MonthJuly 2009

Mercury Prize: Florence and the Machine – Lungs

Video: ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’

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I’m aiming to go through the Mercury shortlist in something approaching alphabetical order; and it’s interesting to be covering the album of Londoner Florence Welch straight after Bat for Lashes, because the two are in some ways the flipside of each other. Both have a kind of fairytale vibe running through their music; but if Natasha Khan’s work is ethereal and delicate, Florence and the Machine‘s is quite the opposite.

Lungs is a pretty appropriate album title, because Florence has a very powerful voice; unfortunately, she hasn’t yet figured out how to use it to best effect. Her songs build and build – but sometimes build too much, and it’s a fine line to tread. When she gets it right, the results are fabulous, as on ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’, which captures the epic atmosphere I think Florence is aiming for most of the time. Or ‘Between Two Lungs’, which is about as close as the album gets to a ballad, and has a similar widescreen feel, but more held in.

The problem, though, is that Florence has a tendency to overdo it. So we get songs like the swing-style ‘Girl With One Eye’, which is oversung to the extent that it’s quite a trial to listen to; or ‘Kiss With a Fist’, which cranks up the noise in an attempt at straightforward punk-pop but ends up sounding pretty drab compared to the rest of the album. In sum, Lungs is promising, but it could have done with more subtlelty.

Video: ‘Dog Days Are Over’ (live)

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

Difficult Questions: Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (2008)

(WARNING: This review contains discussion of adult concepts. Judge for yourself whether you wish to continue reading.) 

There has been something of a stir about Tender Morsels in the British press recently (in the Observer and the Daily Express and the Daily Mail), mainly over the sexual content of what has been perceived to be a children’s book. First of all, let’s clear up some misconceptions: Tender Morsels is not a book for children — it is addressed to adults (be they old or young), and expects its readers to reflect on uncomfortable issues. Furthermore, though the book does include many harrowing events, it treats them far less frivolously than these write-ups suggest . But, in a way, it’s apposite that these issues should be raised; because one of the central themes of Tender Morsels is how far we should shield children from ‘difficult’ issues.

Margo Lanagan’s latest novel is an interpretation of the tale of Snow White and Rose Red, and unflinching from the very start. As a teenage girl, Liga gives birth to two daughters, one the result of sexual abuse by her father (who is  subsequently killed), the other of a gang-rape committed by boys from the village (these are depicted obliquely — the latter taking place entirely ‘off stage’ — yet not in a way that skirts around them; later harrowing scenes may be less oblique, but are still not treated lightly). Unable to face life in a world that has done all this to her, Liga prepares to throw herself from a cliff; but is rescued by some magical agency that transports her to the world of her heart’s desire — a world much like her own, but idyllic. There she raises her daughters: Branza, fair and calm; and Urdda, wild and dark.

However, others eventually find their way into this dream-world: first a dwarf, who finds that he can turn things there into precious gems and metals; then a young man, dressed in a bear costume for a festival in his village, who turns into a real bear in Liga’s world. And the traffic is not all one-way. Urdda, having known only Liga’s heaven, stumbles into the real world and finds it much more to her liking. Ten years pass in the dream-world, and one in the real, before Urdda finds a way to bring her mother and Branza through; how will they cope in reality, with all its complicated, messy realness?

Before I get into the issues, let me say that Tender Morsels is a beautifully written book. For example, this, narrated by the boy-turned-bear:

From [Liga] and around her were all the smells of warmth, of home, of women. Fire and food, cloth and cleanliness. In my own house — my father’s house, but only me and Aran in it — no matter how I swept and scrubbed, all it smelled of was grief yet. I did not know what to do with it to make it a home again.

Lanagan is skilled evoking joy, mystery, and profound horror, all within the same narrative voice. And it’s a voice that feels right for telling fairytales (her first-person narrators ring similarly true) — because Tender Morsels is still a fairytale in many ways: magic causes trouble; wishes have drawbacks; those who do wrong are punished; there is a happy ending (though it’s not a neat one), and a strong moral heart.

What is the message of this story? It’s about facing reality head-on: Liga comes to realise that. by raising her daughters in her heaven-world — by trying to conceal the real world from them — she has deprived them of the opportunity to truly live. Life in the real world may be uncertain and dangerous, but it’s where people belong. (Lanagan labours this idea a little too much, but not so much that it disrupts her story.)

Does this mean, then, that the author is saying that sexual violence is everywhere, that it’s just a fact of life? I don’t think Lanagan’s message is that bleak, though it is honest and complex, and not necessarily comforting. I’ll explain my reasoning.

First, Lanagan stylises even the ‘real’ world of her novel: no hints of political structures, for example — no sense that this world would function as an actual place; therefore, I think she’s not saying that this is how reality is, but using sexual danger as a metaphor for danger in general. (Why sex? Perhaps because it’s an aspect of pre-industrial European societies that was there, but which we don’t often include when we think of them. I should also add, in case I’ve given the wrong impression, that Lanagan does include some positive portrayals of sex — it’s not always violent and brutal in the world of Tender Morsels.)

Even if we’re talking in generalities, then, does that mean the book is saying that children should just face up to the bad things in the world? Not necessarily — finding out the truth doesn’t automatically make life much easier for Lanagan’s characters; and Tender Morsels acknowledges the argument in favour of Liga’s raising her daughters in the dream-world: she was protecting them — what’s wrong with a mother wanting to do that? So I don’t think Lanagan is saying we should race to discover the many distressing aspects of life — just that we shouldn’t try to pretend they don’t exist.

It seems to me that a key issue behind the three articles I linked to above (and this related one from the Guardian books blog yesterday) is about trying to have some control over the manner in which children learn about ‘difficult’ issues. I don’t think it’s unreasonable per se to want to do that; I do think it’s unreasonable to expect books automatically to be a space conducive to that aim.

As for Tender Morsels, it’s a wonderful piece of writing that leaves one thinking deeply about the issues it raises. But it’s not for children.

Mercury Prize: Bat for Lashes – Two Suns

Video: ‘Pearl’s Dream’

Bat for Lashes is Brighton’s Natasha Khan, whose first album was nominated for the Mercury Prize back in 2007 (but didn’t win). I’ve often meant to give her music a proper listen; this marks the first time I have heard one of her albums in full. And… Khan has a beautiful voice that suits her style of music perfectly; Two Suns is epic, diverse, mysterious, full of texture – all these are things that I like in music. Yet the maddening question that kept niggling me as I listened to the album was: why am I not enjoying this more?

Well, the song on Two Suns that I keep returning to is the lead single, ’Daniel’. It’s an absolutely fantastic song that sounds as though it came from the playlist of a high-school disco in the Land of Faerie – and knowing that it’s about the Karate Kid reduces its power not one bit. But it also sticks out like a sore thumb for me, because even after several listens to the album, it’s the only song on there that really stays in my mind properly.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t mean to say that the rest of Two Suns is forgettable, or leaves no impression – on the contrary, the album as a whole leaves a very strong (and favourable) impression. But the music I love best gets into my mind and stays there, comes back to the surface every now and then to be hummed or sung along  to. Two Suns is great while I’m listening to it, but most of it doesn’t stick afterwards.

I am impressed with the diversity of the album; it covers a lot more bases than I expected it would. There are many great moments: the way that ‘Glass’ builds from a simple a cappella vocal to a thudding crescendo; and the soulful call-and-response of ‘Peace of Mind’, to name just two… I like Two Suns very much, but I don’t love it. And I very nearly loved it, which is what frustrates me all the more.

Video: ‘Sleep Alone’ – live

Read my other Mercury Prize 2009 posts here.

Mercury Prize 2009 shortlist

The Mercury Prize is upon us once again and, since I had such fun blogging the shortlist last year, I’m going to do it all again this year. The shortlist has been announced today; so, without further ado, here it is:

Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
Florence and the Machine – Lungs
Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires
Glasvegas – Glasvegas
The Horrors – Primary Colours
The Invisble – The Invisible
Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
La Roux – La Roux
Led Bib – Sensible Shoes
Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew
Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy
Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men

Now, that is an interesting list, not least because I don’t even know what half of it sounds like; actually, I’ve listened to precisely none of these albums all the way through.

Still, some initial observations:

There’s a distinct lack of any really big names, certainly more so than last year.

Historically, the Mercury shortlists (and winners) have been dominated by male acts; this year  the shortlist is almost  a fifty-fifty split between male and female, and the favourites to win are all female.

As for the nominees themselves: there have been quite a few hotly-tipped female acts to emerge this year; they’re represented here by La Roux and Florence and the Machine. I’ve yet to hear anything by either of them which is as good as Little Boots, but time will tell.

Of all the established ‘indie’ bands who released albums in the past year, I would not have anticipated that Kasabian would be the one to make it on to the shortlist, but that’s all part of the fun of the Mercury.

Friendly Fires and Glasvegas are both new ‘indie’ bands: I’ve heard a couple of songs by the former, which I quite liked; I know I’ve listened to the latter, but can’t remember what they’re like.

Bat for Lashes is the only one of this year’s shortlist to have been nominated previously. I’ve meant to listen to her album properly, and now I will get around to it — likewise Lisa Hannigan’s album.

The Horrors are on their second album; I’ve heard of them, but don’t know what they sound like.

The rest, I’d never even heard of until today. I gather that Speech Debelle is a female rapper, and Led Bib are a jazz act. I’m going to let the sound of The Invisible and Sweet Billy Pilgrim be a surprise.

Normally, I would not get into the game of ‘X should have nominated instead of Y’, because I don’t know the nominated albums and am in no position to judge things like that (yet). But there is one album I’ve heard this year that I thought could match up to The Seldom Seem Kid, and that’s Doves’ Kingdom of Rust (I meant to blog about it before now, and still plan to at some point). It’s a shame not to see that album in contention for the Mercury; but maybe there’s an album on the shortlist which is as good. I’m looking forward to finding out.


It’s a fine day to see a film called Moon, what with it being the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. This is the début movie of dirctor Duncan Jones; was made on a relatively low budget ($2,500,000); is more intelligent than many a film of its type; and, in the end, falls frustratingly short of being great.

In the future, clean energy is abundant, thanks to the mining of lunar rocks. Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell) is the sole human crew member of an automated mining base. He’s on a three-year contract, but his live satellite link to Earth is down so the only company he has is the ship’s computer Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), and a few plants. One could forgive him for having a little cabin fever, and it’s perhaps no surprise that Sam starts to have hallucinations, even if he doesn’t like to admit it.

There are just two weeks of Sam’s tenure to go when disaster strikes. He’s out investigating a fault with one of the mining machines when he experiences another hallucination, causing him to crash his lunar rover. He wakes up in the base infirmary, a little worse for wear, but tests reveal that he’ll be back on his feet in a few days; till then, he has to stay indoors. But Sam is impatient to get back to work, especially with that same mining robot continuing to malfunction. He contrives a way to get Gerty to allow him outside, and goes back to the site of his accident — to find another buggy crashed there, with someone who looks very like him inside. Sam takes the man back to the base, and asks Gerty who he is…

We then cut to the infirmary, where a pasty-faced, injured Sam wakes up in bed while a healthy-looking Sam stands over him. From hereon in, there’s wonderful ambiguity as to who’s who: pasty Sam is the mysterious stranger rescued from the second LRV (isn’t he?), yet he says he’s been at the base for three years. What’s indisputable is that there are two Sams, but neither behaves in a way that makes immediate sense, given what has gone before; and Gerty seems remarkably unconcerned about this strange situation.

In fact, the computer appears to spill the beans willingly about halfway through the film; the rest of the movie fills in the gaps, in a roundabout way. This is where things get frustrating: it’s interesting to work out what’s going on; but, once you have, there’s not much that stays behind. Solving the puzzle closes off imaginative possibilities (compare with, say, Franklyn, which opens them up). And there are ethical issues which are touched on briefly, but never really dealt with.

On a more aesthetic level, it’s good enough. The budget shows, but not embarassingly so. Rockwell does well with his part(s), and one can sense Spacey recording his HAL-esque lines with relish. There are some nice touches, such as Sam sitting in an old wingback chair wearing his slippers while Gerty cuts his hair; and some that don’t work so well, such as there being nothing to watch on TV but stuff like Bewitched and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Sam having Chesney Hawkes as his alarm call (amusing, yes, but not very likely, I’d suggest).

So, Moon is a good movie — even a good science fiction movie — though not a great one. Still, it’s a good start to Jones’s film career, and he’s a director worth keeping an eye on.

The Duckworth Lewis Method – The Duckworth Lewis Method

Audio: ‘The Nightwatchman’

One of my favourite musicians is Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. It’s been a while since he last released any new material, but it seems we can expect a couple of albums from him this year: a new Divine Comedy record later, and first this — a concept album about cricket, made with his friend Thomas Walsh (of a band called Pugwash, whom I know nothing about, but will have to look up, if the present album is anything to go by).

Of course, the concern with any album of this nature is that it’s going to be a novelty, or only of interest to fans of the subject matter. Well, there’s no danger of that with The Duckworth Lewis Method. Which is not to say that the album pays lip-service to being about cricket (some, though by no means all, of the songs go into minute detail about the sport), or that it lacks a sense of humour (it certainly doesn’t) — just that it was a made by a pair whose ears fro a good tune are clearly as great as their love of cricket.

What of the actual songs, then? They’re (perhaps surprisingly) quite a diverse bunch. There’s the terribly civilised ‘Gentlemen and Players’, about the Victorian game; and the tongue-twisting ‘Jiggery Pokery’, about Shane Warne in the 1993 Ashes. There’s ‘The Age of Revolution’, a funky number celebrating the spread of cricket around the world; and the gentle ballad ‘Flatten the Hay’, where Walsh recalls playing cricket in his childhood.

All in all, The Duckworth Lewis Method is a lovely set of songs that deserves a listen, whether you’re into cricket or not.

Video: ‘The Age of Revolution’ (live)

The Turing Test by Chris Beckett (2008)

4102ooW3sWL._SL160_AA115_Earlier this month, the winner was announced of the Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story. The shortlist included collections by a Booker Prize-winning author, and two former Booker nominees — and this Elastic Press book of science fiction stories by Chris Beckett. A classic case of tokenism, one might think — except that Beckett won.

‘It was…a bit of surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand,’ commented one of the judging panel. Well, the obvious thing to say to that is that you don’t need to consider yourself a ‘science fiction fan’ to appreciate science fiction, any more than you have to be a ‘literary fiction fan’ to enjoy literary fiction (not, of course, that the two need be mutually exclusive). Readers interested in good fiction shouldn’t be surprised to find stories of interest in any given quarter — but apparently some still are.

Anyway, I don’t know the other books, but it’s not hard to see why the judges thought The Turing Test a winning book, because Beckett’s stories are superb. He’s especially good at examining human concerns against the background of a science-fictional future. The title story sums this up nicely. The ‘Turing test’ refers to a means of assessing whether an artificial intelligence is convincing enough in conversation to be indistinguishable from a human being. Our protagonist is a gallery owner named Jessica, who finds herself the recipient of a highly sophisticated ‘virtual PA’. Jessica is feeling rather insecure with life (one of her first acts is to ask the PA to change its avatar to something less attractive, and hence less threatening to her self-esteem), and the real question Beckett asks is not whether a computer could pass the Turing test, but whether a person could — perhaps Jessica’s greatest fear is that she could not.

The theme of artificial intelligence returns in ‘La Macchina’, where a man finds his ideas about robots challenged when he vists his brother in Italy. Robots are now commonplace, but they’re not supposed to talk to humans, except in superficial, rote ways — so when one tries to strike up a friendly conversation with our man, does that alone make it a ‘Rogue’ that could cause havoc, and hence needs to be destroyed? Then there’s the ‘Safe Brothel’ staffed by sinteticas made to look indistinguishable from human women — but sinteticas are more popular, so some human women pretend to be robots. What’s the protagonist to make of that? All adds up to a very different kind of robot story; the experience of reading it is distinctive.

The same could be said of many stories here; Beckett transforms SF staples with the ‘ordinary’ grounding he gives them. ‘Dark Eden’, for example, is a space opera where a small group of people travel to an exotic world — but the ups-and-downs of their relationships are not so different from ours. And ‘The Marriage of Sky and Sea’ puts yet another spin on the form with its tale of a spacefaring writer who makes a living from books about the cultures of more ‘primitive’  human colonies than his own — but his latest trip, to a Viking-style society, makes him question his attitude…

My favourite story in the book (which forms the first half of a pair) is about virtual reality, though with Beckett’s characteristic twist. ‘The Perimeter’ is set in a London where the vast majority of people are ‘consensuals’, living in a virtual world; and the more they can afford to pay, the higher their resolution. Only a few, very rich, individuals remain flesh and blood, inhabiting the ruined ‘real’ world, and able to experience the virtual reality through an implant. This story tells of how young consensual Lemmy meets the physical Clarissa Fall, and has his very sense of self challenged. But the tables are turned in ‘Piccadilly Circus’, where we meet Clarissa again a few years later, and she has to face up to her increasing irrelevance as a ‘physical’. To my mind, these stories — and ‘The Perimeter’ especially — have the best fusion of ideas and human consequences; but many of the other tales are almost as strong.

In his introduction to The Turing Test, Alastair Reynolds makes what has turned out to be a very appropriate comment: that he hopes the book will bring more attention to Chris Beckett’s fiction. He ends by saying, ‘I’m confident that you’ll finish The Turing Test wanting to turn more people on to this singularly underrated writer.’ So I’ll end by saying: yes. Yes, I do.

Tender by Mark Illis (2009)

41HKVdGCgSL._SL160_AA115_Tender is not strictly a novel, nor is it a conventional short story collection; it’s not even a typical mosaic novel, story cycle, or whatever name you care to give to a collection of linked stories. It is, however, a series of episodes in the lives of the Dax family, beginning in 1974 (when the parents meet), and spanning a total of thirty years. The title appears in the text, not in an emotional context, but in the context of a lamb stew which Ali Dax serves up — but her husband and son don’t seem to appreciate the tenderness of the meat, which had to be cooked slowly for it to attain that texture. All that care and effort, for what? This reflects what is perhaps the main theme of Tender — feeling discontented with life, looking back and wondering what happened, where it went.

The stories in Tender switch (though not in strict rotation) between the viewpoints of Bill and Ali Dax (who meet when he is a footballer and she his physiotherapist), and their children Sean and Rosa (and, for one story, Ali’s brother Frank, who later dies). at different stages in the characters’ lives. Naturally, this structure means that quite a lot is missed out; but the overall effect is of a gradual accretion of detail — not necessarily of plot detail, but of emotional detail — that builds up a portrait of the family.

(One technical gripe: Tender is presented as a single entity — no details of original publication are given, and the author’s acknowledgements page suggest that he has revised at least some of the stories for this volume — yet some later ‘chapters’ describe past events in detail more appropriate to stand-alone stories than the format of the present book.)

One of the most impressive things about Tender is the way that Mark Illis gives equal weight to all four of his protagonists. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, I don’t think, to anticipate the book to portray certain of the Daxes more fully than one or two of the others; but it’s not so — all of them feel equally rounded at all stages of their lives — even Frank, in his brief appearance. It’s fascinating to see the characters from both the inside and outside, and how they change subtly over time.

What sorts of moments, then, does Illis give us? Ali, single, dreaming of swimming the Channel and then, twenty-five years later, discovering it’s not what she hoped, and neither is her life. On holiday for the couple’s first anniversary, Bill tying himself in mental knots over what — indeed, whether — to think about the handsome American that he and Ali have met, and the pretty young woman who flirted with Bill. The teenage Sean wondering what to do with his life, and using a stray horse he comes across as a focus for his hopes. Rosa’s habit of listing three things that she’d like to happen, and how these change poignantly between the ages of thirteen, seventeen, and twenty-two.

I am not sure how well the stories in Tender would fare if read in isolation; but it hardly matters, because they’re best appreciated as a whole. One closes the book feeling that its author has observed and articulated something true about life. Well worth reading.

Perfume by Patrick Süskind (1985/6)

9780141189192L Perfume is one of those books I had heard of by reputation, but didn’t actually know anything about. And now I’ve read it… well, it’s not what I was expecting, but it’s good. I liked it, but saying so feels a little uncomfortable — as well it ought!

Patrick Süskind tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man with a preternaturally acute sense of smell, but no human odour of his own. Growing up in eighteenth-century Paris, Grenouille begins as a tanner’s apprentice, but soon inveigles his way into the employ of Giuseppe Baldini, the renowned perfumer. Baldini has fallen on hard times, but Grenouille’s unparalleled instinct for concocting scents turns the perfumer’s fortune around, and Jean-Baptiste is subsequently able to leave and become a journeyman.

Over the years, Grenouille learns more of the techniques of perfume-making, and discovers how to manufacture scents that can provoke a certain reaction in people — he can go unnoticed by people, or catch their attention, as he desires. But Grenouille’s wish is for the greatest of all perfumes, the one which will make him adored by — and hence gain power over — all. The secret ingredient of this scent is the essence of innocent girls — and so the murders begin…

Süskind pulls off a very difficult feat in Perfume, which is to write a book about an utterly vile and unsympathetic character, and make it compulsively readable. This is in large part down to his prose style (and, by extension, to John Woods’ excellent translation), which has the feel and quality of a myth or fairytale. The paragraphs are often long, the description often detailed; but in a way that offers depth and flow rather than weighing the narrative down. Süskind is particularly good (as one would hope and expect) at evoking smells: his opening pages are a useful reminder that eighteenth-century European cities would have stunk; more generally, he emphasises the importance of a sense that’s all too easy to forget about when writing and reading fiction.

As a character, Jean-Baptiste Granouille is someone you’d hope never to encounter, the kind of person you’d hope could never even exist. He’s single-minded to the point that his entire being is distorted by his obsession. All this makes Grenouille extremely difficult to empathise with; and the author makes little attempt to help us. Süskind does a lot of telling rather than showing, which has the effect of sealing Grenouille inside his own mind. Even though we see his deepest imaginings, Grenouille remains a cold and distant figure. This is quite deliberate, I’m sure, and in keeping with that fairytale style; it pushes the story slightly out of reality.

Then comes the uncomfortable question: does Perfume make light of mass murder, or at least fail to take it seriously enough? On balance, I would say not; though the issue is thorny. Grenouille gets his comeuppance in the end, but it’s a fairytale kind of comeuppance. I don’t think Süskind dwells gratuitously on the killings, but there is a nagging sense that the idiom in which he’s chosen to write doesn’t allow him to treat the situation with the gravity it deserves.

Still, I think Perfume is a powerful book. Yes, it’s pretty much geared towards doing one thing and one thing only — but it does that thing very well indeed. The book kept me reading to the end, and left me thinking about it afterwards; which is a fine outcome for the reading of any novel.

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro (2009)

41u0Zsi1iZL._SL160_AA115_My first Ishiguro book, Nocturnes is a cycle of ‘five stories of music and nightfall’ (says the front cover). I spent most of the book feeling curiously unsatisfied; and I still feel that way now I’ve finished it.  As far as I can see, the stories are linked so tenuously as to be hardly worth considering as a ‘cycle’. If Ishiguro has a wider point to make with them, I’m not sure what that point is. And if the tales are meant to be entertaining, insightful, or moving… well, bar a couple of moments, I didn’t really find them so.

To take each story in turn: we begin with ‘Crooner’, in which a guitar player in Venice encounters Tony Gardner, a faded American singing star. Gardner enlists the musician to help him give one last serenade to his wife, Lindy, from whom Gardner is about to separate, despite the couple still being very much in love. I don’t follow the logic behind the separation, but this sets up one of the recurring features of the five stories: people (and especially couples) behaving in ways that don’t make much outward sense.

In ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, the narrator, Raymond, is invited from his life as a teacher in Spain to stay with old university friends in London . The couple’s relationship is strained, but Charlie believes that if, whilst he’s away at a conference, his wife Emily spends time with Raymond (the musical connection here is that Raymond and Emily shared a love of old Broadway songs at university), she’ll stop thinking that Charlie hasn’t made much of his life, because she’ll see that Raymond has achieved so much less.

Eh? I know it takes all sorts to make a world, different people react to situations in different ways; but how many people would really stand for effectively being dismissed like that, as Raymond does? And what sort of person would come up with a scheme like that in the first place? The whole thing gets more and more farcical, as Raymond reads Emily’s diary and tries desperately to cover his tracks. The tale goes so far into absurdity that it comes out the other side and ends up strangely believable; it reminded me of Roald Dahl’s work, which is no bad thing. It’s the absurd humour that makes ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ one of the more enjoyable stories in Nocturnes.

Next is ‘Malvern Hills’, in which a struggling guitarist leaves London for the summer to help out at his sister’s Herefordshire café. He meets a Swiss couple whose attitude seems to change with each encounter; and discovers that the relationship between his sister and her husband may be more fragile than he thought. This story highlights one of Ishiguro’s weaknesses: his five first-person narrators sound very similar, which he might just about get away with in the right circumstances; but the narrators in Nocturnes are too diverse – the voice that suits middle-aged Raymond doesn’t suit the (presumably) young guitarist, for example. Ishiguro has more success in creating the voices of characters whose first language is not English; though, admittedly, that slightly formal, awkward manner of speaking is not too much of a stretch from (what I assume to be) the author’s ‘default’ style.

In the story ‘Nocturne’, we meet Steve, a saxophonist who’s reluctantly undergoing plastic surgery at an exclusive clinic, the operation being funded by his ex-wife’s new lover (again, this does not make a lot of sense to me). We learn about his dealings with the patient next door, a recently divorced Lindy Gardner (the only character to appear in more than one of these stories). There’s one very amusing scene where Steve and Lindy are trying to return a trophy that she’s pinched to give to him; but the rest – like so much of Nocturnes – feels quite flat.

Finally, ‘Cellists’ relates (at one remove) how a jobbing European cellist met, and became mentored by, the self-proclaimed virtuoso American cellist Eloise McCormack, who never played a single note on a cello in all the time he knew her. Again, I don’t follow the reasoning behind her behaviour, such reasoning as there is.

What does Ishiguro say about music in these stories? To be honest, the presence of music seems almost incidental (pardon the pun). My best guess is that Ishiguro aims to say that a shared love of music can be the glue holding together a foundering relationship, or the only thing left after a relationship is over, and variations on that theme. In which case, fine – but one could say the same about food, or books, or gardening, or myriad other things. I gain very little sense from these tales of what is special about music specifically.

What does Ishiguro say about human beings in these stories? The problem here is that the most significant relationships in Nocturnes are being examined from the outside; the enigmatic characters whom we’d like to know more about stay enigmatic, because the narrators can see no further into their minds than we can. The blurb mentions a theme of ‘the struggle to keep alive a sense of life’s romance’; I can see this in some of the stories, but I doubt I’d have picked it out as a ‘theme’ were it not for that hint in the blurb.

It’s a strange situation when the best parts of a book are the exact opposite of its dominant mood, but such is the case with Nocturnes. I don’t know if Kazuo Ishiguro has ever written comedy, but I’d love to read the results if he did. As for this book, however… aside from the odd hilarious scene in two of the tales, my overriding impression of Nocturnes is of a collection of stories that, rather politely, don’t say or do very much.

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