Friday, 29 January 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

TESTAMENT by Alis Hawkins Pan paperback. £7.99

This novel is part of the Macmillan New Writing scheme, which gives writers a very small advance but at least gets their books out there where people can read them. I haven't read any other books published under this plan but I enjoyed this one very much.

I have to confess to not ever finishing the famous LABYRINTH and part of my problem with that book was that I found the 'present day' bit of the narrative not terribly compelling. Hawkins, too, uses a double time frame here and to much more interesting effect because the modern story is a campus novel concerning the very building which is being constructed back in the 14th century.

The historical time is fascinating. It's 1385. Lollards, guilds, the setting up of a new college in Salster (an invented town somewhat like Canterbury) shine a light on a corner of the past I wasn't familiar with. The main characters are a master mason Simon and his wife Gwyneth. She gives birth late to a disabled son, Toby and the way this disability is described and its effect on both the parents, over time and also on the community is perhaps the most moving and unusual aspect of the novel. The online reading group I belong to has just finished TESTAMENT and some people queried whether a woman could be a master carpenter (which is what Gwyneth indeed is ) and responsible for such a complex thing as the intricate roof of a building, but the author told us in the comments box that she would write about women in the guilds on her own blog. I will post a link to it here later on when it's up.

In the modern half of the story, Damia works for a Salster college which unearths a wall painting of a very unusual kind....and from this narrative flows a story of campus wheeling and dealing as well as Damia's own love story and acceptance of many things which she has been wrestling with for her entire life.

The book is well written and so well structured that it's hard to believe it's a debut novel. I would have welcomed a map at the front to show us the layout of everything, but then I'm a sucker for maps and other readers might be able to visualize such things better than I can. But I do recommend this to anyone who's fond of past and present coming together in a very touching and satisfying story.

TRUTH by Peter Temple Quercus hbk £12.99

Last time I wrote on ABBA, I was talking about Nordic crime. This book is almost its diametric opposite: Aussie crime. What struck me when reading it was how completely thrillers, or at least good thrillers, are so characteristic of their country that you couldn't mistake them for anything else. This book is set in Melbourne at the time of the dreadful forest fires and is Australian through and through.

From the moment it begins, you're off. There are terrible crimes, there are gangs doing their horrible thing, there is dreadful corruption in high places and observing it all and living it day to day is Head of Homicide Stephen Villani, who comes to the story having also to deal with his own heart-breaking problems on a personal level. And of course, there are those forest fires which form a terrifying backdrop to the whole novel. All these things play out alongside the crime-solving and reading the book is what some reviewers might call 'a roller coaster ride.' I, of course, wouldn't be caught out uttering such phrases, but TRUTH is completely unputdownable and written in a language that not only burns across the pages but also catches you out with a laugh at the sheer Aussie-ness and oomph of what's being said.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Be prepared to have the image of Melbourne you've been envisaging shattered entirely. You will cry and laugh and not be able to resume your life till you've followed Stephen to the very end. I'll be looking out for more by Peter Temple.


Nicky said...

'The Broken Shore' by the same author is brilliant. I've been looking out for more by him so I'll definitely give this a try.

adele said...

Yes, I loved The Broken Shore too! He's a good person to get to know.

Frances Garrood said...

Just for the record, Adele, Macmillan New Writers don't receive any advance for their novels, but do get a good perentage of net sales in royalties.