Saturday, 1 May 2010
Recent Reading, by Leslie Wilson
I’m absolutely and totally engaged in my novel at the present, and when I’m writing, it feels as if I was listening to something and then taking it down. Oddly, this is much more tiring than more consciously ‘inventing’ stuff. However, I am not going to use this blog to describe the noble exaltations of ‘the creative process’ – a process often interrupted by bouts of weeding, watering, sowing seeds – it being the time of year when the garden needs constant attention if we are to have vegetables and flowers this summer, autumn, over the winter (the veg) and into next year. (It’s work that complements the writing, though.) Otherwise I walk my dog and look after my grandson at intervals. And I read.
When I’m as absorbed as this in writing, I read things which are totally undemanding, and at present I’m gobbling up some Scarlet Pimpernel novels which I picked up for a squid each in a fascinating little antique shop in Minchinhampton. I absolutely adored the Scarlet Pimpernel when I was a teenager, and though I am noticing how clumsily they’re written – and researched, my dear!! The fashions are wrong, and she talks about Sir Percy driving ‘a coach’. Georgette Heyer, who succeeded Baroness Orczy as a fave read in my teens, would always have specified whether it was a curricle, a landaulette, a berlin, a phaeton, etc.
But Baroness O tells a cracking good tale, and though Sir P is engaged on rescuing aristos, she does also show some sympathy for the aims of the revolution, embodied in many of her romantic heroes, and also some compassion for the misery of the people whose suffering was its cause. The world she describes, though comically encumbered with yokels and jocund hosts or caitiffs, is vivid and exciting, and in the one I’m just finishing Sir Percy Leads the Band, there are some wonderful, surreal scenes featuring a wonderfully grotesque band of musicians – led, of course, by Sir P in disguise – which pleased me on the aesthetic level, too.
When I was a teenager, there wasn’t the same range of novels for my age-group that there is now, when wonderful writers are giving their best, managing to write novels – or are they novellas? that entrance kids and discriminating adults alike. I wish there had been. I’ve just read two such that really excited me. They are fantastic, thought-provoking, and wonderfully-written. One is Celia Rees’s THE FOOL’S GIRL, and the other is Anna Perera’s GUANTANAMO BOY. My teenage self would have loved them too.
The Fool’s Girl is the story of Violetta, a girl from Illyria. Yes, the place where Twelfth Night happens - and Violetta is the daughter of Viola and Count Orsino. Happy Endings are only endings if we allow them to be, in real life the world goes on, and the endings of plays and novels are often unpicked and the threads spun further by writers. This doesn’t always succeed, but Celia Rees has triumphed here. I love her work, and this, I think, is her best yet. She has made the novel out of the darkness that lies at the heart of Twelfth Night – the Malvolio plot. Furious at his humiliation, Malvolio goes on to become an implacable enemy of Illyria. Meanwhile life itself eats away at the happiness of the two couples. Orsino and Viola, Olivia and Sebastian drift apart from each other; Viola and Olivia are destroyed. But their children, a boy and a girl, grow up, loving each other, while their respective fathers become enemies. Malvolio, in the background, plots and brings destruction on them all.
The novel starts in Illyria, with unforgettable, implacably-described scenes of the city’s sacking at the hands of Venetians and pirates. Mercifully, Rees soon whisks us away from them to the place where the novel ends – in Shakespeare’s London, where Violetta has come, with the fool, Feste, to look for a thing of great value that Malvolio has stolen. With impeccable skill, Rees weaves the developing disasters of the past with the tensions and excitements of the present, and brings the story to a gripping, magical climax.
Shakespeare is part of the story – a Shakespeare, who, (as in Shakespeare in Love) has yet to write Twelfth Night, though the story is already around. People in London have heard of it, and as a result they doubt Viola’s story when she tells it. That doesn’t matter. Stories get around; they interact with life. Sometimes it seems as if the whole thing is taking place inside the spherical theatre of Will Shakespeare’s brain. Puck is here, and Oberon and Titania, though they are human beings as well. All this could so easily grate, it might be knowing and laboured. But Rees’s touch is sure and unfailingly skilful, a storyteller one can trust. I was so sad when it was over and I had to leave her world behind, a world painted in clear, jewelled colours like a medieval painting. I shall go back there, though. Again and again.
Guantanamo Boy is about a world none of us really want to visit. It tells how an ordinary British Muslim lad, whose parents come from Pakistan, draws the attention of the ‘security’ services and is branded a terrorist. He’s abducted on a family trip to Karachi and taken to prison, where a confession is tortured out of him. He ends up in Guantanamo Bay.
Anna Perera doesn’t take us straight into the horror; that would be intolerable. She starts with Khalid in Rochdale; with his family, with his schoolmates, loving a girl, laughing, fooling, dreaming, getting annoyed with his father and his sisters. But he’s playing a computer game online with his cousin from Lahore, it’s about destroying cities. He keeps on playing it when he gets to Karachi, where his father disappears. His mother asks him to go out and look for Dad. On the way he’s obstructed by a demonstration. He decides the best thing to do is to join in. He cheers and shouts, punching the air. For him, it’s all a game, however anxious he is about his father. He’s a lad, that’s what lads do. But the reader, knowing what’s to come, is thinking: Oh, no, don’t do that, you fool! And then disaster happens.
Anna Perera’s great achievement is to keep anyone reading – it took me a long time to decide to pick it up, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to immerse myself in such awfulness. This may sound a cheek from me, considering the kind of harrowing things I write about. In fact, my respect for Perera was increased by that: I found it hideous to write about my teenage heroine in a Nazi prison, being subject to what is called Cruel Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (torture lite, they merrily call it, ie it leaves no visible marks). And that was only four chapters. To take on a story like this demands a lot from a writer. To make it bearable for one’s readers is an enormous challenge.
This story is not a monotone chronicle of horror, instead it’s an absorbing, though devastating account of something we should all know more about, because these things are real; they are being done in the name of our security, and they should be stopped. Kids as young as eleven have been imprisoned as part of the War on Terror. Not just in Guantanamo, but in many of the countries we outsource torture to. And even in the UK, there are prisoners who have been held for years, not knowing what they’re charged with because we know, don’t we? that we can trust the people who reckon they’re guilty anyway. And isn’t our safety worth it? But you can get someone to say anything under torture, as Khalid’s story shows, you can ask them for names and they’ll come up with anyone they can think of, just to get it to stop.
It’s also the story of how someone can survive it, though scarred and battered. That bit is handled with enormous skill. It could sound moralising and heavy. It doesn’t here. Though of course one thinks: yes, but Khalid could have become radicalised, have become a real terrorist. And again, one can see how easily that can happen.
Read both these books, if you haven’t already. They’re well worth it.