Luckenbooth

This novel, by Jenni Fagan, is the horrifying biography of a building, organised by floors and rooms rather than chronologically. One reviewer compared it to George Perec’s Life: a User’s Manual: the form is similar, working through a series of loosely linked stories room by room, but the tone and content is very different. This building is an old-fashioned Edinburgh tenement, 10, Luckenbooth Close. A Luckenbooth is a kind of stall selling trinkets, and by extension the little pair of linked hands made in silver that were the most popular item for sale there; but apart from providing the address that doesn’t seem to be of any wider importance to the story.

The history of this building is full of dark fantasy, violence and the supernatural, ghastly tales delivered with skill and a kind of gloomy zest. If that’s the kind of thing you like, a feast awaits you here; for me the fantastic crossed over into the absurd a little too often. There’s a passage towards the end which recounts a kind of duel between local gangsters and Triad members, which would make a great comic book, or maybe a Tarantinoesque film sequence, but while I read it avidly I didn’t believe a word of it; exciting, but in the superficial way a brilliantly choreographed fight scene might be. Perhaps I’m hard to please. Others have detected elements of social commentary here which eluded me.

Or take the opening of the book in which Jessie MacRae paddles away from some island where she has killed her father (who is the Devil, apparently, and not altogether dead, either; like a lot of things in the story this is sort of inexplicable). For a boat she uses the coffin her father made for her, though goodness knows how that works. Where is she coming from, anyway? She ends up in Leith, but there aren’t really any islands off Scotland’s North Sea coast, and her father’s corpse is said to stare at the North Atlantic. It does take her three days, but even just coming from Orkney would have to be some amazing feat of seamanship in these dangerous waters – or, of course, just magic. Perhaps I’m niggling over details, but sailing in a coffin is for me one of the touches that tries too hard, slipping from the horrifying into the risible. Jessie, who has been sold by her father to be a kind of surrogate mother, is herself demonic, producing the baby within days and growing horns like her Dad’s. That rather recalls Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye, though as I understand it Mr Pye’s horns were a sarcastic comment from God on a man who took himself much too seriously and the moral complexity of the world nothing like seriously enough (I’ll just leave that there).

There’s a lot to enjoy here if you like a bit of grisly gothic. For me, when the last mutilated corpses have been uncovered, the final ghosts released, and the building finally subsides into ruin, one deep and difficult question is left in the reader’s mind. What was all that about?

Piranesi

A building that fills a whole world; an endless sequence of halls, all filled with statues. Here and there the sea has broken in and flooded or destroyed some of the great marble figures and massive stairways. And here lives one resourceful man who has contrived to live off fish, befriending the albatross and other birds who also live here. He is not quite alone. He regularly meets the Other, a man in smart suits, and together they try to obtain powerful magic. The Other jokingly calls him ‘Piranesi’; he knows this not his real name but does not mind. Piranesi believes there are probably only fifteen people in the world; the rest are all skeletons that he cares for respectfully.

This is the new novel from Susanna Clarke that we fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell have been waiting for so eagerly. We had The Ladies of Grace Adieu to keep us going, but nothing more substantial. Are we satisfied?

Well, the new novel is not a sequel, and as we eventually discover, it is set in the twenty-first century. There are no delightful footnotes, and it is relatively short. However, it clearly comes from the same imagination as Strange and Norrell. There are no fairies, but the underlying conception of magic as a dialogue with the powers of Nature is still here. The fascination with (the real) Piranesi’s bizarre architectural fantasies is obviously here, too. Even if our hero were not given the tell-tale nickname we should recognise that these halls owe something to the dream-like images of the Italian architect and artist, though for many readers they will call up faint echoes of Borges’ total library, too.  These visions presumably shaped the King’s Roads in Strange and Norrell and explicitly provide the design for the tremendous Thoresby Bridge in Grace Adieu. There are some other signs of kinship with Strange and Norrell. We might say (slight spoiler) that both books feature a resourceful black man with a false friend who inadvertently inherits an enchanted realm.
One of Clarke’s great achievements in Strange and Norrell was to provide a really satisfying conception of magic which chimed well with folklore yet got everything to make sense. Here we don’t quite get that. Piranesi’s world is explained, partly by a kind of guru who seems to be a cross between Julian Jaynes and Aleister Crowley; but there’s a certain amount of handwaving involved. In some ways I almost feel it would have been better to leave the modern world out of it and simply give Piranesi adventures in his own self-justifying world.

Overall, this isn’t the further volume of Strange and Norrell that many of us would have liked, but it’s a great book and very welcome. More please, more!

Hamnet

I remember being puzzled by the discovery that Shakespeare had a son called “Hamnet”. What had that got to do with Hamlet? It surely couldn’t be just a coincidence, even allowing for that peculiar one-letter difference between the names. Maggie O’Farrell’s novel, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, offers an explanation. It’s one that is satisfying fictionally and perhaps psychologically, but almost certainly false historically.

The novel centres on Shakespeare’s wife; we normally know her as Anne Hathaway, the somewhat older woman with the famous cottage, left behind in Stratford while Shakespeare enjoyed his glittering career in London. O’Farrell gives us a different person; even her name is changed to ‘Agnes’, which it seems is what her father called her. They had a flexible approach to spelling back then; we’re told up front that they treated ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamlet’ as the same, so that’s that cleared up (of course Shakespeare spelled his own name several different ways on different occasions).

Agnes, in this version, has more than a touch of woodland magic about her. She can see into people’s minds by holding the web of flesh between their thumb and finger (which must be really irritating); she often knows the future, and can knock up a terrific poultice or potion out of a range of herbs with the kind of names they give to fancy shampoos these days. She may not comb her hair much, but she has a natural beauty and squirrels come to sit on her shoulder as if she were being written by Disney.

A little of that goes a long way for me, and I feel that the traditional Anne Hathaway – lumpish, too old, inadequately loved – would have been a character eminently worth writing about. But that’s wishing O’Farrell had written a different book, which is simply bad manners from the reader. I don’t feel she goes overboard, anyway; she makes a vivid character out of Agnes. In fact her suffering comes across strongly; I wouldn’t read Hamnet if you have a sick child, or perhaps if you’re pregnant.

In O’Farrell’s version the relationship between Will and Agnes is true love from the moment he spots her flying her kestrel while he is doing some Latin tutoring to help pay off his disgraced father’s debts. Although the later separation while he is making his name in London brings difficulties, the strength of the bond is never in doubt; O’Farrell fairly points out that when he’d made enough money, Shakespeare came home to Stratford for the rest of his life.

In this version (spoilers!) Hamnet dies tragically of the plague, voluntarily taking on his twin sister’s fatal illness. Agnes is horrified to hear that Shakespeare has produced a play apparently named after his son, but ultimately realises that in that play he has brought him back to life while voluntarily taking on the death in turn by casting himself as the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Maybe Shakespeare did think that way to some degree, and it rounds out the novel into a memorable read. But the historical background suggests a different picture. It seems very likely (to me at least) that the Shakespeare twins Hamnet and Judith were named after close family friends Hamnet Sadler and his wife Judith. It may well have been reciprocal, with Hamnet Sadler naming two of his many children after Will and Agnes (or Anne). Hamlet the prince was named after neither Hamnet, however. He comes from a character in a Danish legend named ‘Amleth’; it’s probable that Shakespeare took him from an earlier play or text in which the name may already have been Englished as ‘Hamlet’. In short, neither Will nor Agnes would have supposed that Hamlet was named after, let alone meant to depict, their son, any more than he depicted Hamnet Sadler the baker.

But this is a novel, not a scholarly monograph. As a novel I recommend it and think it was a worthy winner.

Light, not so much

He was obviously delighted with it, though.When Henry VIII came to the throne he was young, attractive, and slim; a refreshing change from the rather austere regime of his father. But as he grew older he lost the charm of novelty and became increasingly bloated, unlovely, and difficult to deal with. The same kind of thing has happened to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, with the last volume The Mirror and the Light turning out larger, less innovative, and quite a bit less charming than the earlier volumes.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a book you will definitely want to read, and not just because you’re locked into the trilogy and the life. Mantel faced several challenges in making this novel as good as the others.
For one thing, this part of Cromwell’s life is well known. In Wolf Hall Mantel was inventing his tantalisingly unknown early life, and took the opportunity to show him as an attractive underdog of astonishing competence, clawing his way up through an uncanny ability to master every trade he encountered, yet steadfastly loyal to his master Wolsey. In the new book he is plump, secure, and loaded with offices and honours. Nothing much can be invented because this stage of his life is part of history and without that creative freedom it’s difficult to make him so appealing. His competence seems to have deserted him, and in fact Mantel makes it worse, having him make a fool of himself over marriage proposals twice in ways that don’t even strike me as particularly plausible.

The fact that this history is well known also makes it inherently less interesting. We know what’s coming. Mantel herself seems bored in places; the Pilgrimage of Grace was a sensational rebellion, but we trudge through it dutifully with no illuminating flashes of insight or sympathy.

In what may be an attempt to address some of these problems, Mantel revisits in flashback episodes from earlier in Cromwell’s life; but this just makes the damn thing even longer. Here I think we’re up against a genuine weakness of the author; in A Place of Greater Safety, her earlier book about the French Revolution, she also, in my opinion, began to run on at uncontrolled length. In a couple of places here, she oddly drops in anachronistic phrases, and unfortunately one of them is ‘cut to the chase’, the very thing she seems unable to do.

One of the interesting things about Wolf Hall was its technical innovation. It read easily but in some ways the prose was unorthodox; notably, it only ever referred to Cromwell as ‘he’. It was quite shocking when she finally gave up and said ‘he, Cromwell’. In The Mirror and the Light, she does something different, clarifying with one or other of Cromwell’s ever-increasing roster of offices – ‘he, Master Secretary’. This enables her to highlight different aspects of his role; but it isn’t the tour de force that the earlier book pulled off.

The book has been nominated for the Booker, and if it wins will be an astonishing third in a row, an unprecedented hat-trick. I haven’t read the other contenders, so it could easily be that The Mirror and the Light deserves to win; but momentum from the earlier books is surely going to give it a head start. It seems to me we’ve got a good book, but not the great one we were hoping for.