A Woven Cloth of Gold – ‘Arcadia’ by Iain Pears

This review fist appeared on GeekDad on 4/1/2015 

arcadiaukIain Pear’s Arcadia is a piece of precision literary engineering. I’ve realised recently, that a novel’s structure is very important to me. I don’t like structure to overshadow the substance of a novel, but I do find quirky or unusual constructions very appealing.

So it is with Arcadia, a novel, if its app is to believed, that has chapters which can be read in any order. I read Arcadia in paper format, forwards from page one, so I can’t verify the truth of this statement (Pears explains in this interesting Q&A, how the book format is but a single narrative route through his creation), but I can confirm that story does fold back over on itself.

How does it do this? Pears, not traditionally a science fiction writer, employs some commonly used devices of the genre to create a mind-bending but wholly satisfying tale. To say more would give the game away.

As Arcadia opens, Henry Lytten, an Oxford professor, is a writing a fantasy novel. He’s not the first to do this, and it will delight Tolkien fans that Lytten is a small-time member of the Inklings. Prof. Tolkien doesn’t feature directly in the novel, but he does touch its edges a couple of times, which is a pleasing addition to proceedings.

Where Tolkien created Middle Earth as a vehicle for myth and language, Lytten wants to build a realistic working society.

“No goblins,” he said. “This is serious, I want to construct a society that works. With beliefs, laws, superstitions, customs. With an economy and politics. An entire sociology of the fantastic.”

Things become more interesting when a young girl who feeds Lytten’s cat discovers a peculiar portal in the professor’s basement. She walks through it and, like C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe, it transports her into another world.

The girl quickly ducks back to her own world, but not before interacting with one young boy. This brief encounter has deep ramifications for the world she’s visited. Things become more peculiar when Lytten subconsciously adds a young girl into his story. We are left wondering is Lytten controlling events with his narrative, or does his narrative somehow control the events around him?

arcadiamap

The route through the maze. Schematic of interlocking worlds from the Touchpress ‘Arcadia’ app.

Additional narrative strands are added, with chapters that detail life in the fictional state of Anterworld, and, more curiously, a tale from a dystopian far off future. This features an Earth with a ravaged surface, crumbling societies, and humans that are enhanced by implants. In the far north of Scotland, a brilliant but querulous mathematician and physicist has invented a machine that can open portals into alternate dimensions.

How does this fit in with Professor Lytten’s comfortable Oxford home and his fantastic creation? The answer to that question forms the spine of the novel, and the reader’s voyage of discovery to find its truth is rich and enjoyable.

The narrative’s construction is faultless. Lytten manages to weave parochial college life, future dystopia, mythical fiction, quantum physics, and even Cold War espionage into a compelling, brain-massaging whole. I wouldn’t want every novel I read to be like Arcadia, but I found the entire reading experience invigorating. By taking what are essentially tired tropes, Pears has created something innovative and interesting to read.

Arcadia is a fine novel that I think achieves everything it set out to do. Whilst I haven’t read all of the electronic version, the Arcadia app is elegant and appealing. Touchpress, the company that built the app, also created the excellent Elements app, so it has been built by a team with a great pedigree. With the app, Pears offers his readers yet another layer of innovation to his genre-borrowing yet ground-breaking novel.

I was sent a copy of this book to review by its UK publisher, Faber & Faber. Arcadia is out now in the UK

Heaven or Hell? – Kimberly’s Capital Punishment by Richard Milward

kimboKimberly’s Capital Punishment is the strangest novel I have read in some time. It is roughly 5 parts genius, 3 parts peculiar and 2 parts revolting. It’s not a book I could possibly recommend because the last chapter is so gross, gratuitous and borderline misogynistic, that it almost renders what came before obsolete. Which is a shame.

Whilst the of the book is not without gut-churning sexual-violence, it did at least seem to be mitigated by the narrative and themes of the novel. The final pages of the book say nothing at all, and add nothing of value to anything anybody might ever say about anything, ever.

In places Milward’s turn of phrase and observation take the breath away. He is clearly a man with writing talent to burn. The novel opens when Kimberly Clark finds her boyfriend hanging from the bars of a children’s playground. Her role in this tragedy? She wilfully made her beau’s life a misery, and now he’s killed himself.

Not surprisingly this has a detrimental effect on her well-being. Just as she hits rock bottom she has something of an epiphany, and decides that in recompense for hounding her boyfriend to death, she will start to do only good deeds. A brilliant plan, only it turns out being altruistic can get you into a lot of bother.

Milward’s depiction of the grimy streets of North London, is vivid, almost tangible. He captures the voice of young adults trying to make the best of life on limited funds and a surplus of time. It’s an accurate snapshot of twenty-first century urban living. (I think; I’m forty and live in Surrey). Kimberly’s attempts to make other people’s lives brighter, are funny and filled with pathos. If there is a wider point here, it may be something as simple as ‘nice girls finish last.’ Her attempts to cheer up the lives of seven men by juggling dates with them ends with predictable disaster.

Whilst elements of these dates are entertaining and make valid comments on contemporary society, it was at this point that Milward started to lose me. Some of the events start to turn unsavoury and downright peculiar. I don’t consider myself a prude, but perhaps I am; I certainly I found some passages in very bad taste. The rough and not-entirely-consensual sex Kimberly undergoes as she does her penance, began to make the novel tawdry and uninteresting.

Just as the novel begins to lose its way, there isn’t so much a change in direction as a leap off a cliff and plummet into a parallel dimension. With this abrupt turn of events, the book becomes something else altogether; a ‘choose your own adventure’.

Well it doesn’t really. There are multiple endings, which can theoretically be read in any order, but you’ll probably still read them straight through. From here the book becomes wildly inventive before crashing down in an unholy mess.

I really enjoyed some of these section. There is a disturbing, entertaining and freakishly plausible rendering of heaven. A wonderful depiction of reincarnation and a mind-bending post-modern court room drama that pulls the reader and writer into the narrative. It had me in thrall until the end of the court scene when then wheels start to come off in a very bad way.

I wish I could have the time back I spent reading the final chapter of the book. Until then, this was a greatly inventive novel. Not all of the ideas worked, but enough of them did, brilliantly, to make this a invigorating if uneven read. I just don’t get what the author was trying to show at the end here (well I sort of do, but he fails), and it left me with nothing but the bitter taste of disappointment. There is some excellent writing of great value here but the destination was definitely not worth the journey. Proceed with caution.

The Butterfly Effect – Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver writes beautiful measured novels and Flight Behaviour is no exception.  Though slow out of the blocks, Kingsolver gradually binds her threads together to form an utterly compelling whole.

Dellarobia Turnbow steps out from her back door intent on wrecking her marriage. For ten years she has lived a humdrum existence on her husband’s family farm.  She is heading for a secret tryst with a young telephone engineer, but in small town Tennessee can anything be kept secret?  On her way she is stopped in her tracks by a natural wonder, a valley of fire.  She returns to her home, glad of the wake up call, and her narrow escape from infidelity.

The Turnbow farm is struggling to survive.  The recession has hit hard, wiping out the farm’s meager profits.  When her father-in-law decides he is going to allow a logging company to decimate his land’s trees Dellarobia feels obliged to speak out.  She exhorts her husband, Cub, to take look over the land.  When he does Cub discovers the same unnatural wonder as his wife.  Convinced that Dellarobia has had a vision, Cub blurts out in church what they have seen.  A wondrous sight on private land suddenly becomes public property.

Flight Behaviour is about so many things it’s hard to know where to start.  At its heart is the interaction between three distinct groups of people.  The media, who want to present the phenomenon in a way that will generate as many ratings as possible, the scientists, who want to present only the facts, and the farmers, who must do what’s needed to preserve their livelihoods.   Dellarobia sits in two camps.  She is a farmer’s wife, reliant on the farm turning a profit, but she yearns for more.  Can she use her brush with science to kick-start a life arrested by an unwanted teenage pregnancy?

The book is filled with fabulous beauty.  The wilderness and Dellarobia’s discovery are described in rich detail.  Counterpoint to the beauty is the heartache and harsh reality of lives spent hovering around the breadline.  The World’s media is often disparaging of Bible Belt Republicans, but Kingsolver’s depiction of them is compassionate and heartfelt.

As a father who, fortunately, has never had to worry about where my family’s next meal is coming from, I found Dellarobia’s struggle to feed her children particularly affecting.  There is one section where she and Cub are trying to find Christmas presents that left me emotionally wrung out.  It encapsulates the plight of countless families in the world’s richest economy.

Ultimately, this novel is about the fragility of existence. Whether it be a farm, a marriage or an entire ecosystem, continued survival is a fine balance of uncountable variables.  Even the most innocuous changes could mean extinction.  Flight Behaviour is an understated novel, rich in language and themes.  It’s by no means a page turner but it is a powerful meditation on twenty-first century morals and the difficulties of balancing what is best for the planet against what is best for humanity.  Flight Behaviour sees Kingsolver at the height of her powers and once again she has delivered an authentic meaningful and compelling read.

One final word about the cover.  Whoever commissioned it wants shooting. This a work of surpassing beauty, but the cover looks like it was knocked up on someone’s home computer.  A few wispy trees with gold leaves badly superimposed over the top. It’s not remotely convincing (though it looks much better in the picture here). Considering the wonder instilled by the book’s central phenomenon the cover is unforgivable.

Many Thanks to Lauren at Faber for providing me with a review copy of this book.

The Opposite of Wonderland – ‘The Storm at The Door’ by Stefan Merrill Block

Stefan Merrill Block’s ‘The Story of Forgetting’ is one of my all-time favourite novels. It’s a delicate and touching story of the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s, that also contains the beautiful motif of an evolving fantasy story.  Reading new books by favourite authors always sets the spine tingling, but I often find that underneath my excitement is a tinge of dread; what if I don’t like it?  At first with ‘The Storm at the Door’, I thought my fears may be realised; I did not find it an easily accessible novel.  On finishing, I was relieved.  Whilst this book won’t break into my best 10 books of all time list, once again Block has shown himself to be a masterful storyteller.

‘Storm at the Door’ is semi-biographical.  Much like he used his family’s history of early onset dementia as the basis for ‘The Story of Forgetting’, Block draws inspiration for ‘Storm at the Door’ from his maternal grandparents’ struggles against manic depression.  The novel is mostly told through two viewpoints.  Frederick, Block’s grandfather and Katharine, his grandmother.  The chapters that follow Frederick detail his manias, the troubles they cause and predominantly, his miserable existence inside one of America’s premier mental asylums.  Katherine’s chapters detail how she struggled to cope with being married to Frederick and the guilt that consumed her after he had been committed.  Block also shows, with great tenderness, how his grandmother struggled to find her own identity after her own personality had been overwhelmed by motherhood and the overwhelming shadow of her husband’s illness.

Much of the book details the appalling conditions inside the Mayflower Home, highlighting the perils of institutionalised care for the mentally ill.  Comparisons are inevitable with ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. Both books contain a host of memorable and misunderstood characters gripped by mental disorders, both question how you determine the border between sanity and insanity, and both books contain characters that are at best misguided in their attempts to help their patients and at worst feel the need to inflict misery on their defenceless charges.  Whilst both books are similar, Block’s is not in the same league as Ken Kesey’s masterpiece.

I struggled with the book at first.  Block’s use of language is artful, but it failed to draw me in.  I couldn’t identify any overarching narrative; there were lots of (well-drawn) vignettes of life with mental illness, but little to draw them together.  Gradually though, I began to warm to Block’s characters, in particular Frederick, who Block paints with warmth and tenderness.  When Frederick mistakenly stumbles across a secret kept by the warden of Mayflower House, his situation becomes precarious in the extreme.  At this point humanity of the novel bursts through.

The last hundred pages of ‘The Storm at the Door’ are fiction at its best.  The events that transpire at Mayflower House prove the fulcrum for change for many of the novel’s characters.  As he did in ‘How to Forget’ Block handles an emotive subject with rare delicacy, and when the author himself appears in the novel, it reaches a whole new level of poignancy.  Block’s characterisation is very good, and it is impossible not to feel deeply moved by the novel’s events.  The quality of the last chapters of the book, make it a thoroughly worthwhile read.  Once again, Block has written about a terrible illness that affects thousands of people with great sensitivity.  Highly Recommended.