CategoryLelic Simon

My favourite reads of 2012

It’s that time of year again, for looking back over what I’ve read and picking out the highlights. In previous years, I’ve limited my list to books published in the year in question, or split it equally between old and new titles. For 2012, I’m just doing a straightforward list of my favourite twelve reads of the year, regardless of when they were first published.

So, in alphabetical order of author surname, here they are:

Adrian Barnes, Nod

Telling of a battle of words and perceptions in contemporary Vancouver, this is a dystopian novel with the nervous energy of a new world still being negotiated, and a keen sense of its own precariousness. It never feels as though it’s about to settle.

M. John Harrison, Viriconium

Possibly the ultimate anti-escapist fantasy (and almost certainly the only major work of fantastic literature to be set partly in my home town of Huddersfield). In this collection of novels and stories, it’s fantasy that does the escaping, leaving readers and characters alike scrabbling at mirrors.

Katie Kitamura, The Longshot

The tale of a mixed martial artist heading for one last shot at glory. This short novel is as taut and focused as a winning fighter; it’s a brilliant unity of form and subject.

Jonathan Lee, Joy

A fine character study of a successful young lawyer who attempts to take her own life in front of her work colleagues, and of other key figures in her life. Lee has superb control of voice and tone, and the whole novel is a great pleasure to read.

Simon Lelic, The Child Who

Here, by coincidence, is another incisive  character study focusing on a lawyer – this time the solicitor defending a twelve-year-old accused of murder  whom he (and everyone else) knows is guilty. This unusual angle enables Lelic to give certain key scenes an unexpected texture, and to give a complex picture of the issues he raises.

Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo

A Senegalese folktale spliced with quantum physics. A morality tale whose only moral is that the reader should decide on one for herself. An examination of choice wrapped up in a glorious piece of storytelling that knows just when to turn on itself.

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

A chorus of narrators tells the story (and stories) of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’ who go to the US at the start of the last century, and their descendants. Otsuka’s short novel is a beautiful composition whose focus shifts elegantly back and forth between a wider and more individual view.

Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn & Child

An anti-detective novel in which any semblance of narrative or coherence dissipates as soon as you look. Its pieces are brought together into a whole by superb writing and Ridgway’s distinctive aesthetic.

Adam Roberts, Jack Glass

Read during my ongoing semi-hiatus, this novel brings together Golden Age detective fiction and science fiction, and interrogates them. It is very much alive to the limitations and shortcomings of those types of fiction, but still plays fair with the reader. (See Jonathan McCalmont’s masterful review for more on the book.)

Zadie Smith, NW

A collage of a novel that examines the connections between several characters’ lives in north-west London. Smith goes through several different styles and approaches in NW, but all combine successfully in this insightful read.

Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat

A deeply unsettling piece of work that turns the concept of the murder mystery on its head and – perhaps even more effectively – puts a dark twist on the notion of a character study. This is the sort of novel that makes me want to explore the rest of its author’s œuvre.

Lucy Wood, Diving Belles

My favourite debut of the year, this collection brings Cornish folklore into the present day. These stories are  by turns amusing, mysterious and evocative; I can’t wait to see what Wood writes next.

***

This will be my last blog post of 2012. Wherever you are, I’d like to thank you for reading and wish you well for the coming year. See you again in 2013.

Simon Lelic, The Child Who (2012)

Simon Lelic is developing a track record as a novelist who approaches his subject matter from interesting angles and explores thorny moral issues, notably in his 2010 debut Rupture, a multi-viewpoint examination of what drove a teacher to open fire in a school assembly. Lelic turned the conspiracy thriller inside-out in last year’s The Facility; now he has returned to contemporary crime with The Child Who. This new novel concerns the case of a twelve-year-old boy who killed a girl at his school; though Lelic’s main focus is neither victim nor murderer, but the boy’s lawyer.

Leo Curtice is the solicitor who takes the call and ends up representing Daniel Blake, in what becomesExeter’s most attention-grabbing trial in years. From the beginning, Lelic makes clear what a double-edged sword this assignment is for Leo: on the one hand, such a high-profile case is an opportunity that comes around very rarely; on the other, the job is repugnant, because there is no doubt of the boy’s guilt. Leo isn’t entirely comfortable with viewing the case as an ‘opportunity’, and struggles to justify his involvement to himself and others; his purpose seems nebulous even when he discusses it with Daniel Blake, and reveals that it’s not so much a matter of defending the boy as presenting his culpability in the least worst light.

The Child Who builds into a study of a man under emotional pressure from all sides (we learn relatively early on that Leo’s involvement in the case rips his family apart).

Leo deals with negative reactions by focusing in on his work, and there’s a strong sense that he is using the formal words of his profession as a shield; when Leo tries to explain to his daughter Ellie why he’s representing Blake, all his talk of habeus corpus does not satisfy her when she just wants to know why it’s he in particular who has the case. And Leo is still falling into the same pattern of behaviour when his wife Megan is about to leave him:

‘I need a break. From the house as much as anything. And it’s clear you need to focus. If you really feel you need to do this, it would be better, for your sake, if you did it without any more . . . distractions.’

Leo nodded – not conceding the point, just bobbing past it. ‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘I was looking at some recent cases. At the coverage in the press once things actually got underway. And what happens is, when a trial begins, there’s actually less attention in a way because of all the restric . . .’

Leo stopped himself. From the look on Megan’s face, the coverage was not the point.

‘I’ll be in the kitchen,’ she said. ‘Let me know when you’re ready.’

For all that Leo acts in this way, he finds it no easier to deal with being on the receiving end of similar behaviour; he is himself frustrated by the rhetorical fencing of Ellie’s headteacher. This is one of the most interesting things Lelic does in The Child Who: to gradually place Leo in the same position as the parents of Felicity Forbes (the girl killed by Blake), and examine his response. Leo begins to receive threatening notes, then Ellie disappears; and his feelings towards the anonymous culprit are no less hostile than others’ have been towards Daniel Blake.

There are several striking scenes in which Lelic presents emotionally-charged events from a distance, because of Leo’s perspective. There’s a violent protest when Daniel is driven to court for the first time, but we experience it all from inside his police van, where it becomes particularly abstract and menacing for Leo. Felicity Forbes’s funeral is a national event, but, seen on television (and as the only glimpse we get of Felicity’s family), it could as well be happening in a different reality. In keeping with the idea of Leo’s personal life and work mirroring each other, it might be considered that eventually he becomes as distanced from his family as he was from external views of the case. In its complex portrait of the protagonist and his situation, The Child Who might just be Lelic’s most effective novel yet.

Elsewhere
Scotsman interview with Simon Lelic
Some other reviews of The Child Who: Reader Dad; Julie Martis for Bookgeeks; Mean Streets.

Book notes: Coles, Lelic, O’Flynn

Amongst my longer reviews, I’m going to start posting brief notes on some of the other books I’ve read. Here is the first round-up:

William Coles, The Well-Tempered Clavier (2007)

Kim, Coles’s narrator, looks back on his Eton days in the early 1980s. At the age of seventeen, Kim fell for India James, his beautiful young piano teacher — and, somewhat to his surprise, found his affection reciprocated. Of course, these are difficult circumstances in which to conduct a relationship anyway, but Kim’s eagerness to think the worst does nothing to help. The Well-Tempered Clavier is a neat portrait of a teenage crush as a whirlwind of uncertainty and possibility, a rush of love (or lust, or both) mixed up with doubt. I think the level of foreshadowing in the narration dilutes the novel’s impact somewhat, but, in general, this is a worthwhile debut.

William Coles’s website
Legend Press
The Well-Tempered Clavier blogged elsewhere: Reading Matters; Stuck in a Book; Musings from a Muddy Island.

Simon Lelic, The Facility (2011)

Lelic’s debut, Rupture, played about with the conventions of the police procedural to produce an interesting examination of bullying, and the issue of where our sympathies should lie if someone who is bullied takes extreme measures. The author’s follow-up novel, The Facility, looked set to do a similar thing with a different subgenre and moral issue, namely the near-future political thriller, and the issue of government responses to security threats – but it’s not quite as successful.

Several years hence, a ‘Unified Security Act’ has been passed in the UK, which essentially allows the government to go to any length in the name of maintaining security. A secret hospital/prison has been established, and a number of people detained there without explanation. We follow three protagonists: Arthur Priestley, one of the imprisoned; Henry Graves, governor of the facility; and Tom Clarke, the journalist approached by Priestley’s wife, Julia, who believes her husband has been detained under false pretences.

Thinking back to Rupture’s brilliant handling of multiple first-person voices, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment that The Facility’s third-person narrative voices weren’t as sharply delineated. But Lelic has a knack for creating a sparse atmosphere that reflects the austere nature of the facility.

The novel could be seen as inverting the stereotypical trajectory of this kind of story, in that it’s less concerned with revealing the great conspiracy of silence at its heart than with keeping things hidden – for example, it’s not until a third of the way through that we learn why the facility was established (to quarantine people with some unspecified disease), and there’s a general sense of murkiness to proceedings throughout. This is an interesting approach, one that closes off the possibility of easy answers to the problems it raises; but I think it also makes it difficult for the novel to really examine those problems. Though there are some moments that reveal moral complexity, overall I feel that this novel doesn’t treat its issues in the same depth that Rupture did its. The Facility is good as far as it goes; I just wish it went a bit further.

Simon Lelic’s website
Extract from the novel
The Facility reviewed elsewhere: Metro; Sunday Herald.

Catherine O’Flynn, What Was Lost (2007)

I was looking forward to reading this, as it sounded just the sort of quirky book that I enjoy. And parts of it were just that — but the whole didn’t quite hang together.

In 1984, ten-year-old Kate Meaney decides to set up her own detective agency, covering her Birmingham neighbourhood and nearby Green Oaks. After 68 pages following Kate, the action shifts to 2003, where we spend the bulk of the novel’s remainder, in the company of Kurt, a security guard at the Green Oaks Shopping Centre, and Lisa, assistant manager of a record shop. We learn that Kate Meaney went missing back in 1984; by novel’s end, we find out what happened to her.

I find O’Flynn’s control of voice good: she really captures the mixture of precocity and naivety that makes up Kate’s character in the first section; and there are some striking vignettes of people in and around the shopping centre in 2003. Kurt and Lisa don’t come across quite as strongly, but there’s still a sense of the monotony and frustration they feel in their working lives.

Yet I’m not sure that What Was Lost quite works at the broader structural level. There are themes running through the book concerning the limitations of consumerism and the decline of traditional industry, but I don’t see that the main plot fully reflects those themes. It’s tempting to see Kate’s disappearance as representing a loss of innocence; but that reading doesn’t quite hold up for me, because there wasn’t really innocence there to begin with — for example, the 1984 depicted in the book does not appear to be a substantially safer time and place for playing games of girl detective than the 2003. I liked What Was Lost particularly at the beginning, but the rest didn’t live up to that early promise.

Tindal Street Press
What Was Lost blogged elsewhere: Asylum; Dovegreyreader; Farm Lane Books.

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.

Simon Lelic, Rupture (2010)

Why would a teacher walk into an assembly at his school carrying a gun, and open fire? That’s the central question examined in Simon Lelic’s first novel, Rupture. Detective Inspector Lucia May of the Metropolitan Police has been heading the investigation into the shooting perpetrated by Samuel Szajkowski, an apparently nondescript young history teacher. Her superiors would like to think it’s an open-and-shut case, but Lucia’s investigations have painted a picture of Samuel as a man who was out of his depth, bullied by colleagues and pupils alike, and desperately looking for (and failing to find) somewhere to turn. Is it time for Lucia to stand up and declare the teacher as much a ‘victim’ as any of those he killed, even if doing so would threaten her own livelihood?

Lelic has chosen a distinctive structure for his novel, alternating first-person interview transcripts with third-person accounts of Lucia’s travails in the book’s present. What’s more, each of the interviews is with a different character. It’s a tricky feat to juggle all this, but Lelic pulls it off: his interviewees’ voices are all distinctive, and the narrative voice of the third-person chapters is different again.

The author also makes some nicely subtle observations of his characters; it’s often the incidental asides which are particularly revealing. For example, here’s Mr Travis, the school’s headteacher, talking to Lucia and showing just how dismissive he is:

You would not have attended university, I assume?

Well, I stand corrected. And what, pray tell, did you read? No, don’t tell me. It is clear from your expression. [NB. Travis has just rubbished the teaching of history.] And in a way, my dear, you are a case in point. Where has your history degree got you if not further back than where you began? You are, how old? Thirty.

Thirty-two, then. If you had joined the police force when you were sixteen you might be a chief inspector by now. Superintendent.

It’s not just Travis’s assumption that Lucia didn’t go to university which turns one against him, but also his patronising suggestion that she might have been better off without her education, and the implication that to have attained the rank of DI by the age of 32 is not in itself a mark of success. Smartly written, I think.

Lelic is a perceptive writer in other ways, too:  with quite considerable economy, he shows how some of the pupils have been moulded by their circumstances, and how Lucia feels adrift now that she’s no longer one of ‘the younger generation’, even though she’s still far from old. And the author is good with description, as when he depicts Lucia’s impersonal flat (‘the box that she still could not think of as home’), whose unwelcoming atmosphere reflects her own sense of uncertainty.

One of the striking things about Lelic’s characterisation is that we don’t learn much more than the bare bones of Lucia’s life outside the immediate sphere of the tale, and even less about her work colleagues’. This can make some characters seem rather two-dimensional (so, for example, the defining characteristics of Lucia’s fellow-detective Walter are his sexism and lechery); but Lelic would seem too skilled a writer in other areas for this not to be deliberate. What I think he’s trying to do is make us meet Lucia on the same terms as she meets people in her working life – that is, she has to make judgements about people based on relatively brief impressions. This would fit in with the parallels Lelic is apparently trying to draw between Samuel and Lucia (e.g. both are bullied, and both frustrated by the lack of support at work). As I say, I don’t think the strategy entirely succeeds; but it does help tighten the focus of the novel, which is quite effective.

But the thing that niggles me most about Rupture is that, even though the novel deals with a complex moral problem, I think Lelic makes it all a bit too easy for us to decide what’s right == too easy to decide  that Samuel was not a monster, but a fundamentally decent man who was treated appallingly until he snapped, with tragic consequences; too easy to side with Lucia, because the characters with opposing opinions are so loathsome. I can’t help feeling that Lelic undermines his novel somewhat by beginning with the suggestion that matters were not as straightforward as they appeared, then offering an alternative view that’s so morally clear-cut.

Rupture is a novel that works on several levels. Though not primarily intended as a detection, it serves as one well enough (we duly discover at the end that there was more going on than had met the eye up to that point). Mainly, though, it’s a pretty successful character study and examination of how institutions might fail people whom they have a duty to help. Despite its flaws, Rupture is a fine debut, and I look forward to following Lelic’s writing career in the future.

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