Book review: Stephen Done, “The Last Train”

I’ve been posting very rarely for a while. Partly that’s because I’m not writing much poetry at present and have gone through all the old poems I wanted to post, but partly it’s because of the U.K. general election – I’m a political activist – and that may also help to explain the shortage of poetry. It’s not a matter of time but of mental space to get into the right mood.

I think in my next post I might talk about different aspects of people that may seem to be separate and may surprise other people, and quote a few points about me that might get other people doing the same. But for now here’s a book review.

I’d not come across Stephen Done before, but the blurb told me this was one of a series of British detective novels and that it involved a ghost appearing. The fictional detective works in an equally fictional Railway Detective Department a few years after the Second World War. I imagine Done’s core audience combines detective story enthusiasts with railway buffs: at least, there are trains and railway lines even where the story doesn’t seem to need them, described in loving detail.

The story involves a disappearance during the war, the ghost (apparently) of a young woman who looks and sounds like a live human but is just not there when someone stumbles into her, the discovery of body parts and an Indian jewel that apparently brings disaster to anyone who has it. This probably sounds like melodramatic pap. It’s actually done with skill. The reader is given information that pretty well rules out the ghost not actually being a ghost and it’s quite rapidly clear who the villain is, so in that sense it’s an odd detective story, but there is plenty of room for speculation about what exactly happened.

There is surprisingly vivid and poetic descriptive writing. I’m not entirely sure that this kind of fast-paced detective story is the best place for it, but I admire the author not only for his skill but also for his readiness to break away from bald, pared-down prose. The characters are entirely credible, but the dialogue, while it cleverly reflects  people’s preoccupations, character and misunderstandings, is sometimes rather stilted. The police detectives talk among themselves as if they were writing official reports.

I enjoyed it.

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Book Review: Kazuo Ishiguro, When we were Orphans

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Kazuo Ishiguro is one of Britain’s leading writers, without doubt outstanding. Yet his books are often as frustrating as they’re readable and intriguing. They often seem to inhabit a detailed dream world, but the narrators drift in and out of what seems like dream. What starts apparently naturalistic often becomes very odd.

 

His type of background (born in Japan to Japanese parents who moved to England when he was six; living in England ever since) would not be exceptional in America or Australia, but in the U.K. it’s much more unusual. I suppose there’s a kind of dislocation in most of his books that may be related to his experience growing up.

 

He’s best known for “The Remains of the Day”, which became a very successful film with Anthony Hopkins as the decent, repressed, duty-obsessed butler.

 

“When we were Orphans” features a successful detective, Christopher Banks, looking back at his life. There are flashbacks, but if I straighten those out, events go like this. Young Christopher grows up in 1920s Shanghai. His father works for a British trading company and his mother is passionately involved in the campaign against the opium trade, in which the company was implicated. He has only one friend, a Japanese boy called Akiro.

 

His father disappears. Police investigate with no success. Months later, his mother too disappears. He’s moved to England and the care of an aunt. He begins to build a career and meets a young society woman who seems to chase after famous and successful men. She ignores him, then shows interest in him, but he keeps his distance. It’s clear at this stage that his mind is dominated by his parents’ disappearance and he intends to find out what happened. He also seems more than normally concerned about his friend Akiro and seeks news of him.

 

He adopts an orphan girl, Jennifer, and there is affection between them.

 

Around 1937 he is able to go to Shanghai and investigate his parents’ disappearance. This is where things start becoming very strange. For example, a British official immediately attaches himself to him and keeps on asking questions about how the reception for his rescued parents should be organised. Yet they disappeared fifteen years ago, there’s been no word and surely any such official would think they might well be dead. He meets the woman who’d shown interest in him, now unhappily married and they agree to depart together: he seems to have forgotten his parents!

 

His investigation has made some progress, identifying a Chinese warlord his mother had offended, but on identifying a house that might have been part of the story, he becomes obsessed by the thought that his parents are still being held there! Trouble is, the Japanese have invaded, and although they’ve not touched the International Settlement, the house is in a part of the city being fought over by the Japanese and the Kuomintang. Nonetheless, he sets out to reach it, at the last minute abandoning the woman he’d promised to go with.

 

His behaviour becomes stranger and stranger. A Chinese officer puts himself in danger and diverts men from the battle to help him, yet when this officer says he can’t take him further, he berates and threatens him. He carries on and, by the sort of extreme coincidence found in dreams, stumbles on Akiro, wounded and about to be killed by the Chinese. He saves him, but the search comes to nothing and he ends up injured and in the hands of the Japanese, who treat him well. But when he hears that Akiro is thought to be a deserter, he does nothing to try to save him and despite things the man said, begins to doubt if it was Akiro at all.

 

The story goes on into Christopher Banks’ old age, but I should not tell more. He does find out what happened to his parents and at the end the story returns to naturalism and credible events. The degree of acceptance and resolution common in Ishiguro is found through Christopher’s continuing support for and support from Jennifer. He seems to have made no effort to find out what happened to Akiro. I puzzled over the title, since Akiro was not an orphan, before realising that the “we” must refer to Christopher and Jennifer.

 

The picture of the contradictions and conflicts of foreign society in Shanghai is very well done, as is the picture of childhood and a friendship between two rather isolated boys. But I do find that when the course of events becomes bizarre, I stop caring about the characters. Well, it’s what Ishiguro mostly does.

Book Review: R.S. Belcher, The Six-Gun Tarot

Now here’s a book way outside my normal range. I picked it up in exceptional circumstances.

 

Our local public library was closed for a long time for major building work and the next nearest is really small with a very limited stock. Moreover, the limited stock was mainly directed at older women who like romantic traditional stories. I don’t mean people took the books and threw them at old ladies. The old ladies are the main readership and of course the stock reflects that. Fair enough, but I was struggling to find something that interested me. Yes, I know about Amazon and also about on-line ordering of library books, but I have limited space, am lazy and in any case was curious about that library.

 

Then I came on a book that seemed totally out of place. From the cover, a skeletal gunslinger stared back at me. I was intrigued. I borrowed the book.

 

Although occult fantasy is not my thing, I fancy I had seen the author’s name and no doubt he’s famous. But for me it was a totally new experience and so I could go in with open mind and fresh eyes (hmm, fresh eyes sounds like something that might happen in this book).

 

The opening was powerful. A lone teenager on horseback, fleeing from something, was lost and probably dying in a desert somewhere in the American South-west. In fact the book is very well written. Especially in that opening scene and in the apocalyptic ending, there are pieces of vivid, ambitious, skilful descriptive writing. Maybe given how impoverished writing is preached as gospel in the States, you need to be writing about something like undead cowboys to get away with vivid and imaginative prose that could almost be poetry.

 

I was also intrigued that what you could call the theological backdrop, working on Judaeo-Christian and pagan myths, was well-thought-out. I was also surprised that the values and attitudes behind the writing seemed pretty liberal: for example, a closet-gay leading Mormon turns into a reluctant but very real hero and there are assertive women who reject male dominance without rejecting men.

 

I felt it had weaknesses, though. The most effective supernatural thrillers, like some very effective SF stories, present us with an apparently perfectly normal, familiar world and then something mysterious and scary is introduced into it, small enough to start with but growing and subverting the normal. Belcher’s small western town of Golgotha was weird from the start. The weirdness was everywhere. The book does provide an explanation for that (a bit like the reason in the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood why aliens kept turning up in Cardiff, and I don’t mean the English or the Japanese), but the all-pervasive weirdness makes the book less compelling for me. It was when the amiable, likeable, distinctly normal storekeeper turned out to be keeping his deceased wife semi-alive in a tank that I pulled back. I kept reading, but with less involvement, less suspension of disbelief.

 

It also seemed to me a weakness that the opening character, that haunted teenager, almost completely dropped out of the story (except for occasional flashbacks) until right at the end when, predictably, he played a key role. He was a convincing and interesting character and I’d like to have seen him kept more involved and to have seen more through his eyes. I do understand that it’s an old and good trick to introduce a place or a community through the eyes of a stranger, but that trick interests me in the stranger.

 

The author seemed to have researched some factual matters pretty well, but I was surprised that his small Western settlement around 1869 had several veterans of the war of 1812. It’s physically possible, but they’d be pretty old in a town you wouldn’t expect to have many old people, and that was was fought by quite small numbers.

 

One problem about any story like this is that if the worst outcome is the end of the universe, you don’t really believe it could happen (that is, you don’t think the author will write the end that way). By contrast, a thriller in which the worst outcome is the death of a decent person or wealth or power falling into evil hands, as in John le Carre’s “The Constant Gardener”, you fully believe the author may make it happen.

 

It was a fun read, though. Oh, and given the theological/mythological backdrop, I thought the sheriff’s unusual surname (Highfather) was going to turn out to be highly significant. Maybe Belcher had that idea, but it isn’t spelt out.

 

 

Book Reviews: The Flood, David Maine; The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen

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These are books I picked up in my local public library. By an odd coincidence, they raise some of the same questions, questions quite unusual for a small English public library.

David Maine’s book is a retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. It follows the biblical account loyally, but of course, embellishes. You could interpret it as an exercise of “If this was literally true and these were real people, what would it have been like?” Some people will see it as irreverent. At times Noah’s sons see their stubborn father, not the best of communicators, as an old fool. There’s a lot of sex – but there is in the Bible (remember all those “begat”s?

It took a while for me to get into this novel, but the time came. The characters came to life. Of course, there are difficulties about a literal telling of the Flood story. The ark wouldn’t be big enough. How, if the flood was over the whole world, did they get the Australian and American animals? This version does mention armadillos, but I’m inclined to think the American author had forgotten these are purely animals of the Americas. We also learn of peoples who were apparently totally wiped out in the Flood, but we know mysteriously reappeared, such as Phoenicians.

It was interesting, but not enthralling. Throughout it asks, but does not answer, questions about a God with unlimited power, a God who cares and creates but punishes ruthlessly. The role of people, it seems, is to obey or rebel.

Grace McCleen’s book had me hooked from the start and its impact on me was far greater. A ten-year-old girl in a small town (it seems to be in South Wales) is being brought up by her deeply and stiffly religious father: her mother is dead. They belong to some strict sect: it sounds very much like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The girl is bullied at school. She seeks escape in a fantasy world she constructs in her bedroom, a model of things in the real world. She wishes it would snow so she could avoid school and the bully she fears will kill her. She makes mock snow with cotton-wool in her model world. It snows in the real world and school is cancelled. God is speaking to her and telling her she has great power. She tries something else – to bring back a neighbour’s missing cat. The cat returns. She brings snow again. A series of events follow which, if they were true, would seriously interest an open-minded scientist. What she does in the Land of Decoration does seem to be reproduced outside.

But things go wrong. She tries to talk to her father about it but he won’t listen. The boy bully blames her for the trouble he faces from a new teacher and he and his friends begin to cause trouble and damage outside her house , a campaign of harassment. She could – she believes – strike at him, but she doesn’t want to. God is unhelpful and says she’s caused what is happening.

In the end – well, I’d better not say. We learn how her mother died and why her father, a decent man, seems stiff and haunted. Her father and God had assured her that decent, loving people like her neighbour with the cat will be destroyed if they don’t hear the word, but the ending seems to reject this. Finally the link between events in the World of Decoration and our world is broken.

I was totally engaged. I’m unsure, though, what the author is wanting us to believe. The series of events goes well beyond credible coincidence, but the God speaking to the girl is cold and in the end, wrong. The dust cover tells us Grace McCleen grew up in South Wales in just such a religious community. I would be curious about what she believes now.

Book Review: Michel Houllebecq, The Map and the Territory

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I had never heard of Michel Houllebecq. It shows how local much news still is. France is no distance, you can even go there on the train, and yet someone famous in France can be nearly unknown in England.

Then I picked up his novel “The Map and the Territory” in my local library – in translation, of course.

To get this out of the way for those who had heard of him – Houllebecq is not purely famous in France for his novels. He was prosecuted for inciting racial hatred after saying Islam was “the most stupid of religions”. Now I don’t know the background, his arguments or other things he said, so I’m commenting from quite a lot of ignorance, and yet I feel I should comment.

First, that statement seem to me pretty stupid. But then I’ve got a History degree and if you ask me about Islam, I think of the culture of Andalucia, of Arab learning, of Sufi mysticism, of the mixed but by no means bad record of Muslim rulers of pre-Raj Indian states. Just as when I see it implied in a book that there may be some fundamental militaristic or warrior-like characteristic among Germans, I think, “Not so fundamental because the argument really won’t wash except for a period of at most two hundred years”. So I wonder what in contemporary Islam Houllebecq was attacking.

Secondly, in English and in English law at least, to attack a religion is not racist unless the attack on the religion is (as it sometimes is in England) a cloak for racism.

Thirdly, to incite racial or religious hatred seems to me to require more than to say something is stupid. His statement was silly, provocative, possibly grandstanding, but I’d have thought unlikely to incite the sort of hatred that leads to physical attacks.

Nonetheless, it’s probably a good thing I had no idea of all this when I read his book – because I liked it. As some reviewers commented, authors who include themselves in their own books rarely create credible characters (they may not have put it quite like that) and there are writers whose subject seems permanently to have become themselves (arguably forgiveable for poets, but I’m thinking, for example, of Norman Mailer). But the Michel Houllebecq who appears in this novel is shabby, self-deluding, ingloriously heavy-drinking, confused – though achieving something much better later. There are wholly inglorious touches like finding that his kicks have been from on-line lingerie catalogues. In other words, if you didn’t know this was a portrait of the author himself, you might well say, “What a fantastic character portrait!”

But Houllebecq is only the second character of the book. The main one is an artist who seems to be borderline autistic, brilliant with detail but oddly detached in his personal relations even a love affair, obsessional but fairly unworried about it, who first hits the headlines with endless photographic reproductions of Michelin maps. The author seems to be poking fun at the art world and the whole concept of art. This character has some similarity to the main character in Tom McCarthy’s “C”, which I reviewed a while back. But whereas I was unsure if McCarthy realised how oddly emotionless his character was, Houllebecq seems to know he’s making us a fairly sympathetic portrait of an odd fish – two odd fish, in fact.

The book is truly humane. In the third part, several police detectives appear and they are shown as conscientious, worried, uncertain people, doing their best to retain their humanity in the face of a job that obliges them to confront horror and immeasurable meanness. By the way, one of them is of Lebanese origin, another sympathetic character is Black African and I see no sign of racism.

It was interesting to read a contemporary French novel and find things that, even in what appeared to be a very good translation, one would not find in a British or American book. One is long sentences. There are several, peppered with semi-colons, that an Anglo-Saxon editor would not have allowed. Short sentences can pack a lot of punch, but I say, “Vive la France!”. Long sentences like these convey a complex interrelationship of ideas and qualifications in a way a series of short sentences could not. Another is a willingness to engage philosophical concepts head on. Few British writers do that, especially since Iris Murdoch’s death. But leading on from that is a French characteristic I like less, a tendency to throw around abstract concepts as though they were concrete, to talk about Liberty, Reason or whatever without any sense that these are fuzzy approximations needing clarification.

Houllebecq does seem to go a long way for publicity, but his book deserves consideration for itself.

Book Review: Jane Austen, Persuasion

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As a sixth-form student way back, I was helped to discover Jane Austen. I loved what I discovered. I loved the precision of the language, the clever, almost sly way she told us so much about a character by a few words spoken. The limited social focus, on upper-middle-class or lower-upper-class early 19th century people, in particular the underemployed women who could not pursue a career, were expected to leave estate management to men and had servants to do the cooking and care for the children, did not bother me. If all literature had been that way, it would have bothered me a lot, but it wasn’t. Jane Austen was very good at what she did.

“Persuasion”, her last novel, always appealed to me. “Pride and Prejudice” is much better known, but it seems to me that as with many first novels, it’s just a bit too personal and some characters, like Mr D’Arcy’s appalling sisters, are caricatured. “Persuasion” and “Emma” were my favourites.

In a way, Jane Austen, like any famous dead writer, now suffers from the fame. We know all her novels have happy endings, so that reduces the dramatic tension, and anyway, how many likely to read this book or “Pride and Prejudice” doesn’t know something of the plot already?

A popular game with writers who died quite young is to speculate on how they might have developed. You can’t be proved wrong. One thing I notice about “Persuasion” is that there’s a hint of social criticism. The heroine’s stupidly narrow and snobbish father has a title but is clearly meant to seem inferior to the rough-hewn, weather-beaten naval officers of modest origins he looks down on. I remember our teacher in the sixth form commenting that you could read “Pride and Prejudice” without realising there was a gruelling war going on. That would be impossible with “Persuasion”, set just after the Napoleonic Wars had ended and full of naval officers and references to military action. Patrick O’Brian or C.S. Forrester it is not, but when a naval officer remarks that a quiet and bookish colleague had proved himself in action, it’s entirely credible.

Despite the hint of criticism of social norms, like other Jane Austen heroines, Anne does not rebel against the norms. In typically Austen style, there is the merest hint of something different in the recognition that naval officers in war might rise from very humble beginnings (more humble than she shows, because unlike in the army at this time, promotion from the ranks was by no means impossible).

Now imagine this is not a famous text, but something by new writer J. Nostyn. There’s just about enough action to give it a faint hope, but only just enough. There’s too much dialogue. Worse, the author offends against the injunction to show, not tell, for she spends nearly a page telling us what kind of a man Sir Walter is (though she also shows a lot about him as the tale develops). It’s also rather short and an agent might tell her to fill it out a bit. Maybe some flashbacks of the naval battles?

What do you think of Jane Austen? If you quite like her books, which one is the best for you?

Book Review: Martin Pugh, “We Danced all Night”

“We Danced all Night – a Social History of Britain between the Wars” is readable and full of interesting information. We learn about diet, attitudes to crime (varying hugely between one working-class community and another), the changing position of women, sport and class (football had rapidly become a working-class sport, but cricket maintained a gulf between “gentlemen” (well-off amateurs) and “players” (professionals) – about motorists who regarded any government restrictions as unacceptable, the insecurity of rented accommodation, attitudes to Empire and monarchy – you name it.

One of the main messages is that living standards rose throughout the period. The effect of the Great Depression was not as great as we tend to believe, except in specific areas of heavy industry or mining such as the Welsh valleys or Tyneside.

Inevitably there are a few gaps. Martin Pugh mentions that Trade Union membership rose, but has nothing to say about the significance of the unions in the lives of industrial and transport workers, or about industrial disputes other than to note their numbers. Differences between North and South within England are stressed, with some reference to Scotland, but I could not have worked out from this book if the social history of Scotland or even more, Wales was different from that of England in this period in any way, except in the high unemployment in South-east Wales. Odd that, as Pugh is a Welsh surname.

On the political front, one of the main findings is just how conservative the newly-powerful Labour Party was. He has a bit of a thing about George Orwell and snipes at him in several places – not without justice at times, but he says Orwell was disabled as a social commentator by his left-wing views and upper-class origins. Left or right wing views do not disable you as a commentator. They give your comments an angle others should take into account. And Orwell’s origins were middle-class (in the British sense), not upper-class.

 

Well worth reading, though!

Book review: Geoffrey Hindley, A Brief History of Magna Carta

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I hadn’t heard of Geoffrey Hindley. Well, I do have a history degree, but the Middle Ages? They Aren’t My Period. He’s written a series of “brief histories” and he’s a medieval historian, that is, a contemporary living guy who writes about the Middle Ages.

I hadn’t known a lot about Magna Carta. I was slightly ahead of Tony Hancock (look him up in Wikipedia) and his “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” quote, but I had a lot to learn.

Geoffrey Hindley writes well, if a little cosily-chattily at times. As far as I can tell he deals with detail in the story of King John’s confrontation with his barons with authority and verve. The complicated story of John’s troubled relations with the French king and his series of wars with the French doesn’t – for me – become too complicated and he manages to convey a lot about feudal relationships. When we think about feudalism as a rigid pyramid, we oversimplify. It was a system based on land. Each bit of land was farmed by person A and held from a lord B who taxed A and used his labour but also had a duty to protect him. B in term held the land from someone greater and in the end all land was held by the gracious will of the king, who could demand services and money from his barons but was expected to help them too. However, over time land-holdings and feudal relationships got complicated and it was theoretically possible for Lord A to hold land from Lord B and to be for that land his feudatory (subordinate), but for Lord B to hold another bit of land from Lord A and owe loyalty to him for that. In the case of the English kings and France, a King of England was subordinate to no-one (except perhaps the Pope) in respect of England, but from 1066 to 1558 English kings held land in France for which they owed loyalty to the French king. They eventually got round that by claiming to be the rightful kings of France themselves.

Complicated? Hindley explains it well.

He’s also good about teasing out the influence of John’s agreement with his rebellious barons on later events including the English Civil War and the American rebellion of 1776. He shows how views of the events around Magna Carta changed in different periods depending on current beliefs and interests, and shows that some English-influenced countries, former colonies like the U.S.A., Australia and India, seem to take it more seriously than the English today do.

Three quibbles. For my taste there are a few too many throwaway contentious remarks about contemporary or recent politics. There are two long chapters about interesting and important subjects of very limited relevance to Magna Carta – the position of Jews in medieval England and the role of women in the society of the time (might these have been to tempt the American market?). And there is one glaring historical boo-boo about the period I DO know well (which just makes me wonder about some of his facts I can’t easily check). Referring to Nottingham Castle, an important stronghold in the wars of John’s reign, he says it was a stronghold for the King throughout the English Civil War. Wrong. It was a stronghold for Parliament throughout, and that’s fairly well-known because it was held for Parliament by Colonel John Hutchinson, whose wife Lucy’s account of her husband’s life is a major source for historians wanting to get behind the headline events.

Still, not a bad tour-de-force, and here, to explain why it’s important, is the thing itself:

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Book Review: The Hanging Garden, Ian Rankin

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Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin has become one of my favourite authors for his dark, intelligent Edinburgh crime novels featuring the tough, conflicted, driven police detective Inspector Rebus. The earlier books are a little mannered, with the names chosen for characters (like Rebus, for example) forming a pattern, for example references to the Sherlock Holmes stories. The later ones are more naturalistic and perhaps emotionally deeper. “The Hanging Garden” is one of these. Two gangsters are fighting a war for territory, but each firmly denies starting it. Police see an opportunity to take one of them out of the game, but is someone else ready to step in? An apparently gentle old man may be an SS war criminal. Rebus’ daughter is seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver. The narrative weaves these themes together as Rebus struggles to find out the truth. Just a very good read if you don’t mind description of pain, worry and waste.

Now on poetry. My mystery lines last post but one were by Christina Rossetti (“Remember”). The clue (“Close to Arkhangelsk?”) was fairly obscure: Christina Rossetti’s brother, also a poet, was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Gabriel was of course an archangel.

Here’s the next puzzle – another example where I couldn’t really quote just two or three lines because the whole is greater than the parts:

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But what to say of the road?

The monotony of its hardly

Visible camber, the mystery

Of its far invisible margins,

Will these be always with us,

The night being broken only

By lights that pass or meet us

From others in moving boxes?

Clue: His bagpipes were irredeemably heterosexual.

 

Book Review: Exit Ghost, Philip Roth

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This is a short book and very readable. One reaction might be – Not another novel by an American Jewish writer about an American Jewish writer (possibly himself writing a book about an American Jewish writer)! Can’t these people get written about by Filipino Catholic cleaners?

But this one is different. It’s a study of old age and uncertain pasts. The main character is an old, frail writer, a big name but a failing body and mind. As one might expect with Roth (“Portnoy’s Complaint)”) he’s resolutely randy but medical treatment has probably finished the physical side for him. His predictably declining life is turned upside down by meeting a young couple. He becomes obsessed by the woman. Her old friend pursues him because he’s writing a book about one of the hero’s heroes, a writer of an older generation now largely forgotten. He will revive that author’s name – and allege a dark secret of incest. The hero angrily resists this; the young man can’t understand. The hero also meets a face from the past, the dead author’s former girlfriend, once beautiful, her beauty now wrecked, her mind wandering. She gives her account of the dead man. Nothing is certain, neither the long-gone nor what is happening now. The book contains long dialogues which appear to be imagined by the hero, of him talking with the young woman. These are fairly obviously at least partly imagined. But what about the other things he describes, including the threats in the post from what appears to be a deranged far-right activist?

A disturbing book, but meant to disturb – and not without hope or compassion.

Now to throw in more mystery lines and see if someone knows (or guesses) who wrote them. No googling please!

Remember me when I am gone away,
   Gone far away into the silent land;
   When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Well?