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Philip Spires "Author of two African novels set in Kenya" (La Nucia, Spain)

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4.0 out of 5 stars A quest for the undefinable, 18 Sep 2013
This review is from: Propinquity (Kindle Edition)
Propinquity by John MacGregor is a thoroughly surprising book. Readers need to keep this in mind when embarking on its journey, because the opening section, when we meet Clive Lean and his friends, gives no hint whatsoever of its eventual focus and direction.

Clive Lean is Australian. He is a Geelong Grammar School lad, whose father is in business, owning a concern that makes and sells bits and pieces for your garden, but, perhaps significantly, nothing that actually grows. Clive and his diverse friends get up to the kinds of thing that lads do. They smoke a lot, lust a little, imagine futures they cannot envisage, live for the present and write off the occasional car. Dad will bail you out if anything goes wrong. Clive's school record rather sums up his early experiences, in that it lists one of his attributes as "small bore". Well, at this stage he seems to be.

The diverse group then diverges. One member eventually joins the Italian Presidential Guard, and another seeks liberation in Haiti. Somehow, Clive becomes a medical student in Oxford, which must be an indication of Clive's raw talent, since his elevation to prestige elite status did not seem to be the result of either application or effort. His father dies and leaves him the business, which he tried to manage for a while before selling it off in dubious circumstances, a transaction whose consequences will re-emerge later to create subtle, if convenient diversion.

At Oxford, Clive continues his pursuit of Sobranie Black Russian, chemical stimuli concocted for purposes of research and the occasional drink. Despite his elite status, he has slightly less focus than we might expect from the average adolescent, despite his being significantly older, since he has already spent significant time being the owner and manager of his own business. And this lack of focus continues, until he meets Sam.

She was married once, and has two adoring and adored children. Her father is a pillar of the English establishment, in that he helps to hold up the Anglican Church, perhaps with his entirely rigid, even petrified attitudes. Sam apologises for him in advance, before Clive is introduced. Clive and Sam's relationship soon graduates beyond friendship with remarkable success and ease. Their taste for love-making inside medieval tombs, however, might be termed bizarre. Let's put the lid on that one...

But it is in the cold of a medieval tomb that their relationship really does blossom. The blooms grow out of Sam's interest, nay obsession, with the fate of a former English queen, whose resting place under Westminster Abbey has only recently been discovered.

This review, rather like the book, has taken time to reach its point. From here, the story of John MacGregor's Propinquity develops like a thriller. The pace quickens. The events flow. But also the characters seem to grow via their association with this princess of Gnostic France, who took the hand of an English king, and was entombed eight hundred years ago.

Propinquity is a book that needs its plot, and when this comes along with the queen's body, it fairly races along. Summarised, there are travels, discoveries, a car chase, archaeology, a touch of medicine, learned research, some tissue analysis, trips to the archives, an occasional guerrilla war, a brush with Haitian voodoo, a medieval revival, brushes with the law, theft, and a court case, but not necessarily in any particular order. The experience is interesting, engaging, sometimes credible and eventually enlightening. Here is a group of people in search of meaning, something bigger than mere belief, and more significant than religion. Faith it may be, but this is faith generated out of action, out of doing, out of acknowledging life, rather than searching for it. Throughout their pursuit of the complex, the sensational and the status-giving, there emerges a simpler idea, a veritable raison d'etre, an unquestionable truth that might be obvious, if only we could see it.

Propinquity thus reveals it spiritual journey, which is itself surprising. By the novel's end, we realise, perhaps, that the label "small bore" might apply to any of us. Equally, as a result of this process, our bore may just have diminished, but our range may have grown a little.

Dr Fischer Of Geneva (Vintage Classics)
Dr Fischer Of Geneva (Vintage Classics)
Price: 3.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More meets the eye, 13 Sep 2013
Doctor Fischer Of Geneva Or The Bomb Party is one of Graham Greene's late novels. At around fifty thousand words, it's also quite short, and can easily be read in a single sitting. Do not think, however, that this quality might equate in any way with labels such as miniature or sketch, or even light. The book may not present a broad canvas, but compression is a word that might summarise its effect, since it addresses some very big and serious themes in a simple, succinct but profound way.

Graham Green's observations of character are often absurdly realistic. Here we have Doctor Fischer of the title, a widower millionaire, who has never overcome the loss of his darling wife. His fortune arose courtesy of an infection-busting toothpaste called Dentophil Bouquet, but his wealth has provided little comfort since his loss. He has a daughter called Anna-Louise, who has a name in common with her mother and, according to her father, also shares her mother's character, and some her weaknesses.

Anna-Louise develops a surprising attraction for a Mr Jones, a man thirty years her senior, and it is through his eyes that we view the couple's story. Mr Jones is a remarkably surreal figure whom the reader simply takes for granted. He is a translator and letter writer in a Geneva chocolate factory, offering what seems to be a veritable barrow-load of languages, his acquisition of which we must merely imagine. He also lost a hand serving as a fire fighter in the London blitz.

Doctor Fischer is rich; Mr Jones is not. The difference does not seem to worry Anna-Louise, who is rather dismissive of her father's vanity. But these feelings are nothing compared to detestation of a small group of hangers on she calls the Toads.

These fawning, even obsequious sycophants are regularly patronised by Doctor Fischer. He throws parties to which the Toads are always invited. The gatherings often involve activities that range from the culinary to the theatrical, often combining different strands of experience, but also often ending in some form of reward, the outcome that the Toads have come to seek. To be rewarded, however, it is sometimes necessary to grovel. Anna-Louise's husband, Mr Jones, is co-opted somewhat unwillingly into this group, and his observations, dismissals and judgments are keen.

When momentous events knock holes through lives, it is hard to predict how those affected might react. And when Doctor Fischer lost his wife, he could not even bring himself to attend the funeral, an absence that, in itself, changed a daughter's view of a father. He had his reasons, no doubt. There had been hints of infidelity, perhaps more imagined than real, but then the evidence... Base emotions, even when merely imagined, can come to dominate a life.

It is such base emotions that Doctor Fischer is feeding when he parties his Toads. Their fawning is so complete, they are willing to crawl, a pose the good Doctor tries to promote. Mr Jones, the Doctor's son in law, however, is not a willing participant. After all, he is a little older, from a different way of life, has lost a hand. Neither can he be bribed.

Other momentous events persuade Doctor Fischer to have one last party, a great bang, if you like. This is the Bomb Party of the title. It's an event that the good Mr Jones is hardly in a mood to attend, but attend he does, to play a crucial role in the evening's proceedings. Luckily, he has already suffered loss, so he suffers less fear. Just how low will people stoop to feed their greed?

Doctor Fischer Of Geneva Or The Bomb Party is replete with Graham Greene's lively, thought provoking one liners. It is the territory that these near-asides take the reader that give this little tale its sense of the epic. Here, Greene may as even claim the role of story-teller, but the writing is always that of the thinker. And there exists a world to open up between these roles, the world that is imperfectly human, the world that Graham Greene uniquely observed.

Stories of Who We Are and How We Eat
Stories of Who We Are and How We Eat
Price: 0.77

3.0 out of 5 stars Oppressed voices, 13 Sep 2013
Writers are up for judgment on a whole raft of criteria. And, while writing as an activity may be both personal and cathartic, publishing is public and dangerous. Necks have to be stuck out and reputations have to earned, at least by any writer not pre-selected for the pulp route. Too often, the private does not does not translate into the public, and though the result might relieve, it does not communicate. Such criticism could not be levelled at Julien Haller's intriguingly titled set of tales, Stories Of Who We Are And How We Eat.

In his autobiographical preface to the work, the author explains the origin of the title. It is an immediately enlightening connection, because the reader appreciates implicitly that for Julien Haller these short stories have much deeper significance and meaning than a few miniatures aimed at raising an odd question or pointing out a touching irony.

There is undoubtedly a sense of catharsis throughout these stories. They are an examination of identity and dignity, often in the face of overwhelming power or odds. There is a strong sense of overarching morality, a vision of how things ought to be, usually from the point of view of an oppressed or down-trodden narrator or focus character. Even when the protagonist becomes the oppressor, such as in the last story of the set, there remains a sense of atonement, a `paying back' for previous sins, a `getting back' for inflicting previous pain. Retribution is definitely a theme.

A feeling of catharsis is inescapable, but nowhere does it dominate, nowhere does it descend into self-pity. The topics are serious, the ideas are grand and the oppression described and perceived is raw. But the writing style is light, often quite delicate, a quality without which the stories might appear one-paced. Combined with this lightness of style, these short stories, with their tortured emotions and pained lives, become eminently readable and, in their admittedly focused and limited way, enlightening.

Judged on sincerity, style, engagement and immediacy, Julien Haller the writer has made an impressive start. The challenge now is to broaden the canvas, to widen the diet, so to speak, so that the simplicity and clarity of style can take the reader into a different spectrum of experience. Autobiography and catharsis provide a reasonable place to start, but Julien Haller's future readers need to be taken to new territory, a world outside the self, since Stories Of Who We Are And How We Eat has thoroughly explored this particular, internal, personal world.

They Came from SW19
They Came from SW19
by Nigel Williams
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Funny and subtle, 25 April 2013
This review is from: They Came from SW19 (Paperback)
Wimbledon is internationally renowned for hosting a tennis tournament. For those Londoners who do not inhabit the area, however, Wimbledon can be something of a joke. It has its Wombles, strange synthetic cuddly-toy creatures that inhabit the Common, a patch of apparently tended land that runs wild in places. The natural area has a dual carriageway trunk road along one side.

Socially the place is every bit as much of a mix as it seems to be geographically. I hesitate to use the word contradiction, since it does conform to many British models. Wimbledon is completely split, for instance, between the extremely well off in the "Village" (it's in a city, by the way) and those at the broad spectrum's other end who occupy other parts, right down to Colliers Wood (which is not a wood). Wimbledon might think of itself as leafy green, but the experience of most of its inhabitants remains determinedly inner city. Wimbledon is thus the butt of many a joke.

In short, it's just the kind of place where you would expect to find a warbling religious sect populated by people who commune with the dead, alongside those who have devoted their lives to spotting extra-terrestrials. And this is exactly the scenario presented by Nigel Williams in his novel They Came From SW19. South West 19, incidentally, is London's postcode for Wimbledon.

Simon Britton is fourteen and has just lost his dad. Lost is possibly misleading, because it may merely imply that the family head had been mislaid. But in the sense we encounter in They Came From SW19 it means decidedly dead, and not a trip to Barbados or the Lake District. Simon is willing to live with the label, as long as his dad agrees. As the book progresses, however, this assumed agreement becomes less clear.

You see, the other thing that folk in Wimbledon do is regularly talk to the dead. There is a couple called Mr and Mrs Quigley. Not only are they pretty big in the First Church of Christ the Spiritualist, they are also - jointly and individually - pretty big in other parts as well, especially Mr Quigley, who seems to be very well endowed indeed. Simon, after repeated expressions of indifference, decides to join the church and adopt its beliefs. He suffers consternation, however, when speaking in tongues reveals that the area has been invaded by aliens. The event is particularly poignant because it seems to have links with the disappearance of Simon's friend, who regularly communed with local extra-terrestrials.

But all is not what it seems. Perhaps the friend has not really disappeared. Perhaps he has been taken into an alien ship for the purposes of observation and scientific investigation. Maybe that was what happened to Simon's father as well, the heart attack being a mere diversion to keep the whole affair secret.

They Came From SW19 is a rather insane farce. It is also very funny and, given the nature of Wimbledon, also highly probable. The place is probably packed with aliens - some of them even tennis players! - with space ships and flying saucers forming the bulk of local traffic jams. The place is even more likely packed with zany charismatics who speak in tongues, commune with the dead and make strange claims about details of their diet.

But the novel is not just a funny story. Nigel Williams is always more subtle than this. At the core of the book is an observation about cultural currency. People adopt and trade foibles to make statements about their identity and their claims to influence. But more often than not, these complicated facades are really hides within which ultimate frailty can be concealed. These people, after all, have to live with living in Wimbledon.

The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories (Vintage Magic)
The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories (Vintage Magic)
by Angela Carter
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pithy sex, 25 April 2013
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter is a set of short stories that parody folk-tale and legend. Let's not beat about the bush. The bloody chamber in question is the vagina and the capital of these stories is sex. But they also re-interpret and re-work fairy tale, myth and legend so that the stories take on - literally and explicitly - the adult rating they always suggested.

There are wolves that change into men, and men that change into wolves. Now there is versatility. One story, The Company Of Wolves, did in fact become a film in the 1980s, when Angela Carter's star shone bright.

The Bloody Chamber offers re-thinks on Dracula and Bluebeard. It gives new life to Little Red Riding Hood and a prurient Puss-in-Boots. Here, Beauty meets Beast and, via these time-honoured characters and themes, Angela Carter explores sexuality, both reality and myth, from a female perspective. She describes the insecurity that arises from threat and the fear engendered by anticipated violence. But she also revels in the power to control, to entice, to render powerless through overdosing on ecstasy.

A hint of torture is always near. The Bloody Chamber inhabits spaces in the human psyche that are never far from pain, always flirting with sadism. From the pain of unrequited love, right through to physical mutilation, the whole spectrum of torture appears to lie just beyond the pain of love. The boundary is often blurred in these stories and some characters meet decidedly sticky ends.

But Angela Carter avoids merely gratuitous fantasy. We can all - if we have little imagination - describe women changing colour (for some reason or other), growing green scales, bursting out in fangs or claws and then sucking the life-blood from their lovers. Such fantastical scenarios soon become not only repetitive but also trite and meaningless if divorced from some rooting parallel of symbolism. In Angela Carter's work that linkage to a form of reality and experience always seems to be present. Folk tales and fairy stories persisted perhaps because of these links. Perhaps people never believed their literal truth, but their imagery did relate to some, often hidden aspects of experience or inner fear. Not all men are Bluebeards who imprison their wives in a state of undying suffering. Not all men change into werewolves and consume maidens. But then not every husband is always gentle with his wife. Not every lad approaches maidens with finesse.

Enhancing these stories is Angela Carter's very special prose. It is far from silken smooth and rarely even aspires to the transparent. On the contrary, we are presented with a veritable brocade of language, a densely-woven and complex pattern of allusion, pun and metaphor. The texture is always pithy, the sound often dissonant. As ideas clash, so does the language that Angela Carter employs to pick the fight. In places the density may even be overdone, but in general the Gothic dark does lead us up to the vaults rather than oppress with its darkness.

The style may be dated, and the original idea may be somewhat over-stated. But these stories remain beautifully written and still enthral.

Live From Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal
Live From Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal
by Gore Vidal
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.42

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fish sauce, you either like it..., 25 April 2013
When describing Live From Golgotha by Gore Vidal, the word iconoclastic would represent extreme under-statement. This novel, a hotch-potch of fantasy, history, science fiction, theology, politics, philosophy and sheer nonsense, is nothing less than a full-frontal bombardment of Christian myth. The ruins of what originally existed, whatever that might have been, become the skeleton that two thousand years of re-mythologising have fleshed out. They began as an unlikely mistake, according to Gore Vidal, and have subsequently been embellished by fraud. There's tradition for you...

Live From Golgotha does have a plot. It is, however, so completely ridiculous that it makes most operas look like photo-realism. This is the gospel according to Timothy, he of the golden curls and the corn-flower eyes. He is a gentile, but aspires to allegiance with Saint and his new, decidedly Jewish sect. Thus, he must sacrifice an adult prepuce in a bid for Saint's credibility as the latter - known to us as Paul, by the way - reveals himself both physically and mentally as a compulsive letter writer. (He seems to receive very few replies.)

Timothy is also eventually to become a saint by virtue of his imminent promotion and his very own gospel, left deliberately in a broom cupboard for a later age to discover. His primarary claim to historical fame, however, was his elevation to the office of bishop in the early church. But that is still in the future. He also leans both ways, happy to top the luscious Priscilla (despite the bad teeth), and be bottom to - or be topped by - both Saint and the Imperial Nero. But, via two quite different manifestations of a man called Cutler, a visitor from the future, he is also into his Sony television. Yes, by virtue of intervention from late twentieth century corporate America, first century Timothy watches TV. He is bored by CNN, and generally prefers NBC.

It his via his views of the future that he learns of the exploits of a certain Hacker. This is someone who is deliberately trying to interfere with history by poking his time-travelling appendages into the past. A brilliant Jewish computer wizard called Marvin is also working on the story. Thus inserted by hologram, Timothy finds his presence required at the crucifixion, an event, in reality, he never attended. (That was Timothy's version of reality, by the way.)

Together Timothy and Saint travel the eastern Mediterranean negotiating rites with holographic television executives travelling through time. Via Ephesus, Malta and Rome, the idea is to co-present a live broadcast of the crucifixion from Golgotha, Palestine. The problems, however, revolve around how to insert people into history from the future, people like Timothy who were not originally there. Also, and fundamentally, they must decide on exactly who it is that should be crucified. Rewriting history was, after all, always within the remit of television executives. Another problem, and perhaps even less surmountable, is the apparent inability of visitors from the future to palate fish sauce on their take-away pizzas from the Palatine.

Fundamentals apart, we learn that, really, most Christians are in fact Mithraists. We find that the three in one idea is not a lot older than the patent for the penetrating oil and that, because he is so overweight, Judas Escariot could not form a role model for modern-day audiences. A nuclear war scheduled by Him on high for 2001, we learn, might just be avoided if the story were just a detail or two different. Marvin the computer-whiz Zionist, no doubt, has a position on this, as do both versions of Mr Cutler, despite the fact that one works for GE while the other backs the rival, Gulf+Eastern.

Are you following this? If not, rest assured, because it all becomes clear in the end, clear enough for us to realise that the flower-buds of belief have been deliberately spread with horse manure from a very early stage.

In Live From Golgotha, Gore Vidal presents a witty, irreverent and often hilarious satire on the origins of Christianity. The text's twenty-year-old references to hackers, computers and holograms might now seem both dated and quaint, but such considerations never got in the way of a re-read of Gulliver's Travels. These people from the future even and quite incredibly still use video cassettes, for God's sake! Some future...

But the real point of Gore Vidal's novel is that it takes nothing seriously, so inaccuracies blend with mere idiocy to become the very currency of the story. Eventually the book uses humour with great effect to debunk the bunkum. Gore Vidal leaves us in no doubt where his own sympathies lie but, in the end, we are still unsure as to whether he himself really likes Rome's ubiquitous fish sauce.

The Unconsoled
The Unconsoled
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Accurate title, 25 April 2013
This review is from: The Unconsoled (Paperback)
Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Unconsoled presents the reader with a thoroughly strange experience. Initial impressions might suggest something merely conventional. Charles Ryder is a pianist and is apparently famous. He arrives in a town, ostensibly to give a concert. This is a town, we are told, that in unfamiliar to Ryder. He checks into a hotel and makes ready for his performance. But we are hardly in the building before the hotel porter embarks on a lengthy soliloquy where he unburdens his cares on the new guest. This is strange behaviour indeed, but falls into a pattern obeyed by many people in this equally strange place. Given a stranger, it seems, and everyone wants to relate their life story or examine their fears. Until now, what seems like it might be an introduction to a plot is very much still alive. But don't worry, it soon dies off. It doesn't actually disappear, but becomes hidden behind a screen of non-sequitur.

It's not that The Unconsoled has no plot. It does. But it's not a plot worthy of the name, unless its plot is to confuse and annoy, which it does with great ease and regularity if, that is, you expect it to conform to a preconception of what a novel ought to be, because The Unconsoled will surprise at every turn, contradict itself, claim facts of geography that are denied in the next sentence, take the reader to new places and claim they are familiar. It offers little in the way of linearity, even when the jumbled recollections of various characters are unpicked. Generally these seem irrelevant to the main thrust, whatever that might be. And there is no resolution, so do not be tempted to dip at the last chapter as a short cut. It will take you nowhere, just like the rest of the book.

In this apparently central European town, Charles Ryder has encounters with a succession of people. There's a hotel manager, a porter, a woman called Sophie and her son, Boris, who is into playing with his carpet football set. There are repeated appearances by a man called Brodsky, a local hero, alcoholic and perpetual performer. He is to conduct the concert at which Ryder will perform. But, paradoxically because we think he is new to this place, there is also one of Ryder's old friends and a childhood sweetheart makes her appearance on a tram. One at a time, almost every person that Ryder encounters embarks upon a soul-revealing monologue, delivered usually without paragraphs or apparent pause. The stories rarely relate to anything that has happened either to them or Ryder in the immediate past. Each encounter almost becomes a short story in itself, with the subject matter usually bearing no relation to context, preceding experience or even forthcoming events. One suspects a writer, somewhere, with a scrapbook of ideas that has been cut up and pasted almost at random in this text.

Though Ryder himself does appear to be concerned with his own needs, particularly his need to practise before the concert, visit the performance venue and meet his fellow performers, each of the people he meets en route seems to want to confide in him, to bear the soul through the revelation of apparently irrelevant detail - most of it also inconsequential - and then to make personal demands on Ryder's attention and time. Frequently these encounters present a dream-like quality, but overall the feeling veers more towards the surreal, events being overloaded with detail rather than bereft of it.

And it's not only the characters who often only make partial sense. The very geography of the town seems to be deliberately distorted by the author. The reader is led up a path towards to a distant place that turns out to be back where we started, despite the fact that the journey took time and miles of travel. Ryder has never been there before and seems unaware of local customs and history, but Sophie is apparently his wife and Boris his son. Often people expect him to find his own way to places he has ostensibly never visited before. Ryder is usually treated as an outsider, but he clearly often on the inside of events, fully aware of what went before and what the likely outcomes may be.

The Unconsoled would have become a tiresome progression of random inconsequential encounters if the prose had not been so transparently easy and elegant. Thus the episodes come and go. The tram journeys, visits to galleries and coffee shops, the trips in various cars to meet unknown people begin to flash past, eventually leaving little impression. And, in the end, the two hundred thousand plus words of The Unconsoled have perhaps taken us nowhere at all, except to absurdity and left us there. The experience is strange, deeply strange, but always interesting and engaging. It is the reader who eventually becomes the unconsoled.

The Riders
The Riders
by Tim Winton
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.55

4.0 out of 5 stars A garden path?, 25 April 2013
This review is from: The Riders (Paperback)
The relationship between fictional characters and their imagined surroundings is always problematic, even when it is intended to be quite literal. It wouldn't be fiction if this were not the case. When the reader has to suspend disbelief, however, in order to accommodate the unlikely turns of plot, the writer might - although usually wrongly - be accused of artifice, of manipulation of the reader. This has never been a problem in opera, but it is in much fiction or film, or anywhere else that aspires to the label of realism. The fear that this manipulation might be happening became significant during Tim Winton's The Riders. The overall experience remained very positive, however, by virtue of the sheer brilliance of the writing and subtlety of phrase.

Scully is an Australian wanderer. He continually yearns for aspects of Fremantle in Western Australia, a geography he loves but, it seems, he is never likely to re-visit. We first meet him quite alone and involved in a renovation project in remote Ireland. Scully and his wife, Jennifer, have fallen in love with the rural west and have bought an abandoned dwelling. Scully is a builder, so the project is at least possible.

We soon learn that Ireland does not represent the start of the family's wanderings. There have been Bohemian times in Greece, France and Britain, on the islands and in Paris and London. The Bohemian element of the experience applied only, it seems, to Jennifer, Scully's wife, since he himself spent most of his time doing cash work on construction projects to buy the daily bread. And then there was Billie, the daughter who has grown up to the ripe old age of six apparently in spite of parental influence.

At the outset Scully is alone in Ireland with his renovation project. It's winter, and he has precious little in the way of either money or facilities. He soon befriends Peter, the local postman, and things get done. Some episodes from the first section of the story are brilliantly comic. We are soon impressed by Scully's dedication to his task, his resilience and his achievement. The day approaches when Jennifer and Billie will arrive from Oz.

Scully does not just love his wife. Worship might also be an under-statement. Jennifer seems to be the universe he inhabits and thus Tim Winton's novel, The Riders, becomes an investigation of obsession. It almost seems that Scully needs to live his own life through that of his wife and, when she doesn't turn up at the appointed time to join her husband in Ireland, Scully both perplexed and devastated, but also motivated - nay, driven - to find her.

Now here is where the suspension of disbelief has to begin. There has been little suggestion, thus far, that Jennifer is either personally unstable or a neglectful parent. But she abandons her daughter in London's Heathrow airport, leaves her husband and sets off alone, without even a word, a note or a reason. Most spouses, given such behaviour, might admit anger, pass judgment or even seek retribution - but not Scully. He merely packs his dumbfounded daughter into his van like so much baggage and worships his now estranged wife with even greater dedication.

Billie, the little girl, is only just about ready to embark upon a career as a primary school student. But she seems to display the capabilities, presence and sensibilities of maturity. She seems to have remembered everything from her past, including most of the people and experiences. She can organise her father, express complex emotions and handle travel arrangements. She gets practice with this skill because Scully immediately decides to trace his wife, despite the fact that he has neither information to follow nor reliable contacts to use.

He assumes that she will re-visit the family's recent haunts, and so Scully drags his initially muted daughter across Europe. They travel on the only shoe-string they have, take numerous unnecessary risks that do little except populate a plot. Along the way they fall victim to friendship, exploitation and crime. The little girl also seems to be very patient as her increasingly bedraggled father makes a fool of himself repeatedly.

But this is not comedy. It is apparently deadly serious. Overall the reader may feel that the garden path has been quite long, but the experience has been compelling, despite the characters' apparent compulsion to pursue a plot rather than a life. And beware, because garden paths do not usually go anywhere.

Learning to Swim and Other Stories
Learning to Swim and Other Stories
by Graham Swift
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Rewarding, 25 April 2013
Learning To Swim is a set of short stories by Graham Swift. Their focus is fundamentally and repeatedly on human relationships, especially those within the nuclear family. And though it would be wrong to suggest that Learning To Swim and the other stories delve deeply into the human psyche, it would also be wrong to dismiss them as light touches on the fabric of life.

In the title story, for instance, we have a family on holiday. The father is a proud achiever, very much the centre of attention, usually by his own demand. The mother is apparently a self-confident poser, beautiful and both conscious and proud of the fact. We feel there is potential for conflict here if, at any point, life does not work out exactly as these participants demand it should.

And then there's a child. Perhaps the child is the image of both parents, perhaps neither. The parents might compete over the youngster, but the parents might also be trying to impose themselves of on the growing personality. And so the child, itself, becomes a site of conflict, a conflict that is not voiced in any way other than a competition over its very identity. How might this appear from the child's point of view? It may be the case that these particular parents might not seek to canvas this position, since it might just conflict with their presumptions. But then the child might just have a mind of its own, and indeed its own life to live.

It is a simple idea and a small element of what surely would be a larger picture, but, even with its limited objectives, the story really does come to life. In a short space we come to know these people intimately. If we were to meet them, we might already think we can predict how they might behave, or even what they might say, since Graham Swift's characterisation is so carefully drawn.

The author's observations on and descriptions of relationships are consistently perceptive throughout. The pace may not often change appreciably, and the range of scenarios presented might not be great. But travel and new experience feature strongly in these texts and the characters often find themselves in places where they feel out of place, out of context and in need of change. Thus their reactions and decisions often surprise.

In The Watch the scenario shifts somewhat, as we are introduced to a family of watchmakers who, via their own creation, can not only measure time but also control it. This ability is passed from father to son with remarkable results. It seems that any commodity that we can access in abundance is automatically devalued. The science fiction element in The Clock is thus only a minor part of what remains a study of human relationships and aspirations.

Learning To Swim is a rewarding set of stories. In short spaces of time we get to know these people who become truly three-dimensional as well as emotionally complex individuals. Though the stories are not related, their intended similarity makes them better read as a group from beginning to end.

The Bottle Factory Outing
The Bottle Factory Outing
by Beryl Bainbridge
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars Tragedy amid farce, 25 April 2013
In her novel The Bottle Factory Outing Beryl Bainbridge creates a remarkably surreal world out of a deceptively mundane situation. Brenda and Freda are two employees in a British factory that bottles bulk-imported wines, sherries and brandies. Owned by and largely staffed by Italians, the working environment seems to provide the author with a wealth of comic possibilities for the linguistic faux-pas or the cultural misunderstanding. The novel does have its share of both, but does not descend into the mere farce that over-use of such elements might produce.

Freda and Brenda might work in the same factory, but their backgrounds and personalities are quite different. Neither is particularly glamorous, but then neither is, apparently, the working class life that they lead. But it still has to be lived. Perhaps paradoxically, perhaps comically, they dress garlic with lemon juice and garlic. Thus, like the rest of us, they have their pretensions. No working class comedy set in London would be worth its salt without an Irishman called Paddy, of course. In The Bottle Factory Outing he turns out to be a spare time plumber as well.

The outing of the title eventually does come to pass, after riveting events such as a broken toilet flush. The trip is made in two cars and a packed lunch accompanies the group. There is a call, of course, for more remarkable salad dressing. The trip's destination is Windsor, a good half an hour from London, where the tale and its characters are based. The group sets off to visit Windsor in all of its manifestations, from historic town to fortified castle, from chapel to Royal seat to safari park. The Ford Cortina has to be left at the entrance to the safari park, incidentally, in case the lions and tigers force entry via its sun roof. A Cortina with a sun roof? Now there's living. The Mini has to make do.

After encounters with an elephant in the children's zoo, it's time to lay out the spread and attack the salad dressing. Freda and Brenda suffer the attentions of the fellow-travelling males and various encounters ensue. The here and now mixes uncomfortably with aspiration and memory, and so tensions come and go with the farce as the group regroups around a nibbled lunch in the park. And then, the unimaginable happens.

The trip back to London is thus rendered both comical and surreal. What happens stretches the imagination to the extreme and provides the reader with interesting ideas on how to use the left-over brandy after Christmas.

The Bottle factory Outing is truly farcical, but the lives of these people are at the same time truly tragic. It's not that they gloat over their misfortune, or even complain about it. But no matter what they do or how they approach the challenges of life, the mistakes always seem to reappear. They never make the continually imagined and planned visit the factory owner's house in rural Berkshire. If they had done, they could have left him in the end with a real present. The book may now feel somewhat dated, which is strange because it was only written forty years ago. The feeling might be a result of the massive changes that have come about in working class life since then. Or perhaps it wasn't really accurate even at the time... The British have never been comfortable with accuracy when describing the detail of the mundane, especially when that involves the depiction of working class life that has been conceived from another place.

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