- Paperback: 284 pages
- Publisher: bluechrome Publishing (1 Sept. 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0954379667
- ISBN-13: 978-0954379667
- Product Dimensions: 18.7 x 17.7 x 1.9 cm
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 10,337,990 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Nicolo's Gifts Paperback – 1 Sep 2003
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Literature, folktales and the constant struggle of the astute mind against the mundane are fused with confident audacity in this dazzling debut. Prepare to be enraptured by a cast of characters who are as wise as they are naive and as beatific as they are flawed.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The intake of first breath, smack. Now screaming. Newborn declarations.
Barnyard animals surround Joseph Cavendish, a chicken scratches with a pointed beak by his feet, stuck in silent stupidity, static for eternity. Cow eyes watch the brooding man carefully from out of the smooth wall, oblivious to the wailing that filters through the hospital door.
"Daddy," Says Josephs sticky fingered four year old, wiping sugary hands down the cows leg, pasting the cheerful mural with crystalline flakes of sweet snow. "Mummys stopped shouting out. Thats not mummy crying." Joseph tousles his young sons frizzy hair. A tear skis down one of his dark cheeks.
"Here," Joseph kneels beside his son and places a set of silver keys in the toddlers tacky palm. "Look after these. Im just going to Ill be back shortly. Mummy will be ready to see us in a minute. Just wait here so she knows not to worry. Be a good boy Craig."
Joseph walks the dimly lit hospital corridor. The farm animals dissipate, giving way to primary-coloured cartoon characters. The fretful man passes a pair of blue-uniformed paediatric nurses and arrives at a dead end. Eventually Joseph finds a flight of stairs, signs that guide him to the nearest exit. He breathes in crisp winter air, bathed in a wash of neon that illuminates the outpatients reception area.
He walks past and ignores a polished grey car, his own, and jogs to the side of the road to catch a bus as the last group of late night commuters board. Josephs hand closes around the pole at the rear of the vehicle and he hangs from the back of the bus, watching the hospital where his wife has just given birth disappear behind an outcrop of tower blocks.
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The bad news is that Nicolo’s Gifts is both too long and too short. Too long? The first three and a half chapters are slow going, and the prose feels stilted and artificial at times - it’s oddly reminiscent in this respect of early JG Ballard. And, while relevant, the first story within the story is too long, and in coming so soon after the difficult early chapters, threatens to divert attention away from the developing story thread - potentially catastrophic for readers who may have been struggling up to this point. These first few chapters and the story within the story could have benefited from some sharp editing.
Too short? There are some interesting people in Nicolo’s Gifts, but some of them felt underdeveloped. No, they’re not cardboard cut-outs, on the contrary, these are real people, and well drawn - Ayres is a natural at the understated character study (which happens to be in the first and third person present tense, together with third person past tense - an excellent strategy, because it keeps the reader unsettled) - but I had that feeling one gets at a party when the person who is just getting interesting calls a cab and leaves. I just wanted to get to know some of them better.
The good news. A transition occurs in the fourth chapter of Nicolo’s Gifts, when Ayres finds his rhythm and his voice, and the book becomes simultaneously easier to read and far more interesting. To say that I devoured the book from this point in one sitting would be to exaggerate only slightly - I had to rise from my Landaise armchair several times to recharge my glass with a robust Bordeaux. By the end of the evening a host of characters had converged, diverged and changed. All had lived, some had loved and some had died. Tears were shed - and not just by characters in the book. Wine notwithstanding, the final few pages of Nicolo’s Gifts moved me such a in a way that only a few other books ever have.
Nicolo’s Gifts is difficult to categorise, occasionally frustrating, requires your full attention and is intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Because of these factors, it may struggle to find a wide audience. I suspect that this will not bother Neil Ayres too much, nor should it. Despite it’s flaws, Nicolo’s Gifts is a deeply memorable read, and an impressive debut from a writer I hope to savour again.
In some ways, this shows. Especially at the beginning, there is a disjointedness which, though it may have been intended, is still, I feel, a mistake, as it doesn't take into account enough the reader's difficulties. The early parts of the book jump from scene to scene, and from character to character (sometimes with irritating flashbacks about people in the lives of characters we haven't yet become at all interested in). This makes it unnecessarily hard to 'get into' the novel. Moreover, there are scenes which can indeed be seen to have relevance by the end of the book (such as the boys taunting the 'spastic' in the Prologue), but others necessitate a few gigabytes of memory. An example: on p. 12 a man leaves his son, saying, 'Be a good boy, Craig'; the next reference to Craig is on p.183!
But the book also reveals a most impressive maturity, originality, and vision.
Once we have got past the confused opening - once the cast is finally assembled - we have a rich and moving novel, as the author explores the intricacies of their interconnected lives. As we start to know the characters, the overall technique of indirection and sudden transitions, even when they surprise (Matthew after the separation from Alice, for example), really works.
Taking key events - or, more often than not, the sequels to key events - Ayres gives us a series of snapshots of twenty years in the lives and loves (and no-loves) of a group of people who are both ordinary and extraordinary. The characterisations, the interactions between the characters, and the changes that time brings, are brilliantly portrayed, the leaps of time and viewpoint allowing for all the more impact. For me, the most convincing characters are Nicolo himself, having to deal both with the gift of love and the curse of a devastating illness (which may or may not be a 'punishment' for an early crime), and Alice, the woman who cannot learn how to love others or herself, but there is depth too to the portraits of the huge Russian, the rock for others who is strangely vulnerable himself, the sexually ambiguous Matthew, the 'rebel' Jude...
There is precision of visualisation: Sandra waiting at the bus stop on the opposite side of the road to the cemetery for over half an hour.... 'She sits alone on the swinging red plastic seat on the bus stop and the ridges in the plastic dig into her rain-soaked legs.' Or: '...the raven laughed too, a low cackling sound, like the noise of stiff bark being stripped from a tree.'
There are countless moments of acute perception: Alice 'eats her late supper, finishing to lay her head against his chest. This is not a moment of intimacy: she is ignoring him.' Or: 'Hiding in the past is a half-life. Each remembrance an altered echo of some lost veracity.' Jude permits Mathew his unicorn 'in its clearing in the forests of the fantasylands' in the comic strip, maybe because of what he has taken away from him.
There are images that serve as refrains, binding together the diverse elements of the novel. Sandra and her sparrow, Pavel and his bears and wolves, Alice and the extinct feline of her dreams ... and, of course, Nicolo Ravini, the raven itself. The parable of the raven towards the end of Part One is foreshadowing at its best, when the fallow deer believes that 'if he kept completely still, ... he would emit no scent and make no noise' - but at the end of the novel the hounds do discover his scent ...; and, much later, Jude tattoos Nicolo's back, and he notices that 'the feathers from my back have been torn from me in some vicious ritual...'
There is the daring experiment of one chapter being a poem.
There is a contrapuntal story about a rock star and his angst (with some powerful writing on the effect his music has), giving a formal elegance to the novel.
There are detailed descriptions of setting, and reflections on modern life, on the lack of values in inner city areas, 'the lazy detritus' held back by 'cowardice and a lack of vision... a deep-rooted avarice for ease'.
There are moving descriptions of Nicolo's illness, and his reactions to it at different times: the 'ever-present dual threats of guilt and resentment'. Or his instant dislike of a sympathetic waitress - 'I would not have given these words a second thought before this condition had taken hold of me, before it had labelled me.' And there are scenes of what-is-not as well as what-is: 'a tired yet tender smile shows on lips that are pink with blood and the sudden flush of an excitement unexpected. This is something that will not happen.'
Above all, there are examinations (sometimes oblique and understated, sometimes detailed in a rush of words and images, tales and dreams) of love and friendship, of gain and loss, of understanding and lack of understanding, of joy in creativity and its opposite, of grandeur and pettiness...of life and death.
In short, if I may appropriate a Gerard Manley Hopkins quote, once we are really into the novel, the brightness of the book ' will flame out, like shining from shook foil'. The shaking of foil is a particularly apposite image, as this is precisely the technique Ayres uses, giving us significant 'flashes' in the lives of these people.
It is these details, these perceptions, these unexpected depths, that make this novel so real and fresh, and Neil Ayres a writer to watch out for.
The novel is split into four distinct but inter-linked parts, with an enormous amount of investment going into the theme of the novel – there is more power packed into this sharp, relatively short (270 odd pages) book than you are ever likely to find padding out a 1000 page plus trilogy or series.
The highly realistic characters are finely wrought; the indirect plot capable of wrong footing the reader with ease and switching the story’s focus without detriment to the greater picture, and weaved into this grander scheme are emotional sub-plots, historical allusions and rhetoric on modern-life that all blend, if not seamlessly, then with a good deal of panache.
If you enjoy your fiction puzzling but pleasing, then I urge you to invest in this book. Neil Ayres will surely be a writer to watch out for. I was amazed on completing the novel to discover how young the author is. His narrative voice - though at times taking risks with form and style – is assured and well defined. I look forward to his next book with anticipation.
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