CategoryMatar Hisham

Book notes: Musso, Pratchett, Matar

Guillaume Musso, Where Would I Be Without You? (2009/11)

Art-crime officer Martin Beaumont is on the trail of master thief Archibald McLean, who has just stolen a Van Gogh from the Musée d’Orsay; but the investigation leads Martin inexorably back towards Gabrielle, the American student with whom he had an intense-but-brief love affair thirteen years earlier. Musso’s novel (translated from the French by Anna Brown and Anna Aitken) veers rather towards the corny (McLean, for example, is the kind of crook of flies helicopters and has an ex-MI6 officer, who ‘look[s] like an English governess’ but is skilled in martial arts and marksmanship, as a bodyguard/henchwoman), but sill holds out the promise of an enjoyable read.

The problem is that the book falls between two stools: it’s over-the-top enough to dilute the exploration of emotional issues, but not so much that the novel can really take off as a romp. Where Would I Be Without You? moves through several different genres – crime caper, love story, supernatural fiction – but they don’t quite gel. The novel does have its strong moments (repetition in the prose is used to considerable effect in some passages), but, for the most part, it’s disappointing.

Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith (2006)

My experience of the later Discworld novels has tended to be that they’re OK, but don’t match up to the best of the series – not in terms of their humour, conception, or the incisiveness with which they treat their themes. Wintersmith continues that trend. This is Pratchett’s fourth YA Discworld novel, and the third to centre on young witch-in-training Tiffany Aching. Her predicament n the present book is that, having joined in on impulse with a traditional dance to usher in winter, Tiffany now finds herself the object of the winter elemental’s affections – and winter it will stay if she can’t find a way to get the rightful story back on track.

As the last part of that synopsis may suggest, one of Wintersmith’s main concerns – as so often with Discworld books – is how stories impinge on the way we perceive the world. Pratchett has a story literally affecting the lives and the world in the way that Tiffany has become caught up in the story of the wintersmith and the Summer Lady; but the theme is also there in the way that, although witchcraft is shown to be more about things like observation than magic per se, it’s important for witches to cultivate an air of mystique, because that’s what the people need their witches to have.

Pratchett’s treatment of this is not uninteresting, but… it doesn’t have the spark of his best work. And the disparate elements of Wintersmith don’t seem to me to come together into a successful whole. The Nac Mac Feegle (the warrior-like fairy folk who have become Tiffany’s ‘protectors’ over the course of the series) feel rather awkwardly inserted into the story; and, despite being the main comic-cut characters, don’t raise much more than the odd smile. Indeed, most of the book doesn’t raise much more than the odd smile, which is a long way from the laugh-out-loud humour of earlier Pratchett works. So, Wintersmith: yes, it’s OK, but… but OK isn’t what made me fall in love with Terry Pratchett’s writing.

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (2006)

Suleiman is nine years old in 1979, when he gains the first hint that there’s more to his father Faraj’s life than he had thought; the boy believes his father to be away on business, but instead sees Faraj in Triploi, entering an unfamiliar building in Martyrs’ Square. In the months that follow, Faraj’s political activities bring him increasingly to the attention of the secret police, but the young Suleiman has little understanding of what is happening to his family.

The ‘country of men’ of the novel’s title is essentially the adult political world on whose fringes Suleiman comes to hover (occasionally crossing over them). Matar uses the boy’s perspective very well; the fact that we comprehend more than Suleiman can does not diminish the power of those moments when the brutal realities of the adult world intrude upon his childhood. And the way Suleiman’s life is so profoundly affected by his encounter with the ‘country of men’ finds something of a counterpart with the experiences of his mother Najwa, who was herself brought into the ‘country of men’ at the age of fourteen, when forced to marry Faraj, and has subsequently turned to alcoholism. In the Country of Men is an interesting debut, which now makes me want to check out Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, from which I heard him read earlier this year.

Seven Penguin authors

Earlier this week, Penguin Books held a reading event with seven of their authors, each on their first or second novels. A bunch of bloggers and friends gathered at the Union Club in the heart of London to hear about some new books – and it was a very enjoyable evening.

First up was Joe Dunthorne, whose debut novel, Submarine, has just been made into a film. He read an extract from Wild Abandon, about young Albert, who is convinced the world will end in 2012. Attempting to dispel his fears, the boy’s mother persuades Albert to imagine a conversation with his sixteen-year-old self, thereby reassuring himself there is life beyond a couple of years hence. But the plan doesn’t quite work out as Albert’s mum intended… The conversation that Dunthorne read out was very funny, and I’m sure I’ll be checking out Wild Abandon when it’s published in August, and perhaps also Submarine before then.

Luke Williams’ The Echo Chamber (due in May) was already on my radar because it has the sort of crossover speculative premise (the life of a woman with preternatural abilities of hearing) that particularly appeals to me. I’m not sure how well I can judge from the opening extract Williams read here just what The Echo Chamber will be like as a whole (and he did say that the novel goes through a number of styles as it progresses), but it is still a novel I want to investigate.

The next author was Jean Kwok, whose novel Girl in Translation concerns Kimberly Chang, who moves with her family from Hong Kong to a squalid apartment in Brooklyn, and finds herself caught between the worlds of great achievement at school, and working in a factory at night to help make ends meet. Kwok told how she drew significantly on her own life experiences for the novel, which sounds an interesting story.

I’ve been meaning to read God’s Own Country, the first novel by Ross Raisin – a fellow native of West Yorkshire – for some time now. I will get around to it – honest. Tonight, Raisin was reading from his forthcoming book, Waterline (to be published in July), which is set amongst the shipyards of Glasgow. As it’s written partly in dialect, Raisin said, it didn’t sound right in his natural voice; so he affected a Glaswegian accent to read his extract. How good he was, I’m in no position to judge; but the extract itself was nicely atmospheric, and bodes well for the whole novel. I’ll probably read God’s Own Country first, though.

On now to Rebecca Hunt, whose novel Mr Chartwell was the only one of the seven featured writers’ that I’d already read. Essentially it’s the story of Churchill’s Black Dog of depression come to life, well worth a look. Hunt was an excellent reader; had I not known about the novel already, the strength of her reading alone would have made me want to seek it out.

Helen Gordon’s debut, Landfall – about an art journalist reassessing her life when she moves temporarily back to the suburbs – is not published until October, so it was quite a treat to hear an excerpt of it so early on. The snapshot Gordon read was a conversation between the protagonist and her daughter during a car journey; again, I’m not sure how much of a sense of the wider novel I have from this, but it was a nicely observed extract and I am intrigued.

The final author to read was Hisham Matar, a Booker nominee for his first novel, In the Country of Men. He read an excerpt from his newly-published second book, Anatomy of a Disappearance, which concerns a boy dealing with the disappearance of his father. Matar’s description was vivid, and left me wanting to read more. A fine conclusion to a strong set of readings.

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