CategoryBennett Robert Jackson

Book notes: Richard Weihe and Robert Jackson Bennett

Richard Weihe, Sea of Ink (2003/12)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

Peirene Press’s Year of the Small Epic has so far brought us a grand domestic drama and a study of bereavement. The series takes a lighter turn in its final instalment, with Swiss writer Richard Weihe’s fictionalised biography of the Chinese painter Bada Shanren. He is born Zhu Da, a scion of the Ming dynasty; but political change and his father’s death lead him to join a monastery and devote his life to art, going through many names before settling on Bada Shanren, ‘man on the mountain of the eight compass points’.

Sea of Ink has eleven illustrations of Bada’s beautiful paintings, and Weihe includes descriptions of how the artist worked, his brush strokes and hand movements. This has the striking effect of creating a detailed impression which remains just that – an impression. Even though we can see the final paintings, there’s room for our subjective interpretation of Weihe’s words. The novella itself works in a similar way, its short chapters acting like brush strokes to create a portrait of Bada’s life which is necessarily a fiction, a construct.

The ultimate story told in Sea of Ink seems to me one of a man finding peace in life through finding (or accepting) his place – finding the world in the marks of ink and brush. The tone of the writing is quiet and reflective; I’d say this is ideal reading for an autumn night.

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Troupe (2012)

Over the last few years, Robert Jackson Bennett has been crafting his own distinctive visions of the American fantastic’s iconic tropes. For his third novel, he turns his attention to the magical travelling show. We meet George Carole, a sixteen-year-old vaudeville pianist as he leaves his current job to visit the troupe of Hieronomo Silenius, whom George believes to be his father. Silenius’s reputation precedes him, but no one ever remembers the details of his show. When George watches a performance, he finds out why: the Silenius troupe plays an extraordinary song that make those who hear it forget what they’ve seen – but it doesn’t work on George.

Falling in with the troupe, George discovers that this music is pat of the ‘First Song’, the one that brought Creation into being; peforming it is the only thing that holds back the ‘wolves’ who would seek to devour reality. Silenius’s band go from place to place in search of fragments of the First Song, which only those of the Silenius blood-line can carry (the song didn’t work on George because he is of that line). So begins a journey into the world’s mythic spaces, with reality itself at stake.

Bennett achieves a nice balance between the personal and cosmic focus. All the members of Silenius’s troupe are pretending to be something they’re not, and the theme of escape runs through the novel – escaping the past, and escaping the inevitable. The ending makes use of a risky technique (I appreciate this is vague, but want to avoid a spoiler), but Bennett pulls it off. His body of work continues to intrigue, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Company Man (2011): The Zone review

Today, The Zone have published my review of Robert Jackson Bennett‘s second novel, The Company Man, a tale of murder and corporate intrigue set in a version of early 20th century America dominated by strange, advanced technology. Bennett’s debut, Mr Shivers, was one of my favourite books of 2010; his latest does not quite reach the same heights, but at its best shows the same refreshing and distinctive imagination. I’ve given The Company Man 3 stars.

Click here to read the review in full.

Favourite books of 2010

As the year draws to a close, I’ve been thinking over all the books I’ve read and picking out my favourites. And here they are, my favourite dozen from the year (all published for the first time in 2010, or older books receiving their first UK publication this year) — in alphabetical order of author surname:

Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr Shivers

I didn’t know what to expect when I read this book, and it turned out to be a simply stunning debut. Bennett’s fusion of fantasy, horror and historical fiction is a smart book that uses its fantasy to comment on the period.

Shane Jones, Light Boxes

This tale of a balloon-maker’s war on February is constructed from story-fragments that add up to a marvellously strange whole. It works on about three different levels at once, but resists being pinned down to a single interpretation. A beautiful little jewel of a book.

Simon Lelic, Rupture

A perceptive and well-written novel chronicling the investigation into a school shooting committed by an apparently mild-mannered teacher.

Emily Mackie, And This Is True

A sharp study of a boy who has grown uncomfortably close to his father, and the pressures exerted on him when the life he has known begins to change.

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

A near-future Istanbul is the setting for this sprawling-yet-elegant tale of six interlocking lives, and the wider structures and systems of which they are a part.

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

A vast boarding-school comedy with added theoretical physics. Murray’s novel has huge ambitions, and achieves them brilliantly. It reads like a book half its length, and its sheer range is astonishing.

Véronique Olmi, Beside the Sea

A very strong launch title for Peirene Press, this is an intense study of a mother taking her two children to the seaside — an apparently ordinary surface that hides much darker depths.

Adam Roberts, New Model Army

This tale of armies run of democratic principles is both a cutting examination of warfare, and a novel that left me with a feeling that I genuinely cannot describe.

Ray Robinson, Forgetting Zoë

The very powerful story of a girl’s abduction and captivity. Exquisite prose, acute characterisation, and masterfully-controlled narrative flow.

Amy Sackville, The Still Point

Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and deservedly so. An intense and beautifully written novel of Arctic exploration and the parallels between two couples living a century apart.

Nikesh Shukla, Coconut Unlimited

One of the funniest books I read all year, this tale of three Asian boys at an otherwise all-white public school is also an acute portrait of adolescence and the ways in which people try to build identities for themselves.

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

A novel that ably switches states between time-travel metafiction and examination of its protagonist’s relationship with his father, interrogating and blurring genre boundaries as it goes.

And three great reads from previous years…

Liz Jensen, The Rapture (2009)

The brilliant tale of the mental chess-game between a psychotherapist and her patient who can apparently predict disasters — which proves equally adept at being a thriller in its later stages.

Christopher Priest, The Affirmation (1981)

A man begins to write a fictionalised autobiography… and an account by a version of himself in a different reality vies for space in the same book — which, if either, is ‘real’? Nothing is certain in this novel by the reliably excellent Priest.

Marcel Theroux, Far North (2009)

A beautiful story of survival and endurance set in a near-future Siberia.

Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr Shivers (2010): The Zone review

Now, here’s a book where I’d urge you to look beyond the synopsis – not because it doesn’t necessarily sound like much, but because no plot synopsis can capture what’s great about Robert Jackson Bennett’s Mr Shivers (the subject of my latest review for The Zone). It’s a novel about a man trekking across the 1930s USA in search of the mysterious scarred man who killed his daughter. This would in itself be an interesting twist on the usual fantasy quest, but the subtext turns the novel into something greater. If you’re at all interested in fantastic literature, Mr Shivers should be on your reading list.

Read my review in full at The Zone.

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