of the Passing Clouds). It took place in the Guildhall ‘Salon’ and was chaired by Christopher Cook. Because it was a shared event with a mutually supportive atmosphere, it quickly became one of my favourites that I’ve done. There was a bit of post-talk drinkies in the pub after and plenty of writer chat with some graduates of the Bath Spa MA.

Hats off to Bath Literary Festival for running a slick operation and being very author-friendly, especially the volunteers who greet you, offer you tea and shepherd you about. Even more special is the number of readers turning out in force to hear talks, including ours.

Now I understand why it’s one of the top festivals in the country. K x

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Clarissa Luard Award

Remarks on receiving (Thursday, 7 March 2013):

“Encouragement is precious to writers.

Whether it comes from a school teacher, a loved one, an expert, or a reader – encouragement given at the right time, and in the right spirit, can make the difference between whether books get written or they don’t.

For this reason, I’m so grateful to receive the Clarissa Luard, an award named for someone who made it her business to encourage writers.

My thanks to the Arts Council; Book Trust; Ursula Doyle; and Bill Hamilton.

And my biggest Thank You of all to Hilary Mantel, for your guidance, friendship and belief, and for the encouragement that you continue to give. I will treasure it always.”

Hilary Mantel receives the David Cohen Prize for literature: link to Book Trust website.

Interview with Hilary and Katie on Front Row, Radio Four (starts after 20 mins).

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The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter: book review

In her debut novel, The Sea Change, Joanna Rossiter writes about a peculiar kind of grief. I do not know the name of it. I wish I did.

Her book, you see, is about lost landscapes. She bases her story on two real events: the appropriation of Imber, a Wiltshire village, by the War Office in 1943; and a coastal community in India crushed by tsunami in 1971.

In each case there is destruction, the residents are displaced, their homes are robbed and the familiar environment scarred and garrotted. War and wave bring death to families caught up in them – and yet there are survivors too, left to mourn, recover and possibly to rebuild.

Rossiter gives us one family touched by both incidents. In 1971 (‘the present’), Alice is travelling overland through the Middle East to India with her spur-of-the-moment husband, having left her mother, Violet, in England on bad terms.

Meanwhile, her mother’s Imber upbringing forms the other portion of the story three decades earlier. She is the daughter of a parson, and Pete is the object of her teenage infatuation.

When catastrophe comes, personal loyalties are tested: the roots to the past that hold you back; the excitement and appeal of new experiences pulling you forward.

Violet’s love for Pete is intriguing. He is a wanderer without sentiment for any specific location, whereas Vi harbours a deep desire to ‘go home’, though war games have rendered Imber unrecognisable.

Her relationship with her daughter is equally complex. Alice’s adventuring hurts Violet, is intended to spite her, perhaps. The strings of affection tug, knot and unravel.

Rossiter has a gift for bringing geography to life, her descriptive passages are some of the loveliest and most effective I can recall reading. Likewise the devastation of landscapes she’s so skilfully created are poignant and anxiety-inducing. Rossiter makes it easy for us to see through Violet’s eyes, to empathise with her pain as her beloved birthplace is ripped apart. But as well as being a beautiful book, I think this is a subtle one. Is there something self-indulgent in Violet’s grief? Undignified even? (Bricks and mortar aren’t people after all.) Do villages have a heart, the same as any other loved one? It is an interesting question, intelligently asked.

One of the greatest pleasures I had reading this novel is the recurring theme of water damaged paper: the patches of mould on wallpaper like an atlas; the damp books drying over a banister; the ring from a teacup on an open map; the letter turned to mulch by the sea. I read a chapter in the bath and accidently got some pages wet – it was as if the moisture had leaked out of it.

Rossiter has a mature sensibility. She writes with fluency and grace. It seems implausible that The Sea Change is a debut novel, but it is. And the prospect of more work as good as this, or even better, is tantalising. She knows herself.

The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter

Published in the UK by Penguin, April 2013

@jojo_rossiter on Twitter

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The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson: book review

One of the most resonant phrases ever written is, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’ (Matthew 4:4). To me this means there is nourishment other than the basic necessity of food to keep us alive; there is the nourishment of the heart, nourishment of the mind, nourishment of the soul. To me, it says we are more than merely physical beings, that we are entitled to make the most of our intellect, creativity, spirituality and compassion. Moreover, that we have an obligation to – that we are morally compelled to be curious about the world and the gifts in it – and if we choose not to do this, then we are letting ourselves down in a terrible way.

Reading The Emperor of Paris reminded me of this idea.

This is CS Richardson’s second book (his first was the award-winning The End of the Alphabet). It is set in early twentieth century Paris. Part way through, the Great War disrupts the lives of the Parisians, and then the story resumes with the characters picking up the threads of their lives. But this is incidental.

It is a romance, as one would expect. There is a girl, Isabeau, who reads books in the park and cleans paintings at the Louvre. There is a boy, Octavio, the son of a baker, who inherits his father’s gift for storytelling. There is a terrible fire in the bakery that destroys his library. There are the gossips who act like a Greek chorus, commenting and speculating as events unfold. Anyone who has read Girl Reading could guess how it might appeal to me. All the ingredients are here; Richardson even dispenses with speech marks.

But there are other kinds of romance: the smell of croissants; the bookstalls on the river bank; the colour of book spines; the starving artist who washes his canvases in the Seine and never sells a single work; the young woman who resembles The Spring by Ingres, and yet hides her face from the world with a scarf. The perspective switches, taking in a variety of people with little lives and little dreams.

Sometimes when reading The Emperor of Paris, the images in my head turned into book sculpture. The characters seemed to be cut from the printed page, the landscape they inhabited was novelesque, as in ‘made out of novels’. I mean this as a compliment.

When I was giving my author talks at The Philharmonic in Naples, FL, several people asked me if I had seen the Painting Women exhibition? ‘It’s synchronicity!’ they exclaimed, referring to the epigram in my novel and one of the themes explored by Elaine Newton. Yes, I did indeed see the exhibition, and I thought it was superb. What they didn’t know, however, is that the very morning before I saw Painting Women, the showpiece of which is La Visite au musée by Degas, I had read the part in The Emperor of Paris where Isabeau is given the Louvre guidebook, then goes to visit it for the first time. Now that’s synchronicity.

Reviewing a book you like or respect is a simple matter. You tease out several good points, dotted perhaps with one or two weaknesses, and so the reviewer comes across as impartial, the review balanced. However, if you love a book (or hate it), your review turns into hyperbole. The reviewer’s voice raised in hysteria becomes unreliable.

I declare that I adore this book. It is fragile and beautiful. It aches with romance. It is for art lovers, book lovers and Francophiles. It tells its tale quietly and splendidly.

The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson

Published in the UK by Portobello Books, June 2013

@PortobelloBooks on Twitter

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#moodboosting

The Reading Agency is asking people to suggest #moodboosting books for their new list of fiction, non-fiction and poetry guaranteed to give you a lift. I can’t resist! Here’s my list. What do you read to make you feel better? Please tell The Reading Agency; your choice might help someone else. K x

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers
The Art of Happiness by HH Dalai Lama and Howard C Cutler
A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen
Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006 by Wendy Cope

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