SS-GB (S1, BBC1)

A lone Spitfire soars over London, landing gracefully in front of Buckingham Palace.  But the Palace is a bombed-out shell, and the swastika hangs from its gates.  Its 1941. The Battle of Britain has been fought – and lost.

Though there may be Nazi jack boots marching down the Mall, life goes on.  And Detective Archer has a murderer to find.

Focussing on the ordinary characters caught up in a mad, complex situation is a nifty way of bringing us into what is a pretty surreal setting.  Archer is a believably capable detective, but no superhuman.   He has a vague grasp of how things are playing out, at least enough to stay alive, but the bigger game is always beyond him.   It keeps things personal, the losses and choices have a real weight to them.  Big ideas like patriotism and duty seem remote compared Archer and Harry’s friendship and loyalty.

This does have the effect of making Sylvia a rather unappealing figure.  Her black and white view of things comes across as rather juvenile, even petulant.   Her willingness to put herself repeatedly in danger felt to me more a lack of pragmatism than bravery.   Not that she seemed stupid, just rather unconcerned with realities.  When she and Harry were put into the holding camps, it was him who found food for her.   Barbara is more interesting, gallivanting about the world looking for a story.  But her distance makes her chilly and difficult to trust.  What’s she up to?

Perhaps this is more to do with person taste than I realise.  Fervour is the stuff of heroes, after all.  Sylvia was at least genuine, and consistent – deriding the collaborators for selling out their neighbours for ‘a more comfortable life’.   Did she think more of the Nazis than the collaborators? They at least fought for a cause.  Her hero’s death seemed fitting; she would become a beacon, a rallying point for British resistance.  Some viewers may have been affected by her sacrifice.  Though I couldn’t help but feel that her final gesture was just that – a gesture.  Like throwing a lit cigarette into the crate of yellow stars that Jewish locals would be forced to wear – it was defiant and heartfelt, but didn’t really accomplish much.

Eternity belongs to heroes, but the world belongs to swindlers.  Mayhew’s double-cross was brilliant in design (and ruthless in execution). I did wonder if the King knew he was never going to make that plane… Austere Huth came a cropper too.  His focus was his weakness, not his strength.  It was adaptable, genial Kellerman who came out ahead.  For now at least.

The pragmatic tone carries through to the ending- optimistic, but hardly celebratory, with no great patriotic fanfare.  It’s not as though Britain won by noble means, let’s be honest.  In fact, they’ve hardly won at all.  The future looks rosy (or at least less grim than it did), but Britain remains very much occupied.   Still, I liked the sense of moving forward, resolute and just a bit crafty.  Britain won’t win because they’re better, or more noble.  They’ll win because they’re wily and stubborn.

And because they adapt.  SS-GB was written in 1978, when Britain was well and truly on its arse, still struggling with the exhausting effort of WW2 and a rapidly diminished place in the world.   Survival comes from facing realities, and putting your efforts into building for the future.  Early in the series, the Nazis and Soviets made a big show of exhuming the remains of Karl Marx to be dispatched back to Russia with great pomp and ceremony.   Their ‘friendship’ is based on the past.  By bringing about the destruction of Nazi efforts to build the A bomb and offering key research in this to the US, Britain is forging a new friendship and a new future.

Still, this isn’t a story about big events, and the small scale is echoed visually, with few big set pieces.   The opening scene was nicely done and the final fight at the aerodrome was thrilling, but the important stuff goes on in the sitting room, at a game of cards,  down the pub.   Politics and warfare isn’t just armies and ministers, it’s out on the street, how you treat your neighbour.  Would you inform on someone for a bag of potatoes?  For the life of your son?

Early on, Archer talks about keeping his head down and maintaining law and order because the Germans won’t be around for ever.  But I didn’t really buy that – he (quite sensibly) just doesn’t want to get involved.    But the real cruelty of the Reich isn’t the wrong flag above Westminster; it’s a headmaster carted off to the camps for no reason, prostitutes rounded up and abused in the street, men shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Thoug, if evil is small scale, so is bravery.  Sylvia and her plucky companions are principled enough, but they won’t win the war.  America looms large, but it won’t get involved for no reason.  Somewhere between the two, sits the ordinary people.  Only when they care enough to make those small acts of defiance – when  Archer starts to make those little moves  – can the much bigger pieces fall into place.   Starting from such a striking premise, it’s an oddly predictable resolution.  But it makes for a great story.

What did you think?  I haven’t seen The Man in the High Castle, how does it compare?  Did you find yourself warming to Huth in his final scene?   Did you just want to give Harry a hug the whole way through? Let me know!

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

When 13-year-old Theo Decker loses his mother in tragic circumstances, he encounters a strange and lovely painting of a goldfinch.  Through life’s trials and tribulations, the painting offers Theo a glimpse of something wonderful, if only he could figure out what it means…

To be honest, I don’t even know where to start.   This is one of the most absorbing, ambitious, brilliantly realised novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.  Moving, unpredictable and insightful, it’s also incredibly easy to read – a hand that takes yours, and gently pulls you along.

Despite its length – more than 800 pages – this remarkable story never feels overstretched or repetitive.  Partly because of the high stakes involved.  There’s death and loss, addiction, madness, crime, enduring friendship and unrequited love.  The rich and complex characters are also captivating.  Theo himself is a flawed and engaging narrator, but everyone has a pleasing solidity to them; a sense that they all have lives we only get to see a bit of.  When even minor players like Goldie or Andy leave the story, there’s a genuine sense of absence.  For all the exciting, criminal activities of the last few chapters, I was constantly worrying about Hobie.  Would Reeve somehow get his claws into him?  Would he be okay running the shop by himself?  What did he make of Theo’s parting gifts to Pippa?  With even a small number of characters this would be impressive, but with such a big cast it’s quite astonishing.

Of course, what also compels is Theo’s growth.  His movement though depression and isolation towards something like redemption.  Or revelation.  By the end, for all his (understandable) cynicism, Theo grasps an important truth:  the only thing that makes life bearable is each other.   And beautiful things are a way to solidify and communicate the very best parts of ourselves.

It’s something Theo comes to gradually, making an unconscious distinction between preservers and users.  Hobie’s appreciation of objects is genuine, reflecting and magnifying the best aspects of his nature.  His restoration is almost a sort of time travel.  He wants to impress the person who will be restoring the piece a hundred years from now.  What Hobie does will outlast him.  His labour has an authenticity to it, a power and honourability all its own.  Users, on the other hand, only acquire beautiful things – furniture, jewellery, art.  They don’t make or preserve or even enjoy these lovely things.  They can’t think beyond their own self-aggrandisement or covetousness.   It’s all rather short sighted, juvenile.

While this understanding slowly dawns on Theo, in the face of his losses he is pulled between two possible responses.  Pippa is grounded in the present – living with her stable, pleasant boyfriend, in a stable, pleasant manner.  But she is unable to move forward in any meaningful way.  She’s always pulled back to New York, unable to make peace with the loss of her musical skill.  Boris on the other hand is not grounded at all.  Freewheeling all over the world, doing a bit of this and a bit of that.  He has no real roots, nothing solid, no plans.  If good things can go bad, and bad things can come good – why make plans at all?  Not that he lacks a moral code, it’s just relative.

As he grows, Theo seems to be thrashing out a middle way.  One of his most moving and important realisations is that he can make the people around him happy.  That his actions affect the people around him.  Against the backdrop of such loss and isolation, he grasps that every life, however small, has some significance.

Worth mentioning here how brilliantly Tartt handles the business of storytelling.  The sense of place is superb – bustling, melting-pot New York, in a constant state of decay and renewal; the strange netherworld of Las Vegas, city being reclaimed by the desert, almost desperately sprawling, fighting back against the nature that surrounds it; sleepy, ancient Amsterdam, a neat, crisp fairy-tale, quietly marred on the fringes by ugly modernity.

Characterisation is also excellent, convincing and frequently surprising: Theo’s father shows occasional flashes of paternal awareness; Mrs Barbour’s chilly composure gives way to a depth of feeling; brilliant, puckish Boris demonstrates real affection and attachment.  It’s not just that people are layered; they have each had a life up until now and they have been shaped by those experiences.  It makes you realise how fragile we all are, how buffered by the tides.

And this all feeds into Theo’s big realisation, the importance of touching that immortal part of ourselves and human experience.  In lesser hands, it could feel trite, but here it’s profound: both frightening and optimistic.  Life is just a fleeting quirk of biology, but art and beauty can be passed on through the generations.  Every piece that is loved and saved – the very act of enjoying and preserving – is a little rebuke to mortality, a wee nod to the future.   If writing the book is Theo’s contribution to this ongoing rejection of life’s impermanence, then reading the book has made us part of that process too.  It’s as if we’re being challenged to go out and do something better.  Or save something worth saving.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to book a trip to the Mauritshuis.  There’s an old painting I’d like to have a look at…

Did you enjoy The Goldfinch?  Did you find it easy to read?  Were you convinced by its conclusion?  Would you like to go and poke around an antiques shop with me?  Let me know!

A Song of Ice and Fire (George R.R. Martin)

ASOIAF*Spoilers for the books series A Song of Ice and FireGame of Thrones is a different kettle of fish, so won’t be referred to below (though it is marvellous).*

A tale twenty years in the making, the characters from A Song of Ice and Fire have become household names.  But has this sprawling series got away from its author?   I’m not so sure.

Many readers grumble that the series loses its way after Storm of Swords – and the first time I read the books, I thought so too.  After steamrolling through the early books, I hit Feast for Crows like a brick wall.  We’re bombarded by new characters from places we’ve barely heard of, and the older characters we’ve come to love have their progress slow to a crawl.  I’d sigh whenever a Brienne chapter came along. And whenever we saw Bran.  Or Tyrion.

Even Martin himself acknowledged the difficulties of maintaining forward momentum with so many characters and plot lines on the go.

He also took some peculiar editorial decisions.  These are long bloody books, and when Storm of Swords became too long for a single edition, he simply cut it roughly in two, and released them as two parts.  So far, so straightforward.  But when he encountered the same issue with Feast for Crows, he made the decision to split the book not chronologically, but geographically.   This had the unfortunate effect of pushing all of the most interesting characters – Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Davos (#TeamStannis) – into the later book, Dance of Dragons.  These characters re-merge with the rest in the latter half of Dragons, but it further exacerbates the sensation of slowness.

These later books aren’t without their memorable moments – Tywin’s death, Dany’s flight from Meereen, Stannis’s fight for The Wall – but I was just itching for some resolution.  The Starks have been butchered – I want red vengeance!  What’s going to happen to Jon?  Will Dany ever get to Westeros?  So I ploughed on regardless, hoping for answers.

Which of course, never came.  The series is unfinished.  Martin has plans for two more books: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.

And yet, despite these flaws (and while working full time), I knocked off the entire series in about six weeks.  I haven’t encountered books so readable, yet so rich and satisfying, since Harry Potter.  And there is no higher praise from me than that.  Actually, Martin’s writing style seems to encounter similar criticism to Rowling’s – excessive use of clichéd language and so on.  While there is some truth to that – everyone in Westeros wipes their mouth with the back of their hand after having a drink – the world building he has done is absolutely staggering.   There are at least 5 different religions established in the books.  Not to mention all the various houses and social groups, their histories and interactions.  And the geography of two continents.  The balance between real-worldly political intrigue and pure fantasy elements is also brilliantly managed.

Part of this success comes from Martin borrowing heavily from real history.  The Wall could be inspired by Hadrian’s or the Great Wall of China.  The Lannisters have parallels with the Borgias and The House of York.   Braavos could be mercantile Amsterdam, or perhaps Venice.   Yet this is done very cleverly – familiar enough to be believable, particular and fresh enough to be engaging.  It also subtlety suggests that Westeros is a bit of a backwater.   It feels very medieval, whereas the Free Cities have an air of the Renaissance about them.  Even the names are perfect, with variants on old fashioned names (Margaery, Alliser, Eddard) mixing with pure inventions that don’t at all sound like inventions (Hoster, Tyrion, Aegon).  It sounds like a simple thing, but how many fantasy stories have ridiculously contrived names, full of unnecessary X’s and K’s to make them sound exotic.  Martin actually mocks this particular trope with the ‘unpronounceable’ names he gives to the Meereenese.  And marking them as different and faintly indistinguishable from one another also suggests that Dany doesn’t really belong amongst them.

In fact, Martin subverts almost every fantasy trope in A Song of Ice and Fire.  Noble Robb tries to avenge his murdered father, and is promptly dispatched himself.  Virtuous maidens are abused and neglected.  Parents end up destroying their children and vice versa.  The most capable rulers aren’t always the most likeable.  Beautiful people can be evil and ugly people can be good.  Magic is a more of a burden than a quick fix.  The most successful in this world aren’t the ones that fulfil expectations, but the ones who respond best to changing situations.  And of course, even important people can be killed.  Again, it may seem simple to subvert expectations, but it’s no mean feat to pull off inversions like these.  We have tropes for a reason; they tend to make bloody good stories.  And it’s fair to say that some of the issues Martin has are a result of his determination to avoid the obvious.

The depth and quality of the world building is also borne out by the number of fan theories that have sprung up.  R+L=J is practically canon, and there are various convincing theories about Dany’s prophetic visions in The House of the Undying.  Can Bran go back in time and alter the course of events?  Can he stop the the Walkers?  Has he already tried to and sent poor Aerys mad, thus causing all of this?  Who is Coldhands?  Are Jaimie and Cersei actually secret Targaryen’s?  Is Tyrion?  (I think no on the last two, but they are a lot of fun).  On and on it goes, so many mad and brilliant ideas.

I recently re-read the series, much slower than last time.  And the response I had was quite different.  Partly because I could really savour the characters and world, but also because it changed my understanding of how the series is structured, and why the later books feel so different to the first three.

So.  It seems likely that The Winds of Winter will be split into two books, followed by A Dream of Spring.  If that’s the case, the order of the series looks like this:

A Game of Thrones

A Clash of Kings

A Storm of Swords (p1)

A Storm of Swords (p2)

A Feast for Crows

A Dance with Dragons (p1)

A Dance with Dragons (p2)

The Winds of Winter (p1)

The Winds of Winter (p2)

A Dream of Spring

 

But if you do this…

 

ACT 1 = A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords (p1), A Storm of Swords (p2)

ACT 2 = A Feast for Crows, A Dance With Dragons (p1), A Dance With Dragons (p2)

ACT 3 = The Winds of Winter (p1), The Winds of Winter (p2), A Dream of Spring

 

…you get your basic three act structure.  Looks pretty neat, doesn’t it?  Considering how much groundwork has to happen in the first book, all three Acts look fairly equal in length.

I really like this structure because it explains several tricky aspects of the series.  Primarily, why is Feast For Crow such hard work?  Because it’s the start of a new Act.

Act 1 establishes the world and the main players and sets our main plot in motion.  Act 2 pulls back to a wider viewpoint, showing how the events of Act 1 have far reaching consequences.  Hence we learn much more about the Dornish and the Iron born and The Citadel.  It also explains Brienne’s tedious jaunt around the Riverlands – we are being shown the horror of war, and how it disproportionally impacts the smallfolk.  This is also why we get the viewpoints of several minor characters, when until now we have only heard from high-borns: the actions of the ruling class are rippling outward.

This continues in Dance of Dragons.  Stannis is forced to The Wall as the North reels from the downfall of the Starks.  Tyrion’s chapters’ show how much he has personally lost by casting off his family, and how deeply the murder of his father has affected him.  But he’s also getting a crash course in the importance of rank in Westeros – Aegon is only a Targaryen if the people around him say so, and Penny shows how different life is as a dwarf when you have neither name nor fortune (hint – it’s rough).  Without Tywin keeping a lid on things, King’s Landing spirals more and more out of control as the Lannister-Tyrell alliance fractures, and The Sparrows step into the void.  Dany is shown the difference between conquest and rule.  Peace is not an absence of war – it’s hard, thankless work, both tedious and relentless.   Jon learns that politics doesn’t stop at The Wall, and that even a common enemy is not always enough to unite people.  These last two threads end on a particularly tantalising note: Dany and Drogon turn away from Meereen to chase a Dothraki hoard, and Jon … well, things are definitely going to change for Jon.

In fact there are several hints that we are now moving into Act 3, where all the threads come together for the final, dramatic conclusion.  Tyrion is back in a position to do a bit of honest manipulation and King’s Landing is a tinder box.  Victarion is racing East, while Young Aegon is racing West.  Brienne has met up with Jaimie, Myrcella is coming home.  And the final, decisive battles are coming to Meereen and Winterfell.  This latter prospect has me salivating, as Martin does a fantastic job of building the tension at both Winterfell and Stannis’s camp.  The sense of a reckoning being due is almost palpable.  The pieces are all in place.  Time for the finale.

Your move, Mr Martin.

So, what do you think?  Is the 3 Act structure working for you? Had you already spotted this, or am I talking nonsense?  Have you any idea when Winds of Winter is coming out?  Do let me know!

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s a dark time for England.  Society is fragmented after the withdrawal of the Romans, and tensions between Britons and Saxons are on the rise.  In this dreamlike, timeless place, where ogres and dragons still roam the land, Axl and Beatrice set out on a journey to visit their son.  They come to realise that something has taken their memories, and determine to recover their past.

If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be ‘haunting’.  Ishiguro does a brilliant job of creating a world where all the usual markers of identity – time, geography, history – are lost.  The more I think about it, the more impressive this seems, on a technical level at least.  How can an author create characters that don’t really know themselves?  Far from explaining to us who they are and what they’re doing, the characters here engage in a sort of anti-exposition as they try to piece together, or even conceal, their own motivations.  They often scarce believe their own eyes, and are troubled by recollections and sensations that seem to emerge from a lurking, unknowable past.

It’s very disorientating, and I found it interesting that – while we know very little about Axl and Beatrice – I found myself rooting for them, simply because I had known them the longest.  In the absence of any marker of personality, morality or any of the other things that make us care about a character, the simple act of shared time became a basis for caring.  Which I suppose is the point.  It reminded me of the idea that every villain is the hero of their own story- there are no absolutes.  And if you can’t even recall past events and actions, how can you tell good people from bad? Or even right from wrong?

There’s a fantastic sense that, while it may be vital to remember the past, it is also painful; that the mist only works because, deep down, the people want to forget.  Wistan is (eventually) clear and eloquent in his defence of his actions – the only person who ever really is.  But he’s also harsh, brittle, unyielding.  The truth can be painful.  Forgetting is comfortable, easier.

Well, almost.  Because some things can’t quite be forgotten.  And those few snatches of half remembered events and relationships can destabilize perfectly functional, well ordered lives and worlds.

Perhaps forgiveness isn’t something that can be chosen, deliberately brought forth from yourself; it has to just come naturally.  It’s either in your heart or it isn’t.  Forgiveness, then, isn’t an absence of malice or anger or a by-product of forgetting.  It is an active presence, something that exists by itself and on its own terms.  You can’t compel forgiveness.

Like love, then.  No one chooses to love or be loved, it’s just there. Unspoken and inexplicable.  Which is marvellous, in a way, very unearthly and pure.  But in the real world, is it a good thing for such uncontrollable, even baseless, sensations to have so much control over us?

This is the tension at the heart of the story.  We need each other, need to connect, yet the roots of those connections are tenuous, even ridiculous.   Is a love dependent on forgetting worth less than one that endures perfect recollection?  Every quarrel, every perceived slight?  Is a perfect love even possible?  Even human? We’re all flawed, after all – we all make mistakes.  Is love divine, then?  Coming from God, not from within ourselves?

There’s a scene where Beatrice, perhaps sensing a parting is inevitable, begs her husband to remember the love that currently exists between them.  But, you can’t really remember a feeling, can you?  You can recall if something made you sad or happy etc, but not the actual way you felt, the sensation of it.  Perfect recollection is impossible.  So, is forgetting all that bad?

Maybe there’s a distinction between the personal good and the communal good.  Forgotten history is repeated history, after all.  With the elderly knight Sir Gawain in his rusting armour and the crumbling Roman villa, there is a sense that the world has stagnated, yet the rumbling tensions between different tribes suggests that a reckoning is also due.  Society is stuck, and the situation can’t sustain itself- something’s going to give.  Painful remembrance is the price for peace, the only way real forgiveness can happen and for society to cohere and progress.  But for Axl and Beatrice, those returned memories prove more destructive.

This all sounds like the book is incredibly intellectual, a philosophical exercise, but that’s not the case.  It is a strange and in some ways challenging novel.  The language itself is not difficult, but the characters recall so little, are so unsure of themselves, they speak in an almost childlike, generic manner.  I would find it difficult to describe their personalities. Yet after spending so long with Axl and Beatrice, the slow accumulation of detail about them made me deeply invested in their relationship.  The realisation that their son is dead, and that they are probably parted forever, was surprisingly affecting.

This is definitely not a book for everyone.  I’m not even sure I ‘enjoyed’ it.  But it has definitely gotten under my skin, and I found myself thinking about the story long after I finished reading.  The sense of loss, the simple sadness of the ending, really stuck with me.

One to avoid if you want fun, light read, then.  But if you’re looking for something a bit different, give The Buried Giant a go.

What did you think?  Are you a fan of the author?  How does this compare to his other work?  Did the twisted fantasy tropes work for you?  Let me know below!