CategoryAaronovitch Ben

Fitzcarraldo Editions: Batlava Lake by Adam Mars-Jones

Adam Mars-Jones is one of those writers I’ve managed to hear of without knowing much about their work. After reading this short (under 100 pages) novel, I am keen to explore more. 

The narrator of Batlava Lake is Barry Ashton, a civilian engineer working with the British army in Kosovo in 1999. This is how his account begins:

Lake Batlava is beautiful. Deep, not exactly welcoming. I don’t expect the locals think it’s much like Loch Ness, but we did. I did. No legends about monsters, none that I’d heard of. But how would I get to hear that about them anyway? I’d have to speak the language, and the Barry brain doesn’t do languages. Just doesn’t want to know. ‘Gut und Morgen’ is about as much as I can manage in foreign parts, doesn’t get you far in Kosovo. Plus we weren’t there as sightseers, though we saw some sights. We saw some sights.

This first paragraph establishes a fair amount about Barry: he’s chatty and matey, but can be insensitive to social niceties and the feelings of others. He’s more of a practical person than an intellectual one. There’s also plenty he is not telling us yet: immediately I wonder what’s behind “We saw some sights”.

The prose of Batlava Lake provides an interesting comparison with James Clammer’s Insignificance, another novel written from the viewpoint of a man who works with his hands. But where the effect of Insignificance was to open its protagonist up to us – to show him as a thinker as well as a doer – Barry’s narration helps to obscure him. He talks a lot, but it feels like a front – or at least that he’s unclear on exactly what he wants to say. 

Still, behind all Barry’s talk is a story: a story of his deteriorating personal relationships, but perhaps especially a story of the brutality of war. This is a narrator who’s not really up to the task of conveying the gravity of that subject, let alone that of empathising with the victims of the conflict. Yet I found Batlava Lake powerful despite this, because it’s possible to read between the lines of what Barry says. Here the book’s shortness works in its favour: in a longer narrative, the effect might have been diluted. Instead, Batlava Lake builds to a crescendo, and ends in a place that feels just right. 

Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Ben Aaronovitch, Rivers of London (2011)

Peter Grant is an ordinary police officer, until he finds himself interviewing a ghost about a mysterious death. Pretty soon, he’s working for DI Thomas Nightingale, the Metropolitan Police’s one-man bastion against supernatural crime, which seems to be on the rise again after several decades. So, in between learning magical secrets that haven’t been taught for fifty years or more, Peter has to contend with an entity apparently causing normally placid individuals to commit violent murders, and with a feud between rival spirits of the Thames.

Its author already a television and tie-in writer, Rivers of London is Ben Aaronovitch’s first non-franchise novel, and the first of a projected series (with two sequels to follow later in 2011). It’s a promising start, but one not without flaws: there are times when the narrative momentum loses out rather too much to the establishment of the world and characters. Aside from the occasional dry quip, Peter Grant comes across as largely anonymous, both as a narrator and character; and the secondary human characters, even the eccentric Nightingale, don’t fare much better. The descriptions of London tend to focus on bald geographical details — the names of streets and landmarks — a technique I didn’t find particularly evocative.

Beneath and between all this, however, is some interesting fantasy. When Grant encounters the river spirits, there are tantalising hints of magic lurking behind the everyday, the deep archetypes these beings represent:

I felt the force of [Father Thames’s] personality drag at me: beer and skittles it promised, the smell of horse manure and walking home from the pub by moonlight, a warm fireside and uncomplicated women.

The way that Aaronovitch reaches back into history for the book’s mystery and its solution is very satisfying (one gains a strong sense that this novel could only have been set in London); and I like the practical approach to magic — for example, if you change shape in this fictional world, it damages the tissues ofyour body — which gives it a real sense of consequence.

That last point links to a subtext which may prove a key dynamic as the series unfolds: the clash of old and new. This is represented in the characters of Nightingale (the fusty old wizard-figure who has no truck with technology) and Grant (the young mixed-race copper determined to reconcile magic with his knowledge of science). In the present volume, it’s also there in the contrasting portrayals of the river spirits,with Father Thames an Olde-Worlde fairground showman, and Mother Thames a Nigerian matriarch. Indeed, in Aaronovitch’s fictional reality, magic itself is an old phenomenon brought into the modern world; the theme of old versus new is suggested in Rivers of London more than it’s explored, but it will be interesting to see if and how it develops over time.

Aaronovitch’s series may not quite have hit the ground running with Rivers of London, but there are clear signs here that a real treat may be in store in a book or two’s time.

This review first appeared in Vector 267, Summer 2011

Ben Aaronovitch’s website
Some other reviews of Rivers of London: Duncan Lawie for Strange Horizons; Ian Simpson for Bookgeeks; Sharon at Vulpes Libris.

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